Friday, October 30, 2015

Desert Island Discs - Your Top Ten

For nearly six years, Friday Blues Fix has been posting once a week about the blues.  Over that time, I've covered a lot of subjects, from profiles on blues legends and influences, to looking at several of the important blues labels, to reviewing albums, new and old, to looking at some up-and-coming blues stars, to interviewing numerous blues movers and shakers in our Ten Questions With......posts, to reviewing various books and movies that feature the blues.  I've also shared how I discovered the blues, shared information and about how I was able to learn more about them, and tried to provide resources for those who wanted to start their own collections.

One thing I haven't done very much over the years is ask our readers for feedback on any subjects.  That's not because it hasn't crossed my mind.  Over the years, I've visited a lot of different blues blogs and I noticed that not many of them had comments under their posts.  I have had a few over the years and I'm grateful for all of them.  Some kindly pointed out errors in my posts, which I promptly corrected.  Many just posted to say that they enjoyed reading.  In my posts, I don't usually ask for comments that much for fear that no one would reply, but occasionally I do hear from some people.

All of this brings me to the topic of this week's post.  A common theme on music blogs and magazines is Desert Island Discs (there's actually a BBC radio program of the same name).  If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have a certain number of albums to listen to, which ones would you choose.  I realize that most people's disc of choice would be titled How to Build a Boat to Get Off This Desert Island in real life, but just humor me.

Ron Weinstock, who hosts the In A Blue Mood blog, actually did this in a series of Living Blues articles back in the late 80's, right after I started reading, and after a year or so of collecting fans' lists, he came up with a composite list (most of which are out of print today).  They were......

  1. Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues Singers
  2. Muddy Waters - The Best of Muddy Waters
  3. Howlin' Wolf - Chester Burnett A.K.A. Howlin' Wolf
  4. Junior Wells - Hoodoo Man Blues
  5. B.B. King - Live at the Regal
  6. Little Walter - Boss Blues Harmonica
  7. Professor Longhair - Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo
  8. Magic Sam - West Side Soul
  9. Sonny Boy Williamson - Down and Out Blues
  10. Big Joe Turner - Boss of the Blues

It was a very interesting series of articles.  Although I hadn't really been listening to the blues long enough to come up with a Top Ten list myself, I did find out that I had four or five of the albums that made the list, and eventually picked up the rest of them along the way.  I also found out about a lot more interesting discs by checking out the many lists that were posted.

Anyway, that's what I'm proposing to do......have our visitors post their Top Ten Desert Island Discs to FBF.  If you're interested, here's what you have to do.

  1. Compile your list of ten favorites blues recordings that you would pick above all others.  You can do Greatest Hits if you want, individual albums, live albums, blues-rock albums, soul-blues albums, or an anthology from several different artists if you long as the blues is in there somewhere.
  2. You can include comments on each if you want, or not if you want.  No pressure.
  3. Send your list to me at
  4. Encourage your fellow blues fans to do the same.
  5. Check back from time to time.  If I get any lists, I will include some of them in upcoming posts, and eventually, again if I get enough submittals, I will compile them and do a Top Ten Overall Desert Island Discs.

Sound good?  If you're not sure what to do, sometime in the next few weeks, I will post my Top Ten to give you an idea of what I'm talking about.  You can also email me at the above address if you do have questions.

It will either be a boom or a bust, but what the heck.  I'd like to see what kind of blues our visitors like to listen to.  Hope to hear from you very soon.  If not, we'll just forget this post ever happened.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Chuck Berry - Bluesman

Sunday was Chuck Berry's 89th birthday.  Simply put, without Chuck Berry, the world of modern music would not be the same.  He did more to shape rock & roll than any other musician.  There's no way that I could state this any better than the late Cub Koda did at in his biography of Berry:

Of all the early breakthrough rock & roll artists, none is more important to the development of the music than Chuck Berry. He is its greatest songwriter, the main shaper of its instrumental voice, one of its greatest guitarists, and one of its greatest performers. Quite simply, without him there would be no BeatlesRolling StonesBeach BoysBob Dylan, nor a myriad others. There would be no standard "Chuck Berry guitar intro," the instrument's clarion call to get the joint rockin' in any setting. The clippety-clop rhythms of rockabilly would not have been mainstreamed into the now standard 4/4 rock & roll beat. There would be no obsessive wordplay by modern-day tunesmiths; in fact, the whole history (and artistic level) of rock & roll songwriting would have been much poorer without him. Like Brian Wilson said, he wrote "all of the great songs and came up with all the rock & roll beats." Those who do not claim him as a seminal influence or profess a liking for his music and showmanship show their ignorance of rock's development as well as his place as the music's first great creator. Elvis may have fueled rock & roll's imagery, but Chuck Berry was its heartbeat and original mindset.

