Blues Hall of Famer, Liz VanHouten talks about Little Charlie & The Nightcats, Big Mama Thornton and 60's counterculture

"Blues has its roots in the African-American culture dating back to the time of slavery.  It has had a huge impact on the music of our time not only in America, but all over the world.  Blues music crosses racial, political and socio-cultural lines."

Liz VanHouten: Sacramento Blues

Liz Peel VanHouten was introduced to the blues after moving to Sacramento from Southern California (’73). One of her early memories was seeing the local Sunland Blues Band, whom she befriended. She had already begun messing around with the bass guitar and took a few lessons from their bass player, Jerry Eddleman, and later, Andy Samuels. Soon, Liz joined her first band, Quickshake, with Ray “Catfish” Copeland. Charles Baty later joined the band which eventually became Little Charlie and the Nightcats. Liz learned much about Blues from Charlie and still considers him her mentor.

As the original bass player for Little Charlie and the Nightcats (1976 to ’81), Liz played several Sacramento Blues Festivals, backing Sonny Rhodes, Tiny Powell, Roy Brown, Gatemouth Brown, Big Momma Thornton, and Floyd Dixon. The band toured with Floyd Dixon playing the Eugene, Oregon Blues Festival where (billed as the first female instrumentalist at the festival) she backed Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker, and others. She played with the band at other important blues events like the San Francisco Blues Festival.  During those years, the band brought the blues into popular Sacramento Clubs like Maurice’s, Harry’s Bar & Grill, and Tootsies in Old Sacramento. Her solid groove helped put Sacramento on the Blues Map, and she had a unique presence as a woman bass player. Liz missed the opportunity to record with Little Charlie, leaving the band to complete her education and work a day job. But, she continued to play blues and eventually recorded with Catfish & the Crawdaddies, the Midtown Creepers, and Kenny “Blue” Ray. Over the years, Liz has played gigs with many notable local blues bands and artists such as Johnny “Guitar” Knox, the Hucklebucks, and others.  Currently, she plays with the Midtown Creepers most frequently at the prized Torch Club.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What have you learned about yourself from blues people?

I have learned that I play for love of blues and love of playing music. The reward is in making a connection with the audience and with other musicians on stage. Likewise, I love getting inspired by listening to and watching other blues musicians.    

What does the Blues mean to you?

Blues has become a familiar friend, a culture, a common language. Blues means that as a bass player, I get to explore rhythm, drive the song, and hold the pocket. I love supporting and interacting with other musicians to deliver the song. Blues tells stories of the human condition, which can range from funny and light-hearted or go emotionally very deep. 

Why did you start playing the blues? (Blues/Rock researches?)

At some point, I decided that I would rather be playing in the band than just watching the band. Music and rhythm were instilled in me since childhood. After moving to Northern California and landing in Sacramento, Blues came into my life by chance. I grabbed the opportunity to travel that highway.

How do you describe the Liz VanHouten sound?

For sound, I have been guided by others and learned along the way. I tend to like the warm, full sound of tube amps. I prefer to keep things simple like varying the treble and bass settings on both the amp and the bass. For years I played a '73 Fender Mustang Bass. I also have a '76 Mustang. Around 2008, I started working with a 5-string Fender Jazz Bass, but never really bonded with it. In 2011, I traded it for the 2010 Fender Precision that I use now.

I play mostly through Fender amplifiers. At first I had a Showman top plugged into a 2-15" Fender speaker cabinet. Now I primarily use a Bassman 70 connected to 2 individual compact Bergantino cabinets with 12" speakers. As I stand 4'10", this is practical for doing my own load-ins and set-ups. If I need more speaker, I have a '64 Ampeg B15N flip top with a 15" speaker and matching Ampeg 15" extension speaker. I credit my husband, Bill, a techno-geek with a good ear, for assistance with sound.

