Founder of Earwig Music Co. Michael Frank talks about everything about the Blues and his experiences

"The 'Blues' is a personal instrumental and vocal musical expression of shared life experience, rooted in the African-American experience from slavery through the present day."

Michael Frank: More Than the Blues Music

Earwig Music Company was founded in October 1978 in Chicago by Michael Frank as a record label and artist management company. The label grew out of a musical and personal friendship between the label founder and Honeyboy Edwards, whom Michael had met in the fall of 1972 at a club in Chicago. Michael started playing harmonica with Honeyboy in 1973, and after a long hiatus, has returned to doing so. The label’s mission was and is to make and release new and reissue recordings by African American blues and jazz musicians and artists working in the African American oral tradition, to facilitate career opportunities for the musicians, while whenever possible recording material not previously recorded by the artists, and to introduce blues fans to a wider range of blues artists than they would otherwise hear, by taking them to clubs in the African American community and by producing special shows.

Over the years the label has broadened its ethnic and stylistic reach to include independent artists of any ethnicity who write and perform their own material rooted in African American and folk tradition. Bestselling blues records on the label are by The Jelly Roll Kings, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Jack Johnson, Jimmy Dawkins, Johnny Drummer, Aaron Burton, Louis Myers, Johnny Drummer, Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis, Willie Johnsonand, Liz Mandville Greeson.

The label released Big Jack Johnson’s first recordings as a leader, and also introduced Cincinatti’s H-Bomb Ferguson and Detroit’s Johnny “Yard Dog” Jones to the national blues scene. The label also arranged gigs for Louisiana Red’s long anticipated triumphant return from Germany to US touring in 1999 upon the heels of his Handy nominated Earwig cd Millennium Blues. Michael Frank has also been responsible for managing the career of David Honeyboy Edwards for twenty-seven years, including getting Honeyboy’s oral history/autobiography published. The book won both a Handy Award and a Keeping the Blues Alive award, and is widely recognized as one of the most important books on blues ever written. Mr. Edwards won a 2002 National Endowment For the Arts – Heritage Fellowship Award.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues culture and what does the “Blues” mean to you?

I learned that there is personal freedom in the public expression of blues feelings and in the sharing of multi-cultural experiences. The "Blues" is a personal instrumental and vocal musical expression of shared life experience, rooted in the African- American experience from slavery through the present day. To me, the deepest blues as a cultural and musical expression is African-American blues from musicians who were born in the South or who learned first-hand from musicians born in the South. Blues is more than a musical style with blue notes.  

How started the thought of Earwig Music Co.? What characterize Earwig label philosophy?

I started Earwig Music Company in 1978 to record the Mississippi trio the Jelly Roll Kings - Frank Frost, Sam Carr and Big Jack Johnson. By that time I had already been working with Honeyboy Edwards, Jim Brewer and Kansas City Red for 5 years informally as an agent. I was working part time at Bob Koester's Jazz Record Mart and was encouraged by Bob to start a record label. By that time I had formed the Honeyboy Edwards Blues Band with Honeyboy on guitar, Floyd Jones on bass, Kansas City Red - Arthur Lee Stephenson - on drums, all of them on vocals, and myself on harmonica. I was acting as their booking agent. I was also acting by that time as Honeyboy's manager and as guitarist Jim Brewer's booking agent and manager. What I wanted to do was to facilitate more gigs and recording sessions for these musicians and others. I wanted to do so because I loved their music and the culture that the Blues represented and wanted to bring it to a bigger audience so that the musicians would get the recognition and success that I believed they deserved. I was a community organizer and social worker in my perspective and approach. I had moved to Chicago in June 1972 to get a human services job and hang out in blues clubs. By 1972 I had several thousand blues lps and subscribed to Blues Unlimited and Living Blues. I had read most of the blues books available.

