Friday, November 4, 2011

Ten Questions With Brad Vickers

Brad Vickers' vision of the blues encompasses several styles of blues, including Mississippi Delta blues, Chicago blues, and even a bit of the Hill Country sound.  However, it's not limited to just the blues, but is also subject to mixing in old time jazz and ragtime.  In addition to the usual guitar, piano, drums, sax, and bass, there's also a good chance that you will hear clarinet or fiddle on some songs.  Vickers and his group, the Vestapolitans, have released three unforgettable discs over the past three years on the ManHatTone record label, with songs from the 30's through the 60's, plus original compositions that seamlessly blend with the classics.  Mr. Vickers has graciously agreed to sit down with Friday Blues Fix and answer a few questions.

1. When did you become a blues fan and what attracted you to the music?

I became a blues fan in 1964, at the age of 13, when I heard Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Jimmy Reed’s recordings. What attracted me, I guess, was this music’s simplicity and truthfulness—and the vocal delivery that relies entirely on the individual artist’s range of talent and life experience. In other words, this music, the blues, doesn’t hide any good or bad feeling you may have about life, like problems with the opposite sex or working at a job you didn’t like. Though these were adult themes, as an adolescent I was becoming aware of these things by observing how people got along, and how they handled themselves when problems came to them. And, I also loved the beat and tempo of the fast blues: boogie-woogie and R&B jump.

2. What was your favorite blues album as a youth?

My favorite blues album as a youngster was a record called “Jimmy Reed Plays 12-String Guitar”. On this, he overdubbed the 12-string on top of his original recording, matching the melodies that he’d used for his vocals. Then they took out the vocal track. It was all instrumentals. There were ten of his greatest hits, and two new instrumentals written for the project. I wore that album out, drove my family crazy. My mother gave me the album as a Christmas gift because she knew that I was interested in guitar. This was when the Beatles and the Stones were making it big. Neither she nor I knew that Jimmy Reed sang, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I found many more of his recordings. It was when I discovered his voice, that I really got bitten by the blues bug!

3. What made you decide to play the music as a career?

Starting in 1968, I played on weekends with various groups, playing the hits of the day at church youth gatherings, coffee houses, and school auditorium concerts.

I took up the electric bass, honoring my grandfather’s wishes. He played lap-steel and drums back in the’30s, and said that if I played the bass I’d work all the time, that “Guitar players are a dime-a-dozen!” So, about 1982 I left my day job and worked a steady 4 to 5 nights a week in music. I liked the job, and I liked the hours. By then I was playing nothing but the blues. It was about that time that I joined the group Little Mike and The Tornadoes, and for the first time began to back up some of the great bluesmen on the road, and forging long relationships with them.

Tampa Red
 4. Who are your biggest musical influences as a performer and a songwriter?

There are three performers, who are also songwriters, who have had an everlasting influence on me: Tampa Red, Jimmy Reed, and Chuck Berry.

5. Your musical catalogue spans quite a number of years, including songs from the ’30s to today. Which era of blues is your favorite, and why?

I love the blues and the bluesy pop of the ’30s, and also the ’20s, and as far back as the ragtime of the early 1900s. I like the R&B jump of the ’40s and ’50s that turned into Rock ’n’ Roll and Rockabilly. I also like some of the early country artists like Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow. It’s all become music to my ears—And it all probably figures into the sound I get with my songs and my group.

 6. Over the years you’ve played with a diverse set of great musicians. Are there any cool stories that you would like to share about our years playing with all these musicians, whether in the studio or onstage?

Yes, I have lots of stories about the people I’ve played with. I don’t know where to start. I guess I’ll start with my favorite story, my first experience onstage with Chuck Berry.

In 1969 I had already been playing bass for two years and was already experienced in playing with other musicians in a non-rehearsed way. In other words, “winging it.” I was 18 years old and living a home, when my neighbor called and asked if I could replace him the following night in a band that would be playing in a club a few neighborhoods away. This neighbor, Ron, was also a bass player. He was about five years my senior, and liked the way I played—and he had come down with the flu.

