by BOB DORAN
THE BLUES COME IN MANY SHADES AND HUES.
There are as many ways of approaching the blues as there are players. This weekend at Blues by the Bay, Volume 5, you can hear where the blues came from -- and where it's going -- as performers young, old and in between offer their individual take on the form.
Saturday's lineup includes Joan Osborne's bluesy pop and the straight-ahead blues of two-time W.C. Handy Award winner Magic Slim and the Teardrops. Colorado-based singer-songwriter Nina Storey returns after an impressive set at last year's festival. Blues guitarist Thad Beckman is back from Texas joined by globetrotting drummer Danny Montgomery and bassist Matt de Catt. The Delta Nationals offer two sets spanning jump blues, rockabilly and New Orleans rock `n' roll.
Sunday's show includes "Blues Lioness" Sista Monica, who made a splash at Jazz on the Lake in 1999. Tom Rigney and Flambeau bring Louisiana-style Cajun and zydeco music. The Karen Dumont Band performs blues, jazz and funk shot through with gospel spirit.
The festival concludes Sunday with "Chicago Blues Legends," a meeting of three generations of bluesmen including guitar legend Hubert Sumlin who played for two decades in Howlin' Wolf's band, drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, a Chicago veteran from the Muddy Waters Band and harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite from the second generation of Chicago players. They're all backed up by a band led by guitarist Rusty Zinn, one of the rising stars of the blues today.
Hubert Sumlin, born in 1931 in Greenwood, Miss., was raised on a cotton plantation.
"It was right down by the side of the river, this plantation I grew up on, right outside of Greenwood," said Sumlin in a call from his girlfriend's place in New Jersey. "We had cotton, soy beans, rice and vetch -- you don't know what that is -- it was cow feed. I worked on the farm when I was little, plowed mules there for `bout two years."
His brother got him interested in music. "A.D. Smith, my half-brother, he's 82 years old now, I learnt from him. And I came up in the church, this little church on the plantation. My mother, her name was Claudia Sumlin, she used to take me. She got them to let me play my guitar in that church. I had been listening to Charlie Patton and all these old dudes. I never got a chance to see Charlie Patton, but I had this old warped record of his. When I heard that I knew that was it."
His mother bought him his first guitar when he was eight years old; again, he knew "that was it."
"Right then and there I knew what I was going to be. It was just a matter of time before God figured out how it was going to work for me."
His first meeting with Howlin' Wolf was one of those twists of fate.
"I think I was 11 when I went to see Wolf at this joint, this roadhouse on the Mississippi River. This place, they served fish on one end and they had gambling on the other end, craps, cards, everything. And in back they had the music. Well, they said I was too young and they wouldn't let me in.
"They had a window for ventilation because it was hot -- they didn't have air condition like we do now. I stacked up these Coca-Cola crates out back, behind the place, behind the bandstand. I figured I could see through the window, see Wolf playing. They had this fan up in the window, a ventilation fan that would catch air. I was watching right through the fan and somebody snatched the Coca-Cola crates out from under me and got gone. I don't know who it was or why they did it. But I fell right in that window -- with the fan -- right over Wolf's head. And he caught me. He caught me -- and the fan. He was a big, big man and I landed right in his hands."
Impressed with Hubert's persistence Wolf gave him a chair on the stage and let him stay for the show.
Another blues master, James Cotton, was one of Sumlin's childhood friends. The two musicians played the blues together for years until a fateful day when Wolf returned to town. The bluesman had heard Sumlin play and wanted him to join his band.
"I was staying with Cotton in West Memphis and Wolf came by on his way to Chicago. He came by in this big ol' 18-passenger bus he had, brand new. He said, `I'm going to Chicago, Hubert, you want to come along?' And I asked Cotton, "You mind?' He said, `You go head on; you'll make more money with him than with me. I'm glad for ya.' When I got to Chicago, you never seen anybody so nervous and scared. I met everybody: Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, everybody. Man they had everything; you could hear music 24 hours a day, all night long."
It was 1954 and Sumlin had a job in one of the top bands in town. He played with Howlin' Wolf until he died in 1976 and helped define electric Chicago blues. The band, with Wolf on harp and vocals and Willie Dixon on bass, put out one classic after another. "Spoonful," "Smokestack Lightning," "The Red Rooster, "Back Door Man," "Killing Floor" and "Wang Dang Doodle" became staples of blues bands and were recorded by `60s and `70s rock bands including the Stones, the Doors, the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin.
