Boston harmonica player Jim Fitting talks about Treat Her Right, vinyl records and effect of Blues in culture

"I wish that discs and vinyl records were still as important as they used to be. When I was young a vinyl record album was a beautiful physical object that you could hold. Something has been lost in the change I think."

Jim Fitting: American Music Breaths

Cambridge/Boston area harmonica player Jim Fitting is an esteemed member of the music scene since the 1980s, exuding a touch of bluesy class whenever he’s on stage or studio. Jim Fitting has been teaching harmonica for twenty years and playing professionally for almost forty. A founding member of Treat Her Right, he has toured extensively and has recorded hundreds of sessions with a wide range of artists including The The, Walkers, Field Trip, Caitlin Rose, Chris Smither, Morphine, Raindogs, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Coots, Blood Oranges, Tim Gearan, Kerri Powers, Kim Richey, and, most recently, Session Americana. Learned lessons from Jerry Portnoy and Mike Turk and studied at BA English Yale University.    Jim Fitting 2013, Photo by Craig Goss

Blues rock group Treat Her Right formed in Boston, Massachusetts in 1984. The band derived its name from the 1965 international smash hit by Roy Head and the Traits, "Treat Her Right." The group's self-financed and self-titled debut was released on a small local label in 1986 before being issued in the UK by Demon Records and the group signed to RCA, who reissued the debut in the US. What's Good for You, their third album, was issued on Rounder Records in 1991. The ragged, live-in-the-studio sound was partly inspired by the model established by Chess Records, which had released many classic blues and early rock and roll records. Session Americana is a rock band in a tea cup, or possibly a folk band in a whiskey bottle. This band/collective of talented musicians craft an musical experience unlike any other. The anything-could-happen feel of a Session show depends on craft that's not accidental or easilywon; they bring a kind of ease and genuineness to this timeless music, sometimes presenting the latest batch of original songs, sometimes reaching back into depths of the American "song bag".

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I have learned that I need the mode of expression that singing and playing gives to me. Though I don't play blues exclusively, blues was the first music that I connected with and learned how to perform through. It will always be like a deep well which I can draw on for emotion and direction when performing.

How do you describe Jim Fitting sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I have mostly tried to find means of expression for harmonica. Harmonica is my touchstone, and I have always sought opportunities where I can play it, regardless of the genre. My current band Session Americana is a folk ensemble more than anything else. I've included some examples.

"It is indisputable that blues and black music in general has had a huge effect upon culture in America. But the race situation in this country right now is so messed up that it sort of boggles my mind." (Jim Fitting & Treat Her Right on stage, Photo by Mark T. Zadroga 1987)

What were the reasons that you started the Roots Rock/Rock n’ Roll and Blues researches and experiments?

It always comes back to finding a musical place to express oneself. And for me of course that is playing harmonica. And it also comes down to finding the right people. Without Mark Sandman, David Champagne and Bill Conway Treat Her Right could never have happened. I was lucky to find them. It took a long time but I feel I have once again found a very special group of compadres for musical exploration with Session Americana.

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

I had a couple of lessons with the great harmonica player Jerry Portnoy whom I had seen a number of times when I was younger and he was playing with Muddy Waters. Those shows and then lessons influenced me very much.

I asked Charlie Musselwhite at a gig one time how he got his tone and though he was slightly dismissive, his point was it's not the gear that creates good tone it comes from the player. Good advice that. One of the first big shows I ever played (With the band Willis Lopez & Fitting) was opening for Jerry Lee Lewis over two nights. Meeting Jerry Lee and watching him play blew my mind (this was back in 1980).

Perhaps my favorite experience was sitting in with Bonnie Raitt, which I did a number of times when Treat Her Right was opening for her shows. Specifically on Love Me Like A Man because years later I recorded and toured with that song's author Chris Smither a great circle completed in my little life...

"I have learned that I need the mode of expression that singing and playing gives to me. Though I don't play blues exclusively, blues was the first music that I connected with and learned how to perform through. It will always be like a deep well which I can draw on for emotion and direction when performing." (Jim Fitting jammin' with Session Americana, Photo by Craig Goss, 2013)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

After Mark Sandman died, the remaining members of Morphine, friends and associates took this beautiful loft space of his in Cambridge and turned it into a recording studio. I remember some wonderful recording sessions there including the first two Session Americana albums. There was a great musical community based in that loft with musicians coming and going in this open aired space six floors up. It is sad that Mark's death was a catalyst for this, and we still miss him a lot. And of course the studio didn't last more than 7 or 8 years, because it was always best with the windows open up on the sixth floor and so they got complaints from the neighbors.

Also the first Treat Her Right album was recorded at the very start of Fort Apache studios in Roxbury with our good friend Paul Kolderie engineering. That was also a lot of fun..

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

I wish that discs and vinyl records were still as important as they used to be. When I was young a vinyl record album was a beautiful physical object that you could hold. Something has been lost in the change I think. Also vinyl records sound so good. I think a lot of people today don't realize how much they are missing sonically when they listen to music on their phone and devices...people's expectations as to how good music can sound has been lowered by this process.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Treat Her Right and continue to Morphine and beyond?

That's hard to say, other than there is a connection of like-minded musicians, and a love of blues. (Well at least in my case). That is to say when a band plays together for 7 years they influence each other, and then when some of those musicians form another band those influences continue and intersect in new ways. I don't know...

"I have mostly tried to find means of expression for harmonica. Harmonica is my touchstone, and I have always sought opportunities where I can play it, regardless of the genre."

(Photo: Treat Her Right)

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits and industry?

After we played a late set at an outdoor festival in Vermont (at 3am) all these people started dancing around with little blue lights on their heads and no music that we could hear. Apparently it was a silent disco with a dj broadcasting music to each individual set of headphones with a blue light on them. It was hilarious.

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

It is indisputable that blues and black music in general has had a huge effect upon culture in America. But the race situation in this country right now is so messed up that it sort of boggles my mind. It seems every day a black person is getting killed by a white policeman...it just goes on and on and I don't know what to say. But racism still exists in this country and I am ashamed of that.

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

First I would choose July 11 1951 when Little Walter first started playing harmonica through an amplifier, while recording with Muddy Waters at Chess studios in Chicago. If I had a second choice I would go back to 1923 to hear Louis Armstrong performing with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in a Chicago speakeasy. That would be wild!

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