"Blues is less popular than it used to be because it is less relevant to many people."
Bob Hall: 88 Blues n' Boogie Rockets
Critically acknowledged as Britain’s finest blues and boogie pianist, Bob Hall’s distinctive and original piano style has influenced generations of piano players and left a lasting legacy. He first came to fame in the rhythm ‘n’ blues explosion of the sixties, as a founder member of The Groundhogs and later Savoy Brown. Other blues stars he played and recorded with at that time included Alexis Korner, Peter Green (in the Sunflower Blues Band) and Spencer Davis. Whilst many of his contemporaries went on to international fame, Bob preferred to stay at home in London, pursuing his passion for the blues and acting as accompanist to a host of touring bluesmen including: John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Witherspoon, Chuck Berry, Homesick James, Lightnin’ Slim, Lowell Fulsom, Charlie Musselwhite, Snooky Prior, J B Hutto, Lazy Lester, Baby Boy Warren, Eddie Burns, Eddie Taylor, Big John Wrencher, Mickey Baker, Cousin Joe Pleasants, Sonny Terry and Eddie Clearwater.
Bob subsequently led head-lining bands Tramp and Rocket 88, whose sidemen included Jack Bruce of Cream, Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones and Mick Fleetwood and Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac. From 1979 he has been a regular featured guest with The Blues Band, an all star line-up including Paul Jones, Dave Kelly, Tom McGuinness, Gary Fletcher and Rob Townsend. As an acknowledged authority on blues and boogie woogie piano, Bob has contributed to a number of magazines and books and is the sleeve-note writer for Yazoo Records piano blues series. He also worked on the piano sections of The Routledge Encyclopaedia of the Blues. Nowadays, the Bob Hall Show is pure enjoyment, full of energy and enthusiasm. Much credit for this must go to Bob’s long-time partner, Hilary Blythe, whose crystal-clear harmony vocals and rock-steady bass playing underpin all his performances. A diminutive dynamo, Hilary’s own moving treatment of blues and gospel classics are highlights of their show. Bob has established a permanent place on the festival circuit, having performed at most major European blues and jazz festivals as well as the prestigious Chicago and San Francisco blues festivals. He is the leader of the head-lining British Blues All Stars, which brings together many of the top names in British blues: Peter Green, Dave Kelly, Long John Baldry, Tony McPhee, Kim Simmonds & Dick Heckstall Smith. In recent years Bob’s restless spirit has taken him in new directions, writing original songs and performing a wide range of music culled from blues, boogie, gospel, folk and country sources. He is now recognised as a composer of considerable distinction, with a catalogue of finely crafted songs to his credit. Each song tells a story - often with a humorous sting in the tail, always delivered in Bob’s disarming, understated vocal style and invariably accompanied by his electrifying keyboard wizardry.
Mr. Hall, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues?
I think my first love was boogie woogie, which was still quite popular when I was boy. The best known exponent was Winifred Attwell, a West Indian lady who was classically trained, so her renditions were smooth but without a lot of grit. When I was 14 a friend played me a London American EP including Howlin’ Wolf’s, Smokestack Lightnin’ and I was lost to any other music for ever.
How did you begin playing music and when did you know you would do this for a living?
I started on piano at the age of six. My father was a very accomplished pianist and I wanted to be like him. By the age of 14 I was leading my own band playing dances around South London.
I have been blessed with several great partnerships down the years. The first was with Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, a true blues original, nice guy and a fantastically creative player. We are still friends to this day and Kim produced my last album. Next was Bob Brunning, a solid bass player and great hustler for opportunities. Bob, who recently passed away, was a vibrant, jovial personality and we formed many bands down the years, often to accompany legendary blues players from the past. We also made our own recordings, first under the name of The Brunning Sunflower Blues Band, then Tramp, and finally The DeLuxe Blues Band. I also had some great times with pianist Ian Stewart of The Rolling Stones and we had a storming band for some years called Rocket 88 which had Charlie Watts on drums, Jack Bruce on bass and Alexis Korner on guitar. Coming up to date, I should also mention my old friend Dave Peabody, a fine acoustic blues guitarist and singer, with whom I have had a long-standing duo that continues to this day. I also, of course, play as a duo with my wife Hilary, who plays bass and sings wonderful classic blues and gospel, but that is a quite different thing! Finally, I recently met and became friends with Ric Lee (of Ten Years After) and we have formed a band called Ric Lee’s Blues Project which will be recording a new CD in February prior to going on the road.
