You were born i Chicago. When did you first become aware of the blues and Chicago´s long relationship with it? Do you remember a specific song or artist that was a moment? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
– I was born in 1952 in Ravenswood Hospital in Chicago Ill, on Oct 6th, and every year, we celebrate my birthday with a show at Buddy Guy’s Legends. A couple of times Buddy came up himself and sang, and Little Ed would also occasionally share the spotlight! But the last birthday celebration was very special because it was also a CD release night for our new Delmark CD, ”Slip into a dream”! The night was great, and it was a wonderful way to celebrate my 63rd birthday, with my band, Jeff Taylor on drums, vocals, Abb Locke on sax, Dave Kaye on bass, Harry Yaseen on piano, and the love of my life Monica Myhre on vocals and percussion!
– I was first aware of the blues when as a 9 year old, I found an old windup Victrola in the basement, left there by the previous homeowners. We had just moved into our new home as a family, and I had discovered this treasure, along with the 78’s that were there, and I soon learned how to wind up the Victrola and play the 78’s!! I just was amazed and sat and listened to Dixeland Blues over and over!
– Later on, as a young teen I was given Howlin’ Wolf’s ”Big City Blues”, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, ”Black Cadillac Blues”, by my older brother’s friends and I positively wore them out on the console stereo , and I was again amazed with the blues! Especially the song ”Brown Skin Woman”, because the words were so confusing for me! ”I got a brown skin woman, they call the chocolate drop,..I don’t want no black woman,to put her hands on me”! I just did not understand the difference between a brown skin woman and a black woman. BUT THE MUSIC, THE GROOVE, was so essential, that I wore out that record, of course it was a vinyl 33 RPM. and I played it over and over.
– That particular groove, the bass line, or second guitar line, is used on countless blues songs. This was the first time I heard it and I use it to this day, having that same type of groove on ”Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong”, on our new Delmark CD ”Slip into a dream”!!! After the Wolf and Lightnin’, I moved on to listen to Muddy and BB King, Little Walter, and Jimmy Reed! The first blues album i bought was BB King’s, ”Live at the Regal”, and I read on the back that the Regal Theater was in Chicago, and I saw that the address for Chess was in Chicago, and I understood that the Rolling Stones went to Chess Records to record, and that they named the band after Muddy’s song, ”Rolling Stone”. Then someone took me to the South Side to see James Brown, and there were thousands of black people and no whites except us, and that day I saw a whole different culture. It was very exciting!!
– So as a youth in High School I got into trouble, for drinking and got arrested on minor charges. So I decided to move to New Mexico, the only school that would accept me, and attend New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces NM. It was there that I picked up the guitar, learning from a book on guitar instruction by Brownie McGhee, on my mail order box guitar! Later on in life, I traveled to New Orleans, to visit with Gatemouth at his current home, and I met Brownie McGhee at Tipitina’s, and thanked him for his book and told him how much it meant to me, and he was very friendly, and it made me admire him more!
– While I was still living in Las Cruces NM, I saw an ad in the paper, to learn jazz and blues guitar, so I went over to learn from Kurt Black, who had been the guitar player for Benny Carter, the gifted sax legend, in New York City. Kurt had also played with Grant Green, and John Young and many others in NYC, and had started the School of Jazz in Ann Arbor MI. But he had also robbed a bank, with some others, where a person was shot, and this was the reason he was down in New Mexico, because he was on the run from the law! He taught me music theory, and love of playing and discipline in practice.
– I did not know he was wanted by the law, but took lessons for a couple of years, until one day the police came and took him away, and we found out the truth of his past! By then I had graduated with a BA in History and a Minor in Journalism. Since I was interested in blues, I contacted Jim O’neal, founder of Living Blues Magazine, in Chicago, and he told me that Gatemouth Brown was living in New Mexico, and that I should do a story on him.
