A musical journey through the mojo of a Toledo bluesman
Dooley Wilson is frustrated.
It’s 9:57 am on a cold Saturday in December and he is supposed to start playing at 10 o’clock. He has only just now stumbled out of the Toledo tundra into the cozy confines of the Glass City Cafe, which has booked him for its popular Bluegrass Breakfast music series.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” he cries out in the direction of restaurant owner Steve Crouse, who assures him everything is fine. Wilson looks pained as a brief flash of flame passes over his smoldering dark brown eyes. No, it’s not fine. He was scheduled to start playing the blues at 10 sharp, and now he’s going to start late. And a professional should always be punctual.
Undaunted, he swallows his disappointment and, within 10 minutes, he has everything set up at the front of the restaurant which serves as the stage. Upending his battered Cunard Queen of Elizabeth canvas bag, he sorts through the contents— Halls menthol cough drops, a bottle of slippery elm supplements (“Just in case my voice goes out”), a bottle of Deja Blue water, a glass vase that serves as a tip jar and a power strip.
He plugs the power strip into his amp, a well-loved 1965 Fender Bandmaster. And then out comes the artisan’s tool— his Jay Turser electric guitar. It doesn’t have a name or anything; it’s a utensil to serve the stew of blues (“It’s a cheapo guitar, but it’s MY cheapo guitar,” he muses). He’s almost ready. He asks, and a cup of hot black coffee is delivered. After the obligatory microphone check, he sits on the edge of a worn tan suitcase and readies his guitar. It’s time to go to work.
Soon the Glass City Cafe fills with the sound of the blues— and Wilson is lost in ecstasy. He’s sitting atop the worn tan suitcase, choking the guitar neck, his angular carved-in-stone features a mask of concentration, fingers and knuckles gnarled from a lifetime of plucking strings. There’s no setlist, no backdrop, no real plan. Just a working man with an instrument sharing the gospel of what he believes is the greatest music that exists. Wilson plays the blues as if his life depends on it.
And maybe it does.
From C.J. to Dooley
Dooley Wilson does not take toast with his mozzarella cheese omelet, favoring potatoes instead. Sitting in the Glass City Cafe months later— this time as a patron— he is a bit more relaxed than he was when he played here. He still doesn’t smile much. Wilson isn’t grumpy, he just carries himself with an intensity that’s disarming. You get the feeling that he doesn’t want to be here. That’s because he lives to do one thing: Play the blues. And when he’s not playing the blues, by gum, he wants to be playing the blues.
But for now, he’ll tell his story. Now 45 years old, he was born C.J. Forgy, in West Lafayette, Indiana to James and Sandy Forgy. His parents split when he was two years old and he went to live with his maternal grandmother in Maumee. An only child, Wilson describes himself as an “artsy kid” who spent hours in his room drawing and writing.
“Everyone thought I was going to be a visual artist,” says Wilson, taking a sip of his coffee. “But along with writing, over the years I’ve let those skills atrophy,” he says, with a regretful sigh. “But I don’t know; I’m thinking about taking up drawing again for its therapeutic value.”
So what sparked his obsessive devotion to the blues? It started as musical hangups often did in the ‘80s— with a cassette. At 15, Wilson, who was teaching himself guitar and whose musical tastes at the time ran towards Led Zeppelin, walked into Camelot Music in the now-long-gone Southwyck Mall and spied a tape from Columbia Records called Legends of the Blues Vol. 1. There was something about that tape that spoke to him.
He picked it up and looked at the back. As-yet unfamiliar names like Bo Carter, Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton, and Leroy Carr stared out at him from the tracklisting. Robert Johnson— he knew that name from an interview he’d read with Jimmy Page and he was fascinated by the infamous story about Johnson reputedly getting his blues talent while making a deal with the devil at a crossroads. Maybe it was the ghost of Johnson himself speaking to Wilson that day in Camelot Music. All he knew is that he had to buy it.
When he got home, he popped the tape into his boom box, and something in the universe shifted. At that moment, C.J. Forgy ceased to exist and the bluesman named Dooley Wilson was born.
“That anthology started this mystique and passion I had for this music,” says Wilson, in between forkfuls of omelet. “It just spoke to my angst-ridden soul at the time and I had never heard anything so authentic, so human, so real. Take Son House’s song ‘Death Letter,’ which is on that anthology. It’s taken from his 1965 Columbia session and it’s just this amazing song about how a man gets a letter saying that the woman he loves is dead. It’s just…” Wilson often trails off when he talks about the blues; yet another reason why he’d much rather play you a song than talk about it.
From that fateful moment, the blues wasn’t just a preferred style of music to listen to or to learn to play… it became, at that time, a life choice.
