An Interview with Otis Grand, the Gentle Giant of the Blues: Don’t play the Blues until you pay your dues

Like I always say - Blues is an international language and contrary to what people believe, it is also great party music. 

Otis Grand: The Blues Philosopher

Otis Grand, it can be said, is the last of the ‘real’ classic big band leaders and musicians, playing blues soaked in BB King Style soul, circa 1960’s.

His reputation for being one of the most authentic exponents of classic electric blues guitar is well documented and further cemented by the fact BB King himself has gone on record saying, ‘ Otis, you play like I used to when I was young’. For most, if not for all blues musicians, there can be no greater endorsement of ones command of the genre than that.

Growing up in the Oakland  Bay Area, California, Grand was first exposed to the blues through the local radio stations of the early 1960’s, and was originally drawn to the music via acoustic players such as Homesick James and Robert Johnson.

However, after witnessing a live performance from his hero King during a San Francisco music festival in 1966, Otis Grand’s true calling was realized.

40 years on, he counts BB as a good friend and his love and passion for the music is as strong as ever.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Mr. Grand Welcome to – The Greek Bluezarama.

Yiassou! And thank you for inviting me to do this Interview for the Greek Blues community. You know, I have played all over the world, but never Greece. Greek people have their own blues now, and I am sure many suffering citizens would certainly connect to this music of the slaves, if you know what I mean.

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols? - What is “blues” to you?

The blues grew out of the suffering of slaves in the Deep South – suffering many people today could not conceive. The music of Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, BB King and Muddy Waters, has influenced generations of guitarists and other musicians, black and white, from Chuck Berry to Eric Clapton. But no one should claim that they “got the blues” like these old guys did – the same essential ingredients don’t exist anymore. You do have the Hoodies suffering in the neighborhood ghetto and they came up with Rap music which is nothing like the old southern blues music. But make no mistake, my roots, and Eric Clapton’s and every white guitarist’s roots are very much in the record player.

The blues no longer commands the attention it once did and to many young listeners, traditional classic blues may sound not as exciting hip-hop or as bass & drum beats. But if the kids listen closely, they'll discover a rich, powerful history of people who suffered to feed and build America and in doing so, created one of the most influential genres of popular music in the world.

All popular Music today would never have been created without the original sound of the blues as the roots. Willie Dixon once wrote “Blues had a Baby And They Called It Rock & Roll”. This absolutely true and acknowledged by the founding father of Rock & Roll himself, Chuck Berry, who admits that his guitar style and Boogie songs were nothing but T-Bone Walker speeded up.

When did you start playing the guitar, and who influenced you?

My family moved around the world a lot and now lived in California, and I first picked up the guitar there in 1963 - the only kid in the family with any interest in music. I was influenced by the guitar instrumental bands of that time, the Ventures, Dick Dale, Surfaris, and Roy Clark etc. My love affair with the blues was fuelled when I became aware of blues through black radio stations in the Bay Area playing blues records by artists like B. B. King, Bobby Bland and Albert King. My passion for the blues was always strong even as a teenager growing up in the Bay area in the mid 60’s. I never did get interested in the Acid-Rock scene, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane etc..., and the only white bands that I liked were Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite who were big in California and were playing straight real blues as close as possible to the black players. At the age of 16 or 17 my whole world was turned upside down when my friend from high school, Chuck DeCosta, took me to see a B.B. King Live show. BB was young, strong, played loud and had a 10 piece band behind him and he left a powerful, chiseled indentation on my psyche. From then on I was deeply immersed in electric city blues.  Apart from B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James and Luther Allison were also major influences. But when Delmark started putting out those incredible LPs in the mid-sixties by Magic Sam and Junior Wells with Buddy Guy we all went nuts. “Hoodoo blues” was the best goddamn blues recording ever put out … and I don’t even like Harmonica. My acoustic inspiration came via Lightnin Hopkins and, inevitably, Robert Johnson but I don’t play acoustic guitar anymore – I don’t even own one.

