Well the South side of Chicago
Is the baddest part of town
And if you go down there
You better just beware
Of a man named Leroy Brown
— Jim Croce, “Bad Leroy Brown,” 1973
The first thing my friends and I would hear as we approached my house was the thump-chock of the drums, reaching all the way down the block and swelling as we neared the front door. Down the basement steps we’d go as the music swelled to a sonic conflagration, the afternoon light dissolving into the smoke-palled scene of a Chicago blues band tableau.
My house used to serve as a prime after-school gathering spot for my group of middle school friends, partially due to a nearby basketball court, but also because my digs served as the practice space for my dad’s band. My friends and I would hang around and watch the men play, like little wanderers huddled around a blue flame. My dad’s band maintained the same principal cast throughout my youth: there was Harold on bass, jheri-culred and lisping, a short purplish man who was always jittery and never quite all there. I would one day come to associate him with the rapper Eazy E. Even at that age, we suspected there were drugs involved with Harold, or Harold was involved with drugs; as we grew older we recognized crack as his likely partner.
“I remember one time Harold showed up to a recording session without his bass,” my father recalled the other day. “Told us he needed his pay up front, to get his bass back from the pawnshop.”
There was Will, on rhythm guitar, a quiet thirty-something South Sider with hard, doubtful eyes always sizing up the situation.
On drums was Tim, a giant of a man at 300 pounds or so, but who may as well have outweighed the world to us kids. When he went upstairs to grab something from the kitchen, his footfalls shook the house operatically, thrumb-bumb, like tympani strikes.
Our favorite member of the band’s regular line-up, though, was by far Leroy Brown, sure enough from the South Side of Chicago. Leroy Brown played no instrument; he didn’t have to. He was just that bad. His official role with the band was “Master of Ceremonies.” He’d go up on-stage and welcome the audience, crack jokes, hype my dad up, ask them if they were ready for The Chief, and then—skeptical of their sincerity the first time around—he would ask them again, and again.
Without fail, Leroy Brown always seemed to sink himself into the corners of any given space like an eight ball; his clean-shaven head was obscured by a black leather beret raked over one of his bloodshot eyes. The bluesmen’s basement conversation ran in cadences and turned on topics otherwise untouched in our suburban world; pints of rum and gin passing between them, the liquid lines sinking as the bottles went tipping into red plastic cups.
“If we ain’t got enough drink to last us through the night, someone better go drive up to the liquor store now. You know the cops around here be lookin’ to pull a motherfucker over on a DUI," Will says.
“Maybe we wouldn’t run out so quick if Harold’s ass would slow down drinking.,” Tim adds, twirling his drum stick post-staccato-snare flourish.
Now Harold, angry: “Ain’t no motherfucking liquor stores out in these suburbs, that’s the problem. One to every five miles. If it was any decency we’d be able to just walk the sto’. It’s like a fuckin’ desert out here. Can’t get no weed, neither.”
“Come on, now. There’s kids around,” my father says, adjusting an amp level.
Leroy Brown takes the floor from the corner: “Ain’t nothing the kids don’t know about already. They teenagers now. Done heard everything about everything already. Sex. All that shit. Shee-it, your son,” Leroy Brown motions toward me with his cigarette, “oughta’ know all about women—his dad sure ‘nuff had one shakin’ her titties at him at the show last night.”
They erupt into laughter.
My dad, increasingly aggravated: “Come on, now. What’d I just say? He gonna’ go back and tell his mom all this. I don’t need to hear it.”
And he often did hear it. I would later come to find out that the bawdier bits and pieces of conversation that I would sometimes parrot to my mother were being collected and filed in an ongoing case building toward divorce.
But while the household was still dual-parent, listening in on those basement blues sessions was one of our favorite pastimes; the larger-than-life blues heroes shooting the shit with all the electricity of a Redd Foxx standup set. Well into high school and beyond, Leroy Brown would maintain his grip on the imaginations of my friends and me. Later, in our mischievous late teens and twenties, we realized that a guy like Leroy Brown would probably have solid drug connections. My friends and I danced around the topic with him in a couple bars under the driving sound of the blues, but we never pursued the matter to a score. Picking up from Leroy Brown somehow felt like it would be wrong.
Like copping a bag from God.
In 2006, when Leroy Brown began losing his voice and finally had to retire from the stage as my dad’s Master of Ceremonies, he claimed he was only suffering a bad cold. He maintained that it was just the sniffles all the way through my father’s pleas to see a doctor, several losses of consciousness, and a bedside eleventh-hour diagnosis of throat cancer. I was only talking to my father occasionally at the time, and so received the news months after the fact; I never even knew he’d been sick. He was bad up until the very end.
Not too long ago, the Jim Croce song happened across my Pandora station and I suddenly came to wonder if Leroy Brown had actually been Leroy Brown; found it odd that for all those years I’d taken it for granted that he’d actually possessed such a blues-friendly name. I called my father and asked him about it, almost not wanting to hear the answer; to have the curtain raised on the mystique. My father confessed that he’d actually been the one who’d christened him “Leroy Brown,” the same year the song came out. seven years before I was born. Not long after Leroy had left St. Louis for Chicago. The fairytale undone.
Once upon a time and a very good time it was….
“Joyce,” he told me. “It was Leroy Joyce."