A Paper Rose for Mr. Spoons

Once the city moved to a faster beat thanks to a man with a fistful of silverware, a woman with deep tap roots, and a guy who blew a mean potato chip bag.

Photograph by Cal Kowal

Mr. Spoons doesn’t sound much different than he used to. Oh, he’s a little older, but when I talked to him by phone recently I was amazed that his voice didn’t have any of the tell-tale scratch of a vinyl record, and that his perspective was as fresh as a young man’s. It was hard to believe that Mr. Spoons is 77. Even harder to believe that it had been decades since he left off playing in Cincinnati bars and took his talent to the streets of New York. “A lot of people wonder if you’re still alive,” I told him. “Whatever have you been up to?”

“Well,” he said with a laugh, “I’ve spent most of my life making up stuff about myself, so I don’t mind doing a little bit more of it.” He reported that he was living in Simpsonville, South Carolina, where he is helping his sister care for his brother-in-law, who is struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. His brother is in Arizona, dealing with heart disease.

“I don’t want to live that long,” he said, musing on the misery of others, seemingly unaware that he already had lived that long. “If I can’t get around, I sure don’t plan on sticking around.”

I met Mr. Spoons—his real name is Joe Jones—back in the 1960s, about the same time that I discovered bluegrass, when all things seemed possible, all doors half-open. I got to know him pretty well, since he often showed up where I was singing. Then, in the early 1980s, a woman from Manhattan saw him perform, whisked him off to the Big Apple, and married him. Stories trickled back about his New York career—playing in the subway, touring, cameos in movies like Married to the Mob and Sweet and Lowdown. But when we talked now, it was as if we had only spoken yesterday, and we fell easily back into our old friendship.

“I went on that America’s Got Talent show with Jerry Springer. Then I did an ice cream commercial,” he told me in his pleasant stream-of-consciousness fashion. “I went to Japan 11 times and went to Germany as well. I was part of a series called Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors in the New York City Underground. I met a woman and we did flute and rhythm duets. It was challenging.”

“Challenging?” I asked, trying to imagine the flute-and-spoons musical dynamic. “Yeah,” he said. “Let me tell you, there are some strange people in New York City.”

Having performed in New York a half-dozen times myself, I knew what he meant. Still, it was funny to hear that from a man many people considered to be Cincinnati’s all-time greatest character. Mr. Spoons has been gone so long that multiple generations have cycled through the neighborhood where he made his name, and clubs and bars have opened and closed, replaced by new clubs and bars. But there has never been another Mr. Spoons.

He danced into my life one night at Aunt Maudie’s, the bluegrass bar at 1207 Main Street. I was young and new to town and mesmerized by what I was hearing: a blast of a cracking five-string banjo playing something I recognized as “Salty Dog Blues,” and at the chorus, three voices blended in a baritone, lead, and high tenor trio so true and so authentic I was dumbstruck.

Let me be your Salty Dog,
Or I won’t be your man at all,
Honey, let me be your Salty Dog

So they sang, accenting certain syllables with runs on the guitar. A chubby guy with a flattop haircut was playing upright bass just a hair ahead of the rest of the musicians, giving the music a kind of hard rhythm. “Folk music in overdrive” is how one critic described bluegrass, and I still believe that’s about as accurate as you’re going to get. My fascination must have been obvious, because a man leaned over to me and said, a little boastfully, “Just wait til ol’ Spoons gets here.”

Sure enough, he came in around 10, carrying a flat board on which he’d pinned hand-made corsages. His spoons—large tablespoons he claimed he’d stolen from the Salvation Army—were in his back pocket. He looked Irish but with a biscuits-and-gravy accent. His hair, which he dressed with Vitalis, fell into sausage curls around his face. He laid his board of corsages carefully on an empty table and began to tap lightly on his knee with a couple of pairs of spoons in each hand to warm up. He held each pair back to back, so that their curved bowls made a rhythmic click-clacking sound.

He kept up a running patter with the customers while he played—old country ribaldry, ancient jokes, corny lines. “I’d come over tonight,” he said to a bashful woman, clicking his spoons up and down her arm, “but I’m afraid your husband would come home early from work.” Then he moved on to another patron, maybe a college kid out with his Saturday night girlfriend:
“If he don’t treat you right, honey, I will.”

