A: Interview by Michaelis Limnios of “Blues @ Greece”, 10/04/2012,
and reproduced here with his permission:
Blues master Giles Hedley talks about the British blues, Son House, Mississippi
McDowell, & slide guitar's secrets
Posted by Michalis
Limnios BLUES @ GREECE on April 10, 2012 at 12:30pm
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"I wish that each generation of youngsters discover the blues for themselves and
re-invent it to fit their own lives."
by Michael Limnios
What do you learn about yourself from the blues?
That if you’re not honest with yourself and with the world you have nothing to
say – and nothing to be.
does the blues mean to you?
Playing the blues makes me complete- it’s one of the ways I connect with my own
life. I need to play every day.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Best moment so far – a gig we played last week with The Aviators (Sam Kelly,
Richard Sadler and Christophe Pélissié). Something magical happened - the music
came out so good it was scary! And the audience was right with us – understood
what we trying to do and came with us every inch of the way. An unforgettable
Shaking hands with Son House back in 1971 was pretty amazing, too.
Worst moment- like everyone, I’ve had some bad experiences with promoters – but
I’d rather not go there!
The moment that felt the worst at the time was back in the 70s. I was playing
solo in front of a big audience at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. I was very nervous
and just as I began to play, I jammed my right -hand fingers between the guitar
strings and all my fingerpicks pulled off and scattered all over the stage. No
big deal, remembering it now, but when you’re young, you’re so embarrassed you
just want to die. These days I don’t use picks – I get my nails reinforced
My worst moment in recent years was when I was playing a big festival and this
guy came up, said he liked our music, and suggested he might join us on piano. I
was nervous about the gig and so I put him off. He looked a bit surprised but
took it very politely. Afterwards I realized that I had failed to recognize Jon
Cleary, the wonderful New Orleans-style pianist, whose music I love and respect
enormously. What made it worse was that I’d met him before! I still feel
terrible about that.
Is there any similarity between the blues today and the 70s?
Here are some similarities, first:
The most important similarity is that, both then and now, there is an audience
of ordinary folks who passionately enjoy blues in all its varieties and
empathize with the people playing it. In big venues that put on different kinds
of music, the staff often tell me that blues audiences are the most good-humored,
friendly and positive of any type of music they put on. I can certainly
believe it. And there are all the little blues clubs, run not for money but for
love of the music. It’s this warmth and enthusiasm that keeps me playing this
A less welcome similarity is that there came a time in the seventies when
audiences started to get very hung up on endless screaming guitar solos –
pointless displays of technical facility. Exactly the same thing is happening
now – especially as rock players who fail to make it, tend to try again as blues
musicians. They don’t appreciate that blues is basically about songs. And like
all music of African origin, it’s fundamentally a co-operative exercise. In the
classic blues bands everyone contributed to the groove, as musicians do in
reggae, in township music, in highlife, in soca, in funk, in jazz... As Muddy
Waters said, blues is always about question and answer. According to Bob
Margolin, Muddy would not hire a musician who “answered himself” and left no
room for give and take. It’s like the difference between good sex with someone
else, and the solitary variety!
So, just as in the 70s, a lot of the big festivals now do not feature what I
recognize as blues – many acts are closer to stadium rock. The funny thing is,
many audiences tell me they would rather hear rootsier blues - but promoters are
often ex-rock people, so I suppose they feel safer booking what they know.
And here are some important differences:
There are many more people around nowadays who really know about blues – so much
research has been done, so much more recorded material, books and “how-to”
advice are easily available, and people start younger. The standard of playing
is much higher. A boy called Aaron Keylock – he has his own band now - sat in
with my band recently and played the most soulful, deep-feeling blues guitar
you can imagine - he was twelve years old at the time!
Many more people know how to get a good blues sound, too - harmonica players,
for example, like “Shakey Vick” (Graham Vickery), Giles King, Paul Lamb, George
Suaref, Rollo Markee, Laurie Garman, Steve Matthews. They all have the technique
and the technical know-how to get the most delicious Chicago sounds. And there
are web forums where blues guitarists can discuss equipment and share info about
what gear their heroes used back in the day.
