Chicagoan harp player Ron Sorin talks about his experience from “studies” at blues clubs in Windy City

"The blues offers me is an opportunity to express myself “in the moment” which is a very special thing to me. Hitting the “zone” – when there’s no thinking involved and the music just flows, is what it’s all about for me."

Ron Sorin: Anchored in tradition

Ron Sorin has been playing harp professionally since his teens. He has worked with scores of blues artists such as Johnny Littlejohn, Bo Diddley, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, and Willie Kent, and has recorded with Chicago blues men James Wheeler, Bob Stroger, Steve Freund, and Ken Saydak, among others. Ron was also a founding member of the popular American roots band Big Shoulders on Rounder records.

He has developed his own voice on the instrument, a unique style rooted in tradition, but traveling down other blues avenues as well.
Born in Chicago, Ron caught the blues bug at an early age. Determined to hear the music played live, he grew a moustache and with a fake ID started going to Chicago blues clubs to listen to the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Big Walter, Junior Wells, and James Cotton. His first professional gig was with Big Moose Walker while still a teen, and he has been playing harp and weaving his way through the Chicago blues scene ever since. He was a founding member of the popular American roots band Big Shoulders who received crossover attention from their two CDs on Rounder Records.  Ron has an individual style anchored in traditional blues but at times seamlessly straddles the line between straight blues and other roots influences. He has released his first solo CD "Lake City", with the majority of the songs self penned. Joining him is a host of top notch musicians and friends: Tad Robinson, Harlan Terson, Mark Skyer, Mark Wydra, Marty Binder, Ken Saydak, John Brumbach, James Wheeler, and Pete Benson. (Photo by David Sutton)

Interview by Michael Limnios


When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?
Like many of my fellow players, it was my older brother’s record collection that first tweaked my interest in the blues. His record collection consisted of mostly white blues and blues rock bands such a Cream, Paul Butterfield, and Canned Heat. He did have “Fathers and Sons” though, (a Muddy Waters record with his band and special guests including Paul Butterfield). So that made it easier for me to work my way back to the roots, since people like Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, and Sam Lay ( who I later had the opportunity of working with), were on that recording.  That started a long journey that still continues today of learning blues history and finding out about some of the more obscure musicians and songs.  
I used to take the train downtown every week as a teen and scour the blues record bins at The Jazz Record Mart. I learned a lot from reading the liner notes on those albums. While hanging out there one day I remember talking to Big Joe Williams who I believe stayed in a room in back when he was in town, and Bob Koester (owner of Jazz Record Mart and Delmark Records) about the album I was holding in my hands, “Piney Woods” by Big Joe Williams. They told me that during that session, they had to do several takes of each tune because the street cars going by outside would constantly interfere with the recording.



What does the Blues offered you?
What the blues offers me is an opportunity to express myself “in the moment” which is a very special thing to me. Hitting the “zone” – when there’s no thinking involved and the music just flows, is what it’s all about for me. Whether that moment happens when I’m playing backup and feeling locked in with the rest of the band or in the middle of a solo, that’s the driving force that keeps me addicted to this music.
I’ve also had the opportunity to work with great musicians. Luckily, I started playing on the scene when there were still quite of few old school musicians around. I‘ve had the opportunity to rub shoulders with people like James Cotton and Junior Wells.  Of course, playing this music also lets you connect with the audience. I don’t dance myself, but I love to be partly responsible for getting the dancers on the floor and being a part of it. When the dance floor fills, I can relax – I know I’m doing my job.


What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
The first blues show I saw was BB King – not a bad start! I remember marveling at how BB made it look so easy to make his guitar talk. My first gig was at the original Kingston Mines club with Big Moose Walker. I was 16 or 17 years old. I had been sitting in on jam nights there and he hired me for a gig.
There was a club in Chicago when I was a teenager called Alice’s Revisited that had world class blues bands such as Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters. This place was open until 4:00 in the morning and had no age limitation since it was a juice bar. What an opportunity for a young kid to get a taste of the music!
I can’t remember what the first song I learned, but I bet it was a Sonny Boy Williamson II tune. He was the first harp player whose music really got me hooked.



What characterize Ron Sorin’s sound and progress?
My playing is anchored in tradition, but usually without any conscious effort to do so. I’ve been told that I have an individual style and I hope that’s true. I think the trick is to take what you’ve learned in the past and have it come out spontaneously. I sometimes realize that a riff I just played is sometimes a bastardized form of something I worked on or listened to months or years ago. It sometimes floats around in the subconscious and surfaces later. I feel young as far having a lot to learn. There is never a shortage of things to listen to and work on, but there is definitely a shortage of time these days. Supporting a family with a job outside of music takes a lot of energy, so practicing takes a back seat. Actually this lack of time has probably helped me develop my own style. Instead of trying to copy players of the past, I’ve had to try to take what I’ve got and make the most of it. But I do have plenty to work on – other peoples’ material as well as originals. Wood shedding never hurts. I would like to record another CD soon.


