Veteran drummer Twist Turner talks about the legends and the fabulous era of Chicago Blues

"Go for your dreams but be prepared to starve and face a lot of hard times, you have to really be strong (and have a lot of money or a rich girlfriend) to make it in this business."

Twist Turner: The Blues creator

During the course of his 45 year long career Songwriter, Producer, Drummer Twist Turner has worked with 34 Grammy nominee's and 15+ W.C. Handy award winners. Twist was raised in Seattle and began his musical career with the late West coast bluesman Isaac Scott. In 1975 Twist packed his bags and headed for Chicago. Within weeks he was working with all his musical idols. Playing gigs with musicians he had only dreamed about meeting just a few months before. Twist was able to work with Hubert Sumlin several nights a week for nearly 10 years, he got the gig at Theresa's Lounge with the Jr. Wells Blues Band in 1977, and except for a very short stint with Buddy Guy's band he kept that gig for the most part of 2 years.

1984 found Twist restless for a change, he had just recorded a new album and he felt he needed a change of scenery, so he headed to New Orleans. Let's just say New Orleans didn't work out and not wanting to go right back to Chicago, he headed to Seattle for a year or so, fronting his own band Twist Turner and the Turning Point. By 1986 he'd had enough rain, and decided to give the San Francisco bay area a try. This turned out to be a great move. Twist immediately picked up a ton of gigs. He rekindled his friendship with former Jackie Wilson drummer, now turned vocalist Andrew Jefferies, began working with artists like Sonny Rhodes, Larry Davis, Deacon Jones, Guitar Gable, Jimmy McCracklin, Freddie Roulette and one of his favorite guitarists Luther Tucker.

By 1991 he got restless again so he decided to head back to Chicago. Twist got his gig back with Little Arthur Duncan pretty much right way. He played with him off and on for 31 years till his death in 2008.

Twist has played on over 50 records. Some of the artists he has recorded with include Big Mojo Elem, Sunnyland Slim, Hip Lankchan (Linkchain), Little Mack Simmons, Eddie Shaw, Jimmie Lee Robinson, Robert Plunkett, Paul Jones, Mick Taylor, Easy Baby, Lovie Lee, Billy Branch, ZZ Hill, Taildragger, Harmonica Hines, Maurice John Vaughn, Melvin Taylor, Willie Kent and more.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

When was your first desire to become involved in the Blues family?

I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. My father had a lot of old blues 78’s that I was listening to as a kid in the 50’s. I had no idea it was blues, I just knew that what I later learned was blues were the records that I liked.  Later in High School an acquaintance asked if I’d like to join his blues band, he took me to see Albert Collins at a local high school dance and that pretty much changed my whole world right then and there. This would have been 1969 or 70.

 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?

I grew up learning from and playing with the masters of Chicago blues. I was ducking bullets just to make a couple of dollars to put some food on my table. I’d say I had some really good teachers and roll models in my life, Jr. Wells was a big influence on me and so were so many others. Odie Payne taught me so much about drumming yet we never sat down at a drum set together and he never gave me a formal lesson, but he would always talk to me about drumming and taught me more than any other teacher.

 

How do you describe Twist Turner sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I learned from the old blues masters yet when writing I incorporate all the musical styles that have influenced me over the years, blues, R&B, old rock and roll and gospel, with a little of my own thrown in there. I never really listened to any rock music so I don’t have those influences. I guess my motto is now and will stay “Create, don’t recreate”

 

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

I think I have learned a little from everyone I have ever worked with, whether is was something I should incorporate in my life or something I shouldn’t do. 

 

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

I’m kind of hoping I won’t have a worst moment. I’d hate to think that’s all I have to look forward too!  I think the best times of my life were working with the house band at Theresas Lounge with Jr. Wells band.  I have played with so many artists and made so many records over the last 50 years it’s sometimes hard to remember.  All those night’s from about 1975-84 were spent just running from club to club sitting in on nights when I wasn’t working. I bet I used to go to 20 clubs in a week maybe more, and they’d always ask you to play a little bit (or a lot) those were nights that were just so much fun. Back then Chicago was like one big family, not divided like it is now.

 

 

What's the legacy of 70s Blues to nowadays and how have changed over the years since you first started in music?

The blues music of the 70’s didn’t have any rock influence in it at all, it was just pure blues, now there is so much rock, funk, fusion, Jimi Hendrix, prince added to it till it’s really not blues anymore.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

I would say the period between 1975-84 when I had first move to Chicago. I was just living the blues 24/7 at that point and I learned so much from so many talented musicians in that time.

 

What are the “things” and “feelings” you miss most nowadays from the 70s Blues scene?

The deep friendship we all had together, we were all just good buddies hangin’ out, sharing a drink and some music together it didn’t matter if you were black or white it was just all about the music.  The scene these days has drifted more into a contest one against another rather than the group effort feel it had in the 70’s. 

