Veteran NYC bluesman Michael Packer talks about his life on the road with the blues and 'Blues for Peace'

"The blues is a feeling good and bad. It is a way of life"

Michael Packer: Blues For Peace & Life

Michael Packer is an American singer-songwriter, guitarist and Blues Hall Of Fame inductee who was born in New York City in 1950. He did his first gig at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village at the age of 15. In 1969 he formed the group Papa Nebo. The band recorded an album for Atlantic records. They were personally signed by Ahmet Ertegun. Packer soon took his sound to the West Coast with Sandy Allen, playing on the streets of San Francisco during the day and The Coffee Gallery in North Beach at night, Michael met George Thorogood and was turned on to the blues. Eventually Packer and Allen made their way back to New York where they started another project "Free Beer". The band recorded 3 albums and toured extensively with the likes of the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Dr. Hook, Clifton Chenier, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Robert Hunter to name a few. After the demise of Free Beer in the late 70's Michael opened for John Hammond and sang with the Matt Murphy Band. His drinking had escalated and he found himself living on the streets. Packer was in and out of jail much of his life and finally had to do some time at Rikers Island. In prison Packer had a band and did shows for the inmates and was included in the HBO documentary 'The Prisoners of Rikers Island'. Prison was actually the turning point of his life. Packer got clean and sober and good things started to happen for him.     Photo by Laura Carbone

He has become a well known and respected member of the New York City Blues scene. Michael Frank of Earwig Music, presented Packer with the opportunity and the honor of playing and touring with the legendary David "Honeyboy" Edwards. They have worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, Pete Best (Beatles), Levon Helm, Paul Butterfield, Son Seals, Richie Havens, Bettye Lavette, L.C. Ulmer. Contemporary musicians who have performed with Michael Packer include Guy Davis, Jimmy Vivino, Bob Mintzer, Mark Naftalin, Lou Marini, Tom Malone, Roger Earl, Danny Kalb, and Joe Louis Walker. His albums “I AM THE BLUES" - MY STORY Vol 1 & 2" is the soundtrack to Michael’s fifty plus years as a performing musician. Blues for Peace is a global movement started by Michael Packer. Concerts, put on throughout the world over one weekend in May with the goal of raising the awareness of peace. The Blues For Peace project is a world-wide event which will take place on May 27, 28, 29, 30 which is also Memorial Day weekend in the United States. The Blues For Peace Project is sanctioned by the United Nations so we will be contributing to them for Human Rights around the world.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos © by Laura Carbone, Arnie Goodman, Jennifer Noble, Ira Cohen / All rights reserved

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches? What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

I love the blues. I grew up listening to Lightning Hopkins and Paul Butterfield. I have always had an admiration for the music and when I knew George Thorogood before he was famous was the first time I got to experience the songs of John Lee Hooker and others live. It was a great introduction for me... I have met and played with many Paul Butterfield, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Joe Louis Walker to name a few but I am discovering there are still others out there making great blues music especially in Chicago.

What means to be Bluesman? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Must musicians play blues music a true bluesman has lived it. There are not many authentic blues artists. Thank God we still got BB King, James Cotton and Buddy Guy!

What experiences in your life make you a good bluesman and songwriter?

Having the honor of playing with some of the greatest blues musicians. Honeyboy Edwards, Paul Butterfield etc., Being on top and being on the bottom.

"Must musicians play blues music a true bluesman has lived it. There are not many authentic blues artists." (Photo: Michael Packer jammin' with Honeyboy Edwards and Michael Frank on harp)

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

Honeyboy Edwards at Briggs Farm festival and Juke Joint festival Clarksdale MS. Every gig is a great gig. I get to play!

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

Honeyboy Edwards - Authenticity!!

 

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

"Keep doing what you do and knock em' dead" by  Honeyboy Edwards

 

Which memory from "Honeyboy" Edwards and Matt “Guitar” Murphy makes you smile?

Playin 'Dust My Broom' with Honey Boy and singing 'I Got A Mind To Give Up Livin' with Matt Murphy.

 

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

Performing at Rikers Island and being there as an inmate.

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and hat advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Warm!!! Perseverance and patience.

"Today’s music is about competition. In my days it was more about camaraderie. It tries to recreate that feeling at my BHF events and have been quite successful at it." (Photo by Ira Cohen)

What characterize Michael Packer’s music philosophy? What advice would you give to new generation?

Play wherever and whenever I can...Put some BB King on your ipod!

Which memory from Paul Butterfield, Richie Havens, Mark Naftalin, and Danny Kalb makes you smile?

Paul Butterfield took me to Tramps in NYC and let me put anything I wanted all night on his bar tab. Richie Havens - I use to record and rehearse at Richie's studio in NYC I practically lived there. Good times! Fond memories! Mark Nafalin - gigged with me at The Turning Point in New York along with Felix Cabrera who sounds a lot like Butterfield on harp. Danny Kalb - he was an original Blues Project member and sat in with me on my version of "I Can't Keep From Crying" at The Towne Crier in New York.

Make an account of the case of the blues in New York. What are the lines that connect the Blues from South to NY? How do you describe New York City Blues scene?

There are many great blues artists in New York. Some were born here and moved on and some made New York their home such as Johnny Winter, John Hammond, Levon Helm, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and many others that I have had the privilege to induct into The New York Blues Hall Of Fame. Many African Americans migrated to NYC from the south and I don't care what the color of your skin is every blues musician wants to play in New York City. It is the greatest city in the world...but not enough clubs!

