Interview with Latino bluesman Felix Reyes, a rare artist where inspiring the next generation of musicians

"The message of the Blues is unity and love and sharing. Music IS the universal language and can bring all kinds of people from different backgrounds together. We need to pay attention to that."

Felix Reyes: El Gato del Blues

Felix Reyes is one of those rare people in this world with a natural gift for inspiring the next generation of musicians. He has always approached his music with the highest standard of excellence. His recent successes include penning the title track for Susan Tedeschi’s Grammy Nominated “Wait For Me” album. He’s also shared the stage with B.B. King on five different occasions, as well as Jimmie Vaughan, Gregg Allman, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, ZuZu Bollin, Little Joe Blue, Sam Lay, Eddie Cleartwater, Susan Tedeschi and the list goes on. And, he was mentor to the late Sean Costello.

Bands he has either led or been a part of over his career include: The Weebads, The Joy Drops, The Maceos, Felix and The Cats, Lotssa Poppa and The Down To Earth Blues Band, the Grady “Fats” Jackson Band and The Sil Austin Band. Felix has been playing guitar, singing and songwriting professionally for more than 30 years. He hails from Dallas, TX, and over the years has also lived and played in Atlanta and now in the Chicago area. In addition to playing with the band, he produces at his  studio, the House of Tone, in Oak Park, IL. Currently, Felix is with Dave Herrero & The Hero Brothers Band. He's been collaborating with Dave for a long time. Their first record produced together was "Austin To Chicago" (2008), and "Corazón" in 2012, after an exclusive kickoff tour of Europe.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The blues has been such a big part of my life. When I first started learning the blues, I had a tendency to focus on the mechanics of playing and singing it. I'd over analyze it, think too much. Once I got to a certain level, I learned to let go and just play what I was feeling. I had a lot of help from the masters on this. The blues is life, you learn to trust your instincts and follow through on an idea. Most of all, you learn to be true to yourself. I hold the blues very near and dear to my heart. Although I like and play a lot of other styles of music, I always come back to the blues.

How do you describe Felix Reyes sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I'd say my sound is a “stew” of many styles T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Grant Green, Bob Marley, Sunny Ozuna (Sunny and the Sunliners) Illinios Jacquet …I could go on and on. I like anything good. If I can take a little piece of a style or sound and incorporate it in my playing it just makes the 'stew' more tasty!

As for my philosophy, I'd say nowadays I just try to be true to me. Because of all the different types of music I love, my blues sounds different …different is good.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I'd say one of the best moments of my career was getting to play for B.B. Kings private birthday party in Atlanta. It was set up by a friend's of B.B. King's that we did work for in Atlanta. (Dell Long and Judge Dorothy Vaughan) I was really nervous on that one. It was a small conference room at his hotel and he was sitting right in front of me. I brought a guitar for him to jam on and when he finished eating his cake I asked if he would like to sit in and he said, "You know I play out about 300 shows a year and I can't tell you how nice it is to sit and listen to someone else play the blues." I will never forget that. We had a great time.

I'd say the worst moment of my career was playing a show at the Royal Peacock in Atlanta with Billy Wright. We were the backup band and played the opening 1/2 hr. which was normal. Then, we kept playing the rest of the set because he was late. I kept looking at the door hoping he would walk in all flamboyant like he used to. On the break we were called his house and got no answer. About an hour later we got a call that he had passed in the hospital. We finished out the night as he would of wanted us to, but it was really rough.

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

The blues is truth and the roots of all American music. Every culture has their "Blues" it’s worldwide. Trends come and go but the Blues is always being played somewhere by someone. It moves in and out of mass appeal in cycles but it’s always been here since the beginning of time and will always be here.

"The blues is life, you learn to trust your instincts and follow through on an idea. Most of all, you learn to be true to yourself." (Photo: Eddie Stout, Felix Reyes and Freddie Walden in Dallas at the Prohibition room)

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Wow that’s a hard one. We had some magic nights at the Prohibition room in Dallas. Some nights it would be Freddie Walden on Drums (Anson, Storm etc.) or Uncle John Turner (Johnny Winter) Sam Myers on harp or drums, Eddie Stout on Bass...sometimes Mike Morgan, Jim Schuler or Hasbrown, Doyle Bramhall (Senior) would come in. No set lists just play!

Some of my most memorable gigs would be the B.B. King Birthday party, Backing up Gregg Allman for the Medgar Evers Blues festival opening for B.B. King, Little Milton, and Bobby Bland. We did a series of shows at an Atlanta venue called the Libra Ballroom. Big room, it could hold about 1,500 people, ALL black clientele. We opened for Latimore, Denise LaSalle, Bobby Bland, etc. It meant a lot to us that they accepted us there. They kept asking us back to open shows! I was very luck to play a few tunes with my good friend Hook Herrera at Levon Helms’ Midnight Ramble last year right before he died. That was an amazing show.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Probably meeting ZuZu Bollin in Dallas and Grady "Fats "Jackson in Atlanta. They really schooled me on the old traditions. Not by sitting me down and showing me riffs or anything like that, but by how they carried themselves on gigs, how they treated their band members, fans and business. Best advice…Be yourself!

Are there any memories from B.B. King, Gregg Allman, Fats Jackson and Ray Sharp which you’d like to share with us?

