The projects where Johnny lived weren’t far from city condemnation at that time. I pulled up in unit four, my WYFF-TV news vehicle, during a lunch break and knocked on the door. A humble yet cigar-thick voice greeted my call with hello as he opened the door.
There he was, Cootie Stark, right in front of me. Cootie was his stage name.
He invited me in before I could finish explaining my purpose.
The dark four room dwelling had painted concrete block for walls and no decoration. I guess it made sense; he’s a guy and he’s blind. I probably wouldn’t decorate, either.
Cootie started telling me the story of his life and included things like growing up in Laurens, S.C. and pickin’ peas as a child. He spoke of traveling all the way to Greenville (about 20 miles) during the summer, and how he came to play guitar. He made mention of his relationships with Baby Tate, the Rev. Gary Davis and several other Piedmont Blues legends living in the area around the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
He also talked a lot about the Music Maker Relief Foundation, and the MMRF president, Tim Duffy. He called him Timmy. He told me how the organization has helped him survive, travel the world and feel as though he again had purpose. The stories captivated me.
My lunch hour almost gone, I asked if I could come back some time and shoot a story about his life. He agreed, and I stood to leave.
“Hey, uh, I seem to be havin’ a bit of trouble with my CD player," Cootie said. "You any good at that kinda stuff? Could you look at it for me?”
I was honored with the thought of helping such a such a legend. I reached over and picked up the CD player. My keen sense of electronictechnogeek kicked in quickly and I determined without a doubt that the CD was in upside down. Yes, I know. My brilliance continually amazes me, too.
I flipped it and hit play. Out comes this great Piedmont Blues. “This is great,” I said. “Who is it?”
“That’s me,” he said in his polite southern gruff.
I shook his hand, set up a time to do a feature story* and departed to the nearest music story to pick up a copy of Sugar Man. I was late getting back.
I had a few more conversations with Mr. Miller before he died in April 2005. I again honored one evening at the Handlebar when I was able to thank him for helping me achieve my goal of winning an Emmy. I was also able to thank him for allowing me to preserve a dying form of true Americana.
I shook his hand and gave him a copy of the story.
“Thank you young man, you gonna to do just fine with your life,” was that last thing he said to me.
* Kudos to my reporter and friend, Kimbery Lohman, for an doing such an excellent job on this story.