Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Meeting Musical Needs Everywhere: Part II of Our Interview with Mikey Junior

Here is part 2 of our interview with blues harmonica player Mikey Junior:

BBP: How many times have you been to the IBC (International Blues Challenge)?

Mikey: Four. I was there in 2005; I was there in 2007; I was there in 2011 and 2012. I’ve been there competing four times; however I’ve attended six times. Because ever since 2005 I’ve been going every year except one year. It was the year I was buying my house that I told you about. Because it was a fixer-upper house, it was a construction site. I basically bought a house that needed to have a new roof, new siding, new windows, the whole shebang, so because of my construction background I was the one who was being the contractor on it. So I had to be here for it and that was the one year I missed going to the IBC.

BBP:  This year I think you were in the quarter-finals?

Mikey: We were in the finals. We made the finals this year.

BBP: Right! Yeah! Have you ever won?

Mikey: No, I never won and I never made the finals. This was the very first year that I even made the finals.

BBP: What does that say that you’ve been there five years and you’ve finally made the finals? Do you feel like your getting closer to…

Mikey: No. It’s great, but I don’t look at it like—first of all, and please put this in there, music is a  cooperation, never a competition.  To me. And the reason I take part in the IBC is I like what it is as a place to promote your music to a mass amount of blues fans, promoters, agents. I don’t look at it as “Let’s go win a competition.”  The competition is always secondary to me. What is most important about going to the IBC is to get people who have never heard the Mikey Jr. band, Mikey Jr. and the Stone Cold Blues, to hear us and say “Hey, we’d like to have them at our place. We’d like to have them come play for us at our festival.” We’ve already gotten three festivals from playing the IBC this year. And I’m sure we’re going to get some festivals next year off of it as well. It’s basically a promotion thing for me; I really like to promote myself at the IBC.

BBP: I see. One thing I noticed—getting back to playing the harmonica—I was listening to a couple of your album:  did you listen to a lot of jazz growing up?

Mikey: Not a whole lot, but it might be because I listen to a lot of William Clark a little bit and maybe he’s like a lot of the jazz horn players. That could be where it comes in at, a little third hand, third party. But yeah, I’m really into jazz. I’m getting more into it. But I like the really slow kind of boring… you might say, jazz…for lack of a better word.  I like the slow, down-and-out, really bluesy jazz.

BBP: You know the reason I asked that, because, if you don’t mind me saying, it seems like you sort of approach a solo like a jazz person would do. Like a jazz saxophonist or trumpeter. I mean I was listening to some of your albums and I was kind of thinking that.

Mikey: Well thank you. I just try to take my time in the studio because less is always more, and sometimes I try to not play….I try to play with space.

BBP: Okay, I see what you’re saying. Another thing I noticed was that—when I saw you at the IBC—you had a four piece band—a guitar player, yourself (on harmonica), Jimmy Pritchard on bass and the drummer. And I noticed that on some of your albums you use other instruments, like keyboards and stuff. What’s the ideal band for you?

Mikey: Well I’m looking for—of course I would love—a horn section, a piano player, upright bass—but right now, I think—I just added a guitar player to my band by the name of Dean Shot—so now we’re a five piece band. I would just love to have, first and foremost, a piano player that plays Otis Spann type piano, in my band. I’m looking for someone who knows and loves and wants to play like Otis Spann on piano in my band. To tell you the truth, I love the band the way it is right now. I’m very happy. Musically we’ve all got it together as far as being on the same page with each other, which is very important, and we all have a lot of fun when we play. So basically my ideal band is the band I have now with some sort of piano player.  Like we love Bill Heid but Bill Heid lives a little further away so he can’t be on a lot of our stuff. Bill’s the guy who was on the last two albums of ours out of D.C.

BBP: Mikey, I wanted to ask you. You have talked about Sonny Boy Williamson. Would that be Sonny Boy Williamson the first or the second?

Mikey: Two.  Aleck Miller.

BBP: Is he the harmonica player that you like the most?  The one who has most influenced your playing?

Mikey:  Yeah.

BBP: Okay. Tell me what you took from him listening to his records and why he stands out from the others.

Mikey: It was just his whole character. His demeanor. The way he just had…. It was his presence too. Just his presence and I just liked the way he performed. And, seeing his old videos, I was a big fan of him and his music, but being able to see all of the stuff on YouTube now, I had all of the DVD’s especially of the American Folk Blues Festival. But being able to see a lot of this stuff on YouTube that’s coming out, and being able to see even more his demeanor, he just was very personable, he was a born entertainer and he was just musically just really good.

BBP: Is there somebody who comes a close second? Another harmonica player?

Mikey:  Well, you know I never really put nobody first. But what I’m saying is, he’s probably my most influential. I could never put nobody first because that’s how people develop their styles, by taking a bunch of different styles from a bunch of different artists. But I definitely, without them being in any order, for me it’s Sonny Boy, William Clarke, Little Walter, George “Harmonica” Smith, Gary Primich, Big Walter, Snooky Pryor, I mean I can go on and on. Steve Guyger—those are right off the top of my head, they’re probably the ones that influenced me the most. There’s a lot of harmonica players out there…but those are the ones I mostly liked. If they were all playing up the street from me, I would definitely probably have to go see Sonny Boy Williamson. And I’m pretty sure that all of the other harp players, I would go. And Junior Wells is one that I forgot to mention, but he was very influential, I would say the most influential to my playing when I  first started playing the harmonica.

BBP: And Sonny Boy is at the top of the list? And Junior Wells, you’re not that much influenced by him anymore?

Mikey:  No, I’m very much influenced by all of them, all of the time.  When I first started learning, I learned a lot about Junior Wells and a lot about Sonny Boy, and then when I started getting into chromatic of course, I started getting into George Smith and William Clarke and you know, I wanted to start getting into third position or what have you, then Gary Primich, and of course William Clarke again.

