New Yorker Arthur Neilson talks about Shemekia, Otis Rush, Cyndi Lauper, Albert King, & NY blues clubs

"You can always relate to emotion, if you can't, then you got a hole in your soul."

Arthur Neilson: Melodic Emotions

Arthur Neilson born and raised in New York City, taught himself to play guitar on an electric Teisco Del Rey at age fifteen. After purchasing a Harmony acoustic, he honed his folk repertoire and fingerpicking skills. Then, one night, he heard Albert King. Arthur got goose bumps from his head to his toes, and has been hooked on the blues ever since.  Arthur developed his dynamic guitar style by playing along with every blues record that he could find.
With a longing to play the blues, but unable to find the right situation, Arthur worked in rock & roll bands (he also loves Chuck Berry).  Then, in the early seventies, he responded to an ad in the Village Voice, seeking a blues guitarist.  He then formed the "A Train Blues Band" with Felix Cabrera. This propelled him into the burgeoning New York blues scene, which gave Arthur the opportunity to back up the late Victoria Spivey and jam with James Cotton and Hubert Sumlin.
In 1979, Arthur caught the attention of the band Blue Angel with his rootsy, aggressive guitar playing.  After joining Blue Angel, they recorded an album for Polydor, which garnered much critical acclaim.  Cyndi Lauper was the lead singer of the band.
Some memorable moments were working with guitar great, Otis Rush, as well as Ronnie Spector, Benny Mardones and The Commitments. Arthur was schooled in New York City bars and clubs, such as Dan Lynch Blues Bar, Lone Star Cafe, Manny's Car Wash and Tramps.  This has led to sharing the stage with many of his influences, most notably B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, and Albert King, who upon hearing Arthur, said, "That boy sure can play!” In 1998, Shemekia Copeland found Arthur to be the guitar player that she was looking for to complete her band.  Arthur has been performing with her across the globe and can be heard throughout her CD, "Talking to Strangers", as well as the Grammy nominated "Wicked".  In 1999, Popa Chubby asked Arthur to be part of his New York City Blues record (Dixie Frog).  With the Dixie Frog release of "a piece of wood, some strings, and a pick" (2000 release), Arthur Neilson brought together all the exciting aspects of his playing onto one record. "Moan & Cry", the title of his second release,  and "Hell of a Nerve!" is the thirst.  Everytime Arthur picks up his guitar, his lifetime love and passion for the instrument resounds in each note played.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Arthur, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
In 1968 I heard Albert King play "Blues Power", and I had "goose bumps" all over my skin. I was hooked from that moment on.
Albert King, BB King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter were my first idols. (still are)

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
I played a church basement "Battle of the Bands" gig. The first band I was in, played a lot of "3 Dog Night" songs, which were actually covers of songs by Otis Redding, Traffic and other bands. The first song I ever learned on the guitar was  "As Tears Go By" by the Rolling Stones.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I have had lots of wonderful moments. Back when I was in college, I got to talk to Muddy Waters on the phone. He was doing a radio interview and I called in. The first time I toured Europe as a solo artist was very exciting. Opening for and getting to meet and talk with BB King, Buddy Guy, Albert King and many others was a thrill. A very special moment for me was going to see Les Paul here in NYC. He asked me to come up and play with his band, but I didn't have a guitar with me. He said that I could use his! How many people get to play Les Paul's "Les Paul"! He was very complimentary to me. I was flying high that night.
I haven't really had too many bad moments. Amps blowing up right in the middle of a solo, things like that. I guess the worst thing that happened a few years ago, I was on the road with the Shemekia Copeland Band in a bad snow storm and we had a very bad accident. Our road manager was trapped in the van, they had to pry him out.  We lost the van and some equipment, but luckily no one was really hurt bad.

Tell me about the meet of Cyndi Lauper and the Blue Angel. How did you get together and where did it start?
I was playing in a club here in NYC, and Cyndi and a few of her band members approached me after my show. They said they liked the way I played, and would I be interested in joining their band. They were changing their band to a more "roots Rock & Roll" sound. I am definitely a rootsy player, so I guess they thought I would fit. We started rehearsals soon after, and were signed to Polydor Records not long after that. The sound of Blue Angel was like Chuck Berry meets the Ronettes. We toured quite a bit through the states and Europe. It was quite an exciting time for us.

Which memory from Cyndi makes you smile?
We were doing a show in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and there was an amusement park near the hotel.  Cyndi, John Morelli (our drummer) and I went in to the park to one of these "Funhouse" attractions, with slanted floors and mirrored hallways. The three of us went into this spinning tunnel. You had to walk at an angle to keep from falling down. Well, Cyndi just couldn't get the hang of it, and kept falling down! We were laughing so hard it started to hurt. Whenever I think of that day, I have to laugh.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
The blues is music with soulful emotion. It's got to be heart felt. The blues is comfortable music to me. It makes me feel happy when I'm sad.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience with Victoria Spivey. What is the “thing” you miss most from her?
Victoria Spivey was "Old School".  She always kept a big knife under her pillow on her bed. She was a piece of history, and yet she was living in a one room apartment in "not the best" neighborhood. I was still quite young, but it was an honor when I played with her. I miss her stories that she would tell.

