The Capitol Times Newspaper
Madison, WI

By Doug Moe
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Read All About A Life In Music


ON HER 70th birthday, Jeannie Cheatham sat down with a yellow legal pad to write an article about the legendary blues singer Big Mama Thornton, with whom Cheatham had performed off and on for more than a decade. But as sometimes happens when a writer - or a musician, for that matter - gets on a roll, the piece took some turns, and wound up as something else entirely.

In Jeannie Cheatham's case, she wound up with a book, not an article, and the subject was Cheatham, not Thornton, although Big Mama figures in "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On," along with a dazzling ensemble of other talented musicians who figured in Cheatham's colorful life. The autobiography, with a title borrowed from one of Cheatham's most popular songs, is due in March from the University of Texas Press.

The most significant of those "others" is Jimmy Cheatham, the man Jeannie has loved for half a century, after meeting him at - what else? - a gig in Buffalo, N.Y. It was Jimmy - or more precisely, his job teaching music at the University of Wisconsin - that brought the Cheathams to Madison. They spent six happy years here in the 1970s, hosting regular jams at what is now the Inn on the Park on the Capitol Square.

"We loved Madison," Jeannie was saying over the phone Monday. "We lived on Mendota Court, off Langdon. You could drink your morning coffee and watch the crew teams practice on Lake Mendota. It was beautiful."

The Cheathams are now in the San Diego area, where Jimmy, a renowned bass trombonist, recently retired after 27 years at the University of California-San Diego. The couple will be back in Madison this summer, when a concert in their honor will be performed as part of a four-day UW African-American Alumni Reunion.

With their Sweet Baby Blues Band, the Cheathams have played to great acclaim all over the world. Before founding the band two decades ago, they played with some of the greatest musical names of the last century - Jimmy with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, Jeannie with Cab Calloway.

"A wonderful man," Jeannie said of Calloway. "He was playful, mischievous - but he knew exactly what he was doing."

So, I might add, does Jeannie. Asked about an incident that's referenced in her publisher's promotional material - about how she wound up spending a night in a jail cell in Dayton, Ohio - Jeannie said: "You have to read the book." Then she laughed, which she does frequently. "It's all in the book." ...


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