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Big Joe has as much claim to being London blues royalty as anyone. Emerging in the mid 80's as one of a new generation of non-rock blues performers, his stripped down sound captures the spirit of the sounds that inspired him, as well as connecting strongly with audiences today. Catch him down at Aint Nothing But with either his own awesome band - The Blues Kings, solo, or playing with Jerimaiah Marques as part of the Blues Aces and you're left with no doubt that he is a powerful and charismatic performer that fully deserves his reputation, both in the UK and internationally.

Words by Ricardo pics by Steve Sleddon

How do you come to be playing your kind of blues?

BJL: Well, I'm Jamaican, by birth and upbringing and I came to London as teenager. I didn't fit into the country - like a lot of people who came from the West Indies - I arrived in England in the mid 70's and I was living in Kent after living in Kingston, Jamaica and I arrived in this little country town and I could not fit in. Everyone around me was listening to Genesis, Led Zeppelin and as a kid having bought the latest reggae singles, or some soul things, I just didn't like that kind of music.

People were saying 'Have you heard the latest Gentle Giant album' and I just wasn't into that music. Then somehow, I was in a record shop and they had these blues records - I remember a Dana Gillespie album, I used to look at the cover everyday, and they had a Skip James album and I thought it looked pretty interesting so I bought it. At the same time I heard a Howling Wolf record - 'Howling Wolf Boogie' and that really just blew me away. On the Skip James record there was a thing called 'Washington DC Hospital Blues', his last recordings when he was quite ill and the beauty of it, the really unusual style, I thought it was much better than the Rolling Stones or that stuff. Blues, reggae and soul music was my thing then.

Everyone I knew that got into blues music, they did it through pop music, and I hadn't. I never saw the Stones on Ready Steady Go! I never did that thing of buying the Bluesbreakers record... So, a friend of mine had a Sun album, this was the time in the late 70's when Charly were doing compilations of Sun things - you'd get a track by Howling Wolf, the next by Roscoe Gordon and these country blues guys like Charlie Booker who were quite obscure and I just went straight for that. I had records by the obscure guys, before I had the records by Muddy or BB King.

So it all came from that. In the early 80's I was living in Kent near another guitarist David Purdy - King David from King David's Trio Royale... He's my favourite guitarist in the whole world - He's absolutely fantastic! Anyway, he was a couple of years younger than me, still is, and put an ad in the local newspaper about forming a blues band and I think I was the only person that replied.

So we formed this duo and we would read and talk about music all the time - we had the same outlook and we would be constantly trying to discover stuff. We lived in a small town in Kent called Herne Bay and we'd get record catalogues from the local record shop where they'd get the new release details from the record distributer, Swift Records, and they had all the hardcore obscure blues. So we'd go down this list and go 'Oh Wow! Baby Boy Warren!' and we'd get this obscure stuff and just play it over and over again. We were so isolated - we didn't even have telephones - we didn't have real jobs, we didn't know anyone.

We could just about pick up Radio London though, which had a show with Charlie Gillett and another one with Stewart Colman - a Sunday lunchtime show and he had interesting people on, like  Paul Vernon - Sailor Vernon.  He ran a magazine called 'Sailors Delight', selling old 78's and so  wrote to him and said I was interested in this music and he started selling me 78's. So when I was in my early 20's I was spending a week’s wages on 2 records because that was the only way I could get the music.

I've got a really big record collection and it started because when I was into music you couldn't go on Amazon and get 'The Complete So and So' – that’s why I was buying old 78s and 45s. In those days there were maybe half a dozen good blues LP's a year put out a year. When I first came to London in 1984 I used to get disappointed when I'd meet older musicians who had been going to see blues since the early sixties and I be saying to them 'Have you heard of this guy or that' and they'd be saying 'No... I've got a Freddy King album though...' and they just never seemed to be as into the music as I was. And that was the thing - I'd buy every book I could afford, I'd get magazines, it was like an addiction.

I remember that from those days... The older guys had all got into it via the Clapton / Mayall / 60's route, but for our generation, for the few weird people like us who got into blues, there was no infrastructure, no support - you had to stumble, or luck into it, make a really serious effort...

BJL: Well Shakey Vic was a really big influence and a help to me. He introduced me to other musicians, but the problem I had was the style of music most of them were playing was just so alien to what I wanted to do – apart from guitarist Bernie Pallo, they were still doing the sort of rock/blues 70's 20 minute guitar solo stuff and it was not what I wanted - I like Albert King, but there's a lot of difference between him and what these guys were doing! Eventually I got depressed because I thought 'Well, if this is what blues is then I don't want to do it'.

So I started my own band in about 1985, with harmonica, drums and me - just a trio, I've never had a bass guitar in a band. The first time I ever had a double bass was when we were doing this after hours shebeen in Finchley Road. Tony Hilton, who played bass with Howlin' Wilf (James Hunter) was walking past and came down and said 'I'm going to leave Wilf and come and play with you!' Anyway, you had to plough your own furrow in those days.



