Heavenly Hindsight

Blindness changed the life of Hank Lyman, an accomplished bluesman who reaped his blessings through music.

The prodigy still puts out: Hank Lyman at play. - Walter  Novak
The prodigy still puts out: Hank Lyman at play.
When Henry M. Lyman was two or three years old, he'd listen to tunes on his family's Victrola, then toddle over to the piano and play them. He was too small to sit and reach the pedal. "I had to stand and do it," he recalls.

His was one of those God-given talents taken for granted. "I didn't know there was such a thing as making a living doing this mess," he says. As a child, he had two designs in life: to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, like his Uncle Smitty, and to fly planes.

The Man Upstairs, he says, had other plans.

One day Lyman was catching a game when a boy swung his bat around and tore Lyman's right eye out. He was not yet 9; by age 10, he was completely blind.

Fifty-seven years later, Lyman says, "I'm a blessed man." He sounds like he means it. This despite five failed marriages and a career whose luster has dimmed with age. Instead, he focuses on the positives: on his taste for rum ("the stronger the better"), on the professionalism he gained from playing with seasoned musicians like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Stomp Gordon, on visits to Europe that expanded his mind.

"I was fortunate enough to travel the world. I was fortunate to make a living and never to be hungry, except what I gave to those dumb wives of mine. I always bounced back, because I'm a blessed man."

Born in 1934, Lyman grew up just outside of Camden, Alabama. His grandparents took care of him while his mother traveled as a maid for well-to-do families. Immediately after the accident, a doctor put the eye back in and told Lyman's grandfather to get him to a specialist. But no specialist in Camden would treat him. "In that time, in that era, white doctors basically did not treat black folk. Whether you had the money or whether you didn't, it didn't make any difference."

There were other factors as well. "This was 1942, when the medical profession was not as it is today. Plus, it was right during World War II, and most of our goods went to fight that war."

The injured eye became infected for lack of treatment, and the infection spread to the other eye. By the time his grandfather got the money together and took him to a doctor in Selma, it was too late.

"I'd sit around and act pitiful," he says. His father had been killed in the war, and his mother married a man who worked in a Cleveland foundry. She brought her son to Ohio and enrolled him in the Ohio State School for the Blind in Columbus. There, he studied piano, trombone, and trumpet. The latter was his favorite. "I'd peck my way around the streets of Columbus selling brooms and cards" to raise $25 for a used trumpet. "I played my first professional job when I was 13. They paid me $12. I thought I was rich."

One night he caught the attention of rhythm and blues players Jimmy and Joe Liggins, of the Honeydrippers fame. "Jimmy asked me if I'd like to play with their band." It wasn't because he was the greatest musician, Lyman says, but because he filled a role. "These guys didn't have big-time arrangements and all that. So what they would do, Jimmy would play the parts for us, and we would just learn our part. I had the ability to listen and pick up the notes he wanted me to play and the way he wanted me to play 'em." With his mother's reluctant blessing, Lyman spent the summer of '48 touring with the band. He had just turned 14.

Although he graduated from the School for the Blind and Ohio State University, he didn't use his elementary education degree. Instead, he went on to perform with countless musicians, some of whom -- like Big Maybelle and Little Esther -- were stars in their day. In Indianapolis, he played with a teenage Aretha Franklin and shared a dressing room with her. "Her mouth at that time was like a chamber pot," Lyman recalls. "She changed her clothes in front of the band and patted herself on her gluteus maximus and said, 'None of you gets none of this.'"

Lyman pointed out that he couldn't see her anyway. She took his hand and "put it on her rump and said, 'You still gets none of this.'"

He also played for singers Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson and dancer Mama Caldonia. The latter was 72 when Lyman worked with her in Canada. "They say she had the body of a 25-year-old woman. She'd tell us what tunes she wanted to dance by, and she'd be standing on her head and on her hands, and flippin' and floppin'. She was fantastic. The only thing about her is she used to stay on my butt: 'Boy, quit drinkin' all that liquor and beer.'"

Lyman didn't follow Mama's motherly advice. He had developed a fondness for alcohol in his 20s that never went away. If Lyman thinks he might have made more of his career without the sauce, he's not saying. He maintains that he's a disciplined drinker. "I don't drink alcohol to become inebriated. I love the taste."

When Lyman was in his late 20s, he bought a used limousine and hired a "fool driver" who liked to drink, too. A couple of accidents later, Lyman was left with a broken jaw and his front teeth knocked out. The injuries, coupled with brass poisoning, made it impossible for him to play the trumpet as well as he had before. That was a blow. "To be honest about it, I'd rather play that than eat when I'm hungry," he says.

He switched to keyboards and singing and, in the decades since, has performed across America and Europe. He's also written at least 200 songs, some of which were inspired by his fiery relationships. In one incendiary incident, one of his wives got drunk and shot him. It was the last call on that relationship; Lyman left her the house and took off for California. Nowadays, he still gets calls to travel -- recently he had a chance to perform in Australia -- but he doesn't like to fly anymore.

He still mourns his losses, but not necessarily the loss of his sight. He remembers sadly a woman he loved as a young man. "She was a very homely girl facially, but she had a fantastic body," he says. His buddies were derisive: "What you doin' with that hanging on your arm?" they'd ask. "I know you can't see, but we need to get you a better one."

Lyman sighs. "When you're young, your peers could get you in deep defecation. She was the most intelligent, lovely lady that any man would ever want. Because of me being young and listening to the boys, I threw her away. I'll always regret that. Sometimes I think the reason I've had four or five tragedies in that area of my life is because I threw her away. I think I was punished. I was a meathead."

For the past two years, Lyman has been playing with Blue Cadillac, a local band that includes Ed Perdian on guitar and vocals, Gordon Harman on saxophone, George Ferko on bass and vocals, and Dale Hassing on drums. The musicians have been working on a CD they hope to debut September 8 at Rick's Café in Chagrin Falls. Their album, which consists of 10 original jazz and R&B tunes by Lyman and other band members, was recorded at Audio production studio in Solon. During one of the sessions, Lyman apologized for the state of his voice, saying, "This cold has got the old man." Studio president Bruce Gigax, who was doing the recording, replied, "You sound better with a cold than most people do [without one]."

Drummer Hassing says Lyman challenges the group musically. "I think he's great. He's the guy we all looked up to. We try to play catch-up."

Bandleader Perdian concurs: "I think Hank Lyman [is] a name that should be out there."

Lyman also leads a band called Urban Connection, which in December put out its own CD. The seven songs, all written by Lyman, were rescued from obscurity five years ago when longtime friend Fred Boswell tripped over a milk carton in the musician's attic.

"I was just being nosy, to be honest with you," says Boswell, who was fixing a hole in the roof. "I said, 'Mr. Hank, what is this?'" The box was filled with sheet music in Braille, dating to 1955, when Lyman wrote the evocative blues ballad "Loving You in Vain" about a girl he knew in school.

His songs range from R&B to urban dance to the country-influenced "Do You Wanna Come Home?" "I never tried to do nothing with them," he says. "All I wanted to do was play: Let me make some money and go home." Now he knows better. "I should have been putting them in the hands of people and having them copyrighted. The thing is, when you're young and dumb . . ." He shakes his head as his voice trails off.

Still, Lyman says he's satisfied with his career. "My effect on other human beings has been greater than if I was doing what I wanted to do. How many people you know who have traveled the world? Worked with some of the greatest artists in the world? How many people have had the opportunity to do that? Some people call it luck. I say it's a blessing."