By contrast, when I started out all we could do was to listen to the records (if
we could find somewhere to buy them) and try to work out what was going on. My
first blues band, in 1964, featured a guitarist who played into a little PA amp,
then fed its speaker output into his guitar amp, to get a good blues sound. It
worked fine if the PA was turned almost down, but one day someone turned it up
and everything blew up in a cloud of smoke...
Another difference is that there is less prejudice against blues now. When I was
at school my band was not allowed to practice on school premises because we
played blues – whereas pop was allowed. Now I give talks on blues at a local
school. And in the 60s and 70s many folk clubs, which were almost the only
blues venues outside London, hated Europeans playing blues. The folk singer
Ewan McColl once ranted at me about this for what felt like hours. He felt I
should only play English folk music, because I am English. I thought this was a
bit much from someone whose real name was Jimmy Miller, but I was far too scared
to say so ...
What are some of the most memorable tales with Clyde Stubblefield?
I only met him once. He was in a blues bar in London with a group of other
Americans. I played a few songs and then said something, and when they heard my
very English accent they almost fell off their chairs laughing. But when I had
finished the set Clyde came up and said how much he liked what I was doing, that
it felt real and that I was the funkiest singer he’d heard in Europe. He gave me
his card. When I read who he was it was my turn to fall off my chair. He’s
always been a hero because of the truly revolutionary beats he developed in the
classic James Brown era. Incidentally, classic funk is very similar to Delta
blues rhythmically - listen to Kokomo Arnold, Booker White or Son House and then
JB, and you’ll hear it...
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Interesting to me, or to other people? If you mean to me, I would always
answer”now”. Reality is always more interesting than memories! Right now I’m
still working on my music and learning about life, and the Aviators and I have
just finished recording by far the best album we’ve ever done.
But I suppose my life in the 70s was probably more interesting for other people
to hear about – I was living in squats, touring Holland, sleeping on floors and
playing in Amsterdam bars till 5 am, to audiences of Vietnam deserters, pimps
and dealers. I got to hear some great music, too – Muddy, Jimmy Witherspoon, Ray
Charles, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, even a kid called Eric Clapton, who played some
nice guitar with John Mayall’s band...
But at the time, I would have described that life as tough rather than
interesting; I’ve always been the sort of person who worries a lot about where
the next meal’s coming from, and where I’m going to sleep – not the
happy-go-lucky type at all.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?
Do you think I’m a good bluesman? If so, I’m very pleased! I think the common
factor linking all the bluesmen I respect is that they hate bullshit. It’s true
for me too: I don’t mean that I make a moral judgement about it, I simply mean
there’s something missing in me, so I can’t cope with people who are false. When
I meet people who project an image based on lying to themselves and to the
world, I can’t be objective, I just run away from them, or I say something that
makes them cross. I grew up surrounded by lies – I didn’t find out who my
father was until I was in my thirties – and I suppose the blues has been my
refuge from deceit. Many of the blues musicians interviewed by Paul Oliver in
his book “Conversation with the Blues” said, when asked to define what blues is,
that real blues is unmistakably honest, that the singer tells the truth as he or
she sees it. Christophe Pélissié, our guitarist, saw BB King a few years back
and noticed that during a slow blues solo BB was quietly crying ... after so
many years and gigs, he was still so emotionally close to his music, still
telling his truth.
I think that’s partly why most bluesmen did not become superstars – they were
not equipped to deal with the manipulation and deceit which is inseparable from
the music business.
So I would say that the experiences in life that make you value the truth, even
the unwelcome truth about yourself, are those that make you a good bluesman.
Most of those experiences are tough – making mistakes in your loves or your
life, being screwed over by people and having no redress against them – but some
of them are positive, like finding you can create joy and satisfaction for
yourself even in the difficult times.
What's been my experience from “studies” with Son House, Mississippi Fred
McDowell, Juke Boy Bonner among others?
