Interview with veteran David Vest - a fabulous, foot-stompin' roots-rocker and boogie-woogie piano player

"I miss the way musicians used to listen to each other when they played. My fear is that the music is being overwhelmed by technology."

David Vest: Boogie-Woogie Lift Roll

David Vest is a fabulous, foot-stompin’ roots-rocker and boogie-woogie piano player, who can just as effortlessly play beautiful jazz and country blues ballads. His live shows are legendary, and his career probably pre-dates rock and roll itself. Although he’s a Maple Blues Award winner who now lives in Canada, David Vest is an authentic, Southern-bred boogie-woogie piano player, blues shouter and world-class entertainer. In 2014, released his new album, Roadhouse Revelation (Cordova Bay Records).

Born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1943, David grew up in Birmingham near Tuxedo Junction. He played his first paying gig in 1957, and by the time he opened for Roy Orbison on New Year’s Day 1962, he was a seasoned veteran of Gulf Coast roadhouses and honky-tonks. At the age of 17, David went on tour with Jerry Woodard and the Esquires, some of whom later became key members of the Muscle Shoals Swampers. He jammed with Ace Cannon, Bill Black’s Combo and the Jimmy Dorsey Band in clubs along the Florida Panhandle, where fellow Alabaman James Harman would soon make his mark. He had seen Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash by 1958. He saw Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, and John Lee Hooker in the prime of their careers. About the time he turned 21 he found himself onstage with Big Joe Turner, who said that David Vest’s playing made him feel like he was back in Kansas City. David received the “direct laying on of hands” from Texas piano legends like Big Walter The Thunderbird, Katie Webster and Floyd Dixon. He toured with Jimmy T99 Nelson and Miss Lavelle White, when he wasn’t jamming with Arnett Cobb, Milt Larkin, Jimmy Ford and Straight No Chaser in Houston. From 2002 through 2006, he was co-leader of the Paul deLay Band. Time has done little to diminish David’s energy, skill and creative drive. Working solo or with his band, he continues to bring audiences to their feet and to demonstrate why he has been called “one of the greatest living boogie-woogie piano players.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

The blues can lift you up. That's what it does for me. The blues taught me that I don't have to be anything other than myself.

How do you describe David Vest sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I like to think that my music comes from the moment just before things separated into all these artificial categories. Duke Ellington said that his own music was beyond category. I hope that's true of mine as well. All of my songs are always recorded live in the studio, with very little overdubbing if any. I sing at the same time I play the piano. I could never go into a vocal booth and sing along to a pre-recorded track, even if it was prerecorded the same day. To me, that's karaoke, not blues. I'd rather hear interesting mistakes than listen to fake perfection.

"The blues can lift you up. That's what it does for me. The blues taught me that I don't have to be anything other than myself."

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

The most interesting period for me is the one I'm living in right now! The best moment was when Katie Webster put her arms around me and shouted, "My name is Katie Webster and I know it when I hear it!"

The worst moment was probably when I showed up late to a show, heard them introducing me, and ran onstage to find no piano. That was probably the last time I missed a sound check.

Are there any memories from Bo Diddley, Ace Cannon, and Hubert Sumlin which you’d like to share with us?

Bo and I talked for hours about Birmingham and the Gaston Motel where he used to stay. It's a civil rights museum now. Ace Cannon told me I needed drinking lessons, and proceeded to take me bar-hopping in Pensacola, Florida. And Hubert, that was another "best moment." We were onstage together, with Jimmy Vivino standing between us. I played something Hubert liked, and he put his fist on his heart and smiled at me. I missed a lot of things by being gone on the road so much, but that made up for most of it.

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

I miss the way musicians used to listen to each other when they played. My fear is that the music is being overwhelmed by technology. Sometimes I go to a show and all I can hear is "effects." It's so loud you can't hear anything. Or a song comes on the radio and I can tell the musicians weren't even there at the same time playing together, so how could they listen and respond to each other? Big Walter the Thunderbird used to say, "Why play in a band if you don't like to listen to music?"

"I like to think that my music comes from the moment just before things separated into all these artificial categories. Duke Ellington said that his own music was beyond category. I hope that's true of mine as well." 

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I'd put stickers on CDs to indicate whether it's real music played by real people listening to each other, or some kind of fancy play-along karaoke track. Truth in advertising!

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

Roy Orbison taught me that even when you have a small audience, you have to play your very best. Every time, no exceptions. I saw him sing his heart out to a handful of people in a huge auditorium. But the best advice I ever got was this: "don't give your advice to anyone who hasn't asked you for it." I don't know what anyone else needs to do. But I do know it ain't about me and how I might be feeling. It's about the listeners and how the music makes them feel.

Which memory from Big Joe Turner, Roy Orbison and Miss Lavelle White makes you smile?

Lots to choose from. Playing "Lead Me On" with Miss Lavelle at the New Orleans JazzFest was about as good as it gets.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with boogie-woogie and continue to Jazz and barrelhouse?

I would say it's the highway of surprises, where one's preconceptions are always running off the road. A few examples: Bobby Blue Bland's idea of a great singer was Perry Como! Thelonious Monk really dug Bing Crosby and covered many of his songs. Sun Ra played with Wynonie Harris. John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis played together. And John Lee Hooker once saw W.C. Handy perform and said "it was the greatest thing in the world."

I always admired the artists who embodied it all: and Big Joe Turner is my hero, because on his recordings you can hear the best of blues, boogie, jazz and rock and roll. He's at home in all of them. Wherever he goes musically, he's never a tourist.

"I'd put stickers on CDs to indicate whether it's real music played by real people listening to each other, or some kind of fancy play-along karaoke track. Truth in advertising!"

How has the music industry changed over the years? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

When to think of all the instant pop music millionaires who have come and gone since I first heard a Memphis Slim, it almost makes me laugh. They came in on a wave of corporate hype and were quickly gone with the wind. Nobody will ever play that music again. But they will be playing Memphis Slim's music, and Lonnie Johnson's, long after everyone has forgotten all the rock stars they are supposed to have "influenced." There is nobody more ignorant that the person who thinks Muddy Waters was important because he "influenced" some Sixties rock bands. That's like thinking bread is important because it gave birth to Hostess Twinkies.

Blues is like bread. You can find real bread if you look for it, but you have to know where to shop. I have a song that goes like this: "Give me real cream in my coffee, real butter on my bread, real music on my radio, and a real woman in my bed." I don't want any artificial coffee whitener, oleomargarine, machine-made music, or plastic fantastic lover, if you get my drift.

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

That's a good question. Last Saturday I was playing a show in Alberta, and lots of pretty women were dancing in front of the bandstand. The thought that came to my mind was "Damn, I wish I was 60 again!"

The Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky wrote a book called "Nostalgia for the Present." It sometimes feels as though advertisers, and governments and corporations have locked us out of our own moment. They want us to always be thinking about the future or living in the past, spending all our money on futuristic gadgets and "vintage" this and that. Do you think Lonnie Johnson ever went shopping for a vintage guitar? He probably never wore a "bluesman costume" either. So maybe it would be nice if we could all take a time machine ride to the present, spend a whole day in the here and now instead of constantly checking to see what's going on somewhere else. In my experience, blues has the power to make our own time real to us.

David Vest - official website

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