Bluesman Buddy Reed talks about Muddy, "Harmonica" Smith, Big Mama, Little Richard and Johnny Otis

"I believe the blues has been a tremendous racial healing force worldwide."

Buddy Reed: Gutbucket & Pure Blues

Ivan Elmo "Buddy" Reed got his start playing the blues in San Bernardino, California in the ‘60s. Buddy, from Rialto, CA, is indeed "the real deal." Alongside George "Harmonica" Smith and he played in the house band at The Small Paradise (aka "Smalls") in Los Angeles in the late 60's, backing up Lightnin' Hopkins, J.B. Hutto, Pee Wee Crayton and many others. The band toured nationally with Big Mama Thornton, sharing the stage with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Bo Diddley, Johnny Otis, John Hammond Jr. and more. Under the name Bacon Fat, the band toured overseas and recorded five albums produced by Mike Vernon for the Blue Horizon label. He made a few albums with Bacon Fat and worked backing blues/rock legends including Little Richard (which is why he calls his back-up band The Rip It Ups). After a stint in Little Richard's band, Reed struck out on his own. Working as a trio, Buddy Reed & th' Rip It Ups played saloons and roadhouses of the Southwest for the next 25 years.

Reed's recording with the late great harmonca player George "Harmonica" Smith, Teardrops Are Falling: Live in 1983, was nominated as "Historical Album of the Year" in Blues Foundation awards. Singing and playing with a sweat drenched intensity rarely matched by his peers, Buddy Reed never gives less than 100% on stage. His guitar style reveals the influence of Hubert Sumlin, Tampa Reed, Arthur Crudup and slide masters Muddy Waters, Elmore James and J.B. Hutto. His repertoire reflects his love for early rock & roll, including songs of The Coasters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis. His originals speak of the hard life of an uncompromising blues veteran. Buddy has recorded with Jimmy Rogers, Clarence Edward, Jimmy Dotson, Louisiana Red, Cheif Schabutte Gilliame, and James Harman. His latest solo recording is: "Livin' It" (2003) on Ruby Records, and “Tough Enough” (2005) on Red Lightnin'. Buddy was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame in 1998.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Mike, I don’t really think about myself in context of the blues “culture”...  I’m just another white boy lost in it. Next to the love of my family, friends, & sweetheart it means EVERYTHING. It’s been my life for over 50 years. It’s always been a little strange to me bein’ a white boy so wrapped up in a pure black art form. I really dig that aspect of it... For me it’s been an unbelievable gift from the great cats that laid this stuff down originally. Man, I ain’t them. I’m just an INTERPRETER tryin’ to play it with complete devotion and authenticity. 

How do you describe Buddy Reed sound and songbook? What characterizes your music philosophy?

My style is not fancy at all Mike. It’s raw... what I describe as “gutbucket”. I ain’t of the slick, Stratocaster, see how many notes can be crammed into 12 bars school. I grew up with the absolute best of doo wop and black vocal groups of the 50’s thanks to my older sister Geraldine Reed bringin’ the 45’s into the house... as well as the best of black gospel... Soul Stirrers, Blind Boys, etc. (lots of ‘em)... as well as the best of white country stuff such as Lefty Frizzell, George Jones and the like, and the beautiful harmonies of bluegrass greats like the Stanley Bros. & so on. So all that I draw on for “MY” blues style. My philosophy? Keep it pure. Again, GUTBUCKET.

"I ain’t really scared about the future of blues, I never dreamed I’d see this music and culture attain the worldwide acceptance it has. It’ll continue from now on." (PHOTO: Bacon Fat with George "Harmonica" Smith & Mike Vernon/ Photographer unknown-Mike Vernon collection, c. 1970)

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of Psychedelic Roots Blues and Folk researches?

Not sure what ya mean by Psychedelic Roots Blues and Folk brother. Seems kinda like a contradiction in terms to me. I hated that “Psychedelic” crap and everything that came out of it. (Yes, I’m very opinionated). Ha! The 60’s  were extremely important for blues however in an odd turn of events, mainly the Rolling Stones. Their first 3 albums were mostly ALL blues covers. I had never even HEARD of Muddy Waters til they hit. When I first heard them & seen all the chicks screamin’ I said “This is for me”.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

