Pianist / agent Johnny Altenburgh talks about Sun & Fame studios, Jazz & Blues, and Wisconsin scene

"Basically jazz is an extension from the blues. In my opinion, you can’t play jazz until you dig deep into the blues. "

Johnny Altenburgh: Shake like the old times

Johnny & The MoTones started in 2005  when John Altenburgh loaned a significant archaic recording device called a Lathe Recorder to Sun Studios Museum, Memphis, TN. In return, the folks at Sun Studios offered him a free studio session at the legendary Sun Recording Studio. Altenburgh & Co. spent three hours calling off tunes in a live roots type of recording.....And the rest, as they say, IS HISTORY!

The album was entitled, "Two Hits For The Kitty" (The Sun Studio Sessions) and it went on to spend 18 weeks in the World's Blues Chart at Roots Music Report. Glen Moberg of Wisconsin Public Radio called it, "The Ultimate Road Trip!"

The "Road Trip" continued in 2007 to another legendary studio, Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL. The group hooked up with long time Wisconsin Blues Master, Otis McLennon and legendary Muscle Shoals sidemen David Hood (original swamper) and Mike Dillon. This album was also recorded "live" in the studio as the boys recorded for seven hours straight. The album was entitled "Get Gone" and success was again at hand. "Get Gone" spent 17 weeks on the World's Blues Chart! The new release is the "Shake It" another one recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the Jazz and Blues music?

I started off as a teenager playing rock music back in the late 70’s & early 80’s.  I had an opportunity to sign with Geffen Records, a record label that had just signed John Lennon for his comeback.  The music I was recording at the time was in the New Wave Rock sound that was just beginning to happen.

After sending them my initial demo, the A&R Director asked me for more music and so I took the next six months writing new material.  What I didn’t realize, at the time, is they wanted more music immediately, not in six months.  When I contacted them with my new recordings, they said I was too late, that that type of music was already predominate in the pop/rock industry.  So they didn’t sign me.  Needless to say, I was disappointed but even more angered and fed up by an industry that was fleeting like all pop music is.  I always had a special love for jazz & blues type music and decided at that time, I was going to concentrate on music that is ageless, that won’t go in and out of style.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues & Jazz music and people of? 

Blues & Jazz are both improvisational music. We never perform the same song the same way twice. As a group we work off each other, specifically in live performances, and it keeps the music fresh and exciting to play. You never know what is going to happen on stage and I like it that way. I have found that in my life, I tend to treat situations the same way. Example: I don't like making specific plans for a night out on the town.  I like a general plan and see where it takes me. I like the surprise and the freedom to experience whatever may present itself.   So, like my music, I like to improvise in other aspects of life as well.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD MUSICIAN and SONGWRITER?

There are two things every musician and songwriter needs to do....practice and listen.  Practice till you can't practice anymore and listen to everything you can.  I have seen many musicians get to a certain level and then feel they are good enough.  I believe you have to keep growing as an artist.

How do you describe Johnny Altenburgh sound and progress, what characterize the philosophy of MoTones? 

It is ever evolving.  As a songwriter and musician, I have gone through many styles of music throughout my life. I have done albums in rock, jazz (contemporary and traditional) blues, R&B, Latin Jazz and have written individual songs from country to classical. I love exploring all music because there is good in every music genre. So for the MoTones, we have no set course.   It’s obviously based in the blues but R&B/Soul/Jazz and rock rhythms will always have influence on us. The first two albums were "live in the studio" albums and the approach was much different than the last two "studio" albums. We are generally classified as a blues band but it certainly doesn't tell the full story of what we do. There is a huge difference between our first album, "Two Hits For The Kitty, The Sun Studio Sessions" and our latest, "Shake It." I like trying new things and that will never change for me.

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

I could not pick one person, but I will say that I listen to many, many other artists, some famous, some not so famous. I am influenced by artists who are passionate about what they do. Working with Mitch Viegut (formally of the group AirKraft, Curb Records) these last few years has been a refreshing change. He is a solid writer and producer and brings fresh ideas to the sessions. Generally, I have always written and produced everything for my albums and now I share some of those duties with Mitch. It is nice working with someone of that caliber.

