"It’s just so pure. If you alter it too much, it’s not blues anymore."
Jim Christopulos: Feel The Blues Beat
Jim Christopulos is a Greek American drummer from the Windy City, who has followed the blues "dream" with his band, Howard and the White Boys. The members of Howard & the White Boys first met at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb in 1988 and began jamming together just for fun, but their fast-growing popularity soon convinced them they could make a career of it. After only a few months, they got their first big break by opening for B.B. King. The band soon made the move to Chicago and began performing with the biggest names in blues: Koko Taylor, Albert King, Junior Wells, Lonnie Brooks, Luther Allison, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. Between 1994 and 1997, the group made two highly acclaimed recordings, Strung Out On The Blues and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, for Los Angeles based Mighty Tiger Records. They began traveling extensively across the United States and their growing popularity captured the attention of Philadelphia based Evidence Records. The Big $core was the first of two successful discs released by Evidence, and the band wasted no time in promoting it via the first of many trips to European countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Luxembourg, and England.
Riding the ever-growing wave of popularity both at home and abroad, the group then released a well-received live CD for Evidence entitled Live At Chord On Blues in 2000. In 2004, long time band members Howard McCullum, Rocco Calipari, and Jim Christopulos were joined by 26-year-old guitarist Pete Galanis. Jim Christopulos is the co-author (with Phil Smart) of the book "Van der Graaf Generator - The Book" (2005) which is obviously dedicated to the legendary British progressive rock group VdGG. A history of the band Van der Graaf Generator 1967 to 1978. The inside story of the band is revealed for the first time. The book includes up-to-date commentary from all surviving past and present members, input from over sixty others (including celebrity admirers, associates, former employees, friends, and family members), and is illustrated with over 300 photographs and images (many previously unpublished). Van der Graaf Generator - The Book delves into the intense but humorous, bizarre and often difficult inner-workings of an uncompromising rock group.
Jim, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues, what was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
I was always aware of blues music. I saw B.B. King twice while I was in high school. He came to the Genesee Theater in Waukegan, IL (where I grew up) and I caught both shows. He was amazing. Several years before that, though, I loved the blues music that was on some of the old rock albums I had. Bands like Steppenwolf and the James Gang were taking stuff they heard from the blues masters and merging it with their own style. Some of the really early Steppenwolf stuff actually works very well as convincing blues music. Then in high school, Steve Asma (the original Howard & The White Boys guitarist) and I started playing together in a garage band, and Steve was really into Lightning Hopkins and stuff like that. So we naturally played a lot of blues music in the garage while in our teens.
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
As with anyone, there are so many interesting periods. For me, the mid 00’s (from about 2005 to 2007) would be a standout. Professionally, Howard & The White Boys put out a strong CD called Made In Chicago and the lineup on that CD is probably the most enjoyable for me in that everyone gets along great and the playing is really good, especially live. We toured all around and even played in Lithuania, a country we had never been to, for several thousand fans. Around this time, I also co-wrote a book (published in ‘05) on my favorite rock group, Van der Graaf Generator. It was the culmination of two and a half years work where I interviewed several celebrities from the worlds of music, film, and writing. I actually had film directors Anthony Minghella and Jonathan Demme call me at home to talk to me about Van der Graaf Generator. I also interviewed people like John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), George Martin (Beatles producer), Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Arthur Brown, and several others. And of course I became very good friends with the members of Van der Graaf, which was nice. They reformed right around the time the book came out and I traveled to the UK to see them three times in ‘05, as well as Belgium and Holland in ‘07. On a personal level, I got married to my long-time girlfriend in ‘07 and had a wonderful two-week honeymoon in Greece. Between traveling to Europe with Howard & The White Boys, or promoting the Van der Graaf book, or on my honeymoon, my passport was overflowing with stamps! A very busy and rewarding three years. Then my son was born in ‘08 and my daughter in '14, and those are whole other wonderful chapters...
