Ben Andrews, 51, Washington area blues singer and guitarist, dies

April 20, 2011

Ben Andrews, 51, a traditional blues singer and acoustic guitarist who recorded several albums and performed regularly at such Washington area nightclubs as Madam’s Organ and the old Grog and Tankard, died April 13 at a hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va.

An official with the West Virginia office of the chief medical examiner said determination of the cause of death is pending further tests. He lived in Shepherdstown, W.Va. At his death, he was preparing to record a new CD and tour the United Kingdom.

Mr. Andrews was known for his interpretations of a wide array of country blues styles, including intricate ragtime-flavored pieces to the mournful, highly rhythmic Delta blues of Robert Johnson.

He recorded two albums as part of the Blue Rider Trio, which featured harmonica player Mark Wenner from the blues rock band the Nighthawks and bassist Jeff Sarli.

In a Washington Post review of their 1990 album, “Preachin’ the Blues,” music critic Mike Joyce praised the trio for “revitalizing country blues tunes in subtle and refreshing ways” and singled out Mr. Andrews’ vocals for capturing the music’s spirit “without sounding overly derivative.”

Benjamin Michael Andrews was born Sept. 27, 1959, in Belgrade, Serbia, then part of Yugoslavia. His birth parents were Serbian and Bosnian but he was adopted as a baby by U.S. citizens.

His adoptive father was a U.S. diplomat, and Benjamin spent his childhood in Washington, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Poland. He started classical guitar studies at 8 and later gravitated to blues and folk music.

“We moved back to the States in the early ’70s and I was very bored with Bach fugues,” he told The Post in 1999. “Then when I was 11 or 12 I went down to the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival on the Mall and I heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Big Joe Williams. I knew right then I was going to play like that if it was the last thing on earth. I mean I really heard their music. It got inside me in a way no music had ever done before.”

While attending what is now Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., he briefly played electric guitar in a blues band. He went back to performing acoustic country blues styles, primarily as a soloist, when he returned to Washington in the early 1980s.

Television journalist and blues fan Dave Marash, then an anchorman at WRC-TV, heard Mr. Andrews perform at the Grog and Tankard and introduced him to producer Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade Records, a Maryland-based label specializing in blues and jazz.

Sprey persuaded Mr. Andrews to record two albums, “Preachin’ the Blues” and “Harp, Steel and Guts” (2000), in a trio format because he thought it would be more salable than solo material.

Sprey said that Mr. Andrews preferred to work regular weekly engagements where he could “see the same people and observe what they liked.”

Mr. Andrews was a founding member of the D.C. Blues Society, the organization that promotes the annual D.C. Blues Festival.

His marriage to Karen Bell ended in divorce. Survivors include his partner of seven years, Elizabeth McCullough of Shepherdstown; three children from his marriage, Ian Andrews, Amelia Andrews and Eliza Andrews, all of Rockville; his mother, Dana Andrews of Solomons, Md.; a sister; and a brother.

“Ben had the belief that if you were a good enough guitarist you could take a $25 guitar and make it sound fabulous,” said Sprey. “But he said that you had to play it for a year first.

“And he did that,” added Sprey. “He took a $25 guitar and, by the end of the year, because of his dexterity, he could adjust his touch to bring out good tone and quality from the instrument.”

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