By: Radha McLean
A low-lit bar with warm brown leather couches and an audience that’s captured, utterly amused. That’s the kind of crowd that Jackie Payne, blues singer with a career spanning over three decades, faces every Friday evening. Not such a bad deal for a musician whose livelihood was seriously threatened six years back, when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Jackie, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, performs with The Jackie Payne/Steve Edmonson Band weekly at various venues around the San Francisco Bay Area. This evening, Friday, October 5, he and the band are doing their thing at Rasselas, an upscale jazz venue and Ethiopian restaurant in San Francisco.
The usual attendees make their appearances: a couple from San Mateo, a town just south of San Francisco, sitting in the far right-hand corner; a group of young women lounging on a velvet couch to the keyboard player’s left; a generally amicable, ethnically mixed crowd of all age groups.
As the band begins at 9 p.m. the bar is relatively full, with its 20 or so tables and a handful of couches taken. Later, every inch of the medium-sized place will be packed, with onlookers crunched against the back walls and bar.
There are five band members: Jackie, the singer; Steve, the guitarist, who Jackie has known for almost 10 years; a bass player; a drummer; and a keyboard player. Several of the members are clad in retro 50s attire, give or take a few modern touches. Jackie wears red and black from top to bottom; Steve wears a Grease-inspired red shirt with black flames. The bassist wears a purple iridescent suit, and the drummer and keyboard player opt for a more casual look.
When Jackie brings the mic to his lips, the crowd smiles irrepressibly, echoing his incessant grin.
“I wanna love you so bad,” he cries with pure delight. The words are merely fodder to express a genre of music Jackie clearly adores.
As he stands in front of the musicians, he plays with the audience, garnering their attention again and again: pointing directly to a woman in front of him as he sings, asking his spectators to “work it” as the easy blues-influenced twang carries on behind him.
There is some variation in the music they play—some low-key songs, others with a quicker beat. But they all share a signature, moody sound that combines blues, soul, gospel and rhythm and blues.
This sound is ingrained in Jackie; after all he’s been singing the blues since he was a youngster.
The child of a gospel-loving family, Jackie began singing in the local choir at the age of nine. He joined his first band at 13, a natural step for a Muddy Waters fan whose father “sounded like Ray Charles,” according to Jackie. He also had an uncle who performed with Taj Mahal.
“It was like a veil was lifted from my eyes,” said Jackie about discovering the blues as a teenager. “I knew it was my calling.”
At the age of 17, Jackie went on to work with blues legends such as T-Bone Walker and Johnny Clyde Copland. Since that time, he’s also collaborated with big names in the industry such as Gladys Knight and Etta James. In 1965, Jackie released the hit song “Go Go Train,” produced by Huey Meaux’s Jet Stream Records.
In the past 15 years, Jackie has gone on to release nine albums (either solo or with other musicians), performed at countless blues festivals, and has gone on three world tours as the lead vocalist with The Johnny Otis Show. It was during one of these shows, six years ago, that his diabetes hit him.
Jackie had been experiencing traditional symptoms of diabetes: frequent urination, weight loss and thirst. That day, Jackie hadn’t eaten since breakfast. By the time evening came and he got on stage, he knew something was wrong.
“I kept saying that I had to stop what I was doing and eat,” Jackie remembers regretfully.
Then, in an instant, everything “went black,” according to Jackie. He fainted and fell to the floor, causing a gash in the back of his chin. He was brought to the hospital immediately, where he had to have six stitches and was subsequently put on three shots of insulin a day.
Fortunately, his diabetes was quickly brought under control. Within a month, Jackie was down to normal blood glucose levels, was taken off insulin and put on one dose of metformin a day. Today, Jackie keeps his BGs down to between 119 and 125 mg/dl.
“Now, I’m having a lot of fun,” he says.
But the fun only came after much hard work to stay healthy, he adds. Jackie walks a consistent three to five miles every day. Also, he eats all foods in moderation, save sugar. In addition, he’s cut down substantially on his drinking and smoking habits, although he admits to a few—albeit infrequent—moments of weakness.
“I cannot tell a lie,” he grins mischievously. “Old habits die hard.”
“Having diabetes is not the easiest thing in the world,” he confesses. Eating properly and exercising are the biggest factors that contribute to good control, he says.
Aside from watching his health more closely, Jackie no longer tours on a regular basis. He also makes a conscious effort to keep his stress level down.
And maintaining a career as a blues singer after all these years certainly helps to keep Jackie’s spirits up.
“I love what I do,” he says. Music makes everything alright.” Jackie thinks back to a quote by Confucius that captures his thoughts: “Find a job that you like and you’ll never work again.”
The Jackie Payne/Steve Edmonson Band will be releasing a new album in December. To get booking information or to order a copy of the new album, contact the band by phone at (415) 458-5858; by e-mail at EdmoBlues@home.com; or by mail at P.O. Box 3920, San Rafael, California, 94912.