Interview with harmonicist/singer JD Taylor of Little Boys Blue -- delivers Boogie Blues with An Attitude!

"I feel that Blues and the love of blues is continually bridging any all gaps of divide. Whether it be racial or political or socio-cultural, the one thing that binds us together is humanity."

Little Boys Blue: Feel it & Play it!

The Jackson Tennessee band, Little Boys Blue was formed in 1993 by Jimmy 'JD' Taylor and Steve Patterson. As a duo, the group played blues clubs, festivals and competitions throughout the southeast. In 1997 they won third place in the International Blues Competition. They have two previous album releases on the SleepyVille Blues label, Brownsville Blues Revisited and Jimmy Taylor and Little Boys Blue. Band’s third album, titled “Bad Love,” and released in July of 2014. “Bad Love” has nine new tracks composed by JD Taylor and Alex Taylor and two classic covers; ‘Death Letter Blues,’ and ‘Can’t Be Satisfied.’ All the music is centered around the throaty vocals and hot harmonica of JD.

Over the years, other musicians were added as the group continued to perform for thousands of blues fans. In 2013 Dave Mallard, Mark Brooks, Alex Taylor and Dave Thomas joined the band to complete the existing lineup. The group has entrenched themselves in a mixture of eclectic, acoustic country blues and Americana roots music; citing influences from Sleepy John Estes and R.L. Burnside to Muddy Waters and The Allman Brothers. Little Boys Blue has toured the country over the years playing major blues festivals like King Biscuit in Helena, AR and Sunflower Blues Festival in Clarksdale, MS. Most recently they headlined the Exit 56 Blues Fest in Brownsville. Today, the tradition continues as Little Boys Blue delivers Boogie Blues with An Attitude! You’ll often see them perform on Beale at Rum Boogie and Blues Hall. Little Boys Blue are: Alex Taylor (Rhythm/Lead Guitar), JD Taylor (Vocals/Harmonica), Mark Brooks (Drums), Steve Patterson (Lead/Slide Guitar), David Thomas (Piano), and Dave Mallard (Bass/Vocals).

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I have realized that no matter where we are from we all have a bit of blues in our soul. The blues grabbed me at the age of 30 after I was given a harmonica and learned how to bend that 4 draw blues note. Starting to play the blues opened up my mind and I became obsessed with the culture and history of my community unlike never before. Being born and raised in Brownsville TN. I began to study a lot about my hometown blues heroes Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon, and Yank Rachel. In 1996, a few short years before his death, I was afforded an opportunity to play a show with Yank Rachell in our hometown of Brownsville and talk to him about his music with Sleepy John, Hammie and also the great Sonny Boy Williamson I. Putting real people behind real music has taught me to become more appreciative of the genre and its roots.

What does the blues mean to you?

Learning to play the harmonica and playing the blues has inspired me to learn more about the true hardships of the past blues icons that truly sung about real life happening. The blues has opened many doors into a world of friends, acquaintances and taken me places I would have never thought before 30 years of age. To me blues means Life. Whether a blues song depicts a real life event, fictional, sad, happy, funny, etc. It's a unique American genre that should never be allowed to flounder and hopefully will live forever in generations to come.

How do you describe Little Boys Blue sound and songbook?

Little Boys Blue gets its sound from many places. Now living in Jackson TN for the last 20 years, we are in the heart of Rockabilly country due to being in the hometown of the late Carl Perkins and the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame. I would say our influence in the sound we have is Blues Rooted from Memphis, speckled with Country from Nashville and has a sluggish Rockabilly vibe and a tad of rock. We are as much Americana as we are Blues. One of Keb Mo’s albums probably best describes our group. We are BluesAmericana. All of our original material is drawn from southern fiction and or real life and slapped together with some southern slang language and depiction. We have a new album coming out in 2016 and I wrote a song that reflects how my wife and I met the first day of class at the University of Memphis. The song is titled 35 years and yes, you got it, we will be married 35 years in May 2016.  Honestly it’s probably the sincerest true song I’ve written so far and I’m most proud of it.

What characterize your music philosophy?

