They called him the elder statesman of the Boston Blues.
And after Weepin' Willie Robinson's death last weekend, friends and admirers turned his funeral into a gala celebration befitting a king.
Jazz piano arpeggios spilled from the fingertips of Robinson's onetime band member David Maxwell and streamed through the packed pews of the Central Congregation Church in Jamaica Plain yesterday. Cold winter sun filtered through the tall church windows and fell in golden patches on Robinson's coffin, draped in an American flag and flanked by flower baskets and wreaths.
Willie L. Robinson, 81, died in a fire sparked by a cigarette last Sunday, when he lit a cigarette in his bed at the Mount Pleasant rest home in Jamaica Plain. His funeral was a tribute to the bluesman's life - first as a sharecropper in Georgia, then as an Army veteran, emcee and doorman in the blues clubs of Trenton, N.J., and, finally, as a legendary blues singer in Boston.
More than 250 of Robinson's relatives, fans, and friends packed the church. Aging bluesmen flashed heavy gold jewelry and graying pony tails over their furs. Mount Pleasant residents arrived on a bus provided by the residential care facility. Women in black gowns and high heels, and men in elaborate top hats took turns sitting down on the long wooden benches. There was not enough space for everyone to sit, and some mourners stood along the walls and back of the church.
A man with an unkempt beard and long matted hair, and wearing soiled jeans, unlaced boots, and a parka hood pulled over his baseball hat, leaning on an aluminum cane at the back of the church.
"I just want to wish my respects," he said.
At the foot of Robinson's casket, speakers took turns at the microphone sharing stories of a musician that made the audience roar with laughter, and weep, and laugh again: a womanizer; a mentor; a drinker; an absentee father; a loyal friend; and, above all, a brilliant musician who sang with B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
"Some of you will rush to tell me that Willie was no saint," the Rev. Michael McSherry said, and the people in the pews chuckled.
"I don't know, Willie was always kind of like a saint to me," James Montgomery, a blues singer and harmonica player, shot back, and the audience guffawed.
"The last thing he said to me, was: 'You'd better keep your girl- friend away from me or I'm gonna get in trouble.' " said Montgomery, who, along with Jim Carty, host of the "Blues and Beyond" radio show on WMFO, looked after Robinson in recent years. The church erupted in laughter once more, but as Montgomery walked back to his seat he began to weep.
One of Robinson's 10 children, Ray Robinson, cried openly by the side of his father's casket, awed by the number of people who had come to the funeral to pay their respects.
"It touches me and my family deeply to see all of you," he said. His chin shook, and a female relative handed him a tissue.
"I needed my father often," he continued. His voice trailed off. "Thank you, thank you for caring for him."
Carty wept, too, as he recalled Robinson's descent into dementia, which may have led to his death. Although Mount Pleasant rules forbade smoking in the rooms, Robinson often forgot.
"Sometimes I think this early onset of dementia was just his excuse for not remembering stuff he didn't want to remember," Carty said.
One by one, Robinson's friends spoke and sang in his honor. Jose Ramos, a blues singer from Mattapan, placed a Snickers bar on Robinson's coffin: "Just before the end of the night he always needed a snack," he explained.
Singer Shor'ty Billups led a band into a swinging rendition of Rufus Thomas's "Walking the Dog," drowning the church in the rich sound of rhythm and blues.
And when Mighty Sam McLain, who, like Robinson, had made his way to New England from the Bible Belt, started singing "Amazing Grace," the whole church joined in.