Melvyn “Deacon” Jones could make a Hammond organ sound like it was singing “Hallelujah.”
The charismatic bluesman, who was part of the Chicago rock and soul band Baby Huey and the Babysitters in the 1960s, died of cancer July 6 in Los Angeles, where he’d lived for 23 years, said his partner Pamela Hill. He was 73.
He jammed with the likes of Muddy Waters, Carlos Santana, Gregg Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton. He got signed by Curtis Mayfield — who gave him the nickname Deacon. And he spent 18 years playing with blues legend John Lee Hooker.
The Babysitters — whose song “Hard Times” has been sampled by rap artists including A Tribe Called Quest, Lil Wayne and Ghostface Killah — played clubs all around Chicago, as well as Las Vegas and Europe, opening for Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave.
One time, Mr. Jones and his bandmates in Baby Huey and the Babysitters were flown to Paris to entertain the Rothschilds. The guests included actress Mia Farrow and dukes, duchesses, earls and princesses, according to his book “The Blues Man: Forty Years with the Blues Legends.”
The group seemed destined for big things until 1970, when lead singer James “Baby Huey” Ramey — said to weigh 400 pounds — died at 26. After his death, Chaka Khan temporarily stepped in.
When the Babysitters were in a groove at the Thumbs Up at Broadway and Diversey, Mr. Jones said in his book, he’d climb into the rafters — and jump into the crowd.
“They held their arms across, intertwined, honest to God, and caught us,” he said. “We were so drunk we had no fear.”
An encounter with jazz great Miles Davis in 1968 helped lead him to trade his trumpet for the organ. He was playing at a Greenwich Village club.
In his autobiography, Mr. Jones captured the scene: “One night Miles slowly walked up onto the stage right in the middle of a song — Stevie Wonder’s ‘Uptight (Everything is Alright).’ He motioned to me to give him my trumpet. I wanted to run but I handed it to him and started to walk off the stage. Miles put his hand up; stopping me. He wanted me to stand right where I was; he wanted me to get a close-up view. . . . I believe to this day that that was the beginning of the end of my trumpet-playing career. Miles Davis played an entire solo with one finger, looking me right in the eye the whole time. I’m not kidding — one finger. He made more music come out of that thing with one finger than I could ever imagine was even possible.”
In switching to the Hammond B3 organ, Mr. Jones built himself a long career as a sideman.
“An intuitive blues genius” — that’s how Garrett Morris, an original “Saturday Night Live” cast member and Juilliard School-trained singer, describes Mr. Jones, who played in Los Angeles at his club, Garrett Morris’ Downtown Blues & Comedy Club. They’d perform Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” together.
“Give him a song, a groove, give him a key, and he would go off,” Morris said.
“He was a great organ player,” said Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues magazine. “Fill in the holes, and then step back and let the lead man shine.”
“He knew how to bring things to life, and he was a great MC,” said his best friend, blues guitarist Benny Turner.
Mr. Jones described writing the song “We’ll Meet Again,” which was on Hooker’s 1995 Grammy-winning recording “Chill Out,” after helping Hooker decipher a “Dear John” letter because the blues icon couldn’t read or write.
Young Melvyn grew up in Richmond, Indiana, where he and his brother Harold played in the high school band. Harold Jones became a famed jazz drummer.
After moving to Los Angeles, Mr. Jones met Pamela Hill outside a club called the Mint. She isn’t sure how many times he was married — she thinks maybe four. It was love at first sight.
“That can happen,” Mr. Jones wrote. “It happened to Pam and me.”
When he stepped onstage to play a sensual rendition of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” that was it, she said: “We had a one-night stand that lasted for 25 years.”
Mr. Jones’ music took him to 42 countries. She was with him in 27.
“He was just my cup of tea,” she said.
Mr. Jones’ signature line was: “Long live the blues.” It was one of the last things he said to people who called to say a final good-bye.
He is also survived by his daughter Sarah and son Jason, Pamela Hill’s daughters Khalief Dantzler and Amorette Brooms and six grandchildren.
A celebration of life was held in Mr. Jones’ memory. The blues were played.