Story Place: Ed Vadas: Feeling the blues

Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2016

Editor’s note: Local musician Ed Vadas died Feb. 18 at his home in Hadley. He was 71. In September, he talked to Keegan Pyle about his illness, his family, his friends and his decades-long career.

Ed Vadas was a large man, and he lived large — filling stages for decades as a bluesman. But on an afternoon in September, it was a hospital bed he filled, at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, where he was being treated for myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), often a precursor of leukemia. Back then, he’d already been a hospital patient for six months.

Even if you’d never seen Vadas onstage — never seen him in the 1980s play his guitar or his harmonica with The Fabulous Heavyweights, never seen him a decade later at his weekly performances at Sheehan’s Cafe, or in the 2000s when those gigs moved to Bishop’s Lounge — you could see the blues in him right away. Born in Worcester, and well-traveled throughout the country, Vadas played blues the way he lived: hard, loud and full of emotion.

“You don’t know me, but if you look me up on Google, you’ll see that I’m quite well known,” Vadas told a visitor that day in the hospital. “For being a musician, and for just being me, dammit.” He laughed hard.

Vadas had arrived at the CDH emergency room six months earlier, weighing 400 pounds and desperately ill. Over the next few months, he lost much of his bulk, and was down to a mere 250.

After a battery of tests, he was diagnosed with MDS, a disease that damages cells in the bone marrow, where new cells are produced. But, it was his music, family and friends Vadas had on his mind that day, not his depleted cell count.

“I came close a lot of times to something big,” Vadas said. “I don’t do blues like any blues. ... I’m the real thing! ... A buddy was here the other day that I used to play with, and he told me, ‘Whatever your shortcomings, Ed, you sure can play that guitar.’ ”

It would be understandable — expected, even — if Vadas’ spirits were dashed after spending months in hospitals. He cried that day — mostly out of joy when talking about his daughter, his music, or his friends who brought bologna sandwiches to his hospital bed. But he laughed, too. And he continued to offer sarcastic commentary about life and music, just as he had done freely for many a year. Indeed, he was well-known for his caustic wit, and for his onstage profanity, often used to provoke other musicians to step up their performances.

“I had a reputation of ‘don’t you f--- with me if you’re playing music with me,’” Vadas said. “You’ve gotta have your sh-- together!”

In fact, he added, “I had plenty of people angry with me, spanning over my whole life. But, here, I have people coming to visit me here, bringing me food and offering to help fix up my house for when I get home. ... I have people coming here telling me I’m like a father to them,” he said. “I have really good friends.”

That day, he was looking forward to a visit from a pal who was planning to bring his guitar. But, he felt some trepidation: “I’m having a hard enough time beating this,” Vadas said. “If I find I can’t play the guitar, it will break my heart.”

He cried. And then he smiled.

Keegan Pyle can be reached at


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