Back in the mid 80s, if you were listening with the right
kind of ears, it was possible to sense an evolution in the blues. On both
sides of the Atlantic there seemed to be a new, younger, generation exploring
the roots and taking things off in new directions.
A more swingin' west-coasty rockabilly-infused 'real blues' sound was
emerging; people were returning to the original records from the 40s and
50s blues greats, rather than the later reworkings, and trying to recapture
that feeling: a back-to-basics approach with a rock 'n' roll, rather than
The Fabulous Thunderbirds had done their fabulous indeed early albums,
and Rod Piazza's 'Harpburn' was never off the record player round my house.
Just around the corner were Little Charlie & The Nightcats, William
Clarke, James Harman and others. Paul Lamb was to be right there among
The first time I saw him was about '88 with The Blues Burglars in a little
club in Hampshire. It was clear he was part of this new world of the blues.
He had that ability to swing, that rich, fat, tone, and the chops, that
until then I'd only heard on records or seen once, a year before, when
I'd watched Piazza ‘upset the joint’ in a pub in Birmingham
(Midlands, not Alabama).
Shortly after that gig, Paul moved to London and formed The Kingsnakes.
The first album on Blue Horizon in 1990 set out their stall. These were
men with leopardskin and they weren't afraid to use it. They were also
men who could play – who had something to add.
Paul's playing has gone on to be influential not just in the UK and Europe
but all over the world, though few have come close to his (unique?) ability
to combine a fantastic Sonny Terry-influenced acoustic style with that
powerful, juicy, amplified tone. These days it would be fair to say that
he ranks amongst the greatest players worldwide. Internationally recognised
and multi-award winning, he’s shared the stage with many of the
modern masters and been counted among them.
As American magazine Blues Review put it “His total and convincing command of the blues harp
idiom make him more than a mere imitator, he's an instrumental voice worth
We met in a North London pub on a dreary January day. Paul proved to be
an amiable and entertaining host and we ended up spending the most of
the afternoon discussing things 'as they are said to be'.
started off by asking what had prompted Paul's move to London from the
Lamb: "I had to really, for the music. We'd had
quite a lot of success with the Blues Burglars in the Newcastle area.
I'd got them signed with a Label called Red Lightnin' which was a harmonica
label – the owner Peter Shertser had heard some stuff and got us
down to London doing supports for Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. I got in
with John Steadman who was a record producer and had an agency who did
a lot of work with Phil Guy, Lowell Fulson, Louisiana Red, and I was working
with those guys.
We did two recordings with them and we were starting to get a bit of a
name on the blues circuit. But the Burglars were more into that rockier
type of blues and I was still looking for that upright bass/west coast
sound – the real sound, you know. The lads in the Burglars were
getting a bit homesick and in the end only Johnny Whitehill came down
with me and I looked around for the musicians to put together. We did
the first album and it moved from there. I couldn't have done it from
the North East."
You quickly found a niche in what was then a thriving London blues scene,
centred around the old Station Tavern near Latimer Road tube. How does
the scene then compare to now?
Lamb: "About 10 or 12 years ago there was a bigger
scene for all blues players – there was places like the Station
Tavern which was like a bar scene core for the blues players. At that
particular period – '88/'89, there was myself, Big Joe Louis and
his Blues Kings... and at the Station Tavern even on a Tuesday night we
had people queuing down the street to see us, and so agencies started
looking out for us and putting us on at the 100 club and stuff. There
were so many places, like the Jazz Café, which doesn't really support
blues that much now, and I was doing the Mean Fiddler four or five times
a year, which was a great venue.
Nowadays, I wouldn't say there's a scene anywhere. For me, I've been traveling
and working for so long I've built a reputation that I can go to the same
clubs, theatres or festivals and I can guarantee a crowd. But you have
to have those smaller places for people to develop. They're not there
for the guys now – you can't make it in the bars. There isn't any
middle ground. The only one in the London area would be Ain't Nothing
But in Kingly Street.
We need something that sets it off again – it's an age thing. My
age group, who were at the Station Tavern, we're all getting older now,
so now we need another generation to come along and take that place. I'm
getting into the older generation, but blues is a maturing music anyway,
the older you get, the more recognition you can get, so that's fine for
me. But you need a younger generation – like my son Ryan. He's 15
and playing good guitar and I'm trying to get him going and push him to
a more modern style. He'd rather play the older styles, the west coast
swing/Hollywood Fats style. I'd rather he didn't have to do it the hard
way, sleeping on floors and traveling in vans and building a reputation
like I had to."
Apart from your son, where do you think the next generation is going to
Lamb: "Well, you've got to change the music a little
bit I think, move with the times, but it's still got to have that feeling,
still got to get the hairs on the back of the neck, you know?
