Bassist Harlan Lee Terson talks about Lonnie Brooks, Otis Rush, Kingston Mines and "Blues Cats" of Windy City

"Blues is a musical form that is best learned by experiencing it."

Harlan Lee Terson: Walking in the blues Line

Harlan Terson has been a familiar figure on Chicago's musical landscape for more than thirty years, recording and touring internationally with some of Chicago's great blues artists. He has played bass on more than thirty five recordings and jingles, two of which have been nominated for the Grammy award. He maintains a busy performing and teaching schedule, contributing his deep, steady groove to various bands and projects.
Harlan Terson was born in Chicago on January 3, 1951, and began playing electric bass in 1966. His influences include all styles of blues, as well as the recorded sounds of Stax/ Atlantic and Motown. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in music from the University of Illinois-Chicago, he began playing professionally on the Chicago scene.
Terson's steady "in the pocket" groove has kept him working on the competitive Chicago blues circuit, and taken him overseas as well. He recorded and toured withLonnie Brooks from 1976-1982. He has also appeared and recorded with many other artists, including the legendary Otis Rush, Bo Diddley, Magic Slim, Albert Collins, Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Littlejohn, Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Rogers, Kim Wilson, Duke Robillard, Eddie Shaw, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Big Mama Thornton, Jody Williams, Jimmy Johnson, Sharon Lewis, Bob Margolin, Willie Smith, Diunna Greenleaf, Mojo and The Bayou Gypsies,  The Chicago Rhythm Review, and Chicago blues rockers, The Fabulous Fish Heads. He performed at the internationally famous Kingston Mines in Chicago for more than twenty years, and has been on the teaching staff at The Old Town School of Folk Music since 1999.

Interview by Michael Limnios


Harlan, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
I started playing in my first band in 1966, at the age of 15. My friend Bob Levis, with whom I played in many bands, including Lonnie Brooks And Otis Rush, was already in this band when I joined it. While we were not a blues band, a lot of the music that we were playing was blues based, such as the music coming out of England. So I was playing that 12 bar progression before I even realized what it was about. At some point I had the revelation of hearing Albert King’s recordings. I soon understood that the blues was at the bottom of everything that I was into. I also came to understand that much of it was from my own city. I began to listen to more recordings, and was fortunate to be able to see a lot of the artists live. I saw Muddy Waters many times, also Howling Wolf, Jimmy Rogers and Otis Rush.  I went out of my way to see Albert King whenever he was in town. I became a little obsessed. I listened to his Born Under A Bad Sign album every day for quite a long time.


What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
I began playing jobs with my first band right away. These were not club jobs, but local teenage venues and parties. We were not playing blues. We did the songs of the day that were on the radio, British invasion, soul, etc. When I was older, I began frequenting the club scene. By then I already had a lot of experience in playing in bands, and had watched and played a good amount of blues. When I was just out of college, I began playing guitar in a band with Sonny Wimberly, who I had originally seen playing bass with Muddy Waters. Bob Levis was also in this band. By this time, I knew most of the blues standards. We played a lot of jobs on the South Side of Chicago, and that is where I began a long career of club work. We also had horns in that band, and in addition to blues, we played a variety of soul tunes, which has always been common practice in Chicago blues clubs.
In the next band I played in, I switched back to the bass. In those days, I was also able to sit in with some of the great bluesmen like Otis Rush, and gig on occasion with others, such as Jimmy Rogers. In 1976, I met Lonnie Brooks, and that was a most important event for me.


What characterize the sound of Harlan Lee Terson? How do you describe you philosophy about the blues music?
I see myself as a traditional player. I started playing in the 60’s and I think that is reflected in the way I sound. In addition to blues, I’m especially fond of Southern soul. I like rock and roll, country, British invasion, the great American songbook, lots of stuff.  I’m not very much into blues rock or metal.  And I’m not out to reinvent the blues. I’m not looking for the latest trend.  I am searching for that hypnotic groove that drew me in in the first place, and get deeper into it. I want to feel good. I listen carefully, try to hear my place in the mix, and solidly support the sound and dynamics of the band. I want to hear what I am going to play come to me. I don’t plan what I’m going to play, or try to play things for the sake of calling attention to myself. I try to present myself well, be on time, and dress reasonably decent, but I’m not trying for some kind of a “blues" look. Playing the blues allows me to be myself, and that’s one of the things that drew me into it. It allows for individuality in a traditional structure. I think that’s great.



Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
It’s really hard to pick any one moment. But I think the best times of my life were my days in the Lonnie Brooks Band. I got the opportunity to help a very talented musician start a new band, and a new phase in his career, which turned out very well for him. I played on my first recordings with Lonnie. Two of those recordings were nominated for the Grammy award. I also did my first European tours with that band. It was a band with a feeling of family, and while we had our problems like any family, we enjoyed travelling together, and creating something together. What we started can still be heard in Lonnie’s performance today. I’m very proud and grateful for that.
I also have some great memories of my European tours and two tours of Japan with Otis Rush. It’s the amazing audiences that make those things really memorable. When it’s happening, the energy that goes back and forth between audience and musicians is the greatest thing that I have ever felt.
Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s difficult.  Some moments are incredible. Sometimes you are just making a living as best you can.


Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs and recording with Lonnie Brooks?
We enjoyed performing together. My first gig with Lonnie was at the Show And Tell Lounge on the west side of Chicago. We played all kinds of bars and clubs, and the occasional road gig. We used to do four night jobs at a couple of Chicago clubs, the Wise Fools Pub and Biddy Mulligan’s. At Biddy Mulligan’s there was an island bar and a small space between the bar and the bandstand where the people would dance all night long.
When we recorded Voodoo Daddy, the first song on the Bayou Lightning album, at one point Lonnie was on the floor on his back and we were all standing around him playing and encouraging him.  I remember rehearsing for another Alligator recording in Lonnie’s basement, and his kids running around down there. Now those two little boys are grown musicians out on their own.
With Lonnie, I got to help build a very good band, record really good tracks, and do some interesting travel.


What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
I’ve been very lucky. Music has given me purpose, identity, a way to see the world, to connect with people, a roof over my head, food on the table, love, and friendship.
Blues is a musical form that is best learned by experiencing it. Even before I heard played by real blues artists, I had a feel for it, through the rock and roll I heard as a kid. Playing it for me has been very natural, just like breathing.


What do you learn about yourself from the blues music?
I hear well, and I have a great feel for time. I’m part of a big picture. I can cooperate with other musicians to create something bigger than myself. I get along well with most people. I have something to offer.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember. I can still hear in my head the 78’s that my older brother was listening to in the 50’s. In fact, I can remember just about everything I’ve ever heard. When I was 12, my older brother bought a guitar. My cousin taught me some chords and a few songs, and I could play right away. Going to music school helped me to put a lot of things together, particularly the ear training part. I’m not saying that a person has to do that to be a good musician. But for me, it helped me to a deeper understanding of what I was doing. Being a bassist puts me in the position of always having to listen to what is going on and be the glue that holds things together. I enjoy making that work. I love it when the whole mix sounds great. I get the chance to drum every so often, with students, or at a jam. I’m not real slick, but I still have a great sense of time.


Do you remember anything funny or interesting from Otis Rush?
Before every song, Otis would turn around and play a little bit of the bass line to let you know what was coming.  I also recall that I had a habit of playing some things a little bit staccato, and he would sometimes turn around and admonish me to “sustain the bass.” I was determined after a while to not have him do this, and I focused on getting the sound he wanted.
We did a European tour where I spent many late hours just visiting and talking with Otis, just about music and family and various things. He enjoyed the company.


What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?
Wow! There is so much that has happened over 35 or 40 years! My first European show was a TV show taped at a club in Hamburg, Germany with Lonnie Brooks. We also played at the Blues Estafette in Holland in 1981, along with Jimmy Rogers and Walter Horton. That was Walter’s last major festival before he passed away. My last tour with Lonnie was the Chicago Blues Giants European tour in 1982, with Eddie Shaw, Lefty Dizz, Ken Saydak, and Melvin Taylor. Some of the people who popped up on stages with Lonnie from time to time included James Brown and Johnny Winter. I have to say that I also loved playing locally in Chicago with that band, even little club gigs. There used to be lines of people all the way out the door at the Wise Fools Pup in the mid to late 70’s.
With Otis Rush, I would have to say that the Japan shows were the most memorable. He has a very devoted following there.
I played at the Lucerne Blues Festival twice with Dave Specter. That is a very hospitable festival and a very nice city to visit.
Of course, I’ve had the opportunity to do the Chicago Blues Festival a number of times with various artists. My last performance with Otis Rush was on that stage.
I’ve also played at the Trinidaddio Festival many times, a nice, friendly festival in Trinidad, Colorado. It’s always nice to go somewhere where the local people know you and welcome you back.
So many years, so many gigs! It’s been a great ride.


Are there any memories from Kingston Mines, which you’d like to share with us?
Ah, the Mines. I remember hanging out there in the original location (before the roof caved in), and playing there occasionally. I started working there (in the present location) quite a bit in the 80’s, with a lot of different people. At one point I must have been there five nights a week. Back then, the scene was very casual, and before the place expanded, we would park in the back and hang out a lot. You wouldn’t recognize the original layout. The place being open later than most, people would end up there every night. A lot of celebrities would come through, from Bruce Willis with an entourage like the secret service to Mick Jagger (with a very large bodyguard). I made a lot of friends there, and I am the godfather of M.C. Frank Pellegrino’s son Sam.


Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your meet with all those great musicians: Bo Diddley, Albert Collins, Sunnyland Slim, Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Shaw, Big Mama Thornton and many more?
I remember very well the big smile and laughter of Johnny Littlejohn. He was a mechanic. He once picked me up for a job in Atlanta, Georgia. On the way, he stopped at an auto parts store and picked up a part that he knew he would need on the road. He did that repair in Atlanta. On the way home the van had a problem He reached under the seat, pulled out a fuel pump, put it in, and we were on our way home. He was also a lot of fun to play with, and a very nice guy. I played on his last recording.
The Lonnie Brooks band backed up Albert Collins the first time Bruce Igluaer of Alligator Records brought him to town. We did the same with Big Mama Thornton.
Jimmy Rogers, and Eddie Shaw, both really nice guys. My one gig with Bo Diddley, very easy and fun. Steve Freund and Sam Lay were the other guys on that gig. Everyone loved Sunnyland Slim. Steve came all the way to Chicago from Brooklyn to play with Sunnyland Slim. Steve moved on to the west coast. I always found him to be an intense, passionate guitarist.
I’m lucky to have lived at a time when it was possible to play with all those legends.
As to some of these stories, they are better told in private!


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I learned from just listening and watching. I was fortunate to be around while many of the original artists were still here. And of course, there are the recordings. You learn it, you play it, and you respect the music and surrender to it. And if you can find your sound without trying to impose yourself on the music and make it all about you, then you’ve done well.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
These days, traditional blues has largely been lost to rock elements, particularly over the top guitar histrionics.  I hope that there will always be at least a few people who are interested in finding out where this music comes from, who can stop and listen, and take care of it. There have always been strong personalities, and I understand that this is “show business”, but I think that the music has to be the most important thing. It is a strong music, and it can take a lot of abuse (and it has), but it should be respected and nurtured. And it needs to be played from the heart. I think there is a line between serving one’s self and serving the music, and those things should be kept in balance. The ability to play is a gift, given to the player for the purpose of passing it on.


What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a bluesman?
A knack for improvisation, good timing, and being able to say what I need to say with few words (and notes).  I think that a blues player can say a lot with a little bit. Albert King is a great example. Not a lot of licks, but his phrasing and timing were dead on.
I do have to admit that when I write I have to be careful about getting too complicated. Sometimes I think too much.

Is there any similarity between the blues today and the “BLUES OF THE OLD DAYS ”?
I’m lucky to have been around when a lot of the first wave of Chicago blues artists were still there. That first group created the genre, and I think that they set a standard that is not going to be topped. I would say that by and large, the great blues songs have been written and performed, and it’s pretty tough to improve on that. I think that today there are more people than ever recording and playing what is called blues, but there is not a lot of depth to some of it. And rock elements have become a big part of it, as in other forms like country music. It’s just a musician’s nature to pick up sounds that they hear, and blues is no longer isolated in the places it began, like the American South, or in the urban neighborhoods that it was played in after it came North. Corporate radio doesn’t help either. You are much more likely to hear Stevie Ray Vaughn (who I believe was a very good player) than Jimmy Rogers. Not that there has ever been a lot of blues played on mainstream radio.
There are still people carrying on the tradition, though. There are players whose parents were in the first wave, people like Lurrie Bell, Eddie Taylor Jr., and Kenny Smith. I personally play with a number of old friends, and we all came into this music as enthusiasts, stayed around, and are still trying to play it as we knew it and learned it then. I still love it when it all comes together and feels right.


What turns you on? Happiness is……
Watching the garden grow in my back yard, catching a big fish, a beautiful guitar, being loved.



What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
I remember telling my mother what I was going to do, and how she responded, “You can’t do THAT!!” But seriously, there is a lot of music to absorb, and I would do a lot of listening. There are recordings. There are live performances. YouTube is a great resource. More than anything, know that this is what you care about playing. I find it disheartening that some people go into blues because they think it’s the best path to career success. That does nothing for the music. People might also want to be aware that there are a lot more players chasing a lot fewer gigs.


How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
It is kind of sad to play to audiences that are staring at their phones.
When I started, technology was pretty much analog recording, and telephones had cords. We started a band, played in clubs, and hoped to get enough attention that someone would find it worthwhile to record us. And you needed a studio to record on tape. Now there are more and more digital tools and people can record and promote themselves. This is a good thing, and a lot of musicians do a good job. It’s easy to start your own independent label. On the down side, particularly in the pop field, is what seems to me to be a manufactured sameness. But then, I remember being asked to shut the door to my room and turn the volume down on the “noise” that I was listening to.  
One thing that is the same for blues is that it is still released on small independent labels. That will most likely remain the case.
Any comments about your experiences with the new generation at Old Town School of Folk Music
I’m really fortunate to have been at the Old Town School for nearly 13 years now. I’ve taught people from 8 to 80 how to play the bass. Some are very into it, some are exploring different experiences. I’ve been teaching one 10 year old boy since last year. He has really taken to it and It’s exciting and moving to play songs with him and watch him learn. I also teach our blues ensembles, which is a lot of fun. Their graduation is to play a 30 minute set at Buddy Guy’s Legends. There is no place like the Old Town School. It’s also a great place to see a show. I catch one there whenever I can.

Harlan Lee Terson's website

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