This philosophy is coming from a guy that has no formal music training and strictly plays by ear. My philosophy as a blues musician is to not wall myself into any one place that I’m not at my best. If I feel it, I play it. Some of the grass roots traditionalist would probably disagree but without dishonoring the icons of the past, I strive to expound on the blues and its foundation that was built long ago. My interpretation of the blues may be different as we all have different styles and expressions. But at the end of the day if it’s from the heart and soul and it's coming from the blues vine that was planted way back. I feel it’s right for me.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

I can name a few icons that really shaped me. Mr. Carl Perkins gave me my first opportunity to play harmonica with him on a professional level on stage. Big Jack Johnson and RL Burnside were some of the nicest guys I had ever met and played on stage at a festival. I happened to be playing the Sunflower Blues Fest in Clarksdale, MS. around 1997. I heard music in an old warehouse, knocked on the door and who opened it – the one and only Ike Turner. He was rehearsing his show as the headliner. We had some great conversation that day. One of my comical moments with him is when I told him I was from Brownsville TN. and grew up 5 miles from Nutbush City Limits. He replied “Hell man I think I been in jail in Brownsville.” I think he was joking but who really knows.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Mr. Carl Perkins told me in conversation a few times. 1) Leave your ego at home when gigging. 2) Have fun. 3) Always give the audience 100%, even on a night when you’re not feeling your best. One last important one. When leaving a gig at the end of the night, don’t let the door knob hit you where the good lawd split you. He was a jokester. I assume he was hitting on the fact that we are all just human. He was a very humble man.

"The blues has opened many doors into a world of friends, acquaintances and taken me places I would have never thought before 30 years of age. To me blues means Life." 

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I can name many moments. I’ll just name a few people that I have been honored to play harp with on stage. Carl Perkins, RL Burnside, Big Jackson Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, Delbert McClinton, Kid Rock, Muzik Mafia with Big and Rich, Shannon Lawson, James Otto, David Bowen and the King Bees.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

The blues of the past was for the most part a way of life and survival for the musicians. I think that’s why it's so hard to emulate regardless of how entrenched a person of today is in performing it. I don’t think Muddy Waters will ever be replaced. There will never be a greater influence than BB King. I certainly miss the fact that he’s not here on this earth anymore. The legacy’s will be imitated but rarely completely duplicated.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

My hopes are to contribute our style of blues that finds its small place in the blues community. My fear is I might be too old to tour when it happens.

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

I long for the days before the media and internet got so available. Even in the 90’s when I started playing, it seemed that live music was supported more appreciated and the pay at the time in most cases was more than today. Reality is we have to make a certain amount to live and pay the bills. I would love to see more support for all musicians, clubs and record labels and or industry support. We all have to survive in order to keep the blues alive.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Tennessee and Mississippi Blues with Rockabilly, Rock and Country?

For me it's a blurred line due to accessibility. In West Tennessee, where I have lived all my life, I can be in Memphis, TN., Nashville, TN., Como, MS., Clarksdale MS., Helena, Ark., and Kentucky in 2 hours or less. So within 2 hours any direction I can be influenced by Rockabilly, Country, Memphis Soul, Country Blues, Delta Blues, Mississippi Hillstomp and Bluegrass. The melting pot is still brewing. Prime example is with the huge wins for country music performer Chris Stapleton this year at the ACM’S. It’s evident that blues and soul based music is still the foundation to all roads of music. Stapleton released a country soulful blues influenced rendition of song called ‘Tennessee Whiskey” that was first recorded by George Jones in a traditional country style.

"The blues of the past was for the most part a way of life and survival for the musicians. I think that’s why it's so hard to emulate regardless of how entrenched a person of today is in performing it. I don’t think Muddy Waters will ever be replaced."

What has made you laugh with your son, Alex Taylor and what touched (emotionally) you from Sleepy John Estes?