– So I got into my old 68 Ford Galaxy and drove up to Winnemucca Nevada where Gatemouth had a gig at a casino, and I got to know him, jammed with him, and got his life story, which actually ended up in Jefferson Magazine!! It was a crazy trip and when I came home I found out that a guy I knew had been staying with my girlfriend where we lived while I had been gone! This blew my mind, and I went and picked up a six pack of beer and drove out to the desert and parked. I had been living with her for four years! Sometime later that night, trying to get a station in the dessert on the radio, I heard the faint, crackly sounds of the blues low and behold, it was my first inspiration, the Howlin Wolf!! It was then and there I decided, ”I am going back to Chicago to play the blues”!!! It was WHAT I wanted to do with my life!! I packed up and drove back home to Chicago and made it back to my folks house with $10 to spare and a bag of weed! It was there I sobered up, cleaned up, and again started to practice guitar for my professional career!
– So I kept on assignment for Living Blues and did the cover story on JB Hutto, and this was my big break! I had known WHAT I wanted to do, but now JB mentored me and showed me HOW to do it with lessons on guitar (second guitar, and lead guitar, and slide), singing, song writing, band leading, and many lessons in life, and especially the band life. This was at his house in Harvey and lasted about four years, and all the time I was playing in bars. My first job was with the House Rockers, on the Southside, Hound Dog Taylor’s old Band, Ted Harvey, Brewer Phillips. JB Hutto had introduced me to them at a rehearsal at Brewers house on Ingleside in Chicago’s South Side! The name of the place was Sweet Peas, and we played there for a year, and i was the only white, and they had shake dancers, and Left Hand Frank used to come sit in a lot! Then Brewer Phillips was stabbed in the throat, by his wife Suzy, and although he survived, the band broke up!
– My second job was with the Wolf Pack, Howlin Wolf’s old band, at the 1815 Club, a legendary bar that hosted all the West Side’s best blues men, as well as national blues artists. The band was Eddie Shaw, sax, Hubert Sumlin, Chico Chism, drums, ”Shorty” Gilbert, bass, Detroit Junior, piano, and myself! There was Otis Rush, Guitar Junior, BB Odem, BB Jones, Johnny Christian, Big Mojo, Tail Drager, Little Wolf, Boston Blackie, Jewtown Burkes, Maxwell St Jimmy, Doug McDonald, LC Robey, and so many more, and this gig lasted one year, until the band was arrested. We were playing back up for a shake dancer to do her show when she stripped down and started smoking a cigarette out of her coochie! The vice squad was there waiting, since they knew about her show, and they raided the place, and took her and the band to jail! The judge laughed when he saw, ”arrested in a house of fornication”, and let us go! Bob Corritore released ”Chico Chism’s West Side Blues”, in 2009, and this CD contains the atmosphere of the time, 1978 at the 1815 club, with me playing second guitar with the band!
– During this time I had still been taking lesson from JB and one day there were two young people there and JB introduced me to his nephews, Little Ed and James ”Pookie” Young!! It was then and there that we started Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials, and I thought I was going to be the leader! But Ed told me, ” I just have to have my lead!!”, and I went along with it because he was so talented and a real good guy. This started a whole new chapter of my life that lasted ten years and ended up on Alligator records!
– So It all started with the Howlin Wolf, until I knew WHAT I wanted to do, and then with help from my mentor JB Hutto, by showing me HOW to do what I wanted, slide playing, song writing, band leading, and the ideas of putting on a professional stage show with the blues!
How did The Imperial Flames first get together? How did you meet? How have you developed since (since it´s been a while now)?
– I got the Imperial Flames together after I left the Blues Imperials. I wanted to play more of my music, sing more, play more guitar and slide, and venture out on my own. Also my day job gave me a raise and I had to pay the mortgage, so I left on good terms and have been in touch with Lil Ed and Pookie ever since.
– To begin with, in 1988, I grabbed my first drummer, Ted Harvey, from Hound Dog Taylor’s Houserockers, and Harry Yaseen, piano. We had never had a blues piano with the Blues Imperials, and Harry was a student of the great Art Hodes, a legend in Chicago who played with Louie Armstrong! I also got Mike Scharf on bass who went on to play with many great bands! We played many gigs around town, and worked little clubs, until eventually Lil Ed was fired from Alligator for drinking, and joined my band, the Imperial Flames. Ed was with us for two years, many night sleeping on my couch, and thanks to Andre Hobus, of Soul Bag magazine, I got a contract for my first CD on Blue Sting out of Brugge Belgium! It was called ”Rough Rockin’ in Chicago” and we had a ball doing it! We also had Donny Nichilo on piano, who came from the Buddy Guy Band!! It was just like the album we did for Alligator, ”LIVE” in the studio!
