Harp player Johnny Mastro talks about Mama Laura Gross, Sonny Rhodes, William Clarke, and Smokey Wilson

"Play from the heart, listen, find chicks that dig your music, be on time and don’t drink too much were driven into my psyche."

Johnny Mastro: Blues Dreamer

Johnny Mastro, originally from Upstate New York, has been playing harmonica since the age of 9. A huge fan of the 50’s and 60’s Chicago-style blues, he played in bar bands in the late eighties and then soon after his move to L.A. was a featured player at “Harp Attack #11” in Hollywood. Mama's Boys is Johnny Mastro's vision of how blues should be played. Honest, original, raw, get-down music void of today's common cliche's and posing. Johnny says "This is not the lazy respectful whitebread blues!". Think Hound Dog Taylor crossed with Butterfield Blues Band. Hard blues you can only get with keeping one foot firmly planted in the past while moving into the future. Coming out of Los Angeles oldest Blues Club Babe's & Ricky's Inn since 1993, the band tours internationally and signed to Nugene Records.

For several years he performed and recorded regularly with Max Bangwell, drummer for the legendary Robert Lockwood Jr, also performed with the band “13” at a tribute concert for their former leader, Lester Butler. By this time Johnny was a regular component of the Mama’s Boys, playing the “Battle of the Blues Harps” alongside such names as Billy Boy Arnold, James Harman and Rod Piazza. Over the years Johnny has recorded with Sonny Rhodes and played on stage with Keb Mo’, William Clarke, Smokey Wilson, Kenny Neal, Paul Oscher, Guitar Shorty, Lester Butler, and Joe Beard. Johnny Mastro & Mama’s Boys CD, Never Trust the Living, released in 2016. The genre bending album that starts with a laugh and ends with a spaceship landing. Fresh, gritty & bluesy music recorded completely live in the studio over 2 days in the New Orleans sweltering heat.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What touched (emotionally) you from the sound of harmonica/Mississippi Sax? What are the secrets of?

Harmonica sounds have always brought up deep feelings for me, good and bad. I loved it since I was a kid and am still searching for that magic sound. Good harp is my favorite with slide guitar and vocals a close second. There are plenty of secrets to the harp I am still very much trying to unlock. Currently I am diving into how New Orleans horn players time their phrases and apply it to my playing. One secret is to strive to be a good musician and not just a good harp player. That helps with the volume, rhythm, and timing issues a lot of harp players battle.

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues and who were your first idols?

I started playing harp at age 9, and digging Rice Miller & Sonny Terry soon after, but doing music as a living or lifestyle? No, I always  thought that was for someone else especially as I really do not like being in front of people. Basically, I was on the path of a corporate career but got disillusioned in my mid 20s. I guess my ego is so big I could not stomach working for idiots! I worked for the parent company, and it was sold and at the time I was playing  just for fun at Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn on Central like 5 nights a week. The owner and my mentor Laura “Mama” Gross encouraged me to dive in deeper and here I am. I have paid the price by throwing away one career but also rewarded with doing what I love and I am very grateful for that. Growing up I was insane over John Lee Hooker & Hound Dog Taylor. Hooker was just so deep, sexual and rhythmic- centric, it blew my head apart. I heard Hound Dog Taylor at 15 years old on a sweaty upstate summer evening and the hair on the back of my neck stood up on end. Started me on lifelong pursuit and appreciation of raw music.

"Harmonica sounds have always brought up deep feelings for me, good and bad. I loved it since I was a kid and am still searching for that magic sound. Good harp is my favorite with slide guitar and vocals a close second." (Photo: Johnny Mastro & Smoke on stage)

How has the Blues and Rock n’ Roll culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Music culture has given me an alternative path to a normal lifestyle. It was like a portal that showed me there are severely different ways to live your life and it led me on a spiritual trip I would never have never taken without its influence. The things I have seen and places I have been would not have been possible without a music lifestyle. It led me to live in New Orleans and travel to some crazy places, I feel lucky and amazed (almost) every day. My view of the world is broader, darker and funnier than if I stayed on a corporate path.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best is on the way for sure although recording for the BBC in London was super cool. The worst moments were the initial learning years. Learning to be a good musician and a good band leader has been a long haul. Dealing with musicians was like learning to deal with another species.