Sumlin's biting solos were the archetype for what was to come in guitar rock. And today at least one of those rockers is repaying the favor. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones produced Sumlin's latest, as-yet-unreleased album, a tribute to Muddy Waters.
Charlie Musselwhite is a second generation Chicago bluesman born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis. He learned to play harmonica from street musicians and old bluesmen like Furry Lewis and Big Joe Williams. In a call from his home in Healdsburg he explained how he decided to head up to Chicago.
"I'd been working `round Memphis, just regular work like layin' concrete floors for cotton warehouses and stuff. The future didn't look too bright. And I'd see friends of mine leavin' town in these old jalopies heading north up Highway 51 -- we called it `Hillbilly Highway' -- and they'd come back to visit like a year later with a brand new car. They had that big factory job up north. I figured I'd better go on up there and get me one of them factory jobs."
Arriving in Chicago, he found work as a driver for an exterminator. "That was just perfect because I didn't know anything about Chicago. I didn't know there was a blues scene there. I didn't know nothin' about it. But driving this guy all over Chicago I got to know the town real fast. I saw posters and flyers and signs up about all the people playing: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, all this stuff.
"I was already playing harp and guitar, just not professional. I never really thought there was any way to make a living playing blues. At that time (1962), blues was such a small -- I guess you would say depressed -- market. There weren't blues festivals; there weren't blues magazines. You maybe heard a little blues on the radio. It was hard to find blues records. The truth is the blues was kind of dying out at that point. It never occurred to me that playing music was a way I could make a living.
"But when I got to Chicago I saw all these blues clubs and all these guys who I'd been listening to on records, they all lived in Chicago, or if they didn't, they passed through. All these people who were my blues heroes, they were all there. It was just amazing for me; I was like a kid in a candy store."
He would often find he was the only white person in a club and one of the few young people.
"The black kids my age were definitely not into the blues at all," he recalled. "They wanted nothin' to do with it. So it was an older crowd. I worked in factories with black kids my age and on Monday morning we'd talk about what we did over the weekend and I'd say, `Well, I went to hear Muddy Waters.' They'd say, `Man, get outta here. You're crazy. You gotta get up with the times; that's old folks music.' They thought I was way, way out of it, completely square. But that was OK, in the clubs the musicians were flattered that I was there, that I even knew who they were, that I had their records and knew the names of their tunes. That knocked them out."
Musselwhite took his love of the blues a step further and began playing with his heroes.
"Just hanging out I became friends with everybody. I was in there drinkin', carousing and partying like everybody else. I was having a good time. There was this one particular night when this waitress I knew told Muddy Waters that he oughtta hear me play harmonica, so he let me sit in.
"After that whenever I was around Muddy, he'd always have me sit in. Other musicians that hung out at Peppers would hear me. They'd say `We're playing at this other club next Wednesday. Why don't you stop by?' Then people started offering jobs. I would play and get paid. That really got my attention in a new way. I thought, `This is much better than spraying for roaches or working in a factory.'"
Next thing he knew he had an offer to record with blues harp legend Walter Horton and guitarist Johnny Shines, a session for the Vanguard label. That was followed by an album of his own, Stand Back, with a racially mixed group he called the Southside Sound System. It was 1967 and he followed the lead of other young Chicago players like Mike Bloomfield, moving to the Bay Area.
"They had the underground radio and they were playing my record. I was offered a month of work out here so I took a leave of absence from my factory job. When I got here I found I could work all the time. Blues was like exotic or something here."
Musselwhite's blues were a bit exotic. An example is a song on Stand Back, "Christo Redemptor," a haunting tune written by jazzman Donald Byrd. Maybe it wasn't standard blues but, said Musselwhite, "It's got that feeling. That's what it's all about, the feeling. Even if you play 12 bars and the three chords, that don't make it blues. Playing all the notes don't make it a blues. The blues is a feeling most of all."
Rusty Zinn is part of a third generation who latched onto Chicago blues.
