Blues blast from the past

L.C. Ulmer keeps on singing about life, love and woes; Mississippi-native arrives in Israel next week for three gigs.

Singer L.C. Ulmer 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Singer L.C. Ulmer 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As most musicians from the Deep South and, for that matter, Chicago, will probably tell you, the blues isn’t just a musical genre, it’s a state of mind. More than that – it’s about life experience accrued through more tough times than sunny ones, and, more often than not, getting out on the road.
Lee Chester (a.k.a L.C.) Ulmer certainly knows all about this and more, and that should come across loud and clear when the 85-year-old native of Stringer, Mississippi, gets here next week for three gigs. The first two shows will take place at Mitzpe Ramon on August 22 and 23, as part of this year’s Intimidbar Festival, with the final Ulmer concert happening at the Machsan 2 venue in the Jaffa Port on August 26. There will be another intriguing event on August 25, with a screening of the We Juke Up In Here documentary at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on August 25. The film portrays the dying juke joint blues club scene in the Deep South, and the screening will be attended by both Ulmer and the filmmaker Jeff Konkel, with Army Radio show presenter Eran Sabag moderating a post-screening discussion with the two guests.
Ulmer began playing guitar when he was nine years old and quickly became a regular feature at local get-togethers, playing with his family and other musicians on the family’s porch. He soon became proficient enough to do some “moonlighting” and began playing solo in public for tips. He frequently played with white musicians – a rarity in those days when racial segregation, particularly in the southern US, was rife. In addition to gaining valuable hands-on performing experience, Ulmer also got into the vibes of a whole host of leading blues musicians of the day, and spent much of time listening to 78-r.p.m. records of the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Boy Fuller, Tampa Red and Peetie Wheatstraw.
One of the principal influences on Ulmer’s artistic development was guitarist and street musician Blind Roosevelt Graves. Ulmer met Graves when he went to nearby Laurel to visit his sister. Graves, who was severely visually impaired, and played and recorded with his similarly afflicted brother, Uaroy, was well known for both the secular and sacred numbers he wrote and performed. He made numerous recordings in both gospel and blues in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Ulmer took close note of Graves’s slide guitar technique.
True to the stock image of the blues musician of yore, Ulmer was certainly not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Between the ages of 14 and 16 he earned a living building railway trestles across Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, and for the following five years or so worked out of a camp in Heidelberg, Mississippi, building railway spurs to oil wells. During this time Ulmer played regularly at a juke joint in nearby Paulding.
After that he began to hit the road and to get a handle on life and the music that came out of other parts of the country. At 21 he traveled to Kansas City, where his sister lived, staying there on and off for two years.
While in Kansas, he played guitar for various gospel bands, and his blues gigs included backing Chicago-based guitarist and vocalist J.B. Lenoir at a local club. From 1951 to 1955 Ulmer was generally based back in Laurel, where he played as a one-man band at local clubs including the Top Hat, Cotton Bowl, Wagon Wheel and Twenty Grand.
Over the years he picked up skills on a wide range of instruments, including keyboard, drums, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, kazoo and harmonica, and he was often described as a “12-piece one-man band.”
In the Fifties Ulmer expanded his geographic horizons and, when on a trip to Florida, his services were engaged to keep a ship’s captain entertained during a voyage to Cuba. A mid-’50s foray to Holbrook, Arizona, led to Ulmer finding work at the 24/7 Motaurant establishment on Route 66 that incorporated a truck stop, a museum, a restaurant and a nightclub called The Cock ’n’ Bull. His stint at the Motaurant gave him the opportunity to meet and/or play with a bunch of iconic artists across a wide swath of market sectors, including Elvis Presley, Les Paul, Nat King Cole, Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong. He also performed regularly at a lumber camp in McNair, Arizona, and at a local Mormon church.
In 1957 Ulmer moved to San Bernardino and later to Hollywood, California, where he made a living playing on the streets and joined the musicians’ union. While based in California he made regular trips to Arizona and even as far north as Canada and up to Alaska. In 1962 he moved back to Laurel, where he kept body and soul together by taking on all kinds of jobs and put together a band called the Bel Air Clowns that played local clubs.
In the mid-’60s he relocated to Joliet, Illinois, where he lived for the next 37 years. There, Ulmer worked in construction, ran his own automotive shop, operated a tow truck, and performed regularly as a one-man-band at clubs like Club 99, Black Diamond, Big Ten, the Cindy Edwards juke joint, the Hillcrest, and Joe Howard’s. Ulmer’s time in and around the Windy City brought him into contact with several of the Chicago-based giants of the genre, such as Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Hound Dog Taylor and Jimmy Reed.
While firmly rooted in the origins of the blues, Ulmer always had an ear open for envelope-pushing contemporary sounds, and in 1965 he acquired an early synthesizer and an expensive Gretsch White Falcon electric guitar.
He returned to Mississippi in 2001 and, since then, has performed regularly at local bars and clubs as well as such major regional events as the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, and The Shed Blues Festival in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, the Chicago Blues Festival and even at the Roots and Blues Festival in Parma, Italy.
The veteran bluesman often performs with a much younger sidekick, his 22-yearold student Chase Holifield, who began studying with him at age 14. The youngster is highly appreciative of the opportunity he has to learn from one of the blues masters of a much earlier generation, saying of Ulmer: “He taught me everything I know.
The blues is a dying art, and he’s doing what he can to keep it alive. He’s the last of a dying breed.”
For tickets and more information about Ulmer’s concerts at the Intimidibar festival: 058-588-4882 and, and about the Machsan 2 concert: (03) 683- 2255 and