"Keeping the Blues Alive Award" Achievement for Blues on the Internet Presented by The Blues Foundation
Tom and Rich traveled to James' hometown of Eau Claire on this cold, raw Saturday to ask James about his career in music, his collaboration over the years with Luther Allison, and his current band and projects. During the two hours we visited with James he was very candid about his life and music, personal challenges, and the many legendary blues musicians he had the experience of playing with over the years.
Q: Tell us about your history from garage bands to the present.
James: Funny you should mention garage bands. I never thought of myself as being in a garage band because ever since I started playing I was playing paying gigs. Although, I do have a garage incident. In the '60's we were rehearsing in a garage and a policeman come to tell us it was too loud. And I wouldn't open the garage door. You could see the policeman beating on it. So I was playing a bunch of nasty stuff at the top of the guitar. Then I jammed the guitar neck through the window glass and hit the policeman in the head as I was playing.
Q: So you started playing in junior high?
James: Yeah, I was in junior high. Party bands, which lead to bar gigs. In Wisconsin we never had any problem being 13 or 14 years old and playing in bars.
Q: Were those the high school bands in the area?
James: Yes. I lived in a little town called Thorpe. I was 15, and the years I should have been going to high school I was playing music. A band asked me to play with them.
Q: What was the name of the band?
James: All of The Days. There was a club up in Thorpe called the Mile Away, because it was a mile from town. It was a club where all of the fights broke out on Saturday night. That was the place to play on Saturday night. People came from four counties around because of that. It was great man. You had to make sure your drummer could do press rolls for when the fight broke out. It was one of those places where they had a big salamander heater that blew heat across the ballroom. Everyone would kind of open up the circle when a fight broke out. There were always scheduled events. You knew that Bill and Tom were going to have it out Saturday night about 11:00. It was great. You know Wisconsin 18 year old beer halls were the Saturday night deal. Probably just about every Saturday night somebody got hit by the freight train rolling through after the club closed at 2:00 AM.
Q: Was that in high school?
James: That was after. I had quit high school.
Q: When did you get into full time music?
James: When I was 18. I had been doing a lot of stuff. Kind of kept snooping around that Chicago blues scene. Trying to meet who I could.
Q: You left Eau Claire to move to Chicago?
James: I didn't live anywhere. I was a homeless hippie type. Hitchhiked around the country, a shit box guitar on my back. Did whatever I could, you know. Hung out in the alleys in Chicago. Tried to sneak in the clubs.
Q: After you got into the Chicago blues scene, what was your first gig?
James: I got to know Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor and Walter Horton. Got to know them and started to sit in and play with them every now and then. Everybody played with everybody. I did like pick-up work, as a young teenager.
Q: Could you make any money doing that?
James: Sure, I could make like 20 bucks a night. Hell, that was a lot of dough.
Q: What were the clubs like when you were doing pick-up work?
James: Wise Fools, Teresa's. I can't remember. A lot of clubs were over on the South Side. 'Cause I was the only white guy hanging out, someone would always look out for me.
Q: What years were those?
James: 67-70. Three years. In 68 I lived in Victoria, Canada. Folk and stuff up there with a little shit box guitar in coffee houses and art studios, or just sit by the docks when the ferry boat tourists come in.
Q: What got you from Chicago to Victoria?
James: My brother Chuck had been living up there. He was being a draft evader type. Coming back into the US after that experience, he slipped on through, but they tried to bust me even though I was just 17 and not draft age yet.
Q: Did you ever play with Chuck in high school?
James: No. He's like ten years older than me. We didn't play together in Victoria, either. But in '70 & '71 we played right here (the Joint Bar in Eau Claire) every Wednesday night in a band called The Last Fair Deal.
Q: What did you play?
James: We played all blues.
Q: So what did you do after you came back to the States in '68?
James: Came back to Northern Wisconsin and Chicago. Although in the summer of '69, for local interest in Minneapolis, you may know of a cat, an old dear friend of mine, Curtis A. He was a singer in a rock band in the summer of '69 called Whirlhouse. We played trio format, with a singer. Every kind of rock format that was blues based. That was a way we could sort of be a blues band and still have gigs. We played in the Twin Cities, WI, IL, IA, MI, in a 5 or 6 state area. We all lived in a one-room schoolhouse in Northern Wisconsin. We just played all the time. When we weren't playing gigs, we had equipment set up for jammin'.
