A conversation with a guy like Drink Small is something you can’t help but laugh your way through. After all, the 82-year-old South Carolina blues legend is full of Drinkisms. “So when you come to my house, just know I got a big mouth,” the so-called Blues Doctor says from his home in Columbia. “And if you don’t like it, get out. You ain’t gonna beat me talkin’. If you think you’re gonna beat me talkin’, you can keep walkin’.”
And so we get our first taste of Drinkism. In 1951, Small was only in the 10th grade when he decided that the world needed more than just Buddhism and Hinduism. “I got a ‘ism too,” he says. “It’s just the way I think, and I talk in a way so I can make people laugh.”
Through his music, Small has spent a lifetime making people smile, chuckle, and blush. To date, he’s released seven solo albums (studio and live), plus a few singles like 2011’s “Living in a Barbeque World,” but his long and exhaustive career began in Bishopville, S.C.
Small sang at church, at home, and in other people’s homes. He played guitar and piano throughout high school before he decided to head to trade school in Denmark, S.C. “I thought I could be a barber,” he laughs, “but what happened was — I didn’t want to cut hair, I just wanted to cut up.”
Though Small had the barbering trade under his belt, he went on to become one of the most renowned gospel guitarists of the 1950s. Small played alongside some of the top gospel acts of that time, like The Golden Five, before he was asked to join The Spiritualaires. “Some of the big boys had already heard about me, so my name was on the road when I got out there [on tour], and all I had to do was connect up,” Small says. “I sang bass and played the guitar, and so they liked that.”
Touring with The Spiritualaires meant crossing paths with acts like The Staple Singers and Curtis Mayfield. “The Spiritualaires were a traveling group, and while we were doing gospel, every now and then you’d run into a blues singer,” Small says.
They also ran into some gospel-cum-soul singers, like Sam Cooke. “Sam Cooke, he was a nice, encouraging man,” Small says. “One of the nicest fellas I ever met.”
The Spiritualaires were on the same tour as Cooke and The Soul Stirrers when Small witnessed something extraordinary. “I saw him get booed off the stage,” he says. Cooke performed the R&B song “Lovable,” but under the name of his brother, Dale Cooke. “And man, Sam, he couldn’t fool nobody,” Small says. “You see, they didn’t want a gospel singer to sing a blues song. They said, ‘He oughta be ashamed of himself, singing that song with that golden voice.'”
Crossing musical genres wasn’t a sport like it is today. “You couldn’t sing whatever you wanted at that time,” Small says. “They wouldn’t let you get by. So what happened is, he had to sing R&B then, because they wouldn’t accept him.”
Cooke wasn’t the only artist to go secular. Small did the same in the late ’50s. “I learned the hallelujah and the boogaloo,” Small says. “I came up doing a bit of both, you know, with the church people and the blues people.”
Though Small still plays gospel, he’s more well-known for his saucy material like “Baby, Leave Your Panties at Home” and “Tittie Man.” “See I’ve been singing dirty songs all my life,” he says. “I had some of the dirtiest songs. I had this song [“Hot Nuts”] — so dirty, the chaperones stopped us from playing it.”
As the story goes, Small was set to play last on a bill with soul great Brook Benton and popular shag group The Tams at the Holiday Inn in Anderson for a crowd of Clemson students. “See, the college kids were crazy about me,” he says. “They put me last back then, because they called that kind of music ‘gross.'”
Small and friends pre-gamed with some liquor and pretty girls at a local beauty shop until it was time to head over to the venue. Before the show, a chaperone gave Small some very specific instructions. “See, there used to be a crew from North Carolina called Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, who wrote ‘Hot Nuts,'” Small explains. “But there was a version I made worse than theirs. So the lady said, ‘Small, don’t you play that ‘Hot Nuts’ song.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I won’t do it.'”
The next thing Small knew, the college kids were chanting, “We want ‘Hot Nuts.'” They also reminded him that they — not the chaperones — had paid for the music. “So, I started playing it, and she said, ‘No, no, take them ‘Hot Nuts’ outta here,’ and she gave me the check,” Small chuckles. “I might’ve played three songs, and we went back by the beauty shop and drank again.”
As for that peculiar name of his, yes, it’s his real name, and no, you’re not the only one to wonder about it. “Some people ask me about my name,” Small explains. “They say, ‘What’s your name?’ I say, ‘Drink Small.’ ‘Small with an ‘s’ on the end?’ I say, ‘No.’ I say, ‘You know why?'”
He says his parents were too poor. “Couldn’t afford to keep the ‘s,'” Small says with another laugh, satisfied that he’s left us with yet another Drinkism.
Details about the rich life of Drink Small have been documented in Drink Small: The Life & Music of South Carolina’s Blues Doctor (History Press), written by his friend Gail Wilson-Giarratano and made possible through Kickstarter, Tradesmen Brewing, and the S.C. Arts Commission. Released in November, the book is now available in major bookstores, Amazon, and the History Press. Small will sign copies on Saturday at Home Team, where he’ll perform with Anthony Charles & The Blues Dolphins and celebrate his 82nd birthday.