Q&A with Japanese amazing musician Shoji Naito - authoritatively knows the delicate nuances of the Chicago blues

"I have been playing the blues in Chicago since 1998 and even since then many things have changed. There are fewer and fewer people playing the traditional style of Chicago Blues like I like to play. I am hopeful that there will always be people who enjoy live music and I want to be playing the style I learned from the greats."

Shoji Naito: Chicago Blues Gem

Shoji Naito was born and raised in Toyota, Japan. He started playing guitar and harmonica at the age of sixteen and played with local blues bands. Shoji moved to Chicago to study the blues in 1996. While learning the blues in the clubs at night, he studied jazz guitar and bass at Columbia College Chicago. During college years, Shoji experienced performing with great musicians such as John Primer, Carey Bell, Jimmy Burns, Willie Big Eye Smith, Lurrie Bell many others. Shoji joined Eddy Clearwater Band in 2004 and started touring worldwide. In May 2008, Morry Sochat and The Special 20s' CD "SWINGIN' SHUFFLIN' SMOKIN'" was released. 2008, chosen as the grand opening harmonica player at the first annual Chicago Blues Harp Bash which featured Legendary Billy Boy Arnold. In 2010, Morry Sochat & the Special 20s'CD "Eatin' Dirt" was released. Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater's “Live In France At Jazz à Junas” DVD was released in 2012. In 2013, Shoji and Morry Sochat duo won the 2013 Chicago Blues Challenge. 2014, Shoji co-produced Eddy Clearwater's new CD "Soul Funky." Shoji occasionally plays guitar and bass with Billy Branch and The Sons Of Blues.  2014, Shoji co-produced Rie "Lee" Kanehira's new CD "The Union Meetin'".                         Shoji Naito / Photo by Roman Sobus

In 2016, Shoji's CD "NEW COOL OLD SCHOOL" released. Shoji has been working as blues guitar associate with world famous Joe Filisko at Old Town School of Folk Music since 1997. Shoji creates most of the practice tracks for Joe Filisko's teaching material. His new album released in 2020 and titled “Westmont to Chicago: Tribute to Eddy Clearwater”. Bob Corritore says: “Shoji Naito is an amazing musician who authoritatively knows the delicate nuances of the Chicago blues on both the harmonica and guitar. He is also a kind and generous person, and that comes across on the bandstand. His sterling backing work for his longtime employer, the legendary Eddy Clearwater stands testament to his professional quality. Shoji can deliver a powerful Little Walter style instrumental on harmonica or flawlessly back other harmonica players on guitar, as he frequently does with Morry Sochat, or any number of great harmonica players at Joe Filisko’s advanced harmonica class at the Old Town School Of Folk Music. Whatever musical situation Shoji finds himself in, he will always rise to the occasion. I have greatly enjoyed my stage-time with Shoji Naito and I look forward to the next time we get to make music together.“

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues (and people of) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I am an introvert guy and always had a difficult time communicating with others, especially after moving to the USA. The blues gave me so many opportunities to connect with people. People would understand me a lot better by listening to my music or playing the blues together than just by talking. I have met so many nice people and made so many friends mainly because of the blues.

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

I like the blues that has depth. The great blues players and singers all have deep sound rather than flashy series of notes. I am always trying to play every note deeper just like the great players showed us.

"There are some festival shows with thousands of people watching. There are some shows with only a few people in the club. But the great players that I respect, like Eddy Clearwater, never played a half-hearted show. In fact, Eddy was always into his music even during the soundcheck. I will always be playing my best as Eddy showed me." (Shoji & The Chief, Chicago 2016 /Photo by Shoko Nagano)

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

Meeting Eddy Clearwater in 2004, was the best thing that ever happened to my music career.  I learned so much by playing with him for 15 years. Eddy has had so many great musicians in his band before me. In the beginning, I was trying to learn the style that those fine musicians on Eddy's CDs. And one night, I played some melodies that were more like traditional style blues which I always liked.  After the show, Eddy told me that he liked what I played and encouraged me to play what I feel rather than trying to recreate the recordings. Ever since I have been playing what I feel at that moment.     

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

There was a blues club called “Bill’s Blues” in Evanston IL. It was very close to where Eddy lived and he and the band used to play there about once a month.  We would go on tour for a few weeks and play so many festivals shows all over the world but when he is home and playing at Bill’s Blues, he would play some great old Chicago blues songs by people like Willie Mabon, Jimmy Reed, Lowell Fulson, Junior Parker, or Ike Turner. I always loved playing those songs with Eddy. This was the reason why I wanted to make my CD and feature Eddy singing those songs.  

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

I have been playing the blues in Chicago since 1998 and even since then many things have changed. There are fewer and fewer people playing the traditional style of Chicago Blues like I like to play. I am hopeful that there will always be people who enjoy live music and I want to be playing the style I learned from the greats. 

"I like the blues that has depth. The great blues players and singers all have deep sound rather than flashy series of notes. I am always trying to play every note deeper just like the great players showed us." (Shoji Naito, Chicago Blues Festival 2016 / Photo by Shoko Nagano)

Why do you think that Chicago Blues (and "Chief's Blues") continues to generate such a devoted following?

The blues can be simple if you just look at the surface. Many of the lyrics can be pretty straight forward and very few the notes are played. But the blues has depth. Every song has a deep story and every note has a deep meaning. I have been listening to Muddy Waters' records for 35 years and still finding the new meaning behind every word and every note. I believe that is why people all over the world are attracted to this music. 

Make an account of the case of the blues in Japan. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

I am not qualified to answer this because I really don’t know much about the blues scene in Japan. I moved to Chicago before I learned much about the blues in Japan. I have been learning about a long history of Blues in Japan by reading books in the last few years.

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

There are some festival shows with thousands of people watching. There are some shows with only a few people in the club. But the great players that I respect, like Eddy Clearwater, never played a half-hearted show. In fact, Eddy was always into his music even during the soundcheck. I will always be playing my best as Eddy showed me. 

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

There are all the great recordings available on the internet and you can listen to any song you want right away. I am listening to music all the time, too. But when you see a musician playing a blues song live in front of you, you feel more. Especially when you see a musician with the “depth.” I want to keep playing live and hope people can feel the “depth” that is more than just an attractive performance.

Shoji Naito - Home

Shoji Naito / Photo by Ted Beranis

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