James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.
Jimmy Schrader, the King of Guitar
Jimmy Schrader can see now. He always had ‘perfect pitch.’ You could rattle two pots together or cut the cheese, and he would name the musical note of the sound produced. One night in our Florida home, sitting outside in a screened patio, I made that statement to a visiting friend who expressed disbelief. So I said, “Jimmy, what key are those crickets chirping in out there?” He looked up, gently rolled his head from side to side, as was his habit, drummed with his fingers on his legs, and replied: “Well, most of them are in B but there’s a few out there in D.”
Jimmy was my best friend, a perfect gentleman, and since 1976, the guitarist in my band. And he was not just a guitar player. There are plenty of those. Jimmy Schrader was an incredible, jaw-dropping guitarist, one of the best to ever strap on the instrument to play rock or blues. Life will never be the same without him in it. He died one week ago today of cancer at age 65.
The White Summer band plays All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix, written by Bob Dylan
In the 1940s and 1950s, around 10,000 premature babies were born blind in America. Technically, they went blind after a few hours or weeks but having no memory of sight ‘born blind’ was generally what was said of them. You cannot describe your world to such a person because “the sky is blue today except for those scattered clouds” doesn’t mean a thing to them.
Now these ‘preemies’ would not have survived at all in earlier times. They were kept alive by airtight incubators filled with pure oxygen, which is what blinded them. The choice was a life without sight or no life at all. Diane Schuur and Stevie Wonder are two famous examples among musicians. In fact, Jimmy Schrader went to the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing at the same time as Wonder, albeit a few years behind him. When a baby loses its sight, the brain reorganizes, and the perception of sound becomes greatly enhanced.
At a young age, Jimmy loved music, especially Motown. He once asked me, as we were riding to a gig listening to the radio, “Are all the Rolling Stones black or just Mick Jagger?” When Jimi Hendrix burst on the scene that was it for Jimmy Schrader. He was hooked and would learn to play all the songs that Hendrix produced note for note – only smoother. He even played the same instrument through the same rig as Jimi, a 1957 Fender Stratocaster through a Marshall double stack.
'Dreams Come True' is the original song by White Summer that received the most airplay. Written by Jimmy Schrader and Jim Watkins
The Quiet Man Grows to Love the Cubbies
When I met Jimmy, he was in a shell to the extreme. We might ride for two hours to an engagement without him uttering a single word. Even when people would ask him a question he would often not answer, which they would wrongly interpret as rudeness. My job was to bring him out of it, and that project was an unqualified success. Still, I only once was able to coax him into saying “Hello” into a microphone on stage.
I also succeeded in making him into a Cubs fan. I had grown up listening to the Cubs on the radio, where the great Lou Boudreau would explain the game in such a succinct way that you didn’t have to see it to understand and enjoy it. I used Lou’s methods to explain the game to my friend, and he became a huge fan. We went to many ballgames together, mostly at Wrigley Field.
'To Be With You' a love ballad written by Jimmy Schrader and Jim Watkins, recorded by the White Summer band
The White Summer Band
The band Jimmy and I played in was named White Summer, a group I founded three years before Jimmy joined. We would go on to play thousands of shows in at least 100 cities over an 18-year span. There were sometimes three, sometimes four, and sometimes five of us. I can count 15 bass players; 4 keyboardists; 3 2nd guitarists; and 2 front-man singers among our past members.
Our main focus was on our original music, five albums of which were produced (one before Jimmy joined the band). We also loved taking great classic rock tunes – songs not just anybody can play - and making them our own. More of a band one listened to than danced to, our reputation would become as a “musician’s band,” a band musicians did not want to miss when we came to town.
We were not making background music while people socialized. People’s eyes were riveted to the stage when we played, in quiet admiration and respect. And the roar at the end of each song was simply something you did not usually hear for other bands in nightclubs.
