An Interview with Greek Cypriot bluesman Papa George: The blues is a survivor, people need it to unwind and express their emotions

"The blues for me is a way of expressing a feeling, you don’t have to be down and out to play the blues. It’s a vibration of the soul."

Papa George: Blues with a feelin'

Papa George is one of Britain's leading live blues artists. He has been entertaining audiences across the UK, Scandinavia, Europe, USA and Colombia since the mid-seventies. He is not only an accomplished singer and guitarist, leading his own band, but he is also in great demand for his National Steel and Electro-Resophonic Solo performances.

The blues of Papa George appears to be without boundaries and driven more through personal feelings and moods of the moment. His compositions have an air of authenticity to make one believe that the feelin' of the early bluesmen down South still lives on in the 21st Century. The quality of his voice adds power and conviction.
Papa George is generally regarded as one of the major electric blues musicians playing on the British blues scene today.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Papa George, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
I was about 9 years old when I first heard: Elvis Presley’s “Rock a Hula”, Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You”, Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby” Hank William’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart”...there was other stuff that I liked such as “Stranger On The Shore” by Acker Bilk. I didn’t know what the blues was at that age anyway. The word Rhythm & Blues sounded to me like just one word, and it could have been called bread and butter, it still didn’t mean that much to me, but I liked it!
I used to go to my mate’s house and we’d play his older sister’s records a lot, her collection consisted of those I mentioned above, the music was in the air and there wasn’t a care in the world to distract us.  This mate of mine had an acoustic guitar and he seemed to take to it very easily, which encouraged me to want to learn to play too.

My parents were good enough to recognize that and bought me an acoustic guitar, a few months later they bought me an electric “Futurama” guitar from our next door neighbour for £16, the colour was ice blue, how cool is that! Then I started learning some 12 bar R’n’B songs by Chuck Berry. Once the Beatles hit the scene I was on Cloud 9. I had a standing order for The Beatles monthly magazine. I tore out some of their pictures and stuck them on my bedroom wall, I even practiced their signatures. I was a kid, and I’m still a kid at heart.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
The first gigs I went to were the ones I played at when I was around 13. We formed our own school bands and played at some local youth clubs. Our band, “The Counts” was a 5 piece. We were good enough to get paid £25 for a wedding engagement it was a lot of money in those days.  I remember playing a gig for the British Oxygen Company (BOC) Hammersmith, London. I was around 14 years old.
The set consisted of Chuck Berry songs like, “Johnny B Goode”, Roll Over Beethoven (I really liked the Beatles version) the Rolling Stones “Around & Around” and “Oh Carol”.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I picked up a lot of useful tips for playing steel guitar from Bob Brozman and Ken Emerson. One learns from listening and playing with other musicians. Playing live and enjoying it is also part of the learning process.

Where do you get inspiration for your songs & which musicians have influenced you most as a songwriter?
There are different stages of people that have inspired me through the decades of being a musician. The Beatles and the Stones were the significant ones who inspired me to want to play guitar at the beginning. Towards the end of the 60s, it would have been Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green in particular, not only for his guitar playing, he had great phrasing when he sang.
I’m a huge fan of songwriter’s like, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Lowell George, too many to mention…I loved the 60s Soul Music/Atlantic Records & Stax  - Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Levi Stubbs and The Temptations.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does the blues offer you?
The blues for me is a way of expressing a feeling, you don’t have to be down and out to play the blues. It’s a vibration of the soul. What it offers me? It releases an energy that words can’t describe. I’m lucky, as I get to release this energy on stage, that’s where I feel it.