Man, there’s been so many great meetings.. probably first of all I’d have to say meeting and becoming good friends with the great John Peel. When I first met him he was known as John Ravenscroft. He was the late night closing D.J. on a radio station in San Bernardino, California, (KMEN), in the next town over from where I lived, Rialto. It was the height of the “British Invasion”... and him bein’ an Englishman with a thick British accent he was big stuff around there. Well, me and my band were already tryin to play blues, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley etc. He was a blues FREAK, and he dug us and took me under his wing. He had a vast blues collection and opened up that whole world to me. The first time I ever heard Muddy was in his livin’ room...”Standin’ Around Cryin” with that screamin harp of Walter’s.  This was 1965. It changed my life right then and there! I had him play that record about thirty times in a row! I ain’t never looked back Mike. It’s been a life of struggle and poverty and one I’d do over in a second. Muddy became my idol and mentor. I guess the second most important meeting thanks to Big Mama and George was the day I met Muddy for the first time at his house on Lakepark in Chicago and found myself sittin’ next to him at his breakfast table. I had to pinch myself man. Ha! ‘Course we went back for dinner that night too. Whew! Man, I been blessed so much behind this thing I chose to do. As far as the best advice goes, it’s been from him and quite a few other of the greats I’ve been blessed to work with over the years: “Man, don’t copy ME.. find your OWN thing in it” which is exactly what I’ve done... paying homage to them with everything I’ve got. 

"I had never even HEARD of Muddy Waters til they hit. When I first heard them & seen all the chicks screamin’ I said 'This is for me'." (PHOTO: Buddy Reed & Muddy Waters backstage)

Are there any memories from George "Harmonica" Smith and Big Mama Thornton which you’d like to share with us?

Worked with George a lot of years... Big Mama too but mostly George. It was a toss up who’d get me, Shakey Jake or George. I loved Jake but George was the cat I wanted to go with. Nobody could touch him on harp (especially chromatic), vocals and stagecraft. He was an imposing dude, man... appeared to be bout 7 feet tall, even a little scary til you got to know him for about 2 seconds. He was the kindest, funniest and most generous cat you’d ever want to meet. And let me tell ya the cat laid it down! That’s how Rod (Piazza) got as good as he did. He was George’s protege... we were a band with two harps and man did it work! George had no peers on that stage. We worked constantly at his neighborhood bar in Watts... the Small Paradise or “Smalls” as we called it and toured and recorded together a lot. He was a sweetheart human being .. A wonderful cat. Big Mama! She was a damn FORCE Mike! A peerless blues icon. Can’t tell ya how fortunate I feel to have been her guitar player. Talk about imposing! Big Mama did not take no mess. Ha! Man, she’d seen some horrendous, racist, sexist side of life and was pissed. However she conducted herself with grace and dignity on that stage (even when she had too much to drink). Damn could she sing! Like an angel, man, and more than decent on that harp too. When we were at Muddy’s one night she walked off with a quart of 100 proof Old Grand Dad. He got a little bent about it. She did whatever the hell she WANTED to do. Ha! She liked me so she’d mess with me on stage... Joke about my height (I’m about 5’6”).. sometimes grab me and hug me into those big ‘ol bosoms of hers etc. ..always good for a laugh from the audience. Ha! Ha! But man, did we rock ‘em! Deep down she was a beautiful and sweet person. I’ll always love her. 

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Mike I pretty much LIVE with the blues from the past. Very few of ‘em left but what a wealth of stuff they left behind for us. All the great blues labels they were on, man, they all still live with me everyday. I ain’t really scared about the future of blues Mike, I never dreamed I’d see this music and culture attain the worldwide acceptance it has. It’ll continue from now on. For every white-sounding, lame, jump on the blues bandwagon band out there we’ve got the youngsters comin’ up like my harp player Andy Finn and Aki Kumar and his bunch from the bay area (San Francisco) who are definitely the real deal.. all in their early twenties. They treat the stuff with true reverence and conviction and are bad ASS!

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

Well, as far as blues goes.. I’d say the watered-down commercialism, and favoritism toward certain “artists” while other more deserving and real players go ignored ‘cause they refuse to kiss the right asses to get somewhere.

"When you share the low down blues with an audience it’s an exorcism from heartache and loss as well as a celebration of the beautiful sexual intensity...(most of my material both original and covers leans in that direction), between us all...black, white, brown, yellow, green or purple."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Muddy and Wolf with Bacon Fat and the Rip It Ups?

I’d say the line (singular) that connects Muddy and Wolf and the rest of ‘em to us is simply the fact that there WOULD be no Bacon Fat or Buddy Reed & th’ Rip It Ups without them. Everything we are comes FROM them.

What has made you laugh from Little Richard and what touched (emotionally) you from Johnny Otis?

