An Interview with old-school band, The Strata-Tones: Bright Lights, Big City & the 1950's Blues scene

The Strata - Tones: Feeling the groove

"As The Strata-tones, right from the beginning, we had a vision of being a show band. I'd always liked the way the bands and vocalists of the 50's and early 60's appeared onstage. Sharp, Classy and well dressed!"

Bright Lights, Big City and the 1950's Blues scene. Dark, raucous clubs. Brightly lit marquees upon worn brick exteriors. The moment you enter the door, the heat hits you. The sights, smells, and primitive sounds within. This is 'The Strata-tones'. Down in the alley Rhythm & Blues. Take no prisoners. No one gets out without feeling the groove. So put on your best two tone slides and walk thru the door. They'll be waiting for you. Get ready for our feature vocalist; Ms. Valerie Johnson, to take you on a vocal experience that will blow your mind.

The Strata-tones are: Vocals; Valerie Johnson, Guitar's and Vocals; Bruce Krupnik, Harmonica and Vocals; Kevin McCracken, Keyboards; Ken Burton, Fender Bass; Wil Anderson; Drums; Rick Pittman.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Tell me about the beginning of the band. How did you get together and where did it start?
Bruce: This band is comprised of musicians that I have either played with, jammed with or heard playing with other bands. I really wanted to do a project with all these musicians and was very fortunate that the timing was right and everyone was able to come on board.
Wil: From that moment forward we were focused on who we were, what we sounded like and where we wanted to take this project. The only thing missing…a singer! I was working with a group of local musicians that Valerie Johnson had hired to do a local concert, history of the Blues. That is when we had approached Valerie to sing for the Strata-Tones. We knew that Valerie had her own successful solo career and many other great local projects going on, so at best it was a long shot that she would say yes.  We finally convinced her to come to a rehearsal and check us out…That was the day that changed everything for The Strata-Tones, the day that Valerie Johnson stepped into the lead vocalist spot. So…the answer to your question is…The day that Valerie Johnson officially joined the Strata-Tones.

Bruce, how do you describe the Strata Tones music & why choose this name?
As The Strata-tones, right from the beginning, we had a vision of being a show band. I'd always liked the way the bands and vocalists of the 50's and early 60's appeared onstage. Sharp, Classy and well dressed!  Our music is not over produced like much of the current pop tunes of today. I attempt to write the music in the 50's vein, but with sort of a modern twist to hopefully be relevant for this day and age.
While the band was looking for a name, I showed up at rehearsal one evening with my 1959 Harmony, Jupiter, Stratotone guitar. It solved the problem of searching for a name while having an old school flair to it. We did change the spelling and added a hypen as to not run into any copyright problems.

Bruce, which is the “philosophy” of the band?
My philosophy of The Stata-tones is as stated on our website.
Bright Lights, big City and the 1950's blues scene. Dark, raucous clubs. Brightly lit marquees upon worn brick exteriors. The moment you enter the door, the heat hits you. The sights, smells, and primitive sounds within. This is 'The Strata-tones'. Down in the alley Rhythm & Blues. Take no prisoners. No one gets out without feeling the groove. So put on your best two tone slides and walk thru the door. They'll be waiting for you.

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?
Bruce: I would say the first time I heard Jimmy Reeds, “Big Boss Man” and “Take Some Insurance Out”.
I was 13 years old and a school friend of mine and I would listen to his father's 45rpm record of those tunes.
At the time, I wasn't aware it was “Blues” but it definitely struck a chord with me.
Kevin: When I realized I could make my harp sound like my heroes.
Ken: As a teenager, I grew up playing Hammond organs.   My first keyboard heroes had their roots in the blues, and those were cats like Booker T., Brian Auger, and Groove Holmes.  Naturally, I wanted to emulate them and started playing basic blues riffs.
Rick: When I was around 16. I started playing with a group of older men playing clubs around the bay area. That’s when my mentor, Milton Hopkins and a few other great blues and R&B legends picked up and took me under their wings.
Valerie: I was a young teenager, full of mischief,  during the ‘British Blues Invasion’.  All the raw emotion the singers expressed - I fell in love with it.  then the icing on the cake was hearing Mississippi John Hurt doing “Candy Man Blues” and Rev. Gary Davis doing “John, the Revelator”.  It was a done deal – I was hooked!!!  I wanted to be a Blues Singer!!
Wil: I would say the first time I heard Freddie King play the blues. Every album, every song seemed to be a lesson in how to “Feel” a bass line and its effect on the entire song.  Being a Funk player for years it was at that time in my life that I realized what was missing…the Blues.

