The reality is Blind Willie was an Atlanta institution. It was not a bar or a concert venue, rather “Blind” Willie McTell was a sightless man with a 12-string guitar who often played for change in the parking lot of the Pig N’ Whistle at the corner of Peachtree Road and Peachtree Park Drive, where Benihana is now.
Back in the 1940s, the barbecue restaurant was a popular hangout for Buckhead youths. The real excitement was not inside though, but out in the parking lot, where teenagers hung out in their cars and trouble was never far away.
McTell rode the trolley up Peachtree. While the teens sat in their cars, he would tap on the window and ask if he could play a tune. McTell would play his 12-string as if it had been with him since the day he was born and sing his original songs. At the end of the night, his pockets loaded with tips, he hopped back on the trolley and disappeared.
Here is perhaps the most remarkable thing about this nomadic bluesman who entertained hundreds of Buckhead youths in the parking lot of a barbecue joint. He was well known in the music industry and beyond. By the 1940s, Blind Willie McTell had recorded several albums under a number of different names including his own.
Today he is revered for his songwriting and his skill with a guitar. His songs were later made famous by the likes of the Allman Brothers Band and Johnny Cash. Bob Dylan even wrote a song about him, appropriately called “Blind Willie McTell.”
Born in 1901 near Thomson, McTell lost his sight in infancy. The son of musically inclined parents, his mother taught him to play guitar at a young age. He is described as having a shrewd mind, insightful lyrics and astounding nimbleness on his 12-string, according to a detailed biography on the web site of former Guitar magazine Editor Jas Obrecht. The Victor label was the first to record McTell in 1927.
The following year he recorded “Statesboro Blues,” a song which would become an Allman Brothers standard. He made several records with Victor, with Columbia Records and even with the Library of Congress.
He disappeared from the music scene in the mid-1950s and became a deacon at Mount Zion Baptist Church, dedicating his remaining years to helping blind people. He died in 1959 never having reaped the rewards of his celebrity. By that time, he had suffered two strokes and was living with family near Thomson. So anonymous was his death that the original grave marker read “Eddie McTell” and got his birth date wrong.
While he may have died in relative anonymity, “Blind” Willie McTell had a lasting impact on Buckhead and the patrons of the Pig N’ Whistle, who had a brush with one of the great bluesmen of a generation.
Thornton Kennedy is a fifth-generation Buckhead resident and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.