Sunday, September 26, 2010
James Armstrong: Rebirth
Born to a mother who was a blues singer and a father who played jazz guitar, James Armstrong initially went through the type of childhood rebellion that makes kids do anything but what their parents do. Armstrong tried several instruments and styles before he realized where the rockers he was listening to got their music.
Since then he has accumulated extensive experience as a bluesman, sharing the stage with “Big” Joe Turner, Albert Collins, Coco Montoya and Joe Louis Walker, among others. His approach to the art has been one of respecting its traditions while expanding its boundaries by writing original material rather than just regurgitating covers.
He enjoys the respect of the music and blues community, many of whom stepped up to help him overcome an experience that almost cost him his career, not to mention his life and that of his son: a home-invasion assault that left his arm so badly injured he thought he would never play again.
Beldon’s Blues Point caught up with him Friday, Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C., where he performed before a packed band room at Madam’s Organ in the city’s Adams-Morgan section. He looked like anything but somebody still suffering lingering problems from the assault when, during a guitar solo, he jumped onto the bar,dropped back to the floor, then went outside along busy 18th Street, all without missing a note.
During a break, he talked much about his life:
BBP: I understand that your mother was a jazz singer and your father was a guitarist?
Armstrong: Definitely. They met in Philadelphia. My dad played guitar and my mom sang and that’s how they met and I started playing with my dad, playing drums when I was five years old.
BBP: That was your first musical experience, playing drums?
Armstrong: I didn’t want to play guitar because when you’re a kid, at least I was the type of kid who didn’t want to do what my parents did. My dad always played and my mom always sang so I just thought I’d just beat these drums and then I didn’t have to (laughs) play guitar.
BBP: When did you finally decide to pick up a guitar?
Armstrong: I think I went to saxophone after that, I think I was about 11 or 12. Cause I’d always picked it up, they were laying all around the house so I used to just pick it up and strum and lay it down. But one day, I can almost remember, I just picked it up, I was watching TV and I did a couple of things on it. It started to make sense. It started to work. So then I just kept playing from there and I think…I’m going to say (I was about) 13.
BBP: So when did you feel that you wanted to play blues as opposed to rock and roll.
Armstrong: Well that’s interesting because I grew up in California. And like hearing the blues and the jazz all of my life, I just kind of wanted to rebel. So I was really heavy into rock and actually my first touring band was a country band at 17. And I really didn’t care for the blues. I heard it all and my dad did it in a lot of places but what finally happened, I came sort of in through the back door because I heard some of the rock bands like Clapton, who I think is an incredible bluesman and the Allman Brothers. And they had another energy, they put another energy to the blues that I didn’t know about. But then what that did for me, that made me go back to the greats: Howlin Wolf, Freddy King, B.B. King, Albert Collins, and go back to all of those guys and go ‘oh that’s where everybody’s got it from.’ So I kind of call it going through the back door and then I finally came home.
BBP: Now I understand you used to play for Albert Collins and also that you played with Coco Montoya?
Armstrong: I met Coco Montoya when I was 17 in Santa Monica California, and I was just playing with him and he said “I’m going to bring this guy down” I was probably in my early 20’s then. And he goes Albert Collins, and he (Collins) was going to come to one of our shows, and I didn’t know who he was (laughs). And then he came in and he just picked up this Telecaster and I’m standing next to him and I was…I was blown away. I just never heard anything like that, and got the opportunity to play with him there quite a few times, and just hung out with him. Just incredible, incredible man.
BBP: Who else have you played with over the years?
Armstrong: You know, I…
BBP: Big Daddy…
Armstrong: You might be thinking of Big Daddy Kinsey? I played with the Kinsey Report a lot. I never worked with Big Daddy. I worked with….
BBP: Wait a minute, you played with the Kinsey Report? That’s one of my favorite bands! Tell me about that. Please!
Armstrong: The Kinsey Report, let me tell you, I knew about them and I heard their stuff, and then I had a friend who wanted me to help them get some lodging in Santa Cruz. So I met them and the first time I sat in with them was in Santa Cruz. And then we played different places around the world, whenever there was a festival or something that we could meet. I was actually able to use Kenny Kinsey in my band for maybe about a year, which was incredible.
BBP: Their bass player.
Armstrong: Bass player, yeah. And (Kinsey Report lead guitarist) Donald Kinsey is to me just phenomenal. He’s just the nicest guy and just an incredible player.
BBP: You’ve had a lot of influences. You’ve played in a country band, you’ve played rock. Is that filtering into what you are doing now?
Armstrong: Well, you know it’s interesting because I try to infuse—I don’t guess I try, it just happens. You hear things, and I grew up with the country, I grew up with rock, I did a little folk. And obviously I did the R and B thing. That, and blues. So when I sit down and write, I just try to infuse all of it together somehow. I don’t say “well this is a blues song” or “this is a rock feel” or “this is a soul feel.” I just try to throw it together and if it makes sense to me, that’s kind of all that matters. Maybe nobody else likes it but (laughs)
BBP: We love it. We love it. Tell me about Chaka Khan. You played with her?
Armstrong: Yeah, well Chaka—it was in Hollywood. So we’re at Billy Dee Williams’ club and she actually came in and she was sitting in the back and someone mentioned her name and the crowd started screaming and I didn’t know what to do. I was kind of young and I said, “Would you like to come up?” and she literally came on stage with me and uh—I used to do a lot of Hendrix, and she actually loved the Hendrix I was doing. So we did a couple of Hendrix songs, and she went and played drums! I didn’t know she played drums. She was incredible and we just hung out all night and just had a great time.
