Q&A with Michigan-based J R Clark, a high energy band put a smile on your face and a groove in your step

"This music brings people together from all walks of life. From the poor to the rich. From all ethnicities and countries. It is a universal language. Everyone can connect on some term with this music because of the passion and feeling. No matter your color, sex, race etc....We all feel something and that is what the blues is, an expression of your feelings."

J R Clark: Windy Rollin' Blues

J R Clark and the Band released his new 10 tracks album “Wishing Well” (2020). J R Clark and the All Star Blues Mob previous release entitled “January Rain” was recorded in Chicago, Il and released in May of 2017. The CD which consists of twelve original compositions and one cover is getting great reviews in the United States and overseas. This act consists of national talents Johnny B. Gayden -Alligator Records recording artist and bass player for "Albert Collins and the Ice Breakers”. Johnny played on the Grammy winning album “Show Down” with Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Clyde Copeland. Johnny B. Gayden also has recorded with Johnny Winter, toured with Larry McCray and shared the stage with Stevie Ray Vaughn and George Thorogood to name a few. Drummer Randal Willis has worked with the likes of Artie Bluesboy White, Joe Joe Murray, Tyrone Davis and Mississippi Heat to name a few. Drummer Jerry "Bam Bam" Porter who has toured with Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Magic Slim also records and performs with the band. Rounding out the lineup is Willie Styles on keys. Willie briefly toured with Robert Ward and is one of the premier and most sought out keyboard players in West Michigan. J R Clark fronts the band on vocals and guitar.            (Photo: J R Clark)

Learning slide guitar and showmanship from national touring artist Lil’ Ed Williams of Lil’Ed and the Blues Imperials whom he has toured with from time to time, J R is also a double threat on standard guitar. Melding a host influences such as, Michael Burks, Luther Allison, and Larry McCray, J R put’s out a big sound of house rockin’ blues, soul and southern rock of his own! Performing at several festivals like South Bend Blues and Ribs festival at Coveleski Stadium, Lemon Creek Winery Blues Fest, Kalamazoo Blues Festival, “Meet me on the Island”’-South Bend, IN, Fort Wayne Blues and Ribs Fest”, Michigan Chicken Wing Fest Lansing, MI,, Firefighters Blues Fest in IN and many regional venues in IN, MI and IL. The guys are rollin’! A high energy band with national talent who's soul, blues and funk that will put a smile on your face and a groove in your step!

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I am not sure if I can say that the blues and rock world have influenced my views. My views and beliefs have been instilled in me from a young age to always see the best in people and know that there is good in people. I believe we should, as a world and a people, try to love each other and look out for each other. We are all on this planet together and we all want and need the same basic things. But I can say that my interaction with my fellow musicians from all different walks of life does support and reinforce my belief in people when searching for the good in people. Musicians for the most part are like a big family and are welcoming and we usually greet each other with a hug. If I am down or depressed, I can always count on my brothers and bandmates on the stage, the audience who we are performing for, or when going out to see one of my favorite bands for a pick me up.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook?

I would describe my sound as a mixture of Chicago Blues, Soul and a little Blues-Southern Rock. Being a song writer as well as a guitarist and vocalist I try to be as original as I can when writing songs. As I was once told by my uncle "If you think about it, there is no new music. Everything has been influenced by someone somewhere over the years, we are just putting our own flavor to it", which is pretty much a true statement if you think about it. I have been heavily influenced by many great artists like my mentor Lil' Ed Williams, the late greats Luther Allison, Magic Slim and Michael Burks and also the great Larry McCray. My music philosophy as far as my live performance was heavily influence by Chicago Blues Great Lil' Ed Williams of Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials. As I learned from Ed, I really don't have a set list 95 percent of the time. I just go in the direction I feel the audience wants to go and for the most part that works out well for me and I can get into a groove where I am already thinking about what song is coming up next while in the middle of performing the song before it. Believe it or not when I do have to come up with a set list it is hard for me to choose what songs would go over the best, how they flow, how they time out in the set. If I have to think to hard that is when I stumble a little lol. I want my audience to experience all their emotions. I want them to smile, laugh, cry, love and think. One thing in common with all the artists who I named is pure truth, passion and intensity in their performances. They give you everything they got when they are performing, and you feel their honesty coming across and that is what I hope I am giving in my performances and song writing.          (Photo: J R Clark)

Where does your creative drive come from?