Berry not only was an influence on rock & roll, but also other genres.  His sound mixed country & western with blues and the era's R&B and the final musical product ended up reshaping each of the genres in different ways.  However, it was with the blues that Chuck Berry got his start as a youth in St. Louis, where he was born on October 18, 1926.  He was born to a middle-class family.....his father was a contractor and his mother was a public school principal and he was raised in a middle-class neighborhood called The Ville.

The fourth of six kids, Berry did well in school and he developed a love for poetry and music, most notably the blues.  In 1941, he began performing publicly and soon won a talent contest with a rendition of Jay McShann's "Confessin' The Blues."  In the mid 40's, Berry got in with the wrong bunch and was arrested for robbing three stores and stealing a car, and was sentenced to three years in reform school in Jefferson City.  While there, he formed a singing quartet, which became good enough that the authorities began to allow them to perform outside the facilities.  He was released in 1947 when he turned 21.

Berry had been playing guitar since his teens and he was influenced, as many other guitarists were during that time, by T-Bone Walker.  Walker's guitar playing and his showmanship made an impact on the young Berry, as did the music of Muddy Waters.  He also took lessons from some of the local musicians and he was soon playing with the local bands in many of the St. Louis clubs to supplement his income.....he had married in 1948 and became a father in 1950.  In addition to music, Berry worked in a couple of auto assembly plants, worked as a janitor in the apartment building in which his new young family lived, and even trained as a beautician.

Berry began playing with pianist Johnnie Johnson, with whom he would collaborate for years, around 1953 and they became the regular band at the Cosmopolitan Club.  As he began to play more frequently in front of audiences (both black and white), Berry began to observe that most enjoyed a wide variety of music and he began to try to reproduce as much of it as possible.  While most of them liked the blues and ballads in the Nat King Cole tradition, the black audiences also enjoyed it when Berry played his version of the country music that was popular with white audiences at the time, so much so that audiences began wondering who that "black hillbilly at the Cosmo" was.

Berry combined his musical mix of country, blues, and R&B with his rapidly developing showmanship and his smooth vocal style and began to attract more and more listeners.  At that point, he decided that he wanted to make records, so he went to Chicago and managed to have a short conversation with Muddy Waters, who encouraged him to contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records.  Berry had made a demo tape that he gave Chess to listen to, thinking that Chess would be mostly interested in his blues material.

However, Chess was partial to one of the "hillbilly" tunes that Berry had put on the demo, an old country & western tune called "Ida Red," that had been recorded by Bob Wills.  Chess realized that the old R&B market was shrinking and was wanting to expand beyond it.  With Berry, Chess believed he had found just the man to do that, so he had him record an adaptation of "Ida Red," called "Maybellene," with Johnson on piano, in May of 1955.  The result was a million seller that made #5 on the R&B charts and the mid 20's on the pop charts.  I can't imagine the excitement that listeners felt when they first heard "Maybellene."

The rest, as they say, is history.  Chess had managed to produce, through the talents of Berry, a black rock & roll record that would appeal to blacks, to white teenagers, and to Southern country musicians (including one Elvis Presley, who would strike it big the next year).  The B-side to "Maybellene" was a slow blues number that is one of my favorite Chuck Berry tunes, "Wee Wee Hours."  I just love Johnnie Johnson's piano on this tune.

Chuck Berry was on his way to becoming a rock & roll legend.  His music was a huge influence on many of the British rock bands who hit big in the 60's, as well as many American rock & rollers from the same era.  Berry recorded for Chess through the 60's and, despite several setbacks, including a couple of additional stints in prisons in the late 50's and later in the late 70's, he remained a huge attraction.  He was one of the first inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.  Even now, at the age of 89, he still plays at least once a month in St. Louis.

During his tenure with Chess Records, Berry continued to include a few blues tracks on his Chess albums.  These recordings prove that he would have been among the blues greats of his era, had he chosen to pursue that route.  However, I think it's safe to say that he chose the right musical path for himself and for music lovers around the world.

Chuck Berry Discography

There are many collections of Chuck Berry's music that have been released over the years.  What I'm presenting here would serve as either a starting point for a serious collector or, if you're a more casual listener, it could actually be all the Chuck Berry you will ever need.

The Great Twenty-Eight (MCA/Chess):  It should be a requirement that every household own at least one copy of this album.  This captures what Chuck Berry meant to the music world, particularly the rock & roll music world, better than any single disc collection could ever hope to do.  This has all of the great rock & roll songs from Berry....there's not a bad track on the disc and nothing below outstanding.  If you don't have it, go get it right now.