Was there a particular song that made you fall in love with the Blues?

It was never one song – it was a whole idiom and feel. My mother tells me that aged 5, I used to get up and dance on the table for her whenever the radio was playing. So it is whatever your ears and soul hear at an early part of your life that molds your musical taste and leaning.

As a beginner what was your most important challenge?

In the old days, my days, we didn’t have the variety and proliferation of musical instruments, tutorials and range of accessories that there is today, and we all learned to live with what we had available and make the most of it. I mean, guitar strings were a luxury and if you broke one – tough luck – you continue to play without that string. There were two types of guitars – the real good expensive ones, or the really crap cheap ones. I started with my own cigar box guitar then to a cheap acoustic and finally a Sears Silvertone electric. I didn’t but a Fender until I was 21 years old. Fenders and Gibson guitars were a luxury and the accepted code was that you only buy these expensive brands if you were turning pro. I think that’s the reason why I still love to play shitty cheap guitars, in spite of all my other vintage guitars I own.

  Another big challenge to my musical aspirations was my old man. He just did not agree with me taking up guitar playing and never ever paid for any of my instruments – I had to work and save my own money for everything. But the more he threatened to smash it on my head, the more I was even more determined to play it.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you? Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

Blues is best played from the heart and soul. Don’t think about – it won’t work. A young musician maybe able to accurately transcribe Albert King’s riffs note for note, but he won’t be able to duplicate the feel and subtleness of his playing.

How and from whom did you discover the secrets of playing blues music?

I can’t really explain it. My formative years where spent in the States were you could listen to the Radio or watch B&W TV and hear all kinds of great black American music – Big Band, Hillbilly, Rhythm & Blues and Swing. The music stayed in my head…etched in my brain…..forever.

The only way to learn blues is to listen and listen to records and musicians on stage. My roots are in the record player. So were Muddy Waters and BB King’s – all those guys learnt to play by listening to 78rpp recordings of their own heroes. I learnt from listening to a lot of BB King and Albert Collins vinyl. But, more importantly, I understood many things by watching the fingers and hands of the old guys – how they fingered the chords and how they used their right hand not only to pick but also as a percussive tool. The old guys had a specific way of playing blues that does not relate to any formal methods of playing the guitar. T-Bone Walker always played his solos around the chord shapes and never moved too far. I see kids today playing all the correct notes, but in different positions on the fret board, which makes it sound unlike what it should sound. Bending strings is another technique which is best learned from watching others does it.

I read that you pioneered the West Coast R&B sound and then went to Big City style blues. What's the difference, and how hard was it for you?

Well yes, in London that is. It was already happening in the US with some great Jump bands. I took it to the UK. There wasn’t one single band on the scene in London playing anything that resembled real blues, which was a shame, because this was the land that gave birth to Peter Green, Eric Clapton and John Mayall.  I thought that you would have an abundance of great blues musicians, but no way, the scene was full of plodding rock drummers and heavy handed bass players. So I had to start from scratch and build the sort of band that would play the blues exactly the way that I wanted, This gave me the opportunity to start the one and only real Big blues band in the style of B.B. King and Johnny Otis, playing big band city blues, in England. I had a full ten piece band with 5 horn players and we did gigs at all the live music pubs and Clubs all over the UK. I did them all before we moved on to the college circuit and then the Festival circuit. Again, I was ahead of the game and I had the only Jump and Blues Big Band in Europe so we had plenty of work.

But I tell you, it was hard work finding the right UK musicians to play my style of real, classic blues... I ended up being the king of hire & fire.  I was the blues police then, and pretty tough as a band leader.  I always said love it or leave it. I then hired musicians from outside the UK. It was subsequently drummers from California or Norway, Bass player from France, Piano players from Italy – from all over Europe in fact. My current 9 piece band is multi-National.

Do you think your style on guitar now is distinctive?

