Q&A with multitalented musician S.E.Willis, Blues, Boogie, Rock, Zydeco, Country are strong pieces of his musical life

"The primary lesson is not to expect anything. Music may go on, but music doesn’t care about me. It doesn’t need me. Music has to be loved and pursued without expectation of reward."

S.E.Willis: American Roots Music Journey

S.E.Willis (Steve Willis), originally from West Virginia, has been playing the piano and harmonica since the age of six, and organ and accordion since his teens.  He started playing in rock and roll bands along Arizona’s stretch of Route 66 in 1967.  Willis’ music is deeply rooted in traditional American forms: blues, boogie-woogie, country, rockabilly, gospel, zydeco. A veteran band leader, S.E.Willis has taken a supporting role in bands with such artists as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, Albert King, Jimmy Rogers, Roy Gaines, and, since 2000, Elvin Bishop (his accordion features prominently on the 2014 release “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right”). S.E.Willis sang tenor with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and appeared on their 1995 release “We’ve Come a Mighty Long Way.” He worked another three years with founding Meters’ member and New Orleans drumming legend Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, and plays piano on his solo release Zigaboo.com. Steve “S.E.” Willis is a member of the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame.

(S.E.Willis / Photo by Carrie Willis)

Willis has released seven CDs of original and classic material: Airn Beats Nairn, 1999; Luckiest Man Alive, 2002; Cold Hand In Mine, 2003, Taproot, 2007; Pass the Hat, 2013; Turtle Dove Bounce/Live at the Poor House, 2015; Too Much Love (S.E.Willis and the Willing), 2019. Fifty plus years in the business and counting, S.E.Willis knows a lot about American roots music and shows it with every note. Willis started his musical journey in 1968, playing full-time in Flagstaff and throughout Arizona. In 1978, he moved to San Francisco, where he was an integral part of the blues, funk and rockabilly scene. Steve opened for Jerry Lee Lewis, Gatemouth Brown, Jerry Garcia, Clifton Chenier and others.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has roots music influenced your view of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Once I realized that Roots music was my own life’s central focus it changed everything.  Even before I began to seriously play music I was drawn to “folk” (or roots) themes in fairy tales, myths and visual art. Magic seemed more appealing than science, and I could feel the deeper mystery in the surviving pre-industrial forms, particularly Delta blues. I have tried to carry this on by basing my music in these older patterns, hoping to achieve the feeling of timelessness and the unknown that I’ve experienced. The most basic element of this is the back beat, and for me the behind the beat accents of blues. It’s the sound of the mother’s heartbeat in the womb.

More directly, I personally have aimed at creating music that expressed the historically odd collision of cultures in North America. My heritage is in the people who fled (or were expelled from) England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. They brought a sense of melody and structure that was added to and influenced the rhythm based African music of the slaves. This is the root of traditional country, bluegrass, blues, jazz and other North American forms and continues to influence music around the world. That’s what I’m working on: a style that incorporates all of that while retaining the sense of history and deeper culture. 

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook?  What’s the balance in music between technique and soul?

I try to create a sound that meshes with the recorded body of roots work. In a sort of chronological order that includes Jimmie Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Jellyroll Morton, Bob Wills, Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, all of the other boogie pianists, Hank Williams, Clifton Chenier, all the music from Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans up to and beyond the British invasion of American radio. My songbook reflects that. Technique is a tool for expressing “soul.” No soul, nothing to express.

"The thing I miss most is a healthy live music scene. It’s been diminishing my entire life, starting with Disco in the seventies. Blues music has almost no real presence in the larger commercial scene and its influence is so internalized that most listeners aren’t aware of it. Musicians have a hard time getting paid for any work." (S.E.Willis / Photo by Carrie Willis)

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

The musicians I’ve met and worked with have been the most important. Chuck Berry, Jimmy Rogers, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, of course Elvin Bishop. Lots of musicians who aren’t so famous. As to advice, a painter friend told me to “take care of the piano, or it won’t take care of you and you can’t take care of anyone else.” Etta James told me to never leave anything in the dressing room. Sort of like Spencer Tracy’s advice to actors: “Know your lines and don’t bump into the scenery.”

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

The first time I played with Chuck Berry was here in Arizona in 1977. We were the local pick-up band, his usual way of doing shows with strangers, so the audience knew us. No rehearsal, but I was pretty deep in studying Chuck’s music and had the band playing a lot of his songs. The crowd loved it. At one point Chuck was duckwalking around and playing his guitar, came over to me and leaned across the piano: “What was I singing?” he asked. “Little Queenie” I told him. People began coming up to the stage and leaving offerings there: jewelry, clothing, a bull rider friend put his cowboy hat down. Chuck put the hat on and wouldn’t give it back.

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

The thing I miss most is a healthy live music scene. It’s been diminishing my entire life, starting with Disco in the seventies. Blues music has almost no real presence in the larger commercial scene and its influence is so internalized that most listeners aren’t aware of it. Musicians have a hard time getting paid for any work. Streaming services have sucked any profitability out of recorded music (except on the highest levels). People don’t go out much. Roots music with no connection to the roots of the people becomes a museum art. And America is so polarized that my attempts to combine the music (and audiences) of traditional White and Black styles seem just foolish. There’s no music when we all hate each other. My fear is that that’s continuing.

"I try to create a sound that meshes with the recorded body of roots work.  In a sort of chronological order that includes Jimmie Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Jellyroll Morton, Bob Wills, Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, all of the other boogie pianists, Hank Williams, Clifton Chenier, all the music from Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans up to and beyond the British invasion of American radio. My songbook reflects that. Technique is a tool for expressing “soul.” No soul, nothing to express." (Photo: S.E.Willis)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications?  How do you want the music to affect people?

I’m not sure about the impact of music now. It’s extremely difficult to break out of the algorithm-based division of people. I think the best examples I’ve seen of what I’d like music to do are mostly found in the Black American church. When you play music, particularly with other people, it can take you to a place outside mundane life. African religions have a tradition of embodiment, where worshippers can “become” the spirit, embody it. Music is a strong path to this, even now. Surrender to the groove.

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

The primary lesson is not to expect anything. Music may go on, but music doesn’t care about me. It doesn’t need me. Music has to be loved and pursued without expectation of reward.

John Coltrane said “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am…”. How do you understand the spirit, music and the meaning of life?

First of all, I agree completely with Coltrane’s comment. The question then is, “What am I?” What am I expressing?  Studying and performing music can help answer that question, and so can other arts. I believe the unique quality of music is that it connects us to a different experience of reality, a reality that is not only human. Humans need music but music doesn’t need humans.

I have no idea what the meaning of life might be, but I do think we need to connect with a larger reality than that presented by human constructions, and music is a way to that. I also believe that we are currently evolving a human culture that is as unconnected to “reality” as we can make it. Roots music is one of the last remaining paths back to something larger, to the unknown, and a reality larger than that online.

S.E.Willis - Home

(S.E.Willis / Photo by Carrie Willis)

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