I learned some things about technique which I’ll come to in a moment. But the
most important thing I learned was what I mentioned just now. All the bluesmen I
saw seemed to be singing directly from their deepest personal truth. They were
not shielding themselves behind showmanship, even if – like Muddy for example –
they were great showmen. Listening to them I felt that, in a sense, both they
and I were naked. When I heard Jimmy Witherspoon sing, it was desperately
uncomfortable for me, being a 16 year old middle-class English boy, in a culture
where feelings were never displayed. But it felt like I’d been handed a
Fred McDowell was different again: he seemed to go inside himself when he sang –
he did not, like many performers, expand outwards to envelope the audience, but
he drew them inwards to himself. Extraordinary.
Son House immediately created an atmosphere of shared truth by joking about the
fact that when he was offered a European tour his wife insisted he had his hair
dyed, because “those kids won’t want to see an old man”. When he stood up and
sang “John the Revelator” unaccompanied, you felt that he was alone with his
Technically, I’m still learning from everyone – from Fred McDowell, how to set
up a hypnotic, grooving bottleneck riff, and how to sing gently but compellingly
... from Son House, his wonderfully free and percussive right hand, setting up
polyrhythms like a flamenco player, and his charismatic, churchy singing ...
from Juke Boy Bonner, how to set up a hypnotic boogie with rack harmonica and
electric guitar, and to make chord changes at random to suit the song, like John
Lee Hooker, instead of meekly trotting along the 12-bar path ... from Muddy,
how to sing simply but with total authority and how to build a set slowly and
evenly to a climax ... from Kokomo Arnold, how to use two or three different
rhythms in the course of a single song ... from The Wolf, how to sing
dramatically with pin-sharp diction, from Sonny Boy II and from Big Joe Williams
that Less is More ... from Willie McTell, from Robert Johnson, from Willie
Johnson, from Tommy McClennan, from Blind Blake ...
Are there any memories from "Really the Blues" & "The Aviators", which you’d
like to share with us?
Oh Lord ... I suppose my best memories of “Really the Blues” are of our
residency at the legendary London blues venue “Bob’s Goodtime Blues” at the
Station Tavern in North Kensington. We were there once a week for years, and if
I could see any carpet on the floor when I was onstage it was an unusually quiet
night – normally the place was packed solid. The audience was a real mixture of
folks, blues fans and local lowlife, and very enthusiastic, so we dared to do
some unusual stuff – duetting my lap steel guitar and Bob Morgan’s clarinet, for
example, or playing a Delta number one minute and a Jimmy Witherspoon jazz-blues
with Bob on Hammond organ the next. When we built a song to a climax the whole
room was right with us. One night the whole 100-year- old plaster ceiling fell
down into the audience. We were quite a quiet band and I still believe it was
not the sound but the sheer emotion in the room that brought it down!
Another night, I remember this French guy came up and asked if his friend could
sit in on guitar. When this friend took a solo, I was so blown away I forgot to
come back in with the vocals. It was my first meeting with Christophe Pélissié,
now the fourth Aviator – our new CD “So Glad I’m Living” was recorded in his
Where did you pick up your guitar style & what were the first songs you learned?
I started guitar quite
late – about 20 – up till then I just sang and played harmonica. I decided to
play guitar right-handed, but I’m a leftie, so I was too clumsy to do the sort
of ultra-clean fingerpicking fashionable back in the sixties. It wasn’t until I
saw Son House and Fred McDowell play that I found a direction for myself. I saw
that Delta playing all comes from the right thumb, with a loose wrist so the
fingers can bounce those Delta rhythms off the beat, and I thought “hah! Those
rhythms are really exciting – that’s for me!”
The first songs I learned just to sing. As a kid, before my voice broke, I
learned classic Bessie Smith-type jazz blues and Elvis Presley blues covers from
my big brother’s record collection. Then as a teenager it was mostly Sonny
Terry/Brownie McGee stuff, because my schoolfriend Oliver Whitehead (now a jazz
composer in Canada) played guitar with me. Then I learned Sonny Boy Williamson,
Jimmy Reed and Howling Wolf songs with my first band.
The first guitar songs I learned were by Fred McDowell – Few Short Lines, 12
Gates to the City, etc. – which made it quite embarrassing when I played support
to him! But he muttered “not bad, kid” when I came off stage, so I guess he
didn’t mind too much...
