TERRE HAUTE —
Talent can be forgotten, overlooked or lost, until somebody takes an interest.
Five years ago, in a sociological experiment crafted by a Washington Post columnist, renowned classical violinist Joshua Bell played incognito in a busy subway station in D.C. Using a $3.5-million Stradivarius, Bell played six Bach pieces for 43 minutes. A total of 1,097 people passed by Bell, who sells out famed venues 200 nights a year. Just six commuters stopped to listen to his virtuosity. Only one recognized him. A mere 27 bothered to toss money into his open violin case, most without breaking stride. Those tips totaled $32.17.
Imagine what a thousand people missed.
A little dose of history and fun, playing out this summer on blues radio programs around the world, would not have happened if Steve Rusin hadn’t popped a dusty old cassette into his tape deck last year.
That tape had captured an aural snapshot of American cultures intersecting, right here in Terre Haute.
One microphone. Two musicians. A guitar. A harmonica. Just 176 seconds of sound, created in a home studio in Terre Haute decades ago.
Rusin looked twice at the 35-year-old cassette he found while discarding items in a drawer last year.
He’d just retired and wanted to weed out a stack of tapes. The label on one jarred his memory.
In June 1977, Rusin worked as a printer by day and a member of a blues-rock band in his off time. A friend, Frank Hensley, employed at a Terre Haute foundry told Rusin about a co-worker claiming to have performed alongside famous names in blues and R&B music. Intrigued, Rusin decided to meet the guy — Johnny Wright. “He’d been saying, ‘I recorded with Ike Turner,’ and we were all saying, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
They met. Wright told Rusin his story. Rusin did a little research. It was true.
Three weeks later, Wright brought his guitar to Hensley’s house, where Rusin and Wright played a stripped-down version of a Wright original, “I Was in St. Louis,” with Hensley capturing the sound on a tape recorder. Wright, then 42, sang the foot-tapper in a solid, bluesy tenor, accompanied by his acoustic guitar and Rusin’s lively harmonica. The first take, jammed at Hensley’s kitchen table, “was magical,” Rusin said. “Johnny was right on the money.” The recording quality didn’t match the performance, though, so they tried again a few days later. Take 2 sounded clearer.
They struck a friendship, and eventually Rusin and others formed the Highway Blues Band to back Wright at gigs in Terre Haute clubs in the 1970s and ’80s. They continued recording new originals by Wright. Nicknamed “Rollin’ Stone,” Wright was still playing local bars and veterans halls in 1988, when he died at just 58 years old.
“He played right up to the end,” Rusin recalled last week, “and he always wanted to improve. He wasn’t going to give up.”
As time passed, that take of “I Was in St. Louis” blended in with a batch of other tapes in Rusin’s house. He forgot it even existed.
Until that housecleaning moment last year.
Rusin listened to it, “and it was so good” he sent the tape to close friend Mark Cook — an Atlanta-based blues guitarist and recording artist who grew up in Terre Haute — who had the recording’s sound cleaned and mastered. Rusin paid the licensing for “I Was in St. Louis,” as well as the production cost of pressing 300 CDs of the song. Emphasizing that he is making no money off the project, Rusin sent copies to friends and family. “I did it for historic reasons,” he said.
One buddy, a veteran Nashville guitarist now living in California, received a copy and suggested Rusin send the disc to blues radio and Internet shows around the U.S. and world. Skeptical, Rusin mailed it to 50 blues programs. To his surprise, the duet by Wright and Rusin cracked playlists of shows from Alabama to Europe.
“Now, I’m getting mail from Dublin, Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Texas, Washington, Kentucky — just a bunch of them telling me they are playing the tune and what a great tune it is,” Rusin said. “A DJ from London just sent me a request for all the Johnny tunes I have.”
Rusin shook his head in disbelief as he spoke.
“I just couldn’t believe people were interested in something so long ago, and without a band, and with no screamin’ guitars,” he said.
“I was 27 then, and I’m 62 now,” Rusin added, “so it’s all kind of a shock to me.”
The music holds up, though. Wright’s professionalism shines, as does that of Rusin, who still plays blues harp (harmonica) on the prolific Cook’s albums. Wright’s voice sounds deeper than it did on his 1954 version of “I Was in St. Louis,” released as a single by DeLuxe Records in Cincinnati. But he bends, plucks and strums his guitar strings as deftly as he’d done a generation earlier.
The simplicity appeals to blues aficionados. The “authenticity” impressed them.
“Johnny’s sound is fairly clean and uncluttered,” Cliff McKnight, host of the British-based “Nothing But the Blues,” said in an email interview. “The version of ‘I Was in St. Louis’ with just Johnny and Steve, which I played on my show, recalls the classic guitar and harmonica combos like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Big Joe Williams & J.D. Short, but also modern combinations like Paul Rishell & Annie Raines, and Moreland & Arbuckle.”
Obviously, McKnight — and others — liked the song.
“Steve has since sent me more tracks,” McKnight wrote, “and I’ll be playing them on my show.”
Wright compiled a small, but popular list of singles for a handful of labels. Of those dozen tunes, the ones earning the most notoriety were those recorded with Turner’s band. With the future Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer on lead guitar, Wright sang and played rhythm guitar on “Suffocate” and “The World is Yours.” Those and other Wright singles, including “Look at That Chick,” “I Got to Have You for Myself,” “Who Was,” “I Stayed Down” and “Winehead” are long out of print, but sought-after by fans of the St. Louis blues sound. The impact of black blues artists — introduced to white audiences at the dawn of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s — was vast.
Wright was indeed “in St. Louis” at the peak of his career. Born in Tennessee, Wright and his family moved to Richmond, Ind., after his father died, and then in 1950, Johnny moved to St. Louis to work full time as a musician. He wound up inheriting Chuck Berry’s house-act job at The Cosmopolitan nightclub in East St. Louis in 1955, after Berry became a national star and left. That level of fame eluded Wright, who struggled with personal and financial problems.
“Johnny’s story is not untypical in the blues,” McKnight said.
He first moved to Terre Haute in 1960 to be near relatives, then soon left for California. He returned to Terre Haute in the late ’60s, got the foundry job and lived out his life with his wife, Dorothy. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he recorded a few more singles with Rusin — “Coal Shed” and “Bad Air Boogie,” the latter inspired by his dusty workplace.
“He had a great voice,” Rusin said, “and limited but primitive guitar playing — things the old guys did, things we can’t duplicate. It’s basic E, A and B7, two-finger chords, but what he did with it really works.”
As McKnight put it, “I think he’s a hidden gem — maybe only 14 or so recorded tracks, but there are plenty of blues artists who recorded less than that but are still interesting. Volume doesn’t equate with quality.”
The photo gracing the cover of the “I Was in St. Louis” disc is poignant. Wright, the veteran, is wearing a suit, tie, dress slacks and shiny shoes. He’s leaning on the shoulder of Rusin, looking fresh-faced and very ’70s in a sweatshirt and jeans. Together, they breathed new energy into Wright’s old songs. Now, a half-a-lifetime later, Johnny’s music is experiencing another revival.
“I think he’d be pleased as punch to know a song he recorded 35 years ago is getting some airplay,” Rusin said.
A hidden gem, hidden no more.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.