Chicagoan guitarist Tom Holland talks about James Cotton, L.V. Banks, "Chief's" club and Windy City

"Luther Allison always said there’s no black, no white, just blues."

Tom Holland: The Blues Is The Truth

Tom Holland a professional musician for over 15 years now, Tom has honed his craft well, and has become one of the most respected, and in demand guitarists on the Chicago blues scene. There are very few guitarists of the "younger generation" who have the grasp and understanding of Chicago blues like Tom does. While many others blend funk, rock, R&B, and soul, Tom Holland & the Shuffle Kings are decidedly straight ahead Chicago blues.

"My sound is a mix of all the blues that I’ve listened to. I Love Chicago blues, along the lines of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Eddie Taylor, Magic Slim… All the Chicago masters." 

Tom has worked with a virtual who's who in the blues community, and currently tours with harmonica legend James Cotton. Be sure to keep an eye out for Tom, as he just very well may be passing through your town!!!
He is one of the few guitarists, among the younger generation, who understands and grasps the various forms of Chicago blues throughout its long, storied history.  While many of his contemporaries blend blues with soul, funk, R&B and rock, Holland and his band, The Shuffle Kings, stay true to the roots of the music. The guitarist has worked with a who’s who of blues greats, including: Byther Smith, Eddy Clearwater, John Primer and L.V. Banks.


Interview by Michael Limnios


Tom, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & what were the first songs you learned?
I grew up on the south side of Chicago in a house filled with music. My father had an extensive record collection. He had a lot of different genres of music, everything from Classical, to blues & Jazz, as well as Rock, soul, and more that I can’t remember all of! The blues was engrained in my head from a very young age. I saw Eddie Van Halen on MTV when I was 11 or 12, and started begging my parents for a guitar. When I started playing guitar, I wanted to learn the blues, and haven’t looked back since…. I started out wanting to play like Eddie Van Halen, and discovered that I wanted to be Muddy Waters instead!

"Well, as a 'White boy' playing blues, while I am able to 'play the blues' I can’t ever be able to play it as well as a black person. A lot of blues is about their perils in life." 

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?
I have played all over the world in the last 15 years, I’ve seen A LOT of places, people, and things. Some of my favorites were my first time playing the Chicago Blues festival in 2000 with Eddy Clearwater, I have been going to the Chicago blues festival since I was a child, so when I had the chance to play the main stage with Eddy, I couldn’t believe I was standing on stage there, after being in the audience for so many years before. I also have great memories of touring in Japan in 2004 with James Cotton. To be half way around the world playing to people who loved the music almost as much as we do was a life changing experience!!

Also playing the Dutch Mason Blues festival in Nova Scotia Canada with James Cotton. He is the official ambassador of the blues for the festival, so we play there every year. We’re goin on our 7th year there, and the people are so welcoming and great, and many have become friends of ours as well! I have many memorable gigs and could probably go on for hours!!

Another  one would have to be going to France under my own name in 2011, I played the Terri Thours Blues festival, one of the best in the world, and made many new friends and fans.. I was there for a week along with Dave Herrero & Felix Reyes, and we were shown great love and respect the whole time…. During the time we were there, I was renamed “the Frommage King” because They found that I love cheese, and they definitely were accomdating. Lastly, would be my trips to Vancouver BC Canada playing with Vancouver bluesman Steve Kozak. I discovered on my first trip there that I have A LOT of devoted Tom Holland fans there, as well as friends for life now!!
I’ve played with a lot of blues musicians all over the world, but some of my favorites were jamming with guys like Robert Jr. Lockwood, who rarely let anyone on his stage, Carey Bell, Hubert Sumlin, who I had the pleasure of backing numerous times before they passed away with my band. Bob Margolin, again, I could go on for hours!!!


"The blues has offered me a a chance to not only do what I love for a living, but I’ve gotten to travel to places I’ve never dreamed of playing, let alone seeing." (Photo: Tom, Hubert Sumlin, Carey Bell and friends) 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The best moment of my career was when I realized that I could do this for a living. I’ve been very fortunate in the fact that I’ve been able to tour the world, and see the true power of the blues.
In terms of the worst, I’m sure there were some trying times, and will be some to come, but I don’t dwell on bad times, because the memorable times far outweigh the bad.


