|Cathy Lemons & Phil Berkowitz - The Lucky Losers (photo by Peggy DeRose)|
The Lucky Losers are Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz, two 20+year veterans of the San Francisco blues scene. Lemons is a singer and songwriter who has been entertaining audiences for 25 years, with three albums to her credit (her most recent, Black Crow, was one of 2014's best efforts). Berkowitz has previously collaborated with fellow harp master Billy Branch, Duke Robillard, and Sean Carney, and also has a couple of albums to his credit, including his most recent, All Night Party.
The duo recently decided to collaborate (see below) and their debut recording, A Winning Hand (on West Tone Records), is a keeper. Produced by Kid Andersen, who also plays guitar on several tracks, the disc features twelve winning songs, split evenly between originals (three by Lemons, three by Berkowitz) and cover tunes that mix traditional and modern blues with soul, jazz, and R&B. Both are excellent singers and songwriters and they sound great together, and Friday Blues Fix is hopeful that this partnership will continue for years to come.
Ten Questions With.......The Lucky Losers
Friday Blues Fix: How did The Lucky Losers come to be?
Cathy Lemons: Phil and I ARE The Lucky Losers—we are the gambler’s that won! The risk takers that messed up and turned it all around—by meeting each other. In 2012 my life was in ruins and I had to completely re-invent myself after my split up with bassist and musical partner Johnny Ace. I had no money, no job, no credit, no PA., no band, no career! In one year I rebuilt it all—and my health. Phil too went through a huge psychic shift. He went through a bad divorce in 2013 and he had been acting out in several different ways from the unhappiness of it all. But we found each other in December of 2013, just as I was finishing up Black Crow with Vizztone. My heart had been smashed by a rebound affair and I was pretty shut down. But then I kept seeing Phil at my gigs—all the time--and I finally took the hint.
Phil and I risked everything to make this album—money—all our time—our unique identities as individual performers—to make something really special—and with very little support from the local blues community. We just went with a mutual dream and faith. One of our first performances was in a regional International Blues Competition in July of 2014. Christ, I was still reading a cheat sheet on the stage to keep the lyrics straight to my brand new song “Suicide By Love” but that songs says it all.
“Do what you love and do it well. Hope that it kills you and takes you to hell.”
Why else are we here? But to be “taken” by something that moves us. Why not risk everything? God loves a gambler!
We actually won the “Wild Card” round and then we got to compete in the IBC finals locally. We did not get to go to Memphis—but we started our band from that whole experience.
FBF: Can you tell us a little bit about the tunes you wrote for A Winning Hand? I really liked your choices in cover tunes. They cover a wide range of styles…..traditional Chicago blues, Memphis soul, New Orleans R&B…..how did you decide on which songs to do?
Cathy: Phil listens to music all the time--more than I—and he suggested “What is Success” and “What Have I Done.” We both explored a number of Sam & Dave songs and found the great “I Take What I Want.” We also explored other male/ female duet singing teams that did ‘60’s R&B like Vernon & Jewel—thus “Baby You Got What it Takes.” Then I discovered that Phil had about 14 songs he had been writing with Danny Caron who was Charles Brown’s guitarist. I made him finish “Don’t You Lose It” and “Change in the Weather” for the album because I could hear harmony potential and the songs were both personal and positive. Then I went to work and crafted together my three songs. I had created “Detroit City Man” with my previous guitarist Stevie Gurr sitting in his kitchen. I spontaneously sang a bunch of stream of consciousness stuff to a peculiar rhythm Stevie created—but luckily I recorded it and loved the song. So we added that into the pot, putting the song to a different Hooker groove, and for our stone blues lovers. All these songs came from years and years of listening to blues & R&B—threads that make up the suit so to speak.
FBF: Do you come from musical families?
Cathy: Yes! My mother was a classically trained singer and a soloist in the Unitarian Church. My father was a French horn player, a singer, and a pianist. My oldest sister was a brilliant classical pianist until she was 20. My two aunts were professional lounge singers/pianists, my uncle was a professional classical singer, my cousin was a singer in a country band.
FBF: What kinds of music did you grow up listening to? Who were some of your favorites?