BBP: So you’re talking about different harmonica techniques…

Mikey: Yeah, I love them all.  See, I don’t think I could put any one harmonica at the top, any one player and go, “this is my favorite,” because they’re so many techniques out there.  For instance, guys like Kim Wilson and guys like Rick Estrin are my favorites living these days because they can play like those people. And if you say hey, play me this song, play it like this, play this song, play me a Sonny Boy song, or play me a Big Walter song or play me chromatic William Clarke, or play me Junior Wells—they can play it, you know. And they can do it just like that.

BBP: Tell me a little bit about the songwriting that you do. I know that songwriting’s a very integral part of what you do as well. How does that kind of figure into things? And when you write a song, where does it start, the process you have for writing a song?

Mikey:   We usually start with some sort of saying or some sort of—I don’t know it’s like a gift that kind of comes to you. And basically all I can say about songwriting is you better have the paper and pen,  because it only comes to you then, and if you go “I’ll remember it,” and “I’ll get back to it later” you never do.  And so many of my songs are probably lost in the wind like that, because you know, I’m busy throughout my day. I’m like:”Oh, I’ll get back to that later…” I have a lot of unfinished songs, because you know it’s just sometimes you get that vibe; you know sometimes you’ll do a song and you’ll write a song, for instance, you take a song, and you’ll be pouring your heart out into it and you say exactly what you feel. But then in the middle of the song, you might feel it’s a little too personal, so you might write it for the song next. You might have been writing the beginning of the song for you, because it’s really how you feel, but sometimes you say “ah, it’s getting a little too personal. I’m going to start making this song fictional.” So you never know, with me and my writing, you never know where the fiction stops and the truth begins….All of my songs basically have a lot of truth and a lot of fiction in them. And some of them are just written fictionally. But I think it’s hardest to write stuff that’s really really really real. I put a lot of fiction in my songs, because I’m not very open like that, you know?

BBP: Tell me in your albums, what percentage of your songs are covers and what percentage are originals?  You know, typically.

Mikey:  The record labels want to hear originals. But when I go out to see a blues band, I’d love to hear Little Walter just like Little Walter. But just like him now, I don’t want to hear Little Walter play where I can tell where the guy is really like, doing it the right way. I want to hear just like it or very—I want to hear it with the feeling.  That’s just me, and it’s very opinionated. Back to the IBC, that’s another reason why you can’t look at it as some concerts, because it’s opinionated. People like what they like and don’t like what they don’t like. And they like a certain thing. And it’s just like me; it’s my opinion that I want to do covers, but the radio people or anybody making money trying to make a living promoting blues music or whatever, they want the originals. Because you get royalties, you want original music. They want something new and original.

BBP: Right.

Mikey: I do want that too, but I like being able to do covers. But do I believe you should do just the same old covers?  I don’t know.  I did “Can’t be Satisfied” on one of my last records, and yeah, maybe it should be left alone. Muddy did it the way he wanted, but I wasn’t doing it because I thought I could do it better than Muddy or whatever. I was just doing it because it’s a song I like to perform. When I perform it, if anybody ever asks me, “Hey, do you have that song on your record?”  the next time I go to the studio, maybe I can record that song. Because if people like it when I play it live, the whole point is that I want to try and sell the CD so they come see me again and I get my name out there. And now I’m in their household. So basically that’s  also how I  choose to record what I record on a CD is, if someone asks me, “Hey is that song on your CD?” and it’s not, sometimes the next time in the studio, I’ll record that song.

BBP: Sort of like you do at the nursing home…

Mikey: Yeah! Exactly!  I try to make people happy, and if people come out to see my show, they’re getting in their car and they’re driving out to come see me perform somewhere, and if they ask me to do something, I want to try and do it for them.  And especially if they’re asking me, “oh is that on your CD?” The way I look at it is, if it was on my CD, I could have sold a CD right there. Maybe next week they have my CD and they go “oh, we’ll listen to Mikey while we’re cleaning up our dishes here. Where’s he playing at this weekend? We’ll go on his website, you know.” I want to get CD’s into people’s hands.

BBP: So it’s a matter of giving people what they want to hear…

Mikey: Yeah.

BBP: Gotcha. Tell me, I was looking at your itinerary and you got a gig coming up  with Bnois King and Smokin’ Joe Kubek. That sounds like it’s a definite step in the right direction. How’d that come about?

Mikey: Well, we’ve been working up at Stanhope House, and we’ve been trying to beef up our attendance there because quite frankly not a lot of people know who Mikey and the Stone Cold Blues band are. So we try to go places and try to say “Hey, can we open up for one of your acts” where we can try and get people to see if they like us and want to come back. So that’s what we’ve been doing over at the Stanhope House; we’ve been trying to develop sort of a following. We’ve got a few shows over there, and we’ve gotten more and more people to attend every show. So now they’ve got us opening for Smokin Joe and Bnois King, so hopefully we can get some more people to attend our show after we open up for these guys.

BBP: Okay…

Mikey: And we also opened up for Smokin’ Joe and Bnois King for the Diamond State Blues Society in 2005.

BBP: So they know you. They’re familiar with you.

Mikey: I’m not sure. I’m sure that they’ve been on the road.  They’re musicians their whole lives so I don’t know if they remember being on my show, because I’m pretty sure they came in after I was done. But it’s nice to be on the bill with them. Absolutely. I don’t know if they know me, but …

BBP:  But you’ve opened for other people that have national prominence…

Mikey:  Oh we’re going to be opening up for Johnny Winter again, for the second time since July. We’ve opened for like Michael Burks…probably the list goes on and on. I’ve never had a list of who I’ve opened up for, but I’ve opened up for a lot of people. It’s great; we’ve opened up for Nappy Brown before he passed away. Bob Margolin. So it’s been really good.

BBP: Yeah. And I also noticed that you tend to kind of favor the East Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, I guess.  I notice that you’re doing a show in Florida, a festival—I forget which one it is—

Mikey:  Daytona Blues Festival…

BBP:  And that’s coming up in…

Mikey: October.  October 6th.

BBP: That’s definitely sort of a step-out as well.  How’d that come about?

Mikey: That was a gentleman who had seen us at the IBC.

