Never Too Late

Drink Small at the McKissick Museum’s FOLKFabulous festival. Photo by Jordan Lawrence

Drink Small can’t see them, but he knows they’re there. The 82-year-old singer and guitarist sinks into the sofa at his home on Truman Street, which he shares with his wife, Andrina. The walls are crammed with awards and memorabilia, the trappings of a six-decade career that has established the man they call the “Blues Doctor” as one of the genre’s most revered elder statesmen — and one of its most criminally underrated champions. He smiles softly at a mention of his living room decorations. He’s blind now, a hereditary condition having dimmed his vision during the last 20 years, but the collection still comforts him.

In one corner leans a wooden door, painted with a cartoon of the musician’s likeness, commemorating his 70th Birthday Tour back in 2003. A framed certificate announcing his place in the South Carolina Music Hall of Fame hangs on another wall. On the mantle is a photo of him playing in the State House for S.C. lawmakers; next to it is the South Carolina Folk Heritage Award they presented to him on that day in 1990. Nearby is a more recent certificate, one presented to him this summer by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, declaring July 30 as the city’s official “Drink Small Day.”

The city’s honor was bestowed in part to celebrate perhaps the most prestigious award that Drink has ever won. On Oct. 1 in Washington, D.C., he will receive one of this year’s National Heritage Fellowships. Awarded annually by the National Endowment for the Arts, the fellowships “recognize the recipients’ artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage,” according to the NEA. They’re given to all sorts of artists, from basket weavers to old-time fiddlers, but past honorees also include a host of blues greats. John Lee Hooker, Mavis Staples and B.B. King have all won the award.

A Distinct Identity

For Drink, finding himself in such company affirms that his confidence in his own craft has not been misplaced.

“I’m an old guitar player,” he explains with a deep, ambling drawl. “The guitar can’t do but certain things. A lot of it is in the individual. Now you take B.B. King, I love him to death. No matter what kind of guitar he played, you can hear that tone of his, his identity. You can play a guitar, and it gives you an identity. An identity is unique. You ain’t got many players in the world that’s got identity. I know I’ve got identity.”

Apart from his booming voice and boisterous personality, Drink’s music is marked by diversity. His early ‘90s LPs bound through booming blues-rock paces, while his more recent offerings feature acoustic tunes that highlight his impressive touch for charming banter and intricate picking, skills that remain remarkably intact. He’s famed for his “Drinkisms,” pithy bits of rhyming wisdom that he litters throughout every conversation and performance. He drops a few during his Free Times interview: “I can’t see y’all, but we can still have a ball”; “They done took the flag down, so I’ll stick around.”

“The formula for the Drinkism is some of Drink’s knowledge, some of his wisdom, and a little bit of rhythm, and you got the Drinkism,” he says.

Known as a master of the fingerpicked Piedmont blues, his dexterity has allowed him to flit through various other styles, but it’s his earnest words that leave the most lasting impression. “The United States Will Never Be the Same,” his jittery electric-blues tribute to President Barack Obama, is earnest but wry, recognizing the importance of a black president while skewering the fact that it took so long. “Never Too Late to Do Right,” the religious anthem that he plays often these days, is forthright and faithful but never overbearing.

The Train Keeps Going By

But while Drink is held in high esteem by those with deep knowledge of the blues, commercial success has long eluded him. His journey has been one of ups and downs, with moments of promise quickly and inevitably giving way to bitter defeat, as Gail Wilson-Giarratano details in her 2014 book Drink Small: The Life & Music of South Carolina’s Blues Doctor.

Born to a family of sharecroppers outside Bishopville, Drink — his given name, not a stage handle as has often been suggested — endured a terrible accident when he was 8, run over by a wagon after he fell out of it, injuring his back. The incident was a blessing in disguise, leaving him too weak to pick cotton, thus allowing him the time to discover a diverse array of sounds on the radio and to learn to play them on the guitar. He eventually moved on to play and sing at local social gatherings before relocating to Columbia, where he would join the successful gospel group the Spiritualaires during the ’50s.