Cathy: Well I first loved Miriam Makeba, then I loved Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Then I branched out into Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Maria Muldaur , and Bonnie Raitt. Then I found blues, which hit me like a thunderbolt while watching Anson Funderburgh play live in Dallas, and from then on I became a Junior Wells, Lowel Fulson,, Jimmy McCracklin, Elmore James, Magic Sam, Bobby Bland, and James Brown freak. I used to wake up every morning in my early twenties to James Brown’s “Sex Machine.”
FBF: When did you decide that you wanted to do this for a living?
Cathy: The minute I heard Anson hit those blue notes. Like a calling in my head—BAM! “That’s what I want to do! Sing with THAT sound! And I’ll do it better than Darrell (Nulisch) too!” Those were my thoughts! LOL. Now remember I was a kid. I even learned Bobby Bland’s song “I Intend to Take Your Place” because I wanted to sing it to Anson and knock Darrell Nulisch out of the way. Aren’t I terrible? Of course they would have to know the darn song to play it live so I never got to sing it.
Phil: Oh…I guess it was around 1996 (at the age of 30 or so) when I was going for a teaching credential at San Francisco State. I saw an ad in the back of the SF Bay Guardian that read: “Looking for a blues band…pay low, but not invisible.” At the time, I had been noodling around with the harmonica for only 4 years or so. But something seemed to click in my brain at that moment that told me this was something I wanted to try to do for the rest of my life. So I answered the ad and played the gig. The owner stiffed me, so I guess the ad should have read “NO pay!” But I’m thankful that it did not because it was that ad that got me off and running so to speak.
FBF: Did you start out liking the blues, or did you move to the blues from another direction? Who were some of your favorites when you started listening?
Phil: Well, I sort of answered half of this question earlier, but let me elaborate a bit. Muddy Waters has always been one of my favorites. A couple of years before I took up harmonica, I heard my roommate playing a record of Billy Boy Arnold’s earliest Vee-Jay recordings…and I remember how that sound just about knocked me out. Also, Leadbelly sounded like a whole other world to me. Definitely spellbinding if not inspiring! Then a few years later when I started playing harmonica: Little Walter, Junior Wells, Mark Ford, Both Sonny Boys, Louis Jordan and a whole host of others too numerous to mention!
Cathy: Well I just mentioned the favs but I can add Big Mama Thornton. I was always expanding and listening to all kinds of blues and blues influenced artists. Like Bobby Parker’s “Blues Get off of My Shoulder” which I tried to record back in 1998 to the straight up traditional blues of John Lee Hooker. I don’t see a definitive line between rhythm & blues and blues. I see it as the same thing if the blue bending major to minor notes and chords are in the song. And the lyrics have to have the kinky amused twist—like “I’m gonna go shoot myself now so cry for me—and keep crying so I don’t have to shoot myself just yet.”
FBF: Which musicians influenced, or continue to influence each of you, as songwriters and performers?
Cathy: Heck, I am always being influenced—by everything from L.C. Ulmer to young bluesman Dave Gross playing a hill country beat at a Vizztone Beale St. party (I’m gonna steal that lick, boy!), to Gillian Welsh’s song Tennessee where she sings “But of all the little ways I find to hurt myself, you might be my favorite one of all,” which I think is just a great lyric to my own inner dictations. What I look for in a song is the story of the down and out hustler who’s gonna get back up. That’s my favorite theme because that’s me.
Phil: Well…from listening to recordings, there are hundreds. But as far as some real-life people who either have influenced me or are currently…I would say Gary Primich, RJ Mischo, Danny Caron, Kid Andersen, Raz Kennedy, Sean Carney, Bill Stuve, Cathy Lemons, Duke Robillard, Billy Branch and Ben Rice. I probably should mention some well known songwriters who I feel have influenced my songwriting such as Willie Dixon, Robert Hunter, Bob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Porter/Hayes, Doc Pomus, The Band, Leiber/Stoller, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Jerry Ragavoy….oh, yeah…also the great poet/writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Coleridge, Keats, Whitman, Harvey Pekar…and a lot more who I’m leaving out!
FBF: What do you consider to be your finest moment as a blues artists……the moment that made you sit back and think “Wow! This is why I chose to do this!”