But if we got low on money, we would play top 40 dance music for a while to make ends meet. We didn’t listen to that music, but Jimmy Schrader was our secret weapon: We would buy the latest rock hits, play them one time for him, and not only would he know the song, he could also tell the bass and keyboard players their parts and even play the backup harmonies for the singers.
Toward the end we had an astonishing variety of songs among the 1,000 selections on our songlist. We never played the same set twice, not wanting to be boring and predictable. We could go from Led Zeppelin to the Eagles to Black Sabbath to James Brown to Little Feat to Van Halen to Pink Floyd to ZZ Top back to back.
Our regular fans – Whiteheads they were affectionately called – loved that we would play “stump the band” in clubs. Audience members would make requests and we would play them. We could do this only because Jimmy Schrader could literally play any song he ever heard, even if he had never played it before.
'Red House' (Jimi Hendrix) live blues by White Summer (nominated for best blues guitar solo ever recorded)
So Close and Yet So Far Away
Jimmy resisted writing music for many years. But I would hear him play some unfamiliar but great riffs while practicing by himself and ask, “What is that?” “I’m just messing around,” he’d say. Eventually, with steady encouragement, he began writing beautiful pieces of music, for which I would instantly hear a vocal melody and even words in my head. Songwriting partners we became.
We hoped and even believed we would make it big in the music business but it was not to be. We were in baseball terms a AAAA band. Some famous musicians heard us play and expressed love for the band, including Eric Clapton and Neil Young. We warmed up quite a few famous acts. Many well-connected producers and recording studio engineers heard us. We played Disneyworld and the Hard Rock Cafes; we had songs that received a fair amount of radio play; we made a couple music videos; hundreds of thousands of people heard Jimmy play, including in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa and Miami.
Our best shots were:
1) Warner Brothers became interested in our third album but dropped us because one of our three band members up and quit over a woman.
2) A group of producers from Motown helped us record and tried to promote our fourth album but a dispute with our new manager ended that with very bad feelings between them.
3) United Artists expressed that they would sign us to a record deal. We were so excited. But the deal got squashed by a top executive with the record company after he saw the band perform live. This is a story I never told Jimmy Schrader. The boss said,
“If I close my eyes, White Summer sounds as good as any band on the planet. And Jimmy Schrader sounds like a world-class guitarist. But when I open my eyes I see a band that will never sell. Teenage girls will never put posters of these guys on their walls, except for one and you can't see him behind the drums. Tell the singing drummer that I am interested in him and his songs if he will dump the rest of his band – especially the blind guy – and come out front to sing. Maybe these other guys can be in the studio band. But I will hire the musicians for a new White Summer: Young, handsome, skinny guys. It matters much less how they play than how they look. Kids at concerts are stoned and drunk anyway and just thrilled to be there. They can’t analyze what they are hearing enough to know the difference. But they know what they see. It is all image now.”
This was shocking to me. For one, I knew they were wrong because Jimmy Schrader was the star of the show and people flat out loved him everywhere we went. Sure, he didn’t jump around and pose on stage, and he might not have been as handsome as Eddie Van Halen, or exuded sex appeal like Jimi Hendrix. This was in the days of big hair bands, the 1980s. But real music fans across the country got Jimmy Schrader. And there were plenty of them.
Besides all that, Jimmy was my best friend and like a brother to me. I closed my eyes when we played just to immerse myself in his world of sound only. We had written these songs together. He was an awesome person. He was the best guitarist I ever saw and I saw many of the legends. There was absolutely no way I was going to part with him. I never considered it. Some things mean more than fame and riches.
'Last Chance' by White Summer, written by Jimmy Schrader and John Sidoti (informally voted by fans to be Jimmy's best guitar solo on an original tune)
All Good Things Must Pass
After White Summer disbanded in 1991, because I retired from playing fulltime, we still got together most years for an annual reunion concert, either in Florida or in Michigan, the last of which was November 23, 2018. We were from Michigan but the band moved en masse to Florida in the 1980s, so we had about an equal sized following in both states.
