His mother sang spirituals and his father made moonshine, both endeavors playing a role in his musical career. He told the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Schmich in 2006 that he traded pints of his father’s moonshine for piano lessons from the local boogie-woogie player, Fat Lily.
By age 16 he was playing in Atlanta, Georgia as James Wheeler and later took his stage name from his instrument, the red piano, and the trademark red outfits he wore onstage.
Relocating to Chicago when he was 19 he performed with the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B King, Fats Domino and Buddy Guy, before becoming a cab driver to make the money necessary to pay the bills.
His day job also provided the inspiration for his biggest hit, “Cab Driving Man,” also the title of his CD in 1999.
For many years he played with his Flat Foot Boogie band at both the old and the new Maxwell Street Market in front of the Johnny Dollar catfish stand east of Halsted Street, as well as blues venues all over the Chicago area until a robber’s gunshot left him with paraplegia. He was generous in letting other musicians sit in, according to blues singer Bobby Too Tuff. “If you asked him to sing, he’d let you,” Too Tuff said. “He was the leader of the band — everybody wanted to play with him.
In March 2006, Fain and a friend had parked at a gas station in South Holland when two men demanded the keys to his 1994 Chevy. After Red yelled, “Police!” one of the two shot him.
His experiences since then would form the makings of a dozen blues songs, as he got around in a wheelchair and was shuttled from one nursing home to another, with few visitors to brighten the long, lonely days.
There were a few bright spots. When Chicago public relations expert June Rosner found out he had little support from his family, she became more than a friend, visiting him and interceding to get him the best care available.
Not long after the shooting, Simon Garber of Chicago Carriage Cab Co., where he worked, gave him a refurbished taxi to carry his band and its instruments and also provided wheelchair-accessible transportation.
“Red was a great cabbie and a very brave man,” Garber said in an email.
A hoped-for comeback never happened, although Red did play occasionally, including side-stage performances at the Chicago Blues Festival several years ago. But health problems worsened in the later years, ending his performances.
“He was one of the many really great unknown musicians in Chicago,” said blues piano player and historian Barrelhouse Bonni McKeown.
The 2006 shooting led to continuing health problems and the eventual end of a Chicago career that started when Piano “C” Red had arrived as a teenager in the early 1950s and began playing music in South Side clubs, while earning his living as a taxi driver.
“He was a hardworking guy,” said Lori Lewis of the Windy City Blues Society. “He drove a cab during the day and played music at night.”
Piano C Red died June 3, 2013 at age 79.