Interview with Little Mike Markowitz -- a harp master from NYC with lawless and high energy blues sound

"My hopes and fears for the future transcend the blues and go into politics, greed, and man’s inhumanity to man."

Little Mike: Tornado In Blues Scale

Queens native Mike Markowitz grew up on the very competitive NYC scene. His first brush with the blues came while hearing John Lee Hooker at Carnegie Hall and later listening Paul Butterfield's record.  After that Little Mike couldn't get enough. If a blues show was in NYC, Mike was there, especially when the Chicago players came to town. His favorite was Muddy Waters. He liked their old "Chess sound" and took Mike under his wing. Other influences cited include Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Rolling Stones, Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor, Sonny Boy, and Walter Horton. After leading a series of bands as a teenager, Mike formed the Tornadoes in 1978. At age 22, Mike was leading one of the busiest and toughest blues bands in NYC. Whenever a visiting blues artist came to town and needed a band, usually got the call, backing artists such as Walter Horton, Otis Rush, Bo Diddley, Lightning Hopkins, and Big Mama Thornton.            (Photo by Solange Arocha)

Mike's reputation led to the band's touring as the backing unit for blues legends such as Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, and Jimmy Rogers. Music luminaries who have sat in with the band include Robert Cray, Jaco Pastorius, Kim Wilson, Jorma Kaukonen, James Cotton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Taj Majal. In 1988, Mike played on and produced Pinetop Perkin's first domestic release, After Hours. The following year he did the same for Hubert Sumlin's Heart & Soul. In 1990, released the first album by Little Mike and the Tornadoes and guest appearances by Perkins, Sumlin, Butterfield, Ronnie Earl, and Big Daddy Kinsey. From there Mike moved on to record Flynn's Place on Flying Fish records, then Hot Shot on Ichiban and had the release Forgive Me (2013) on ElRob Records. Also released independantly was a live release from France, as well as a collection cut with his touring band, that features special guests Sonny Rhodes, and Jim Mckaba. At All The Rights Moves (2014), Little Mike joined by original Tornadoes for a live session of original traditional and contemporary urban blues. Little Mike & The Tornadoes latest release “Friday Night” (2015) features Zora Young, one of the best blues singers in the world. In 2015, also released a live recording by Pinetop Perkins & Jimmy Rogers with Little Mike and The Tornadoes. The late greats bluesmen Jimmy Rogers and Pinetop Perkins had a special and magical sound onstage together--a sound that would have been lost in time if it were not for Little Mike. This remarkable album ‘Genuine Blues Legends’ (Elrob Records) captures that moment and the wonderful Chicago blues sounds that the two blues legends were able to seamlessly weave together on stage. Little Mike’s new album “How Long?” (2016) released on September 1st 2016 by Elrob Records.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos: Paul A Carter III, Solange Arocha, Louis Blackell, Paul M Gettleman / All rights reserved

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues culture and what does the “Blues” mean to you?

To me it’s a feeling, and the ability to express that feeling musically is what sets the blues artist apart from others. What I learned from blues culture is we all go through our own personal miserey from time to time, and we have to deal with that.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

Self-doubt and fear. These never make you better at anything but it’s a cross I bear. When I put these out of my mind, I am a better person and musician.

How do you describe Little Mike’s sound and what characterize Tornadoes’ philosophy?

My sound is deep, hard hitting, and raw. Our philosophy is we go through life as best we can and that comes out in the music.

"The main reason is because the harp can mimic the human voice so closely. If you listen to a well played blues solo on ANY instrument you will find the the soloist often incorporates the melody into what he is playing. A good blues soloist can mimic the human voice to an extent." (Photo by Paul A Carter III)

What were the reasons that you started the harmonica experiments? Which is the moment that you change your life most?

There was a guy in my neighborhood who used to walk around playing it and he looked cool. I had no idea of the journey it would take me on! The first time I saw John Lee Hooker perform in NYC. That started me on the blues. I was 15 years old and saw the harmonica applied as a lead instrument in blues music. He used a bullet mic and amp, which was the first time I ever saw that.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Sonny Boy, Little Walter and Walter Horton to Little Mike?

Naturally, the harp and the use of it as a trumpet sounding, lead instrument. Also, the use of phrasing, not just the playing of notes like a run on sentence, but the use of phrases to say something.

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?

I was never a prolific song writer inspire of the fact I have almost 100 songs written and published. I write as they come and I never sit down and try. I make up most of them on gigs.

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

Because it is a community of people who have strong regard for the history, and at the same time an open mind toward the changes and evolvement of the music.

