"Blues has made me more centered, and playing it has mellowed me and evened me out."
Brad Vickers & His Vestapolitans:
Eclectic American Roots ‘n’ Roll
Guitarist/songwriter BRAD VICKERS learned on the job playing, recording, and touring with America's blues and roots masters: Pinetop Perkins, Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Odetta, Sleepy LaBeef, and Rosco Gordon - to name only a few. As bass player for Little Mike & The Tornadoes, he cut his teeth backing up these elder statesmen, many of whom called on him to work and record with them over the years. Brad had the good fortune to play on Pinetop Perkins’ Grammy-nominated discs, “Born in the Delta” (Telarc), and “Ladies’ Man” (MC Records). Photo by Ahron R. Foster
His group, The Vestapolitans, offer a good-time mix of originals and covers spanning blues, ragtime, hill country breakdowns, rock 'n' roll, and more great American roots music. The release, “Traveling Fool” joins their previous two CDs, “Le Blues Hot” (2008) and “Stuck With The Blues” (2010), which have met with terrific reviews, radio play on 250+ stations, Sirius/XM Bluesville “Pick2 Click”s, and wonderful audience response! Brad comes from the Pine Barrens of Long Island’s rural East End. He is the scion of a musical family from the Pine Barrens of Chintoteague, Virginia, where his grandfather played lap steel and drums. "Great Day In The Morning" at Fat Rabbit Studios with producer Dave Gross was Brad's 2013 release. Brad was in inducted into the NY Blues Hall of Fame as a Master Bluesman. Brad Vickers & His Vestapolitans brand new 5th CD, "That's What They Say" (2015), celebrated the roots of the music that he love and that has influenced: blues, folk, rags, and great American roots ’n’ roll.
Brad, when did you first desire to become involved with the blues and what was the first gig (concert) you ever attended? What were the first songs you heard?
When I was 12 years old I started listening to blues, and I fell in love with it. It was then that I had a great desire to play it.
The first blues show I attended was a folk blues concert with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, with Dave Van Ronk. At the time I was 15 years old and living on the rural South shore of Long Island, in the Pine Barrens among the potato farms. This show was held in August for the migrant farm workers who had come to the area for the potato harvest.
The first songs I learned were Jimmy Reed’s “Goin’ to New York” and Leadbelly’s “Don’t You Love Your Daddy No More?”
What do you learn about yourself from American roots music...and what does the blues mean to you?
I have been involved with American roots music close to fifty years, almost my whole life. As a teenager I fell in love with folk blues, early rhythm ‘n’ blues, jump, and ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. I learned that I couldn’t live without this music. It made me happy, and once I found that I could perform it, I never wanted to stop playing. When I found my own voice and style I felt that I could share this with other musicians and find an audience. And when I began to write my own songs, I found that the sky was the limit.
For me the blues is a time when I can mellow out and float with my inner emotions. It is my favorite music to listen to and play.
"The advice I would give is to learn and listen to as many old styles of blues as you can. Every performer has his, or her, own style. It’s best not to have a complicated domestic life. You have to be free and able to play whenever you get that call to work." (Photo by Dennis Czund)
What characterizes the sound of Brad Vickers & His Vestapolitans?
My sound with the Vestapolitans is eclectic. We play originals and covers that draw on a variety of styles: old-timey blues and rags, country blues, rockabilly, r‘n b blues, Chicago blues, and folk blues. We have a name for it. We call it American “Roots ‘n’ Roll”.
How do you describe and what characterized your previous 2013 album "Great Day In The Morning"?
"Great Day In The Morning" was certainly a continuation. After many years of performing and recording, I'm lucky to have the perspective to be able to look back and gather the best nuggets of my musical experiences, and use them to create new songs and performances. In fact, some of the songs on this album actually draw on ideas that I've had for a long time. Ultimately, you develop your own voice and personality. I'll always be a rootsy blues artist. Fortunately, that form is wide enough to include many different styles and approaches.
Does “That’s What They Say” represent a new direction for you, or does it follow what you started in “Great Day In The Morning” and your previous works?
Our CD, “Great Day In The Morning” was, in a way, a departure from our previous recordings. It emphasized more elements of folk, old-timey, and ragtime music. In a way our new disc, “That’s What They Say”, is the sister album. It touches even more on folk and old-timey music, but both recordings still have plenty of blues, jump and boogie. I seem to have come full-circle on this new record. I started out as a teenager completely immersed in folk blues and country blues: Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and the music of Tampa Red. The direction I’d like to take now is to perform more of these songs live, maybe play in Europe, where I know that the audience embraces this music. (Any agents/bookers/concert promoters, please contact me via website)
I can’t speak for the band, but when I’m onstage, I’m thinking about whether the audience is having a good time listening to us, because I’m having such a wonderful time playing this music, and I want to share it with everyone.
