An Interview with bluesman Paul Filipowicz, one of the last that were brought up with legendary bluescats

"The blues lives on. The Blues touches our inner self (soul). It's a universal language."

Paul Filipowicz: Stories from the Bluesland

Madison, Wisconsin's Paul Filipowicz is a local blues hero of Southern Wisconsin. He is one of the last blues guitar players that literally were brought up on Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Hound Dog Taylor. With strong Chicago roots you can hear all great Chicago bluescats in his playing. Paul 30plus years of one nighters, touring, parties, clubs fairs, festivals, and just about any other venue namable. He has molded his playing into a distinct original immediately identifiable sound.

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, and harp player; Paul was born in Chicago and raised in the Lockport, Ill. corn fields in the 1950’s. “My sisters played piano in church and of course we all sang there. About the only other music we could get was the radio.” One night while cruising the dial Filipowicz pulled in a radio station out of Tulsa, OK. They played Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters back to back. That was his first exposure to blues. His first witnessed live blues was early 60s, while waiting outside a club on Chicago’s South Side, Otis Rush and his band were tearing it up right there in broad daylight. Electric guitar was it! Learning by ear was about the only way to go about a blues education in those days.

Over the 30 plus years of fronting his own band, Filipowicz has played venues from the mid-west to Denver to stints in Texas and Mississippi. Some of his fondest memories are the shows with Hound Dog Taylor,Otis Taylor, Lefty Dizz, Jimmy Dawkins, Luther Allison, and Mighty Joe Young in the 70’s. With 4 critically acclaimed CD’s under his belt, Paul’s original slashing guitar style has been established and documented. His release “Chinatown” was the logical next-step for a bluesman that has over the years lives with the blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

The blues to me is my natural form of expression through music. I have heard blues music everywhere all my life so it's just natural. It just comes from within. I play my guitar every day. Whether or not I have a gig I still play it. It is what I do for release. I love it.  It makes me feel right. I can't explain it in words.

In what age did you play your first gig and how was it like (where, with whom etc.)?

This is a tough one.  Early on I had an 8 string guitar, it was a 12 string but I only used the double strings on the high string and the lowest string. It gave more volume to those strings. I tuned it in down to open D and open G. Having fewer strings made it so the neck wouldn't bow up so much and I could finger the frets somewhat. I played almost exclusively slide and harp. I traveled by myself. Mostly hitch-hiking. Had a harp rack also. Played parks and street-corners for tips.  That was 1969 or so. In 1971 I did what I consider my first professional gig.  I consider it a professional date because there was a guaranteed amount of money involved before the show. I think it was $15 a night for 3 nights Thurs, Fri, Sat. The place was "The Mint Lounge" in Milwaukee WI.

I was playing harp with this band "The Fiends Club" at the time. My first instrument was harp.  I learned that first. My sisters both played piano in church and knew how that worked.  My dad played harp like "The Harmonicats". He was like a whole band by himself. I still never heard anything like him. He also played trumpet. Any way he gave me my first harp and I was loving Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson and Holwin Wolf and he would say when you gona learn how to play some songs on that thing. On harp I learned that there are only 8 notes and you just repeat them at higher and lower octaves.  When I learned that it was my major breakthrough in music. I could transpose that to the guitar which I had been plunking around on since I was a kid. We always had instruments around the house and I had an old beat up guitar that was missing some strings but I loved it never the less. So I went to playing the guitar like I did Harp. I learned everything by ear. Anyway, Paul Butterfield was getting popular at this time and I was the only cat around that could play that kind of stuff so I hooked up playing harp with this band. I was with that configuration on and off for a while. I was working on my guitar all the while. I always loved the electric guitar.

How do you describe Filipowicz sound and progress? From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I play amplified single note guitar driven blues songs that are based on Mississippi blues progressions. Much like the early Chicago blues players. I also am heavily influenced by the Texas guitarists Lightin Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Freddy King and Albert Collins. I had the honor to see both Albert Collins and Freddy King numerous times and they both had a huge impact on me. Both of them were completely immersed in there interments and music. Both very aggressive guitarists.   

