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Big Joe Duskin Still Kicks Out Old School Blues Piano

Big Joe Duskin is one of the last of the old time blues piano players who made boogie woogie music what is today. Coming off of his first CD release in 10 years, Big Joe Jumps Again! on Yellow Dog Records, the blues piano master was nominated for the 2005 WC Handy Comeback Blues Album of the Year award this past May. The 10 years in-between albums was not the first gap in his career, however, as there were a lot of twists and turns for Duskin over his 84 years of life.

Over the last three decades Duskin has toured and developed followings in England, France, Germany, and Australia as well as here in America. Blues and boogie woogie piano has been his calling card, but that was not always the case. As a boy in the 1920’s the first songs that he learned on the piano were of a religious nature. But soon the sound of blues music heard out on the streets near his house in Cincinnati, Ohio caught his ear, much to the chagrin of his father, a strict preacher who didn’t cotton to the secular music of the day. This father-son conflict would inhibit Duskin’s piano playing career for years.

Back in 1930’s the Cincinnati blues music scene was flourishing, and seeing and hearing some of the great piano players who traveled through the black neighborhoods influenced Big Joe in a big way. “They had a piano in every bar, every house, in yards, in the alleys sitting on the street covered up,” remembers Duskin. “When they’d get through playing they’d cover up the piano so it wouldn’t get rain on it. Man, you’d hear some of the best blues and boogie-woogie that you ever heard in your life. Those guys coming into town to play that stuff could really play it.” Duskin was influenced by such traveling piano players as Freddie Slack, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson.

But his father would have none of that ‘devil’s music’ played around him, and Duskin would have to change from playing the blues to playing gospel quickly if he saw his Dad heading his way. “If I’d see him coming I’d swing right into it,” says Joe, laughing. “Man, oh man, he’d beat the devil out of me if he heard me. I caught onto a whip that he had that was cut off short, he’d cut it to about three feet, and I caught a hold of it because he was beating me so bad. ‘Turn that rope loose, boy,’ he said. I turned that rope loose and ran. He tried to get somebody to catch me but he couldn’t. I came back and said, ’Dad, look here. You’re going to beat me all the time for this, aren’t you? I have to play this music.’ ‘Well, son, I don’t want to be beating you every time.’ So, I said, ‘Just tell me, and I’ll go along with what you say.’ He said, ‘Promise me you won’t play anymore until I’m dead in the grave.’ That old man lived from 79 to 101.

“Then he got to 102 and 103, and I went in there and told Mama, ‘Mom, Dad’s living on your time, my time and somebody else’s time. He should done been in the grave. I can’t play no music until he’s in there.’ She said, ‘Get out of here. You want your Dad to die?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want him to die, but we made an agreement that I couldn’t play until he was in the grave.’ He lived until he was 105. He was a good ole man, but he was just so strict on you.”

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