Q&A with harmonica player and singer Russ Green - journey into the blues different than those of most musicians

"I truly believe that Blues has had a tremendous impact on many people in many parts of the world, not just the U.S. Actually, I know it as a fact!"

Russs Green: Windy City Soul

Harmonica player and singer Russ Green’s journey into the blues is different than those of most musicians. Russ was born in Chicago and grew up on the city’s west side. Although, throughout his life he had listened to all types of music, his desire to play wasn’t realized until his adult years. After being discharged from the U.S. Army, Russ attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale where he studied film. It was at this time that his desire to play music began to grow. Like lots of fans of Jimi Hendrix, Russ wanted to be able to re-create the sounds of the man whom he had admired for many years. But being a film student and having all his money going to these films, he couldn’t afford to buy a guitar. Undaunted by this realization, Russ remembered the purchase of a harmonica from a west side shop a few years earlier. The ability to re-create the sounds of Hendrix was becoming realized, not with a guitar, but with a harmonica!

Russ Green / Photo by Howard D. Simmons

Before leaving Southern Illinois, he was told that when he got back to Chicago he should check out Sugar Blue, described as one of the best harmonica players in Chicago. So, on his first Friday night back in Chicago Russ went out and found a Chicago Reader to see who was playing where in the city. And there it was, Sugar Blue at Blues Etc., one of Chicago’s premiere blues clubs on the North side. Mind blown by what he was hearing and seeing, Russ sat down at a high-top table not far from the bandstand. He spent the next three months in Chicago going out to see Sugar Blue wherever he was playing but was too intimidated to speak to him. Russ then moved to Seattle, a city that captured his heart while he was in the Army. His return to Chicago, some three years later, was not only an opportunity to learn from Sugar Blue, but also brought about the realization of a lifelong dream for Russ, working in film production. He started in television commercials and moved into television shows and feature films. Musically Russ’ career has continued to grow since returning to Chicago. Not only has he been tremendously influenced by Sugar Blue, but also by Chicago’s other legendary harmonica player, Billy Branch. He playfully describes his relationship with his two mentors as like two little devils standing on each shoulder whispering in his ear of how he should play. He has also played, recorded and toured with John Primer and Lurrie Bell. Green’s debut album, “City Soul” (2018) is a love letter to the Windy City and all the musicians who helped create its legendary sound. The ten original tracks, recorded in Chicago by renowned engineer Rick Barnes, was co-produced by Russ and Sam Clayton and features a select group of the city’s hottest session players.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

I guess what I’ve learned from being around people in the Blues, especially in Chicago. Is a reaffirmation of what Blues is. And that is, that Blues is the story of black people in America. It is the story of their lives at a time that is a bit different than today. The stories of inter-personal relationships between men and women, and men to men and also within the family. As well as how they dealt with the larger society and their place in it. It’s much more complicated than this but this is basically the idea. I grew up hearing stories of how life was and how people dealt with it. I also saw the strength of character of those who lived through such trials. And also, their respect and compassion for others.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

So, the songs on City Soul really come from my life experiences with some creative license being taken with some of them. My philosophy when it came to selecting the songs to go on the CD was to use a bit of variety. The songs themselves are Blues but not just straight-ahead Blues that is predictable. They all have a different feeling but they work together as a CD. Blues comes in different variations in terms of how the songs are put together. So, my goal was to include this variety to challenge both myself and the listener. Also, within a number of songs the lyrics and themes connect the songs to help tell a bigger story. But you have to listen to pick up on it. Ha. I’d also like to think that what I have created in this project is unique. And I think my years spent playing traditional Blues gives me the credibility to push the boundary of the genre and that is what I did. I’m also driven to tell stories of people’s lives as well as my own. And those stories are not always pleasant and I want to get to the emotional heart of a story and touch people.

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

I suppose the most important acquaintances in Blues for me have been with Sugar Blue and Billy Branch. And of course, for the most obvious reason of being influenced by their playing. But also, in how encouraging they have been in pushing me to play harmonica. And also in how important it is to be true to the legacy of those who have come before all of us. The best advice that I have gotten is something that has served me well when it comes to playing with others. And it came from Sugar Blue who was told this by Willie Dixon. And it is simple but not enough people adhere to this. That advice was “always listen to the other musicians playing on stage with you.” This simple but not practiced nearly enough. Playing music is a conversation! Not just between the band and the audience, but between the musicians. They must communicate through their playing in order to make the music work.

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

Some of my best memories in Blues comes from having played with John Primer and Lurrie Bell. And the reason is because of their legendary status in Blues. They have played with so many of the greats including Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, Carey Bell and so many others. And I have had the opportunity to play a lot of venues with them. From small clubs in Europe, Canada or the U.S., to large festivals in Brazil and other places. There is nothing like looking out and seeing 25,000 people really enjoying Blues at it’s finest. And knowing that you are making that happen.

