Tim Elliott of Blues 'N' Trouble talks about the British Blues, Mike Vernon, Lazy Lester, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy & Robert Cray

"The Blues offers me LIFE and makes me a whole person."

Tim Elliott & Blues 'N' Trouble: Rough, Untutored & progress, Slow

Rising from the depths of Livingston in the central belt of Scotland in the early 1980s, Tim Elliott and Blues ‘n’ Trouble have journeyed from their Edinburgh roots to secure an international audience and fan base, touring incessantly, working with blues greats such as Robert Cray, Pinetop Perkins, Charlie Musselwhite, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Their Chicago blues inspired sound, delivered with take-no-prisoners attitude and barely controlled energy behind Tim’s impassioned vocal and harmonica, caused BB King to remark that B ‘n’ T were “the best white blues band in the world” - an opinion reinforced by the winning of a WC Handy award for their album with Louisiana bluesman Lazy Lester.

Formed by singer and harmonica player Tim Elliott, influenced by Canned Heat and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band as well as older artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Jimmy Reed, Blues ‘n’ Trouble went through numerous personnel changes while building a loyal following in the pubs and clubs of central Scotland.



The release of a single, Mystery Train, in 1984 and the decision to become a professional band led to the release of a first album, First Trouble, in 1985. Musicians credits include Tim Elliott - vocals, harmonica; John Bruce – guitar; Jim Brown – guitar; Pete Sklaroff – guitar; Gus Boyd – bass; Chris Grey – bass; Willie Pettigrew – bass; Paul Collins – drums; Sean Scott – drums.

Their second album, No Minor Keys (1986) includes a stable line up of Tim Elliott, John Bruce, Tele Dave Neill (guitar), Alan “Scotty” Scott (bass), and Sean Scott (drums). The album also includes guest musicians Robert Cray and “sixth Stone”, Scottish born Ian Stewart of the Rolling Stones on piano.


With their albums achieving chart success, the band were touring constantly, playing 250 or more gigs a year all over the UK, Europe and Scandinavia, marrying a powerful drums/bass/guitar rhythm section to the crowd-pleasing spectacle of fiery showman guitarist John Bruce and the explosive vocal and harmonica of Tim Elliott. At a time when the likes of Stevey Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray had helped to raise the profile of Blues music to a high level, Blues ‘n’ Trouble were the living embodiment of travelling bluesmen. If Blues ‘n’ Trouble weren’t about to play your town, it was because they’d just left it.

A third album, Hat Trick, produced by Mike Vernon (previous credits include the John Mayall/Eric Clapton album that had helped to launch the British Blues Boom in the 1960s) was released on his revived Blue Horizon label in 1986, swiftly followed by a Vernon-produced collaboration with Lazy Lester. Lazy Lester Rides Again received a prestigious WC Handy award and led Blues ‘n’ Trouble to the Memphis Blues Festival. John Bruce’s guitar still hangs in the Rum Boogie Café in Memphis, Tennessee.

Further regular album releases lead to 1991s Down To The Shuffle, winner of a British Blues Connection award. By now Tele Dave had left the band, and John Bruce had recruited ex-Rory Gallagher keyboard player Lou Martin, while “Lucky” Lox Lovell had replaced Sean Scott on drums. John Bruce himself left the band to be replaced by guitarist Mike Park for 1994s Bag Full Of Boogie live album, while the year 2000 album Blues Graffiti saw the band reduced to a quartet of Tim, Mike, Scotty and Lox. Devil’s Tricks was recorded by same personnel and finally released in 2003. Lost Deposit, a live album and DVD released in 2005 was actually a recording from 1992.

In a return to the classic B'n'T dual guitar template, Sandy Tweeddale was asked to join the band in 2001 – his song Tennessee Whiskey had already been covered by B’n’T on Devil’s Tricks. Alan “Scotty” Scott departed to live in Holland, and was replaced by bassman Gus Boyd (previously a member in the early 1980s). Lox Lovell was superceded on drums by Andy “Mr Boom” Munro. More recently Gus'’ commitments elsewhere required Rod Kennard to deputise on bass – Rod was asked to join on a full time basis in May 2011. Later in the year long-standing mainstay of the band Mike Park left the ensemble, to be replaced by keyboard/guitarist Angus Rose.