Q: When did that group end?
James: New Years Eve, '69.
Q: Then what did you do?
James: Moved to Minneapolis and got a job, for a couple months. Then moved back to Chicago for a few months. That wasn't shaking. So I ended up coming up here to Eau Claire. In the 1970 I hooked up with my brother in The Last Fair Deal and we played this area a little bit.
Q: So how long did you live in Eau Claire?
James: About a year, then I moved to Milwaukee.
Q: Is that when you hooked up with Short Stuff?
James: Well, they had been around since 1969. I moved down there and put together a blues band, which was the first blues band Mike Kappus ever booked, when he was just getting started as an agent. Mike lives in San Francisco and owns Rosebud agency. He was living in Milwaukee; he and I lived together. Mike's from Eau Claire. We put together a band with me and John Paris, who wound up being Johnny Winter's bass player for 14 years. We did that for a couple years.
Q: What was the name of that group?
James: Dynamite Duck. In fact the bass player I had with me in La Crosse at Oktoberfest (Mark Lillis) played bass in that band, because in that band John Pierce played guitar. Then we robbed this kid named Danny Schmidt who must have been 15 or 16. That was the mother of all drummers of all time. As the years went on, he played with Short Stuff and Luther Allison and others. We were Mike's first blues band. He ended up managing John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and I think Robert Cray to this day.
Q: So how long as Dynamite Duck?
James: A couple of years, '72 - '73. About that time I was starting to screw around with Luther. At that time we were doing a lot of touring together.
Q: At that time was Luther living in Milwaukee?
James: Yeah. At that time Luther had a regular gig at Lloyd and David's. It didn't matter where he was or where he was touring; he played a jam every Sunday. He played from 2:00 PM to 2:00 AM. He played 12 hours. I jammed with him. At that time the college blues scene was happening and his band and my band toured a lot together. And we jammed Sundays. Later Luther had a regular Monday night jam at a place called Brothers and I jammed with him there, too.
Q: Did Luther have a Milwaukee band then?
James: Two of the guys were from Texas, the rest from Milwaukee or Madison.
Q: Was Luther on a national record label then?
James: He was on Motown. He had made his big, famous appearance at the Ann Arbor Blues Fest at that time. Plus the college blues scene was really happening in the early '70's. It was real good for a lot of blues acts then.
Q: Luther played Mankato state back in the early '70's, and back then he was doing the Jimi Hendrix thing with the head band and big afro.
James: That was what Barry Gordy at Motown wanted. The ironic thing is that when Luther was playing by himself and playing that electrified Delta blues that's when I thought he sounded the most like Hendrix, him or Buddy Guy. But when he tried to sound like Hendrix with a band, it just came across as some crazy ass jammin'.
Q: When Dynamite Duck broke up, did you go with Luther at that time?
James: Sometimes. We were trying to do some things together.
Q: So what happened when Dynamite Duck broke up?
James: John Paris moved to New York. I moved back up to Eau Claire to play with my brother in the Solberg Brothers Band, late '73 to early '75.
Q: Was that the first time you recorded?
James: No. We'd recorded, but not for release. Nope, never recorded before. In those days, myself and my contemporaries, and John Paris and I talk about this to this day, we were too busy playing every night of the week. And making records was something guys in LA and New York did. We were playing the Midwest. You don't make records, you'd go play gigs. We didn't think about trying to make a record. We just tried to stay alive playing every night.
Q: So when you came back to play with your brother, that was the first time you recorded for release.
James: I guess so, if you want to call it a release. It was something to sell off the stage.
Q: Where'd you record it?
James: Milwaukee. I can't remember where. It's interesting that the fix-it guy at Ardent Studios in Memphis where Luther and I did a lot of work comes up years later, re-introduced himself, and mentioned that I had recorded at his studio in Milwaukee. That must have been the Solberg Brothers Band.
Q: So that takes us to '75, working with your brother. Then what happened?
James: All those years Luther was bugging me to hook up with him. And I'd been out in New York screwing around, doing the kind of stuff you do in New York for a couple months. I came back here to Eau Claire, where I was living, and Luther happened to be playing that night. So I went out to see him. He said, "You got your guitar?" Yup. "You want to hit the road?" Yup. … We just hit the road. I got to town that day and left that night.
