McCall made his professional debut at 16 - as a gospel singer with the group Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. He joined the army, the 82nd Airborne Division, and served in Korea and Germany. He got hurt, and while recuperating in a Fort Bragg, N.C., hospital, he got his first guitar lesson from a fellow patient - a country and western player, a white man.
"You really play nice," McCall told him.
McCall got out of the service and went to Chicago. He sang gospel and then began writing songs, eventually working for the legendary label Chess Records.
McCall got his stage name by surprise. He made a demo recording of his song, "When You Wake Up," because a producer liked it and was trying to convince someone to record it. A month or two later, while driving in the car with his brother, he was amazed to hear his song and his voice on the radio. The disc jockey called him Cash McCall, and that's how he's been known ever since.
"When You Wake Up" was a hit in 1966 and was the song that got him on a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels as well as Lou Christie - just a little bit out of the blues genre.
McCall wrote gospel songs and songs for blues greats Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Etta James, Howlin' Wolf. He also penned R&B tunes for Blood Sweat & Tears and Ramsey Lewis and played guitar with Natalie Cole, The Temptations, The Drifters, The Coasters and Minnie Riperton and the Rotary Connection.
He first met boogie-woogie piano player David Bennett Cohen, an original member of Country Joe and the Fish, at a Florida festival. Janis Joplin also was on the bill, McCall remembered. Cohen will join McCall, Chuckie Burke on drums and Bobby King on bass in Harpers Ferry.
Music has taken McCall all over the world. He talked about the wonderful food in Paris, the wonderful people in Curaao and, in a recent phone interview from his Memphis, Tenn., home, he was looking forward to dining on chicken Kiev as he prepared to go to Russia. "They tell me the guys are good," he said of the Russian musicians with whom he was slated to play.
"I play with mixed bands all the time," he said, speaking of playing with white musicians. He remembers days when that was not so easily done. Touring years ago was different. He recalled a state trooper in the South who "gave us the blues."
Race relations were different years ago. And although interviewers in other countries tried to get him to "cut" America, McCall followed his father's advice: "You can get mad at someone you love, but don't ever doubt them."
"America's home," McCall said. "It's so wonderful to be in the world and see the change."
If you go . . .
An Evening with Blues Legend Cash McCall
Blues Heritage Concert, with David Bennett Cohen
Friday, April 5, 8 p.m.
Hagerstown bluesman Pete Lancaster will open the show at 7:30 p.m.
Cliffside Inn Ballroom
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Advance tickets cost $12 for adults and $10 for students and children and are available at 1-800-821-5206 and 1-304-535-6881 through 3 p.m. Friday.
Tickets cost $15 at the door.
Proceeds will support public education and interpretation of African-American history at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, specifically the Niagara Centennial events.
The Niagara Movement was the first major civil rights organization to be formed in the United States in the early 1900s. The gathering, led by educator and writer W.E.B. DuBois, was in August 1906 on the campus of Storer College, which now is part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
The Niagara Centennial Committee was formed to provide funding and educational programming for a 100th anniversary celebration of the Niagara Movement in August 2006. The committee is a partnership among the Jefferson County NAACP, Shepherd College and the Harpers Ferry Historical Association in conjunction with the National Park Service.