Q&A with New York-based David "Doc" French plays a wide variety of styles, all firmly rooted in the blues

"To me the blues has always been about commentary and story telling. Speaking up and speaking out. Truthfully. It was a force in reporting on social, personal and political situations and still can be. Times have changed, so the blues specifically, has a greatly reduced impact compared to what it was."

David "Doc" French: Blues Hot Recipe

French Cookin' is a New York-based Blues band. French Cookin' play a wide variety of styles, all firmly rooted in the blues. Ranging from the Delta to Chicago, back down to Texas and Louisiana "second line", we add our own unique touch to present a new look at this vital American art form. The band also play an extensive selection of original titles, presenting the Blues in a more contemporary vein while preserving the essence that is the core of the music. David "Doc" French talk about the blues, local scene and the band.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture?

The blues affected me from the very beginning. The first time I heard it the emotion and rhythm was infectious. Blues has the power to move people, both emotionally and physically. Watching people dancing to the music is freeing and gives great energy. It’s community music, neighborhood music, true music, the best way for one to express themselves. The way I see it at least.   

What does the blues mean to you?

Blues is all about our history, as a nation and as a people. The tradition of storytelling and affecting people is very strong and can’t be separated. Blues is all about life, death, troubles, joy, good times and bad and moving forward through everything to continue on. From the most basic solo singing to harmony vocals or with drums, harp, guitar and piano. It’s a chronicle of this journey we’re all on.

"Music has and can continue to cross all boundaries, bring people together for common good. (Photo by Laura Carbone‎)

How do you describe David French sound and songbook?

That’s a hard question to answer. When I was young, I heard standards by the great vocalists, Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole. It wasn’t until I was much older that I really came to appreciate that music. Then in the late 50’s and through the 60’s rock and roll, R&B and popular music came along and then I was introduced to the blues. I also lived overseas at times when I was young, so I was exposed to what we refer to as world music at an early age. All of those things are ingredients in the music I play today. While it’s certainly rooted in the blues, not all of it can be categorized as blues. Labels to me can be a problem and are often misleading.

We as a band still play many classic blues tunes and try to stay as true to the tradition as we can, but many of our other influences impact the music. It’s always growing and changing, but the roots must be maintained for it to have real worth. Vocally, I was impacted by Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Lowell Fulson and a few others. My guitar influences are Lonnie Johnson, Johnny Shines and early Buddy Guy. I feel rhythm is the most important part of guitar playing, it sets the tone and the time and you can build from there.

What characterize your music philosophy?

Be true to the music and honest with your audience. I think it’s very important to let your emotions out, show how you feel and not pretend to be something you’re not. I as a solo artist and with the band feel that if we can’t do justice to a song, we don’t do it. It’s important to respect the artist and the music they’ve created. I also believe simple is better. A song doesn’t need to be too busy or have flashy solos to make an impact. If you can do it well without a lot of muss and fuss, it feels better, sounds better and to me, makes more sense.

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

Every place abroad that I’ve had the chance to play, I have found that the blues is treated with great respect and admiration. Probably more so out of the United States. I think the music and the artists are truly given the respect and honor that they deserve. That’s very gratifying as a player and makes me feel that carrying on the tradition and being true to it is important.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

In the 70’s I met and played with the late saxophone player Frank Lowe. He taught me a great deal about jazz artists and free jazz. The blues we listened to and played had a deep effect on both of us. It reminded him of his early life. I also played with the great bluesman Larry Johnson for a while. Larry played with Johnny Shines and Revered Gary Davis, so he had that direct line back to the originals. He is a great guitar player and singer. Victoria Spivey was a big influence on me and many other New York blues players and knew pretty much everyone among the greats.

And then there’s the man who has been playing bass with me for the past almost 40 years, Bobby Day. Bobby is a rock solid bass player and anchor of the band. We’ve covered many miles and played countless gigs. He’s been there all the time and no matter what life has given him, he keeps moving forward.  

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I met the great piano player, Lafayette Leake, when he was playing with Willie Dixon’s band back in the 70’s. He talked to me about the importance of practicing. Practice. He said he was able to play all kinds of music, from the blues to Chopin. A lot of people aren’t aware that he played on many of Chuck Berry’s great songs as well.