"Must musicians play blues music a true bluesman has lived it. There are not many authentic blues artists. Thank God we still got BB King, James Cotton and Buddy Guy!" (Michael Packer, Garth & Sister Maud Hudson, 2015 B.B. King Blues Club, New York / Photo by Laura Carbone)

Are there any memories from Pete Best, Levon Helm, and Son Seals which you’d like to share with us?

I did numerous dates with Pete Best and we got along great, Very nice, humble man. Pete told me "that the tracks he played on were included in the Beatles Anthology Album and that made him a wealthy man" That was really good to hear. I met Levon Helm at Chicago B.L.U.E.S in NYC. I had opened for him and his band the Barn Burners. After the show Levon was telling me how great I was and wanted to know more about me. He was truly one the coolest and most humble people I have ever met and man he could play drums. I opened for Son Seals at The Lone Star Cafe on 13th street in NYC. He was the real deal. Son smoked a pipe so we spent time talking and smoking backstage. I smoke cigarettes and in those days other stuff too. A good time was had by all.

What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s Greenwich Village and the streets of San Francisco at early 70s?

Today’s music is about competition. In my days it was more about camaraderie. It tries to recreate that feeling at my Blues Hall of Fame events and have been quite successful at it. Please check it at site New York Hall of Fame.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from New York Blues of Fame events?

Some of the comments I get on face book and believe me I get a lot of them. People in my opinion don't read the posts and just want to say what is on their mind. My Blues for Peace project is getting support from a Blues for Peace organization in Israel which thinks exactly like I do. All this woman saw was Israel on my post and attacked me in messages. She does not get it. Blues for Peace is about peace. Love and music and sending a message. I had to laugh because it was the only way to respond to her long winded political ranting’s. There are many but recently a woman I knew who was a huge supporter of the blues died of cancer. Her friends had a huge tribute for her so I went and inducted her as an Ambassador in the New York Blues Hall of Fame. It was heart wrenching with her children on stage talking about their mother Angela Lombardo.

"The blues is a part of American history and should be taught in the schools. The blues is the root of all music!" (Michael Packer & Johnny Winter, New York BHF 2014 / Photo by Arnie Goodman)

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The blues is a feeling good and bad. It is a way of life!!!

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why? Where would you really wanna go for a whole day with a time machine?

For me after I did time at Rikers Island. I changed my life around and was able to continue playing music and tell my story...To do it all again knowing what I know now!

 

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

An artist doesn't really need a record company anymore because of the internet.

How he started the thought of BLUES FOR PEACE? What characterize project’s philosophy and mission?

I woke up with the idea and I am the type of person who tries to make my dreams a reality. I am a 60's person. I did not go to Woodstock but I knew artists that performed at the festival like Richie Havens. He said "words couldn't describe the feeling you got from being there" It was the time of Nixon and the Vietnam War and Woodstock made a huge statement of peace, love and music. Blues for Peace will be much like the spirit of Woodstock sending a much needed message of peace to the world through music all over the globe.

"Blues music does have a devoted following thanks to organizations, societies, music industry folks such as record labels, Radio, magazines, concert promoters etc. The following however is relatively small." (Michael Packer &  Buddy Guy, 2014 Chicago / Photo by Jennifer Noble)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be? What are your hopes and fears for the future of blues music?

Competition - Music is not about competition!! The blues has become a platform for white guitar shredders!

Tell me about the beginning of Free Beer. How did you choose the name? Are there any memories?

We needed a name that would draw people. We stared at Folk City NYC 1974. Free Beer opened for the Atlanta Rhythm Section in St. Louis. 1976 (one of the best gigs).

Which gig was the biggest experiences for you? Do you have any amusing tales to tell of Ahmet Ertegun and Papa Nebo?

Opening for Levon Helm. A class act! Pushing the elevator button for Ray Charles at Atlantic Records offices with Ahmet Ertugen.

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 the root of all music...Younger people especially young Afro-Americans should embrace it.

 

You have pretty interesting project Windmill Music. Where did you get that idea?

As a promotional tool for myself and others.

"Today young blacks & whites don't even know who BB King is. The blues is a part of American history & should be taught in the schools. The blues is the root of all music!"(Photo by Laura Carbone)

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Blues music does have a devoted following thanks to organizations, societies, music industry folks such as record labels, Radio, magazines, concert promoters etc. The following however is relatively small. You will rarely hear blues music on commercial radio anymore. Blues music was brought into the spotlight by the English blues rockers like Clapton and The Stones in the 60's. They helped bring Muddy Waters, Willy Dixon to the white audience and thus reestablishing their careers. I also know that these black artists only did it for the money and really didn't want to play with white musicians. Today young blacks and whites don't even know who BB King is. The blues is a part of American history and should be taught in the schools. The blues is the root of all music!

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

Seeing the blues at the White House functions recently is a cool thing. The tribute to BB King at the Grammy Awards I thought was exceptional. The blues is alive and I am hoping my Blues for Peace project will be the impact on the world which in my opinion desperately needs. There is too much violence and hate in the world another reason Blues For Peace has partnered with The USA for UNCHR the UN Refugee Agency to help people from all over the world in this time of crisis.

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your “secret” DREAM?

I don't have spare time. This is what I do. I live my dream...

 

Michael Packer & Windmill Music - Home

 

 

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