Blues (MCA/Chess):  Despite the greatness of the above disc, Berry's blues recordings had never really been the focus of any collection until this set came out in 2003.  There are 16 tracks here that feature Berry's blues roots, including his reading on a few classics of the genre.  It's proof positive that Berry would have made it just fine had he stuck exclusively to the blues.

The Anthology (MCA/Chess):  This two-disc, 50 track set collects all of the tracks from The Great Twenty-Eight, plus many of the songs from Blues as well, plus a few other standouts.  It does also contain "My Ding-A-Ling," which, tragically, is Berry's only #1 hit and basically serves as the proverbial turd in the punch bowl on his musical legacy.  If you want to explore Berry's catalog further, pick this one up, but you'd be just fine with the two discs above.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Blues Standards: It Hurts Me Too

Hudson Whittaker (a.k.a. Tampa Red)

If you attend a show by a blues band, whether a local favorite or a long-established group, you'll find that most of them have a few standard tunes that most of their crowds are familiar with.....songs that have been popular for many years, first as a hit in the early years of blues recordings, as a later hit for one of the 50's blues artists, then maybe as a cover for one of the late 50's/60's rock bands who claimed the blues as an influence, and so on and so on......

In the past, Friday Blues Fix has looked at a couple of these tunes.  Several years ago, we looked at the history of "Sweet Home Chicago" in a full blog post and we also checked out "As The Years Go Passing By."  We've also discussed a few classics as part of our regular Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue posts.  Today, we will look at another crowd favorite that has stood the test of time.

"It Hurts Me Too" was first recorded by Tampa Red in 1940 on Bluebird Records.  The melody played pretty closely to a song that he recorded in 1931, called "Things 'Bout Comin' My Way," which has also become a standard over the years and was also recorded by Walter Vinson a few months earlier.  Vinson actually based his version on a hit that he recorded with the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930 that has also become a standard, "Sitting on Top of the World."  There's little doubt that there were other variations of the same melody that this song was based on from the days before recorded songs.  It would be interesting to be able to go back in time and trace it to its absolute beginnings.

Tampa Red re-recorded it in 1949 for RCA Victor as "When Things Go Wrong With You," updating it using electric guitar and a more modern arrangement.  It became a hit again at this time, breaking the Top Ten of the Billboard R&B chart.  Red changed up the lyrics for this newer version and this version is the one that was referenced by future artists.  Many of whom added their own lyrics from time to time.  Tampa Red enjoyed a very long career, beginning in the 1920's and lasting into the 1960's, making the move from acoustic to electric guitar and playing session work on many blues favorites between the mid 30's through the early 50's.  The slide guitar master also recorded in the late 50's and early 60's.  He recorded over 300 78's during his career, making him one of the most prolific artists of his era.  We'll be hearing more from him in a future FBF post.

"It Hurts Me Too" was recorded by several other blues artists in the 50's.  Stick McGhee (younger brother of Brownie McGhee) recorded it during the 50's and so did Big Bill Broonzy.  However, the most remembered version was by another slide guitar legend, Elmore James, who recorded his version for Chief Records in 1957, then later in early 1963 for Enjoy Records.  The latter version, released two years after James' death, made the R&B charts and the Pop charts.  There was more emphasis on James' scorching slide guitar on the later record, but both are top notch.

Photo by Jim Marshall

Around the same period, another blues legend recorded "It Hurts Me Too" several times.  Junior Wells first recorded it in the early 60's for Chief Records, then a couple of other times with Buddy Guy backing him on guitar.....first on the Vanguard compilation Chicago/The Blues/Today!, then in the late 70's on his Pleading The Blues album he recorded with Guy in France on Isabel Records (reissued on Evidence Records in the 90's).  The song became a mainstay on Wells' playlist.  He kept most of James' lyrical revisions on his own versions.  (Side note:  Pleading The Blues was part of a very productive weekend for Buddy Guy, who also recorded Stone Crazy! during the same session on the same day!)

Since then, "It Hurts Me Too" has been recorded dozens of times by a pretty formidable list of blues artists, such as Luther Allison, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Hound Dog Taylor, the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, Eric Clapton, Keb' Mo', and it recently appeared on The Slide Brothers' 2013 self-titled disc, and Sonny Landreth's latest release, Bound By The Blues, as timeless as ever.  It's amazing to hear how effective the song is with so many variations musically and lyrically.

In 2012, Tampa Red's 1940 version of "It Hurts Me Too" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the Classics of Blues Recordings - Single or Album Track category.  It's hard to find a more classic blues song that works so well in so many different renditions.  Friday Blues Fix will be checking the history of other blues standards in the near future.

