Wednesday, September 9, 2009
One day in 1974 a bass player named Lafayette "Shorty" Gilbert sat in with Howlin’ Wolf’s band during a Chicago performance. When the bassist’s position opened up a few months later, Wolf growled to a bandmember "Where’s that little short motherfucker at?"
Since Wolf’s death in 1976, Shorty has played for the Wolf Gang, a touring blues band led by Wolf’s former saxophonist and bandleader, Eddie Shaw. The band also features Shaw’s son, guitarist Eddie Vaan Shaw Jr., and drummer Tim Taylor, son of blues legend Eddie Taylor Sr. But Shorty’s path has also crossed that of many other blues notables, among them Eddie Taylor, Little Johnny Taylor and Little Milton.
I caught up with Shorty in Baltimore, right after the Wolf Gang gave a private show for the media organization Investigative Reporters and Editors. This is a long interview, but he gave me a lot of good stuff. It's worth the time, trust me.
BBP: When did you play with Howlin’ Wolf?
Shorty: I started playing with Howlin’ Wolf May 19, 1974.
BBP: And what was playing with him like?
Shorty: It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life. It showed me a lot of ways that I didn’t know.
BBP: How did you meet him?
Shorty: Well I played with a club in Chicago called the Long Branch and he happened to be playing there this particular night so I dropped in, so I knew the bass player, Bobby Anderson, he was a real good bass player, so he said when I walked in I’m glad to see you. I said ‘What you mean?’ He said ‘I’m hungry I’m going across the street to get me a sandwich, I want you to sit in and play a couple of tunes for me…I said ‘who?" he said ‘Yeah play with Wolf til I get back.’ I said ‘Man, you got to be kidding’ I said: ‘I’m not that good.’ He said ‘just play." And so, sure enough during the time he went to go get his sandwich it’s showtime and so I went up and and I played. I was scared. I made a couple of mistakes on the beginning, then he glanced at me and said ‘you can play pretty good.’
I played about three tunes with him before the bass player came back .So when I came down, the word that he says is, If I ever need a bass player, I’m sure going to look you up.’
BBP: Oh my God.
Shorty: After about three months another friend of mine who was a bass player so he was playing so he had to ask him but he already had his own band so someone said ‘get little Shorty!’ And he said ‘yeah where’s that little old short motherfucker at?’ That’s what he said! He said ‘go get ‘im!’…Anyway so I went down there Eddie had a club in Chicago called 1815 club during that time and Wolf played down there every weekend when he wasn’t on the road. So he came and took me down there I never will forget that day May 19, 1974.that’s when I joined the band. And ever since then me and Eddie we’ve been sticking together. We look like we can’t do without each other sometimes. Man I had some of the greatest times. We had some of the greatest times out here on this road playin’ you know meeting a lot of people. Good times. IT wasn’t about the money during that time it wasn’t about the money. It was about the fun you could have when you got there.
BBP: The fun?
Shorty: When me and Eddie first started traveling together after Howlin’ Wolf passed away We would go to Boston a lot up in that area and we met these two older guys, they were twin brothers, older guys they were about in their eighties then, but they were the owners of this one particular hotel in Boston and uh everytime we go to Boston if we ain’t go no money, we ain’t got to have no money to get into the hotel…all we have to do is walk in there and they say oh there’s the Wolf-e gang here your key here your key hear your key here your key pay me later. And we go, and sometimes we go to pay the bill and they said ‘Ah you all go head on y’all worked hard.’ They were two of the nicest old guys you could ever meet. "that owned a business like that all the musicians would go there that’s where every musicians would go to.’
BBP: What was the name of this place?
Shorty: I can’t recall the name of it right now.
BBP: In Boston?
Shorty: Yes Boston. We played a place a lot called Speakeasy there, then we started playing the Tam. The Spring Johnson and that’s how I met the Blues brothers.
BBP: The Blues Brothers? You mean Belushi and Akroyd?
Shorty: Right. Nat Guitar Murphy, he just started playing with them during that time at that time they were called the Zychek Brothers.
BBP: How do you spell Zychek.
Shorty: Uh, I can’t…
BBP: That’s alright. You met them in Boston and they were the guys from Saturday night Live?