My all-time favorite guitar, which I stupidly sold when I was broke in the 80s,
was a 1930s wooden-bodied Dobro – in fact one of the first 75 the Dopyera
brothers built. It had a much more versatile sound than a National, and was
Apart from that, my favorite guitars are the ones I have now: a 1920s Levin
parlour guitar – tiny, but with a shockingly big sound for bottleneck, a 1934
Grimshaw Hartford XII archtop also for bottleneck, and a 1928 Aristone for
fingerstyle. They’ve all got lots of attack, which suits me as I’m into
percussive, polyrhythmic playing. I’ve learned that you can buy excellent old
European guitars for a fraction of the price of old American ones – and these
guitars all have slightly odd sounds, which suit my slightly odd playing!
Although I do a lot of songs that were originally recorded on resonator guitars,
I’ve not been tempted to get one, as I find it hard to get more than one sound
out of them – most of them are a bit inexpressive.
What were your favorite guitars?
My all-time favorite electric guitars are the ones I use now: a very rare early
Yamaha semi-acoustic, with Seymour Duncan pickups, that actually belongs to my
wife and a cheap Strat copy that I fitted with my favorite pickup – an old Bill
Lawrence blade humbucker – for bottleneck. I’ve disconnected all tone controls –
I hate what they do to the sound.
I’m very proud that Leburn Maddox, a very sophisticated guitarist who uses a
huge board of effects pedals, told me he wished he could get a sound like mine!
I’ve owned some interesting electric guitars over the years - Gibson 330,
Harmony Rocket, SG Junior, Jerry Jones Danelectro, Ibanez twin-neck – but they
were never favorites. My favourite acoustic guitar was a very early Dobro
- one of the first 75 built - which was beautifully made and had the most
wonderful sound for bottleneck . I stupidly sold it in the 80s when I
thought my blues life was over, so I guess it's sitting in some collector's
cellar now... but I love the guitars I'm using now - a 1935 Grimshaw, a 1928
Aristone and a 1920s Levin parlour guitar.
Do you know why the sound of the slide guitar is connected to the blues?
Right from the earliest 19th century descriptions of proto-blues Afro-American
songs, two things were written about: (a) the instruments aimed to imitate
Afro-American vocal music – ring shouts, field hollers etc , and (b) the tunes
hover between major and minor. Blues harmonica, bottleneck guitar, trumpet,
fiddle can all slur towards or away from notes, as the human voice can. Pianos
can only suggest that slurring, so these were more popular for ragtime and
gospel music, styles more influenced by European melodies. Bottleneck is
brilliant for getting that slightly sour, wistful tonality, and for wailing like
What characterize the sound of Giles Hedley?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask! But blues critics have described me as:
caught up in the feeling of songs; an entertainer and communicator; funky and
passionate; with a lot of respect for roots blues, a big, warm expressive voice
and exciting slide and harmonica playing.
For me - first, last and all the time - it’s about the songs and what I need to
do to put across their atmosphere. Musically, I’m more excited by a hypnotic
groove than by dazzling solos, and more into subtle, funky rhythms than
melodies. Above all, I believe in leaving space in the music: holes and pauses
for the drama and feeling to pour out, and to interplay with other musicians.
Most European blues is FAR too busy and densely-textured, in my opinion!
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
That’s a really tough question, because I learned different, important things
from different people. But the hardest lesson for me is “LESS IS MORE” – I’m
still trying to take that one in. When I was a teenager, a young jazz musician
said to me “the secret is, if you’ve got nothing to say, have the courage to
shut up and wait till you do”. My friend of 40 years Bob Morgan, when he was in
“Really the Blues” used to say “keep it simple, don’t try to impress people,
and be yourself” and that’s pretty good advice for blues – in fact for all
The people whose recordings taught me the most about leaving space for the
feeling to come out are probably Rice Miller( Sonny Boy Williamson I), Bessie
Smith, Fred McDowell, BB King, JB Lenoir, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, James
What is the “thing” you miss from the 70s?
