Robert Lee “Lil Poochie” Watson, 65, and Hezekiah Early, 82, have some years between them, though they’ve shared decades of playing the blues. The Natchez, Mississippi natives started hooking up back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Guitarist and vocalist Lil Poochie would come in to perform with drummer, vocalist and harmonica player Hezekiah and the House Rockers band when the group’s guitarist, Elmo Williams, couldn’t make a date. “That went on for years,” says Early, “and after that he would just start playing with us regularly [often along with trombonist Leon “Pee Wee” Whittaker].
During much of that era, Lil Poochie also led his own bands, his first one being the Roadrunners, which included vocalist Ernest Fitzgerald. “He was the James Brown back in the day and I wasn’t singing at the time,” says Poochie, who did sing gospel music in church. “He said, ‘Man look, you have a beautiful voice, you need to start singing.’ I said ‘I can’t sing—I’m not going get up there and embarrass myself and run these people off.’ He said, ‘That’s okay you will.’ After he passed, it dawned on me that he wouldn’t want me to sit there and lose my voice. He would always tell me, ‘Go ahead, please try to sing.’ I’ve been singing for him ever since.”
Beyond being noted blues artists, another thing that Lil Poochie and Hezekiah have in common is that they both built their first guitars. Poochie’s was made with a board, some fishing wire and nails for pegs. Early’s instrument boasted an even more unusual construction. His father bagged groceries at a store near the farm where they lived and the owner would give him bunches of cheese boxes. “I decided I would make me a guitar out of them,” Early remembers. “I wasn’t able to buy no strings and these older guys that would play house parties, they’d throw them away so I got me some of those strings.” He drilled holes in the head and used bolts as tuning pegs so a wrench would be required to tighten or loosen the strings. “It would take me a while to get it tuned, but when it was tuned it was tuned,” he remembers with a laugh.
“It was awhile before I knew he could pick [guitar] the way he did,” says Lil Poochie of Early. “I knew he was a drummer and a harmonica man but I didn’t know he could play guitar until we were out to his house rehearsing getting ready to go to Clarksdale to do a recording [Natchez Burning]. I always brought my electric guitar whenever he and I would do something. One day I brought an acoustic and we played together and I said, ‘Man, we sound good, we need to do something with this. We need to put this in our act.’ Then he said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll carry it along with me.’ So we started doin’ things like we do. Sometimes we just get together and have us a little time.”
For a long while, folks didn’t realize that besides playing drums and singing, Early could also blow harp. He was just a youngster when an older guitarist, Robert Fitzgerald, and his son would come get him to play harmonica with them. They eventually started doing house parties. “It got to a point when we needed some drums so that became my job,” Early relates.
To play drums and harmonica at the same time wasn’t something Early had considered doing. Just from the physical requirements, the two instruments didn’t mix—or at least that’s what Early thought. That is until the day he met the great Muhammad Ali on the set of the 1979 television movie, Freedom Road. It was Ali’s first acting role and Early—after, apparently, an extensive search, since he was really known as a drummer—was recruited to play harmonica.
“Meeting Ali was wonderful—it was a dream,” Early remembers. “He came to me and said, ‘Hezekiah, how long have you been playing harmonica?’ I said I learned harmonica when I was about eight or nine years old but I don’t play harmonica now, all I do is drum now. He said ‘Man, look, why don’t you try to figure out a way to blow harmonica too. You’re too good a harmonica player to lay the harmonica aside.’ So I started taping the harp to the mic stand and playing the drums with my hands. It just became natural. It looked like when I wasn’t playing the drums and harp together it was like I wasn’t doing anything.”
“We go back a long way,” says Lil Poochie, remembering trips to New Orleans to play with Hezekiah & the House Rockers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “We used to have a couple of more guys playing with us but they passed. After they passed, we sort of like slowed down and then all of a sudden people started getting him for shows. One lady remarked, ‘Now this you can’t beat, we have two legends in one band.’ He’s my idol. I couldn’t have a better musician friend than him.”
Hezekiah & the House Rockers were regulars at the Jazz Fest, playing almost every year in the ’80s and ’90s, though Early says he hasn’t been invited since Hurricane Katrina. The band was also a fixture at the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair and performed on opening day. “I did a lot of getting around in New Orleans,” Early proclaims.
In the ’60s, the House Rockers could often be heard at the now legendary Haney’s Big House in Ferriday, Louisiana. Hezekiah and his band are recognized for their contribution to the blues by a plaque located next to Ferriday’s Delta Music Museum. There’s also a marker honoring Lil Poochie and Hezekiah in a little park on St. Catherine Street in their hometown of Natchez.
“He [owner Will Haney] was open 24 hours,” Early says, “and when he had a big band coming in he would give us a free pass so we could see the band and eat and drink.”
Before officially joining Early and the House Rockers sometimes in the ’80s, Lil Poochie was leading a number of bands of ever-changing names—the aforementioned Roadrunners turned into the Soul Brothers and then the Red Hot and Ready band. Even when Lil Poochie is working with Hezekiah, whose roots are firmly based in blues and rhythm and blues, his love of soul music and its influence is still evident. “A lot of times we’d open shows for the big stars when they’d come to Natchez, like [soulman/vocalist] Tyrone Davis,” says Lil Poochie, whose repertoire with his early groups would include material from the likes of soul singers Davis, James Brown and Al Green.
Since childhood, gospel music has also been core to Lil Poochie and until recently he would play guitar and solo at his church every third Sunday. “I always say, if I can go up into a juke joint and play up in there all night long, I should be able to give the Lord some of my time because he’s the cause of why I’m doin’ what I’m doin’. He gave to me so I have to give back.”
On the blues side of the aisle, Lil Poochie was first influenced by his uncle, Dave Pinder. “I used to hear my blind uncle sing ‘Uncle Bud’ all of the time,” he recalls. “That’s where a lot of my playing came from. I said I always wanted to be like my uncle because he would have a whole lot of girls around.”
Beyond playing the blues, Lil Poochie and Hezekiah, who are featured in the 2012 documentary/CD We Juke Up in Here, boast other skills that have provided a way of making a living and that they also enjoy. Early built his own house, one for his brother and with some help another one across the street from his home.
“I’ll tell you what, all of this stuff I learned it from scratch,” Early declares with a sense of pride. “I took my time and built me a guitar—I’ve got about nine of them built—and I learned how to play guitar on my own. I learned to play harmonica by listening at people. And I learned to play drums by listening—I took out a few classes on drums but not very many. I built a bass too. All this stuff came to me and I haven’t forgotten it.”
Lil Poochie’s delight is gardening and for over five decades, he has been working at the Rosalie Plantation Home in Natchez. I’ve been doing it for 52 years at the same spot,” he says with a similar touch of pride in his voice. “I do a whole lot of planting and sometimes I do a little designing. I keep the yard nice and try to keep things in order. People ask ‘How do you get your flowers to grow?’ I say, ‘A lot of times I get my guitar and sit in the flower bed and you should see my flowers dancin’.’ I really love it.”
“We’ve played for so long, we pretty much know each other’s songs and know where we’re comin’ from,” Lil Poochie says. “We don’t really have to do much practicing. We just go out there and get the job done. I put some songs together and he puts some songs together. You know, it works real good.”