What experiences in your life make you a good "Bluesman"?

I don’t qualify as a bluesman man. I’m from a nice northern middle class Italian-Czech family and educated. Although 20 years of this shit does change you. I play music that’s main influence is blues and has the blues feel but I think that’s different than a “bluesman”. I see a picture of “Honey Boy Edwards” or “Lightnin Hopkins” when I hear bluesman.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

Everyday life gives me plenty of inspiration! Mostly just daily situations or getting pissed off at someone. You can’t kill them so might as write a song about it to relieve yourself a little, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” kinda thing. I always admired Rice Miller’s songs for their simplicity, beauty, and poetic outlook.

"Music culture has given me an alternative path to a normal lifestyle. It was like a portal that showed me there are severely different ways to live your life and it led me on a spiritual trip I would never have never taken without its influence."

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

Mama was about the only one who taught me anything about blues, and it was mostly indirect and in her own Mississippi code. In 16 years with her, I learned that she, the musicians, and the black community judged music on the sound ignoring race, which was a shock to me at first.  Now they might see you up there and at first expect the worst! But you could win them over with your sound and we always have had a lot of black fans. Also, Mama saw it as current music and not trying to preserve some fucking museum piece. I get a laugh when I see all these white blues dudes totally biased towards bands based on race or their “traditional”material” instead of judging on their sound. There is no way anyone can get over with a black audience playing blues faking their voice and lamely copying 50's records like we see throughout the blues world. It has to have that soul, honesty and sound!! White audiences seem to be more forgiving which always intrigued me.

Tell me about the beginning of Mama’s Boys. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

We formed at Babe’s & Ricky’s on Central Avenue in downtown Los Angeles owned and operated by Mama Laura Mae Gross in the early 90’s. The great singer Mickey Champion actually named the band. We used to jam there every Monday and a few of the younger guys would always get called up together and she started calling us Mama’s Boys. They were proud of us you know? Michael Corcoran, who played guitar, actually started the band a few weeks before and asked me to join.  So when we started getting gigs outside of Babe’s & Ricky’s, that’s how people knew us around the neighborhood, as Mama’s Boys, so we just used that name.

How do you describe ‘Never Trust the Living’ sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?

Never Trust the Living has an unpolished, honest & live sound with lots of the room sound in the mix. Simple songs, simple playing and nothing fancy. It’s just how the band sounded that day at the Music Shed in the lower garden district. There was no philosophy involved, just capture the band live which engineer Ben Lorio did beautifully. We needed a record and had 2 days to make it work. I still have yet to capture the performance of the band on a good night live, maybe next time.

"The root is always there…we will always have it when people are looking for something emotional and something to musically speak to them outside of the mainstream. And of course its usually about the battle between the sexes and the war goes on!" (Photo: Johnny Mastro & Mama' Boys)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues and Boogie from Round Wound to Never Trust the Living?

Irreverence for the music as a museum piece and just doing what the band was doing live at the time. Mama Laura instilled a confidence in us from the beginning to be yourself and that blues music was a living, current art form. We like to play loud but can also get across very soft.  Furthermore, I have been fortunate to play with good musicians and Smoky, Dean Zucchero, Christophe Galliot & Rob Lee are no exception.

Which memory from Blues matriarch Mama Laura Gross makes you smile? What advice given to you?