"In my opinion blues is no longer only the music of the poor and exploited, it is everybody’s music now, and that is good for all artists and people. This phenomenon has created opportunities for everyone." (Photo: Little Mike & The Tornadoes with the late great bluesman, Jimmy Rogers)

What were the reasons that a New York musician started the Blues/Roots researches and experiments?

Because I grew up in NYC, a place where touring musicians from all over the world came, I was able to be exposed to the blues during that period when most of the big names still played in small clubs. I was able to meet and befriend many great bluesmen and they encouraged me to play and hang out with them. These friendships allowed me to tour, record, and mentor with Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, Louis Meyers, and Rosco Gordon. I spent almost 10 years with my band, Little Mike and the Tornadoes, backing these artists before receiving my first recording contract in 1990 from Blind Pig Records.

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

When one of my early bands quit on me right after the release of my recording Heart Attack. They were trying to book themselves in all the places I took them and a few club owners told me about it. I fired them as soon as we got to NYC and put a new band together and went right on touring and recordinging. The best, when I performed in Gainesville FL. in front of 5,000 people after an 8 year layoff and the people loved me and remembered me. That sparked my comeback.

You have come to know great bluesmen. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

There no one answer to that. My relationship with Pinetop, Jimmy (Rogers), Hubert (Sumlin), has been full of enriching experiences. I miss them greatly and I am sad they are gone.

"To me it’s (Blues) a feeling, and the ability to express that feeling musically is what sets the blues artist apart from others. What I learned from blues culture is we all go through our own personal miserey from time to time, and we have to deal with that." (Photo: Mike and Pinetop Perkins)

Which memory from the late great Hubert Sumlin makes you smile? Are there any memories from Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and Taj Majal which you’d like to share with us?

I have been very fortunate to have had some opportunities that many other players have not had, and that is playing and living with some of the legends of the blues. I remember once in Alabama I was having trouble getting paid in full for a show with Hubert when Hubert came in with his hand in his breast jacket pocket and asked me if everything was OK. The club owner immediately came up with the rest of the money, at which time Hubert pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to the embarrassed club owner. Some of the things Pine used to tell me. We would spend a lot of time sitting around because that’s the way the music business is and those were the best and funniest times.

James Cotton was the most fun guy in the world to hang out with. Whenever he was in town he would come find me and vice versa. Muddy Waters of course was the godfather and we were all in reverence of him. I toured Europe with Taj Mahal, twenty years ago and because he had a foot in the rock and roll world he knew so many stars and had a lot of cool stories.

Are there any memories from Pinetop Perkins which you’d like to share with us?

My memories with Pinetop are so many. He was the most wonderful kind soul of a man you ever met. He loved all living things and animals, and all people and animals loved him. Except maybe this dog he tried to pet through the open window of a car parked in front of BLUES in Chicago. He stuck his finger in the top of the window and a real mean dog dove across the seat and nipped at him. I had to dive on him to pull his hand out, but it was too late. The dog cut his pointer finger real bad. We both hit the ground and the doorman from BLUES rushed over because he thought I was mugging Pine. We went into the club and they bandaged his hand. We had a gig the next night in St. Louis and Pine managed to play.

"I was never a prolific song writer inspire of the fact I have almost 100 songs written and published. I write as they come and I never sit down and try. I make up most of them on gigs." (Photo: Little Mike, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers)

What would you say to Pinetop Perkins? What would you like to ask Jimmy Rogers?

Pinetop - Wanna go fishin’? He loved to fish and we went often. I spent a lot of times at Pines house in Chicago and we would run around Chicago together all day on our days off.

Jimmy Rogers - How is your family? He was devoted to his children and wife and they loved him. He stopped playing for a number of years to take care of them when things got hard. I did the same thing some years back to take care of mine and I always thought of him during that period.

Are there any memories with Paul Butterfield which you’d like to share with us?

I knew Paul toward the end of his life and watched his health deteriorate. It was very sad because he was a musical genius, and that got lost.

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of Mississippi sax?

For one thing they were inexpensive and handy to keep on you. But the main reason is because the harp can mimic the human voice so closely. If you listen to a well played blues solo on ANY instrument you will find the the soloist often incorporates the melody into what he is playing. A good blues soloist can mimic the human voice to an extent. That’s what makes them so appealing.

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage? What’s the best jam you ever played in?

My contact is personal and intimate. I draw the audience in and I go and play as close to them as possible.

The night I played at the Lonestar cafe in NYC with Hubert Sumlin and Stevie Ray Vaughan sat in.

