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Big Joe Maher didn't realize he had so many friends until he fell flat on his back.

Musical Healing


Rhythm-and-blues musician Big Joe Maher had been through the drill hundreds of times. Book the gig, drive to the town and do the show after motel check-in. But last June, bad luck played an unexpected hand in Joe's game plan. As he and his band the Dynaflows left their Raleigh, N.C., rooms bound for a job in a steady evening, Maher's feet slid out from under him on a slick stairway. The 300-pound drummer's lower back slammed into the concrete and metal edge of a stair. The impact broke his spine.

"That one second will change your life ... It sounded like a baseball bat breaking to me," the Washington, D.C.-based bandleader said recently of the accident. "I can't even describe what the pain feels like. ... I'm not a crybaby [but] it's a dark, dreary kind of pain."

The pain brought on by this horrible turn of events was unlike anything Maher had battled since he formed his first band in the '80s and began touring the blues clubs of America and Europe. His mix of stripped-down big band swing and jump blues sounds has remained true to old-school tradition through fads and fashion and his recent CDs have met favorable critical response. As longtime favorites on the D.C. blues scene, Maher and his band have also performed frequently in Richmond.

Although the long-term outlook is good for Joe and he will eventually return to the drums, there's plenty of therapy and recovery time ahead. This promises hefty expenses for a man in a profession with no 401(k) plan or insurance packages. Fortunately, insurance through Maher's wife's job will pay most of the $100,000 medical bill but there's still a chunk that insurance won't cover. There is also the mortgage and the daily bills. This adds up to a financial load that's daunting for any working musician, let alone one suddenly laid up by a freak accident.

In an effort to help Joe during this time of need, some of Maher's Richmond and D.C.-area musical compadres have volunteered their time and talents for a benefit blues show on Sunday, Sept. 16, at Fireballz. The show starts at 4 p.m. and the bill boasts The Nighthawks, Terry Garland, the Dynaflows, the Bopcats, and Li'l Ronnie and the Grand Dukes. Tickets are $10 at the door. Dynaflows guitarist and Richmond resident Ivan Appelrouth organized the event for his longtime friend.

"Let's face it," Appelrouth says, "there aren't many musicians that put money in the bank that doesn't come right out. People always expect musicians to give and give and give. Sometimes musicians need to be on the receiving end of things."

A previous benefit held at the State Theater in Northern Virginia last month raised about $10,000 for Joe's bills. Delbert McClinton, Earl King, Bill Kirchen and Tom Principato played in addition to several other bands. Joe was able to attend the show briefly and he said the event "humbled" him.

"That lightened the [financial] weight," says the grateful 48-year-old drummer.

In addition to his gradually improving financial outlook, Maher is turning a corner physically. He can view the accident and its wake with a clearer eye. When he first arrived at the hospital, medical personnel were reluctant to turn Maher over because of his size. It took eight long days to find a doctor to operate. When doctors were finally found, they told him his chances were in that the operation would leave him paralyzed and several doctors were afraid to tackle the odds. But a bit of good luck happened when Dr. Leonard Nelson, a veteran of 500 similar operations, told Joe he could do the job and he successfully completed the operation. Maher also later learned that his legs escaped instant paralysis from the fall by 3 centimeters.

Now, nearly three months into treatment, things are looking up for Big Joe, although he's nowhere near where he hopes to be in five months. He still has trouble sleeping and endures spasms and pain. But he's riding a stationary bicycle and walking short distances with the help of a cane. Joe also hopes to play an easy gig or two this month but he admits he'll just have to see how it feels to get behind his drums.

"You kind of have to figure it out, man," Maher says. "You know what I mean."

Maher won't attend Sunday's benefit but he's grateful for the efforts of friends on his behalf. As he concentrates on getting on with his life and sees friends rally their support for him, he has a new viewpoint, he says: "I used to say nobody really cares. I can't say that anymore."