Q: So how long were you with him this stint?
James: '75, '76. In '77 I had the James Solberg Band. That was out of Milwaukee. I went back with him in '78.
Q: Did you record with him then?
James: Yeah. I recorded with him. That was the time we did Night Life. As it turns out, we did Montreaux in Switzerland in '76. That has since surfaced as a live performance. So I recorded that, too.
Q: That's a great CD (Montreaux).
James: Yeah, Larry Byrne who is my keyboard player now played on that and on Night Life. In fact, that's his claim to fame. On one cut he plays B-3 while Dr. John played piano. A few months after I was with Luther, we got Larry.
Q: So you had the James Solberg Band in '77, then went back to Luther in '78. How long was that for?
James: '78 and '79. Then I hooked up with Short Stuff. April or May of '79 to June 1, '81.
Q: Did you record with Short Stuff?
James: We made the album Talk Is Cheap.
Q: Then after Short Stuff, back to where?
James: Then I quit.
Q: You gave up on music?
James: I got drunk one day and loaded up the Cadillac and moved back to Eau Claire. I was never going to play again.
Q: Tired of music?
James: No. I was tired of the business of music. I got back into my childhood love of motorcycles. Basically avoided life.
James: Mostly Indians. But I had a couple Harleys, too. I still do.
Q: During those years, what did you do?
James: I was drunk. I stayed mostly drunk. I dried out in '85. I literally lived on my motorcycles, North to South, coast to coast. Had some money in the bank.
Q: When did this end?
James: April Fools Day, 1985.
Q: During that entire time, you never played?
James: People tried to get me to play around here. In '83 and '84 I became a motorcycle mechanic for a local Harley dealer. I went to school to be a machinist at the same time, Harley school. April Fools Day of '85 I dried out and entered a six-month dry out program. During that time I started responding to people out in the real world to go play gigs and stuff. Like the Nighthawks. The Legendary Blues Band, when it was still original. Pinetop Perkins, Calvin Jones, "Big Eyes" Willie Smith, and Jerry Portney.
Q: What years with the Legendary Blues Band? The Nighthawks?
James: The Legendary Blues Band 1985, the Nighthawks '86, '87.
Q: Yet at that time you still weren't back in music full time? You'd just tour for the fun and come home?
James: Yeah. Pretty much. None of it was that time consuming, 10 days, two weeks. First time in my life I remember playing sober, not all drugged up. I realized I like it.
Q: You liked music?
James: I always liked music. I really liked it now that I was sober. All of a sudden it was fun to play again, for all of the reasons you should be playing. Because you love it. My emotions were not all clouded with drugs and alcohol. And I started thinking, man, I want to do that (play music) again. The Nighthawks thing was kind of interesting because at the time they were Elvin Bishop's back-up band when he'd come to play out East. So it was Elvin Bishop and the Nighthawks, which was kind of neat. I've always loved Elvin. That was fun. So I was still at the Harley shop. Then I got all stirred up to play. And a couple cats from around here kind of got me talked into doing the James Solberg Band again. That was in '87. One of the first gigs I played was in a bar I really liked here in Eau Claire called the Stone's Throw. I went in on Halloween Night of '87 and walked out at the end of the night owning the bar.
Q: Come on, there's got to be a story here. You don't walk into a bar to play a gig and end up owning the club. Let's hear that one.
James: I don't know how to tell it. I still don't know how the hell that happened. I don't know. I can tell you there are rumors about a poker game.
Q: When you were with the Nighthawks, who did you replace?
James: This was after Jimmy Thackery. They even had Greg Allman for a while. In fact, they even ceased to exist for a while. Mark Wenner was doing a solo thing. They had different guys when they decided to tour. One time they even had Bob Margolin and me. That guy from Wet Willie (Jimmy Hall). Every tour they'd get different guys. I did a few tours with them.
Q: Now you're an upstanding businessman in Eau Claire, owner of a bar, member of the Chamber of Commerce.
James: No. But I was on the board of directors of the WI Tavern League.
Q: So how long was this?
James: I owned the club from '87 to '93.
Q: Were you playing at all?
James: I did a couple tours to Canada. …The James Solberg Band. A couple tours to Chicago. Made drives to Minneapolis for shows. I really couldn't take time off. It's very hands-on. In fact, as everyone knows, I brought in everyone who was anybody. …Luther, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, Gatemouth. All of them. That was back in the days of the Blues Saloon. I'd work out the details with Miki. They'd play there on the weekends and here on Thursday or Sunday.