"For myself, I thought (and still think) that they were the greatest band in the world and a completely unique one at that. And like many unique or (somewhat) extreme bands, they illicit extreme reactions – lots of people either love or hate them... not a bad thing." (Photo: Jim and Phil Smart backstage with Van der Graaf Generator in Milwaukee, WI, USA. 2009)
Was there something specific you experienced that made you first begin thinking Van der Graaf Generator?
I’d loved “prog” music for some time before I discovered VdGG. My older brother had ELP, Yes, and Genesis albums thoughout the early – late 70s so I grew up loving that stuff even though I was too young for most of the 70s to see it live, except on TV. I saw my first concert at age 13, Genesis in Chicago, 1978. I saw it with two other school pals, one of whom’s mom drove us into the city (about an hour-long drive from the suburb of Waukegan, where we all lived). Genesis weren’t quite a household name yet, but they were definitely getting pretty big by that time. I bought the program for that concert and the inside text was excerpts from Armando Gallo’s recently released Genesis book “The Evolution of a Rock Band.” Sitting in my seat before the concert started, I read most of the program and there were a few references to this band called “Van der Graaf Generator.” Never heard of them, but what a bizarre and unwieldy name... Van der What??? A few years later Armando’s book was re-released as “I Know What I Like”; I bought it and there was much more about VdGG in that. I found out that Genesis and VdGG were sort of sister acts at Charisma (their record label), went on tour together, had the same management, producer, album artist, etc. So, on spec, I went out and bought a VdGG album at the local Waukegan “hip” record store, called Strawberry Fields. This was back in the day when you went to the “Import” section of the record store and the JEM import sticker was tacked onto all the cool albums imported from Europe. It seemed so exotic back then, like these were “special” albums for the elite, hip record buyer (ha ha!). I decided that I wanted to explore more prog. I had several albums by King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis in my collection so it seemed natural to look into VdGG. The record store only had the debut VdGG record, Aerosol Grey Machine, in stock. I immediately loved the retro 60s cover. I brought it home, spun it, and was immediately bowled over by the song “Afterwards” and the Hammill voice. Never heard anything like it, at all. Not soon after, they became my favorite band. Eventually I stopped listening to a lot of prog bands I once liked (including Genesis), however I listened to VdGG more and more. I don’t mean to sound snobbish, but (for myself) the bar set by VdGG is so high on so many levels that it just made some of the music I used to love sound less interesting and maybe a little dated. To bring it all full circle, a 50 year anniversary deluxe box set of Aerosol Grey Machine was just released and I got a ‘special thanks’ mention in the booklet for some help I did on the project. It just blows my mind that AGM was my first VdGG album, setting me off on a very interesting VdGG-related course, and then decades later I’m part of the re-release project. Very knocked out by that.
What were the reasons that you started Van der Graaf Generator’s book? what touched (emotionally) you?
My co-author, Phil Smart, runs a very good VdGG website and has done so for several years. Around the late 90s / early 00s we became cyber-friends through that as I’d send him some photos and old magazine clippings I had in my collection for use on his website. Around 2002, the Chicago blues band I’ve been in for years (Howard and the White Boys) did a European tour that took us to Swindon, England. Former VdGG members David Jackson and Judge Smith showed up to that Swindon gig, and so did Phil Smart. Shortly thereafter, I interviewed Judge Smith for Phil’s website. It was a fascinating interview on the origins of VdGG, and it just seemed crazy to me that there wasn’t a book about this extremely interesting band. I thought that it would be fun to write it myself, and Phil simultaneously had the same idea, so we decided to collaborate. We knew that a book had been tried several times before by other fans and that they were unsuccessful, but we were undeterred. We approached the various band members. Eventually, we won them over – they were a bit apprehensive at first – and over the next two years or so, we were able to interview them several times and strike up friendships. For myself, I thought (and still think) that they were the greatest band in the world and a completely unique one at that. And like many unique or (somewhat) extreme bands, they illicit extreme reactions – lots of people either love or hate them... not a bad thing. They’ve influenced so many musicians, but none of them sound like VdGG – it’s more the attitude and approach to making music that’s made an impact, which is more important than mimicry. There were a lot of different angles to the story, and one of them (for me) was that I didn’t think VdGG should be lumped in with the whole prog bag. “Prog” thankfully has a much less negative connotation in recent years, but at the time it was still a pejorative. In the 90s, a lot of historians and magazines such as Mojo were re-evaluating certain 70s-era acts and bigging up their influence on rock music at large even though the acts themselves were a bit cultish or “underground.” Artists like Nick Drake, Can, Captain Beefheart... I felt that VdGG and Hammill slotted in more comfortably among these sorts of artists, the left-field mavericks of the age rather than the prog bands they’re often lumped in with. I found it frustrating that (especially throughout the 90s) very few journalists were really writing about Van der Graaf as such.
