Q&A with New Yorker Russell Alexander - honoring the past greats and bringing the blues into the future

"The Blues is a healer, because no matter how bad the situation you find yourself in, you can take heart in knowing that somebody else has gone through that."

Russell "Hitman" Alexander: The Blues World Moves On

Russell "Hitman" Alexander is a veteran New York blues player. He has performed at clubs and venues ranging from after-hours dives in the Alphabet City section of Manhatten and late night bars in Harlem, to the Royal Ball for the Prince of Malta and the Quadcentennial Ball for the Prince of Spain. Hitman says "over the last twenty five years, I’ve been fortunate to have played with great musicians, in great venues, and with fantastic acts". This includes Johnny Copeland, Lavette Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, The Coasters, and Whitney Houston. He grew up with in a musical thanks to his father, Ray Alexander. Ray was a jazz musician, who performed worldwide with many of the jazz greats. At the age of 13, Russell began working as a “band boy” for Stuart White of Steven Scott Music, a large entertainment provider with several dozen bands.

He started his professional musicianship at 15, when he began doing gigs with a rock n’ roll cover band, and started writing original music. His first major group, Childhood’s End, was an original progressive rock band that played events such as CBGB’s, numerous clubs and festivals. Russell is the founder and creator of The Hitman Blues Band. "The blues is a living form of music" and the Hitman Blues Band is proud to be a part of it! The blues isn't just dusty 78's being done again and again, no matter how great the original versions were. Modern blues keeps the music alive, and with original songs that have won fans all over the world, the Hitman Blues Band is dedicated to both honoring the past greats and bringing the blues into the future. Band’s new CD “The World Moves On” (2016) contains seven new original songs, one cover and five reworked original songs. These reworked tunes have horn section added, and have been remixed and remastered. The players feature such luminaries as Kevin Bents, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Bobby Forrester, Ray Alexander, Richard Crooks, to name a few. The Hitman Blues Band plays modern blues, which can be high energy, slow and soulful, or happy boogie. It’s modern blues of the 21st century.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Russell, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?
My father, Ray Alexander, was a professional jazz musician, so I always wanted to do that. My first idols, after Dad, were probably Jimi Hendrix, Louie Armstrong, and The Beatles (they had a cartoon show; you HAD to know all their stuff!) Even then, as a young kid, I didn’t like bubble gum like the Monkees or the Archies or blatant pop music.

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

I learned that I’m not alone in the way I feel about things. I’ve heard blues from all over the world, and I learned that certain life experiences go across boundaries – cultural, racial, religious, and geographical. To me, the blues signifies hope. It makes good times better, and bad times more bearable – because you realize that someone else has gone through those bad times, and not only did they survive it, but they wrote and recorded a song about it!

What made you fall in love with the blues music and what does Blues offered you?

I always liked the blues, but as I got older I realized it was the genre that moved me the most. The blues is as challenging as you want it to be, as simple as you want to make it. It’s a bit like a musical Haiku – certain boundaries, but you can break them if you choose.

"If people hear your music and it brings out a response, you’re doing something right."

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Best, there’s too many to choose. There was no shining moment where I’ve said “this is as good as it gets.” I hope every gig earns that feeling!  Worst? Playing a gig right after my father died. Tough gig, but Dad taught me that when you book a gig, you don’t cancel for any reason except severe illness. Even if another gig pays more money. Your word is the only thing that matters.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD bluesman and songwriter?

Pretty much all of the tunes I write are based on my life experiences.  My feeling is that what makes anybody good in the arts is being able to communicate. If people hear your music and it brings out a response, you’re doing something right. Otherwise you’re just shouting into a hurricane.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording time, gigs and jams?

Sure, lots of little incidents.  Just a quick one: we were playing at a place called Hotel California in Birkenhead (just outside of Liverpool). The soundman was a 6’5”, 350 lb guy named “Chunky”. While the opening act was playing, my bassist (Mike Porter, pretty big himself) went up to him and suggested he turn the guitars down a bit. Then he suggested the bass frequency around 80 – 100hz be attenuated. All good suggestions, it was loud as hell as sounded very muddled. Then Mike suggested he turn the vocals up a little. 

At that, Chunky says (imagine a VERY prominent working class English accent): “Oy!  You the bass player?” 
“Yeah” answered Mike.
“Then,” snarled Chunky, “Playing the fookin’ bass!”
“Yes, sir!” said Mike.  And backed away, quickly. 
Now, whenever Mike gets too hands-on about something, I’ll snarl “Oy!  You the bass player?”