My company philosophy is that every musician has a unique story to tell and that as a manager, producer, label owner and fan I feel a responsibility and a strong drive to get their story to a larger audience, by producing and distributing recordings which best represent the essence of what they are about musically and personally. I also strive as a producer to record new songs written by the artists I record, and to capture performances which add to the canon of blues literature and which will be historically significant, rather than to just make a good record. However, I do not record new songs just for the sake of their being new, they have to be well written songs, with a melodic and/or rhythmic hook, a story line, a decent arrangement and a strong performance. Since 1979, I have released 2 jazz records, 1 world music recording, 1 gospel album, 9 storytelling/spoken word recordings, and 55 blues recordings, of which I produced 45.

In recent years, I have been focusing on improving my marketing knowledge so as to better deal with the changes in distribution and in the marketplace, and in providing my assistance in production and distribution to younger musicians who have been influenced by, and in some cases mentored by the elders I admired most when I started my label. I have also continued to produce recordings by elders. I have known Johnny Drummer, for example, as long almost as I knew Honeyboy, probably 40 years at this point. I have just released his 4th cd on Earwig, Bad Attitude. In September I released Chris James and Patrick Rynn's 3rd cd on Earwig, all of which they produced. I will be releasing the definitive Bea and Baby Records Story in late spring 2014. I knew Cadillac Baby and bought the label from his widow after representing him during his last few years of his life.

"All the blues elders I knew told me and other young musicians to learn their techniques so we would have confidence and skill, but find our own style, our own voice in our playing." Photo: Michael Frank, Honeyboy Edwards, Kansas City Red, and Floyd Jones

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues?

I learned the most about the real origins of the blues from Honeyboy Edwards, Kansas City Red, Sunnyland Slim, Floyd Jones and H-Bomb Ferguson. They all told me very personal stories about their experiences in their early days. Honeyboy showed me around Mississippi many times, and took me to spots where he lived and played from the late 1920s through the early 1950s. I booked Honeyboy, Sunnyland, Floyd and Kansas City Red on the King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1988, which marked their first gig in Mississippi in at least 30 years. They agreed to let me shoot a documentary. Honeyboy and Red stayed down an extra week and showed me and my co-director Paul Chen around. It has not been released, but it is a very personal account of the blues.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The best moment was possibly when I took Honeyboy Edwards and the Jelly Roll Kings - Frank Frost, Sam Carr and Big Jack Johnson to the first Blues Estafette in the Netherlands in November 1979, the same weekend I received my first Earwig LP from the pressing plant, which was by the Jelly Roll Kings. They were the hit of the Festival.

The worst moment may have been when I got in a big argument with Honeyboy and Kansas City Red on the last night after the last gig of a month long successful tour across the USA and Canada in the summer of 1984, and did not feel like communicating much with either of them for months.

Another really sad time was 2006, when in close succession Henry Townsend died September 24, then Robert Lockwood November 21, H-Bomb Ferguson November 26, and finally Homesick James December 13, all of whom are on Earwig. I was on the last show Homesick, Robert and Honeyboy played on, the Maryport, England Blues Festival July 30-31, 2006. That was Homesick's last gig, even though he died in December. I went from H-Bomb's funeral to Robert Lockwood's. Honeyboy and I wanted to go to Henry's but we were on tour in Florida and could not get there. Homesick's was over Thanksgiving and I chose to spend it with my 92 year old mother and Honeyboy and I really emotionally did not feel like going.  I did help arrange the funeral program though, thanks to several photographer friends who donated photos.

"The blues musicians of old also dealt with societal oppression much more so than contemporary musicians have to, and held political and social views not necessarily accepted by the dominant white society." (Photo: Michael Frank and Honeboy Edwards, Washington, DC, 2009) 

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

Probably the most interesting period of my musical life was from 2005 through April 2011 after I quit my job and was able to tour all over the world with Honeyboy Edwards as his manager and harmonica player. I also played his last gigs in Clarksdale, Mississippi at the Juke Joint Festival 2011. I also had a very fulfilling and fascinating time working with Honeyboy on his oral history between 1988 and 1996. Our friend Janis Martinson transcribed and edited hundreds of hours of cassette taped interviews which she and I did with Honeyboy together and separately. He and I both felt that book was one of our biggest accomplishments. It won a Keeping the Blues Alive Award (KBA) in Literature from the Blues Foundation. I later got honored with the KBA for Artist Management as Honeyboy's manager.

