"It’s just so pure. If you alter it too much, it’s not blues anymore."
Jim Christopulos: Feel The Blues Beat
Jim is a Greek American drummer from the Windy City, who has followed the blues "dream" with his band, Howard and the White Boys. The members of Howard & the White Boys first met at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb in 1988 and began jamming together just for fun, but their fast-growing popularity soon convinced them they could make a career of it. After only a few months, they got their first big break by opening for B.B. King. The band soon made the move to Chicago and began performing with the biggest names in blues: Koko Taylor, Albert King, Junior Wells, Lonnie Brooks, Luther Allison, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry.
Between 1994 and 1997, the group made two highly acclaimed recordings, Strung Out On The Blues and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, for Los Angeles based Mighty Tiger Records. They began traveling extensively across the United States and their growing popularity captured the attention of Philadelphia based Evidence Records. The Big $core was the first of two successful discs released by Evidence, and the band wasted no time in promoting it via the first of many trips to European countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Luxembourg, and England. Riding the ever-growing wave of popularity both at home and abroad, the group then released a well-received live CD for Evidence entitled Live At Chord On Blues in 2000. In 2004, long time band members Howard McCullum, Rocco Calipari, and Jim Christopulos were joined by 26 year old guitarist Pete Galanis.
Jim, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues, what was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
I was always aware of blues music. I saw B.B. King twice while I was in high school. He came to the Genesee Theater in Waukegan, IL (where I grew up) and I caught both shows. He was amazing. Several years before that, though, I loved the blues music that was on some of the old rock albums I had. Bands like Steppenwolf and the James Gang were taking stuff they heard from the blues masters and merging it with their own style. Some of the really early Steppenwolf stuff actually works very well as convincing blues music. Then in high school, Steve Asma (the original Howard & The White Boys guitarist) and I started playing together in a garage band, and Steve was really into Lightning Hopkins and stuff like that. So we naturally played a lot of blues music in the garage while in our teens.
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
As with anyone, there are so many interesting periods. For me, the mid 00’s (from about 2005 to 2007) would be a standout. Professionally, Howard & The White Boys put out a strong CD called Made In Chicago and the lineup on that CD is probably the most enjoyable for me in that everyone gets along great and the playing is really good, especially live. We toured all around and even played in Lithuania, a country we had never been to, for several thousand fans. Around this time, I also co-wrote a book (published in ‘05) on my favorite rock group, Van der Graaf Generator. It was the culmination of two and a half years work where I interviewed several celebrities from the worlds of music, film, and writing. I actually had film directors Anthony Minghella and Jonathan Demme call me at home to talk to me about Van der Graaf Generator. I also interviewed people like John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), George Martin (Beatles producer), Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Arthur Brown, and several others. And of course I became very good friends with the members of Van der Graaf, which was nice. They reformed right around the time the book came out and I traveled to the UK to see them three times in ‘05, as well as Belgium and Holland in ‘07. On a personal level, I got married to my long-time girlfriend in ‘07 and had a wonderful two-week honeymoon in Greece. Between traveling to Europe with Howard & The White Boys, or promoting the Van der Graaf book, or on my honeymoon, my passport was overflowing with stamps! A very busy and rewarding three years. Then my son was born in ‘08 and that’s a whole other wonderful chapter...
There are just too many. Briefly... the first time we opened for B.B. King in ‘88, mostly because it was so unexpected and a last minute thing (I was actually standing in line for the concert, and someone grabbed me and told me that we were opening for B.B. as I was ushered into the theater); beating out 400 other bands in a national ‘best band’ contest and winning the whole thing at the House of Blues in Los Angeles on the Sunset Strip; appearing on stage with people like Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and countless others; playing in Lithuania – the concert itself was great as we went over really well in front of thousands... but we were stuck in this little shack for three days on the camp ground where the concert was... just the four of us and it rained non-stop for three days. If you wanted to go to the bathroom you had to walk about 200 yards through three feet of mud to a horrid outhouse.
