VA-based singer/guitarist Cathy Ponton King talks about her experiences and friends in the Blues world

My mom, made me a needle point, which says:“For Heights and Depths No Words May Reach, Music is the Soul’s Own Speech”. I love that, and I think it says it all.

Cathy Ponton King: Tough & Tender Blues

Cathy Ponton King was born in Washington DC and grew up in an Irish neighborhood in nearby Hyattsville, Maryland. She began singing at age 4 at crowded house parties and church fund-raisers. In the 1960s, the rock and roots-based blues explosion caught her ear and she began to play all kinds of music.
Cathy earned her degree in journalism and broadcasting at the University of Maryland, where she was News Director at campus radio station WMUC and hosted other music shows. Her interest in the blues led to hours on end listening to and taping the station's extensive collection.
A friend who was dating Muddy Waters' guitarist Bob Margolin invited Cathy to a sold-out show at the Cellar Door club in Washington DC's Georgetown area. Cathy met Muddy and his band, and watched that show and many others afterwards from backstage. Muddy's influence was deep and unforgettable, and Cathy soon started an electric blues band of her own called the Rhythmasters, which toured extensively along the U.S. east coast from 1980 to 1986.
Cathy's band was touring mostly in the south at that time, and she jammed with or opened for a veritable who's who of the blues, including Albert King, Son Seals, Paul Butterfield, Willie Dixon, Bob Margolin, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Albert Collins, Carl Perkins, Roomful of Blues, James Cotton, JB Hutto, Koko Taylor, Memphis Slim, and many more. Meeting and forging friendships with these wonderful musicians was a great lesson in the blues and life on the road. 
In 1986, Cathy recorded her first original songs with Bob Margolin on guitar. Soon after, she married Falls Church, Virginia, studio owner Jeff King. A year later, with the birth of their daughter keeping her off the road, Cathy left the Rhythmasters to front her own band. She and Jeff began work on her critically-acclaimed CD Lovin' You Right. Guitarist Jimmy Thackery was between bands, having left the Nighthawks and later the Assassins, and was available to record. He went into the studio with Cathy and Jeff to co-produce and play most of the guitars. At her new album THE CRUX (2012) engage: Ronnie Earl, Jimmy Thackery, sax stalwart Ron Holloway, and ex-Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk bassist Butch Warren.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

When I write and record, and then listen back, sometimes it’s amazing how great it makes you feel to have your personal experience be transformed to a universal one. I have loved the blues from hearing it my young days. It spoke to me, deeply.

And the blues to me, means a great outpouring of deep deep soulful feelings, and the expression to an audience, unites us all as part of something bigger than ourselves individually. My mom, made me a needle point, which says: “For Heights and Depths No Words May Reach, Music is the Soul’s Own Speech”. I love that, and I think it says it all.

"I definitely think blues go way way down deep into your soul. That’s why people love it and why it will never stop being played, as long as there are people with the ability to live deeply and feel deep emotions." Photo by Alan Grossman

How do you describe Cathy Ponton King sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

My sound has evolved over the past few years- because I am writing more; but I always stick to the roots of the blues for my main foundation. I just recorded a song that is more of a jazz feeling, with the great John Previti playing the bow on his acoustic upright bass. It’s very quiet and pretty. But he plays a ferocious solo with his bow! So on my CDs you’ll find my many influences in the blues world but I also like the freedom to stray into other genres as the muse and the spirit moves me. Like the rock and roll and rockabilly songs on my albums, and my song, a Memphis Soul sounding “Comfort and Blessings”. I do like “groove” songs a lot! I like these great ballads and I like the songs my husband Jeff writes a lot. He has 100’s of songs we need to get recorded. I have always had a strong strong attraction for great songs. It has always sucked me in like an irresistible magnet pull. Poetry in lyrics, or a special twist, from great songwriters who “say something”.