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Any time the music is feeling good to you and you’re in the zone is a golden moment. It’s always nice to hear musicians on the bandstand like Willie Kent, Bob Stroger or James Wheeler turn their head to you when you’re playing and say “I hear you Ron”. It is also a thrill to hear your own music on the radio.
There were plenty of lousy gigs. But I can’t think of the worst moment off hand. I was in the last band to play the old Kingston Mines though. The ceiling had collapsed the night before and there was a thunder storm going on, but Doc, the owner still wanted us to play. I remember people were dancing in a big puddle on the dance floor and water was dripping onto the stage. I thought this was a ridiculous situation, but the show must go on - until I got a big shock from the microphone on my mouth and that was it for me! A few minutes later the cops came in, looked at the situation and said “what do you guys think you’re doing?” They shut the place down and that was the end of the old Kingston Mines on Halsted Street.



What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?
Everybody has ups and downs in their lives. I think you have to channel some of that feeling into the music.  You’ve got to know the signature parts of the tunes, but I believe you should give the tunes your own interpretation. You also need to listen to the rest of the band. I don’t sing, so I’ve always had to concentrate on being a good team player. The idea is to serve the song, whether it’s playing lead or playing very sparse. Sometimes it’s better not to play anything. On a personal level, I just try to be myself. I’ve never tried to fit some blues persona and I think some of the older players I’ve worked with probably appreciated it. I’ve always gravitated toward playing with musicians who are good guys, without a lot of attitude.


How did you first meet Big Moose Walker, what kind of a guy was the late “Big Moose”?
I was very young when I met Big Moose. As I mentioned earlier I was sitting in at a jam night and he asked me to do some gigs with him. As I can remember, he was a big friendly guy who was kind enough to hire a young kid to play some gigs with him.


What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
I’ve jammed with lots of great players, but a recent jam meant a lot to me. That was a memorial jam for a musician friend by the name of Bob Carter (a great drummer from Chicago). I jammed with some old friends and saw many players there that I haven’t seen in a long time. It was a nice feeling of camaraderie and a nice tribute to a fallen friend.
Some of my favorite gigs have also been European festivals. It’s great to have the harp take you to other parts of the world.



Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Johnny Littlejohn, Bo Diddley, and Hubert Sumlin? 

Johnny Littlejohn was a great guy, very down to earth. He was a great singer and slide player. He had one of those voices that would resonate on stage, and you could feel it in your chest standing next to him, microphone or no microphone. It was a thrill to work with Bo Diddley, but he wasn’t big on giving cues. After the first gig I realized the best thing to do was just to solo when I wanted to and that worked out well. Hubert Sumlin was a sweet guy. He used to call me up on stage with him before I could actually play well. I did an East coast tour with him in which we had a lot of free time during the day. We used to sit around and play acoustically together. He would tell me stories of the early days with Howling Wolf.


Are there any memories from Willie Kent, Pinetop Perkins, Gloria Hardiman and Deitra Farr, which you’d like to share with us?

Willie Kent was one of my favorite blues musicians to work with. I considered him a friend. I did a few tours with him and we had a nice unspoken understanding between us. I wasn’t a regular in his band but I did a lot of gigs with him. If I didn’t have many jobs with other bands going on and needed a blues fix, I would show up to his gig and sit in with him and he would always throw me a couple weeks of work. I loved when he would go into a vamp at the end of a tune and just ride the groove – a West side thing. I only did a few jobs with Pinetop and they were a pleasure. I worked and recorded with Gloria Hardiman. She was a powerhouse singer. I played with Deitra Farr for many years. Those were good times. Her nickname for me was “sweet lips”.



What are some of the most memorable tales from recording time with Bob Stroger, James Wheeler, Ken Saydak, and Steve Freund?
Bob Stroger, James Wheeler, Ken Saydak, and Steve Freund are all great talents and I’m glad I’ve had the privilege of playing and recording with them. I’ve worked with Ken Saydak for many years in various situations, including the band Big Shoulders. He is a very witty and funny guy and recording sessions with him are always a lot of fun.
 I recorded a live album with Bob Stroger at the Lucerne Blues Fest and a studio session for Delmark Records with James Wheeler, both very easy going guys. I believe I’m on Steve Freund’s first album.
Steve, Ken, and myself used to fish together quite a bit. We would meet up at the lakefront after gigs, just before sunrise and fish for salmon on Lake Michigan. I dragged Gary Primich out there one morning when he was playing in town.


