Veteran drummer & producer Twist Turner talks about the legends of Chicago Blues and the Battle of 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."

Twist Turner: The Blues Creator

During the course of his 54-year musical career songwriter, producer and drummer Twist Turner has worked with over 40 Grammy Award winners and or nominees and countless W.C.Handy/BMA winners. Twist was raised in Seattle and began his musical career playing and recording with the late West coast bluesman and guitar god Isaac Scott. In 1975 Twist packed his bags and moved to Chicago. Within a matter of months he was working with all his musical idols. In 1977 he got the most prestigious house gig in Chicago at Theresa's Lounge with the Jr. Wells Blues Band, and except for a very short stint with Buddy Guy's band he kept that gig for the better part of 2 years. Twist has literally worked with the who's who of the blues music world. He used to joke that it was much easier to name the 1/2 dozen blues artists that he hadn't worked with than to name the ones he had, and he was probably right. In 1984 he left Chicago and moved to New Orleans a city known for it’s rich musical traditions. In 1985 he headed back to Seattle for a year then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for a period of over 5 years. Missing the big city life in 1991 he decided to head back to Chicago.

Twist got his gig back with Little Arthur Duncan pretty much right away. He played with him off and on for 31 years till his death in 2008. Following Arthur's death, Twist began working regularly with Mary Lane's band and taking the occasional gig with Elmore James Jr. Twist spend 2012 to early 2017 living in Calif and returned to the Chicago area once again in mid 2017. He can be found playing and recording with some of Chicagos finest blues and R&B musicians. Twist has played on over 60 records and DVD's. He continues to record and produce to this day, he always has a project or two in the works. His new project is a completion of the Bay Area blues anthology, titled "Battle of the Blues / Chicago vs Oakland" (2019 / Delta Roots Records). Artists include Mz. Su Mac, Aldwin London, Freddie Roulette, Country Pete McGill and Nat Bolden from the San Francisco Bay Area and the late Emery Williams Jr., former Magic Sam's bassman James Newman from Chicago and Mr. Excitement himself Del Brown. In 2018 Twist Turner released his autobiography book: "Blues with a Twist".

Interview by Michael Limnios      Photos by Twist Turner's Archive

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”.

"Having traveled and met people from all over the world because of music I’ve learned that there are some really good, caring people everywhere."

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.

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

Having traveled and met people from all over the world because of music I’ve learned that there are some really good, caring people everywhere.

How started the idea of "Battle Of The Blues" project? What are the differences between: Chicago & Oakland Blues?

When I retired to Calif, or at least tried to (I'm back in Chicago again now) I noticed that the local Bay Area artists just weren't getting the opportunities to record and get known to a worldwide audience. I wanted to change that...unfortunately what started out to be an all Oakland/Bay Area only project got sidelined when I got cancer and was forced to shut my studio down before I could complete the project. I didn't want to shelve it so I decided to do a mixture of Chicago and Oakland by adding and remixing some older song demo's I had. The differences? That is kind of hard to say, in a lot of ways it's the same, but the Chicago guys are more seasoned players, and stronger performers as a whole, luckily, I recorded some of the best ones that were better than average for Calif. None of the Calif based artists I recorded were originally from Calif other than Aldwin London who is from Oakland.

What touched (emotionally) you from Oakland's blues scene? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

I was just glad there was somewhat of a scene still happening there even if it was dying.

"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." (Photo: Twist Turner, Hubert Sumlin & Willie Kent)

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

Good singers for one, most of the guys I worked with in Chicago in the 70's and 80's that were left over from the heyday of Chicago blues were amazing singers, now the emphasis seems to be more on the instruments and playing a million notes rather than paying what the song really needs, singing seems to be more of an afterthought these days. I hope the music continues, it seems to be dying a slow death, there are no longer 200 clubs that host a blues band in Chicago weekly like there once was. Blues clubs are few and far between unless you go to the tourist joints which I try to avoid.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in the blues circuits and scenes?

Show up on time, dress nicely, be professional at all times, watch the band leader at all times, be ready for anything and everything at the drop of a hat, keep your word, as Jr. Wells once told me your word is your bond without it you are nothing, and Jr. was one of the few that always did keep his word to me.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

It's a specific genre and also a state of mind, it doesn't have to be strait 12 bars to be blues.

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

Wow! These are difficult questions. I didn't know there was going to be a test when I produced this record!! Honestly, I don't even know how to answer this. I think it does bring the races together that is for sure.

"Show up on time, dress nicely, be professional at all times, watch the band leader at all times, be ready for anything and everything at the drop of a hat, keep your word, as Jr. Wells once told me your word is your bond without it you are nothing, and Jr. was one of the few that always did keep his word to me." (Photo: Twist Turner & Sonny Terry)

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

That's an easy one, right back to my old gig as the house drummer at Theresa's Lounge with the Jr. Wells band in the late 70's. That was some of the best, most fun times I ever had.

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 do 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.

"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."

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.

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.

"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." (Photo: Twist Turner & Hip Linkchain)

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!

"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." (Photo: Twist Turner & Stan Jones)

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.

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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