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I first saw Little George back in the late 80s playing with Big Joe Louis in the now almost legendary Station Tavern in Latimer Road. He had standout ability with harmonica - a real soulful groove - and an extraordinary voice to match. He and Joe used to tear the place down. These days George plays up and down the country and in Europe, with an eclectic band and turning up in some unexpected - for a 'Blues' musician - places...
So who was it you were listening to when you started playing?
I found Blues by accident, I started playing the Harmonica because it was the first thing that was available. I actually went to somebody’s house and there was a harp and I had a go on it and got totally addicted, but I didn’t have anything to listen to. So a friend suggested I listen to Muddy Waters as there was “loads of great harp playing on his records” so I got some of that, then someone else recommended Sonny Boy Williamson and Junior Wells… But the very first thing I got had Jimmy reed on one side and Little Walter on the other side and from there I started to fall in love with it. It took me a little while to understand it, but once I got inside it really was music that made a difference to my life
Were you listening to other things as well as the harp led blues bands?, because there is a lot of soul and all sorts of things in your music?
Yeah, even before I knew anything about Blues what I really liked - I was hearing when I was kid and I didn't know what it was about but I always liked it - was people like Sam Cooke and Percy Sledge - the gospel singers that turned pop... I wasn't even aware of Sam Cooke's vast range of fantasticalness in the gospel days with the Soul Stirrers, when I was listening to the pop stuff but after you've heard that kind of stuff it's hard to listen to the pop ballads... I didn't even know that there was that kind of depth out there... But anyway, I always liked that kind of stuff, it's just that I never really had a chance to get next to it.
So is it fair to say that the Sam Cooke Gospel thing is coming into your music now then?
I first saw you playing in the late 80’s with Big Joe Louis, you hadn’t been playing long then had you?
No, I started playing in 1987, I joined my first band within a year, because I was just totally addicted to it - it was the first thing in my life that I'd been totally addicted to - and within 2 years I joined my favourite band which was Big Joe Louis. A friend of mine recommended that I should go and see Joe at the Station Tavern because he could see that I was really into that down home blues style and so I went down there. As I approached the door I couldn't believe what I was hearing - I realised that Big Joe liked what I liked. So someone introduced us and I ended up sitting in...
There was a real scene at the Station Tavern...
It was brilliant!
So where did it go wrong? What happened to it?
Well before we focus on the negative, I'd like to remind you of the positive! That place, when I was introduced to it, it had already been going for about a year, and it was fantastic. There was a brilliant band every night of the week and there would be two non-resident spots so bands could come through. There was Jim McCarty on a Wednesday, Paul Lamb on a Tuesday, Thursday was open night... Saturday night Big Joe Louis... Every night was thriving, and that went on for a really long time - Me and Joe played there for about twelve or thirteen years and that's a good length of time.
But you know, people started to take it for granted a little bit - it was one of the few venues that allowed you to go in for free... For a long time it was brilliant, everyone took advantage of it, it used to get so busy in there, I mean it was sweaty, you couldn't get a drink and even though it was brilliant I think maybe people started thinking it was too busy, or it was too hot and eventually people weren't taking advantage of it like they once were. Then it changed hands and they decided that they would re-vamp the place and make it a world class venue... Sometimes if a thing paint broken then don't fix it... But good memories. The best memories!
So what about the scene now?
Well one of the good things about the Station Tavern was that everyone would end up there at some point, and musicians would hang out there, even on their nights off, so you were more connected. There is still a scene out there though, it's just that there are fewer meeting points.
I guess the obvious parallel with the Station Tavern is Aint Nothin' But it Kingly Street but It's doesn't really feel it has that same sense of being at the heart of a 'scene'...
Well it's a bar in the West End, it's not a loungey pub in the suburbs, so just by the nature. But the audience is there for a good time, and that's more than fine. The place is almost a modern day juke joint... But I don't think there is a centre to the London scene nowadays. I mean the Station Tavern was as much like that as you were gonna get... But it was unusual you know... It was a one-off.
So does anywhere have that kind of thing nowadays?
Well I did a tour in Sweden last year - I got emailed by a Swedish band called Trick Bag asking if I'd be interested in them backing me and setting up a tour. And you know what, they've got bars over there like The Station Tavern. Blues is probably much more alive there, and the quality of those musicians is just fantastic - really talented, and I mean they're getting it... Apparently Denmark has ninety blues clubs! So there's a lot going on in Scandinavia.
I saw you last year playing with Big Joe backing Lazy Lester and you seem to have a long standing relationship with him... How did that come about?
Well we used to back him back in 1993 - we toured with him and it was a brilliant experience... We got on very well - I remember the first rehearsal we had before the tour, I was meant to be playing second guitar, because of course he's a harmonica player, and I was quite nervous about it. We turned up at this rehearsal and it turned out that Lester really loves playing guitar. He said "You're a harp player right? Give me your guitar and you play some harp!" and the stuff I most liked of his - the stuff he did with Lightning Slim - when I started playing that, he recognised it!
It strikes me that you, and Big Joe for that matter, have got more than touch of that Louisiana swampy type thing going on, as much as a 'Chicago' sound...
Well don't forget that what people label as 'Chicago' blues music was being made by people in the 50s who had actually just traveled up to Chicago from the South. When amps started coming into the equation and they were playing that stuff they played down south, but through an amp, in a bar. It did change, but the first stuff was down home shit-kicking music through an electric guitar.
And what about being on this recent Ali Farke Touré Record? It works really well - your playing on it really clarifies the links between blues and what Ali Farke Touré was doing... How did that happen?
Well basically I got a call from World Circuit Records... I suppose you make your mark over the years and I suppose they wanted to mix some blues up with some of that stuff... The guy had seen me doing some of the Womad festivals... Were were going to get together and re-record the whole thing, but then he passed away. But now it looks like I might do something with his son - a tour with three african bands and me.
More info: www.littlegeorge.co.uk