Friday, January 29, 2010

Kim Wilson on the harp, on singing, on Muddy, on all kinds of stuff

Harmonica player Kim Wilson has come into contact with many blues greats over the years--and he thanks everyone of them. Leader and Co-founder of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Wilson credits Eddie Taylor with helping him find his harmonica chops, Muddy Waters for mentoring him and a plethora of musicians ranging from Slim Harpo to Lazy Lester and James Cotton for inspiring him.
Wilson, whose Thunderbirds are known for such blues/rock hits as "Wrap It Up" and "Tuff Enuff," spoke to Beldon's Blues Point last month moments after his latest project, White Loafer, debuted before a packed house at the Old Bowie Town Grille. Joined for the night by Roomful of Blues drummer Ephraim Lowell, the band played a set that gave Wilson a chance to delve into his bluesy side, both as a singer and as a harmonica player.
During the interview, Wilson contrasted his roles as singer and harmonica player. He also spoke of the importance of honesty in the blues world and his appreciation of other forms of music. Our questions and his responses follow:

BBP: I understand Muddy Waters was a big influence in your life.
Kim Wilson: Yeah, he was. He was like a father to me, and, uh, he did a lot of great things for me when I was a kid that I probably didn't even deserve but he did it for me anyway. He just liked what I did for some reason. Course I played with all of the guys, but Muddy was a very special guy for me of course and Jimmy Rogers as well. I've played with people like Eddie Taylor, Eddie Taylor was like the first guy I ever played with. And uh, people who really didn't need harmonica players, like Pee Wee Crayton and Lowell Fulson and Albert Collins you know, and John Lee Hooker back when I was a kid a lot a lot of people, Luther Tucker..the list goes on and on.

BBP: So you're doing about 300 shows a year now, is that accurate?

Wilson: 300 shows? No, not that many. No, I've trimmed way back, maybe 100, 150. But it's kind of misleading because I do a lot of stuff with the solo band too. And so, I'm not exactly sure how many I do. But, uh, it's plenty.

BBP: Where are the Thunderbirds going these days? Where are they heading?

Wilson: We got a new CD...and we're still adjusting that and, new agent, senior manager a lot of work coming in, Thank God and, uh, I'm blessed to be around the people that I'm around at both ends. It's really a fantasic thing for me. Over the years I've sort of culled out all of the ones I didn't want to be around, and I've got all of the people I do want to be around now, which is awesome. So I'm ready to go. Feel great. Ready to go.

BBP: Of all of the people you ever played with, of all of the gigs you've ever played is there one that kind of stands out in your mind?

Wilson: A couple of the ones with Muddy, you know. But I mean there have been a lot of them. A lot of them. You know early on, when I was a kid a couple of the ones with Muddy Waters, you know.

BBP: Can you think of one in particular?

Wilson: I had just met him, you know, and he was playing a Little Walter song and he made me stand up because he thought I reminded him of Little Walter. I had just met him, it was a big thing for me. There was another one way way back, when I..somebody got me on stage at a George Smith show and I was checking it out and my buddy who died a couple of years ago made me get up there and it was one of those shows where George, my friend played two or three numbers and he'd get down and George would get up so he wanted me to play in his place and I was trying not to do it but he made me. So I got about a song-and-a-half into it and George popped up on stage with me. And that was the beginning of a very wonderful friendship. (George)was a very underrated guy, they were all generous, all of these guys were generous people. I don't know what they saw in me, but they saw something and that kept me going, playing this kind of music. Because there's really not any incentive to do right, you know. It's not something that people think of as a career anymore. But myself, I've found a niche for myself and uh, I do a lot of different things. It's really the singing that keeps me alive, not the harmonica playing.

BBP: You said the singing and not the harmonica playing keeps you going?

Wilson: Well, you know the harmonica thing about the harmonica and every other instrument is, they are only there to enhance the voice. The voice is the whole thing. The harmonica is, just something to set the voice up.

BBP: Whose influenced you most as a player?

Wilson: They all have their thing that they do which is fantastic. Junior Wells was a real understated guy but a great harmonica player. Really great singer I learned a lot of singing from him. And uh, James Cotton of course is still a dear friend of mine. He was really the first guy I got turned on to before Little Walter. All of them, Lazy Lester, Junior Parker, Slim Harpo. (The way to) develop your own thing is to have so many're not able to emulate them all at once, you know what I mean? It just comes out like you, eventually. It's all those different sounds, all those different things. A lot of people forgot that singing is the basis for everything that is blues. At one time there were no instruments, just singing.

BBP: Whose influenced you most as a singer?

Wilson: Well, everybody. I love Bobby Bland he just had a birthday yesterday. Just turned 80, I was trying to get a hold of him and I couldn't find him so, I hope he hears this. You know I mean everybody, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Reed, BB King back in the RPM days. BB King was incredible because, he was really the best at both things at once. Also, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, all of these people. James Cotton was a fantastic singer. He lost his voice unfortunately.

BBP: What do you want to do with your band?

