Friday, November 28, 2014

The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold

A few weeks ago, I got a copy of The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold in the mail.  The singer/harmonica player made a comeback to the blues scene in the early 90's and the comeback has actually lasted longer than his early career did, which is a blessing for blues fans.  Arnold's career involves performing and interacting with a host of blues legends, dating back to the 40's.  The 79-year-old is still going strong today, retaining much of his youthful vigor and spirit.  He's still an A-1 harmonica player and his vocals are as strong as ever.  As indicated by the title of his latest album, Arnold is at as comfortable with a soul number as he is with the blues.

This new release, his second with Stony Plain Records, is produced by Duke Robillard and finds Arnold performing some of his favorite songs, regardless of genre.  That means that there's plenty of good blues (standards like "St. James Infirmary," "Ain't That Just Like A Woman," "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water") and soul (Ann Peebles' "99 Lbs.," Joe Tex's "A Mother's Prayer"), rock & roll (Chuck Berry's "Nadine") and even jazz (Nat Adderley's "Work Song"), and Arnold handles them all.

The Billy Boy Arnold story is an interesting one.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Billy Boy Arnold didn't make the move from Mississippi to Chicago.  He was actually born in Chicago on September 16, 1935.  He grew up listening to the blues on his aunt's record player, the current fare that was on Bluebird Records from artists like Sonny Boy Williamson (Version 1.0, John Lee Williamson, is the Sonny Boy referred to for the rest of this post), Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Big Maceo, Tampa Red, and music from the likes of Erskine Hawkins, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey was mixed in as well.  Arnold was particularly taken with the music of Sonny Boy Williamson, and after hearing "Mellow Chick Swing," which featured a nice harmonica solo at the end of the song, he bought a plastic harmonica at Sears & Roebuck, but soon graduated to the real thing.

Eventually, he got the courage to actually approach the harmonica player, knocking on Williamson's door, who lived close by.  Williamson not only invited Arnold and his friends in, but actually gave him a couple of harp lessons just before he was murdered in June of 1948.  Though their time together was relatively brief (only three visits), Williamson remained a lasting influence on Arnold's music.

In 1952, Arnold managed to land a deal with Chicago's Cool label and released his first record, "Hello Stranger."  He didn't realize until Cool issued the single that they had listed him as "Billy Boy Arnold."  The youngster, who was 17 at the time, didn't particularly like the new moniker, but it stuck.

Later, he teamed up with a young street musician named Ellis McDaniel (you might know him by his nickname, Bo Diddley).  Diddley, an electronic whiz of sorts, made an amplifier out of an orange crate for Arnold.  Arnold convinced Diddley to audition for Chess Records and, in 1955, Diddley recorded his first hit for Chess, a two-sided hit of "Bo Diddley"/"I'm A Man," with Arnold backing him on harmonica.  Arnold, however, signed with Chess rival Vee-Jay Records, after being mistakenly told (by Diddley) that Leonard Chess didn't like him.  He recorded a couple of solo sides for Chess, but they weren't released until many years later.

Arnold enjoyed a nice measure of success with Vee-Jay, cutting his now-classic "I Wish You Would," which used that now-famous Bo Diddley beat, along with some other memorable tunes, such as "I Ain't Got You," "Prisoner's Plea," "Don't Stay Out All Night," and "Rockinitis."  The Yardbirds actually covered "I Wish You Would" and "I Ain't Got You" in the early 60's, and his songs were also covered by David Bowie, the Animals, and the Blasters.

By 1958, Arnold was done at Vee-Jay, though he continued to perform in Chicago clubs and release the occasional 45, and subsequently released an excellent album in 1963 for Prestige Records, called More Blues On The South  Side, that is considered a classic today.  However, the Chicago Blues scene was beginning to dry up, Arnold took a job driving a bus, and later working as a parole officer, to support his growing family.  He continued to perform and record occasionally (a early 60's live set with piano man Johnny Jones, released years later by Alligator Records, is a keeper), playing at various European and U.S. festivals in the 70's, 80's, and into the 90's.

