Singer Jeannie Cheatham’s autobiography, Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On: My Life in Music (which comes laced with photos and includes a six-song Sweet Baby Blues Band sampler), takes its title from the leftfield hit she cowrote with husband Jimmy Cheatham and recorded on the 1984 Concord debut by the Sweet Baby Blues Band. Already in her late 50s, she found herself on the radio and at major clubs and festivals thanks to that light-hearted Kansas City-styled bluesy jazz romp that was done in one take, with no chart and at the end of a late-night session. It was a hard-won victory for a girl who grew up in modest circumstances, and subsisted on small dates, jam sessions, giving lessons and, for a few stretches, Jimmy’s university salaries.
Cheatham chronicles it all, often in more detail than anyone other than personal friends would want. But the less invested reader will get real insight into the real lives of musicians-the cheating club owners, paying-the-bills gigs backing “floor dancers,” stalkers, backbiting and unreliable “fellow” musicians and the increasing difficulty jazz artists face earning any kind of living. Then there are the sadly regular encounters with racism (Cheatham seems to have had fewer problems with a male-dominated music and business world): coming home from early gigs and being regularly shook down by a local cop or watching a bartender break each glass that the Cheathams drank out of.
Unfortunately, the many details don’t quite add up to a greater whole. Cheatham has known and worked with an astonishing number of remarkable musicians (including her idol Jay McShann, with whom she had some bizarrely competitive encounters), but largely glides across the surface of their personalities and music. Still, she is charming company-resilient and tough, but also funny, straightforward, decent and clearly devoted to music, family and friends-rather like her own music, in fact. In the end, however, she is perhaps better appreciated that way than in this over 400-page trek.