No one ever told me specifically, but I believe it’s important for an artist to dress well, present yourself well for gigs. Be professional. Early pictures of the people I respected and learned from, including T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, to mention a few, they were always dressed up and looking great.

"The blues affected me from the very beginning. The first time I heard it the emotion and rhythm was infectious. Blues has the power to move people, both emotionally and physically." (Photo by Jesi Jackson)

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

One night, years ago, we were playing at Lucille’s Grill and a very drunk woman who had a hook on one hand climbed up on stage. She took one of the late Lester Schultz’s harmonicas, started playing it and then stuck it down her pants. That was pretty memorable.

Another time at Lucille’s I was playing a solo and Les Paul walked by, gave me a smile and patted me on the ass.  

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

I miss being able to go see and hear the masters play. So many of them have passed away. To be able to have a conversation with them, tell them how much they mean to you. You used to be able to go from club to club to club and hear great music all night long every night. And so many great clubs are gone, Max’s Kansas City, Academy of Music on 14th Street, The Lone Star, Manny’s Car Wash, and sadly the list goes on.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

So many of the great players are gone, that’s a sad thing, but there are still plenty of people who care about the blues tradition and the music. There will be players to keep the music alive, but if there aren’t places to play, make a living, spread the word, then it will be difficult to keep the word thriving.

Make an account of the case of New York blues scene.

While it’s not like it used to be, New York still has a strong blues scene. Some of the best players in the world live here or close by and play around as often as possible. Many of the old clubs and bars are gone, but there is still B.B. King’s Club/Lucille’s Grill, The Bitter End, 55 Bar, Terra Blues and Big Ed’s Blues Jam at the Red Lion. Established players are usually around and new players can come to listen, learn and play. Plus, the players who are here are really committed to keeping the music alive and moving it along.

Which is the most interesting period in local circuits?

The late 60’s through the early 80’s in New York were pretty amazing. There were lots of clubs and places to play. The Fillmore East had the best of everyone, there were free concerts in Central Park, lots of great bands at Max’s Kansas City, Dan Lynch, The Bitter End, just to mention a few.

"So many of the great players are gone, that’s a sad thing, but there are still plenty of people who care about the blues tradition and the music. There will be players to keep the music alive, but if there aren’t places to play, make a living, spread the word, then it will be difficult to keep the word thriving." (Photo by Victors Hawthorne)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from the Delta to Chicago, and from Texas to Louisiana?

When farming in the south became mechanized, field laborers were no longer needed. Without work, there was no money so people moved north and west where their friends and family had moved and there was factory work. Blues players went along because that was where the money was for them too. The music became electric, amplified and began to get heavier and swing more. The more musicians moved around, the more the music changed and areas began to establish their own sound and scenes. Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, anywhere the trains and buses ran, that’s where major centers of music and culture sprang up.

What were the reasons that you started music researches? What touched you and what are the secrets of?

I play guitar and have always loved it. Single notes, chords, as a rhythm or lead instrument, it’s always spoken to me very strongly. The acoustic work of Lonnie Johnson, Johnny Shines and Big Bill Broonzy, the power of Albert King and Buddy Guy, Muddy, Elmore James and later on, Jimi Hendrix, these all grabbed me. The depth of their emotion, the fluid movement and the total commitment and abandon they played with, just took me.

Honestly, I don’t know if there’s really a secret. Play what you know, what you feel, what moves you, what you believe in. And don’t let anyone make you change what you really love and feel. Let yourself be yourself.

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

Interesting question… To me the blues has always been about commentary and story telling. Speaking up and speaking out. Truthfully. It was a force in reporting on social, personal and political situations and still can be. Times have changed, so the blues specifically, has a greatly reduced impact compared to what it was. But when a musician plays live, you can share and spread your feelings about right and wrong. Music has and can continue to cross all boundaries, bring people together for common good.   

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

I’d love to go to the Newport Jazz Festival in the 60’s when Muddy and Wolf were still playing along with all the jazz, gospel and folk greats. Just to absorb all of that energy and depth.

French Cookin' - Official website

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