So, an early angle for The Book was to interview certain well-known fans and include them all so that I could paint an accurate picture of just how influential and important this band was. We ended up interviewing and / or quoting several famous musicians as well as authors, film directors and the like, that were major VdGG fans. That was a lot of fun, I had Academy Award-winning film directors Anthony Minghella and Jonathan Demme – both VdGG nuts – calling me at home, and also people like John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers ringing me up. Graham Coxon from Blur wrote me a three-page essay on his fave VdGG tunes. I had personal correspondences with Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Arthur Brown, Marc Almond, and loads of other famous fans. Then, right when the book was about to be released in 2005, it was announced that VdGG had reformed and were about to play a series of concerts all throughout Europe. The timing for our book could not have been better. The reunion was a smashing success and the band has not tarnished their legacy with ensuing cd releases and tours. Since their reunion, they have become sort of “critics’ darlings” and their stock has gone up immensely. They have been written about quite a bit – they’re actually more revered now than they were in their 70s heyday – and it’s good to see them receive the respect and recognition they’ve always warranted. I’m not saying The Book, nor Phil’s and my efforts, had anything to do with that. Rather, I think their reunion sort of jump-started the critical re-evaluation and subsequent bigging up, and I think that because of the reunion people just revisited the music or were exposed to it for the first time. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to see that the band and Peter himself are so highly regarded and have been recognized as the important artists they are.
Why do you think that the Van der Graaf Generator music continues to generate such a devoted following?
I still think there is no other band like them and fans respond to that, especially younger fans who’ve only discovered them in recent years. For myself, there are things by other bands from the 70s I like, yet some of those bands are of their time even though I like them. They just sound “70s.” But when you play a VdGG song like “Arrow” from 1975, it’s something outside of time. For starters, it’s pretty brutal – in both performance and production – in an era when lush production was the norm. It’s dry, whereas so much music from that time is wet, drenched in reverb, etc. “Arrow” and other VdGG cuts don’t sound dated because they weren’t even fashionable then! VdGG never did the expected, and it was organic – they weren’t trying to be left-field, it’s just who they were. They didn’t even follow the normal “prog” tropes, there were no flashy synth solos, no searing guitar virtuosity. Their “flash” instrument was sax and, later, violin. And both of those players were not your typical sax / violin musos, they played as if they dropped in from another planet. And then you had the versatile, one of a kind, and at times extreme, Hammill voice. ‘Nuff sed. There was no attempt to tap into trends that might make them more successful, they just did what they did and it was spot on. As such, it makes sense that the world wouldn’t quite have caught up and they’d be relegated to cult status. Even on earlier albums, when they were much more lushly and brilliantly produced by John Anthony, they put out stuff like Pawn Hearts from 1971, where the production helped to bring out the demented anarchy of the material. Brilliant! But that attitude, that approach to making music, is what has been inspirational to others. They’ve influenced a wide array of artists from punks to torch singers, from goths to heavy metal bands, from progsters to pop bands... many of whom probably couldn’t stand each others’ music but can relate to the idea of being exploratory, honest, and original – doing music for all the right reasons. I think that’s what a lot of fans take away from VdGG and Peter. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re namechecked quite often in the press by other artists. Even recently I’ve seen people like Geddy Lee, Bruce Dickinson, Jello Biafra, the Flaming Lips, and others sing the praises of VdGG. That gets music fans thinking, “Hmmm... I should check this band out.”
