By Steven Sharp
CHICAGO - Chicago lost promising blues artist Willie James (real name Willie James Abner) on Oct. 23, 1997. James died following an asthma attack at Chicago's Provident Hospital.
James was known for his easy smile and kind nature. He was a versatile and valued performer each Sunday at Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, and on the city's club scene.
James worked by day as a heating system repairman for the Chicago Housing Authority, but Willie really came to life when he had a chance to express himself through his blues.
Many forms of music pervaded James' blues sound. He melded the hardcore blues of his old friends Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis and Pat Rushing with the hard Chicago soul of Tyrone Davis. He also encorporated mid-70s R&B and funk into the mix.
And James loved to party when he made his music. He was always eager to take friends out to his van between sets at clubs, where he would generously share hits from his ever-present bottle of whiskey.
James was one of the nicest people on the Chicago blues scene. His friends share fond memories of his marathon performances at South and West side backyard parties the places where his blues brought people of all races together. Willie seemed to enjoy nothing more than being onstage no matter how large or small the venue. Yet, he was not an ego.
James was born April 7, 1949 in West Point, Ga. He relocated to Chicago in 1959.
James was unique as a bluesman in that he first heard his beloved blues music as a boy growing up in the South, later studied the music at Kennedy King College in the '70s, then embarked on his own career in blues as a guitarist, singer and songwriter.
James was a fixture on the street scene in the later years of the old Maxwell Street Market and was one of only a few musicians who made the effort to keep the market vibrant at its new, Canal Street location recently. In fact, keeping the market's blues spirit alive was one of James goals in his adult life. He talked of it frequently.
James' death was a sad blow to the Chicago scene, which has been decimated by the passing of many of its great personalities in recent years. James was maturing quickly as a musician at the time of his passing.
Among those in attendance at James' funeral, held Oct. 30 on Chicago's South Side, were immense blues talents Eddie C. Campbell, Robert "Huckleberry Hound" Wright and Barkin' Bill Smith. Particularly touching moments during James' funeral came during his childrens' readings of poems about their father.
There were few dry eyes in the Angelus Memorial Chapel during a playing of the Willie James Blues Band's version of Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do," recorded by James' girlfriend and bass player Irma Menzie at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted Street only a few months before James' death.
Survivors include his children, Monica, Willona, Marie, Jamie, Renisha, Willie Jr., Elijah, Kia, and Jeremaiha; his mother, Mary; stepfather, Leroy; brothers, Leroy Jr., Alton and Michael; his sister, Sharon; his closest companion, Irma Menzie; other relatives and friends.