When I hear a great artist, such as when I was young and saw Muddy Waters and heard him play that slide guitar, it gave me an inexpressible feeling of depth. Like you were actually peering into someone’s deep soul. I think most people would agree. That is not easy to do and there’s many poseurs out there who can’t touch this level of musical depth. There’s a lot of bands who go through the motions and musicians who memorize and play from rote memorization. But then there’s a whole small percentage of really deep and really innovative players and their kind of music is what I am attracted to. I think you’re born with it. As far as philosophy goes, how’s this: (from my “quotes Collection”)

"One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain" – Bob Marley

"Music alone has the power to make us penetrate into ourselves; the other arts offer us only eccentric pleasures" - Honore de Balzac

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

That is really hard to answer! Nothing tops becoming a mother. My daughter is great and studying writing at Columbia University Grad School.  There’s a lot of happiness and pride in my family at home and recording with my husband Jeff who is excellent in the studio. Love in your life trumps everything else. But music is such a big part of who I am that playing and seeing people happy when I play and liking my albums, brings me great great joy too. I have always loved collaborating with great musicians, such as when I was really young and starting out and Albert King called me up to sing with him on stage.

He didn’t tell me ahead of time he was going to do that! Great experience! Four years later someone tracked me down and sent me a recording of this! I have had a lot of really painful moments, call it “worst”, when I wanted to play somewhere and the booking or promoting people won’t give me a chance, and in Washington DC there are a lot of “cliques” if you will, almost like the political landscape here too….and I have had the misfortune of having some really bad unscrupulous musicians who have played with me; but it’s funny, karma always seems to come back and bite them, because usually it’s a big pattern and I am only one of many who they have wronged so I move on and learn from it. Some people make you happy when they come into your life, and others by leaving ! And I am TOO trusting! I am trying to stop trusting bad people and have more radar for that…                                 

(Photo: Cathy with Albert King by Big Al Sevella)

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I definitely think blues go way way down deep into your soul. That’s why people love it and why it will never stop being played, as long as there are people with the ability to live deeply and feel deep emotions. There’s the latest You Tube disco sensation, or some fluff that captures the public’s imagination for 15 minutes, which are shallow and just momentary distractions and easily forgotten, disposable music. But then, there are beautiful classic songs that resonate very very deeply, such as “The Thrill is Gone” of course by BB King, and “At Last” – Etta James’ version. I love the music of OV Wright. Those songs are works of art in depth of feeling, talent and recording arts. Or Ray Charles’ version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You”. 

There’s a lot of really deep deep musicians I have been lucky to know, whose performances are kind of a catharthis for the audience of all our deepest collective feelings of downheartedness, that is the human condition, or the joy that they bring with their technical virtuosity. I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan several times, and he was able to deep dive like that. So do the two great guitarists on my new CD “THE CRUX”, Ronnie Earl and Jimmy Thackery. Of course there are many many such artists, too many to name, such as the great Roy Buchanan who lived here in the Washington area. Now there was some deep guitar playing. Another GREAT guitar player in the DC area, is Bobby Parker! Amazing how many guitarists play great guitar in the Washington DC area. There’s a great Solomon Burke CDs produced by the great producer, Joe Henry, who produced Bonnie Raitt’s last CD, and it’s just great. Inspired me. He also produced a cd called “I BELIEVE TO MY SOUL” which is a great , great CD! 

Are there any memories from Albert Collins and Koko Taylor which you’d like to share with us?  

