Weaving through a smoky, dimly lit warehouse-turned-bar is an 81-year-old jazz singer. He is dressed in a sharply pressed pinstripe suit and a beret, carrying a tin pail labeled “Tips” scribbled in red ink. But he considers the pail merely an excuse to meet every newcomer in the crowd – by the end of the evening, he will remember every familiar face by first and last name.
The band is warming up and customers have turned away from their conversations for a moment, noticing the musicians on stage, who are busily plucking, drumming and whaling on their instruments. It is 11 p.m. on a Sunday night at Lola’s, and Oklin Bloodworth does not exactly fit in with the rest of the largely 20- to 35-year-old crowd in jeans and T-shirts.
When he steps on to the stage, applause and hoots immediately sweep over the audience. Everybody knows him. He stiffly stands in front of the microphone with his arms hanging loosely by his sides and his left fingers clutching his car keys. His eyes glisten warmly in a childlike manner that is unfitting for a man his age. A broad smile cracks and spreads through his time-worn, leathery face. His presence changes everything.
The quick jerks in the stand-up bassist’s hips turn into a slow sway. The fingers that were once frantically running up and down the keyboard now caress the ivory keys to create fluid, smooth melodies. The drummer raps lightly on the high hat. The customers turn their chairs around to face the stage directly; they will not be looking back at their friends for a while. All eyes land on the fragile, dark figure who gazes back from center stage. Flowing out of his creased lips is a slightly scratchy, deeply rich baritone voice that has been fermenting over the years like quality wine. This is the voice he has been using since he was 10 years old on the streets of his hometown, Marshall.
What You Won’t Do For Love
Back then, he did not have a spotlight or a full band behind him. All he had were his shoe shine box, a harmonica and a stack of black newspapers that he sold “trying to make a dime.” And this was only one of the countless jobs he held to provide for his family – to survive.
“I was what they call a hustler – a legal hustler,” he says.
Life’s more important priorities have kept Oklin Bloodworth from pursuing his first love professionally, but he always managed to keep it close to his side.
Because he was what he calls an “ill-conceived” child, he never knew his father. He grew up with his grandparents until his grandfather died when he was 10. Then he moved in with his mother and stepfather until he was 14. From then on, he quit school and lived in various people’s homes, helping out with chores and working two jobs at a time.
So when his own three sons entered his life, he vowed to be there for his family.
“My daddy was alive but he wasn’t a daddy to me,” he said.
But the absence of hit albums, fame and glitz in his life does not mean music was absent also. He continued to play gigs at clubs not unlike the ones at which he performs today, like J & J Blues Bar and 6th Street Live, recently renamed Lola’s.
“I’ve always been a jammer,” he says. “It’s something I’ve done all my life.”
His first son, Oklin Dewey Curtis Bloodworth, 58, says he remembers thinking his father could sing “as well as Ray Charles” when he was young.
“He kept going to clubs,” his son recalls. “He got to sing at different places and people loved him. He just didn’t pursue the Ray Charles type of life.”
His son is now a children’s singer with seven albums under his name.
Jesse Bloodworth, 55, his second son, fondly remembers the times his father and David “Fathead” Newman would jam out on the grassy area in front of his home.
“We would always listen to him play,” Jesse Bloodworth said.
Influenced by his admiration of The Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr, Jesse Bloodworth learned to play the drums at nine or 10 years old. Jesse Bloodworth, the production specialist for Fresno County Office of Education in California, now plays 11 instruments and plays the bass guitar for Fresno First Baptist Church.
“He’s a great vocalist,” Jesse Bloodworth says. “Don’t let him get on an instrument, though.”
See Oklin and his band perform at Lola’s
Being around since 1926 has given Oklin Bloodworth the opportunity to observe the transformation of music and its place in society.
His oldest son recalls that making music was something society had come to expect from black people.
“No matter what you were going through, you could always pick up a guitar and sing,” he says.
The senior Oklin Bloodworth remembers the years of racial segregation as a “beautiful way of life.”
“We had our way and they had their way,” he says. “I can live with the prejudice. I’ve done it.”
And his way of life in his youth was hopping from one venue to another until sunrise, watching jazz shows and playing with whoever was willing. But jazz is no longer in the mainstream, and one could not hop from one jazz bar to another if he or she tried.
But Oklin Bloodworth is an ambassador to jazz as much as he is the ambassador to J & J Blues Bar. He has loyally stuck by his old love and become the means of which today’s listeners can rediscover its value.
Joey Carter, a percussionist and lecturer of music at TCU, says Oklin Bloodworth makes the band’s music more palatable to those who aren’t familiar with the genre, and his honest, sincere presentation helps.
“He’s not trying to prove anything with his voice,” says Carter, a member of Lola’s house band. “He just sings the songs. It’s not like the ‘American Idol’ thing.”
Carter said he first met Oklin Bloodworth in 1994 when he sat in on a blues song with the band Carter was playing with at the time. They have been playing together regularly for about eight years.
Jesse Bloodworth says his father’s sound has become a rarity.
“A lot of cats are dying out,” he says. “You’re just going to end up with crooners. You haven’t heard anybody with a blues and a jazz type of sound – the authentic kind.”
Oklin Bloodworth says he has accepted the new, but his love for the past doesn’t falter.
“If it’s something you love, don’t quit it,” he says. “Find something you love and stay there.”
What a Wonderful World
Oklin Bloodworth does not need much. All he could ask is for his health to continue allowing him to sing.
“I don’t build no mountains,” he says. “I love what I already possess more than anything I could ever gain. I’m already living. What else would I want?”
Some of his favorite moments have been meeting and performing with some of the greatest jazz heroes of his era.
A few of the many that stand out are a performance in the ’80s with Jimmy Smith, an organist who died last year, and a performance in the ’50s with Buddy Johnson, who was a keyboard player.
He was able to meet these famous musicians simply because he was at the right place at the right time.
“Wherever music went, that’s where I went,” he says.
These treasured moments were not recorded, and Oklin Bloodworth cannot share it with others today, but he says, as he raises his hand to his chest, they’re recorded in his heart.
“I couldn’t have planned it any better,” he says. “I might’ve had a few difficulties, but it’s nothing compared to the joys that I’ve had.”
Now, Oklin Bloodworth rarely gets out of his pajamas before 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. It is then he will stroll out of his living room, which is covered in photos and memorabilia of decades-old friendships. He doesn’t have big plans. It’s just time for his daily dosage of Lotto tickets.
It is during the weekends that he finds himself in his true element. It is during the late nights that his hips find a sway and his fingers recover their snaps, and from the look on his face, it is easy to believe him when he says this is what he looks forward to – what he lives for.
“He’ll sing till the day he dies,” Oklin Dewey Curtis Bloodworth says. “He’s living the type of life he wants to live and he’s saying, ‘I’m not taking any less.'”
Bloodworth sings at a local bar