My sound; I consider myself a West Side Chicago blues guitar player.  Early on I was into Sonny Boy and Wolf and Muddy so I checked out who was on guitar on the records and most everybody playing bass and drums included were from Mississippi.  So I started checking out musicians from Mississippi. I got to see Wolf a few times.  I saw Muddy at least 10 times and he had different guitar players with him every time.  All of them killer.  Sammy Lawhorn had this huge tone, really a sweet tone. Jimmy Dawkins was with him when I saw him in Bolder CO. 1973 or 74. I also saw Muddy in Denver, CO, around this time and "Guitar Junior" - Lonnie Brooks was playing guitar with him.  He sounded a lot like Freddie King on that show.

All this time I was traveling and. I would catch every blues show I could where ever I was. But I had to come back to the mid-west to catch real blues. Man nothing like seeing "Willie Dixon" live. As a performer he put on one of the best Chicago blue shows of them all.  So I started catching all the younger Chicago guitar players that were traveling a lot at the time. Otis Rush, words can’t describe the feeling he would put on a room. Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Son Seals would light it up. He even did fancy dance steps when he was young. Very aggressive sound. Fenton Robinson was another cat that was real nice to me.  He had that T-Bone walker thing but did his own thing on top. I saw him in 71 with Charlie Musselwhite and I haven't been the same since.

Freddie King was another nice cat. I would catch him every chance I got. He was fabulous high energy at all times. It was a shame what they did to him. The last time I saw him the led him out on stage and he didn't even know where he was. He was dead a few months later.  He should have been in the hospital. I had an ulcer explode once so I know what he was going through. 

Lonnie Brooks also helped explaining about song writing and hooks. Luther Allison was like a big brother to me. What a great guy he was, besides one of the greatest guitar players ever.  He also told me about that inner voice. We would talk for hours. All of these people and experiences helped shape my sound.  Aggressive no holds barred blues guitar like I heard when I was coming up. I also love the Texas players. Of course T-Bone walker was the Grand Daddy of all electric guitar players. His phrasing is still the industry standard for real blues guitar players. 

Lightin Hopkins is not known for his electric playing but if you hear it you won't believe how hot he played.  You can still find some of his albums with him playing electric. Then there's his nephew the great Albert Collins.  Seen him a bunch. Words don't describe him.  All these guys gave a "FEEL" and that's what blues is.  It's a "Feel".

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

There have been many great experiences while preforming but still the most exciting was being on stage with Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers.  Brewer Philips and Ted Harvey.

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the Chicago’s South Side at early 60s?

This is interesting because it is the same feel that I miss that was present in many, many blues clubs throughout the country and that is the sense of belonging. Almost like family. Most of the blues clubs had a personal feel.  Like "Tabby's Blues Box" in Baton Rough, "Teddy's" in Milwaukee. "Teresa's", "Checkerboard" in Chicago; and many more.  It was like this all over the country. There were many roadhouses in Wisconsin also that you wouldn't believe the good times we would have till dawn. Ya it was a family thing. Everything is so sterile.  Send me an electric press kit. I'll e-mail you a date. These people have no idea who we are.

Which is the most interesting period in your life ? What experiences in your life make you a good bluesman?

I'm amazed that I'm still alive so every day is a blessing.  I live in the present so that is exciting for me every day. What experiences… Life!!!

                                                                                                          Photo by Karl Tollefson

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Man!!!  It's all glitz and hype. Seems like everything has to have a cute'zze hook. Like a 15 year guitar wizard or 18 year old scantily clad babes on stage. It's endless. I'm not trying to be negative; it's just the way it appears to me. I am who I am. I play blues guitar. 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

The entertainment bizz is tough, maybe the toughest biz. There is. Be ready for rejection and humiliation every day. Practice, practice, practice so if the opportunity presents itself you will be ready because you don't get many chances. You must strike when the iron is hot.

Are there any memories from Hound Dog Taylor and Mighty Joe Young, which you’d like to share with us?

Hound Dog Taylor. I saw him uncountable times and always loved his stuff. Talk about natural. I played harp with him in Milwaukee one time. That was Brewers idea. The thing about Hound Dog was when I got a band together I ended up opening up for him whenever he came to town and got to know him somewhat. He would even grunt to me at times.  Through him I met Lefty Dizz who was a real gas. What a fun time he was. Don't play cards with him.