What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
As much as it has been said by many before me, the blues is the truth. Its something that everyone has had or will get. Good or bad. It’s a way of communicating things in my life in a way that everyone can understand.
The blues has offered me a a chance to not only do what I love for a living, but I’ve gotten to travel to places I’ve never dreamed of playing, let alone seeing.


"The best moment of my career was when I realized that I could do this for a living. I’ve been very fortunate in the fact that I’ve been able to tour the world, and see the true power of the blues."

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience from the road with the blues over those years.
Its actually been almost 15 years now that I have been playing blues professionally. I’ve seen a lot of things that many people will never see, or should never have to see, and I’ve seen some of the most amazing things. I’ve been blessed to not only work with a lot of the remaining legends of the blues, but a lot of them I can call friends. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for not only myself, but for the blues as well.


Are there any memories from John Primer, which you’d like to share with us?
John was the first person on the scene in Chicago that saw that I was serious about playing the blues. John is also responsible for my slide guitar playing. When I started playing with John, he told me that by the time I left his band, I’d know how to play slide guitar, and be able to play behind anyone. And I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right. By the time I left the band, he had taught me how to play slide guitar, and how to be the best rhythm guitarist, and be able to play anything, behind anybody.

"Take the time to learn about the blues that has come before us. If you don’t know the history, you can’t take it to the next stage." (Photo: Tom & John Primer) 

What characterize the sound of Tom Holland? How do you describe Shuffle Kings music?
My sound is a mix of all the blues that I’ve listened to. I Love Chicago blues, along the lines of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Eddie Taylor, Magic Slim…. All the Chicago masters. The Shuffle Kings music is old school Chicago Blues… from Muddy & Jimmy Reed to Magic Slim & John Primer, and everything in between.


What are the “secrets” of Tom Holland’s  Shuffle King Model from Delaney guitars?
My signature model was made by Mike Delaney of Delaney Guitars in Atlanta, Georgia. I approached Mike about making my signature model about a year ago. I’ve had the guitar in my head ever since I was 14 years old. Mike was the first person that was able to make it all come together. The pickups are Jason Lollar Charlie Christian Pickups. They have a nice warm sound that is perfect for the blues I play. There’s a Telecaster Bridge. The body shape is similar to a Fender Jazzmaster. I went with a tele bridge because Jazzmaster bridges were notoriously hard to deal with, so I had been playing guitars with Tele bridges for a long time, and was what I was most used to, and it worked wonderfully! I like simplicity in my guitars. My signature model has a vintage look, very simple controls, and a wonderful comfortable neck, which translates into a great guitar that I haven’t been able to put down since I got it!


"I grew up on the south side of Chicago in a house filled with music. My father had an extensive record collection. He had a lot of different genres of music, everything from Classical, to blues & Jazz, as well as Rock, soul, and more that I can’t remember all of! The blues was engrained in my head from a very young age." (Photo by Tom Carter)

Tell me a few things about your experience with James Cotton. Do you remember anything fanny or interesting from James Cotton?
I started with James in 2003. I was at the time playing mostly Chicago with my band, and a few other local bands. So I had been off the road for a few years, so I was more than excited to get back out on the road. Lord knows I really missed it. Not only being on the road, but the road $$ is also a lot better than local pay.
Anyhow, My first tour with James was 3 weeks on the west coast. I was the new guy, so James didn’t really pay much attention to me, until about 3 gigs into the tour, he gave me a solo, and I played some old Luther Tucker stuff, Cotton swung around on his chair and assured me then and there, I had a job for life.
Then there was the first time I went to Europe with James, we played the the Lucerne Blues Festival in Lucerne Switzerland. This is one of the best festivals not only in Europe, but in my opinion, the world. We were on the festival, along with Bob Margolin’s Chicago Blues Legends, the band was Bob Margolin & Hubert Sumlin on guitars, Willie Big Eyes Smith on Drums, I think Bob Stroger was on Bass, Pinetop Perkins on piano, and Carey Bell on harp. Sadly, Bob Margolin & Bob Stroger are the only ones left from that night…. But it was just amazing hanging out with Cotton among all his old friends. They were all carrying on and talking about the old days. It was an amazing night.
Mostly though, driving on the road listenin to the old Chicago Blues stuff, Cotton will hear a song, and start telling stories about being on the scene back in the 50’s in Chicago with Muddy, and all those guys, Little Walter, Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed, all of em. I still kick myself for not recording the stories while we were driving down the road. We still tour a lot with James, so maybe I’ll get some on tape during our road trips this summer.