"Blues has become a familiar friend, a culture, a common language. Blues means that as a bass player, I get to explore rhythm, drive the song, and hold the pocket. I love supporting and interacting with other musicians to deliver the song." (Photo: Little Charlie & The Nightcats)

How has the Rock n’ Blues Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Being a dreamer and a child of the 60's counterculture should have kept me in the pursuit of music, travelling the blues highway wherever it led and meeting whatever personal challenges came my way. The 60's era instilled great personal freedom of self expression. At the time, my practical nature was also trying to achieve material security. Aside from playing music, I was a college student working part-time. Little Charlie and the Nightcats was building steam, traveling more and farther for gigs.  With the ever-increasing schedule, something had to give. Leaving the band was hardest decision I ever made. 

I chose to finish my education, which meant putting music on the back burner.  In 1981, I said goodbye to Little Charlie and the Nightcats, who were soon signed to a label, touring the country, and making records. It would be after a 10-year hiatus, that I got back to playing the music I love.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

My band relationships have been my most important musical experiences. Those five years playing bass for Little Charlie and the Nightcats established my credibility as a Blues bass player. I have to single out my friendship with Little Charlie Baty as the most significant. His enthusiasm and encouragement was a powerful motivator back then. Watching both Rick and Charles play and develop their on-stage antics was not only fun, but taught me a lot about the power of performance--Rick with his great humor, unique vocal interpretation and delivery of a song combined with an equally dynamic harmonica style; Charles with his ability to creatively and spontaneously weave his musical preferences into incredible leads with mesmerizing genius. I felt so fortunate to be a part of it.

From mid '90s to late 2001, I played with Ray Catfish Copeland in his band Catfish and the Crawdaddies. Catfish liked to mix other styles into the traditional blues genre. I enjoyed that type of creativity, and was there to record his first CD, Blues from Another Delta (1998)

Also in '98, I became a member of the Midtown Creepers, a Chicago-style blues band incorporating jump blues and swing. We put out a CD, All Over Town in 2001. The band features leader Jerry McGuire, guitar and vocals, and Stan Powell, harmonica, guitar, and vocals. Coming into the band, I had the luxury of playing with a great drummer, Daryl Van Druff. Playing gigs with Daryl was always a blast and made my life a breeze. We made a great team in the Creepers until 2010, when Daryl up-and-relocated. The Creepers continue to play around town with drummer Ratatat Pat Balcom, who is well known throughout the area and plays with many local artists. 

I consider Stan Powel a close friend. We were both members of Catfish and the Crawdaddies and the Midtown Creepers. In 2001, I left Catfish, but Stan continued. We also play with the Friday Nite Band, my husband's "all-original songs" rock'n roll project. Stan has an uncanny way of creatively fitting the harmonica into a variety of musical genre. We have shared many years of common musical experiences. 

Kenny Blue Ray had been an original Nightcats. Up the road, I played with him on numerous casual gigs, and recorded multiple tracks on three of his CDs. I always liked and appreciated his personal guitar style and tone.

"I have learned that I play for love of blues and love of playing music. The reward is in making a connection with the audience and with other musicians on stage. Likewise, I love getting inspired by listening to and watching other blues musicians." (Photo: Liz, May 1976, Aero Club, CA)

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

As a bass player, I think I project a strong, yet feminine, persona. Back in the early days of the Nightcats, I could be overly fussy and critical about my appearance--typical girl stuff. I happened to be talking to Rick Estrin and said, "When I look in the mirror, I just don't like what I see". Rick turned to me, practically laughed, and said "Well you better get used to it, because it's all you got!" I felt completely shut down at the time, but have never forgotten those words. I still cringe at not-so-good photos; but remembering those words has helped me to relax and not stress over things that are beyond my control.

Are there any memories from Big Mama Thornton which you’d like to share with us?

LC and the Nightcats played at the 3rd Annual Sacramento Blues Festival, September 1979. In addition to our own set, we were scheduled to back up well known performers including Roy Brown, Charles Brown and Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton. 

Beforehand, we had an additional side gig backing Big Mama Thornton in the yard at Folsom Prison. I had done some research, so was expecting to meet a robust woman who could play harmonica, drums, and belt the blues. When I saw her, I was shocked to see a much-shrunken woman, looking older than 52, with a cantankerous attitude and a drinking problem. I knew she had been famous for Hound Dog which Elvis Pressley made a huge hit. She had also written and recorded the song Ball and Chain that would later become a big hit by Janis Joplin. I wondered what cards she had been dealt to suffer the dramatic change. 

