November 6, 2008
Bill Lupkin's musical career has ebbed and flowed, hitting incredible peaks before quietly subsiding while life's other joys and challenges moved to the forefront. But whether he was actively involved in music or pursuing other interests, Lupkin has remained in his heart a bluesman, always finding his way back to the music he loved. His history with the blues chronicles the evolution of music itself. As many around the country were getting their first glimpse of Elvis Presley in 1956, Lupkin was seeing musical history in a more personal way, through the adventures of his older brother.
"My brother was in high school, and he was in an R&B band, blacks and whites playing together, which was kind of unusual at the time. That's when all of the changes in music were just starting to happen. I was a young kid, only nine years old, and I was intrigued by this stuff, the way you are when the older kids are doing things. That was when I first heard the blues."
By the time Lupkin was in high school, he was playing the drums and had a band of his own. Then another musical revolution began introducing the rest of the world to the music he was so passionate about.
"When those English guys started coming along in the 60s, they were playing all these songs by Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry. Everyone started hearing these songs that I'd been listening to already."
A fan of Chicago blues, Lupkin developed the vocal chops and harp skills to put together a blues band of his own and tried playing around his native Fort Wayne, with little or no success.
"I had a band together, and we tried to play that stuff around here, but people just looked at us like we were from outer space. We were a novelty."
Deciding that Fort Wayne might not be the place to launch a career in the blues, Lupkin took off for Chicago, securing a place to stay while he tried to find work.
"I had hit the road, played in Detroit and Cincinnati, before I decided I was going to go to Chicago. I figured if I couldn't make it in music, I'd come back to Fort Wayne and get a job, have a normal life. I could stay with some people for two weeks, so I really had to hit the pavement quickly to find something, and I got a great job."
Soon Lupkin was rubbing shoulders with some of the giants of not only the blues but in all of music. Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Jimmy Rogers, Howlin' Wolf – all became accessible to the young musician fresh out of Fort Wayne. Lupkin's talent quickly became known, and he found himself not only performing but recording with the legends of Chicago and American blues.
All heady stuff, but eventually Lupkin came back to Indiana and settled down into a marriage and a glass design business. He left music behind for a few years, focusing on his new personal and professional responsibilities. But the music never left him, and when he ran into some old friends from his days in music, his love for playing and performing was rekindled, putting him back in touch with many of his former Chicago colleagues.
Those contacts became Fort Wayne's musical gain for awhile, with Lupkin bringing much of that talent into the Summit City thanks to the late, great blues club, the Hot Spot, downtown's own smoky blues club. Lupkin still misses the intimacy that club provided and the stage it afforded some of the greats of music.
"It was great to be able to bring some performers down and have the opportunity for people to see a real blues player for very little money. The cover charge was usually $3 to $5, whereas when I play at Buddy Guy's on a Tuesday night it's 10 bucks. On a weekend it can be as much as $15 to $25. It was a wonderful spot."
Lupkin is proud of the associations he's had over the years and of the music he's been able to play. Having now released his own CDs, Lupkin is happy to be back in music and is looking forward to a rare opportunity which has presented itself for the remainder of 2008 and perhaps even some of 2009. Watermelon Slim, the great performer whose specialty is Mississippi Delta style blues, is currently taking his solo tour through Europe, with numerous stops in Turkey. That plan left Watermelon Slim's backup band, The Workers, free to pursue other projects, so they gave Lupkin a call, asking if he wanted to join them on a tour.
"I had met those guys this summer, and they asked me if I wanted to play with them. We played at the Heritage Blues Festival and just had a ball. They were very, very kind. They know my past and they've seen me play, so it was very flattering when they asked if I wanted to go out on tour with them."
The tour will see Lupkin and The Workers criss-crossing the United States in November, with a stop at Buckets in Fort Wayne on November 15, before centralizing for more Midwest dates in December, which includes another stop at Buckets on December 6. Lupkin likes playing in that venue and looks forward to revisiting it twice on this tour.
"I always have a good time there," he says. "It's a friendly place to work – they're always really great to me. And what I like is that anyone under 21 can come hear us for the first set. It's always great to expose a younger audience to the blues."
Finding a younger audience has become a much easier prospect in recent years. While he used to be considered a novelty, Lupkin is now very much part of a rebirth of the blues. He credits younger blues performers and icons like Eric Clapton with introducing a new generation to the music he's always loved – and finds the exposure has helped him grow the audience that once eluded him in his hometown.
"Eric Clapton has opened more eyes to the real blues than anybody. When he records cover songs of these people he really admires, it introduces the music to a whole new audience. When he does a tribute to Robert Johnson, people start to ask 'Who is Robert Johnson?' or 'Who is Jimmy Rogers?' I'm amazed that music from that era is finding a whole new audience.
"When I go out and play, and I'm an old guy now," Lupkin laughs, "it's about 50/50, young people and older people. And that's great to see."