Israeli bluesman Eli Marcus talks about Champagne Charlie, Blues for Peace, & the philosophy of Blues

"The Blues has always been my friend when I feel lonely, and I think it keeps me sane when people around me are just too crazy..."

Eli "Dr. Blues" Marcus: Blues as Zen

Eli Marcus is a resident Tel Aviv Bluesman originating in Toronto, Canada about 40 years ago. He specializes in Country and Ragtime Blues styles, fingerpicking and slide guitar. His mission in life is to study, document collect, and preserve the history of Jazz and Blues.

Eli make a presentation of yourself: "One night in a dark and empty room in downtown Toronto, just past midnight, Canadian Blues and Jazz artist Champagne Charlie was teaching me some of my first Ragtime guitar licks...I guess that's when I got serious about the Blues...or maybe it was the Blind Blake LP that I found standing alone on a record stand in a store on Harvard Avenue in Boston when I was 15 years old - the price was only 59 cents...

Early on, I felt that my mission in life is to help perpetuate the Blues, to help others understand the beauty that is in the Blues, and to keep it alive. Over the years I have worked at promoting my musician friends in any way I can. I ran the Fingerboard coffee-house and open stage in Toronto in the late 1970's, as well as organizing a number of small Blues and Jazz concerts to help expose my musical friends to the University of Toronto audiences. I also spent a few years as a freelance photographer and writer, covering some of my favortie artists for local newspapers or magazines. In 1981 I emigrated to Israel and in the late 1980's I became involved in Israeli radio, recording a 13 part series on the history and the variety of the Blues for Army Radio (Galei Zahal). In the 1990's I helped build the roster of artists at the Haifa Blues festival of 1993 (as well as performing on stage with guest artist Steve Freund). From 1995-2000 I helped the Camelot Club in Tel Aviv create a monthly series of guest Blues artists from the USA .

In 1996 I brought the Blues to the International Guitar Festival in Tel Aviv (which previously focused only on classical guitar and Flamenco). In the fall of 2002 I renewed my radio activity with a monthly Blues show on Radio 88FM and a weekly Blues show on internet Radio Ba Am. In the summer of 2003 I was Artistic Director for the Summer Blues Festival at the Givatayim Theater, gathering together local Israeli Blues and rock artists for a 3 day festival."

Interview by Michael Limnios  / Paintings drawings by Eli Marcus

Eli, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & what characterize the sound of Eli Marcus?
Hard for me to say exactly when I got “hooked” by the Blues, but finding a Blind Blake LP for 69 cents in a Boston record store when I was in high school is one important moment. Hearing Rambling Jack Elliot singing live, and seeing Geoff Muldaur live when I was 14-15 years old also had a strong effect on me. My own sound is mostly acoustic fingerpicking country and ragtime Blues, with a little bit of slide mixed in too. I think I have a strong singing voice, and that also characterizes my music, I think that I project the passion I feel for the music when I sing.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I think I have had many great moments in my career, publishing my own book on the Blues is one big moment, celebrating my 50th birthday and seeing how many friends came out to join me on stage, having my own weekly radio show. The worst? maybe it was having a club and not having any audience show up for the Blues shows...

What does the BLUES mean to you, what does Blues offered you & how has the blues changed your life?
the Blues for me is a philosophy of life, it teaches me to be humble, keep it simple, to be patient, to appreciate very simple things in life, like waking up in the morning to see the sun, to be happy I am breathing and to know that I am alive. The Blues has always been my friend when I feel lonely, and I think it keeps me sane when people around me are just too crazy...

Do you know why the sound of the reso-phonic guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of reso phonic guitar?
The resophonic guitar is connected to the Blues for a few reasons - one, is that it can cry like a human being better than any other instrument, two, it can play very very quiet, and also very loud, three-it is relatively easy for someone who doesn't know how to play to get a nice sound from it. For me, the secret is learning how to control the tone, to learn how to block out the other tones you don't want.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD bluesman?
Learning from the older Bluesmen (and women) about the important things in life (not money!).

What is the “thing” you miss most from the “good Old days of Blues”?
Not having ever lived in that part of history, it's hard to say realistically what I would miss from the late 20's or early 30's of the Blues - maybe the freshness or newness of everything, and the fact that so many amazing fingerpickers, slide players and piano players were around back then!

Are there any memories with Champagne Charlie (Thom Roberts) which you’d like to share with us?
Thom and I lived in the same rooming house for 2 years, and in that time we became very close friends, he taught me how to use the side of the thumb to pick the bass, without and thumb picks or finger picks. He also taught me a few of the old traditional Ragtime and New Orleans Blues songs. He was a funny guy, and I also learned from him about different perspectives on reality - he had a private personality, and a public personality, and they were 2 completely different things, but he never admitted that one or the other was made up, a fairy tale...

What is the “thing” you miss most from Champagne Charlie, & which memory from him makes you smile?
He had an amazing “chimney sweep” moustache that covered his mouth, he had a great laugh that was very distinct and loud. Thom had a special way of holding his right hand (the picking hand) on the guitar, and I think I have some of that in my playing style today.