Tim Elliott and Blues ‘n’ Trouble have continued as flag bearers of British Blues, most recently touring in France, and with Club and Festival appearances forthcoming. The B’n’T Thirtieth Anniversary approaches!


Interview by Michael Limnios


Tim, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues and who were your first idols?

I first started taking an interest in the blues from a quite early age, probably about six or seven years old. My parents took me to a Drive in Cinema called The Metro to see 'High Society' and I was totally smitten by Louis Armstrong, so much so that my father then bought me an album called 'Satchmo The Great'. So Satchmo was my first idol but I also used to listen to my big brother's records of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochran, all of who are still idols of mine.

 

What was the first gig you ever went to and what were the first songs you learned?

The first proper gig/concert I went to was to see Cliff Richard and The Shadows at The Palace Theatre.I also used to go and see Mickey Most and the Playboys and Johnny Kongas and the G Men.

The first songs I learnt were probably ' Tutti Frutti ' and ' High School Confidential '.

 

Tell me about the beginning of Blues 'n' Trouble. How did you choose the name and how did it start?

Blues 'n' Trouble started because there were no decent gigs to go to in the local area where I could hear the music I wanted to hear so I decided to form a band and play my kind of music myself.

I chose the name of the band from an old album that I had in the house by Dr Isiah Ross, although the song title was ' Blues and Trouble ', I thought it would sound more hip putting 'n' instead of 'and' as in R 'n' B.

The band started in Livingston which is about fifteen miles to the west of Edinburgh in Scotland.

 

What characterizes the sound of Blues 'n ' Trouble?

It is difficult to define what exactly characterizes the B 'n' T sound as we are influenced by so many different types of music and I also like whichever musicians are in the band to have the freedom to express themselves which also has a vast influence on the band's sound at any given time.

 

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

Probably the best moment of my career was doing the support for B.B.King at The Hammersmith Odeon in London back in the 80's it was part of out first tour away from our home area. I had been to the Hammersmith Odeon many times to see acts in the past but never thought I would actually appear as a performer on that fabled stage.

The worst time has to be missing out on performing at The Reading Festival. We were booked on the line up as the opening act and had been playing in Edinburgh the night before. However we made the mistake of spreading the musicians over three different means of transport. Two got there in plenty of time but the one with ' Telecaster Dave ' and myself in it broke down near Birmingham. Sadly by the time we arrived we had just missed our slot. I've never made that mistake again.

 

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording time?

When we were recording our second album 'No Minor Keys' we had Ian Stewart from The Rolling Stones playing piano and we wanted to record an old Otis Rush song which was in a minor key and Ian simply stood up from the piano and said " No Minor Keys" and that was that. Ian was such a great guy with a wicked sense of humour and had us in stitches throughout the session with his stories of The Rolling Stones. He knew we didn't have any money and would take us to the pub and buy us food and drink to keep us going. Sadly Ian passed away within a short time of the end of the recording session so as a lasting epitaph we called the album ' No Minor Keys'.

 

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? When did you last laughing in gigs and why?

One of the most memorable gigs was playing at Oxford University, not so much for the gig, although it was a real gas with all these upper crust ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines, but for what happened afterwards. As you can imagine there was a lot of free booze which our manager at the time, Andy McQueen, took full advantage of. We were standing in the hospitality tent talking, I turned around for a few moments to listen to one of the other acts but when I turned back Andy was nowhere to be seen. It was only when I looked down and saw a pair of shoes sticking out of the bottom of the tent that I realised that he had passed out and the rest of his body was on the outside of the tent. In fact a very similar thing happened to our lead guitarist Mike Park at The Maryport Blues Festival. All very Monty Python.

 

Where did you pick up your harp style? In which songs can some one hear the best of your harp work?

I picked up my harp style from an Ndebele tribal leader in 1962 for five shillings which I thought was an excellent deal. I have made my money back threefold since then.

Jokes aside, I don't really have a harp style as such, It's just something that I have developed over time. You know walking down those long dusty roads in the African Veldt sucking and blowing till something comes out. In the early days my style was greatly influenced by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones and Keith Relf of The Yardbirds as well as Sonny Boy Williamsom the Second of course.