I’ve had so many inspiring moments opening for these great people and you named three that were very kind and gracious to me backstage. Albert Collins hugged me and said he wanted me to come meet his wife and songwriting partner Gwendolyn in California. Sadly it never happened …..I’ll never forget him walking through the crowd with the roadie carrying his 500 foot cord or however long it was, because he didn’t have wireless back then. The guy literally followed Albert parading through the crowd wrapping and unraveling the guitar cord over his arm. That was something! Koko Taylor was a sweet lady and she and I sat in a nice air conditioned trailer backstage when we both played in DC and it was about 110 degrees. One of the stage girls came in the trailer and admired KoKo’s earrings and she took them right off and gave them to this great lady, Myrhh; KoKo, just thought, Myrhh admired them and without a second’s hesitation just took off the earrings and gave them to her. Myrhh was grinning and so excited and to this day we always talk about that when we meet up. Those cool earrings!! Koko DID have style you know! That’s the kind of sweet lady she was. Then she went out on the broiling hot stage and tore the roof off! It was amazing and so much fun being around her.

(Photo: Casey Jones, Cathy and Albert Collins)

What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s - 70s and Blues feeling of past?

I love the old classic blues- from even further back in the 1920’s and so on….

 And I admire the excitement that was happening back in that era you mention. I like how the younger generation was picking up the songs and even the British guys who studied the blues records, and then brought THEIR interpretation, back to America, like Keith Richards, and what he was doing back then. 

I got to meet Paul Butterfield briefly and open for his band in this great club in DC called, The “Wax Museum”. It was right before his untimely death. This literally was a Wax Museum with some of the wax statues standing around gazing at you. I don’t think you can really say, I miss anything, because I still love the great stuff people are recording and playing now…..seems like hundreds and hundreds of CDs and bands are out there today, it’s almost overwhelming to see them all on line and in magazines, and the next big thing; and there’s a great interest in blues, for example your magazine, and a new big glossy blues Magazine in England, and there’s a great Norway blues magazine, and my friend Jimmy Thackery just played a huge blues festival in India, and I have become great friends with Irene Barrett who is a one woman blues revival, a DJ on Cairns Radio, in Northeast Australia, and I think all the decades have great highlights and we’re in a good international place right now for the blues.

The blues to me, means a great outpouring of deep deep soulful feelings, and the expression to an audience, unites us all as part of something bigger than ourselves individually." Photo by Desi Farren

What are your hopes and fears for the future of Blues music?

My favorite singer/songwriter right now is Paul Thorn from Tupelo Mississippi. His guitar player Bill Hinds, is insane good. Paul Thorn is a poet and bluesman and singer songwriter like no other. He is a fantastic songwriter and singer and sotryteller.  

I have seen Paul Thorn twice and his concerts blow everyone away. He writes stories like Mark Twain and the virtuosity of his band is very high. Definitely blues and songwriting virtuosity. As long as people like this keep coming up and into the recording and touring and influencing the culture, we’re all safe.

I hope great upcoming guitar players (all instruments, really), and singers, keep learning and keep finding the really good role models. There’s too much of a trend right now in “show business”/ entertainment, where kids just want to be famous for being famous, or they go on a TV talent show and they don’t do the work first to pay their dues and listen to T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King, Elmore James, Danny Gatton, Hubert Sumlin, Snooky Pryor, Earl King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Robert Johnson, or they copy note for note Stevie Ray Vaughan or his great guitarist brother, Jimmie.

Which is great music but copying something paint by number is missing the point. I know there’s some great young players out there and I just hope the next generation coming up does their homework and tries to learn some of the great styles and history and meaning in the greats who laid the foundation for creating great music. There’s technical virtuosity. There’s too many greats to list. I just hope the “15 minutes of fame You Tube darlings”, get tossed aside like the sham and scam they are and the public goes deep into the music and learns about the great singers and artists who played such fantastic music. And the work and conditions and history, that existed where this music came out of. Learn the soul of the great songs.

"Love in your life trumps everything else. But music is such a big part of who I am that playing and seeing people happy when I play and liking my albums, brings me great great joy too." Photo by Alan Grossman

Which memory from Albert King and Willie Dixon makes you smile?