– It came out in 1991 and we toured EU and even Japan, and we worked all the clubs and festivals in Chicago! Ed went back to Alligator and his own band, and I hired Leo Davis to replace him. Leo was one of the best piano players in Chicago and had been with James Cotton for years as well as Eddy Clearwater, Tyrone Davis and many more! We also got Herman Applewhite, bass player for the original Buddy Guy/Junior Wells Blues Band! Then Herman got married and went to Little Rock AK, and Leo put me in touch with Bernard Reed, who was an absolute legend, and played with Little Milton, Percy Mayfield, Jackie Wilson, Ramsey Lewis, Little Richard, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Tyrone Davis, and many more and was studio recording bass man for Brunswick Records. Bernard was featured on many number one hit, and lived on the West Side with his family. We worked every week for many a year!
– It was during this time that Jeff Taylor joined the band as drummer/singer. He had been with Artie Blues Boy White, Tyrone Davis, Eddy Clearwater, Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, Zora Young, and many more, and would become one of the permanent backbones of the Imperial Flames!! I met Jeff on a gig that Lefty Dizz had called me for, at Long John’s, and when we got there, they already had a rock band with spandex tights and big hair, so Lefty gave Jeff and I $10 each and I have worked with Jeff ever since.
– Then Lil Ed got in trouble again with Alligator, for drinking again, and joined our band again, for the next two years,and he replaced Leo Davis. We toured Jeff, Bernard, Ed and I, and recorded for Michael Franks on Earwig, and it was ”Keep on Walkin” that came out in 1996! We were able to go around the world with this, Spain, Canada, St Croix, and all through the USA! So after the two years, Ed went back to his band and Alligator, and I replaced him with the great Abb Locke on sax. Ed has been clean since then, really fixing his life and career, and i am proud to know him!
– Abb was the biggest legend I had worked with yet! He was the sax man Wille Dixon called for the Chess Records stable and he recorded with Muddy, Wolf, Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Koko Taylor and many more, and he was in Wolf’s band before Eddie Shaw, touring for years, and he played with Willie Mabon, Elmore James, Earl Hooker, Albert Collins, Memphis Slim, BB King and even the Rolling Stones. Many a trip has been made easier by listening to Abb’s many stories about Wolf, Muddy, Elmore, Keith Richards, Big Maybelle, Earl Hooker, Ike and Tina Turner, and it was Abb that told me, ”It takes a minute to get in trouble and years to pay for it!!”, and this finally sunk in!
– When Bernard quit Herman Applewhite came back on bass, he had moved back to Chicago from Little Rock and divorced. Herman was solid and we worked for many years, but he had a stroke, and thank God he is Ok, but he quit music, and lives with his sister. He was replaced with Dave Kaye on bass, who worked with Screamin Jay Hawkins, Bo Diddly, Dave Hole, Liz Mandville and many more during 30 years on the blues scene in Chicago!
– It was during this time I met Monica Myhre, who was singing in Rockford IL professionally since age six. She was hired to back up touring international musicians from Mexico, at the Hidalgo Club, and also was there during the garage practices of Cheap Trick, and she played and sang in funk bands until her fiancee and her were in a terrible auto wreck and he was killed and she survived. She then became Vice President of the Crossroads Blues Society, and was one of the founders of the Blues in the Schools program in Rockford! She promoted a benefit for Ike Glubranson, former Vice President of the Crossroads Blues Society who died of cancer, and invited me to play and this is how we met. This meeting is actually in the lyrics of ”Sweet Love”, on ”Slip into a Dream”, and that song is about our love and speaks to many who have raised family’s, and are older, but still have the warm love between each other!
