The blues guitarist Forrest McDonald talks about Roy Gaines, Jimmy Page, Muscle Shoals, Jimmy Reed, and Duane Allman's guitar

"Blues music gives me the opportunity to connect and convey my feelings on a pure emotional level."

Forrest McDonald: Human Condition Blues

Forrest McDonald was seven years old when he first heard blues man Josh White performs and as he puts it, I was hooked! This experience was augmented by the extensive record collection at the McDonald home, Jimmy Witherspoon and T-Bone Walker albums were favorites. By New Year’s Eve 1964, Forrest McDonald played his first live gig with a group called the Seagrams 7. The McDonald home was in close proximity to the location of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, where the musical talent on display consumed Forrest - he saw Ray Charles and Leadbelly perform and caught Bob Dylan’s controversial switch from acoustic guitar to electric.

Backstage at Newport in 1969, Forrest played Jimmy Page’s Les Paul, trading licks with Page and Jeff Beck. McDonald also played and toured with the Wadsworth Mansion, who had a Top-20 hit with Sweet Mary I’m Coming Home. The group toured with Alice Cooper and Edgar Winter and appeared on American Band stand” and The Dating Game.”
In the early 70s, McDonald relocated to Hollywood, where he met and formed The Force with Tony Carey and Bob Zinner. The Force and the reformed Wadsworth Mansion now called Slingshot performed regularly at The Whiskey, The Starwood, and the Hollywood Palladium, and for a two-year period, McDonald jammed on the Sunset Strip with Van Halen. During this time, McDonald met and recorded with Steve Perry (pre-Journey).  Back on the west coast, McDonald stayed busy with studio sessions. He recorded with former members of Ike and Tina Turner, played with Jimmy Reed and Bonnie Bramlett, and contributed the guitar solo to Bob Seger’s mega-hit Old Time Rock & Roll. Seger’s track actually recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio brought McDonald south.
Some 30 years after they first met, Forrest McDonald and Raymond Victor are still playing together . To duo have toured the world over,  performing and recording with such luminaries as John Lee Hooker,  Charlie Musselwhite,  Bobby “Blue” Bland,  Roy Gaines,  Bobby Womack, Luther Tucker,  Silver Platinum and Gold,  Roger Dollarhide,  Marie Franklin,  Jerry Lee Lewis,  and other artists. McDonald moved to Atlanta in 1991. His own label “World Talent Records” provides a haven for the group, which was voted Best Southern Blues Band” by Real Blues Magazine in 1999, 2000 and 2001. In 2004 a chance meeting occurred in 2003 between then Kaylon Ward and Forrest while recording Fiona Boyes Live in Atlanta. The two became good friends and soon were playing regularly together.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Forrest, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & from whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
In 1964 I had been playing the guitar for 6 months listening to the Beatles and other pop groups. My dad turned me on to a T-Bone Walker Album called ‘Two Bones and a Pick’. I loved Stormy Monday Blues and Two Bones and a Pick, Mean Old World, and the T-Bone Shuffle and learned how to play them. Eric Clapton took the best of the American Blues Pioneers and took it to the next level. Initially I learned a lot from Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Mike Bloomfield, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Leadbelly, and Jimmy Witherspoon.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
I was seven years old when he first heard blues man Josh White perform and “I was hooked!”
When I was 15 I went to the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals in RI, where I caught Bob Dylan’s controversial switch from acoustic guitar to electric. He was backed up by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and was booed off the stage. He started crying and returned with a Gibson Acoustic guitar and sang ‘It’s all over now baby blue’. I think Smoke Stack Lightening was the first song I tried to learn.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
Blues music gives me the opportunity to connect and convey my feelings on a pure emotional level. Expressing myself playing blues gives me a chance to be happy, sad, up, or down. I love to boogie and a good shuffle really gets my blood going. I also love a slow blues because it gives me a chance to show a lot of emotion and passion in my playing. Blues is something you feel or don’t feel.  Many years ago Chuck Berry asked Keith Richards why the Rolling Stones stopped playing blues. Keith replied ‘There ain’t no money in it Chuck’. That is true there is no big money to be made playing the blues. If there was it would be called the greens.

Are there any memories from Backstage at Newport in 1969?
Jimmy Page was tripping and asked me if I had a joint. I did not but had some prescribed sedatives and he took a few. I was circulating from one dressing room to the next talking with the guys. Martin Barre from Jethro Tull was a friend so we hung out some. Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, and Alvin Lee were all putting on hair spray when David Clayton Thomas walked into their dressing room. It was an awkward moment for David.  I was with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page trading licks backstage. When Johnny Winter jammed with BB King I sat with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in the audience. They were saying BB will kill him. But Johnny played his ass off and stole the spotlight on that jam. The whole weekend was incredible like that.

What were your favorite guitars back then, how do you describe your sound & your progress?
I had a 58 Gibson Fretless Wonder that was incredible. The neck got a crack in it and I sold it. I wish that I still had that one. I also had a 1955 Stratocaster that Duane Allman almost bought from me. I sold it during hard times. I also had a 1958 Les Paul Jr. Like the one Leslie West from ‘Mountain’ played. I had a 50 Watt Marshall with a Hi Watt cabinet that sounded great. Those were some of my favorites. I like the overdriven tub sound from an amp. I am using s supped up Fender Blues Jr. Amp for smaller venues these days and my Johnson Stereo 150 for larger shows. Live you may hear me playing any of a number of guitars from a 72 Fender Stratocaster, a Gibson Flying V, Les Paul, Music Man, and Zion Radicaster.

Tell me about the beginning of McDonald and Raymond Victor Duo. How did you get together and where did it start?
It was 1974 in LA I was playing in Slingshot. We were the reformed Wadsworth Mansion. Our lead vocalist Steve Jablecki had surgery on his polyps. We were booked at Bill Gazzarris on the Strip with VanHalen. I asked Rob Robertie my drummer if he had any suggestions. He brought Raymond out to the house and we jammed. Ray sounded great and I hired him for any jobs we had booked. Steve was upset about it however, none of us in the band could afford not to work. On the first song of the night Ray took a handful of peanuts and tossed them in his mouth. I knew there was a 4 bar intro and Ray had to come in singing. He forgot. Skip Perkins our bass player turned to me and said man this guy must have some chops. One beat before Ray had to come in singing we see a massive blast of peanuts fly into the air and Ray came in right on time. He can be very funny. We have been working together in various ventures ever since then.

Are there any memories from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, which you’d like to share with us?
The day I met Bobby Womack I had my Fender Stratocaster slung behind my back like a rifle.  Jimmy Johnson introduced us. Bobby said man the way you carry that guitar I know you can play. We walked down the hall into the studio and I played 6 or 7 solos on Bobby’s ‘The Roads of Life’ CD.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience with Bonnie Bramlett.
I recall playing one night at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, CA, with Bonnie. We did an old song called ‘Since I met you Baby’ she sang it to me and it was very special.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience with Jimmy Reed.
Jimmy Read was a cool guy. I took him to my health club in Encino in 1975. We were sitting in the Jacuzzi chilling. Jimmy was wearing a hat, sunglasses, and a gold chain.  A salesman from the club approached us and said Mr. Reed how you like the facilities. Jimmy said great it’s real nice. The salesman got a big smile on his face and said would you like to join? Jimmy said hell no I’m just getting some ideas on how to set my pad up. I cracked up laughing while the demoralized salesman skulked away.

What advice has given Roy Gaines, which memory from Mr. Gaines makes you smile?
Roy is a bluesman for life, the real deal a great player singer and showman.  He shared some stories with me on the down side of the blues that were not for publication. I can say this he was very happy when he bought his first Rolls Royce.  That was a happy day for him. He also recorded with Billy Holiday and I was very impressed with that.