Jimmy would go on to play in other bands after White Summer, but, sadly, none that toured on the road or wrote and recorded original music or opened for national acts in front of huge crowds or had the enormous fan base or won a Jammy Award for Best Classic Rock Band in America as did White Summer.
'Moondance' by Van Morrison, recorded live in concert by the White Summer band
In Steps the Lady Barbara
I learned a lot from Jimmy, and he blessed me in many ways. He was the most level person I ever knew. You know how most folks are up and down, prone to different moods depending on what is happening in their lives? Jimmy was always in the same mood.
And you know how ungrateful and complaining most folks are? Not Jimmy Schrader. I never heard him complain about his lot in life, although he had more to complain about than many. He was thankful for his life, his talent, and for being able to do what he loved most, play his guitar, and to be loved for doing it.
What I am most proud of is facilitating the meeting of Jimmy with the love of his life, his widow Barbara Schrader, his wife of 27 years, the only woman he ever loved. And she is a beautiful person. The last year I played music, as my sole profession anyway, was the year they got married. That is not a coincidence.
I had been thinking of quitting for a while. I had told myself I would if our last album didn’t break through. And playing Spring Break at Daytona and Lauderdale that last year the kids started yelling for MC Hammer. But I would put such thoughts away when I would think about my friend. Where would he go? Where would he live? Who would make sure he had a warm bed and supper on the table?
After he met and married Barb, I knew I could let him go because there was no doubt that she would take wonderful care of my boy. Maybe without me Jimmy would make it big. Maybe I was holding him back. His family had trusted me to cart him all over the country, and now we could trust Barb to love and care for him forever. And she did. God bless her.
He Can See Now
Jimmy also did many other fascinating things, such as drive the band home from a bar after a performance because the rest of us were too drunk to drive, a two-mile trek he handled flawlessly (with navigational help, of course). He also drove Cousin Kenny’s Camaro 100 miles-per-hour on a deserted road. And he would fly a jet aircraft (with my private charter captain father), for which Jimmy got his own pilot’s logbook with one hour recorded in it. When I called my dad to tell him Jimmy had passed, without missing a beat he simply said: “He can see now.”
James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on June 11, 2019:
Chris Merritt ~ I am honored that you went on a "three hour tour" of the music of White Summer on YouTube. Thank you for all you said about our music. You are right that since I do have so many recordings of Jimmy playing I can relive those moments. Every recording I have I can clearly remember where we were and when and what it felt like to play these songs at the time.
Jimmy was an amazing guitarist. And a wonderful man. He was always the same, whilst everyone else I knew was up one day and down the next, rolling with the vicissitudes of life. He was the most even-keeled person I have ever known. And though born blind he never complained about that or anything else.
God Bless You Brother. And if you ever visit Chicago, I'd love to buy you lunch ... or breakfast ... or dinner.
Chris Merritt from Pendleton, Indiana on June 10, 2019:
First of all, I feel like a dummy allowing 3 months to pass before I read this...this morning, I knew about your friend Jimmy passing away, but never read this. So, I was blowing through facebook, like I normally do....and your post about "Mother Earth" was there, so I listened...and like most of your other collections, I loved it...so while I was sitting at my office getting my Monday started, I went to youtube and began what seemed like a three hour tour of your songs.
I had done this before, but today, your music was intoxicating....Jimmy WAS amazing! This tribute to him was very interesting...I knew about your band from a previous hub, but today, it really hit me JUST how GOOD you guys really were/are!
You are a class act! Jimmy was lucky to have a friend like yourself...as I am sure he would be first to say it....I know life will never be the same without him, but you are so fortunate that you have so many recordings that you can "re-live" so many great moments you shared together.
James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on March 11, 2019:
Harvey Stelman ~ Thank you so much for your kind words.
HARVEY STELMAN on March 10, 2019:
SO SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS. GD REST HI4S SOUL.
