(Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of the article Ken wrote for the Suncoast Blues Society 10th Anniversary. Due to space consideration we had to whittle it down a tad.)
In preparing to write the story of how the Suncoast Blues Society was born Ken Torvik pondered where to start. Since many people equate the SBS with Larry Lisk and Ken, he started with how they met.
Ken moved here 1985 for a job in Clearwater. One of his co-workers there was a woman named KC. He got to know her boyfriend, Larry Lisk, who had moved to Ft. Lauderdale in 1978, then Tampa in 1980.
In 1993 Ken got divorced and Larry and KC had also gone their separate ways. Ken wanted to go to WMNF’s Heatwave, their annual eclectic music event. He talked some friends into going on Friday, but they weren’t interested in going on Saturday. (It was a 2-night affair then). While wandering around on Friday night, he ran into Larry hanging out with some of his friends.
Larry and Ken were still just casual acquaintances, but Ken asked Larry if he was coming back the next night. It turned out he was in the same boat, so they decided to meet up and take in the shows together.
And that is how it started, two newly divorced guys who loved music and were looking for someone to hang out with.
They started volunteering at WMNF events, searched out music all over the Bay area and even got up the nerve to take Cajun dancing lessons. (They never did get good at dancing but met some great people who are still friends today!)
They started hanging out so much that they started to lose their individual identities to a certain extent. At a WMNF volunteer banquet, while everyone else was called up individually to receive awards they were even called together!
They both liked a lot of music but were really drawn to Blues. “Blues is a feeling” is more than a catch phrase. To Ken, Blues is all about emotions. Whatever your mood ,there’s a blues tune to fit your need.
They became regulars at The Blues Ship, the original Ringside Cafe and Skipper’s Smokehouse. In the early 90’s Skipper’s was devoting most Sundays to Blues and Larry and Ken were always there. They found it depressing when there were so few other people there. Tom White & Vince McGilvra, Skipper’s owners at the time, started to recognize ‘em and occasionally struck up a conversation. Once, Tom mentioned that Skipper’s wasn’t going to bring certain artists because there weren’t enough people coming out to make it pay.
That was the first time that Larry and Ken started talking about starting a Blues society. This was around 1995. They didn’t have a clue how to go about it but it became a topic of conversation from then on. They had always worked the WMNF booth at the Tampa Bay Blues Fest, so at the 1996 edition they made up a clipboard and gathed names and addresses of people interested in joining a new society. Then they promptly put the list away and continued to procrastinate.
But in the fall of 1996 lightning struck in the form of two Blues guitarists! Larry and Ken heard about a blues fest in Fort Lauderdale and decided attend. It was a life-altering affair.
The first was Ronnie Earl. They knew his work with Roomful of Blues but hadn’t really delved into his solo work. Ken’s all-time favorite guitar player is Carlos Santana, and on the stage in Fort Lauderdale he found Carlos’ guitar soulmate. Ronnie Earl was up there living his music through his axe with exquisite runs up and down the neck of his which coincided with the chills Ken felt. His feet were anchored to the ground but his mind was drifting in outer space. He was amazed by the set Earl played. Our heroes didn’t believe they’d see anything to top that the rest of the weekend.
Little did they know that this was just a primer for the next evening…when our minds would be blown even further away!
Larry and Ken were both familiar with Luther Allison but neither of them owned any of his CDs.
There was a buzz in the blues magazines about Luther’s live performances but he had been living and performing in Europe in the recent past…but now he was headlining on Saturday night.
They positioned themselves back by the sound board. Luther’s band came out and played a few tunes before calling up “the Boss”. Once Luther hit the spotlight all bets were off! He was an incredible ball of energy who played and sang with all of his being. Before he was done with his second song he was literally soaked through with sweat. He was no longer on a stage in Florida. He was someplace where few get to travel. His whole being was engulfed by that guitar and his voice. It was like a long distance runner at the end of a race when they fall at the finish line. He left everything on the stage.
Ken made his way to the stage (they didn’t have any barriers to keep you away) and stood there transfixed. He was literally standing there with my mouth agape. At one point Luther came to the edge of the stage above him and Ken had the chance to snap one of his favorite pictures with his cheap little camera. That show was not to be forgotten.
On the drive home, Larry and Ken couldn’t stop talking about what they had witnessed. They kept saying that if people back home had known about this magic only 4 hours away, they would have been there! That event started the planning which finally get this blues society thing going.
They worked the WMNF booth at the 1997 Tampa Bay Blues Fest, gathering more names to add to their previous list.They also made up flyers asking for people to contact them by phone if they wanted to get involved with the planning. Those were left around town at clubs, record stores and anywhere else Blues lovers might be lurking.
The first person to actually call and offer to help was Tom Rodgers. Tom was a salesman by day and an artist by night. Paul MacAulay, who was working at WMNF and did a show where he played lots of blues was also recruited.
They fast-talked local folk singer Karen Zack into joining their tribe…and off they went! The first meeting was at Larry’s house where they were all assigned to do. Toms was an article for a new flyer entitled “Why We Need A Blues Society.” It became their new mantra!
They’d been with the owners of Skipper’s, too. After hearing them ramble on for a couple years they were probably a little leery, but they could sense the renewed spirit and see the work that had been done. They offered to hold the initial meeting at Skipper’s. They chose to do it on Sunday, June 8 when they had Mike Morgan & The Crawl scheduled. At that time Skipper’s had a mailing list and they would out send their schedule. They offered to include the information about the Blues meeting with their mailing and also paid the postage for our list!
They knew that to have any success they would some of the local “Blues bigwigs” involved and among those who offered guidance was Rock Bottom. He came to the first meeting and even brought Roy Book Binder and Liz Pennock & Dr. Blues. Sarasota Slim and T.C. Carr also were musicians who signed on early and helped solidify the start.
They also had some help from Bob “Soulman” Scheir. He had been playing the blues at 88.5 WMNF on Friday nights practically from its inception. He had them on his show a couple times and continued to let his listeners know about the endeavor. Without a radio station like WMNF it would have been hard to succeed.
A few weeks before the first meeting a glitch arose. Skipper’s started listing the meeting on their flyers as Sunday, June 1 in error. Yikes! All the info they had been handing out had the June 8 date! What to do? You guessed it. Do the first meeting on both dates! So that’s why it’s hard to tell people the actual anniversary date is since there were two “first meetings.”
The first SBS-sponsored event was a couple months later when Molten Mike let his jam at Dave’s Aqua Lounge become an SBS show. The rest is history…
Thanks to everyone who helped make the Suncoast Blues Society a success! It wouldn’t have lasted this long without all those who have pitching in! There isn’t room to mention all of the people who have given their time and effort but we do remember you, and won’t ever forget!