A few weeks ago Michael McClune of Crowsfeet Productions provided me a copy of Pussycat Records 2001 release called "Little George and the Blue Stars". The CD features London's very own harmonica hero Little George Sueref on all tracks, and world famous Lazy Lester on two harmonica tracks and several guitar and "rhythm board" tracks. It also has Jimmy Thomas featured prominently on vocal tracks "Everyday About This Time" and "3-6-9". This recording presents several original compositions by Sueref, and he is also the producer.
From the very first song ("Six Sixty Six") to the last number ("Don't Take Your Daughter") this ensemble and George Sueref stay true to the 50's early 60's Southern Roots/Blues set forth by the masters of that sound, including Lazy Lester himself! It's amazing to hear this White British born Greek sing in the style and with the genuine quality of a JB Lenoir, OV Wright or Jerry McCain. Sueref has exceptional vocal capabilities. His style is unhurried, and he allows each song and emotion to develop, while "layering" the instrumentation and vocals into "parts". Believe me when I say that these "parts" are a perfect fit. One example of this is "The Clock", a lovely ballad that really demonstrates the power of Sueref's songwriting, singing, and arranging skills. It showcases the artistry of Lazy Lester on harp, and combined with the heart-wrenching vocal of Sueref, this is one of the most beautiful songs I have heard. Ever. And the romping cut "Finger Lickin" is another good example of all the parts creating a whole that is superbly presented, and joyfully listenable.
It is apparent that George understands the nature of this musical style. He reproduces the little idiosyncratic "musical matters" that make the Southern styled Blues of the Excello/Jewell-Paula genre so special, and very difficult for many musicians to "do". It is an exercise in self control and musicality, and Sueref comes out on top, proving that Blues is patient, uncluttered and complete without compromising. There are no "over the top" screaming vocals, guitar or harp. There's plenty of fantastic harp, awesome singing and sweet guitar playing, each skillfully performed with taste and artistic control. The vocals alone are worth the price of the CD, but combined with the harp and the excellent musicianship applied to each song, this is easily the best recording I have heard in years. The beauty of this music is overwhelming at times, and the honor this recording pays to all of the musicians of this particular Blues sound is exemplary in it's final outcome, and extraordinary in it's mere existence. It is so rare to hear contemporary Blues artists sound this way, taking their time to develop the song, but at the same time sounding so real and urgent. Little George is so comfortable with the groove that everything just falls into place. The end result is not merely a tribute to a somewhat obscure musical genre, it is a masterful contemporary recording of artists who are creating that sound today. The proof is in the several original songs featured on the CD. What a treat for the Southern Blues enthusiast, and a great way for the "uninitiated" to get their first taste of that sweet sound.
Sueref plays great amplified harp, but his focus is on acoustic and it is always dead-on appropriate to the music. He makes a fine Slim Harpo tone when called for, and can also pack in a wet and juicy Jimmy Reed harp piece that suits the song selection just fine. The opening numbers reminded me very much of Silas Hogan, but he even gets on with a Big-Little Walter amplified harp piece or two, just dripping with passion and pulsing with power. The story with this guy is all good, and I could not find one song on the entire disc that was not a keeper. "Further On Down The Line" is reminiscent of Junior Wells at his peak with a more Chicago flavor to the harp, and again displays the generous acoustic tone Sueref pours out in buckets. "Rhythm Rockin' Boogie" conjured the friendly and inspired singing/harmonica stylizations of Jerry McCain. That tune is a great little shuffle that just drives itself right along. The harp and vocals are tasty and satisfying, exactly what you want to hear, testifying yet again to Sueref's self-control and devotion to the song. He does a beautiful take on the early 60's Swamp "Rats&Roaches" groove called "Don't Take Your Daughter" and the harp sounds like it was actually played 50 years ago in an Excello session. The harmonica played by Lazy Lester and George Sueref on this CD is melodic, masterful, emotive, and simply perfect. They both play excellent accompaniment and soloing harmonica with magnificent tone, phrasing and style.
The other story here is that George is also playing guitar on most of the selections! He does a great job of lead playing, and supporting his own harp and voice. This man is multi-talented, and has a real story to tell with his music, playing and singing. It's easy to understand why Blues legend Lazy Lester tours and records with him, and has become close friend over the years. He's really that good.