BBP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Mikey:  Yeah, I’d like to tell all of the blues fans out there, to work hard and try to get some new blood out.  Bring your friend out to a blues show, become a member of any kind of local blues society, go to a blues club, and it’s an American art form and we have it and we need to nurture it so that it can grow. And I just encourage everybody to be members of blues societies. I’m a current and up-to-date member to almost ten blues societies. Which means I pay between $20 and $60 a year to maintain my membership.  It’s because I believe in the societies and what they do. Even though I’m an artist, I’m also a blues fan.  Before I was an artist, I was a blues fan.  And it’s very important that we support your societies. If you send them that $25 a year, that really helps them to bring talent from all over the world, and all over the country to your local neighborhood. You know, be a part of something to preserve something that needs to be preserved, it needs to grow.  And everybody should try to—buy a CD, buy a blues CD, give it to someone, buy a book about blues and give it to someone.  There’s a lot of young people who are intrigued about the folklore of Robert Johnson., because they heard this guy sold his soul to the Devil to be able to play great guitar. That intrigues young people, and then they’ll say “I like Robert Johnson.”  And the next thing you know you have a new blues band.  You’ve got to be able to educate people and tell stories so that we’ll be able to keep these guys alive. That’s what I’d like to close with.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Meeting Musicial Needs Everywhere: Mikey Junior and His Stone Cold Blues Part 1

As a teen-ager, while waiting tables in a Bucks County, Pennsylvania restaurant, Mikey Jr.’s primary aim was to take care of his customers.

“I worked every single Friday and Saturday night from the time I was 12 to the time I was basically 22. And worked at Italian restaurants,” recalled Mikey. “And by the time I was 15, I was a waiter …I had nothing but requests from Friday and Saturday night because I was really good at anticipating people’s needs and taking care of people.”

These days, he is still anticipating needs—but as a harmonica player of rising reputation in the blues world. As leader of Mikey Jr. and the Stone Cold Blues, Mikey tries to give blues fans the music they want. 

Mikey tries to please his fans through albums, through a heavy touring schedule that these days is taking him more and more frequently outside of the Pennsylvania-to Baltimore corridor he has--up until now--been best known in; and through his role as house musician and booking agent at the Twisted Tail, Philadelphia’s newest blues venue.

Mikey is always busy—he frequently had to put me on hold during our hour and a half phone conversation to handle business.  But that's what comes with having such a love of music that you decide to pursue making a living at it full time.

“You’ve got to be able to work, and you’ve got to be able to get the stuff done,” he said. “You know I do all of the booking, I do all of the promotion, right down to my web design, and designing flyers and posters.”

Born Andrew Michael Hudak in Trenton, N.J., Mikey was heavily exposed to music as a youth through his father, a full-time harmonica player and pianist.
 “My dad took me to see James Brown in 1984 when I was four years old at the Trenton War Memorial Building--that was my first concert—and it was great,” he recalled. “I just always loved rhythm and blues, but it wasn’t until I was older that I found blues. I found what I liked so much and a lot of the influences of music that I was listening to, whether it be rap music or even Pink Floyd for that matter. I just fell in love with the blues and Sonny Boy Williamson and B.B. King and Buddy Guy and then, later on, Little Walter and George Smith. And then all of the way down to people like Gary Primich, of course, William Clarke, you know, people like that. “

Mikey lived in Trenton until 1989, when his mother, in search of a better school system, moved him to Bucks County.  He moved back to Trenton at age 20, into a house left to him by an aunt. He has since moved back to Bucks County, into a condo he purchased.

Growing up, he frequently went on gigs with his father, liking best the fifties-themed parties the band hosted at campgrounds throughout the area.

Industrious from a young age, Mikey joined the staff of Salvatore’s restaurant in Morrisville, Pennsylvania as a busboy at age 12.  “And then......(near Morrisville) also was this place called Café Antonio’s,” he recalled. “And a waiter from Salvatore’s went to work there and he liked the way I took care of him so much because I used to really take care of my waiters when I was a busboy. ..(he) liked me so much that when he got a job at this new restaurant that was opening, he called me up and said ‘hey, I can get you a busboy job at this restaurant.’ Well, I only bussed there for a couple of weeks, until they said ‘Hey, if you want to wait tables, you can wait tables.’ And they let me start waiting tables.”

 At 19, he added another trade—real estate—to his repertoire by earning his real estate license. Then, his work days consisted of a nine-to-five job as a real estate assistant, followed by evenings waiting tables.
But the music continued to call to him, and eventually he dropped the waiter’s gig. The real estate job soon followed, and in 2002 Mikey Junior went to music full-time. He starting performing shows; the instinct for customer service that had served him so well as a waiter compelling him to play songs he sensed his audience really wanted to hear instead of dryly spitting out a set list.

Mikey also began to release a series of CD’s, all under a label he created, 8th Train Records. In 2003 he released The 420 Sessions, an album recorded at a studio in Tarpon Springs Florida and produced by Danny DeGennaro, a Philadelphia area guitarist known for his work in Kingfish, a group that also included Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. Other notable musicians DeGennaro had worked for over the years included the late Clarence Clemons and Parliament Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton.
DeGennaro, who died last December after he was found in his Levittown, Pennsylvania home with a bullet wound to his chest, also played on Mikey's album along with bassist Gary “Bubba” Balduzzi, drummer Kenny Suarez and keyboardist Pete Kane.

DeGennaro also produced and played on Mikey’s second album The New York City Sessions, released in 2005. The CD also featured Balduzzi on bass but included a different keyboardist, Glen McClelland, and alternated between two different drummers, Adam Stranburg and Dave Mohn.