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

I know a lot of people aren’t familiar with our songs, so I give a brief introduction to what the song is about. I try and make it funny or interesting, which helps people loosen up. I try and convey to the audience that our songs are about them, too.

"To me, the blues signifies hope. It makes good times better, and bad times more bearable – because you realize that someone else has gone through those bad times, and not only did they survive it, but they wrote and recorded a song about it!"

How do you characterize the music philosophy of "Hitman"? Where did you get that nick name idea?

When I started out, I played in a lot of different kinds of bands as a freelancer. Besides rock bands, I also played in “society” bands - playing for wealthy people, doing what’s now called The American Songbook (we called them “standards” back then.) That’s Porter, Berlin, Hammerstein, Gershwin, etc. I played in groups that specialized in reggae, jazz, funk, salsa, Greek, Hassidic, German, swing music, Top 40, and numerous other styles. Because of this, I learned a hell of a lot of songs. My current repertoire is about 500 rock, blues, funk and reggae songs, and about 300 “standards”, and those are just the songs I can play and sing off the top of my head.  So, I got the reputation of knowing all the hits.  I would walk onto a gig and players who knew me would say “there’s Russ the Hitman”. It eventually just shortened to Hitman, and I kept the name.

Are there any memories from ‘The World Moves On’ studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Well, a few things I can’t talk about, but here’s one I can. When I went in to do the vocals, the engineer/producer Bob Stander and I kept going off on tangents. We’ve know each other since we were eight years old, although we were out of touch for over 30 years. We knew about each other, through mutual friends, but weren’t actually in contact. Anyway, we both have a sense of humor that is sort of typical New York City. Dark, absurd, and borderline psychotic. So we’d be tossing a gag back and forth, building it up, turning it around, and then suddenly one of us would go “Hey, we’ve really got to record this song”. Bang. Not even a break in the conversation, just “here it goes” and I start singing. I did all the vocals for the album in about two and a half hours. And then I asked him why it took so long, since the songs were each only five minutes long. So it should have taken less than an hour, right?

Tell about your studio session on previous 2013 album 'Blues Enough'?

Well, it was a tough one. We went into the studio in Brooklyn and it was about 20 degrees outside, with snow. It turned out the studio had no heat, just space heaters, so it was maybe 25 degrees in there. We tried to record everything at once, with the full horn section. The studio equipment kept malfunctioning, so out of 12 hours we only got to play 3 full songs. It was awful. We went back two weeks later, still freezing, and laid down the rhythm tracks to the rest of the album. But it never really worked out there. The actual tracks were recorded over a period of four months because the Brooklyn studio had weird hours, and we could only get in there once every three weeks for a couple of hours. We did a total of five or six recording sessions there, all of them under difficult conditions. We ended up taking the tracks to Bob Stander of Parcheesi Studios, who remixed everything and then got it mastered by Gene Paul (Les Paul’s son) at G&J Studios. Bob and Gene did a fantastic job.  We’re very happy with the way the album came out.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from the road with the blues?

Well, here’s one: We were on our way to a gig in Austria, and the driver was pointing out the beautiful mountain scenery. All of sudden he realized a guy had stopped dead right ahead of us. He slammed on the brakes (we were in a truck full of gear) and just missed the guy. We ended up in a ditch, and the only reason we didn’t roll over was because a gas pipe sticking up out of the road was propping up the side of the truck. It turned out the guy who stopped had a little car full of clay roofing tiles. If we’d hit him, the tiles would have decapitated him. So, we’re in the middle of nowhere, stuck in a ditch, and have to get to this gig at a biker bar. Like the cavalry, we see this tractor coming down the hill (the farmer must have seen what happened). He pulled us out; we drove a bit faster than safety would dictate, but got to the gig just in time. Great gig, too!

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music? 

No one person. Having said that, I got some good advice from Bob (from Parcheesi Studios) when I was much younger. I’ve actually known Bob since I was in first grade!  He’s a very talented multi-instrumentalist, along with being an incredible engineer and producer.  Anyway, this was about 1980 - we were listening to some Frank Zappa and I said I couldn’t focus in on the notes. He answered “you’re listening too critically. You’ve got to hear the overall shape of it, not the individual notes.” That opened up a lot of stuff to me. Shortly after that I got into Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, and Robert Johnson, all at the same time. It helped me understand what was going on, and not get hung up on details. It applies to all music, not just blues. 