Friday, October 9, 2015


I'm not sure how I missed doing this in five and a half years of blogging, but I've failed to post anything about one of the musicians who played the biggest roles in my becoming a fan of the blues.  I first heard Eric Clapton in the mid-70's when he had a hit on the radio with "I Shot The Sheriff."  Now, back then I didn't know anything about Clapton, his music and history, and even the history of the song.  The main thing I knew back then was that the Top 40 station that I was listening to played the song to death over a couple of months.

As time passed, I began to hear more of his music.  A few years later, he had a hit with "Lay Down Sally," then "Wonderful Tonight" and "Cocaine."  The latter song was on the jukebox at a local restaurant and somebody played it every day, several times a day, so if you were in the restaurant you heard the song.  I really liked his music, it was sort of understated and there was some pretty cool guitar, but again, I didn't really dig deeper at the time.

I continued to listen to him, eventually buying a copy of his greatest hits from the 70's, where I got to hear a few songs that I was not that familiar with from his earlier career.  One of them was "Layla," from his stint with Derek and the Dominos, which was just an amazing song to me.  The other one was "After Midnight."  Back in the early 80's, information was not available at the touch of a finger, so background info was pretty hard to come by, other than word of mouth, in my neck of the woods.

Over time, I picked up a couple of his albums, beginning with 1983's Money and Cigarettes.  I really liked the single, "Rock & Roll Heart," that was being played on the radio at the time, but once I heard the whole album, some of the other songs really appealed to me even more than the single, such as the opener, "Everybody Ought To Make A Change."  That song was written many years before by Sleepy John Estes.  I didn't know who he was, but I really liked the words and I liked the guitar (I later found out that it was a joint effort from Clapton and Ry Cooder).  The other song was "Crosscut Saw."

I really liked the rest of the's still one of my favorite Clapton records.....but those two stood out for me.  The rest of the songs had that same sort of vibe, though, with the stinging guitar licks and the rhythm.   From that point, I went and picked up a few more of his albums, the live set from 1980 (Just One Night) and Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.

At the time, I didn't know the whole "Layla" backstory or even who was playing on the album with Clapton.  I just knew that it was an incredible set of music that was loaded with fire and passion.  It was the fiercest music this 20-year-old had ever heard, almost cathartic in nature just to hear.  I could only imagine how it must have been for the musicians who were recording it at the time.

A few years later, when I was finishing up college, my roommate, who was also a big Clapton fan, picked up an import album called Backtrackin'.  This was a two-LP set that collected many of the high points of Clapton's then 20-year career, from his days with Cream up to the late 70's.  I'd never heard any of Clapton's work with Cream and it was a real eye, and ear-opener.

By that time, I was looking at the authors of the songs Clapton was performing and some of the names I saw were Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, and Jimi Hendrix.  I had heard of Robert Johnson in high school, when someone told me that he was a musician who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for playing guitar better than anyone else, which sort of spooked me at the time.  Hendrix I had discovered in high school while playing one of my uncle's old albums on my record player, which led me to some of his greatest hits collections.

As I was finishing up college, I found a biography of Clapton, by Ray Coleman.  This filled in a lot of the gaps in my education.  I learned about his love for the blues, his tenure with a couple of British blues bands (The Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers), then the tempestuous years with Cream and later Blind Faith, and the star-crossed Derek & the Dominos period.  I also learned about his battles with heroin, cocaine, and alcohol, and his long unrequited love for his good friend's wife.  That love was the entire inspiration for the Layla album, where Clapton took several songs written by other artists and completely made them his own.  He had lived the lyrics himself and it showed.

While all of this was interesting, what intrigued me even more were the musicians who influenced him, particularly the blues musicians.  Artists like Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Albert King, B.B. King, and Otis Rush......these were names that I was familiar with, but I'd only heard the music of B.B. King.  He wasn't just influenced by blues guitarist......there were others like Bob Dylan, J.J. Cale, Bob Marley, Don Williams, and The Band, but by this time, based on what I heard and what I read, the blues was at the heart of everything Clapton played.

I decided to dig a bit deeper and check out some of the musicians that influenced him and their music, which was easier said than done.  I had no idea where to start looking.  It wasn't like any of my local record stores were even large enough to even have a blues section over two rows long and what was there was pretty limited.  Plus, Clapton in the mid-80's was veering more toward pop music and his recordings were still good, and there was the occasional foray into the blues on each album, but not as compelling as the first ones I heard from him.

Other artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray were beginning to make a name for themselves in the blues field and I was really getting into them, as were a lot of other listeners.  Around this time, some of the record labels, like MCA, Columbia, and Atlantic, began to release compilations from their blues artists.  I was able to get into Chess Records and their artists, the vast Atlantic catalog which encompassed multiple labels, and the Columbia labels, which kept many of their blues albums in circulation over the years, via budget collections and reissues.