Mikey’s present band began to take shape with 2007’s Look Inside My Pocket, including Stranburg, now his current drummer;  and Matt Daniels, a guitarist from New Jersey who had shared the stage at various times with Sonny Rhodes, Walter Trout and Rod Piazza and who had been lauded by a critic from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper as a guitarist whose instrument “crackles especially hard.”  Mikey also brought on bassist Jimmy Pritchard, known for his work with Rhodes and with Randy Lippincott, a Philadelphia-area guitarist who had once played bass for Johnny Copeland. (If you want to know more about Pritchard, check out the post: Jimmy Pritchard  ) 

For his next album, 2009’s  Mikey Likes it, Mikey  brought in Upright Bass Player Mike Lampe, Piano player Bill Heid and guitarist Dave Gross to round out his core band of Daniels, Pritchard and Stranburg.

Mikey and Daniels then decided to branch off into a solo project. The result was 2010’s Pocket Full of Money, an acoustic album that showcased Mikey’s take on more traditional styles.

The Stone Cold’s latest venture is It Ain’t Ours to Tell, released in 2011. A song from that album, “The Cheapskate,” was part of a three-way tie that won Big City Rhythm and Blues Magazine’s “Coolest Blues Song of the Year” award in 2011.

The band also was a finalist in the 2012 International Blues Challenge, held in Memphis in February. It was Mikey’s first time to the finals in four visits over seven years.  He had previously attended the IBC  in 2005, 2007 and 2011.

Mikey said he will soon release a collection of “original Mikey Junior” material. In addition, he and Daniels will travel to France next year to perform.
We began our interview by asking him about the very first time he picked up a harmonica:

BBP:  I know you grew up in Trenton. Tell me how you got into music. You know, the first time you ever picked up an instrument, and especially the first time you ever picked up a harmonica.

Mikey:  Well, I always loved music….I mean you know my dad was a musician, that’s why they call me Mikey Jr. He still is a full-time musician in the Trenton area. He lives in Browns Mills, New Jersey and he taught me how to play piano at first—he always played harmonica and piano. I’d always try to pick up the harmonica as a kid, but never really took it seriously until I was 17. I started being able to make sense on it and then I started to study it, and that’s how I got into the harmonica.

BBP:  So you play the piano in addition to the harmonica?

Mikey:  Yeah I play the piano but very much not professionally (laughs). But I do dabble. I know some songs on both the piano and the guitar and I love music and I play a little bit of piano and guitar as well.

BBP:  What style of music does your dad play?

Mikey: Well he does everything now because he specializes in doing nursing homes these days. He does two or three a day. And I also do them during the day as well too.  That’s what pays my bills for day work. I do between three or four a week; he does between two or three a day. I just got into it a couple of years ago. He’s been doing it for the past ten years. So he works a lot steadier than I do doing that, but I also try to go out on the road and do touring. So I try to work at them sporadically. But anyway, my dad—when I was younger—had a seven-piece, fifties rock n’ roll band where they did “Runaround Sue”  and “Secret Agent Man”  and “the Wanderer,” which is pretty cool because I had a chance to be on a Blues Cruise with Dion this year and talk to him and get my picture taken with him. My dad was real proud of me. My dad used to do all kinds of stuff. He was quite the showman. He used to do “Leader of the Pack” and drive around the bar on a tricycle—a little kid’s tricycle—and my dad’s like six-three. He had a routine where he used to do “Secret Agent Man” and come out in this trenchcoat with a suit on and basically do “Secret Agent Man.” He’d be hamming it up. In his later years he slowed down a bit. He just does a duo show with my stepmom—who I introduced him to—and they travel all throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania doing nursing homes. And they work a little bit of the clubs at night as well, but they mostly do nursing homes during the day.

BBP:  Okay. Now when you were young, did your father take you with him when he did his shows?

Mikey: Oh absolutely!  Absolutely. I remember when my father—I remember distinctively, there’s a picture of me and my dad outside of one of the places he used to work at—that I work at now—in Tuckerton, New Jersey. My friend bought a bar in Tuckerton called Doyle’s Pour House.

(Mikey has to put me on hold to take a phone call, and we resume a short time later)

BBP:  So your father used to take you out and do shows with him…

Mikey: For instance, I got a picture of me at this place Doyle’s Pour House in Tuckerton, New Jersey—it used to be called Cock’s Tail and it was a strip club where my dad and I had our picture taken out in front of there with one of the strippers, of course fully-clothed when I was really young—but yeah, I used to go to his stuff.  He used to do campground gigs where the whole band would go to the campground for the weekend and they’d have a fifties revue party where everybody would dress up in old fifties clothes and stuff and of course it was great because everybody knew that I was the son of the lead singer, you know. So I was a little bit of a superstar in my own right. And I used to sing, and, like you know, my dad would bring me up. I was real into Guns N’ Roses at that time—I think it was like 1989, I was probably nine years old—and he got me to sing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with the band and stuff like that. So yeah, my favorite times was probably going to the campgrounds to see his band perform and being able to camp out all night. Because needless to say, my dad and his band would be partyin’, so I’d pretty much be unsupervised to do whatever I wanted, so it was pretty fun.

BBP: Wow. Did your father actually take you aside and show you how to play the harmonica?

Mikey: Oh absolutely. My dad taught me a lot about the music business, both musically and businesswise. And yeah, he taught me how to play the harmonica; he bought me my very first Sonny Boy Williamson CD. He bought me my B.B. King CD. And yeah, absolutely taught me how to play the harmonica and the guitar. Other teachers of mine are a guy named Dick Davy in Bristol, Pennsylvania; Big Daddy Lambertson; and I listen to a lot of Steve Guyger. Steve Guyger is one of my heavy influences, as well as some of the people I mentioned earlier, you know. Little Walter. Sonny Boy II probably goes down as one of my favorites as far as the whole package of singing, songwriting. But yes, my dad did have an influence on my music and my career. Another person who was like a musical father to me was a guy named Danny DeGennaro. He just passed away December 28. He was actually murdered in his house from a home invasion, unfortunately. I performed a couple of his songs—one of his songs—in Memphis, Tennessee. I co-wrote a couple of songs with him—he was on my first two albums playing guitar, producing my first two albums, and he taught me a lot about the music business. He was on a record with Jerry Garcia because he was in a band called Kingfish, which was a take-off of the Grateful Dead’s band, with Bob Weir. He also toured with Billy Squire, James Montgomery, I think backed up James Cotton at one point in time. And he also recorded with the late Clarence Clemons—who just passed away—from Bruce Springsteen’s band. He had Clarence on a saxophone on one of his recordings and he was another one who taught me about the music business and stuff like that too. And then I just try to pick up as much as I can, because people a lot of times forget how hard it is to make it playing music full-time and not have another job to support yourself. Which is what I’m doing and I just have to learn everywhere I can from everybody and take what I can learn from each and every person in this business so that I can try to do it to the best of my ability. Because at the end of the day, it’s make or break on the bills, and you’ve got to be able to work, and you’ve got to be able to get stuff done. You know I do all of the booking, I do all of the promotion, right down to my web design, and designing flyers and posters, I do it all. So it’s kind of weird, because people forget that it is a music business and there’s a business side to it that must be tended to or else it’s going to hurt your music career.