Spoons started picking up speed, adding four spoons to the four he already had in each hand. He worked them like castanets, clicking up and down an arm, then arcing between his upper leg and his extended hand. They seemed to fly of their own accord, like something out of Harry Potter. “Go, Spoons!” someone shouted, urging him on.

He tap-danced a little as he worked, moving gracefully, pretending to click the spoons against someone’s hand or head. As he warmed up, he waved the spoons in arcs and danced harder. When he started throwing the spoons in the air and catching them like a baton twirler, the crowd got going. One man did an ancient “hambone” jive, slapping the back of his hands on his knee. “Let’s see you do it, Spoons!” someone yelled. Then Mr. Spoons added more spoons until he was up to 20—10 in each hand. The room was an orgy of rhythm.

When Mr. Spoons got winded, it was time to do a little business. The custom was, if you’d enjoyed the act you bought a corsage. In 1975, photographer Cal Kowal published a coffee table book about Mr. Spoons entitled A Book Full of Spoons. In it, Kowal says the performer once sold 69 corsages in one evening. My old friend, Becky Hudnall, who discovered bluegrass and Mr. Spoons when I did, recounts how she received her original Spoons corsage.

“I was sitting at the table watching him, and a guy everybody called Fast Eddie handed me a corsage,” she says. “‘Thank you very much,’ I said, surprised and touched.

“‘It ain’t for you,’ Eddie said. “It’s for him.’”

When it was over and Spoons had left the building, the bandleader, Jim McCall, his cowboy hat tilted on the side of his head, called for a slow song. “Here’s one to rub your belt buckles to,” he said. McCall was no fool; he wasn’t about to follow Spoons with an up-tempo tune.

Mr. Spoons, I would come to learn, had grown up in Over-the-Rhine. He lived in various parts of the neighborhood with his mother, his brother, and his sisters. His father had left by the time Joe was 8 years old, and the boy helped his mother put food on the table. He had a knack for music and rhythm and had found his instrument: According to legend, little Joe reached for his first set of spoons before he was 5. In his adolescence he became a drinker and a sinner, passing out—he once told me—on the bridge to Newport. His mother never gave up on him; it was she who spotted the genius in what he did. And it was she who helped him create his flashy “Nudie”-type suits out of ordinary polyester jackets, adding fringe and embroidering his name in bold letters. Dressed in splendor, he became the main breadwinner of the family.

He worked in a place where characters were thick on the ground. One wall of Aunt Maudie’s was decorated with a mural of the bar’s regulars, and I quickly got to know them in person. I noticed a woman in skinny blue jeans and a short, sassy haircut, wearing a black leather Harley motorcycle jacket, chain-smoking, drinking beer, and laughing and cussing in a raspy voice. She was Lin Gibson, a crackerjack writer who worked in ad agencies and greeting card companies as long as she could stand it, then got back to her real life, which was writing songs and hanging out with bluegrass bands. She was easy to pick out among the caricatures—full of vigor and confidence. A woman whom everyone called Mother was also among the figures—a bottle blonde in an apron with “Mother” embroidered across the front. Her dark black eyebrows met over her nose in a kind of fashion statement I’ve rarely seen since. The band was depicted beautifully in the pictures, too, bellies hanging over their belts in outrageous exaggeration.

Then there were the regulars who regularly formed tableaux in the room. I recall watching a group of Appalachian women sitting like a Greek chorus at the pool table, rehashing a sad litany of the faults of men.

“Harold don’t even take me to the durn doctor no more,” one of them said with a little pepper in her speech.

“Jimmy don’t even let me go to the doctor any more,” the other one said. “Jimmy says he ain’t havin’ no man look at me like that, even if he is a doctor.”

She had a bruise on the side of her face, and was dressed like the other women, in a tight Spandex tube top and shorts. The strange thing was that they all had their hair wrapped in pink foam curlers. Bill LaWarre, an ad exec I met there, asked me once, “Where do you suppose they were going after Aunt Maudie’s that they had to roll up their hair?”

I suspected that they did it for church the next morning. Saturday night was for drinking and running around, but Sunday morning was a time to repent, a time for family, and most important, a time to forget playing music.

My first night at Aunt Maudie’s was followed by many more. I was a good harmony singer, and the bandleader started asking me to do back-up singing. Before I knew it, I was a full-time bluegrass performer, traveling around the country in the back of a Ford Econoline van, and my Saturday nights of being a spectator as Spoons clacked his heart out were over.

