Winslow is Lucky.
Because Arizona Blues Hall-of-Famer Tommy Dukes calls Winslow home, and because most mornings, he fills the Historic Entertainment District with his soulful tunes. For Tommy:
“Music is my thing.”
The Early Days
The Blues worked into Tommy’s soul when he was just a kid living on Duke Avenue in Hattiesburg Mississippi. After his mother left the state with another man, Tommy’s father got a job with the railroad and they moved to the other side of town. Like Tommy, his father loved the blues and would tune in Jimmy Reed on his battery-operated radio or head to the juke joints to listen to music. Tommy often followed along, transfixed by the plates dropping onto the jukebox and spinning his beloved blues.
In 1954, when Tommy was ten, his mother sent bus tickets for her boys to join her in Winslow Arizona. His father—who couldn’t read nor write—put Tommy and Andrew on the bus and told them to go to the back seat. The civil rights movement hadn’t yet begun, and no exceptions were made, not even for two young boys traveling alone. At least not in the south. Somewhere along the way, though—Tommy thinks maybe around Texas—they got a new driver who told the boys to come up and sit right behind him. Tommy thought that was the neatest thing, to see the big wheel and watch the terrain out the windshield gradually shift into the high desert of Arizona. Although he was sad to leave his father, the idea of going west to the land of Cowboys and Indians excited the young boy.
Arriving in Winslow
Around two or three in the morning, the bus pulled up to the La Posada Hotel. The boys got off and began to walk, unsure where to go until an officer pulled up and asked where they were heading. Tommy told him, and the nice officer loaded them into his car and took them to their cousin Ruby’s house. The next day, their mom–whom the boys hadn’t seen in five years–came and got them and took them to the one-room shack that was now their home. The adjustment wasn’t easy.
Takes time to get used to something.
But music helped.
Tommy’s First Guitar
One day, when Tommy was around thirteen, he came home from school to find an acoustic guitar his brother had gotten from Preacher McCann. His brother didn’t care much about playing, but the second Tommy took that guitar in hand, he knew he’d found his thing, even though he knew nothing about how a guitar worked. (You can see the guitar at the Old Trails Museum!)
He soon got help. Down the way from where he lived on Baca Street, there were some ladies who played Jimmy Reed all day long. There was a man there, too, Lester Sweet, who tuned the guitar for Tommy. Still, Tommy didn’t know how to make the music in his head play out on the guitar.
Learning to Play
Frustrated, Tommy bought a harmonica to try and tune the guitar himself. He put the harmonica in the F hole, tuned the stings to the mouth harp, and something clicked. On the guitar, he began to pick out the notes by ear to Jimmy Reed’s, “Oh baby you don’t have to go…”
Tommy has never stopped playing since.
Music is simply a part of who he is.
Tommy practiced the same song over and over, learning to master the rhythms. He listened to music, trying to repeat the notes. He’d wander over to the Elks Club and peek through the door to listen to the bands out of Phoenix, but since he was too young, that door often got closed in his face.
Two years after picking up the guitar, fifteen-year-old Tommy and his pal David Chavez had their first gig. They carried their equipment from Winslow’s south-side all the way to Arcadia Hall (the Elks on First). With two guitars and one amp, they began to play, but sadly nobody came into the room to watch, so they packed up and headed out. His first gig wasn’t a smashing success, but that didn’t stop him. He kept on playing, especially tunes from his favorite bluesman.
Whatever Jimmy Reed came out with, I could play it.
One day, Tommy noticed a guy coming from the store with a bottle of Thunderbird wine, walking like a little pimp. They got to talking about music, and that man—WC Westbrook—ordered some drums. They got together and started messing around.
Then KC Mattox and the Blue Flames came into the picture. Bass player Doll Lee had left the group so KC asked Tommy to play bass. Even though the instrument was big, heavy, and unfamiliar, Tommy took it up, and played his first gig with them at the Pinetop Buffet when he was fifteen.
I was so shy, when the ladies looked at me, I hid behind the jukebox.
He went on to play gigs in Flagstaff and also back in Winslow, at the Prarie Moon, the only black club in town—one he’d been to young to go to before he started playing with the band.
A cousin who lived in Phoenix came up to Flagstaff one day and said:
You oughta come down to Phoenix and play with Vernon and Jack.
So Tommy did, hitching a ride with a friend heading to Phoenix to visit his daughter. Shortly thereafter, he started playing at Lucille’s Place on Washington Street with Vernon on drums and Jack on bass. Playing covers of his favorite blues songs helped Tommy work out the kinks until one day after playing the Zanzibar, he walked outside and someone said:
Was that you all playing? Sounded just like the jukebox.
With those words, Tommy knew they were on the right track. He began to play all over the place, belting out the blues, making his Silvertone guitar from Sears and Roebuck sing, and blowing on his harmonica.
Arizona Blues Hall of Fame
In 1997, the singer, songwriter, and masterful blues guitarist was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame—this from a man who’d taught himself to play Jimmy Reed by ear when he was just thirteen-years-old.
For Tommy, every gig is his favorite. He just likes playing music. Especially in small venues.
Small venues are best because you can have a good time and interact.
Interacting is a skill Tommy has mastered. Just watch him play on the Corner in Winslow Arizona.
When I first started, it was kind of …. I had to get used to it. I wasn’t comfortable.
But then he started talking to the crowds, watching people smile as he belted out a tune, or tap their feet along to the infectious groove. Tommy would call out to people, welcoming them to Winslow, and make conversations with tourists and locals alike.
Now when I come here and set up, I feel free.
Over the last several decades, Tommy has performed all over Arizona, playing Blues Festivals and Nightclubs.
Tommy’s glad his mother sent for them all those years ago. He doesn’t know what would have happened to him had he stayed in Mississippi and not found his way to Winslow Arizona.
Playin’ on the Corner
Tommy plays music near Winslow’s corner because he loves to entertain. Listening to him playfully tease and engage with both tourists and locals is a treat. He brings a wonderful life to that famous corner in Winslow Arizona.
So please, if you’re lucky enough to be in town when Tommy is playing, let him know how much you appreciate his talents.
Keep up with Tommy by following his Facebook page!
Until next time…