Interview with iconic Clarksdale artist Steve Kolbus - a high energy Rockin Blues that making people happy

"The fans and the musicians of the blues are all such nice and friendly people that when you go to a blues event it’s like being among your brothers and sisters."

Steve Kolbus: Clarksdale Blues Revue

Steve Kolbus is an iconic Clarksdale, Mississippi musician. He was a stand up comedian for 22 plus years before moving to Clarksdale. In addition to being a funny comedian, Steve is promoter, singer, harmonica player and songwriter. Steve Kolbus and the Clarksdale Blues Revue new album, Skippin’ N’ Hoppin’ (2014), features all original songs written by Steve, and includes the musicians: “Barefoot” Walt Busby on guitar, Jaxx Nassar on drums, Cade “Mississippi Mud” Moore on bass and Steve on harmonica and lead vocals with special guests.

Steve says: “I was encouraged to learn and play an instrument by some of my great blues heroes; Pinetop Perkins, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Bob Stroger, and Hubert Sumlin; so I learned to play the harmonica. They introduced me to Little Arthur Duncan who was one of the great Chicago harmonica men who helped define the west side Chicago sound back in the 1950s and 60s. Little Arthur taught me to sing play and write music like no one but Steve Kolbus can. Although I play the blues I'm a huge fan of the blues and the people who play it first. With this in mind I hope to play and record every blues related genre and sub genre of music before it's all said and done.” 

The Clarksdale Blues Revue is a high energy Rockin Blues band that enjoys making people happy. Their live show is a high energy interactive show with lots of antics!! The band believe that new album is a great reflection of this philosophy. The cd's executive producer, Don Huebner has donated his 25% ownership share of this CD to St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis; so when you purchase this album you are helping to provide cancer treatment to a child who otherwise could not afford it.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I’ve learned a lot of things from the blues and the legendary blues men who befriended me and mentored me. I’ve also learned a lot from the wonderful fans who support the blues. I think the most important thing I have learned is how to stay in touch with myself and how to be emotionally independent.

I guess you can truly say the blues means the world to me. Most of the friends and people who I spend the most time with, live among and work with are all people I have met either playing or pursuing the blues. I really enjoy entertaining people; and the challenge of taking the things that hurt in life and turning them into something that we can all enjoy.

How do you describe Steve Kolbus sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Most of the great bluesmen I learned from, especially Little Arthur Duncan encouraged me to be unique and different. He encouraged me to play and write songs like no one but Steve Kolbus can. So while some of my songs sound like a very typical blues song, most of my music is a little unique and different. For example I might put sad lyrics to upbeat music; or I might put lots of stops or add a change to the music where someone else wouldn’t. I might put a change in the music where anyone else might but I’ll use a different change. I also enjoy mixing blues with different types of music; like rock, Gospel, and Jazz. You see elements of all of these things on both of my cds.

As far as my music catalogue goes, it’s my goal to try to record every blues sub-genre and blues related genre of music I can because I love it all. Because of this, when you by one of my cds you’ll hear a wide variety of blues and blues related music. I hope this keeps the listener from getting tired of my music as opposed to the artist who puts out a cd where all or most of the songs sound the same.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I guess I would have to say age 12 thru 20. That’s when I received the most important part of my education so of course that was interesting. What made it the most interesting was growing up in the US in the 1970s a minor or person under the age of 21 could get away with a lot of stuff with little or no consequence so I took full advantage of that. I guess you could say I was somewhat of a young outlaw. The year I turned 21 and fathered my first child that all changed and I became for the most part a model citizen.

