An Interview with Son Lewis, a faithful, and loving interpreter of pure Blues talks about his journey in music

"I think Blues is a way of getting the poison out of your system when you are down and making sure you don’t get too impressed with yourself when things are going well." 

Son Lewis: Silky Soul Bluesman

Son Lewis has been an active figure on the Blues music scene for some time. His work as a modern day exponent of the Blues, and R&B, has led him to recognition as a performer and recording artist. Son (born Andrew Lewis, December 11, 1951, Peterson, New Jersey) was influenced greatly by artists such as Robert Johnson, Otis Rush, and Hubert Sumlin (who he had the pleasure of accompanying in December 2006).

His own particular guitar style developed under the guidance of Blues guitarist Danny Kalb (founder of the Blues Project). During that time, Lewis performed with The Avlons and fronted The Strangers and The Love Merchants performing covers of "Blue-eyed Soul", Motown and STAX hits. By late 1968, Lewis had begun visiting the folk and blues clubs of New York's Greenwich Village. After witnessing a performance by John P. Hammond at Gerde's Folk City, he was determined to begin performing as a solo acoustic performer. In early 1969, Lewis became a regular fixture at "open mics" and "hootenanys" in and around the New York/New Jersey area, singing and playing acoustic blues guitar in the Delta and Piedmont styles. These performances resulted in several paid gigs as an opening or support act at The Coffeehouse at Fairleigh Dickenson University in New Jersey. During that period, Lewis opened shows for The Manhattan Transfer (when they were a folk group), comedian Chris Rush, Melissa Manchester, J.F. Murphy and Free Flowing Salt. Lewis’ reputation has been built upon well-crafted recordings and solid live solo performances and with his own SON LEWIS Blues Band.

Since 1979, he has recorded ten albums, primarily for New Jersey's Silk City RecordsAs a solo artist, performing the traditional country Blues, and with his band, rocking juke joints with electric blues, Son has become known as a faithful, and loving interpreter of this nearly lost musical art form. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

That is a very good (and a very difficult) question…I believe what the Blues tells me about myself is how best to express what I am feeling and how to get through the good times and the bad times as evenly as I can…  I think Blues is a way of getting the poison out of your system when you are down and making sure you don’t get too impressed with yourself when things are going well.  To me, the Blues is about being able to get that out in a healthy way

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

I think good songwriters of all styles share one very valuable thing in common… they need the ability to take what THEY have experienced and put it into a fashion that OTHER people can relate to.  Songwriting is very personal but it you make it too personal you stop others from relating to what you are saying.

As far as being a “good Bluesman”, I think you have to be honest about putting your emotions, no matter what they are, into each song each time you play it… whether you are in front of an audience or by yourself.  To me, it’s more about the expression than it is about the skill or technique of how you play.

How do you describe Son Lewis sound and progress and what characterize your music philosophy?

Well, I believe my sound has always valued the more traditional history of the Blues and the styles that are known as Delta, or Country Blues and the Chicago Blues of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  I tend to stay away from the more modern styles that incorporate more Rock influences.  I don’t think it’s a very intentional thing but it’s more about being true to the sounds that I love in the Blues and that inspired me to become a player and performer. 

Now that doesn’t mean I can’t take a song that was from some other musical school or style… Currently, I am doing a version of the old Temptations song “The Way You Do The Things You Do” which is an old Motown classic but I do it as a Texas Blues Shuffle.  I believe the Blues allows an artist so much flexibility that we can adapt so many different things and they will still be “Blues”.

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

I have to be honest here and it goes to my own ego… The best moment of my career was when we performed on stage at the New Daisy Theater in Memphis Tennessee in 1996.  About two minutes before going out on stage (to a packed house) I was struck with the fact that I was going out to perform on the same stage as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and a host of others… it just took my breath away.

The worst moment of my career (and I am sure there are some more to come) occurred very early on when I was opening up for The Manhattan Transfer, who were a folk-rock group at the time.  It was at a college and the audience was not in the mood for a solo, traditional Blues singer/guitarist… and they let me know it throughout my entire 40 minute set!

Tell me about your 60s experiences with Avlons, Strangers, and Love Merchants, which memory makes you smile?

