"Sticky" Ricky Dodson is tired. Birdlike and boyish from the stage but thin and haggard up close, the blues man, soul man, jazz man, R&B man, funk man, hip-hop man and man's man leans back on his bar stool and slumps against the table. He's just finished a four-hour set here at Marty's Blues Café, and he has to be up at 5 for his day job.
"I've been playing 47 years," the keyboardist and singer claims. He's 50. "I could play 'Watermelon Man' fluently in kindergarten."
His idol is Sly Stone. "He's been more of an influence on me than anybody. It's like something you can put in your pocket and take home," he says of Stone's music. "He's been my all and my everything for as long as I can remember."
One of Dodson's bandmates, drummer and singer Bobby Adams, sidles up, eating peanut butter sandwich crackers. The topic of long-ass gigs comes up. "Remember that gig we did at Mardi Gras? We played 11 hours straight! We started at 10 in the morning that day and stopped at 3 a.m. in the morning the next day," Adams says, his math slightly off.
Friends since childhood, Adams and Dodson used to have a two-piece band together called Scatman & Drummond — "Like Batman and Robin!" Adams explains. Actually, make that a three-piece, possibly more: Dodson's left hand, on the lower keyboard, plays the bass line; it sounds just like a bass guitar, not at all synthy, not at all pianolike, as it does what a real bass player would do. When you walk in and hear them going, first you scan the stage to see where that bass guitar is, then you wonder if they're using a backing track (impossible, given the spontaneity of their set). Adams' right hand, on the upper keyboard, plays piano and organ parts and occasionally horn parts, but he keeps it solid and doesn't piddle around with effects.
"As a musician, you cannot get me to listen to any music," he says, apropos of nothing. "Get me a stack of movies, and I won't leave the house." He reaches across the table for one of Adams' crackers.
Dodson and Adams are the more dapper half of tonight's band. Both wear wide-brimmed straw homburgs; shiny, long-sleeved black oxford shirts; and slacks and bright ties. Adams sports a vest. Their mates, no less impressive for being dressed more casually, are guitarist Memphis Mike (FedEx ball cap, drab navy button-up, way open at the neck) and singer, dancer and showman J.J. Johnson (slick in pink, from his leather ball cap down to his pink leather shoes).
Adams, Dodson and Memphis, who really is from Memphis, regularly play together at places such as the Hideout up north and the Kansas City Juke House (formerly Red Vine) as Just a Taste of Jazz. "We're called Just a Taste of Jazz because our music has just a taste of jazz," Adams says.
Tonight, they're billed as the J.J. Johnson Motown Dance Review, though that's a bit of a misnomer. Apparently, before I arrived at Marty's around 10 that Thursday night, they'd already done the Motown bit. For the rest of the night, they were, for all intents and purposes, the J.J. Johnson Rhythm & Blues Band. Hell, Thursday is "Eclectic Band Night" at Marty's.
And the JJJR&BB is eclectic. They'll do "Mustang Sally" to get people dancing, but once the dance floor's going, anything's liable to happen — a funk medley that runs through Sly and P-Funk, a funk-slash-hip-hop jam with Adams drumming and rapping all the lyrics to "Rapper's Delight" while Johnson woos the ladies. In the most compelling moment of the evening, Johnson ditches his mic during James Brown's ballad "It's a Man's World" and wanders around the room, singing unamplified, lookin' people square in the eyes, asking for a witness. He works in sex, God and politics.
The crowd is older, racially mixed and in the mood to dance. One couple, a potbellied man and a tall blonde, run through a semester of ballroom-dance lessons. It's the kind of night when you can give in and dance or just sit back, bounce on your bar stool and watch the musicians on stage, trying to make up your mind about which one's the coolest.
And when it's over, you make like Sticky Ricky and go get a good night's sleep.