– She started by helping to book the band, then by singing with the band and then she became a featured vocalist, along with Jeff Taylor, after getting requested so much!! Monica’s grandfather had rode with and fought with Pancho Villa, and after Pancho was killed, Monica’s Grandfather was hunted and feared for his life and he fled to the US, settling in Seneca, IL. Monica’s mother who was a professional ballroom dancer, who knew many Blues and Jazz musicians, namely Gene Kruppa, and got her young daughter Monica, to meet Etta James at age eight! She has the fire and passion you might expect from this kind of background. She became the love of my life and gave me a family to love and treasure and she helped me nurse my dying mother for many,many years.
– Eventually I met with my old friend Bob Koester and we recorded ”Burnin Love” which came out in 2010 and it was a hit! It had special guest Lil Ed and we had our biggest break by being on Delmark and working with producer Steve Wagner! We went all over the world with this one! I had admired Bob Koester since the early 70’s when I met him at his store on Grand Ave, and had met JB and heard ”Hawk Squat”, on Delmark Records, and I was proud to work on the same label that JB did!
Bob was proud of the way I took care of my mother, all those years, and the way that I kept a great band together, and kept working every weekend for decades! We were also signed because of the faith and confidence that Steve Wagner had in us, and myself, and he is the heart and soul of Delmark, producing and engineering more blues albums than anyone I know of!
What kind of album did you want to make with ”Slip Into A Dream”?
– So on our second CD for Delmark, we learned from the first CD. I wanted to show the original fury and passion of my origins, and do two things, simultaneously. To wanted to go back to my roots, as well as expand musically! I wanted to beef up the sound a lot, with horn sections, but keep them in support, not dominating, and feature our correct three part harmony, since many blues bands can’t really do this, and to create new, exciting songs to last a lifetime, but created by a lifetime of working in the blues!!! Jeff Taylor and Monica Myhre are expert at harmony and if I take the tonic, they will follow with a third and a high fifth, and in the case of the title cut ”Slip into a dream”, the choices were exotic, and striking! This song was put in a minor key to add excitement, and we spent all one weekend just to find the correct intro and turnaround! We cut it many times but the first time we played it in the studio was the best, and it had what Living Blues Magazine called ”lively musicianship”, as well as passion, and it tells a story common to many working couples who want to spend one day together and shut out the world!!! . I practiced for month after month, two years total, and got back to the level of commitment I had when I got my first record contract with Blue Sting! The only difference was I had 30 years plus worth of gigs under my belt.
– I was lucky to get the great Bobby Rush, who is really a man of his word! We talked about having him play harp for six months, and every time I called he said, ”Don’t worry man, I’m still on!!” So, when he was playing at Buddy Guys, Monica and I went out to pick him up and we had a great day together, and he recognized the board at Delmark, from his early days recording, and he talked about people he knew, such as JB Lenoir, and the lyrics, ”Talkin about me and you, what are we going to do?”,. on ”Eisenhower Blues”! He played on ”Looking for a man”, a Monica Myhre original, and on ”20% Alcohol”, the JB Hutto number from ”Hawk Squat”, his first Delmark album released in the 60’s! This song meant so much to me and was really getting back to my roots because it was the song Ed and Pookie and I always talked about and the one where JB told me, ”you write songs as a full grown man”, and ”to write a really blues song you have to turn your soul inside out”, and it was this song where I first realized the meaning of writing from your own experience, from your life, and as well as how it relates to everybody as a universal condition of life. This is what I mean by JB Hutto giving me lessons in life!! It is about JB talking to his woman, who drinks so much and her life is being ruined by it, and he wants to help her!!
– I love the rocking blues too, so we put two rockers on there and one from 1995 that I had played for Bruce Iglauer on an air flight coming home from the Netherlands. It took this long to bring it out and do it right! I had the chords planned, but they got in the way so I cut them, as Bruce had advised me to do those many years ago, and I turned to an intro from ”Set my sight on you”, (Earwig, ”Keep on Walkin”) and a similar second guitar part, the steady down stroke that supplies the push and drive!! I was playing it in my living room with my grandson Max dancing like crazy, and I started to sing, ”I Like you!!” to him and that is how the lyrics came into play! From then on the song wrote itself! We put the harmony and background and got a really good take on it, and finally, since 1995 it was done right!
