Topeka Blues Society Keeps the Heartland Blue – American Blues Scene

“It’s not fun, we’re not doing it.” So states the motto of the Topeka Blues Society. Based in the capital city of Kansas, the Topeka Blues Society (TBS) was established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit volunteer organization in July of 2008. The mission of the Society is to promote music rooted in the blues, through performances, education , community involvement and outreach, and artist support throughout NE Kansas.

One of the founding members of the Society is someone who almost everyone who has played the blues in the Midwest knows, Suki Blakely. Suki has had her hands and heart in the music business for nearly all her life — as a promoter in Kansas City, to owner of the former Uncle Bo’s in Topeka, to a driving force within the Topeka Blues Society and more.

Suki Blakely with Tikyra Jackson of Southern Avenue at Spirit of Kansas 2017 Photo: JD Nash

Blakely is one of the people that once met, one can’t forget. Always welcoming, helpful and personable, her energy and good will spill onto everyone she meets, an indelible “feel leaving good” mark. She’s a barkeep, promoter and entrepreneur, and even though Uncle Bo’s gone, Suki is still active in the local music scene.

I was able to catch up with her as she was packing for her annual pilgrimage to Memphis for Blues Week.

We’re doing our showcase with Gina [Hughes]. Gina owns the Galaxie Agency in Nashville, and Topeka Blues Society, we do a showcase with her at BB King’s, and that’ll be on Saturday, which normally it’s on Thursday. So that’ll be interesting to see how that works out. You know, it’s all new territory here.

Donnie Miller, who is originally from Kansas will be there, and we’re sponsoring Howard Mahan, and Jon English, better known as Orphan Jon. We try to pick artists that do a lot of the work themselves and keep themselves booked. You know, mostly they’ve been in the IBC (International Blues Challenge), or have tried out, maybe they didn’t make it to that down in Memphis, but somebody you see that’s really working, trying to do everything themselves, and we try to give them a hand up. And then that day of the showcase, we invite all the agents and festival people. I mean, it’s like a big shopping trip down there, too, because you’re always looking for talent. And then people can see them and then hopefully they’ll hire them.

Suki is quick to point out other folks she knows that may be performing in town as well.

Hector Anchondo will be playing in the Vizztone Showcase at the Rum Boogie, which is on the opposite end of the block from BB King’s. Then there’s the Blues City Cafe. Lots of local bands play there like John Nemeth, and Southern Avenue who all live in Memphis. The Ghost Town Blues Band, they’ll be playing over at the Blues City Cafe. Matt Isbell from that band makes cigar box guitars and he also does a really nice thing. If you contact him in advance, he’ll pick you up at the airport and transport you to your accommodations downtown. Nice right?

Oh, and Zac Harmon, who is nominated for Soul/Blues Album of the year, the Society gave him a Joel Edison made guitar for his birthday. It was from when Uncle Bo’s was open so it’s been quite a while, but it’s his favorite guitar. So Zac asked Joel to make him another guitar and put his mom’s picture on it. Alexander Lancaster from Two Wolves Studio in NOTO did the artwork and the guitar made it into Zac’s hands last weekend, in time for his performance at the BMAs (Blues Music Awards), and for the HART Fund at the Hard Rock Cafe.

For some background, Joel Edison is a talented performer and luthier who has selflessly given to others in the music community. Each year he donates a beautiful hand-crafted guitar, one that would be the envy of any performer, to raise funds for the Topeka Blues Society as well as other charities. A fall in late October, 2021 left Edison needing combined anterior and posterior neck surgery to stabilize the damaged vertebrae with fusion and repair of discs. The guitar he made for Harmon, sadly, will be the last one he is able to create. Originally called “Fallen Angel” by Edison, it was renamed “Flo” when it got to Harmon.

Zac Harmon with “Flo”

The Topeka Blues Society with all their combined philanthropy began a couple years after Uncle Bo’s opened in the basement of the Ramada Inn in Topeka.

Well, we started it in 2008. I opened Uncle Bo’s in 2005 and I had gone down to the BMAs, and then I heard about the IBC and then I went down for that. And so I just started researching stuff. Then you know, of course, I’m always like, ‘Well, let’s just go do it and get a band and send down there’. But to do that we had to just step back a little bit. Get your board and make your rules, get a 501(c)3, which is, you know, you just need to hire an attorney to do that. We tried to do it, it’s too hard. We even have an attorney on the board most of the time.

But anyway, that took another year, over a year. Then you have to just set up a whole business. And then we got to have our first IBC band competition and send a band down to Memphis, a bunch of us went down there and we had good time and met more people and you know, it’s just grown from then. To have a 501(c)3 for a blues society we needed to be active in our community and have events and so then that’s when we got asked to do Gage Park and started the Summertime Blues.

Summertime Blues is an open air program that brings live blues to the amphitheater at Gage Park in Topeka on the 3rd Wednesday of the month in the Spring and Summer. Like everything the TBS does, it’s free to the public, that includes their annual Spirit of Kansas Blues Festival, held on July 4th at Lake Shawnee, another gorgeous outdoor area. This festival is not free to produce, but through community support and donations, the Topeka Blues Society is able to offer free admission to allees of the Festival, thereby exposing the blues to a large audience on Independence Day.