BBP: I understand that Hendrix is one of your influences, but more from a vocal point of view than a guitar point of view. Is that true?
Armstrong: Yeah, definitely. I got into him really young and I tried to play like him but I wasn’t capable and I don’t think too many people ever were or will be. But I listened to him so much that I think I started to sing like him and do his phrasing. One of the biggest thrills of my life—you were talking about playing with people—I got a chance to play with Mitch Mitchell, his drummer, for two shows with Coco Montoya. I was 22 and that was like the thrill of my life to be able to play with one of the Experience.
BBP: So tell me about that a little bit. What happened that night?
Armstrong: It was just incredible. I didn’t know about it until about a week before it happened. I had met him earlier, and that was it for me—just meeting him I thought I had reached my plateau. But then I got a call from Coco saying “Mitch is going to sit in with us for these couple of shows” and just the feel that he had, just the presence.
BBP: I want to ask you about a very tragic part of your life. I understand that you were victimized by a robber at some point? And that it may have affected your ability to play?
Armstrong: Yeah, in 1998 I was home playing with my two-year-old son and my nine-month-old son and we lived in an incredibly safe area in Sunnyvale, California and we had just left the doors open, it was that kind of family neighborhood. Anyway, we were on the second story and the door opened and somebody walked in. So I got up off of the floor and I go “What are you doing in my house?” And he put his hand up to his mouth to like be quiet and walked into the kitchen, was looking in drawers and I went out to the other room to make a phone call. I was calling 911, and when I turned around he had already had the knife cocked back and he stabbed. The first stab wound was in my upper chest. And then I got repeatedly stabbed. I was trying to get outside and he grabbed my two-year-old, he grabbed my two-year-old son and threw him over a balcony. And today James Junior, James Junior is 17. He’s fine, he’ll be okay. He was okay. He was in a coma for four weeks but he’s okay now. For me, I lost use of my left arm and hand for about two years and I only have two fingers that work on my left fingering hand. My hand looks okay, but I only have two fingers that are kind of weak so I’m just really blessed that God just gave me a chance. I never thought I’d play again or even hold a guitar. But over the years I’ve tried and I’ve had a lot of support from friends like Coco and Joe Louis Walker, Doug Macleod.The blues world has just really helped me out, so, so much to come back and I’m, I’m…….
BBP: Yep. You’re back. I heard you play. You sound great. How did you get your arm back to play like you do now?
Armstrong: Well you know it took a long, long, long, long time and still, I used to have all my fingers and I think I used to be pretty good, but God has an interesting way of working. I couldn’t play for a long time because my brain said “Well you can do this” but my hand, I literally couldn’t move my fingers. But I always wanted to sound a certain way, like the older guys. Like Albert and B.B. and Freddy and—I wanted to have that feeling, that slowness. And literally God gave it to me in a different way. I literally can’t play fast because of my left hand. So I had to start bending notes and slowing down because I literally couldn’t do it. I sound like I wanted to a long time ago when my hand worked. So it’s literally interesting for me, that’s the way I look at it. It took a very long, long time to realize that I just can’t play fast and there’s no need to play fast. Play with feeling, less is more.
BBP: Let me ask you what you have cooking in the hopper right now in terms of albums and projects, and different things.
Armstrong: We have a brand new CD that’s done and it’s being mastered right now. And hopefully in—it’s hard to say, I’m going to say months—a few months it should be out. And the word is “should.” I hope it is. I think it will be. It’s been a while since I put one out, because I was on HighTone records for a long time. And we’re really happy with it, it’s got—it’s basically all originals. It’s got some new feels, new grooves. Maybe you heard some of them tonight. We’re real excited about it.
BBP: What’s it called?
Armstrong: That’s how excited we are, we don’t even know yet (laughs)! That’s how new it is.
BBP: Let me just ask you one more question. How would you advise a young guitar player coming along to prove himself, to be able to play like you do?
Armstrong: Well, it’s interesting because I get asked that a lot. You used the word “tragedy” and I guess it was. But I kind of call it a gift. What the gift taught me was, when that happened to my son and myself, I injured my hand. It’s like, you have to play for yourself, you have to play from your soul. We all can listen to Freddy King, Albert and Hendrix and Clapton, who I love. But you have to get to a point where it’s yourself. So when you sit down and practice, don’t try to—you got to sound like somebody else for a little bit. But after that you have to find yourself—because that separates the men from the boys—and just practice. And have fun. That’s what it’s about. If it’s not, if you’re not having fun, don’t do it.
We ended the interview here, but then Armstrong had something to say about guitarist Joe Louis Walker and how he had helped him after the assault.
Armstrong: This is about Joe Louis Walker. When I lived in Santa Cruz and I couldn’t play anymore—I just wanted to stop playing and I tried to start playing a little bit—I went to see Joe.
BBP: This is after your accident?
Armstrong: After my accident. And I was sitting in the audience, and he knew I was there. And he told the audience James Armstrong was here and he said “James come up” and I kept saying “no, I can’t play.” I literally had one finger that barely moved. And he insisted that I get up on stage and play with him. And I was so embarrassed and, I’ll never forget this, and I thanked Joe so much. Because I got up there and I sounded horrible, but he kept saying “You just got to keep doing it. You just got to play and play and play.” And from that day on, I really kept trying. You know, it sounded horrible, I only had one finger. But I’ll never forget that night. I thank Joe every time I see him from the bottom of my heart, to really help me get back on track.