Wallace Coleman's unlikely blues education began in East Tennessee. The 75-year-old first heard the blues on Nashville's WLAC while he was growing up in Morristown in the 1940s, and started playing harmonica along to Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter Jacobs. Later he discovered his mother's old R&B records—Louis Jordan, Bull Moose Jackson, Lonnie Johnson—and in the 1950s saw blues titans Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker in downtown Knoxville. By then he had moved to Oak Ridge, and he rode the bus back to Knoxville every weekend.
"That was the good old days, because you could get off the bus there and walk down to the Gem on Vine Street and hear all those good guys," he says. "That's the first time I heard blues in person, at the Gem Theater on Vine Street."
After high school, Coleman moved to Cleveland, following the great northern migration of Southern blacks after World War II. He found work in a bakery.
"In Morristown, there wasn't any jobs, and my stepfather and mother had moved to Cleveland and they told me to come there because that's where the jobs were, and they were right," he says. "When I got up there, there was jobs everywhere. But around here there just wasn't any steady employment."
The first small steps of his career as a musician were taken in that bakery. Coleman had continued to play along to records at home, but he never considered it more than a hobby.
"One day I went to work and I took my harmonica to work with me," he says. "I was standing on the loading dock there playing, and one of my co-workers came to me and said, ‘I hear you around here playing that old harp—why don't you play with Guitar Slim? Why don't you go down there and play with Guitar Slim? You'd be able to play that stuff he plays.'
"I thought he was talking about the real Guitar Slim, you know"—a legendary guitarist from New Orleans who died in 1959. "He said, ‘No, I'm talking about the Guitar Slim here in Cleveland.' I said, ‘No, man, I can't play that good. I just play for myself.' So behind my back, he pulled a fast one on me. The following week, he went and brought the guy out to the bakery."
Slim was impressed with what he heard, and within a couple of weeks Coleman was playing in his band. It was a casual engagement, on Saturday nights—"That's the only night I could play, because I had to work," Coleman says—that allowed him to find his footing as a performer.
The second dramatic development in Coleman's career came in 1985, when Robert Lockwood Jr.—the stepson of Robert Johnson and a renowned Delta blues guitarist and singer himself, who had played for years with Little Walter—visited the club where Slim and Coleman were playing.
"We took a break and he said, ‘Hey, come on over here and sit down,'" Coleman says. "And then he asked me, ‘Who in the hell do you think you are, Little Walter?'"
A few months later, Lockwood invited Coleman to join his band after he retired, which he did two years later. He spent 10 years performing with Lockwood, touring all over the world and recording several well-received albums. Since 1997, he has led his own band from Cleveland. For the last decade has regularly come back to East Tennessee to play—in Morristown, at WDVX's Blue Plate Special, at the Laurel Theater, and at Knoxville Museum of Art's Alive After Five series.
It has been a thriving and lively second career for him. But one of those recent Laurel Theater shows highlighted how the culture of the blues has changed since Coleman first heard WLAC 60 years ago: "A gentleman came to me and he bought one of my CDs and said, ‘I'd like to ask you a personal question—where are all the black folks at?' Because there wasn't any black folks there at all. I hadn't paid any attention, because that happens quite a bit, even in Cleveland. I said, ‘Well, I'm sorry, sir, I can't answer that question.' But they just don't come out for blues music.... People just aren't coming out to hear the blues anymore. It's a pretty sad thing, because all these young blacks, they're all about rap and hip-hop. They don't care nothing about no blues. So it's mainly the people in festivals and the white kids who are keeping the blues alive. Otherwise it would be in serious trouble."