What is the best advice ever given you? 

My cousin Pat Metheny gave me great advice many years ago. He said "John, never stop performing! It is the only way for you to get real feedback from you audience. The only real way to connect with them."  At the time of that advice, I was sitting in the studio just recording and not performing. I took his advice and he was correct.

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

They have all been interesting and each period I can look back with fondness. The 1990’s was the decade that got me some National exposure and allowed me to do the things that I had dreamed about as a teenager. One of the worst moments was when my rock group, Bad Habit, played at a Biker Bar in 1978 and a huge fight broke out with two rival biker gangs. As they were punching each other, a few of them landed on our equipment and I was afraid it would all be broken. I was about 17 years old at the time and I had to try to break up the fight with all these huge grizzly bikers.  

It was an awful experience and it taught me to be more selective in the places I should perform at. 

The best moments of my career have been when I have worked with great musicians and there have been many, too many to list here. Presently, the line-up for our group are some of the best I have ever worked with; Mitch Viegut, Ryan Korb, Bruce Lammers, Paula Hall, John Greiner, Chris O'Keefe, Bob Kase. It is certainly the best Johnny & The MoTones line-up to date and I am very fortunate as this is certainly a high moment in my career.

What do you miss nowadays from the old days of Sun and Fame studios? How has the music changed? 

The albums we did, at both Sun and Fame studios, were both “live in the Studio” albums.  It’s a stressful way to record but extremely satisfying when you can produce something good.  Recording live keeps you honest!  The band has to be in top form and we all have to know each other extremely well, musically speaking.   Sun Studio was very fun but we had no exact plan of what we were going to do with the recording.  The session at Fame was much different.  We had an exact plan and so we knew exactly what we had to do and there was no room for failure.  Our last two albums have been produced in the studios with countless hours of re-takes, overdubs etc. and there were many times where I thought, "let’s get the band in here and play it, record it live and get it done, like we did at Fame & Sun."

Why did you think that Sun and Muscle Shoals sound continues to generate such a devoted following? 

Both Fame and Sun Studios record with honesty and integrity.  The Roots Music/Americana music movement has created a new audience for those types of sounds. It’s good solid music without all the "over the top" production of pop music.

Are there any memories from Sun and Fame Studios which you’d like to share with us?

Sure, I remember walking into Fame Studios early morning of our first day and walking straight into Rick Hall, the legendary Fame producer. It was surreal. A little later, I remember giving Jimmy Nutt, the engineer, our track list. He came back in fifteen minutes and said; "You have 11 tracks listed, you realize that there is no way you can get these done in the eight hour slot today, don't you? Perhaps you should pick out four songs for today." I told him we were going to get them all done and to just keep the recorder rolling. He looked at me like I was crazy. We did get all eleven songs finished with an hour to spare! 

At Sun Studio, we did the entire album (8 songs) in three hours. We just called out songs and kept the recorder rolling. We wanted to finish by a certain time so we could go down to a place called The Rendezvous to eat their famous Memphis ribs! We made it just in time before they closed. If the Rendezvous would have stayed open another hour, we could have had a couple more songs on that album...ha! Sun Studio is virtually the same as it was back in the day of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin Wolf etc. Same block walls, same ceiling tiles. Our guitarist, Chris O’Keefe, mentioned that during the recording, he could feel the ageless spirit and soul from that room. I agreed with him. It is hard to explain but I am very glad that we got to experience it. Also, recording on Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano, was very cool.

Tell me a few things about your meeting with David Hood, which memory from him makes you smile? 