Tell me about the beginning of Taxi. How did you choose the name and where did it start?
In 1974, I used to play at a restaurant called the “Borsch ‘n’ Tears”, Knightsbridge, London, where I met a lot of very talented musicians/ songwriters including guitarist and vocalist Mike Allison. Mike and I gelled and we formed a band with Pete Rees: bass and Alan Savage: drums. The band name came about one night on a set break.  We went outside for a smoke and a taxi drove by with its for hire sign lit up ‘TAXI’, I thought Taxi would be a good name for the band.
We kept Taxi working for around 3 years and built up a repertoire of around 2 hours of original material. We played London clubs like “The Embassy” and “Legends”. Mike’s friend, Peter Straker would sometimes hire Taxi as his backing band and, in 1983, we opened the show for Tina Turner at the Hammersmith Odeon. Peter Straker and Freddie Mercury would come to some of our gigs. On one occasion, at the Hog’s Grunt at the “Production Village”, Cricklewood, Freddie stepped up on stage with us and sang “Jailhouse Rock”. He was awesome!  Freddie was a great guy. He was very respectful and decent. I’ll always treasure that memory. The funny thing was that the venue manager deducted our gig money for playing over time! I tried to explain that it was Freddie Mercury on stage with us! The manager was having none of it! And he still docked our pay.

Which were the best moments of your career and which was the worst?
Special moments: Dobrofest 2001 Being presented with a bouquet of flowers, after my solo performance, that was quite touching, also spending quality time with John Dopyera Jnr., son of the inventor of resonator guitars. Chelsea Blues Festival 1999 Gary Moore featuring with The Papa George Band.
One of my bad experiences was receiving a serious electric shock - the microphone and guitar became live because of bad wiring from one of the extension cables. It felt like someone had punched me real hard in the mouth and thrown me to kingdom come. Somehow we resolved the problem and did the rest of the gig, but I was very nervous approaching the microphone…

Which artists have you worked with & which of these people do you consider best friends?
I have had the pleasure to have played with several named artists:
Guitarist Micky Moody (Whitesnake) and I are very good friends and he is a fabulous player.
Gary Moore, joined in with my band (Papa George Band) at the Chelsea Blues Festival 1999. Sometime later I had a solo gig at a bar close to where Gary lived. He called me and asked if he could sit in for a jam, this turned out to be an amazing evening. On another occasion he appeared at a bar where I was playing with a musician friend of mine Steve Simpson, There are three songs on Youtube: “Somedays”, “Blackjack” and “Hoochie Coochi Man”. The audience were ecstatic.
In 2010 I met guitarist Bob Margolin (Muddy Waters Band) at the FGV festival in Italy.  Before the show the promoter took us to a fine restaurant where we ate some fabulous Italian food and drank some fine wine and we got to chat for a good while. After this chilled moment we went onto the venue where I played the opening set. He gave me some great feedback and later in his set Bob invited me on stage to jam with him. It was a lot of fun and since we have stayed in touch.
I met Jeremy Spencer (Fleetwood Mac) at the Amistar Resofest 2011, Prague. We played several gigs together and we have now developed a good relationship both musically and as a good friendship. There are plans to do more work together in the near future.  Other artists/friends include: Ian Hunt, Alan Glen, Zoot Money, Bobby Tench. You can find more info on my website

