Detroit guitarist John Idan talks about Yardbirds, Top Topham, Steve Vai, Alen Ginsberg, & his own blues road

"The blues is an expression of all the wonders of life."

John Idan: Motor City's Bluesbird

Originally hailing from Detroit, Michigan, John discovered his musical talent at an early age. Following his high school band, he soon started playing with his first professional band ‘The Natural Blues Band’ making himself a name around his hometown Detroit and southeast Michigan.

After the break-up of the Natural Blues Band John went on a holiday to London during which he met former Yardbirds’ guitarist Top Topham and drummer Jim McCarty and soon after moved to Britain to become the singer and lead guitarist of their blues band. Playing several nights a week in and around London, John soon became known as ‘Detroit’ John Idan on the blues scene. In 1992 he left the McCarty Band to pursue his own musical interest and founded his band ‘Realfire’.
Throughout the same time the Yardbirds were reforming and John was asked to become their lead vocalist and bassist, which meant for the premature break-up of Realfire after only a handful of live performances. Since then Idan has toured the world numerous times with them and has played sold out shows on a variety of world class stages such as The Royal Albert Hall in London; The Royal Festival Hall, The House of Blues in LA (guesting: Steve Vai), South by South West (guesting: Slash) the list goes on. He has recorded two main albums with the Yardbirds, the star-studded Birdland in 2003 and Live at B.B. King’s in 2006. In 2008 he released his debut solo album ‘The Folly’ on which he plays all the instruments with exception of a string quartet. In the same year he formed his own outfit ‘The John Idan Group’. He has since been recording for his 2nd album and worked on various musical projects playing in the UK, Europe and the USA.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & what does Blues offered?
I grew up with music playing all the time. In the car, on the Hi Fi and even in our back garden as we had an all weather speaker system my Grandfather devised. So, Unknowingly I was taking a lot in. Growing up in the early ‘70’s, I knew little of the social or political environment that music was addressing at time. All I really knew was that I loved music!  I started seriously playing at the age of 8 and by the time I was 14 or so I started to grow away from Pop and Rock music. I’d had already discovered the British blues groups and that really pointed the way to delving into American “black” blues music. My first group in high school still pursued more pop convention but the blues was an expression that really enlivened me.  It was probably, something to do with my own inner turmoil at the time. It was a healthy escape and a real healing force.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?
Like Albert King said, “Everybody has the blues. Some call ‘em the reds, the pinks……..etc”. Everyone has suffering in their lives though the blues is not necessarily just an expression of sorrow. The blues is an expression of all the wonders of life. My own experiences are like a lot of people from my generation. Family problems, divorce, drug use, people passing away too early…heartaches...I could go on...Finding a good way to deal with all this madness for me was playing guitar and being in a band. To be good, took time and patience and it kept me out of a lot of trouble. I also had a pretty good understanding of black Americans as I grew up in a very interesting and integrated part of the city of Detroit. I speak about all of these matters in the opening track on my solo album. It’s funny, In many respects I don’t even consider myself a Bluesman but no doubt it is very deeply instilled in me.

Where did you pick up your guitar style & what were your favorite guitars? What characterize the sound of John Idan?
I listen to all the great players and learned whatever took my fancy at the time. I stole so many guitar licks off records it’s not even funny. I still do this to expand and refresh my playing. To this day I’m still trying to master a Chet Atkins piece that I discovered in my step mothers record collection some 30 years ago!  When it comes to putting all this into playing that’s when some other unconscious understanding comes into play. Certainly there are standard things that we all play and are scripted, the rest just happens by the grace of God, when you open that place that can only be you. This is where every player finds their own magic. Sometimes it’s not available, others, your setting the world on fire. As far as guitars go, I’ve been a Gibson player pretty much from day one. The Les Paul has been my main guitar since my teens and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some really fantastic ones over the years. I sometimes have trouble holding a pick, especially if my hands get sweaty, so I adopted a finger style approach, sometimes with a thumb pick and a banjo one on my index finger. This gives an incredible attack and metallicy sound which can be really quite pleasing. For amps I’m a big fan of old Vox  AC30 though, lately I’ve been using a new Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I’ve had a couple of great blues mentors, Frank Dumont and Top Topham. Both are incredible players with firsthand experience with some of the original true blues masters. Frank introduced me personally to Albert King when I was all of 17 or 18. He and I used play together for days and days, 40’s and 50’s R n B, Rock n Roll and Blues. Top knew just about everyone in the UK blues scene as he was right there making it happen back in 1963 in the Yardbirds. To hear stories of Eric Clapton coming around to his house when they were all still in their teens trying to get inside this music was very enlightening. It reminded me of my friends just 20 odd years later!

