It's not necessary to have toiled in the fields of Mississippi to be taken seriously as a blues singer says Tommy McCracken. In fact, in McCracken's opinion, there are only two prerequisites to legitimacy as a blues singer these days: sensitivity in human feeling and a good voice, and he feels he possesses both.
"You don't have to have led a bad life, kicked women around, been shot in the left arm, run out of Georgia with the cops lookin' for ya, owin' everybody money and goin' with someone else's wife to sing blues," says McCracken, who hails from Cincinnati, Ohio not exactly a blues hotbed. "I sing a heckuva blues tune. I'm in touch with other peoples' feelings ... And one statement I detest, I don't like the term 'paying your dues' (as a blues perfomer). Every day that you wake up and get up is an accomplishment. What is payin' dues? Payin' dues is just living day to day."
McCracken can be found occasionally performing at such venues as B.L.U.E.S. and B.L.U.E.S. Etc. on Chicago's North Side. At the time of the interview for this story McCracken was preparing to again take his act to Europe.
The six-foot, two-inch McCracken is immediately striking in appearance. He claims African American, Cherokee and Irish heritage and classifies himself as an "Irish-made, Indian-heritage, black blues singer."
"But I say that to say this ," he adds quickly. "Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Johnny Mathis, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley you put all those people together and you got Tommy McCracken. I don't sound like any of 'em, but I remind you of most of 'em."
What he says is true. When the stage lights silhouette McCracken, with his pompadour and high cheek bones, he does resemble Presley, and sometimes, Roy Orbison. He often sounds like Cooke and for a man his age and size, he can move, though, perhaps, not with the agility of Jackson.
McCracken was born in November, 1939 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His grandfather on his mother's side was an evangelist and minister who encouraged McCracken to sing in his church as a youngster. His grandmother herself was an accomplished singer.
"I think I came into this world singing," he says. "I never had lessons. I never learned anything, except in school you learn to breathe in glee clubs and choirs, but I was fortunate, because, in my family, my grandmother sang. She was originally from Greenville, South Carolina and she used to travel and sing with people like Roberta Martin and Mahalia Jackson and the first lady of guitar, Sister Rosetta Tharp. My grandmother was exposed to all these people, being a minister's wife, at the Baptist conventions. She hobnobbed with them for awhile before she settled down to become a full-time wife ... When I was a little boy my grandfather had a church in Atlanta, Georgia. I traveled with him to all the Baptist conventions. I was living in Cincinnati at the time and belonged to the Bethel Baptist Church there. I traveled and would sing and solo in the junior gospel choir there in Cincinnati. And also, when I would go in the summer to visit my grandparents in Atlanta, before they moved to Chicago in '48, as a younger guy, 8, 9, 10 years old, I would sing in church. Then, when my grandparents came to Chicago, I sung at tent revivals with him."
McCracken moved to Chicago in 1960, following his grandfather. He soon left Chicago for Fort Hood, Texas, serving a stint in the Army as a medical corpsman for three years in the early 1960s. The medical training he received during that time prepared him for subsequent employment in the pathology department at Cook County Hospital.
"Now that's something that might turn people off," says McCracken, who is ever-conscious of his image. "I assisted in over 325 autopsies. That's what I was, a pathologists's assistant. I loved the medical field. I delivered a baby one time. I've done all kinds of stuff, but I tend to kinda downplay that because people get so weird about blood, you know, and guts."
While in Chicago in 1968, McCracken began singing professionally with his own band, Force of Habit.
"The first professional gig I had was in Indiana," he says. "We were on with two guys who went on to fame and fortune, they were known as Salt and Pepper, one of the first black and white comedy teams in the country. It was Tom Dreesin and the guy who played Venus Flytrap in WKRP in Cincinnatti, Tim Reid."
At that time, McCracken sang a lot of Joe Simon songs, as well as numbers from the repertoire of Little Johnny Taylor. However, he dropped out of music in the 1970s.
"The sad thing about that is, (at that time) I lived over on 43rd and Berkley, right down the street from the Checkerboard and all those places and never even knew they were there, because I wasn't into blues. I didn't really like blues, or care about blues that much. I'm not a blues man. I'm a man that sings the blues. I'm not a blues person, or what the public perceives to be one. I'm tryin' to change that perception. But the Checkerboard was up the street and they were featuring people like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and I was right down the street and never even knew what was going on about eight blocks up the street. I didn't find out about that until later. At that time, I was thinkin' about church, thinkin' about baseball."
