An Interview with Chicagoan Terry Abrahamson: Everything About The Blues, A Trip To The Blues World

"The main legacy of the Blues is that you can let your raw emotions and point of view tells the story. You don’t have to be polite or subtle. It’s like the law; there are precedents that dictate what’s acceptable... what works."

Terry Abrahamson: The Bluesman's Chakra

Terry Abrahamson was born on the West Side of Chicago. His songs have been recorded by Muddy Waters, The Chambers Brothers, John Lee Hooker, Joan Jett, Clarence Clemons and George Thorogood. His Blues photography is part of the permanent collection of the Library of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. He has also lectured in Chicago Public Schools about the Blues. His produced stage work includes Kama Sutra: The Musical, Doo Lister's Blues, The Orleans Jazz Funeral of Stella Brooks and Hannukatz The Musical.

Terry is the only person in the history of the printed word to have written for Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and Larry Flynt! He’s life changing musical journey into “The Belly of The Blues” is chronicled through his iconic B&W photos and his written memoirs, including: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor, Big Walter Horton, Freddie King, Johnny Winter, B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Shaw, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, Otis Spann, Rolling Stones and many more. The author’s photos are part of the permanent collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library, the Smithsonian Institution, and Chicago's Museum of African American History. Terry says: "I took these photos were taken between 1969 and 1983 with a Kodak Instamatic and flashcubes, a Minolta SLR and a mini-Chinon with Lincoln Continental suicide doors. Some were sent out for processing at corner drugstores. Some were processed and printed by me in darkrooms in Boston. Most of the musicians on these pages are gone, and we won't see their kind again. But they should be remembered and celebrated. They're part of American history, and bricks in the foundation of Rock and Roll. We can't fill their shoes, but we can dance in their big, big footprints."   Photo: James Cotton & Terry ©  by Terry Abrahamson.

Interview by Michael Limnios

All photos © 2011-2013 by Terry Abrahamson. All rights reserved

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

To me, the really great lesson of The Blues has been that you can write and sing not only about your feelings, but about what those feelings do to you...with as much drama as you can squeeze out of your soul and your pipes. Robert Johnson wasn’t the first guy to articulate emotion; but when he sang “Love in Vain,” I could feel his love tearing his guts apart. When Howlin’ Wolf sings “Evil,” he doesn’t just tell you he’s jealous; he’s tells you it’s driving him nuts: Othello Nuts! Robert DeNiro Nuts. And he doesn’t hold back. The Blues taught me to dig be more expressive and creative in how I convey the emotions that drive a song. And over time, I learned that occasionally, I can do that successfully. And today, the Blues continue to challenge my creativity, and I’m grateful for that.

From the culture of the Blues, I learned how incredibly lucky I was to have lived when I did, and to have known the artists I have known. Why? Because there is a hierarchy of the Blues that appears like it will stand forever. Unlike sports or politics, where new heroes continue to emerge and - in many cases - eclipse the legends that preceded them, the pantheon of Blues immortals doesn’t appear to be in for any reorganization. I think this is largely due to the unique role of the Blues as the bridge between slavery and Rock n Roll. And I was  incredibly fortunate to have known a few of the artists who were touched by  Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Son House....artists like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. They gave us the blueprint for the songs and the bands that set the template for Rock and Roll. I knew them. I sat with them backstage and in basements and living rooms. How lucky I was!

And because of that, to me, the Blues is pure magic. It was magic that turned America’s darkest, cruelest, most inhuman chapter into an explosion of music and joy that shook the world. It was magic that let a kid from Chicago who thought Clapton was God go on to create music for Muddy Waters...Clapton’s god.

"The Blues is pure magic. It was magic that turned America’s darkest, cruelest, most inhuman chapter into an explosion of music and joy that shook the world." Terry in The Naked Artist Gallery, Key West, FL. ©  by Terry Abrahamson. All rights reserved

How do you describe Terry Abrahamson’s songs and images and what characterize your music philosophy?

I’ve written everything, every genre. While I have written both words and music, my lyrics are what separates, and hopefully, elevates me. And - while it’s harder to do in a heartfelt lovesong, I always look for the whimsy. “Is there another way to say that....with the wink of an eye?” At least that’s my musical philosophy for me. I must have gotten it from Chuck Berry and Little Richard. And, of course, The Wizard of Whimsy, Jimi Hendrix, who I’m sure, got it from those guys as well. But in his playing, his vocal performances and his audience repartee, Hendrix so personified whimsy that even the stuff with no evident sense of fun made you feel good because you knew if it was Jimi, it was in there somewhere.

