At 2:10 a.m. on a Sunday, the inside of Northside Tavern looks like a musical tempest has just blown through. The barbecue has disappeared from its foil pans, and PBR empties crowd the barrel-mounted octagonal tabletops. A pool cue lies on the floor next to the cigarette machine. Wobbly ceiling fans turn with just enough momentum to push the smoke around the room. Outside the bar’s cinderblock walls, black Uber cars collect and discharge passengers on Howell Mill Road.
But Eddie Tigner, four hours into his birthday show, has no plans to wind down for the night. Standing at his Yamaha keyboard, brown fedora straight on his bald head, he launches into “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” the jazzy 12-bar blues standard made famous in 1946 by Nat King Cole. The song evokes the open road that beckoned veterans like Tigner after World War II: You see Amarillo / Gallup, New Mexico / Flagstaff, Arizona / Don’t forget Winona / Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.
Tigner takes his time with the lyrics, singing as leisurely as a back roads drive. Behind him, a bartender entertains regulars by lighting his liquor-coated fingers on fire. Three generations fill the dance floor, and more patrons drift inside. Just as the song seems to end, Tigner teases out a few invented lines of his own: A little more on Route 64 / Kick that jive, stay alive on Route 65 / Get your kicks on Route 66, yabba doobee doo-doo-deeeeee! Before anyone can clap, he’s already segued into “Stormy Monday.”
It’ll be another 45 minutes before the Northside security officer signals that it’s time to shut down the music. Even then, Tigner will comply reluctantly. He’s an elf of a man, a bit too slender for the pressed black vest that covers his red short-sleeved shirt. But his stamina is legendary in the blues community. “Early to bed” is not how he made it to 89.
Outside the tavern, chatting with his musician buddies, is a guitarist whom Tigner credits with helping relaunch his career 20 years ago. Daniel “Mudcat” Dudeck is 49, as pale as Tigner is dark, with a goofy smile and a head that’s often cocked like a puppy’s. If Tigner is the master of slow and easy, Dudeck is his wild-eyed alter ego—a hip-swiveling showman who never misses the opportunity to leap off the stage and insert a female fan between his chest and guitar.
They seem like an unlikely duo: two musicians four decades apart, whose styles and personal histories have little in common. Yet each, at this stage in his life, is better because of the other. Dudeck arrived in Atlanta, a city with a robust blues history, at a moment when the scene had practically disappeared. With no formal folklore training, he worked to excavate that history and remind Atlantans that it’s still, literally, alive. He has helped create new opportunities for musicians like Tigner, both in town and on the international stage. In return, he’s gained something personal—the chance to be surrounded by a dependable circle of elder mentors.
If Tigner’s early childhood had a soundtrack, it would have been the off-key barrelhouse blues he heard his mother play at Atlanta house parties during the early 1930s. They were lively events with weenie roasts and homemade whiskey for sale in houses with big front-room fireplaces and gaps between the floor planks. Much of the entertainment, though, happened out back.
“They would take the old raggedy piano and move it outside,” Tigner recalls more than eight decades later. “Some of the keys played. Some of the keys didn’t play. It was weird, but it sounded good because that’s all the people knew. A fellow would come around with a pair of pliers, trying to tune the strings. Sometimes the piano player had to play over those bad keys, and that’s what made it amazing.” Tigner, barely school age, would dance while his mother pounded out songs of hardship. Fittingly for a woman estranged from her first husband, she did not play love songs.
When Tigner was six, his mother remarried, this time to a coal miner—the first father Tigner knew—who moved the family to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. There he was surrounded by music again. Tigner remembers hearing country and bluegrass, but the local African American coal camps also had a distinctive blues tradition, informed by the perils of life in the mines. Workers went underground every day aware of the potential for roof collapses and rock falls; on their heads they wore open-flame carbide lamps that could trigger explosions. “It sounded so sad when you heard that horn and whistle,” Tigner recalls. “[You knew] someone had gotten trapped in the mine.”
In that crucible of danger and segregation, black families carved out a rich community life revolved around food and music, Tigner recalls. “They would kill a hog,” he says. “They’d dig a big hole, build a fire, have a wooden stilt run across it, and roast that whole pig.” Tigner’s favorite part was cranking the spit, which as a boy he could barely reach. His mother would play the piano at those gatherings, too, sometimes accompanied by a guitarist.