Man, Little Richard was a scream (literally)! I had idolized him since 1956 (as well as Johnny Otis)... We were doin’ a package show (Big Mama) with Richard and Johnny both... We was doin’ our set and I looked over and saw Richard standin’ side stage with his brother Peyton watchin’ me. Next thing I know Peyton’s tellin’ me Richard wants to talk to me. Seems he dug my playin’ and wanted to take a bluesier direction with his show and offered me the gig! Actually he hired our whole rhythm section.. Me, Richard Innes, And Jerry Smith. They didn’t stay, went right back. (A smart move on their part).. Anyway I couldn’t believe it! I’d been playin’ side man to that damn harp for years. Heard Walter in my sleep... everything in F and F#. Had it comin’ out my ears. No way was I gonna pass this up. So, I quit George, Big Mama and Rod right then and there and started tourin’ with Richard. He had a 9 piece horn band.. a real different experience for me, let me tell ya. George and Mama - neither one thought it was any big damn deal but Rod went back to L.A. and talked a whole lot of crap about me, “Oh, Reed he ain’t blues no more. He’s rock now.” Hell, man, I’ve always played rock & roll. When ya play blues you’re playin’ the purest form of R&R.. and since I was playin’ blues way before I ever met him or George I didn’t give a damn what he said, but my name was mud in the L.A. blues click from then on. Ha! I seen goin’ with Richard and them my chance to start doin’ my OWN thing finally. You know,  learnin’ how to front my own band, do the singin’ etc. (after I dropped out of Richard’s band after about a year that is). I remember once we were doin’ a 6 week stint at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. He had us all wearin’ these horrid mustard color tuxes with bow ties and patent leather shoes with bows on ‘em. Ha! Not good.  I was in the band with some heavy cats man,  Bobby Forte on sax, Eddie Fletcher on trumpet and Tricky Lofton on slide trombone. (I was the only white cat in the band... and thought I was pretty cool). Well we all hated these ugly yellow monkey suits and dorky shoes so as a little protest I started wearin’ these electric blue nylon sneakers with my outfit. Quite a contrast. Ha! Everybody was gettin’ a kick out of it til one night I seen Richard’s hoity toity little stage manager Jesse Quiros whisper somethin’ in Richard’s ear. When we got back out on stage and in the middle of Long Tall Sally or somethin’ I looked over and Richard was starin’ me in the eye, looked down at my shoes then back up at me again. That was the end of my little protest. Ha! $25.00 fine. (1974). Jesse was a hair coiffed pain in the ass and just as I got to work one night and went back stage, I seen Tricky walkin’ by kinda slow, whistlin’ with his hands in his pocket. Jesse was laid out cold on the floor. Seems he’d smarted off to Tricky and Tricky grabbed one of these long sticks they used to drag the amp carriages around with and BOOM! Cold cocked the dude! Richard freaked and needless to say Trick spent the night in the slam.         (PHOTO: Bacon Fat & George "Harmonica" Smith)

Man, as far as Johnny Otis goes, I only met the cat once on that show with Richard. I didn’t realize how racially bigoted.. “whitey this and cracker that”.. he was. Plus he ain’t even black. He’s full blood Greek! I’ve loved his stuff since “Harlem Nocturne”. We never missed the Johnny Otis show at my house when I was a kid. Loved the cat. Him and his hot shot kid Shuggie were cold as ice to us man. I’ve just finished a book by him “Upside Your Head”. Man what a racial rant! ‘Course there’s a lot of validity to a lot of the stuff he says... anybody with their head where it should be knows the horrific conditions in black communities all over this country.. ‘course there’s just as awful poor white and native American communities as well..from slavery days on. I sure as hell didn’t cause it and the racist poison he spews in his book at “ALL” of us evil whites is ridiculous. Who does he think the blues greats still alive and vital in the 60’s would’ve had for back-up bands if it hadn’t been for us? God knows very few of the young black people of that time wanted anything to do with this “Uncle Tom” music. Their thing was a horrendous departure from their own gorgeous art, the blues. Me and my white peers embraced it instead and all the great black blues artists welcomed us and validated us gladly. They loved us, we loved them. I think the blues has done more to bring us together than anything in the world. Yes some of ‘em were prejudiced against us and I sure understand why, but the ones I idolized and cared about the most weren’t.      

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Like I said Mike, I believe the blues has been a tremendous racial healing force worldwide. Like Albert King said, “EVERYBODY has the blues”... everybody FEELS the blues at one time or another. When you share the low down blues with an audience it’s an exorcism from heartache and loss as well as a celebration of the beautiful sexual intensity... (most of my material both original and covers leans in that direction), between us all... black, white, brown, yellow, green or purple. I love when I see some couple on the dance floor lookin’ each other in the eye while I’m singin’ about stuff he or she’d like to say but maybe a little too shy to say it. Man, it’s a real fun and rewarding experience. Ain’t no color lines there man.. We’re all the same.

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

Ha! That’s an easy one Mike. I’d go back to August the 22nd of this year with my bad-ass band Buddy Reed & Th’ Rip It Ups with Rockin’ Rick on tubs, Andrew Finn on harp, and David Bethuy on upright, and be in the line-up of acts at the Loutraki Blues Festival, where we’d rock the damn house and make friends with all you awesome blues lovin’ Greeks! Mike, I’d like to thank you for your interest in an old gutbucket player like me. This will be the start of a great friendship ‘tween you and me Bro.

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