In a call from his home in Oakland he said he discovered the blues while growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. "I developed a taste for roots music through my mom's record collection. Then my brother brought home some Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf records. It was all over then. I heard `Long Distance Call,' by Muddy Waters. I just loved the way he sang, the slide guitar, the lonesome sound. I'd never heard such intensity."
He decided then and there he would learn to play the blues.
"A friend of mine gave me a guitar and the summer before my senior year of high school I locked myself in my room with all my records and taught myself how to play. The first thing I worked on was `Hideaway' by Freddy King, but what I really wanted to do was play like Jimmy Rogers from Muddy's band and Robert Junior Lockwood, guys who were more like accompanists. They used more chords and melodic type phrases and less single string bending. It was more of a team interplay thing."
A major leap in his career came not long after. He started playing gigs around Santa Cruz and the Bay Area when he was 18, and at 19 he met Luther Tucker and Jimmy Rogers, guitarists who became his mentors.
"The next thing I knew I was touring with Jimmy Rogers and playing with Snooky Pryor and all these guys. I got to learn first hand from my heroes."
Twenty years after Charlie Musselwhite showed up in Chicago the response of the first generation Chicago bluesmen had not changed. "They totally embraced me, especially Jimmy Rogers and Luther Tucker. I wasn't playing as well as I do now, but I think they just liked the fact that I was putting an effort into trying to play their music the way it was supposed to go. They treated me like a son."
And said Zinn, for the veteran bluesmen the fact that he was a young and white made no difference. He remembers one night when he was talking with Rogers backstage after a gig.
"This really drunk cat came up, he said, `Hey Jimmy, this kid plays pretty good for a white boy, huh?' Jimmy Rogers got really pissed off. He wouldn't even look the guy in the face. He looked at the ground and said, `The blues ain't got no color.'
"For some people both black and white, color is an issue when it comes to this music, but I was fortunate, for the guys I hooked up with, it was not an issue at all.
"It doesn't take a dummy to realize that the blues was created by black folks, but the reality is that in this day and age young blacks are not playing the blues. Guys like Jimmy Rogers had white bands towards the end because it was the white players who wanted to carry this music on.
"You're not going to hear me sing about picking cotton and living in a one-room country shack because I didn't. The blues has to mean something for today."
On the title track of his latest album, The Chill, Zinn sings of universal troubles.
"I tell you what, that was a painful song. When I wrote that I was so down and out it was miserable. Everybody can relate to that. Everybody has the blues one time or another."
Booker T. Jones, born and raised in Memphis, Tenn., would be considered an American music icon if he had done nothing but create the classic organ riff in "Green Onions," but that is just one of many classic tunes where the Booker T. sound is essential. As part of the Stax/Volt house band, he played on hits by the giants of soul: Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett among them.
Jones started his musical life early. He was playing in a school band at 8, by the time he became a teenager he was playing piano at church teas and at fraternity parties at Memphis State.
What sort of music did he play? "It was what I'd call native Memphis music," he said in a call from his home in Tiburon. "The music of Memphis was gut blues.
"We were hearing Ray Charles on the radio, B.B. King. We heard Roy Hamilton, but I was also interested in jazz at a young age. The music I played in clubs was blues and rhythm and blues and jazz influenced, but I was also studying classics at the same time which I loved and still do love."
There was an old movie theater, Capital Cinema, around the corner from his house on a street called East McLemore. When Jones was in high school it became the Satellite Record Shop.
"The record store was the lobby of the theater. They had jazz records, rock `n' roll; they had everything in there. I would go listen. Back then when you bought records you could put them on the turntable and listen. If you liked it you could buy it, or not. I would stay there for hours. Steve Cropper was the clerk at the shop. I spent what money I could there."
The theater itself was turned into a recording studio, first for regional rockabilly hits, then for a variation on the blues that someone dubbed soul. And Jones was in on the ground floor.
"When they were recording one of the first Rufus Thomas sessions they needed a baritone sax player. I was in school, 11th or 12th grade, and David Porter knew that I played baritone sax, so he came and got me out of class. When I took my sax through that door I knew where I was going."
That was 1960. Eventually Jones, along with guitarist Steve Cropper, bass player Donald "Duck" Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, became the "Memphis Group," aka the MGs, the house band for Stax Records. The movie marquee outside identified to studio as "Soulsville U.S.A."
