Q&A with blues guitarist Charles Burton, San Diego's Blues Ambassador to the world plays with fire and passion

"The music business has changed a lot in my lifetime - but I think it’s important to remember that it’s been changing the whole time - like last century, the century before that, and probably much further back than that.  What I really hope for the future is that live music can continue and continue to be popular. Because a sort of magic can happen when performers interact with a live audience and with each other. There’s nothing else like it!"

Charles Burton: City in (Blues) Motion

Born in Los Angeles in 1958, Charles Burton plays with fire, and when he does, his articulation and phrasing are instantly recognizable. This tall drink of water has been playing Blues, Country, Rock, and Roots music for over forty years. He has played lead guitar in Country bands in Los Angeles (1970's), Honolulu (1980's), Tokyo (1990's), and Fresno, California. He headlined the Fresno Blues Festival playing with the late great Hosea Leavy in 1995. As a blues guitarist and singer, he has released various CDs with the Charles Burton Blues Band, and has toured Europe headlining festivals, culture houses, and clubs twice a year since 2005. In 2007/2008 he toured Scandinavia with Maury "Hooter" Saslaff (Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers), playing over 200 gigs in seven months!

(Photo: Charles Burton)

In 2009 he won San Diego's International Blues Challenge finals. That same year he took first place in San Diego's King of the Blues competition. Widely regarded as the best blues guitarist in San Diego, Charles is San Diego's Blues Ambassador to the world. Rockin' Blues, Swing, and Roots music 'til the cows come home! The Charles Burton Blues Band release Sweet Potato Pie was nominated Best Blues Album at the 2013 San Diego Music Awards. Charles Burton Live album was released by Lux Records in August 2020.

Interview by Michael Limnios           Charles Burton, 2012 @ Blues.gr interview

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The Blues - and the people who are into Blues - have really made it all happen for me. I guess I have to add in Rock people, because I’m not a Blues purist- there’s a fair amount of Rock in what I do. I might do a show someplace and the people can really enjoy and show enthusiasm for the music, which is wonderful, but I never would have been there in the first place without the real Blues enthusiasts who go to the trouble of putting on these events. They don’t always make a lot of money at it - they do it out of a love for the music. The fact that music is that important to people helps me keep from getting bogged down in the hum-drum of everyday life.

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started and what has remained the same?

I have always been drawn to the feeling in music - the way you feel when you hear something that really connects with you on some kind of deep level. I suppose it’s the same with most people when we’re children. But then, for me, I went through a number of years where I was intellectualizing my playing. But the Blues does not work that way. In the Blues, feel is by far the most important thing. So, since I started focusing on Blues, when I was about 20 years old, technique has become less and less important to me. I still react strongly to music that touches me - and I try to create that when I perform.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Well, one thing I’ve learned is that you have to enjoy playing music. You’re probably not going to get rich doing it, for one thing. But more importantly, it’s really the joy that we want to facilitate when we perform music.                               (Photo: Charles Burton)

"Well, I don’t know how aware the majority of the general public are of the Blues.  But for people who are aware of and into this music, I think there is a great deal of mutual understanding and connectedness. I want people to feel good and enjoy the power and beauty of live Blues-related music."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Meeting Thomas Mikaelsson in San Diego in 2005 really got the ball rolling for me as far as playing in Europe. Thomas plays bass in Subluna, a great Swedish band that has had a lot of success through the years. He got me over to Sweden the first time to play at the Östersund Blues Festival. There I met Maury “Hooter” Saslaff, who booked me in hundreds of venues all over Scandinavia. Then I met the great Blues Mandolinist Bert Dievert, who hooked me up with Eugene Kolbashev, the legendary Russian booking agent. I could go on and on because it’s always meeting people and forming relationships based on a common interest that have made things happen in my career- and in my life! Before I ever toured in Europe and it was just a goal of mine, someone asked me, “Well, do you have your passport ready?” I didn’t! So, you see, you have to be prepared for what you want to happen. Keep taking steps toward your goals.

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

There used to be, I think, more authentic heavyweight Blues players. Like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush to name a couple. There are players around now who really knock your socks off, but it seems like it’s more rare. And now they seem to be imitating the players of the past. The music business has changed a lot in my lifetime - but I think it’s important to remember that it’s been changing the whole time - like last century, the century before that, and probably much further back than that. What I really hope for the future is that live music can continue and continue to be popular. Because a sort of magic can happen when performers interact with a live audience and with each other. There’s nothing else like it!

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

One thing would be for musicians to be more adequately paid. In the 1970’s a local bar gig typically paid each band member $75. It’s often the same now in the 2020’s - especially post-Covid. But with inflation that’s actually much lower pay. 

"The Blues - and the people who are into Blues - have really made it all happen for me. I guess I have to add in Rock people, because I’m not a Blues purist- there’s a fair amount of Rock in what I do.  I might do a show someplace and the people can really enjoy and show enthusiasm for the music, which is wonderful, but I never would have been there in the first place without the real Blues enthusiasts who go to the trouble of putting on these events." (Photo: Charles Burton)

What touched you from the European blues scene? Where does your creative drive come from?

Before I got to Europe, I assumed that Europeans couldn’t play American roots music styles authentically. How wrong I was about that! There are some really fantastic Blues, Country, and Rockabilly players over there. I’m not really sure where my creative drive comes from. I know that I’ve been composing, improvising, and performing music since I was a little kid. I suppose my family was especially supportive as I was growing up. Of course, that changed somewhat when I became a rebellious teenager with an electric guitar. But music has always been given a kind of honored status in my family. My grandmother was a professional piano teacher and she set a high standard for me early on.

What is the impact of Blues on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

Well, I don’t know how aware the majority of the general public are of the Blues.  But for people who are aware of and into this music, I think there is a great deal of mutual understanding and connectedness. I want people to feel good and enjoy the power and beauty of live Blues-related music.

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

The Chess studio in Chicago in 1952 when Little Walter was recording. What he and the other musicians were playing was so seminal and so heavy. It was the start of so much of what became the electric Blues genre.

Charles Burton - Home

(Photo: Charles Burton)

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