I accepted the job, and the next night I arrived in good time, an hour before the show. It was the Friday between Christmas and New Year, and there were no marquee lights or posters to be seen. I had taken a taxi with my Kustom plush white bass amp, and I had two speaker cabinets, each with two 15” Jensen speakers. (I was ready for any volume of music.) After I got my gear inside the club, I saw that it was empty except for two musicians setting up onstage, a drummer and a keyboardist. I noticed that they were both Hispanic. I became concerned, as there were two kinds of music I knew nothing about playing: Latin Salsa and Cuban Jazz.

I introduced myself, and explained that I was the substitute. They had already heard from Ron and were happy to meet me. Then I asked what kind of music we’d be playing. The drummer said, “Hey, man! Ron didn’t tell you who the job is for tonight?” I shook my head “No.” He smiled and said, “We’re backing up Chuck Berry!” I began to turn pale and broke out in a cold sweat. The mere mention of his name gave me goosebumps I was a super Chuck Berry fanatic, and my friend Ron didn’t tell me on purpose. He knew I’d be so nervous that I’d have bailed out.

Before I even had time to understand the situation, Chuck walked in and slammed his guitar case on the stage, opened it, and looked around for the amp he was to use. As he unraveled his guitar cable, he asked, “Who’s the bass player?”

I was sinking into the floorboards as I raised my hand. He looked at me very business-like and said, “No walking.” He plugged his Gibson Stereo into the two Fender Deluxe amp that the club had provided, and strummed one loud chord before going off to his dressing room.

I was still very green, and didn’t know too much about musical terminology, but I felt relieved that I knew his entire catalogue, and left it at that. I was debating whether to have a drink at the bar before show time, but show time was in two minutes. Just then the club opened its door, and at once the place became packed. At least three hundred stood in front of the stage, and I got a sick feeling in my stomach. I’d never played for so many people before. Two minutes turned into twenty, and the crowd began to chant, ”We want Chuck, we want Chuck!” and stomping their feet. I stood beside the stage with the rest of the group, awaiting instructions from the management. Soon a man with a dark suit and sunglasses came through the crowd and motioned for us to hit the stage. I put on my bass, the drummer and keyboardist sat behind their instruments, and the stage lights dimmed. There was no announcement, but as Chuck, with his guitar on, walked through the crowd, it parted for him like the Red Sea. The cheers and roar from the crowd was so intense that I could hardly concentrate. Then Chuck plugged in his guitar and began his famous intro. The band kicked in on the second change, the IV chord. Thank God I could read his hand on the guitar neck, because the song keys were never given. When we got to that second change, I walked that bass line like crazy, in the fastest tempo that I could. Chuck began to sing “Roll Over Beethoven”, and I was in complete control of the song, until Chuck shot a scorching glance at me. I didn’t know why. He stopped the song halfway through. The crowd cheered wildly, and he started again with his signature beginning. As we came to the IV chord, I again began to walk bass line, cutting it so deep that my amp was roaring. Chuck began to sing “Bye, Bye Johnny.” After two verses, he shot me another withering look. I thought that maybe I was playing too loud, so I turned down and he stopped the song. The crowd went ballistic with hoorahs and cheers, as Chuck started another song the same way. Naturally, I began to walk another cool bass line with confidence to his rhythm. He sang a verse of “Let It Rock,” then broke into his famous “scoot” and headed right toward me. I smiled. He didn’t. He stood crouched, moving his leg in time with the music and yelled, “I said no walking! Why are you defying me?” I felt my face turn red and I said, “Chuck! I’m not walking. I’ve been standing completely still!” His eyes popped, and he looked me up and down and smiled. He might have realized then that I was very young. He went back to the microphone and ended the song. Then he started the “Maybelline” intro. I knew this was a country beat, so I played the minimal punch of notes on the one and five. He looked at me and smiled. “Yeah!” he said, “Do that all night long.” And I did. We did two shows that night, and I tweaked that country beat into playing 4/4 time on the root of every change through every song.

