“When I was sixteen, I met a kid from Eunice. We called him Bantam, but his name was Murphy Washington. We worked as busboys in the mid-50s, and when I saw this guy play the guitar…man! He said, ‘Come on over to my house, man. We’ll teach you.’ What!?! Me play the guitar? We got to be real good friends, and he would always talk about Jimmy Reed; he had some songs I really liked,” says Lightnin’ Lee.
His sense of adventure took him north, and a chance meeting led him to Jimmy Reed. “In ’59, I got my paycheck; I’ll never forget it. My oldest brother and I were at the High Hat nearby my work, and the Greyhound Bus Station was right there. I told my brother, ‘I’m getting out of here. I’m going to Chicago. I’m going to be gone,’” says Lee. He had no luggage and only $39 with him. On the train, he struck up a conversation with a woman who told him to contact her father, a native New Orleanian who would help him out. “And she said, ‘When you get to Chicago, go find Rev. Charles Jacob Armstead. He lives on 14 West 68th.’ Why would I remember that? I think it saved my life,” states Lee.
He found the Reverend who Lee says “was a lovable old man.” Reverend Armstead introduced Lee to his friend Leon, and Leon said that his girlfriend’s father played the blues. That man turned out to be Jimmy Reed. “I felt that’s where I was supposed to be. I go all the way to Chicago, and I meet the guy whose got the girlfriend who is Jimmy Reed’s daughter. Reed talked country: ‘Where you from? I wish you’d go back to Looziana. Don’t come up here worryin’ me.’ Mama Reed would say, ‘Don’t talk to him that way.’ I started going there every day,” says Lee.
Guitar Lightnin’ Lee also tells me about living at Little Richard’s hot pink apartments in Los Angeles and not realizing who owned it until days before he moved out. “He stops, opens the door of his new car, and it smells like roses. You should have seen him! I told him that as a kid I used to follow him up and down Rampart,” explains Lee.
Recently, Lee was visited by the famed Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant at BJ’s Lounge. “I’m a strange dude. I mean, strange things happen to me. [Robert Plant] is a down-to-earth guy. We had loads of fun, he’s a nice guy,” says Lee.
The Bywater/Marigny-area loves Guitar Lightnin’ Lee, and the manager of Kajun’s Pub enjoys having him there. “Guitar Lightnin’ Lee is here once a month. I love him, wonderful gentleman. When Lightnin’ Lee is on, it tends to be more of a jam session,” says manager David Berni. “We call this the four corners of the Marigny; and you have four wonderful entertainment bars. And we’re all different and do different things. And it’s a wonderful entertainment center,” continues Berni.
Along with Kajun’s live music on Sundays and karaoke every other night, they have expanded their appeal by opening the resident kitchen Borracho (Spanish for “drunk”), and sous chef Gabe Hirt strives to leave you with a gourmet, local taste in your mouth. “We pretty much use only local ingredients. We source all of our pork, lamb and beef locally. We get to play with a lot of really cool food,” says Gabe Hirt.
Hirt looks at food differently which leads to him and executive chef Chris Smedly to create one-of-a-kind charcuterie and high-end bar food. “When you look at it, it’s not just looking at pork shoulder; you see a myriad of options. We have Porketta which is pork shoulder that we pound out flat and season the inside. That’s one thing we have started to work on here is making the food incredible; really exciting food.
Borracho has already started drawing intrigued customers. “Probably twenty-five percent of our business is incredibly tourists; mainly European, Canadian, and Australian. And now with Borracho, we’re getting foodie-type tourists because everything is house-made; the ketchup, the aioli, the pickling,” explains Berni. But the regulars come for the Sunday Booze and Blues that features great entertainers each week. “Gal Holiday was amazing. We’re trying to book her on a regular basis,” says Berni. Hirt continues, “Her voice is out of this world. The first time she played here, it was wall-to-wall; just packed.”