Well the fact she was so proud of us is cool. I‘ll give you a story to show you what kind of person she was...my first year or two of going to Babe’s & Ricky’s on Central Avenue, the club was robbed. That part of South Central LA had really deteriorated and she was the only club left. From that day until  the club moved to Leimert Park years later, she slept every night in the club on the pool table until morning with a huge pearl-handled  pistol next to the pillow. At closing time we would lock the door, put the plywood down on the pool table, lay out the mattress and the clean sheets and put her to bed. I would tune the TV to whatever station she wanted grab a beer, and talk about life and music before I locked her in for the night. 75 year old lady sleeping on a pool table with a pistol every night jesus! I spent a lot of time with that lady and got a lot of advice man. Play from the heart, listen, find chicks that dig your music, be on time and don’t drink too much were driven into my psyche.


Do you remember anything fanny or interesting from Mama Laura Mae Gross?

You know I used to take her to do her errands all the time and we always ended up at Kentucky Fried Chicken at the end of the trip. Depending which part of LA we were in, she knew where the good KFC’s were. I always got a chuckle that she rated the KFC’s on taste and service.

Photo: Johnny Mastro & Mama Gross on stage

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music?

I learned that I can work at something for 30 years and still be excited by how much there is to learn. Its like an insane drive to develop a sound and to make current recorded art using a 100 year old recipe.

What characterize the sound and songbook of Johnny Mastro?

Well there is a freedom with us you don’t find with a lot of other bands.  I’m not worried about trying to sound like a 1954 Chess record or intimidated by anyone because I spent years with a ruthless instructor from Vicksburg Mississippi! You know its now 2012 so we have mixed some modern indie things into our sound, the same kinda thing that the blues playing brothers did in the 60s mixing in soul music. I have already passed thru the “traditional stage” because I started studying  this shit when I was a kid and if you keep studying and immerse yourself in it long enough, the only honest place your quest ends up is with being yourself.  I’m a white guy from upstate NY playing music that I learned mostly in South Central Los Angeles, Long Beach and from old recordings. My first love is Chicago Blues but I am not from there or the South. We don’t play West Coast Blues but our music is straight out of Long Beach, CA. We like to mix that music with our personalities, heavy grooves with a maximum of 3 chords, then we smoke that mix and go out and explore the stratosphere.

 

How do you describe your philosophy about the Blues (way of life)?

It’s a strange thing. We have probably played more than 4000 gigs and I still am not close to being satisfied with the sound. So its like life, you just keep working, honing and learning and the landscape keeps changing which keeps it interesting.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

This is just fantasy and not realistic. I would somehow make the $$ be more equally distributed based on influence and ability so great artists like Sonny Green, Ray Bailey, Guitar Shorty, Bryan Lee, Mickey Champion, JD Hill, and so many more would not have to keep grinding their whole careers. You know, spread the wealth a little.

What's been their experience from “studies” from the Babe's & Ricky's Inn?                     (Photo: Johnny Mastro and friends at Babe's & Ricky's Inn)

Well nothing was ever laid out or explained  there of course. I got sucked into an alternative universe and could not get out! At the time I hung out there on Central Avenue,  it was my favorite place in the world. A real blues club! Dark and homey in a ghetto kinda way, Great jukebox and cold 8balls. Musically speaking , ensemble playing, control of volume, and soul were what was important. I watched Mama’s reaction every night to what I was playing. If she didn’t like what she heard, she would sweep you out the fucking door! There was some weird shit though like a strange hole in the wall all the guys used to piss in when the bathroom was full and a dirty little street guy who lived somewhere in the building you would pay to watch your car.

 

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
I recently jammed with the 4 remaining members of the original Red Devils, that was way cool. Honestly, with us the music keeps getting better and better as we keep pushing. We had a real good run at Babe’s & Ricky’s, the Blue Café in Long Beach, CA and a have a bunch of places in Holland, Belgium and Germany that we love to play.

 

Are there any memories from “THE ROAD FOR THE BLUES”, which you’d like to share with us?