It was through these recordings that I discovered many of the artists that I heard about (via Clapton) and grew to love, such as Guy, Rush, Albert King, Junior Wells, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, and Freddie King.  This enabled me to really know what to look for.  I found many albums by these artists,  usually at budget prices, and my blues knowledge gradually expanded.

Meanwhile, a huge retrospective of Clapton's career, Crossroads, was issued in 1988.  It was a box set consisting of four CDs of his best work, spanning his early days with the Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & the Dominos, and his solo career up to that point.  At the time, the box set was a fairly new concept......the only other one I can remember at that time was from Bob Dylan, but Crossroads became a major hit (spawning the box set craze over the last twenty-five years) and Clapton was discovered by many new fans and rediscovered by his older fans.  One of the coolest things about Crossroads was the mix of familiar tunes with unreleased material (lots from the aborted second Derek & the Dominos album) and a lot of live tracks.  There was a pretty big emphasis on the blues, which makes perfect sense because, as stated above, the blues influences everything that Clapton plays.

The box set's success seemed to rejuvenate Clapton both commercially and creatively.  He released one of his best albums, Journeyman, the next year.  It featured some of his best guitar work and vocals in many years and the blues influence could be felt on many tunes from the covers of "Hound Dog," "Hard Times," and "Before You Accuse Me," to new material from Clapton, Robert Cray, and Jerry Lynn Williams ("Bad Love," "Old Love," "Running on Faith").

From Journeyman onward, Clapton primarily focused on the blues side of his music, with a live set (24 Nights) featuring Clapton with Guy and Cray, to a straight-up blues albums (From the Cradle) to a collaboration with B.B. King (Riding With The King), to a couple of tributes to Robert Johnson (Me and Mr. Johnson and Sessions for Robert J.).  The blues enjoyed a huge resurgence for many different reasons, beginning in the late 80's/early 90's (the emergence of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the reissue of the Robert Johnson box set, etc....), but sometimes it's easy to forget that there were still a lot of artists plugging away at that time that never went away.  Clapton may have lost his way creatively in the 80's, but he never went away and even on those 80's albums like Behind the Sun and August, the blues can still be heard and felt.

One thing I always liked about the way Clapton operated, especially after I discovered the blues, was the complete awe and reverence he held for many of the blues artists that influenced him, such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, etc......  He always went out of his way to make sure that his listeners knew who influenced him and he took great pains to even bring them on stage to play with him.  He still does that today with not only the older legends, but also the newer blues artists, many of whom he introduces to wider audiences via his regular Crossroads Guitar Festivals.

I've been listening to music for a long time, going back to when I was four or five years old when I listened to my uncle's Beatles records.  Looking back over that time, my musical tastes have moved around quite a bit, as most music fans' my case, from rock to R&B to funk to disco (yeah, like you didn't) to jazz to soul and finally to the blues.  The blues is what I've been listening to, basically nonstop, since 1985 or so.  Eric Clapton and his music is the main reason that I made that move to the blues and I'm sure many blues fans can say the same thing.  I wasn't fortunate enough to grow up in an area where I had the opportunity to hear blues artists live on a regular basis and I didn't have access to a whole lot of blues recordings either, so Clapton's music, and his approach to the blues, was the driving force that led me to find out more about the music, and I owe him a big debt of gratitude for that.  Thanks, Slowhand!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ten Questions With......Mick Kolassa

Mick Kolassa is a talented musician, lifelong blues fan, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Blues Foundation in Memphis.  He's also very active on the music scene in Memphis and in the Mississippi Delta.  Born in Michigan, Kolassa has lived in Mississippi for the past twenty years and has earned the nickname "Michissippi Mick."

To date, Kolassa has issued two recordings, both on Swing Suit Records.  The first one, Michissippi Mick, debuted in 2014.  It featured Kolassa with some of Memphis' finest musicians and a sharp set of original tunes along with some intriguingly reworked covers of roots, rock, and blues tunes.  His latest release, Ghosts of the Riverside Hotel, includes many of the same musicians, including producer/guitarist Jeff Jensen, keyboard master Victor Wainwright, harmonica ace Eric Hughes, and many many others that blues fans, especially Memphis blues fans, will be familiar with.

Both discs are entertaining from start to finish, with great contemporary originals that also pay tribute to traditional blues and roots music and his interesting "bluesified" reworkings of classic tunes of multiple genres.  Best of all, 100% of the proceeds from sales of these discs goes to the Blues Foundation, split between two very worthy programs:  The HART Fund and Generation Blues.  Please visit the Blues Foundation page for more information on these programs and others.

Mr. Kolassa was gracious enough to sit down for Ten Questions this week about his new album, his musical style and influences, and the Blues Foundation's future plans and goals.  We thank him for taking the time to do so.