At the end of the night Chuck thanked us for a good show. I felt brave and confident enough to ask him if he would like a steady bass player. He said, “Hold that thought. Excuse, me, I’ll be back in a minute.” He never came back, but I’ve had the pleasure of playing with him again through the years. I lost contact with him in the mid ’80s. From that first show I began to play the bass the way he wanted, and I became a favorite of choice with many blues bands and performers. All I can say is “Thanks, Chuck!”

7. Who would be the members of our dream band, your all-star team of musicians, living, dead, well-known, lesser-known, etc.

This is a hard question, but I’ll answer it by saying that instead of a “dream band” I would want a “dream revue.” I’d have my favorite musicians, who have played on my recordings back up all my heroes: Tampa Red, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. I would bring them out one-by-one and play all their most influential songs.

8.  Do you have any projects in the works?

I have many projects in the works!

>A folk-blues album,

>An old-time string band album with every stringed instrument possible

>An album of diverse styles from Louisiana

>More Blues and R&B albums.

>More original songs

I have enough projects to keep me going for a while.

9. Where do you see the blues genre in 10 years? Who do you think will emerge to succeed the current list of elder statesmen?

Ten years from now the blues genre with probably be the same as it is today, but with more diverse sounds woven in. I see that many of the younger players are drawn to related styles, like soul music on one hand, and in another direction, there seems to be some interest in earlier styles like jug band or string band music, and Gypsy jazz. So all that will probably be in the mix.

In answer to the second part of the question, it’s really bittersweet to think of all the great elders who have passed on recently: Honeyboy Edwards, Mojo Buford, and of course, Pinetop Perkins and Willie Smith. These have been our links to the original blues, and to Muddy Waters. The next line of great blues artists will inevitably become the new elder statesmen, and will be revered, i.e.: Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Jr., Maria Muldaur. Buddy Guy is already approaching that status.

As long as there is an appreciation for the blues, there will always be a new crop of players, and there will always be elder statesmen.

10. What are some of our favorite blues albums—the ones that you keep going back and listening to over and over?

My favorite blues albums are:

>”Sonny Terry is King” with Lightin’ Hopkins and Brownie McGhee (Arhoolie)

>”Muddy Waters’ Greatest Hits” (issued in 1964 on the heavyweight black label) (Chess)

>All Bo Diddley’s albums

>J.B. Lenoir “Natural Man” (Chess)

>Little Walter “Confessing The Blues” (Chess)

>Jimmy Rogers “Chicago Bound” (Chess)

>”Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade” (Chess)

>Chuck Berry “St. Louis to Liverpool” (Chess)

>All of Jimmy Reed’s early albums on Vee Jay

>and one newer one, in particular called

“The New Jimmy Reed Album” (1965 Bluesway)

It had five guitars playing different lines with no solos, except for Jimmy’s harmonica It’s an incredible album Wayne Bennett, Eddie Taylor, and Hubert Sumlin are among the guitar players.

>All of Tampa Red’s albums were great, especially the one issued on Krazy Kat records in the early ’80s. It had songs form 1947-1953, with Johnny Jones on piano, Ransom Knowling on bass, and Odie Payne on drums. Johnny and Ransom sing harmonies with Tampa. This is probably my favorite album of all times. I visit it quite often.


All of Brad Vickers' recordings with the Vestapolitans are on the ManHatTone label.  They are listed below in chronological order.  Each release is a slight improvement over its predecessor, but all are worth picking up.  They offer a unique blend of blues over the years, plus roots, jazz, and ragtime mixed in for good measure.  For more information, visit Brad and the band's brand new website.

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