A lot of people find it funny how great and friendly and sweet Albert King was around me because I think he had a reputation for being abrupt with some people. For some reason though we both took a liking to each other backstage at the shows I opened for him. He wanted to immediately know which of his songs we cover when he came in during our soundcheck. I told him the name of it and he didn’t remember it. Funny. It was called “Wild Woman” and had this great bridge, “That will never do, That will never do,”. Kind of a rhumba. I always tried to pick songs that not everyone did; everyone already did Cross Cut Saw, every blues band covered this one when they covered Albert King.

It’s a great song of course but every band doing all the same songs gets really boring. Willie Dixon also was very very kind to me and said, backstage, that he really liked my music and he wanted to send me a song he wrote. He said he sent it to Tina Turner and didn’t get a response so he wanted me to have it. I was thrilled of course but after that show, unfortunately nothing ever showed up in my mailbox. I do know I ran out there and checked for a month! He of course laid the foundation for blues songs and lyrics that are very synonymous with the Chess sound and the great blues of artists such as Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor. He was a true poet of the blues and master song writer and a very very kind and nice person backstage to me. He gave me a button to wear that has his lyrics on it, “It Don’T Make Sense, They Can’t Make Peace”.  He definitely wrote some songs with social justice themes, and not just songs like Hootchie Cootchie Man. Which of course won all kinds of awards and was a major hit for Muddy Waters in 1954. Willie Dixon was such a terrific songwriter.

"I hope great upcoming guitar players (all instruments, really), and singers, keep learning and keep finding the really good role models." (Photo by Carianne King: Cathy and Jimmy Thackery )

Do you remember anything funny from Muddy Waters and Jimmy Thackery?

Muddy was another great backstage entertainer and flirt! He used to have a case of champagne on his rider. And chicken livers. Sometimes his friends from Mississippi would make their way backstage in DC, and he lit up like a Christmas tree for happiness of seeing them. One lady was named Mabel, and I guess she had moved to the DC area and sought him out. She had a lot of trouble getting up the rickety steps at the old Cellar Door Club in Washington. They’d get to talking in that Mississippi dialect and good luck figuring it out.

He was a friendly man and truly enjoyed all the folks coming back stage to see him and pay homage. Once I saw him at a club called the Mine Shaft in Charlottesville Virginia, and there were great posters all over town with his face in an artful photo, advertising the show. When I went backstage, I said hello and it was great to see him again, and he remembered me. And so I teased him about this necklace he had on that said, “SEXY BITCH”. It was like a cheap rhinestone necklace a street vendor would sell. I don’t know why he wore it and also I read once Jr. Wells used to wear the same necklace. So at the end of the night when I gave him one of the artful posters to sign, he wrote, “To sexy bitch Cathy”. That is Totally Funny!! I have it framed in my little home office room at home. He was so great and nice to all us young kids hanging around his backstage. Soaking in his charisma. And he shared his champagne with us.

I shared a house with Jimmy Thackery and his wife for about 3 years when he was traveling all the time with the Nighthawks so he was hardly ever there. Maybe 4 days out of a month it seemed. He was always funny. He has a great wacky sense of humor and sarcasm and a quick wit and way with words. His father and I became close friends and Mr. Thackery was a poet, a writer, and a professor and smart man and I think Jimmy got his wit and way with words from Joseph, his father. I couldn’t believe my good luck when Jimmy stepped up and said he wanted to play guitar on my CD I was just starting to record, when Jimmy had a band called the Assassins and they were not traveling or playing much, so Jimmy for the first time in 25 years had some time and I was really grateful when he said, Let me play some guitar on your new CD and ended up playing on all the cuts (“Lovin’ You Right”).

"I traveled with Bob for a handful of gigs with my band backing him and he really has a mean and solid attack on the guitar. And he’s a great storyteller as is evidenced in the great columns he writes for a magazine called Blues Revue." Photo: Bob Margolin and Cathy

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from Bob Margolin and JB Hutto?