Shorty: yeah. That was before they got big.and Matt Guitar Murphy was playing guitar with them.
BBP: Did you see the movie?
Shorty: Oh yeah. I wasn’t in the movie but I seen the movie I knew them before they made the movie. I met them way back. I’d been knowing them about a year maybe two years before they came and did the movie in Chicago. And Cab Calloway and all of them…
BBP: Wow that’s something, you’ve met a lot of people.You met Muddy waters.
Shorty: Oh yeah.
BBP: Did you play with him?
Shorty: Well, I didn’t play no gig with him but we opened up for Muddy and I sat in and played with Muddy. That’s why I always play "Mojo "different than other bass players do because when I sat in with Muddy, James Cotton I sit in for the base, Calvin Jones, he’s a good bass player, we played it in New Hampshire and so when I played that bass like doom doom he turned around and said ‘That’s the way I wanted that song played!’
BBP: Muddy said that?
Shorty: That’s what he said and it scared me when he said ‘that’s the way I wanted that song played. I started playing it on the road he said ‘play it like that play it like that."
BBP: Did he invite you to be in his band?
Shorty: Well during that time and all (pauses) no he didn’t invite me to be in his band but uh I think after then about two years later is when he passed away.
BBP: How much does Wolf influence the music of Eddie Shaw?
Shorty: I can’t talk for Eddie but he really did put me up there. I never thought I would make it this far, because I had a day job I was working at a gas station, worked at a gas station for five years. Managing a gas station and when I got into music I just cut the job loose and started practicing a lot, reading a lot..I got it in the fingers. Everytime someone say, how you learn how to play like that in the fingers…in the fingers.
BBP: Do you remember the first time you ever picked up a bass how old you were?
Shorty: The first time I ever picked up a bass I was seven years old.
Shorty: Uh-huh. But I couldn’t play it at that time.
BBP: Was it one of those upright basses?
Shorty: No.It was just an old Silvertone bass. My father he was a harmonica player right and so, actually my father taught Slim Harpo how to play…my father and Slim Harpo’s mother, sister and brother, cause Slim Harpo’s mother named Annabel and my father was Cliff and man, we all used to just be sitting out there in the yard and the music sound good everytime they’d be playing when they’d leave the guitars I’d go and start hittin’ on them (laughs) Got a lot of whuppins but I didn’t stop.I really start playing when I got to Chicago, because when I got to Chicago I met these two guys Joe Harrison and Bernard Harrison they were two brothers and there was another guy, there was another guy and they played good, they were young dudes and I started fooling around with them, the bass player started showing me a couple of tunes and I wasn’t interested then.
BBP: What were you playing at the time, harmonica?
Shorty: No at the time I was just fiddling around, trying to play guitar and so we went and met these three sisters, me, Joe and Bernard and so they liked the music and so Joe and Bernard played the music and it looked like they get the girls. So that couldn’t happen to me, so I had to learn how to do somethin’ and goddoggit I done went through four women, I messed around with one woman 15 years I was with another one 13 years I was with another one four years and the one I got now, we’ve been together 11 years.
BBP: All from playing Bass?
Shorty: All from playing Bass.
BBP: Were you in Honeydripper?
Shorty: Yeah. Oh man, it was great, it was great. Specially the harmonica player the guitar player and the keyboard player. We were playing in Toronto, Canada. And who pops up. Danny Glover. But the greatest guy in the whole band was the blind guy playing the piano. We called him Mr. Henderson, he could play and could sing. I mean, he could play piano.
BBP: How did you get involved in that movie?
Shorty: Through Eddie. They needed a, see when they did the movie they didn’t have a bass player they just had a piano player a guitar player and a harmonica player. And so, after they did the movie then they wanted a full band so me and the drummer…they needed a drummer and a bass player so Eddie recommended me and the drummer. And man, we had some good times. I ain’t kidding. The money was good and the sleeping quarters was excellent the sleeping quarters the hotels were excellent.
BBP: What was the experience like playing in a movie. Did you see the movie?
Shorty: I seen the movie but I’m not playing in the movie I just played after they did the movie they had uh (pause) …after they were advertising the movie the Honeydripper so they needed a full band but now me and the drummer we’re not in the movie but we played with the band after they did the movie then they started…
Shorty: Yeah, right, right, right.