"The blues is the truth. Its something that everyone has had or will get. Good or bad. It’s a way of communicating things in my life in a way that everyone can understand." (Photo: Tom & James Cotton)

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Eddy Clearwater?
There were a lot….. but one of the ones that always stick out was playing the Chicago blues fest with him, and playing at his club, Reservation Blues. When he had his club, I ran the Sunday night jam night when we weren’t on the road. But the nice thing was that with Eddy having his own club, we backed a lot of blues friends of his, such as Robert Jr. Lockwood, Lonnie Brooks, Son Seals, Dave Myers, Carey Bell, Hubert Sumlin, Jody Williams and a number of others I can’t remember right now….


Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your work at “Chief’s” club?
It was just a blessing to be involved with the club, and the many great people I was able to play behind.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
The blues is something EVERYONE understands at one time or another, everybody gets the blues! My wish for the blues…. Is to keep evolving and bringing people happiness. It may be the blues, but this music heals people. It helps people forget their troubles for even a little while.


"I’ve been blessed to not only work with a lot of the remaining legends of the blues, but a lot of them I can call friends. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for not only myself, but for the blues as well."

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Take the time to learn about the blues that has come before us. If you don’t know the history, you can’t take it to the next stage. Be sure to try and see as many of the “legends” of the blues, because of them, we’re all doing this. Be sure to also listen to as many different styles of blues and make it your own. There’s already been a BB King or Muddy Waters, and there’s only one you. Lastly, don’t do it for the money…. Play the blues because you love the blues.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD bluesman?
Everything that happens good or bad, makes a good bluesman.  It is all about how you interpret it. A good bluesman or woman knows that to be a good blues artist, you have to know about  the past, guys like Muddy, Wolf, Lonnie Johnson, Son House, and those that have come before us. Knowing where the blues came from helps make the blues stay vital in the future/


What do you miss most nowadays from Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf?
That I wasn’t around to see them in Person!


"All I know is that Blues is what moves me, and I’ve studied it as well as I could, and have made significant inroads to having a career as a successful bluesman."

Which of the blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are your favorites?
I’m a big fan of any of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Freddie King, Albert King, Earl Hooker….. anything they play is a favorite of mine!


Alive or dead, who is the one person that you’d like to meet face to face if they were alive, and talk to over jam?    
There’s no way I could say just one, so these are the guys I would love to talk with and jam with, Earl Hooker, Freddie King, Muddy Waters and Luther Tucker


What would you ask Pat Hare? How you would spend a day with Magic Sam?
I’d ask Pat Hare how he got that incredible tone on all the recordings he did, and if he could show me some of his tricks…
Magic Sam, that would be a trip….. I’d probably make him play All Your Love and all his other hits and get some tips on BBQ…. I have heard he loved to BBQ…

"My wish for the blues…. Is to keep evolving and bringing people happiness. It may be the blues, but this music heals people. It helps people forget their troubles for even a little while."

What advice L.V. Banks given to you?
L.V. was the first one to tell me that I have to sound like me…. He always said “you find your own sound, and you’ll be able to work for the rest of your life” and he’s been right so far!


Is there any similarity and difference between the “white blues boys” and the blues cats?
Well, as a “White boy” playing blues, while I am able to “play the blues” I can’t ever be able to play it as well as a black person. A lot of blues is about their perils in life. I didn’t grow up in a cottonfield, or in extreme poverty, or know the discrimination they may have faced. Luther Allison always said there’s no black, no white, just blues. That’s true to a point, but to say I know what its like to live like a black blues musician, I’d be a fool to say that. All I know is that Blues is what moves me, and I’ve studied it as well as I could, and have made significant inroads to having a career as a successful bluesman.

Tom Holland & the Shuffle Kings


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