"I am happy when I am onstage and people like what I am laying down."

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

Disappointments.

Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be “Bluesman”?

Its more what’s in your heart and how you express that musically, than strictly how you play. I am not a great technician, but I can do things very few others can because of my ability (gift perhaps) to pull the blues that’s inside me out with my instrument.

What's the legacy of Blues in the world culture and civilization? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

It will endure because it is the music of the people. Rap which has such a bad name at the moment may become the new blues. It’s raw, emotional, and tells somebodies story, even if you don't like that story. There was a time blues was looked at with the same attitude by church going people. My hopes and fears for the future transcend the blues and go into politics, greed, and man’s inhumanity to man.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from United States and UK to all around the world?

There has never been any doubt that the strength and power of blues music has ensured that its influence can cross all boundaries and cultures with relative ease. Blues music is here to enjoy, respect and celebrate, and the door is open to all. The influence of Chicago blues artists like Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf among others led to a direct influence on early rock legends in the UK.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you at Kingsnake Recording Studio?

The same the as always. Kidding around during the down times and waiting periods before and after a show. That’s where the laughter is, it easies the stress of thing being away from home. Kingsnake was a magical place and was frequented by many of the best and under rated artists in the south east U.S.

"The blues has brought people together in a mutual love for the music and each other. Whatever the hardline critics want to say about it, there is no denying the blues has brought people from different cultures together."  ('"Little Mike" Markowitz on stage, Photo by Paul A Carter III)

What has made you laugh from Big Mama Thornton and what touched (emotionally) you from Jimmy Rogers?

I was so young that I should not have been on that gig. I was only a sideman on that one and a last minute guest at that, and I was afraid to make a mistake and really did not say too much to her. On top of that, I wasn’t even old enough to be in the place. Since she was a harp player, I played piano and I wasn’t very good yet. I could only play in C and G in those days and she had an A harp. I very timidly offered her a brand new C harp so she could play in G, and she agreed. Victoia Spivey (who lived in Brooklyn) was in attendance and spoke up for me. I think the two of them had a good laugh over it. Cab Lucky and Washboard Doc were on stage too, and they were on Victoria’s label. By the time I met Jimmy, I was much more confident and seasoned. Pinetop gave Jimmy my number and he called me. The rest is history. Jimmy’s sensitivity and humility really touched me. Jimmy quit playing for a period to take care of his family and later returned to performing. That was long before he called me. I always admired him for putting his family first.

What do you miss most nowadays from the 70s? How has the blues changed over the years?

Almost all the old greats are gone. The fathers of the blues have left us.

What characterize HOW LONG? album's philosophy and sound?

We got into Electric Lady Studio late at night after some gigs in NYC and just played what we felt like. There was a little rock, a little jazz, and lots of blues and instrumentals. It went from 2am to about 5 for a few nights running. I feel like we got a real good modern urban blues sound.

"Self-doubt and fear. These never make you better at anything but it’s a cross I bear. When I put these out of my mind, I am a better person and musician." (Photo by Paul M Gettleman)

How has the old "Chess sound" influenced your views of the music and the journeys you’ve taken?

As all my fans know ‘I play traditional blues with a modern edge’. I was taught hard lessons in the blues from Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin, Louis Meyers, Roscoe Gordon and others. I don’t try to be retro or traditional, I just play the way they taught me. They encouraged me to make the sound my own without turning it into blues rock.

What do you think the major changes will be in the Blues world and what touched (emotionally) you from the new generation?

The music will continue to evolve and change as all genres do. Thats natural. I will continue to play as I do and evolve musically as I have always done, but I will always be somewhat traditional I guess because that is who I am. My hopes are that people will continue to learn to play the blues without forgetting the nuances that make it what it is. The reason why some bands make all blues sound the same is that they ignore the subtleties of the music. Southern rock bands are particularly guilty of this, as well as many of the artists who came to the blues later in life from rock and roll bands. Some people cover songs and don’t even know whose music they are covering. That many young artists can really understand and play the blues with deep feeling. J.P. Soars, Albert Castiglia, and Brandon Santini all come to mind. These guys play the way I was taught by the masters. They got the feeling of the music. They got soul.

Are there any memories from "Friday Night" and Zora Young which you’d like to share with us?

We had so much fun it was like a weeklong party. Zora loves the real blues and so do we. Since she is an old friend of mine it felt like a family Reunion.

You have worked with Zora Young, Big Mama Thornton and others. What is the status of women in blues?

