Q&A with Florida-based harmonicist Sonny Charles of Backtrack Blues Band, one of the most accomplished blues bands

"Performing blues music and bringing our show to fans around the world has been very gratifying. We’ve learned that music is the “universal language,” and people from all parts of the world relate to blues music in a positive way. Traveling throughout the USA, Canada, and overseas has introduced us to so many wonderful folks, and we’ve seen that the human family is basically kind."

Sonny Charles: A (Blues) Day by the Bay

St. Petersburg-based Backtrack Blues Band, will released their Gulf Coast Records' debut album, A Day by the Bay – Live, on April 14th, 2023. Recorded live at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival on April 10, 2022, the new live album showcases the band that consists of Sonny Charles on harmonica and vocals; Kid Royal on lead guitar and vocals; Little Johnny Walter on rhythm guitar; Joe Bencomo on drums; and Stick Davis on bass. On larger shows, the band is joined by Wayne Sharp on B3 organ and the Backtrack Angels on backing vocals. These seasoned musicians combined have garnered a Grammy Award, two Blues Music Awards, a Keeping the Blues Alive Award, and three Tampa Bay Music Awards for "Best Blues Band". The Backtrack Blues Band was formed in St Petersburg, Florida in 1980, and is one of the longest-running blues bands in America. This high-energy quintet features Chicago- style blues, with Texas influences. Exceptional guitar, harp, and vocals have made this band a favorite on the American and international festival circuit.                               (Photo: The Backtrack Blues Band)

Backtrack Blues Band has performed in concert with the world’s greatest blues artists, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King, Buddy Guy, Gregg Allman, Robert Cray, Johnny Winter, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Koko Taylor, John Lee Hooker, and many more. The group has released eight albums of original music, including this latest album on Gulf Coast Records. The group’s members are serious students of blues music, and their influences include Little Walter, Albert King, Ronnie Earl, Paul Butterfield, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Charles is an accomplished harp player in the mold of the great Chicago blues harmonica legends. Kid Royal is influenced by the Texas blues sounds of Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, and Jimmie Vaughan. Together, they comprise one of Florida’s longest-running and most accomplished blues bands, displaying original, electric blues music with honesty and panache!

Interview by Michael Limnios                   Archive: Sonny Charles, 2017 Interview

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

Performing blues music and bringing our show to fans around the world has been very gratifying. We’ve learned that music is the “universal language,” and people from all parts of the world relate to blues music in a positive way. Traveling throughout the USA, Canada, and overseas has introduced us to so many wonderful folks, and we’ve seen that the human family is basically kind.

Where does your creative drive come from? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

When it comes to blues music, the “feeling” is everything. Technical competence without soul would totally miss the mark. Creativity begins with an honest respect for the African American roots of the blues which was created by the incredible men and women who developed those sounds. From there, it’s about telling your own story with the lyrics and music, in a way that’s sincere. If your music is an honest expression of what you’re thinking and feeling, people relate to that and will accept your original songs. For us, writing and performing our original songs is paramount, and we’ve been blessed to have fans who accept and enjoy the Backtrack tunes.

Why do you think that Backtrack Blues Band continues to generate such a devoted following?

The fans that dig our music motivate us to keep going. The Backtrack Blues Band was formed in 1980, so our longevity has allowed us to build a fan base over many years. The release of 8 albums of original blues has also helped keep folks interested in us. We also strive to play blues that is grounded in the “ real blues “ of guys like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Ronnie Earl, and Albert King. There’s a lot of “blues rock “ music out these days. We try and model our sound closer to the traditional music of the great blues masters.                                   (The Backtrack Blues Band / Photo © by Art Becker)

"When it comes to blues, it always begins with the older generations of African American musicians who invented and refined blues music. They were artistic geniuses! I think about the blues pioneers like T-Bone Walker, Little Walter, BB King, and Howling Wolf. In my view, no musician in the “younger generation” measures up to those giants. A lot of the young blues players have impressive talents, but very few can compare to the creativity of the earlier blues cats."

You've one new release with Gulf Coast Records. How did that relationship come about?

The release of “A Day By The Bay” on Gulf Coast Records is very exciting for us. They are a really great independent label that’s releasing the kind of blues music we love! The founder, Mike Zito, is a fabulous blues artist that we’ve known for 25 years. I produce the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in St. Petersburg, Florida; and Mike Zito’s bands have played for us a number of times. So, we’ve become friends, and we truly respect one another’s music. When Mike agreed to release our new album, it was a natural evolution. Plus, we live on the Gulf Coast of Florida, so it seemed like a logical fit for everyone.

Do you have any stories about the making of "A Day by the Bay – Live," at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival?

The actual concert that we recorded at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival was an absolute joy. We added Wayne Sharp on B3 organ and the Backtrack Angels - Latonya Oliver and Dana Merriwether - on backing vocals. So, it was a big sound and we had so much fun! We think that positivity is reflected in the music on the album, and it’s the ideal “party record.”

What moment changed your music life the most? How do you think that you have grown as a musician since you first started?

For me, the discovery of all those fabulous Chess Records albums changed my life. As a young guy, I’d always liked the blues-oriented bands like Canned Heat, The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Animals, etc. But when I heard Sonny Boy Williamson on Chess, it blew my mind and inspired me to become a harp player. It was his album, “Bummer Road,” and I played it until I wore it out!

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

What I’ve learned from my music career is that blues musicians and fans are the nicest people on earth! It may sound trite, but I’ve really met the very best folks through music. And I’ve found in the blues world, that artists support and help one another. There’s not nearly as much competition or jealousy as you might find in other endeavors. So, it’s a beautiful environment for artistic expression and growth.

"For me, the discovery of all those fabulous Chess Records albums changed my life. As a young guy, I’d always liked the blues-oriented bands like Canned Heat, The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Animals, etc. But when I heard Sonny Boy Williamson on Chess, it blew my mind and inspired me to become a harp player. It was his album, “Bummer Road,” and I played it until I wore it out!" (Sonny Charles / Photo © by Aigars Lapsa)

From the musical and feeling point of view is there any difference between the old cats bluesmen and the young generation?

When it comes to blues, it always begins with the older generations of African American musicians who invented and refined blues music. They were artistic geniuses! I think about the blues pioneers like T-Bone Walker, Little Walter, BB King, and Howling Wolf. In my view, no musician in the “younger generation” measures up to those giants. A lot of the young blues players have impressive talents, but very few can compare to the creativity of the earlier blues cats!

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