The South Florida blues scene has suffered a tremendous loss with the passing of Musi “Big Poppa E” Faisal. The popular Miami-based vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica player died on Saturday following a heart attack. He was 64.
The first time I met Poppa, he was performing in a tiny storefront café in North Miami Beach. I was among the three people — including the proprietor — in the audience that night. No matter. Hunched over his acoustic guitar, eyes closed, punctuating his phrases with blasts from a racked harmonica, Poppa offered heartfelt interpretations of tunes by blues kings Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as a couple by pop-soul great Bill Withers, with whom he had worked in the 1970s. “I will give you everything I’ve got, whether it’s 10 people or a thousand,” he told me later, and to which audiences from Jupiter to South Beach can attest.
A native New Yorker, Faisal grew up in midtown Manhattan. Although he lived a fairly middle-class existence — his father was an attorney, his mother an English teacher — he wasn’t far removed from the blues, which followed his family from Mississippi. His mother’s father, a railroad worker from Clarksdale, taught his grandson to play the 12-string guitar, as well as schooling him in the songs and lore of the South. In fact, Faisal would name his independent record label Black Owl, which, in Southern tradition, is a good omen.
Faisal’s education was furthered by his maternal uncles. One owned a pool hall, the other a record store a couple of doors down in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It set the tone for my life,” Poppa said, revealing that he became a proficient enough pool hustler to pay for college. But his academic career was cut short when he was drafted and shipped to Vietnam. Three bloody tours of combat duty took their toll on Faisal, who began what he called “my healing process” in Chicago. Here, he encountered blues greats such as Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor and Carey Bell, and shared stages with folk icons Jo Mapes and John Prine. Making his way to Los Angeles, Faisal played percussion behind Bill Withers alongside Bobbye Hall in the 1970s.
Faisal preferred to remain in the background, managing other artists, and only performing sporadically in South Florida until recent years. In 2006, he released an excellent collection of mostly original music titled Southern Style Blues Sessions, and from then on, he remained an active figure on the area blues scene. He held regular gigs at Tobacco Road and, more recently, The Betsey Hotel, and performed solo or with his band throughout Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach.
Iko-Iko’s Graham Wood Drout, who often worked with Poppa, posted on Facebook that Faisal “got the name ‘E’ from [one of] his daughter[s]. ‘E’ being the top letter of all the options on eye charts, and she considered him (as did I) to be a visionary.”
Among Poppa’s best songs was an original ballad titled “Daddy’s Girl.” Here, he movingly creates a composite portrait of his three daughters, his deep-river baritone floating atop sparse and jazzy chords. “Daddy, would you buy me a pair of soft, pretty wings,” he sang. “I really think I’d like to give flying a try.” He sported a ring that divided into three parts as a constant reminder of his love for them.
“My two best accomplishments in life,” he told me, “are being a good husband and a good father.”
A memorial tribute to Big Poppa E takes place at 8 p.m. Monday Sept. 3 at Tobacco Road. Special guests joining the E Band include Felipe Lamoglia, Jowee Omicil, Poppa Joe, and more. For more information, call 305-332-2623. For more on Poppa E and his recordings, visit Blackowlmusic.com.