Interview with West-Coast guitarist Charles Burton: Blues transform that negative thing into something positive

"I think the blues has taught me that the feelings and emotions that I have are the same ones that all people have."

Charles Burton: Positive vibration Blues

Born in Los Angeles in 1958, Charles Burton plays with fire, and when he does, his articulation and phrasing are instantly recognizable. This tall drink of water has been playing Blues, Country, Rock, and Roots music for over forty years. He has played lead guitar in Country bands in Los Angeles (1970's), Honolulu (1980's), Tokyo (1990's), and Fresno, California.

He headlined the Fresno Blues Festival playing with the late great Hosea Leavy in 1995. As a blues guitarist and singer, he has released four CDs with the Charles Burton Blues Band, and has toured Europe headlining festivals, culture houses, and clubs twice a year since 2005. In 2007/2008 he toured Scandinavia with Maury "Hooter" Saslaff (Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers), playing over 200 gigs in seven months! In 2009 he won San Diego's International Blues Challenge finals. That same year he took first place in San Diego's King of the Blues competition. Widely regarded as the best blues guitarist in San Diego, Charles is San Diego's Blues Ambassador to the world.

Interview by Michael Limnios


Charles, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
I came from a pretty musical family: my grandmother was a pianist and a piano teacher, and both my parents played music in the house.  They exposed me to all kinds of music from a very young age.  It was the Beatles, who I heard on the radio when I was about five years old, that got me started wanting to play the electric guitar.  At first I was really into rock, but when I was about eighteen, I started to work backwards.  I loved Eric Clapton’s work with Cream, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Johnny Winter, and I wanted to know where these guys were getting so many of their ideas.  That was what started me on the road to discovering the great blues artists, especially guitarists.  My first big blues idol was Johnny Winter.  After him, my three biggest idols were BB, Albert, and Freddy King.  But I also love T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Guitar Slim, Lightnin Hopkins.  Also Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf.  I’ve also gained a love and respect for Stevie Ray Vaughn’s work.   



How do you characterize Charles Burton’s sound and blues?
That’s a tough question for me.  I guess it’s guitar-oriented and blues-related.  I love so many different styles of music, and I try to emulate them, but I know that the end result is it all just sounds like me.  I think rock music is deeply imbedded in everything I do, too.  I try to avoid things that I’ve heard too many times before, whether from myself or from other players, so, hopefully, this gives my sound a creative, refreshing aspect.  One thing people tell me about my guitar style is that it’s clean and clear, and that you can hear “every note.”


What does the BLUES mean to you & what does offer you?
One thing I really love about the blues is the quality it has of taking something bad, that you feel bad about, that you are sorry about, or that you just don’t agree with, and, through the process of creating and performing blues music, you transform that negative thing into something positive, something that feels good and very human.  


What do you learn about yourself from the blues music?
I think the blues has taught me that the feelings and emotions that I have are the same ones that all people have.  And that people have a deep, basic need to share those feelings and emotions.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and songwriter?
Well, as I said, I grew up in a very musical household, being exposed to all kinds of different styles of music.  Somewhere along the line, I learned that music, and blues in particular, provides an outlet for strong emotions and feelings that might be difficult to deal with otherwise.  So whenever anything difficult was going on in my life (and when isn’t that the case?) I’ve always turned to playing music as a way of dealing with my feelings.


What advice Hosea Leavy has given to you & which memory him from makes you smile?
One time Hosea showed me that I was playing the shuffle rhythm wrong.  He grabbed my guitar and he said, “You’re playing it like this” and he played a little, and then “I play it like this, and I’ve always played it like this” and he played some more.  At the time, I couldn’t tell the difference!  I learned from Hosea that the blues is comprised of many subtle nuances.  It’s very sophisticated in that way.  When you hear someone do it right, you just feel it – and it’s a very good feeling.
When we were playing at the Fresno Blues festival, Hosea walked up to me during my guitar solo and reached over to my guitar and turned the volume up all the way, while I was playing!  That memory always cracks me up.  He was very straightforward about how he wanted things to sound.


Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording time?
Well, when we were cutting the basic tracks for the new album, the one that’s coming out later this year; I had Arnold Ludvig on bass.  Arnold is a really, really good bass player.  He’s amazing.  And we were doing takes for this “boogie” number, and we had to do several takes because I kept flubbing my part.  There was a bass solo section in this song, and every time we’d do another take, Arnold would do a completely different bass solo.  Each of them was just fantastic.  I can listen to Arnold play and always tell that he has complete mastery of his instrument.  On my fourth CD, “Favorites” I had Arnold Ludvig on bass and Asmus Jensen on drums.  Asmus is a fantastic blues drummer.  He’s been a huge part of my success in Scandinavia for a number of reasons, the first of which being that he makes me sound good with his great, great drumming.


What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?
With Hooter, we played a lot of schools in Scandinavia.  One time, we played this school and the kids were so amazing!  These were teenaged kids, and they got up, all of them, and they danced to every song we played.  Not just every song, but every riff, I could see that they were improvising dance moves to every little thing we did.  Later, when we came into their cafeteria for lunch, they applauded as we walked in.
More recently, I got to play with legendary drummer Bernard Purdie.  We played, among other things, “Chain of Fools,” and “Home At Last.”  These were especially exciting to play with him, because he was the original drummer on those records.  Rob Papparozzi was on vocals and harmonica on those gigs, and he was just fantastic.  Both of those guys are such professionals, and so easy to work with.