BBP: Did you see Cadillac Records?
Shorty: No I didn’t.
BBP: How has blues bass changed over the years, would you say?
Shorty: How has blues changed?
BBP: Bass. Blues bass.
Shorty: Well, see what it is like, more guys got different types of basses. You know, got five and six strings and seven strings and all that kind of stuff just like a guitar. And uh, they nice, they sound good, but when it comes down to playing blues bass you don’t need but one string.
BBP: Just four strings? Or one string?
Shorty: You can use four but you only need one.
BBP: How’s that? You’re fretting it?
Shorty: Right. It ain’t nothing but lump-de-lump-de-lump-lump. (chuckles). That’s all it is.
BBP: But you were doing a lot more than that up on stage, you know.
Shorty: It all depends on what kind of blues you play. We play a lot of high energy stuff. But when it comes down to it. (interrupted by passer-by).
BBP: So you play a lot of high energy blues.
Shorty: Yeah I play with a feeling. But I don’t try to play like nobody, I just try to play me.
BBP: Are there any bass techniques you’ve developed that, when other people hear it they’ll say, yeah that’s Shorty playing?
Shorty: Well, anytime I’m playing they know who’s playing because I play a little different than other bass players.See I only play with these three fingers I don’t play with my little finger and I play a lot of open strings. Some bass players play it closed, I play it open.
BBP: Why use open strings.
Shorty: Because it gives me a fatter tone. Makes it more fatter. Bass-y. Yeah.
BBP: Is that something that you kind of discovered on your own or did another bass player show you that.
Shorty: No, that’s something I discovered on my own. That’s what I feel.
BBP: Either way it works. What’s your philosophy toward interacting with the drummer? Because it sounds like you’re pretty much in lockstep with him you’re not playing counterpoint.
Shorty: Well, listening. You have to have a good ear, you know. I can feel, when you’re a musician you can feel the music when it’s going to change. Then you count you’re counting in your head all of the time.
BBP: You’re counting up to when you hear the change.
Shorty: Right, Right.
BBP: Whose your favorite drummer to play with?
Shorty: Well for blues, favorite drummer is Tim Taylor, the drummer that we used to have Tim Taylor, …playing hard blues he’s got that beat that real blues beat….
BBP: So Tim Taylor, was he a regular in your band?
Shorty: We got really tight I used to play with Tim Taylor’s father when Tim was a little diaper wearing baby. I played with Eddie Taylor, Kansas City Red…
BBP: Eddie Taylor, Sr?
BBP: What was he like, what was that like?
Shorty: It was great. Eddie Taylor was a real great guy.
BBP: What sort of personality was he to play with.
Shorty: Well, a lot of people…he was real quiet. He was quiet. When he speak he speak.So I play ed for him and Jimmy Reed in Eddie’s club, and I played with Little Johnny Taylor
BBP: Wow, you played with a lot of people. What was the song you did with Eddie Taylor. Were you touring with him? How long were you playing with him?
Shorty: Eddie Taylor he toured with me and Eddie we went overseas a lot. He went out of town with us and up to Boston.
BBP: Have you been influenced by musicians playing other instruments besides bass?
Shorty: Oh yeah. I like playing guitar. I like guitar and you know I like (pause) I like music. I sit one day listening to a guy…two hours playing one string..do-de-do-de-do-do-de
BBP: He had a bass?
Shorty: No he had a guitar, he just didn’t have but one string on the guitar (laughing). It wasn’t even an E string, he had an A string, one A string. I asked him what up? He said oh I broke em all off. I don’t need them. (laughing)
BBP: He broke them off on purpose.
Shorty: I don’t know how it happened but he didn’t have but one string on the guitar. But anyway it was fun. And I played with this one guy in Chicago called…his name was Hubcap and when he played he had one foot drum and a snare and his cymbals were hubcaps, hubcaps that come off an old Cadillac with the big hubcaps and believe me they sound better than anything you’ve ever heard.
BBP: This is in Chicago?
Shorty: Yeah. And you’ve heard of Big Walter Horton, right? Harmonica player? Well I was playing with him and Kansas City Red and Homesick James
Shorty: Homesick James and Floyd Jones. And, man, they sound good. All of them sound good together.
