Captain Luke and Macavine Hayes

by Jordan Green

“Aint’ got there yet,” says Captain Luke.

His head is crowned with his trademark billed captain hat as he pokes his head out of his stylized black Ford Taurus replete with silver-colored rims and a monogrammed drivers-side door. The car has pulled to the curb in front of Luke’s two-story brick walkup apartment in the Cleveland Avenue Homes project. Luke gives a perfunctory smile and the man in the passenger seat, Macavine Hayes, glances across with a look of expectancy.

“I got to run down to Liberty Street,” Luke says. “Five minutes. I’ll be right back.”

The Winston-Salem blues artist whose real name is Luther Mayer does things on his own time. Soon the two bluesmen – who both record for the Triangle-area Music Maker label – are back. We climb the steps and Luke proves to be a gracious, accommodating host.

The two friends discuss concerts in Argentina, Switzerland and at Winston-Salem’s Millennium Center, not to mention the Winston-Salem drink houses that are the real community setting for their blues. They talk about their friend the late Guitar Gabriel, the legendary bluesman who forged the path before them.

Luke has just celebrated his 78th birthday two days earlier. Macavine is more than 10 years his junior.

“Oh, I went to a friend’s house and had a few jump starts,” Luke says. “He drove me around so I didn’t have to drive. White kickin’ chicken straight out of the cornfield. Smooth as PBR. I feel kind of sporty.”

Dressed in a brown suede vest over a neatly pressed checked dress shirt, the lean and sinewy vocalist lets his broad shoulders quiver at the joy of it. He clenches a white plastic tip in his mouth as he puffs on a miniature cigar.

The photographer – not a kid by any means, but a guy with a full set of whiskers wearing an old overcoat whose hair shows a sheen of gray – politely asks if Luke minds him using the bathroom.

“Sure, baby,” Luke says. “I tell the ladies: “The restroom is to the left. If you go to the right, that’s the operating room. The doctor will be right in.'”

The talk comes around to Gabriel and the drink-house scene.

“He was running a little drink house,” Luke says. “You could go in there anytime, twenty-four-seven. Everybody miss that old fellow when he passed. At Gabe’s, you get you a drink, fall out on the floor, and people just step over you. He’d feed you and take care of you. When he’d get a notion to drink, he’d set a bottle in the middle of the table and everybody could have some.”

Two days later, on a Saturday afternoon, Tim and Denise Duffy, who run the Music Maker Relief Foundation, are greeting guests at an open house in a new upscale housing development in northwestern Davidson County. The builder, who has requested anonymity to avoid being deluged with requests, is donating the proceeds from the sale of the house to Music Maker. The Duffys’ foundation, in turn, presses CDs for traditional blues artists across the South, and the artists take the recordings with them to sell at performances. Music Maker books shows for its artists, and has been known to provide direct financial assistance to cover artists’ medical and dental bills.

A bottle of Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon corn liquor sets on the countertop available for anyone who wishes to partake. Soon a friend is dumping ice into the sink and situating glass jugs of Foothills beer, donated by the Winston-Salem brewery.

Ron Hunter, a blues artist who started making waves a year or so ago, will be here in a bit. So will Captain Luke and Macavine Hayes. The hardwood floors dazzle with a brilliant sheen. Some microphones are set up at one end of the vast living area open two stories high with the staircase leading to a second-floor overlook. It’s a kind of upscale drink-house scene.

Dressed in a black country and western shirt decorated with stitching, stars and a dancing skeleton shooting a pistol into the air, Tim Duffy is a fount of enthusiasm when it comes to Luke and Macavine.

“Captain Luke really helped me out a lot when I was trying to get this started,” Duffy says. “Guitar Gabriel was a real bluesman, living in the depths of poverty. Some of the families didn’t want it to happen. In the drink houses it was tough. People would slam doors in my face. Captain Luke took me around.

“He’s the guy with the car that’s giving rides to the working ladies, the cleaners,” Duffy continues. “Let’s say he’s just respected in the community.”

He adds later: “Captain Luke is only making four to six thousand dollars a year through Social Security, but he’s always taking in homeless people and shuffling ’em around to keep ahead of the housing authority. I’ve learned a lot about how to get things done from him.”

He can go on for hours about these guys, Duffy says.

“Mac is one of those great individuals; he’s always laughing and always smiling,” Duffy says. “He speaks in this old American dialect. It’s sometimes hard to understand at first. His father’s a Seminole. He’s from way down near Key West. He has this real store of agricultural knowledge. He plays raw juke blues.”

He smiles openly with full cheeks in a way that makes his pride evident as he mentions that Macavine Hayes has been booked to play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April, and Captain Luke has a record out in France that has sold about 5,000 copies.

“Don’t you think he has a great baritone?” Duffy proclaims of Luke. “His voice is really dry. He’s one of the greatest baritones alive. He’s like Brook Benton. Now Brook is no longer alive, so Luke is the best.”

Luke and Macavine stake out contrasting styles of music. They’re bound by friendship first, and then by their broad eclecticism and refusal to adhere to conventions of standard Chicago blues.

“Luke does a real sophisticated blues,” Duffy says. “Mac is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s like where rock and roll and blues meet. Luke and Mac, they go real hard. They could outlast Janis Joplin. It’s nothing for them to stay up three days straight.”

Soon Ron Hunter is playing and singing. Macavine shimmies on the dance floor pointing and smiling with at Hunter. It’s not long before Macavine is sitting behind a microphone and trading vocals with the younger bluesman. Captain Luke joins them after awhile. He eases into the music tapping his cane in rhythm long before he sings a note.

Then, with Duffy accompanying him on guitar, Luke sings the Muddy Waters standard “King Bee” and his version of the traditional “Careless Love.” His thick fingers wrapped around the microphone, he caresses the vocal with a voice that seamlessly shifts from a frog-like rumble to an aching moan: “I said love, oh love, oh careless love, oh could you see, oh little girl could you see what careless love has done?”

Then he summons Macavine Hayes and Ron Hunter to the stage. The two rip into a raucous cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” Luke rises from his chair, plastic beer cup clasped between thumb and forefinger and cane clutched in the other hand, and dances with his hips swaying as he makes his way to the kitchen.

At the end of “Big Boss Man,” Macavine Hayes wants to keep playing. He continues with some ad-libbed lyrics and barrel-house acoustic guitar, then sets his instrument down. He staggers a little bit, walking away from the array of microphones. A white man with a smooth complexion that suggests a measure of financial security – much younger than Mac but old enough to have a kid in college – looks at the bluesman with concern.

“What do you need?” he asks.

“What do I need?” Macavine Hayes asks rhetorically. “The greater spirit, that’s all I need.”

“You got it,” the man says. “It’s already been given.”

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