When did you last laughing in gigs and why?
Well, this was a few years back, but I was playing a gig with Len Rainey, a San Diego bass player who sings great blues, and he was singing “summertime.”  When he got to the line that goes, “You’re daddy’s rich, and you’re mama’s good looking…” he added, “She look better than you!”  I laugh so hard every time I think of that one!


Are there any memories from San Diego's International Blues Challenge, which you’d like to share with us?
Well, of course, it was an emotional “high” to win the finals as a solo performer in San Diego.  Then, when I got to Memphis for the big finals, it was a real thrill to be in the company of so many, and I’m talking about hundreds, of fine, fine blues performers.  That year, the band that won first place was called JP Soars and the Red Hots.  JP was just phenomenal on the guitar and an excellent vocalist as well.


Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
That’s a tough question, because there are so many, but I think I have to say Robert Johnson.  He was so incredibly creative and so incredibly influential.  It’s still a great mystery how he managed to get so good in such a short time.  I would love to be able to see him play and “talk guitar” with him.  Another would be Stevie Ray Vaughan, because by meeting him, in a way I’d be meeting all the great blues guitarists that he learned from.  Stevie Ray was a master of assembling riffs that he’s absorbed and creating a very authentic blues style of his own.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
The late Ken Schoppmeyer, for one.  He was the best blues harp player I ever heard, and it was an honor to get to work with him.  He taught me a lot about how to lead a band, which is a real art.  He’s sorely missed in San Diego, I can assure you.  Another guy is a San Diego guitarist named Chill Boy.  Chill is a good friend, and every time I hear him play I learn something.  Chill is a master at creating form in a solo, building and shaping the phrases to create a mood.  He’s a real original.


What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a bluesman?
Well, first of all, I love music.  I don’t just like it, I really love it.  And music affects me in a very deep way.  I think that’s why blues is so appealing to me.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
I think the blues stays around because of its humanity.  Blues music is earthy, and connected to basic human experience that just about everyone can relate to.  It’s also extremely expressive, and can be personalized in  a huge variety of forms.  You may notice that when popular music starts to get really artificial sounding, as it did in the 1980’s, that the blues makes a resurgence in popularity.  My wish would be for another big resurgence of the blues in my lifetime – the sooner the better!  It’s about time, don’t you think?


Tell me a few things about your meet & work with Maury "Hooter" Saslaff?
I met Hooter in 2005 at the Östersund Blues Festival, which my good friend Thomas Mikaelsson had got me invited to.  Hooter was playing with Slam Allen at the time – another very talented bluesman and an amazing vocalist.  I started corresponding with Hooter by email and eventually he heard enough good things about me from people I knew in Sweden that he started bringing me over to tour with him.  Hooter is an amazing guy.  At the time, he was booking an average of well over 365 gigs a year.  That’s right, at least one gig a day, every day, year after year.  He’s stopped touring now, but he did that in Scandinavia for about six years, that nonstop touring.  I was with him for three months in 2007 and four months in 2008.  We played schools, bodegas, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, culture houses, and festivals.  And we covered a lot of miles.  Typically, we’d drive three to five hours each day to the next gig.  Sometimes we’d have two or even three gigs in one day.  It was a brutal schedule, but that’s the kind of gigging that really forces you to get your act together musically.  You spend so much time playing infront of people that you really learn what works, musically, and what doesn’t.  


Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your European tour?
Well, I’m on my twelfth European tour now, not including one tour of England with the Bayou Brothers, a San Diego Zydeco band I play with.  I had a really great gig a few nights ago on Sunday, May 27th at Mojo Blues Bar in Copenhagen.  We had the place pretty much packed and people were very enthusiastic about our show.  Festivals are nice, and I’ve played some pretty big ones: Östersund, Skanderborg, Jelling, Langelands, Trollhatten.  But a relatively small, intimate gig in a place like Mojo, where people know they’re going to hear blues, is probably the most satisfying kind of gig.  I’ll be back in England with the Bayou Brothers in July, and we’re going to be backing up Lazy Lester on a few gigs.  I’m really looking forward to that.  Lester wrote so many great blues songs, like “Sugar Coated Love.”


Are there any memories from the road with the blues, which you’d like to share with us?
The first time I played in Europe was at the Östersund Blues Festival in 2005.  I got to be one of the featured acts playing in this grand old theatre.  I was playing with some Swedish musicians that I’d been rehearsing with.  It was a very special moment for me, because it had been a lifelong dream of mine to play in Europe.


What turns you on? Happiness is…
A good gig, where people came to hear the kind of music I play, I felt that I played and sang well, and they responded with enthusiasm.  Also, the feeling that I managed to touch someone, to communicate with them on a very deep level through my music.


What characterize the sound of San Diego blues scene?  
We have a whole range of players and styles.  We have some guys going after the “Chicago” sound, some going after the “West Coast Blues” sound, some going after the “Texas” thing, especially those influenced by Stevie Ray Vaughan.  There are “blues jams” just about every night of the week, and occasionally someone new will come in and make a very strong impression.  We have some top-notch players, like Nathan James, Billy Watson, Chris James, and Sue Palmer.  We have some old-school players like Tomcat Courtney and Bill Magee, too.

Charles Burton Blues Band’s website

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