It is natural for me to draw comparisons to legends like Slim Harpo, Silas Hogan or Jimmy Reed and other masters of the instrument. However, Little George is not merely a talented cover guy who can "cop" the sound. He has transcended covering tunes to creating songs that are respectful of the genre, but make a statement of their own. His music will remind you of a lost or re-issued Jewell or Excello recording, but smacks of grand originality within the musical parameters that define the Southern 50's Blues and R&B sound. Little George has made the final transition from copier to creator, and this recording is a fine example of what happens when a great musician makes something his own. This is plainly one of the better releases of the new millennium, and I am sure that history will prove it so.
To hear the CD, you would think that George was born with guitar in hand and a 10-hole harmonica jammed into his mouth like the proverbial silver spoon. However, you would be dead wrong! George is a native of Wales, and he was brought up in the mid-60's and 70's in a nice family of middle class Greek immigrants. Like just about every kid in the UK, he was familiar with Mo-Town, Pop and Soul music from the radio, but had not heard Blues until moving to London as a teen. The move to London for a young man that never fit into Welsh culture was a positive life change. It was in London that George finally felt he fit in, felt a connection to community, a city, and began to make friends. He realized he wanted to play harmonica after chancing upon a big old chromatic just sitting on a buddy's shelf. After living most of his life in a community where he was not wanted, in London George discovered a musical community that welcomed him with open arms. Sueref was twenty-one, and had just got "bit by the bug". He's been a harmonica player ever since.
George is a very humble person, and frequently says "I just play direct lines, you know, I just do what I do!" completely understating his multi-award winning harmonica playing (voted four times "Best Harmonica Player" by prestigious London Blues publication "Blue Print" magazine!) and his very popular ( and award winning) release "Little George and the Blue Stars". He also downplays his guitar and singing skills, and his songwriting and arranging talents with an "Aww, shucks!" attitude, making George even more likeable and endearing him to thousands of fans all across the EU.
When George first started playing harmonica, he chose Hohner Marine Bands, and still prefers MB's and Hohner Blues Harps to all other models or manufacturer's. George told me "If I can't get a good Marine Band or Blues Harp, I'll just use the old ones I've got and avoid the bad holes…I won't even buy a different brand or model! It's just not worth it." One thing for sure, he gets a lovely "wet" sound that only wood comb instruments seem capable of producing, and he also gets that "reedy" tone favored by so many of our Southern harp icons like Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed and some Sonny Boy I & II issues. The wood comb harmonica plays a big part in the overall "sound" of his 50's styled Blues, full bodied and resonant, loose and easy, yet almost hypnotic in laying out a tone-full harmonica groove for the entire song to hang from. The MB's and BH's seem to provide excellent accompaniment to George's vocals and straight forward guitar. Another Hohner product favored by Sueref is his Hohner "Blues Blaster" mic. He uses this mic with an old amp he found in a garbage heap (proving that old adage of trash and treasure yet again!) and it makes a nice warm tone, adding to the overall characteristics that define the musical genre he so wonderfully embraces and diligently preserves.
Sueref credits harmonica mentor PJ Baker of London with getting him started on harmonica, and for hooking him up with "Big Joe Louis" at a London nightspot. George had been playing harp for about a year with a rocked up bar band, and was positive that he wanted to go in a different musical direction. George is such a great guy, the way he put it was this: "I was just grateful to have a gig! I think all I could play to their music were squeaks and squawks. I realized that I did not have a real interest in playing that style of music, I just wanted to play harmonica. I had already been introduced to some fine Blues records by PJ, and when he took me to listen to Big Joe at a nightclub, I was floored. That was it. That was the music I wanted to play and sing."
George finds wonderful vocal inspiration from a diverse mixed-bag of Soul, 60's Mo-Town, Gospel, R&B, and the 50's Delta "crooners" from the Jewell/Paula catalog. He credits Big Joe with being a great Blues shouter, and providing a sense of timing and phrasing that closely matches the original Blues artists from the 40's and 50's in juke joints and Camp churches found in Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. For a young man just getting his musical legs under him, George was happy just to listen and learn. He was soaking up the sounds of OV Wright, Sonny Boy, Howlin' Wolf and more, grateful to Big Joe for the opportunity to learn and play this music he loved so well.
Their chemistry was so good that George became a member of Big Joe's band within a year of meeting him and they were a team for nearly thirteen years. What a joy to "come of age" with a seasoned veteran, and dedicated old-school Blues artist. Those years saw George and Big Joe dominating the London club circuit, and branching off into European festival appearances and tours. "Big Joe was just so much fun, and he was doing the sort of Blues I wanted to do, presenting shows I wanted to be a part of, and we not only worked together, but became very close friends." George told me. Things were going great for George and the band, with George singing more and more, but after thirteen years of performing together he needed a break . During those years, George was honored to open for and perform with many legends of Blues, and he struck up a friendship with Blues great Lazy Lester that is an important part of his life today. He learned to play guitar hanging out with Big Joe, and also plays acoustic up-right bass and drums. (True to his style, Sueref says "It's a lot easier to show somebody a bass line or drum beat than to try and tell them!" thereby under-playing the talent he must have to play so many instruments!) The time with Big Joe was more educational and inspirational than anyone could have dreamed possible, but George was restless. After more than a decade of performing with Big Joe, earning accolades from European Blues fans, publications and industry professionals, it was time to make another life change and Little George Sueref became a solo act.