In 1993, Arnold signed with Alligator Records and released his comeback album, the appropriately titled Back Where I Belong, to rave reviews.  The album mixed some nice remakes of some of his classics ("I Wish You Would," "Prisoner's Plea," "You Got Me Wrong") with some great new songs, and tributes to some of his influences (Sonny Boy Williamson's "Shake The Boogie" and Big Maceo's "Worried Life Blues").  Two years later, he released Eldorado Cadillac, following the same pattern with remakes of "I Ain't Got You" and "Don't Stay Out All Night," plus with a few more new originals that stood out ("Man of Considerable Taste," "Mama's Bitter Seed").

In 2001, Arnold signed with Stony Plain and released Boogie 'n' Shuffle, which was produced by Duke Robillard.  The album combined Arnold's brand of blues (in the tradition of his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson) with some solid Jimmy McCracklin/Ray Charles-based R&B and soul, and even some down-home variety Delta-styled blues.  A nice, solid set through and through, it also included a really cool 15-minute interview with Arnold at the end of the disc recounting his view of the early Chicago blues scene.

Several years, later Electro-Fi Records released Consolidated Mojo, an album that Arnold actually recorded a year before his comeback on Alligator.  For some reason, it was not released initially, though Arnold sounds pretty good and reprises many of his earlier hits like he did on the Alligator releases a few years later.  Arnold also released a couple of tribute albums with Electro-Fi......a wonderful Sonny Boy Williamson tribute in 2008 and a Big Bill Broonzy tribute in 2012.

Arnold also appeared as part of the Chicago Blues:  A Living History series that appeared in 2009 and 2011, with many of the city's current stars (such as Lurrie Bell, Billy Branch, and John Primer) paying tribute to the Windy City's legendary bluesmen of the past.  Arnold was the link between the two generations and sounded just great on both double-disc sets, even touring with the band behind both albums in the U.S. and overseas.  He also appeared on the award-winning Remembering Little Walter disc a couple of years ago.

When you listen to The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold, you will be impressed and amazed at how great Arnold still sounds.  His harmonica playing is as good as ever, but as a vocalist, he has become even better, branching out from blues to soul, R&B, jump, and even jazz.  At 79 years young, he shows no signs of slowing down, thank goodness.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Ten Questions With.......Grady Champion

photo by Brett Beckman
This has been a great year for Grady Champion.  So far, he's released maybe his best album, Bootleg Whiskey (his first for Malaco Records), an album which has appealed to fans of traditional blues, soul blues, and urban blues, he was a Living Blues cover subject, and in January, he started a new label, DeChamp Records, releasing a pair of excellent albums from fellow Mississippians Eddie Cotton and JJ Thames.  

For Champion, the success comes after a lot of hard work.  He started singing in the church choir as a youth, and tried his hand at boxing and as a DJ before becoming a rap artist.  He gravitated to the blues in the mid 90's, recording a pair of well-received albums for Shanachie Records in the late 90's and early 00's.  

In recent years, he has enjoyed success on his own GSM (Grady Shady Music) label, particularly with his 2011 release, Dreamin', and the hit, "Make That Monkey Jump."  He even won the International Blues Challenge in 2010.  He is rapidly building a big audience who loves his unique downhome songwriting and his charismatic performances, and Malaco Records president Tommy Couch, Jr. says, "Grady Champion will be the next major blues act."  

I've been listening to Champion since his Shanachie days and one thing you can say about him is that he brings his A-Game to everything he does.  You know when you're seeing him that you're getting his dead-level best as a performer and a recording artist.  Champion was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer Ten Questions for FBF.  We are grateful that he took the time to do so.  After reading, be sure to check out some of his great music by following the links below.  If you're a blues fan of any kind, you will be glad that you did.

Ten Questions With.....Grady Champion

photo by Laura Carbone
If you weren't a musician, what do you think you would be doing instead?

If I wasn't a musician I would be running my own business in some form or fashion.

You came to the blues through rap music…….how do you think that your musical background affects your vision of the blues?

It helps me to become a better writer and story teller.

Who are some of your musical influences as a singer and musician?  As a songwriter?

My influences as a singer and musician come from all of the traditional blues singers of the past.  My influence as a songwriter comes from Sonny Boy Willamson (Rice Miller).

Can you describe your songwriting process for us?

With my songwriting process, I usually start out with music and melody and build the arrangement around it.

