When Walter Trout was a boy growing up in Ocean City, his mother would take him to Atlantic City to see acts such as Ray Charles and James Brown. He fell in love with the blues.
And last year, the blues helped save his life.
Trout, a former member of Canned Heat and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, has had a long career as a guitarist, singer and recording artist. He is considered one of the best blues-rock musicians in the country. And in Europe, where the blues are much more popular than they are in the United States, he is treated as a musical elder statesman.
But in June 2013, while on tour in Germany, he woke up "swollen up like a beach ball" with fluid. He was rushed to the hospital and discovered he had a disease that resulted in cirrhosis of the liver, even though he quit being a substance abuser during the late 1980s.
Trout could not work for a year and a half, and had no income. At his lowest point, he couldn't walk. He couldn't talk. He did not know who his own children were while he was hospitalized.
"I had brain damage. I had a ventilator breathing for me, and I had a hose in my nose that they fed me liquid through," said Trout. "None of the doctors thought I would survive. They all said, 'The guy's a goner.'"
But Trout is so loved by the blues community - especially in England and other parts of Europe - that a social-media campaign to raise money for his medical expenses raised $250,000 in less than a week. The money helped pay for treatment that wasn't covered by Trout's health insurance.
Then, on May 26 of last year, Trout experienced what can only be described as a miracle. A donor was found, and he underwent a successful liver transplant.
Following the surgery, he suffered from common post-transplant complications and had to undergo rehabilitation. But once he was home, he realized he could still play guitar.
Trout made his first public appearance since the surgery on June 15 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It was the beginning of his "I'm Back" tour - as in back from the dead.
He'll be performing Saturday at the Riverfront Blues Festival in Wilmington, Delaware, and headlining Tuesday at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City. He'll be at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pa. Wednesday, and the tour will continue in North America and Europe through Dec. 6.
"I feel like a brand-new person, 25-years-old again, except the problem when I was 25 was I was drunk and all doped up, so I actually feel better," said Trout, now 64.
Besides his time playing with two well-known blues-rock bands, Trout also has recorded 23 independent CDs over the past 26 years, some under the name Walter Trout and the Free Radicals. He has played with blues greats such as the late John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton. He also co-wrote an autobiography, "Rescued From Reality: The Life and Times of Walter Trout," and released a documentary on DVD titled "The Blues Came Callin.'"
In fact, the only reason he's not more of a household name on this side of the Atlantic is that blues music doesn't get as much respect in the U.S. as it does in Europe.
As a boy, Trout lived in Ocean City year round until his parents split up when he was 7. After that, he spent the academic year with his mother in Laurel Springs and Collingswood, Camden County, and his summers with his dad in Ocean City. Trout started playing guitar when he was 10. He taught himself to play an acoustic guitar his older brother gave him when he got tired of it.
One summer in Ocean City, when Trout was 12, he discovered the electric guitar.
"My stepbrother had an electric guitar, a cheap Silvertone, that he got from Sears, and he would keep it under his bed. And my stepmother would tell me, 'You are not allowed to touch that,'" Trout said. "When everybody would go out and they would be gone, I would get the thing out."
"I would hook it up to the amp and start blazin', and then when she would come home, she would start yelling at me," Trout recalled. "I would say, 'You don't understand. I'm really serious about this. I'm dead serious,' but it didn't matter."
When he got older, Trout was part of the Jersey coast music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He played guitar and sang in a horn band called Wilmont Mews.
"We did Chicago Transit Authority, Blood Sweat & Tears. Then, we would take stuff like Rolling Stones songs, and we rearranged them. We worked the Jersey shore circuit every summer - Dunes'til Dawn (in Egg Harbor Township). I remember playing Tony Mart's in Somers Point. I can't remember a lot of the clubs. We did them all," said Trout, who added his grandfather, John E. Trout, helped build the Ocean City Boardwalk.
Many clubs offered two stages with bands on either side. When one group would stop playing, the other would start. Wilmont Mews did numerous shows with a band called Steel Mill, which included a young Bruce Springsteen.
"I remember talking to him and hanging out with him. He was the lead guitar player. I didn't think he was a very good guitar player. I remember telling him, 'Man, you guys need another guitar player.' He would say to me, 'Well, I'm starting to write songs,' and I would say, 'I hope your songs are good, man, because your guitar playing is not really happening,'" said Trout, laughing.
"I guess he showed me, didn't he?"
After a few years, Trout moved to California to lift himself out of the club circuit and to see if he could make a living with his own music.
In recent years, Trout has only played in southern New Jersey on a couple of occasions. He performed outdoors in August 2012 and July 2013 as part of the Shore Medical Center/Shore News Today Somers Point Beach Concert Series. Both of his appearances were booked by Carmen Marotta, the talent buyer and production coordinator.
Marotta said that when he first booked Trout, he had heard he had a bit of a reputation as a tough guy. But Trout was so happy to finally play a concert in the area where he grew up that he started to cry.
"We were getting a lot of requests for him. I like the way he plays. I had a lot of people who wanted to see him. It was a good name that I thought would create a lot of excitement," said Marotta, adding that Trout has a strong history. "He crosses over to pop, rock and classical rock. That's what people really want around here."
Between now and Sept. 26, Trout has 16 concerts scheduled in the U.S., although he's not sure how his body is going to react to all this activity.
"I feel I'm in good shape physically, but as to how I'm going to handle all the traveling - I think the playing is no problem, but the traveling - that remains to be seen. I'm going to do my best and take care of myself and try to get plenty of sleep. It's going to be an experiment," Trout said. "I'm hoping it's going to be fine."
Ocean City's Walter Trout owes his life to his fans