You have come to know great bluesmen. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Meeting Honeyboy Edwards and Jim Brewer on the same night in late fall 1972 at Biddy Mulligan's blues bar in Chicago, turned out to be huge. I ended up managing both their careers until the end of their lives. Equally important was meeting the Jelly Roll Kings in April 1975 in Lula and Clarksdale, Mississippi and being inspired so much by their playing that I started my record label in 1978 to record them. I had lifelong friendships with them, and it was not all about business.

What is the best advice ever given you?

I love Honeyboy's sayings - such as "Money ain't everything but it's a damn good thing to have."

All the blues elders I knew told me and other young musicians to learn their techniques so we would have confidence and skill, but find our own style, our own voice in our playing. Honeyboy also told me not to worry about whether the audience liked the music, just play with style and feeling but without stress.

Which memory makes you smile? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

I laugh about the time Honeyboy and I were playing Cozy's Blues and BBQ,  small club in Sherman Oaks, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, where we had a strong following and played at least once a year for 2 nights. A pretty young girl in her 20s came to the show and came on stage at the break to talk with Honeyboy. At the end of the night at 1:30 am she was still there and again started talking with him, while I packed up. He told me to tell her the name of our hotel and room number. We had a gig the next night in Portland, Oregon and had to catch a flight at 8 am, so I said to Honeyboy, "no man, we got to get up really early in the morning to catch a flight." Honeyboy told me: "You gotta get up early in the morning, I gotta get up tonight!" Of course, she came to our hotel and stayed with Honeyboy until 6:30 am. When I went to get Honeyboy to go to the airport, she was gone. That was the only night they spent together, but she turned out to be a friend of ours and when she later moved to Oxford, Mississippi, she used to come to our shows, just as a friend. I still run into her in Clarksdale sometimes.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? How has the blues industry changed over the years?

I miss the great musicians whose music felt connected to their past life and times, and the stories they used to share. Honeyboy Edwards, Sunnyland Slim, Louis Myers, Kansas City Red, Lester Davenport. The blues industry has changed, in that there are more places for musicians to play, especially more festivals and more places around the world. In some ways it is easier to introduce the music to new and old fans through the internet. In other ways there are a lot fewer record stores and distributors, so it is harder for folks to browse a record bin and just discover records like many of us who started record labels did. Also, younger fans especially expect music to be free.

"Most popular music in the US and around the world has some blues influences in it, chord structure, lyrics, story lines, individual notes, even though lots of people who are not blues fans do not realize it." (Photo: Michael with Johnny Drummer, circa 1976 at Louise's South Park Liquors)

Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be Bluesmen?

Blues singers or bluesmen, in my view, are those men and women who learned a lot of what they play directly from hanging around, knowing and playing with blues elders, especially from those who came from the deep South and had a connection to the early country blues singers, and who learned a lot from listening to and learning from the records of the Black musicians who recorded from the 1920s through the early 1970's. The blues musicians of old also dealt with societal oppression much more so than contemporary musicians have to, and held political and social views not necessarily accepted by the dominant white society.  So to me, someone who plays blues music but who holds politically conservative views, is not a bluesman, because I believe such views are contradictory to the freedom of expression and life style which the blues culture and music has origins in. To me a committed bluesman stands for freedom from oppression of any kind.

To be a bluesman or blues woman also means to commit to playing your blues based music regardless of current fads or popular tastes, to commit to the genre of music, in performance and in recording. But being a talented musician playing blues influenced music to me does not necessarily make someone a bluesman.

Make an account of the case of Local Blues scenes. What is the difference between East, West, South and North side?

