“Do we have any dancers in the house?” Always the most dapper man in the room, Nat Bolden steps down off the low stage to start the dance floor moving. “I’m 94 years old,” he lets it be known, “And I can still shake it down.” It’s true. He’s strutting a cool step, luring a pair of ladies — freshly hatched young things in their mid-30s — to come join him as he and the band work a tough groove on “Wall To Wall (Back To Back)” — practically a brand new hit from only just about 1985 or so. Satisfied that he’s got the dancers on their feet, he grabs the tip jar to go work the tables.
Nat Bolden dresses like a grown-ass man, in razor-sharp pin-stripe suits and jewelry enough to make a pawn shop jealous — although he’s sport-casual tonight in a red cardigan, a ball-cap, and a rodeo belt buckle the size of a dinner plate. Nat Bolden sings like a man, too — which basically means begging the woman to either forgive you, let you please come back home, or else maybe give you a little bit of the sweet thing of yours.
Nat Bolden may be the best dang 94-year-old singer in contemporary blues, and, for that matter, in R&B, too. You haven’t heard about him, but you’re not alone — hardly anybody ever has. These days he drives from Stockton to Sacramento to San Jose, working what’s left of what once was a thriving rhythm & blues scene, then heads back home in the wee, wee hours when it’s just him and the trucks on the road. He made one record one time, “Good Morning, Mr. Blues,” got paid $125, waited six or seven years for it to come out, and then that was that. He hadn’t started out to be a singer, anyway.
He started out in the cotton fields of Pine Bluff, Ark., born in 1928, just in time for the Great Depression to make poor black country people well and truly poor. He made it to California, to Berkeley, in 1950, worked in a laundry, then learned to be a welder in the Bay Area’s thriving shipyards. By the late 1970s, with all those well-paid welder’s wages, he had his own little club, the ‘Til Two Lounge, right at 66th Street, where one side of the street was Berkeley, and the other side was Oakland. (Oh, and there was a legendary barbecue joint there, too — the highly memorable Flint’s. They used automotive trouble lights to peer in at the ribs in those smokey ovens, and if you were white, they knew you must be from the Berkeley side of the street, so they automatically gave you that same soft sandwich bread they gave the black folks, but white folks’ bread was tinted wheat-brown.)
“I used to get up and sing there all the time,” Nat says of his ‘Til Two Lounge. “I owned the place, so they couldn’t throw me off the stage.” They wouldn’t have. He sings too sweetly, too soulfully, with enough flavor to rival even the late, lamented Flint’s. (Hot tips: He and his band are at Everett & Jones’ BBQ in downtown Oakland every third Saturday night; and try the brisket over the ribs.)
He’s too modest, but that’s just how he is, simply one of nature’s gentlemen. He’s got a chair set up right in front of the stage for Sharon Davis, who’s sitting there singing her ass off nursing a broken knee. His keyboard player Kenny, king of the one-note solo, is holding down that B-flat organ key while waiting for the changes to come around again and catch up to his note. “Come on in, Mr. Blues, make yourself at home,” Nat Bolden sings in that light-hearted way he has. “Want you to be comfortable, we gonna be here all night long…”