Q&A with bassist David Givens talks about the 60s, Zephyr, Hooker, Hendrix, Candy Givens & Tommy Bolin

"Today’s blues people seem more interested in striking a pose and keeping to the old forms more than they are in the qualities that made the earlier artists so unforgettable. My fear is that the blues will turn into a competition to see who can do the best imitation of the greats of days gone by."

David Givens: The Wind Of Emotions

Bassist David Givens born in Michigan and his well-known as co-founder of Blues-Jazz-Rock band of Zephyr. Studied Liberal Arts at University of Colorado. Zephyr was a blues-based hard rock band formed in 1969 in Boulder, Colorado by guitarist Tommy Bolin, keyboardist John Faris, David Givens on bass, Robbie Chamberlin on drums and Candy Givens on vocals. Although the charismatic performances by Candy Givens were originally the focal point for the band, it was the flashy guitar work of Tommy Bolin that the band is best remembered for. After Bolin left, he was replaced by Jock Bartley, and the band recorded the album Sunset Ride, their second for Warner Bros. On Sunset Ride, Candy Givens displayed her gifts as a singer, composer, and harmonica player. The album was produced by David Givens who also authored the majority of the tunes. Various versions of Zephyr continued to play in Colorado until Candy's death in 1984. The release of "Heartbeat" in 1982 was promoted by a video that incorporated very early examples of analog computer animation combined with live action.

(Bobby Berge, John Faris, David Givens, Candy Givens & Tommy Bolin / Photo by Rod Dyer)

Other Zephyr members of note include trance blues maven, Otis Taylor, who played bass during the mid-1970s, Kenny Wilkins (Drums) and also later on as (guitarist), guitarist Zack Smith (founder of Columbia Records band Scandal), and blues guitarist, Eddie Turner, who played guitar in the last incarnation during the early 1980s. Candie and David, Tommy, and John Faris were all founding members of The Legendary 4Nikators, Boulder's oldest and best loved party band. Taylor and Turner were later additions to The Legendary 4Nikators - Taylor noted for playing motorcycle on stage during "Leader Of The Pack" and performing in a kilt and Turner for his renditions of Jimi Hendrix classics. Decates after, Zephyr's music is still in print and continues to be played in the various media. In 2014, record producer, Greg Hampton and David Givens collaborated on a project that resulted in the release of a limited edition boxed set that included a remastered version of the "bathtub" album, two albums of live material - mostly previously unreleased, and a booklet featuring liner notes by Givens and photos from his private collection. The remastered first album is an unqualified improvement over the original and the live material justifies the high esteem the band accrued with the audiences that witnessed their performances. David, also recorded with Carly Simon (self-titled debut album, 1971), two albums with bluesman Eddie Turner and was producer and guest at his wife Ohio-based Jazz singer, Anna Givens 'Sky Lark' (2010) album. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

The Rock n’ Roll culture is ruled by non-musicians who are there as businessmen.  When I was a young player in Detroit, Michigan, the culture was led by the musicians and the audiences. Records that became hits were there because the competition was for sales to the fans. The record companies began to pay the DJ’s to play songs and slowly the business model changed to the DJ’s competing for record company “payola”. The music changed to reflect the tastes and desires of the business rather than those of the audience or the musicians. I learned that I didn’t want to be a part of that mess; that I was not turned on by catering to people I didn’t like or respect. I found that I didn’t need to be famous, rich, or powerful to be happy. I could satisfy my need to play music by doing my best to keep it honest no matter who or what caliber of musicians I was with.

For me, the blues is the harmonic and emotional foundation of everything I do.  I’ve learned a lot of musical techniques in my almost 60 years as a musician, but the blues is where it begins. My first wife, Candy Ramey Givens, was a brilliant harmonica player (Listen to the vamp on “Moving Too Fast” from Sunset Ride) and a great blues singer. When we first set out together to try and make it in music, we were focused mostly on blues. At its best, it is simple and real and gives the artist’s true feelings easy visibility. Like all art, it can be jive and fatuous, but that doesn’t detract from the strength of the form.

How do you describe David Givens sound and songbook? What characterized Zephyr music philosophy?                                     (Zephyr / Photo by Rod Dyer)

The Zephyr philosophy was to create music that moved people to feel new combinations of emotions as they experienced the music. In our first recording experiences (the “Bathtub” album and “Going Back To Colorado” we used an approach similar to that of the blues and jazz performers – we created structured “heads” and then improvised middle sections where we either worked together to create textures and spaces for the soloists or the whole ensemble played to create soundscapes. After the improvised section, we would return to the head before going to a structured ending. On the “Sunset Ride” album, we spent more time writing and arranging songs, although we still stretched the boundaries here and there within the arrangements. Currently, I play with a band that just starts and ends with the group improvisation concept. The men with whom I play are very gifted musicians and we use our accumulated 120 years of experience to keep the train on the tracks. We do not respect the rules of genre – any sound is welcome if it tells a story.

