Years ago, when I was in my mid twenties, I drove cab in Vancouver. It was an interesting job and really, it was an experience that transformed me from being a naïve and innocent youth to a sometimes cynical and generally responsible adult. You might think you know a city but until you see the nooks and crannies, the highs and lows of a big urban sprawl, well, you have just scratched the surface. Cabbies also get to hone their communication skills, needing to judge from fare to fare whether to be talkative or not, to pay attention to body language and emotional mood and be responsive to the needs of the passengers, the traffic, and in those pre-computer days, to listen to the constant buzz of the radio dispatch system.
One rainy evening I was sitting in the queue, at one of the major hotels in the downtown core, listening to the blues hour on the FM jazz radio station I preferred in those days. The doorman raised his arm and motioned me forward for my next passenger. He got into the car and gave me an address that was neither too close nor too far; “At least it keeps the wheels rolling,” I thought to myself as we pulled into the stream of traffic. My fare seemed to appreciate the music at least and after a moment or two asked if I liked the blues or did I just happen to be listening to this station by chance. “Well this is the jazz station but they play a blues set every night, and of course I love the blues. Doesn’t everyone?” I answered. He chuckled and replied that no, not everyone likes the blues, no, not at all. “Have you ever been to Portland Al’s?” he then asked me. “Nope, can’t say that I have – who or what is that?” I responded. “Well, it’s a store at 3rd and Main that’s more than just a corner store. Portland Al runs it and he knows more about the blues than just about anybody in this town. He also sells tape compilations of his favorites and has a few stories to tell. Check him out, you won’t be disappointed.” That turned out to be one of the better tips I ever received as a cabbie.
A few days later I made my way to 3rd and Main to check the place out. As promised, it looked pretty much like one of the hundreds of corner stores found throughout the city in those days, before they were pushed aside by the all-too-common 7Elevens and Starbucks that have invaded the urban landscape faster than scotch broom on a hillside. The sign was one of those ubiquitous Coca Cola signs that proclaimed “Portland Al’s, Gifts and Groceries” to traffic rushing into and out of the city, but unless you lived around the corner or had some pressing need there wasn’t anything from the outward appearance that might draw you in. Indeed, upon entering it looked pretty much like all those other stores, some shelves with basic food items, a refrigerated dairy case, candy, and soda pop. Beside the counter with the cash register however, was an alcove that led through to a whole other space.
The inner sanctum included racks of new and used albums, stereo components of varying quality, framed pictures, posters and generally a potpourri of music paraphernalia. There was also a random collection of native carvings, not necessarily of the best quality. Presiding over all was Portland Al himself. Conjure up, if you will, a picture of a stereotypical beatnik from the 50’s with a goatee and a beret, and how he might look like after a few decades of hard living and you have an approximate vision of Portland Al. “Can I help you, son?” he asked me. I told him I had heard that he had some pretty good blues compilation tapes and he admitted that yes, he had a few of those. Leading me over to a cabinet at the back he said that maybe I’d like to start with one or two of his special blues compilations, and I agreed. He also pointed out some of the pictures on the walls, which included him with a who’s who of blues royalty such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Joe Turner. “Got a few stories to tell about those guys!” he said chuckling to himself.
I bought the tapes, with no thought of all about copyright legislation or anything like that and left the store. Well, after listening to those tapes several times I ended up a week later back at 3rd and Main to pick up some more tunes. Over the next few months I became a regular of sorts and was given a more than cursory education in the blues. Al would like nothing better than to pull out an album full of photos and clippings and would take great pride in reliving gigs and parties from years ago. He wasn’t a blues musician himself, but was a huge fan and had done some promoting in the past. He had received his moniker because in his teens he frequently travelled to Portland to catch certain acts; I’m not sure but I think he had family there. Anyway he loved to hold forth on his favorite topics and I soon became familiar with the other Kings, Freddie and Albert, the differences between Delta and Chicago blues, along with the history of the civil rights movement on the West Coast. I received a brief history of Chess Records, Stax, Verve, Motown, and all the rest and which labels recorded which artists. While not exactly a busy establishment, the door at Portland Al’s opened and shut frequently enough and the clientele provided a certain amount of entertainment value themselves. Since Vancouver didn’t have a decent R & B radio station, my previous knowledge of the blues was pretty much limited to what the rock scene had appropriated. And while Al himself loved Clapton and the rest of the blues rockers, he opened my ears to bluesmen like Cornell Dupree, Junior Wells, Little Milton, Albert Collins, Fenton Robinson, Otis Rush, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.
Well, the years passed and I moved on and stopped dropping by to 3rd and Main. The area changed, the city grew and finally, a few years ago I heard that Al had sold his remaining record collection and the rest of the stock and closed the store. The years had not been kind to him – his only son was killed in a fire of a suspicious nature and Al himself had some serious health issues to grapple with. I wish I could say that I reached out to let him know how much he had given me but I let it slide, consoling myself that I was living miles away in a different city. Now, I will never be able to acknowledge that debt directly to him but I’ll always honour his memory and his own personal love of the blues that he so willingly shared with many others and me.