Q&A with acclaimed Blues harmonica player Wallace Coleman, a natural sound steeped in Traditional and Chicago Electric Blues

"As far as race is concerned, young blacks will never go back to blues because they were raised differently, in cities mostly, it will never be country blues like it was. American blacks will be the lowest percentage of people into the blues. Young blacks ain't interested and some older blacks don't want to be reminded."

Wallace Coleman: Acclaimed Bluesman

WLAC introduced young Wallace Coleman to the thriving Blues artists of the day who would soon become some of his greatest musical influences; artists who would carve out their own legendary status in Blues Music history – among them Little Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. Creating parts and laying down the guitar foundation for many of those Chess recordings was Robert Jr. Lockwood – a man who, some 25 years later, would play a pivotal role in Coleman’s future. Coleman left Tennessee in the ‘50s to find work in Cleveland, Ohio. He found steady work, and to his delight, an active Blues community where touring artists like Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, B.B. King and others came to perform. Coleman’s introduction to the Cleveland Blues scene meant seeing as many touring artists as possible. In the 1960s, Lockwood and Sonny Boy Williamson II, who had been performing together in the South, made their way to Chicago and eventually to Cleveland, taking up residence and performing. While Coleman would not meet Lockwood until much later, he often went to see Williamson perform at local venues. The two became friendly, discovering they lived only blocks apart. Williamson would soon depart for Europe while Lockwood made Cleveland his permanent and final home.

(Photo: Wallace Coleman)

A self-taught musician, Coleman played the harmonica on his breaks at work. One day a co-worker brought his cousin to the jobsite to hear Coleman play. That meeting sparked a year-long pairing with Cleveland’s Guitar Slim at the Cascade Lounge, and the discovery of this real Blues juke joint nestled in his new Cleveland hometown. It was more than Coleman thought he could ask for, but the next surprise was just around the corner. On his own Ella Mae Music Label, Coleman has produced 5 CDs to critical acclaim: “Stretch My Money,” “Live at Joe’s,” “The Bad Weather Blues,” “Blues in the Wind” (Remembering Robert Jr. Lockwood), and “Live from Sao Paulo to Severance.” Wallace Coleman’s authentic, textured harmonica style and captivating vocals are reminiscent of the sounds that long ago haunted him across those WLAC airwaves as a young listener late at night, and are now also infused with his own creative compositions, covers, and interpretations.

Interview by Michael Limnios           Wallace Coleman, 2012 Interview @ blues.gr

Special Thanks: Wallace Coleman & Jody Getz

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

For myself, I've always loved the sound of the blues since I was a young teenager. It never meant anything to me until I started playing in 1986. I first went out to play on stage in front of people. After a few times playing with Guitar Slim of Cleveland at the Cascade Lounge, Robert Lockwood came in. Learn about self: best thing is I never dreamed I’d be able to play the kind of stuff that I’m playing today; playing with a legendary man it all comes into you. If you get involved in something and your body starts absorbing it, you understand this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

Sound: the two greatest ever blues harp players and singers in my lifetime there will never be a Little Walter and a Rice Miller. I listened to them more than I have anybody because I love them the best. I play a lot of Walter; don't play as much by Sonny Boy. He didn't have a lot of musicians behind him. I describe my sound as soulfully simplistic. Philosophy: the hardest thing about playing the blues is it simplicity.  you can't play it the way it's supposed to be played unless you have that simplicity. The shift from the harmonica to the vocal is not the easiest thing in the world either, a lot of players talk technical. It is not about the technical to me, blues comes from inside you. That's not technical.

"I have a lot of respect for Chicago, in my opinion the number one city in the U.S. for the development of blues music is Chicago. Had it not been for Chicago there would have been so many blues musicians who would have died in the south and never been heard or maybe got as far as Memphis and St. Louis -- but that was a different sound, but Chicago introduced the blues to the world." (Photo: Wallace Coleman)

What moment changed your life the most? Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?