What's been their experience from “studies” with the Yardbirds?
Back in my early teens I learned every lick I could find off Yardbird records. My High school group performed a lot of their music in our set. I collected rare Yardbird records and figured out some interesting arrangements and we incorporated these into the group. They like John Mayall pointed me toward their influences. So when I eventually started to play with Top and Jim McCarty I had a pretty solid knowledge of their music and the kind of blues that we would play together.

How did you first meet Top Topham and Jim McCarty , what kind of  guys are Topham and Jim McCarty ?
I came to London in April 1988 for a holiday. I’d run out of cash and went down to Denmark Street and sold a Silvertone guitar I’d brought with me. The salesman was no other than Top Topham! We made friends right off the bat and by the end of my trip I was having dinner with he and Jim discussing the possibility of coming back and joining their new blues band. Needless to say I was thrilled, and this really was the connection that started it all for me!

What advice has given Top Topham and Jim McCarty & which memory from those makes you smile?
Top played in the group for about 2 years and when he left he urged me to stay on with Jim. For another good 2/3 more years I played in Jim’s band which made me stronger as a player and eventually led on to the reformation of The Yardbirds in 1994. Both Top and Jim have very spiritual natures and they also embraced mine. There humor was wonderful and there were moments that words could never….come close to explain!

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
In The Yardbirds we played so many high energy shows that I sometimes wonder how we did it. Playing the Albert Hall was a real high for everyone. We were doing a across country tour of the U.K. with Spencer Davis and The Troggs and this was the final show. The last time The Yardbirds played there was in ‘66 with the Stones and Ike and Tina Turner. The whole tour pretty much sold out with great reactions from the audiences. I was a powerful experience! The worst, well that might take up too much space!

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 is inside all forms of good music. Music that stands up to the test of time comes from all genres but yes there are moments when you think music has lost it root. I turned my back on the corporate style rock that was coming out in the 80’s and didn’t feel  any real connection with the new age of guitar gods. All the heavy wailing and tapping did nothing for me so I just continued to listen to all this out of date blues and rock music that, by this time was starting to be considered oldies music. I remember hearing Stevie Ray’s “Pride and Joy” for the first time on a Detroit radio station and goin’ Fuckin’ fantastic! The Blues and solid music are Back!  If I had one wish for the blues and its other root based music would be for more young black Americans to embrace it and not look at as so much of a negative part of their history. Black people inherently have wonderful singing voices. From people like Jerry Butler to Elmore the list goes on and on. I’d just like to hear a little less rap and a bit more soul and blues coming through black American music. That said it probably is there but not getting the kind of exposure, just like a lot of good music.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
I have taught music over the years at elementary and college levels as well as teaching guitar. I always try to expose my students to the true greatness of real Rock n Roll and its root, the blues. In order to expand, you have to come from somewhere and these are the foundations of today’s music. In one lecture, I remember my co lecture stating that when British music needed to be re thought, they always went back to 1966! I thought this was a good point and I then mentioned the Stray Cats as an American example and how the root possibly goes deeper in the States. Young players need to have some knowledge and abilities to play the root of the music that is commonly called Rock n Roll.
As far as the business goes I don’t think many are in a position these days to give much advice, as things have changed so dramatically. I you have a deep down feeling about your abilities and aspirations then one must follow that path and hold the road with both hands on the wheel because it’s a pretty crazy road!

