NEWPORT NEWS — The blues bug has chomped down on Robert Martin Walters and William "MoBetta" Ledbetter, a pair of talented local teenagers.
Watch them jam together on a rollicking blues classic like "Messin' With the Kid," and you might assume they'd played together for years.
Not so. They've know each other a little more than a month.
What a month it's been.
Walters, a 17-year drummer who lives in Newport News, and Ledbetter, a 16-year-old guitarist from Hampton, forged a bond in Chicago last month while attending Blues Camp, a national program that draws young students from across the nation to the Windy City for classes and jamming in the cradle of American electric blues.
Walters and Ledbetter are thought to be the first Virginia musicians to attend the camp, which this year offered encounters with blues stars Buddy Guy and Eddie Shaw as well as lots of coaching from pro players including Fruteland Jackson and Norfolk's own Jackie Scott.
"It was a huge learning experience," said Walters, who attends Peninsula Catholic High School and is the son of local blues musician Bobby "BlackHat" Walters. "I thought it might be boring, but it wasn't. ... It was pretty fun."
Ledbetter described the camp, held at Columbia College Chicago, in glowing terms. "It was great meeting a whole bunch of younger musicians who have a passion for music as much as I do," he said. "Secondly, I loved being able to play at some famous clubs."
Ledbetter and Walters got to play with Shaw on stage at Kingston Mines, a renown Chicago blues haunt. They also jammed at Buddy Guy's Legends, where the influential musician signed the headstock of Ledbetter's Les Paul guitar.
"It really increased my love for the blues," said Ledbetter, a student at Kecoughtan High School. "I did learn a few tricks, but I taught a few tricks, too. It was like a mutual benefit. I just really enjoyed myself there."
It's easy to see and hear the results of Blues Camp in the music of these two young men.
Meeting at Walters' house on a recent Saturday afternoon, Ledbetter plugged in his amplifier and started playing fluid, jazzy chords on his Gibson guitar. "You know that?" he asked Martin, who was seated behind his drum kit, sticks in hand.
Walters shook his head to answer "No." William started singing along with his swinging chords. "If you ever plan to motor west," he crooned, the first line of the Nat King Cole classic "Route 66."
"Ahhh!" said Walters.
Next, William played another set of chords, a rhythmic pattern with a distinctively Latin feel. It was the tune "Suavecito" by a group from the 1970s called Malo.
Walters made a sour face and laughed, as if to say, "Not that again!"
Ledbetter tried to defend the tune, but Walters wasn't buying it. "It's a nice song to do, like, in Mexico!" Walters said. "For some reason, it was Fernando's favorite song."
He was referring to Fernando Jones, founder and operator of Blues Camp and The Blues Kids Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization. The Chicago-based foundation raises money so that Blues Camp is free of charge for the children selected. About 106 children, ranging in age from 6 to 17, attended the summer Chicago session. Blues Camp sessions are also held in Austin, Texas, and Anaheim, Calif.
Families pay for room and board, but scholarship money is available for that. Both Ledbetter and Walters received scholarships to help defray the costs. Ledbetter's scholarship came from theHowlin' WolfFoundation.
Ledbetter's mother, Tammi Haggins-Ledbetter, traveled with her son to Chicago to serve as a chaperon for the week. "It was just phenomenal to see all the youth who love the blues," she said. "It's one of those genres of music that could easily die. But with interest like this, it's not going to die ... It was really good how it brought kids together."
Jones says that's precisely why he created Blues Camp, now in its third year. A guitarist and songwriter who leads Columbia College's blues ensemble, he saw the need to connect young blues musicians. When he would travel as a touring blues man, young players would often ask to join his band on stage.
"So, at end of a night, the kid would come up and play," Jones said, in a telephone interview. "Then, you leave town. Two weeks later, you get a letter about how this one little experience had changed their life. They have nobody else to play with."
His camp make links young blues enthusiasts near and far. "It's kind of like a farm team for the blues," Jones said. "It will help keep the major leagues of the blues healthy."
Walters' dad couldn't have been more proud of his son's excellent summer adventure. Dad arrived in Chicago on the last day of the camp — just in time to watch his son and Ledbetter play at Kingston Mines. Many moons ago, that club was the first blues joint the father ever visited. Being there again felt special.
"It was like a big circle had been completed," the father said. "An even bigger thrill for me was watching my son play on that stage with someone like Eddie Shaw ... They had an exposure that the average blues musician will never get. It's pretty phenomenal. It's a great program."
The Friday session was the climax of Blues Camp, and the jamming continued into the wee hours. Walters and the two teens went straight from the club to the airport to fly home. Walters posted a photo to Facebook of the two teens asleep in their chairs, waiting for their flight.
"I said, 'Hey, if you're going to be a blues man, you have to be able to go all night,'" Walters teased the teens. "'If you can't hang with the big dogs, get off the porch!' "
Back home and rested up, the young musicians laughed and smiled thinking back about their week in Chicago.
During the same casual, Saturday afternoon jam session, they locked in together effortlessly. Martin Walters and William Ledbetter are in the process of putting a band together.
After a bit of noodling, they settled into the groove of the classic "Born Under a Bad Sign." Walters slammed the beat home, a look of grim determination on his face. Ledbetter, by contrast, looked relaxed, even when his fingers danced across the fret board as he fired off a sharp, stinging solo.
Later, Ledbetter said the competition among students at the camp was fierce, even for a skilled guitarist like himself.
"It was a head-cutting contest all week," he said. "Everybody in our group wanted to shine. But that wasn't going to happen. They were all too good ... But I'm not lying. It was fun."