Just part of the memorabilia collection at Drink Small’s Truman Street home. Photo by John Carlos

He eventually left the group to pursue secular music, making much of his living playing fraternity functions in Columbia, adapting himself to a dirtier style of blues to please those crowds. The raucous tune “Tittie Man” is still an infamous local favorite, but Drink doesn’t really play those songs anymore.

A close associate, Kip Anderson, for whom Drink played guitar on a few singles, achieved some radio play and greater popularity during the ‘60s, but Drink’s music never took off. He released singles here and there, as well as an overlooked LP in 1972, but his career got little traction. He eventually landed on Ichiban Records — a prestige imprint that had some success marketing older artists during the ’80s and ’90s — releasing two LPs in 1990 (The Blues Doctor) and 1991 (Round Two). But this promising development fizzled due to some incredibly bad luck. Curtis Mayfield, Ichiban’s leading act, was injured when a roof beam fell on him during a New York stop on a tour that also included Drink Small. The financial losses crippled the label — and stalled Drink’s momentum.

The Life & Music of South Carolina’s Blues Doctor relates tale after frustrating tale of promising opportunities that ended in disappointment, portraying Drink as a sort of blues Sisyphus. At one particularly desperate moment in the early ’70s, a club owner in Pensacola, Florida, invited Drink down to play the club — just the payday that the musician needed to make ends meet. He took a bus down and played, but at the end of the night when it was time to get paid, the club owner was nowhere to be found. It took four days for Drink to make it home. Hitching rides when he could, Wilson-Giarratano writes that “he walked, slept under bridges and sought out juke joints for hot meals.”

“The dots never connected,” the author tells Free Times. “So that was really heartbreaking — for anybody, when you feel like you see sort of a vision of standing on the platform with a train, and the train keeps going on by, and you got your suitcase and you’re ready to get on it and, ‘Oops another one just went by.’ But he’s so optimistic, he’s always looking around the corner and sees the light of another train, and he thinks, ‘This is my train!’ And he gets all excited again. And it goes by. At 82, he’s still sort of sitting there. He’s still looking for that durn train.”

Drink’s reluctance to travel overseas has also hampered his career. By all accounts, his set at the 1991 Finland Blues Festival was a big hit, and offers for him to play other European events rolled in quickly thereafter. But his trip to Finland marked the one and only time that Drink ever stepped foot on an airplane. Sam McCuen, a friend and confidant since he booked gigs for Drink back in the ’50s, explains that while his friend is afraid of flying — clutching his seat and never getting up as he crossed the Atlantic — his decision was motivated more by his disinterest in playing to European audiences.

“They say, ‘Why don’t you go overseas?,’” Small says. “I got my roots over here. I love America. God bless America.”

True to His Home

Tim Duffy runs the North Carolina-based nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that helps aging traditional artists, covering medical and other expenses and also releasing their records. Duffy has worked with Drink for a long time, having first met him while attending North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College when the singer spoke to one of his classes. He laments that Drink has limited his travel, explaining that wider touring could have greatly improved his quality of life.

“He’s in an isolated area of Columbia, South Carolina, does not fly, does not travel wide,” Duffy reasons. “If he flew, he could have made a much better living. There’s so much demand for him around the world, but he wouldn’t fly to Europe or do that whole European thing, where he could have carved out a very nice career.”

But for Drink, South Carolina is and always will be home. And while he has traveled far and wide across the country over the course of his career, he says he’s never once been tempted to leave.

“I got 82 years, and I find no place for me is no finer than South Carolina,” Drink says. “Just sweet home for Drink Small. As the blues song, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ [says], South Carolina is the sweet home of Drink Small. I’m just like Fats Domino, he never moved from New Orleans. He’s been there all of his life, in New Orleans. I’ve been in South Carolina all my life. I done a lot of traveling, but you got to have a base somewhere. This is my base, and I’m not going another place.”