– The same with ”Tremble” that came out on my first CD in 1991, and we have now fulfilled the potential of the song! It features the great Sax Gordon blowing his heart out on sax, and my own second guitar rough and distorted and I tried to over dub the slide guitar, trying twice, until it hit me! Why over dub what was done so well on the first take? We had cut only one take on that one and Steve Wagner, Delmark engineer and producer, said, ”Stop”, ”that’s it!!!” So instead of overdubbing, which I tried and did not like, we used the original solo! This was the solo, this was the feeling the nuance, and I could tell the original story from 1991 about an alcoholic on skid row going through delirium tremors ( the DT’s) , and shaking, with delusions, he is trying to get another drink! It is a story from my own experience and I have been without a drink for over thirty years now!! It is the only reason I can survive in the blues world, have a family, and provide work for a great band! It is my story!
– I felt like JB Hutto was in the studio with us and it was eerie, because when I was young, in my teens, I had dreamed of him, before I met him, and did not know who he was, but always remembered my dream, of a black man in a suit, playing slide guitar, directly in front of my, and looking in my eyes with a big wide grin. This is the dream that became my future! It is hard to explain how this happened, but only that it did, and that I try to follow in his footsteps.!
– This is what I wanted to do with my CD ”Slip into a dream”, and the reviews are wonderful, and we have major festival lined up in PA, FL, IL, MN, Chicago’s Navy Pier, America’s Cup, and many more irons on the fire always including Buddy Guy’s Legends, one of our very best supporters, and one of the best blues clubs in the world, as well as a lot of local and regional clubs, and with the Crossroads Blues Society!
– This is the ”Dream” I wanted to ”slip into”, and to get back to my roots we used the original bass, or guitar line from ”Brown Skin Woman”, by the Wolf that I listened to all those years ago!! I put that same groove on ”Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong”, cut number five on ”Slip into a dream”. That song first appeared on my 1991 debut CD ”Rough Rockin in Chicago”, but since the Imperial Flames have developed so much in the last almost three decades, the difference is great with Monica Myhre, and the harmony by Jeff Taylor, AND doubling that great guitar line from ”Brown Skin Woman”!
– By doubling i mean that my guitar and the bass play the same Wolf line!! This provided an insane groove, and EG McDaniels, son of Floyd McDaniels (the Ink Spots), played five string bass, with the ABSOLUTE inspiration of Monica, singing her heart out, just like the female singer on Ray Charles, ”The night time is the right time”! This is the idea I had the whole time, and the type of performance on stage which I wanted to capture, since Monica had been doing this for a while on stage and it reminded me so much of the Ray Charles song, and I knew it was so vital and exciting, similar to Rays great song! Then with the addition of Graham Guest, pianist from Edmonton AB who used to work with Sue Foley, this is what I wanted to capture on our CD from my humble beginnings.
– The newer songs, ”Sweet Love”, ”Too bad so sad”, with Greg Guy, Buddy Guy’s son, ”Slip into a dream”, ”Take me back”, ”Dorothy Mae”, are songs that I wanted to expand the musical range with, using horn section support and exciting non standard chord changes, and striking harmonies!! I also wanted this CD to be more guitar based than the last CD, AND IT IS! It is rocking and wild with abandon where I had totally absorbed myself in the feeling of the passionate and driving rhythm section of the Imperial Flames, Jeff Taylor and Dave Kaye, Harry Yaseen and Graham Guest! This turned out to be the very best CD of my life, and this is my life.
– I want to thank all the blues fans out there because I am a fan too and want the blues to be as popular as country, or hip hop or rock and I know it can be and as JB Hutto said, ”as long as the world is the world, the blues will be the blues”!! I do not think the blues will ever die, but we do have to fight for it’s place in the world!! Let´s fight this fight together, loving the blues as we go along in life!
Words: Ola Claesson