The bluesman picks a weathered Gibson, his voice as easy as sweet tea.

"I seen better days, and baby I paid the rent."

Sweat glistens on his thick neck. In the background is a stack of beers - Ozujskos from Croatia. From the camera angle you can't tell how big his audience is, but it looks as if rapt young fans are sitting at his feet.

"Times ain't nothing like they used to be."

I've played the YouTube video maybe 20 times now, trying to glimpse what "Philadelphia" Jerry Ricks' life was like in the Balkans this summer before his illness.

For the last nine weeks he's been hospitalized in the port city of Rijeka, recovering from brain surgery to remove a tumor that doctors say was benign.

He and his longtime partner, Nancy Klein, had moved there this summer because the audiences were appreciative and the flats cheap. Now they're stranded.

In the hospital almost no one speaks English. Ricks doesn't have medical insurance. Ask Klein who will pay for his surgeries and rehab, and she gives a weak laugh.

"I don't know," she says by phone from their apartment in Matulji, an hour's bus ride from the hospital. "It's very tough. He's isolated - on an island. Every e-mail and call from friends has been incredibly important."

Those friends are about to deliver big. They're arranging a benefit for the 67-year-old bluesman, to be held at the Commodore Barry Club in Philadelphia on Sunday.

Bold-name buddies

David Bromberg, Shemekia Copeland and the Dukes of Destiny are coming. There will also be sets from many old friends from the days of the Philadelphia folk revival.

Former students Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman of the Hooters are sending mementos to sell. Darryl Hall and John Oates have offered an autographed guitar.

"I'd been playing guitar for 15 years when I met Jerry" in 1967, Oates recalled last week. "He was head and shoulders above wherever I was. He was steeped in the American folk and blues tradition."

While sweeping the floor, washing dishes, and ultimately booking bluesmen at the old Second Fret in Center City, Ricks had learned to play from the greats - Josh White, Mississippi John Hurt, Brownie McGhee, the Rev. Gary Davis and Skip James.

"He'd traveled with a lot of those guys, and he'd really absorbed their music," Oates said.

In an 2000 interview with The Inquirer, Ricks said, "I never tried to walk in my mentors' footsteps. And nobody ever asked me to carry on their legacy after they were gone. I just had an honest relationship with these people and their music, and I followed my nose around."

That sense took Ricks overseas for most of the '70s and '80s. He would return to the States, settling briefly in Brigantine or the Mississippi Delta, but the audiences were most appreciative in Europe.

Like a hellbound train

He and Klein, his partner of 17 years, went abroad again in 2004, living wherever work was best. They moved to Croatia this summer. The illness came on fast.

"He was healthy, fine, until one day in August he had a terrible headache," Klein says. "Then all of a sudden, from one minute to the next, he lost coordination."

Ricks would reach for a glass and end up waving at the air. He'd see things on the wall - books, windows, pictures - that weren't really there.

After a few days, when the aspirins and compresses weren't helping, he went to the hospital, where doctors gave him an MRI. That was Aug. 22. He hasn't been out since.

"He's getting stronger by the day," Klein says. "There were times when he was like a rubber band. He couldn't move anything."

He now speaks without slurring. His vision is good. It's too soon to know whether he's suffered permanent damage. Or whether he'll be able to play again.

Ricks was booked to play in Belgium, Holland and France this fall. "It's all canceled," Klein says.

Mike Miller, who has been Ricks' friend since they played together at the old Guilded Cage club, has a theory why so many people are gathering for the benefit.

"There's a purity about what he does," says Miller, who will emcee Sunday's show. "Everyone he's ever worked with is fond of him. This is a tough town and a tough business. But there ain't nobody that doesn't like Jerry."

Contact staff writer Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.