Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
Snowstorms, cold snaps, the most contagious wave of COVID-19 yet—it’s clearly time for the Secret History of Chicago Music to begin its yearly Winter Blues series. That’s where I cover the city’s great unheralded blues artists, many of whom gigged constantly but barely had the means to get by, let alone record their music. Many unique talents aren’t remembered the way they should be, and among them is singer and pianist Lazy Bill Lucas.
Born into a sharecropper family in Wynne, Arkansas, on May 29, 1918, Willard Lucas (his social security file says “William”) was legally blind from childhood due to a nervous eye disorder. Lucas’s parents moved their five children to Advance, Missouri, before he was seven, and they were still living there when he first picked up the guitar.
“My daddy got me a guitar in 1930,” Lucas recalled in a 1968 interview that ran across several issues of Blues Unlimited magazine the following year. “I remember so well, just like it was yesterday, he traded a pig for it. . . . The boy wanted seven dollars for it—we didn’t have no money but we had plenty of pigs.”
In 1932, Lucas’s father bought the family a piano for Christmas. “We got it from our neighborhood drugstore, it was the onliest one in the little town,” he said in that same interview. “He paid $30 for that piano. I was 14 then. Well, at that time I knew how to play organ, you know, one of them pump organs, so it didn’t take me long to learn how to bang out a few tunes.”
Sadly, that instrument couldn’t follow the family when they moved to tighter quarters in a bigger town. “I bumped around on that until 1936, when we had left the country and come to Cape Girardeau, Missouri,” Lucas recalled. “I had to leave my piano—we didn’t have room for it—and I almost cried. I started playing guitar on street corners.”
In Missouri, Lucas was exposed to lots of music, but the blues had yet to capture his heart. “We had a radio down there but they all played big band stuff and country and western music,” he said. “So I played hillbilly music on guitar and sung, like ‘She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.’” Lucas heard some blues on jukeboxes and at home (they had a few records), but his family’s move to Saint Louis in 1940 was the real turning point in his musical trajectory. Legendary Delta blues guitarist Big Joe Williams was working the city as a street performer at the time, and he let the young Lucas accompany him. “I counted it an honor,” Lucas said. “I had heard his records while still down South. And so we played in the street.”
In 1941, Lucas came to Chicago to start his music career. He headed to Maxwell Street, the famous immigrant-fueled market where blues musicians played, and shortly met blues harmonica deity Sonny Boy Williamson (the first of two to use that name). The two began to gig together, an arrangement that lasted about a year. “That was a good place to play until the cops made us cut it out,” Lucas said. “I have made just as much money on Maxwell Street as I have in the clubs.”
Lucas also traveled the midwest with Williamson, backing him on guitar (though later in life he was better known as a pianist). They played smaller towns such as Battle Creek, Michigan, and South Bend, Indiana, with Sonny Boy booking the gigs himself rather than working through an agency. Lucas was also beginning to play solo, on Maxwell Street and elsewhere, and he soon crossed paths with another harmonica player, future legend Little Walter.
“I first saw Little Walter because he was rooming with my dad at the time. My dad had a building,” Lucas explained. Walter was much younger—he’d been born in 1930, when Lucas was 11. “Walter wasn’t making records then, he wasn’t famous; he was about like I was. So we played over in Maxwell Street together, and we played the same joints.”
Lucas idolized Big Bill Broonzy, who had a huge influence on his sublimely primitive and emotive guitar playing; he’d often go to see Broonzy or even accompany him onstage, before he went pro himself. Lucas also loved T-Bone Walker, except for the many key changes in his music, which he found difficult to play—he preferred a more understated guitar style, though his vocals had a raw personality all their own.
In 1946 Lucas finally joined a musicians’ union, launching his career in earnest, and began gigging in a trio with classy vocalist-pianist Willie Mabon and guitarist Earl Dranes. As per union scale, for their first job—at the Tuxedo Lounge at 3119 S. Indiana—the band earned $32 per night, playing from 9 PM till 4 AM. That broke down to $12 for the leader and $10 apiece for the sidemen.
By 1948, Lucas was jamming with Homesick James, and he’d found he could also get work also as a piano player—pianists were a bit harder to come by than guitarists and thus more in demand. That same year, he started playing with guitarist Little Hudson, a huge fan of guitarist and violinist Lonnie Johnson; Hudson’s Red Devil Trio included Lucas on piano and a drummer named James Bannister, who “had a red devil on the head of his drum with pitch forks,” according to Lucas. “He did play in church, too. Would you believe they had to cover up the devil with newspapers . . . he cover up the devil when he go to church.”
In 1952, Lucas made his first recordings, playing piano in Homesick James’s trio. Two singles under the name James Williamson squeaked out on Chance Records in ’52 and ’53. In 1953 Lucas also appeared on sides by Little Hudson & His Red Devil Trio (released by Chicago label J.O.B.) and recorded with Snooky Pryor for the Parrot imprint.
Lucas released his first recordings as a bandleader via Chance Records in 1954, billed to Lazy Bill & His Blue Rhythms. His group featured guitarist Louis Myers, who’d left his band the Aces that year. “Muddy Waters was going to be on it, but Leonard Chess wouldn’t let him,” Lucas said.
Steady work as a session musician meant that Lucas showed up on many sides throughout the 1950s and early ’60s, mostly recorded in Chicago or Cicero. Some went unissued at the time and would surface only later on compilations, but the list of luminaries he accompanied is impressive either way: they include Little Wille Foster (with Floyd Jones and Eddie Taylor), Clear Waters (aka Eddy Clearwater), Jo Jo Williams, and Homesick James (with Hound Dog Taylor).
By the 60s, though, the Chance label—Lucas’s main outlet—was out of business. He was suffering from long stretches between gigs, largely because rock ’n’ roll had taken over—and those bands were undercutting him by accepting lower fees. To make matters worse, clubs rarely had pianos anymore—in many cases, they’d removed the instruments so players with electric organs could bring them in. Lucas bought an electric piano and mostly played solo at coffeehouses or venues such as the Fickle Pickle downtown.
Given those circumstances, when Lucas’s friend George “Mojo” Buford invited him to play a more lucrative gig at the Key Club in Minneapolis, Lucas jumped at the chance. He made the big move out of the Windy City in August 1964. The Key Club residency didn’t last long, but Lucas made Minneapolis his permanent home. “I had no idea I was going to stay up here,” he said, “but I ended up here with a houseful of furniture.”
In Minneapolis, Lucas adopted a funkier, more rocking, and ultimately more popular strain of the blues. In 1969 he finally released his first proper LP, titled Lazy Bill, via French label Wild (now fairly rare, it tends to fetch $50 to $100 on Discogs). He followed it in 1970 with Lazy Bill & His Friends on the same label.
Not till 1974 did he cut an album as “Lazy Bill Lucas.” That self-titled LP came out via the Vermont-based Philo label and mostly featured Lucas’s raw piano stylings (rather than guitar) and delightfully raspy, seasoned voice. In 1979, Lucas began hosting his own regular radio program, The Lazy Bill Lucas Show, on KFAI in Minneapolis, but he died of natural causes on December 11, 1982.
Lucas’s legacy lives on, though. He’s been included on so many blues compilations and reissues since the 60s (the most recent in 2019) that I’d need another column to detail or even mention them all. Lazy Bill Lucas may not be a household name, but his place is firmly cemented in blues history—as it should be.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.