You have largely been associated with smaller independent record labels (your own Grady Shady, Shanachie, Earwig, etc.) throughout your career, but you recently signed with Malaco Records…….Has it been a good fit for you? What factors made you decide to sign with them? 

Yes,  it has been a great fit, with their rich history of being a strong major independent label and the success of the artist that have signed with them.

You've done most of your own production on your recent albums, but this time around you worked with a producer (Tommy Couch, Jr.)……was it a big change for you and how much give-and-take was there between the two of you regarding songs and music?

No, it was not a big change for me because I have worked with producers in the past, like Zac Harmon on my album Dreamin’.  Just as with this album, we were able to work together to come up with what was best for this album.

Can you tell us about a few of the songs on your new album,Bootleg Whiskey?

I wrote five and/or cowrote five of the songs.  I have a strong feeling about the ones on the album, even the ones we did not choose that were not on their album.  Each song has a story to tell which a lot of people can relate to.

You recently launched DeChamp Records and have released a pair of great albums from Eddie Cotton and J.J. Thames…….what are your future plans with the label, and why did you opt to do your own recordings for Malaco instead of DeChamp?

My future plan is to build a label that can focus on great artists and obtain some major distribution for the label to help spread the music of the artists and the blues.  I felt stronger to use Malaco for my personal recording to allow another outlook of promotion and advancement of my own music.

You have been called “the next major blues act”………how does that make you feel? 

It makes me feel great because people are respecting my music talent as well as my entertainment talent.

What do you think the blues will look like in ten years? 

I think it will strong as ever because of the new wave of talent in the blues world, especially from the state of Mississippi.


Bootleg Whiskey (2014):  Malaco Records

Tough Times Don't Last (2012):  Grady Shady Music

Shanachie Days (2012):  Grady Shady Music (Compilation of his Shanachie recordings)

Dreamin' (2011):  Grady Shady Music

Back in Mississippi Live at the 930 Blues Cafe (Featuring Eddie Cotton, Jr.) (2008):  Earwig Records/Grady Shady Music

2 Days Short of a Week (2001):  Shanachie Records

Payin' For My Sins (1999):  Shanachie Records

Goin' Back Home (1998):  Grady Shady Music

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Newcomer's Guide to Early Mississippi Delta Blues (Part 1)

Photo by Bill Steber

Let's do a little "Supposin'," if you will.....Suppose you've only been listening to the blues for a short time.  Suppose you came to the blues through some of the modern blues artists, either blues rockers or contemporary blues.  Suppose you are interested in delving deeper into the roots of this great music that you're wondering just who might have influenced some of this great music that you've found.  You know about artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and Howlin' Wolf....may even have a collection or two from them that you listen to regularly, but you want to go even further back.  Just how do you go about doing that......backtracking even further and checking out the original sources of this great music?  Where do you start?  How do you manage to do it without putting a serious dent in your wallet?

Years ago, it wasn't so easy.  In the pre-internet days, it was pretty hard to track down early blues recordings.  They weren't exactly a big seller in the record stores, so they were pretty hard to find at your local Camelot Music.  Your best bet back in the day was to track down a record catalog for particular labels that carried this brand of music, which is what I did.  I don't remember where I found them, but I ended up sending letters or dialing 1-800 numbers requesting catalogs to several mail-order places.

So, as a public service (I am a public servant in my secret identity, so it only makes sense), Friday Blues Fix is going to present you with a short list of five essential purchases to help you get started on a collection of early Mississippi Delta Blues musicians, mostly recordings from early blues pioneers that will give you a good idea of what they sounded like and help you understand the influence they had on their followers.

Photo by Kelly/Mooney
What I'm going to give you today is in line with the way that I began collecting these recordings.  It's the only way I know how to do it and it worked pretty well for me in two different formats over twenty years or so.  One thing to keep in mind about buying and listening to these early blues stars is that the sound quality of the recordings varies from artist to artist.  Most of the time, it all depends on which label they recorded for.  In some cases, these will be later recordings by the artists.  For some listeners (I fall into this catagory), it's probably better to hear the later recordings first, to get a feel for what the artists sound like.  If you like the later recordings, then you should have no problem listening to the earlier, more challenging sides.  That was the case for me with some of the items on this list.

