Little Joe Blue spent his final days in Reno three decades ago but his legacy lives on.
Cliff Porter, the singer-drummer with the bands Jelly Bread and Full Blast, will perform the music of his great uncle on Saturday, July 24, in Rancho San Rafael Park as part of the Artown cultural festival.
A B.B. King-styled singer, Little Joe Blue toured the nation and had a handful of hit radio songs during a career that began in Detroit in the late 1950s after a hitch in the Korean War. He died of stomach cancer in 1990. His family lives in Reno, Las Vegas and in California.
“He’d come visit and pull up in his gray Lincoln and try and get me to go with him out on the road with him and my mom just said, ‘No, he’s too young for that,’ ” said Porter, who was 14 when his great uncle died.
Little Joe Blue, born Joseph Valery, Jr., noticed Cliff Porter’s appreciation for music.
“I think I was beating on stuff forever and he bought me my first drum set when he came back one time,” Porter said. “It was over at my grandmother’s house in the den. I just beat on drums in church and tables and wherever else I could beat on. It’s been my thing ever since.”
Porter’s band Full Blast will play tunes from Little Joe Blue’s greatest hits album, along with the songs “Gonna Walk On” and “Little Joe Blue.”
“I’ve been waiting for years to get a group of guys who were really into it and make it happen with me, so this is really an honor and a treat,” Porter said.
“I’m gonna do as much justice as I can to the music but also adding myself intertwined into everything. I can’t be my uncle. I just want to pay homage and tribute to him. He has some incredible squalls and runs that I don’t even know if I could attempt to do justice.”
Full Blast includes Cliff Porter on drums, Cliff Porter Jr. on bass, Kevin Russel on guitar, Timothy Gay on saxophone and Caleb Collins on keyboards. Also playing will be Rick Metz on saxophone and Jason King on guitar.
King has represented Reno twice at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
“I had an album from a few years ago before I realized Little Joe was Cliff’s uncle.” King said. “I dug his style. He’s got a nice funky style to him. I studied him as much as I can. I’ll try to get the vibe and just let it flow. He’s pretty cool. I love his stuff. I am a fan of both Cliff and Little Joe Blue.”
Little Joe’s sister Shirley Foster, 83, of Las Vegas, remembers her big brother as “really funny. We lived on my grandfather’s farm in Talluhlah, Louisiana. He moved to Detroit when he was 12.”
Little Joe joined the army after graduating high school. He married at the age of 19 or 20 and had two children, a son who is a minister and a daughter who is an ophthalmologist. Little Joe worked at Chrysler Motors before becoming a full-time musician.
Little Joe was especially close to his sister Delois Lucas, 85, who he called “Lo.”
“He was highly recognized and respected because he was a man for his word,” Lucas said. “If he told you he was going to do something, he always did that. You could put your foot on it. His music was very important to him and he always was very professional. He always dressed well and was always on time.”
Little Joe had a life on the road, but some of the towns he stayed longest were Seattle, Los Angeles and Dallas, where he was friends with singer Ernie Johnson.
“I cut my first record in 1967, that’s when I met Joe Blue,” Johnson said. “Him and Fats Washington was doing some writing for Joe Blue, “Dirty Work” and all that stuff. Joe was like a brother of mine on the road. We were just close.”
“Dirty Work Going On” was released on Checker Records and reached the Top 40 on the Billboard R&B chart. His song was covered by Magic Sam and other artists. Little Joe also recorded with Kent and Jewel records.
Another Little Joe song, “Me and My Woman,” was recorded by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. It appears on the 1967 “Crusade” album.
Johnson and Bay Area blues artist Mark Hummel said Little Joe struggled with timing in his early days as a guitar player. But he became proficient.
He performed at the famed San Francisco and Chicago Blues Festivals.
“I remember Ron Thompson backed Joe and they opened for the Jackson Five at the Oakland arena,” Hummel said.
“Joe played funky joints. I remember seeing him at the Shalimar in Berkeley and man I did not feel real safe in there. But then I saw him and Sonny Rhodes at the Green Earth Café. That was great.
