His hands whipping smartly across the fretboard of his guitar on a recent Sunday afternoon, the one-man blues band known as Brother Yusef entertained an enthusiastic audience June 24 as part of the Grant Brimhall Library’s summer music series with an invigorating musical subgenre he calls “Fattback Blues.”
The 55-year-old dread-locked musician is a seasoned busker who brings to mind historical antecedents like San Francisco’s Jesse Fuller and Memphis’ Joe Hill Louis, performers who maximized what two hands and two feet can do when there are no accompanists available.
Yusef has been seen by people passing by on the streets of Universal CityWalk and Downtown Disney, but his library audience wasn’t going anywhere, engaging in what some described as “chair dancing,” clapping hands and stomping feet to Yusef’s irresistible homemade beat.
“When people walked by without stopping, I just made my rhythm more fierce,” Yusef said after his opening number. He accomplishes this by wrapping a tambourine around the ankle of his left leg; it jangles with the insistent tapping of his foot in time to the music on his amplified acoustic guitar.
The unrelenting rhythm is enhanced by his right thumb, which beats out a percussive bass line to imitate the sound of a string bass.
Yusef plays “bottleneck style” guitar, his left pinky gliding rapidly across the strings with the use of a hollowed-out steel bar, a technique used by legendary bluesmen like Son House and Bukka White.
Born in Bakersfield, Yusef (who does not reveal his given name) moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1969, where he grew up in the Altadena/Pasadena corridor. His grandfather belonged to a sanctified church, which Yusef remembered “freaked me out as a child,” because of its tradition of wildly explosive call-and-response gospel music.
“I asked my mom, ‘Why do they act like that?’” Yusef said, to which his mother replied, “When you’re black in America, you need one day to purge.”
He started learning music as most youngsters did, by taking piano lessons, but after seeing the Jackson 5 on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” he marveled not at pint-size prodigy Michael but his guitar-playing brothers Tito and Jermaine.
At age 19, Yusef bought a guitar and became steeped in the gumbo-like mix of African-American musical styles, from the primitive splendor of country blues in the rural South to the persistent rhythms and naked fury of 1950s Chicago nightclubs.
Yusef’s exposure to the music of the sanctified church is the main influence on his singing style, while his instrumental prowess seems to transport Chicago blues numbers like Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” back to the Mississippi Delta.
“The only difference between blues and gospel,” Yusef said, “is that one is played on Saturday nights and the other on Sunday mornings.”
Growing up in the ’60s, Yusef was heavily influenced by the African-American stars of top 40 radio, including Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix.
Yusef’s performance of “This Little Light of Mine,” a 1920s gospel number, invoked the spirit of Ray Charles’ 1955 Atlantic recording, which helped bring about the blend of sacred and secular music that came to be known as soul. Yusef also mentioned the influence of a friend and mentor, Raynard Franklin, who introduced him to the music of Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley.
Although most of Yusef’s musical idols are dead and gone, he keeps their spirit alive through his virtual museum of African-American musical styles.
“That what you call the power of the blues,” he said, before launching into his foot-stomping finale.