I saw you a few times in the mid eighties, at the Station Tavern with Little George, and I remember thinking that what you were doing was much more like those Chess records which I loved but which I had never really seen done live before - like it belonged to another era.

BJL: Well it wasn't any deliberately retro thing. All it was was that I loved this music and I wanted to play it. Whether it was progressive, retro or avant garde or whatever. I don't have a problem with the Eric Clapton / Fleetwood Mac stuff, it's just not what I like. I'd rather listen to Tyrone Davis or The Violinaires than put on a 60's rock/blues record, even though I know lots of people really like that stuff. When I started it was really popular - it was only about 15 years after Fleetwood Mac had been big and that was what people enjoyed. But I never did this to make money or to be successful and I've been lucky that I've been able to do OK and make some money over the years, but it wasn't ever the reason for doing it and I'd be still doing it if the money stopped or the 'career' stopped.

So where do you stand on the question of whether blues is a museum piece that needs to be maintained for historical reasons, or whether it's a living, real thing?

BJL: Well there are times that I think it's like somebody on a life support machine - everyone really wants it to get well, but unless the body - where the music comes from - really wants it to survive then it won't. To be honest I can see in 20 years time it's going to be like trad jazz - there'll still be people playing in clubs in Memphis - like there are now - but it's going to be the stripy waistcoat thing, because the people that appreciate blues music now are not the people that create it.

It is a black and white thing, in that the white audiences that pick up on the blues generally want things to stay the same, whereas with black music it's always been progressive - it moves on. Music has to change. From my own point of view though, I'm happy to sit here doing my little thing - I'm not going to change - but I realise that in years to come the number of people who will want to come and hear it will be fewer and fewer.

Maybe this whole Punk Rock Blues thing will help motivate people to go out and find out more though...

 


Jon who's blues explosion?
BJL with R.L. Burnside in 1992 at the legendary Station Tavern. Photo Mick Huggins

 

Do you sense there is a 'thing' about the Punk Rock Blues Scene?

BJL: Well I think it's the biggest thing to happen in blues in years - it made the biggest impact - and in some ways it was really good, but in other ways it was very detrimental, it didn't work. The thing that I don't like about it is this kind of circus mentality - 'There's so & so - he's been in jail! and he can't go on tour because his girlfriend shot him!' - that kind of thing is really offensive...

And the way they write about some of the artists - 'So and so may not be the greatest but lets face it he's the only only one left'... They have had some great artists - Robert Belfour, before R.L. (Burnside) got played out he was great, Junior Kimbrough was great, but I hear a lot of guys that would never have been allowed near a studio in 70's, let alone in the 50's, but they're old, they're from Mississippi, they're black, they've got a guitar... There's a kind of collector, studenty, circussey thing going on that I just don't get.

But hasn't that always been the case though?

BJL: Yeah, but it doesn't make it alright. The point is that, for example, I love Lightnin' Hopkins, but he's not going to make any more records, so what do I do now? Do I take Lightnin' Hopkins and add a bit of trance or heavy metal to it or do I decide it's so precious to me that I'm going to leave it as it is and buy the new Jill Scott or Anthony Hamilton record, because that's where black music is now. To try and mess with things and re-create things doesn't really work.

So apart from Jill Scott is anybody doing interesting new things?

BJL: Well in terms of blues I don't hear that many people nowadays. I love King David, and in America there are a few people, but my time is spent chasing down old gospel records these days so I don't know. The future of blues music may well be the White Stripes for all I know. Somebody made me a CD of some that new stuff - Mr David Viner - and I thought it was quite pleasant, but I'm just me and I'm not going to go and buy the Black Keys records...

But if that's the way the blues is going to go then fine. The music will change and will carry on, but I don't have to go with it! For me, development in blues music stopped around the late 60's... After B.B. and Albert (King) reached their peaks - Albert King at Stax and BB's Live at the Regal and the ABC stuff he did, it didn't evolve after that. They just added rock influences and went and did records at Woodstock and added choirs and sitars - that for me didn't take the music anywhere.

What do you think about Muddy's 'Hard Again' then?

BJL: Well that's a good record, but apart from a few recording techniques and some of the guitar work that was a 50's record. It's a great record, but the thing about it is that it didn't create anything new, it's not innovative. I guess maybe Hip Hop is probably far closer to blues now than anything. If you listen to Lightnin' Hopkins' 'Tom Moores Farm', there's not a whole lot of difference in the approach to telling a story between that and a lot of hip hop. I don't think that any great improvement or innovation in blues are going to come from rock music, or punk, or at least they're not going to take it to anyplace that I'm particularly interested in. I've been playing blues music for a long time, and as much as I love it, I'm not out there looking for the new thing.



Big Joe plays regularly in London with his Blues Kings and with Jerimiah Marks and The Blues Aces at Aint Nothing But... More details available on his website: http://www.fridhammar.com/bigjoelouis/