An Interview with Canadian bluesman Al Lerman of Fathead: There are good blues players in Detroit, Toronto, Athens and Moscow.

Al Lerman: We Have Fun !

Fathead may be the best blues and roots band to come out of Canada since Ronnie Hawkins hired the future-Band to become his backup group, The Hawks, in the mid-1950s. An ultra-tight ensemble, Fathead brings together the most respected musicians in the United States' northern neighbor to create an energetic blend of funk, soul and rockin' blues. "Real Blues" referred to the group's harp and guitar-dominated sound as "one of those rare, much sought after, but seldom achieved, chemical/spiritual reactions that happens when all the right ingredients come together: talent, personality, humour, united vision and a little bit of hoodoo/voodoo". "The Toronto Star" praised Fathead when it commented, "If the blues were a sports league, Fathead would be the equivalent of an all-star team".



FATHEAD's latest CD "WHERE’S THE BLUES TAKING ME" is the crown jewel in the band's seven CD catalogue thus far. It's been a long but steady climb since FATHEAD formed in 1992, and the band has been tearing it up on the North American festival and concert hall circuit ever since - winning over new fans every time they play - making FATHEAD one of the country's top roots acts. Signed to the world renowned ELECTRO-FI RECORDS' imprint, their previous release "BUILDING FULL OF BLUES" garnered them a second coveted JUNO AWARD (Canada's "GRAMMY") in 2008 for "Blues Recording Of The Year".

That they have been described as a Blues Tour De Force comes as no surprise. Georgia-raised lead singer JOHN MAYS has had a storied career that began in the Southern gospel tradition, crossing over into Doo-Wop, R&B and Blues, not to mention a stint with the Godfather Of Soul JAMES BROWN. He has won numerous Maple Blues Awards for “Male Vocalist Of The Year”.

Band leader AL LERMAN is a journeyman musician who plays with sizzle and a whole lot of soul. He’s garnered several MAPLE BLUES AWARD nominations for both his harp and saxophone playing as well as his song-writing. Bassist OMAR TUNNOCH played in seminal Toronto bands Whiskey Howl and Wooden Teeth, and has played with John Lee Hooker, Etta James and Paul Butterfield. He along with Lerman, is a major contributor to FATHEAD’s arsenal of original material. Guitar ace TEDDY LEONARD has played with Morgan Davis, Colin Linden, Rick Danko, Paul Reddick and a host of others. Along with iconic drummer BUCKY BERGER (2009 Drummer Of The Year), Fathead creates a fresh sound that is immediately recognizable as their own. They have a ball wherever they play and it shows!


Interview by Michael Limnios


Al, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols? What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?

When I was 11 years old I was taken to hear Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee at a coffeehouse in Toronto and I was immediately hooked. That would have been 1965. I went see them every time they came there.  In all, I probably saw them close to 40 times! Within the next few years I would see Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Bukka White, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Mississippi Fred McDowel, BB King  and many more. When I was about 17 or 18, I befriended Carey Bell when I saw him playing with Willie Dixon, and he showed me a lot of the stuff on harp. He also  gave me some good “road  tips” like how to save money on restaurants by cooking hotdogs in your hotel room with  an electric frying pan. But when I first picked up the harp, I was just trying to learn Sonny Terry licks more so than  learning actual songs. I bought a lot of records and studied them all. I listened to all the great harp players’ styles and picked up what I could.


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

There’s been so many great times. A few that come to mind are: sitting in with Muddy Waters; playing with Sunnyland Slim; Carey Bell sitting in with a very early band of mine; winning a Juno Award (Canada’s Grammy) with my current band FATHEAD; opening for BB King; recording with Willie Big Eyes Smith.  But really, any night you’re on the bandstand where the crowd is into it is always fantastic. That’s the buzz that keeps me going. There were a lot of bad times too, like playing to people that hated you, or driving 15 hours only to be ignored or fired. Most young musicians do a lot of bad gigs in the beginning. You can’t expect the top gigs when you’re just starting out. Early on we didn’t make a lot of money either, be we were out there playing most nights. In my mind, that was much better than having a day job.


Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

The one thing you should never do while you’re playing music is “think”. Music should flow from your soul and be played with heart.

 

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

I feel I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve  met so many of my musical heroes. They were all very accessible and generous with their time. Sometimes they would show me how to play certain things. Other times, just talking to them was  inspiration enough for me to learn something.

As a musician, you get to go to places a lot of people never get to see.  You get to play to a very wide audience… from paupers to Princes. You see how a lot of different people live. That’s what the blues has given me.


What do you learn about yourself from music?

Probably to keep it real. The blues is very down to earth, and honest. That’s how I try to be.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

The more you experience in life, the more you can relate to different people. You need to know about both joy and sorrow in able to put those emotions into your music. Certainly meeting and playing with better musicians will inspire you to play better too. 


Which artists have you worked with & which of all “Blues Cats” do you consider the best buddy?

I’ve had the opportunity to do gigs with Sunnyland Slim, Willie Smith, Little Mac Simmons and Mel Brown. Carey Bell was a true mentor and friend. I felt close to Willie too. FATHEAD is a band I love playing with. Great players in that band… Omar Tunnoch, Teddy Leonard, Bucky Berger and my “brother from another mother” John Mays. They are like my family. We’ve been together 20 years.


Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording hours?

I think good records happen when the sessions are fun and everybody is getting off on playing with each other. FATHEAD always has a very good chemistry in the studio. We get in that real comfort zone. We might have a few drinks and my wife Dania always cooks up enough food for an army so we don’t go hungry when we’re in there.  She’s amazing! I did three albums with Willie Smith and we were all pumped up for those too.


What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Opening for BB King at Massey Hall in Toronto was special. Coming to play at Blues People in Athens with Willie Smith was a great little tour too. There’s been a lot of festival gigs with FATHEAD that stand out. Playing to a big crowd is one thing, but playing to a big crowd that is INTO it is amazing! Come to think of it, playing a small, jam-packed bar when people are into it is pretty cool too. I just love to play!


How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

I’ve listened to all kinds of songwriters from the likes of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Robbie Roberston, Lowell George, Lieber & Stoller, Doc Pomus, Jimmy Reed. I like how they all “tell the story”. Songwriting is a funny thing tough.  Some people can sit down everyday and churn out a song but  I can’t.  I always have a few song ideas on the go, but the best ones seem to appear out of thin air. I wish I could do that all the time! Sometimes somebody might say something that triggers off an idea, or maybe a groove or a lick I pick out on a guitar might lead me down a creative path.

 

What are your best songs, the songs you’d most like to be remembered for?

Blue Water is a strong song. Gypsy Feet. Shame On Ya. . I’m just about to release a solo CD and there’s a ballad called Bye Bye Baby that I like.  I’d like to think that  the next song I write will be one to be remembered.

 

Tell me about the beginning of Fathead. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

I had been playing in a band that was starting not to be any fun anymore, so I just booked some gigs on my own and started hiring different musicians around Toronto whom I  really admired. I needed to call it something and after glancing at a record that happened to be lying out by David Fathead Newman, I decided to call the band FATHEAD. After about a year of working with a variety of players, pretty much the current line-up of the band was onstage one night. It was so much fun, I started calling those guys for all the gigs.


Three words to describe Fathead?

Three word to describe FATHEAD? WE  HAVE  FUN!



Are there any memories from studio and tour with Willie Big Eyes Smith, which you’d like to share with us?

Willie was very down to earth. We had a lot of laughs together. I was so sorry to hear of his passing recently. A lot of players would prefer to stay in their hotel all day. Willie would come sight seeing with us and hang out. He was one of us. Same in the studio. No star system there. Just one of the guys. He was open to our ideas.


Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your shows in Greece? Do you have a message for the Greek fans?