"Blues will always be with us because it’s a music of feeling, with words of truth!"
How has the blues changed your life?
Blues has made me more centered, and playing it has mellowed me and evened me out.
What originally caused you to explore and delve into blues, folk, and other American roots music?
It was my mother! She bought me an instrumental Jimmy Reed album for Christmas called “Jimmy Reed Plays 12-String Guitar.” I had never heard anything like that before. I found it so relaxing, yet it was full of danceable rhythms. Then, when I found out that Jimmy Reed sang, I bought another album right away. That one was called “Just Jimmy Reed.” I was hooked on him—and the blues—and I am still, to this day!
Do you remember anything funny or interesting from your time with Little Mike & The Tornadoes?
I had many interesting times with Little Mike & The Tornadoes. One funny incident stands out. Mike and I were in California in 1988, doing a series of shows with Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin, and we added Kim Wilson on a few dates in Northern California. We went to pick Kim up at the San Francisco airport. Even though we are the same age, I was much in awe of him because he had already become “beyond a legend”. We met him and were taking a “moving walkway” in the airport. I was standing in front of Mike and Kim, with Kim’s luggage, and not being able to take my eyes off him, I had my back toward the direction we were moving. I was so engrossed with what they were saying that I didn’t see that the walkway was coming to its end. I tripped and made a complete Olympic - style back flip - but I landed on my back instead of my feet. It’s lucky that the floor was rubberized or I would have been knocked unconscious. Kim looked down at me and said, “Wow! I’m sorry that happened to you, but this is about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” and he couldn’t stop laughing. I was embarrassed enough already, but then Kim said, “Mike, as a precaution, let’s keep Brad away from the edge of the stage tonight!”
Tell me a few things about meeting Bobby Radcliff, what kind of a guy is Bobby?
Bobby Radcliff (photo) and I are good friends in and out of music. Not many people know that Bobby is a great abstract landscape and portrait artist. I write poetry and have done some artwork. We have gone to museums together and talk of the great masters. I’ve known Bobby for over thirty years, but have only been doing shows with him since 2005. Bobby is a great and compassionate person, and fun to be with. He has wonderful stories, and is very knowledgeable about art and also about classical music and opera.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
I would change two things. First, it would be for us to have more venues and outlets where one can play. Next, it would be for the general public to put down the iPod for a minute, and listen to live music.
What has made you laugh recently, and what has touched you lately in today’s blues?
What has made me laugh? Well, there’s a song Margey Peters wrote on our new album called “Mama’s Cookin’”. It’s humorous songwriting at its finest. I won’t tell you what it’s about—you’ll have to purchase the CD!
What has touched me in today’s blues? There are so many talented people out there now, so many, many great musicians and singers. We are at a time of renaissance. There are so may people whose work I like, but I’ll name a few who are doing some really great things: Doug McCloud writes great songs and performs them with such ease. He’s a very gracious, forth-giving man on his shows. I love his music. Guy Davis’ last album, “Juba Dance” was wonderful, with each song a gem. I can’t wait to hear his new recording, “Kokomo Kidd.” Chris James and Patrick Rynn are blowing me away with their intense, accurate Chicago blues. The best I’ve heard in years! Their new album, “Trouble Don’t Last” is great. Yikes!
What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams that you have had?
I have had many memorable times playing. I’ll tell you about one gig with Pinetop Perkins at the Montreal Blues and Jazz Festival in ’88. Little Mike & The Tornadoes had finished the three songs we were to play before bringing Pinetop out, and the crowd was very good to us. But then, when we introduced Pinetop and he walked onto the stage, the roar of the audience was so great that I could not hear myself think. That was in front of 80,000 people.
A jam that I really enjoyed was in 1989. One night we were doing a show with Hubert Sumlin, and Taj Mahal surprised us by joining us onstage and singing about a dozen songs just like Howlin’ Wolf. It was incredible and authentic. I’ll never forget it. (PHOTO: Pinetop Perkins and Brad, MN 1987)
"Everyone that I have played with has shown me something, whether it was how to play a certain groove or riff, or how to behave in life. Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith all have showed me how to play the blues, and they all also had a personal philosophy, “Play the blues, but don’t live them!” I have admired everyone with whom I’ve played."
