When a man loves a woman, as Jerry Washington does, it is not uncommon for him to sing the blues.
But when he also has three families to support, including a wife, a girlfriend and two daughters by different women -- as Washington does -- he's got to do more than sing.
He's got to play the blues, and as host of radio station WPFW's "Bama Hour," Washington plays songs while telling stories about his life that would make a wax record weep.
After losing one of his girlfriends a few years ago, he moaned over the airwaves, "I just happened to be counting them and that's the third lady that's tossed me. I guess I'm just a loser, and I, you know . . . I don't know what to say. No wonder this show is lousy."
A while later, Washington got his girl back. But it took only a few shows before he was crying the blues again.
"The only difference between my wife's cooking and my girlfriend's cooking is that one uses more peanut butter -- and the other uses more jelly," he complained.
More than the typical "love triangle," which is the crux of the blues today, Washington is caught up in a geodesic dome of mixed emotions. So throw in a little B.B. King, then let the ladies have their say with Esther Phillips and you've got what the Blues Foundation of Memphis recently honored as the best radio blues programming in the country.
Washington, 56, was born in Albany, Ga., and started his career in the blues business as a teen-age crooner with a six-piece combo that performed at Henry's Cabaret in Atlanta.
He spent 22 years in the Air Force, frequenting bars and jazz nightspots around the world, before coming to Washington in 1965. Here, he began working as a job placement counselor for the United Planning Organization, a local charity group.
Then, in 1973, he decided to put his knowledge of music and life to better use and took a job with WPFW, where he figured that just playing mellow sounds would not be good enough.
"What I needed was a 'radio lover,' someone to help me get the show off the ground," he recalled. So he called a woman he had met while working for UPO, Denise Burton, a 28-year-old data control clerk, and asked if he could use her name.
"She agreed to be the straight man -- or woman in this case -- and the show escalated into the oldest story in the book: having to tell the lady that you can't be with her tonight because you're a married man."
The "Bama Hour" was an instant hit.
"But then," Washington continued, "my wife ended up leaving me for another lover, and while I was walking through the back streets crying the blues I ran into Denise, who was crying because she had lost her man. So we united and fell in love."
A few months ago, Washington, who is diabetic, had a foot amputated because of a severe infection. But with Denise at his side, he came through with flying colors -- every color, he says, except the blues.
Recently back on the air, he quipped about the amputation: "I ain't unique. In my neighborhood, there are lots of Negroes with one eye, one foot and no legs. No big deal."
Broadcast at 89.3 on the radio dial from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays, Washington's show now has the highest Arbitron rating for his time slot.
"He has brought imagination and originality to the creation of his program," said Marita Rivero, manager of the listener-supported station. "Through the artistry of the show, he has been able to shine a light on a whole segment of society in a tender and enlightening way."
That segment of society, says Washington, are his fellow "Bamas," a name originally coined for southern blacks, particularly those from Alabama, who came north but didn't quite leave their country mannerisms behind.
"My intention is to make Bama a synonym for excellence," Washington told his audience Sunday. "Of course, a rose by any other name still has thorns, and while we can't change what we are, hopefully we can improve on it.