Are there any memories from Otis Rush, and The Commitments., which you’d like to share with us?
Playing with Otis Rush was on honor. I remember though that he felt like nobody cared whether he played or not. I think he felt unappreciated. I tried to tell him that he is one of the Blues Masters and that he was certainly appreciated. I had to give him a pep talk. His voice and guitar playing was like no one else. He had stroke a few years back and I don't think he can play anymore. Very sad.
Two days before I played with the Commitments I got a phone call asking me if I could play a show with them. I knew someone who had the soundtrack CD, so I borrowed it, learned the songs, rehearsed with a few of the members in their hotel room, (the other members were sleeping it off) and then did the gig with them that night.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Roy Buchanan, and Albert King?
The first time I meet BB King, Shemekia introduced me to him as her guitar player. He said,"Can you give me some guitar lessons?" I said, "oh no!" You have been my guitar teacher for years!
 I lent Roy Buchanan my amp one night because his didn't show up from the rental company. I called out for him to play his tune "The Messiah Will Come Again", well he looked like he wasn't going to play it, so I yelled out "I lent you my God Damn amp, at least you could play me a song!" He smiled and immediately started to play it.
I asked Albert King to engrave his name into the back of my Telecaster with a nail. He looked at me and said "I'm not gonna wreck your guitar boy". I said "I would be honored if you did". He did.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about music?
BB King and Albert King. They both say the most using the least. From BB I learned how to phrase. He basically wrote the vocabulary for blues guitar. If you listen to his playing from the 50's and 60's, his tone, his touch, it's truly amazing. From Albert I learned to take my time, and make every note count. I read something he said once, play half of what you are playing and you will sound better, and if you play a good lick, don't play anything after it, let the listener take it in. That's good advice to me.
My guitar has taught me a lot of secrets. It's all there on the fingerboard, you just have to work at it.

What were your favorite guitars back then, where did you pick up your guitar style?
My first real guitar was a 1965 Gibson ES 335, then I got a 1962 Gibson SG, a 1964 Gibson Firebird and the list goes on and on. These days I play Les Pauls, Strats, Teles, and my Flying V I named  "Lucy" after Albert King's Lucy. I still have all my old guitars.
My style comes from the phrasing of BB King and Peter Green, the string bending of Albert King, the passion of Mike Bloomfield, the fluidity of Johnny Winter and the country flavorings of Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton. (and the Rock & Roll of Chuck Berry and Keith Richards)

How do you describe your philosophy about Arthur Neilson’s music?
I strive to play melodically with emotion. I want to touch people when I play.

What are some of the memorable stories from the A Train Blues Band you've had?
I grew up in a white neighborhood in Queens. No one even knew what the Blues was, so when I hooked up with Felix Cabrera and the A Train Blues Band, I was in heaven. Finally there were other musicians who dug the same music as me. The best memories with that band were backing up Victoria Spivey and playing all these little gigs in basements and hole-in -the-wall places, because there weren't really any venues to play the Blues in.

What the difference and similarity between "Oxford Blues", "Kid Java", "Felix & The Havanas" and "The Guitar Guys from Hell"?
Oxford Blues was fronted by Doña Oxford who is a Boogie Woogie Piano player, so we played in that style.
Kid Java and Felix & The Havanas were both fronted by harp players, so we played more Chicago style blues. Felix brought some Latin vibe into the music.
Guitar Guys from Hell was all about the guitar! From Muddy Waters and Elmore James, to Chuck Berry and the Stones, to Jeff Beck, Danny Gatton, Les Paul and Chet Atkins!
The one thing common to all those bands is The BLUES!

Are there any memories of all these GREAT MUSICIANS which you’d like to share with us?
I have fond memories of all of them, too many to bore you with, and they are all still my friends.  I have been lucky to have been able to make some great music with them. (and still do)

Difficult question, but who of the people you have worked with do you considers the best?
That's a hard one to answer... so I think I'll pass on that one.

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would avoid to do again?
I have no regrets, but If I knew that I was actually going to make a living of playing music, I would have tried to believe in myself more that I can do this, because I never thought I could or would.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
The fact that there really aren't any record stores anymore.  The only way to sell CDs is at the shows. On the other hand it's easier to make your own CD with all the new technology. 

You have traveling all around the world with Shemekia. What are your conclusions?
They appreciate music, Blues in particular, a lot more in Europe than they do here. Coffee is better there too.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
The Blues is Folk Music, it's about people. You can always relate to emotion, if you can't, then you got a hole in your soul.
I wish that the Blues gets the respect that it deserves. BB King, Buddy Guy, Shemekia Copeland  and others just performed at the White House, and Buddy Guy got President Obama to sing a chorus of "Sweet Home Chicago". That's a start.

What is the usual funny story that you hear in New York City bars and clubs, such as Dan Lynch Blues Bar, Lone Star Cafe, Manny's Car Wash and Tramps?
Back when The Dan Lynch Blues Bar was so popular, there would be a line of people outside. One night my wife and I were waiting to get in. Guitarist Jon Paris, who played bass for Johnny Winter back in the 80's, was performing there. Jon saw me outside through the window, so he came out with his wireless guitar while he was playing a song, took it off and put it on me. I walked past everyone waiting to get in (playing his guitar) and went right up to the stage and continued to play! The best entrance I ever made.

What do you think is the main characteristic of your personality that made you a bluesman?
Most guys don't like to admit that they are in touch with their emotions, but I am, and I'm OK with that. You have to feel it to play it.

How do you get inspired to write a song and who were the musicians who have influenced you most as a songwriter?
I am always playing my guitar, around the house or in a hotel. If I play something that sounds good, I record it with my laptop or whatever recording device I have around. I'll listen back at a later date, and if it still sounds good to me I'll work on it. Sometimes traveling and being in a different environment makes you think differently and ideas pop into your head.
Chuck Berry & The Stones have influenced my Rock & Roll side of my songs, and just about every Blues artist I ever listened too have influenced my Bluesier songs.

Arthur Neilson's website

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