Which historical blues personalities would you like to have met?
There are many for example, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker and much later Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Are there any memories from “Borsch ‘n’ Tears”, which you’d like to share with us? Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs and recording time?
I played at the Borsch ‘n’ Tears, Knightsbridge, London, spanning from late 1974 to 1980. There were many fun times and a lot of jamming ‘til the early hours - it was an inspiring time.
I met a very talented Colombian musician, Luciano Gomez. We became very good friends and we played a lot of gigs together at the Borsch and partied hard.
In the summer of 1975, Luce formed a band “Luciano Gomez & the Musicians” to do a tour of Colombia. I was not a member of this band, but I fancied going along just for the ride. I had co-written the A side of his single “Esbien”, which we recorded together and it was released in Colombia. We were out there for 3 months and every now and then we’d hear Esbien playing on the radio it was a buzz!
We spent about 6 weeks in Bogota before the first gig happened. We travelled to 4 or 5 cities on a tour bus and arrived in a city called Calle. There were a bunch of kids aged between about 10-14 years old, with their shoe shine boxes, they scrambled over each other, wanting to clean our boots and one of the kids clobbered a rival kid over the head with his wooden shoe plinth to get our business! We ignored them and went on to check out the auditorium. When we returned to the bus, we discovered that most of our luggage was missing. The young dudes had robbed us!
Like many others, Luciano was a fan of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple - these were the days of heavy rock, long hair and long guitar solos. Luciano’s vision was that his countrymen would flock to see him leading a heavy rock UK line-up. He booked an auditorium, believing it would be packed.  Unfortunately, the expensive seats at the front weren’t sold. When the show started all the folks who had bought the cheap tickets at the back flocked to the empty front seats. After several shows the promoters were losing money fast and decided to head back to the UK. Basically, it went pear-shaped!
A couple of years later, Luce bought a funky little bar, with a small stage and created a buzzy scene in Medellin, Colombia. I went to visit him in 1978 to play duo gigs with him at his venue. It was party time again, the only problem was that we were the best customers and drank all the profits. Sadly, in 1994 Luciano died of cancer of the oesophagus – I miss you Luce.
Out of the blue, another amusing tale occurred when my partner Anne and I were in New Orleans in 2009. One night, John Mooney was due to play at a venue called ‘Chickie Wah Wah’s”.  When we arrived at the club the manager explained that John was unable to play there that evening. We got chatting and I mentioned that John and I were both on the same bill at the Pordenone Festival, Italy in 2002.  Once the manager learned that I was a blues musician, he asked if I would cover for John! Naturally, I took up the offer and found that I had a gig on my hands. It was a great evening, thank you John!

What were your favourite guitars back then, where did you pick up your style & how do you characterize your sound?
Shortly after I left school in 1968, I bought an Echo acoustic guitar. A couple of years later I took it with me on holiday to Cyprus and did a lot of jamming at beach parties in Famagusta.
I became a full time musician in the early 70s, I bought an electric guitar for £100, it was a Dick Knight, custom built copy of a Gibson Les Paul. Shortly after, I swapped it for a Fender Stratocaster, this had the kind of tone that I was more familiar with, having listened to guitarists such as: Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, Jeff Beck, Little Feat.
More recently I’ve been playing a Gibson 335, it’s a nice change, it opens up other ideas. I have several favourite guitars: 1932 National Style N, Amistar Vintage “Papa George” Custom Tricone plus a couple of Fender Stratocasters.

Do you know why the sound of the National Steel guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of steel guitar?
It’s all down to the feeling of how it’s played. A steel guitar lends itself to a sound that gives it an authentic feel. There are two main designs. One is made with a single 10 inch resonator which gives it a louder brash and perhaps a raucous sound with a shorter decay in sustain. And there is the Tricone, which has three smaller resonator cones, I think they are a bout 6 inches in diameter, this produces a longer sustain and a sweeter tone. They all vary in their tonal qualities. Steel bodied guitars are used with a much heavier gauge strings. They are about 5 times louder than a regular wooden bodied acoustic guitar.

What is the difference between electric and steel guitar, what's the difference to the feeling?
I came into playing steel guitar much later in my career, around the late 90s. It’s a massive difference between electric solid bodied guitars and steel bodied guitars and the sounds that they produce. Generally a resophonic guitar is mostly used in an open tuning, i.e. I use mainly open G or D and played with either a bottleneck or a steel slide. The Hawaiian musicians were one of the early players using this method. In the early 1900’s John Dopyera invented this idea using an aluminium spun cone (the resonator) to produce more volume, the guitar strings vibrate on the bridge which is connected to the resonator - the amplifier came around later in the 1940s.