Getting to perform with my son is something I could not have imagined when I started performing in 1993. Alex was a year old. I realized in the early 2000s he was beginning to take an interest. I would take him and my wife on tour some during my Nashville days. When he finally got over the Rock star mode at 14 or 15 and started listening to the Allman Bros, John Mayer and Eric Clapton, I knew it was my time to step in and educate him on the source of where they all got their music. It has been a complete joy! We write all of our songs together in our own way. He provides the music and I work the lyrics. It’s a very fulfilling experience along with the fact that my wife knows he will not let me get too crazy. LOL. All of us in the band are in our 50’s and we have Alex at 24 that falls right in like he’s an old guy like us. I do think he fakes a laugh every now and then at my jokes to make me feel good!

I was emotionally touched by Sleepy John indirectly at the outpouring of support we had in 1997 in Brownsville Tn. We organized a special concert to raise money for Sleepy John Estes’ family as they were having a hard time. I was involved with the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce in putting together a Sunday afternoon concert. It was almost unbelievable who showed up to raise money. Here’s a list to best of my memory; Along with the attendance of Sleepy John’s whole family, Wife, Children and grandchildren, the following performed, the late Jim Dickinson, with his sons Luther and Cody of North, MS, Dr. David Evans, Blind Miss Morris and Brad Webb. Alex Harvey (wrote Delta Dawn and was a Brownsville Native), Annie Raines and Paul Rishell and our group Little Boys Blue. I’m sure I may have left some names out but needless to say we raised a very substantial amount of money that day to help the family. It was a small token to give back as Sleepy John gave so much to the world.

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

I feel that Blues and the love of blues is continually bridging any all gaps of divide. Whether it be racial or political or socio-cultural, the one thing that binds us together is humanity. We all have a soul. I feel blues and music in general feeds our souls and shows us our commonalities.

"This philosophy is coming from a guy that has no formal music training and strictly plays by ear. My philosophy as a blues musician is to not wall myself into any one place that I’m not at my best. If I feel it, I play it." 

What were the reasons that you started harmonica researches and experiments?

I started learning to custom build and customize my harps about 6 years ago. It’s been a lot of painstaking experimenting and a lot of damaged reeds. I’m a person that has a great determination if I desire to learn something. I happen to watch a video of a guy named Howard Levy who in my opinion is the best all-around technical diatonic harmonica player alive. He was talking about this guy named Joe Filisko that customized harmonicas. So I started researching and it was like a daisy chain. One thing led me to another and I finally decided to take some of his techniques that I read about and dive in. Probably a few years later and at least 75 damaged harps, I started getting the hang of all the tricks to improve playability. I ordered this tool kit online that a guy named Richard Sleigh was selling along with some more how to material. Richard was a direct apprentice of Joe Filisko. The rest is history. I must mention another super builder and student of Joe Filisko and that’s a guy name Joe Spiers. They are all great builders and technical guys. I’m may be at the 30-40% level of their abilities but I have figured out how to set up my harmonicas to fit my playing style. I am an Over blow/Overdraw player, which means I have found the extra chromatic notes on the diatonic 10-hole harp that really weren't there for me until I heard Howard Levy play them 7-8 years back. It has saved me a lot of money as I never threw away any of my old damaged harps for 5 years. I’m still building harmonicas today from my scrap parts. 

What are the secrets of harp?

I don’t have really any one magical secret for a beginner. If learning to play harmonica becomes a passion for you as it did for me, I would start with YouTube videos and or any source to get myself jump started with the basics beginner steps. Hanging out at Blues Jams with other players and watching and listening is huge once you start to make some sense of the instrument. The secrets will come as you gain an overall understanding of the instrument.

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

I would love to spend one day with Sonny Boy Williamson I from Jackson TN.  Mainly because even before Little Walter came along and took the harmonica to another level, Sonny Boy I was actually the original innovator. I actually play music from time to time with a Sax Player named Fulton Childress here in Jackson TN.  Fulton’s mother and Sonny Boy were brother and sister and Sonny Boy was his uncle.  We have had many long conversations about Sonny Boy I. I think the allure that I was raised only 20 miles from where Sonny Boy I lived and along with the fact that Hammie Nixon Brownsville actually was instrumental in Sonny Boy’s harp playing. It would be a great day to get all the questions I have swirling in my mind answered.

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