As far as the best moment of my career goes, I’ve played with so many great bluesmen and am so proud of the great great musicians in my band it’s hard to pick just one moment. If I had to I’d pick a moment, it would actually be a moment that had nothing to do with me or my band. It was all about Sam Carr; the greatest drummer to ever play the blues. For four years I put together and hosted an Annual Sam Carr Day here in Clarksdale at the Hopson Commissary. The 3rd year we did (2009) was the last year Sam was alive. What made it special wasn’t the $1200.00 plus dollars we raised for him but what else happened at the event. Sam had been in bad health and many of his great friends came to play with Sam and enjoy the day from all over the world.  It was a very emotional day as all of these great old bluesmen knew it was the last time they would all see each other. At the end the day he told both his nieces and the Clarksdale Press Register that it was the best day he ever had. Sam was a great friend and hero so it meant a lot to me to give him such a great day.

The worst moment of my career was about 2-1/2 years ago. I was at the Shed in Ocean Springs Mississippi with Robert “Bilbo” Walker. A lot of these old bluesmen around here don’t keep their guitar in tune and they skip time a lot. Robert skipped time a lot and he would always be out of tune by exactly 1 full key. For example is he said he was playing in the key of B, he would actually be in the key of C. Robert and I went there to play the show and he had hired two young local musicians to play bass and drums, When we got there I tried to prepare them to play with Robert by telling them he would be off by one full key and he would skip time a lot. I told them that for it to sound good they needed to watch his fingers or his feet so they could skip time right along with him. Well they just didn’t quite get it and they couldn’t hang in there with him. It was pretty bad. Several songs into the first set Robert just stopped playing, announced that this was the worst night of his career and fired the band. Then Robert and I played a short along with one of his cds to finish out the night. It was pretty pathetic and embarrassing.

"My biggest hope is that the original delta sound created by guys like Muddy Watters and his band will be perpetuated through programs like the Pinetop Perkins workshops and the Delta Blues museum program here in Clarksdale that teaches young kids how to play the blues."

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

People that follow the blues do so for a couple reasons. It’s a relatively simple form of music that is about the trials and tribulation of everyday life. It tells a story about real life experiences that most of us can relate to. Also, the musicians who play the blues have a very personal relationship with the people who listen to and support the blues. The fans and the musicians of the blues are all such nice and friendly people that when you go to a blues event it’s like being among your brothers and sisters.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

Playing with Pinetop Perkins at Rosa’s Blues lounge in Chicago for the first time was cool. Playing at the State theatre in South Bend Indiana as part of Pinetop’s DVD release celebration was great.  Also playing a benefit at Rosa’s for Little Arthur Duncan with his band and a lot of other really famous blues musicians was very memorable. One time Little Arthur took me to Lee’s Unleaded Blues in Chicago; we met up with Little Walter Scott and Phil Guy and we all sat in with the Johnny Drummer band. It was about two weeks before Phil died which was also the same day Little Arthur has his brain aneurism which eventually led to his death several months later; so that one was really special. My first big festival with the Wesley Jefferson Southern Soul Band, Playing with the Mississippi Adam Riggle Band at Xena’s Blues Café in Louisville KY, and my first gig at Red’s Place in Clarksdale were all pretty special. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Deak Harp, Bob Stroger, Jimmy Mayes, Billy Flynn, Little Frank, and Myself all on the same stage at my former restaurant is among the top memories for sure. Sam Carr playing Drums with Mississippi Adam Riggle and I at Hick’s Tamale shop, I guess I could go on all day. Even only the truly greatest memories are too many to mention here.

They all make me smile.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Another tough question because there were so many. Long before I ever played music I was a standup comedian. Very early in my comedy career I met Ty Wilson (brother of the late Flip Wilson). Ty wound up being my manager nearly the whole time I did comedy. The things I learned from him about entertaining and putting on a show in general are incorporated every time I put on a live show. Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bob Stroger and Hubert Sumlin were the ones who talked me into playing an instrument and were the first guys I ever played with so they were important. Little Arthur Duncan (photo with Steve & Bob Stroger) was my great friend, mentor, and hero so that was very important. Last year I met a really great guy who was a fan of our band and he financed out most recent cd and donated his 25% ownership of the Cd to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, His name is Don Huebener. Because of him, like Jake and Elwood, we are on a real life mission from God to help raise money for these kid’s cancer treatments.

