Blues Are Alive and Well
In Southern California
By T.E. Mattox
f the 2013 San Diego Blues Festival is any indication of the current
state of Blues music in Southern California then we're just fine, Thank
You. This annual event has taken on a life of its own and not just for
the music but the expression of love and caring from an entire community.
The daylong Festival has corporate sponsorship in the form of AimLoan.com
and SONY among others, but its bottom line is to benefit the Jacobs
& Cushman San Diego Food Bank. And judging by the size of the crowd,
Having some real fine fun with Billy Watson and
the Submarine Trio.
A little blues 'blow back' courtesy of Billy
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
The show started before the gates ever opened. Approaching
the Embarcadero, you could already hear the blues bouncing across the
Bay. Oceanside's own Billy Watson and his Submarine Trio that included
guitarist, Pete Fazzini and drummer Marty Dodson welcomed the blues
faithful with both traditional and amplified greetings. It wasn't until
they were wrapping up their blistering, fun-filled set that I suddenly
realized the gates to the venue had been open for about 20 minutes.
The Tighten-Ups took the stage right on time.
Based right here in San
Diego this brassed-up combo reminded me of one of my all-time favorite
bands back in L.A. in another lifetime, called Jack Mack and
the Heart Attack. That's exactly what I was thinking when they
cranked into the Ides of March classic, 'I'm Your Vehicle!' And what
I would've been thinking when they fired up the Family Stone's 'Wanna'
Take You Higher' had I not been blown backward and completely off my
beach chair. Between vocalist Laura Jane Wilcock and that blast o' brass
section, not one early attendee was stationary through their rollicking
'Rollin' on the River.' Boom Shaka Laka
Boom Shaka Laka!
And my only thoughts are
there are EIGHT more bands.
The Tighten-Ups with a jolt of 'MORNIN' San Diego!'
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
Another San Diego-based band, The Fremonts made
their intentions known with a rousing tribute to fellow headliner, Billy
Boy Arnold and a wonderful version of 'I Wish You Would.' Front man
Mighty Joe Milsap and a straight-up blues unit featuring harp virtuoso,
Troy Sandow gave the crowd more than its share of Slow Blues and Hip
Shake. Everyone wanted more of this great blues band.
The Fremonts break it down. Photo:
If you live in or near San Diego you know the name Bill
Magee. The Bill Magee Blues Band elevates good rocking blues
to whole new levels of excellence. But then what would you expect from
a guitarist who back in the day, played with legendary sax man King
Curtis and ran with fellow guitarist, Jimmy James. Of course you and
I would get to know Jimmy James much better after he changed his name
to Jimi Hendrix. Bill Magee has played with the best and in my mind,
simply IS the best.
The Bill Magee Blues Band tore the place up, enough
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
Where Rock and Roll Roots Meet Rhythm and Blues
Nikki Hill's latest on Deep Fryed Records
Until the Festival, the only thing I really knew about
Durham, N.C. was that it is the home of Duke University. I know now
it's the home of Nikki Hill. This band IS the intersection
of Rock and Roll roots and Rhythm and Blues. Hill and husband Matt,
combine husky and sweet R&B with early Rock and Roll and confirmed
once and for all that the dictionary had it right all along... 'The
Blues: short for Blue Devils.'
While cruising around the festival I began to notice
that almost all of the local Southern California blues playing community
was in attendance. Guitarists Nathan James and Phil Gates, Mercedes
Moore, Michele Lundeen, plus early risers Billy Watson and Pete Fazzini
were all enjoying a full day of blues on the Bay.
Fazzini, who helped jump-start the program told me,
"the opportunity to play with one of the best harp players/frontmen
on the West Coast was probably the highlight for me. Marty Dodson, our
drummer is no joke on the kit, either. That trio was comprised of two
world class players and me
and I was very thankful to be a part
of it and to represent the San Diego scene. Another highlight,"
he added, "was seeing Matt and Nikki Hill. They floored me.
As another guitar player, it was really enjoyable to watch Matt. The
dude really channels something when he's on stage. And the chance to
see blues legends Jody Williams and Billy Boy Arnold was fantastic too."
I couldn't have expressed it any better myself. Arnold
and Williams had to be THE highlight for everyone in attendance. These
two legendary blues Hall of Famer's now in their late 70's, have 'been
there and done that.' Yet both continue to tour and play with an
unequaled enthusiasm that still brings people to their feet.