Saturdays were the liveliest days. “That was the black folk night in the country because Sunday you’re going to church,” Tigner says. “Everyone [would be] out drinking and dancing and kicking up their heels and bogeying, and she would play.” Even eight-year-old Tigner got in on the show: His mother made him a white tuxedo and a matching pasteboard hat for a school performance, and he would dance like band leader Cab Calloway. “I was the best buck dancer in Kentucky,” he says.
Tigner never lost his affinity for the countryside, even after his family moved back to Atlanta during his teen years. In 1945, the year he turned 19, he joined the Army, and that’s where he became a musician.
Tigner was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where he booked entertainment for the troops. During and after his service, he met accomplished musicians, including guitarist T-Bone Walker, the electric blues pioneer whose “Stormy Monday” is a giant in the American canon. Tigner had taken piano lessons as a child, but he had been an impatient student. You want to play, don’t you? he recalls Walker asking. Well, you’re going to have to learn the right chords. Walker sat down and taught him the basics.
Tigner left the Army in 1947 and returned to Atlanta, where he found a buoyant black entertainment scene. At its center was Auburn Avenue, or Sweet Auburn, known as “the richest Negro street in the world” for its abundance of businesses, churches, and elegant clubs. Among them was the Royal Peacock, which opened shortly after Tigner’s arrival and drew long lines of customers eager to hear national acts like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. (Little Richard once said the Peacock’s music “makes the liver quiver, the bladder spatter, and the knees freeze.”)
A rowdier scene could be found among the brothels and pool halls of Decatur Street, sometimes called the Shine District for the availability of homemade liquor. “People went to drink and to dance and to fight,” says Rhetta Akamatsu, author of the book Southern Crossroads: Georgia Blues. Decatur Street was also home to Bailey’s 81 Theatre, an all-black venue where Tigner landed a weekend gig playing piano for Spencer “Snake” Anthony, a comedian who ran a vaudeville show.
“The Great Snake” had an outsized personality. His obituary said he made people laugh “until the hurting in their sides was unbearable.” His show featured shake dancing and a chorus line, and many of his performers were female impersonators—“straight from Arabia,” he would claim. Some were so convincing that, according to one account, “if a man wasn’t really careful, he’d get carried away and end up carrying one away.”
“He taught me how to treat people,” Tigner says of Anthony, “and how to be a showman.”
Those years surrounding World War II were a golden era for pop music. Audiences went crazy for romantic vocalists like the Ink Spots, a male quartet whose harmonies and high-tenor lead put them, as Billboard said in 1946, on “the top rung on the voice-blender ladder.” As a soldier, Tigner had booked the Ink Spots, and he enjoyed tapping out their tunes on the piano.
After the original Ink Spots broke up in 1954, dozens of vocal groups sprung up with the same name. Around 1959, Tigner, who was fixing electronics and delivering batteries for a living, was hired to tour with one of those bands. It became his life for most of the next 30 years.
Tigner’s Ink Spots performed at hotel lounges and military bases, crooning favorites like “Java Jive” and “If I Didn’t Care.” Tigner, whose voice was too deep for the lead, recited the spoken monologues that separated the verses. Their hotel shows, in particular, were part of a beloved midcentury tradition. “You’d go to the Holiday Inn, and there would be a lounge act,” says Tim Duffy, executive director of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which assists older Southern musicians. “There were these African American cats—dignified people dressed up in tuxedos with nice gear, with three to five pieces—having a musical conversation with one another. It’s a style that was part of American life till just about 15 or 20 years ago. Now it’s gone.”
Between shows, Tigner put in long hours on the road. One of his children, Quentin Fretwell, recalls having little contact with his father during those early touring years. (They have since grown close.) After his first wife died, Tigner remarried, and his second wife, Ollie, sometimes joined him on the road.
“You couldn’t hardly sleep, especially when he was going 500 miles,” recalls Ollie. “I’d have to keep an eye on him because he’d be driving and doze off. I’d hit him with my knee and say, ‘Wake up!’” Once they arrived at a hotel, the couple tried to re-create the normalcy of home. “I hardly ever ate [in] the dining room,” he says. “I would put my Crock-Pot on [before going] downstairs to the club. When I came back, it would be well done.”