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new, what was the last record you bought
Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, Jimmie Witherspoon and Muddy Waters are right at the top of my list. I buy records all the time. I just bought a Josh White Album that I already had a copy of but couldn’t find until I got a second one. I really enjoy Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck, BB King, and Mike Bloomfield. I listen to the new guys. I just saw the Bart Walker band from Nashville and became a fan right away.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

There have been many. Perhaps one of the best moments was when I learned that the solo I played was going to be on Bob Seger’s Stranger in town Album. One of the worst was when I got the Album and it said thanks to the Muscle Shoals Rhythm section. I was looking forward to getting a lot of studio work in LA when the record came out. It was not until Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits came out that I got credit for my work.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet? 

I would like to do a show with BB King. My friend E.G. Kight recently opened two night for him in Atlanta for New Years. That had to be a great time. I would have enjoyed that.

How has the blues business changed over the years since you first started in music?
It was not much of a business when I started.  There are a lot more young people playing the blues than when I started in the 60’s. You have to be really good to play the blues at a Masters level. It is a tragedy that there is no big money to be made. It takes real talent to be a great Blues Artist and there should be a salary to match. Unfortunately there is not. Today’s pop music is mostly computer generated with a myriad of effects layered in. There is nothing that takes the place of a hard driving shuffle, some jump blues, or cry in your beer blues. It is music that is real played by people who love it and don’t do it for the money. Almost everyone has access to a studio and a lot more artists are making their own records. With the rise of the internet marketing has changed dramatically. In these bad economic times many clubs and performing venues are closing. It is harder for bands to stay on the road. Gas and food prices have skyrocketed. It is a very hard time for a bluesman these days.  However, there has always been adversity and the blues is a perfect outlet for what your soul needs to express. The Blues Foundation has done a great job of organizing the blues with their annual IBC challenge and the blues awards. There are blues web rings and local blues societies now and there were none to speak of in the 60’s. In some respects the more things change the more they remain the same. I recall meeting T-Bone Walker in the early 70’s playing at Joe’s Bar in Central Square in Boston. He was broke and his health was bad, but he was still out there making a buck the only way he knew how. I told him that I was a huge fan and really dug his records for years. He seemed amazed that a white kid looked up to him and was such a big fan. All too often we equate money with success. T-Bone was bigger than life for me. A legend, and Idol, yet he was broke and felt very unsuccessful. It is a shame that one you achieve a level of greatness for years of devotion to your craft that you don’t automatically get a million dollars and residuals for life. Unfortunately it just doesn’t work that way. We should count our blessings as artists and be happy for every person we reach. Most of us do and that helps to keep us going through hard times.    

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?
I would probably put more emphasis on my vocals. I always worked with great singers like Raymond Victor, Andrew Black, Steve Perry, Kathi McDonald, and Bonnie Bramlett. With people that good in your band it’s hard to open your mouth. If, I could start all over that is the one aspect I would change.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES.
Blues is an expression of the human condition retold in countless ways. Really good writers keep the art going by re-inventing the obvious feelings we all have such as; love, joy, sorrow, hope, heartache, and happiness.  It is bigger than a fad so it will never die. It’s a gift from God. My wish for ‘The Blues’ is for it to be ‘The Greens’ as in Cash for all the great artists.

What do you feel is the key to your success as a musician?
Perseverance is the key for me. I never give up.  Then you must surround yourself with as many successful people as possible. There may be one artist but it is a team that wins in the end.  A chain is only as strong as the weakest link. You have to have great people working with you sharing a common goal. I am working on a book right now that is my life story viewed through the prism of music and how the world has changed during my journey.  I am also working on some new recording with Raymond Victor, Tony Carey, Andrew Black, Lawrence Proman and Kaylon McDonald.  You can’t be afraid to change and take a new direction now and then to keep fresh as an artist.

What turns you on? Happiness is……
Happiness is a great gig with adoring fans. It is a night when the lights, sound, and band all come together in a tidal wave of emotion and spontaneous eruptions of joy occur. There is a give and take of energy. You give it all for the fans and they give it back to you. In turn that feeling is worth more than any money can buy.  

Forrest McDonald's website

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Tags: Forrest, Gaines, Interview, Kathi, Limnios, McDonald, Newport, Reed, Shoals

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