You know some crazy shit happens out there. We had to drive to one gig in Belgium somewhere piled in a tow truck with the van towing behind. We were late but the tow driver had to stop by his mother’s way out in the country near Bastogne for some reason. I was freaking out because it was a good paying gig but we stood there silently on the edge of the Battle of the Bulge as she made us sandwiches for the ride. That was the only gig I did in shorts because we were so late we ran up on stage. Mama wouldn’t allow shorts on stage!

You had pretty interesting project with artistic covers and posters. Where did you get that idea?

Well it’s a beauty from the 16th century but still current looking isn’t it? Smokehouse thought it was a cool idea and sent me a few paintings.  What are we gonna do put a big picture of my face on the cd like everyone else?

Which artists have you worked with and who do you admire the most?                          (Photo: Johnny Mastro & Kirk Fletcher jammin' on stage)

I pretty much have focused 100% on our band  really. Although I recorded with Sonny Rhodes, Robert Lucas and a few other artists. We worked with Phil Guy, Paul deLay, Kirk Fletcher, Peter Atanasoff, Arthur Adams, Roy Gaines, Ray Bailey, Dave Melton, Andy Walo, Ellis Hooks, James Harman, Karen Lawrence, Trudy Lynn, Jimi Lee, Hans Thessink, RJ Mischo, Mitch Kashmarand we did a lot of opening slots for too many to mention. As a band we are not good for backing some of these people because we are not traditional players, we are feel players.  At Babe’s & Ricky’s we were kind of the 2nd house band and the real house band in the early days was The Mighty Balls of Fire led by a great saxophone player Bill Clark. There was so many people we played with man! You know different singers would always be featured, Mickey Champion, JJ Bad Boy, Doctor Hank, Lady GG or Sonny Green. (As a side note I remember one singer we used to back who blew his family away for playing rap music, Bobby Phillips. True story he went to prison because his kids would not turn down the music and he was trying to sleep, shot them with a shotgun.) Lets see a lot of others like Deacon Jones, Ray Bailey, Mr. Haney, Bobby Q, Chuck Thomas, Horace, T-man, Calvin Green, Jeff Ross, Southside Slim, Max Bangwell, Michael Corcoran, Lowell Fulsom used to hang out there, Guitar Shorty, Keb Mo, Smokey Wilson & William Clarke. I had a good upbringing and I always admired my Mom’s creativity and my Dad’s integrity. Those are two people I try to think of everyday to guide me through this craziness. Mama’s toughness and directness was a big influence.

Are there any memories from Sonny Rhodes, William Clarke, and Smokey Wilson which you’d like to share with us?

Smokey Wilson- I tried out for his touring band in the mid 90s. We showed up to his south central la living room and formed a circle with his rhythm section and 2 harps, 3 guitars and a few keyboards and had to compete for a job in his band. After we played a while he came out with a huge wad of chew and was spitting in between singing. He also had a large tumbler of whiskey and I remember thinking I hope he doesn't get them mixed up. Smokey decided to go with a keyboard and not a harp that tour but he and his wife called to explain and I got to play with him a few times. Beautiful people and Smokey is bad ass.

William Clarke- I saw him a lot but only played one set with him at Babes & Rickys Inn about a year before he passed. The man had total control, total confidence and awesome musicianship. He led the band and had all these breaks and stops and we all were so focused to not screw up because he was big and a bit scarey. He made West Coast blues sound gutsy and big which is not easy. He took the great George Smith's sound and did his own thing.

Sonny Rhodes- Great musician. I recorded with him a few years back but I dont think it ever came out. Ill never forget Sonny's producer at the time had done John Lee Hooker's "Live at Soledad Prison" which I loved. Hookers band at that time was just funky and super ghetto sounding and I always loved that record so I was asking him questions on the session.

"I don’t qualify as a bluesman man. I’m from a nice northern middle class Italian-Czech family and educated. Although 20 years of this shit does change you. I play music that’s main influence is blues and has the blues feel but I think that’s different than a 'bluesman'. I see a picture of  'Honey Boy Edwards' or 'Lightnin Hopkins' when I hear bluesman."