In 1987 a road-weary Tigner left the Ink Spots, settling back in Atlanta. By then the city’s blues heyday had passed. Sweet Auburn, now divided by I-75/I-85, had lost residents to the city’s west side and fallen into decline. The Royal Peacock had closed in the 1970s upon its owner’s death. The folk revival, which brought new audiences to traditional American music, had crested.
Tigner and his wife settled into a more domestic life in their modest wooden house in Edgewood with a screened-in front porch and walls full of family photos. He found kitchen work at DeKalb County’s Indian Creek Elementary School, though he still gigged around town, where he won fans and mentored other musicians who appreciated his self-assured authenticity.
“He has a really distinctive cadence when he’s performing,” says Larry Griffith, a blues drummer and guitarist who now plays with Tigner in the band Uncle Sugar. “He’s not in a hurry to get anywhere. There’s an easiness about what he does, and you drop right into that groove with him.
“I hear a lot of guys stumble all over ‘Route 66.’ They’ll take it too fast; it’s not informed. When Eddie does it, it’s informed. You get the history behind it. He’s not telling somebody else’s story. He’s telling his story, and that always rings true.”
By the early 1990s, though, Tigner was considering giving up performing altogether. “There’s nothing much happening here now,” he would tell friends. “It’s wasting my time.” He didn’t expect to have his arm gently twisted by an upstart guitarist nicknamed Mudcat.
Daniel Dudeck, at the time, was a landscaper and cook in his 20s who performed regularly at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack on Piedmont Avenue. The barbecue restaurant was one of the few Atlanta venues where a roots musician without a national following could find a stage. Tigner gigged there, too, sometimes with blues saxophonist Grady “Fats” Jackson (who died in 1994). Eventually Dudeck began scoring invitations to play for senior citizen audiences alongside the older, more experienced musicians. “I turned down more than one job to play for free at an old folks home,” he says.
Dudeck came to the blues honestly. In 1976, when he was 10, his mother loaded him into her green Dodge Dart and left their Minnesota home, Florida-bound, to start a new life. She stopped at Tybee Island to show her son the ocean and ended up staying for four years. She found work bartending at a hotel, where Dudeck stayed up late listening to the lounge guitarist. “People would come in, and he’d call them by their names, mess with them—just make them feel good,” Dudeck says. “That guy made everyone feel so happy. To me, that was a big man.”
When his mother decided to continue her journey south, she left Dudeck, then 14, in the care of neighbors. That didn’t work out so well, so he ended up living, at various times, in an emergency shelter, in what he calls a “fanatical” religious household, with another teen whose parents were never home, with a costume designer, and finally with a foster family he met through the Savannah theater community. Dudeck still gets choked up talking about his foster father, Mike Gravely, who died in 2003 at age 63. “If there’s any kindness in me, it’s from him,” he says.
In high school, Dudeck taught himself some guitar chords and busked on the Savannah riverfront. He moved with his foster family to Augusta, where, at a local bookstore, a dollar bin of vinyl records by artists like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters gave him an early appreciation for America’s musical rootstock.
He earned his GED, took acting classes in New York, busked some more on the Staten Island Ferry, and left to attend college in New Orleans until he was kicked out for what he calls “possession of two seeds and a stem.” He briefly remained in town, hauling antiques and playing on the streets of the French Quarter. “Then my finances really got tough,” he says. “So I gave up. I think I had to.” After wandering around the South, he moved in with a childhood buddy in Atlanta and slept on the floor of his Home Park apartment. It was 1989, and Dudeck was 22.
In Atlanta, Dudeck discovered the live version of the records he had found in that dollar bin. He connected with radio station WRFG and performed at its annual fundraising barbecue, where he met another guitarist and singer, Cora Mae Bryant. (She died in 2008 at 82.) “Come by the house anytime you want,” he remembers Bryant saying—an invitation she did not extend to just anyone. In her Newton County home full of blues artifacts, Bryant would serve Dudeck homemade wine and tell stories about her father, “Georgia Guitar Wizard” Curley Weaver, and others from the early-20th-century Atlanta scene. Dudeck felt a connection to these musicians he had never met, who, like him, had earned their dinners performing on street corners. “All of a sudden, with Cora Mae, I realized the [blues] world was huge,” he says.