Like a lot of artists, my creative drive comes from observing the world around me; whether it be people, things happening in the world or even my own life experiences. I want to connect with my audience when I am writing a song. I want them to feel the message and connect that with something that may be going on with them in their own life. We all have a favorite song. The one that touches us in some way and possibly puts us back in a moment that moves our soul. A song that propels us to be happy, sad or motivates us through a tough situation. I also am a romantic at heart, so what comes the easiest to me is writing a song about love or heartbreak. I heard Lionel Richie once say in an interview that when he was with the Commodores what songs were making the most impact and taking off were songs about love. These songs jumpstarted his solo career. Everybody wants to be loved or be in love. I believe he was right in his thinking for song writing. Love is my favorite subject when writing songs. Whether if it is about my wife or just thinking about a situation that a person may be in. I know as a Blues Artist it is kind of funny talking about love songs but I try to interject this theme in a lot of my songs. I also try to put a lot of cleverness in my song writing and tell a story. One interesting tidbit on my latest album "Wishing Well" I have a song called "Heart to Broke to Mend" in a kind of soul blues groove. That song sounds like a happy song but is actually a sad song about a guy celebrating his anniversary without his wife who has passed away.  I also try to send the message of hope and positivity when song writing. "We are all in this together" is a message I try to instill in a lot of my material.  I have faith in the human race that we can set aside our differences and come together and make this world a better place for all.  I also like to write songs that are just plain old fun! Just about having a good time and making you want to tap your foot and put a smile on your face.

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

When we were recording the album "When it all comes down" at Joyride studios in Chicago the guys wanted to lay down a kind of New Orleans groove track. So, we cut it right there in one take. I had no lyrics and had to come up with some lyrics to fit the song. It's titled "Crawfishin'". I am not from New Orleans nor do I claim to know anything about crawfishin' other than catching them in the creek when we were kids. So, I am not sure if the lyrics will be disputed by a true Craw fisherman.      (Photo: JR & Magic Slim)

Once I was opening for Magic Slim. He must have not been feeling to good or something because Michael Blakemore (Magic Slim’s road manager) came to me and said Slim wanted to know if I could go up and start the show out with his band.  It was an honor. The funny thing though was I was using Slims guitar and I didn't have a lot of adjustment in the strap, so the guitar was hanging pretty low on me LOL. Magic Slim was like 6'6" and I am under 6" I am kind of  wide and thick from all my weight lifting over the years but it was the first time I ever put someone else's guitar strap over my shoulder and I couldn't fit it. Believe it or not the only other time was when I put on Michael Garrett's from Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials guitar when I was sitting in with them one time. Michael lets his guitar hang pretty low.

Another memory from early in my career was being on the same bill as Bobby Rush, Millie Jackson and Tyrone Davis. I was the opener. The event time was pushed back, and the crowd was a little restless. Talk about pressure LOL. Thank God for Bobby Rush and his dancing girls.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Luther Allison - Play the music, leave the ego and love the people

James "Pookie" Young - Never sing another man’s song in his key. Do it in your key.

Lil Ed Williams - The first song that you hit on your set is going to set the tone/Take care of your band and they will take care of you. Just be yourself and always be humble.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences?

Interesting story. In my earlier years I was a big George Thorogood fan and was cutting my teeth on guitar with a lot of his music. I went to a concert in Kalamazoo, MI and the opening act really caught my eye. It was this little guy with big energy and a big smile playing slide guitar which I was trying to hone my skills on. That opening act was Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials. From that moment the energy from that band inspired me and I started to buy a lot of his music and check him out whenever he came to town or I would hop in the car and go to Chicago which is about an hour and a half drive to see them perform. Little did I know that years later after I would be meeting Ed and studying his playing.  Watching and learning and picking Ed's brain about his playing style to where I would be able to sit in with the band from time to time and then even being able to go on a couple short tours with them. I got to be an honorary Blues Imperial when their guitarist Michael Garret was having some health issues. I play standard guitar but also learned from Ed my way around Open D tuning. I can play rhythm; single note leads and slide in all keys. I am no way a slide master like Lil' Ed but I know my way around a little bit thanks to him. I definitely played a lot more slide in my earlier years and will never let that go but on my last few albums I have been playing a lot more standard guitar which helps me be a little more diverse on different types of musical styles. Also, me being the only guitarist in the band I need that for certain rhythms.    (Photo: JR & Lil' Ed)