“Some lunatic walked in off the street, some weird white guy who had been released from a mental hospital and they didn’t know it. They guy looked fairly normal. He goes up to the band and says, ‘I was just on the “Tonight Show” last week and I was on Dick Clark the week before. I really want to sing some blues with you guys.’ Somehow, he convinced them to let him onstage.”
As the stranger began to scream, “I’m just a lonely boy,” it was clear the man had mental issues.
“The club owner dragged the guy out and threw him back on the street,” Hummel said. “The look on their faces was just priceless.”
Little Joe Blue and Ernie Johnson extensively toured on the Chitlin’ Circuit, venues in the South during the racist, dangerous Jim Crow era. Those shows often would have a house band perform behind the featured artists.
“Joe would grab his guitar and go,” Johnson said. “He could play with any band, so that was good.”
After Little Joe’s divorce, “he had women every place he went,” Lucas said, adding he was careful to avoid advances from white women, especially in the perilous South.
“He was very conscientious about the dos and don’t about what you’re supposed to do,” Lucas said. “I never heard him do no cursing. He was mild manner, quiet. Never show off in any way.”
Little Joe was always slim and he stood about 5-foot, 7-inches tall.
However, the moniker “Little” was used for lots of artists, even Ernie Johnson.
“B.B. named me Little Ernie back in 1967,” Johnson said. “I dropped it because I wasn’t little no more. I had gained weight and was 6-5.
“Little Milton laughed at me and said, ‘Man, Where’d you get that “Little” from?’ I said, ‘Look at you Milton. You’re not little. Your big.” And Little Junior Parker was big. Little Johnny Taylor wasn’t little.”
Listen to some Little Joe Blue songs and it’s hard not to think of B.B. King.
“He wanted so much to be like B.B. King,” Lucas said. “When B.B. King was in Reno, we all went. B.B. gave Joe tickets for the family. After the show, B.B. came by our home.”
Johnson added: “He might remind you of him but B.B. had a style no one could touch. Joe had it going on. He had a style of his own. Joe was into the real inside of the blues.”
He also was a showman with a comedic bent.
“Joe should have been a comedian,” Johnson said. “He was a lot of fun. I am the same way. I like to see people laughing. I like to do something to humor them up. Joe and me got along on that part, man.”
Little Joe was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1980s. But he was skeptical and snuck out the hospital before a planned surgery.
“He didn’t want to be cut open and down sick,” Lucas said. “As long as he was up and around he didn’t feel too good but he had the medicine keep him going. But (he thought) that’s better than taking the chance by having surgery.
“Two or three months later it got so bad he called me in Reno. ‘I’m so sick, Lo.’ I had him flown to Reno. I saw gastrologist — that’s where the cancer was, his stomach. He said, ‘Yes, he definitely has cancer and needs to have surgery.’ ”
The surgery was deemed a success and Little Joe Blue did very well for a year and a half, Lucas said.
Little Joe Blue traveled to Texas to buy a new car but on the second day became severely ill. He flew back to Reno and was treated at the Washoe hospital for 16 days until he died, April 22, 1990.
So many people wanted to attend Little Joe Blue’s memorial, no Reno church was large enough. It was held at the Reno Gazette Journal building. There also were several memorial and performances held in Dallas.
“He hated so much to have to die at such an early age because he had great goals and a big future ahead.” Lucas said. “He had fans everywhere.”
Thirty-one years after his death, Little Joe Blue is sure to gain new fans at the Artown Reno show with his nephew and talented band.
- ‘A Tribute to Little Joe Blue’
Full Blast Band
With Rick Metz, Bae Bae Kid Peso, Cherronda G.
When: 6:30 p.m.-9:30, Saturday, July 24
Where: Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, 1595 N. Sierra St., Reno
Tickets: $20 for a pod, which is good for up to four people, No seating will be provided at this venue, please bring your own chairs or blankets. Outside food and beverages are allowed and encouraged. Food and beverages will be available for purchase. No Glass. No Pets.
- Note: Ernie Johnson, who was originally going to appear in the show, will not perform due to technical issues. He hopes to perform in Reno at a later date.