I don't know if it's easier, you have more time to put thought to it unless you're a person who plays all the time, you gotta have time to sit down and concentrate on what you're gonna do. Moment that changed my life: when I turned on the radio as a teenager and got WLAC. I didn't know what I was listening to until after the DJ said it was blues and who was playing. I was hooked. I didn't understand what Little Walter was playing. I’d never heard anything like that before; at first, I thought his amplified harmonica was a sax, after I heard it was a harmonica, I sent away in the mail to get the little book they advertised on how to play.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Lots of memories but one that stands out was the last time we went to Japan with Robert Lockwood in 1995. they had us stay over longer than we were supposed to be there, but this was at the park tower blues festival. Snooks Eaglin was on stage and Robert was on stage doing the end of the show.  that's when Robert "saw" Robert Johnson sitting next to him on stage. Robert was moved; he was crying and had to wipe his eyes. He came off the stage and said 'you saw him, didn't you, Wallace? Maurice?" I know he saw something, he never acted like that before or after.

I have a lot of great memories from playing overseas over the years.  and in recent years when I’ve traveled alone, and they've put musicians behind me; great musicians in Brazil and the Netherlands in particular, exceptional musician is bass player Rodrigo Mantovani who lives in Chicago now from Brazil. My last international trip before the pandemic was to The Netherlands. My first time ever recording in a schoolhouse and first time my wife and I recorded together. It was a trio in Holland with guitar player Hein Meijer. I did the rest of the tour with Hein and his band in Germany and Belgium, and we recorded in The Hague. To mix Folk Blues and Chicago Blues like that and to make a CD out it was wonderful. It's called "Folk Blues on Dutch Ground."

"I describe my sound as soulfully simplistic. Philosophy: the hardest thing about playing the blues is it simplicity.  you can't play it the way it's supposed to be played unless you have that simplicity. The shift from the harmonica to the vocal is not the easiest thing in the world either, a lot of players talk technical. It is not about the technical to me, blues comes from inside you. That's not technical."  (Photo: Wallace Coleman  & Robert Lockwood Jr. As a member of the Robert Jr. Lockwood Band he was traveled the world played on major Blues Festivals and in premier Clubs)

How did you hook up with Robert Jr. Lockwood? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

The bar I was playing he came in to hear me play; a fellow harp player told him about me, and he came in. Highlights--living as long as I have and still playing. Traveling the world and playing with Robert Lockwood. How could I know the scope of music in the world when I came from working in a bakery for 30 years.  when I joined him in 1987 and I went to my first king biscuit festival in 1988, I’d never seen that many people. I’ve met so many good people and good musicians over the years.

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

I miss the feel of the blues, it's not there anymore, a little too rockish for me. The feel of the blues, most of it has been lost. The voice doesn't have a big enough role in blues; a lot of it has been taken over by loud guitar, in the blues of the past they didn't play a song the same song for 20 minutes, and it wasn't bouncy, they put the feel into the music. Today I call it a bounce in the music that I never heard before and it changes the feel, in the past it was just fluid. That's where the feel was. That is missing today to me.

I have a lot of respect for Chicago, in my opinion the number one city in the U.S. for the development of blues music is Chicago. Had it not been for Chicago there would have been so many blues musicians who would have died in the south and never been heard or maybe got as far as Memphis and St. Louis -- but that was a different sound, but Chicago introduced the blues to the world.

What is the impact of Blues on the racial and socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?       (Wallace Coleman / Photo by L. Gabriel, 2017)

As far as race is concerned, young blacks will never go back to blues because they were raised differently, in cities mostly, it will never be country blues like it was. American blacks will be the lowest percentage of people into the blues. Young blacks ain't interested and some older blacks don't want to be reminded. Blues ain't going to have that much affect on Americans; it is probably the lowest listened to music.  on the people who do listen to it I’d like for it to have a big affect so as to keep it alive, as a harp player I’ve never seen as many people playing harp as there are today. That's good.

"For myself, I've always loved the sound of the blues since I was a young teenager."

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Most important is take care of yourself. Stay healthy. Take care of yourself on the road. Stay away from cigarettes and alcohol. Learn how to listen. No matter how much you think you know you still need to listen. Sit down and listen. The best players I’ve ever heard on any instrument are the ones who listen. You can tell a musician who listens, and you can tell one who only has something to say. Play something that you know you can play--don't play something just for the sake of playing it.

Wallace Coleman - Home

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