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Ralph Speas has lost his index finger

by Brian Clarey

It’s a simple affair, really. A good-sized room with a low ceiling, a couple pool tables in the back, a kitchen turning out late-night eats, a bar with a friendly redhead pouring drinks, a few tables scattered around a dance floor and a stage currently holding five guys, maybe a bit thick around the middle, a tad gray near the temples – not to say they’re old, but their kids might.

This is barroom blues, three guitars’ worth, and you get the feeling the fellas wish they could have five more onstage there with them. And who do you think plays the blues anyway? Midriff-bearing blondes in their twenties? Chisel-cut street kids dripping with bling? Hell no…. Those who sing the blues are those that’s got them, good people enduring bad things – unrequited dreams, promises unfulfilled, love gone wrong. That’s the meat of it right there.

As the boys lay into “You Can’t Take It With You” – indeed, you can’t – Ralph Speas shuffles his way over to my table and flashes me a page in his pocket spiral notebook. On it are the names of everyone on stage, with correct spellings, and their roles in the quintet, hashed out in his scrubby longhand.

“This is the first time that Tom [Vellini, guitars and vocals] has brought his V guitar,” Ralph tells me, his 75-year-old face bright and beaming. “It’s been in storage.”

It’s not the first time Speas has ferried me small but vital pieces of information, the currency of my trade shouted into my ear by the soundbooth or slipped to me on small pages torn from his notebook. He’s been the historian for the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, according to the organization’s website, “forever.” Over the years he’s captured still and moving images of nearly every event the society has ever held, and for a time he caught footage of each bluesman and woman who’s ever passed through the region. BB King. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Luther Allison.

Guy’s a walking history of the form – he’s even got some of those old wax blues recordings and the gramophones to play them on.

I embrace him by the shoulders in thanks and I clasp his left hand in mine. I can feel the stub where his forefinger used to be. It’s hot to the touch, the scab rough against my palm like the tongue of a very formidable kitty.

Though tonight he’s at his usual post near the back of the room, his eye peering through a viewfinder, his pen dancing on the pages of his notebook, he is also the guest of honor at this event out at Zion’s, tucked into the pavement that winds off Interstate 40 at Guilford College Road like untied shoelaces.

Ralph’s lived hard – a life of adventure that included gymnastics, college-level wrestling, motorcycle racing, shark killing, woman loving, trouble raising and truth seeking.

“I have used my body,” was how he once put it to me.

Now in his seventies, arthritis has taken some of the pop out of his step, some of the shine from his demeanor. He says he’s taught his body to ignore pain, but sometimes you can still see him wince when he creaks into his chair. And recently he’s been the victim of one of fate’s cruel one-two punches. It’s like something out of a blues song.

First there was the finger, which popped off in an unfortunate incident involving a wood splitter and a particularly stubborn piece of gum oak.

“There was a bang,” he says, “just like a shot…. I’ve never seen it before, in fifty-five years of heating with wood. The finger flew off into the compost pile.”

He adds: “Hopefully some nice, small carnivore had a good meal.”

Shortly after his release from the hospital, Speas thought he was having a heart attack. So he went back to the ER – “The nurses got a kick out of that,” he says – and found out he had a resistant strain of pneumonia.

His first hospital bill came today, in the neighborhood of $13,000.

“I’ll never be able to pay it all back,” Speas says, his light dimming a little. “I’m still paying on a dental bill.”

Tonight his friends are here to help ease the suffering.

On stage the band drops the opening riff for “Red House,” Jimi Hendrix’ paean to American blues music. Speas, the hstorian, the archivist, dutifully notes the song in his little notebook.

The interpretation is wonderfully discordant, wickedly sharp. Just give it a listen:

Wait a minute, something’s wrong here people.

This key won’t unlock this door.

I got a bad, bad feelin

My baby don’t live here no more.

And Mike Carter (guitars and vocals) throws down a sonic lament, his six strings weeping, and here’s a little crying harp for ya (courtesy of Buzz Sanders), building the action, taking the dirge to its natural conclusion. The drums (manned by John Amberg) roll; and thunder.

And here comes Tom with that shiny Flying V, gentle at first, then his licks turn inquisitive, confident, raucous, until the momentum culminates in a final clap.

There’s a red house over yonder….

Ralph’s glimmering electronic eye catches it all.

Interested in helping out Ralph Speas? E-mail Piedmont Blues Preservation Society President Casey Hazelman at president@piedmontblues.org to find out how. Reach Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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