Also, a Terry Abrahamson song - whenever possible - gives some tip of the hat to my musical heroes.  A line in my new biker anthem, “Chrome is Where the Heart Is” is “They rocked her to sleep to Mississippi Queen.” Thank you, Leslie West and Felix Pappalardi. But basically, if my songs can make people smile or dance...or if a hook or a phrase hangs in their minds....well how can you beat that?

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently for your songs and images?

My ideas come from everywhere. Derrick Procell, my writing partner, was really moved by the gun control fight following the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings. At a moment that should have brought our nation together, the divide was unbelievable. Derrick says to me “Maybe we need a song.” And we wrote “Joshua,” a big, hopeful gospelly anthem about breaking down walls like the guy in the Bible. My advice to would be songwriters is to just “Keep your eyes and ears open.  Because a song really can come from anywhere. Derrick and I recently wrote a song called “Dancin’ on my Grave,” about how a cemetery is where a life should not be mourned, but celebrated. That idea goes all the way back 40 years to the first time I heard David Bromberg’s rousing version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter Blues,” - which probably goes back another 40 years -about a gambler who wants a party for his funeral. That song even inspired me to write a screenplay.

In 1973, driving in a car with George Thorogood and me, Delta Blues hero Jim Brewer was remarking on his interest in a lady at the concert he and George had just finished: “I’d surely like to plug into her.” I started vamping: “The men call me Jim; the women call me Electric Man. When I plug into your socket, I’ll charge you like no-one else can.”

A few weeks later, I ran it by Muddy, who swapped his name in for Jim and made it the first of three songs I wrote that are actually on Muddy Waters records!!!  So keep your eyes, ears and mind open. Inspiration comes from everywhere, and it can take you anywhere.

Muddy Waters and Terry Abrahamson, from 1973, backstage at Paul's Mall, Boston's legendary music club. © 2011-2013 by Terry Abrahamson. All rights reserved

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever given you?

There probably are secrets about the Blues, but I’m not sure I know any. But early on in my relationship with Muddy Waters, I did make an unexpected discovery.  I was driving one of two big SUV’s that carried the band and their equipment from gig to gig. We drifted out of the signal range of the radio station we’d been listening to. I fiddled with the dial, unable to find any Blues or Rhythm & Blues, when Muddy’s longtime drummer, Willie Smith, said “Just find some Country & Western.” I was pretty surprised: this was the early 70’s, and the struggles and horrors of the American Civil Rights movement were fairly recent memories, and to me, Country & Western was the redneck music I reflexively associated with men with ropes.

When I said as much to Willie, he said “Listen to the words.” I did, and what I heard were the exact same stories. “Jambalaya” celebrating the same party as “Wang Dang Doodle.” If you can relate to “Parchman Farm,” you’ll feel that same pain in “Folsom Prison Blues.” That car full of Black guys from Mississippi opened my mind and my heart to redneck music, and what I perceived to be a wall between Blues and Country cracked and crumbled. And I’ve got the country tunes in my catalog to prove it, mostly thanks to the inspiration of Bobby Bare’s rendition of Shel Silverstein’s “I Never Went to Bed with an Ugly Woman, But I Sure Woke Up with a Few.” I think the first country song I wrote was “I Put the Sin in Cincinnati.” And right up through “Once They Get Under Me, They Never Get Over Me,” you can thank Willie Smith for every groaner.

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

The best moment of my career was when Muddy’s “Unk in Funk” album came out in 1974, and I saw my name - not once, but twice - in the writers’ credits on the back of the cover. Of course, I could never would have come up with the title song (along with “Electric Man”) if my dear pal Ted Kurland hadn’t coined the phrase “He’s so funky, he put the ‘Unk’ in ‘Funk.’ Years later, I remember him speaking about Jim Brewer, but Ted insists he was referring to name goes here. Anyway, while I’m the first to admit that my compositions for Muddy are hardly on par with his classics, that will never dim the memory of my pal Abe’s reaction upon seeing my name on that album: “Think about it: The Allman Brothers and the Stones and Cream are doing Muddy Waters songs....and Muddy Waters is doing Terry Abrahamson songs!” Nothing will ever, ever compare to that....although seeing the photos I shot up on the wall at Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven, the site of Chess Records Studios makes me shake every time I enter the building.

The worst moment of my career, although it’s pretty laughable now, was in San Carlos, California, in the early ’80’s backstage at the Circle Star Theater: the night I realized my dream of being in a room with BB King to play him a song I’d written especially for him. It was a mortifying disaster. You can see the whole story unfold in my short film, “How Blue Can You Get?” on You Tube. It’s most easily linkable through the Vids page on my website In The Belly Of The Blues.