I stared my professional career as a Bass player (and singer) for The Avlons… a band that focused on “blue-eyed soul” and rock music in 1964.  The presented me with my first professional (paid) performance and their leader and front man, Frank Lees, taught me a lot about being “an entertainer” and not just “a musician”.  It was a great learning experience but I found playing Bass to be very limiting, musically. I wanted to sing more and focus less on rock and more on Blues and R&B so I left to form The Strangers with Harold Tompkins (Drums), Joe Portello (Bass) and Dennis Meara (Lead Guitar).  The Strangers had a lot of inter-personal problems and didn’t last very long and we fired Dennis Meara and brought in Michael and Ronnie Strivelli (guitar and keyboards) and our manager changed the name to “The Love Merchants” (after some movie that was popular at the time).  It was around that time that I really found I was enjoying the acoustic solo style and since I was going away to school decided it was time to “strike out on my own”.  The one thing I can say I enjoyed most was The Strangers/Love Merchants was my first experience with spending large amounts of time with my band-mates; we were together all the time… not just when we were playing but truly a “band of brothers…”

"Some artists have misappropriated the name of the Blues to extend a career or provide a trendy “diversion” to their career but I don’t think that’s bad either." Photo: Son Lewis with The Strangers 1965

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from 60s at folk and blues café in New York's Greenwich Village?

When I came up during the 60’s Village scene, there was a real sense of intimacy and community between the performers and the audience.  The rooms were smaller and led to more personal interaction between the folks in the room.  The audiences came specifically to hear the music and listen, quietly and intently to each of us, no matter what our style or what we had to play…  That commitment from the audience is the one thing I truly miss these days.  I will often take a gig in a small coffeehouse or bookstore now just to get back some of that missed feeling and it still feels pretty good!

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from Danny Kalb, John Hammond, Elvin Bishop, and Hubert Sumlin?

Danny Kalb was an interesting cat.  He had lots of very-well publicized personal issues and at the time was all over the place and hard to keep focused.  He played with blinding speed back then but was a very patient teacher and gave me a lot of good advice on how to deal with musicians in a band environment.

John Hammond is still today one of the finest gentlemen to be in our business.   Having done shows with John, it always amazes me as to how gracious and patient he is with fans and the media… answering questions and being very honest and forthcoming about his experiences.

I almost didn’t survive Elvin Bishop… I have never met an adult with more energy and enthusiasm for his music than Elvin has.  He truly has fun at EVERY show and is the hardest working man I know.

I miss Hubert Sumlin very dearly.  I first met him when I was loading in for a gig in a small club in Clifton NJ.  As I was carrying in equipment, I noticed this guy sitting at the bar eating Buffalo Wings and drinking a Coca Cola.  As I passed by the second time, I asked him if anyone ever told him he looked like a guitar player named Hubert Sumlin and he replied, “yep.. my mamma…”  It was him and he told me he had “come to hear the Blues because the band was old- Chicago style”.  Well, I felt a little pressure on me and explained that he was a personal hero and that much of what he was going to hear I had “borrowed” from him.  He then suggested that I “get it right…” Hubert stayed all night to listen to the band but didn’t sit in because he had just gotten out of the hospital having had a lung removed.. We became fast friends and we ended up backing him up a couple of times.  He was the most positive thinking and generous guy I ever met… inside or outside of the music business.

" He was the most positive thinking and generous guy I ever met...inside or outside of the music business."  Photo: Hubert Sumlin and Son Lewis 

And would you like to tell your best memory about Rick Danko, "Gatemouth" Brown, Nighthawks, and Johnny Copeland?

Being with Rick Danko was like being in the same room as most of Modern Music History… He was a musical encyclopedia and must have known 4000 songs.  Gatemouth was a bit of cranky guy and I remember him tearing up a photo that a fan had brought him to sign because it “wasn’t an authorized picture”… He could play ANYTHING, in ANY style and make it look easy!  The Nighthawks are the hardest working and hardest traveling band in show business… and they are ALL business.  They have fun but there is not a wasted moment on stage with them.  They pull in, set up, rock their hearts out, break down and drive to the next city.

I did a number of shows with Johnny Copeland and he was a gentleman who showed tremendous respect to everyone on the bill…  When I first opened for him, they put him and his band in “The Green Room” and told me to go down to the “beer room” to wait.  Copeland was outraged and told the club owner that he would not go on unless ALL the musicians were treated with some dignity and respect.  I will always remember that about him.  I also remember his little daughter Shemekia who once told me “you know, I can sing, too…” and she sure can!