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
I used to occasionally host a Monday night blues jam in Camden Town and there were a few nights and jams that were very inspiring. Also every Sunday lunchtime at the Station Tavern in Ladbroke Grove there was a session with a fantastic host of the best players around. Paul Lamb, John Whitehill, Rod Demick, Sam Kelly and myself, got together most weeks for 5 years, and it was fantastic. Musician and blues lovers from all over came to those gigs and I must say we played probably the best spontaneous blues maybe anywhere!

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Steve Vai & Slash?
Firstly, both Steve and Slash are really nice guys. I had the pleasure to play with them both on the same stage at South by South West in 2003 just before the Birdland album was released. Steve also guested with us at a concert in L.A. at the House of Blues. I remember our rehearsals for the SxSW show. Slash wasn’t seemingly happy about the way he was playing and asked his guitar tech to make sure his guitar was taken to the hotel so he could practice for awhile. He was between bands at the time and he really wanted to be good that evening and man I must say, he certainly was! I remember at the show, singing away during Over,Under, Sideways, Down not really paying much attention to anything but the crowd, next thing I know, there’s Slash in full Slash pose with his Top hat and long hanging hair, blasting this incredible flurry of notes and bends right at my feet! I was a real R n R moment. The crowd loved it!
Steve Via is an extremely intelligent and tuned in guy. We signed a two record deal to his label Favored Nations in 2002. Steve was very clear with us about what the deal entailed and really helped us devise a plan as to how to achieve the best results. He was very instrumental in rounding up the guest players that appeared on Birdland. Steve’s solo on “Shapes of Things” from that album is beautifully constructed. And despite my usual lack of enthusiasm ( as I stated before) for some of this kind of guitaring, Steve plays a wonderfully melodic and truly lyrical solo. Definitely one of the best on that album.  

Are there any memories from “THE ROAD FOR THE BLUES”, which you’d like to share with us?
I have been to so many interesting and wonderful places and met an incredible array of cool people while doing what I like doing best. It’s kinda hard to call this the blues, but like anything you do it has its down sides. Traveling can be really hard on you physically and mentally. Many times we would travel really early in the morning to catch a flight, get our things together when we arrived, possibly have a little nap and then soundcheck, eat then perhaps play at 10 pm or midnight. Wind down after the show and before you know it the suns up and you’re soon off to the next town. We had several extremely close calls as well whilst in vans and tour buses. All this and missing your nearest and dearest certainly can give you the blues.  

How you would spend a day with Sly, Beatles, Ray Charles and Robert Johnson at the crossroad?
It’s interesting that you ask a question like this. I have been influenced by so much music that I really don’t feel any separation between the genres that these artists (and myself) may be stereo typed into. My mother was so deep into Brother Ray and his music affects me very deeply. But if I could spend the day with him, I’d ask him for a proper piano lesson! The Beatles were my main influence as a youngster and spending the day with them would be impossible to dream about. Though I would have loved to have been at some of their recording sessions and hear the playback as a tune was coming together. That would be a real gas! Sly, as he is still with us, I like to take out for a meal and try and find out what really went wrong for him. I don’t know too much about his situation but I understand it’s not so good at the moment. I think I’d ask if we could sing “Stand” and “Everybody is a Star” until the real meaning and power filled us with the hope that these songs were meant to provide. Robert Johnson, well I never thought about it. I think I’d ask him to show me some of them special chords he has up his sleeve! Cause not everything he played was in open tuning. I don’t believe in that Devil tuned his guitar stuff, though he probably got to him in other ways. Robert’s music and lyrics perfectly state the situations of what we people call the blues.    

Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?
Just awhile ago I was thinking about all the incredible people that I have met and worked with. I started to make a list, and it is truly amazing! To think I’ve been in the company of people like Pete Seeger, Alan Ginsberg, Albert King,  Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton…. the list goes on and on! This of course is not to lessen the importance of some extremely talented and wonderful souls who just happen to not be household names. Of the really famous people Jeff Beck does stand out, not simply because of his guitar genius but his generosity and practical approach to maintaining his everyday life. I visited his house on a few occasions and he explained its history and the work that he had put into restoring the place. Jeff also loves his cars and maintains them himself. He is very hands on and enjoys life’s simple things and loves a good laugh!

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music with The Natural Blues Band?
In the early 1980’s the blues was in the doldrums ‘til Stevie Ray really came on the scene. That’s not to say there was nothing happening, as all who will read this, know, the blues never goes away it just takes some new fire to stir up the public’s interest again. When I arrived in London the blues was certainly picking up there and the Topham/McCarty band was an important contributor. It was extremely exciting time in my life. As far as the business goes, we all know just how much the industry has changed since the digital age has taken hold. It has never been an easy one or for that matter a good industry. I think of how many famous musicians never received royalties The Small Faces, Tommy James, Muddy Waters, The Yardbirds, the list goes on forever.
There was a golden age of popular music when every idea was actually new and the world was energized by this. That not to say there hasn’t been a lot of great meaningful music since say the mid to late 70’s, but I think it can be said that music to the wider world may not be as important as it once was. I could be wrong but I think the facts bear this out. It is possible that there may be no record stores and possibly no large record labels, or perhaps, 2 huge ones with no real vision. I have heard some wonderful self produced albums and a lot of poor ones. The problem with modern recording is a lot of it sounds the same. I mean sonically, no real individual identity. What people don’t realize is that, it’s not just a band that makes a recording. Great engineers and producer’s, who thoroughly understand acoustics, dynamics and the tools to achieve magical sounds are simply not in the budget of up and coming groups of today. Bands made audition tapes for labels in the 60’s and on the strength of their performance they may or may not get signed. Nowadays, only the big groups get the kind of support and budgets to achieve new musical thresholds.

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between your projects and “session” works?
In 2008 I self recorded my first solo album The Folly. It was a huge task, performing all the instrumentation, producing, and a lot of the engineering etc..I was fortunate to have met producer/engineer Robin Black. He did some great things with my basic analogue tapes. I did manage to record things pretty effectively but he really knows how to mix. His expertise and experience with Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull and so many more really helped put the icing on the cake. As far as actually working on a song, I try to let each song speak its own voice and then try to experiment with sounds and instruments that the song tells me it needs. When I’m doing other session work I try to do the same thing only and hopefully with the blessing of the artist that I’m working with. Recently a single has come out under the title “The Beehive” called “I Can’t Hold On”. It’s a song written by Keith Johnson and I was at first intended to play guitar on it. Time went on and I found myself doing pretty much what I had done on The Folly, playing all the instruments only here with Keith adding some interesting weaving guitars between mine. I think it’s turned out really well .The difference here is you are interpreting someone else’s musical vision and getting that right can be a delicate task.

Do you think that only real blues is something gloomy, played by old grey-haired men with harps and battered guitars in some smoky, dark and little shabby clubs?
By no means! But some of the best gigs I’ve seen or played have been in just this sort of environment! Some older players have a closer approach to the blues, a less is more approach. Blues has gotten muddled up into Rock. Not that I dislike heavy blues rock just not so much when it’s the other way around! I know there are many younger players out there that have a good handle on how to stay true to the form yet still let it move forward in time. As long as people walk the earth there will be the blues.

Are there any memories from the Yardbirds, which you’d like to share with us?
There are so, so many. All in all it was wonderful experience.

What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
Well I would like to play more Hammond organ! There is something that it expresses that just thrills me. I also know there are heights that I still have yet to achieve as a guitarist and singer. I also want to get back to the states and play as it’s been awhile now. I also have a new project with some special friends over there that I’ll wait to tell you about when things really start to fall into place!

John Idan's wedsite

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