Is “the blues” a way of life?
It can be and is for some people, especially for those who come from an African American background. However, for many people, I think the feeling is internalized and very personal. If you can be lonely in a crowd - that’s the blues.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I’ve been very lucky and there have been quite a few high points. Touring Europe with Chuck Berry must count as a real high spot because, unusually, he really seemed to warm to our band on stage. I’m also very proud of the last album that I recorded with Kim Simmonds which I mentioned previously. The worst time was in my forties when I had to give up playing with Rocket 88 through a long-term illness.
Is there any similarity between the blues today and the blues of 60s & 70s?
Not really. Nearly all of the great originals I knew have passed away and much of what is left is generic. There are exceptions of course, Magic Slim, for example, is still full of fire and energy despite his age. I don’t have much time for the new young players although I think Eric Bibb is very interesting and creative and Joe Bonamassa has some nice moments.
From the musical point of view is there any difference between the British blues and the US blues?
Yes I think the British players brought a new excitement to the blues in the sixties, and I know for a fact that several of the blues giants at the time listened to people like Eric Clapton and absorbed much of what they created. I think the British invasion gave the blues a new lease of life.
"It (Blues) can be and is for some people, especially for those who come from an African American background. However, for many people, I think the feeling is internalized and very personal. If you can be lonely in a crowd - that’s the blues." (Photo: Bob Hall & Hilary Blythe)
What do you think were the reasons for the blues boom at early of the sixties?
It’s a mystery to me! We thought the African American blues players were very romantic, unrecognized great artists and perhaps as teenagers we identified with their passion and the discrimination which they suffered.
What does the BLUES mean to you?
For me personally blues is that empty feeling that all of us get some of the time. It’s a feeling of not belonging, of being unwanted and unloved, a kind of self-doubt. You are completely vulnerable on stage, but by pouring out your emotions to an audience, especially in the saddest songs, you can sometimes overcome those feelings. It’s not easy and doesn’t always work, but the rush when you succeed is incomparable.
Which of your work would you consider to be the best?
I think some of my best compositions are on the Tramp album Put A Record On. I’m proud of my piano on the Savoy Brown albums too and I think my latest album has some nice touches (but I would say that wouldn’t I!)
"It’s a mystery to me! We thought the African American blues players were very romantic, unrecognized great artists and perhaps as teenagers we identified with their passion and the discrimination which they suffered."
I wonder if you could tell me a few things about the story of “Rocket 88”
That is a very long story. In 1977 I was leaving a day-job in Swindon, Wiltshire to return to London, and the local theatre manager asked if I would like to do a farewell concert. I invited the late Ian Stewart to join me and he said he had a friend called Charlie who played drums. We both liked the Albert Ammons band tracks on Commodore and we decided to recreate the sound as far as we could. So we booked a horn section, led by the late Colin Smith on trumpet, and hired a couple of grand pianos so we could get that old two piano sound. Although Stu was a very accomplished pianist he was very shy and had no confidence in his own abilities. For that reason most of the other piano work in the band, which was originally called The Bob Hall Boogie Woogie Band, was played by another fine pianist, George Green. The concert was a huge success and was followed by other dates with the same or similar line-up. Eventually the band took on Jack Bruce on bass and he didn’t want to play in a band led by an “unknown” like me so for his benefit we changed the name to Rocket 88. I lead the band for 4 years during which time we headlined a lot of blues and jazz festivals in the UK and Europe. Around 1982 I became ill and could not perform for several years. By the time I recovered Ian and Alexis had passed away and the band had a completely different line-up and sound.
What does the Blues offered you?
I identify with the blues. It’s been my life for more than 50 years and I can’t envisage playing anything else. I hope to go on playing for a good while yet. It’s made me most of my friends and given me more pleasure that I can say. If I’ve given anything back I’m more than grateful.