Q: So you were running the club and still trying to play?
James: Yeah. In fact, this is interesting. If a tour came up and I was going to be gone, there didn't seem to be any point in a great blues act playing my club when I wasn't there to hear them. So I worked with my friend Bill who owns The Joint here. One time I had Charlie Musselwhite booked and I had to go on tour, so I called up Bill and asked if he wanted the gig, which is how Charlie ended up playing here.
Q: What was the draw that allowed you to get these kind of tours and gigs, when you hadn't been playing much or recording?
James: My name was still kind of hanging out there from my days with Luther. People in Europe and Canada knew who I was, some in the U.S. I didn't have much to do with the bookings or business end of the music. I still don't to this day. I just told the guys in the band that I'll play as much and as long as you want, I don't care how much we're being paid, just get me there. Because I love to play but I don't want to mix it up with all the BS in this racket. If I want to be a businessman, I'll buy a bar again.
Q: So how'd you decide to get out of owning the Stone's Throw?
James: Actually I sold the place three times. I could have made a career out of selling the bar. I made money each time. Except the last guy didn't have any money, so I got three houses, which I sold.
Q: So why did you get out of the club business?
James: I wanted to play again. I did not want to be tied down daily, daily, daily. A business like that, where you have bands 6 nights a week, I had bands six nights a week for almost 8 years. That's enough to kill anybody. I was making a lot of money, but I didn't care for it. The stuff I cared for was paid for. God bless my customers, I had a lot of great friends and customers. Great times. In fact, the people who have it now are trying to replicate what I was doing. Good luck to them.
Q: It's a good education.
James: If I had that particular place in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, I could have made plenty of money doing what I wanted to. I'm not going to stay in a racket like that just for the buck. I love money, don't get me wrong. Playing is what I love. If I can make money doing something that I don't love, the hell with it, I'm not going to do it. I want to do something I love to make money.
Q: So you sold the Stone's Throw in '93.
James: Yes. I had been preparing to tour again as the James Solberg Band. And all through this time, through all of these horror stories, Luther and I had been continuing our relationship. He'd come to the US, get together with me, go fishing, book a couple dates, playing at my club sometimes. He'd use my band to back him. In '93 he came to the US and was playing my club. He told me about a production deal to record in Memphis and asked if I wanted to be part of it. I said "yup" and that was it. I was still owning the bar then so I was going back and forth to Memphis.
Q: What album was this?
James: In the US, it was called Soul Fixin' Man.
Q: Was Luther playing in the US then?
James: Nope. The only gigs he did were my club, the Blues Saloon, the first Bayfront Blues Festival, and other small gigs in the area. But those were basically fishing trips with a couple of gigs to justify them.
Q: Did Luther move back to the US then?
James: Never did. He maintained his home in Paris. He had a cabin an hour and a half South of Eau Claire. He used to come during the summer to fish and do whirl wind blues tours for a few days. They were just an excuse.
Q: You never relocated to Paris though?
James: I was sort of living in Paris for a few months in '78. We were on a three-month tour there and Luther was considering moving there permanently. He came back to the US and couldn't even get a gig. The whole thing flip-flopped and Luther was experiencing greater success in Europe. I forgot what year he actually moved there; it was in the early '80's.
Q: So you sold the club in '93 and were with Luther until…?
James: Until the end. Between tours we still had the James Solberg Band stuff. Plus it was my band that was Luther's band when he toured.
Q: So today you have the James Solberg Band and you still have the motorcycle shop?
James: Yes, my son and I do. He's a world class painter for NASCAR and custom Harleys. In fact, we were working until 3:00 AM this morning building a new paint booth.
Q: Tell us about your recording studio you have at home.
James: It's not much, just a recording set-up in the middle of 60,000 square feet of motorcycle parts.
Q: Did you record with Luther there?
James: Some of Luther's stuff. All of LA Blues, parts of One of These Days, all of Raw. It's not a commercial studio. I put it together for Luther and me to do pre-production work and for songwriting.
Q: Tell us about your years of work with Luther Allison. Why do you think you were so successful as partners?
James: More than anything, we had a love for each other: as friends, as musicians.
Q: What was songwriting like with Luther?