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of Psychedelic Folk/Rock researches and experiments?

My generation grew up in 1950’s America where the public culture revolved around our collective opinion that our country had saved the world (with some small help) from the Nazis and the Japanese militarist totalitarians. We were told that our honesty, bravery, education, and ingenuity combined with our constitutional democracy made us the envy of the world. Our public school system, from early childhood through university, was professional and well-funded and it produced millions of people trained to think critically. The GI Bill used government money to educate former members of the military. This added up to an enormous, well educated, and prosperous middle class.

But, the undercurrent of racist discrimination directed at minority groups and the blatant fascism of the political right wing started to tarnish that image. Our artists started to question the truth of our image of ourselves in ways that were difficult to ignore. The monolithic culture created in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and World War II began to polarize. The young president, John Kennedy, inspired many of us to work to fight the injustice and to create a new and improved culture. The popular music began to introduce young white audiences to the previously invisible African American culture and friendships began to form between previously segregated groups. Prohibitions against sex and drug use began to break down, especially with the introduction of oral contraceptives in the first years of the 1960’s. Traditional religions began to lose their influence as they failed to keep up with the rapidly changing culture. The conservative elements were opposed to and alarmed by this awakening and began to actively oppose it.  When Kennedy was assassinated the culture cracked. The Viet Nam War escalated, but none of the politicians could come up with an explanation that made moral sense. The young people were not enthusiastic about getting maimed or killed for something they couldn’t understand. The ensuing assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy created a complete break, mostly along generational lines. Young people were on their own and naturally created a new culture because the one they had grown up with had disappeared.  LSD and the other psychedelic substances offered direct access to powerful mental, emotional, and religious experiences heretofore only achieved through years of training and education. The people who shared these experiences shared a bond that went beyond tribalism or nationalism and the art of the time reflects that bond. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and many others took the blues based rock n’ roll of the earlier years and stretched it into a new philosophy of universal love and positive energy. Eastern religious concepts such as reincarnation and karma replace old concepts of heaven and hell. Dogma was replaced by direct experience. The Counter Culture was born.                  (Photo: David Givens & Rocky Duarte, Colorado) 

"I would like to go to a library in some center of learning, perhaps Paris, a century into the future, assuming there is such a thing. I’d like to see if we have stood up to the challenges of over-population, climate change, religious conflict, and political failure that we are facing today."

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

We were scheduled to play at a big rock festival held in the municipal stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. Traffic was the headliner and they had been one of our favorite bands when we first started playing together. As it turned out, Iggy Pop’s set went way long and we were cut from the show; a major disappointment, but later that evening, Tommy and I were invited to jam with Steve Winwood and Chris Wood from Traffic in their motel room. Great fun.

Another time, while we were working in the studio, I got to jam with Steve Stills and Hendrix drummer, Mitch Mitchell. That was a gas. We had returned to the East Town Theatre in Detroit, Michigan for a second appearance after having a strong reception the first time around. There were three bands on the bill and we had opened the show on our first time there. This time, we were told that we would go on second – a promotion as it were. Instead, there was a phony pseudo-evangelist rocker named Marjoe whose agent had moved him into the second slot and pushed us back to opening the show. We were pissed, but we couldn’t change it so we decided to abandon our regular “show” and just play Pharoah Sander’s “The Creator Has A Master Plan” for the whole set. We had used it in the past as a showcase for jamming, but we’d always kept it fairly short. This time, we didn’t take a break for 40 minutes and we were inspired by, first of all, getting screwed by the theatre management, but then the music took over and we got off. We really got off good! At the end of our set, the crowd roared while we stood sweating quietly backstage in the dim light. The walls and floor shook and the crowd chanted “More, more, more.” But, there wasn’t any more and we all slept well that night.

When Jimi Hendrix passed away, we were working at his new studio, Electric Lady in New York. After we heard the news of his death, our band went into the deserted studio on our own and played Foxy Lady and Purple Haze as a tribute to him. Candy played piano so she could participate. It was a very emotion filled moment.

