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Detroit Blues Legend Joe Weaver Passes

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Joe Weaver at the 6th Annual Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival in the Redford Theatre, 2004
(c) American Music Research Foundation

The loss of Joe Weaver hits particularly hard for us at the AMRF; he has been a friend for many years. One of my favorite memories is of Joe playing piano for Alberta Adams in President Ron Harwood's basement at the post-festival barbeque' in 2004. In 2006 Joe was to be one of the featured performers in our"Detroit Blues Legends" program. His passing reafirms the sense of urgency we feel about our mission.

Late last year Ron and I had a conversation about how to further that mission -  to promote, preserve, and document American music and the musicians who create it. Our festivals serve all three elements: The live performances and resultant television programs promote the music and musicians, while the raw recordings of the performances and on-camera interviews with the performers are documents that preserve their legacies. 

But this format is self-limiting because we can only document those artists who are still performing and can come to us. The urgent need is to document those artists who are close to the end of their careers, and even more urgently those who are no longer performing. I remember Ron saying that a bit of his soul dies every time another great one passes without his or her story being captured on camera.

At present we depend on outside personnel and equipment to record our Festivals. We determined that one of our goals should be to acquire equipment that would at least allow us to go to the musicians and get their stories, particularly those of the elder masters no longer performing. 

It is still a goal. Being an "arts and culture" non-profit, particularly in Michigan, presents a tough row to hoe.

In the meantime, we figured we should use this year's festival to present artists who may not perform much longer. This was the genesis of the "Detroit Blues Legends" program. When we all sat down to start considering specific artists for the event back in February, Joe was at the top of the list.  We knew at the time that he was ill, and determined that we would try to get his interview recorded before the festival.

For a variety of reasons, we didn't. And I know I can speak for all of us at the AMRF when I say that with Joe's passing, a bit of all our souls has died. Joe Weaver was a gentleman, and his role in the evolution of the Detroit music scene cannot be overstated. We will miss him.

Below is Susan Whitall's piece from the Detroit News.

 

July 6, 2006

Joe Weaver: 1934-2006

Musician pioneered R&B in Detroit

Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

Joe Weaver, one of the key figures of the 1950s Detroit R&B scene, died Monday in Providence Hospital in Southfield of complications from a stroke. He was 71.

Weaver, pianist and bandleader with his Blue Note Orchestra, was a human thread linking the 1940s big band era with the '50s R&B era, a musical mix that led directly to Motown.

First, he performed jump blues and jazz in the very early '50s, then throughout that decade performed as the Fortune Records house band, backing up the Fortune roster, including Andre Williams and Nolan Strong and the Diablos.

"Joe was playing some pioneering funk grooves and R&B, way back in the early '50s," said his friend and manager, R.J. Spangler, on Wednesday. "Joe had it all. He could play New Orleans-type beats, doo-wop, jump blues, soul and down and dirty, lowdown blues."

Later, Weaver and his band, the Blue Notes, worked for Berry Gordy Jr., playing on early Tamla sessions such as "Shop Around" for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

A lifelong Detroiter, Weaver was still a student at Northwestern High School when he met guitar player Johnnie Bassett. With several friends they formed the Blue Notes and started winning talent shows at the Warfield Theater on Hastings Street.

Bassett remembered his friend and colleague fondly as someone who didn't spend a lot of time analyzing his musical importance.

"Joe wasn't the type of person who was seeking to be a big name," Bassett said Wednesday. "He just liked to be in the limelight and have fun with what he was doing at the time. He was always laughing and joking. He was always upbeat, regardless of what was going on."

Weaver, Bassett and the Blue Notes would practice in the back room at Joe Von Battle's record store on Hastings, since they were friends with Von Battle's son.

Von Battle had a primitive recording machine in his back room, and he recorded one of those sessions and titled it "1540 Special" (alluding to the street address of King Records). The record, Weaver's first, was released on the Deluxe label, a subsidiary of Cincinnati-based King.

Weaver and the Blue Notes won "best band" so often at the Warfield Theater in the early '50s that they were made the permanent backing band. They performed that function for top Detroit acts such as Little Willie John and John Lee Hooker at the Warfield and at clubs around town such as Basin Street in Delray and the Phelps Lounge on Oakland.

Once at Fortune Records, the legendary Detroit record label located (later) on Third Avenue, Weaver cut many records as an artist with the (then) Blue Note Orchestra.

Several of the Funk Brothers, Motown's famed session band, have credited Weaver's early work for Tamla/Motown as being key in the formation of the Funks since many of them cycled in and out of Weaver's band.

Despite all his work, in the '60s Weaver packed in the precarious life of a musician to work on a Ford assembly line for 30 years.

It was at a backyard barbecue at Bassett's house in the early '90s that blues promoter/musician Spangler first met Weaver and persuaded him to play out again.

"He was still working at his day job, but he was getting ready (to play)," said Spangler. "It didn't take much persuasion."

Weaver was a bubbly raconteur, regaling friends and reporters with colorful tales from his long musical career.

He liked to tell of the time he and the Blue Notes were backing up the volatile Andre "Bacon Fat" Williams.

Williams was complaining all through his set about how badly he thought the band was playing, which wore on Weaver's nerves, so the bandleader instructed his musicians to stop playing. "Don't play another note, let Andre sing a cappella!"

In 2002, Weaver got together with two old friends, Stanley Mitchell of Stanley and the Hurricanes and solo singer Kenny Martin, both '50s hitmakers out of Detroit, to form the Motor City Rhythm and Blues Pioneers.

The R&B Pioneers released a self-titled CD that year. In May of this year, in one of his last public appearances, Weaver was honored at the Detroit Music Awards with a Distinguished Achievement Award.

Weaver is survived by three daughters; Zenobia, April and Belinda, and his girlfriend, Sue Williams. Funeral arrangements are pending.



Artists  Blues  Rhythm and Blues  

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