Spirit of Kansas brings diverse talent, both local and national to celebrate the blues along the shore of the lake. Previous acts to have performed at that festival include Samantha Fish, Mike Zito, Anthony Gomes, Mike Farris with the McCrary Sisters, Royal Southern Brotherhood, Zac Harmon, Hamilton Loomis, Brandon Santini, Albert Cummings, the Cates Brothers, Tas Cru, Duke Robillard , Hurricane Ruth, Wayne Baker Brooks, Jason Ricci, Keeshea Pratt Band, Walter Trout, Jeremiah Johnson, Indigenous, and many more. This year’s lineup is equally stellar.

Mulvane Arts ask us to do the music over there. So we started doing that and then see what it was that came to us. They were getting older. And it was just too much. They were doing the little concert at the lake. And they had vendors and stuff out there not so much on the band part. And so they wanted us to do the band. They came to the Blues Society to do the band for the Spirit of Kansas. Well, we didn’t have a stage, we had to build a stage. We had some big artists there. But nobody knew who they were then, you know, Mike Farris was there. I mean, we had some big artists, and people didn’t know who they were watching. But I think they liked it. And then, it’s grown, and they’d pass back.

We took over the vendors, too. The Kiwanis Club or something had it, and they just got where they didn’t want to do it anymore. So we just kind of took it over. And now we’re planning for it all year. It costs us about $25,000 to do that. We have, you know, donors like Mr. Parrish gives us usually like 20 rooms for some of the artists, and Prairie Band Casino is a big donor. We’re not gonna ask for money from people. You go to your friends and people that you know, but then usually there’s somebody out there raising funds and stuff. We don’t have that person. We all just pitch in.

Memphis is always a great place to find bands for Spirit of Kansas. At the IBC you’re seeing bands that are just coming up (Like Jose Ramirez from a couple years ago who is now a successful Delmark recording artist). It’s bands like that I try and snatch before they get too famous. We like our folks here in Kansas to kind of see them first. Sometimes I’m in a venue like five or ten minutes, just checking people out, and then go on to the next venue. I mean, it’s kind of like you’re shopping the whole time.

I mean, you’ve been around long enough, you’ve seen Danielle Nicole come up, and you saw Samantha Fish come up, and you’ve seen like, these artists come up from their beginnings. I think Danielle was maybe 18 when she played Uncle Bo’s with Trampled Under Foot. Samantha was like, 18 or 19. I mean, you watch them come up, but now, you can’t touch them. I mean, not that they won’t sell tickets, it’s just we don’t have a venue to accommodate their talent.

As a promoter, Blakely brings her contacts and talent to other organizations wanting blues in the area. Evergy recently asked for her help, so she brought Anthony Gomes to the Evergy Plaza downtown for a free show.

I was always working before and so I didn’t ever get to really go to a lot of the stuff that was around town. So I’m getting to learn a little bit more, but they want to have shows that are more nationally known shows. And so they asked me to come in. Actually last year, Keeshea Pratt was in town and she did a show with Danielle Nicole who was in town for something. She had gone downtown to one of the Evergy shows and she performed for them for a little bit. And anyway that’s when they got the ‘oh, we should have some blue shows and maybe go up a notch’ and then they got a hold on me and so I brought in Anthony Gomes. Yeah, so if they asked me back, I’ll do some shows there.

But wait, for the Topeka Blues Society, there’s more.

We do Blues, Brews & Bites for Topeka Foster Care in September. It’s usually the third week in September and this will be our third year doing it. It raises money and awareness for foster care and it’s held at Ward Meade Park.

Doing stuff for the schools has been hard for the last three years because of COVID. But we have a Marvin Bailey Memorial instrument drive that we do starting at our first show at Gage Park every summer. Marvin was affiliated with the Boys and Girls Club here in town. So whatever instruments people donate, we have a small fund to have them repaired and put in good shape. Then we take them to whatever school contacts us with a need. It’s like the Blues in Schools program, but it’s bigger than that. It involves the Boys and Girls Club or wherever they’re needed. One part of that’s been really popular though, is we’ll buy a bunch of harmonicas, and then take someone in town who knows how to play to teach the kids. They learn a few basics and learn to play up and down the scales. Their poor parents after that (laughs). But it gives the kids the gratification of being able to play something and maybe that will lead them to something else.

Why did a former rock promoter start focusing on blues acts?

I’ve worked with a lot of genres, but the blues artists seem to be more humble and sincere. I like that part. Because there’s so many people that do so many things to help, and it kind of gives them the inspiration to keep on helping, if you can see what’s happening with them.

If you go to Chicago, the blues is different. It’s more sweet. You go to Kansas City blues is different than Mississippi blues. And if you get down to Nashville, it’s got a little more Western to it, you know, but all music has blues in it. So I like to venture out a little bit more. Some people think it’s just gonna be some guy that’s gonna sit there on a porch someplace or something. They have this in their head it’s just gonna be laid back and they’re gonna go to sleep. I think they’re thinking of jazz because they don’t know the difference between blues and jazz. But jazz can be upbeat too. So I need to continue to try to break that a little bit where blues is in everything. And people should just pay attention to the music, you know. We just need to be a little bit more open. I think.

If you’re in Memphis for the BMAs or the IBC, swing in to BB King’s on Saturday for the Galaxie Agency/Topeka Blues Society Showcase. Ask for Suki, and someone there will point her right out. If you’re lucky, she’ll tell you a story or two. One of my personal favorites is the one when her pet bit an up and coming rock star. It’s not the kind of pet you’re thinking, and probably not the rock star you’re picturing either, but I’ll let her tell you.

*Feature image photo credit: Rachel Lock

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