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

I am not one to live in the past much. As far as places, I do miss Babe's & Ricky's Inn and the Blue Cafe and generally cool clubs like Donnas in New Orleans. Great places to hang and learn. I miss my blues friends who have passed on, especially Mama Laura, Truus Janssen, Max Bangwell, Robert Lucas and so many fans and friends. I'll see them all soon enough. Musically I miss the blues having some grit, honesty, sexuality and scariness. Most current blues records miss the mark in my opinion. Granted nobody comes out of the cotton field anymore screaming blues in a juke joint like their life depended on it. The 2017 search for "authentic" (whatever that means) blues is a futile exercise unless you look to records. I totally understand people desperately searching for that sound, I have loved it since I was small, but realistically, roots artists trying to totally emulate or totally ignoring a bygone era does not really work for me. But I think you can learn a lot from the delivery, timing, individuality and intensity of those bygone artists and do your own thing. Elmore James and Little Walter did it in the 50s, William Clarke and Lester Butler in the 90s, Nick Curran, Michael Burkes & Sean Costello did it in 2000s. Jack White as an extreme example today, but he definitely gets that concept. The music will live on of course and will sound different which is ok by me. I worry maybe there are not enough places for young people to learn to play with a band, it’s quite different than a jam track.

Are there any memories from the Ghetto studio making the "Beautiful Chaos" album?

We completed that record in 8 or 9 days, mastering and all. Jim Diamond’s studio fit us perfectly and we had a lot of fun hanging there although it is hard to find liquor in that neighborhood and we ran out a few times. I borrowed a friend Barry G’s Fender Bassman amplifier  and sent it to Detroit for the recording because he had a lot of amps but not a Bassman. FedEx must have dragged it there like Achilles dragged Hector because it was in shambles by the time it got there and I ended up just using some amp Jim Diamond had and in addition to paying shipping I had to pay to get the amp fixed!

Would you like to tell something about studio sessions of LUKE'S DREAM album?

“Luke’s Dream” was done in 2 sessions mostly live and then mixed at Rip Cat Garage Studios, coming out in June 2012 on Rip Cat Records. It was supposed to be a more traditional record but it took a wild turn and never really came back so I just rode the wave. We recorded right here in LA and I have the regular band there: Jimmy Goodall on drums, Smoke on guitar and Mike Hightower on Bass. Kirk Fletcher did one of the sessions and Peter Atansoff did the other as added guitar. Its 50 minutes long and got 4 acoustic numbers, 9 electric and a cover song that might have Little Walter spinning 1200rpms in his grave! A loud, honest, kinda whacked out record mostly written on long tours last year.

Why the sound of the harp is connected to the blues and what characterize the sound of?

It’s the closest thing to the human voice.

"Well blues music is really black music which was kind of adopted, adapted and resurrected by white people starting in the 1960s and continues today."

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does offered you?

It’s a cool little American art form.

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 root is always there…we will always have it when people are looking for something emotional and something to musically speak to them outside of the mainstream. And of course its usually about the battle between the sexes and the war goes on!

I’d like to see it come back a little and bring some younger fans to the music.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Well blues music is really black music which was kind of adopted, adapted and resurrected by white people starting in the 1960s and continues today. That raises a whole bunch of racial issues I am in no position to talk about. We always had a lot of black fans so for me blues was common ground across racial lines. I am not sure about political and socio-cultural implications, maybe a professor would know!

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

Thats easy. I'd go back to 66 White Springs Road, Geneva, NY, USA and hang with my Dad for a day. He was the finest man I ever met and I miss him.

How you would spend a day with Hound Dog Taylor? What would you like to ask Paul Butterfield?

A fantasy question! With Hound Dog I would just want to spend the day hanging & drinking and then be on his gig that night. Of course it would probably take the whole fucking day to get us in tune! Butterfield I would just like to hang out all day lets say in Sept 1966 when they were playing at the Filmore West in San Francisco. I would ask him to sit in on East- West!

Johnny Mastro's official website

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