What have been some of your musical influences & what were the first songs you learned?
Bruce: As a teenager, I really discovered and fell in love with the blues after hearing English bands such as Fleetwood Mac w/Peter Green, Savoy Brown, John Mayall w/ Eric Clapton etc. From there I learned that this genre of music came from our own shores and of course went on to discover B.B. King, Albert Collins, Albert King, Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell and so on.
Probably, the first tunes I learned were the Jimmy Reed tunes. If I remember correctly, the first blues guitar solo I learned was “Oh, Pretty Woman” from John Mayall with Mick Taylor on guitar.  
Kevin: Everyone from Cole Porter & George Gershwin to the Harmonicats, Charlie McCoy, Toots Thielmans, Lee Oscar & William Clarke.
Ken: As I already said above, my first keyboard influences were the “greats” I mentioned, and many other west coast and national players Chester Thompson, Jimmy Smith, etc.   One of the first songs I played on the Hammond was the classic, “Green Onions”.   I use the riffs that I learned from that song in many other numbers that I play today.
Rick: The first songs that I can remember are all James Brown tunes. I can remember playing with friend from junior High School; we had a band called The Junior JB’s, we all James Brown songs instrumental.
Valerie: Empress of the Blues - Bessie Smith, Mother of the Blues - Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Nellie Letcher, Mississippi John Hurt, Etta Jones (jazz singer), Etta James, Tina Turner, Nina Samone, Swamp Boogie Queen-Katie Webster and KOKO TAYLOR!
First songs I learned were “I'm So Glad” and “Keep Me Hangin' On” by the Cream and “Blind Man”, sung by Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Co .  I played these on the 12 string guitar my Mom and Dad got me.  All of my other friends were learning “Secret Agent Man” and “Wipe Out!”  My brother and I could recite all of Frank Zappa's “Suzy Creamcheese” too!  Fun fact, even though it's not Blues content
Wil: From the very beginning I have been an absolute fan of Francis Rocco Prestia (bass player for Tower of Power). He has the ability to play an incredibly complicated sounding bass line and a Rhythmic (drum type) feel to his style which I found intriguing.  This style is called “Ghosting”. I use this technique on a regular basis when writing or performing a written bass line. The first song that I truly studied and learned was a Tower of Power song “You’re still a young man”.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Bruce: I would say the best moments were being asked to play in bands with other great musicians. The worst, when those bands broke up.
Currently, I would name hooking up with Frank Roszak Radio Promotions as the best moment, as far as a career move.
Kevin: The best is now, with the creativity & musicianship in this band. Worst was the disco fiasco.
Ken: You know, that aren’t really that many worst moments performing and playing of any type is always a blast for me.   Though I do remember one great guitarist I worked with (name withheld) who after playing with me for a while, said I just didn’t “have it”.   That incident did set me back for a while, but I realized a little later, “I do what I do, and if you don’t dig it, that’s fine.   I’m enjoying creating music, and that’s what counts.”   I’m an entertainer and I do want to please, but first and foremost, I’m a musician just trying to create a little music from my heart.
I’ve had many fine moments in my playing career that I remember vividly.  Rather than name a specific venue/concert/club/recording, I’ll just say that some of the gigs I’ve done out in nature (a hill top, a beautiful amphitheater, under the stars or trees) have inspired me the most.   I almost go to a place that is an out-of-body experience --- I’ll listen to recordings of those moments, and I can’t even recognize my own playing it’s so “out of the box”.  I hit notes and riffs that I didn’t know I had in me.  It’s the “zone” that we all try to find every time that we play!
Rick: There were many great moments in my career. The chance to play behind great artist like, B.B. king, Ike Turner, Milton Hopkins, Roger Collins, Etta James and many others. They were all my teachers in R&B and Blues. My worst time is when I had to step back from performing for personal family issues.