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

I think all aspiring artists, no matter what style, need to really understand that this is a hard road to travel but there is no greater satisfaction than successfully making an audience happy.  We have to give the people what they want and remember that without our audience we are NOTHING but talented street urchins.  We have to check our ego at the door and feel blessed to be able to do something we love.  Most of all, you should be having more fun doing it than the audience has watching it!

Why did you think that folk blues continues to generate such a devoted following?

The folk blues has survived and continues to generate a following because it is an ultimate form of artistic expression.  One man and one guitar, for example, signifies a pure form of almost spontaneous interpretation.  The folk blues is so minimalist and bare as to allow for no distractions in delivery of its message.

Are there any memories on the road around the States, working in clubs and coffeehouses, which you’d like to share with us?

After 40 years there are so many that I would be hard pressed on where to begin.  It has been a journey and I don’t think I’m quite done yet…

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever gave you?

When I studied guitar with Danny Kalb from The Blues Project he gave me the BEST advice I ever got.  He encouraged me NOT let myself be limited by what other people considered Blues but to take anything I truly felt inside myself and express it honestly and it would be a truthful expression of the Blues.

What the difference and similarity between the FOLK COUNTRY BLUES and MODERN ELECTRIC BLUES feeling?

Both styles are about genuine and immediate expression.  The Country Blues, to me, is more introspective and personal… Modern Electric Blues is more about “the groove” and sharing it with your band mates and the audience.

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

Blues is the one constant in an ever-changing musical geography… No matter what instruments you use the form and format of the Blues has remained pretty constant over nearly 100 years of musical evolution.  I think that is VERY reassuring to a lot of people. It has formed a musical anchor for the development of all popular western music; Rock, R&B, Country & Western, Jazz. Swing and Pop… all of them.

My one wish is that there continue to be musical outlets like this one that can continue to expose people to the Blues.  In order for this all to continue there needs to be new fans and performers who also understand the connections to the past.

Do you know why the sound of resophonic guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

What I think happened with resophonic guitars is that the guys who invented it intended to create a guitar that could compete with the volume of a large orchestra but it had such an “unsmooth” and tinny sound that it ended up not being too popular with orchestral guitarists.  I think they ended up being available really cheaply in a lot of catalogs and that made them popular with a lot of poorer country performers.  The Steel body ones also were very durable for heavy travel by hoboing and great weapons in a Juke fight.

I think they remain popular and connected to the Blues because their sound, whether Dobro or National, are instantly recognizable and connected to traditional American music.

What’s the difference between a good blues musician and a bluesman, who lives the experience through blues?

I don’t think there is much of a difference.  I think most people have had life-changing moments, both good and bad, that allow them to express themselves in the Blues.  One doesn’t need to have picked cotton or lived in a packing crate to understand pain and suffering.  It comes to all of us in once sense or another.  As a matter of fact, I think that most people who “study” the Blues by putting themselves through some sort of artificial planned sacrifice come off less genuine more often than not… and a fedora or pork-pie hat and sunglasses don’t make you a Bluesman…

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Absolutely… YES.  Again, it goes to anyone who is expressing really true emotions through their performance whether it’s live or on recording.  It goes to the honesty of their expression and if they choose a Blues-type format for that expression then I think it’s still the Blues.  Some artists enjoy the musical openness of the Blues format to showcase guitar shredding or 1000 note per minute harmonica playing but I don’t think THAT is real blues.

What is the line that connects the legacy of Leadbelly, Robert Johnson with 60s folk blues and beyond?

“A cheatin’ woman… a lyin’ man”?  I think the thread that ties it all together is the emotions, the highs the lows of human experience, are still consistent throughout the music.  I think it’s still a music of shared message and expression.  Even the “dance-oriented” Blues tunes of ALL the generations still have a lyrical message that tells a story of some sort that is of interest to the listener.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

If there is, luckily they don’t last very long.  Some artists have misappropriated the name of the Blues to extend a career or provide a trendy “diversion” to their career but I don’t think that’s bad either.  In it’s own way, it may bring new fans to the music who search out Johnny Shines or Sonny Boy Williamson the same way I did back in the 1960’s.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting? Happiness is……

A wonderful and loving family to come home to… at the end of the day (or the evening or the tour) it is the knowledge that I have a patient and loving family that has enabled me to take this journey and be as successful at it as I have.

Son Lewis - Official website

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