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Last bluesman standing

Mr. Frank Edwards, 92, makes it unique

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Dust off your timelines and consider this: More than 75 years ago, around 1926, a teenage Frank Edwards met the popular blues entertainer Tampa Red, who encouraged the youngster's musical aspirations. More than 60 years ago, in 1941, after years of performing, Mr. Frank Edwards cut his first recordings for famed producer Lester Melrose. His style was distinctive and idiosyncratic.

Fast forward to 2002: The 92-year-old Edwards still plays guitar and harmonica in a style that is utterly singular. He's still performing in public, with shows Friday at the Blue Raccoon in Marietta and Saturday at Discover Mills in Lawrenceville. And Feb. 7-8, Edwards performs with John Hammond and Larry Johnson as part of the Atlanta History Center's "Nothin' but the Blues 2002" series. That concert, titled "Down on Decatur Street," showcases material from Atlanta street singers of the 1920s and '30s.

"He's refreshing," says Danny "Mudcat" Dudeck, who's worked closely with Edwards over the years. Edwards' music is derived from an idiom that is familiar to most music fans, Dudeck adds, but "somehow he makes it unique."

"He's arguably the best blues player living," says Bill Sheffield, who opens the Blue Raccoon show with an acoustic set and closes with a performance by his band, the Ringtail Rounders. "It's the last-man-standing kind of a deal. The man's been playing blues for 75 years. And when you listen to him, he actually does play a style that's all his own. It's personal."

"He's the oldest living bluesman in Georgia," says Blue Raccoon owner Kerry Dockery. "As far as blues goes, it doesn't get any better than Mr. Frank."

Edwards' style owes to a diversity of first-hand musical experiences. Edwards traveled with string bands in the '30s. Along the way, he worked as a street musician, often traveling by freight train. Sometimes he performed alone, other times with washboard and jug accompaniment. The Washington, Ga., native moved to Atlanta in 1936.

Edwards has a newly recorded version of his trademark song, "Chicken Raid," on the Blues Came to Georgia compilation CD, issued jointly by the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. The latter is hosting the show at Discover Mills as part of a release party for the CD (see Earshot, p.85). Also slated to appear are Eddie Tigner, Cootie Stark, Cool John Ferguson and Mudcat.

"Chicken Raid" is Edwards' first new release in many years. After his 1941 session, Edwards cut some songs in 1949 that went unissued for more than 20 years. More than two additional decades would pass before he'd cut his only full-length album under his own name. That recording, Done Some Travelin', came out on the Trix label in 1973 and was briefly reissued on CD in 1993.

In the course of three-quarters of a century of performing, Edwards has seen dramatic changes in the nature of blues performance. While the contemporary audience for blues is white -- and almost certainly will be for this week's shows -- it wasn't always that way. In the old days, Edwards noted in a previous CL interview, "Didn't none play [blues] but black [people]. After so many years, white folks caught the blues. Now that's what they want to hear. They liked it all that time, but they was ashamed to listen to it, because [no one] played it but black [people]. They'd just buy the records, get in the basement with a gallon of liquor, drink it and listen to the blues. I hear a heap of 'em say it."

Mr. Frank Edwards performs Fri., Feb. 1, at the Blue Raccoon, 188 Garrison Road, Marietta. Bill Sheffield opens, and his Ringtail Rounders close the show. Show time is 8:30 p.m. $10. 770-426-6400. Edwards performs at the Blues Came to Georgia CD release party Sat., Feb. 2, at the Towne Square Festival Food Court, Discover Mills, 5900 Sugarloaf Parkway, Lawrenceville. Show time is 7 p.m. Free. 678-847-5201. www.discovermills.com. For info on the Music Maker Relief Foundation, call 919-643-2456, visit musicmaker.org or e-mail mmrf1@aol.com. For info on the Atlanta History Center's "Nothin' but the Blues 2002" series, call 404-814-4150 or visit www.atlhist.org.

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