When you think about the long history of the blues, do you have a favorite decade in terms of releases? I love this music called The Blues, from Charlie Patton to Charlie Parker, from Miles Davis to Muddy Waters and all that came of the nameless progenitors that were before them and all that will come after. Because it is the history and voice of Black American art and experience which I am exceedingly proud and privileged to be a continuation of. I think that Willie Dixon may have said it best, “The Blues are the roots and the rest of the music are the fruits.” From The Blues to Jazz, through Rock to Reggae, from fusion to hip hop and music around the world that has been sired and inspired by those three supposedly simple chords, I love the Blues, every facet, every movement and every moment. It is the sound of the soul and spirit of my people.
What’s the first song you recall moving you as a kid? The first song that I remember moving me was a tune by Lester Young called ‘PC Blues’, I heard it at home on my mothers HiFi. When she saw that I liked it she put on a tune by Lionel Hampton called ‘Flying Home’, from that moment I knew I wanted to play music!
How did the harmonica become your musical weapon of choice when so many others were picking up a guitar instead? My aunt gave me a harmonica when I was about 12 or 13 years old and I loved it from the first. It was a friend that succored me in times of strife and a joy in happier times. It seemed that everybody and their brothers were playing guitar in the sixties, I wanted an instrument that was melodious and full of the warmth that only the breath can bring to the music. Harmonica is like the voice in that it can bring the pathos and passion to a piece of music like no other instrument can, it can set a mood so beautifully.
You have your own voice on the harp, was that something that came easy early on for you or did you have to work to develop it? When I began to play I wanted to sound just like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Rice Miller but I was also very much moved by cats like Miles Davis, Lester Young, BB King and Charlie Christian. It seemed to me that the thing these players had in common was a mellifluous fluidity combined with a meticulous sense of time and gifted phrasing. I have tried to emulate and not imitate these masters. A great drummer, Michael Silva ( band leader for Sammy Davis Jr. ) told me that If you don’t sound like yourself you bring little or nothing to the table and you won’t get invited to dinner a second time!
Is there a simple, helpful trick to playing harp that first timers miss when attempting to play it for the first time? The only ‘trick’ for lack of another word that is useful in learning to play harmonica or any other instrument is to listen to the masters, memorize, internalize, recreate and…. listen, listen, listen! Practice creatively, play passionately and if the music is in you it will come out.
Do you find yourself adding harp to everything you hear and, like cowbell, should there be more of it? There are some tunes that need harp and some tunes that need more harp….than cowbell!
Of all the records you have played on or released yourself, what tracks or performances are you most proud of today? I enjoyed playing on Mr. Willie Dixon’s Hidden Charm‘s recordings very much, the recordings with the Stones, Dylan, Brownie McGhee, Stan Getz, Hiram Bullock, Lonnie Brooks, Son Seals… As for my own recordings, I am very partial to a CD I cut that’s distributed by Alligator Records called In Your Eyes, I think that there are some great tunes there that are cutting edge still today though they were written and tracked in the 90’s. Code Blue is one of my more recent efforts and the material on it has been critiqued as classic from the first track to the last. I also like very much Threshold and Raw Sugar. If you have an inquisitive ear and progressive taste you will enjoy the aural journey these recordings will take you on and I believe you will enjoy the trip! I didn’t mention Blue Blazes above because it includes mostly cover tunes but I do like it as well.
Did the advent of funk and then disco in the 70’s have an influence on you or the Chicago blues scene overall? Disco ain’t nothin’ but a shuffle turned inside out baby and we have Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie to thank for that, one of the great drummers of our times! Funk was around and being played a long time before it was called funk, a recombinant of jazz and blues with an urban swagger, struttin’ and cuttin’ like a straight razor!
How did your relationship with the Stones come about when Mick Jagger was already considered a bitchin’ harp player in his own right? In actuality I met the Stones indirectly through a recording I did with Louisiana Red called ‘Red, Funk and Blue’ that Keith Richards had heard a year or two before the Some Girls sessions in Paris. Keith told me that I was the most precise and skillful harp player he’d heard on record in recent times, so when we were introduced in Paris he’d already heard me play. When we hit in the studio the music flowed like a river in one take and it was in the groove , the rest is rock and roll history as they say!
If you could hop in a time machine to any day in your life, where might you revisit as a fly on the wall to relive a memory? I would revisit the day at the Salle Playel theatre in Paris, France where Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald were playing. They invited me to join them on stage to play C Jam Blues with them, it was the one day in my musical life that I didn’t bring an instrument with me! I always, always carry an instrument with me now no matter where I go!!!.
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