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Athens bluesman Neal Pattman, whose one-armed harmonica playing and soulful vocals earned him legendary status in Northeast Georgia, died Thursday of cancer at age 79.
For the past seven decades, Pattman offered his heart-felt music inside businesses, at churches, on nightclub stages and for music festivals. He entertained countless audiences throughout Athens and the region, making him a music icon among fans and musicians alike. His fame extended internationally as he played in Australia, Iceland and Switzerland. Pattman's music was also recorded on several tapes and compact discs, including the 1999 Prison Blues (that featured Pattman, Cootie Stark, Taj Mahal, Jimmy Rip, Timothy Duffy, Mudcat and Lee Konitz) and It Seemed Like a Dream recorded live in Australia in 2001 with Peter Gelling.
His Northeast Georgia performances included annual appearances at events like AthFest, the Northeast Georgia Folk Festival and the Hot Corner Celebration and Soul Food Feast. Pattman could just as easily be found giving an impromptu show from his parked car surrounded by a small group of individuals as he could stamping and singing on a stage fronted by hundreds of spectators.
"He was a legend here in Athens, Georgia," said Homer Wilson, who grew up listening to Pattman in Wilson's father's barber shop and at his family's church, Waggoners Grove Baptist in Colbert. Wilson's father, M.C. Wilson, owns downtown businesses Wilson's Soul Food and Wilson Styling Shop on Hull Street, at the intersection known as Hot Corner and the historical hub of black-owned business in downtown Athens.
Wilson, organizer of the annual Hot Corner Celebration, which will take place this weekend, said Pattman will be recognized in a special memorial roll call of people who contributed to the festival and who died during the past year.
"He was a great man and we're going to miss his music," Wilson said. "That harmonica was just something; I loved his blues music and (him) blowing that harmonica, tapping his feet and singing."
Guitarist David Herndon, manager of Musician's Exchange, had known Pattman for at least two decades and played alongside the blues performer many times, publicly and in private sessions.
"He was phenomenal ..." Herndon said. "He did things the way he was taught, which is different from a lot of blues players who play in more common styling."
Pattman was taught by his father, James Pattman, to play as a solo artist, so when he performed, he often varied from traditional blues chord progressions, Herndon explained.
Pattman's stage presence endeared him to crowds and built his popularity and iconic standing, Herndon said.
"That was his personality and charm on stage, and his harmonica style was just really cool to listen to," Herndon stated. "He had a great, rich voice and a great harmonica style."
It had been about a year since Herndon played with Pattman in a public venue, but Herndon said the private sessions he and Pattman participated in over the years were particularly rewarding.
"I used to go over to this little apartment he had, and we would sit around and play. It was a lot of fun," Herndon recalled. "The music would take us wherever he wanted to go."
Another longtime Athens guitarist, Davis Causey, said he never had the pleasure of playing with Pattman but did perform at the Georgia Theatre on occasions when Pattman also played.
"He was a natural at it; there was no affectation," Causey said.
Probably the last Athens public performance Pattman made was at AthFest last June, said Troy Aubrey, a partner in Athensmusic.net and a chairman of AthFest. Like Herndon, Aubrey emphasized Pattman's uniqueness.
"He was a genuine blues artist," Aubrey said. "We really only had one true-blue artist like that from our little town, and it's very sad we've lost such a great person."
Aubrey said he tried to book Pattman for AthFest every year, and in 2004, because Pattman's health was failing, organizers scheduled him for the main stage with a band backing him up. Pattman had to be helped on the stage, Aubrey said, but following his performance an adoring crowd pressed him for signatures.
"Afterwards he signed autographs, and had this big smile on his face," Aubrey said.
Pattman's health had been declining since last year, according to Pattman's younger brother, M.C. Pattman. The musician had been at Grandview Care Center, a nursing home where he was recovering from hip replacement surgery, when he was diagnosed with recurring bone cancer.
Born Jan. 10, 1926, to James and Lula Pattman, Neal Pattman grew up
with music, as taught by their father, who was a Madison County farmer,
M.C. Pattman said Friday. One of 13 children, Neal Pattman took up the
harmonica when he was 7.
"He never let his handicap get him down," Homer Wilson said.
When his music career subsided somewhat, Pattman took a job with the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education, where he worked for several years, his brother said.
M.C. Pattman remarked that he enjoyed a strong friendship and a lot of laughter with his musician brother, with whom he would often travel to performances.
"I'll miss being around him and talking with him about the old times and good times," Pattman said.
In his brother's music, people heard a rare voice evoking the past, Pattman said.
"They would always feel overjoyed about music they couldn't hear from anywhere else, making them think of the old times with the harmonica," he said.