BBP: Did you ever record with Muddy?
Shorty: No. I didn’t get to record with Wolf either. But the good thing that happened was, I got a chance to play with him. The last gig we did at the amphitheatre, we went into the dressing room just after we got through playing, me Chico Chism, Eddie, Detroit Junior…we went in the dressing room …we supposed to be playing at Eddie’s club, the 1815 club that night, so Wolf says ‘man, I wish I had you two little motherfuckers a long time ago, we would have made a lot of money talking about me and Chico Chisum, Chico was playing drums and I was playing he was saying ‘Man my band ain’t ever been tight. So me and Chico, we’re going on down to the club to set up the drum and bass because he had a car and we ended up riding together so we gets out .. So me and Chico we went down because Chico had an old car, he never took care of it, he started it up, it smoked up the parking lot. So we was leavin out when we seen the ambulance coming in so we thought somebody must have gotten hammered and fell out in there so we come on to the club and I set my bass up sit up waiting on Hubert and Detroit and Eddie and cause Wolf really going to come on later, so then Eddie called the club and told them Wolf was in the hospital. And he never came out alive.
BBP: he was supposed to play that night at the club.
Shorty. Yep yep. And then the next two weeks, we supposed to have been play
ning with Jimmy Reed down there. But Jimmy Reed, he had been by the club, but he had to go to LA because he had two jobs in LA to do then he was coming back to the club that weekend. Me and Chico had went out and put out plaques and everything and then got a call from California that Jimmy Reed had just passed out on the bandstand and fell dead.
BBP: What are some of your favorite recordings, Shorty?
Shorty: I have my own CD out though and uh
BBP: What’s it called?
Shorty: "Little Shorty in the Wee Hour." I got to get some more everytime I go out there it’s shh..
BBP: Which record company has it out.
Shorty: Well I did this in Salt Lake city it’s something like a. guitar player harp player.
BBP:. It’s up to you to keep the rhythm going.
Shorty: I had the rhythm in the head. We tightened it up.
BBP: Howlong has this album been out, this CD?
Shorty: Oh it’s been out a year,,,
BBP: What other recordings that you like I mean by other people?
Shorty: "I like Koko, bless her heart she just passed on and I like Mighty Joe Young when he was living, Freddie King and Otis Rush. And I like Eddy Clearwater, I like real deep blues.
BBP: How about bass players? What bass players do you like?
Shorty: I like Bob Stroger and uh, I like Calvin Jones.
BBP: Calvin Jones?
Shorty: Yeah. Played with Muddy. Actually those two are my favorite bass players.
BBP: Are there any others that you like?
BBP: Before you get into that why do you like those two?
Shorty: Because I like the style that they have. I like a heavy bass a deep bass and that’s what they play. That’s why I play a lot of bottom on mine and less high-end.
BBP: When you say bottom you mean on the "E" string and on the "A" string?
Shorty: No bottom means more bass on the amp.
BBP: I gotcha.
Shorty: m-hm. Yeah.
BBP: Do you like effects, stuff like Larry Graham uses?
Shorty: I like it, but uh, I like to just plug in the amp and play what the amp gives you, you know? Like I said its in the fingers.
BBP: It’s in the fingers.
Shorty: It’s in the fingers.
BBP: Now when you say its in the fingers do you mean the depth of playing or the speed.
Shorty: See, look, I get a lot of bottom because I don’t hit from the tip of the finger, I rub.
Shorty: See like, just rub. If I want it high-end, I do like that (does a plucking motion), if I want it fat I just rub em.
BBP: Do you like to play up here (toward the body) or down here (toward the end) on bass.
Shorty: It all depends on what I’m playing.
BBP: Tell me a song which you play further up the neck.
Shorty: Well something like a slow tune, when I play up the neck like that I get more of an upright bass sound because the further you are away from the pick-up the more bottom you’re going to have on the guitar.
Shorty: That’s my little secret. (chuckles).
BBP: Now when you’re playing down here closer to the body….
Shorty: When I play down there it’s a lot of high energy. Like gan-pop-gan (staccato sounds).And if I play up around the neck I get "dum-dum-dum"