JB Hutto came to stay at my house when Jimmy was out on the road and the house we shared kind of was a “rock and roll hotel” (Jimmy’s words), so the bands could save money from hotels and sleep past  the 11:00am checkout times. Not to mention we cooked some amazing meals at that house. Carl Perkins band and Muddy Waters band came for dinner more than once. There was some serious good food in that kitchen. Gregg Allman and Johnny Winter and a lot of regional bands stayed at the house, Luther Guitar Jr. who played with Muddy’s band; and I learned a lot from all these guys. JB Hutto came to DC to play and stay at the house in Bethesda, with Hound Dog Taylor’s rhythm section. I’ll never forget in the morning I got to take out the guitar and sit there in the living room and jam with JB Hutto. He liked what I played and that was really fun, on a Sunday morning with the sun streaming in the living room, to play blues with JB Hutto. 

Bob Margolin was living in Fairfax Virginia after Muddy Waters passed away, and recommended I try a nearby recording studio, owned by Jeff King, who he said was really good at recording. Well the rest is history because I went there to record and after a few years, Jeff and I married and that’s how I got the “King” last name. Good blues name you have to admit. I traveled with Bob for a handful of gigs with my band backing him and he really has a mean and solid attack on the guitar. And he’s a great storyteller as is evidenced in the great columns he writes for a magazine called BLUES REVUE.

When we talk about Blues usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Yes, Definitely! There’s some great music being played and recorded! Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl, for example, have albums on the blues charts. Tinsley Ellis, who I played a show with last year, has a great CD of all instrumentals on his guitar. Muddy Water’s son Big Bill Morganfield and James Cotton have new CDs out, and so does Kim Wilson with his Fabulous Thunderbirds. Buddy Guy is still doing amazing shows and recording and tearing down the house live at his shows, and so is Jimmy Thackery still tearing up the road. I love slide guitar and Sonny Landreth is just amazing and soulful and brilliant, and so is the slide player Dave Hole from Australia, and of course I have always loved the music of the great Bonnie Raitt and that slide of hers. Her voice and song choices never cease to bring beauty and fine music to your heart on any of her records. Anything by Irma Thomas, I always love. She is such a wonderful singer and you can just feel her warmth and personality in her songs.

(Photo: Cathy with Ronnie Earl)

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

I want to be a storyteller. I hire great musicians and instrumentalists to be with me so they can really dazzle the audience with their solos. Bill Starks on keyboards has been with me over 20 years. He can really play beautiful ballads like“River’s Invitation” from Percy Mayfield, and then he can knock out a crazy boogie woogie that has the audience on their feet like a Katie Webster or Pinetop Perkins hit. Kudos to him. Longtime band mate.

I want people to love the songs I hand pick and choose like I do because I want the song to say something. There’s nothing fake in my songs. They come directly from my life and something I have experienced. Names may be changed to protect the innocent !! (laugh). All of my CDs are original songs and only one cover song on four CDs, by the great singer songwriter and guitar session man from the Muscle Shoals studios, Eddie Hinton. Talk about great songwriting, that guy, gone too soon, and what a fine fine songwriter.I’m starting on my new CD and have three originals , in the blues and jazz vein. A great guitar player, who lives near my husband Jeff and I, Mike Melchione is playing guitar while he’s not traveling with Buckwheat Zydeco. Mike was a protégé of the great Roy Buchanan, but he can play any style on his guitar. 

I feel like I have more to say and that’s what I want to do with audiences, have a dialogue. From my heart and soul to theirs.

"I love the old classic blues- from even further back in the 1920’s and so on….And I admire the excitement that was happening back in that era you mention." Photo by Alan Grossman

Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in Washington DC?