Valerie: Best… I opened up for the Holmes Brothers on a Sunday morning doing a gospel set., at Blues and Brews Festival put on by Fire On the Mountain   When I  finished my set I went to walk off the stage and one of the Holmes Brothers said to me “Where are you going?”  I was stunned, as he said “You really know how to sing Gospel.  Come on, we want you to sing with us.  Can you do harmonies?”  I said “Yes” and I got to sing that whole set with them.  After I got off stage they asked me to do a European tour with them.   If only I had my passport.  My passport is always current now!
Worst…New Years Eve 2000.  Did a gig with my band at the time “Valerie Johnson & the Blues Doctors. At a big Hotel Property.  The promoter told us to throw some Rock covers into our Blues/Jazz mix – so we did.  When we got their we found that the Promoter changed the whole audience profile to white couples from eastern California that were 70yr and older.   These folks, who had bought a complet party package, traveled over 200 miles to get to this and were told they would be dancing to the style of  Benny Goodman's Big Band.    So it was an audience of all white older folks,  who expected to hear music like “The Missouri Waltz”.  People were coming up to me while I was singing and yelling at me.  The last thing they wanted to hear was Blues.  That was a long nite.
Wil: I would say the best moments of my career A Bass player is when a overheard another local musician say, “That must be Wil playing bass on that track, can’t mistake that pocket”. The worst gig ever, getting a “Pick up” gig with a local Classic rock band that had booked them self’s as a Country band for a New Years Eve gig in Parkfield, CA. (believe me THIS is Old school Country music territory). The band had learned just 3 Country songs for the whole gig…Achy Breaky Heart, Thunder rolls and Friends in low places. I was convinced half way through that gig that I was not going to make it out alive.

What are some of the memorable gigs and jams you've had?
Bruce: For gigs, I'd say playing The Monterey Blues Festival in 2007, with Karen Tyler.
As for jams, it would have to be at the IBC's jam at “The New Daisy Theatre” on Beale Street in Memphis, TN. 2008.
Kevin: Imbibing with Emmylou Harris & band on a ferry around San Francisco bay... Bonnie Raitt sitting in with my band in Santa Cruz.
Ken: I’ve been at gigs/jams with some of the best artists and groups in the world, and it’s not that one gig or artist that I remember.   It’s playing with all the people that raise your level of playing because they are so good or so “into the moment” that it just carries you with them.   Great players just make you play great in return.
Music is my passion.  And that passion can manifest itself in the oddest of times and circumstances.  You just never know when that special “magic” will strike.
Rick: I’ve had too many memorable gigs to even say. It may sound strange but I guess the one gig that stands out for me was opening for Muhammad Ali. My most memorable jams were in the garage back in the 70”s jamming with some great well known players, Larry Graham, Keith Hatchel, Cornelius Bumpus, Milton Hopkins and many others.
Valerie: A band I fronted (Valerie Johnson & the Blues Doctors) opened for Robert Cray at the California Mid-State Fair.  I was strutting my stuff down a stage runway and singing Memphis Minnie's “Bumble Bee”.  I bent over toward a man in the audience and sang to him “mmmmmm – stinger long as my right arm” and as I extended my arm out , he was soo mesmorized he kept leaning over towards me, not realizing he was going to fall.  The whole audience noticed and before the person next to him grab him he fell out of his chair and the audience went wild!!!  It was so fun.  He didn't get hurt.  I love runways!!!!
Wil: One of the most memorable gigs for me was opening for Jackie Payne and the Steve Edmondson Band.  At the end of sound check, myself and the guitar player from the band I was performing with had the chance to jam with a few of the guys in their band, it was a complete impromptu mixture of Blues, Jazz and Funk That was amazing. Only the soundman, the band wife’s and other band members were in the hall at the moment, but man that was incredible.