These are just the few that come to mind; there are others that are equal or better that I’ve just not thought about at the moment (the band has existed for almost 25 years, so there’s lots of memories!)
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
There are many ‘best-of’ moments. One of them is when we were invited by Buddy Guy to open for him on a couple of his major midwest tours. We did a few of those tours with him, and we always earned standing ovations playing to audiences of anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 fans a night. A wonderful experience. The worst? Nothing to really complain about...
How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
In general, I go into a zone of sorts and keep my head down. Even if I’m not in the ‘head down’ position, I make very little eye contact with the audience. I focus on the music. Still, it’s great to have a crowd that’s really into it, i.e. clapping after solos or giving heartfelt applause after a song. In those situations, the band feeds off the energy from the audience and you find yourself giving as good as you’re getting.
Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
We’ve met so many already. But, there is so much myth surrounding a guy like Robert Johnson that it would be interesting to be able to slide up to the bar next to him and chat for a while. I do remember one night when I was drinking with Junior Wells in Chicago (we opened for him at Legends). It was great, we ended up singing tunes from one of his old 60’s albums: “I’m so tired this mornin’... I could just lay down and diiiieeee...”
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
It’s just so pure. If you alter it too much, it’s not blues anymore. There aren’t many other musical styles like that. Rock music can go in directons that sound really fashionable and then terribly dated – just think of the 80’s big drum sound which sounds horrible today, or the fashionable 70’s synths used by a lot of prog bands, which sounded cutting-edge then but just sound hokey now. Real blues music is organic and can’t be tampered with like that so there’s no chance of it sounding outdated. Plus, there’s just so much honesty inherent in the form, from the lyrics to the actual music.
Well, I consider Rocco, Howard, and Pete very good friends. We’ve played with so many people: Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, The Blues Brothers, Elvin Bishop, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Lonnie Brooks, John Mayer, and on and on... Since my son was born four years ago, I don’t hang out so much at clubs. If I’m not playing, I’m not out at some night spot. So, I’m pretty out of the loop with that kind of thing. A few years ago, I’d hang at Kingston Mines or Buddy Guys Legends after a gig and hang out with other musicians. Not so much these days. As far as people in the music industry who I consider legitimate friends, I’d have to say the members of Van der Graaf Generator (although I don’t see them much at all, as we live on different continents!). Writing the book on them was a very intense, but extremely fun (and funny!) experience, and we got to know each other fairly well over the years. I’ve been to some of their houses, on their boats, etc. Even though I live in Chicago, and they’re spread out over the UK, we still keep in touch quite a bit through email and phone calls. When Peter Hammill played a solo gig in Chicago a while back, we went out for dinner the night before his gig and had a blast. I also became friends with a couple of the guys who were in Steppenwolf back in the 60’s. I’ve actually been golfing with Goldy Mcjohn, the organist on “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride”! I’ve known him for about fifteen years now.
Are there any memories from Buddy Guy you meet which you’d like to share with us?
There were a few times when I sat at the bar with him just chilling out, and he’s a very smart, clued-in guy. I used to love when we’d open for him in some huge auditorium or club, and hear him during his set say “How about a hand for the opening act, Howard & The White Boys?” The crowd would erupt, and it was great. He always mentioned us to the crowd when we played before him and we appreciated it! It was also great to have him come over to the studio to play and sing on a track for our third CD, “The Big $core.” He was very professional in that situation and delivered the goods. Then he stuck around and hung out with us for a while, which was a lot of fun.
I always enjoyed playing at Buddy Guys Legends. These days we’re playing Rosa’s a lot, and it’s a great club with a real good vibe.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell from BB King’s opening act?
