Musician Joey George playing his guitar.
Photo by Phil Willden.
West Palm Beach-based blues singer, guitarist and songwriter Joey George is known for beating the odds.
That’s largely because the odds are this: If you listened to him perform with your eyes closed or were otherwise uninitiated, you would never think you were hearing a New Jersey-born guy of Polish, Russian and Lebanese descent.
The 69-year-old’s vocal delivery, complex guitar playing and compositional skills often echo authentic Mississippi Delta blues. Or East Coast-based Piedmont blues. Or folksy, mountain-based Appalachian blues. And all those styles at once.
George wouldn’t have been able to present such a tapestry on a dozen CDs the past 15 years (including “Sarasota,” “Pine Box Blues” and “Heavy Water”) if he hadn’t beaten the odds medically.
Five years after moving to South Florida in 2002, George received a new kidney, donated by his North Carolina-based cousin Raymond Desilvis at the University of Miami Kidney Transplant Center. Fifteen years later, that kidney is malfunctioning, and George may need a donor for another replacement, one with a matching blood type (A1-positive) and other crucial medical factors. For now, dialysis keeps the organ functional.
“The kidney is not cleaning the blood,” says George, whose other kidney stopped functioning decades earlier. “I’m going to dialysis three times a week for maintenance. But 15 years is a long stretch, and I’m grateful. I talk to cousin Ray on the phone all the time.”
An outstanding slide guitarist on acoustic or electric instruments, George also often can be found onstage with percussive oddities close by, such as tambourines played with his feet and shakers on his shoes, a pair of self-described “maraccasins.” It was because of his feet that he learned something was wrong with his health.
“About six months ago they started swelling after gigs from the stomping,” George says. “There was a fluid buildup, which extended into my ankles and legs. I’d come home in serious pain, plus I was tired and dizzy from the toxins.”
An early-September trip to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and a subsequent biopsy indicated that the kidney was problematic.
An especially enigmatic live performer, George honed his skills in 1990s New Jersey bands like Roadside Banditos, which resembled a Northeastern version of the Georgia-spawned Black Crowes.
“We were a blues-rock fusion,” he says. “I’ve taken some ideas from that project for what I’m doing now.”
Another way George has beaten the odds is that he’s able to work exclusively and extensively as a musician in South Florida and make a living. Between noise ordinances and cost-cutting clubs and restaurants, that has become increasingly difficult, even for less expensive solo singer-guitarists.
George also avoids the expenses of studio time on his CDs, handling the recording, mixing, mastering and duplication at home. The low-fidelity results add bluesy authenticity, with surprising sound quality. Everything about him is old school, including not having a personal website (only a public Facebook site) or even a cellphone.
Yet George is a true character and natural storyteller on recordings and in live performance, with compositions that include ample humor and wordplay, whether he’s appearing solo or with the Dead Beat Daddies. And when he throws in a cover tune, from a pop staple like The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” to the early Aerosmith hard rock classic “Same Old Song and Dance,” his arrangement always makes the song his own creation.
For now, George is hoping to create a career extension through dialysis, and perhaps an eventual kidney donor, to beat the odds once again.
“It’s a fight for life,” he says. “My greatest fight of all.”
See George’s special “Fight for Life” shows with the Dead Beat Daddies from 8 to 11 p.m. Oct. 7 at Blueprint Bar & Grill, 502 Lucerne Ave., Lake Worth (561-247-6162), and from 6 to 10 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Brewhouse Gallery, 720 Park Ave., Lake Park (561-469-8930).
He also plays from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays at the Driftwood, 2005 S. Federal Hwy., Boynton Beach (561-733-4782), and from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays at the Tropical Smoothie Cafe, 6901 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach (561-517-8416). For further information, visit www.facebook.com/public/Joey-George.