When Budapest native Gabor Szucs, now 35, first arrived in Memphis in 2004, he spent three days living in his car before getting a job as a dishwasher at Blues City Café on Beale Street. Nine years later, performing under the name Little G Weevil, Szucs found himself a couple of blocks down the street on the big stage of the Orpheum, competing in — and winning — the 29th International Blues Challenge.
"I've got to be honest with you, I just broke down completely," Szucs says of the experience. "I'm very proud."
Szucs grew up in Hungary a hard-rock and metal fan but turned to the blues at age 16, when he discovered John Lee Hooker. "It was like nothing I had ever heard before," Szucs says.
He started gigging around Budapest at 19 and touring in Europe, at clubs and festivals, at age 21.
"I wasn't satisfied with my own sound and wanted to dig deeper, not just in the music but the culture and heritage behind it," Szucs says. "It's different when you read stuff in books and when you experience it firsthand."
To that end, he set his sights on America, coming over on a temporary work visa with an agency that gave him a few locations to choose from. Given his options, Szucs selected Birmingham.
"It was halfway between Memphis and New Orleans," Szucs says. "So that was it."
Szucs was in Alabama for a few months before he headed to Memphis, where he stayed for about two years.
"I went around Beale trying to get hired, but who would hire a Hungarian blues musician on Beale Street? I understood that," Szucs says. He decided to get a "civilian" job on Beale and hope he could work his way into a performance opportunity that way. He started washing dishes at Blues City, and, after a few months, he was able to get on stage.
"First you're the new cat in town, and down the line you meet more musicians," Szucs remembers. He played clubs, as a solo act and as a sideman, and did some regional touring, but got worn out and went back to Europe, spending some time in London.
He came back for American tours in 2008 and 2009, and that's where he met a woman from Atlanta who would become his wife. In 2009, he moved back to the States.
"It's good. I can't complain. Atlanta treats me very well," Szucs says. "They're very nice people. I've built up a pretty good following. And it's a good spot for traveling internationally."
Szucs recently released his second solo album, The Teaser, which was named one of 2012's 10 best blues albums by the British music magazine MOJO. His sound combines rough juke-joint riffs and Bo Diddley beats into a warm tone that suggests vintage and modern all at once.
"It was absolutely fantastic," Szucs says of the IBC experience. "I understand there are a lot of great musicians. I purposely stayed away from the venues. I didn't want to listen to the others and hear how good they are. I met a lot of great musicians and a lot of great acts and didn't expect to make it to the finals."
Szucs performed with a couple of acoustic guitars with pick-ups, which he played through an amp. And he focused on original songs.
"These are my stories I wrote. I'm not a great guitar player. I'm more of a storyteller," Szucs says of his performances. "It's a conversation. To me, that's what the blues are all about."
Finishing second to Little G Weevil in this year's solo/duo competition was another international act, the Suitcase Brothers from the Barcelona Blues Society.
In the band competition, the winners were Florida's Selwyn Birchwood Band, representing the Suncoast Blues Society. Birchwood was also named the competition's top guitarist.