How did you first meet: Micky Moody, Freddie Mercury, Paul Jones, Jon Lord, PP Arnold and Gary Moore?
I drifted away from gigs around Central London and found myself hooking up with musicians in South West London around Richmond Twickenham & Kingston, Surrey. This was a thriving live blues scene and in the 60s many top bands like the Stones, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac & Alexis Corner were playing in clubs like Eel Pie Island and the Crawldaddy Club… I was connecting with other musicians and it was around this area where I first met Micky Moody, around the mid 80s. Micky is a superb guitar player and is extremely useful on slide too! His has a vast range of styles, other than the classic rock, which he is well known for with Whitesnake, Juicy Lucy, Snafu… We enjoy working together with a mixture of genres on acoustic & electric. Micky and I played at Sir John Mortimer’s 80th birthday party a few years ago, there were many well-known artists attending the birthday celebration. Jon Lord and Ian Paice (Deep Purple) sat in to play with Micky and I and the joint was rocking!
Jimmy Thomas (backing vocalist for Ike and Tina Turner) was recording an album and he had booked PP Arnold to sing backing vocals and I played guitar on a few tracks. After the session I invited PP Arnold to come along to sing a few of her songs with The Barnes Blues Band, fronted by myself and Bobby Tench, backed by great rhythm section: Pete Rees (bass), Vic Martin (keyboards) and Darby Todd (drums).
I have met Paul Jones on several occasions: the first time was in August 2000 when he invited Ken Emerson and myself for an interview and to play live on his weekly Jazz Me Blues radio show. A few years later he asked me to perform with his All Star Band at the Cranleigh Arts Centre…Youtube

What are some of the memorable stories from “Martin Luther King Freedom Festival” you've had?
I played at this event in Tallahassee, Florida on two occasions 2004/05. It was honouring Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday. Both times were special to me. The artists that appeared were extraordinary, choir gospel singers with so much feeling that they would send shivers down your spine. Bobby Rush was also on the bill, he is a very entertaining character and fantastic showman who belts out the blues and takes no prisoners! There was a chap Bill Wharton who entertained the crowd with his band, he set up a huge cooking pot to cook up a gumbo on the stage. He sang about the ingredients he was throwing into the pot, chicken or whatever, but the main ingredient was his special hot sauce. By the time he finished his set the gumbo was cooked and he provided the audience with plastic spoons and plates and he fed the lot of them. He sold a good few bottles of his hot sauce, good stuff!

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience at The Sam Buxton Sunflower Healing Trust.
This took place at London’s Porchester Halls in 2006 and was set up by Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and his wife Jackie. Sam Buxton was a young fellow who was a Deep Purple fan and he had written to Ian to ask for his autograph.  Ian and Jackie visited Sam in hospital. They were so touched by this young boy that they decided to set up a charity for cancer.
It was a privilege to be part of the Premiere Sunflower event.
“In 2006 Papa George Band played the opening set at “The Sunflower Jam”, The Porchester Halls, London, raising awareness and money for The Sam Buxton Sunflower Healing Trust. Guest musicians on the night included Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin); Jon Lord and Ian Paice (Deep Purple); Linda Lewis and Paul Weller, Bernie Marsden; Neil Murray; Sam Brown; Paul 'Wix' Wickens; Margo Buchanan; Nick Fyffe and Don Airey (supported by HRH The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health).”

If you go back to the past, what would you like to do better and what would you avoid doing again?
Its hard to say, there’s always going to be room for improvement and do something better.
In the past I would’ve liked to learn music theory for example. Let’s say, I’ve got a lyrical idea and my instrument is not at hand, I would have to write it down on a piece of paper and try putting it to music later …  it would be great to be able to write down the notation of a melody line with the time signature etc? Many good ideas go into thin air and are easily forgotten! Nowadays we have got facilities on our mobile phones to record ideas down very quickly. I have loads of ideas on my phone, now I need to develop them…

Who are your favourite blues artists, both old and new, what was the last record you bought?
There are many styles of blues artists that I like: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and recent blues people such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Bonamassa, both incredible guitarists. Another favourite of mine is Taj Mahal, he has inspired me to develop my vocal phrasing. He has a broad range of styles. I had the pleasure of meeting Taj and he is a real gentleman, even when he speaks he sounds like he’s singing. His recording history is immense.
The last recording I bought was by Lenny Kravitz. I liked his version of “American Woman” his guitar playing has a kind of Hendrix vibe. British blues artist, Ian Siegal, has a strong, raw sound, which I like very much.