“I decided I’m going to devote my life to being some kind of bluesman like Fred MacDowell or Son House,” says Wilson. “It became much more important to me than making a living. If you weren’t dead and black, I couldn’t be bothered to listen to you.”
Henry & June
By the way, where did that name Dooley Wilson come from? Wilson smiles broadly with a touch of sheepishness. He was setting up one of his earliest gigs, at the famous East-side haunt Frankie’s, and his buddy Lance Hulsey (currently the leader of Toledo rockabilly outfit Kentucky Chrome)— who Wilson played with his first band, a heavy metal project called Harlequin— said that the promoter needed to know what to call him… and C.J. Forgy didn’t exactly sound bluesy. So the young musician, right there, decided on the name Dooley Wilson in homage to the actor and musician of the same name, famous for playing the character Sam in Casablanca. Dooley Wilson is now his legal name. He cashes checks with that moniker.
With a new name under his bluesman’s belt, the then-recent Maumee High School (Class of 1992) graduate needed a band that would let him explore the blues the way he wanted to. The result was Henry & June, a heavy blues ensemble that Wilson formed with his good friend Jimmy Danger. They got the band name from a recently released biopic of Henry Miller, one of Wilson’s favorite authors.
“I was obsessed with the blues at that time, but I’m still incapable of playing it correctly,” says Wilson, draining his coffee cup. “I was really struggling to learn how to play blues the way it was meant to be played.”
But even as he worked to unravel the mysteries of Deep South blues, Wilson was experiencing something unexpected: Success. Henry & June had released a single called “Going Back to Memphis” on Detroit label Human Fly Records, and the song was attracting a lot of heat. The popular band The Laughing Hyenas— which featured former Necros member Todd Swalla, who would go on to play with Wilson in his later outfit Boogaloosa Prayer— were big fans of the song and were trying to get Henry and June signed to Touch and Go Records. Some cat named Jack White, who had a little band called The White Stripes, also was a big Henry and June fan and began covering “Going Back to Memphis” in concert.
“We were kind of a hot, cult thing on the scene in Detroit,” says Wilson, thanking the Glass City Cafe waitress as she refills his coffee. “Jack White wasn’t the only cool person in Detroit who knew who we were though, of course, he became the most famous one. Judah Bower of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion put out a cover of the single on his side project called 20 Miles. I heard The Von Bondies used to cover ‘Going Back to Memphis.’ It’s a really fun, simple, dumb song.”
And then right when things started to go well for Henry & June, it all went wrong. The blues were supposed to feel like freedom and suddenly Wilson and the rest of the band began to feel decidedly trapped.
“Jimmy in particular felt like things were getting stagnant,” says Wilson. “Things were going good for us but it started to feel like we were just going through the motions. It was creative claustrophobia.” And so the band, at its peak, unceremoniously broke up.
“We were just dumb kids. We had no idea what we were doing with our little garage band. Looking back, that may have been the worst decision of my career. But when you’re young and dumb, you don’t realize that; you just think ‘Well, I’ll just do the next thing that comes along.’”
Today, Henry & June is fondly recalled as an early part of the Detroit music resurgence of the latter 20th Century. While The White Stripes, Kid Rock, The Detroit Cobras, and various Detroit rappers, from Eminem to Insane Clown Posse, put the Motor City musically back on the map, Henry and June remains a small part of that legacy. Copies of “Going Back to Memphis” routinely go for more than $100 on eBay, and the song was recorded live by The White Stripes for their DVD concert film, Under Blackpool Lights.
And no, Wilson hasn’t received any royalties. It all worked out for the members of Henry & June, though. Drummer Ben Swank is now the top A&R guy at Third Man Records, Jack White’s label. The band did a well received reunion back in 2010 in Toledo and everyone is still cool with one another. But in rock-n-roll and the blues, time waits for no one, so Wilson was off to new projects and new adventures.
And those adventures would lead to him nearly lose his mind.
On a wing and a Boogloosa Prayer
Brushing off the ashes of Henry & June, Wilson decided to further buckle down and get more “authentically bluesy.” He quickly formed a new band with Ben Swank and guitarist Todd Albright, that went through various names such as Dime Store Glam and Gin Mill Moaners. They sat in for many nights at the long-gone-but-never forgotten Rusty’s Jazz Cafe.
“I was spending all of my disposable income on that watered down whiskey at Rusty’s,” said Wilson. “Rusty’s was an amazing little place.” After a while though, he got restless and decided he would get as real as the blues could get and move to New Orleans.
“I wanted to see if I could live as a street performer,” said Wilson. “I had this rather naïve idea that I could possibly make a living at it in that town. I suspected it was the place on Earth where you might encounter people doing this kind of music.”