Photos: Jim presenting David Jackson (VdGG sax man) with his copy of The Book before VdGG's concert in Gateshead, England, 2005 / Jim Cristopulos and Arthur Brown, posing with the VdGG book
Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Howard & the White Boys?
There are just too many. Briefly... the first time we opened for B.B. King in ‘88, mostly because it was so unexpected and a last minute thing (I was actually standing in line for the concert, and someone grabbed me and told me that we were opening for B.B. as I was ushered into the theater); beating out 400 other bands in a national ‘best band’ contest and winning the whole thing at the House of Blues in Los Angeles on the Sunset Strip; appearing on stage with people like Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and countless others; playing in Lithuania – the concert itself was great as we went over really well in front of thousands... but we were stuck in this little shack for three days on the camp ground where the concert was... just the four of us and it rained non-stop for three days. If you wanted to go to the bathroom you had to walk about 200 yards through three feet of mud to a horrid outhouse. These are just the few that come to mind; there are others that are equal or better that I’ve just not thought about at the moment (the band has existed for almost 25 years, so there’s lots of memories!)
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
There are many ‘best-of’ moments. One of them is when we were invited by Buddy Guy to open for him on a couple of his major midwest tours. We did a few of those tours with him, and we always earned standing ovations playing to audiences of anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 fans a night. A wonderful experience. The worst? Nothing to really complain about...
How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
In general, I go into a zone of sorts and keep my head down. Even if I’m not in the ‘head down’ position, I make very little eye contact with the audience. I focus on the music. Still, it’s great to have a crowd that’s really into it, i.e. clapping after solos or giving heartfelt applause after a song. In those situations, the band feeds off the energy from the audience and you find yourself giving as good as you’re getting.
Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
We’ve met so many already. But, there is so much myth surrounding a guy like Robert Johnson that it would be interesting to be able to slide up to the bar next to him and chat for a while. I do remember one night when I was drinking with Junior Wells in Chicago (we opened for him at Legends). It was great, we ended up singing tunes from one of his old 60’s albums: “I’m so tired this mornin’... I could just lay down and diiiieeee...”
"I am Greek, and fell in love with Greece when I went over in ‘07 for my honeymoon. We were in Athens and we also went to the Cyclades islands. I hope I can come back with the band some day!"
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
It’s just so pure. If you alter it too much, it’s not blues anymore. There aren’t many other musical styles like that. Rock music can go in directons that sound really fashionable and then terribly dated – just think of the 80’s big drum sound which sounds horrible today, or the fashionable 70’s synths used by a lot of prog bands, which sounded cutting-edge then but just sound hokey now. Real blues music is organic and can’t be tampered with like that so there’s no chance of it sounding outdated. Plus, there’s just so much honesty inherent in the form, from the lyrics to the actual music.
Which artists have you worked with & which of the people you have worked with do you consider the good friends?