"I guess what I’ve learned from being around people in the Blues, especially in Chicago. Is a reaffirmation of what Blues is. And that is, that Blues is the story of black people in America. It is the story of their lives at a time that is a bit different than today." (Photo: Russ Green & John Primer)

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

What I miss most from Blues of the past is not being able to see the legends. It would have been great to see Muddy Waters live or Son House or Big Walter and Little Walter and so many others. But I am not old enough to have seen many of them. And I think that would have been absolutely awesome to have been able to. Now I have seen many legends play and that is great. Although many of the household names of Chicago Blues are gone, there are many, many talented people in Chicago that are not as well known. They are the people who have played with and learned from those who have come before them. And there are many of them that you can still see around Chicago and the world. My hope for the future of Blues is that people like myself who spent years honing our craft and spending time with and learning from those who’ve came before us, is continued success. It used to be that in order to play Blues you had to have lived and paid your dues so to speak. And that is what helped make the music what it was. I don’t see that as much anymore. There are a lot of talented young people involved in Blues like myself. But you have to have lived in order to understand the Blues and how it works and no 16-year-old has lived nearly enough. But I encourage anyone to play and learn the music. Just understand what Blues is about and why the people who made it did so in the first place.

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

If I could change one thing about the musical world it would be communication. Having been in the military and having worked in film production, I am used to a high level of communication. This is essential in order to get anything done and both can be high stress environments in their own way. In music there are so many people like bands, agents and managers trying to communicate with a smaller number of people like club owners and promoters. I know that it can be overwhelming trying to deal with the volume of inquiries and I wish there was a better way so everyone could be serviced. But I guess that is just wishful thinking and it is just what it is.

What touched (emotionally) you from the sound of harmonica? What are the secrets of Mississippi Sax's"?

What touched me about the sound of the harmonica is, the sound of the harmonica. There is nothing like it and when it is played right it can be unbelievably incredible. When you hear Big Walter or Little Walter or either Sonny Boy or a host of others play the harmonica it will move you. They played it right and made the beautiful instrument leap into the hearts of millions of fans. And harmonica is probably the instrument that is most associated with Blues, when you hear it you think Blues. And the secrets of the instrument, just keep practicing. It’s not as easy as it looks!

"What I miss most from Blues of the past is not being able to see the legends. It would have been great to see Muddy Waters live or Son House or Big Walter and Little Walter and so many others. But I am not old enough to have seen many of them."

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

I don’t think that Blues has shaped my views of the world. But I do and have noticed how the state of the world has influenced and shaped Blues. That’s what you write about and that’s what you sing about and make music about. And that’s what anybody in the Blues should do. That’s what those who came before us did and we should also. If you listen to the songs on City Soul you will definitely see how my world view was shaped by what I experienced and observed. And I tried to create stories that would take the listener inside of someone else’s world to experience what another’s life may be like.

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

I truly believe that Blues has had a tremendous impact on many people in many parts of the world, not just the U.S. Actually, I know it as a fact! I have met people from all over the world who have come to the U.S. for the sole purpose of visiting Blues places from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. I can’t tell you the number of musicians whom I have interacted with who come to Chicago to play with the people they admire. Many of them would come to stay for as much as three months at a time, depending on their visa. This would not happen if Blues had not had such an impact on them to create a desire to take on such an adventure. Their contact with the music came not only from hearing it on the radio or through record purchases, but also from seeing live performances of Blues musicians who have traveled to many parts of the world to play for lovers of the music. So, I think that the spread of Blues music helped to create and even greater global understanding of African-American life. There is something very special about Blues and you can see it in how people respond to it. Blues is the story of black people in America, but it has an impact on people the world over. Now because Blues is the story of black people in America, does not mean that only black people can play it. It is a music that has become a uniter of people. Anyone can play and enjoy the music because that is what it is about. But if you are going to play it and be true to the music you must understand the people who made the music and why did they do so. That’s the only way to be true to the music. That goes for me as well, but the fortunately for me I grew up in the culture and understanding it. So, Blues has had a positive effect of bringing people from all walks of life a bit closer to one another. And I think that is truly great!

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

If I had a time machine and could go back in time? I would go to see Jimi Hendrix’s first major American performance at Monterey Pop. I have been a major Hendrix fan for a very long time now and he has had a tremendous impact on me. Others have had an influence on me but none like him. It is not only his guitar playing but his writing as well as his persona. His vision was so much more forward looking at the time that it truly set him apart.  So, it would have been something to see that performance that began his ascent and to have been a part of history in the making. I then would make my way to San Francisco to go to Haight-Ashbury. Who knows I might run into Carlos Santana, Jefferson Airplane or Jerry Garcia. You see I have influences from many different genres although I play Blues.

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

Being in the Army for me was just a reinforcement of my personality and who I am. I have always believed in being prepared and being on top of one’s business as well as communicating effectively. And being in the military just bolstered that part of me and my self-discipline. It was also great interacting with so many people from so many parts of the U.S. It also was the first time that I lived away from Chicago and that was very important for me and my development as a person.

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