Harping with the King
Harping with the King
A Q&A with Sugar Blue
By Geoff Gehman
One of the many treasured pleasures on YouTube is a 1995 live video of Sugar Blue, the fine singer and exceptional harmonica player, turning Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” into an erotic odyssey. Decked out in a black beret and a brown ammo-like belt of mouth harps, he builds a well-paced, well-placed tale of wails and whispers, boils and simmers, explosions and implosions. He not only guides listeners at the Swiss jazz festival into a different land, he launches them into another galaxy.
It’s the sort of remarkably expressive, encyclopedic performance that has made Blue a harmonica hero for a good 40 years. He’s burnished his reputation by playing with many other heroes: blues master Willie Dixon, jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon and the Rolling Stones, who enlisted Blue to spice up “Miss You.” Leading his own bands, he’s developed a style that’s smooth, soulful and smart. That style began in his native Harlem, where his sound was shaped by the three Bs: B.B. King, Billie Holiday and Buddy Tate, a saxophonist for a fourth B, Count Basie.
On Aug. 14 the man born James Whiting will make his debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, named for a Native American athlete he reveres partly because his own grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. Blue and his band members, including bassist Illaria Lantieri, his wife and manager, will sample from a full menu of blues, rock, R&B and jazz favorites. The list includes “Messin’ with the Kid,” written by harmonica master James Cotton, one of Blue’s main men; “Another Man Done Gone,” which appears on the Grammy-winning compilation “Blues Explosion,” and a “Miss You” far funkier than the Stones original.
Blue recently discussed his intensely colorful career from a gas station along Route 90 in Indiana, where he was driving the family camper to Eastern gigs. We roamed from his acoustic blues/jazz cabaret at a Chicago club to his update of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” with rapper DMC (aka Darryl McDaniel), a founder of RUN-D.M.C., and producer Sonix The Master Scientist, to an upcoming album of original lullabies inspired by his two-year-old son James, whom he calls “my manager.”
Q: What the first harmonica part that made you think: Hmmm, I’d like to get inside that world and stay a spell?
A: [Croons first line of 1962 hit “Hey! Baby”: “Heyyyy, baby, I wanna knoooowww will you be my girl?”] There was a wonderful harmonica part by a cat named Delbert McClinton. I absolutely loved it. I wondered: Wow, how is he doing that? What is that? When I really laid my eyes on a harmonica, I thought: there’s no possible way he could have got all of that out of this itty-bitty goddamn thing. It took me years and years and some more years when I saw Big Walter Horton and then I understood. He came to New York in ’74, ’75 and I’ll never forget it, he had on a grey fedora and a black pin-striped suit. I swear to god he looked like a gangster out of an old movie. My god, what he played was magical. And then it was: Oh I see, said the blind man [laughs].
Q: Your mother sang and danced at the Apollo. What was the best advice she gave you about performing for a living?
A: It would take a book for me to tell you about all the good advice my mother had for playing, for loving, for living. Let’s just say she gave me the joy of living, the joy of music, and the wisdom to survive this crazy world.
Q: Two years ago you and Ilaria moved from your place in Memphis to Chicago so you could set up shop at an old haunt, Rosa’s Lounge, and play unplugged blues and jazz, including tunes by Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan and other musicians you grew up hearing in Harlem. How has that great migration worked out? Has it changed your direction in any significant way?
A: To me jazz and blues are like Siamese twins stuck together at the hip. You really can’t separate them–unless you’re a marketing person. If you’re a musician, you know that jazz wouldn’t exist without the blues, and blues wouldn’t have the wonderful possibilities without jazz. Some of the things that B.B. King played so well and beautifully he learned from cats like Charlie Christian. The music always goes back and forth. Or it did back in the day, before the marketing mavens got in there and decided, oh, this is that and that’s this and made a mess.
Q: To me it makes sense that you joined up with DMC and Sonix to mix hip-hop with blues because you’ve long been a revolutionary cat in the harmonica world. So did you have as much of a gas making “Next Level” as it sounds?
A: It was really great to cut that track. I look forward to doing more work with Sonix. Right now I’m in the studio working with [names his band members] on tunes about the social climate, as well as some lighter fare. We even wrote a song about a car. If Mercedes-Benz isn’t a classic car, I don’t know what is.