Over the years I have had opportunities to meet and share the stage with some of my all-time favorite blues artists and I am forever grateful for that. One funny story many years ago Magic Slim and the Tear Drops were scheduled to play in Kalamazoo, MI which I live about 45 min west of. I get a call from the club owner asking me if my drummer at the time would be able to use his van to pick them up because they had a break down. I asked where? He gave me the location which just happened to be about a mile from me and I went and picked them up in my old suburban and transferred their equipment and got them to the show. We had hung out previously in prior years when he came to town, so I was a familiar face. Slim brought me up on stage with him several times over the years and I always cherish the moments. I never will forget the night I found out he had passed I was actually watching a youtube video with him and a message came across the computer. This was the same day as my birthday.  I would say some of the most important meetings I also have had over the years is my band mates. I am honored to have shared the stage with musicians of the caliber that I have been able to perform, record and be friends with. I would have never thought that someone like me would ever be able to share the stage with musicians like bassist Johnny B. Gayden who is on a Grammy winning album, toured with Albert Collins for many years, Son Seals and Larry McCray to name a few. I reached out to Johnny B. Gayden on a whim, I had a festival gig and I needed a bass player and I got his information (the internet is a wonderful thing). I sent him some of my material that I perform, and he agreed to do the show and we had never met in person yet. We performed at the Kalamazoo Blues Festival for our first gig and it felt like we were playing together forever, at least to me LOL. What a professional. We have been playing together ever since. Johnny B. is like a big brother to me and he also has a big influence on me and my musical arrangements. He challenges me to be a better musician and I owe a lot to him. Other band members include drummer Randal Willis who has worked with the likes of Artie Blues Boy White, Joe Joe Murray, Tyrone Davis and Mississippi Heat to name a few. Randal is a very versatile drummer and he adds a nice flavor to my songs with his energy and backup vocals. I also have to mention drummer Jerry "Bam Bam" Porter who I also had the opportunity to work with over the years and brings a Chicago Blues shuffle like nobody's business. Jerry toured with Buddy Guy for many years, the late Magic Slim, the late James Cotton and currently is working with Wayne Baker Brooks and Funky Mojo Daddy with Kenny Kinsey.  One of the first shows I did with Jerry I believe was a New Year’s gig many years ago. Jerry mentioned to me that he a recently shared the stage with Eric Clapton and I replied, "Well I guess I am not going to impress you to much LOL". Jerry also introduced me to horn players Johnny Cotton and Kenny Anderson who performed on tracks of my last two albums. They currently work with the Ohio Players among others. The band member who has been with me the longest is Keyboard player Willie Styles. Willie resides in Kalamazoo, MI and is a genius on the keyboard. Willie toured a little with the late Robert Ward. No matter what I throw at him he is there. Here is an ironic story I can close this question with. I was doing a show in Detroit for a biker club. Johnny B. Gayden and myself were helping out a friend of ours who also has a band but not all of his band members were available, so Johnny B. and I did the show with them. The crowd wasn't as responsive as I hoped they would be, but we were told in advance that this is to be expected with this crowd. They enjoy the music but may not interact with the band like we are used to. I figured I would try to reel them in with a Thorogood tune which pulled a few of the people toward the stage. After the song Johnny B. said to me "I didn't know you could do stuff like that"?  I said "yeah I know most of his stuff" LOL. Johnny B. said if I ever wanted to meet them when they are in town, he could make it happen as he toured with them with the late Albert Collins and was friends with them. So long story short, full circle, George Thorogood and Destroyers were doing a show close by and Johnny B. Gayden brought me face to face with one the cats that started me on this whole musical journey. Small world.

"Musicians for the most part are like a big family and are welcoming and we usually greet each other with a hug. If I am down or depressed, I can always count on my brothers and bandmates on the stage, the audience who we are performing for, or when going out to see one of my favorite bands for a pick me up." (Photo: J R Clark, Jimmy Johnson & Johnny B. Gayden)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past?

