The night was New Years Eve. Every patron at the Woodfire Trattoria was dressed in their finest clothing, gathered together with friends, and celebrating the festive nature of the evening. Dinner was long finished and forgotten and, as was the habit in those days, the tables closest to the stage were pushed aside to create an improvised dance floor. Joyce Walker and the Outcast Blues Band had been warming up the house with their solid blues performance, easing the crowd in by starting with slower songs and progressively increasing the tempo with each new one. Eventually, the energy built and spilled across the entire room and the evening became a blur of dancing, singing, and clapping along to the band. Riding the raucous wave, guitarist Killer Ray Allison stepped into the crowd from the stage, playing his wireless guitar on a journey that stretched across the restaurant. We had seen this particular move before, but this was the first time one of the dancers took it upon themselves to follow him in a conga line. Soon, the entire dance floor was winding toward the front of the Woodfire, picking up patrons from their tables as they passed. The restaurant full of party goers streamed in a dancing line, following their guitar-playing leader through the front door into the streets of Dowagiac and it's freshly fallen snow. In the near-decade that has passed, I have never found a witness to who threw the first snowball. The culprit was unimportant, however, as the members of the disintegrating conga line quickly attacked whomever was nearest. Imagine most of the patrons of the fine-dining restaurant, dressed in their best clothing, having an epic snowball fight in the street. Of course, those were the kind of parties that happened in the blues days of the Woodfire and, most especially, on the nights when the Outcast Blues Band took the stage.
I have been reminiscing about those evenings in light of the news of the recent passing of Frank Walker. His Outcast Blues Band and the Woodfire are an important part of my personal growth. It was on the first evening I watched them play at the restaurant in Dowagiac that I found the courage to dance and carouse in front of other people without concern for their opinions of me. It was on the nights they played that I, along with my companions, would learn to lead the crowd, pulling other patrons from their comfortable seats to join us on the dance floor. The habit of pushing the tables aside to create that space soon became a duty, with the owner of the establishment at the time nodding to us when the moment was right to compel the crowd to end their meals and start the fun.
Frank Walker played music for over 40 years, spending the last part of his career sharing fronting duties of the band with his wife, Joyce. I remember sitting with them around their kitchen table in South Haven, hearing of Frank's realization that his wife could sing the blues after decades of her acting as a quiet companion of the band.
Frank was born in Mississippi and spent much of his life in Chicago. He would start playing music casually, but found his way into professional gigs in 1968, going on to play with the likes of Jody Williams, JoJo Murray, and “just about anyone and everyone” in the Chicago blues scene. He would meet Joyce while she was visiting her aunt in Chicago. Joyce once told me the tale of how she first saw him taking care of his car at his mother's house across the street.
“Woohoo, I had to meet him,” she said.
The couple dated for four years, marrying in 1977. The difficulties of raising their daughter in the city would lead them to Michigan, an area Frank was familiar with thanks to hunting trips with friends. According to Joyce, they were seeking a life that was “quiet and peaceful” and found it in Michigan.
“We were kinda messing around with music,” Joyce said.
They would create their first album playing in the garage of their first home in Covert. With both Frank and Joyce having family and professional ties to major names in the blues world, they would become something of a legend themselves, playing in venues around the region. The Woodfire, according to what Frank once told me, was his favorite venue.
I owe much to Frank Walker and the performances of his band at the Woodfire. He gave me my first taste of the blues and performed the soundtrack to some of the most important moments of my life. Cheers to him and his memory.