Ray Sharp would come down the Bluebird in Fort Worth, Texas. Ornette Coleman even sat in with us there one night! The Medgar Evers gig with B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland and Little Milton was amazing!  Gregg Allman wanted to do this festival but because it paid very little, his regular band would not do it. So we got the call in Atlanta through a mutual friend. The festival was put on by Charles Evers, brother of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Billed as the Mississippi Homecoming, B.B. King had been doing it for years as a favor to Charles to help raise money for the radio station that Charles owned. After a quick rehearsal with Gregg in Jackson, Mississippi, we did the show at the Jackson fairgrounds. It was a great show with a mixed audience. B.B.King, Little Milton and Bobby Bland did the encore together and were great! The next night was in Laurel, Mississippi. Again, on some fair grounds, except this time the audience was 99% black. We did our usual opening with Gregg and it was great! Milton came on and just killed it, then brought Bobby out and it was almost pandemonium. Next, they brought out B.B. King and the place just went nuts. This was WAY out in the country somewhere and B.B. King proceeds to do a show I'd never seen him do. I had seen his show quite a few times and it was usually pretty much the same.

On this show he was really cutting up and playing some FANTASTIC guitar, flirting with the girls and shaking his ass. I could not believe it! Then he calls out Little Milton and Bobby on the encore and Little Milton and B.B. King get into this head cutting deal. (guitar battle) They are trading solos back and forth and it’s really amazing. I'm sitting on a road case watching it all from the wings. They keep taking it higher and higher and B.B. King is playing this amazing solo then gives Milton the nod to take over. When he does this Milton starts playing and it sounds really weird. Then I notice that B.B. King has his arm straight up in the air and his hand is making a symbol for C. Then I got it, they were playing in the key of G when B.B. King gave the handoff to Milton and the band modulated to C like clockwork. It took Milton a few seconds to figure out what was wrong. He was playing in the wrong key!  Then he just looked at B.B. King confused and the whole place started cracking up. Meanwhile, Bobby Bland is sitting on an amp with a microphone saying “Fuck both of y'all! I won't play anything in my key.” Never forget that one!

Dallas, Atlanta and now Chicago. What are the differences between the local blues scenes around the States?

Well I experienced them all at different times. Dallas was a hotbed of Rock and Blues in the 60's, 70's and early 80's. Then, for some reason (economics?), it just all dried up. We used to work at least 3 to 5 nights a week at different clubs, but that’s finished now. Atlanta has a really good scene with some amazing musicians.

My old friend Eddie Tigner (Ink Spots) is 84 and still plays as much as he wants to. Fat Matt's Rib Shack and The Northside are still going strong and good places to see local blues. The Chicago scene is still very vibrant and you can see world class musicians and bands every night of the week here. Buddy Guys and Rosas, Blues, Kingston Mines. It’s funny I don't go out very much to see live music as I should but just knowing it’s there makes me very happy!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

I miss the REAL old school guys … Freddie King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Junior Wells, ZuZu Bolin, Sam Myers, Grady Fats Jackson, I was so lucky to see and be friends with these guys.

As far as the future of music, I think that the sky's the limit. Lots of opportunities for young people to record and get their music out there. You don't really need a record label anymore. It's a challenge to find the quality stuff but when you do, it’s undeniable.

Which memories from “Gatemouth” Brown, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and Uncle John Turner makes you smile?

Late night pancakes with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown at the Waffle House, Willie’s big infectious smile and spirit. Unk's incredible vocabulary of Gulf coast rhythms and his Mexican serape covered drums!

"The Blues was here before the pyramids were built... since the beginning of time. It’s out there. You just gotta go out and find it. Or maybe you have it inside you already. I do." (Photo: Felix and his Mother 1960's Los Angeles)

How is a Latino to play the blues in USA? What's the message of Blues in the world civilization?

Where I come from, Latinos played Blues and black musicians could play Mexican music. Mixed bands were common. Junior Wells once told me that the Blues has no color. He said, "You take a Mississippi sharecropper and an Appalachian moonshiner they both have their own Blues but it’s not so different if you really think about it." The message of the Blues is unity and love and sharing. Music IS the universal language and can bring all kinds of people from different backgrounds together. We need to pay attention to that.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the blues circuits?

Oh man! Every time I get on a tour or play with some of the amazing musicians I know, I get a big smile on my face and we usually cut up like little kids out there. We also do Blues in the Schools here in Chicago. When we finish there is usually a huge standing ovation from the kids and then they all line up to get our autographs and touch the instruments. I get teary eyed at times and feel blessed that I can give something back.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with the new generation?

The blues is an oral tradition. Back in the day, I would try to find the real deal guys and go hang and maybe they would invite you to sit in. Then hopefully they would call you to do gigs. Many of these guys became some of my best friends. It’s encouraging to see young (to me) players like Toronzo Cannon who came up playing with Chico Banks and James Wheeler and pretty much everybody in Chicago. Tom Holland protégée of John Primer and James Cotton’s guitarist, Nick Moss who played with Jimmy Rogers, Matt Hill and Nikki Hill…I could go on and on. These artists are taking the Blues into the new millennium.

Is it going to change the Blues? Of course it has to. Like Muddy Waters, when he plugged in that Telecaster, people will balk and complain but it’s a decision born out of necessity and economics. Have no fear though, traditional Blues will always be here in some form or another and like taking a trip to a faraway exotic land, you are always are happy to come home where the heart is. The Blues is our home.

When we talk about Blues usually refer past moments. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Like I said before the Blues was here before the pyramids were built... since the beginning of time. It’s out there. You just gotta go out and find it. Or maybe you have it inside you already. I do.

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

Wow! Can I rent the time machine for a whole week??  That’s a hard one but… Paris ~ Le Chat Noir~ late 1800's……would suit me fine!

Felix Reyes - official website

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