With no rehearsal, we did our best back her up. Evidently, she had this shtick where she would stink-eye the drummer to the point of alienation, so she could get up there and play drums. That day, without warning, our drummer, Pat O'Brien, fell victim, got upset, and stormed off.

What do you most miss nowadays from the blues of past?

I miss that I never got to record with Little Charlie and the NightCats. That would have been a highlight. As I said, I left the band in 1981.  LC and the NC did not record their first CD until 1986.

What made you laugh from Albert Collins?

We played behind Albert Collins at the 3rd Annual Oregon Blues Festival, 1978.  Albert Collins was a blues giant of the time. During that era, his sound included his electric blues funk. Back then, our rhythm section was adept at 12-bar walks, shuffles, and slow blues. Little Charlie had to have a talk with him, letting him know about our abilities. The funny part is that, although he was the star, he was forced to play songs at our level of expertise. I have fantasized about a "do-over".

"Being a dreamer and a child of the 60's counterculture should have kept me in the pursuit of music, travelling the blues highway wherever it led and meeting whatever personal challenges came my way. The 60's era instilled great personal freedom of self expression. At the time, my practical nature was also trying to achieve material security." (Photo: Liz & Gary Mendoza Band)

What touched you (emotionally) from John Lee Hooker?

We played behind John Lee Hooker at the 5th Annual Oregon Blues Festival, 1980. He struck me as a heartfelt and soulful player and storyteller. Backing him up, I remember having to watch out for him adding or subtracting bars to the musical progressions. 

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

My biggest fears have to do with cruelty and terror in the world--man's inhumanity to man--greed and bigotry--I want it to stop.

My hope is that I be able to play music for a long time to come. I hope that I continue to grow and to create memorable musical moments. Sometimes it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

What does it mean to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says?  

It means that I have to be diligent and hold my own. I have to measure up, so people don't say "pretty good...for a girl!" It means that I am held to a higher standard.  Some guys prefer not to work with women--that male bonding club is strong.  Someone once tried to pay me less than what the guys were getting. I have to say, however, most of my experiences have been positive.

What is the status of women in music?

Back then, there were very few female instrumentalists playing blues. In 1978, I was referred to as the first female instrumentalist to play at the Oregon Blues Festival.  In 1980, I was still referred to as the only woman blues bassist at the Oregon Blues Festival. I really don't know how many female blues bassists there were back then. The great Carol Kaye stands out as a source of inspiration--most famous for her studio work.

Today, I see more female bassists playing and performing. I don't have a handle on who is "making it" in music. I have seen lots of women performing music on TV. I have seen female instrumentalists perform locally. If you find a great female instrumentalist, she is probably still the only woman in the band. It is a great opportunity for women.

"My band relationships have been my most important musical experiences. Those five years playing bass for Little Charlie & the Nightcats established my credibility as a Blues bass player. I have to single out my friendship with Little Charlie Baty as the most significant." (Charles, Liz & Rick / Photo by Bobbie Felt Armstrong)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

More venues and better pay for blues musicians.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture when considering racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Blues has its roots in the African-American culture dating back to the time of slavery. It has had a huge impact on the music of our time not only in America, but all over the world. Blues music crosses racial, political and socio-cultural lines.  Some of the musical genres with roots in the blues include Rock'n Roll, Gospel, R&B, Soul, Rap, Hip Hop, Funk, Boogie, Rockabilly, Jazz, and more. Blues expresses all emotions and tells stories of the human condition. Regardless of what words were written and when, the musical traditions have carried through and have meaning now.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

It would be for more than a day. If I went back in time to revisit my own life, I would  want to be more aware and more present. To coin a phrase, live each day, each moment, as though it were my last. Much of the past is a blur because I took so much for granted. I was always rushing forward toward the future, thinking about what was next instead of savoring what was right in front of me. It amazes me how much other friends can remember that I have completely forgotten. I would love to have those moments back.

Photo from the '70s of Little Charlie & The Nightcats taken near the Virgin Sturgeon down by the river.

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