What does Blues offered you & why do you play the blues?
Bruce: The Blues offers me a way to play my instrument of choice (guitar) with an emphasis on emotion.
I have played other genre's of music and nothing compares to passion I feel when I play the Blues.
Kevin: All music is based on the blues. It calls to me, I must respond.
Rick: The blues offers me life today as it did for me 41 years ago. Why do I play the blues is because I can feel what I am playing. Milton Hopkins always says to me; to play the blues you have to have a natural feel it.
Valerie: For me it’s the easiest way to communicate feelings and emotions. It doesn’t rely on language 100 percent ... it’s goes straight from your heart and soul to the heart and soul of the listener.
Wil: The Blues offers me a way to play my instrument of choice (Bass) with all of the feel and “Pocket” that the Rock and Jazz players were trying to break me of. The Blues has not only allowed me to discover the Player that I am today, it helps to me remember that in music, and especially with a Blues bass line…the Beauty is between the notes. It takes more than the knowledge of how to read music, or even understand music theory. To be a great Blues bass p-layer you need to play from your gut, feel the whole song and the line, not just reproduce ever so diligently the notes that have been written on paper. Although a great player for Motown in his time, James Jamerson was GENIOUS at this!!
I have played other types of music and nothing keeps me in my zone like when I play the Blues.

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
Bruce: I would say that the main ingredient is the emotional connection between my playing and the audience, while always being aware that the band and myself are putting on a show to entertain the crowd.
Kevin: The back & forth energy between performer & audience is unlike anything else. It's why we do what we do.
Ken: Frankly, many times I am in that “zone” I mentioned, and in some ways, the world around me is a blur.  Or in contrast, I am seeing the entire band, people around the stage, and venue as if it all was happening in slow motion.   It’s a great feeling.   I can be looking at someone, connecting with them, but it isn’t until after the show and I talk to that person that I realize that just had that great experience together.   It’s a trip.   Creating art in real time is something that I can’t really analyze; you just do it!
Rick: Well, it is a little difficult because I am in back in a dark corner most of the time. My personal contact is at the end of the set but I feel the people and I try to set a groove for them to feel coming from me.
Valerie: I love singing to and talking with the audience to establish two way communication. And  adding a little humor goes a long way in getting an audience on “your side,” as they say. That’s what creates the synergy between you and the audience... and the sum of the parts becomes greater than the whole.
Wil: I love to see people feeling the groove. This is when I know that I am doing my job. When their hips are shakin, I know that I have connected with the listener. And doing it without having to play an over abundance of notes.  It’s the way you make a listener feel when they are involved with your music, that’s what they remember, not what you played but rather how it made them feel when you did.

Valerie, do you have any amusing tales to tell from the road with Big Brother & the Holding Company?  
How I got involved with them in the first place is a quite a tale. Karen Tyler, the well known Texas blueswomen, saw me perform in San Luis Obispo, California, just days after she had moved here from Austin, Texas.  Karen knew the woman who had been fronting Big Brother & the Holding Company, post-Janis, and also knew that she was leaving the band.
She had me send their manager a copy of my band’s CD, Valerie Johnson & the Blues Doctors, “We Wanna Blues You Up.”   They loved it and one week later they flew me to Cleveland to rehearse for my first show with them. They ran through the songs with me in a hotel room on a Friday and Saturday night I was on stage with Big Brother & the Holding Company!
We traveled everywhere by car and they were so much fun to be on the road with ... you’d have to have a 4 or 5 hour show to hear all the stories!

