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At 90, Drink Small is revered in the Carolinas: 'I preach the Drink-isms'

Drink Small.png

Drink Small. Provided

“The Blues Doctor” is a name well-known around the Carolinas, as the iconic blues player is revered locally and respected within the genre.

Playing in the style of Piedmont blues, which features a thumb-driven finger style, Drink Small toured with The Spiritualaires in the mid 1950s and, later, with Sam Cooke.

In 2015, Small was named a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow. 

In a 2014 biography “Drink Small: the Life and Times of South Carolian’s Blues Doctor”, author Gail Wilson-Giarratano detailed that Small had played gospel guitar, “dirty blues” and more throughout his run.

That biography also details that Small began playing music after an accident as a child, which left him stuck listening to the radio. That led him to learning how to play what he heard on the guitar.

Wilson-Giarattano spoke with Free Times upon publishing of that book, which came when Small was 82. The next year, former Free Times editor and writer Jordan Lawrence spoke with Small on his career and noted that he’s known for his “Drinkisms.”

“He’s famed for his ‘Drinkisms’ pithy bits of rhyming wisdom that he litters throughout every conversation and performance,” Lawrence wrote.

The iconic musician is now 90, with a birthday celebration held in late October. In honor of his 90th birthday, Free Times interviewed “The Blues Doctor” have him to reflect on his life in music.

Indeed, The Blues Doctor had plenty of "Drinkisms" to share.


Free Times: What did you enjoy growing up?

When I was a kid I was just a country boy. One of my things was shooting marbles. I could have tried to be a gambler. But I lost at marbles, so I figured I’d lose at gambling.

What first made you interested in learning how to play an instrument and what inspired you, or made you interested in music as a whole?

I was 8 years old. That’s when I had my accident and started playing music. There was a lot of guitar players around back then, but a lot couldn’t really play in standard tuning. They’d just use open tuning.

You grew up in Bishopville. Who were some of the players you learned from there?

My uncle Homer. I remember him coming from Columbia — he was a young man. He used to shine cars in Columbia. He was raised up on a farm, but he was what you called country smart, not educated but smart. And he had a musical sense. And there was a man named Greenback that was on the farm with me. I learned from them.

How did you start in music?

I went to school to be a barber, but I didn’t want to cut hair: I wanted to cut up. I became a guitar player full time. First I played gospel with the Spiritualaires. We played at the Apollo, and I toured with Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers. Then Sister Rosetta Tharpe wanted me to join her band.

What made you turn your music focus to blues after playing gospel music?

Well, let me tell you something. I don’t know what age I was, but I started playing because I realized that a lot of people, they had a guitar, but they wasn’t really a guitar player. They were a strummer or a frammer. They used that open tuning and didn’t know how to tune it to C or how to play an F#. Back then, I would watch some of these guys use a pencil or knife as a capo.

Your stage banter, “Drinkisms,” how did this get its start and stick throughout the years?

When I was young I would cut up more. I would watch the preachers and evangelists. When they called a shout you got the holy ghost. My way to shout. … I call it the Drink-isms. It’s like preaching, I preach the Drink-isms like an evangelist.

So, after all this time playing music, how did you get the name “Blues Doctor?”

They call me the Blues Doctor ‘cause I can play all the styles: ragtime, Piedmont blues, Delta, Chicago blues. I was already the Blues Doctor when I was down in Bishopville but they didn’t call me that. I came up playing both blues and gospel. I played piano in the church. But they wouldn’t allow guitars in the church because it was sinful. Calling me The Blues Doctor would have been sinful then.

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