My favourite harp pieces that I have recorded are probably ' Sorry You've Been Troubled ' from the Devils Tricks album and ' Why, Why, Why ' and ' Tribute To Kees ' from the ' Down To The Shuffle Album '.

 

Are there any memories from studio with Mike Vernon, which you'd like to share with us?

Mike Vernon is a lovely man and did so much to help us in the early years. We had no money and we were playing for pennies. Although we recorded the album ' With Friends Like These ' at his big posh studio in Chipping Norton, I still think my favourite times were recording the album ' Hat Trick ' in freezing weather in a cow barn in the middle of an old farm somewhere in rural Essex. The band would be playing in the main barn area and Mike had this tiny little space with his reel to reel tape machine at the other end of the barn with a partition to try to stop spillage. A fat chance of that with ' Jivin ' Johhny Bruce in the band. It was so primitive now that I look back but such great fun , and everyday Mike would treat us to a slap up meal at the Greasy Spoon Cafe  down the road. Great times.

 

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from recording time with Lazy Lester?

We actually recorded the album ' Lazy Lester Rides Again ' in the same Cow Barn in Essex that we recorded ' Hat Trick ' with the same recording equipment. It was the first time I had met Lester and he was a lovely gentleman, but knew what he wanted to play and want he didn't. Mike Vernon was trying to get him to play some new songs that he had written and also one called ' Long Gone Man ' that ' Jivin' Johnny Bruce and I had written for him, but he was having none of it. Still in hindsight he was right because he won the W.C.Handy award for that album.

 

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs and who were your mentors in songwriting?

For songs that I write myself I'll always get a title first, usually some line that I have seen in a book or a newspaper and then write lyrics to go around the title. It's only after that I decide on a melody part. When I am co-writing, the other musician/s will usually come up with a riff or melody and I will work my lyrics around that.

I don't think I have any particular mentors in my song writing style. I'm quite happy to steal ideas from anyone.

 

Any of Blues Standards have any real personal feelings for you and what are some of your favourites?

I love ' Don't Start Me To Talkin ' by Sonny Boy Williamson The Second as well as ' Leave My Wife Alone ' by John Lee Hooker and of course ' On The Road Again ' by Canned Heat. In fact I have  deep personal feelings for pretty much everything that came out of the Chess Studios in the 50's and early 60's as these were the first 'REAL' American blues that I heard.

 

Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

My music comes from everypart of me including my back passage at times. I'm not a trained musician so all of my music comes right out of 'ME'. I'm not sure where it comes from, it just does.


 

What does the BLUES mean to you and what does Blues offered you?

The Blues is a platform for me to express myself. This could be done through any platform I suppose but the Blues is the one that sits most naturally with me.

The Blues offers me LIFE and makes me a whole person. It's a difficult thing to explain in words, the feeling you get when you walk out on the stage and hit that first note. MAGICAL!


How do you see the future of blues music? Give one wish for the BLUES.

The Blues will never stop. There be may be little peaks as in the 30's, 50's, 60's and 80's and then there will be troughs but it will always be there.

My one wish for the Blues is for people not to adopt an ' anorak ' mentality and embrace with open arms and minds other musical influences to help to re-generate and re-invigorate the Blues.

 

What do you learn about yourself from music? Three words to describe your sound and your progress

Music helps you to be able to work with others and to not be selfish. It's very important to let others express themselves as nine times out of ten they will come up with that little something that makes a good track a great track.

My sound and progress in three words? Rough, Untutored and progress, Slow.

 

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would avoid to do again?

If I was Dr. Who in my Tardis and could go back in time I would re-master our album 'Poor Moon' as all the power from the studio was lost when in was mastered in Glasgow. It's still a good album but just needs that extra edge to be put back again.

What I would avoid would be to sign up with any Music Managers as they are all a bunch of crooks or incompetent. Better to do the business yourself.

 

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

Well I managed to meet quite a few in my time, B.B.King, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Lazy Lester etc.Sadly all the others are dead now, but if I could bring one person back to life it would be Alan Wilson from Canned Heat who in my opinion was the best all around Blues musician there has been in the modern era.

 

Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best friend?