If you're unfamiliar with the name Jody Williams' I'm
not surprised. He was the 'go-to' session guitarist in blues studios
of the 1950's. But his distaste for the cutthroat attitudes in the music
business compelled him to work outside music for more than a quarter
of a century. But if you go back and check out your early blues vinyl
you'll immediately recognize Williams, the guitarist. His signature
sound can be heard in the classic recordings of the era; songs like
Bo Diddley's 'Who Do You Love?' Billy Boy's hits 'I Ain't Got You' and
'I Wish You Would,' and Howlin' Wolf's 'Forty Four.'
Old friends backstage Billy Boy Arnold and
Billy Boy Arnold has always been one of my favorites
and he was kind enough to spend a few minutes after he came off stage.
Surrounded by friends, fans and well-wishers, he sat down to talk.
Some of your family also played music, your brothers?
"One of my brothers, Jerome
he used to play with Paul
Butterfield, bass player." Did you ever play together? "Oh
yeah, he used to play in my band, yeah."
Your connection with the first Sonny Boy, 'John Lee'
Williamson is legendary, tell us how it began? "Well, the first
time I heard his records I was seven years old. I didn't know who he
was, I didn't know none of the blues singers. I heard those records,
I loved those records! Then when I was eleven years old, I heard another
record from Sonny Boy Williamson and at that time in 1947 they (record
labels) would put Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Williamson, blues
singer with harmonica. So I knew he was playing harmonica. Bill Broonzy,
guitar, Blind John Davis, piano
it was on the records.
I was just fooling around with the harmonica and
I said, 'I sure wish I could do that on the harmonica.' And my mother
said, 'You have to have a gift for that.' So one day my father came
home and said, 'That guy came in Club Georgia. And say all the people
holler, Hey Sonny Boy! Hey Sonny Boy! throwing money at him.'
So I found out that he lived in Chicago and I was
working at my uncle's butcher shop on 31st and Giles and a guy passed
with a guitar and I ran out and I say, 'Do you know Sonny Boy?' He say,
'Yeah, Sonny Boy lived at 3226 Giles. So I ran in the store and wrote
the number down and I got my cousin that Saturday, went by his house
and rang the doorbell. Didn't know what he looked like. Me, my cousin
and another kid, we was all twelve years old.
A well-dressed man came to the door and he say, 'Can
I help you?' I say, 'We wanna' see Sonny Boy.' He say, 'This is Sonny
Boy.' I say, 'We wanna' hear you play your harmonica.' He say, 'Come
on up, I'm proud to have you.' And Johnny Jones the pianist was his
and a young lady. That's how I met Sonny Boy."
"And that's how it started. I didn't want to
be a professional, but Sonny Boy's music was so great, he was the greatest
of all. He was better than Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf
guys! And he was only 34 years old. He had started recording when he
was 22, and his first record was a smash hit, 'Good Mornin' Schoolgirl.'"
There were so many rumors on how he died. "Everybody
knew how he got killed! Muddy Waters, all those guys knew what happened,
but they didn't
they wouldn't say nothing. And nobody ever found
out who killed him, but he was murdered."
Billy Boy Arnold and a fan. Photo:
The list of performers you've played with and bluesmen
you've known over the years is incredible. "I went out of my
way to meet these people 'cause I wanted to be a blues singer
like Sonny Boy."
Chicago had so many music venues, clubs, bars and of
course, Maxwell Street. "I never played on Maxwell Street. That
was before my time. But I played on the street corners with Bo Diddley
and Jody Williams. Me and Jody was fifteen and Bo Diddley was ahh
23. And we had a washtub player and it was called, 'Ellas McDaniels
and the Hipsters.' Every Saturday we'd play up and down the street and
draw a crowd and then we'd go to another corner and draw a crowd
that's how we made the money."
Billy Boy played on the recent Blind Pig Tribute to
Walter that incidentally was recorded right here in San Diego, and
remembers Jacobs well. "I co-starred with him at McKee's Disc
Jockey Show Lounge. Me, Little Walter and Junior Wells co-starred together
Did you stand shoulder-to-shoulder like some of the
legendary harp battles? "No, we each went up and played three
or four songs, you know Walter was the greatest, so you know
He smiles, "But me and Junior could beat him singing."
At just 15, Billy Boy played with the Johnny Temple
Band. "He lived next door to Blind John Davis' mother's house
and he needed a harmonica player, so I went on a gig with him."
