"I'm a lonely rascal," explains Walter "Sunny" Gaines. This is hard to believe.
As proprietor of Sunny's Sunshine Bar-B-Que each Friday and Saturday night outside the Rhythm Room blues club on Indian School Road, Sunny greets everyone as if he's known them all his life.
In overalls and cowboy hat, he's ambassador of both barbecue and the blues. It's not a position anyone assigned him. It's just how Sunny is.
As a soldier who served in Vietnam, Sunny says he "didn't want to know people's names, they might die."
"I'm so glad to be around real, live people," Sunny says.
The feeling seems mutual. People say "hi" right back to Sunny as they pass his bright yellow barbecue trailer on the way into the club. Some don't make it inside, preferring to stop and listen to Sunny for a while. They sit on folding chairs in the gravel parking lot, beside the Harleys, waiting to hear what he'll say next. And Sunny doesn't disappoint.
"It's about lovin' people," Sunny says. "You don't treat them like they just shot their grandmother."
"Even if they did," someone says, raising a cackle out of Sunny. Sunny sips something the color of iced tea out of a jar. "Let's see, what lie was I on?" he asks. "I've had people drive all the way down from Sedona just to eat my food. I understand. When I see people eating it, I want to eat it, too -- they make it look so good."
Sunny's Sunshine Bar-B-Que serves pork ribs, pork loin, tri-tips of beef brisket, chicken and hot links -- spicy Louisiana sausages that "will work you up," says Sunny. These are accompanied by sides of white bread, beans and potato salad made by his wife, Sandy. But the main course seems to be Sunny himself.
Inside the Rhythm Room, Big Pete Pearson and the Blues Sevilles are in full swing. Their blues riffs blare out the door. Sunny plays along for a few notes on his acoustic guitar.
"Hey, Big Time," he calls to someone entering the club. A woman stops to give him a hug. "I'm so lonely," Sunny laughs.
Meanwhile, Clara is still waiting for her birthday barbecue. Sunny instead serves a taxi driver who just pulled up. Clara doesn't seem unhappy or upset. With Sunny, delayed service is a sign of love. He just wants to keep her around.
"I'll tell you a story about when Sunny was born," Clara says. "He had blue eyes and the little white girl next door couldn't believe it. She stepped right in the slop bucket when she saw that. A black baby with blue eyes."
Sunny, who is brown-eyed now with a dusting of freckles on his cheeks and graying hair, moved to Phoenix with his family in 1951 to pick cotton. They were sharecroppers from Edna, Oklahoma, which is about 50 miles west of Tulsa.
"Edna was a store on either side of the road and a cotton gin," Sunny says. He was one of 15 children, with 12 surviving to adulthood.
For Sunny, barbecue and the blues go hand in hand.
"We used to love the music so much growing up, we'd stay too long and forget about eating," he says. "We'd get so hungry we'd go out and catch us some squirrels and rabbit and have ourselves a feast."
Like any self-respecting barbecue master, Sunny refuses to discuss the ingredients in his sauce. In fact, it seems to be the one thing he won't talk about. But he does have plans. He's looking into getting Sunny's Sunshine Bar-B-Que Sauce for sale in local stores, and setting up his trailer certain days on the Arizona State University campus.
"My business is incorporated," Sunny says, "so I'm liable to do anything."
Sunny serves food until 1 a.m. "Later if you'll stay with me," he says. A few husky friends usually take him up on the offer, helping him to close up and making sure no one gives him any trouble at that hour of the night.
Sunny says he joined the Air Force and served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Asia, in fact, is where he developed his barbecuing skills. In Japan, the American GIs would have cookouts on the beach, and Sunny honed his craft. "I got pretty good," he says. "But I let people be the judge."
After Sunny retired from the Air Force, he says he became a heavy-equipment operator and worked with road-building crews throughout the Valley. "We built all the highways," Sunny says, "I-10, I-17, 60. We used to race road graders out west of Litchfield Park."
He serves another customer a plate heaped with shredded beef brisket, beans and potato salad, then turns back to me. "Let's see, what lie was I on," Sunny says, as Clara continues her patient vigil.