Well, I consider Rocco, Howard, and Pete very good friends. We’ve played with so many people: Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, The Blues Brothers, Elvin Bishop, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Lonnie Brooks, John Mayer, and on and on... Since my son was born four years ago, I don’t hang out so much at clubs. If I’m not playing, I’m not out at some night spot. So, I’m pretty out of the loop with that kind of thing. A few years ago, I’d hang at Kingston Mines or Buddy Guys Legends after a gig and hang out with other musicians. Not so much these days. As far as people in the music industry who I consider legitimate friends, I’d have to say the members of Van der Graaf Generator (although I don’t see them much at all, as we live on different continents!). Writing the book on them was a very intense, but extremely fun (and funny!) experience, and we got to know each other fairly well over the years. I’ve been to some of their houses, on their boats, etc. Even though I live in Chicago, and they’re spread out over the UK, we still keep in touch quite a bit through email and phone calls. When Peter Hammill played a solo gig in Chicago a while back, we went out for dinner the night before his gig and had a blast. I also became friends with a couple of the guys who were in Steppenwolf back in the 60’s. I’ve actually been golfing with the late great Goldy Mcjohn, the organist on “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride”!
"Real blues music is organic and can’t be tampered with like that so there’s no chance of it sounding outdated. Plus, there’s just so much honesty inherent in the form, from the lyrics to the actual music." (HWB w/ Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, mid - late 90s / Photo by Stacey Ruderman)
Are there any memories from Junior Wells, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry which you’d like to share with us?
We (Howard and the White Boys) played with Junior Wells a few times, and with Buddy Guy a million times. I think it was during a birthday party being thrown for Buddy Guy at Legends some time in the late 90s that we backed both of them up. Of course, they were a legendary duo when they played together. Buddy really favored us for a number of years and would hire us as his band for parties or award shows when he needed a backup band he felt comfortable playing with. So one year at Buddy’s party, Junior Wells stopped by and we jammed with him and Buddy. During a break, I hung out with Junior at the bar, just me and him. We had a few drinks and I remember telling him how much I loved one of his old tunes that we (Howard and the White Boys) did, and I sang it: “I’m so tired this morning, I could just lay down and diiiiiiiiiee.” He was like, “No, it’s like this...” and then he’d sing it – of course, it sounded great when he did it, and then we’d crack out laughing. It must have looked strange because we just drank, the two of us, and talked the whole break at the bar, singing old tunes and cracking up, probably both with a little too much to drink to be honest. I’d hung out with him a bit at other places like the House of Blues, or at a short-lived blues club in my hometown of Waukegan where he invited me backstage, but that night at Legends is a particularly great memory. As for Howard and the White Boys playing with Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry as their backup band in front of 10 – 15 thousand fans in Long Beach, CA, at a big outdoor concert... well that was a real trip. It was billed as the first time the two legendary architects of rock and roll did a gig together, but I’ve seen older pix of them on stage with each other. Maybe it was the first Bo/Chuck gig specifically, rather than a guest spot by one or something. For the concert, we did a set with each individually and then the third section was the two of them together. For prep, a few weeks before, we reached out to Chuck Berry’s management and asked about tunes we should learn. “Just learn them all,” came the reply (lol... yeah, not like he had a fifty year history with a million tunes under his belt or anything... in truth, though, he does about five tunes with a hundred variations of each so we just had to brush up on a few styles). Bo was great to work with. I’d played with him 3 or 4 times in Chicago by this point at places like Buddy Guys Legends and Biddy Mulligans. I knew what to expect with him. About an hour before we went on stage in Long Beach, he requested a talk with the drummer. I remember walking into his trailer and him recognizing me, as he exclaimed, “Hey!!!” That was cool. He didn’t realize we were flown out to be his backing band. He told me, “You already know the shit...” That meant slow blues, four on the floor funk grooves, etc. and absolutely NO “Bo Diddley” groove on the toms (which is the first thing a drummer thinks of when he thinks of Bo Diddley... but BD never wanted that the times I played with him). The gig itself was a big success. I remember Chuck announcing that we were about to do Johnnie B Goode, and then looking over at our guitarist Rocco, and nodding his head. Rocco was like, “Me?” and Chuck gave him an affirmative nod. Johnnie B Goode was one of the first guitar licks that Rocco (and millions of other budding guitarists) learned, so to be allowed to play that intro by the man who made it famous, while sharing the stage with that man in front of 15k was a pretty cool thing. My other memory of that gig is of Chuck looking at his watch while were in the middle of a groove, toward the end of the gig. He calmly walked to the side of the stage, put his guitar down, walked down the scaffolding stairs, and into his car which he had waiting on the side of the stage. He started it up and drove slowly off the concert grounds, out of the field and out of view... all while we were still playing. To this day, that is one of the more surreal moments in my musical experience, playing with Chuck and then him leaving like that while we were still in the middle of a song!