James: We'd sit around my home studio playing our guitars and recording on a crappy little tape recorder. It might have been a lyric, a word, a sentence, or just an idea. We'd mess around for a few hours and then Luther would be off to the casino and I'd keep working on our ideas. Luther loved the casinos. "Soul Fixin' Man" started out as a joke. When both of us were drunk and heading to the next gig after playing, Luther used to complain about being frustrated with the music business. He'd say, "I don't have to take this shit! I learned a trade coming up in Chicago. I learned how to shine shoes and fix them, too!" So I wrote about it and it became the title song for Soul Fixin' Man. We played it when we were in Memphis for producer Jim Gaines and he loved it and said we had to record it.
Q: What was your favorite recording with Luther?
James: "Love String." It was humorous and only Luther, Jim Gaines, and I liked it.
Q: What was it like to play with Luther?
James: Physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. Living on the edge. Luther had so much energy. Luther had the soulful energy. I had the rock energy.
We had a lot of fun. By the last tour with Luther, he and I had acquired a whole lotta guitars, but we kept finding more we wanted to buy. Luther's partner Rocky had had enough of that so she got together with my wife and they decided to limit our walking around money on tour so we wouldn't buy anymore guitars. But Luther had a stash of cash so we got some anyway. Rocky found out and told my wife and we both got in trouble.
Q: What was it about Luther and Ruf Records that connected so well?
James: Thomas Ruf and Luther became close friends. No one in the US remembered who Luther was. The label was started because of Luther, so he'd have a label to record him. Thomas was Luther's booking agent in Europe.
Q: Tell us about your relationship with Ruf Records. You've put out 3 or 4 CD's and seemed to have good success. Many artists have trouble finding a label.
James: Well, for better or worse, I'm a pretty loyal guy. There's not a small label in the world that doesn't have a hard time staying alive right now, as well as us as artists. I'm not going to jump from label to label. I've stuck with people I believe in and who believe in me, through thick and thin. I like to see things through. I don't think staying with one label for one record is fair to anybody, or two records. If some miracle happened and I got some offer from a big label where I could upgrade my standing in the world, Thomas would never stand in my way. I'm fortunate to be with a label. Anyone who's with a label right now is fortunate.
Q: Your new record, how is that the same or different than LA Blues or The Hand You're Dealt.
James: Well Thomas (Ruf) liked my LA Blues record. I'm playing guitar all over the place. It's kind of got that live feel; it was recorded pretty live. He wanted a lot of guitar. If you listen to my records, I love keyboards. I've always been partial to having keyboards in my group and on my recordings, even piano and organ. The new CD is tentatively titled Raw.
Q: Most groups have two guitars and a challenge between the two guitars. You have one guitar and a challenge with a Hammond B-3.
James: The Hammond B-3 is the ultimate to me. I won't play without it. My records have always reflected my love for the keyboards, although this new record has guitar all over the place.
Q: And the B-3?
James: It's in there. There's piano and B-3, not B-3 on every cut, but on most of them. But the keyboards do not play as big a role as in my previous recordings, it's more guitar oriented. This new record is really in your face. 10 of the 12 songs are mine. One is a Don Nix song he wrote for Albert King. Another one is by John Lindberg who plays bass with me sometimes.
Q: Have you done this (Lindberg's) song live?
James: We did it once at Buddy Guy's in Chicago. John sang it. I sang it once in the studio and it wore me out so much I had to go home and go to bed. I don't know if I'll ever sing it again, not unless I get 20 years younger.
Q: When is the CD supposed to be out?
James: January. It was supposed to be out in September, but because of potential distribution problems it wasn't. I don't know anything about this stuff. They were also concerned it would get lost in the Christmas rush.
Q: What's your favorite song you've recorded and released?
James: That's a tough question. I love "Ain't No Way," an Aretha Franklin song. Which I never in my wildest imagination would have ever done except I knew I was going to be singing with the Memphis Church Ladies. Each of them can sing like Aretha so all I had to do was kinda grunt along. Probably off that same record, One of These Days, I think was a great tune Charlie Bingham and I wrote, "Ain't Nobody to Blame." Maybe on my new one I've got some favorites, but you guys don't know what that is yet.
Q: What's the one song of yours you released that you were surprised was not a bigger hit in the world of blues?