Yes. I think I do in the sense that I consider myself as the one of the few remaining stylists who are securely anchored in the older, classic tradition of playing blues guitar – you know, the few who have no interest in playing fast solos through a Marshall stack with 2 dozen effects pedals and bass player with a 5 string instrument,… the last of the Mohicans. My style of playing is squarely based on mid-sixties BB King and T-Bone Walker and the other older traditions of playing blues guitar especially Magic Sam’s. That is a guitar plugged straight into an Amp and turned up all the way. But throughout the long years I managed to put all these different styles - using pick, thumbs and fingers, and the steel claw picking technique - all together and come up with my own style which is staccato lead runs peppered around the changes, how you feel it and when you feel it.

Nowadays Blues guitar playing is firmly attached to the Stevie Ray Vaughan hard rock style with distortion pedals and many amps. Honestly, your sound and your guitar tone is a reflection of your personality and that’s how come all the great blues players like BB, Albert King, Albert Collins and Buddy Guy all have their own distinctive sound. It is part of who they are. These old guys play like they talk and nothing to do with what guitar or amps or effects setup they use, or how much musical theory they utilize. Blues is all about expression and feel. I saw BB play a borrowed Strat in London – and he sounded exactly the same as he always does with his signature ES-355.

And today, having reached this level of mastery and international recognition, you have worked with some of the greatest musicians. What would you consider your best memory? Is there anybody that you worked with that you couldn't believe it?

I had the pleasure to meet and play with many great musicians during my years, many of whom I grew up listening to The few I remember well: Ike Turner, BB King, Hubert Sumlin, Luther Allison, Junior Wells, Albert Collins, Gatemouth Brown, Lowell Fulson, Champion Jack Dupree, Robert Cray, Roscoe Gordon, Steve Winwood, Guitar Shorty (he taught Jimi Hendrix to play), Eddie Bo, Earl King, Philip Walker, and all those old guys including Pee Wee Ellis and Maceo Parker (from James Brown’s band) and both ended playing in my band for a while. Ike was the one who really dazzled me when I was young. I was listening to all his recordings and learning his guitar style – then suddenly, I am in his band touring and recording. What a genius. Certainly misunderstood and permanently demonized for a character in a Disney movie that wasn’t like him at all.

I have still great respect and love for him and his music. I call him my Pappy, ‘cos he was like my second father. He took care of me and I took care of him during the bad days he suffered. I was with him until he passed in Dec 2007.

I also consider it an absolute honor to be close to BB King and have personal privileges bestowed onto me by him.

Ike? Did you ever talk with Ike about the rumors that follow him?  Did you ever talk to him about that? When you got to play with Ike Turner and his band, how was he to work with?

Don’t believe in all that shit they wrote about him. That was a Hollywood movie, and these movies always had to have a protagonist and anti-protagonist. Ike signed an agreement with the film producer which gave them a free hand to portray him in a form they wanted – so they got their bogeyman. In reality, he was a very creative genius, and I saw this first-hand. But he didn’t suffer no fools or anyone who fucked with him in terms of gig fees and contracts. I asked him point-blank if he had beat up Tina like they showed him in the movie. He looked at me and swore that he never laid a hand on her. Ike was a bad boy, but the new Bad Boys do even worse things today.

The problem was that Ike never could get over the Tina issue and he spent too much energy trying to regain his reputation. They were also in the process of filming a realty show, but he passed away. I always told him that his place in Rock & Roll history was secured even if he never made a single recording again – but that Tina movie really fucked with his self-esteem - as it was intended to.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience with the JSP Label and Phillip Walker and Guitar Shorty and others.

