Q&A with harmonica virtuoso Sugar Blue - all aboard to the magical music voyage into the Blues colors and beyond

"Blues and Jazz Music broke down the racial barriers between people of all races, denominations and cultures before anything else did, it brought about a common love and understanding that we are still working at, harmony is the key!!"

Sugar Blue: The Colors of The Blues

Grammy Award-winning harmonica virtuoso Sugar Blue is not your typical bluesman. Brand new release “Colors” (2019) follows acclaimed Live recording Raw Sugar (2012) and studio albums Voyage (2016), ‘Threshold’ (2010) and “Code Blue” (2007). Born James Whiting - he was raised in Harlem, New York, where his mother was a singer and dancer at the fabled Apollo Theatre. Blue began his career as a street musician and made his first recordings in 1975 with legendary blues figures Brownie McGhee and Roosevelt Sykes. The following year, he contributed to recordings by Victoria Spivey and Johnny Shines before pulling up stakes and moving to Paris on the advice of pioneer blues pianist Memphis Slim. While in France, Blue hooked up with members of the Rolling Stones, who instantly fell in love with his sound. The Stones invited Blue to join them in the studio. Besides his work on the Some Girls album, he can be heard on Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You. He appeared live with the group on numerous occasions and was offered the session spot indefinitely, but he turned it down, opting instead to return to the States and put his own band together rather than became a full-time sideman.

Blue's decision to return home, despite his growing renown as a session player, was spurred by his desire to work with and learn from the masters of blues harmonica. Thus he came to Chicago and proceeded to sit in with the likes of Big Walter Horton, Carey Bell, James Cotton and Junior Wells. Blue went on to spend two years touring with his friend and mentor Willie Dixon as part of the Chicago Blues All Stars before putting his own band together in 1983. With his own band, Blue's star continued to rise. He recorded on Dixon's Grammy-winning Hidden Charms album in 1989, has performed on festival stages with classic artists like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Art Blakey and Lionel Hampton and has also set his sights on television and the big screen. He sat in with Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Blue has played and recorded with musicians ranging from Willie Dixon to Stan Getz to Frank Zappa to Johnny Shines to Bob Dylan. Sugar Blue incorporates what he has learned into his visionary and singular style, technically dazzling yet wholly soulful. Sugar Blue’s new album COLORS (Release Day: Dec 10th, 2019) was written and recorded on four continents: it reflects the constant research of sounds and emotions that drives Sugar Blue’s creative force.
 The songs are diverse in the concepts and eclectic in the delivery.
 The opening track is a tribute to Bo Diddley co-written with Nick Tremulis. Guitar work by the usual suspect: Rico McFarland long standing member of the Sugar Blue Band and instrumental in the funk and soul sounds throughout the album.
 “Day Tripper” (The Beatles) delivered Chicago-style, with an arrangement inspired by the late great harmonica Maestro Junior Wells.
 "Dirty Ole Man” is a classic blues and a rebuttal of toxic masculinity. Drummers Brady Williams and Yan Boodhoo provide the rhythm foundation with bassists Ilaria Lantieri (co-writer and arranger on some of the tunes) and Maestro Johnny B. Gayden. 
“Bass Reeves” is the tale of the Lone Ranger from the famed TV show…. A liberated slave turned US Marshall.


Interview by Michael Limnios        Photos by Riccardo Abbondanza

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

The Blues is the voice of my culture from which many other genres have grown from, Jazz, Reggae, Rap, Rhythm & Blues, Rock, Bluegrass, grunge, metal, Pop. You name them, they’re all derivatives of The Blues. What I’ve understood about Blues culture is that it is an all pervasive powerhouse  that has Created a medium of expression for those that had no way to make themselves heard and felt before they encountered The Blues, it has energized and emancipated generations of very different people and enriched culture worldwide. Willie Dixon said it succinctly, The Blues are the facts of life. I ‘ll add an addendum to that, Contrary to many misconceptions, The Blues isn’t tragic, The Blues is Black Magic!