Wilson: It's wide open what I can do with this thing. I'm going to do a lot of different configurations and then I'm going to do the blues cruise next October, I'm going to add a couple of horns to the blues band....I'm very excited, it's a nice thing to have kind of a rebirth at this stage in my life. It takes a long time to get where you want to go musically. And I'm not saying I'm there yet, I've sort of busted into the basement of the peer group I want to be in. Most of them are dead unfortunately which I highly regret because they'e not able to see what's happening out here. I get so upset, I see a lot of people..It's like they're waiting for these guys to die so they can come out and do this--this--stuff that they're trying to call blues today. If it's musical that's okay, B.B. was right, there's good music and there's bad music. But when you make the mistake of putting a label on it, it really puts a bad taste in people's mouths, so if you label things blues--even if they're good--and it's not blues, it's just wrong. People in the audiences have gotten very mixed up about what this stuff is. You can only modernize this music so much before it becomes something else, before it becomes something that it's not.
If you look at a guy like little Milton or Albert King or Albert Collins, they really modernize it in a way that's legitimate. I think to skip your homework, and come out...because, when you look at the old masters and go "I'm never going to be able to do that," people skip that, and pull the wool over people's eyes, it's criminal to me, and I have zero tolerance for it. So do what you do and stand up and be counted for it and call it what it actually is and if it's good, great. There's a lot of different music that I like.

BBP: What other kinds of music do you like?

Wilson: I like soul, I like jazz, I like old-time country and western musio, I like reggae, I like a lot of things. There's a lot of different kinds...I like some modern music, yeah. I was watching Mary J. Blige on the TV the other night doing the Haitian benefit, man. Boy, she was--that's old school to me, I don't know. She's just awesome. She had a great band, the Roots, you know those guys? That's a serious band. Boy that band is unbelievable.

BBP: You still keep in touch with Jimmy Vaughn?

Wilson: No. Not too much. Once in a while. I guess he's doing okay.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Anthony "Swamp Dog" Clark

Growing up in York, Pennsylvania, Anthony Clark had a love of music so strong his parents bought him a snare drum and signed him up for lessons when he was just a toddler.
Later, a teen-aged Clark would add harmonica to his repertoire.
Now, three years out from his retirement as an information technology manager,Clark, 58, is pursuing his musical interest with more fervor than ever, blowing his harp throughout the D.C. area, his adopted home for over 30 years.
Under the name "Swamp Dog," Clark has performed at such venues as Bangkok Blues, Chick Hall's Surf Club, the Eastport Democratic Club, the Congressional Blues Festival and the Greenbelt Blues Festival.
Clark says he wants to entertain audiences in "Spain, England, Italy, Holland, back here and then back over there again." Still he is not looking for fame and fortune. "Don't have to be a star. Just want to work," he says.
Clark's first experiences as a performer came through marching bands. In high school, he drummed at parades and football half-time shows.
He eventually learned how to play a full drum set, joining a top-40 band when he was about 15 years old. At this time, Clark's interest in harmonica was starting to intensify, and he began studying books on the instrument and listening to recordings of famous players. Sonny Boy Williamson was his first inspiration. "The first book I ever bought talked about him the most, the first albums I ever bought" were his, Clark says. "I picked up most of my chops from him at the time."
James Cotton, Little Walter and Paul Butterfield also left their marks. "When they play it they mean it. You can hear it," he says
Learning how to bend notes was the hard part, he says. "That, and getting tone, that certain vibrato," he says. But as he mastered it, he began to incorporate the harmonica more into his top-40 gigs.
His musical career digressed a bit in 1976 after he moved to the D.C. area and began working gigs as a jazz drummer. "This was on the job training for sure because my background didn't have any of this type of music in it," he says.
He played drums behind Wilson Pickett in the early 1980's at an outside show arranged by popular D.J. Moonman Bacote.
"As a drummer I always played on top of the beat...that day he told me to play a little behind the beat," Clark recalls. "That's about as much interaction as I had with him that day. I knew his songs. He just counted them off, we went into them and that was it."
But eventually the blues prevailed as Clark's music of choice and the harp as his instrument of choice. "The ease of just whipping out my harp at lunch and blowing kept me motivated to continue playing music. Finally I heard of the Surf Club and the fact that at that time they had open mic blues jams. I started going there to hone my chops."
He was tapped by guitarist John Vengrouski and drummer Art McKenny to join them in forming the Capital Blues Ensemble band, which performed at the Silver Spring Blues Festival in May, 2009.
He formed the All-Stars in July. In addition to Clark, the band features Ken Sparks on guitar, Charles "Red" Atkins on bass and Mike Simon on drums.
"We do (Herbie Hancock's) 'Chameleon', we do 'All Blues'--which is obviously blues--by Miles Davis... we do (The Meters') 'Cissy Strut' we do a few songs that are not blues but they hit which is one of my strong prerequisites to doing a tune. By hit I mean funk, funky like. Because a lot of the songs we do are obviously blues but there' a funk edge to the blues."
Sparks says Clark's background on the drums augments his already formidable skills as a bandleader. "He basically has a feel for how everybody's part should go in the songs, and he lets us play our instruments the way we want," Sparks says. "But he also has a particular sound he wants us to produce and conveys that to us well."
Clark was the first person Old Bowie Town Grille owner Robert Thompson thought of when he decided to supplement his club's regular Wednesday night jam with a second one on Thursday. "He gets along well with all of the musicians," Thompson says. "He's very professional but I thought that he would be able to develop a different crowd then my Wednesday night," which is hosted by drummer Chip Clemmer.
The Thursday night offering has had its "ups and downs" but is "developing into a pretty good jam," he adds.
Attending all of Clark's gigs is Marcella, his wife of 29 years. An "absolute" blues lover, she is probably his toughest critic, scolding him whenever, for example, he allows too much down time between songs while performing.
Still, she thinks his playing has "gotten a hundred percent better" since his retirement. "When he plays he feels it," she says. "and to me that makes all of the difference in world."