Terry with Cookie Taylor, Koko Taylor's daughter, outside of legendary Chess Records studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago © 2011-2013 by Terry Abrahamson. All rights reserved 

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

The night I met Muddy, going backstage to use the band’s bathroom at Alice’s in Chicago must top the list. Abe and I, along with our girlfriends, got to the 10pm show at 7pm so we could sit on the floor at the 12-inch high coffeehouse stage. As the crowd filled in behind us, we could no longer reach the public bathroom. So, an hour before showtime, I love my way through the amps and drumkit and went behind the Indian bedspreads hanging at the rear of the stage.

There was Muddy, sitting at a small table with his bottle of Piper’s Champagne. He was regal, but totally approachable. I have a photo of him that I took at that table that night. I’ve seen it a thousand times. It still makes me sigh. Another great memory was being at Willie Dixon’s apartment one night. I was sitting in his living room, and he says “I gots somethin’ for you.” He takes a cassette tape off the mantle and pops it in a boombox. It was a gospel preacher “Reverend Balenger.” Dixon was playing bass. It was around 35 minutes of gospel music and for that 35 minutes, the smile never left Willie’s face. I still have that cassette. And I can still see his smile whenever I hear it.

Finally, I’d have to say that meeting Jack Bruce and Jimmy Page were unforgettable moments. Are they great bluesmen? To me, hell yeah! Like Muddy, like Wolf, like Koko Taylor, they processed what they heard someone else do and made it their own.

Jack and Jimmy brought the music of those old guys to millions and millions who might not have ever heard it otherwise. In 1968, as Cream’s bassist and singer, Jack Bruce’s performance on history’s first platinum-selling double lp Wheels of Fire introduced me - and a millions of others - to Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.”  In 2007, my friend Rick Nowels emailed me to come to London; he had put together a band for a rainforest benefit concert and Jack Bruce had agreed to play...and I’d get to meet him. The night of the show, as always, prefacing the conversation with my Muddy connection proved to be the perfect social lubricant. Jack Bruce had been a musical hero of mine for most of my life. To spend an hour with him one on one talking up the Blues was an amazing gift. Thank you, Rick Nowels.

Ironically, I met Jimmy Page at Ronnie Scott’s in London at a Jack Bruce show. Jimmy was a few tables down, and I walked over with the prototype of my book, “In the Belly of the Blues.” As soon as he saw the photos on the cover - of Muddy, Wolf, Koko...his eyes lit up with a (sorry) “Whole Lotta Love.” He was warm, friendly, and totally engaged, asking what this guy was like, if that club was still on Halsted street. “Great Bluesman” isn’t a term that should be validated by record sales, as evidenced by Bukka White or Robert Nighthawk. But bringing “You Shook Me” and “Bring it on Home” to a world that had never heard me Led Zeppelin and Cream - and of course, the Rolling Stones - did something mighty great!

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

In addition to all the memories above - which obviously stand out, I would add three. The first was in 1969 at Chicago’s Quiet Knight Bar: the first time I saw Howlin’ Wolf. That night, He was the first Blues singer I’d ever seen perform live. I had no idea what to expect, other than “a guy who does that Stones’ song, ‘Little Red Rooster,’” which we’d read in a local newspaper. The moment he started singing, my life changed forever. What a presence! What a voice! If you’ve never seen Howlin’ Wolf, you must check him out on You Tube.

The second memory is July 5, 1973 at Joe’s Place in Cambridge. Ted, Abe and I went in to see Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. A white kid playing acoustic guitar with a pickup and a harmonica rack was onstage - the opener. He filled that room with more music than any band I’d ever seen. I was totally blown away. We didn’t learn until the next day that his name was George Thorogood. We tracked him down to Delaware, sent him money for a train ticket back up to Boston, put him up on our couch and started getting him gigs. I’ve still never seen another performer on any stage do what he did all by himself.

Finally, in 1978, I was back at the Quiet Knight, backstage with Muddy, and he sort of whispers “Don’t say nothin’, boy, but the Stones is supposed to show up.” A short time later, in walks Keith Richards. His gaze locks on Muddy, who was sitting 30 feet away on the far side of the room. Keith slowly shuffles up to Muddy like they’re the only two people in the world, drops to his knees at Muddy’s feet, takes Muddy’s hand in both of his and kisses it. Unforgettable…obviously. The stories are all in my book.