BBP: Getting back to that, did you ever talk to your father about wanting to be a full-time musician like he was?

Mikey: Actually, yeah.  He told me to quit waiting tables and play music full time.

BBP: Your father encouraged you to play music full time?

Mikey: Yeah.

BBP: That’s kind of unusual..

Mikey:…He told me to quit waiting tables and play music full time. He said you might not have a bunch of money but you’ll be happy. I’m very similar to him and very much like to be my own boss and very much like to do things myself so that they’re done right as well. And to want to be your own boss means that you’re also good at taking orders and following orders and pleasing the boss. Because how can you be your own boss when you can’t please someone else that’s your boss? So I like to think that I’m pretty good at working, because in the music business you have many microbosses; from festival promoters to club owners, they’re all your bosses, so you have to be able to please all of them and get along with all them and put on a good show. Because that’s what we’re here for, we’re here for the music. The music is the most important thing….the music part involves a lot of work and a lot of business. I’m on my computer and I’m on my phone for hours, every day, to promote and for book and for work on tours or whatever I have to do.

BBP:  What your father said, that sounds kind of unusual—I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about this—you would think that most parents would try to talk their children away from a competitive career like music.

Mikey:  He also told me that I have to be smart and work really hard at it. It takes one to know one and my dad has a house that’s paid off from playing music, so it can be done. But what he also said was, I’d be working just as hard, if not harder, but I’ll be doing something that I love.  So even though I won’t have a lot of money, I’ll still be happy because I’ll be doing something that I love. However, it can be done and you can make a decent living out of it. However it’s a lot of hard work. But if you love what you do and you love communicating with people and you love doing that kind of stuff, then it’s not going to be a problem for you. And it’s been great: this is my ten year anniversary, I quit being a waiter in 2002 to be a full-time musician. So it’s now 2012. In 2002, I was living in Trenton, New Jersey. I bought a house across the river in Pennsylvania—I bought a condo in Pennsylvania—and I now have another house that I live in that I bought at a sheriff’s sale because I have a real estate license. Because when I was 19, before I got into music, I was supposed to be the first in my family to go to college. I wasn’t into going to college. So instead of going to college, I went and got my real estate license at the age of 19, started doing real estate nine-to-five being an assistant for a real estate firm, and then go to do a waiter job from five o’clock at night. And then what I did was quit the waiter job, started playing music full-time while I kept my assistant job at the real estate firm nine-to-five. And then I was making enough money to the point where I was working enough where I was coming into the office very tired. So I had a real good relationship with the firm that I was working with and they believed in me because they would come to see a lot of my shows, and they said “go ahead and make a go at it” because I told the man “I’m probably going to leave the office, starting to do this music thing full-time.” And I’ve been doing it full-time ever since 2002. I think I stayed at the real estate office until 2003. I dabble in real estate as a hobby of mine. My friends, they want to buy a house. I’m not a real estate agent to the point where I take people out that I don’t know to see houses. A few of my friends, if they want to go look at a house or one of them tries to buy a sheriff’s sale property or an investment property or something like that, I’m into that kind of thing. I put down real estate and waiting tables to do music full-time.

(Mikey then puts me on hold again, returning a short time later)

BBP:  Are the calls that you’re answering, are these potential bookings for your band?

Mikey: Yeah, absolutely. And I book a club in Philadelphia. My friend, who’s a theatre actor—one of my friends that used to come see me play all of the time—bought a club in Philadelphia and turned it into a blues club on Second and South Street called the Twisted Tail. The website is thetwisted…

BBP: Yeah, I noticed that when you sent me a schedule of your shows. I used to live in Allentown and I used to go to Philly all of the time. And I didn’t remember that place so I figured it must be new.

Mikey: Yeah, it’s a new place. It’s right in South Philly. It’s a great place; I’m the house band there. And I handle the bookings for all of the other bands. I’m really trying to make it a national spot for national acts. So that has my phone ringing as well. And it also helps me to talk with these agents to let them know who I am and say: “Hey, if you can ever get me something, if you have all of the people in your roster already working and you’d like to get me something,  you know I’m available.”

BBP: Okay, so there’s a double benefit to that…

Mikey: Yeah!

BBP:  Now I understand you had an extensive record collection when you were coming along and that that kind of influenced your tastes.

Mikey: Well  that’s another thing talking about me spending money—my dad has a very big record collection that just got legacied to me because my dad had basically no room for it and it was at his sister’s house and like I said, I bought this house at a sheriff’s sale so I used to have a little condo, now I live in a full-sized house. You know single family home or what-have-you. So I was able to get my dad’s record collection, so yeah growing up I always had tapes and CD’s . I bought all kinds of blues box sets and all of that stuff, and yeah, I still have it, I still have my record, CD and tape collection. Now I have my dad’s. So yeah it influenced me big time, you know, records that you know will—I call them the “island records:” If you can only take ten  records and they put you on an island. You know they’d definitely be B.B. King, Sonny Boy, Muddy, Little Walter, (Howlin’) Wolf, Steve Guyger and a couple of killer guitar players too. Buddy Guy, Junior Wells. So these are guys that I heavily find myself—if I call out a cover song—because I like to do my originals, but I love to do covers too. And if I call out a cover song by some people that I just happen to want to play and want to perform their music straight off the top of my head, those are the people who have heavily influenced me, you know what I mean?