How do you describe Sugar Blue sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

My sound is something that I’ve developed through the years after listening and being influenced by many great musicians from Lester Young to Sonny boy Williamson and from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix. My musical philosophy can be described simply, if it feels good and sounds good, it is good, add it to the cannon!

"My Hope is that the Music will continue to evolve with an understanding of the importance the originators infused it with, because as Mr. Dixon said, The Blues are the roots, the rest are the fruits!  Fears for the future of my musical heritage, ie the Blues?" (Photo by Riccardo Abbondanza)

How has the Blues music (and people of) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The Blues in my view has always been a rhythmic, philosophical foray into life’s vicissitudes. Woman, work, (usually the lack of either or worse, both equals the Blues!) inclement weather, floods, tornadoes etc!! Philosopher poets like Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmie Reed, St. Louis Jimmie, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and so many more have all rendered the heartbreak, pain, oppression, joy and passion into a distillation that screams, cries, laughs, heals and frames the struggles that we all face in this life, in every nation and every station be you rich, poor, young or old.

The power that is the Blues has been the focal point of my life, it sustains me and is the anchor that keeps me afloat in the maelstrom!

How do you describe "Colors" songbook and sound? Are there any memories from studio sessions which you’d like to share?

Only ears can interpret and describe music to your mind, heart and soul: you have to immerse yourself in the melodies and rhythms to have a description your body understands!

The memories that stay with me from the studio are the fusion of the instruments and the joy of working with my friends, Rico McFarland, Johnny B. Gayden, Chaz Leary, Motoaki Makino, Ilaria Lantieri, ….the young South African choir Afriks Riz, the Sheng player Ling Bo, Max DeBernardi, a finger picking maestro….hey! All of the wonderful musicians that made the music possible!! It is a labor of love and you know nothing else in the world feels as good as making love!!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music circuits and blues scene?

Some of the most important things I’ve learned I learned from the musicians I’ve worked with and the people I have met in the clubs and concerts. I learned from John Lee Hooker that “you will never get out of these Blues alive!” From Willie Dixon that the Blues must be a constantly changing and growing medium and that what they recorded in his heyday was cutting edge and to be a true Bluesman in every sense of the word you must be a lyricist, a musician and an innovator or find something else to do!

Dixon also told me to know the business or they will give you the business!

"The sweet vocal sound of the harmonica is what enamored me with it in the beginning. There is no secret to the 'Mississippi Sax' unless it is the soulful sounds the Bluesmen and women brought out of what was essentially a musical toy." (Sugar Blue / Photos by Riccardo Abbondanza)

What characterizes your new album in comparison to other previous? What touched (emotionally) you from Bo Diddley and the Beatles?

I’d say that what characterizes this ‘album’ from the others I have done are the years that have passed through my eyes and ears! The passage of time, the experiences I’ve had both good and bad, the places and people I have come to know have a great deal to do with the lyrics and music in Colors.

Bo Diddley reached out and touched my soul from the Ed Sullivan show on the old black and white television in the living room of my Mother’s house many years before I had the opportunity to meet and play with him. It is one of my most fortunate and treasured memories to have worked with a true RnR legend! Musicians like him, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard created the music we call Rock and Roll but they knew it wasn’t nothin’ but the Blues with a different groove!

The Beatles: I’ve always liked their musical compositions from the early days until they went their separate ways. They made great music and tried to remind us of the greatest power in the known universe, Love! All you need is love, and some cash so you can pay for a place to make it!!

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Billie Holiday, Sammy Price, Rex Garvin, Victoria Spivey, Buddy Tate, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Paul Quinichette, Memphis Slim, Prince, Bob Dylan, The Stones, Johnny Shines, Louisiana Red, Memphis Slim, Michael Silva, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Roosevelt Sykes, Koko Taylor, Larry Johnson and many other great musicians I’ve been fortunate to meet, learn from and play with through the years!