The best advice, something I mentioned earlier, was from Little Arthur Duncan. “Play, perform, and wright songs only like Steve Kolbus can”. “Don’t worry about sounding like other people”.

Are there any memories from Ground Zero Blues Club Jam Night’s which you’d like to share with us?

Sitting at the bar talking to Don Huebener from Houston Texas. My great friend Deak Harp walks up and I say “Hey Deak I’d like you to meet Don Huebener. He’s a great supporter of our band. Deak said “great, he can finance your next CD. I few weeks later I signed the recording contract.

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

I really miss my great friends, mentors and heroes especially Little Arthur Duncan, Pinetop Perkins, and Willie Smith. My biggest hope is that the original delta sound created by guys like Muddy Watters and his band will be perpetuated through programs like the Pinetop Perkins workshops and the Delta Blues museum program here in Clarksdale that teaches young kids how to play the blues.

As far fears? I have none. As all of the great bluesmen who helped create and perfect the blues pass on, sure we’ll lose what they do forever and things will never be the same. Things change as those of us who now carry the torch put our stamp on the creations of these blues greats of the past and create our own music. Although things will never be the same, there’s no reason we can’t create something just as good.

"People that follow the blues do so for a couple reasons. It’s a relatively simple form of music that is about the trials and tribulation of everyday life. It tells a story about real life experiences that most of us can relate to."

Make an account of the case of the blues in Mississippi. What are the lines that connect the legacy of Clarksdale’s Blues from 20s to todays? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Anything that is sincere and comes from the heart is real. It may be new, unique or different but it is just as real as the blues performed by Robert Johnson.

The legacy of Clarksdale Blues past is still being passed on today through programs like the Blues in the schools. The Pinetop Perkins foundation workshops and the program at our Blues museum in Clarksdale. It’s also being continued by the decedents and blood relatives of past Blues legends like James “Superchikan” Johnson who is a decedent of Robert Johnson and Carl “Stud” White; grandson to the late great T-Model Ford, as well as the sons of Muddy Watters; Big Bill Morganfield and Mud Morganfield to name just a few.    

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

Not sure what I would change but it sure would be great if songs were currency.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Local bluesman Sean Apple is always good for a laugh. Not only is he a great musician, he’s a brilliant entertainer who gives 110% every time out and he is hilarious. His show is probably the only show in Clarksdale that has more silly antics than mine.

As far as being touched emotionally? I would have to say watching the kids who took part in the Pinetop Perkins Foundation workshops this past year play at Ground Zero Blues Club this past June. It made me smile so much my face hurt.

"I’ve learned a lot of things from the blues and the legendary blues men who befriended me and mentored me. I’ve also learned a lot from the wonderful fans who support the blues. I think the most important thing I have learned is how to stay in touch with myself and how to be emotionally independent."

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

I would want to go back to August 9th 2009 to the 3rd Annual Sam Carr Day. Of the four years I organized the Annual Sam Carr Day the third one was by far my favorite. It was the one year that Sam felt good enough to attend for any length of time and actually play with his friends who showed up from all over the world to see, play and spend time with Sam. It was a very emotionally charged day as many of the great blues men who Sam had played with and associated with throughout his lifetime were there and they knew it was the last time they all would see each other. The Hopson Commissary was packed that day and when I saw all of the huge camera lenses crowding the stage as Sam and his friends played I knew I had put together a significant event.

Later that night Sam’s niece Vanessa Harris called me and thanked me and told me that Sam had told her it was the best day he ever had. A couple days later Sam was quoted in the Clarksdale press register as saying it was the best day he ever had. I would love to go back and cherish that day one more time and relive that special day with Sam. During the last few years he hadn’t had many good days and I was really happy and proud I was able to give him a day like that near the end of his life. Sadly Sam passed away Three months later in November of 2009. His two nieces Vanessa and Bobbi, Patty Johnson, and myself were with him when he took his last breath.

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