Washington DC/Md/Virginia is a TOUGH area. You’ve got a LOT of tech professionals and government workers and too much traffic. Most of the population is worn out !! You’ve got all these hard working career people who have to go home early and can’t support music every night. So the bands that stay in DC, all work too, to keep a roof over your head and pay for expensive health insurance, and the expense of your kid’s college. Most musicians I know have to supplement their income, in the blues field anyway, unless you are traveling 200 nights a year to make tour money. A lot of them, like me, work in media, or the news business or radio, or teach music at a school. But DC can be brutal in its cliques and closed door policies of clubs and exclusivity that really is hurtful to those on the outside of the door.

There’s been an old boy’s club thing happening, from my perspective, that I noticed right away when I began to play music. It took me a long time for musicians to accept me. There’s a LOT of money in Washington, with rich lobbyists, business owners and politicians, and sometimes I get really really nice festivals or private events, big clubs, and fun concerts I get to play. But working so hard to get heard and get my music out there can be really exhausting sometimes and can beat you down with discouragement.

I guess I just love singing and writing and playing so much I try to block out that bad side of it. Like Allen Toussaint says, in his song, “Happiness” “You hold on to the good, and let the bad, go right on by”

That’s really the only way to keep your sanity! I have a great friend Ron Holloway, the great saxophonist and we talk about this kind of thing all the time. He tours with Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi (another great band!), and Ron has a lot of wise sage advice when I speak of some of these things that happen in the small music town of DC that shouldn’t happen. He’s played the DC scene over 40 years and knows the inside scoop. The exclusive cliques of musicians, and how hard it is to keep going with musicians coming and going, coming and going from band to band to band.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

I definitely would have to reiterate what I said before about paying your dues and doing your homework with the list of musicians I listed before; to learn and to know the great virtuoso players of the past in order to move ahead. And try not to have “tissue paper feelings”like I do ! The more tough skinned you are, the easier it is to be ok with taking it on the chin all the time in this business which can break your heart and can be very brutal. Then the great“highs”, or rewards happen sometimes and that feeling is just great. I would wish a new generation luck in choosing friends and collaborators wisely. It has taken me a long long time to find out who’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing and those that rip off your energy and critizice; versus finding the people who nourish, support and cheer you on. The music business is strange like that! Be careful….would be my advice! I can only say, I lost a lot of time and momentum with the “energy rip off” folks and now I think, I’m in a good good place of respect. It took me a long time to process all that. The young girls coming up nowadays don’t seem to have that character flaw that I had!

They seem STRONG! And able to start early and pursue their guitar and career “fast and furious”.

As journalist, which incident of Blues story you‘d like to be captured and illustrated yourself in a painting?

I love it when the moment is just right. Great club, great audience, great sound system, the band is all there and happy and playing well, and the vocal monitor on stage is just right, everything is good with my guitar and I can sing “FULL OUT” so they say, and just have fun with it and enjoy the “perfect moment”. That would be a great thing to capture in an artwork. The ecstatic experience perhaps. There are some really artful and great photographers in the DC area : Alan Grossman, Randy Santos and Dennis Crews; and all of them have taken just beautiful photographs of this beautiful moment. One of my favorite singers of all time is Sarah Vaughn and she has a great quote:

“When I sing, trouble can sit right on my shoulder and I don't even notice.” - Sarah Vaughan

And then there’s this great quote too:

“He who sings, scares away his woes” – Miguel de Cervantes

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

How about performing at a beautiful blues festival in Greece ! Right at the beach!  Wouldn’t it be fun to watch Muddy Waters record at Chess studios in Chicago? When someone asks me the question, who would you like to have dinner with, any person dead or alive, I’d find it hard to narrow it down. Jesus, James Joyce, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, President Lincoln, Mark Twain.

This question of yours is hard. Too many choices. I’d like to take my band to Ireland since that’s where my family is from, and Scotland, where they do have a big blues festival. Playing at a blues festival in the Caribbean would be fun, and of course, there’s my dream, playing Jazzfest, in New Orleans. Can you make all these wishes come true? 

(Photo by Alan Grossman: Ron Holloway and Cathy)

Cathy Ponton King - Official website

 

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