Are there any memories with Johnny Copeland, Smokey Robinson, and Whitney Houston which you’d like to share with us?

Johnny was a wonderful man, always full of stories and very generous with his talents. I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of great artists, some of whom didn’t even know who I was (I was just “in the band” for that gig). Whitney and Smokey were like that. Other times I got some great instructions about music in general, often by just watching what they were doing.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you? What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?                                       (Photo: Russell Alexander & Sam Taylor)

Sam “The Bluzman” Taylor told me the audience was the most important thing at a gig – not whether I was having a good night, but if THEY were having a good night. Of course, he was right on the money.

Think carefully about what you want to achieve. Fame, money, immortality? If that’s it, find another career. The truth is, you probably won’t get that without paying too high of a price. And, you might pay that price and STILL not get it. If you make music because that’s what you do, because you hear music in your head all the time, because you don’t understand the concept of “background music” – when music comes on, you find have to listen to it, if you are always thinking about how to play or sing just a little bit better, then you’re on the right track. Realize that you also have to learn about the music business (emphasis on “BUSINESS”), which many players don’t bother to do.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?

What makes gigs and jams memorable are either really good experiences or really bad. There’s been gigs where fights broke out or someone was looking for trouble. Then there are gigs (and jams) where you find that place where everything is working – the band, the audience, your playing, and your voice. You just become part of a greater whole, and being on stage is the best place in the universe.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Roots Blues with the Modern Blues? What touched (emotionally) you?

When the Rolling Stones started, they were trying to play American blues. What came out was blues rock. The same thing with Cream, Led Zeppelin, and many others. Without people like Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson (lots of “Johnsons”, it was a popular name), Leadbelly, Patton, Muddy, BB, Howlin Wolf, Elmore, Buddy, Watson, and others, there never would have been a Richards, Clapton, Winter, Stevie Ray, Bloomfield, or even a Hendrix. And that’s just some of the men, if I start naming some of incredible women, we’ll be here all day. Go further on – without all of the above, there would never have been a Bonnamassa, a Winehouse, a Jack White, Trucks, Shepherd, Healey, or (if I can be so bold) a Hitman. Modern Blues is what blues has become in the 21st century. To lump it in with blues-rock is as silly as lumping The Cure in with Chuck Berry. Both are forms of rock, but sound different. Listen to many of the great bands that AREN’T trying to sound like BB In 1958, or Buddy in 1965. They aren’t playing rock-blues or blues-rock, it’s something different. Different guitar sounds, different rhythms, different lyrical content, different production, etc. As for what emotionally touched me, besides incredible playing: lyrically, I’m a big fan of Gershwin, Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein, Berlin, etc. I’m also (lyrically) a big fan of the Beatles, Elvis, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, and a number of others. That’s because some of their songs got down to the nitty gritty, about real life. They made you think.  There are few songs as sad as “What’ll I do” (Berlin) when it’s performed with honesty. The blues is built on that kind of reality. Listen to “I’d Rather Go Blind” or “Hellhound On My Trail”, or pretty much any great blues tune, and the lyrics won’t disappoint you. By the way, the same is true for a lot of country tunes. Sure, there’s lots of silly stuff, but there’s even more great, emotional songs.

"I always liked the blues, but as I got older I realized it was the genre that moved me the most. The blues is as challenging as you want it to be, as simple as you want to make it. It’s a bit like a musical Haiku – certain boundaries, but you can break them if you choose."

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

I miss the acceptance of the blues as a popular form. It’s become the “red headed step child” of music. They use the blues to sell cars, Viagra, soap, whatever. It can sell anything – except the blues. People don’t buy it, don’t come out to support the musicians.  And part of that is because there are some people in positions of authority who want it to remain stagnant – to only sound like it did in the 50s and 60s. So people think all styles of blues sound like that. My fear is that it will continue to stagnate, and become more of a museum exhibit than a musical form. My hope is that it will continue to evolve, the way country music did. You can argue that country music now is a shadow of its former self, but you can’t argue that country was in its death throes ten years ago. Now it’s one of the top selling musical genres. The blues can do that. And it doesn’t have to sell its soul (pardon the reference) or integrity. It just has to be willing to embrace change.

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

That people would stop thinking of music as the prize in a Cracker Jack box – not really worth paying for. With illegal file sharing, and some companies selling “all you eat” subscriptions, people seem to think that music has no worth. They’ll pay $5 for a Starbuck coffee that they’ll piss out in an hour, but they won’t spend $.99 on a song they may listen to for the rest of their lives.  It’s weird.