In Chicago, there are only a few clubs and venues of the South and West Sides which have live blues. Those areas have been pre-dominantly African-American. The audience response in a predominantly Black club is more interactive with the musicians than in the North Side clubs, which have more tourist audiences. The repertoire in African-American clubs will be a mix of 50's to 80's Southern soul music and blues by folks like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, except when it is a younger band, which is rare. Recently, Lee's Unleaded and Artis's Lounge have closed on the South side.

A lot of the elder musicians I recorded, told me that the so-called South Side and West Side sounds were artificial distinctions made by media people and critics, that many musicians played all over town, even though their sound was pigeon-holed as West Side or South Side.  Jimmy Dawkins may be an exception, in so far as I rarely if ever saw him in a South Side club. I did see Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Lonnie Brooks in various places around town in the 70s and 80's. I also saw Howlin' Wolf in the early 70's on both the South and West Side in small clubs.

In Chicago there are not really any east side clubs because of the geography of Lake Michigan. Clubs which are the ones international blues fans know - Buddy Guys, Blue Chicago, Rosa's, BLUES and Kingston Mines are downtown or on the near north side for the most part. They all have excellent bands, but the club audience will often be tourists and more often White. The club owners do not all encourage musicians to play a lot of their own material. So often the repertoire is predictable.    

How do you describe Michael’s sound as harmonist? Why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues?

From my early days, I tried to find my own style, even though I practiced to records by all the greats and lesser known harmonica players. I loved Sonny Boy #2 - Rice Miller the most. I played mostly with Honeyboy Edwards over about 38 years, so I tried to fit in with his irregular timing and changes. I have my own style of vibrato and tend to play lines in harmony with the vocalist. When I play with other musicians, especially in a band setting, I have to work at getting used to their timing, because Honeyboy's was so different.

The harmonica has been connected to the blues because it can evoke the human voice, is easily carried around, and used to be very cheap to buy. It also has a range of sounds, blowing techniques, and keys depending on the skill of the player. It is laid out similar to a piano keyboard scale, so it is relatively easy to start learning to play.

Why did you think that the Blues Culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

Blues lyrics and musical sounds are very personal, and often have lyrics which have some universality of experience. Blues music is not played on mass, commercial media such as TV, commercial radio and films. People have to search it out, so when fellow fans and musicians meet, they have an instant cameraderie.

What's the legacy of Blues in the world culture and civilization?

Most popular music in the US and around the world has some blues influences in it, chord structure, lyrics, story lines, individual notes, even though lots of people who are not blues fans do not realize it.

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

I hear lots of fine music being called blues, but with lots of other styles of music mixed in. To me blues music has gotten further from its cultural roots and has gotten diluted in the process. There are fewer and fewer musicians with direct ties to the early originators of the music, so there are fewer mentors and teachers of the musical and cultural essence of the music. It is a natural progression over time, but it is a dilution nonetheless. Contemporary blues no longer emanates from communal, local, shared experiences. It is no longer folk music, as the blues was in its early days, though it was not called that.

There are also too many musicians using blues as a platform because their music is such a hybrid that it does not fit in one category. Many do not really have a broad knowledge of the whole history of blues artists and blues recordings. So they submit cds to blues publications, blues awards, and blues competitions because such events and opportunities do not exist across genres so much.                          (Photo: Michael and Maxwell Street Jimmy)

My biggest concern is that as the blues elders die off and more musicians are playing blues influenced music that is farther from its origins, the audiences over time lose sight or remain ignorant of what blues really is. That partly explains why there are so many guitarists who know very little about how to play rhythm guitar or accompaniment, instead of bombastic lead runs with too many notes and little individuality of tone or style, and why many of the current crop of keyboard players have a weak left hand and poor grasp of chords. Blues is also a feeling and an expression of life experience, embodied in its most basic sense by tone and emotional expression. But without a cultural context, it gradually becomes just another style of music. I have some hope for younger generations of music fans to discover the originators of the blues because the internet has made it easier to find music from every period of recording history. I have less hope for the audiences to see true, deep blues from the roots, because many elders have died off, and many of those left, especially those lesser know but with longevity as blues musicians, have to compete with young, watered down blues bands for gigs, especially festivals, and because many festival and club promoters are less inclined to take a risk and less proactive than they used to be in booking policy. Furthermore, as the talent buyers become younger, they know less and less about true blues. One example is the Blues and Bluegrass Festival coming soon again in Chicago. There is no real blues or bluegrass on it. But the name is being used for marketing. The audience will be in their early 20s and 30s and now practically nothing about the Blues.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the Blues world?