While residing near 43rd and Berkley, much of McCracken's time was occupied caring for his ailing grandmother at home. She died in 1983. It was that living situation that introduced him, indirectly, to Chicago's blues scene.
"From my medical training, I turned her room into a sterile hospital room," McCracken recalls. "And I took care of her to her last breath, myself, to keep her from havin' to go to a nursing home and I began goin' to the blues clubs at night when I was free, because I had to monitor her feeding during the day. I had to start at six in the morning and stop at nine at night. So from about 10 o'clock at night until four or five o'clock in the morning, I was free and that gave me a chance to go and hang in these clubs that I had never hung in before. So that's where my blues really started."
When asked what precipitated his return to music the blues in particular in 1982, McCracken grimaces.
"Now this is the part of the interview I don't like, but I gotta tell it like it is. Almost everybody has something they do well, like a writer for instance. They may see someone else's article and say, 'Wait a minute, I can do better than that. That looks like crap. That's a piece of shit! Look at this guy and his nouns, his pronouns and his subjunctive clauses, all this business, his predicates. I mean, what the fuck's going on?'
Now take that same line of thought and transfer it to what I'm sayin'. The bottom line is, I can sing and a lot of these other so-called blues singers can't. I hear these guys all off key and off pitch and I say, 'Come on guys, you can do better than that.' Now that sounds self serving, but let me tell you what I mean by that. I used to hear guys singin' in clubs, makin' money easy way to make money who really, couldn't sing. I'm into the purity of singing. When I sing, you can understand my words. I'm very literate. I have a powerful voice. So I said to myself, 'Well, damn, if these guys can make money not singin', I can make money singin'. And that was the only reason I went into it. No other reason. Not that I was into the blues, or that the blues was a part of my life, 'cause it really wasn't. I just said, "Wait a minute. Let me go over here and do somethin' and I set out on that course and I didn't do it bragadociously. I didn't do it pushy. I just slipped into clubs and started hangin' out a little bit, you know, and let 'em know I was interested and if they called me up, when they gave me my moment, I'd come back from the back of the room and kick-ass and disappear to the back of the room. That's how I got started."
McCracken credits Billy Branch and the late Queen Sylvia Embry with being among the first blues stars to allow him to sit in at their gigs. He also remembers fondly that the late Buddy Scott nurtured him as a performer. After sharpening his singing style McCracken later began sitting-in occasionally at Kingston Mines, at the suggestion of his friend guitarist Sammy Fender. He was soon hired at Kingston Mines to co-star with Lavelle White.
"That was the first job I had," he recalls. "I walked in off the street knowing exactly four blues tunes and got hired for what was supposed to be two weeks and it turned into 22 months," he recalls with pride. From September of 1984 to June of 1986."
McCracken has been gigging regularly ever since, reorganizing the Force of Habit band. With that group he contributed songs to the Japanese GBW Records CD release "Chicago Blues Night" (GBW-001).
At the time of the interview for this story, McCracken was hobbled by a hamstring tear that he acquired in one of his favorite pastimes, playing baseball. He gained his interest in the game from his father.
"My father was very instrumental in organizing girls baseball in Cincinnati and he was instrumental in organizing interracial teams in Cincinnati," he says. "I played baseball with men when I was quite young."
As a young man McCracken even tried out for his hometown Cincinnati Reds at what is now Riverfront Stadium.
"I got a couple of look-sees and hit a few balls and got a couple of talkings-to but then I got diverted from that and I just went on with my education and drifted into Chicago and let baseball go on the back burner."
He went on to play recreationally in Chicago until the mid-1980s. "And I'm still lookin' for a game!" he says.
McCracken realizes and even takes pride in the fact that he doesn't fit the stereotype of the down and out bluesman. He stresses the fact that he is an educated man he attended the University of Cincinatti, studying psychology. He refuses to embellish his story for the sake of a blues publication.
"I don't apologize for this," he says. "I can't tell you, 'I came from Georgia and I been runnin' from the man and pickin' cotton. I never did none of that shit. I did none of that stuff ... I have command of the English language and I'm proud of that, because there again, I'm trying to diffuse that BS about how you got to be stupid, black, illiterate, dumb and from the South to sing blues. I hate to hear that ... I had a great life and that's why a lot of people call me not a true blues singer, but I take issue with that. I think I am a blues singer. There's nothing typical here."