Dudeck went on to meet other veteran musicians. He nervously flagged down guitar and harmonica legend Frank Edwards on the street to give him a handbill (the bluesman was easily recognizable in his lime-green seersucker), and they ended up sharing a stage at his next gig. He insinuated himself into jam sessions at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack with the gravel-voiced Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. And he knew Tigner from both Fat Matt’s and those retirement home gigs.
He was intimidated by the former Ink Spot’s virtuosity. “I felt I was a performer but not a musician,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I was shy with Eddie. This guy’s a real musician. It’s like The Wizard of Oz: He’ll pull back the curtain, and I’ll be naked.”
Around 1992, Dudeck met Ellyn Webb, owner of Northside Tavern, a 1940s-era grocery store and filling station that later became a watering hole for meat packers, paper mill employees, and construction workers. Webb, who had inherited the bar from her father, was looking to bring back live music, though not specifically blues. Dudeck accepted her invitation to play and discovered that Webb was more committed than many other local bar owners to paying talent fairly—guaranteeing minimums on weeknights and giving weekend musicians a large cut of the door. He began to invite some of the older artists, including Tigner, to sit in on his shows at Northside.
Not all of Mudcat’s fans were happy about it. Some were drawn to Dudeck’s punkish energy and protested the inclusion of the soft-spoken elders. “You’re in the wrong place, sorry,” Dudeck would say. “This is where my music came from.”
Playing with Tigner helped Dudeck relax as a musician. “It seems like every generation ratchets [the tempo] up a little bit,” the guitarist says. “He’s taught me to take my time; there’s no rush, really. He reminds us that it feels good to be back here.”
Dudeck was aware of the ugly history of white promoters and record producers exploiting black musicians. “He wanted, no matter what, for them to feel respected because goodness knows, when they were in their heyday, they were shafted so many times,” says Kathryn Dudeck, Danny’s wife and wildlife director at Chattahoochee Nature Center. “There were plenty of nights that Danny would come home after the gig and say, ‘I’m sorry I only made $10, $15; I wanted to make sure Eddie was paid well.’”
Tigner appreciated Dudeck’s respectful treatment and kept returning. “I was going to retire,” he says. “But [Mudcat] gave me the opportunity to keep going. He didn’t have to do that. But he saw in me what I saw in him—same thing, friendship.”
As time went on, Dudeck realized that even regular well-paying gigs weren’t enough to help some of the city’s neediest musicians. Bryant, he noticed, heated her poorly sealed house with kerosene and, if not for friends and family, would subsist on little more than peanut butter crackers. So he began using his platform at Northside to rally the community. Starting in 1995, he organized a series of Giving It Back festivals at the tavern. The money raised by each musical blowout supported a living musician, including Tigner in 1998, and celebrated the legacy of a dead one. (Proceeds from one show, for example, purchased a new pew at the Georgia church where blues guitarist Blind Willie McTell had been a lay minister.) The festival has since morphed into Northside’s annual Chicken Raid, a show memorializing guitarist and harmonica player Frank Edwards, who died in 2002, and benefiting his family. Sometimes other musicians and organizations receive proceeds, too.
News of Dudeck’s efforts reached North Carolina, where folklorist Tim Duffy had just launched the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Duffy had the resources to make a difference in the careers of older Southern roots musicians, and Dudeck connected him with several of those he had befriended, including Tigner.
In Tigner, Duffy saw a paragon of “elegance and style and class” whose talent had outstripped his recognition. “He’s a perfect example of a musician that is known by his peers but is not known by anybody else,” Duffy says. “Not everyone gets famous. Doesn’t mean they’re any less great or less influential.”
Duffy went on to produce Tigner’s first two commercial recordings, Slippin’ In and Route 66; he sends Tigner free CDs to sell at shows. And he began booking Tigner on stages from the Chicago Blues Festival to Australia’s Byron Bay Bluesfest. Tigner, who had never traveled overseas before, found himself playing gigs at places like Le Méridien Etoile, the stylish Paris hotel. In Europe, Tigner would look out over enormous festival audiences and marvel.