BBP: The harmonica. What made you gravitate towards that as an instrument?

Mikey: Well one night I was jamming with my friends, my friends were all jamming together and there was no piano. And I saw that there was this harmonica on the table and I picked it up and started playing it. I was 17, and it just seemed all of a sudden to make sense to me. And the next day I went out and bought a whole set of harmonicas because, like I said, I always worked and I like to spend money.  I told my dad it was a real harmonica. That day, he showed up at my house with a B.B. King CD and a Stevie Ray Vaughn and a Sony Boy Williamson CD, and he’s like “these are the three blues CD’s that I really like. Listen to these and try to play along with them. “And that’s exactly what I did. I played along with the CDs and he would show me some pointers. Mostly I taught myself by listening to CD’s, playing along with CDs, but when I say people are my harmonica teachers, they’re the people that “here. Let me show you this trick. Let me show you how to do that better.” Because usually they build on something that they see, which is how I teach harmonica now. Because that’s another thing that I do, during the day on Tuesday and Thursday I give harmonica lessons.

BBP: Okay…

Mikey: So I have a student on Tuesday and a student on Thursday. And of course I do nursing homes, I between three and four of them a week.

BBP: You do those alone—by yourself—or with a band?

Mikey: I do them by myself with tracks. Like I’ll get karaoke tracks with the vocals taken out of it and then I’ll go sing and play harmonica. I mean I don’t want to cheapen it by saying karaoke tracks, but I mean basically they’re the tracks without the vocals on them, and I go and I go and I perform. And I do almost the same kind of material that I do—you know it’s a blues show. I book it as “Mikey Jr.’s Blues Show”  and I go in and I do some of the songs that are blues songs and some oldies stuff too. And then, you know, if they request it, what I’ll do is, I’ll go home and learn it. I had a guy request some Dean Martin and some Frank Sinatra, so that’s what I did: I went home, I went on the computer , I got the tracks to do the Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Because I mean I  know the songs because of growing up as a waiter in Italian restaurants, I know the words to the songs. So, you know I’ll do them too. And those are kind of the older, older ones, you know. Sometimes you do the nursing homes that are not as old. But then sometimes you do the nursing homes that specialize in like 80- or 90-year-old people. And they’re the ones like “Hey, we want to hear this. You know Louis Armstrong, you know this, you know that?”

BBP: So you kind of have a fan base? You play the same nursing homes and within those nursing homes you have people, they hear you regularly and…

Mikey: Yeah. They live there and absolutely, yep. And I’m part of their entertainment and they’ll hear me play and they’ll say “hey, next time can you do some Dean Martin?” And I go “Yes sir!” And I’ll show up and have that Dean Martin ready for that guy. There’s the one guy in this nursing home, he loves Dean Martin.

BBP: Do you ever use the nursing home as sort of a sounding board for new music that you might want to do with your band?

Mikey: Oh yeah!  There’ll be stuff that—yeah! That’s another thing: me and my band, we work so much….I used to have this every single Wednesday night gig in Lawrenceville at this place J.B.’s. For five years straight we played there every single Wednesday night. And we don’t rehearse. We work together so much that we very very seldom rehearse. Even for the IBC, there was no rehearsal. We just do the songs that we do, and because we’ve been doing them together for this many years, because we do them together every week or whatever, we very seldom—I mean I can count on one hand whenever we had a rehearsal, and it’s always before we go to record. It’s just because we don’t want to waste time in the studio, we just want to get a quick rehearsal down, and we only rehearse when we go to record really.



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Zac Harmon

A few weeks ago I ran across a sight that seemed totally incongruous: a concert by bluesman Zac Harmon that wasn’t filled to capacity.

It’s not that any musician can’t have a poorly attended gig; it just seems it’s a shame when the musician is as good as Harmon.

I caught him August 3 at a show organized by the D.C. Blues Society at the American Legion Post 268 in Wheaton, Maryland. As you can hear from the videos I shot, the problem certainly wasn’t his performance.

And the D.C. Blues Society worked hard to promote the event, as they do on everything they put together.

If Zac Harmon is a well-kept secret, he shouldn’t be (I don’t really think he is; it’s just that I can’t figure out what cosmic forces led to the event being so poorly attended). I’m here to say that, whether you’re a fan of the blues or no, you need to pay attention to Zac Harmon, either through his live performances or his recordings, the latest of which, Music is Medicine, was released in July on Urban Eagle Records to very positive reviews.

First, the guy has a pretty interesting background. He’s a person who, at least professionally, split away—but eventually returned—to what he loves:

According to his website, Harmon was born in Jackson, Mississippi, home of the Farish Street district, which nurtured blues legends like Elmore James.

In high school, he played gigs with Z.Z. Hill, Sam Myers and Dorothy Moore.

But he had to follow a more pop-oriented  course after moving to Los Angeles in the 1980s, becoming a writer and producer for rhythm and blues acts such as the O’Jays, the Whispers, Karyn White and Alexander O’Neal.

Still, the blues in his blood continued to call, and in 2002 he recorded his first blues project Live at Babe and Ricky’s Inn. Two years later, he and then-band the Mid-South Blues Revue won the title of “Best Unsigned Band” in the International Blues Challenge.

The rest is blues history, with perhaps one high point being his involvement in the 2008 Bluzapalooza tour which brought top blues talent to Iraq and Kuwait to perform for U.S. service personnel.

I interviewed Harmon just outside the door of the American Legion hall: you can actually see him graciously opening the door for folks who passed us as we talked.

He talked about how Music is Medicine is dedicated to his father, George “Doc Harmon” Harmon, who passed away May 29 and whom he described as “the most important man in my life.” George Harmon was also important to the history of the city of Jackson. Known as the city’s first African-American pharmacist, he owned a store on Farish Street for over 60 years, according to his son.

