The Old Market is one of the city’s more colorfully eclectic neighborhoods. Thanks to the street musician who goes by the moniker of Dr. Spit, the northwest corner of 11th and Howard on any given day has the power to redefine the very notion of “colorful” or “eclectic.”
The man who casually shrugs that his real name is “irrelevant” has enjoyed a performance career that began before he was out of diapers. “Madea [a Southern-fried pet name for one’s mother since mainstreamed by Tyler Perry’s films of the same name] used to dress us up and march us Uptown. We were singing and dancing before we could talk, practically before we could even walk. We’d do Gospel mostly. You know, old-time church music. And people would throw money.”
The Uptown in question belonged to a pre-civil rights era Waxahachie, Texas, where the now 60-year-old was born in the cruelest of surroundings. “The hospital wouldn’t take us. The insane asylum was the only place back then that would do deliveries for us black folks,” says the man whose broad and deep repertoire includes everything from blues, jazz, and funk to country, reggae, and rock—even a decidedly experimental genre he once toyed with called rap polka.
“Whatever you pay for, I can play for,” he quips.
The good doctor hasn’t always made a living by having people throw money at him. His bands have included such groups as Dr. Spit and the Blues Mechanics and Hit it and Quit, a name inspired by the lyrics of James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” He toured extensively in the ‘70s and ‘80s all throughout the Midwest and also gig-hopped across Europe in the ‘90s. One of his favorite music scenes is The Big Easy.
“I’ve performed all up and down Bourbon Street,” says the musician who was once featured in AARP Magazine, “and that’s one of the most flattering compliments I get…when somebody tells me that my little corner of the Old Market sounds just like the French Quarter in New Orleans.”
Oh, and the origin of his Dr. Spit alter ego?
“This may sound a little crazy, but it’s a name that came to me in a dream because I’m a harp man.” That’s a harp as in a harmonica, the same instrument that Dr. Spit has taught to schoolchildren through programs supported by North Omaha’s Charles B. Washington branch of the Omaha Public Library system.
But fate hasn’t always smiled on this bluesmaster. He was among the throngs of people celebrating at Native Omaha Day in 2005 when a drive-by shooter fired wildly into the crowd. Dr. Spit’s reward for being in the wrong place at the wrong time was a bullet to the head. He also suffers from a medical journal full of heart ailments, and has had five heart attacks. He says that he was declared clinically dead in a trio of those episodes.
“It’s pretty easy for me to believe in God,” he explains in a velvety baritone. “After all, I’ve already met him three times.”
His tribulations have forged a personal philosophy that is a simple, humble one. “I’m just happy that I can swing my legs out of bed each and every morning to greet the day. Everything after that—but mostly making music to put a smile on people’s faces—is just a bonus.”
Also guaranteed to put a smile on the faces of passerby during this, the high season for people-watching in the Old Market, are the vibrant, over-the-top costumes that he devises by embellishing various articles of clothing with all manner of funkadelic finery, what he calls his “Lady Gaga get-ups.”
Dr. Spit first took up a place on the corner in 1968. Interacting with his fans, he says, is still the best part of being an Old Market fixture.
“The kids especially,” he explains. “Kids too young to know what a harp is. They kind of freeze when they see me play. They may have never seen a harmonica being played and they have a confused, far-off look on their faces. They’re just mesmerized by it. Mesmerized by my harp. And you know what? So am I. After all these decades, so am I.”