Ten Questions with Mick Kolassa

Friday Blues Fix:  Can you tell us what drew you to the blues?  You’ve been a fan for a long time.

Mick Kolassa:  I started listening to and enjoying blues music fifty years ago, when I bought my first Robert Johnson record.  At the same time I was becoming familiar with Hank Williams and other pioneering country artists, and really saw the similarity in the music and the themes of the songs.  I was already doing “folk music” and these styles fit in perfectly, but blues just hit me much more deeply, probably because I was also a fan of Soul and R&B.  In the late 60s so much of the great rock was based on blues that it all just fit together and reinforced my love and appreciation of blues.

FBF:  When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?

MK:  I always wanted to be a musician, and my father fed that desire by talking to me about which instruments I would play.  I started playing the drums in the school band when I was about 12 and soon after also took up guitar.  From then on I have just always had an instrument within reach.

FBF:  Who are some of your influences as a singer and guitarist, and how did they influence you?

MK:  For guitar I’d say my two biggest influences are BB King and John Lee Hooker – because they could both do so much with just a couple of notes.  BB could say more with four notes than most of the folks out there who are showing how fast they can play.  John Lee was the master of keeping it simple in a different way - he could make one chord with a simple riff and hypnotize the world with it.  To fill it out I would have to add two more Kings and another Hooker - Albert and Freddie were also masters of keeping it simple, but with a little more attitude.  Earl Hooker was a guitarist who could take two or three very common riffs and turn them into the most beautiful song you ever heard, also without trying to play too many notes.  You can’t go wrong with those 5 guitarists.

Vocally it’s harder to pin down, mainly because I believe that a vocalist has to sing like themselves to be credible, so I don’t try to sound like anybody.  But I can say that Howlin' Wolf and Frank Sinatra are probably to two big influences on my singing for very different reasons; Wolf’s inflections when singing were amazing, the way he sang a word or phrase drove the meaning home, he used his voice – not just the words – to tell the story and deliver the message.  When he sang a line you believed he was speaking the truth.  Sinatra understood the musical underpinnings of a song, he used the melody and rhythm as the basis for what he sang but he sang around them – he didn’t just connect the dots or color inside the lines.  I’m doing that more and more, I can get deeper into the song when doing that.  My three favorite singers today all do that, but in very different ways.  Sugaray Rayford has this big wonderful voice and a heart to match it.  When he sings it just feels like he is celebrating the song and that knocks me out.  John Nemeth has a very different style, with voice like butter, he has such a wonderful tone to his voice, and the ability to make it really work within the song that he’s singing that I can’t help but love to hear him sing.  But I have to say that the singer who really amazes me is better known as a piano player, and that’s my buddy Victor Wainwright – he can boom it out with the best of them but he can also tear out your heart with “I’d Rather Go Blind.”  Whenever I hear any of these people sing it really hits me, and I try to adapt some of their styles into what I do.  Even though I’ve been singing for 50 years I’m still learning to do it better, and really enjoying it more.

FBF:  Who are your songwriting influences and how do they inspire you?  Can you describe your songwriting process?  How did you go about crafting some of your songs on the new album?

MK:  First and foremost Willie Dixon is my biggest influence, he understood the need to tell a story for the song to hang together, and he also used a lot of humor, which I obviously do too – whenever I’m working on a new song I reach back to Willie for inspiration.  But I also have to give credit to Lennon and McCartney as well as Smokey Robinson and even Kris Kristofferson for influencing me and my songs, their use of words to paint pictures was special, and I try to draw from them as well.  I could probably list a dozen others, including Townes Van Zandt, Jimmy Reed, Jimmie Rodgers, Tom Waits, and Randy Newman – they all helped to shape the way I think about songs and songwriting.  The common theme with all of them is that they tell stories, complete stories, with their songs, and I try to do that.  I think that there are too many “songs” today that are just words and thoughts put together to fit into the music the artist wants to play, not real thought to the lyrics.  I just can’t do that.

My songs come about in two different ways.  First, a phrase will catch in my mind – often after is leaves my mouth – and it just sounds like it would be a good song so I play with the idea.  Often the phrase just turns into a song that almost writes itself.  On this album my song “If I ain’t fishin” came directly from that, and one I just finished is called “My hurry done broke,” which was what I told a guy who asked me to walk faster.  Sometimes I’ll have an idea for the story of a song that will come to life when a phrase comes to mind. On this album the song “I always meant to love you” came that way – I thought about what the song should be for quite a while, which was to tell the story of a guy who realizes too late that he should have spent his life with a particular woman rather than running around, but it wasn’t until that phrase “I always meant to love you” came to me that I could write the song.  The other way a song will come to me is when I am strumming the guitar or messing around on a keyboard and an idea for a melody comes to mind.  I will play around and try out different words and ideas to go along with the music that then something will just click.  But in both of those cases once the song starts it basically writes itself – when the idea is right the song just comes out.

