John Allen Blue (photo by Morgan Y. Evans)
John Allen Blue is co-owner, with his wife Maureen Byrd, of Blue-Byrd’s Haberdashery & Music at 320 Wall Street in Kingston. The best shop around for extensive blues music and classy headwear, it is a must-visit location in our fair city. Blue also hosts the popular “Blue’s People” program on Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m. on Radio Kingston. Speaking with him is a real pleasure. He is a fine guy to get to know, with many amazing memories and insights on our region.
Morgan Y. Evans: I remember years ago my dad got me the Woodstock Muddy Waters record that he did with the guys from The Band at your old location downtown on the Kingston waterfront area. That album has really stuck with me.
John Allen Blue: I have a picture of the making of that album in the back. All the people in the village when Muddy was up here.
Oh, cool. How did you get the idea of having the shop?
Actually, through meeting my wife. I am a Marist graduate and from Dutchess County. I had met my wife 20 years prior to marrying her. I bumped into her again and she had a little boy and we started talking. She asked for my number, I didn’t ask for hers (laughs). I called her and a few years later we were married.
I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be living in Kingston. Even before I got married, I always remembered the number of stop signs in Kingston. My wife was a grant writer for an organization called SCORE. It was a community housing program that saved a lot of the buildings on the Rondout. They saved many buildings that remain.
I had been working in retail since I was 14 years old. I always enjoyed engaging people. At college I met a friend that got me a job at Record City in Poughkeepsie, the premiere record store in the Hudson Valley for about 30 years. That’s when my interest in music really came full circle in terms of all the things I listened to as a child from gospel to hearing my aunt sing Southern hymns, then going off to college and being more exposed to music from a wide range of genres. Before you know it, I developed a true understanding of how it meshes together.
I remember an incident when a kid came in and Muddy Waters, whom you mentioned, was singing “Rollin’ Stone” and the kid thought it was a Stones song. At least he made the connection, but I quickly said, “Woah.” I had to correct him.
That really started my journey. I developed a lot more appreciation for blues, gospel and the African-American experience in influencing the whole world of music. It’s incredible. When you read about Willie Dixon and the number of songs he wrote and then connect that to Led Zeppelin, for example, it keeps evolving. It doesn’t hurt that my last name is Blue as well. Most people thought that was my nickname. My wife’s last name being Byrd, it was almost fictitious.
It was meant to be.
We also used to do blues festivals and shows. We were part of a nice, tight-knit community in the Rondout before we moved the shop Uptown. I was part of starting The Artists’ Soapbox Derby down there. I have, I believe, the only complete collection of all the posters.
How long have you had the Blue’s People radio show?
Off and on for about a year. I was reluctant to do it because I was still working my regular job. The organization that got me to do it was [the not-for-profit community arts group] Transart. I’ve known them a long time. They’ve been doing Jazz in the Valley. This is the 19th year. The husband of the executive director is a professor at Medgar Evers in New York City, and he is a blues scholar. He traced it all the way back to Africa. He travels the world doing lectures.
They wanted Big Joe Fitz to do it, which makes sense. I wasn’t a radio guy. They kept asking me and asking me, and were worried about filling program slots. I decided to give it a shot. When I looked at it, I was about to retire in two months. As a retiree, if you don’t have something to do every day it becomes uncomfortable for folks.
I’m like a shark. I need something to do. I’ll probably work until I die. I shouldn’t say that, but that’s who I am. My wife reminds me that retirement is a gift. I worked for 33 years.
The radio station they asked me to engineer it, put it together and whatever. It has all been by trial and error for me. I’ve gained an appreciation for people who have specific programs. If you’re just taking a Spotify-suggested list, that is not radio. For me, I need to know every piece I’m playing, have some connection to it, continuity. At the same time, I don’t want to give more of a narrative than letting people listen to the music (laughs).
(laughs) Yeah. It’s a balance between teaching people about its importance and hearing the work for themselves.
The hope is if they listen and enjoy it, they will go and get it. I post my playlist every week. I make copies of all the music I play on the show and give it to my store customers. It is building, and I am getting more comfortable. I hope by next year I will develop a listening audience that is loyal based on the music selections. If I find people I like I listen again. I owe Greer Smith at Transart a debt of gratitude, who got me to believe I can do this.
I also want to shout out Jimmy Buff. He’s used to dealing with some of the most outstanding pro DJs in New York State. He’s a master of his craft.
Warren Lawrence is another guy. The whole crew over there. The radio station has been a nice transition into retirement along with the store.
Interview Published and Conducted by Hudson Valley One.