Are there any memories of Pinetop Perkins that you’d like to share with us?
Yes, I have many very fond memories of Pinetop for, after all, everywhere we went together, he introduced me as his “godson.” This was his way of saying how much he loved you. This “godson” got into some nice situations. Once, in ’89 during the Memphis in May Music Festival, Albert King came down to hear Pinetop play. He introduced me to Albert with the usual, “This is my godson, Brad.” Albert King was so impressed because he thought it meant that my parents had made Pinetop my godfather—which in the South at that time would have been a pretty special and unusual thing. Regardless of how I’d become Pinetop’s godson, Albert personally showed me around Beale Street, where he was hounded for autographs at every stop. I felt very special. Albert and I bonded, and we were good friends for years.
Would you like to share some memories of your times with the late great bluesman, Jimmy Rogers?
Jimmy Rogers was basicaly a quiet man, but if you asked him about a particular time in blues, or a particular person, he would tell you in detail everything he knew, and some things you might not have wanted to know! He was a wonderful musician, singer and bandleader. If you didn’t know how to play a certain song, he calmly explained it. One time on an important show he began a song that the band didn’t know. I was playing bass, and I could tell where he was going with it. The rest of the band were scrambling to try and figure the song out and get it. Jimmy turned to the band and said, “The bass player is the captain of the ship. If you don’t listen to him, we will all sink.” When he said that, I was the happiest man alive. Each one of his songs was great, and they still hold up today.
"The blues hasn’t changed much at all. A Leadbelly song is still a Leadbelly song. A Jimmy Reed song is still a Jimmy Reed song. That’s the beauty of this music. It will always be there in its simplicity for everyone." (PHOTO: Pinetop, Little Mike, Jimmy Rogers, Tony O & Brad, 1988)
Are there any memories with the late greats Hubert Sumlin and Bo Diddley which you’d like to share with us? Which memory makes you smile?
I’ve been fortunate to play with many great artists, and I have fond memories from these special times. These folks have passed on, and I’m beyond grateful for the opportunity to learn by their side.
I have done more shows with Hubert Sumlin than with anyone else. Hubert was, by far, the greatest character in the blues. Besides being such an influential guitarist, and the author of so many famous electric blues licks, he was also a great guide and vessel in the big ocean of blues. Though he was an icon, he was also the most loveable person who always made everyone feel great, both off and onstage.
Once you got to know to know him, special qualities would surface. Anyone who saw Hubert knows that he was always a very sharp and neat dresser. One of the things he taught me was how to pack and keep my clothes from wrinkling in a suitcase: You simply roll up every article of clothing as tightly as you can, and pack them side to side until your suitcase is full. Your suit jacket, you must wear at all times!
He also taught me how to keep large amounts of money in your wallet: The highest denomination should be on the right side of the billfold, and the single dollars should be stored separately on the left. This would insure that you didn’t accidentally give away a big bill as a tip. All bills must face the same way, and the wallet then placed in your front pocket to deter pickpockets. Many people do this, but at the time I was green and amazed that Hubert this practice together. Hubert was many things to people, but to me he was like an older brother, and sometimes like a crazy uncle. He considered me family, and I felt blessed to know him. (PHOTO: Hubert Sumlin & Brad, NYC 1999)
Bo Diddley: I’ve always wished that I’d spent more time with Bo Diddley because he was such a great human being. He will always be missed. His music was the undercurrent and force that fueled rock ‘n’ roll. He could apply his famous rhythms to just about any genre of music: jazz, folk, latin, funk, and even rap—and also children’s music. I witnessed this one day when I played with him. In a crowd of 2,000 people, he noticed quite a number of 5- and 6-year-olds, the children and grandchildren of his fans. He got all the kids up on the stage and played his rhythm to nursery rhymes and had them doing the “bunnyhop”. It was one of the most visual moments I had ever seen on stage. Bo was unsurpassed as a showman and performing artist. Crowds always left his show feeling great.
I feel that he was responsible for popularizing the indigenous rhythms on which world music relies. I’ll take this thought a step further. Since he was steeped in the blues, his rhythmic sensibilities had an impact on some of the newer Chicago blues artists, leading them to play the rhythm stronger. The rhythm guitar became a lead instrument. J. B. Lenoir, Jimmy Reed, and Chuck Berry had already used a rhythm lead in their music. But I believe that Bo made rhythm more important for that next generation of blues artists—both black and white. Bo is an underappreciated influence on mid-20th-century pop music.