Any comments about your experiences in Israel Army Radio & Radio 88FM?
Army radio (Galei Tzahal) has traditionally been the most popular radio station in Israel, so it was a privelage to be able to do a (13 part) series on the Blues there, and have such a wide audience while the show ran (it was broadcast twice over a 12 month period). Radio 88 was a completely different place - a constant struggle against the primitive and backward attitudes of the management. I am so glad that I found the new IDC radio, because they are so open and supportive of me.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from Steve Freund?
Steve is a very highly professional musician, and it was an honor to be his sideman when he was here in 1993. I love his humorous song “I Love Money, but Money Doesn't Love Me”. I remember almost fainting when in the middle of our set at Jacob's Ladder folk festival, at 3 in the morning, with people still up and dancing, he suddenly turned to me and said: “You take the bass for the next song - Mustang Sally”, I had never really played a bass before on stage, and he didn't give me a chance to say anything, so we just went into the song...

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES.
I think it's because the Blues are the roots of almost all modern popular music, so sooner or later, they all have to come back around to the Blues in some way or another. I wish that enough people learn to appreciate the Blues so that it can get respect and be viable commercially just enough so it can survive. The recent Blues session in the White House last month is a good step in that direction...

You had pretty interesting project “Blues for Peace”. Where did you get that idea?
It wasn't mine, it was my buddy John Mayer (the Milwaukee born, Israeli John Mayer) - John said that we need to recognize that “all people have had their share of the Blues”, he also coined the phrase “and they shall turn their swords into guitars”. John is a great harmonica player and guitarist, and he had real vision, and the two of us together created the first stage of the Israel Blues Society, but at the time, it was basically just the two of us doing everything, the events, the website, the book (Touched by the Blues). Unfortunately, Johnny has been ill lately with what we suspect is Aldsheimer's.

When did it all begin for the blues in Israel? Who is considered the "godfather" of the blues in local scene?
I would say that the interest in Blues started with the rock bands of the late 60's and early 70's. People like Shlomo Mizrahi, Avner Strauss, and Gary Ekstein played lots of Blues back then.

Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene and why?
I guess I would say that now is the most interesting period - it is still a “work in progress” and it keeps developing. The new Israel Blues Society now has many members and new people joining all the time, and I hope that gives us the power to do more to raise awareness of the Blues, and provide more jobs for local bands, as well as to be able to bring more Blues people here to visit.

Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet? What would you ask Bukka White? How you would spend a day with Blind Blake?
Charles Mingus and Jelly Roll Morton, Rev Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Leroy Carr, and Muddy Waters. There are so many amazing characters in the history of Jazz and Blues, and so many that have influenced and inspired me over the years I could probably make a list of 100 artists...Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Roy Smeck, Skip James, Fats Waller!!!
I definitely think that if I had to do it over, I would want to be born in New Orleans in 1895 or 1900, and grow up with the early Jazz, Ragtime, and Blues all around. I almost met Bukka White, I missed him by about a year I think. Blind Blake would peobably just want to drink hard whiskey all the time, but I'm sure I could learn a few things by being his “mule” leading him around town for a day.

Tell me a few things about your book “"Touched by the Blues - The Unsung Heroes of the Blues” How did the idea of the book come about?
Johnny (Mayer of Blues for Peace) had the idea that we need to tell the story of the unknown Blues people around the world, not the old ones lost in history, but those who are alive today, practicing their craft, without too many people hearing about it. It was my idea to ask each person when they felt that they were really “touched” by the Blues. It took 3 years to gather the stories, and then about 4-5 months more to put it all into book form and edit it.

How does the blues music come out of the book’s pages? Is there a part of the book that you like most?
I feel that I'm too close to the book to say, but the audience can tell me what they get out of it, if it brings them any closer to the Blues. For me personally, I love the parts of the book that have stories of people I haven't met, and then getting the chance to finally meet them, like Delmark Goldfarb for example - we corresponded regarding the book and other Blues matters from around 2003, but I finally met him when he toured Israel last year for 3 months, now I think I could write a whole book just about him!

What are some of the most memorable gigs, events and jams you've had at Artspace? Would you tell a little bit about that?
Artspace was actually the basement of a professional photo processing studio, a friend who owned the photo business asked me if I could help bring in music acts to the place. Since I have a full time “day job” in High Tech, I brought in another friend to manage the Artspace club full time. We had some fantastic young Jazz acts playing there regularly, and an Israeli artist (Hadara Levin Areddy) who had recently returned from America and wanted to establish herself, so we featured her show about every 3 weeks, I wasn't crazy about her singing style at first, but her intimate cabaret-like perfomances were something very special and intoxicating, and I was “hooked” after 2-3 shows. Another act we helped nurture is Marina Maximillian Blumin who is now a fairly big star in Israel of TV and the perfomance stage, Marina has the voice of a 30-40 year old Jazz singer, even though she was hardly 16 years old at the time, her singing can make you shiver all over... I also discovered my good friend and fellow Blues performer Guy Dagan at Artspace, and he is now part of at least 3-4 different Blues oriented bands in Israel...

Eli Marcus - Official website

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