I’m also working on an album—“CD” bothers me–of children’s lullabies inspired by my little two-year-old manager. I wrote stuff to make kids laugh and giggle and hopefully put them to sleep so that their parents can get a much-needed rest [laughs]. Actually, when you make a record of lullabies I don’t know if it’s so much for the kids as it is for the parents.
Q: Frank Sinatra learned to phrase smoothly and elastically from listening to Tommy Dorsey’s trombone. What did you learn about playing harmonica from listening to the guitars of B.B. King and T-Bone Walker?
A: They were smooth, man. Their playing slowed like a stream going downhill. And I always thought I wanted to emulate that kind of style. Then I started listening to melodic, flowing cats like Miles Davis and Sonny Boy [Williamson] and Little Walter. I mean, those cats had a way of phrasing and giving a float to the music that was very beautiful.
Q: Throw modesty to the wind for a few seconds and tell me what major contributions you’ve made to harmonica playing, how you’ve pushed the sonic envelope.
A: I just do what I do. I play from my heart and try to be creative. I remember Willie Dixon telling me as much as you like Walter or Sonny Boy or B.B., you have to get your own style, man. And I tried to take his advice and create my own way of doing things and I think I have. I don’t play like anybody else. It took me many years to do that, thanks in part to some wonderful mentors. When somebody like Memphis Slim or Willie Dixon shares their wisdom with you, it behooves you to pay attention and to follow. And I will always revere the progenitors of this music because without them this music wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t exist.
Q: You and Illaria have been a couple for 10 years. How has she improved your world as a musician and a person? It must be nice being married to a bassist, a mother, a manager, an anesthesiologist and a Medevac doctor.
A: Well, she made me a father. And we’ve written some wonderful songs together. She’s enriched my life, I must say. I think I’m a far better person for this union than I was without it.
Q: And what does Sweet Baby James think of his dad’s harmonica playing?
A: He loves it, especially when I play unplugged. He gets all excited. He jumps up and down and claps his hands over his head.
Q: What was your toughest time in the trade, when you considered getting the hell out of the trade?
A: I’ve never had such a day in my life. I knew what I wanted to do from the time I was five years old, and that was play music. When I got drafted and I was in the Army, I said if I survive this I will never again take a job that I do not want and love–and I will never wear a green suit again for anybody or anything. And I managed to survive and I’ve been playing music ever since. And I’ll continue playing music come hell or high water, even if I starve to death. I’d rather go hungry doing what I love than get rich doing what I hate.
Q: So, Sugar, what tops your Bucket List?
A: Having Quincy Jones produce an album for me. That would be the beginning and the end of my Bucket List.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I would really, really love to see an end to war and racism. And sexism and class-ism and all of the -isms. I’d like us to live together with the earth as opposed to in spite of it.
Q: Mick Jagger once called you “a very strange and talented musician.” I get one part but I don’t get the other part. Can you tell me why he thought you were very strange?
A: Because he’s a very strange cat [laughs]. Hey man, I have no idea. What can I tell you about a limey? I don’t know about those people. Basically, they were a bunch of English kids who were inspired to play the blues by Sonny Boy and Muddy [Waters] and B.B. and many other great progenitors. As Sonny Boy said, and I quote: “These English boys want to play music very badly, and they do, and they do” [laughs].
Sugar Blue: The Scoop
The first tune he remembers hearing, when he was in elementary school, was Lester Young’s “D.B.” [Detention Barrack] Blues.”
He picked up his nickname when, returning from a Doc Watson concert, he happened to look in a box of old records tossed from a window and the first 78 he saw was Sidney Bechet’s “Sugar Blues.”
Memphis Slim, the singing, composing blues pianist, suggested that he move to Paris in 1976 to improve his jazz chops and return to the U.S. in 1982 to improve his blues chops.
He donated photographs of himself with John Lee Hooker, Mick Jagger and other musicians to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which displayed one of his harmonicas in an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones.
He plays harmonica on “Catfish,” the only recorded song Bob Dylan, one of his early harp heroes, has written about a baseball player.
He and his wife Illaria named their child James after James Baldwin, James Cotton and Jimmy Stewart.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He digs Sugar Blue’s hazy, lazy-hammock harp work on “Catfish.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.