This is not a definitive list, by any means.  These are just the recordings, or similar to the recordings, that I originally picked up when I started collecting.  I see other albums more recently issued that are probably better, more comprehensive collections, but I don't have them, so I don't feel right recommending them.  If you have some info to share in this area, please feel free to put your two cents in under Comments below.  In the meantime, if you're interested in backtracking to the early years of blues recordings, especially blues from the Mississippi Delta, this is a nice set to start with.  We will dig deeper, eventually moving from the Delta to other areas, in future posts.

Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues (Columbia/Legacy):  A no-brainer, for sure.  There are so many Robert Johnson collections out do you distinguish one from the other??  Well, the first two collections originally released in the 60's are fine, with great songs on both discs.  Any of the box sets are wonderful, and they include EVERYTHING Johnson recorded, alternate takes and all.  However, while I know some collectors love to have everything from particular artists, alternate tracks and all, it gets REALLY tedious at times, because on most collections, alternate takes are played back-to-back and there's not usually a gnat's hair difference in the tracks if you're not approaching it from a scholarly viewpoint.  If you're a newcomer to an artists, the box set is probably not the best jumping-off point for you.  King of the Delta Blues contains sixteen of Johnson's best sides, some taken from each of the initial 60's collections and many of which you have probably heard covered by either other blues artists or blues rockers, and is an ideal starting point for new listeners at a bargain price.  If you like these tracks, then chances are good that you would be fine buying the full box set, but as a beginning buyer, this is where you need to start.

Son House - The Original Delta Blues (Columbia/Legacy):  The first Son House song I ever heard was "Death Letter," the version that's on this CD.  It was actually on a Columbia/Legacy anthology set and was the last song on the album.  I had heard of Son House and he had passed away not long after I started listening to the blues, but I had never actually heard him.  The pictures I had seen of him seemed to show a nice, gentle, kindly man...always with a slightly bemused smile on his face.  When I heard "Death Letter," I was blown away by the sheer intensity of it.....not just House's manhandling of the National steel guitar, but his rugged vocals.  Imagine my surprise some years later, when I found out that upon his "rediscovery" in the 60's, he had pretty much forgotten how to play any of his music.  Alan Wilson, later of Canned Heat, was given the assignment of teaching Son House how to play his own songs.  In the mid 60's, he released a new album, from which the songs on this set are taken, and they're nearly at the level of his 30's and 40's recordings.  The reason this set is on my list instead of his earlier recordings is because of the sound and the nice price.  These songs also appear on a two-disc set from Columbia/Legacy that collects the mid 60's album, along with outtakes and alternate versions of some of the songs.  It's very good, but again new fans may not want to take in all the alternate versions initially.  House's 40's recordings for the Library of Congress are his best (more on his 30's recordings in a bit), and that's where I would definitely go if I liked what I heard on this album,  Son House's story is worth a separate post of it's own and hopefully, we will take care of that in the near future.

Skip James - Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo Records):  Okay, this one may be a bit tricky for new listeners.  FBF discussed Skip James about a year ago and we mentioned that the early recordings (actually from 1931 instead of the indicated 1930) are sometimes hard to listen to because of inferior sound quality.  In the twenty-something years since I first purchased this set, the sound has been improved considerably.  That being said, it's still sometimes difficult, but even a few scratches and hisses cannot hide the fire and intensity of James' performances.  His vocals come from somewhere that ordinary mortals can only dream about and his delicate guitar work is equally haunting.  James recorded many of these sides again for Vanguard Records in the mid 60's (compiled into an excellent set in the late 90's) and they are very good with crystal-clear sound, but the energy and intensity of these earlier performances outshine the later recordings.  I would recommend getting both sets eventually, but the early sides are blues at their rawest and most personal and that comes through loud and clear, even through the static.

