From The Boss
A Brief History of Third Street Cigar Records
You could say Third Street Cigar Records started with a misunderstanding. Or at least that's what started me down the blues highway. But a lot of great trips start out with a wrong turn, I suppose.
Nearly forty years back, as a freshman in college, I decided it would be fun to be a DJ at the campus radio station. Getting offered a coveted ‘morning drive’ slot (with zero experience) turned out to be easy. The nature of my show, however, was not what I expected. The upperclassman in charge handed me a bunch of jazz albums and told me I was hosting a jazz show.
I liked rock and roll music. I didn’t yet know from jazz, and, neither did the program director. As it turned out, he had handed me a stack of classic blues records. I gave these a listen, and heard Hooker, Muddy, and Wolf for the first time. And the hook was set, forever. What had been mistaken for jazz became a lifelong love.
Before too long, I’d seen more local blues shows than I could count and had my own blues music collection. Eventually, I helped found the Black Swamp Blues Society as the first president and earned my wings setting up blues performances for local and national acts.
Then I met Big Jack Reynolds, one of the hold-outs from the 1960s Detroit blues scene. Jack was known for a few precious singles and a mysterious reputation. The first time I heard Jack play, I knew I was closer than ever to the very real thing. Big Jack had settled in Toledo and he became our blues shaman. And Jack made me his friend and promoter. He would stay in my life, and the lives of many others, for the rest of his days. Jack was always right in front of us, playing his deep soulful blues and telling us stories that became legends.
John Henry and Big Jack Reynolds at the site of Fortune Records in Detroit
Next came Broke And Disgusted. It was my first recording project with Big Jack, a cassette-only release expertly recorded by guitarist Larry Gold. Between that album and a split LP with The Griswolds on the Blue Suit label, the name Big Jack Reynolds was finally getting the recognition we knew it deserved. And none too soon, as Jack passed away in the early nineties.
By then my love of the blues had morphed into a drive to present the blues to others and I was able to kindle the flame on another great release. If Trouble Were Money, by another Detroit master, Louis Collins (better known as Mr. Bo) was another Blue Suit catalog entry.
The cottage-music-industry had to be set aside awhile, to make room for family and career. But the launch of Third Street Cigar in Waterville, Ohio, in 2014 gave me a great brand on which to hang new pork pie hats. First, we decorated the place with music memorabilia in an effort to show just what a hub for rock and blues performers the Toledo area has been. Local photographer John Rockwood was the source for dozens of amazing images which cover the walls of our retail store to this day. My pal John had been snapping away at concerts of all types and sizes for over forty years.
(aka Louis Collins)
Next, we decided to regularly bring live music in-house, something unique in the smoking lounge business. We focused on touring blues acts, who all seemed to fit the place like well-worn gloves. Our customers were delighted. In 2015, Third Street helped launch the Blues, Brews and Brats summer music festival here in Waterville. Again, more great blues musicians had reason to visit the place, and our reputation continued to grow.
The 2016 festival was where the idea of the record label really coalesced, with the great Johnny Rawls in town as the headliner. Johnny caught two of our ‘locals’, Bobby G. and The Good The Bad and The Blues. Johnny was impressed enough to say he’d love to be involved as a writer or producer if these musicians were interested in recording. Meanwhile, I’d been working with a few people to reissue the Big Jack Reynolds recordings and get Jack’s story turned into a documentary. Between Johnny’s encouragement and the fun of resurrecting Jack’s work, it seemed like the time to create a label of my own. Johnny loved the idea, and so I said I would do it – but only if Mr. Rawls himself signed on as an artist. Johnny said yes, and like so many classic blues deals, we shook hands on it in the back of a parked car, sitting behind the outdoor stage. This time, there was no misunderstanding.
The first Third Street Cigar Records album was Bobby G.’s debut, with songs by Johnny Rawls just as he promised me that night backstage. As I write this, it’s less than three years after Still Standing was issued, and we’re planning our tenth release with three Rawls albums already to our credit. One of those, 2018’s I’m Still Around, was named Soul Blues Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards. Our documentary on Big Jack has been welcomed at film festivals, and world-touring artists like Donald Kinsey and Chris Shutters now make their home on Third Street Cigar Records. No wonder they call us “America’s Fastest Growing Blues Label.”
Thanks for visiting Third Street. Pull up a chair, light up a sweet one, and put on some fresh blues. Great nights can still be had.
- John Henry, Founder, Third Street Cigar Records