The success of ‘My Way or The Highway’ persuaded John Stedman to give me full rein on my next collaboration, recording legendary Texas bluesman Phillip Walker. Doing Phillip Walker was easier, I knew him and his style, and so I had a chance to write new tunes for him. John Stedman was impressed with my work on Shorty, and gave me full freedom to produce Walker. Phillip arrived three days prior to the session and stayed at my house where we picked and worked on the songs, and JSP really splurged out on this project by budgeting for three days studio time, and the resulting CD, "Big Blues From Texas" proved so successful that it was voted “Blues & Rhythm” Magazines CD of the month in December 1993.

Do you remember any interesting and amusing incidents from the recording time as a producer and a musician with these old bluesmen?

Yes – I can write a whole book on my experiences on the road and in the studio. There are plenty of strange things that happened in my career and some of these are really unique and hilarious. My years with Ike Turner would fill half of the book.

We had already backed Guitar Shorty for a French tour, and I believe Shorty requested my band and JSP wanted us to record with him, so we hooked up with Shorty one day before the recording session. John Stedman wanted a pure blues album, but Shorty had something else in mind. He was riding the reputation that he was married to Jimi Hendrix’s sister and he taught Jimi how to play, so on the day of the session he shows up with a million foot pedals, fuzz, wah-wah, everything in the land. John Stedman and I looked at each other in bewilderment and we both said to each other "You tell him". I was chosen to inform him that there was no need for all that stuff and we wanted a pure blues album which he was capable of doing. To break the news to Shorty I used the old Howlin Wolf's story when he was cutting the "Electric Wolf" album and when he walked into the session and found all the white players with long hair and fuzz pedals, he said to one of them "Boy, you go and get that haircut, and on your way to the barber throw that shit in the river". Pointing at the pedals, Shorty got the message and requested that he at least be allowed to use his wah wah pedal on one song only. The session was one day. We cut the songs in twelve hours, and I mixed the record all night, and I remember Shorty was so sleepy in the middle of one tune that he wouldn’t bother to tune his guitar, so I had to go and over dub my guitar parts later. The mixing was hell, because we had to do 10 songs in the middle on the night. But I did it, and the album was very spontaneous, almost a jam, but the critics loved the rough edges and it even won a W. C. Handy Award for Best Foreign Blues Album.

Joe Houston was to be JSP’s next project, ‘Return Of The Honk’, a session I was really looking forward to, but as with Shorty, the session was to have its own problems. Joe Houston was the session I was really looking forward to, and I convinced John Stedman to do a retro honking tenor R & B CD with Joe, and Joe agreed. The dates were booked and I flew my drummer, Neil Gouvin from Boston especially for his big band drumming. The day arrived and the whole band met at the studio for rehearsals and cutting, Joe showed up, but after one tune he throws his sax on the floor and he says "I ain’t doin that shit", meaning honking sax and R & B. He stated that he was tired of that reputation as a” honker” and he was capable of better things, and can we please let him do Elmore James tunes and Muddy Waters, and he wanted to do Cleo’s mood. Everyone in the room was silent. Is this the end of the session before it started? No coaxing could change Houston’s mind. He did not want to play honking tenor on this record and that was final. I informed John Stedman of the problem and he must have seen his financial investment going down the drain, as he didn’t say much except may be @*"!%/. A two hour standstill was quickly broken when pissed off, I went to Joe and with rage and anger told him that the band has agreed to do an R & B album and that we "Were gonna do it with him or without him". I guess the image of 6’3", big guy standing over him with rage in his eyes changed his mind because 5 minutes later a big smile takes-over and he says "Otis, I’ll do it for you only". So we cut the record still under deep reluctance from Joe. He played his ass off on the songs, but he sat down throughout the session. Never stood to solo, and he never made an effort to sing into the mike. I had one guy in the room try to follow him with the mike, so we could capture the stuff on tape. He only did one rehearsal and one take, that’s it, and nothing on Earth would get him to do another take or overdub. He also refused to sing on too many songs. But in spite of his unco-operation we still came up with a great product. I know because Joe Houston called me from Los Angeles 3 months later to tell me that he wants to do another honking sax album with me.

What the difference between producer and musician Otis Grand? What the music philosophy of Otis Grand?

