Updated: Nov 29, 2022
While not necessarily known as a blues music hotbed, Columbus has never been short of blues fans and first-rate blues musicians. We’ve had our own Blues Alliance for over 30 years. Teeny Tucker, Richard P. Boals, Shaun Booker, Ray Fuller and Sean Carney are just a few notable Columbus blues musicians. But Willie Pooch, as promoter and fellow Blues Alliance Hall of Famer Bruce Nutt so aptly put it, “delivered the goods on stage like no one else. His voice, style, swagger, and natural coolness made him the King of Columbus Blues.”
Featuring Tony Monaco
Chicken Coup Records – CCP 7007
Like so many blues musicians, Pooch’s origin story is well-documented yet nebulous. Born Willie George Johnson in Lee County Mississippi on either June or July 6 1936 or 1937, depending on the source. His mother Carrie raised him in Tupelo where he began singing in Gospel groups and played baseball with Elvis Presley as a lad. At 13, his family moved to Chicago where his interest in blues blossomed.
“I remember bein’ twenty-one and switching from lead guitar to bass so I could perform with blues greats like Hound Dog Taylor, Elmore James, Jimmy Dawkins, Luther Allison, Magic Sam, Carey Bell & Muddy Waters,” Pooch noted in the liner notes of Funk-N-Blues in 2006. While touring with Kansas City Red in 1962, Sam’s North Cafe offered Willie a steady gig and he stayed in Columbus, rejoining keyboardist and former Chicago bandmate “Big” Dale Sales and getting a job at Buckeye Steel Castings. He worked at Buckeye until retiring in 1999 and played the blues until his passing in 2010.
Guitarist Dave Workman left The Dantes in 1968 to form his revered blues band. One Sunday afternoon around 1970, Pooch dropped by the Lemon Drop at 5th and High for a jam session, where he met Workman for the first time. "A cat came in and wanted to sit in," Workman told the Dispatch in 2008. "He was playing bass, and he turned around to me and said: 'I want to do a blues. Can you play any B.B. King?' That was Willie Pooch, and that was our first meeting. And then, when he opened his mouth to sing, I was like 'Holy (bleep).' I mean, right then and there, he became my voice, and I became his guitar. It had an incredible effect on both of us."
By 1971, Pooch was regularly performing with the Dave Workman Blues Band at the Agora’s Thursday Blues Nights. “Vocalist Willie Pooch sounds like a composite of B. B. King, James Brown and Little Junior Parker,” the Dispatch noted at the time. “Willie pours heart, soul and tonsils into each number.” In October ‘71, they’d open for Howlin’ Wolf on one of the Thursday nights to glowing reviews.
"The show opened with a long and satisfying set by the 'Dave Workman Blues Band,' featuring vocals by Willie Pooch and drummer Bill Turner. Pooch was especially fine in his treatment of two B.B. King tunes — 'How Blue Can You Get,' and 'The Thrill Is Gone,' The Lantern wrote. "Workman's guitar work was flawless, and his harp solo in Jimmy Rodger's 'Walkin' By Myself' was perfect."
By the mid-’70s, Pooch was fronting his own band in addition to his gigs with the Workman Blues Band and others. In 1982, he began playing with T.C. and the Cats and also performed with The Pacesetters. In the summer of ‘84, Workman left for San Francisco, and Pooch plowed on, performing with John Boerstler in the DeMarcos. Pooch formed his long-running Upsetters band with Rick Collura. Workman would still perform with Pooch whenever possible.
Despite his status as the Godfather of Blues, Pooch isn’t widely known even within Columbus. Like many artists that remain independent, Pooch focused on live performance and recorded very little. It’s a shame because what we hear on Funk-N-Blues offers a glimpse of Willie's immense talent - both vocally and as a songwriter. Half the record is comprised of Pooch compositions, including Buckeye Steel Mill Blues and In My Lonely Room. The only other recording featuring Pooch that I was able to track down is a 1995 release with T-Bone and the Usual Suspects, Live At Dick’s Den.
Released on renowned organist Tony Monaco’s Chicken Coup Records imprint, Funk-N-Blues came out in 2006. Although Monaco and Pooch didn’t get a chance to perform together often, major credit is due to Tony, who played the organ and produced, and Louis Tsamous, who played drums and served as musical director, for making this excellent document of Pooch’s skills happen. “I perform differently with Tony,” Willie is quoted in the liner notes. “He brings out the best in me.” Yet, Pooch (and Collura) made sure to list and thank The Upsetters:
Rick Collura (guitar)
Andy Robinson (keyboards)
Yorke Proctor (bass)
Jack Proctor (drums)
Recorded at Monaco’s own Columbus Sound studio, Funk-N-Blues indeed showcases the best of what Pooch brought to the table. Opening with B.B. King’s Why I Sing The Blues, it’s immediately apparent that vocally Pooch can hang with the best. Guitarist Rick Collura was a longtime Pooch collaborator in The Upsetters and the chemistry is undeniable. Exemplary blues chops all around and by the time we get to Buckeye Steel Mill Blues, it’s clear that Pooch’s songwriting distinguishes him not just as a bluesman, but sets him apart as an artist. In a genre obsessed with authenticity, there’s nothing like “chipping and grinding” burrs off rail-car couplings and frames for 30 years to make the emotional intensity of a lyric come through.
Willie Pooch lived the blues. His job was at Buckeye Steel, but music was his love and he continued performing long after retiring from his day gig. "He feels it, he lives it and it surrounds him,” his sister Mary Lewis told Columbus Monthly in 2006. “It's just like a part of him." Sadly, Pooch passed away in May 2010 due to complications from diabetes. He was 72 years old (or 73 - not even his official obit says). He performed right to the end, singing from a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes. A gig with the Upsetters at the Thirsty Ear Tavern was on the books when he passed.
I was fortunate to see Willie Pooch a handful of times, usually at ComFest or Hot Times, but most notably an evening at the Short North Tavern. He thrived in a club setting and with his flashy suit and command of the mic, he owned the room that night. Despite his relative lack of recorded output, Pooch’s legacy looms large over not just the Columbus blues community but as a significant Columbus artist the likes of which it’s safe to say we’ll never see again. Longtime Dispatch columnist Mike Harden summed it up best in his eulogy: “Lord, I want to leave this Earth like Willie, singing Goodbye Darlin' at my own funeral, being eulogized by the pastor of the So Help Me God Church of Christ and decked out in a set of threads that would make a peacock blush.
Goodbye, Willie. Goodbye.”
Written-By – Pooch
Written-By – Pooch
Written-By – Pooch
Written-By – Hawkins
Written-By – Walker
Written-By – Pooch
Written-By – Pooch
Written-By – Chatman
Recorded At – Columbus Sound Studio
Mixed At – Columbus Sound Studio
Mastered At – Columbus Sound Studio
Drums – Louis Tsamous
Graphics – Dan Traynor
Guitar – Rick Collura
Organ – Tony Monaco
Producer – Tony Monaco
Associate Producer, Music Director Musical Director – Louis Tsamous
Vocals – Willie Pooch