At first, band members thought the man approaching them in the parking lot was a fan wanting a last word with Skeeter Brandon before he left the gig. But when the guy produced a gun and stuck it in their faces, they realized this particular fan was looking for more than words. "I told the guy, 'You're going to rob a blind guy out here trying to make a living playing music?' And he's like, 'Hell yeah I am--give me your fuckin' money.' "
"The guy got all Skeeter's bill money for the month--even took Skeeter's tip jar that had a couple of dollars taped to the inside," recalls Will Beaty, drummer for Brandon's band Prime Rib. The robbery, which occurred outside a club in Durham last March, was just the latest in a string of unfortunate events to befall local legend Calvin Skeeter" Brandon. "First he had to go on dialysis with kidney failure, then deal with a host of other health problems," says Beaty, who also manages Brandon as well as running sound and driving the van. "His former band, Highway 61, broke up, the record company folded, and his former booking agency stopped booking him."
But Brandon has not let those problems slow him down. He's back in the studio, seven cuts into a new record, and is touring and playing more than he has in years. He has said that he wants a record contract with a major label, but can't get anybody to pay attention. "The onliest thing I know is to keep trying," Brandon said recently from his home in Raleigh. "Maybe someday somebody will want to take a listen."
It looks like Brandon may soon have his wish. Alligator President Bruce Iglauer has promised to come and see the band when they play at Buddy Guy's Legends next month in Chicago.
Brandon's still got it. Log on to his Web site, skeeterbrandon.com, and the first thing you hear is Brandon's gospel howl that rises to a falsetto wail, then slides down into a funky blues shout, going heavenward once again before plummeting into a down and dirty growl. And that's just the intro to his version of Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying."
"His voice never ceases to amaze me," Beaty says. "We were playing a club a couple of weeks ago--you know, he plays in church every Sunday--and he broke out in a testifying kind of thing, taking those people in the pool hall to church. I'll be sitting back there sweating my ass off playing drums, and all of a sudden I've got goosebumps."
As good as he is with blues, Brandon's career has been based on soul. The singer/organist who toured with Clarence Carter and worked with the Chi-lites really didn't start playing straight blues until he joined the Walter "Lightning Bug" Rhodes Band, renamed Highway 61.
His current band, Prime Rib, does a mix of blues, gospel and soul. John Custer, producer for Corrosion of Conformity, Dag and Cry Of Love, is onboard for some of the new project. There's a documentary in the works, a two-day gig at the Ottawa blues festival with the likes of Dr. John, ZZ Top and The Black Eyed Peas, and an overseas tour of Spain in August.
Brandon says he just wants something back for the time he's put into his business. "I'd just like to have enough money to pay my bills and do what I need to live," the singer says in the 2004 documentary The Color of Blues. "If I don't ever be rich in my life that's not a problem, as long as I got enough to do what I need to do."
Skeeter Brandon plays a free show at Blue Martini in Raleigh on Friday, July 1 at 9:30 p.m.