The label's first major hit was "Green Onions," an instrumental based on a Jones organ riff, recorded as the "b-side" for another record. Perhaps because there was no voice to identify it as a "black" record, it crossed over and became a rock hit reaching No. 3 on the charts.
One thing that made the MGs unusual was the fact that the band was integrated. Until then racially mixed bands were quite rare.
"The bands I played with in the clubs were all black," said Jones. "And those guys, Cropper and Dunn, did not play with black musicians. The Bar-Kays and the Mar-Keys were all white. We all knew each other but we didn't play together."
The key to working together was a shared passion for music of all kinds.
"These guys were not the normal white kids," said Jones. "I guess Elvis and guys like that were the same. And you know, we weren't your normal blacks either. I listened to a lot of country music and you can't hear Hank Williams sing and not be influenced by him. I don't care who you are, if it's compelling you're going to remember it. There was so much of that kind of music back then."
Like rock `n' roll, the soulful Stax approach merged black and white sounds. "The styles and labels -- rockabilly, blues, country -- kind of jelled into one another. In Memphis the music was so similar. The whites and the blacks were separated, but we were all singing about pain and heartbreak. When we were all there in the same room, well, that's why Memphis soul happened."
Joan Osborne All most people know about Joan Osborne is that she had a major hit a few years back with "One of Us," a catchy tune that asked the musical question "What if God was one of us?"
So what is she doing closing the show on Saturday at Blues by the Bay? It turns out she started out singing the blues. Her latest album, Righteous Love, is shot through with soul, gospel and blues, and her latest project was producing an album, Speaking in Tongues, for the gospel blues group the Holmes Brothers.
"I started out [in music] in the New York City, Lower East Side blues roots music scene where the Holmes Brothers were kings," she explained in a phone call just before boarding a tour bus in St. Cloud, Minn.
Osborne was putting herself through school, studying filmmaking at NYU.
"On the street where I lived there was this place called the Abilene Café where the Holmes Brothers used to play. I went in there one night with a friend. It was really late, the band had finished; just the piano player was playing, for his own enjoyment really. My friends dared me to go up and sing a song with him. So I did. I sang Billie Holiday's song, `God Bless the Child.'
"He said, `That's pretty good. You should come back on Tuesday night when we have an open mike.' Since I lived literally half a block away, I started going every Tuesday."
She hadn't really focused on singing before.
"I used to sing along to the radio, I sang in the choir, and when I was a very little girl I would go out in the backyard and sing to the birds and try to get them to sing back. I liked to sing, but it was nothing like singing this blues music, which was really something that turned my head around.
"It was a completely different kind of singing: emotionally raw and very personal. You couldn't really do it right unless you were drawing on something personal. It was an incredibly cathartic thing and just the opposite of what I was doing in filmmaking. With singing the actual performance is very immediate. That immediacy and physicality was liberating for me. It really captured me."
Most of what she sang at the open mike nights was blues. "I sang Etta James songs, Tina Turner songs, John Lee Hooker songs, Howlin' Wolf songs. I started investigating this music. I knew a couple of things, but my ignorance was pretty vast. I asked the other musicians a lot of questions. They would recommend records and I educated myself.
"I don't really consider myself a blues singer quote unquote, but I learned a lot about it. And it became a great passion. Soon enough I was spending all the money I was supposed to be saving for school on records or going out to clubs.
"I bought a guitar and started trying to write my own songs. It took over my life. Every waking moment was about music and also about this particular scene that was going on, this community that was happening in New York at the time. I went out to see all these people play, the Holmes Brothers among them. The Blues Travelers were hanging out, Chris Whitley was on that scene, the guys who became the Spin Doctors."
When she started writing her own material, roots music was at the foundation. "Not so much in the songwriting itself, but in the singing and the style of performing and just the notion that when you sing a song you let the song take you over. You become involved with it and connect with it."
Her plans for Blues by the Bay? "I'll play a bunch of blues songs. I've got no problem with that."
Waterfront Park, foot of L St., Eureka, Calif.
Tickets $25 for single day; $40 for weekend;
ages 13-20 - $25 for two days.
12 and under free. Gates open 11 a.m.
Presented by Redwood Coast Music Festivals - 445-3378.
No coolers, cans, bottles or pets allowed.
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