David Hood has recorded with everybody! From Willie Nelson to Bob Seeger to Greg Allman, Little Milton, Toby Keith, Aretha Franklin and on and on! When you go to his website, hoodbass.com you can see the hundreds of artists he has recorded with.  And listed, in the 2006 column of his work, is Johnny & The MoTones!  This makes me smile.  To think we are in his great timeline is truly amazing. One thing I remember about David was how wonderful he was to work with. He took all of my music charts for the session and re constructed them to the Nashville numbering system in mere minutes. For those not familiar, it is a way to read chords by their position in a certain key.  Example:  If the song is in the key of A, he replaced all the A chords with the number 1. He would replace all the D chords with the number 4 and so on. It was the way he worked and it seemed strange to me at the time but he didn't miss a note. I saved a few of the charts he re-did for keepsakes. The man is legend and he is the ultimate pro in the studio.  On the song, Use The Steps, he had some concerns because as he put it, “It’s a jazz song and I don’t play a lot of jazz.” We rehearsed it for five minutes and he played it flawlessly. During the session we all were wondering what he thought of us. After the session he invited the group to come up and perform with his group The Decoys at the WC Handy Blues Festival. We were shocked that he would ask us and we jumped at the opportunity.

From the musical point of view what are the difference and similarity between the BLUES and JAZZ? 

Basically jazz is an extension from the blues. In my opinion, you can’t play jazz until you dig deep into the blues. Blues in it's self is structured on 12 measures or 12 bars of music repeated, using the standard 1, 4, 5 chord structure. Of course there are numerous variations on that theme. However, it is much more than that to me.  It is a feel that you can't put down by musical notation or structure. It has to be played from the gut or soul. The basic jazz structure is an extension of that, but again, you have to be able to feel it and sometimes you have to know when to play and when not to play. It's just not about how many notes you can play in a solo.

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

I have played jazz and blues gigs, festivals, concerts across the U.S. so this is a real hard question..  I would have to say the early years where everything was still new and exciting.  However, I did play the Oklahoma Jazz in June Festival a short time after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.  It was a strange vibe but a very good one.  I have never met such wonderful people in my life as I did in Oklahoma.  Very warm accommodating people and that performance is a very special memory for me.

Some music styles can be fads but Blues and Jazz is always with us. Why do think that is? 

Because musically speaking, they are both honest.  Nobody cares what you wear, how old you are, what you look like.  Fans of these genres art here for the music not to see what they are wearing or what kind of dance moves they might do.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jelly Roll with Thelonious Monk and continue to Jerry Lee Lewis and beyond?

Those are three very distinct personalities connected by the dedication for creative excellence.  The piano serves as a catalyst that connects those three individuals and so many more musicians, striving for the same thing.  I have learned a little from each of them and it continues throughout the musical world through the generations.

What are the secrets of 88s Black & White keys and what does “Keys” means to you? 

I haven't begun to know the secrets of the keys, that is a lifetime pursuit and one that I will never fully understand.

Make an account for current realities of the case of the Blues and Jazz in Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin is a unique place and one of the highest pay scale for musicians that I have encountered. I was stunned to learn this as I toured around the country. Opportunities are there is you look for them and make them happen.  Like my old dear departed friend and drummer Mark Ladley used to say, "It is what you make of it."  In other words, every place is good if you provide something entertaining and if you do that, people will come to listen.

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

Yes, I believe this to be true now more than ever. Every art form has to grow because if it doesn’t it turns into a dead art form.  Some radio programmers treat jazz and blues like nothing good happened after the 1950s. I believe they do a disservice to not only the art form but to the listeners and the fans. When we stop growing in any musical genre, we essentially kill it. Miles Davis knew this and even though he took criticism from music journalists, he never stopped moving jazz to different places.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft? 

So many players play for themselves and forget they are supposed to be entertainers.  I remember seeing a musician walk off a stage at a night club because someone was talking in the audience.  He truly believed that every note he was playing was some sort of gift from God or something. I want people to enjoy themselves when they see me perform and something like that would never bother me.  If you come to my show, feel free to get up and stretch your legs, get a drink, go to the bathroom, talk to your friends.   If they miss some solo I am playing, it’s ok, and I’ll play another in the next song. So young musicians need to realize that they are entertainers, we are all there for the audience. For without the audience coming to our shows, purchasing our music, we have nothing.

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