Mike Ledbetter performs at the White Mountain Boogie and Blues Festival in Thornton, N.H.
When flourishing blues star Mike Ledbetter died suddenly and unexpectedly at 33 after a medical emergency at his Elgin, Illinois, home in January, the repercussions were felt deeply throughout the blues world. Ledbetter was an extraordinary singer and a multi-instrumentalist in the pink of health and on top of his game. He was a warm and charismatic personality loved by all who met him.
The earth-shaking news hit home perhaps nowhere more than his native Chicago and in Boston, where Ledbetter attracted a major following and formed a musical partnership with one of the Hub’s most noted guitarists, “Monster” Mike Welch. The Welch-Ledbetter Connection’s debut album, which earned a 2018 Blues Music Award for best traditional blues album, featured a host of players from Boston.
It is fitting then that a series of fund-raisers for Ledbetter’s young children circles back to Massachusetts this month. The sixth and final tribute and benefit show is set for May 26 at the Bull Run in Shirley, and will feature Welch and two other local stalwarts from that album, Anthony Geraci and Kit Holliday, along with a host of others.
Proceeds from the show will add to the education fund for Ledbetter’s two children, daughter Holland, 4, and son Michael Jr., 1. Five previous benefit shows were held in the Chicago area, Des Moines, Iowa, Boca Raton, Florida, and Kansas City, home of fellow blues star Danielle Nicole, who took the initiative on behalf of Ledbetter’s kids and his grieving fiancee, Kathy Cahoon.
“Danielle should really get all the credit for getting this off the ground,” said local organizer and performer Gracie Curran, a Winthrop native touring out of Memphis. “Danielle got it all going, and she’s the one who set up the account for the kids’ education funds; it’s just going to mature until they are ready to use it for school.”
Curran said it was important to bring this effort to the Boston area, not just because of The Welch-Ledbetter Connection.
“We wanted to make sure that we included Boston musicians in this,” Curran said, “not only people who are close to Mike Welch, but also so all the people here that Mike [Ledbetter] loved — and loved Mike — will be able to play for him.”
Ledbetter became an instant hit in Boston when first seen touring here with fellow Chicago star Nick Moss some seven years ago. One epic night at now-defunct Smoken’ Joe’s BBQ & Blues in Brighton, the opera-trained tenor left listeners in slack-jawed awe over his magnificently melodious voice.
Curran remembers that night vividly. She had been told by fellow Boston-to-Memphis transplant Lydia Warren that she must not miss the tour stop.
“I had seen Nick a number of times without Mike,” Curran said, “but I remember Lydia telling me, ‘Wait until you hear this guy.’ And sure enough, the first time he opens his mouth, it takes your knees out.”
This was a fact affirmed by the Blues Federation voters as Ledbetter won 2019 vocalist of the year in the Blues Music Awards last night in Memphis. The Welch-Ledbetter Connection won band of the year, and Welch earned his first guitarist of the year award.
In his acceptance speech, Welch paid homage to four of his guitar mentors — Ronnie Earl, Anson Funderburgh, Laura Chavez and Kid Andersen — before paying the ultimate compliment to Ledbetter.
“I’m a product of the people I play with,” Welch said, “and I’m the guitar player I am in 2019 because I had to keep up with Mike Ledbetter every single day.”
While Curran was still adding artists for the Bull Run show at last check, she confirmed that Welch, Holliday, Warren, Geraci and two of the pianist’s Boston Blues All-Star bandmates, Troy Gonyea and Mudcat Ward, will perform along with Phil Pemberton of Roomful of Blues, Mr. Nick, Rosy Rosenblatt and her longtime bandmate Geoff Murfitt.
There is at least one other player of national headliner renown who has committed but can’t be announced due to promotional restrictions.
In addition to the music, auction items will be up for bid, including an electric guitar signed by dozens of stars who performed at the previous benefit shows, including Welch, Nicole, Moss, Geraci, Earl, Eric Gale, Albert Cummings, William Bell, Tinsley Ellis and Willie Mitchell.
Love From Boston: A Tribute to Mike Ledbetter will be held Sunday, May 26 at the Bull Run in Shirley from 7:30-10:30 p.m. Limited tickets remain and are available at the following link: