Nantucket-to-North Pole Sleigh Ride
Nantucket-to-North Pole Sleigh Ride
A Q&A with Craig Thatcher
By Geoff Gehman
For Christmas 1966 Craig Thatcher received a budding blues-rock guitarist’s greatest gift. His grandmother gave him what he wanted most, a copy of the album “Blues Breakers,” John Mayall’s coming-out party for Eric Clapton. Clapton’s revolutionary guitar-and-amplifier mix—fuzzy, ballsy, mountainous, earth-quaking—hooked the 10-year-old band member line and sinker.
Thatcher grew up to become an exceptional blues-rock guitarist who plays licks that stick. The Quakertown native still digs Clapton enough to host a popular Clapton concert he’s brought several times to the Mauch Chunk Opera House. He still digs Christmas enough to host a popular holiday show that on Dec. 15 will return for the fifth straight year to the Opera House, where it began.
Joined by his trio and duo mates and longtime musical friends, Thatcher will play hemi-powered sleigh rides (“Run Run Rudolph”), twinkling carols (“What Child Is This?”) and merry serenades (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen].” He’ll also christen tunes from his brand-sparkling-new holiday CD, “Passion, Spirit & Strings,” an extra stocking stuffer.
Below, in excerpts from a phone interview from his home in Coopersburg, Thatcher discusses his favorite Christmas musical memories, his debt to Clapton and his goal to write better songs in English for all seasons.
Q: What was the first Christmas tune you couldn’t forget, that absolutely flattened you?
A: The one that is most memorable to me, and still gets me, is Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” which everyone knows from [the TV special] “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It came out in 1965, two years after I was mesmerized by another song of his, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” Even though it didn’t have any guitar, it had such a beautiful chord progression, I played it on the piano. I’d step on the sustain pedal on my mom’s piano and try to get that sound. And then in 1965, when Guaraldi brought out this Christmas music, I thought: Oh, this is so cool, it’s the same guy.
Q: Why did you ask your grandmother for that 1966 Christmas gift of “Blues Breakers”? And why does it still ring your bell?
A: To be honest with you, at 10 years old, I didn’t really know who Eric Clapton was. I mean, Rolling Stone wasn’t printed then; the only thing you could rely on was Song Hits Magazine and a few teen magazines. I first saw “Blues Breakers” in a record store out in the QMart [Quakertown Farmers Market] where you could get imports you couldn’t get at local stores; it was released in England in ’66 and not released here until ’67. Honestly, I just thought the cover looked cool; back then I bought any record with a cool cover.
As soon as I played it, I thought: Oh gosh, that guitar sound–how did he get that? I had never heard a guitar sound like that; I don’t think anybody had heard a guitar sound like that. Closest to that, although not as sophisticated, was the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” [first released in 1964) and back in the ’50s when Link Wray created that big, fat, distorted sound on “Rumble.”
Clapton’s guitar sound really bowled me over the next year, when I heard “Sunshine of Your Love” [originally released on Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” LP]. It just blew me away, that thick, rich Gibson Humbucker sound with the fuzz-tone top on a full-out Marshall [amplifier] stack—at least one stack, maybe more. I had never heard anything that loud, that saturated. They say that when Cream was recording at Atlantic Studios [in Manhattan], you could hear them a block away.
Q: Were there any other musical treasures you received at Christmas—like a Gibson Les Paul?
A: I got my first new guitar for Christmas 1967. It was a Kent, a Japanese model; people collect Kents today. My other grandmother helped my mom and dad pay for that. Getting it made me feel better that for Christmas 1966 everyone in my band got a new instrument except me. The drummer got a great drum kit; the other guitarist got a new Reed Harmony. And I’m playing a 1933 acoustic that was my father’s when he was eight years old and it was too big for me. I guess my parents had to see if I was serious, which should have been a surprise to them because they had to stop me from practicing.
I didn’t get a Gibson Les Paul until 1970. I bought it myself, with paper-route money.
Q: Did your family have any special Christmas musical traditions?
A: On Christmas morning, after opening our gifts, we’d go to a nursing home about a block away from our house. My mom would play the piano and we’d sing and do about an hour’s worth of material. Of course we hated doing it; at that age most kids worry about what they’re going to get for Christmas. As you get older you realize that giving is more important than receiving. Now I know how people really appreciate an unexpected gift from strangers
Q: What are your top three Christmas tunes, and why are they your top three?
A: “What Child Is This?” has been a long-standing favorite. The way it plays on the guitar fingerboard makes it very easy to incorporate the melody with the chords. “On Christmas Day in the Morning,” this melancholy Celtic instrumental that sounds like “I Saw Three Ships”: I play that a lot. I model my version after the one Norland Wind recorded on “December Journey” , my favorite Christmas CD of all time. And I was a huge John Lennon fan, so I definitely have to choose “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).” I never get tired of that.
Q: Are there any Christmas recordings that made you significantly change your way of playing music?
A: “Christmas with Chet Atkins,” which came out in the late ’50s. I guess you could say it made me play chord melodies. It showed me you could play instrumentals rather than sing. Given my druthers, I’ll always play before I sing.
Q: Why release a Christmas CD now? How were the planets aligned?
A: Well, [violinist] Nyke [Van Wyk] and I have been together for five years, in a band and as a duo, and people have been asking us for a Christmas CD for most of that time. Plus, I released another Christmas CD six years ago and, frankly, I wanted to do it better. I found the right instrumentalist. The violin really appeals to a lot of people, especially the way Nyke plays it. We’ll do the tune the way you know it and then we’ll throw in a section where we’re improvising. So it was a perfect storm.
Q: What do you always include in the Christmas show at the Opera House?
A: “What Child Is This?” “The Little Drummer Boy”: we always do a different arrangement to feature our drummer Don [Plowman] in different ways. “Run Rudolph Run”: that’s Chuck Berry rock ’n’ roll that you can hear Keith Richards playing.
“Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” is a great last song. I know it’s overdone, but it showcases everybody and it’s infectious. When you repeat that chorus at the end, you can see this wave across the audience as everyone joins in. Plus, you’ve got to do a John [Lennon] song; I’m a John and George [Harrison] fan.
That’s why it’s a show and not just the band doing regular songs. I like to change from piece to piece; I like to be a chameleon.
Q: What do you always avoid in your Mauch Chunk holiday gig?
A: I’m not into Christmas comedy songs. They’re fine to listen to on the radio, not so fine to listen to in concert. While our show is very democratic, I have the last word, and the last word is we don’t do that stuff
Q: How about a truly memorable memory of a Christmas concert in Jim Thorpe, one that still makes you smile?
A: One year we brought up an audience member to sing “Silent Night” with us. If I remember correctly, she asked me to do that in an email but I never responded, so she didn’t know if I got her email. The night of the show she was sitting close to the stage and I’m kind of impulsive, so I figure: Hey, let’s do it–let’s make her night. I see her every time we come to Jim Thorpe and she never lets me forget that we made her night that night.
Q: What do you appreciate about Eric Clapton that you didn’t appreciate before you started the Clapton Retrospective?
A: If there’s one thing I’ve taken from him musically, it’s how the blues is at the base of everything. I go out and try to play more melodic things, especially with the violin, but I keep coming back to the blues. I’ll go off on a tangent and play something even I don’t know where it comes from, but my soul is always rooted in the blues. It’s better than an attitude thing.
Personally speaking, I really appreciate the way that Clapton has improved his attitude. For years he sounded cocky. Everyone was saying he was the guy—you know, all that “Clapton Is God” stuff–and apparently he knew it. But he’s become more humble, more generous. He produces these benefit concerts for his Crossroads Centre [a residential drug-treatment institution] and he auctions off the special guitars he used on historic recordings. That’s a sign of a good citizen.
You know, Mark Knopfler recently said: “Tell me one good thing about fame,” meaning, of course, that he doesn’t think there is one. I’m on the other side; I could tell you several good things about fame.
Q: You’ve become a bit more famous as a touring clinician for Martin Guitar, which is known all over the world for making high-quality acoustic instruments. How has the job changed you as a musician, the way you run your career?
A: I’m in my fifth year with Martin, and it’s been an honor. I could gush it’s a dream come true, but I didn’t realize it was a dream. I had had a Martin for a long time, but now I play a completely different style on the acoustic. I appreciate acoustic players in a way I never did before. The Martin gig forces me to go out with different material. I’m always looking up things to learn. I’m writing in that vein, too. I’m writing things I’d never have done 10 years ago.
Plus, I’ve traveled all over the world because of Martin. In Jerusalem I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many people believe Jesus was laid to rest. That was really special. I’ve been to Hong Kong, which has been an exotic place ever since I saw the James Bond movies. At night I’ve been by Victoria Bay, where they filmed a lot of the Bond stuff, and I’ve looked out over the lights and said to myself: I can’t believe I’m here.
Martin has afforded me these opportunities and I will forever be grateful. I work my butt off for them, and I love it
Q: Here’s a bonus question from our pal Dick Boak, Martin’s director of artist relations: Do you feel that people are born with musical talent, or do you feel it can be taught and instilled in an individual? And how does this relate to your story?
A: Some people have that natural thing. By far and large the majority of us have to work really hard to get to that next level. My one son never really realized he had the talent to become a chef until he went to culinary college. A lot of people have the seed of talent, and that seed has to be cultivated.
I remember what my father used to tell me: There’s always somebody better than you. So the goal is to be the best you can be at whatever you do. And, gosh, this gig with Martin–boy oh boy is that a humbling experience. Someone will sit down and just blow you away on acoustic guitar. And then you find they’re working at some menial job.
Q: How would you most like to improve as a musician? What’s on your bucket list?
A: Music is a lifelong pursuit to not only be better but to open your mind to new musical styles. When I was younger I was much more narrow minded. I would have never thought about playing the Celtic tunes I play now–which makes sense, since I’m, like, 100 percent Celtic. I’ve found that I have an affinity for that melancholy Celtic music that always reminds you of gray and gloom. Somehow that gives me more of a warm, fuzzy feeling than a beautiful day at the beach.
I also want to become a better songwriter. I’d like to go back and take English classes. When I go to other countries and their command of English is better than mine, I think: Oh my gosh, what am I doing wrong? I mean, I know a German girl who teaches business English who knows words in English I’ve never heard of. So in my 60s I want to study language a little more—and start with ours.
Craig Thatcher: The Scoop
(1) First songs he couldn’t forget: The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Kicks” and “The House of the Rising Sun,” rocked up and spooked up by the Animals. “Everybody wanted to play rhythm [guitar] on that song: that arpeggio, right on up and down the chords, with that tremolo effect. I’d just sit there for hours and hours and just play those chords over and over.”
(2) As a teen he played in City Limits, a backup band for Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell, the celebrated writer-producer-impresarios for the Philadelphia soul scene.
(3) He’s shared a bill with Buddy Guy and shared a recording studio with Simone, the singing daughter of fabled vocalist Nina Simone.
(4) He’s shared a Martin Guitar tour with Jorma Kaukonen and performed at Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp.
(5) His top three albums of all time are John Mayall and company’s “Blues Breakers,” the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced” and Freddie King’s “Just Pickin’,” a collection of two dozen instruments where King “lays the groundwork for everyone.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, where he never quite recovered from reviewing Christmas CDs for 10 straight years. His favorite holiday tracks include Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” and Joseph Spence’s mumbling, fumbling version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” also known as “Sandy Gore.” He can be reached at email@example.com.