James: That's tough to say. Because with all of my songs they were written with what I felt was necessary for the moment. Just about everything I write or do involves truth and honesty, human emotions, being a person on this planet. We all got the same hearts and souls. I don't like songs that are just BS. See that My Grave Is Kept Clean, we recorded at my club on the Wednesday night US bombed Iraq. The only people in the club were my band, waitresses, and bartender. We took some of those recordings and cleaned out the lack of audience approval on them so it sounds kind of studio, but most of it's live.
Q: We've heard the rumor that Ruf is going to re-release that.
James: That ain't no rumor. It's going to come out maybe half a year after the new one.
Q: Your music seems to have a fatalistic quality, with death being a recurring subject, such as your CD, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean and the Death Card on the cover of The Hand You're Dealt. What do you think?
James: I think my music is filled with hope. Blues is meant to be happy. Life causes death. We're constantly surrounded with it (in life). It's just part of life. "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" was the title of the song we decided to use for the CD title. The Death Card in Tarot also means new beginnings in life and discovery other than just death. When you look at the whole picture (earth), we're really only here for a second and we have to make the most of that time we can.
Q: So the new one is called Raw?
James: Yeah, I guess so. I wanted to call it Real Time, they wanted to call it Raw, I don't know.
Q: Ruf is re-releasing a brand new one on Luther. It was supposed to be a September release. Have you heard anything about this?
James: I just got two copies of it sent to me from Ruf.
Q: What's it called.
James: Pay It Forward, referring to pass it on. I haven't listened to it yet.
Q: Tell us who's in your group now.
James: Larry Byrne on Hammond organ. He's been with me on and off since the mid-'70's.
Q: Larry always seems so unflappable back there with his play. He's not flashy like some, yet a stellar B-3 player.
James: Yeah. (laughing) I got to look back there sometimes and make sure he's awake. Larry's always been that way. You know, he's got those cool voicings from the Dark Ages that should be used on Hammond organs. That's a whole other art there. And of course, Michael "Taco" Velasquez on drums.
Q: He's so different from a stereotypical blues drummer.
James: Well, we just like to have fun. And with Taco you can have a whole lot of fun. He's very much part of this group. I try to keep my guys involved as much as possible. I had some things that I wanted Taco to record with me but my ideas fell short.
Q: What are you doing for a bass player? That's been a revolving chair.
James: You saw the young kid (Spencer Franson). Then John Lindberg. The guy I had in La Crosse, his name is Mark Lillis. He's still with me. He came up from Ft. Lauderdale. Hopefully he can stick around. Touring is so sporadic these days. When I saw you (Rich) this summer I called John that afternoon to fill in that evening. He's as good as it can get.
Q: I saw you at Famous Dave's in Minneapolis last Spring and you had Rob Stupka drumming with you.
James: Taco had another gig. I love Rob Stupka. He's as good as it gets. Especially playing straight-up blues. I love recording with him. There's times Taco has the chance to do these rock and roll tours and if he can make more money than with me I tell him to go ahead and do it and I'll get somebody else to cover for him. I do try to stick to this small circle of guys that know my material, which is really hard to do. There're 5 records of my material to cover, not just jam stuff. I need guys that know my stuff. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I did other people's blues material and then I could just hire whoever is free that night. There's a block of 1,000 blues songs everybody knows.
Q: One of the things we like about your shows is you do mostly your own songs. Nothing against them, but no "Sweet Home Chicago" or "Mustang Sally."
James: I love that stuff and would love to play it, but if I want to hear Muddy Waters, I'll go home and put on one of his CD's. I don't want blues to become a museum piece, kind of what happened to Dixieland. Something in its own little box that's put on a shelf and it's got to stay there. I feel blues is almost the last form of real human emotion that's allowed to be expressed anymore. It should grow, as we do as humans.
Q: Where do you think blues is going? Some people say blues is bottoming out because there is no blues hero like Stevie Ray Vaughn to lead the music forward.
James: Stevie Ray Vaughn was creating his own thing, like Johnny Lang now. Just like I am. I don't have any problem with that; I do have a problem with musicians that want to be like Stevie Ray Vaughn. Stevie Ray Vaughn understood and came from the roots. I don't know. It's very disheartening. There's so much fluff out there. It's gotten to the point, where if someone plays electric guitar, they call it blues. The thing about my stuff and Luther's is that it was deeply rooted. It goes back to the roots in the Delta. A lot of it out there seems like a pile of noise. Although some people might think my stuff is a pile of noise, it came from somewhere, it meant something, it's going somewhere. I don't mind people doing more rocked-out stuff or funkified stuff if it's coming from some place. If it's just coming from today with no roots, it's just shit.