Charlie Patton - Founder of the Delta Blues (Yazoo Records):  I originally had this on a cassette, which had a few more songs than the two dozen featured here (it was originally a double album), but I might as well not have even had it.  The sound was so bad that you could barely make out Patton's gruff vocals and guitar playing over the noise, so I rarely listened to it.  When CDs became popular, Yazoo reissued it with the song list trimmed and considerably better sound.  As mentioned previously on FBF, the Paramount label, which recorded Patton, as well as James, House, Tommy Johnson and many others, was a furniture company that made records only to be used on the record players that they sold, so they printed them on cheap shellac.  Later on, the masters of the recordings were destroyed or sold for scrap metal, so any compilations of these songs had to be made from existing copies of the few surviving original 78's.  Like the James set from Yazoo, Patton's power and charisma really comes out, even through the noise and it's easy for listeners to hear and understand why he was such a huge influence on scores of artists who followed, such as Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Son House, just to name a few.  From many interviews and reports from fellow musicians and Patton fans of the day, he was an entertaining live performer as well.  This is probably as good a shot as blues fans will have, soundwise, at listening to the original source of Mississippi Delta Blues.

Various Artists:  The Roots of Robert Johnson (Yazoo Records):  Okay, you've picked up the previous four CDs and you really like what you've heard and would like to dig a little deeper.  Where do you go from here??  Well, you can actually go in a couple of different directions.  Since most new blues fans are more familiar with Robert Johnson of the early blues artists, I would recommend this collection from Yazoo, which collects 14 tracks from which listeners can get a good idea about the various artists who influenced Johnson, including Patton, James, House, and others like Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, Kokomo Arnold, and the Mississippi Sheiks.  These songs will give you a sense of the various guitar and lyrical influence that these artists had on Johnson, and it's a nice way to expand your knowledge of early blues artists and songs (many of these songs are still played by blues musicians today).

These five albums will give new blues fans a starting place to the early Mississippi Delta Blues sounds.  They will discover several of the early masters and their influences through these recordings, and they will also get a chance to hear the artists who influenced many later artists and current ones as well.  Friday Blues Fix will be revisiting this topic in the near future.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Ten Questions With.......Pierre Lacocque of Mississippi Heat

L to R:  Michael Dotson, Brian Quinn, Kenny Smith, Pierre Lacocque, Inetta Visor, Giles Corey, Neal O'Hara

Since 1991, Mississippi Heat have been a vital part of the Chicago Blues scene, keeping a focus on the traditional blues sounds of the Windy City, but putting a modern spin on it with interesting new songs.  The driving force behind the band since its inception is harmonica player Pierre Lacocque, who writes most of the band's songs and dazzles with his inventive harmonica.  

Since its inception, Mississippi Heat has boasted some of Chicago's finest musicians among its members.......among them Robert Covington, Billy Flynn, Bob Stroger, James Wheeler, Deitra Farr, Allen Kirk, Zora Young, Mary Lane, and Barrelhouse Chuck.  They have released eleven CDs (plus one DVD) since 1991, beginning on Van der Linden Records, then moving to Crosscut Records.  Since the mid 2000's, they've been with Delmark Records and recently released their fifth CD for the label, Warning Shot, which features guest appearances from Sax Gordon and Carl Weathersby.  FBF thinks that it may be their best yet.

The band's current line-up features Lacocque on harmonica, vocalist Inetta Visor, drummer Kenny Smith, bassist Brian Quinn, guitarist Giles Corey, keyboardist Neal O'Hara, and their newest member, guitarist/vocalist Michael Dotson.  As always, the focus is on the band as a whole.....and they operate like a well-oiled machine, which is a key to their longevity on the music scene in Chicago.  On most of their releases, they've been joined by many of their previous members, along with artists like Weathersby, John Primer, Billy Boy Arnold, and Lurrie Bell.  Mississippi Heat's motto appears to be once family, always family, which is a good thing for blues fans.

Pierre Lacocque sat down with FBF for Ten Questions (give or take a couple) about their latest release, Warning Shot (see videos below for some of their new material), his life in music, his inspirations, and the band's history and future plans.  We want to thank him for taking the time to visit, and we hope that you enjoy reading what he has to say.  When you're finished reading, take the time to check out some of this great band's music.  You can thank me later.

Photo by Mark PoKempner

Friday Blues Fix:  You spent much of your early life in Europe. Is this where you were first exposed to the blues?

Pierre Lacocque:  I had never heard of blues music until I arrived in Chicago two months shy of my 17th birthday, in 1969. In August of that year, I heard Big Walter Horton play the harmonica. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. An experience of absolute awe. I was drawn to the music like a magnet. I felt I had found a long-lost family.

FBF:  Who were some of the artists that you listened to when you were growing up? Did you listen to various styles of music?

