Regal in his sharkskin suit, black hat, and bright red tie, Lefty Dizz struts lanky and elastic across the stage, knees high. With one hand he lifts his hot-red Stratocaster off his shoulder, clenching the guitar’s neck while hammering out grungy one-handed blues riffs, his free hand waving wildly as he dances like some zealot preacher at the height of a frenzied sermon. With the last note of each extravagant phrase he creases his brow and stares at the crowd, demanding reverence for his blues thunderclaps. Then quickly he’s pulled back into the storm, head tilted back, eyes closed and lips pursed, feet stomping.
Lefty Dizz is 56 years old, and he’s been laying down variations on this routine for more than three decades. He is arguably the best blues performer in Chicago, and without question the number-one ham. He has a reputation for barging onto the stage during other people’s sets, grabbing the spotlight and not wanting to give it back. He can be a pain in the ass, but when it comes to crowd-pleasing he’s top dog, the funniest and the most fun.
My first view of Lefty came at the Checkerboard about seven years back. It wasn’t his set–in fact I’ve forgotten who the top bill was–but in typical fashion he climbed onto the stage and took things over, inflating a few blues standards almost to bursting with his antics. I remember thinking I had lucked out, been treated to a rare guest appearance, that he was some big shot, like the chairman of the board charging unexpectedly into the meeting.
That aura is something he projects with amazing skill. Though Lefty is actually pretty small potatoes around town–he hasn’t got the fame of Buddy Guy or the following of Melvin Taylor–he nonetheless manages to look like a celebrity when entering a club, with his slick clothes and inevitable swarm of eager acquaintances. Constantly conferring with select members of the crowd, he emits a sort of preoccupied furtiveness, like he’s busy planning something secret and important, and probably mischievous. More than a few local blues players consider him an obnoxious hot dog, which he sometimes is. But by comparison most of those musicians are boring and mediocre.
Lefty sometimes hosts a Sunday-night blues jam at Buddy Guy’s Legends. He performs with his own band, Shock Treatment, near the beginning and end of the evening, but in between he’s the emcee, introducing other acts and circulating through the room visiting tables, telling jokes, and drinking shots.
On one such occasion I waited my turn for his attention, then offered to buy him a beer. He jumped back startled, straightened himself up, and insisted somewhat imperiously, “Shot of Wild Turkey!” I complied. He downed the shot, reacting to its flow with a series of waving, stomping motions not unlike the near-religious responses his urgent guitar riffs inspire in him.
Later, he was onstage paternally ordering around a group of nervous young musicians who were clumsily preparing to play. Frustrated by their delay, he killed time by haranguing Buddy Guy, who was sitting in the audience. “I’m his nemesis,” Lefty declared in his gravelly voice. “I can’t outplay him and he can’t outplay me–we’re running side by side. And I’ll bet a fat man and four fucking monkeys on that.”
Though all the mouthing, mugging, and clowning might suggest otherwise, Dizz is a disciplined professional who knows the business like an old recipe and delivers the same impassioned (though well-rehearsed) performance to a deserted room as he does to a packed house. I’ve seen him under both conditions, and his enthusiasm was in equal abundance for each.
Playing to an audience of ten in a small club on West Grand Avenue, Lefty jumps down from the stage and stalks through the room, lifting his guitar off his shoulder and doing the one-handed jam routine as the band goes silent behind him. He sets down the Strat and continues singing “How Blue Can You Get” without a microphone, eventually sitting at a table with two embarrassed but attentive patrons, staying in perfect time as he belts out the verses. By the end of the song he’s back onstage with his apple-red ax, stomping and flailing the number to its climax.
After the set he is approached by two female fans. Bending slightly to align his face with theirs, he daintily touches his fingertips to either side of his face. The ladies respond by planting smooches.
Offstage Lefty is polite, quiet, and shy, with a daughter in college and an apartment in a South Loop high rise with a doorman and a view of the lake. Though no domestic labels have recorded him, Lefty has a CD available in Britain on the JSP label–a collection of originals and covers called Ain’t It Nice To Be Loved–and he often tours Europe with his band, where audiences regard him as a burst of real Chicago fire.
Lefty Dizz and Shock Treatment will make one of their frequent appearances at Wise Fool’s Pub, 2270 N. Lincoln, this Wednesday. Cover is $5; call 929-1510 for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.