Q: What about your new stuff, which is guitar driven?
James: Some people might think it's rock, but I think it's blues. I think everything I do is blues. You can still identify that this music came from someplace.
Q: We're going to give you some names of famous blues musicians you've played with and known and ask you to give a brief impression of each.
Albert Collins: What a mother. Like B.B. (King). Genuine, nicest guy you'd ever meet. Real.
Albert King: Mean mother. Had a real temper. Did a college show with him in '75 when I was with Luther. It was the night of the Ali-Frazier fight and neither Luther nor Albert wanted to start first because of the fight. Albert lost the coin flip and had to go first. He asked the college kid helping out back stage to come up to him at the end of each round with an update. So the kid would come out on stage, Albert would stop the band, even in the middle of a song, to get the update, light his pipe, then start up again.
Freddie King: A powerhouse. Lots of energy, although not as much as Luther. No one had as much as Luther. Took blues in a rock direction. Kicked ass. Had a clear-cut identity.
Junior Wells: Soul. Scrappy ass way of playing blues. Identifiable character.
Jimmy Reed: Got to know him through Eddie Taylor. Played with him in '75 in Texas. He was a great player and singer, but he had trouble remembering his songs and lyrics. He traded one of his National guitars to me for a bottle of booze. At that time you could buy a similar guitar in a pawnshop for $19.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: He opened up for me and Luther at Antone's in the '70's. He played "Hideaway," but didn't have this one part down right. So just to be nasty, we opened with the same song. Later I showed him how to play it and he appreciated it.
Muddy Waters: Sat in and jammed with him in Chicago. Did many tours with him while with Luther. A strong player.
Paul Butterfield: Mean temper. Loved his harp. Played a club with Luther and Paul sat in. Luther, Paul and I were drinking in the dressing room while I tried to share with Luther how to play something. Paul got mad at that and we had a fist-fight.
Q: Who is the most obscure blues man that we should know about?
James: Curly Cooke. A great guitar player who was in Chicago and played on many of James Cotton's early solo recordings. Although he might take exception to me calling him obscure. He is living and playing out West. I ran into him at a blues fest in Washington last year. He was playing acoustic guitar beside a harmonica player, using a big old stomp box to keep the rhythm.
Q: What future projects do you and your band have in mind?
James: Staying alive. No one (blues bands) has a decent tour schedule these days. Blues seems to be at a low point now. We're hoping the new CD will help. We think we'll have a decent festival schedule (next summer). In February we're touring the West: Vegas, Reno, Salt Lake City, and 'Frisco. We're doing whatever we can to keep the band going and keep the music alive.
Q: What collaborations with other artists might we look for in the future?
James: I'm going to be doing some work with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I'm going to be doing my versions of Ellington's songs, and the Orchestra will be doing their version of some of my songs. I have offers to do some producing and songwriting for other artists, but it takes away from touring and that's what keeps the money coming. There's a possibility of a multi-city package tour with other blues headliners. And my management may put together a package tour with a lineup of American Roots music, including blues, rock, and R&B, to appeal to a wider group of music fans.
Q: Where do you see yourself and your band 5 years from now?
James: Still kicking. Keep on recording and touring. There's nothing like playing live. We have a strong fan base around the world, but things are soft in the US and even in Europe these days. Even some festivals have had trouble. I heard Kansas City (blues festival) was cancelled. Blues got a little over-saturated with everyone going into it when it was fashionable. People from rock and country playing and purporting to be blues acts, even though that wasn't where their hearts were.
A band is like any other small business. You need a certain amount of cash flow to enable touring, making records, and get radio airplay. I'm gonna keep doing it. They can't kill me.
Q: What do you think would help the live music business and live music clubs that are struggling now?
James: You've got to get people into the clubs, pay the covers, and buy the drinks so everyone makes money. It's the responsibility of touring acts to give the crowd big bang for their buck. People aren't going to pay for nothing. I like to see them (fans) leave with smiles on their faces.
Q: Thanks James for sharing your life in music and the blues with us.
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