'Sweet' Sam Myers (1936-2006): An Appreciation

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by Nick DeRiso

Throat cancer got Sam Myers today, all the sadder since he was nothing if not this throaty, memorable blues singer and harpist.

A towering, nearly blind seer, Myers (almost always with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets as his accompaniment) used to practically burn down the stage at a club I once owned, smoking both literally and figuratively. Then we’d talk, and he’d smoke some more.

Who knew what those cigarettes were doing to him?

Still, you couldn’t have convinced me that he wouldn’t beat it.

They didn’t call him “Sweet Sam” because of that off-stage demeanor. He was tough, hard-to-crack, inscrutible at first. Underneath the brim of that ever-present porkpie hat, though, was a generous, if sturdy and independent soul. He might call you a familiar curse word, but only out of respect.

Sam was not just old school. He was the principal of the old school.

He’d spent the 1960s and ’70s working saloons and nightclubs along the legendary Southern chitlin circuit, trying to cash in on some early success he’d had as a drummer and sometime-harmonica player with Elmore James from 1952-63. He’d also wrote a terrific debut tune during that period called “Sleeping in the Ground” that was later recorded by Blind Faith (featuring Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood) as well as Robert Cray.

Sam finally hit it big with the Texas-swinging neo-bluesman Funderburgh, winning nine Handy Awards – including best harmonica player in 1988 and vocalist in 1989 – over a thrilling 20-year, nine-album collaboration. The partnership produced some of the most important blues records of the period, including “My Love Is Here to Stay” (actually a remake of the B-side of his initial hit single) and “Tell Me What I Want To Hear,” both on Black Top.

A favorite of mine among the few remaining legendary older harpists, Myers had been fighting his disease since December 2004. His last album with Anson was “Which Way is Texas?” from 2003; he followed that with a well-received solo release the following year, appropriately titled “Coming from the Old School.”

Several touching tributes have appeared as word spread of Sam’s passing today, including one from Carl Abernathy’s terrific “Cahl’s Juke Joint”: Strangely, last night I listened to an album by Anson Funderburgh and The Rockets, a band that featured Myers, and this morning I listened to Myers’ solo album “Coming from the Old School.” His big voice and playful delivery always amused me. As I write, I’m listening to Myers sing “Young Girls Drive Me Wild (at Christmas).” I know it’s a seasonal song, but the twinkle in Big Sam’s voice is lifting my spirits.

He once had a song called “Shedding Tears of Laughter,” a perfect encapsulation of his mindset. Sam was a man who could stare down trouble, then laugh a bit about the whole thing.

One of Myers’ final performances came in August when, during a benefit concert featuring blues stars like Delbert McClinton and Jimmie Vaughan, Sam jumped up for a brief solo.

By the end, though, he couldn’t even sing – Myers had his larynx removed in an effort to save his life last April at the Mayo Clinic – and that’s perhaps the toughest thing to square up. He was a man not just of larger-than-life stature, but of gritty and profound voice. Sam Myers was always both timeless and new.

And rarely, if ever quiet.

Still, even in silent passage, Myers leaves this place richer for those moments when he wailed and cried and moaned, when he laughed and shook and groaned. His was one sweet gift.

A native of Laurel, Miss., and resident of Dallas, Myers is to be honored with services in both Texas and Mississippi. Memorials will then follow, in their own way, on the winds that move across the tops of these levees and into our fertile turnrows. Might be a gathering summer storm, probably – or else some as-yet-unknown disciple, down in the mood, blowing for all he’s got.

Either way, listen and you’ll hear Sam. I already do.


With Anson and the Rockets:
“Tell Me What I Want to Hear” (Black Top, 1991)
An engrossing trip across the blues landscape. Funderburgh remains the tasteful sidekick to Myers’ crackling soul wit. Title track was used in the film “China Moon.” Myers’ “I Done Quit Getting Sloppy Drunk” is a high point.

“Live at the Emporium,” (Black Top, 1995)
Perhaps the most important record of them all, since it captures Myers’ on-stage verve. Anson uncovered a forgotten Albert Collins gem in “Backstroke.” Their version of Little Walter’s “Everything’s Going To Be Alright” is alright, indeed.

Other key recordings …
Elmore James, The Sky Is Crying: The History Of Elmore James (Rhino, 1993)
Myers was a sideman (playing drums and harmonica) on two songs that defined James’ historical persona, “Dust My Broom” and “The Sky Is Crying” — the last of which was famously redone later by everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton

“Coming from the Old School” (Electro-Fi, 2005)
Fourteen songs, mostly original, that stand as Sam’s coda. His take on Rice Miller’s “Ninety Nine,” the rare cover, is awe inspiring. Undiminished by time, it seemed, Myers would receive a final nomination for Traditional Blues Album of the Year.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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