"It’s just so pure. If you alter it too much, it’s not blues anymore. There aren’t many other musical styles like that. Rock music can go in directons that sound really fashionable and then terribly dated – just think of the 80’s big drum sound which sounds horrible today, or the fashionable 70’s synths used by a lot of prog bands, which sounded cutting-edge then but just sound hokey now. (Photo: Howard and the White Boys with the late great bluesman, Bo Diddley)
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I couldn’t compare the music from the past to today’s music because I’m so unfamiliar with the newer stuff out there. At my age, with a full time job, a family, a mortgage, etc... “free time” is a rare commodity. So I’m not exploring new bands as I once did. Maybe once the kids are grown and out of the house... As far as the experience of music, I think kids today miss out on the situation I (and millions of others) had in my younger years of bringing home an album I bought at the record store and the anticipation as I lowered the needle onto the vinyl. It was an investment. As a kid, I literally would pocket the money my mom and dad gave me for lunches at school, starve at school for a week without telling them, and go to the record store on weekends to buy an album with money I was supposed to be spending on lunch. Later, albums were bought with money I made from jobs I held. But this meant that even if I didn’t like an album at first, I would play it many times because it was such an investment (of time, money, effort) and I wanted to give it a chance to resonate with me. Some of my favorite albums or songs to this day are things I didn’t get at all when I first heard them, but I stuck with it. Today, however, in this throw-away digital age, if I listen to an album or tune on YouTube or listen to it via Spotify or what have you, and I don’t like it right away, I simply move onto the next thing. I’ve probably missed out on some great stuff by not giving it a chance but that’s the world we live in. It’s easy to hear any band from any era at the press of a few buttons on your computer or iphone so it’s no big deal to turn it off after a few bars if you don’t immediately like it. There is good and bad with that situation. I also miss gazing at the wonderful album cover art on a gatefold sleeve while listening to the music. Younger kids would have no idea what that was all about, through no fault of their own. It was much more an “experience” back then.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?
I appreciate the different geographic areas and the people living in them that I was exposed to, having travelled through many parts of the U.S. several times, as well as many countries in Europe (a few, like Belgium, France, Holland, and a couple others, several times). People are alike all over, yet different in many ways. The people we met in Germany (fans, promoters, etc) were different to the people we met in Belgium, who were different than people we met in Italy, etc. But not terribly different. Like anything, there are good and bad experiences with fans, fellow musicians, promoters, etc. But, I’m not really sure if there’s anything I learned from all that. I feel like there should be but I’m not sure what it was! One thing I did appreciate when we were a full-time, moderately successful contemporary blues band. I knew that I had a truly great job getting to do what I loved (music) and being paid for it. We were on top of it enough to appreciate that, especially when we were at our most successful as far as cd sales and drawing crowds, etc.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day? Jim & Phil Smart backstage with VdGG, 2007 / Photo by Ed Clarke
To keep it musical, specifically rock music, I would love to go back in time for a few gigs. First, October 18, 1976. Van der Graaf Generator’s one and only U.S. show at New York City’s Beacon Theater. They drew a shockingly large crowd (a couple thousand) for an underground cult band from England whose stuff was mainly sold through import shops. I’ve had the cassette for decades, probably my favorite boot, and have since met fans who were actually there. Hammill was just insane and demented at that concert, and the band was on fire. I know that the famous ‘hipster’ movie director/actor Vincent Gallo was there and has said how momentous it was. Jordan Rudess, the keyboardist from Dream Theater, was there and has said it was one of his favorite concerts. He recalled that Hammill was pretending to be dead on stage! Then I’d like to go a bit further back to March 1969 when Steppenwolf played the Fillmore East. I would have really dug seeing the opening band, which was Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll & The Trinity (just because they were so great, and Jools was one of a kind, as was Auger), but moreso because that’s where the Steppenwolf