"Yes I think the British players brought a new excitement to the blues in the sixties, and I know for a fact that several of the blues giants at the time listened to people like Eric Clapton and absorbed much of what they created. I think the British invasion gave the blues a new lease of life." (Photo: Bob Hall, John Mayall & Tom McGuinness, backstage having a great laugh)
What do you learn about yourself from music?
This is tricky. It’s very easy to be carried away by the approval of fans and critics, but really they’re just individuals and their opinion is no more than that. In fact success in music can give you a wholly disproportionate opinion of your own importance. Thus I would say that one has to learn that it is the music that is important and not the player. The best players I know are truly humble.
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
I try to live in the present, which is why I have such a lousy memory for past events. To me, today is the most interesting day of all, at least that’s what I aspire to.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
Practice. There’s no substitute. And giving yourself time to think, which as I get older I’m very bad at.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
I love new technology and for many years was a European Patent Attorney. If I hadn’t retired to play music I would have continued as a patent lawyer.
"I try to live in the present, which is why I have such a lousy memory for past events. To me, today is the most interesting day of all, at least that’s what I aspire to." (Photo: Bob Hall, Peter Green and the late great, Long John Baldry on stage)
How was your recording hours with all your guests, do you remember something funny?
Trouble with age is that most of those stories get beyond recall. Homesick James was a very difficult individual and would never record more than one take of a tune for fear that his out-takes would be released and he wouldn’t get paid for them. When we went to record with him he wasted part of the day complaining that “white boys” couldn’t play the blues and it was all going to be a disaster. However there were some very good players in the band that day and when we started he suddenly changed his mind and wanted to record all night, even though most of us had to get up and work the next day. The producer wouldn’t pay for us to get taxis but wanted us to finish with a long slow blues. We told him there wasn’t time, played a short, fast shuffle and caught the last train home.
What mistake of music you want to correct?
That’s a secret! I can hear mistakes in many of my recordings but they are just of the moment and I’ve no desire to go back and fix them.
Blues is less popular than it used to be because it is less relevant to many people. My wish for the music is a new generation of young players who can truly connect with the general public once more.
(Photo: Bob Hall & Lightnin Slim)
What would you had ask Jelly Roll Morton?
Jelly Roll was in at the beginning of the music and as a blues historian I would like to have asked him where and when he first heard the blues and who was performing it.
What gift would you had given to Albert Ammons?
To me Albert was the archetypal boogie player. Perfect technique and an inexhaustible fund of ideas. Albert always wanted to be as famous as Fats Waller and I would have reassured him that in years to come he would be.
Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?
Big Maceo Merriweather. I’d just like to see just how he played those incredible solo pieces.
What is the “think” you mist most of the ‘60s?
The old saying is that if you remember the sixties you weren’t there! I try not to look back.
"I imagine times are tough in Greece right now. However nothing lasts forever and it will get better. In many ways that’s the message of the blues. I’ve never played in Greece, but if you’d like to have me show you what I mean, I’d be very happy to come and play for you next year." (Photo: Bob Hall, Victor Brox and the legendary British bluesman, Alexis Korner)
To which person do you want to send one from your favorite blues song?
I’d love for Bonnie Raitt to record one of my songs. Marcia Ball once told me that she was influenced by one of my records but I don’t think Bonnie would remember me (though we did once meet briefly).
What do you think is the characteristic of you personality that made you bluesman?
I think I was an unhappy teenager and that led me to spend a lot of time in my room listening to records and trying to play the music. Not very romantic but rather common, I think.
Tell me about the beginning of the Groundhogs. How did you get together and where did it start?
Another very long story. I hope I’m not boring you! When I left university and returned to London the blues craze was just starting and groups like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds were beginnng to build a reputation. I was desperate to get into a blues band but most of them wanted a Hammond organ player and not a pianist. Finally I answered an ad in The Melody Maker for a pianist. I was told by the band that they had had two replies and was asked to come for an audition. Fortunately the other applicant didn’t show up and I got the job!