FBF:  Can you tell us how your latest album, Ghosts of The Riverside Hotel, came to be?  This is a really fun album.   

MK:  After my last album was so well received I was just anxious to try to do it again.  I had some song ideas that I was working on that didn’t make it to that album, and others that I had been working on since the release, that I found myself with about 20 songs that I wanted to record.  Over the last year Jeff Jensen and I talked a lot about music and recording, thinking about what we had done on our last albums and what we would like to try out.  For this album I had every song worked out pretty much completely before I started working on them with Jeff and the band.  I had played them many times in small gigs and for friends and family to get some feedback – usually just on my acoustic guitar. Because of that we were able to get these songs down with only a couple days of rehearsal and 4 days in the studio with Jeff Jensen, Bill Ruffino, and Robinson Bridgeforth to get the basic tracks down.

I wanted to cover a lot of ground, like I did on my last album.  Blues is a big tent with a lot of styles, and I love to play all of them, so I wanted to have as much variety as possible.  I also wanted to take another classic rock song and “bluesify” it, like I did with “The Letter” on my last album.  Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” was a natural for this, and I love the way it came out.  I also wanted to honor the great Josh White by getting more people to listen to “One Meatball,” and I knew I wanted to have Reba Russell back me up on that.  Jeff Jensen suggested that we use a reggae feel during the verse, which I really loved. When Victor Wainwright added his piano to that song I almost cried it was so good.  Of course, I had so many friends join me on this record, to add their musical gifts.  In addition to Jeff and Reba and Vic, I was also lucky to have Brandon Santini do his magic on three songs, and my buddies Eric and Walter Hughes just nailed “Grapes and Greens,” which is my homage to Muddy Waters – as I wrote that song I knew that Eric and Walter would play it with me because they could bring it to life.  Of course, having Watermelon Slim join you on anything is always a treat, and that was a great session, and having Chris Stephenson at the controls of the Hammond B3 makes any song better.  And I have to mention the Layman family, Cole and Logan, who joined me along with Tracy Mastaler and Annika Chambers, both of whom are dear friends, to do the song “Whiskey Woman.”  It was just a whole lot of fun to record these songs with these friends, who happen to be amazing musicians.

FBF:  You have a pretty impressive guest list of musicians on here.  How much give and take is there between all of you on these songs?

MK:  I learned in business that the best way to get things done was to surround yourself with good people and get the hell out of their way.  Because all of these folks are professionals who have performed with others a lot, they all know how to fit into somebody else’s musical ideas.  But because they are also good friends and great artists, they were not at all hesitant to suggest ways to improve things.  Typically we would record a couple takes then sit and talk about it, this was really collaboration rather than just doing what Mick wanted.  My favorite example of this was when Vic, after recording two or three really good solos for “One Meatball” asked if he could do one more.  Of course I agreed, mainly because I just love to hear him play.  What he played on that final take was absolutely unlike anything he had done before – on this song or anything I’d ever heard him do before.  That solo just sent the song into the stratosphere as far as I’m concerned.  Another was Brandon’s solo on “Walkin Dead Blues.”  He just played as wild as he could and what he did was stunning.  Then Jeff said “I have an idea” and he added a guitar part underneath Brandon’s solo that was breathtaking.  So, in terms of give and take, they would take my idea and give me something very special to go with it!

I also have to give to credit to Jeff Bakos, who mixed the album.  He and Jeff Jensen and I spent several days in the mixing process, rethinking much of what we had done and really focusing on producing the best sounding record we could.  Jeff B’s comments and suggestions were fantastic – he had never heard any of these songs before so his fresh look and years of experience allowed us to discover things in the songs we hadn’t thought of, such as using a “carbon mic” effect on the opening of “Ramblin Man” and later on another song.  Those little touches make such a big difference in the final product.  In the end everybody who played on or helped with this album can take a lot of credit for what they did – it is 500% better because of their help.

FBF:  On the new album, you have an interesting set of covers tunes from Hank Williams, Randy Newman, Todd Snider, etc…).  How do you decide what tunes you want to cover on your albums?  Is there any particular thing that you look for in a cover tune?