What do I miss from the 70s? The chance to hear the great names of blues! There
are some good players around now – although very few good singers. But it’s hard
to explain to people that hearing someone like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon
or Fred MacDowell was a totally different level of experience – deeply moving
and tremendously exciting - like hearing Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley live.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think
I think it’s because it is honest music: it moves people because it’s about the
real bedrock emotions that we all share underneath our cultural differences. If
it’s not real it doesn’t move you, however clever the music is. You can’t make a
good blues recording by spending money on the orchestration or effects or
gimmicks or flashy musicians. Either it moves you, or you hear it and say
And it’s very physical – as Alexis Corner once said, “blues hits you between the
navel and the kneecap” – it’s about not being ashamed to be human animals, with
all the good and bad that that implies.
That’s why the churches have always hated the blues – and still do. The power
of Christianity comes from making people feel ashamed to be human, so that they
need a god to make them feel OK again. It’s like cosmetics advertising on TV,
which convinces women that they are disgusting and their only hope is to spend
money buying beauty products. There was nothing wrong with them in the first
place! The blues says “here we all are, good points and weaknesses, trying to
live right in spite of everything life throws at us”.
As long as people have the courage to let their defenses down occasionally and
risk being open to life, they are going to get hurt sometimes. And then they
will need the blues – both the lowdown blues and the goodtime blues – to help
them carry on.
Give one wish for the BLUES
I wish that each generation of youngsters discover the blues for themselves and
re-invent it to fit their own lives.
How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in
I don’t really know. I’ve never really engaged successfully with the music
business. That’s why I get so few gigs.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career
in the craft?
Here are the three things that I didn’t learn until very late – start doing them
1. Play a lot with other musicians – learning to listen and to fit in are as
important as learning to play
2. Play in public as often as you can – don’t wait until you think you’re good
enough. Don’t worry about making a fool of yourself – it’s by far the quickest
way to learn how to perform. And it shows people you exist – the world is full
of undiscovered talent, so you need to be visible.
3. If you see someone doing something you want to learn, don’t be afraid to ask
them how! Nine times out of ten, people are flattered to be asked and happy to
share their knowledge. You can save yourself so much time!
What’s the best jam you ever played in?
I love sitting in with other people’s bands – I joined Sam Kelly’s band
Grooviticus for a couple of numbers and had a ball – excellent musicians with a
lot of give-and-take and good humor, and a tremendous ability to groove. Rollo
Markee and the Tailshakers is another – they have the most authentic downhome
vibe I’ve heard for a long time, and we always have a great time together.
Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Paul Jones's Radio Two
Once I was interviewed by Paul solo, and the recording was held up by a
technician’s strike. The two of us had to wait until a dispute somewhere else
was resolved and everyone went back to work. Paul and I chatted, and he was so
interesting, friendly and knowledgeable about the blues – without being in the
least academic - it was a delightful experience. He has a real, deep-down, love
of the blues.
I laugh when I remember the time we were mixing a set with the Aviators in the
Birmingham studios, for Paul’s programme. The way I hear our music, the bass and
drums are as much lead instruments as mine are – I sometimes describe our music
as “drum n’ bass with added blues”. So the engineer played us a mix and I said
“no, bring the bass up”, then he would play it again and I would say the same
thing. This went on four or five times – he simply couldn’t believe we really
wanted Richard up that far in the mix. We got there in the end, and the engineer
did say he liked it ...
Are there any memories from “THE ROAD FOR THE BLUES”, which you’d like to share
Oh boy ... there was the time we were driving between gigs in Holland in a hired
van, and at about 2 in the morning a police patrol car pulled us over. Two cops
walked over to us - fully armed, the whole thing – and I thought “I don’t know
why, but we’re clearly in trouble”. One cop asked us who we were and where we
were going. Then he grinned and said “I just wanted to say I saw you play last
night – you were fantastic”. I could have killed him for giving us such a
fright! I wonder how he recognized us in the van ...