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
Bruce: After hearing B.B. King talk about his early years on Sirius/XM radio, I would love to meet him and hear more stories.
They are all, so very fascinating.
Kevin: Little Walter, Robert Johnson
Ken: There are so many great musicians from the past that it would be an honor to meet and know.   That includes the great keyboardists that perfected the stride piano technique and the New Orleans style that I admire so much, but also many other instrumentalists and vocalists - the likes of Billie Holiday, etc.   In my specialty of Hammond organ performance, I am lucky in that this instrument’s history is relatively young, so I have been able to meet some of my heroes and have seen them play in person.   Many are still with us, and still performing.
Valerie: Would love to have been mentored in vocals and business by Koko Taylor. She’s the one that gave me a model to emulate both in stage presentation and vocal delivery. Koko was all about the deliverin’ the blues, and not fussin’ over her looks.  And I have often fantasized about being a fly on the wall for moments in Bessie Smith’s life.
Etta Jones and Nina Simone, are two biggies for me, because they turned me on to total melodic freedom.   They gave me and my voice wings!
Wil: I would have loved the Chance to meet Freddie King and Albert King. Both of these legends changed Blues for us all. Not only in the way they played it, but how they presented it and to whom.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the blues.
Bruce: I would say and hope that all american roots music will always be with us. It's so much part of our early history and it touches us in such an emotional way.
To Me, the Blues is all about emotion. Whether it be elation or great sadness, it is the varied intensity of the vocals, lyrics and music that create this amazing genre of roots music.
My one wish for the blues is that it is never forgotten as generations upon generations pass.
Kevin: The blues started it all. It speaks to the struggles, heartache, joy & hope in all people.  There will always be the blues. Listen...
Ken: Blues is the basic roots for which so many other forms of music are derived from.  Rock is fundamentally blues with some different rhythmic feels.   Jazz and blues are cut from the same stone.   Country, bluegrass, folk, pop, and even today’s most modern sounds all have some relation to blues.   Blues is based on the emotions and sounds in our “gut”.   It won’t die until we die!
My wish…I just hope that the modern generation of players and listeners will have the chance to experience blues as my generation and past generations have.   I’m hoping that there will be a resurgence of blues in the under-40 and younger audiences which seem to have drifted a little from the beauty of the blues.   I want my daughter and her kids to have that legacy passed on to them.
Valerie: The melodies and rhythms of the blues go back centuries in Africa. It seems to be part of the human DNA.   
And the metaphors used in blues lyrics allow for the discussion of difficult topics in an easier to digest format. Like “Mule Kickin’ in Your Stall.”   I mean, talkin’ about marital infidelity using the image of mule in a barn... wow!
The use of the double entendre is also a big part of blues and an often humorous way of expressing difficult emotions and situations.   The sharing of these experiences through blues music not only generates empathy from the listener.... but it’s a way of learning from other people’s troubles and mistakes.
I wish that the awareness of the importance of blues in popular culture will continue to grow. That’s one reason why my husband, Al B Blue, and I created Blues for Kids almost 16 years ago. A program that has helped us teach blues music and it’s historical context to school children all over the United States.
Wil: I agree with my good friend Bruce Krupnik's quote

Are there any memories from the Strata Tones, which you’d like to share with us?
Ken: Actually, the Strata-tones are a young band with most of our memories still ahead of us.   Yes, we have all played in other projects for years and have thousands of experiences, but the six of us are still forming that “identity” that we will be talking into the future.
Valerie: One of our favorite gigs is playing at D’Anbino Vineyards and Cellars in Paso Robles, California.   They have high musical standards because the owners are all musicians, composers and recording engineers (NYC Record Plant, Dirty Dancing soundtrack Emmy Award winners). And they love us! They really appreciate our professional approach and treat us like celebrities. Plus, they make really great wine!
Wil: Our very first performance as a complete band is my favorite memory. To see the crowd that had shown in anticipation of what this collection of local Blues talent had to offer and to deliver even more than they had expected. This is my personal favorite moment so far.

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