MK:  For “covers” I have to start with a song that I really like in its original form, but it also has to be something that I can put my own mark on – I like to say that I don’t cover songs, I uncover them.  So, if I can take a song that I really like and make it bluesy in a fun but respectful manner, I’m going to try.  The Hank Williams song “Ramblin Man” is a song I have sung for decades.  I was sitting and playing it one day and just started to mess around with it, and sort of ended up with a cross between “Crossroads” and “Psycho Killer.”  As I played it that way it just felt right and I knew we could do a lot with it.  The same thing goes for ”Mama Told Me,” a song that everybody over 40 knows but probably didn’t know that Randy Newman wrote it for Eric Burdon to sing, not Three Dog Night.  I just made a song a little more dangerous.  So, for that and others, if I can add to somebody else’s songs and do it in a respectful way, to help people understand it in a different way, I’m gonna try.

FBF:  Obviously, you listen to other music besides the blues.  What are some of your other favorite genres and artists?

MK:  “Classic” country, such as Hank Williams, Merle Travis up through Tom T Hall, is important to me, but so are the Beatles and a lot of classic rock.  I’ve said in the past (and still say) that my three favorite piece of music are Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing.” There are no lyrics in any of those but musically they drive to much emotion with so much complexity and beauty that I just get lost listening to them.   But I also love (and write and perform) calypso and what we used to call “folk music,” including work songs and even sea shanties.  All of these musical styles are interwoven and most share some elements, and I really think that by enjoying and understanding the different styles of music it helps me to appreciate blues more, and to be able to add elements to my own performances that are unique.

FBF:  You’ve been involved with the Blues Foundation for several years, serving on the Board of Directors.  Recently, the Foundation selected a new president, Ms. Barbara B. Newman.  The IBC and Blues Music Awards are really big events these days and there’s also the Blues in the Schools program and the funds that provide health care for artists.  While that’s a huge improvement from what there was a few years ago, what are some of the organization’s future plans and goals?

MK:  I will be working with Barbara and a couple of other board members on the new strategic plan for the Foundation over the next several months, so the answer to that part of the question will come later.  But during his tenure Jay Sieleman was able to turn the Foundation into a very stable and healthy organization with a lot of potential.  Barbara doesn’t plan to make any big changes until she is a lot more familiar with the organization and all that we do, but she is hitting the ground running.  For sure we will be working on enhancements to the IBC and BMA's, and I know we will work to build stronger affiliates – the blues societies that are out there – and work to add new members to the organization.  Although we don’t have specific plans right now, I know that we will be looking for ways to help the blues societies to grow and try to find ways to help blues artists to manage their way through the changing business of music.  Those are some of the things we are talking about very actively.  With Paul Benjamin stepping up as the new Board Chairman, and several new Board members, we are looking forward to a pretty invigorated board.

FBF:  Having listened to the blues for over twenty-five years, I’ve been pleased in recent years to find out about so many fans that I didn’t realize were out there, both in the U.S. and overseas.  However, it seems like a lot of them are middle-aged and older.  What do you think can be done to help the blues to appeal to younger fans without the music sacrificing too much of what we older fans like and appreciate about it?

MK:  It does look like the average blues fan is a 60 year old white person, but there is a growing base for blues music.  I think a lot of people are drawn to the blues when they get a little older because they realize is the basis for all the music they listened to when growing up.  Everybody’s gonna get older so I guess that means they are going to become blues fans eventually.  But I have to say that I am really encouraged when I see so many you and amazing blues artists.  Logan and Cole Layman, who play on my album, are serious blues artists who don’t want to play any other style, even though they could.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of young blues artists, from Kingfish Ingram to Micah Kesselring, and Carson Diersing, the Peterson Brothers and so many more.  And the stages at festivals are filled with artists in their 30's and early 40's who are attracting new blues fans.  With Castro “Mr Sipp” Coleman, Jarekus Singleton and Selwyn Birchwood we are seeing the return of very significant and talented African American blues artists who are expanding the base of blues fans, as are so many more.

One thing we need to do is to let the younger people take the blues to the next place it can go, taking it to younger audiences and letting it expand.  We don’t need a bunch of old white guys trying to turn the blues into rock again, that was done 40 years ago.  But I see people like Jeff Jensen, Jarekus, Colin John, Aki Kumar, Danielle Nicole, Paula Harris and so many more who are playing great blues and other styles as well, bringing people into their shows to hear some exciting new stuff but also making sure that they know where this great music comes from.  Each of them is spreading the word and the love of the blues.

On another front we have hundreds of people working on Blues in the Schools.  Tas Cru, who is a touring blues musician, does a couple blues in the schools gigs every week when he is on tour, introducing thousands of kids to the blues and its magic.  He has a CD out called Even Bugs Sing the Blues and is now working on another children’s blues record.  We have hundreds of people spreading the word and introducing kids to the blues, so I’m really confident in its future.

Mick Kolassa:  Discography (Both on Swing Suit Records):

Michissippi Mick

Ghosts of the Riverside Hotel