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Robert Plunkett

Drummer and vocalist Robert Garlon Plunkett died after a long illness on May 3rd, 2004.

He was born into a large family in Benton, Mississippi on October 19th, 1931. After hearing Rice Miller on the radio and performing at a local drugstore promoting Talaho patent medicine along with Elmore James in the early 1940s, Plunkett set his mind on becoming a musician, but didn't act on his impulse until many years later. In 1948 he settled in Chicago with his family, and a few years later tried his hand first at guitar, then harmonica, without much success. Meanwhile he worked a day job, and spent his nights prowling the clubs, listening to and befriending many of the well-known musicians active on the Chicago scene in the early 1950s, including Tampa Red, Johnny Jones, Odie Payne, Baby Face Leroy, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Howling Wolf and Sunnyland Slim.

His first experience as a performer came about in the mid `50s, when he was hanging around Little Arthur Duncan's band (with which Plunkett's brothers Sylvester and Herbert both played); Duncan's drummer Leroy Brant began letting him sit in on drums, and before long, according to Plunkett, he was playing better than Brant. Soon he was freelancing and bouncing around between bands with many of the other young young players who were just getting their starts in Chicago at the time, including Freddie King, Willie James Lyons, Eddie C. Campbell, Bobby Rush, Luther Allison, Hip Linkchain, Aron Burton and Tyrone Davis. He also doubled as a stand up singer, and was always able to find work in the clubs, even though he kept his day job.

In 1959, after the death of his wife in a motorcycle accident, Plunkett quit his job, and soon thereafter was recruited into Elmore James's Broomdusters. Along with Homesick James and J.T. Brown, Plunkett toured extensively with Elmore throughout the midwest and southern states, and played with him periodically for the rest of Elmore's life. Thanks to his genial, easygoing personality and his flexibility on the drums, Plunkett was never at a loss for work as a musician. Through the `60s and into the `70s he spent time working with Ricky Allen, Little Mack Simmons, Fenton Robinson, Little Walter, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Reed, and many others.

Howlin' Wolf
attempted to hire him several times over the years, but Plunkett declined out of fear for Wolf's fierce reputation; eventually Eddie Shaw convinced him that Wolf was mostly bluster, and Plunkett ended up with Wolf's band for a few years in the early 1970s. After Wolf's death, Plunkett moved down south and opened a blues club called Robert's Place near Canton, Mississippi, which he ran until 1985.

Moving back to Chicago, he worked with Johnny Littlejohn, and toured with Eddie Shaw's Wolf Pack, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, and Jimmy Dawkins. In the 1990s he scaled back his activity and played mostly locally, but stayed busy picking up gigs in Chicago with people such as Taildragger and Rockin' Johnny.

In an interview for Living Blues in 1994, Plunkett lamented his lack of opportunities to record as a front man, and suggested that he may have to produce his own sessions in order to get on record as singer. In 1996 drummer and producer Twist Turner recorded a CD worth of material featuring Plunkett as a front man; four songs from these sessions were released on the Cannonball Records compilation Blues Across America - The Chicago Scene in 1998. The same year, Plunkett was featured as a guest vocalist on several songs on Rockin' Johnny's debut Delmark CD Straight Out of Chicago. Both of these recordings showcase Plunkett's warm, husky vocals to great advantage, and prove that he was at least as talented standing at a microphone as he was sitting behind the drums.

In 2000, Plunkett appeared as part of a tribute to his former employer Howling Wolf on the Chicago Blues Festival, but it was around this time that it became clear that something was wrong with his voice, which had been reduced to a raspy whisper. Eventually diagnosed with cancer, he was in and out of hospitals for the next couple of years, and never did recover his singing voice, but occasionally still played drums when called upon. As his condition became more severe, he seldom ventured out, and it was with great sadness but not much surprise that his many friends and fans in Chicago learned of his passing on May 3rd.

Plunkett's sister and brother-in-law are co-pastors of New Life Baptist Church on Chicago's far south side, and his well-attended funeral was held there on Thursday May13th. Among the musicians in attendance were Eddie Shaw, Jimmie Dawkins, Twist Turner, former Muddy Waters guitarist Rick Kreher (who recorded with Plunkett on Rockin' Johnny's CD), Dusty Brown, and from the very first band he shared a stage with almost 50 years ago, Little Arthur Duncan and drummer Leroy Brant. Both of Plunkett's brothers who were also in the band are still living, but have moved away from Chicago and were unable to attend. However his older sister Aileen McDonald came in from Bogalusa, Louisiana, and showed that singing runs in the family by beautifully performing a powerful solo gospel number as part of the service. Plunkett was buried at Homewood Cemetery in Homewood, Illinois.

Thanks to Twist Turner, and to John Brisbin's article in
Living Blues. -Scott Dirks

(Scott DIrks is a co-author of
Blues With A Feeling: The Little Walter Story)