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San Diego Blues Legend Tomcat Courtney Dies After Bout With Coronavirus

NBC San Diego logo NBC San Diego 1/13/2021 Eric S. Page
a man holding a guitar © John Hancock

Friends, loved ones and local music fans are mourning the death of Tom "Tomcat" Courtney, a Texas transplant and San Diego Music Award winner who was the longtime anchor of San Diego's blues scene.

Courtney, who died Monday afternoon, was 91. He is survived by his longtime partner, Jojo Riegel, and a large extended family. Riegel told NBC 7 that his death followed a battle with the coronavirus that began in December.

"It's a shock for me," Riegel said. "I can't stop crying. Since before Christmas, he's been in and out of the hospital."

Courtney was the holder of a pair of San Diego Music Awards, including Best Blues in 2010 and a lifetime achievement award presented in 2014. Chances are, if you ever saw a blues artist performing at one of San Diego's street fairs, it was Tomcat Courtney.

Courtney grew up in Waco, Texas, with his piano-playing father before making his way to San Diego in the early '70s, friend and local blues musician Scottie Blinn told NBC 7. Before long, Tomcat & the Bluesdusters were playing weekly at the Texas Teahouse in Ocean Beach, a residency that lasted nearly two decades.

"We met at one of the restaurants downtown that he played in on Fourth Avenue," Riegel said. "Tom played there almost every day. We started hanging around, and I was a cook there, and every time he played, I made sure he got his favorite food. We just started to … I guess, for me, it was love at first sight."

Those were just the first of thousands and thousands of shows Riegel saw Courtney peform -- in fact, she ended up joining his band as a keyboardist and was his longtime booker as well.

The bluesman's bout with COVID-19 was preceded by a less-serious but, for Courtney, what was a very real burden posed by then pandemic: the inability to perform after a lifetime of weekly, sometimes daily, appearances.

"[It was hard] for him not being able to play -- he was playing three or four nights a week [right up until the pandemic hit ] -- that was really hard for him," Blinn said. "He was still relevant and revered. It was beautiful for him at his age.

Fans and friends let litte time pass before they began sharing memories of the local legend.

"Tom meant so much to so many," Blinn posted on Facebook. "The proof is in all the musicians in town who revered and respected him. Up until Covid, he played at least 3 nights a week…at 91 years old! I heard someone once ask him, 'How many nights a week are you playing?' Tom responded, 'Well, I had to slow it down a bit … three or four nights a week," [he said] with his famous chuckle and a gleam in his eye."

"RIP Tomcat Courtney," posted 2019 San Diego Music Award Artist of the Year Whitney Shay. "Thank you for bestowing us all with your talent for 91 years. The San Diego music community lost a great bluesman today …"

Riegel said she was touched by the outpouring online.

"He was a good man -- I read everything [online] … and I know he's in a better place, but I just miss him," Riegel said. "We were together for 30 years, and he never complained once about anything. He just loved to play his music."

Blinn said there were plans under way to create a memorial page on Facebook for people to share stories and condolences and, "once things get better with COVID and the numbers start evening out, we'll throw a big party, like we did for his birthdays."

Courtney, who played regularly at Proud Mary's, celebrated his Jan. 23 birthday every year at the Kearny Mesa club -- notably on his 90th, when 300-400 people turned up, Blinn said.

"He was full of life, especially if he saw people enjoying him," Riegel said. "It didn't matter if the club was paying [more or less] -- it's the music and can make people happy.

Riegel said a service is planned in San Bernardino, where a daughter of Courtney's lives, as well as one in San Diego.

As Tomcat Courtney was famous for saying, "Right on with your right on."

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