To my great regret I never recorded with John Lee Hooker. Of all the Groundhogs I was the only one with a career job and I didn’t want to quit to become a full time musician. For while I toured with Hooker and the band but eventually they found another pianist. He couldn’t play blues at all but I taught him a bit and sadly he got to play on all the TV and recordings that the band made with Hooker.
(Photo: John Lee Hooker with the Groundhogs & Bob Hall)
How was your relationship with the others blues guys (Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Stan Webb, John Mayall …)?
I knew Peter slightly, through Bob Brunning, and of course he played in my British Blues All stars line-up. Stan I’ve met several times, but we’ve never got around to playing together although we’ve talked about it from time to time. John I hardly know, although in the early days he used to come to my gigs with a tape recorder and I always suspected he copied my style!
Three words to describe your sound & your progress...
True to life!!
Do you believe MUSIC takes subject from LIFE?
I think music lives in your imagination. The blues takes real life situations as a starting point but then dreams take over.
Did you help many artist in the meantime did you found any gratitude from them?
When Howlin’ Wolf was ill I organised a benefit for him in London and received a very nice letter in reply. More recently I organised tours for Fruteland Jackson and in return he got me an invitation to the Chicago Blues Festival. I’ve also organised several UK tours for the great Canadian duo of Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley and in return they took me on wonderful sell-out tour of Canada last year.
Being content in your own skin. I learned that from Erwin Helfer, a wonderful old time Chicago pianist who is greatly revered in his own city.
When did you last laughing and why?
My wife Hilary and I laugh a lot about nothing at all.
"I identify with the blues. It’s been my life for more than 50 years and I can’t envisage playing anything else. I hope to go on playing for a good while yet. It’s made me most of my friends and given me more pleasure that I can say. If I’ve given anything back I’m more than grateful." (Photo Bob Hall & his wife, Hilary Blythe)
I think ALL your albums are great! Do you have a favorite album and track?
You’re very kind. Put A Record On from the Tramp album of the same name.
Has treatment made your life easier?
Compared to many people I’ve had an easy life. No wars, no very serious illnesses, no tragedies, only one divorce! I’ve no complaints.
Describe the ideal rhythm section to you?
I prefer a string bass, or an electric bass player who can get that acoustic sound, and a world class drummer. I’ve played with Charlie Watts, Mick Fleetwood and Ric Lee – any of them would do.
How/where do you get inspiration for your songs?
I often go into a kind of semi-trance on airplanes and that’s when I write most of the words of my songs. They usually start with a phrase that I’ve read or overheard somebody say.
I don’t get the chance to see many other players these days. The Blues Band are still outstanding in the UK in my opinion. Barry Cuda is a fine pianist and a fun guy, Diana Braithwaite has a great voice and Dave Peabody is still one of the best acoustic guitar players around.
"I’ve been very lucky and there have been quite a few high points. Touring Europe with Chuck Berry must count as a real high spot because, unusually, he really seemed to warm to our band on stage."
How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
When I started the business was quite edgy, with a lot of dubious characters and some outright crooks. I think it has become more professional, but less colourful and less interesting.
What do you feel is the key to your success as a musician?
Availability. When I worked in London I rarely went on tour so I was always around to play sessions and gigs with a wide range of musicians and groups.
What are your plans for the future?
To keep playing as long as I am physically able. I’m working with Dave Peabody and Hilary in arts centres and clubs in the UK next year and will be making a CD with Ric Lee.
Do you have a message for the Greek blues fans?
I imagine times are tough in Greece right now. However nothing lasts forever and it will get better. In many ways that’s the message of the blues. I’ve never played in Greece, but if you’d like to have me show you what I mean, I’d be very happy to come and play for you next year.
...and one last question, I would like to put a song next to each name.
Hilary Blythe: One More Road (from the What Goes Round album on SPV)
Mike Vernon: I’d Rather Go Blind (his best production I think)
Alexis Korner: Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie (he loved this and we recorded it together)
British Blues: Crossroads (Clapton of course)
Bob Hall: Alone With The Blues (from the What Goes Round album on SPV)
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