George and Lazy Lester really hit it off, and not just because of the spotlight they share in performance and on recordings. It is obvious that growing up in Wales was difficult for the son of Greek immigrants, his ethnicity a real issue in this somewhat isolated region of the world. Wales boasts an ancient population of people politically and culturally dominated by a secular preservation of traditional Welsh culture. A culture that has no room for anybody who was not born into it. (Sound familiar?) It is easy to understand that George felt alone in his own neighborhood, and was disenfranchised by the very community he knew as his home. Those feelings of estrangement and literal grief are an all too common theme in the history of American Folk Art, particularly Blues music. From the very first note out of his mouth, you think "Wow- a White Al Green singing Blues!" It does not take more than a few minutes of listening to him, and you realize this guy knows what having the Blues is all about. And the color line is gone, it is just the Blues, just the man, just the story of our lives. George expresses himself with the humor, humility and the flair of the true Blues artiste, and he also sentimentally sports a Mediterranean Greek-style straw hat that is very different from the typical "Pork Pie" or Fedora many contemporary Blues based entertainers seem to favor, setting himself apart from the "Blues Brothers" look. He is funny, smart, and reserved with his commentary, always alert for the bruised feelings of another, placing their considerations above his own. He is a kind person from the heart, with a generous spirit. He can be playfully feisty and he is honest to the "N"th degree.
One of the connections Lazy Lester and George discovered involves a shared philosophy about music, and performing. A philosophy that requires honest dedication to the art and form of their music, a dedication that simply can't be compromised for money, fame or anything else. Says George "I'd rather eat beans for a week than play a gig I don't fit into. I can't play just for money. I can listen for a few seconds to somebody and know if we have musical chemistry, if we can play together and sound good….Lester and I both agree playing gigs with guys that don't have a common musical bond just won't be good for anybody. Better to pass on it than to sound bad." That sounds like some good advice to me, and seems to be Sueref's code of conduct. The CD (Little George and the Blue Stars) should keep George from having to eat beans for too much longer, and combined with his burgeoning touring schedule, good times are just around the corner for London's resident harp whiz. George and Lester will be on the West coast touring from San Diego to Vancouver, B.C. at popular Blues venues and festivals during August and September, 2003. If you are out West, come and check him out live, he puts on one hell-uv-a show! If you can't make it to one of George and Lester's shows, at least buy the CD. It will become a classic for future generations, and stands today as the only contemporary recording of it's kind.
During the course of the past several years, I have reviewed, interviewed, and reported on hundreds of live shows, CD releases, and other activities of musicians. I have talked for hours with many musicians, and although I have an ultimate respect and admiration for each of them, only a few have actually become "friends". Little George's music is one thing, and for most of us , it will be the only way to enjoy him. And that is plenty good enough, because his music speaks for itself. Those lucky few who get to know him find out that he is just a good guy, a regular guy, the kind of guy who sticks with something and gives it his best. The kind of person you would want as a friend.
Thanks so much to Little George Sueref for sharing his music and his story with us. I urge all of you reading this to go to directly to www.littlegeorge.co.uk and order "Little George and the Blues Stars" as soon as possible. I personally guarantee you will love it, I truly believe this is one of the better releases available for purchase.
George and Lester's management for the USA is Michael McClune, and for those of you interested in booking their fantastic duo act, e mail Michael@crowsfeet.biz for more information.
Next time, I will write about "Mad" Jack Townsend, a fine harmonica player with a truly unique story to tell. Jack is currently performing with "The King Biscuit Blues Band & Burden of Proof", Seattle, WA. On deck are interviews with the lovely and talented Lauren Sheehan and Miranda Wrights, two "old tyme" Blues, Americana and Dance artists with fabulous harmonica players in their acts. Lauren worked with none other than Phil Wiggins, and Miranda plays harp herself with great aplomb.
Hohner Harmonicas / Baldoni Accordions Artist Endorsee
Three time Nominee "Best Blues Harmonica" and Winner "Best Traditional Act" 2001, 2002 Cascade Blues Association, Portland, OR.
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