What I miss is that the list of living legends is getting smaller. Unfortunately, we cannot stop father time. I miss being able to go out to a blues club which are becoming harder to find and watch and learn and steal some licks from one of the greats in an intimate setting. Luther Allison and Michael Burks were two of those greats that really inspired me. If they were close and I was available I was not going to miss those shows. If I ever got down on myself about my music I would hop in my car and head to Chicago to see my friend and mentor Lil' Ed  if he was in town performing and usually he would have me sit in with the band. That would light a fire in me and inspire that feeling in me of "yeah, this feeling is why I love it". Ed to me is like the Muddy Waters of my time. One of the last true Chicago Masters playing a style he learned from his Uncle JB Hutto. On a broader spectrum another performer who really inspires me is Larry McCray. So versatile. Great vocals and outstanding guitar work.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I am seeing many younger artists starting to find their way to the blues. Kristone "Kingfish" Ingram is a great example. A very young guy who is a monster on guitar. Proof that the blues is still very much alive and will continue on. I would like to see club owners and venues be more open minded to blues acts. A lot of them if they would just go out and see a show, they would realize how much blues influence they were hearing in the mainstream music that are hearing on a regular basis. A blues show can just be as wild and intense with people dancing just as much energy as a rock show. As far as fears, I believe that this music will not be going away anytime soon. It is people expressing themselves putting their heart and soul into their performances.  With the state of the world today with the virus and everything the music festivals and venues are not able to have concerts, so the working musician has suffered as well as all the business owners in the entertainment field. On a positive note I believe it will bounce back and people are really going to want to get back out and the crave for live entertainment will be booming. Also, I believe other avenues of getting the music out there will be created. Hardships sometimes inspire great things.

"I guess out of all the things I could do would be just to go back before my father passed and sit down with him, my wife and sons and just jam together and spend the day together. He was the reason I picked up a guitar. Would be kind of cool to show him what I could do now with that old Gibson ES -120 he gave me. I would have loved for my sons to meet him."

What would you say characterizes Michigan blues scene in comparison to other US local scenes and circuits?

Many of the venues in Michigan which hosted blues artists to perform at have become smaller by the numbers. Michigan, as well as Northwest Indiana, was once a hotspot years ago for the blues being Chicago is just across the lake. Many National and International artists could be seen pretty regularly until the clubs that specialize in blues performances started to dwindle. Thankfully the winery and craft beer boom has created another avenue for the artists to perform depending on the size of the venue and types of special events. As in other areas around the US the clubs who hosted touring blues acts has been declining and a lot of venues are wanting to hear a cover band instead of and original artist unfortunately. But, without original artists you are not going to have any new music eventually. I have faith that this will turn around.

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

To not give up on your dreams. To be honest and passionate about your performance and song writing. If you are honest and passionate it will come through in your performance either live or on your recorded works. Surround yourself with musicians who will challenge and inspire you. Always be humble. I am just a normal guy trying to express my art. Don't sell yourself short, every great artist out there started somewhere. Hard work and perseverance go a long way. Put your band before you. As a front man, you are not bigger than the band. You are a team, a family. When everything is hitting on all cylinders and we are all communicating through our music and smiling at each other there is no feeling like it.  Also, I have learned a lot of musicians think blues is simple music to learn. They make comments "it's just the blues right". Well if you don't feel the music and be true to the art and haven't immersed yourself in this art people will not feel what you are projecting. It is actually hard for a musician to play the blues if they are trying to fake their way through it.

"My music philosophy as far as my live performance was heavily influence by Chicago Blues Great Lil' Ed Williams of Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials. As I learned from Ed, I really don't have a set list 95 percent of the time. I just go in the direction I feel the audience wants to go and for the most part that works out well for me and I can get into a groove where I am already thinking about what song is coming up next while in the middle of performing the song before it."

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

Everywhere I have been and performed and most all musicians and audiences that I have interacted with are very welcoming. Very rare to see anything negative at a blues show. The musicians usually greet each other with a hug, and we all know we are in this together. This music brings people together from all walks of life. From the poor to the rich. From all ethnicities and countries. It is a universal language. Everyone can connect on some term with this music because of the passion and feeling. No matter your color, sex, race etc....We all feel something and that is what the blues is, an expression of your feelings. What I would hope that I would like to see how it affects people is for we all as a human race come together in unity just like I see if I am on stage at a festival and see people from all walks of life together all on the same playing field in the crowd all in the moment and enjoying it together.  

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 question. I guess out of all the things I could do would be just to go back before my father passed and sit down with him, my wife and sons and just jam together and spend the day together. He was the reason I picked up a guitar. Would be kind of cool to show him what I could do now with that old Gibson ES -120 he gave me.  I would have loved for my sons to meet him.

J R Clark - Home

(J R Clark / Photo by Michelle Bates-Phipps)

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