“Everything I know, I give South Carolina credit,” he adds. “I’ve been to Europe, and there’s a lot of places I could have been. But I ain’t going to leave South Carolina. And I done been here this long, I ain’t going to leave now. I’m like Strom Thurmond. He stayed here ‘til he got a hundred. So I’m just as determined as Strom Thurmond.”

And though those looking out for him might wish he’d have traveled a little farther, they all agree that South Carolina’s music scene is better for his devotion.

“It’s really special when you can get to know somebody, and they love the music they play but they also love South Carolina,” says Saddler Taylor, chief curator of folklife and fieldwork at McKissick Museum, which has booked Drink for various events during his tenure at the museum. “They won’t hesitate to go outside of the state to play somewhere, but they call South Carolina home. What it really does is it allows them to really influence the next generation and the next generation and multiple generations in South Carolina that learn from them. Drink has mentored countless young and older blues guitarists and musicians. And there are a lot of folks like that.”

Support Keeps Him Going

Support from groups such as McKissick and Music Maker has been crucial. Clair DeLune, the host of the WUSC radio program Blues Moon Radio, who volunteers her services as Drink Small’s publicist, confirms that the singer isn’t in the best of health. Apart from his failing eyesight, he’s had problems with his muscles — particularly in one of his arms, for a time keeping him from picking the guitar and still preventing him from playing piano — and he also has trouble with his breathing. But apart from the money and services that these organizations provide, their belief in Drink’s music energizes the aging artist.

“He has so much love around him, people in South Carolina, the friends and fans,” Wilson-Giarratano adds. “I think that is the thing that keeps him going. He could not do this, I don’t believe, he could not have existed with all that heartbreak and heartache without the people that have been propping him up and saying, ‘We love you Drink, remember you played at our keg party?’”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, left, proclaims July 30 “Drink Small Day.” Photo by Thomas Hammond

Performing for these fans and friends is still one of Drink’s chief pleasures. At his house, he slouches into his couch. He seems tired, and his answers are occasionally strained. But a few days before he sat down with Free Times, he played as part of McKissick’s annual FOLKfabulous festival, cracking wise and playing until the building had to be closed for the night.

“Well, I tell ya, I felt good and bad,” Drink says of the show. “I felt good, my fans had a good time. All of them had a better time than me, because of this: Some of them, I’ve been playing for 60 years. Anytime you younger, you can have more fun than you can when you get old. I could see the girls shaking, see the guys dancing, and the voice was younger. Here I am, 60 years later. When I was young, we could see each other. Your sight mean a lot. I could see ‘em then, but now, I can’t see ‘em. So there’s no way in the world that could be a good feeling, when you’ve been doing something, and then 60 years later, they dancing around and you can’t see those people. They glad to see me, and I’m glad to hear them. But I would like to see ‘em, too.”

Small is a religious man, and that quality in his music has become more pronounced. He avoids his dirty tunes these days, and when DeLune answers the door at the Small household, she requests that I not mention them — “He’s trying to get into Heaven,” she says. It might seem like revisionist history, but Drink’s far from the first artist to reject parts of his catalog later in life. And his reasons are unquestionably genuine.

When we begin discussing his faith, Small takes charge of the conversation. He demands to know my favorite Sunday School story, and leads me in singing his go-to anthem:

“It’s never too late to do right,” we sing together, his thundering tones drowning out my tentative intonations, “But it’s always too soon to do wrong!”

He’s at peace with his God, but he’s not done yet. He’s excited to head to D.C. next month, where he’ll participate in a celebratory concert the day after he receives his National Heritage Fellowship award. That same weekend, the Carolina Downhome Blues Festival in Camden will dedicate its 19th outing to Small’s life and music. Drink soaks up the recognition, but he’s still got more to say and play.

“They can write three more books about me,” he laughs. “I got over a thousand quotes down my throat. You can call my house any time and get a rhyme. I got it. There’s no ending. Because I say poetry every day.”

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