"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: Voyage Into The Blues
Grammy Award-winning harmonica virtuoso Sugar Blue is not your typical bluesman. His new release “Voyage” (2016) on M.C. Records follows acclaimed Live recording Raw Sugar (2012) and studio albums ‘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. He bends, shakes, spills flurries of notes with simultaneous precision and abandon, combining dazzling technique with smoldering expressiveness and gives off enough energy to light up several city square blocks... And sings too! His distinctive throat tends to be overlooked in the face of his instrumental virtuosity - he's got a rich, sensual voice with a whisper of huskiness which by itself would be something out of the ordinary. But oh, there's that harmonica again!!
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)
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!
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 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."
(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 new project, ‘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!!
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