We had such a great time over there. The Greek people were so warm. I’d love to come back and play for them. I enjoyed being taken around after hours to hear the traditional Greek music too… Your country’s blues! I loved the food and the pace of life there also. I often talk about that tour.


If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?

I don’t think I would really do anything different. My life would have been easier if I could have avoided all the hard times, but then again  I ‘m probably better off by having experienced them.



Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

All of them.


When did you last laughing in gigs and why?

Most musicians in general are a funny bunch. Hanging out on the breaks, I am usually laughing at every gig. FATHEAD has a lot of fun on stage, and somebody will usually play something that makes me smile or laugh.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I learned what I should be doing from hearing the good players, and I learn from the bad players what I should be trying to avoid.


Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?

BB King probably had the most success of any blues artist. He’s like royalty, yet he remains humble. I find that  very admirable.


What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a musician?

I LOVE music!!!!


Who are your favorite blues artists? What was the last record you bought?

In no particular order, Muddy Waters, Sonny & Brownie, BB King, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson; Ray Charles, Jr Parker. The list goes on. There’ s so many. As far as newer blues I really dug Paul Delay. I like Susan Tedeschi a lot. I guess hers was the last disc I bought.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?

Blues is an emotion as much as it is a music. People will always relate to the feelings and the message of the blues as long as it’s played with heart.


How do you see the future of blues music?

It will always be developing. New players will always come along. Now some will merely imitate, but for the music to survive I really think you need push it further, and they will. They are. They have! Howlin’ Wolf’s music was a far cry from Robert Johnson’s just as Robbin Ford is a long way off from Wolf. Somehow it’s ALL blues and it’s all good.


When did you first meet Little Mack Simmons & Mel Brown, what kind of a guy was a Little Mack & Mel?

Little Mack Simmons was a really great singer with a lot of great stories. He was a real character. Mel Brown was one of the coolest guy’s I’ve ever met. A  stand out musician. I feel fortunate I was able to gig and record with them. I am thankful to Andrew Galloway at Electro-Fi Records for teaming me up with them.


Where did you pick up your harp & sax style? In which songs can someone hear the best of your work?

I played harp long before I played sax. I studied a lot of different styles and players; Sonny Terry, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jr. Wells, Big Walter Horton, Charlie Musslewhite, George Smith. For sax I liked a lot of the bluesier jazzmen…Coleman Hawkins, King Curtis, Stanley Turrentine. Bobby Forte (who used to play with BB King),  Grover Washington Jr., Lester Young, David Fathead Newman, Plas Johnson, Hank Crawford, Cannonball Adderly.

I think the Willie Smith CD “Bluesin’ It” really shows off my harp playing. Nice Chicago-style blues. FATHEAD’s “Building Full Of Blues” and “Where’s The Blues Taking Me” discs has some nice sax/harp work on them. I like to think my own disc “Crowe River Blues” showcases my harp, sax and guitar playing as well as my vocals too.


When it all began for the blues in Canada? What characterizes the sound of Canadian Blues?

I don’t think the blues in Canada is too much different than in the States. The border between the two countries didn’t magically stop the music from getting here. It started in the South and moved up the Mississippi  to places like Memphis and St Louis and just kept going. Now it’s all over the world. There are good blues players in Detroit, Toronto, Athens and Moscow.


What is next in store for you?

In 2012 FATHEAD will be celebrating 20 years together. To commemorate the event, Electro-Fi Records will be releasing a “Best Of…” CD package that also includes a DVD of concert footage and interviews. I am also about to release my very first solo CD called “Crowe River Blues”. I wrote 10 of the 13 songs on it and handled the vocal, harmonica, saxophone and guitar duties on it. It was produced by Alec Fraser and he is featured on bass along with Fathead’s Bucky Berger (drums) and a great musician named Lance Anderson on keyboards. Visit Fathead 's site and Al Lerman 's home.

Thanks so much for your interest. I so appreciate your support!


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