Then there was the time, way back in the 60s, when I was playing a private
society party in a huge mansion in the country. We stopped the van to open a
gate and I fell in the ditch up to my neck. I was already in my stage clothes,
so I did the gig soaked to the skin and covered in pond weed. The hostess was
Another time, in the 70s, I stopped in southeast London to pick up a Chinese
takeaway meal after a solo gig. As I sat waiting for the meal, four big gangster
types in suits came in, wearing big gold watches and bracelets. One of them
asked me about my guitar and I reluctantly opened the case. When he saw my
prewar Dobro he said he liked blues, and would I come home and play for them. I
thanked him very politely but said I was very tired after my gig and just wanted
to take my meal home. Then the four of them closed up round me and he asked
again. I clearly couldn’t say “no” so I went outside, thinking “there goes my
Dobro”, and was bundled into the back of a Pontiac GTO with no license plate,
with a huge guy sitting either side of me. We drove fast round a lot of back
streets until we came to a big house on an industrial estate by the river, with
a big motor launch and a garage full of American muscle cars . I complimented
him on the cars and he said “oh, they all come to me for motors – the Krays, the
Richardsons [famous London crooks]...” which worried me still more. Then he said
“I really like music – I’ve got a Stradivarius in the cellar” – I believed him.
They took me into a private bar and poured me several large gins, while I played
as best I could. The end of the story, I am happy to say, is an anticlimax: I
was bundled back into the Pontiac and driven safely home – with my precious
Dobro at my side. I still wonder who they were – and what happened to the
From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between
the Folk Blues & modern Blues?
I don’t know anything much about the blues that is being played nowadays, except
what I happen to hear when we play festivals. But I think, generally speaking,
with folk blues the feel of the song is more important, and the musical
structure is more likely to be slightly odd and interesting, with bars dropped
out or added, and more interesting rhythms. Starting with some of the very
prolific Bluebird recording artists like Jazz Gillum and Washboard Sam, a
fashion came in the late 30s and 40s for very formulaic straight 12-bar shuffle
blues, with the interest added by novelty lyrics. And nowadays I sometimes think
we’ve kept the predictable, formulaic structure and lost interest in the lyrics
as well, so a lot of stuff is very samey. What my bassist calls “donkey blues”,
because it goes “don-key, don-key, don-key, don-key...” But I’m being a bit
unfair, as there is some really interesting, subtle stuff happening as well –
especially with some funk-blues.
What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
This is going to sound really boring, but it’s true! My dream is simply to do a
lot of profitable gigs with my favorite musicians and to have nothing to worry
about except the music. So I need a really competent and trustworthy agent who
get me lots of work at the right prices, a nice car and someone to drive it for
me, someone to take care of my gear, someone to talk to promoters ... and enough
money to get out of debt!
B - 2002 INTERVIEW
you first get into blues?
My big brother
was into New Orleans jazz in the 50s and used to bring home 78s of the classic
blues singers. I used to enjoy Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Ottilie
Patterson – Chris Barber’s singer - especially.
my voice broke I used to
songs. It’s just as well I couldn’t understand much of the lyrics.
Then one day my
bro brought home Elvis Presley’s first LP
I adored the Arthur Crudup covers like
"That's Alright, Mama".
I found out
that this funky, wild music was called blues and I went looking for more. When I
was a bit older the first blues compilation albums were beginning to hit the
When did you get into harmonica playing?
My brother gave
me my first harmonica when
I was about 9. I'd
never heard blues harp playing and didn’t understand how to play ‘crossed’, but
I taught myself to play the simpler New Orleans tunes – things like Whistling Rufus.
It’s funny how things stick with you – there are still faint echoes of
Armstrong in my harp playing. Most harp players phrase more like
I phrase a bit like a
I just played all the time -
in the back of the car, during break at school. But I still hadn't heard other
blues players, until the
Oliver Whitehead, explained how you play crossed harp,
and introduced me to recordings by Sonny Terry, Hammie Nixon and the first Sonny
What was your first experience of playing blues?
Back in the
sixties my interests in country and city blues were
running in parallel.
Oliver and I used to play together; he was a brilliant ragtime and country
blues guitarist -
was a friend of his family and he’d picked up some really good technique. I often wonder what happened to him
he got better and better at the guitar and eventually, I think, just got bored
with it. He went to live in the States and I lost touch but the last time I
heard him play – must have been in the late sixties – he was doing the most
extraordinary stuff on classical guitar: simultaneously improvising three or
four lines contrapuntally, so that each note was doing two or three jobs.
school my band tried to copy
the simpler songs by Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, the second Sonny
Boy Williamson. We had trouble practising because,
"Mersey sound" bands,
were not allowed
practice on school premises. We had to hire
and seldom had cash.
my lead guitarist, made a pre-amp, years before they were standard. He got a
dirty sound by running the guitar into an amp and then just
output, turned right down, into an old bow-fronted Watkins amp. One day someone
came along and turned up the first amp: the poor Watkins just dissolved in
used to get so nervous I
couldn’t eat lunch if I was playing that evening.
