Tom “Tomcat” Courtney, an 82-year-old bluesman who won last year’s San Diego Music Award for Best Blues Artist, sits in the rec room of a modest Spring Valley senior apartment complex. Dressed in all black—his usual attire— he’s focused on our conversation but clearly enjoying the attention of his neighbors, who keep poking their heads in to say hi as they pass by.
For the past 40 years, Courtney’s been San Diego’s dominant performer of Texas blues, a form that infuses raw country blues with an amped-up, swinging groove. A longtime local secret, he’s recently garnered national attention as an authentic Texas bluesman—not the type of guy you’d expect to find in an apartment in Spring Valley.
Bluesmen often give the impression that they live like the characters in their songs. Restless with wanderlust, they travel from city to city, singing their story-songs about that slippery character called Fortune. But Fortune’s indifference is no match for the bluesman’s wit, humanity and devotion to the craft—and Courtney is no exception. His thumb-thumping, finger-plucking style wails in multiple syncopated voices. His no-nonsense refrains, about subjects ranging from a loved one’s drug addiction to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, remind us of the continued relevance of the form.
But Courtney’s first passion was for dance, not song.
“I was born in 1929 in Marlin, Texas, south of Waco, but I was raised in Downsville,” he says. “We moved by a railroad track. There was our house here and a store there—a little more to look at than in Marlin! There was a creek and a trestle over that for the train. I used to go down there every day. I got a kick out of the rhythm of the train. Then my family, we went down to see this minstrel show, and Bojangles was dancing in it, and I said, ‘Hot dog!’ and went back to that train and started learning how to tap dance to it.”
Courtney’s father must’ve really splurged to take his wife and 12 kids to the show: He was a poor farmer and the whole family picked cotton for a white landowner. But Tom Senior also played piano and ran his own juke joint, where young Tomcat would peer through the window on Saturday nights to see blues pioneers like Robert Johnson and Lightning Hopkins performing on the wood floor that his uncle built.
Courtney soon faced tragedy. Before turning 15, he lost his mother to illness, then his father in an accident during a storm. He continued farming with his brothers and sisters and practicing dancing by the train tracks. He also pulled weeds for a local landowner in exchange for a beat-up Stella guitar.
Fortune turned in his favor when the Ringling Bros. Circus needed a dancer for its minstrel show. For two years, Courtney entertained the racially segregated circus audiences, and it was there that he learned how well he could sing. One day, while coaching a female singer who kept forgetting the lyrics to “St. Louis Blues,” a blues standard, the circus director discovered Courtney’s raw but sweet voice and gave him an additional role.
In the rec room, Courtney sings the chorus of “St. Louis Blues” for me. I try to imagine it all: the excitement and tedium of the circus, the train travel, the heat, the racism, the loneliness—everything the teenager experienced as his life as a journeyman began.
After performing in a USO-funded traveling group toward the end of WW II, Courtney took to the road, washing dishes and cooking in restaurants to help pay the bills. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, he edged farther west—from New Orleans to Flagstaff to Los Angeles—and finally landed a gig at the Texas Teahouse in Ocean Beach in 1971, which he wound up keeping for more than 20 years. As Courtney’s popularity grew, the now-defunct dive evolved from an under-the-radar biker bar into a packed college hangout.
Courtney’s played in just about every venue to ever feature blues in San Diego, from Belly Up tavern to his current regular gig at The Turquoise in Pacific Beach. He’s recorded a few independent CDs over the years, but his first professionally produced national release, 2008’s well-received Downsville Blues, garnered praise for its authenticity and passion.
Have the long overdue awards, national attention and 2009 performances in Europe changed his goals?
“I’m just gonna keep doing my thing,” he says. “Writing my songs and singing them.”
In the rec room, he suddenly rises to his feet and walks across the carpet to the plastic floor mat by the sink to demonstrate how he danced as a kid.
Kadakatap kadiddly diddly dakatap. He’s smiling, light on his feet and in perfect rhythm. For a couple seconds, he seems not even to have the blues.
Tomcat Courtney plays at The Turquoise on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; at Chateau Orleans on Thursdays; and at La Gran Tapa on Tuesdays.