“Eddie’s Place” — Harold Newton’s painting of the juke joint in Fort Pierce, Florida where Alfred Hair, his fellow Highwayman, was shot and killed, August 9, 1971.
Alfred Warner Hair, also Freddy Hair, was an American painter from Fort Pierce, Florida who, along with Harold Newton, was instrumental in founding the Florida Highwaymen artist movement. Hair was the leader of a loose-knit group of prolific African American painters who sold their vibrantly colorful landscapes from the trunks of cars along the eastern coastal roads of South Florida. In 2004, Hair was inducted into Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
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JJ Grey / Native Son
Not long after leaving his job driving a lumber truck in Jacksonville, Florida, JJ Grey and his band, MOFRO, were on the on the road in support of their second album, “Lochloosa,” and building a base of loyal fans, who appreciated their uniquely Florida, deep-rooted, swamp-heavy funk.
b/ dave hogerty
On this particular summer evening, colorful neon lights reflecting off the rain-soaked street added to the carnival atmosphere in downtown Orlando. But the drizzling rain didn’t seem to dampen the spirit of the young Saturday night crowd walking along Orange Avenue. Even before the doors opened at the popular club called Social, a long line had formed and was growing. Many were the stylish, college-aged, or young professional types you’d expect to see in such an urban setting — silk shirts, high-heels, and tastefully exposed bare midriffs.
Tonight, though, the regular crowd was pleasantly integrated with those wearing T-shirts, ball caps, and working-class jeans. Inside the small, brick-walled club, both factions mixed harmoniously, equally anxious to see native son JJ Grey and his band MOFRO.
Many of the less fashion-conscious, MOFRO fans had already stepped into the pit, and staked claim to space in front of the small, four-foot high wooden stage. Many had been in Jacksonville the night before to see the band play a hometown show at the more elegant Florida Theater. More than 1,000 had attended that show, worshipipping in the House of Grey. As usual, JJ had led something resembling a religious service, but one laced with whiskey, sex, and, as he describes it, “cheap-ass funk.”
Grey preaches more about corporate greed and environmental virtue than he does about God and country, unless that country is the rural Florida of his youth — 20 miles inland from Jacksonville, where he worked summers on his grandparents’ chicken farm, rode dirt bikes in the palmetto scrub, and swam in cypress-lined, crystal clear springs. JJ’s Florida is much more like that described by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in her mid-20th Century classics The Yearling and Cross Creek than in today’s Tourism Board depiction of a Magic Kingdom with happy killer whales and roller coasters named after cartoon characters.
On the drive down for tonight’s show, JJ and (slide guitarist) Daryl Hance made a point to stop at Lochloosa, a lake next to Rawlings’ Cross Creek, resting halfway between the small farm 40 miles west of Jacksonville where JJ still lives today, and Orlando, the state’s most centrally located city. It was JJ and Daryl’s shared love of Florida and common musical roots that made up the spiritual force behind the newly released Lochloosa, and MOFRO’s equally soulful debut, Blackwater. Tonight’s stop in the heart of Florida was the last of a four-city, statewide tour, celebrating MOFRO’s second album for Nashville’s Swampland Records.
As JJ and the band walk onto the Social stage, they’re greeted by an already energetic and spirited crowd. Someone shouts out “JJ for president,” to which he replies, in a thick Southern drawl: “Come on, y’all, it’s way too early to be yellin’ at me now.” Wearing a camouflaged baseball cap with “Shaw Lumber Inc.” stitched above the bill, an untucked white dress shirt with snaps instead of buttons, and black polyester slacks, JJ looks more like the full-time, lumber truck driver he was until the 2001 release of Blackwater, than the object of rock ‘n’ roll desire.
JJ announced the night’s opening tune, “Lazy Fo Acre,” saying, “Let’s get started with a slow hand clap, y’all,” before sitting down at his small, Wurlitzer, electric piano. The stage is set much like the Southern Baptist church JJ attended when he was a child, with Adam Scone on traditional B-3 organ, playing the bass lines and most of the leads, George Sluppick holding down the beat on drums, and Daryl, sitting on an old, beat-up office chair, supplying the ever-tasteful fills on slide guitar. JJ also stands frequently to play harmonica or guitar (sometimes the same red Western Auto Tru-Tone he bought for $10 when he was 13 years old), with a dirty, Mississippi Allstar sound.
