St. John’s musicians gather at the Fat Cat to mark the passing — and celebrate the life — of a local blues legend
Peter Narváez plays at St. John’s city hall during a 2005 lunch hour concert. — Telegram file photo
If anyone deserves to be immortalized on the wall in the province’s most famous blues bar, it’s Peter Narváez.
A native American who moved to St. John’s in 1974, Narváez is widely known as one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s fathers of the blues, bringing the music genre to the province at a time when it didn’t exist here.
Narváez, a MUN folklore professor who continued to write, perform and record music over the past 36 years, passed away at the Miller Centre Nov. 11, after a fight with lung cancer. It was a battle he fought with dignity, friends say, and he took control of his situation, once he knew what the final outcome would be, as best as he could.
“I remember him telling me, when the cancer came back, that he had two options: he could go for a very aggressive therapy on the front end that would expand the back end, but his life in the middle would be miserable, or he could go for a more gentle aproach that would shorten the back end but give him a better quality of life in the meantime. That’s what he chose,” close friend and CBC Radio producer Glen Tilley told The Telegram upon Narváez’s passing.
Narváez didn’t want a typical visitation or funeral after he died, friends say, choosing to be cremated without ceremony. This Sunday night, his family and friends are holding their own type of wake for him; one they say he would have enjoyed: a jam at the Fat Cat Blues Bar on George Street.
Local musician Neil Rosenberg, of bluegrass band Crooked Stovepipe, and Narváez had been close friends for years, united through music and having studied together in graduate school in Indiana before eventually both moving to St. John’s to take up teaching jobs in MUN’s Department of Folklore. Rosenberg is currently writing an introduction for a book of essays by Narváez about Newfoundland and Labrador folklore, to be published by the university.
“I recently found a letter he wrote after his first visit here, in April 1974, when he came up from Boston, and the weather was a shock to him,” Rosenberg said of his longtime friend. “He said it was very cold, but the people were very warm.”
In his life as a musician, over the last three decades, Narváez performed solo and with dozens of local artists in groups like Wonderful Grand Band, Bopular Demand, Cookstown Jukes and Rowdy Blues, becoming well-known for his fingerpicking guitar style. A solo CD, “Some Good Blues,” earned him MusicNL and East Coast Music Award nominations, while his most recent project, Superpickers, with Sandy Morris, Glen Collins and Dave Rowe, performed during the Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues Festival last July. Their CD, “Blues on the Ceiling,” earned them MusicNL nominations this year in the Group of the Year and Jazz/Blues Group of the Year categories.
“He really made Superpickers his focus over the last couple of years,” said friend and fellow musician Steve Hussey. “As sick as Peter was, his musical chops were incredible.”
Hussey said he was 16 when he first met Narváez, and often played with him and learned from him over the years.
“He’s been the best to me; I could go on for days,” Hussey said. “Half of my gear was given to me by Peter. He was just the nicest guy to me.”
He was a mentor to many young local musicians, Hussey said.
“He was the biggest support. Peter used to hire some new, young cat to play, and when they’d get good, he’d fire them and hire someone else,” he said with a laugh.
Throughout his illness, Narváez continued to play — continuing to excel on the harmonica, even; not an easy feat when battling lung cancer — and had decided a performance at this past summer’s Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival would likely be one of his last. When the show was cancelled due to bad weather, Narváez scheduled a later concert at the LSPU Hall instead, calling it “Peter Narváez and Friends.”
As his illness progressed and he found he no longer had the energy to perform, the show became “Friends of Peter Narváez” and went on anyway, at his request.
“Everyone did at least one or two of his compositions,” Rosenberg said. “I talked to him afterwards, and he was happy to hear about it.
“He cared a lot about creating music and inspiring other people to do the same. He had a great way of putting rythym together, a great sense of unusual chords, and was great at picking. (His style) was unique, but that’s not to say that other people couldn’t aspire to be like him.”
Knowing Narváez’s wishes when it came to a funeral but wanting to do something to celebrate his life, Hussey approached Narváez’s wife, Holly Everett, and regular Fat Cat performer Darrell Cooper about using Cooper’s regular weekly spot to hold a musical event at the bar in Narváez’s honour. Both thought the idea was something Narváez would have enjoyed, and the jam is set to take place Sunday night, starting at 8 p.m., with performances by Hussey, Cooper and Rosenberg, Mick Davis of The Novaks, Denis Parker and others.
It’ll be a fitting tribute: in his work as a folklorist, Narváez had particular interests in popular culture and folk customs and beliefs, among other things, and in 2003, edited a collection of essays about death and humour in folklore.
“One of the things he was an expert on was Newfoundland wakes, and I think he would be pleased with all kinds of hijinks,” Rosenberg said.
There’ll be a miniumum donation of $5 per person to contribute to the commission of a painted portrait of Narváez for the Fat Cat. Portraits of Parker — said to be the co-founder of the blues scene in this province — and folk singer/songwriter Ron Hynes already hang in the bar.
“It’ll be a good way to honour him,” Hussey said. “It’s only right that he should be on the wall in the bar he helped to create with all the other legends.”
Hussey’s not sure yet who the commissioned artist will be; the decision will be made once the money’s been collected, he explained.
A more formal memorial service is expected to be held at the university in the coming months, and although Sunday’s event will likely have its sombre moments, it’ll be a celebration of Narváez’s life above anything else, he said.
“I’m sure there’ll be tears. I know if I get up and talk, I’ll cry,” Hussey said. “But it’s going to be the most fun funeral I’ve ever been to.”