Women blues artists challenge the unfair expectations and sexist assumptions of years ago, encouraging femininity and independence. Today women play guitar and are no longer relegated to the role of singer only. I recently performed with a great female bass player from New Orleans and regularly find myself being accompanied on stage by very capable women artists. Of course I work regularly with Zora Young and she is one of the premier woman blues artists in the world today. (Zora Young and Little Mike & The Tornadoes)

"Its (Blues) more what’s in your heart and how you express that musically, than strictly how you play. I am not a great technician, but I can do things very few others can because of my ability (gift perhaps) to pull the blues that’s inside me out with my instrument."

Which memory from studio sessions with Little Mike and the Tornadoes makes you smile?

Recording with Pinetop in 1985 when I was just 30 years old and I started to argue with him about an arraignment of a song and he said to me “Shut up! I wrote the motherfucker”. We all laughed. From that I realized that I still had much to learn and this was a great opportunity. It was our first time in a real studio and I was very green.

Make an account of the case of Florida Blues scene. What are the differences between New York and Florida?

The Florida blues scene is very divers because FL. is so big and there are clubs and artists in all regions. There are still some undiscovered Florida blues artists that don't travel much but lay down the real blues. Willie Green and Sheba The Mississippi Queen are prime examples. NYC too has its undiscovered, but the sound coming out of NYC tends to have a lot of jazz and rock influences.

Are there any memories from Walter Horton and Jaco Pastorius which you’d like to share?

Big Walter often came to New York and I was honored when Terry Dunn from Tramps asked me to back him. Of course, he played harp, so I played piano. By then I was a much better piano player having already learned firsthand from Pinetop. Walter was very lovable and playful and you better have a sense of humor and be confident when you hung with him.

In the eighties I had a steady gig at The Bitter End Café in NYC’s Greenwhich Village. It was a Thursday midnight slot and Jaco would come in a jump on the piano, and then take over the bass. He always had a small army with him and he always had a basketball under his arm too. He could ball man!! He was fun to hang out with on the breaks.

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

The blues has brought people together in a mutual love for the music and each other. Whatever the hardline critics want to say about it, there is no denying the blues has brought people from different cultures together. Blues has also gotten much recognition in the United States and around the world through various festivals. Overseas festivals and festivals in the United States provide opportunities to young white and black artists of both sexes. The poet Hans Christian Andersen says “Where words fail, music speaks”. Blues has evolved from an unaccompanied vocal music of poor black laborers into a wide variety of styles and subgenres, being played today by people of all nationalities and cultures. It will always speak to somebodies situation, but not everybody’s. It will also always be personal at times and offer social commentary at others. In my opinion blues is no longer only the music of the poor and exploited, it is everybody’s music now, and that is good for all artists and people. This phenomenon has created opportunities for everyone.

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

My lost friend and hero’s would still be around for me to hang with.

Which is the moment that you change your life most? Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?

My second car wreck while on the road. No one got hurt but is scared the hell out of me. I had two children at home and made the decision to get off the road a while. I took almost ten years off. Writing and playing has always come to me pretty easy. If I am playing with the write guys and there is a groove and can play all night. But I can’t play with someone who doesn’t get the real blues!

What are your main tools, amps, mics and harps in your bag? What is your favorite rare harmonica?

I use an astatic mic that’s about 50 years old, an old fender Bassman amp with 4 10 inch speakers. I also have a set of VERY old pre WWII RCA tubes that I put in ONLY for recording. I am partial to Hohner Marine Band harmonicas.

"To me the blues is a feeling, and the ability to express that feeling musically is what sets the blues artist apart from others. What I learned from blues culture is we all go through our own personal miserey from time to time, and we have to deal with that." (Photo by Louis Blackell, 2015)

What has made you laugh from Stevie Ray Vaughan and what touched (emotionally) you from Bo Diddley?

Stevie was very warm and kind to me on the only occasion during which I met him. He sat in with us only because Hubert Sumlin was on the gig. I was just fortunate to be there. That has happened to me a lot. Bo was very serious and liked to advise young people (such as we were) about life. He cared a lot about the young.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever given you?

Definitely Pinetop Perkins and Jimmy Rogers. Not to play too much. Less is more. They shaped my approach to playing the harp.

What is your music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is…

I am happy when I am onstage and people like what I am laying down. My music dream is to just be able to keep playing and being appreciated for what I do and who I am.

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

Let visit Chicago in 1958-62. Hang out with Spann, Cotton, Muddy. Not just at night, but all day.

Little Mike & the Tornadoes - Home

Photo by Paul A Carter II

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