Cathy: Well I had that moment at The Napa Winery on June 25th 2015—not too long ago. Phil and I nailed it. We put a show together with Frank Bey & Anthony Paule and the bar was raised way high and we were nervous as hell, but we both did it. FINALLY! We have our kinks in the wheel--but that night the wheel turned in the right direction and we just did a great job together. All the magic was in the music that night and the sound was so perfect. I just felt so happy and alive. And Phil was right there with me not skipping a beat. We were together up there achieving our dream-- something that was seemingly impossible only a year prior.
Phil: Hmm….I think I’ve had a few moments like that throughout my 20 year career. But most recently, I would say a show that Cathy and I played as The Lucky Losers at The Napa City Winery. I was the one who booked the show…and I wanted to have our act open for The Fank Bey & Anthony Paule Band, who I think is one of the best Soul/Blues acts out there today. Maybe that inspired us, but I know that we turned in a pretty seamless performance (as did Frank Bey)!
FBF: Both of you have played the Bay Area blues scene for over two decades….do you have any interesting stories that you’d like to share?
Cathy: Well I have played big stages and small stages, with famous musicians and not so famous ones—and I have played to crowded halls and empty seats. But one of my best stories is about opening up for Paul Butterfield in 1987. Paul was down on his luck and playing in a complete dive in North Beach—capacity 50. He was struggling with alcohol and heroin. I opened up for him and later hung out with him and the other musicians that were on the same show. We went to a jam at Larry Blake’s which is in Berkeley, and Paul was treated very badly I thought by those musicians that hosted the jam—but he got his revenge. When they finally called him up after making him wait for an hour (he had to sit there with us and listen to shit for music) he made minced meat out of them all. And I’ll never forget how sorry I felt for him. Here was this great talent who had essentially destroyed himself with drugs and alcohol--very little remained of him—his voice was shot—his confidence—his faith. I saw his acute suffering. I remember thinking “I don’t want to be like that.” And because I too was struggling with heroin, I thought perhaps I could learn from this.
I have a blog called CathyLemons BluesSinger GunSlinger if you want to read the full story called “A Night With Paul Butterfield”
Phil: When I played in my first band, The High Rollers, we played a gig in Alameda (just across the way from Oakland). The venue used to be owned by someone named Krull who also owned the pizza place next door. Evidently, the current owner had just purchased the bar property from the former owner (and named it The Whole Shebang)…but the pizza place, Krull's Pizza, was still in business next door. One night, we were playing a Ray Charles song (an early Atlantic side entitled "It Should've Been Me) which was a regular staple in our set list. There's a verse in it that says: "I ate a bowl of chili and I felt O.K. At least until I passed this fine cafe. I seen a guy eating a great big steak…while the waitress stood by feeding him ice cream and cake…It should've been me!" I would usually ad-lib this verse and insert a reference either to the venue (if they served food) or someplace nearby as a way of personalizing it more for the audience. So when I got to the verse, I said: "…at least until I passed Krull's Pizza Cafe." No less than two seconds later, the owner rushed the stage ranting and screaming at us while we were playing: "You guys just signed your walking papers…you screwed up, buddy boy…It's The Whole Shebang, The Whole Shebang…not Krull's. Better get your information straight!! As this was happening, our drummer stood up from his drum seat (while continuing to play) and started yelling back at the owner: "Listen, man…you don't talk to us like that…you got some nerve…either you treat us with respect or we can take it outside!!" We finished our set and I think cooler heads prevailed. But needless to say, we didn't feel the need to play there again!
FBF: What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time? Obviously, you both have pretty big record collections.
Cathy: I love Gillian Welsh. But I also love old gospel. And I love love love blues. The kind that makes your skin crawl--like Buddy Guy. I like irreverent, mean, nasty and to the point songwriting. I don’t spare myself and I don’t want to when I write--and that’s what I like to listen to. Phil listens to The Grateful Dead, Allen Toussaint, L.C. Ulmer, Bob Dylan, Junior Wells, Gary Primach, Louis Jordan, and every kind of blues/R&B known to man.
FBF: If you weren’t musicians, what do you think you would be doing?
Cathy: I probably would not be alive. My dear. I am an ex-junkie and I lived about 9 lives. Music and musicians are what sustains me. I am not a creature of this earth. I don’t care about what normal people care about. I care about making art. Something from the air. Of the air.
Phil: That’s a good question…probably nowhere near as much!
FBF: What does the future hold for The Lucky Losers? Both of you enjoy successful solo careers. Do you think that you will revisit this concept soon?