I have a few people that I have worked with that I consider best friends. There is Sandy Tweeddale who plays guitar for me at the moment, 'Jivin' Johnny Bruce and Mike Park, but probably my best, best friend is 'Boogie' Walter who is probably better known as Dr. Boogie.

 

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs with Junior Wells and Buddy Guy?

We played support to Junior Wells and Buddy Guy at Dingwalls in London. This is a place we used to play a lot in our own right. Buddy was a wee bit out of it ( I think he was still in his Bad Boy days ) although he still played well. Junior Wells was majestic and immaculately dressed and held the audience in the palm of his hand. Eric Clapton came on stage to play a few numbers in his cashmere cardigan, looking very Southside of Chicago... not. Dingwalls had a dressing room to the side of the stage that you could fit four people in at a squeeze. The Club Security weren't allowing anyone backstage but let me through as I also had my gear there. Buddy was knocking back a bottle of whiskey and Junior was drinking straight from a bottle of Gordon's Gin. I was just going up to say how much I had enjoyed his set but before I could say a word Junior spits out " Who the fuck you boy, and what the fuck you doin' here ". I explained that I was the singer and harp player from the support band and Junior says " Yeah, you been listenin' to my records boy "and gave me an unopened bottle of Gordon's Gin to take away with me. Crazy man crazy !

 

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your meet with Pinetop Perkins and Robert Cray?

We were playing in a pub in London called the George Robey and this American guy came up to ask if he could play a number with us. We said " Yeah, sure " but he was one of these guys that once he was on the stage it was difficult to get him off. He was an alright player but nothing special, but he said he was bringing Pinetop Perkins over to the U.K. for a one off gig, once again at Dingwalls, and would we like to do a support and also be Pinetop's band on the night. We said sure but didn't think much of it. Low and behold a short time later we were told that the gig at Dingwalls was on. The gig to be quite honest was a bit of a shambles because this American Cat was a bit of a Control Freak and tried to turn it into a Cabaret type set which we don't do. Anyway we got through the gig and Pinetop played and sang really well. At the end of the gig our manager, Andy McQueen, went to the office to get our fee from the club organiser who said everything had been payed to the American Cat. Well Andy was as big a shyster as the American so managed to extract our money from him. It then transpired that their flight back to the U.S.A. was not until mid morning the next day and this American hadn't even booked an hotel for Pinetop who was not exactly a young man at this time to have to stay up all night on the streets of London. So Andy asked them back to his flat and we stayed up all night drinking gin, with Pinetop telling us all these amazing stories of his early life and when he was with Muddy Waters. A good time was had by all.

Robert Cray was on his first tour in the U.K. and as I remember the promoter asked us to play the support on a number of gigs as we were starting to get quite a large following and it would help to bring more people into Robert's gigs. One instance I remember when we were both playing a club on the south coast of England with Robert and his bass player Richard Cousins comes bursting into our dressing room shouting " Where's my pizzas man, someone eaten my fucking pizzas ". We later found out it had been our Road Crew. Whoops !! Still I think they made up later when Richard was given a nice little present to consume.

At the time of this tour we were also recording our album ' No Minor Keys ' and Robert very kindly came into the studio to play on a track called ' Tight and Juicy '. It sounds as if Robert and ' Jivin ' Johnny Bruce are having a guitar battle play off but this was all the trickery of technology as we were touring in Europe at the time so it would have to have been a bit of a long distance telepathic jam.

 

Is there any similarity between Blues 'n' Trouble and Troublemakers?

Obviously there will be some similarity between B 'n' T and The Troublemakers as I sing and play in both outfits, but there is a vast difference in the sound and type of music with B 'n' T being on more of a Rock Blues slant and The Troublemakers leaning more towards country blues. However there are times when both creations meet somewhere in the middle.

 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

A musician is like an artist, there is no such thing as a ' GOOD ' musician or a ' GOOD ' artist. If someone likes your work then it is good in his or her eyes. When I get in front of the band and start playing and people are dancing, laughing, shouting and the girls are throwing their underwear on to the stage then all the musicians in the band, as well as myself, must be ' GOOD ' musicians as people are enjoying it.

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

No one has ever revealed any blues music secrets to me and I have never asked. I've always played with a changing personnel in the band and have had to adapt my playing accordingly in a natural evolution.

 

Of all the people you've meeting with, who do you admire the most?