By now, I had become the JSP label house Producer. JSP was famed for financing and releasing recordings by little known and little recorded black American blues artists, and he recognized how valuable I would be when recording artists whose music required that authentic Big Band blues and R&B sound that I had perfected. John was recording old black blues artist at that time, but he knew he had a problem with English backing bands that were too rock orientated and not easily flexible to play in the style of whomever artist they were backing. This collaboration provided me with a further opportunity to demonstrate my versatility by linking me as a producer / performer in the studio with some of the cream of the American blues and R&B scene. My ability as a Producer is really just a manifestation of those years and years of listening to Blues records on vinyl and soaking up the sounds. They used to make great recordings with very basic equipment and you can hear that. The Bass is very full and rich – the guitar is up front. In other words, the vinyl you listened to was as alive as the artist on stage. And so I instinctively had all those sounds in my head when I produce and mix bands including my own. I am very well known for one-take recording, no listen-back and no over-dubs. If you can’t get the feel for a song, drop it. I had left out so many tunes because the band wanted to go over it again and again until that initial feel was lost. We weren’t making an opus – just a blues album and I knew that capturing that “Feel” was more important than getting the changes all perfectly correct. That’s my policy anyway – I know guys who spend days on one song and this leaves me with a cold reaction. Anyway, as I producer I also watch the studio time – Analogue studios were very expensive.

Can you describe the ideal sound of rhythm section to you? How do you characterize your sound and progress?

Again, you can’t have a real blues band without the proper Rhythm section. The drummer is the most important ingredient in playing blues. They are the ones who establish the feel and the groove. Muddy knew it and BB king’s sound and style essentially come from his drummer Sonny Freeman. BB held on to him until Sonny died and it was never the same again. I’ve had an on-going battle with drummer ever since I moved to the UK … you just can’t find a drummer who can actually play Blues! They all want to be John Bonham. I must have hired and fired 100 drummers. My drummers are now all from Scandinavia.

Also, the bass player needs to know where to lock in with the drummer to complete the groove. You see, in a 4 or 5 piece blues band, every instrument has to play a different part and these parts make up the overall sound and keep it “in the pocket”. The Chicago guys pioneered this, especially Muddy’s bands. Rock bands tend to have all the instruments and vocals playing and singing the same lines – which tend to badly overload the beat.

What advice has Albert Collins & John Lee Hooker given you? Looking back, what memories and influences did you have from “Frosty” & John Lee makes that make you smile?

Well – I learnt how to play hard and loud from Albert. His style is so aggressive and in your face. He once said to me “Turn it up, look at the audience straight in the face and beat the shit out of your guitar” – and I still do this to date. From John Lee, I recognized that when you play the blues, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you feel it. Musical standards don’t apply. He didn’t start making any real money until he was 70 and he told me that the money didn’t matter – as long as he had two girls with him every night.

What about you’re Blues in Schools program. Where do you teach it?

Because I am so passionate about my Blues and would like to see it survive unmolested I do lectures at High Schools in the UK and all over Europe. I developed this program I teach from scratch and it is a properly prepared lecture with a Power Point Presentation that covers Blues History, Blues heroes, sample tunes, blues chords & lyrics and ends up with a demonstration by me on guitar of the different styles and then a jam with the students. Attendance is mandatory and some schools give credit. There is so little opportunity for these youngsters to have exposure to the Blues so if I turn on 5 kids out of the 100 to blues, I am a happy man. I hope that I can do this in Greece as well.

What is your latest project? You're working on a new album called "Blues '65", right?

