Q&A with German-based musician/tour manager Bernie Zylka of The Chain Gang, old style Blues Rock and Rock 'n Roll

"Meeting up with people all over the world shows, that as soon as come to a place as a musician, you're not a stranger anymore. You're welcomed, you become part of a community for one night and sometimes you find friends for the rest of life. Music unites people and makes people happy."

Bernie Zylka:

Back to the Old Good Days of Blues Rock

German based multitalented Bernie "Blues" Zylka is musician, road manager, producer and many more. With his band THE CHAIN GANG has been able to inspire a wide variety of audiences in their 38-year career. One of the highlight was the Burg Herzberg Festival 2019, where they performed alongside Graham Nash and the Allman-Betts Band. There is still energetic blues rock to be heard when THE CHAIN GANG takes the stage. Blues and rock, influenced by the musicians they performed with. From Louisiana Red and Guitar Crusher to Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top to Fats Domino and BB King, but always in their own style. Steff Porzel on drums and Bernie “Blues” Zylka on bass lay the rhythm foundation for Klaus “Mr. Breeze” on guitar and Horst Bergmeyer on keyboards. The title of their live 1994 album “Another One For The Road”, recorded at the Circus Krone in Munich, among others.

(Bernie "Blues" Zylka / Photos by Brigitte Fink & Karlheinz Wiegärtner)

Bernie Zylka is on the road since 1986. That's more than 30 years of experience in working with various artists, at 3 continents (America, Australia & Europe). Touring with Spencer Davis Group, Foreigner, Toto, Dennis Edward & The Temptations Review, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Bonamassa, Uriah Heep, Manfred Mann's Earthband, Leningrad Cowboys, Saga, Roger Chapman, Peter Frampton, Asia, Jethro Tull, Albert Hammond, Supercharge, and others. Worked in Australia, Brazil, and Europe.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Being a kid of the seventies, the Counterculture influenced my way of looking at politics and lifestyle. Bob Dylan, Country Joe McDonald, the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" changed me in terms that I went through court to resist being drafted to the army. Instead, I did service time working with handicapped/disabled children, meals on wheel for elderly people and ambulance driver. Without the influence of that Blues-Rock Counterculture, I would have joined the army, then done a 9-5 job and retired without seeing the world.

What characterize The Chain Gang music philosophy? When did the idea of band come about?

"Old Style Blues Rock" and Rock 'n Roll, we're mixing our original songs with some obscure or not that well know old blues songs. Plus, some Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon/BB King tunes. Playing with Louisiana Red and Guitar Crusher. The idea was influenced by the Blues Brothers, but we went a different way. My influences include The Temptations (I've worked a lot with Dennis Edwards) and Lynyrd Skynyrd - two completely different styles of music. When we had the chance to do a tour of Germany with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1996, they treated us with so much respect it was hard to believe.

Johnny Van Zant was standing on the side of the stage very night cheering us up for our whole show. It was a great experience for us playing to several thousand people every night and getting a great response as well.

Which meetings (as musician and tour manager) have been the most important experiences? What moment changed your music life the most?

My first big European tour with Chuck Berry, doing all those wonderful places in Spain, France and Italy. Meeting B.B. King, who was the most humble and friendly person and musician, a true gentleman. I've learned a lot from Chuck Berry, we got along very well. And then doing Juan Les Pins Festival in Antibes and sitting together with Ingrid Berry (his daughter) talking for hours on the beach, that was something special.

"Old Style Blues Rock and Rock 'n Roll, we're mixing our original songs with some obscure or not that well know old blues songs. Plus, some Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon/BB King tunes. Playing with Louisiana Red and Guitar Crusher. The idea was influenced by the Blues Brothers, but we went a different way. My influences include The Temptations (I've worked a lot with Dennis Edwards) and Lynyrd Skynyrd - two completely different styles of music. When we had the chance to do a tour of Germany with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1996, they treated us with so much respect it was hard to believe." (Photo: Bernie Zylka with B.B. King & Albie Donnelly‘s Supercharge in Prague,1990)

What´s been the highlights in your career so far? Are there any memories on the road and stage which you’d like to share with us?

The 2003 Global Balalaika Show in Helsinki with the Leningrad Cowboys, The Orchestra and Choir of the Russian Airforce, Angelique Kidjo, The Wild Magnolias, Havanna Tropicana Salsa Orchestra. I was stage manager for 135 artists, we had translators to Russian, French and Spanish but everybody understood the language of music.

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

Personality, a lot of artists these days have just a backing band with interchangeable musicians. They're all dressed in black, are perfect, very well-trained musicians and never make any mistakes. But they don't have any personality or soul. Shows are timed to fit to the programmed lights, every night the same show with the same talking in between. But no more time for jamming and trying new things.

Are there any memories from the opening act of Lynyrd Skynyrd which you’d like to share with us?

I knew the local promoter for the Serenadenhof in Nuremberg very well and I've tried for month to get the opening slot for The Chain Gang at Lynyrd Skynyrd's show in Nuremberg. The guy just kept me waiting and waiting, dozens of telephone calls without any result. About two weeks before the show I called him again and his reply was, that he would get in touch with the tour promoter and get back to me. One minute after I had hung up the phone (a good old telephone where you could literally "hang up the phone"), he called me back and told me that they already have a support band on tour with them and there would be no need for us. If he had called me back, say 15 minutes later I would have believed him, one minute was just not enough time to call somebody and get an answer. So I called Rainer Hänsel the tour promoter and asked him about the opening band. Rainer said, there is no band and he was desperately looking for one... that's how we got the tour.

"Personality, a lot of artists these days have just a backing band with interchangeable musicians. They're all dressed in black, are perfect, very well-trained musicians and never make any mistakes. But they don't have any personality or soul. Shows are timed to fit to the programmed lights, every night the same show with the same talking in between. But no more time for jamming and trying new things." (Bernie  "Blues" Zylka / Photo by Corinna Scheler)

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

The big money that only cares about profit and not about music anymore.

Do you think there is an audience for rock/blues music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

There are a lot of young people out there who are fed up with the big music industry and videos. Band like DeWolff are a good example for young guys playing music which has got the real Hammond sound and soul.

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

Meeting up with people all over the world shows, that as soon as come to a place as a musician, you're not a stranger anymore. You're welcomed, you become part of a community for one night and sometimes you find friends for the rest of life. Music unites people and makes people happy.

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