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  Beyond Blue Mondays
with Lee McBee and Pat Nichols
article and photos by Anne Tangeman
Published in Oct. 2005 issue ofThe Lawrencian

Seeing blues in Kansas these days can be as rare as a UFO sighting on Massachusetts Street (various parades excepted). Back in the 80s, blues legends still toured: Albert Collins appeared at the Jazzhaus, Willie Dixon at what is now Liberty Hall and there were a few local blues acts; in particular, harmonica legend Lee McBee. Whether the players are fewer with the passing of time, or the college kids just aren’t interested anymore, lately it’s been slim pickings in this town for blues fans. Even the last blues festival held at Liberty Hall, despite an exceptional line up, had a thin audience.

Lee McBee and Pat Nichols are changing that every Monday evening. About three months ago, Lee, known internationally for his killer harmonica playing and gravelly voice so well suited to blues, teamed up with his friend Pat, known regionally as a killer lawyer. The two of them have been playing an early evening set every Monday night at the Jackpot Saloon that has seen a growing audience as word has gotten out that there’s great blues going on. It’s early and it’s free—though donations to the musicians’ tip jar are encouraged. A crowd that includes business women and men just off of work, college students, and musicians gathers at 5:30 p.m. to witness McBee make the harmonica howl and Nichols make the guitar sing. Both men trade off vocal duties, with McBee’s gruff voice working the heartier Chicago blues tunes and Nichols smooth one gracing the country blues songs.

Pat Nichols was a mean fiddle player, hot enough to take second place in the Kansas Fiddling and Picking Championships one year. He honed his live music skills in the Shyster Mountain Boys for over ten years, a Topeka based bluegrass band of lawyers that played to raise money for charity.

“We did a combination of poorly done covers of bluegrass songs and then we wrote some parody songs,” Nichols explained. “You know, everybody loves a train wreck, so people would come out to see us.”

Pat also played guitar and a little mandolin but grew tired of playing bluegrass by 1999. He and Lee had been friends for years and thought they’d get together to play.

“Lee and I lived here in the ‘60s and you can read between the lines as to what that might mean—that’s how we met each other,” said Nichols. When Lee came back to town, I started fooling around with the other style of music I liked, which was blues. We hooked up, he gave me a few pointers and eventually it turned into this.”

“I knew he had to have talent,” said McBee. “All I had to figure out was does he have soul and does he have the desire to spend the rest of his life trying to figure out how to do this?—hah—because it’s taken me most of mine.”

McBee has been playing music since he was a child, singing in church and once even swiping the stethoscope from his father, who was a country doctor, and singing into it. “It sounded great! If I would have had a harp it probably would have sounded real cool. When I was about five years old I saw Elvis on television and I was just really knocked out by that whole deal. I always had little melodies running around in my head. Through most of my childhood I just did sports and stuff but when I was thirteen the Beatles came out and that was it. That was the end of it for me. I was gonna play after that.”

Shortly after, Lee attached himself to a band playing a Holton, Kan., honky tonk where his mother worked, and he took up the drums. He eventually picked up a harmonica but says he got “sidetracked” for several years before joining up with a country rock band called Bob Wire and the Open Rangers. “We played a bunch of different kinds of stuff, but it was supposed to be country band.” He joined up with another Lawrence legend, Billy Spears, for a short time and then formed a duo with guitarist Bill Lynch.

“He and Bill Lynch were pretty well known around here at one time and played a lot of different spots and had quite a following.” Nichols explained. “They did a duo thing—it was serious stuff and people loved it.” Lynch and McBee parted ways after three years.

In 1986, McBee got a call from Mike Morgan of Mike Morgan and the Crawl, enticing him to join them on the road. Lee resisted for a while, not wanting to leave the band he was in at the time, but he eventually joined Morgan and played off and on with him for 12 to 13 years, touring Europe and the ‘States extensively and releasing several albums. The albums sold more overseas, traditionally an audience that appreciates jazz and blues more than Americans. “The average blues fan in Europe knows more about blues history than the average American does and that is a fact,” said McBee.

After several records and logging untold road miles, McBee returned to Lawrence, started up Lee McBee and the Confessors, a band that he stills plays with every Sunday night in Kansas City at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ.

McBee and Nichols have only been playing together for a few months, but have a great rapport and appreciation for each other. They often joke onstage while explaining the stories behind the songs, or toss a compliment or light jab at one another.

The set list ranges from Big Bill Broonzy and Little Walter to original tunes that even encompass Tex Mex. The duo tries to keep the field open when it comes to choosing compositions to play.

“I don’t want to get keyholed into stuff like ‘we’re a traditional fingerpicking guitar thing or...’ I don’t want to do that. I want to play a lot of different kinds of things,“ said McBee.

The two play about twenty percent originals and eighty percent covers, which include country blues, Chicago blues and as Lee says, ”Whatever else comes down the road”.

We start out with people that Robert Johnson used to listen to. Everybody thinks of Robert Johnson as this kind of iconic representation of the before time-back in the day. But in reality he didn’t just start out with nothing. There was a whole range of people that he listened to. We play stuff by people he listened to, mostly guys like Blind Blake— that’s the big one. And then we take it all the way through, some of Johnson’s stuff, Lee’s stuff, into Chicago stuff, into Texas stuff into the Chicago blues slide guitar stuff we do on acoustic. I love the fact that we’re really reaching out for a wide range of music and that just leaves all the doors open to us. “

The duo may record sometime in the future and may even re-release “44 Blues”, one of Lee’s solo albums. “The record company didn’t promote it, but “44 Blues”, well, it’s a classic blues album,” said Nichols. “Anson Funderburgh’s on it, Kid Ramos, just a bunch of guys, top blues players. It’s a killer album.”

In the meantime, the two friends will work up more songs, earn a couple more dollars in the tip jar and bring some blues back to life in Lawrence every Monday night.



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