I've heard two sayings about the blues, which are a little bit confusing. One is "Blues is a healer". Another one "You have to feel blue to play Blues". If it's supposed to be a healer, why should it make one feel sad?

Not all blues makes you feel sad! A lot of Blues is happy, upbeat stuff. But for the tunes that ARE sad: “You have to feel blue to play the Blues”: well, everybody gets the blues. Rich people, poor people, powerful people and helpless people, we all get the blues. That’s how life is, nobody gets spared. So you have to be able to tap into that to play emotionally, and the blues should be an expression of emotion. But the Blues is a healer, because no matter how bad the situation you find yourself in, you can take heart in knowing that somebody else has gone through that. Not only did they go through it, but they made it through that situation. And not only that, but they made it through well enough that they wrote a song about it, recorded it, and released it! There really is a recovery after the storm; even bad times don’t last forever. The Blues tells us that.

What’s the difference between a good blues musician and a bluesman, who lives the experience through blues?

Well, you’ve got to think about that question. Was Charley Patton or Tommy Johnson more “bluesmen” than the guy playing at your local bar, who works like a dog and still can’t pay his bills? Or the piano player stuck in a lousy marriage and miserable home life who pounds out Professor Longhair at some dive on Saturday nights? Or the musician who’s reached the point in his/her life where things have finally come together and they’re in a good place? It comes down to this: when someone feels the music, it comes through in their performance. “Living the blues” means about as much as “Living heavy metal”. You don’t know what that person’s life is like, so the only way you can tell their ability is by how they play or sing.

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

Music has always been a powerhouse for any movement. For as long as there’s been music, there have been certain songs that have lifted people’s spirits, or been a rallying cry, or moved people’s hearts. And blues music can be used to make people aware of things beyond their (often) limited views of the world. It’s a form that has found appeal worldwide, and touches a deep rhythm within many cultures. It can bring people together, or at least help them see a different point of view, even if they disagree with it.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Absolutely.  The blues is a living, breathing genre. If the blues stopped with Blind Willie Johnson or Furry Lewis, there would be no T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, or Howling Wolf. Then there’d be no Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, Rory Gallagher, and Johnny Winter. Freddie King (and Albert, and BB) would have dropped off the map. Then it wouldn’t have continued with Stevie Ray, Keb Mo’, Candy Kane, Robert Cray and so many others. Is Joe Bonamassa “the blues”? Was Gary Moore? Is Ana Popovic and Derek Trucks? Is Hitman? Yes, and it’s all “real” blues. Blues is a state of mind, not a pre-conceived notion of what’s “proper”.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

Sure. The way that “Rhythm and Blues” (R&B) was misappropriated for dance music, some music execs have tried to brand some of the newer bands as blues, like White Stripes (now Dead Weather), The Black Keys, and a number of others. The good thing about it, though, is these bands make no secret about who inspired them. Their fans then look up those earlier groups, and it makes more fans of all types of blues. It’s sort of like the 60’s when groups like Cream publicly acknowledged Skip James, and Son House, and that revitalized their careers. It also revitalized that style of playing, which then became an active art form instead of a mainly historical one. Was Amy Winehouse a blues singer?  Or a Billie Holiday influenced “almost jazz” singer? What about John Meyer, who actually released a blues album? Or Cyndi Lauper, who was roundly criticized (despite her Grammy nomination) for what was actually a pretty good release? As far as I’m concerned, there are some people who consider themselves the Guardians Of The Blues. They want everything to have stopped in 1958, musically speaking. They make pronouncements as to what is “real” or “fake” blues, based on how close is it to music made by people who died 30 years ago. It’s a sure fire way to kill off the blues by limiting it to a pre-conceived notion. The Blues is a big tent, everybody gets in whether they want to or not. Providing music to make the good times better and the bad times bearable is what the blues is all about, and I don’t see any limitations on it.

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

That’s a tough one. Lots of times and places, but if I could only choose one: I’d like to go to London in the mid-60s, like 1965 or ‘66. Lots of great American blues artists were touring there, and it was early enough to catch a lot of great rock, blues, and jazz artists. I’m actually old enough to have been alive at that time, but I was a pre-teen. But again, that’s a tough question. There are so many places and times I would have loved to have seen. I always wonder what incredible music and artists have been lost to history, because there was no way to record them!

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