PL:  The three artists that I loved in my youth were Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding. They were my first exposure to bluesy music, even though I didn’t know about the blues. My parents exposed us to classical music like Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi -- all the greats -- and we listened to baroque music.  Especially to baroque trumpet player Maurice Andre Purcell. My father also enjoyed Gospel music; artists such as Clara Ward and Miriam Makeba, as well as songs by New Orleans clarinetist and alto-saxophonist Sidney Bechet (he was living in Paris and was highly appreciated in France and Europe). Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were also among his favorites, whether on their own, or in a duet format.

FBF:  When did you decide that you wanted to play the blues as a career, and how did you decide on playing harmonica?

PL:  Ever since childhood, the harmonica appealed to me. I was attracted to it quite young. When I was just a toddler, about 2 ½ or 3 years old, I received a toy harmonica from my father. I remember being moved by the instrument, even crying while listening to its beautiful sounds. But I didn’t start playing it seriously until I came to Chicago (1969). That made it official that I would go for my passion, and play the blues harmonica.
The decision to play professionally, however, was a slow one. I decided to do it in my 30’s, when I felt an uncontrollable urgency. The time was right. In my late teens I never knew that I was going to make a career out of it. I enjoyed it, but I first pursued psychology as a career. I went into psychology because I felt that it was necessary to understand myself better. I also appreciated the altruistic nature of that profession. But after 12 years of doing that, I discovered I was losing touch with my playful inner child, and I had an epiphany: Blues music is what speaks to me; it is what gives me meaning and purpose. It was too strong a call to ignore. I wanted to see if I could make it as a musician, traveling worldwide and see if there was a future for me. There was. And there still is.

FBF:  You have a very distinctive style on harmonica. Who are some of your influences, and what did you take from each of their styles to help forge your own style?

PL:  I would say my earlier influences were Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, James Cotton and the two Sonny Boy Williamsons. But it is Little Walter that took the number one place in my heart, because he combined everything I was attracted to on the harmonica: mastery of the instrument, spur of the moment creativity, a vibrant tone, melodic phrasings, and a deep horn sound.
In the beginning - maybe the first five or six years that I played harmonica - I played covers trying to repeat note for note what each of these masters did in recordings. But I eventually got less excited about doing that. I decided to develop my own style. Junior Wells was a big influence on me because I loved his approach. His playing is soulful, and he said so much with so few notes. The comparison with my harp approach may not be apparent on the surface but I’ve learned a lot from him. More than anything, he taught me that less is more, and that silence can at times be the best statement a harp player can make!

FBF:  How did Mississippi Heat come to be?

PL:  In the late 80's I was a part of a couple of blues bands, one called Tré and the Blue Knights, and the other being the Blue Mirror Band, led by guitarist Doug MacDonald. I was happy playing with them, but a lot of their songs were covers, and I felt a need to compose my own songs and write my own lyrics.
I knew a few blues musicians who were open to a new adventure. So I approached guitarist/singer Jon MacDonald, bassist Bob Stroger, and drummer/singer Robert Covington. The four of us decided to form Mississippi Heat. The timing was excellent for us, and my brother Michel agreed to be our manager and booking agent.

Mid 90's edition of Mississippi Heat (L to R):  Bob Stroger, Allen Kirk, Deitra Farr, Billy Flynn, Pierre Lacocque, James Wheeler

FBF:  You’ve had a big list of Chicago-area musicians come through the ranks of Mississippi Heat. What separates the current incarnation of the band from the previous ones?

PL:  The current lineup shares similarities with our original ones from the early 1990's. The current members are as passionate about postwar Chicago blues. Michael Dotson, our full-time guitar player who has been with us for two years now, is into pure vintage blues as can be. He also played for six years with Magic Slim. Our drummer Kenny Smith continues to add a vintage sound to Mississippi Heat’s music for 17 years now, and guitarist Giles Corey played with Billy Branch (and Otis Rush) for a long time. Bass player Brian Quinn and pianist Neil O'Hara are also postwar Chicago blues lovers. Kenny’s sub on drums, Andrew “The Blaze” Thomas, has also a long blues pedigree. He played and recorded with Bernard Allison and Ana Popovic, among many others. Andrew appears on our last 3 albums. Kenny Smith can be heard on all our recordings since 1997.
I would say that the major difference with earlier band line-ups is that we’re now more versatile. The band is better able to explore types of songs that I would probably not have done as freely back then.

