Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page

Longtime Syracuse blues singer Roosevelt Dean died in his home on Midland Avenue Saturday after a long battle with cancer. He was 65.

Dean was inducted into the Syracuse Area Music Awards Hall of Fame in May 2008 for his deep blues voice and guitar work. He grew up in Phoenix City, Ala., but moved to Syracuse in 1962. Dean had battled cancer since 2001. He continued to perform live regularly in Syracuse and record CDs.

Roosevelt DeanThe passing of the celebrated Roosevelt Dean brought back vivid memories of an interview six years ago. I was working with Stan Walker - a fine photographer who also died a year ago from cancer - on a series about Central New Yorkers who had survived Jim Crow rules at a time when segregation was the law.
Dean, the celebrated bluesman, told a particularly horrific story about an incident that contributed to the way he played guitar, to that day. At the time, I used another one of his quotes as the cutline to Stan's photo - a quote that has particular resonance right now.

Roosevelt Dean held up the little finger on his left hand. It is crooked and deformed, but it can grip. It allows Dean to play his blues guitar in Syracuse.

Dean grew up in Alabama, in the years of legal segregation. He almost lost the finger when he was about 7. He was holding a piece of wood while his cousin swung a hatchet. The hatchet hit Dean's finger, nearly severing it. His aunt, Eddie Nelson, carried him to his grandmother's house, and the two women took Dean to a white doctor in town.

"We went in the back door, and we went into the room where they kept the brooms and buckets and the mops, " Dean recalled. "You couldn't go into the doctor's office if you were black. The doctor comes out and says, "What's going on with him, girl?' He says, "It ain't going to work to try and save that finger, let me get the scissors and just cut it off."

"My grandmother says, "No, you save that finger, ' and this man grabbed the needle and the thread, and he grabbed my finger and started sewing. I'm screaming, water is coming out of my eyes. If it's a white child, he would have gone in the front door and they would have given him a shot in the hand to kill the pain and then sewed it up all pretty. They would have tried to stop that kid from crying.

"My grandmother took it for as long as she could before she said, "Give me back that baby, ' and the doctor says, "If it starts to smell, bring it back, and I'll cut it off.' "
For months, every day, Dean's aunt covered the wound with axle grease.

"That finger is still on my hand, my left hand, my guitar-playing hand, " said Dean, 59.

He spoke from the living room of the Rose Avenue house where Eddie Nelson has lived for 53 years, the house where she settled after leaving Alabama, the house that somehow remained standing after much of the area was cleared for urban renewal.

"You look back on those days, " Nelson said, "and you wonder how you survived it."

Quote: "Some people don't like to talk about (segregation), because it was a bitter nut. Talking about it leaves a bitter taste. Anything you tried to do, there was always something standing in your way." - Roosevelt Dean