I still get
pretty keyed up
- if I
didn’t it would be a sign that something was wrong
- that I didn't care any more.
I remember when we
played support to Marianne Faithfull once
she was really nice to me
when I was almost dead from nerves: she
was the big start but she
left all the people who were making a fuss of her and came over to cheer me up.
I played a
bit of chromatic harp at that stage
- another friend, Mike Runge, played jazz
piano and we used to play together for
fun. Not a lot came of it,
good for my ears. He
made me make
to listen to music in a
me to Ronnie Scott’s to hear Jimmy Witherspoon-
revelation! Spoon is, without the least
theatricality, one of the most emotionally naked singers. I had the feeling "why
is this guy being so intimate when I don’t even know him?" To me
your average, uptight Brit - it was embarrassing but liberating. Over twenty years
later when I formed Really the Blues most of the songs I had heard that
night went straight into our repertoire.
What got you into bottleneck playing?
As a harp player,
I got fed up with always looking out
for a guitarist to play
with. So I asked my
a Harmony Sovereign for my twenty-first birthday; in those days that was the
guitar to have if you couldn’t afford a Gibson. It needed heavy strings and a
good clouting, but
it sang like a bird.
At the time I
was playing harp with a guitarist who was into Sleepy John Estes – little known
in the mid-sixties – and the delta players like Son House, Bukka White and of
course Robert Johnson. He taught me lot. The funny thing was he had a complete
mental block about bar lines – he moved through the blues sequence pretty much
at random. Thirty years later I met him again and he was just the same. Oddly,
the only other person I’ve met like
that was Juke Boy Bonner.
I played support to him in the seventies. He was brilliant, but you never knew
when he was going to make his changes.
I made a choice
that I'm still not sure about: although I’m left-handed, I decided to
play right-handed. The acoustic
guitarists in the clubs like Renbourn and Co, were very deft and clean. I thought I'd
have an advantage on the fretboard but I
never managed to pick like them. But the delta bottleneck style
rhythmically complex and exciting and
somehow suited my right hand and the
feeling comes from how you use the
slide – ie from the left hand. I got hooked.
I bought an old Dobro guitar for £75 and that became my baby. I found out
later it was one of the first 75 the Dopyera brothers made – you can tell by a
little heart inlaid into the heel of the neck. It sounded wonderful: I used
really heavy strings, a zither-player’s spring steel thumbpick which hurt
but sounded nice, and the bottleneck from a cider bottle that I still use
In the early
eighties when I was seriously broke and no-one wanted to hear blues I sold that
and two other Dobros, a Gibson Kalamazoo, and lots of other instruments. I don’t
miss the others too much but that first Dobro still really haunts me.
At first I
played Mississippi Fred McDowell tunes. In
fact, it was very embarrassing in 1970 when I
opened for him, churning out second-rate versions of his repertoire. Luckily I don’t think he recognised them! He seemed
a very quiet, gentle man. For some reason he
semi-acoustic guitar that he couldn't
get along with - he handed
it to his manager to set the controls.
moment was supporting Son House during what must have been his last tour, in’71
or so. I remember feeling really angry on his behalf when he came onstage, he
looked old and shaky and I thought: ‘this man taught Robert Johnson, for
Christ’s sake! If he were a white musician of comparable stature he’d be
comfortably retired by now, not schlepping round Europe". But he played with
such fire and delight and clearly still
relished an audience. He
his wife made
him go and get his hair dyed when news of the European tour came through,
because "those kids in
want to see no
white-haired old man!"
He changed my
style for good, because the thing about the delta style is you have to see it
played. It’s a bit like flamenco: you don’t get all the percussive cross-rhythms
by ultra-precise picking: your right hand must be incredibly relaxed and slap
about - it all springs from your thumb.
What have you recorded?
