Blues man and Music Maker Relief Foundation artist Captain Luke passed away on Tuesday, May 12, 2015, at the age of 87. He will be greatly missed by all, but we are grateful that his music will live on, and with it his indomitable spirit.
Luther Mayer, known as “Captain Luke,” was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1927. He grew up on his grandparents’ farm in nearby Clinton, where he followed the furrows barefoot behind the plow as his Uncle Jesse worked and sang to his mule. Luke’s ambition at the time was to learn to drive a mule. It was one he never achieved, but he soaked in the music of the countryside as Jesse played his harmonica on the evening porch. At 14, Luke moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with his mother and sister, where the exigencies of the situation carried him increasingly out of school and into the work force. At 17 he went to work for a junkman who demanded a day’s work from his young employee. His boss was a large man and Luke soon learned to lift his own end of a scrap motor and heave it onto a flatbed truck without pause or complaint. Early on he had developed a talent for imitation, and Luke began to sing the songs he heard on the radio, everything from the big band singers to hillbilly ballads. (“Back then I had eleventeen voices,” Luke said frequently.)
Luke was blessed with a deep natural baritone. He was accustomed to carrying the low parts in church, and his abilities soon caught the attention of Otis King, who taught him how to hold the low notes and make them rise and fall. Soon Luke was singing bass professionally in King’s Gospel Quintet. He also began to entertain at informal gatherings, an avocation that would endear him to friends and strangers alike throughout his life. Accompanied by whatever instrumentation was available, Luke would travel in a wide circle from Winston performing in drinkhouses, the social hubs of the African-American community in the North Carolina Piedmont. His repertoire changed with the popular music of the changing times and grew to include comedy routines, notably renditions of Amos ’n’ Andy skits with inflection-perfect renditions of every character. He worked continuously, raising four girls and two boys in Winston-Salem. In 1969 he moved to New York City and worked for four years in the garment industry until called back to Winston for a family emergency. He has remained there since.
A chance encounter in the early 1970’s led to a long association with Guitar Gabriel. Gabe was a master of the country blues, another musical form that suited Luke’s voice perfectly, and the two became fixtures in the Winston-Salem drinkhouse scene, providing a nucleus of entertainment in their community, alongside such local luminaries as Macavine Hayes, Whistlin’ Britches, Willa Mae Buckner and Mr. Q. Sometime early in this period an admiral’s hat caught Luke’s eye in Miller’s Variety Store and he became in an instant “Captain Luke.” Although completely unfamiliar with boats, Luke was a leader of men by anyone’s standards: the handle fit and it stuck.
Answers to questions came easily to Luke. His uncommon combination of youthful demeanor and ancient wisdom were perhaps born of his direct approach to everyday life. Luke took care of business for a long time. His was the yogi of a man who had worked hard, played hard, and slept well, and his terse evaluations of the situation left little room for doubt or argument.
Luke’s music and art were rooted firmly in the African-American working class of the Carolina Piedmont and the mystique of his message referred continually to the blues experience. However, as a pure entertainer in the milieu of the drinkhouses, Luke’s style and song selection periodically changed to suit the needs and desires of his audience. Luke explored the broad ranges of music, from its roots in the deep country with blues and country, all the way to modern pop/showbiz manifestations. From the primitive nursery rhyme “Old Black Buck,” to more familiar sounds of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Guitar Gabriel, through the rhythm ’n blues of Joe Simon, to the sentimental songs of Billy Eckstein and Brook Benton, Luke’s rich dry baritone provided a panoramic tour of his musical influences. It arrived at an unusual convergence that might be called Outsider Lounge Music. The sound was basic and sophisticated in the same moment, speaking to us with the savage perspicacity of Satchmo in his prime and swinging with the easy grace of a young Dean Martin.
Luke’s art exhibited the same eclecticism as his song bag. Decades ago a glistening beer can by the roadside spoke to him of beauty and function, and from that time he fashioned homemade ashtrays, lamps, airplanes, and cars from society’s debris. Ubiquitous in the knick-knack shelves and card tables of his Winston-Salem neighborhood, they have become sought-after pieces in the folk-art collector’s market.
In 1991 Captain Luke and Guitar Gabriel began working with Tim and Denise Duffy, and in 1994 they helped found the Music Maker Relief Foundation. In the two decades since, Captain Luke performed at Lincoln Center and prestigious festivals through out the United States, Europe and South America. His last recording ‘Live at the Hamilton’ was issued early this year, a truly classic record along with his long time partner Cool John Ferguson. In 2003, Music Maker Relief Foundation released his album ‘Outsider Lounge Music.’ He is also featured on the compilations ‘A Living Past’ (1995) and ‘We Are the Music Makers’ (2014).
Captain Luke was a leader in his community of East Winston-Salem, he had an open door policy for anyone to come in from the cold to sleep, and he would share what food he had on the stove. Captain Luke was a dedicated father, and is survived by his six children.