Doug MacLeod's blues stories always make me laugh, and his music always touches me emotionally. He was a good friend of Honeyboy and me.

When I listen to any live musical performance, I listen for one note, phrase or song that reveals to me the deepest essence of that performer's feelings. I know it when I hear it and feel it and am excited when I do.

At the Sin City Blues Festival in Las Vegas in September, the musicians who touched me the most with their performances were Curtis Salgado when he played in a duo on harmonica and vocals, John Nemeth and Robert Cray.

At the Chicago Blues Festival in June 2013, I had a lot of fun playing harmonica with Michael Packer and having Terry "Harmonica" Bean sit in with us. Terry and I traded harmonica licks.

"My company philosophy is that every musician has a unique story to tell and that as a manager, producer, label owner and fan I feel a responsibility and a strong drive to get their story to a larger audience, by producing and distributing recordings which best represent the essence of what they are about musically and personally."

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

I would include Honeyboy Edwards' oral history book of his life story, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing,  which he and I did together. I would include recordings on Earwig which I produced and mean the most to me, and I consider the best I have produced, my first 6 recordings especially, which are blues, jazz and storytelling - 4901 the Jelly Roll Kings - Rockin' the Juke Joint Down; 4902 Old Friends - Honeyboy Edwards, Sunnyland Slim, Floyd Jones, Kansas City Red and Walter Horton; 4903 Tiny Irvin - You Don't Know What Love Is; 4904 Jim Brewer - Tough Luck; 4905 Carl Arter - Song From Far Away; 4906 Jackie Torrence - Mountain Magic - Jack Tales I; plus 4910 Big Jack Johnson - Oil Man - which was his first record as a leader; 4920 Jimmy Dawkins - kant scheck dees bluze; 4921 Bobby Norfolk - Storyteller In a  Groove;, 4925 Laura Simms - Making Peace - Heart Uprising; 4926 H-Bomb Ferguson - Wiggin' Out; 4935 Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones - Ain't Gonna Worry; 4943 Louisiana Red - Millennium Blues; 4948 Johnny Drummer - Unleaded Blues; 4949 Liz Mandville Greeson - Back In Love Again; 4953 Honeyboy Edwards - Roamin' and Ramblin'- his last album; 4958 Les Copeland - Don't Let the Devil In;  4959 Andy Cohen - Built Up From the Ground, a masterpiece of pre-WWII blues and Americana.

I would include a video documentary I co-produced with Lynn Orman and Scott Shuman called Six Generations of the Blues: From Mississippi to Chicago, which features many artists I recorded over 30 years of my label.

I would also include a briefcase I have, which belonged to Sonny Boy Williamson - Rice Miller, which his sister gave to me in Tutwiler, Mississippi probably at least 30 years ago.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I'd love to go back on tour with Honeyboy Edwards and play a big festival in Europe - such as Notodden in Norway which we played in 2007 as part of a 3 week tour, or the Telluride, Colorado Blues Festival, which we played in 2006 and had people standing in line for several hours to buy cds and get autographs from Honeyboy.

Or I'd love to be able to be introduced by Honeyboy Edwards to his good friends Sonny Boy Williamson - Rice Miller, or Little Walter Jacobs around 1964, when I was just teaching myself harmonica and had just found out about them. I wish I could see them play live just once. I would also love to meet and hear Junior Parker, Earl Hooker, and Magic Sam, all of whom were also friends of Honeyboy and who died in 1969 and 1970, before I moved to Chicago to hear the blues. 

Earwig Music - official website


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