“Verbally, you can’t communicate because some of them don’t speak English,” he says. “I wondered how they were going to accept the music.” After hearing the cheers, though, he realized how little the language barrier mattered. “It’s not the words that you hear,” he says. “The vibration you get from the music is what makes you change your mood.” As a World War II–era veteran, he was particularly touched by the reception from blues-crazy German audiences. I fought Germany in 1945, he remembers thinking—not on the battlefield but by providing support from Maryland. And this time I’m going over there and entertaining them.
Touring with Music Maker, Tigner felt like part of a creative community, even as he drifted into his 80s. He was beloved by his tour mates, too. “He’s bright-eyed, sweet, just the same guy every second along the way,” says Duffy. “A class gentleman, just an utter pro—he’s teaching us. He’s put on more road miles than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Even after his newfound touring success, Tigner held onto his day job at Indian Creek Elementary, where he cooked meals, washed dishes, and occasionally helped supervise the students. “He was a favorite of all the kids,” Dudeck says. “[Especially] those who might be labeled as troublemakers. The teachers couldn’t reach them. The counselors couldn’t reach them. But they would open up to Eddie because they felt comfortable with him.”
Then, before his 2008 retirement, while helping transport some food to another school, Tigner got annoyed with himself for repeatedly forgetting dishes. “I’d have to come back to pick it up,” he says. “I did it three or four times.” He saw a doctor, who warned him that his memory could continue to decline.
“What about my music?” he asked.
“You’ll never forget that,” he recalls her saying.
Tigner says he does sometimes forget names. But he still drives and retains vivid long-term memories. And his musical capacity—and energy—remain undiminished.
“I think he sings better now than he did when I met him,” says blues singer Fred Pittman, who has known Tigner since the 1990s. Besides Sundays at Northside with Uncle Sugar, Tigner has a standing Thursday night gig at Fat Matt’s with the band Chicken Shack. Two nights before his 89th birthday party, Tigner was in Durham, North Carolina, playing an outdoor concert alongside Atlanta guitarist Albert White and several other Music Maker artists.
The day after Tigner’s birthday show, Daniel and Kathryn Dudeck hosted a cookout for some musician friends, including Tigner, at their house in Decatur. Along with the grilled chicken, Mudcat cooked a pot of gumbo full of homegrown vegetables. He and Tigner share a love of gardening, and these days their phone calls, which have grown more frequent, often dwell on raising vegetables like okra. “We always go to Kentucky,” Dudeck says of their conversations, “and how food there tasted better.”
Everyone agrees that the food tastes great today. The watermelon, freshly picked from the couple’s two-acre garden, is pale but sweet and juicy. The hot sauce is blended from Mudcat’s own peppers, and the turnips are pickled by Kathryn. There’s plenty of booze to wash it all down, including the last of a bottle of limoncello.
There’s lots of reminiscing and friendly teasing: Guitarist Albert White calls the diminutive Tigner “my little black leprechaun,” and Tigner calls White “white boy.” (Both are black.) But beneath the banter is a palpable sense of gratitude for Tigner’s decades of music and mentoring.
“I had just started singing,” recalls Pittman. “He said, ‘Fred, you need to sing in your natural speaking voice.’ No one had really ever told me that; I was trying to sing higher than I needed to. It took a while, but it made sense because I wasn’t straining anymore. I’ll always owe him for that. Plus, he’s been a great friend; he’s all about love, and about treating everybody like he wants to be treated.”
Dudeck says Tigner has been like a grandfather to him. “He makes me feel like I belong, like I have a place in the world,” he says. “Any creative person has crippling self-doubt, and he eases that up. It boosts my confidence that he has confidence in me.”
Tigner, in return, says he loves Dudeck like a son. “I give him credit, frankly, for every good thing that I do,” he says. “God gave me this talent, sure enough, but if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be using it.”
Just before dark, Tigner takes his leave from the dinner table. It’s Sunday, which means he has one more show at Northside Tavern. It doesn’t matter that he was just up playing till three o’clock this morning. In another hour, he’ll be back on the smoky stage, kicking that jive on Route 65, getting his kicks on Route 66.
This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.