Dutch bluesman Robbert Fossen talks about Magic Slim, Tail Dragger, John Primer and Haarlem Jazz Club

"The blues is based on expressing feelings. So for me it’s a way to express myself and connect with people in different ways."

Robbert Fossen:  Blues with no additives & preservatives

The blues musician Robbert Fossen from Haarlem, The Netherlands, was born in 1969. Robbert is a singer and plays harmonica and guitar. He started his musical 'career' in 1987 and played in several bands. Later on he picked up harmonica and guitar. With bands like A Crossroads Deal, The Robbert Fossen Blues Band and others he did a lot of shows in and around the Netherlands. Robbert took his first step on stage, during a Blues Jam Session, in the famous Haarlem Jazz Club in 1988. Since then, he played in several bands, including the past 17 ​​years in the band A Crossroads Deal; purchased.

Despite Robbert become an all-round blues musician he prefers to Chicago Blues. His main examples: Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, John Primer, Buddy Guy, Eddy Taylor, Luke Longone Miles, Johnny Littlejohn, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson and Jerry Portnoy.

During his ‘career’ he had the chance to play and tour with blues musicians  like John Primer (ex-Muddy Waters and Magic Slim), Tail Dragger (legendary Chicago singer), Chick Rodgers (The Secret from Chicago), Nick Holt (Magic Slims' brother) and Charles Hayes (Chicago's rising star). In America Robbert including shared stage with the Model T-Ford and Willie Kent et al.

Robbert plays since March 2010 together with Peter Struijk (guitar) as a duo and as band their Real Deal Chicago Blues. The Fossen & Struijk Band were the winners of the Dutch Blues Challenge 2012, and finalists at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, in January 2013. Robbert Fossen is also nominated for the Blues Awards as "Best vocalist" 2013.

Interview by Michael Limnios       Photos © by Ron Van Varik

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

It’s important to express your feelings, by speech (word) or in a creative manner, like making music.
The blues is based on expressing feelings. So for me it’s a way to express myself and connect with people in different ways. What started as a hobby is now a kind of addiction. I cannot live happy without playing the blues. And of course the attention I get with it is very nice.

How do you describe Robbert Fossen sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I describe my sound and style as the Chicago Club sound from the 60’s, 70’s and beginning of the 80’s.
I play straight Chicago Blues. Nothing new and not so many original songs of my own. If all the musicians try to play their own original songs and ‘renew’ the blues, then in a few years nobody is playing all those beautiful blues songs from the heydays of Chicago Blues.  On the other hand, I’m not just a copycat. I have my own style and feel to it. It’s more than just playing the songs. It’s bringing the feeling and energy to the listeners.
And I want to make them experience the atmosphere, power and energy of the blues in the clubs in Chicago
My main inspirators are Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, Buddy Guy, John Primer, Luther ‘Guitar Jr.’ Johnson etc.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

As said before I don’t write that many of my own songs. But when I do, there’s always a reason to write down my feelings of that moment. When I look back I wrote most of my songs during a difficult relationship and difficult divorce period. But when I choose repertoire written by others to play live or to record, the lyrics and/or atmosphere of the songs have to match with my feelings or experiences.

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

When I look back I realize that I had some unique opportunities to play with some of my idols, like John Primer, Tail Dragger, Nick Holt (Magic Slim’s brother), Magic Slim and his Teardrops. That gave me the chance to play at some major festivals in The Netherlands and Europe. And of course winning the Dutch Blues Challenge in 2012 and making it to the finals at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2013 was very important to me.
This summer the drummer of my previous band passed away. We started this band 20 years ago together. And with his passing I realized that almost half of my live I played with that band, during all the good and difficult periods in my life. I still miss him. That band was very important for my career. We did a lot of shows in the passed as an amateur band.

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

When you talk about ‘easy listening music’, blues fits literally in that definition. It comes so close to the everyday feelings and experiences in live. It’s easy to move and dance to blues music. A medium tempo shuffle is the same tempo when you just walk. Blues comes so close to who we are. And there are so many styles of blues and other music styles based on it.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I remember two special jam sessions. Both in 2004 when I was in the United States for the first time. The first was at the Pinetop Perkins Homecoming at The Hopson Plantation, near Clarksdale Mississippi. It was a nice set, with good musicians, but what I really remember about it is the fact that in front of the stage, sitting in a row were the last living members of the Muddy Waters Blues Band watching the set, Pinetop Perkins, Calvin Jones, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith. (and Sam Carr, Frank Frost’s drummer). And their positive and surprised reaction when I sang a Muddy Waters song gave me goosebumps then.
The second jam was the week after that when I was in Chicago and I was invited at a jam session at Arties Lounge, South 87th street. The jam was hosted by Billy Branch. If I’m correct Moses Rutues was on drums and John Primer, that I had met one time before in The Netherlands, walked in and played with me that set. The years after that I played and toured with John several times in and around The Netherlands.
The most memorable gig I had was in November 2012 when I did a show with Magic Slims Teardrops. I was asked to replace Slim that night at a festival because he had to stay in a French hospital because of serious health problems. Three days after that show Slim was able to do a show in Belgium and I was asked to open for him with The Teardrops. The last song of that show I played together with Slim. That would be his last show in Europe before his passing last February.

What's been your experience from “studies” in the famous Haarlem Jazz Club? Which memory makes you smile?