We played with him twice, both times for big crowds. The first was for around 1,500 to 2,000 people at the Egyptian Theater in Dekalb, IL. The second was many years later at some new sports arena in Dekalb, for around 4,000 fans. Both gigs were fantastic experiences for us and we went down great. The first gig is the one that’s just bonkers from a story-telling point of view. We were students at NIU in Dekalb, and I was just waiting in line like everyone else to get into the Egyptian Theater. At that point, there was no plan to have us open for BB. Someone came out from the theater, grabbed my arm, and started pulling me past everyone in line and into the theater, while saying, “Bucka, you’ve got to get in there. You’re opening for BB King tonight!” This person was working security, but he was also a friend of mine, and so I thought he was just getting me in so I wouldn’t have to wait in line (which, in retrospect, wouldn’t have been too cool, especially to those who had to wait in line!). So I thanked him and just walked to my balcony seat, where the other members of HWB would be sitting. At this point, I still had no clue we were opening the concert. So, when I got to my seat, I saw that our row of 6 or 7 seats was empty except for our guitar player’s wife. I said to her, “Where are the guys?” And she looked at me in shock and said, “Bucka! You’d better get backstage, you’re opening for BB King in five minutes!” So then I knew it was for real, and I raced downstairs, down the aisles of the main floor, straight to the backstage door. I was let in, and there were the other three members of HWB, who were obviously relieved that I’d made it. What had happened was that someone contacted Howard telling him that BB was late getting into town, and could HWB open the show. Howard found the other two guys, but I was out and about and there was no way to get hold of me. Luckily, I made it backstage. To this day, the experience of being in line for a concert, and then unexpectedly finding myself up on stage performing in front of 2,000 roaring fans five minutes later, is one of the more surreal experiences of my life.
Because I was a rock drummer before I was a blues drummer, I gained a lot from just watching other, more seasoned drummers in the bands we opened for when we were just starting out. We opened for so many blues musicians. You name it, we played with them before we became headliners ourselves: Son Seals, Magic Slim, The Kinsey Report, Li’l Ed, Lonnie Brooks, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor... I didn’t even know the names of the drummers in many of these bands, but I’d watch them and could see that they were playing blues in a way that I wasn’t, and with a feel that I didn’t quite have yet.
Do you think that only real blues is something gloomy, played by old grey-haired men with harps and battered guitars in some smokey, dark and little shabby clubs?
No, that’s a perception that some people may have, but they haven’t seen or listened to many blues artists. There’s actual joy in the music, even when it’s expressing tough times.
You have played with many bluesmen, which are mentioned to be a legend. It must be hard, but would you try to give top 3, which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you? And why?
We were flown out to Long Beach, California, and asked to be the backing band for Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Each one played their own set, and then the two joined together for a final set. It was a real honor to be the drummer for them in front of 15,000 fans! Another time, we were playing at Legends for Buddy Guy’s birthday party. We were asked by Buddy to be the band for the night. At one point, Junior Wells got up and I have a picture somewhere of Buddy, me on drums, and Junior – just the three of us – on stage. It’s obviously a picture I treasure.
Are you Greek? Do you have a message for the Greek fans?
I am Greek, and fell in love with Greece when I went over in ‘07 for my honeymoon. We were in Athens and we also went to the Cyclades islands (Santorini, Folegandros, Milos). I hope I can come back with the band some day!
My uncle, Mike Christopulos (who was a famous sports writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel and covered the Green Bay Packers during their Lombardi/Starr era in the 60’s) gave that name to me when I was a baby. It was a joke of some sort, but at this late date there is confusion as to what the joke actually was!
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?
One of my favorite drummers, if not my favorite (who I’ve listened to since I was six years old in 1971), is Jerry Edmonton from Steppenwolf. He passed away in ‘92 and I never met him, although I got to know most of the other guys from that band. I would love to have met him and picked his brain about drumming. He was exceptional and is under-rated today. In an era of wild rock drummers, he was one of the few 60’s drummers who actually grooved and held a tight rein over the group’s music with his very disciplined, yet ballsy and creative, approach. As far as someone who is alive, I very much admire Christian Vander, the drummer/mastermind behind the French group Magma... he seems like he might be a bit scary, though!
Photo Credits: Dennis Tuttle, Brian Gannon, Gary Eckhart, Talkin' Blues, Normunds Kalnins
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