Perhaps the best advice I ever had came from Larry Johnson and Memphis Slim. Larry told me to find my own sound and Memphis Slim advised me to take a risk and go to France. I’m glad I took their advice!!

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

I don’t miss anything from the Blues tradition because much of it has all been recorded for the ages, what I do miss is the presence of these incredible men and women. My Hope is that the Music will continue to evolve with an understanding of the importance the originators infused it with, because as Mr. Dixon said, The Blues are the roots, the rest are the fruits!  Fears for the future of my musical heritage, ie the Blues? I have none as long as there are artists coming along like Ruthie Foster and Kingfish!

"The Blues is not only an art form or state of mind it is a way of life born of the transgressions forced on a people that struggled, lived, loved and died forging a powerful musical force that has changed the entire musical world." (Sugar Blue / Photos by Riccardo Abbondanza)

What has made you laugh from the famous Maxwell Str.? Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Nothing made me laugh about Maxwell street. There was nothing funny there unless you find hilarity in people struggling to make enough money to eat and pay rent in meager lodgings that were not worthy housing for rats and roaches let alone the musicians, hustlers and others that had to eke out a living as best they could in them. Some people look back on these hard times and think they were the good old days. If you had to live like that, I don’t think you would be so nostalgic about it. Having said that let me add that only pressure makes diamonds and many were made there but many more were crushed under the weight of the inequality and indifference that is still pervasive to this day.

That is the Blues B.B King sang about when he recorded ‘Everybody Wants to Know Why I Sing The Blues’. The Blues is not only an art form or state of mind it is a way of life born of the transgressions forced on a people that struggled, lived, loved and died forging a powerful musical force that has changed the entire musical world. Jazz, gospel, country music, soul music, hip hop, rock and roll, trance, fusion, reggae, punk, metal, electronic, pop, …almost any modern music we listen to today has its roots in The Blues! Maestro Willie Dixon, The Poet Laureate of The Blues said and I quote, “The Blues are the Roots the rest are the fruits!! The Blues is Truth, unvarnished!

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

I would insure that the artists that wrote and performed the music got rich, bought decent homes, had proper medical care and money to invest in their neighborhoods like the people who built a multibillion dollar industry on larcenous interactions with hundreds of Black artists and white as well.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Willie Dixon to Stan Getz and from Frank Zappa to Stones?

The Blues are what links all of these artists together, without it none of these names would resonate today.

"The Blues is the voice of my culture from which many other genres have grown from, Jazz, Reggae, Rap, Rhythm & Blues, Rock, Bluegrass, grunge, metal, Pop. You name them, they’re all derivatives of The Blues."

(Sugar Blue / Photo by Riccardo Abbondanza)

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

The sweet vocal sound of the harmonica is what enamored me with it in the beginning. There is no secret to the 'Mississippi Sax' unless it is the soulful sounds the Bluesmen and women brought out of what was essentially a musical toy. Artists like Deford Bailey, Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells, Carrie Bell, James Cotton brought out the incredible sounds and musical capabilities of the instrument and gave it that wonderful appellation!

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

Blues and Jazz Music broke down the racial barriers between people of all races, denominations and cultures before anything else did, it brought about a common love and understanding that we are still working at, harmony is the key!!

Are there any memories from your previous album, ‘Voyage’ studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The memories for me are in the music and hopefully the memories that the music imbues your life with will bring you as much joy as we had while making it! Music is love, let’s make love, not war!

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

I’d like to go to Louisiana during the heyday of Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Kansas City when Count Basie, Papa Joe Jones, Jimmie Rushing, Charles Christian Parker were changing the world, The Delta when Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and The Mississippi Sheiks were swinging and Harlem, during the renaissance when Duke Ellington and Chick Webb and Langston Hughes were at the forefront of Black creativity. I’d like to borrow that time machine because there are so many musical times and places I’d like to visit!!

Sugar Blue - Official website

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