From the musical point of view is there any difference between US Blues & UK Blues?
The US Blues had a hard history, emerging from slavery for many years, especially in the Deep South. The seed for the blues was planted there and since those times we all make our own interpretations of putting that feeling across.  It’s a very personal expression.
It’s not always possible to tell if someone who is playing is from the US or the UK.

What is the difference between a musician living and working in the U.S. and one in U.K?
From my experience, it seems that American musicians tend to work longer hours i.e. 3-4 45 minute sets per night. In the UK we generally play two sets of 45 minutes.
I spent 6 months in the US including 3 months in Odessa, Texas, gigging in bars and playing at the odd barbeques or rodeo shows  (we don’t play too many rodeos in the UK!) Great times and fine Texan folks, I got on really well with them. I have played in New York, Hawaii and Florida.

How has the blues business changed over the years since you first started in music?
Since I began playing full time in 1974, I have always gigged. I didn’t notice many changes - I just got on with playing. The difference today is the technology with regards to recording and marketing yourself. Musicians don’t necessarily need as many agents or managers to promote their music, they can produce CDs independently. There are many sites where musicians can create their own music profiles, upload songs, sell downloads, advertise etc…

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
It’s the foundation of most popular music, it expresses a feeling, when your foot starts tapping and your head starts nodding, that’s enough to make you forget about your troubles and come back feeling stronger.
Howlin’ Wolf put it something like this, “you may not like the blues, but if you can’t pay the rent, you got no food, and your baby’s gone and left you, man, you sho-nuff got the blues”.
The blues is a survivor, people need it to unwind and express their emotions and my wish is that the blues will be around for a long time, even in this technological era. John Lee Hooker sang “Blues Is a healer, all over the world”.

Which is the most interesting period in U.K blues and why? What is the “thing” you miss most from the 60s UK Blues?
The 60s UK blues was interesting because it was part of the popular music culture at that time.  It felt fresh and was accepted because it made us feel good. That also opened the door to more experimentation: Jimi Hendrix and Cream are a good example of this, today I would say that Jeff Beck has taken it to another level. Beck is in a class of his own and, in my opinion, is probably one of the most significant players around that pushes the boundaries.
What I miss about the 60’s are, great songs that were played on radio and television.

Are there any memories of all these GREAT BLUESMEN that you’d like to share with us?
When I played the Dr Martin Luther King Freedom Festival, I was introduced to Eddie Kirkland who then was in his 80s. He had worked and toured up and down the states with John Lee Hooker. He said to me “Do you know who I am? I’m Eddie Kirkland and I played all over the place with my buddy John Lee Hooker” I shook his hand with great pleasure and respect to him. He was still travelling, gigging as ever, driving his Station Wagon from state to state, playing and spreading the blues.

Your Greek Cypriot origin had some comments about your contact with the blues and the Greek origin of Alexis Korner?
My parents were Greek Cypriots (who met and married in London) and my paternal Grandfather was a priest “Papanikolou” (Father Nicholas) hence my father’s family name, Papanicola!
In 1983 Alexis and I were on the same bill together (separately) to do a benefit gig for a mutual friend of ours, bluesman Gerry Lochran who had suffered from a stroke. Alexis and I were standing next to each other, watching one of the bands.  We had a bit of a chat and a little later he asked me to look after his guitar for a while. It was a brief encounter, but a memorable one. Sadly 6 months later Alexis died…
I highly recommend that anyone interested in the life of Alexis Korner read “THE BIOGRAPHY Alexis Korner” by Harry Shapiro. This book is well researched and traces the history of the Korner family back to 1872.  There is no evidence that the family ever lived in Greece.

Any final comments? What are your plans for the future?
To finish off this interview, I’m looking forward to a new project, which is coming up in the next few months, this includes working with another top drummer, Paul Elliott . We are pleased to be performing together in venues in London, Holland and New York and hope to see you at one of our shows near you.
So there you have it, my story thus far.

Papa George - Official website

Photo Credits: Michael Photone, Dorothea Rudolph, Anne Marshall, Luchetta Marco, David Burge, Javier Mayordomo, Jim Bryan, Gary Jones, Blake Powell, Krystyna Borkowska

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