Very rarely does one get lucky enough to sit in the presence of a true legend, but recently I had such a pleasure. I am currently taking a class about the blues. It’s something I’ve wanted to take since my freshman year but either could not fit it in my schedule or it was not offered when I could. Well, I am so glad that my schedule finally worked out because for the first time in several years, my professor invited the immensely talented Joe Beard to speak to our class.
For those who are not blues fans, the name Joe Beard probably does not ring many bells, but Mr. Beard is really a living legend in the genre. He has played with virtually everyone from Son House (his neighbor in Rochester) to Muddy Waters to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells (the two artists he claims were his favorite artists to jam with).
Beard was born in Ashland, Mississippi, in 1938 and spent his first years there. It was in Ashland that he got his first taste of the blues scene by literally acting as the eyes for the famous blind Mississippi bluesman Nathan Beauregard. Beard, just a little guy at the time, would lead Beauregard around his various gigs.
Beard’s family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was eight and in Memphis he got to know the Murphy Brothers who had a significant influence on his decision to become a blues musician. It was also in Memphis that Beard met B.B. King when B.B. played at the Roosevelt Lake Club.
In the years that followed, Beard and his family moved around a bit from Texas to Ohio and then eventually to Rochester, New York, where he became an electrician. He had been playing the guitar seriously since seventeen, and often traveled back and forth from Rochester to Chicago to hang out in the blues scene there, but he did not debut as a blues guitarist publicly until the early 1960s.
Through the next several decades Beard has played in several groups locally, nationally, and internationally. He raised four children with his wife, who he says never really liked him playing the blues, but he said that during those years his main focus was raising a successful family. While this perhaps kept him from becoming more of a household name like many of his contemporaries, he still has made quite a name for himself, especially in Rochester, playing and recording his music. He still plays at a couple of local venues, Dinosaur BBQ and Beale Street Cafe, every month, and I’m going to try my hardest to catch him live before I graduate.
After Mr. Beard talked to us about his life, we were given the opportunity to ask him questions which was a pretty awesome opportunity. These were some of my favorites:
When asked what kind of guitar he played, Beard claimed a preference for his Gibson 345. My professor asked if he ever played Fenders to which he replied, “The Fender’s okay, but the 345 is my favorite to play.”
Another girl asked if he he still practiced after playing for so long. Mr. Beard just laughed and said “Not a whole lot.”
When asked what he thought about the nature of the blues, he thought for a moment and said, “Blues is life itself. It tells a story.”
Finally, when someone asked if he had any advice for young musicians, he asserted, “Just be yourself whatever you do.” Great advice for anyone, I thought.
It was really a great experience that I will never forget. Joe Beard is the essence of cool and class, and one hell of a musician. Below is a video of Mr. Beard playing “Drinking Old Taylor” at the annual Hot Blues For The Homeless: A Tribute To Son House concert here in Rochester in 2008. Enjoy the awesomeness!