Between Midnight & Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive
Anyone who’s ever met Dick Waterman knows he deplores hyperbole. So he’d probably reject the notion that he’s the most important non-musician in blues history. Yet there’s substantial evidence indicating this is precisely the case.
Waterman’s accomplishments include his involvement with Nick Perls and Phil Spero in the 1964 rediscovery of Son House; his formation of Avalon Productions, the nation’s first agency devoted exclusively to managing and promoting blues musicians; and many efforts to remedy long-standing fiscal abuses suffered by legendary figures. Then there’s his astonishing photography collection, featuring amazingly candid shots garnered through unlimited access to a dream clientele.
But in true Waterman fashion, he’s neglected for decades to write his memoirs or widely release his photographs. Thankfully, Waterman has finally issued Between Midnight & Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive, a welcome tome in a time when blues texts tend to be overly academic, filled with recycled stories about the Delta and Chicago, or littered with propaganda.
Waterman’s main strengths are his directness and honesty. Since he wasn’t a producer, he never tried to tell anyone what or how to play. He didn’t harbor any illusions he was on some sort of crusade for artistic or stylistic integrity, although he clearly understood that musicians such as Buddy Guy, Big Arthur Crudup, Skip James, John Lee Hooker, Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King (among others) were making unique, important statements and deserved to do more than eke out a living playing in dives and flophouses.
Still, the book is refreshingly free of self-indulgent dialogue and congratulatory commentary. Instead, Waterman frequently depicts himself as simply providing a service, in the process surprising himself and the acts with whatever success they incur.
Though he formed close friendships with many musicians, Waterman also discusses instances when things went badly. He discusses how his dealings with Bukka White were marred by deceptions and lies that particularly disappointed him. Big Mama Thornton made it a nightly practice on one tour to upbraid Waterman for hiring substandard band members to back her; Waterman contends that Thornton was quite satisfied with the musicians, but chose to continually hammer him for her own reasons. The inclusion of these and many other incredible tales, some endearing, some unfathomable, affirm that Waterman’s relationships with his clients were closer, far more unpredictable and ultimately more meaningful than anything embodied in a contract.
Waterman played in a key role in spotlighting a musical and cultural community that had previously been largely ignored by most white Americans, and contemptuously dismissed by others who did know it existed. But there’s little anger and even less regret expressed in these anecdotes. There’s much more a sense of adventure, amusement, wonder, and occasionally amazement at what he’s seen, encountered and enjoyed. And then there are the photographs, many of them as memorable and moving as those in Annie Lebowitz’s oeuvre.
Much of the mainstream recognition Waterman has accrued resulted from his lengthy tenure as Bonnie Raitt’s manager. But most of his treasured associates are the veteran blues artists he introduced to the world beyond black America.
This is one of the finest and funniest books ever written about the blues or music. Waterman never sought nor expected the recognition or glory he deserves, but Between Midnight & Day should help him get some of it.