So Wilson moved to New Orleans, virtually homeless, busking on the streets of NOLA. Meanwhile, The White Stripes were starting to get their first big taste of international notoriety and began introducing “Going Back to Memphis” to a whole new audience due to their frequent covering of the song in live gigs.
“There I am trying to get lunch money down in New Orleans, and suddenly The White Stripes and the whole Detroit thing started to blow up and I’m trying to be Mr Authenticity down in effing New Orleans,” says Wilson, shaking his head incredulously. “My career is awful. I always zig when I should have zagged.”
But New Orleans proved to be an artistically fruitful time for Wilson. He met true, dyed-in-the-wool blues players who were playing incredible music from their souls. Nobody had record deals or anything that could get in the way of making direct, honest music. Many of these men and women were homeless or living off the grid; something Wilson describes as “an anti-American dream.” He talks enthusiastically and excitedly about that time in his life.
“These were some of the greatest living blues artists. There was a guy named Augie Junior who was simply incredible. I had never heard anything like him. There was this woman named Lisa Driscoll who played the washboard. People called her Ragtime Annie. And…”
Suddenly Wilson stops in mid-sentence and a hollow expression crosses his face. He stands up, sets his coffee cup down, excuses himself with a hurried “I’m gonna step out for a minute” and before uttering another word, he’s left the Glass City Cafe. A few minutes pass and he returns, wiping his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” he apologizes, sitting back down. “It’s just…it’s hard talking about this. I just got a little overwhelmed talking about some of my departed friends.”
He steadies himself with a sip of coffee that’s starting to go cold, as he’s eager to move on to talk about his other great band, Boogaloosa Prayer. Formed after moving back to Maumee fresh off a year in New Orleans, Boogaloosa Prayer, which Wilson says “was one of the best things I ever did artistically” came after stints in short lived bands like The Young Lords, and The Staving Chain.
Boogaloosa Prayer, an aggressive blues rock outfit featuring in part his old friend Jimmy Danger and Maumee drumming legend Todd Swalla, garnered quite a devoted following, playing in both Toledo and Detroit. The band had momentum behind them that recalled the Henry & June days. Then one hot summer night in 2006 at the now-shuttered Mickey Finn’s Pub, Wilson’s demons got the better of him.
Sporting a shaved head and a sickly frame that was skinny even by his normally lithe, sinewy standards, Wilson cracked onstage during the show. He ranted incoherently, couldn’t perform any songs, and couldn’t remember any lyrics. To everyone who was there, it was a harrowing experience.
Today, Wilson is reluctant to talk about the incident but he acknowledges it happened.
“I can say that I had a horrible psychotic breakdown and it had an impact on my life,” says Wilson, a bit guardedly. “At the time I had several severe emotional stressors in my life. A toxic woman in my life was stalking me. I had a business deal that was crushing me under the pressure. Plus, Boogaloosa Prayer was breaking up at the time because Swalla was moving to California. It all led to that time in my life.”
Following his breakdown, Wilson spent some time in a psychiatric ward, and lived in his aunt’s attic as he attempted to rebuild his fragile psyche. He eschewed traditional psychotherapy and refused meds because he’d seen too many of his friends “get hooked on those damned things.” Through a lot of hard work, meditation, and support from his friends, Wilson says he “totally got well again” and he hasn’t had any mental health issues since— thank goodness.
“Losing your sanity really puts a damper on your life.”
Still walkin’ down that road…
Wilson now lives in what he calls “a shack,” though it’s actually a carriage house out on a property in Maumee. The place smells of incense, a bit cramped but cozy abode, filled with guitars, amps, books on Buddhism, and novels by Charles Bukowski. Exactly how you would expect Wilson to live. This is not the living quarters .of a typical 45 year old, but it is definitely the home of a bluesman— and that’s all Wilson ever wanted to be. He plays gigs around the region and works as a “factotum” (his term) helping out family members and friends with projects. He’s completed an album and is currently trying to figure out how to release it. Love? Not interested.
“I have the kind of personality where I just do better alone,” he says simply. He may be alone but he’s not lonely. He has the best friends in the world in his life, even if most of them are dead. Son House. Sonny Boy Williamson. Bo Carter. All those great blues artists of yesteryear he counts as his personal friends, and by playing their music and his own songs inspired by their influence, Wilson is a happy man.
On that cold December day at the Glass City Cafe, Wilson utters a line that captures his essence: “Oh, I’m Dooley Wilson. Don’t mind me.” But, about that, he’s wrong. Mind him. Pay attention to Dooley Wilson. Pay close attention.
Find Dooley Wilson’s YouTube channel by searching “Dooley Wilson Toledo.”