He also found work with Johnny Shines and Otis
Rush. "I played with Otis Rush one night because the harmonica
player got drunk!"
Billy Boy with a request 'Come Back Baby, I Wish
You Would.' Photo: T.E. Mattox
There were some notorious clubs in the Chicago area.
Some often referred to as a 'Bucket O' Blood.' "Well they had
a few of them they called 'Bucket's O' Blood
but those people
in those clubs drank hard liquor. 'Old Crow,' 'Old Grand-dad,' 'Old
Forester,' that hard 100 proof whiskey, and when they get drunk man,
fights would break out all over the place."
What was the craziest bar or club you ever played in?
"A place called the 'Happy Home.' Me and Jody Williams was playing
there in 1957-58, before Jody went into the Army. And every night, four
or five fights would break out, and everybody would run toward the bandstand.
That was the roughest club, 'the Happy Home Lounge,' that was on Madison
You wrote and had blues hits with some great songs.
Songs musicians to this day continue to play and record. "That's
a compliment to me, I'm glad. I liked all of them because that's the
greatest compliment you could receive. When Eric Clapton, David Bowie
and the Animals, all of them did
'I Ain't Got You' and 'I Wish
You Would,' that was a great compliment."
Your music and those songs specifically have such great
longevity; did you think they would be so popular? "I started
I knew that if I was going to be a harmonica player like
Sonny Boy I had to sing and I had to write songs. So I started writing
songs when I was about 14 or 15 and I made my first record when I was
'I Ain't Got You' always gets people on their feet,
that's got to bring a smile to your face. "I love it, I love
it! And see a lot of people have heard those songs, at least 'I Ain't
Got You' they don't know I was the first guy that did it, 'cause all
the rock guys got it from me. That was a great compliment."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Eden Brent. Photo credit: Julia
The blues don't really get more down in the Delta than
Greenville, Mississippi. After all, it gave us both Nelson Street and
for the past 36 years or so it's been the home of the Mississippi Delta
Blues and Heritage Festival. It's also happens to be the home of Eden
Brent. At this year's San Diego Fest Ms. Brent gave Southern California
a little taste of why she's a three-time BMA winner. That includes the
Perkins Piano Player of the Year. To describe her voice; it's smoky
but with texture, kind of like 'three fingers of Four Roses.
And her performance is a whirlwind
a barrelhouse of boogie woogie
that won't let you look away. This woman is having fun and you don't
want to miss a note of it. Like the song says, she's got 'Blues All
The man was born in a blues club. His first studio recording
appearance was at the ripe old age of FIVE!
. WITH WILLIE
DIXON!!! The only thing I can say about his performance at this
year's festival is that no one walked away during his set. After the
final chords, everyone staggered away! Everyone! Sorry
if you missed it.
Lucky Peterson and lucky me! Photo:
To be honest, I've been a Blasters fan since
Bear' Hite told me about this LA rockabilly collective some 35 years
ago. And I'm never disappointed when I get to see any of their assorted
offshoots, discover new projects or hear individual recordings. Dave
Alvin's Downey Blues Allstars played an inspired set at this year's
event. There's always that sense of appreciation in the music they play.
A love and respect for the originators of blues and early rockers. For
some reason I remembered a poem Dave Alvin wrote not long after the
passing of one of his friends and mentors; Big Joe Turner. I can't quote
it, but to me it simply said all the good things that revolve around
our life and times, those very special moments
were now at rest
in the ground in Gardena. That got me.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
What does one say about the amazing Charlie
Musselwhite? My friend Billy Watson; an outstanding harp player
in his own rite probably said it best. "My favorite moment at
the blues festival was seeing Charlie Musselwhite. He could do no wrong
and I enjoyed the energy the crowd gave him. It was pure to experience
it so close. The energy exchange was so positive and natural. I wish
all artists could feel that."
I think that comment pretty much sums up the entire
blues festival. Well Done Michael Kinsman, a hell of a party and a wonderful
day of Blues in San Diego. If rumors hold true, next year's festival
may expand into two full days
.??? If true, get some rest Michael...
You're going to need it. And well done San Diego, I know you made a
big difference for the Jacobs and Cushman San Diego Food Bank.
San Diego Blues Festival; Charlie
Blues and Lives Well-Lived; Ode
to Little Walter; Blues
"The Bear" Hite