It must have been sometime in the early 1980s when I saw Caldonia, the city’s wickedly good, singularly-named tap dancer, and I asked her if she’d heard anything about Mr. Spoons lately. “Aw,” she said, “he done won that Gong Show, and he’s all over the place.”

We were at Arnold’s Bar and Grill on a Thursday night, and Caldonia had arrived with her tap shoes in a cardboard box tied with rough twine. She looked a little like a Frenchwoman, with black eyes and an expressive face. Small, compact, and wiry, when she put those tap shoes on she became a star. She was genuinely gifted, a woman who could gyrate her muscles like a belly dancer. Whenever she showed up in a bar and began an impromptu performance, the waitresses would pass around a hat for tips. If the take did not satisfy Caldonia, she would make her way to a table, turn around, and contract the muscles in her buttocks, one at a time, until the gentlemen watching coughed up a sufficient amount of cash.

“Now,” she’d say triumphantly, “let’s give Caldonia a standing rovation!” And they did.

Caldonia always said she had been discovered dancing for dimes on the street corner in Louisville by bandleader Louis Jordan, and that he wrote the song “Caldonia” (you know: “Caldonia, Caldonia, what makes your big head so hard?”) for her. I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not. But it makes me smile to remember Caldonia and her sassy confidence, Mr. Spoons’s rhythmic brilliance, and Johnny Rosebud, the flower vendor who sang “Kansas City Blues” in bars all over town where he sold long-stemmed red roses. Johnny Rosebud didn’t know any other songs, just “Kansas City Blues,” but he could really belt it out if anyone gave him a microphone and a chance. And every Saturday night, someone in some bar did. Cincinnatians were like that. If you had something that needed doing, some singular talent that begged for an audience, this was the place for it.

The most unique performer I ever saw in town was the man who played the potato chip bag. He came into King’s Row—a club in the Gaslight section of Clifton—one night when things were a little slow. I didn’t know him, but he was instantly welcomed by the boys in the band. “Come on up when you’re ready,” one of the musicians offered.

“Just let me get a bag of chips,” the man said.

I sang a chorus of “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus (and a Lot Less Rock and Roll),” which was one of my specialty numbers, then the man stepped up on the bandstand and began blowing up an empty potato chip bag until it was as big and as taut as a balloon. The band started in on “Dueling Banjos”—which was what they usually played when they were dealing with an unusual musical situation. The banjo player picked out the first couple of bars of the challenge: Dum dee dum dum Da Da dum dum dum. And then, believe it or not, the potato chip bag rang through the microphone like a kazoo: Dum dee dum dum DUM. In the great tradition of Spoons and Caldonia and Johnny Rosebud, he brought down the house.

Talking with Mr. Spoons again after so many years summoned up memories of those days, when a sense of humor could help a performer endure long after his sell-by date. “Only men get old,” he said, when I asked him how he felt about life. “Women don’t get old. Women can always find a young lover.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It seems to me that older men have an easier time”

“But an easier time at what,” he said, and I laughed at this impudence.

The tales that flew around about Mr. Spoons in New York were mostly true. He became one of that city’s iconic street performers. When The New York Times profiled him in 1996, his marriage was over and he was augmenting his income by working as a janitor at Macy’s. But he was still playing the spoons.

About a dozen years ago, he returned briefly when I booked him into the Bockfest celebration in Over-the-Rhine—a tradition that got new life in the 1990s thanks to the clubs and coffee shops and art galleries proliferating on Main Street. When he arrived pulling a karaoke machine behind him, I groaned a little. I had wanted Mr. Spoons for his unamplified talent—the way I remembered him performing back when we first met. I had imagined him tapping in and out of the bars along Main, dancing a little to get things going. But he had a new schtick—the karaoke machine—and he was as proud of his new hardware as we were of the trendy clubs, the crowds in the streets so thick the cars couldn’t get through.

At the end of the night, when I went to pay Mr. Spoons, I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought of the new, improved Over-the-Rhine.

“What do you think of my new karaoke machine?” he answered, looking at me impishly.

We walked past Neon’s and Jefferson Hall and Kaldi’s. The windows were so clean they squeaked, and lights glittered from behind the glass. “What I think is it will be bars, because it’s always been bars,” he observed. “A leopard don’t change its spots.”

I followed him up Main Street as if we were in a bubble. The young men and women swaying down the sidewalks in expensive suits and chic high heels were far away from us, and we were as distant from them as if we were mere players and the stardust of our memories was in another place entirely.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue.

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