 

Are there any memories from Maxwell Street, which you’d like to share with us?

Maxwell st. was great!  I loved it from the first time I set foot there in 1975. You really had to be there, you can’t just see a movie of  it, you have to be able to smell it, hear it, feel it. I went to Maxwell st every weekend from 1975-84. Everything in my house was from Maxwell Street, there were blues bands on every corner although you did have to watch out for the pickpockets down there. Maxwell st was just a whole way of life, you really can’t explain it unless you were there. It was dirty, funky, gritty but we really had some good times.

 

You have played with many bluesmen, which are mentioned to be a legend. It must be hard, but which meets have been the biggest experiences for you? 

That’s hard to answer because there have been so many. I just find it amazing that this kid from Seattle could move to Chicago in 1975 and be taken in so quickly by this huge blues community at the time. I suppose highlights would include me getting to work with most of my childhood idols. Jimmy Reed, Jr. Wells, Buddy Guy, Louis Myers, Eddie Taylor, Sunnyland Slim, Luther Tucker, Little Milton, Hubert Sumlin and just hundreds more.

 

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

That’s a hard one….Jr Wells used to tell me that your word is like gold and that without your word you have nothing.  That was probably the best advice I got. Jr was also one of the few who never did me wrong and kept his word every time. If he told you something you could bank on it.

 

What the difference and similarity between Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle blues scene?

Well the the Chicago blues scene is the most real one. I only lived in New Orleans for a few months so I don’t know if I can really comment on that other than there really was no blues scene there that I could find. New Orleans is kinda like Chicago it has its own thing goin’ on.  The San Francisco scene is mostly made up of Caucasian players mostly copying the masters. When I lived in Calif. between 1986 and 1991 I mostly hung out in Oakland in the black clubs which was very similar to the Chicago scene only the players are a little more laid back.  When I left Seattle in 1975 there really wasn’t’ much of a blues scene, just some college kids playing at it, studying it with a couple exceptions. I started working with the most well known (at least in later years)black blues man in Seattle Isaac Scott. Isaac was a really strong player who drew on blues, and gospel as his major influences. Also in Seattle was LV Parr who played a lot of skid row bars, LV was Albert Kings man influence and had previously been the leader of the “In the Groove Boys” from Oceola, Ar.  I think of all 4 Chicago was by far the largest and most thriving scene.

 

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I have a memory of a really hot sweaty night at the Checkerboard on 43rd st.  It was one of those nights where everything was just clicking.  I was on drums, Johnny B  Gayton was on bass, Kevin Donnely from Lefty Dizz’s band was initially on guitar, I believe Lefty Dizz was on the other guitar, and James Cotton and Billy Branch were trying to cut each others heads on Harmonica. We were just smoking that night. I noticed Buddy Guy stick his head around the corner to see who was playing, something he rarely ever did.  It must have been getting good to him too because before I knew it Kevin had handed him his guitar.  That was one hell of a jam.  I suppose a lot of the  other highlights would be playing various festivals around the world.  I’ve played festivals in Europe with Andre Williams and the Eldorados, The Chicago blues Harmonica project, Little Mack Simmons, Liz Mandville Greeson, Taildragger, Little Arthur Duncan and Charles “Delta Blues Hog” Hayes. I’ve also appeared on more than 60 blues records.

 

With such an illustrious career, what has given you the most satisfaction and which memory makes you smile?

I have probably gotten the most satisfaction just knowing I have made so many good friends over the years. A funny story which makes me smile was on night some lady stopped by Theresa’s selling a bag full of wig and Jr. put on a long blonde woman’s wig and was running around the bar hitting on all the guys pretending he was a woman(with a mustache)!  We had such fun we were smiling everyday!

 

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 real, that’s why it’s always with us.  One wish? I wish that they never ever use drum machines on blues records like they are doing on Southen Soul records now.

 

In your opinion what was the reasons that made the Blues to be the center of the music life in the 60s & 70s?

It was relevant to the time. Just like country western music was relevant to the white listeners, blues was relevant and could be related to by the black listeners and some hip white listeners as well.

 

Do you know why the Blues was connected to the avant-garde, bohemian; and underground culture?

Possibly because they were poor and could relate to the message in the music.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Go for your dreams but be prepared to starve and face a lot of hard times, you have to really be strong (and have a lot of money or a rich girlfriend) to make it in this business.

 

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? 

My free time?  It’s been decades since I’ve had free time!!!  Lately I’ve taken up photography. I enjoy that a lot. Besides taking pictures of blues musicians I also take a lot of pictures of vanishing things in America, I especially like old neon signs whether they are working or not.  B&W is my favorite medium to work in. 

 

What is your music DREAM? Happiness is……

My music dream?  I would just be happy doing what I love for a living.

Happiness is…I have so many answers for that one...to make a simple answer I think it all comes down to LOVE...Love and Happiness

 

Twist Turner - Official website

 

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