Harmon also talked about his friendship with the late guitarist and fellow Bluzapalooza alumni Michael Burks, who died in May and with whom he was supposed to tour this year:

Well, can’t let you get away without hearing some of the show. He starts this one off by introducing the band:

And here he is with his 2008 release “Hattie Mae:”

Anyway, the point of all this is that if you have a chance to hear Zac Harmon, take it. With him on stage, there shouldn’t even be room to dance...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sugar Ray Norcia Part 2

Here is part 2 of our interview with Sugar Ray Norcia:

BBP: What harmonica players do you like or what blues players overall do you like? I know you did an album in 1999 with several musicians-- Billy Branch and… I believe it was called Superharps? Charlie Musselwhite…

Sugar Ray: …And James Cotton.

BBP: Yeah…

Sugar Ray: Those are the kind of players that I like. And of course I like other traditional kind of players like Rod Piazza and Kim Wilson and Mark Hummel. These are guys that are thinking the same way I do.  But there’s really not a whole lot of them these days.  I sued to be able to go out and see Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and work with these people.  Now, of course, they’ve passed on, so now it’s tough to hear the real deal.

BBP: So you don’t like the new guys who are coming along?

Sugar Ray: I wouldn’t want to name anyone specific. It’s just that sometimes feel that, when I’m at a blues festival for example, I feel almost like I don’t fit in. Because we’re so traditional.  Then when the audience hears us, they’re like “Wow! I haven’t heard anything like this in a long time!” So hopefully that will continue.  But, uh, if I want to listen to reggae, I’ll listen to reggae. But  if I go to hear a blues band, I want to hear blues.

BBP: Speaking of reggae, it mentioned that you actually shared a bill with Bob Marley.

Sugar Ray: I hardly remember that, but yeah, that was in Europe on some TV show that was actually a variety show, like an Ed Sullivan kind of thing.  And he was one of the artists on it. We didn’t hang out or talk or anything, but I do remember that.

BBP: How do you feel about other kinds of music? You said you like country. Are there other types of music that you like as well, besides country and blues?

Sugar Ray: Yeah, absolutely. I like good music.  You know that old saying, there’s two types of music, good music and bad music. What makes me relax, say when I’m around the home—I live in a rural area, I really do live in a cabin in the woods.

BBP: In Rhode Island?

Sugar Ray: in Rhode Island, yeah.

BBP: Outside of Providence?

Sugar Ray: It’s south of Providence but it’s surrounded by 14 thousand acres of state land.  Sort of like state forest, so it’s a very nice place to live for me.

BBP: Yeah. Sounds like it.

Sugar Ray: Yeah. When people think of blues artists, they think of Chicago or the big cities.  But not necessarily so, so..

BBP:… It gives you inspiration?

Sugar Ray: Yeah, my inspiration is being out here in my cabin and having solitude.  And listening to the birds playing and writing the blues. But I was going to say that I listen to classical music. I have friends who have a home in Hawaii. I really love Hawaiian music, that’s why I like a lot of the old country recordings with the steel guitar or the lap guitar, which is incorporated into Hawaiian music, so it really soothes my soul. Same thing with classical. I like a little reggae and ska music. It depends on what mood I’m in, you know.

BBP: Right. Right. I understand.  You know also I read somewhere, you apparently had some interaction with Roosevelt Sykes.  I’ll tell you why I asked about that.  Actually when I went to college—I went to college in Connecticut; I went to Wesleyan in Middletown.  And back when I was there, they used to bring all kinds of jazz and blues people in.  And they brought Roosevelt Sykes in and I had no idea who he was. I guess he’s been dead for many years now, right?  He played harmonica, right?

Sugar Ray: Well, he sang and played piano. ..

BBP: Right..

Sugar Ray: And he always wore an impeccable suit with his big, kind of 1950’s top hat.

BBP: Yes!

Sugar Ray: …And he had an eight-inch cigar; you know one of those big cigars.

BBP: Uh huh! He was a very large man. I do remember that.

Sugar Ray:  A very large man.  He was actually the first guy—at the end of the night,  one night—he played great guitar as well—we were sitting around and he said—this is before we ever made a record or made any kind of studio recording to speak of, and he said “You guys are really good, and you need to start recording.” So that was like a catalyst, you know, to get the nod from a guy like Roosevelt Sykes, that’s a great thing.

BBP: How did you connect with him, though?

Sugar Ray: The same way we did with Big Walter and J.B. Hutto and all that. Make a phone call.  We used to play at a place called the Speakeasy Café and it was a famous place for blues artists to perform. And a lot of the time—most of the time—these blues artists, like Roosevelt and like Jimmy Rogers, Big Walter, they needed a band to back them up.  We were the band in those days, we were actually the house band at the Speakeasy, me and Ronnie Earl  and the rest of the Bluetones. So that’s how we got hooked up.

BBP: Tell me what’s the next move for you. Where do you see yourself going now?

Sugar Ray: Well, I’m under contract with Severn Records down in Maryland to do another record. This is a three-record deal so I’ve got one more to do for them. Hopefully I’ll sign up for more after that, but—we’ll probably go in before the end of the year and make another Bluetone record. I haven’t definitively decided the direction, but I think it will be sort of the same as my last record, Evening. Just do some songwriting, keep it simple and keep it true to ourselves and our hearts and make another damn good record. That’s the next thing. And then in the meantime, I do a lot of gigs on my own as a solo artist, performing with other back-up bands, just as we backed up Big Walter, just as we backed up Roosevelt, or Otis Rush. These younger  bands all over the world now that we connect with through the Internet, they ask me if they could back me up, so I’ve kind of come full circle in that way. So two weeks from now I’ll be in Frankfort, Germany being backed up by a German band, a blues band. I have bands in Italy, I have a band in Latvia, the Baltics, I have a band in Norway, it goes on and on. I’ve got a band in Finland, so I’m able to get on a plane and do three or four dates with these bands in other countries, so that always keeps things interesting, keeps me on my toes.

BBP: Wow. I guess it’s a good way to learn too because you learn what other people are doing, maybe run into styles that you haven’t encountered before…..