We went on a brief tour with John Lee Hooker’s band through several towns in Colorado. I was playing guitar in the band that year and it was exciting to be opening the show for one of our heroes. John Lee was a very cool guy and we got along well. On the last night of the tour, at the end of our last song which featured my guitar solo at the end, I looked down and saw John Lee was standing at the foot of the stage dancing around with the rest of the crowd. He was looking pretty excited and happy and he reached up to shake my hand enthusiastically. That was a big one. I was called on to put a backup band together for Big Momma Thornton at a big blues concert in Denver. After the show, she and I sat in her dressing room drinking gin and milk (really!) while she told me stories of going on the road in the early 50’s. I loved her. She sent me a Christmas card that year and she passed on the next. She was a peach. We were playing at the Denver Pop Festival in the baseball stadium in Denver when the police fired tear gas upwind of the stands. The crowd of perhaps 20,000 people started to panic and run to escape the gas. Candy stopped the song we were playing and with just the force of her personality she calmed the crowd and invited them down on to the field where she sang “Saint James Infirmary Blues” to them. She was magnificent in her humbleness and kindness. Okay, enough of that.

"For me, the blues is the harmonic and emotional foundation of everything I do.  I’ve learned a lot of musical techniques in my almost 60 years as a musician, but the blues is where it begins." (Photo: Zephyr on stage, Anti Viet Nam War rally at the USC campus, California)

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

With the exception of a few guitarists, especially Derek Trucks, I feel like the blues has become a parody of itself.  I miss the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie May Thornton, Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and their many brilliant side men. They were genuine artists living real lives and expressing real emotions with wisdom, subtlety, and oftentimes, humor. Today’s blues people seem more interested in striking a pose and keeping to the old forms more than they are in the qualities that made the earlier artists so unforgettable. My fear is that the blues will turn into a competition to see who can do the best imitation of the greats of days gone by.

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

My old bandmates, Candy Givens, Tommy Bolin, John Faris, and Robbie Chamberlin would come back to life and we’d still be out there pushing the limits together.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Jug, Folk and continue to Rock n’ Roll and Psychedelic?

Those forms started as music that was played by families and friends just for the sake of the experience of getting into each other’s heads in the way that musicians do. Blues came from the blending of African and European forms in the American south. Jug band music really refers to the instruments more than the musical forms. Poor people living isolated lives wanted and needed music as much as anyone else and they used their ingenuity to create makeshift instruments. Jugs and washtub “gut bucket” basses took care of the bottom, washboards and pots and pans took care of the percussion and homemade banjos, guitars, and fiddles worked with the singers to produce melody and harmonic interest. It can be argued that Rock n’ Roll and Psychedelic forms are types of Folk Music since it sprang from the people regardless of formal education. To me all of the above are, in essence, Folk Music.

What has made you laugh from Candy Givens and what touched (emotionally) you from Tommy Bolin?                                          (Photo: Candy & David Givens)

Candy was always on the lookout for fun and happiness. She was adept at silliness of all kinds – she did a fantastic impression of Elvis Presley – and she could make musical jokes; a funny face and a silly pose to go with some little harp riff would make me laugh. We were in love and like with many lovers, an offhand remark that struck at some ironic truth about ourselves could make us laugh until our cheeks hurt. 

When Tommy and I played together there were times when we reached incredible heights by opening up our emotions as much as we possibly could while still playing. We experienced what I can only describe as mind reading; we understood each other on a very deep level and found a way to follow the music to places we had never been before. There were a few times when we tripped on acid while we were playing and we were never the same afterwards.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The best advice I ever got in the music world came from Chuck Berry who said “Get your cash before you go on stage” and Joe Cocker who said “Remember, you meet the same people on the way down that you met on the way up.” Important acquaintances have been numerous: Hanging out with Janis Joplin taught me early on that our heroes are simply other human beings made up of the same stuff we all are. That was later reinforced over and over as I met luminaries from blues such as Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker and rockers like Led Zep and Jimi Hendrix among many others. My old friends, Otis Taylor and Eddie Turner helped me purge myself of the racism I was raised with by becoming my brothers. This opened me up as a musician as well as a man. Eddie Kramer gave me the opportunity to play bass on Carly Simon’s first album and first hit single, “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” and that increased my confidence greatly. The list goes on and on.

What is the impact of Blues and Rock n’ Roll music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Well, it’s been both positive and negative, in my opinion. It has been positive in that it has exposed the commonality of human emotion and, to some extent, experience across the Earth. It has been negative because like many institutions it has focused so hard on sexuality and machismo for commercial reasons, that it has promoted division and competition rather than community, cooperation, and collaboration. 

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

I would like to go to a library in some center of learning, perhaps Paris, a century into the future, assuming there is such a thing. I’d like to see if we have stood up to the challenges of over-population, climate change, religious conflict, and political failure that we are facing today. Or, maybe I’d just like to go back to Boulder, Colorado in 1973 and attend a Legendary 4Nikators show at Art’s Bar and Grill on a Monday night in the summer.

(Photo: David Givens, Candy Givens, and Otis Taylor / Legendary 4Nikators at Art’s Bar & Grill)

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