What's been their experience from “studies” to Chicago blues clubs with fake moustache and ID?
I got into blues music at an early age, so the way I found to get into some of the clubs and see the music played live was to grow a moustache and get a fake ID. I used to see the Hound Dog Taylor band every week before I was of legal age.


Tell me a few things about the Big Shoulders. Are there any memories from?
Big Shoulders was a band of mostly blues players creating original music. We put out two albums on Rounder Records. It was hard to categorize the music. It was generally labeled American Roots. Not bluesy enough for the blues traditionalists, but it did receive some crossover attention. I remember the first gig after the CD started getting some major airplay in Chicago. We were playing at a club that usually drew about 30-40 people. I showed up at the club shortly before show time and there was a line all the way down the block. It took a second for me to realize that all of these people had come to see the band.

Do you know why the sound of the harp is connected to the blues & what characterize the sound of Chicago Blues Harp?
The harp is a vocal instrument. It’s a natural for the blues with its bends, trills, and rough chords. I heard that Otis Spann called the harp “ the mother of the band” when referring to the Muddy Waters Band. It’s like a second voice in the band. Generally speaking, the Chicago Blues Harp sound was born when the acoustic blues players of the south migrated north and plugged those instruments into amplifiers. A new energy was created, raw and electric. That sound has branched out to other areas of the country and the world. The Chicago sound generally keeps coming back to the music that was created in the 50’s. The harp was prominent in the band and was taking the place of the horn sections of the 1940’s with Little Walter leading the pack.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
The blues definitely has swings in popularity, but it will never die completely. The blues is the roots of American music. It spawned rock and roll and jazz. Besides the raw energy of it, it is the subtle nuances that makes it or breaks it for me. Unfortunately it often seems to be the over the top players that get the attention. I’m more interested in taste than flash. Song writing is an area that has to grow with the blues. Some of the themes of the older blues songs don’t have the same relevance today that they had in the 50’s. But hard times and heartache will always be around, and singing about them is part of the blues experience. It makes the audience feel good to know that these problems happen to everyone and they’re not alone. The sadness in many blues tunes is really a release mechanism. It makes the singer and the audience feels better.


From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between Muddy, Wolf’s blues era & now?
Unfortunately, I only caught the tail end of it. I never had the opportunity to see Little Walter, the Sonny Boys, or Otis Spann to name only a few. But I did see Muddy, Wolf and Big Walter quite often. In those days the music was happening and vital. Now the music sometimes tends to be a re-creation of those days, not quite as sincere. But I must say, there are some great players out there now. In most cases, I’d rather see musicians doing their own style with a nod to the past than trying to imitate past recordings. On the other hand, there is also an abundance of high energy players out there today. I guess it’s a natural progression. These players are usually captivating for a song or two, but then I usually head for the door. I prefer subtlety and nuance over flash.


What is the “feel” you miss nowadays from the “OLD DAYS OF CHICAGO BLUES”?
The blues musicians from the old days learned from their predecessors just like musicians do today. They listened to records, or radio, or saw them play live, but there seemed to be a more honest interpretation by those guys than most of today’s players and singers. My guess is that in many cases the hard times they were singing about was very real to them and playing the music was their chance to beat it. So there was probably a lot on the line, besides the pure joy of playing the blues.


How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
When I first started playing in clubs, the music was the main focus. People came out to listen to the band and dance. Now in many circumstances the band on stage is just another distraction along with the video screens, TVs and cell phones instead of being the main attraction.



Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
As far as lyrics, I was initially drawn to the party tunes, usually about women or booze, such as “Rocket 88” or “Sloppy Drunk.” Later my preference shifted towards somewhat deeper tunes like Memphis Slim’s “Mother Earth” or Percy Mayfields’ “Send me Someone To Love.”
I really like the sound of the Chess recordings. For instance “Little Village” by Sonny Boy Williamson. The multiple takes of that song makes you feel like you’re in the studio with those guys. It also gives you a little insight into what a cantankerous guy Sonny Boy probably was.  Another absolute favorite of mine is “Chicago Bound” by Jimmy Rogers. Little Walter’s backup playing and solo work, as well as Jimmy’s smooth vocals, are great. That tune has most of the elements I’m still striving for when I play.


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
When I first started playing professionally the live music scene was active. It was great to meet and play with musicians who I’ve listened to on recordings, and the party never stopped. Everything was new and exciting and there was no end in sight.
Right now is an also interesting period. The players I currently work with and I have all reached a certain level of maturity, musically and from an experience standpoint, which can make for a comfortable feel on stage. The release of my first solo CD “Lake City” opens new possibilities. Song writing and producing is an interesting new avenue. I like the recording process when I get a chance to work with great musicians and friends.
Who knows what may come out of it in the future?

Ron Sorin's official website

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