I remember hearing that the Everly Brother said that they were in awe when they first listened to Bo because most of his songs were in the key of G. They tuned their guitars to “open G” in order to mimic him. However, Bo was actually using “open E” tuning, with a capo on the G fret of his guitar. Bo also played in other keys while using that tuning. His guitar playing influenced me, and I have been playing in “open E” throughout my career. I can play in any key. It has some limitations. Though you can play most major chords, you can only play some minor chords—but what a sound!
Would you like to share some memories of your times with Odetta?
Which brings me to Odetta: I first met Odetta in 1971, backstage at a show by the New York folk singer Dave Van Ronk. After Von Ronk finished his performance, I waited until the club emptied and snuck backstage to meet him. He had a pitcher of beer and said, “Here, have some, I’ll get you a glass.” He was very friendly, and as I began to talk with him, Odetta came in. I was so nervous in the company of two great performers. Odetta sat down next to Dave, hugging his arm, and listening to yours truly, a twenty-year-old, rambling about nothing. I must have talked for half an hour, but they didn’t seem bored. I next met Odetta in 2002, and she said that she remembered me. She asked what I was doing, and I told her that I played bass and guitar, but that my guitar playing was limited because I played in open E tuning. Odetta said, “That is nonsense! Let me tell you something: the reason why, in the old days, people played in open tunings was because it was louder than standard tuning, and would stand out and be able to be heard above the handclaps and percussion. It’s a great thing to play in open tuning. You’re carrying on a tradition of folk playing.” I said, “Thank you, Miss Odetta.” She said, “Good! I don’t want to hear anymore talk about limitations.” Then I did a show with her, backing her up on bass that day. After the show, I asked her how I’d done. She gave me a glare and said, “Don’t ever ask anyone how you did on a show. It opens up a lot of cans of worms.” I will never forget her. She was an incredible force when she came on the folk scene. She opened doors for many African American women in music.
From whom have you learned the most secrets about blues music? Of all the people you have met, who do you admire most?
Everyone that I have played with has shown me something, whether it was how to play a certain groove or riff, or how to behave in life. Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (photo) all have showed me how to play the blues, and they all also had a personal philosophy, “Play the blues, but don’t live them!” I have admired everyone with whom I’ve played.
Who are your favorite blues artists both old and new? Do you have real personal feelings for any blues standards and what are some of your favorites?
My favorite old blues artists are Tampa Red, Casey Bill Weldon, and any of the Memphis String and Jug bands of the 1930s, like Gus Cannon, etc. Favorite new blues artists? I have too many to mention. The blues standard I have learned to love over and over again in Leroy Carr’s “How Long Blues.” It’s a great song with a great melody, form and lyrics.
Some musical styles can be fads, but the blues is always with us. Why do you think that is? Give us one wish for the blues.
Blues will always be with us because it’s a music of feeling, with words of truth! Pinetop Perkins and other men of his generations have told me that before the blues had a name it was called “truth music.” I hope the blues will find its way to the younger generations coming up. If they have the opportunity to hear it I know they will love it and will want to play it.
Where did you pick up your guitar style and why do you play guitar? What were your favorite guitars back then?
My guitar style comes from folk blues. Many folk and blues musicians played using a variety of open tunings. I personally use open “E”. I play guitar because it feels good and I feel in control. My favorite guitars are Gibsons and Epiphones (both electric and acoustic). I also play a Washburn acoustic/electric.
"I have been involved with American roots music close to fifty years, almost my whole life. As a teenager I fell in love with folk blues, early rhythm ‘n’ blues, jump, and ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. I learned that I couldn’t live without this music." (PHOTO: Brad Vickers & Sleepy LaBeef's band, 1994)
You have played with many bluesmen that are known as legends. It might be hard, but try to give your top 3 gigs. Which have been the biggest experiences for you and why?
Okay. If I have to name my top three gig experiences, I’d have to say Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Sleepy LaBeef.
Chuck, because he showed me, when I was a young bass player, how to play bass to his music.
Bo, because of his love for all generations. On one gig where I was backing him up, he noticed that there were a lot of five- and six-year-olds in the audience with their grandparents. He invited the children onto the stage, and for twenty minutes he had them doing the “Bunny Hop”, and played favorite nursery rhymes to his famous rhythm. He also danced with them and led them around like the Pied Piper. It was a fantastic thing to witness.