bassist Nick St. Nicholas appeared on stage naked, in nothing but a sequined jockstrap. He also wore bunny rabbit ears, it being Easter and Nick being high on Lord knows what. The rest of the band didn’t know he was going to do that and it caused something of a stir. I’d also like to see the same band in ‘71 when Larry Byrom was their guitarist and George Biondo was their new-ish bassist, on tour doing material from their then-new ‘7’ album. That’s probably one of my fave rock albums of all time and I know they killed it live around that time. They were one of the biggest bands in the country still in ‘71, and they were touring with what is (to me) their greatest album. I’d also like to go back to the early/mid 70s and see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Great musicians, fantastic music, and one the most charismatic, interesting front men of all time. Laura Nyro in ‘69 / ‘70, she was brilliant. I’d love to have seen Captain Beefheart in the late 60s / early 70s. Johnny Lydon with the Sex Pistols, or with PIL circa late 70s / early 80s. Magma any time in the 70s. I have seen VdGG and Magma in the 00s and they are amongst the greatest concerts I’ve seen, so I’m glad that they are still at least performing and in no way sullying their golden reputations.
Are there any memories from Buddy Guy you meet which you’d like to share with us?
There were a few times when I sat at the bar with him just chilling out, and he’s a very smart, clued-in guy. I used to love when we’d open for him in some huge auditorium or club, and hear him during his set say “How about a hand for the opening act, Howard & The White Boys?” The crowd would erupt, and it was great. He always mentioned us to the crowd when we played before him and we appreciated it! It was also great to have him come over to the studio to play and sing on a track for our third CD, “The Big $core.” He was very professional in that situation and delivered the goods. Then he stuck around and hung out with us for a while, which was a lot of fun.
"In general, I go into a zone of sorts and keep my head down. Even if I’m not in the ‘head down’ position, I make very little eye contact with the audience. I focus on the music. Still, it’s great to have a crowd that’s really into it, i.e. clapping after solos or giving heartfelt applause after a song. In those situations, the band feeds off the energy from the audience and you find yourself giving as good as you’re getting."
Are there any memories from local blues bars, which you’d like to share with us?
I always enjoyed playing at Buddy Guys Legends. Also, some days we’re played Rosa’s a lot, and it’s a great club with a real good vibe.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell from BB King’s opening act?
We played with him twice, both times for big crowds. The first was for around 1,500 to 2,000 people at the Egyptian Theater in Dekalb, IL. The second was many years later at some new sports arena in Dekalb, for around 4,000 fans. Both gigs were fantastic experiences for us and we went down great. The first gig is the one that’s just bonkers from a story-telling point of view. We were students at NIU in Dekalb, and I was just waiting in line like everyone else to get into the Egyptian Theater. At that point, there was no plan to have us open for BB. Someone came out from the theater, grabbed my arm, and started pulling me past everyone in line and into the theater, while saying, “Bucka, you’ve got to get in there. You’re opening for BB King tonight!” This person was working security, but he was also a friend of mine, and so I thought he was just getting me in so I wouldn’t have to wait in line (which, in retrospect, wouldn’t have been too cool, especially to those who had to wait in line!). So I thanked him and just walked to my balcony seat, where the other members of HWB would be sitting. At this point, I still had no clue we were opening the concert. So, when I got to my seat, I saw that our row of 6 or 7 seats was empty except for our guitar player’s wife. I said to her, “Where are the guys?” And she looked at me in shock and said, “Bucka! You’d better get backstage, you’re opening for BB King in five minutes!” So then I knew it was for real, and I raced downstairs, down the aisles of the main floor, straight to the backstage door. I was let in, and there were the other three members of HWB, who were obviously relieved that I’d made it. What had happened was that someone contacted Howard telling him that BB was late getting into town, and could HWB open the show. Howard found the other two guys, but I was out and about and there was no way to get hold of me. Luckily, I made it backstage. To this day, the experience of being in line for a concert, and then unexpectedly finding myself up on stage performing in front of 2,000 roaring fans five minutes later, is one of the more surreal experiences of my life.