First, I recorded
an LP in Holland for VPRO
the early 70s. VPRO
was a sort of semi-underground radio station that played all sorts of weird
music. They made a good LP out of my stuff, which included things like
two Dobros overdubbed – bottleneck and lap steel -
and my first song using two harps, a bass C Marine Band and a normal C (although
I was not yet playing the treble one with my nose). The album was called
something like Zeltsaam & Zonderling; I never
out what this means. The album sold out and was reissued, but I never saw
anything from it because when you record for radio they have the rights to the
Years later I
was on a train in Hampshire,
chatting to two Dutch campers. It
turned out one of them had the album – the only purchaser I’ve ever met!
I was playing
in Holland a lot – sleeping on floors and playing a bar one night and a concert
the next. In
one bar I
play 20 minutes on, 20 off, from 8.30 until 4.30 am
- good training!
I used to eat breakfast at dawn, in a seedy café full of twitchy Vietnam
draft-dodgers and dope dealers, and walk home over the canals. Great times...
early 80s, blues was seriously
unfashionable so I sold my guitars in despair.
Then in 1983 I was asked to put a band together
and formed Really the Blues with
Bob Morgan, an old friend who is a
remarkable composer and
multi-instrumentalist - among many other things a pioneer reggae arranger. I liked the idea of putting his strengths
opposite my ‘roots’ approach and seeing what happened. He introduced me to Clive
McKenzie-Joseph, a drummer with a soul/r’nb background
and I found a bass player working on a farm in a nearby village.
Twenty-odd years later Richard Sadler
better known in the jazz
world - his
CDs top Jazz polls, but I’m happy to say that he still plays
Clive left, the
great Sam Kelly joined on drums and we recorded a CD, Aviator, in France,
where I have musician and sound engineer friends. It was a manic business: Bob
and Richard wrote the brass arrangements on the ferry going over; half the horn
section spoke only English and the other half only French; I recorded the
solo tracks in a goods lift because my sound engineer had fallen in love with
its acoustics. We slept in corners of the studio and finished the whole job in
The CD ranged
from Jimmy Witherspoon-style jazz arrangements to country blues, with unexpected
combinations like clarinet and lap steel and harmonica and brass. It was well
Paul Jones in particular gave
it good airtime.
By the mid
90s Really the Blues became The Aviators.
Bob had to quit with
I had planned to replace him but
I became so
excited by the kind of loose, rhythmically adventurous
blues that Sam, Richard and I played as a trio that I
left things as they were. Time has
shown this to be the right decision!
All this time I was also
still playing a lot of country blues, with a weekly residency at blues bar
Ain’t Nothin’ But in London. I wanted to put
out a CD
all the early, acoustic blues that I had been playing in
some cases for thirty years. No Lizards was the result. I
recorded every acoustic blues song I knew
and dithered for an agonising 11 months about which, of over five hours of material,
the best tracks. The sound is uncannily good and the feel is nice
so I’m chuffed with it. The first
pressing sold out
so I reissued it.
Then in 1999 The Aviators recorded a live CD in France, Low
Flying, with ace guitarist Christophe Pélissié
guesting. He’s one of the
most exciting blues guitar players I have ever heard because he doesn’t just
have bags of technique – thousands of guitarists have that, these days - but he
responds first and foremost to the feeling of the song and
phrases beautifully. He
takes huge musical risks - essential
for an 'Aviator'.
What now for
If I had to sum
up what The Aviators are about it would be
"authenticity, bags of feeling and huge
musical risks". Because our songs are rooted in Delta blues, rather than boogie,
shuffle or rock, they are often rhythmically more complex – closer to funk, Jamaican
and African music. Richard’s and Sam’s influences
are all over our sound - I just give them their head and ask them to surprise
me. There is an interesting
blues/Jamaican crossover thing going on at the moment in the UK and with Taj
Mahal, Eric Bibb
& co in the US. The Aviators have always operated
instinctively in that territory.
I'm keeping busy on
the blues scene. People tell me my
singing and playing are still getting better and as
long as there are people who want to hear blues I’ll keep playing. I’ve seen
Muddy Waters in his sixties; Mississippi Fred McDowell in his seventies and Son
House well in his eighties so
this music keeps you young!