In time with the handclap that now fills the room, the band eases into a slow groove as JJ continues his encouraging dialogue. “Come on, y’all, keep it up, don’t be bashful.” He adjusts his microphone, brings his electric piano into the mix, and softly sings the opening lines of the evening’s proceedings.
“In the mornin’ got somethin’ to say / I sort of want to get with you. / Fe Fi, baby want to ride / Let’s get back into that groove. Yeah, Yeah … It’s a slow, Lay-Z summer / Baby I want to hook up with you,” and the MOFRO revival is on. JJ and the band drive the song harder and harder, building to an organ-heavy climax. Then they abruptly break down and JJ plays a gentle reprise of his Wurlitzer intro.
“All Right! … Let’s slow it down here for a minute,” JJ says with a smile. “This is our little record …. uh … CD release party if you will … at Social … in beautiful, rambunctious downtown Orlando, Florida. I can see that you all an groove. We like to tarrt the show off like this, you know? … To get the ladies in that mood … hopefully ge the ladies in THAT kind of mood, because it’s kind of cool for summertime … outside, with the rain … but it’s hot as hell in here …. I can fell it already.”
He then returns to the song’s mellow refrain … “It’s a slow, Lay-Z summer / a perfect time to hook up with you.”
Without a break, the band slides into another slow melody, dominated by JJ’s Wurlizer. This time it’s the title track of Blackwater, a tune that most openly reveals the honest gospel, according to JJ.
It’s taken MOFRO no more than five minutes to take the urban crowd back into the woods. Way back — deep into the Florida swamp. The club is now more a tin-roofed juke joint, where JJ will spend a long, dark evening preaching the virtues of nature and the sins of development — two hours howling at the Florida moon.
JJ will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t write songs to change people’s point of view. He just wants to tell his stories, and to describe what he believes was a better time and pace.
“I accept the world as it is,” he explains. “I don’t think people really ever change. I mean, I have a feeling that wehne theRoman Empire was ruling, there were probably people sitting around thinking the same thing. If one person is moved by my music to buy five acres of land, and chooses to keep it wooded, I’d be happy.”
Such an open mind might have developed out of an understanding that he, too, had once been blinded by the light, and had gone far astray. He had to lose sight of his home before he fully appreciated it.
Like many kids growing up in the ’70s and ’80s on Florida’s east coast, Grey felt the strong lure of the ocean and the culture of the beach. And despite MOFRO’s brand of funk and soul giving the impression that JJ having never left his roots, his past isn’t without more stereotypical chapters.
As a singer in a number of “classic rock” cover bands, JJ spent his share of Friday and Saturday nights playing beer bars in and around Jacksonville. The only evidence of his connection to Florida was the Outlaws’ “Green Grass and High Tides,” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” making its way into one of the evening’s four 45-minute sets.
“At the time, we didn’t even want to say were were from Jacksonville,” JJ explains. “We were afraid people would think we were hicks or rednecks. We were pretty much like anyone else our age — we were attracted to the cool shit.”
JJ first met Daryl in 1988, and, although most of the bands they formed together were like “four or five horses pulling a cart apart,” the two weren’t without any pre-MOFRO success. After their last band crashed and burned in 1997, the two took a hiatus from performaing and focused on writing and recording a demo. It still leaned toward an indi-rock style, and attracted a producer at a label in England called Acid Jazz.
Daryl and JJ (with his wife Simone, and their 9-year-old son Rommy) had moved to London to make their first record, when another rift developed in their band. “The other two guys …. really didn’t show much of a serious interest until we got the deal,”JJ recalls. Then, all of a sudden, they wanted to dictate change. One wanted to be more metal, and one more hip-hop.” Neither direction suited Daryl or JJ,, and in what was probably a fortunate financial failure of Acid Jazz, their record deal fell through.
Daryl and JJ stayed in England for the rest of the summer in 1998. They holed up in their London loft, and, inspired by common homesickness, did little more than write songs together. The result was a demo tape that included much of what would become MOFRO’s debut, Blackwater. “I finally realized that reality was better than anything I could make up,” JJ says.
So, with their most satisfying, heart-felt tunes in hand, they moved back to Jacksonvill and sent their tape out to a few labels they thought might find their new, soulful sound appealing. Expressing the most interest, Fog City Record’s Dan Prothero invited JJ and Daryl to San Francisco to record. Prothero convinced JJ, who until that point had never played any instruments in his bands, that he was the only one who knew where to find his rhythm.