(Photo: Mick Jagger and Muddy Waters performing at the Quiet Knight, Chicago in 1978. © 2011-2013 by Terry Abrahamson. All rights reserved)

What do you miss most nowadays from the ‘60s and ‘70s? How has the blues changed over the years?

The Blues is part of history. The men who laid the foundation for Chicago Blues did so in the 40’s and 50’s, traveling up from Mississippi with all the music and memories passed on from Son House and Robert Johnson and a bunch of lesser-known but just as influential artists. By the 60’s, that music had gotten to England and back, transformed into rock music that made it more accessible, but still recognizable on some level. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf didn’t just bring that music....they presented it in a new form: guitars, keyboard, harmonica, bass and drums. That was the prototype for the rock and roll band. It was mythical: these musical Gods appeared from what - for young White urban kids - was another universe, transformed the culture and, when their jobs were done, were gone. Hendrix, Savoy Brown, the Yardbirds...they were new, exciting, and you could access the Blues through them.

Add to that the parallel track of American White kids who heard it first hand on Chicago’s South Side: Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Elvin Bishop, Corky Siegel, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, and really presented it in a much more pure, less hybridized form. It was everywhere! There are still great Blues-influenced bands making exciting music, but because they’re not at the center of the culture, and because music is accessible to kids through less-centralized channels that never existed 50 years ago, they don’t have the impact.

Remember, when the Beatles arrived in New York City in 1964, it was a major cultural event for a generation and an unprecedented media phenomenon. When they got off the plane, at the tarmac interview, and they were asked what they wanted to see in America, Paul McCartney, I believe it was, said “Muddy Waters.” Imagine what that meant. Try to imagine a comparable opportunity now for the Blues to achieve that kind of platform. Back in those days, it was hard NOT to hear the influence of Mississippi Blues in a rock band.

Muddy’s biographer, the great music historian Robert Gordon, said it best: the Blues was about sex and violence and asserting your manhood...or womanhood. It hit a generation of musicians at a time of major social upheaval. Just listening to that stuff - as interpreted by the Stones, the Kinks or the Animals - made you part of that social change, part of some movement, whether it was Civil Rights, the 60’s anti-war movement or the feminist revolution; kids responded to that swagger. Today, it’s all different: different vessels to carry the songs, different social issues, the end of the great Northern Migration. The Blues thrived because it was the right time. Today’s music is no less valid. It just comes from different places, arrives through different filters and is hitting audiences with different life experiences and different perspectives on the world.

The Blues has not changed. It still comes from the same place. But every day, somebody will hear it for the first time - and hear it in a way it’s never been heard before. Just like Muddy used three electric guitars or Eric Clapton used a wah-wah pedal. Harry Manx will add a sitar. Taj Mahal will throw the Pointers Sisters behind him on Sweet Home Chicago. You’ll always hear something new, but you can always follow that old Blues trail back to Mississippi.

"The really great lesson of The Blues has been that you can write and sing not only about your feelings, but about what those feelings do to you...with as much drama as you can squeeze out of your soul and your pipes."  Photo: Syl Johnson and Terry © 2011-2013 by Terry Abrahamson. All rights reserved

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

I think being a Bluesman - or a Blueswoman - is at the same time communal and individual. The kind of Blues person you are depends on the kind of Blues you hear, be it Skip James or Little Feat, and how it hits you and where you take it. Remember, my soul was saturated with it, and I thought it all started with those young White English kids. If I’d never heard Howlin’ Wolf, would my love for Cream’s “I’m So Glad” or Savoy Brown’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries” still have made me a Bluesman? I think so. If you hear it from anywhere, and it touches you and stays with you, you’re a Bluesperson.

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

Honestly, I’m not in touch enough with all the Local Blues scenes to give an accurate answer on that. I can say that in Chicago, while the Blues scene does not have all the local venues it did in the 60’s, that great Blues artists like Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, Nellie Tiger Travis, Holle Thee Maxwell and Deitra Farr....along with some survivors from the old days like Eddie Shaw and Buddy Guy and Corky Siegel...are still around and rockin’ the Blues as hard as they can.

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

Because it has real roots and it tells the story of America and it instills a unique geographic pride, if not chauvinism, in people who got to grow up where it started. For me, it’s Chicago. For someone else, it might be St. Louis or Memphis or Kansas City or Mississippi.

Also, there are so many emotional dimensions of the music that are universally accessible. It’s easy music to connect with. Plus, The Blues, in addition to the pantheon of great Blues artists, gave us Chuck Berry and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and it’s rural and urban and the messages are simple and universal.