I was pretty young then, about 18 years old. I came there every Sunday at the jam sessions but was to shy to go to the leader of the jam session to ask if I could sing a song. The first time that I kicked my own butt to go and ask the session leader to sing a song was a real learning moment in my live. Because when you’re to shy to ask, you won’t come far in live. After that first set I sang I got some positive comments from the people in the audience and that was the first step in my ‘career’. The funny part was that somebody said: Hey boy, you got a good blues voice, but don’t wear a pink shirt again. I never will forget that moment. Once you’re on stage then you really start learning playing music and become a musician. Being a musician is something else then being capable of playing or singing music or play an instrument.

Are there any memories from Tail Dragger, John Primer, and Nick Holt which you’d like to share with us?

I remember and know Tail Dragger from a Dutch documentary on television in the mid eighties when I was about 16 years old. I was blown away by him singing ‘My head is bald’ at The Delta Fish Market in Chicago.
In 2008 I sat with Tail Dragger at my home together on the couch watching that same documentary. May 2013 he was my best man at my wedding.
As said before I’ll never forget that moment when John Primer came walking in Arties Lounge in Chicago in 2004, knowing that I was there and we played together for the first time at that jam session there.
And besides the first meeting with Nick I mentioned before, I remember being at his home in Lincoln Nebraska in 2004 with his very nice wife (and who is a great cook).

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

I remember a few meetings: the first time I shook hands with Nick Holt; he opened the door of the house of a friend of mine where he stayed that week and I will always remember him standing there, that long tall slim man on his socks with that beautiful voice saying “Hey,… I’m Nick”. 

And the first time I met Tail Dragger when I picked him up from the airport in 2008 to do the first tour with him. That very nice and friendly man with his white cowboy hat and his sweet laughing eyes.

The last important but in a way sad moment was Magic Slim come walking in at the club in Belgium (that I mentioned before). I was so glad and excited to see him again after so many years. That very tall and big man in a low roof club, with oxygen tubes in his nose leaning on his walking cane being still weak after staying in a hospital and not fully recovered at that moment. It shocked me seeing him that way.
About an advice from the past: I remember November 2012 Jon Mc Donald (one of The Teardrops) asked to sit down with him a moment in the dressing room an hour before the show with them. He said that he understands that I was very excited and maybe nervous to do the show with them. He said: “I know you’re happy to do the show with us, but be sure that we are happy too that you do the show with us, because if not we would be sitting in our hotels making no money. And the advice he gave was: When you are in the leading position/role, then BE the leader and trust the band to follow you. And they did…  They were so nice to me and made me feel so comfortable. Jon McDonald, Brian ‘BJ’ Jones, Chris Biedron and Michael Blakemore.

Do you remember anything funny from T-Model Ford, Magic Slim, and Willie Kent?

Yeah, I remember T-Model Ford arriving in Clarksdale. That short little old man (about 86 years old, as far as he knew his own age then) in his huge baby blue old Lincoln car. And the show we did at Red’s Lounge, four and a half hours long with one 20 minutes break. And all songs in the key of E…..  (and a lot of “Jack Daniels Time”; people who ever saw him know what I mean)
With Magic Slim I had some (for me) Magic moments during his last show in Europe ever. I saw him many times before, but not really met him personally before, besides some backstage moments in the passed.
With Willie Kent I played at one show in Chicago 2004. A nice man, saying nice words about my playing (harmonica).

What the difference and similarity between ACOUSTIC and ELECTRIC BLUES feeling?

For me there is not really a difference. The only thing is that playing electric blues works best with a full band and acoustic is so nice in a one or two piece setting. The sound of an acoustic guitar is so rich and wide range and combines so nice with acoustic harmonica. I like it both, although my main inspiration is from the raw electric Chicago Club Sound. I like the live recordings from a French lady Marcelle Morgantini in the seventies. It’s was released by MCM Records and later by Storyville Records. They re-released a 8 CD box this year called ‘The Chicago Blues Box’. When you like Chicago Blues this is the Real Deal! (and a must-have!)

From the musical point of view what are the differences between: European and American Blues scene?

I think there’s a difference, but it’s difficult to explain. I experienced the difference. Over all American musicians pay more attention to the one who’s singing. It got something to do with the different roles and discipline in the band.
When I’m singing I feel more secure with American musicians or with Dutch musicians that have experience backing up American singers/musicians. Hey, but that’s just my opinion and experience…

Make an account of the case of the blues in Netherlands. Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

The whole year round there are many places to play in The Netherlands. Only between June 15th and August 15th there are not so many festivals and a lot of clubs don’t book bands in that period. You won’t get rich, being a blues musician in The Netherlands, but I think that’s the fact all over the world. Only the big names can make a lot of money. But over all we have a very active blues scene over here with nice festivals and blues nights.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues culture and music with Europeans?

The blues as a music style came to Europe in the sixties. The bands and musicians from the UK played an important part in importing the blues to Europe. John Mayall & The Blues Breakers, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones etc. Dutch bands like Cuby & The Blizzards and some others based their music on the English style and influence. The UK musicians were the first that brought Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Howlin’ Wolf and others to Europe. I think this sixties era is the main line.
Cultural there’s no other historical line I think.

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

I miss the classic Black Blues style. It’s a lot of bluesrock and rockblues nowadays. A lot of (younger) bands and musicians base their style on their examples from the eighties and nineties often not realizing that the real blues is a lot older and coming from the Afro American heritage.

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

Let’s say turn the button to 1975. I want to do a day trip in Chicago and visit all the clubs and musicians that are no longer there and with us. Like the atmosphere of the Marcelle Morgantini recordings I mentioned before.
Allthough I realize that a lot of clubs and areas then were pretty rough, especially for white people.

Robbert Fossen - official website

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