One of the first real blues men I opened up for was Mighty Joe Young. He was really nice to me.  He encouraged me to continue on the path I had taken.   He also was one of the first people who would tell me to find my own voice. It took many years to understand what this meant but to this day I don't try to copy anybody else.

Tell me a few things about your meet with Luther Allison, which memory from him makes you smile?

Luther was a friend and big brother to me. Always gracious and a kind word.  The last time I saw Luther was at "O Kay's Corral in Madison WI. It was a Monday or Tuesday night and we both came down to jam with Clyde Stubbelfield and his band. I came in and within five or ten minutes the electricity went out over a couple of blocks. Everything was black but Kathy (the owner) got out candles, lots of candles,  enough to light the whole bar room and put candles on the pockets of the pool table. People continued to play pool as if nothing had happened. The amps and PA were out so the music ceased.

So Luther and I sat a table and talked about things that were and albums to come and songs to wright. We had an incredible gas. Laughed about everything under the sun. He told me he was in town for a checkup because something wasn't rite. Then in 6 or 8 months he was gone.  It still hurts to talk about that part. But the front part, the joking and shuckin are clear as a bell. I am blessed.

And would you like to tell your best memory about Lefty Dizz and Jimmy Dawkins?

Lefty was always up to something. I remember we were doing a show together and I said "Nice new amp Lefty", "How much you give?" He started mumbling and I couldn't understand. Then finally he said something about he borrowed or it was a loner but nothing really clear or definite. So I dropped it.

It looked like a Fender Quad Reverb but I don't think it was.  But it was new with a price tag still hanging on the handle. Then he started playing and it had the Nasty-est "Good" sound you could imagine from a new amp. So on break I asked him about it and he just laughed. During the next set I got a look in the back and I could see the speakers vibrating and somebody had put a razor blade to the speakers. What a Wild Man. Great musician even though he is best known for his stage antics.

Jimmy Dawkins is still, to me, The States Man. He's like George Washington. What every aspiring blues musician should strive to become. He's serious about his music. He's an upstanding ambassador of the blues. He's a great guy who will go to bat for you.

What’s the best gig you ever played in? How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

Every time I play is the best. If my hands are working I couldn't ask for a better gift. Every audience is different. I try getting people into the music, inside the music with us. It's hard to explain. 

Would you like to tell something about making this new album? Do you remember any fanny from recording time?

This is the first time for me recording digital. Everything else I recorded was analog (tape) so the proses are somewhat different. You have to start with a strong performance of course, but the editing is different. Grasping space sonically is different also. I don't want to get to technical. But we're a blues band. 

How can you tell? For instance on Sat. Nov. 10th we're booked for the studio in Milwaukee at noon. 11:45 I'm on 84th street right on time. The phone rings, its Dave the bass player. His Land Rover is broken down about 40 miles out. Needless to say we did dent start at noon. Actually it wasn't to bad though. We got his truck towed and I picked him and Brian (the drummer was with him) up and we got started by 3:00 pm. "Gota roll with the punches mate"

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

The blues lives on. The Blues touches our inner self (soul). It's a universal language. I was in Mongolia in "05" or "06" doing some shows and I picked up a band. I couldn't speak Mongolian. The piano player (I'll find his name for you) spoke a little English but not much but we communicated through the music. We had a couple of rehearsals and did a great show. The musicians instinctively knew the feel I wanted. It was a great time. Still makes me smile.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Find your own voice. Mighty Joe Young and Luther Allison both expressed this to me. Some others also, I just can't remember who at this time. Over the years I have worked on developing at least one original guitar lick each year. I play traditional style with original twists. 

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?

As I get older it gets harder for me to come up with ideas that haven't been over used- clichéd. But when I'm on stage in the moment thing still come on the spot. But I can't remember them for future references like I us to. Live is everything!

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your “secret” DREAM? Happiness is……

I am building a log Lodge in northern Wisconsin in my spare time (a labor of love). Actually my hobby is working on my 1949 Ford hot rod truck. I can escape into a flathead motor for hours.  And when you run it it's all worthwhile.

Paul Filipowicz - Official Website

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