Calvin Thomas Brandon has gracefully lifted himself above hardship his whole life, and that feeling ends up in his throat when he sings the blues. As one of 16 children on a farm near Roxboro, he looked forward to singing when his family went to church. They lived in the house Brandon's father, a carpenter while in the military, built, eating a lot of fatback and pinto beans and surviving from what they made growing tobacco.
Brandon—who soon picked up Skeeter, the nickname he's had ever since—started attending the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh in 1954 at age 6. He played trumpet and snare drum but began to flourish on the piano, which would become the main instrument to accompanying his high-crooning voice.
Brandon performed with two other blind blues musicians—Clarence Carter, famous for his hit "Slip Away," and a minister named Jasper Jackson. Brandon was only 19 when he started out on the road. He would open gigs playing solo, followed by Carter with his full band, which included Jackson on organ. Brandon and Carter recorded at Muscle Shoals together, too.
He went on to work with soul group The Chi-Lites. Brandon and Jackson paired up again, playing small clubs across North Carolina, mostly Moose and Elk lodges. They adjusted their usual blues and R&B sets to accommodate the tastes of the audience, occasionally playing all country. Their knowledge and repertoire allowed for such extreme flexibility. Barely encumbered by his lack of vision, Brandon became known for breaking out in the middle of a set during those years to walk through the crowd. When he plays now, Brandon still keeps that same exuberance he had when he'd get to sing in the old Baptist church near Roxboro. And he makes it look—and sound—so easy.
Skeeter Brandon plays The Cave Saturday, Jan. 19. The show starts at 10 p.m. and costs $10.