In mid 2012, my record Label will be releasing the follow-up to my 2008 “Hipster Blues” CD. I never was the kind of musician who self-promotes, so I won’t talk about it much and I won’t lie about it either. But I can tell you that ‘Blues ‘65’ is the finest album I ever recorded with great material and with the finest musicians to boot. “Blues ‘65” is a celebration of the sounds that influenced him during his teenage years. This was an era when recordings of every genre were made to be radio friendly and charts saw Pop, Rock, Soul, R&B, and even Blues nestled comfortably together. This is the first recording where I don’t get into long guitar solos – everything was detailed and thought out before hand. There are at least 3 cuts – one of which is my interpretations of Nat King Cole’s “Pretend” - that may be released as Radio-play singles, if these still exist. We’ll be out on tour supporting the release soon.

What kind of music do you like to listen to these days?

Well, I got to say this: All modern music nowadays – and I may be out of touch here - turns me off especially this Pop/ Rap/ Hip-Hop/ Heavy Rock / metal and Boy Band/Girl Band shit and all those hopelessly dreadful 21st century singer-songwriters. What the hell happened to talent like James Taylor? The dancers have hi-jacked real music, aided and abetted by MTV and commercial radio and the kids today end up with a bland, digitized shell of music shoved down their throats. It is despicable that the terms “R&B” and “Blues” are now used in an entirely different connotation to mean late night smooch music. Aghh! Woe onto us!!

So, naturally, my reaction is to ignore today and go back and listen to real music from the past. I think even the kids are doing this as well. My fave period is from late 1948 to just about 1969 before the advent of disco although the 70’s had great roots bands like Little Feat and Ry Cooder. Even Pop stuff in the 50’s had beautiful melody and I don’t mind this at all.  But I generally listen to Jump bands with horns including Western Swing like Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys, Bluegrass, Hawaiian, Corrido and Mariachi music Oud Maqam improvisations and Lebanese Ittab. Real music, Real Musicians. It’s all blues to me.

What do think the future has for the Blues these days?

Don’t start me on this… I am not an anorak!! But I am a deep-rooted certified purist!! … (long pause)…I am a bit pessimistic. I hate to say it, but we are losing track of the original music that we all learned to love. Stevie Ray Vaughan did a great redefining favor for the blues by commercializing it, but on the other hand, it was the worst thing that could have happened to blues. It thereafter attracted masses of blue-eyed pilferers and the swindlers in black suits. It was hijacked purely for profiteering, and later dumped entirely by the major Labels for lack of immediate financial returns. For God’s sake, John Lee Hooker didn’t start to make any real money until he was 70 years old, but every kid now wants instant SRV stardom & wealth. Nowadays, too many blues albums are not saying much, not achieving much and are basically a re-hash of the same old songs, so many covers of the same songs. I see records that people shamelessly put out with the same goddamn chunga-chunga Chicago rhythm beats over and over and over, and this is why I feel blues may be losing audiences rather than gaining, because it’s not going on, it’s not going forward. There are no more pure talents emerging to replace the disappearing old guys. People may be buying Eric Clapton records by the millions no matter how awful these are but they’re certainly not buying anybody else’s.

  And another freaky trend in blues today is the popularity of what I call the “Sex & Strat Blues”– young Caucasian girl guitar-slinger acts, barely into their teens. There is no limit to what people do these days to reach the top of the glory pole, but salivating men go see them by the hoards. Nothing wrong with that, except that it is just another misplaced tangent the Blues has to deal with. 95% of them can’t really play the guitar, and haven’t put in the amount of hard graft necessary to truly be part of this idiom.

Do you think the Blues will disappear like so many other musical genres?

My ideas and thoughts about Blues music are well known and are directed by the realism that if the blues are not only to survive, but to reach and attract a wider audience, then they must constantly adapt to meet the social and cultural changes which are so prevalent in the world today, but this must be done without compromising the traditional roots and values that are the very essence of the music. That is why I recorded “Perfume and Grime” in New Orleans - an album that is still selling high numbers to this day.