The person I admire most is Fito de la Parra from Canned Heat who has managed, God knows how, to keep the legend of Canned Heat in the public eye without it becoming a cabaret tribute band and still being able to evolve the music. Not an easy task with some of the people he has had in the band.!!!

 

Who are your favourite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?

My favourite blues artists are Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Charlie Musselwhite, The Yardbirds, first two albums of both The Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things, Sonny Boy Williamson, of course, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Dr Isiah Ross.

The last album I bought was ' Preachin The Blues: The Music Of Mississippi Fred McDowell '.

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do you think this is?

The Blues is basically man and womankind calling out from their innermost souls. This music has been with us since the dawn of time and will remain until the extinction of mankind.


 

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

When I first started everything was still on record discs, either 45 or 33 and a 1/3 R.P.M. and C.D.'s where still in the experimental stages. Now C.D's are becoming extinct with everything being downloaded which completely devalues the music and the musicians as a throw away commodity which is very sad. There is still no pleasure as great as caressing an L.P. cover with gorgeous artwork and cover notes that you can read without having to use a magnifying glass.

 

What do you think of UK BLUES and how close are to the US BLUES?

Well I was brought up listening to U.K. or as I prefer it to be termed, British Blues so that is what I play. British Blues is far more upbeat and varied as none of us had the opportunity of seeing the black blues legends at first hand and thereby learning from them. What we had access to was either just a record or hearing a British musician's interpretation of a record that he had heard. So British Blues probably started developing with Lonnie Donnigan and has developed into many different sub-cultures on the way. We play British Blues in B'n'T and I'm proud of that.

We've only played one tour in the U.S.A in the 80's when the City of Memphis very kindly asked us to come over and play at their year celebrating British Culture which was a great honour. From what I heard, a lot of the American acts seem to have developed a certain groove or sound and do not try to experiment or break away from that. All play exceptionally well but it would be unlikely for B.B.King to try to do a version of ' Anarchy in the U.K. ' whereas I would be only to happy to give it a go.

Of course there have been a number of American Blues artists who have taken the plunge like Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits and the late Henry Vestine who just celebrated his birthday on Christmas Day.

 

Which is the most interesting period of Scottish Blues and why? What characterizes the sound of local blues scene?

Personally, I feel the most interesting period in Scottish Blues was from the mid 80's to the mid 90's. After B'n'T started to get a bit of a name for themselves it encouraged a large number of young musicians to try their hand at playing blues based music as well. Some of which are still performing to this day.

The Scots are very discerning but also open minded with regard to music so there is no specific Scottish Sound in the local blues scene. You will have some musicians who play hard rock blues, soul blues, country blues or most often a mixture of all of these and many other influences and you will get blues fans happy to go and see all of these different crossovers. The lead guitarist in B'n'T, Sandy Tweeddale for example, is also a fantastic country and ragtime blues guitarist and he performs these styles in his own right as I do on occasion with my somewhat hybrid style with The Troublemakers.

One young man I have heard and played with recently in Scotland is Jed Potts who is already a fabulous guitarist and is now starting to develop his vocal skills. Certainly someone to look out for in the future. So the Scottish blues scene is still very much alive.

 

What are your plans for the future? Do you have a message for the Greek fans?

We are recording a new album at the moment and have six numbers down so far. It will be spread over a bit of time due to the current financial restrictions in these hard days but we hope to get it finished by the middle of 2012. We are also touring with Maggie Bell the legendary singer from Stone The Crows, another great Scottish blues outfit. Maggie will be using the musicians from B'n'T as her actual band as well as B'n'T performing in their own right of course.

In February 2012 we will be performing at the Seven Days of the Blues Festival in Lille, France with this format.

My message to all the Greek blues fans is to listen to as many different types of blues as you can and don't get stuck in a rut. Also to try and get some gigs for B'n'T in your lovely country as we would love to come and play for you again. We did play a couple of gigs in Athens back in the 80's and even appeared on one of your television shows.

Greece is a lovely nation and my wife and I, whenever possible, go to Greece for our annual holidays.

I know you are experiencing very difficult times as we are in the U.K. as well, but always keep your national pride to the forefront. Don't forget Greece belongs to the Greeks not the E.U.


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