"Sometimes I can't believe it. All these guys I've played with. None of them are around anymore," says Blind Sam Myers between tugs on a cigarette.
It's a Saturday afternoon and Myers is relaxing in an apartment just outside Alexandria. In a couple of hours he and the friends he's been staying with will drive into Washington to see the B.B. King-Bobby Bland show at Carter Barron Amphitheatre. But for now Myers is busy examining another life spent playing the blues -- his own.
Chances are that few who attend his performance with the Kenny Stinson Blues Band at Friendship Station tonight will have heard Myers before, but he's been around. He played for 10 years with the great slide guitarist Elmore James and befriended just about every blues musician recording in Chicago in the postwar years. More recently, he performed in Washington with guitarist Robert Junior Lockwood.
Nevertheless, Myers hasn't recorded often. He has lived most of his life in Jackson, Miss., far from the limelight. What strikes you first about Myers, apart from his clouded eyes and gentle demeanor, is his extraordinary power of recall. He remembers not only the names of the musicians he's encountered over the past 40 years, but their vital statistics. Not just the big names, either. For every Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf, there is a Columbus Brooks or an Odie Payne. Ask Myers about Elmore James and he tells you not only the date James died, but when he was buried.
And his own birth date? "Nineteen thirty-six, Feb. 19. One Friday afternoon, or so they say," he informs with a sly smile.
Born in Laurel, Miss., Myers attended a trade school in nearby Piney Woods. Though his sight has been severely impaired by cataracts and a "nerve condition" since childhood, he says he's never given the disability much thought. "It's always been something that I had to be bothered with, nobody else," he says. "It's just a way of life."
Music was a way of life, too. In trade school it was Myers' favorite subject. He remembers always being the first in line to attend band practice. From the start, he was drawn to the sound of wind instruments. "Blowing trumpet, that was a big part of growing up for me," he says. "I've always loved music, regardless of what it was."
Myers found gospel music, for instance, beneficial to both body and soul. "At that time it was very cold down south in the winter, a lot colder than it is now," he says. "For heat, we'd use coal or these old steam boilers that didn't work very well. I remember a lot of times a bunch of us would get together in a small room and just start singing gospel, moving to the music just to keep warm."
Like most youngsters, Myers was introduced to the popular blues artists of the era through their recordings. "I would listen to Sonny Boy Williamson playing harmonica. I just loved the sound," says Myers.
"The first harmonica I bought was all plastic, there was nothing metal about it. It cost 25 cents. I'd listen to records and blow along. But I couldn't get the sound I wanted. Then -- I'll never forget it -- I went out and bought four of these harmonicas for a dollar, just to be sure I got the right sound. I was pretty sure one of them was going to be in the right key."
In his mid-teens Myers traveled frequently to Chicago to visit relatives and hung out at Chess recording studios and at clubs on the South Side where the management would "look after him," though he was still a minor.
"That was the place for the blues back then," Myers says. "Muddy, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, everybody was in town then. They'd have these all-night jam sessions at Silvio's on the West Side and I'd listen and try to rearrange everything I heard to create my own sound."
By now Myers was playing the drums and the chromatic harmonica, a more versatile instrument than the customary 10-hole blues harp. He says he chose the chromatic because of its similarities with the trumpet, and because of Little Walter, who could be heard wailing on the chromatic on his recordings with Muddy Waters. It was in Chicago that Myers also met Elmore James, who raucously adapted Robert Johnson's Delta blues for the electric slide guitar. With Myers on drums, the two toured together off and on for a decade.
Myers and guitarist Anson Sunderburgh recently released their first album, "My Love Is Here to Stay." The recording captures Myers' soulful voice and piercing harp powerfully augmented by Sunderburgh and his propulsive Texas blues band.
"I'm hoping it will lead to an album of my own," says Myers. "I still have some things to say."