Photos: James Cotton, 1974 at Paul's Mall  / Johnny Winter / Willie Dixon / Muddy Waters / Freddie King / Ron Wood. © 2011-2013 by Terry Abrahamson. All rights reserved

What's the legacy of Blues in the world culture and civilization? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

The main legacy of the Blues is that you can let your raw emotions and point of view tells the story. You don’t have to be polite or subtle. It’s like the law; there are precedents that dictate what’s acceptable... what works. Be true to those and you can be a valid vessel for the Blues. But you can also build on those precedents. Check out the guys I mention above like Clapton and Manx. Or check out Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues. It’s powerful proof of where a little whimsy and imagination can take the Blues.

My hope is that the Blues as I know them will continue to have relevance and validity for at least a segment of the upcoming generations. Regarding the Blues, I have no fears for the future. We are cultivating new plantations all over the world: in the housing projects of Chicago, in the trash shanties of Mumbai and in the refugee camps of the Middle East and in the sweatshops of Bangla Desh.  A thousandfold - perhaps a millionfold more people than ever experienced slavery or plantation life. They’ll have their stories to tell, and hopefully, many will choose music as the way to share their experiences. Will it sound like Robert Johnson’s Blues? Doubtful. But the spirit and the emotions will hopefully be the same. And don’t be surprised if a little Mississippi delta Blues sneaks in there.

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

In the United States, the drug Viagra, for men who need help keeping an erection, has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. Not long ago, Viagra’s television commercials began with the opening guitar lick from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightening.” I was discussing this not long ago with Bob Margolin, Muddy’s old guitar player, and Bob asked “Can you imagine Muddy trying to say ‘Erectile Dysfunction?’”

Having penned three sets of lyrics for Muddy, not all of which even I can understand  when I hear him sing them, I know exactly what Steady Rollin’ Bob meant. The whole experience of having my photos on the walls at Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, the site of the old Chess Studios, is relentlessly emotionally overwhelming. Chuck Berry recorded Johnny B. Goode there. Jimmy Rogers recorded “That’s Alright” there. Howlin’ Wolf recorded Evil there. I feel like at any moment, I could be crushed under the weight of all that history.  And we’re now in the process of creating a documentary about the experience and about the exhibition. Koko Taylor’s daughter, Cookie was gracious enough to be our first interview, and she drove a long way to do it. She said some pretty wonderful things about the photos and about me. I don’t think there’s been a day since those photos went up when I haven’t thought “I can’t believe this is happening.”

"My hope is that the Blues as I know them will continue to have relevance and validity for at least a segment of the upcoming generations. Regarding the Blues, I have no fears for the future." (Photo: Koko Taylor & Freddie King. © 2011-2013 by Terry Abrahamson. All rights reserved)

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

Naturally, I’d put my own book. It’s not just ego. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another photo of Koko Taylor and Freddie King together. Or of Muddy and Hound Dog Taylor. I’d also include some of my great Blues lp’s - Muddy Waters “Fathers and Sons” and “Folk Singer,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil,” Magic Sam’s “West Side Soul,” and my Van Morrison album with him and John Lee Hooker doing “Gloria.” It ain’t “Boogie Chillen,” but I could listen to it all day long.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with the Brit invasion to continue to Acid era and beyond?

The structure and the messages have a simplicity that’s highly adaptable to different stylistic applications. Everyone won’t like every version of a song, but somebody who never heard its earlier incarnations will. And that spreads the Blues. I really like the Grateful Dead. But the first time I heard them do “Turn on Your Lovelight,” I thought “What have they done to Bobby Blue Bland?”

But you can be damn sure that millions of Deadheads love that the Dead. Most have probably never heard of Bobby Bland. I can live with that. Well, I loved what Blood, Sweat & Tears did to Little Milton’s “More and More.” Of course, I had never heard of Little Milton at the time. But I got into him through BS & T. And you’ve gotta believe that every day Bob Weir is responsible for one deadhead discovering Bobby Bland.

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

I can’t decide between The Crossroads of highways 61 & 49 to see what really happened when Robert Johnson met the Devil. (I’ve been there and I have a coffee mug on my desk  filled with dirt from the Crossroads ) and the club in Chicago the night Chuck Berry first saw Muddy Waters. 

In The Belly Of The Blues - Home

"I think being a Bluesman - or a Blueswoman - is at the same time communal and individual. The kind of Blues person you are depends on the kind of Blues you hear, be it Skip James or Little Feat, and how it hits you and where you take it."

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