It was more years ago than he can remember when Tom Courtney, a blues singer from Texas, became known as Tomcat. “It was some woman in New Mexico that gave me that name,” he says. “And people been callin’ me that ever since.”
We meet up in the rec room at the senior-living complex in Spring Valley where he maintains an apartment. The sun is bright but not unpleasant. Courtney is wearing a blue Rock and Roll Marathon T-shirt, white chinos, and a faded red straw hat. A thick Southern drawl softens his words. He talks about how at the age of 16 he was hired on as a tap dancer and a singer in the Ringling Brothers Circus minstrel show. He’d taught himself to tap dance after seeing Mr. Bojangles (Bill Robinson) perform on the farm where he and his family picked cotton. The circus, he says, paid much better. “I got a dollar and a half a day.” His laugh comes out like a cough.
After Ringling Brothers, Tomcat continued to perform in variety shows. Later, he became an itinerant blues singer. In 2007, at the age of 78, he received critical acclaim with the release of Downsville Blues on Blue Witch Records. This year, Tomcat Courtney was awarded Best Blues at the San Diego Music Awards. Now 81, he appears regularly at Chateau Orleans and the Turquoise Lounge, both in Pacific Beach.
What kind of blues do you play?
“The kind of blues I’m playin’ now — they call it Texas style. But we called it the country blues, you know.”
Country blues, because of the guitar styling?
“Yeah. It’s the style of picking, with your fingers and all that. It wasn’t any bottle-necking, like Mississippi blues.”
What’s the story behind your first guitar?
“Man said, ‘Will you come on over and help me pull weeds in my garden? I’m gonna give you this guitar.’ We pulled weeds all day. He tried to show me how to play country-western, but I just hated what he was doin’.”
Picking cotton was the family business. What age did you start?
“Well, I had my own sack at the age of eight or nine years old. I could carry up to 70, 80 pounds.”
What part of Texas are you from?
“I’m from Waco. I was born in Marlon, Texas, and we moved to Downsville. Wasn’t nothin’ there but a store and a cotton gin, was what it was. There were railroad tracks through there, and right down from the tracks was a trestle. Right across the creek. Well, I used to go down there on that trestle and mark the train with my feet.”
“Mark the train”?
“Yeah. Mark the train, you know. Like, imitate the train. I did that since I was 6, 7 years old until I was 12, 13.”
Did any big-name bluesmen pass through Downsville when you were a kid?
“Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Tampa Red would come out to the farm and perform. Saturday. Sometimes on a Friday night. The people made their own whiskey and stuff out there. They made wine and whiskey [during Prohibition]. But I tell you something: As long as it stayed on that farm, the law didn’t come out there. I didn’t think about it till years later, all that shit people were makin’.”
What is the difference between being a bluesman today and in the 1940s and ‘50s when you were starting to play club dates?
“More places had music in them than they do now. Chicago? Door to door to door had music in it. Los Angeles? Door to door to door had music in it.”
What changed all that?
“TV. It knocked it down.”
How long have you been in San Diego?
“I came here in ’71 or ’72, and I started playing at the beach in the Texas Teahouse on Voltaire. I played there until about ’93.”
By now, how many songs do you know?
“Oh man, how many have I forgotten?”
You’ve recorded at least 40 of your own songs. What do you write about?
“Mostly about ’round-the-neighborhood things. Most bluesmen write songs about people and about the way people live.”
Your favorite blues?
“The song that I heard that really moved me the most — I guess I was very young, and he was really old then — Charley Lewis. He would sing a song, “Oh Lordy Lord,” and I never did forget the way he sang.” (Tomcat sings.) “Oh Lordy Lord, oh Lordy Lord, it hurts me so bad for us to part/ But someday, darlin’, you ain’t gonna worry my life no more/ This is my story. All I have to say is goodbye, baby/ I’m gonna let you on your way.” ■