By Delbert Reed
(Reprint -- Published in Northport Gazette, June 4, 2003)
I saw the stranger walking through the mall and guessed correctly that he had a story to go with his black hat and clothes and guitar and that hungry look in his eye. I had seen plenty others like him plodding along Music Row and Broadway back in my Nashville days. And to tell the truth, I’d seen the same look in the mirror a time or two.
“I’m looking for some work playing and singing,” he answered when I asked if I could help him. “I need a job and I’m not able to do much of anything else.”
Jack McCaffrey is his name, and although he shows the wear and tear of hard times beyond his years, he hasn’t given up hope quite yet. But if it’s true that artists do their best work when they suffer, McCaffrey just might be about to write that hit song he has always dreamed about.
“I don’t like to play in bars, but I’ll play anywhere right now,” McCaffrey said. “I’ve got to survive. I’d play at the North Pole if the Eskimos would listen to me.”
A self-proclaimed poet, songwriter and musician, McCaffrey is 59 years old, with more hair on his chin than his head and a nasty cigarette habit. “I spent my last three dollars on cigarettes,” he admitted with a bowed head. “I know I shouldn’t be smoking; my brother died of lung cancer.” But on a hot summer afternoon a few days ago, cigarettes and music was about all that kept McCaffrey’s modest Tuscaloosa apartment from being a lonely place as we continued an interview started the day we met at McFarland Mall.
“I’ve written about 200 songs,” he said, offering to sing one for me he had written in 1982 while visualizing himself as a successful musician out on the road. “I wrote the song for my wife. It’s been ten years since I played it; I hope I can get through it,” he said before singing a not-so-bad little ballad with a few memorable lines about big dreams and a broken heart.
“I’m working on a contemporary gospel song with a blues beat now,” McCaffrey said as he sang a few lines of a song he called “Rock Me, Jesus.” None of McCaffrey’s music is recorded or written down. “It’s all in my head,” he said.
By my standards McCaffrey really can play and sing a little, and sometimes a little is all it takes if the breaks fall your way. Whether he can make it in Nashville or even Tuscaloosa could be simply a matter of luck, although McCaffrey has almost given up on giving Nashville a try.
McCaffrey carries a list of 150 songs in his guitar case and claims he can play and sing all of them on cue, although he had only one formal music lesson in his life. His songs cover 50 years of music and include rock, country, gospel or whatever else one would care to hear. He can also play several instruments, he says, “but I don’t really play the piano; I bang on it.”
“My grandfather, John Williams of the Samantha area just outside Northport, was my inspiration,” McCaffrey said. “He played the bass fiddle and sang bluegrass music. He claimed to have some Indian blood, so I claim to be half-Irish and half-Indian. I’m Irish enough to like a drink of whisky and Indian enough to go on the warpath,” he continued with a wry smile. “That’s why I don’t drink anymore.”
McCaffrey’s mother helped start him on his musical career by teaching him to play a ukulele at age seven. “I worried her to death with that thing singing songs I learned off the radio,” he said. “My older brother had a guitar, but I couldn’t get my hands on it until he joined the Navy in 1956. I taught myself to play and played a lot with a buddy named Ronnie Wheatley.”
McCaffrey and Wheatley played together for several years, working in Birmingham night clubs after working at EBSCO Industries together in the daytime. “We played every club in Birmingham in the sixties,” McCaffrey said proudly. Wheatley still works at EBSCO while McCaffrey is disabled, but they both still enjoy their music.
A Catholic, McCaffrey attends Holy Spirit Church and sometimes plays music at a local Church of God. “I don’t earn any money, but the Lord blesses me for it,” he said.
McCaffrey has children and grandchildren in Birmingham, where he spent several years in construction work, and carries their pictures in his guitar case. He is divorced from his first wife and separated from his second, something he finds painful to talk about. He has been in Tuscaloosa for three months.
“Here’s one of my favorites,” McCaffrey said, breaking a somber mood and patting a bare big toe as he played a current patriotic song made popular by country music star Toby Keith.
McCaffrey’s father worked in construction and moved a great deal, allowing Jack to experience life in Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina and even California, where he said he even attended school with some of the Mouseketeers of Walt Disney television fame for a while.
McCaffrey’s brother, John McCaffrey Jr., lived in the Samantha area on their grandfather’s old place until his death. His widow, Betty, still resides there, according to Jack.
Today, Jack doesn’t often dream of that elusive big break. He’s just hoping to find a paying gig so he can sing his songs and see better days. “If I don’t I’ll starve, he said without a smile as he gently strummed the guitar he was holding onto like it was his only friend.
(Northport Gazette, June 4, 2003)
POSTSCRIPT: I couldn’t help liking Jack McCaffrey, and his music, too, for that matter, and I visited him several times over a month or so. I even bought him cigarettes and a can of soup a couple of times when he ran out of money between disability checks. In an effort to try to help him, I bought a small cassette recorder and had him record some of his songs for me to take to a friend in Nashville who had connections in the music industry there. “If you see Martina McBride, tell her I love her,” he said as he handed me the tape a week or so later. I passed the tape along but never heard anything about it from my friend. I saw in the newspaper a year or so later where McCaffrey died, taking his songs with him except for a line or two I still remember from the one he wrote for his wife and the one I’m writing about his Martina McBride line. (Delbert Reed)
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