Sugar Ray: I have to adjust. I have to do some adjusting.  But the thing is, like I say, with the beauty of the Internet and Youtube and all that, these bands are prepared when I arrive in their countries. They know my songs, they know my material, they know my approach, otherwise they wouldn’t ask me in the first place. So we’re kind of on the same page, whereas years ago you couldn’t communicate quite so easily. So now, as we speak, this band in Germany is preparing a 90-minute set to back me up. I’ve given them the songs that I want to do and they have them, and they’re rehearsing them. So it’s kind of cool.

BBP: What’s the name of the band in Germany?

Sugar Ray: Blues Blend.  I’ve never heard of them. When a band I’ve never heard of asks me to play with them, there I go. I can go on Youtube, I can check them out, see them, hear them. Sometimes—it doesn’t happen too often—but a few times it’s like “Uh, no, I’d better not do this. It is not a good fit.” But most of the time, they don’t contact me unless they’ve been fans of mine and my recordings. So it works.

BBP: They’ve done their homework on you already when they approach you.

Sugar Ray:  Yeah. Exactly. And a lot of times it’s—I hate to say kids—but I’ll be approaching 60 years old in a year-and-a-half and a lot of these guys that contact me are 22, 23 years old.  It’s a real thrill for them to be playing with the old man (laughs), so to speak.  It’s what we used to do. I used to think that Big Walter or Jimmy Rogers was an old man, but if I sit down and think about it, do some math, they were like the age I am now.

BBP: Is playing with kids different than playing with people your own age?

Sugar Ray: My observation is, years ago, there weren’t many players who could grasp the blues, the American roots music of the blues. Well that’s changed in a good way, you know.  There are guys all over Europe and Scandinavia who can really play, I mean they got it. I’m floored with some of these guys that I work with: they’re really good.

BBP: Do the foreign bands play better than—I won’t say “better” than the American bands—do the foreign bands play different than the American bands? I mean is their approach different?

Sugar Ray: It used to be different in a bad way. They didn’t grasp the “feel” of the music.  But all that’s changed: they really play well. I’ve played with a lot of them. I’m Italian myself, even Muddy Waters told me “Italians got soul.” (laughs)

BBP: How did that feel when he said that to you? You felt vindicated I guess.

Sugar Ray: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And he goes “and that pasta you guys eat? Soul food!” It really comes around, there are great players out there now, around the world.  We got a recording from a guy named Hoppin’ Joe, I think? Anyway, he’s Japanese, harmonica player, who’s a big fan of mine and of Big Walter, too.  So he sent me a couple of tunes that he recorded, that I’ve written, you know. So he covered a couple of my tunes. He sang in Japanese. What a trip that is to hear, you know!

BBP: Did you like it though, did you like what he did?

Sugar Ray: I did, yeah. He sort of like played my solos and copied them not-for-note and I always have not been a fan of doing that. But it’s a wicked compliment, you know. I grew up listening to records of Sonny Boy and Little Walter and stuff, and I know a lot of harp players will just work for hours and hours to play the exact Little Walter solo from the record. You’ve got to be good to do that but it doesn’t mean much to me. It’s already been done. I think if Little Walter were alive, and he were playing that song, he would play a different solo than he did on the record. I’m sure of that for the most part.  So to copy something verbatim is not always the best approach.

BBP: Yeah, I guess it isn’t.  Well another thing I was curious about was, I’ve read you apparently had some distribution problems with JSP.

Sugar Ray: Oh yeah. It was a bootleg record. It was recorded at the Knickerbocker in Rhode Island that I was speaking of earlier. So that was totally put out without authorization and obviously without payment to Walter and his family, or to anybody…it just wasn’t a cool thing.

BBP: Right. So they never made good, they never paid royalties to you guys for what you did?

Sugar Ray: No. No. We did meet up with the guy at one point, it probably says that in the story, I don’t remember—and he said “yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll be taking care of you guys.” But we never saw nothing. It’s one of those classic blues stories where the musician gets taken advantage of.  You read about it in books, but here it is. It happened to us.

BBP: Yeah, that’s why I asked you about it because it does seem to be kind of a longstanding problem with  blues musicians. There are some record companies that are more honest than others. Are there a lot of unscrupulous people in the business?

Sugar Ray: Yeah, you know, yeah. As in any business,  I can imagine. Just watch the news.  But it’s so hard out there to make a living. I hate to see fellow musicians being taken advantage of.

BBP: Yeah. I mean what do musicians do these days for health insurance? I mean that’s a big issue.

Sugar Ray: I know I don’t have it.  And I’ll go to places like Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Norway..these people really have their shit together when it comes to—they pay higher taxes, but they have free universities, education. Their health benefits…are provided for them. When I tell them I don’t have health insurance, they almost fall off the chair, like “What?” It doesn’t even compute. They say “That must be a heavy load on your shoulders.” And (I say) “Of course it is, yeah.”

BBP: Wow. You’re almost 60 years old, so…..

Sugar Ray: Yeah, it’s a terrible thing.  That’s why you see so many benefit concerts and whatnot for musicians, because they probably don’t have insurance.  We had to put together a special show to pay for Big Walter Horton’s gravestone. There was no money for that. That goes to show you.

BBP: Well, I know you have a lot to do. I just want to ask you one more question.

Sugar Ray: Sure…

BBP: Of all the musicians you ever played with—and I understand you played with Pinetop (Perkins) too—what was he like?

Sugar Ray: Pinetop, he was a sweetheart.  He was an example of like the Eveready Battery type of thing. You know that commercial?  I’ve seen him in so many different places . Probably Europe…I’ve seen Pinetop everywhere at one time or another, and he’s usually the life of the party. Staying up late, playing the piano, having cocktails and just enjoying life. Obviously, it worked for him, didn’t it?

BBP: Yeah! He lived for a  long time, didn’t he?

Sugar Ray: Yeah.

BBP: And it wasn’t time spent in a nursing home, either. He was actually out there performing. …

Sugar Ray: …Right up until the end….that’s right. That’s amazing.