Nowadays it's easier for the younger players. When I started in the North
East when I was 15, just getting hold of stuff was difficult. No videos
or CDs, just a record that you'd get hold of from somewhere and play over
and over again, but now there's videos and DVDs, you can download stuff
on the Web and home in on it. You can learn it and make it sound like
the heroes, but you've just got to get that spirit. I don't know where
it comes from, there’s just certain people that have it.
There's a young lad called Lee
Sankey who's trying to do something, trying to change things a little
bit, and I take my hat off to him. He's written some good songs, done
some good CDs. And there's a young kid up in the North East called Lynden
Anderson – he's got some good ideas, trying to play a bit different
from the rest of the mob. If I can get him in to open for us I will."
You're recording a new album in early February. Will you doing doing it
in what James Harman calls the '...old school, real guy way: Real people
singing and playing instruments... in a big room, together, at the same
Lamb: "Oh yes. The only thing we'll probably dub
will be the brass section – it's basically a live gig. We'll not
even bother using the studio. We'll just run through a few things and
say 'That's the way it's gonna go'... but you've got to watch on the day
because me and the band have to feel good, and it's gotta be inspired.
I might take a 24-bar solo, or a 36, or even 48 – it depends where
the feel is and where it's going, and the way the band's working with
it. That's the way you gotta work with this music because it's all about
I record the same as like Muddy Waters and the old boys – they might
have had format in their head, but then they just went and recorded after
a gig. With blues it's gotta be done that way. I've done it in the past
going over and over it and got nowhere. Nowadays I'll do three takes of
the one song and I know which'll be the best one – the first one.
I say to the band 'you only get three takes lads, and that's it!'.
I think it's going to be fantastic… it's with the current band,
and my son's probably gonna play on it a bit, and there's gonna be a brass
section as well. I'm going a little bit different, although you're still
gonna get my brand of the blues. I'm starting to do a lot more singing
too now. I've always done it, back in the early 70s in the folk clubs
With the style of Paul Lamb & The Kingsnakes I think that the harmonica
has to be played right to make it work – I mean the way I put it
in, it's like a horn section, and the whole sound of the band is the harmonica
being there all the time. The vocalist is singing and there'll be stabs
that I'll do. If I was singing it would be like Kim Wilson or Rod Piazza,
it would be coming off it, but there's a few things I wanna do myself
on vocals – I can cut it on that, so it's gonna be on the new album."
year you were in the states for Jerry Portnoy's 60th birthday with a lot
of other famous harmonica players... How did they find having a this Geordie
Lamb: "Well, I was invited, because I've been friends
with them, and worked with them, Gerry and Rick [Estrin] and everybody.
There's a video that was done out there – all of us just sitting
in a hotel room. There's me, Kim (Wilson), Rick, Jerry, Sugar Ray Norcia,
and we're all just talking about the music in general, and I'm like an
outcast in a way, but it's not that much different to be being in in the
North East when I was growing up... the mining, that's all there was,
the black coal, there was nothing much for us to do but to get out and
try and make a living, not far removed from the Harlem ghettos or the
Mississippi Delta. I call it the Blyth Delta – that's where I come
from. I don't even think about creed or colour or anything, I'm just playing
that music; it is black American music I suppose, but now it's worldwide,
When I first started doing this big fat harp style there weren't that
many people doing it, but people like me and Rod Piazza , William Clarke…
all came the same way about the same time. In Europe I influenced a lot
of people, but when it became popular, like with The Thunderbirds and
Piazza, I was starting to make a name for myself and people said 'Oh,
he's copying – wearing the shades'. I wasn't copying, no way.
What happened was we were all listening to the same guys – Little
Walter, Big Walter, so it's bound to sound a little bit similar. But the
difference that I've got with those players is the Sonny Terry thing,
and that's what I think made me different to everybody else. Not that
I'm just playing Sonny Terry, but the way I play as well, what I learned
from Sonny – putting that skip or whatever in the harmonica. It's
my individual sound."
How did it come about that you met Sonny, and spent time playing with
him and Brownie McGhee?
Lamb: "Well what happened was Steve Rye, who used
to play with The Groundhogs was promoting various people and brought Sonny
and Brownie across in the 70s. I'd entered a competition in a magazine,
sent it in and didn't think anything of it. But Steve was one of the judges
and I got a letter saying 'you've gotta come down – you sound like
one of the greatest exponents of the Sonny Terry sound'. I'm just a kid
and I'm thinking 'What's going on?'
So I went, and was invited to play at the World Harmonica Championships
– and I came second! That's how I met Sonny. We became friends and
I spent a lot of time with him in New York. He took sick, and had a tour
in the mid-70s – Brownie called me up and I went with him. For me
that was fantastic. I was 21."
playing still 'fantastic' for you?
Lamb: Aye, I love it. Music for me is a hard game, but
it's not just a job, the music is part of me. It's a fantastic way of
communicating to people, and I'm expressing what I'm feeling. If I've
got a message for any of the players out there it's to enjoy it –
musicians just do your thing!