“It was Dan who pushed me toward my roots, giving me the confidence to play the instruments myself,” JJ explains. “I used to think I wasn’t technically proficient enough, but then I realized that guys like Tony Joe White and R.L. Burnside aren’t the best guitar players, but no one would question their soul.”
JJ also gives Prothero the most credit for bringing MOFRO to life. Blackwater was released two years later. The title track tells JJ and Daryl’s story of musical discovery, and remains one of the most personally revealing in the MOFRO set.
On this night in Orlando, it’s second in line, almost more an extension of the opening song. A slower, bluesy ballad, it is another accompanied primarily by JJ’s Wurlitzer.
JJ slings a guitar over his shoulder for “War Goin’ On,” a more stomping rock ‘n’ roll number, anchored by an aggressive military drumbeat. Then the introduction of “one of the favorite songs I ever writ … I mean wrote,” he says with a chuckled. “Bear with my English, y’all” he asks before sitting back at the piano with his harmonica around his neck. After “Everybody’s” recalls an early ’70s Neil Young, JJ extends an invitation to Papa Mali (who had opened all of MOFRO’s Florida shows) to step up on vocals and slide guiar for “The Wrong Side (Of The Tracks),” another bluesy ballad about life on the west side of Jacksonville. Without a break, JJ returns to the funk with “Dirtfloorcracker,” another guitar driven stomp, filled with collard greens, cornbread, grits, and Mama’s words of wisdom.
JJ then tells the crowd, “Many of y’all probably heard me say what this next song is about … it’s about a gentleman by the name of Junior, from the west side of Jacksonville, Florida. God rest his soul … even though he was a sorry mother fucker, and I don’t really give a shit that he’s dead.”
Then the filthiest funk kicks off something of a 40-minute medley. “How Junior Got His Head Put Out,” JJ’s telling of a ghetto robbery gone bad, runs straight into another true story called “Ten Thousand Islands.” Daryl’s moaning slide guitar takes us back to a 1910 hurricane in the Florida Keys, where the doomed ran hopelessly to escape the Devil’s tide that rose “darker than blood.” Together, “Lochloosa” and “Florida” serve as a 10-minute interlude, almost an extended funeral hymn, eulogizing JJ’s disappearing tropical paradise.
“Every alligator / Every blackwater swamp / Every freshwater spring / Everything / All we need is one more Mickey Mouse / Another country club / Another gated community / Lord I need her / Lord I need her / And she’s slippin’ away.”
Suddenly, we find ourselves back in poor Junior’s groove. The whole room seems to pulse as JJ’s primitive, chicken-pickin’ guitar leads into another episode of the dirtiest funk. And, as quickly as he takes the room up, JJ backs down to one more slow groove before introducing the band.
One-by-one, he presents Daryl, running off a short riff, George, with an equally quick beat, and Adam’s gut-rumbling bass line setting up a fitting conclusion. JJ on guitar, and the rest of the band join Adam as he offers a Deep Purple-like, B-3, hard rock explosion, MOFRO, as expected, blows the tin roof off the juke joint of JJ’s making.
Not to disappoint the exhausted but still wanton crowd, the band comes back for an encore. As he had in the beginning, , JJ sits at his Wurlitzer in near darkness. Lit only by the rotating points of light reflected off the vintage mirror ball hanging from the 15-foot high ceiling, he plays the quiet intro to the spiritual, “God Knows.” After singing a somber first verse, JJ calls for the help of Eugene Snowden, a friend who fronts a local band called the JCs. Eugene takes the microphone, and calls on the room to testify.
“Are you feeling all right?” he asks. Taking possession of the unified positive response, Eugene proceeds to whip club Social into a wild,sincerely religious frenzy. For the next 30 minutes, he might as well have been Otis Redding, backed by Booker T. and the MGs. Screams and shouts of “Can I get a witness?” filled the hall. Eugene danced, stomped, and dropped to his knees. JJ stood with another microphone and joined in the ceremonial exchange.
Together, Eugene and JJ brought the service to a screaming crescendo and an abrupt halt. With little more than a sigh of satisfied relief, the congregation fell silent. Most smiled at their neighbors, and turned toward the door.
For two hours, they had found their Florida religion. Now it was back to the rain-soaked, neon-bathed, urban reality of downtown Orlando, and a 2AM effort to find their way home.