"I was always aware of blues music. I saw B.B. King twice while I was in high school. He came to the Genesee Theater in Waukegan, IL (where I grew up) and I caught both shows. He was amazing. Several years before that, though, I loved the blues music that was on some of the old rock albums I had." (Photo: Howard and the White Boys & BB King at the NIU Convocation Center, 2003)
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
Because I was a rock drummer before I was a blues drummer, I gained a lot from just watching other, more seasoned drummers in the bands we opened for when we were just starting out. We opened for so many blues musicians. You name it, we played with them before we became headliners ourselves: Son Seals, Magic Slim, The Kinsey Report, Li’l Ed, Lonnie Brooks, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor... I didn’t even know the names of the drummers in many of these bands, but I’d watch them and could see that they were playing blues in a way that I wasn’t, and with a feel that I didn’t quite have yet.
Do you think that only real blues is something gloomy, played by old grey-haired men with harps and battered guitars in some smokey, dark and little shabby clubs?
No, that’s a perception that some people may have, but they haven’t seen or listened to many blues artists. There’s actual joy in the music, even when it’s expressing tough times.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
That ‘Howard and the White Boys’ sold millions of cd’s and I never had to work another day in my life. Next...
You have played with many bluesmen, which are mentioned to be a legend. It must be hard, but would you try to give top 3, which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you? And why? Photo: Jim, Chuck Berry & Bo Diddley, 2001
We were flown out to Long Beach, California, and asked to be the backing band for Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Each one played their own set, and then the two joined together for a final set. It was a real honor to be the drummer for them in front of 15,000 fans! Another time, we were playing at Legends for Buddy Guy’s birthday party. We were asked by Buddy to be the band for the night. At one point, Junior Wells got up and I have a picture somewhere of Buddy, me on drums, and Junior – just the three of us – on stage. It’s obviously a picture I treasure.
Are you Greek? Do you have a message for the Greek fans?
I am Greek, and fell in love with Greece when I went over in ‘07 for my honeymoon. We were in Athens and we also went to the Cyclades islands (Santorini, Folegandros, Milos). I hope I can come back with the band some day!
“Bucka” cool nickname. How did you come up with it?
My uncle, Mike Christopulos (who was a famous sports writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel and covered the Green Bay Packers during their Lombardi/Starr era in the 60’s) gave that name to me when I was a baby. It was a joke of some sort, but at this late date there is confusion as to what the joke actually was!
Alive or dead, who is the one person that you’d like to meet face to face if they were alive, and talk to over jam?
One of my favorite drummers, if not my favorite (who I’ve listened to since I was six years old in 1971), is Jerry Edmonton from Steppenwolf. He passed away in ‘92 and I never met him, although I got to know most of the other guys from that band. I would love to have met him and picked his brain about drumming. He was exceptional and is under-rated today. In an era of wild rock drummers, he was one of the few 60’s drummers who actually grooved and held a tight rein over the group’s music with his very disciplined, yet ballsy and creative, approach. As far as someone who is alive, I very much admire Christian Vander, the drummer/ mastermind behind the French group Magma... he seems like he might be a bit scary, though!
[editor's note: since this portion of the interview was made, Jim has met CV and says he was actually very nice!]
Photo: Jim with Christian Vander of Magma circa 2016
Previous Photos Credits: Ed Clarke, Dennis Tuttle, Gary Eckhart, Normunds Kalnins, Stacey Ruderman
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