Sleepy LaBeef showed me how to play country and rockabilly blues correctly, and how to deliver a song. He’s known as “The Human Jukebox”, and has a repertoire of 6,000 songs!
Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?
Yes! As I see it, blues is very much alive, and deepening. Today players no longer feel that they must work to replicate recordings and performances they may have heard, but instead are creating in the blues form drawing from their own life experiences. There is a lot of very great and exciting work being done today by such artists as Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Watermelon Slim, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, to name just a few. It's particularly great to see the return to a rootsy sound, which I feel is also my center. One could say that Taj Mahal has been leading in this direction for decades. The form is so universal now, that great blues coming out of other countries, like the work of Hans Theessink, and Ian Siegel, both of whom I like very much. The blues is also broad enough to include artists who take their music in a different direction, like the work of Otis Taylor.
"I can’t speak for the band, but when I’m onstage, I’m thinking about whether the audience is having a good time listening to us, because I’m having such a wonderful time playing this music, and I want to share it with everyone." (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
You have a pretty interesting project, a digital single of Hart Wand’s “Dallas Blues” to benefit The Blues Foundation’s H.A.R.T. Fund. Where did you get that idea?
I got the idea of doing Hart Wand’s “Dallas Blues” many years ago. I read about him and the song in Samuel Charters’ book, “The Country Blues.” This was the first published blues, in 1912. Margey Peters and I realized that 2012 was coming up and the song would be 100 years old. It’s a great song, and a great piece of history. We decided to celebrate the centennial of the blues by doing something beneficial, and what could be better than to help needy blues musicians through the H.A.R.T. Fund? It was only later that we noticed the coincidence with Hart Wand’s name.
How would you spend a day with Hart Wand?
If I could go back in time, I’d tell Hard Wand that he must write more songs. He only wrote one!
What impact do you think blues and roots music has on racial and socio-cultural issues?
The impact that blues and roots music have on socio-cultural issues can be vast. These forms can be a vehicle. I believe that we’re just beginning to touch on some issues. The more performers talk about today’s problems in their songs, the healthier a community we will have. You heard it in the “protest songs” of the ‘30s and the ‘60s, and you hear it in rap. And you hear it in blues. We must talk about issues in an intelligent, artistic way.
I’ve heard two sayings about the blues that are a little bit confusing -one is “Blues Is A Healer” another is “You Have To Feel Blue To Play the Blues”- if it’s supposed to be healing, why should it make one feel sad?
Any good musician and singer can play the blues when not feeling blue. It’s an art, and can be honed to perfection.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I must say the worst moment in my career turned out to be my best, when I broke the “G” string on my bass on the first song of the night and didn’t have any extra strings. In fact, I had never bought a set of bass strings. I’d always had the same strings on the bass for what, at this time, was about twenty years. You know that those strings had a real deep tone from all the “gunk build-up.” I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to play correctly without all four strings, but I found out it wasn’t that bad, and I liked the way I played on just three. It forced me to read the neck of the bass all the way up and down. I never replaced the “G” string and it became my signature. I was “The Man With the 3-String Bass” and people came out to gawk at me and ask questions about it.
What experiences in your life make you a good blues musician?
I think what has made me a good blues musician is the ability to listen to what is going on in the music and to hear where the song is heading.
"The impact that blues and roots music have on socio-cultural issues can be vast. These forms can be a vehicle. I believe that we’re just beginning to touch on some issues. The more performers talk about today’s problems in their songs, the healthier a community we will have." (PHOTO: Brad & Robert Cary)
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
The advice I would give is to learn and listen to as many old styles of blues as you can. Every performer has his, or her, own style. It’s best not to have a complicated domestic life. You have to be free and able to play whenever you get that call to work.
How has the blues changed over the years since you first started in music?
The blues hasn’t changed much at all. A Leadbelly song is still a Leadbelly song. A Jimmy Reed song is still a Jimmy Reed song. That’s the beauty of this music. It will always be there in its simplicity for everyone.
If you could take a trip in time, where would you like to spend a day?
I would like to go back in time to the nineteen-twenties, and spend a day with Tampa Red—to sit by his side on a gig or in the recording studio—to watch him work and maybe exchange some ideas. To listen to his stories about other musicians, and to ask about his guitar technique and watch closely how he uses the bottleneck. He was a pioneer of blues—responsible for the genesis of so many songs and parts of songs that fill the blues material, and he was just beginning to try his hand at the pop music of his day. One day would be too short to spend with a man like that. By nightfall, I would let him know how important he would become.
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