FBF:  Your latest release, Warning Shot, has some fantastic songs. Can you describe your songwriting process?  Do you have any songwriting influences?

PL:  I rarely write lyrics first. I typically start with the music. I need to feel the music before writing words. I can sometimes write lyrics out of the blue, but music is for me a beautiful stepping-stone toward lyrics.
In terms of writing music and lyrics, I wouldn’t say that I have specific influences, even though I appreciate songwriters like Willie Dixon, Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson #2), and Rick Estrin.

FBF:  As a musician, what would you say has been your crowning achievement to date?

PL:  My last recording, Warning Shot.  I’m delighted with everything I tried to achieve, and the chosen. It all worked out like a dream. I’m happy with what everyone did on the album, including my harp playing and the vibrant mixing. It’s our best record to date.
I am also proud of the fact that Mississippi Heat has been able to survive 23 years and counting, with 11 recordings to boot. And when I look back at the struggles, and how challenging it is to balance my musical career with my family life, it’s no small feat!

FBF:  Which musicians, if any, would you like to work with that you haven’t had the opportunity to work with?

PL:  Some of them have died. Junior Wells and I talked about collaborating, but he passed away before we had a chance. Otis Spann, Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters would have also been great to partner with.
As for those who are still alive, getting a chance to work with B.B. King and Buddy Guy would be awesome. The same goes for Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Billy Branch, Junior Watson, Lonnie Brooks and Eddie Clearwater. I’d love to do record with them if it ever works out.

FBF:  Do you have any special projects in the works with you and/or the band?

PL:  We’ll be playing at the Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland this November, for their 20th anniversary. We’re special guests because we played at their first festival in 1994. They will be filming us, maybe even recording us. It could be for public release, I’m not sure. There’s no contract, and it hasn’t been discussed, but they already filmed and interviewed Kenny and I in Chicago. There’s something big in the making.

FBF:  What music do you listen to in your spare time?

PL:  I always return to the greats of the blues’ golden era, like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Big Walter, Otis Spann, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James. But I also listen to Rod Piazza, Kim Wilson and John Mayall. Anything I can get my hands on, really, like second hand records, even big swing band, and boogie-woogie piano. I’m always looking for new ideas, and I want to see where contemporary blues bands are heading.

FBF:  Are there any interesting stories from your career that you would like to share with us?

PL:  One was with Junior Wells, who encouraged and supported me from the beginning of my musical career. One night we were playing on the same bill near Chicago, and he loved my sound, in particular through one of the 2 amplifiers I was using. It was a blackface Pre-CBS Fender Super Reverb, one of those vintage amps that are now hard to find. He wanted to buy it. He took thick hundred-dollar bills out of his socks -- that’s where he hid his money -- and he kept putting them one by one on the table to entice me. He said he had no time to find an amplifier. I told him, “Junior, it’s the same for me.” I kept the amplifier as I knew I couldn’t easily find a replacement. He was willing to pay a hefty sum! (The second amplifier I was a Fender Super Champ as my monitor on stage).
One of the other memorable experiences has been playing with Buddy Guy at his club, Legends. He’s often at the bar when we perform, and he gets inspired. So he comes on stage with us and starts singing! It’s an honor, and always exciting.

FBF:  What are your essential blues recordings?

PL:  Chess Records’ complete works of artists like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Rodgers, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and Big Walter, among others. I’m really into the postwar era.

Mississippi Heat Discography:

Straight From the Heart (1992):  Van der Linden Records

Learned The Hard Way (1994):  Van der Linden Records

Thunder In My Heart (1995):  Van der Linden Records

Handyman (1999):  Van der Linden Records

Footprints On The Ceiling (2002):  Crosscut Records

Glad You're Mine (2005): Crosscut Records

One Eye Open - Live at Rosa's Lounge,Chicago (2005, CD & DVD):  Delmark Records

Hattiesburg Blues (2008):  Delmark Records

Let's Live It Up! (2010):  Delmark Records

Delta Bound (2012):  Delmark Records

Warning Shot (2014):  Delmark Records