Rock Hill's Willie Roach is a man born for the blues

About 55 years ago on a Saturday morning, on his granddaddy's farm out where half-million-dollar homes now sit between Celanese Road and the Catawba River, a stranger with a guitar strapped over his back walked up to where little kid Willie Roach stood on the porch. The man put a foot on the porch step.

"That guy, he was big as a stevedore, but with a voice that didn't match -- high. Picked that guitar and sang the words, 'That old gal, keep doing that to me,'" recalled Roach. "I saw the blues in that big man. I heard the blues that morning. Been hearing 'em, and singing 'em, ever since."

And when Willie "Bluesman" Roach says ever since, he means it.

Although he sang soul and rock-and-roll and gospel and everything else over all these years, Roach, 61, still sings the blues because he has lived the blues.

"The Godfather of Rock Hill blues," is how Johnny "Boggie" King, legendary Rock Hill guitarist who started playing with Roach more than 45 years ago, describes him. "Not another like him then, or now. The one and only."

Roach started like many black kids, with gospel in church. He had kid bands in the Boyd Hill neighborhood before he was old enough to drive, with names like the Wiltones and the Spidels, that have faded into dusty memories. He sang country music in a whites-only roadhouse next to the Holsum Bakery on Cherry Road when he was about 12 a for a few bucks and tips.

"Fella heard me in the back singing when I was washing the bakery trucks," Roach said.

Roach then played with Bobby Plair's local band that toured at so many college campuses across the South in those early days, then in 1964 headed for Harlem, where the blues lived.

One band, New Soul, was among the first integrated bands on the scene in New York. Roach played nightclubs in front of gangsters, bowling alleys in front of howling teens, anywhere people wanted to hear from the part of the soul where the blues live.

"Then Uncle Sam put a wrinkle in all that," Roach said.

Roach was drafted in 1966.

He was supposed to be a supply clerk.

"But the gun placements were overrun and I was an artillery gunner, just like that," Roach said.

In two tours in Vietnam, Roach had to see, and do, and endure, the unthinkable. Kill, again and again.

"Or die myself," Roach said.

He came back long before anybody heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Blues music disappeared. Real blues set in for years.

"The New York nightlife engulfed me, and I didn't start playing until it turned me loose," Roach explained. "I went to a recording session for Jump Street, a 10-piece blues band. All I went through melted away when I heard them blues again."

With Jump Street, Roach again was out there in those long nights, professionally singing the blues.

He came home to Rock Hill in 1988 because his father was dead, his mother sick. He worked driving a forklift for Pepsi Cola for a few years. He then worked construction.

He sang some gospel. Rock Hill gospel guitarist Bill Ratchford, a legend among black gospel groups in the South, once told me, "Willie Roach plays the blues from places other men don't know."

So the blues pulled Roach back. Roach started up with a band he still is with, the No-Name Blues Band, and they still play gigs. The man with long-grown kids, a grandfather, has been back at the blues weekends since beating cancer in 2005, with no plans to quit.

Tonight at Rock Hill's Downtown Blues Festival, just like last year, Roach will play at McHale's on Main Street. Just like so many years ago, when he was a blues singer at a star-filled joint named McHale's in Manhattan, New York City.

"People tell me I was born to sing the blues," Roach said. "Maybe they are right."

Ain't no maybe about it.