James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on March 08, 2019:
Ken Pulley ~ Thank you, my friend, for reading my piece and for your kind compliments.
ken pulley on March 08, 2019:
What a wonderful and beautiful tribute to a dear friend and awesome musician. I know he will be deeply missed by all who knew him and will be forever in their hearts.
James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on March 01, 2019:
Sandy Huff ~ Thank you for your kind words. The boy could jam. There's no doubt about that. It is very nice to hear from you. :-)
Sandy Huff on March 01, 2019:
Jim I'm so sorry for your loss. He was an awesome guitarists.
James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on February 27, 2019:
Jeff Phairas ~ Thank you for your sympathy. You are right, I am truly blessed to have known Jimmy Schrader. I appreciate your warm words and love, cousin. I'll see you seen back on Facebook. :-)
James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on February 27, 2019:
Peg Cole ~ Thank you for taking the time to read my piece and listen to our music. I am so glad you enjoyed hearing us playing. I am pleased, too, that you liked the tribute and the pics. And I appreciate your condolences.
I am sorry to read that you lost your best friend of 40 years, Peg. I see we have that in common.
James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on February 27, 2019:
Peggy Woods ~ Thank you for reading my piece and listening to my little band of brothers. It is good to hear from you. I appreciate your lovely laudations.
James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on February 27, 2019:
James Trentadue ~ How nice to hear from you. I enjoyed your comments and can see that you heard some great bands back in the day. I guess I have always been a Christian, although it was a tough balancing act during my days on the road with a rock band - a battle I did not always win. But I can surely say I would have been much worse without my faith. I was a drummer and there weren't any drums in churches back then. :-) Thanks for reading.
Jeff Phairas on February 26, 2019:
I am so sorry to hear of your friends passing. You were fortunate to be blessed with his friendship and love. Not everyone during thier lifetimes are blessed with a true friend like you and him were. As your dad said. He can see now and he is right now looking down at his good friend and smiling at you . Love u cuz. Hope to see you back on FB soon.
Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on February 26, 2019:
What a beautiful collection of memories and a fine tribute to your friend Jimmy Schrader. You had so many good times and I know he's enjoying his sight in Heaven with an incredible audience. Sometimes I think that we'll spend some of our time in eternity going to performances of famous and non-famous artists alike.
I'm so sorry for your loss and can completely understand your admiration and dedication for this exceptionally talented friend. I lost my best friend of 40 plus years a short time ago. I still miss her every single day.
Loved listening to the music, bro. And the photos were fabulous.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 26, 2019:
What a wonderful tribute to your friend and band partner. I listened to quite a few of the video recordings, and he definitely knew how to strum his guitar! I am sorry for your loss as well as his wife and other people who knew him. Jimmy is probably holding concerts with the angels now. As your dad said, "He can see now."
James Trentadue from Madison, WI. on February 26, 2019:
From a guitar listener "extraordinaire" he will be missed.
I saw a lot of bands that came through Chicago area around that time.
Argon Ballroom, The Corporation (Elmhurst), The Mouse Trap (Waukegan) and college campuses were some of my favorite venues.
I saw a lot of Styx, Reo, Blackwater Gold, Cheap Trick, Sparkle, Whisper, Rory Gallagher, and of course The Motor City Madman Uncle Ted Nugent; along with Phil Driscol (horn player from Blood Sweat & Tears) Richie Furay of America ET.. (these two became Christian) these are ones off of the top of my head.
Along with many of your Zepplin, Grand Funk, Guess Who types that only played big time venues.
Wished I would have run into you guys back then. Became a Christian in 1975 and lost my taste for the "spirit of the heavy's" at least for the ones living for the dark side. Loved the musicianship.
RIP hope he went to see the Father as He says; "Well done my faithful servant".
James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on February 26, 2019:
Awdur ~ Thank you so much for reading my article. I love your comments, with which I most wholeheartedly agree. Well said, my dear.
Awdur from Chicago on February 25, 2019:
A beautiful tribute to a beautiful and extremely talented man. I have a feeling the angels in Heaven are playing a whole new tune...… sometimes ;-)