I’ve witnessed so many shifts and changes in the past, so I am not getting worried over all of these new kids playing Rock Blues. Blues has deep roots and these can’t be severed even by total mindless greed and disregard for the past... In the last 5 years, many legendary Chicago bluesmen have passed away. The tradition of Chicago blues is dying out along with those old men and there aren’t a lot of younger musicians taking up where they are leaving off. There was a brief time in the nineties when it seemed that real blues music would take back the reins from the corporate corruption, but. By 2003, it was all back to normal and true Blues artists were once again hard to find. BB King is the last of the great bluesmen – the sole survivor of a tradition that goes back to the Mississippi Delta and the early 1920s. Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf et al have all passed on. But luckily, BB King continues to record and tour.

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

To start with: my Philosophy is “Don’t play the Blues until you pay your dues”. If you're not serious about it, leave it alone. The real Blues audience knows their music and you cannot jive them with Carlos Santana or Steve Vai Rock techniques. So learn your craft. And don’t go into it for the money or looking for musical legitimacy & authenticity. If you truly don’t love the art of Blues, then don’t bother at all. You will never get the” feeling” and true inspiration for it, which is the most essential ingredient for playing blues. I find that there so many talented musicians and guitar players but they still suffer from what I call the “Rock Star Syndrome”, and that is they are forced by expected rituals to play too hard and fast and show dazzling, magical skills like the Rock players do to gain the audiences appreciation and applause. These heavy metal performances, if transferred to electric blues, deprive you of the subtleness and nuance and tone of the blues.

Do you have any words of practical wisdom or advice for those aspiring blues players out there today?

Like I always say - Blues is an international language and contrary to what people believe, it is also great party music. So long as there are people, there will be Blues because it is the only music that speaks across the borders, languages, cultures, and experiences of the human race. Every culture has its blues idiom – Rembetiko in Greece or Fado in Portugal and Turkish folk music on the Oud.  Every country has its own blues. Many musicians have that blues in them, but they don’t realize it. Because of bad playing habits or preconceived notions about the blues, they can’t discover that essential feel. Most players today are brought up on Rock and Pop music, and the furthest they consider is Eric Clapton or Stevie ray Vaughan being the essential bluesman to listen to. That is very wrong and has a lot to do with the struggle for real blues in Greece. But I am confident that the younger generation is being directed correctly.

My first bit of advice to everyone wishing to develop their blues style to forget about the white Guitar heroes and: Listen, Listen, and Listen to the old guys. Never stop listening to the older guys. Don’t just try to copy the licks off a record or play along with your fave blues guitarist’s CD. You’ll be just copying licks parrot-fashion it won’t work. Just listen to be inspired not to copy. I never get tired of listening to BB or T Bone or Magic Sam.

My whole perspective on this is that to really understand the essence of blues playing and not just a clone, you need to go deeper into the artists’ soul, personality and idiosyncrasies. Dig into their inner feelings rather than the notes they play. Understand the mannerism rather than their riffs alone.  Blues is as much about phrasing and the space between the notes as the actual notes they hit. More than anything else, bending and finger vibrato is what defines their unique sound. Check out Otis Rush’s note bending – nothing like it in the world. From all of this, discover how it works and your own style and sound will emerge.

Once you have all that in place, then you are able to hold a proper musical exchange on stage with other musicians, and one that actually transcends trying to remember the sequence of notes or riffs that so & so played. That’s why I love playing live and reaching out to the audience because when I saw BB for that first time, the music changed my life, it gave me focus, direction and set my path so if I can do the same for future generations and teach them how to play ‘real’ blues, then my mission is accomplished.

And finally, if you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would avoid to do again?

When I was growing up in California, Instrumental guitar bands were the biggest, essentially leaving out vocals to Frank Sinatra and the New York pop groups. So in effect I learned to play the guitar but never thought about learning how to sing – I didn’t think I needed it. Looking back, this was a big mistake on my part and I guess the only regret I have in my career. But I realized so many of my dreams and played and recorded with nearly all my guitar heroes – something you can’t do these days. Things to avoid – Never sign on the dotted line again!!!!

The Official Otis Grand website

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