"Space" bluesman Willie Phoenix talks about psychedelic era, Muddy Waters, Hendrix, & his dad Rev Willie J. Creagh

"I think I would love to meet Robert Johnson...but not at the crossroads."

Willie Phoenix: Excuse me while I kiss the sky?

Willie is a guitarist/ singer with  fusion of blues, soul, and rock influences- 60’s british blues (Yardbirds and Cream) to American psychedelic rock (Jimi Hendrix). Willie is a big time concert performer who is known for his legendary performances throughout the midwestern U.S.A.

He is a charismatic showman who will simply rock you! Graffiti, a regional newspaper in West Virginia described Willie as a "....raging guitarist with a ton of attitude and stage presence." His juiced up versions of classic blues tunes performed in his live show are also something that should not be missed. As an artist, he is a prolific songwriter who writes at least four songs to every one included on his CD releases (averages one CD release per year). Writes moving and soulful songs with infectious hooks. As a musician, he's a talented guitarist who plays with great feel and intensity. He was taught to play guitar by his father and bluesman the Reverend Willie J. Creagh, who played with such legends as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson 2 (Willie Jr’s Godfather). I guess good genes are the secret...
Opened for or played with such acts like BB King, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Tinsley Ellis, Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, Buckwheat Zydeco, Joan Armatrading, and Bryan Adams. Performs annually for the CD 101 Andyman-A-Thon benefiting Children's Charities in Columbus, Ohio.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Willie, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
My 1st blues desire...hmmm, let me see...I believe started back when i was a mall boy...maybe age 6 or 7 or sometime surly before I was ten...my mom and dad  would go to this place to buy  their  45s and 78 records. The name of the place was Johnny’s' record shop in East Lansing Michigan. It was at that little record shop I got to hear...Muddy Waters...Sonny Boy...Little Walter and many others.  Sometimes before radio stations would get their hands on them...Johnny would say...heir’s a record y'all better get now...I’ll be all out of it by the afternoon. John Richburg a DJ out of Tennessee. Working at radio station WLAC AM...I believe Nashville was gone play it.  As far as idols...none at the time...to tell you the truth sometimes lying in bed late at night ...I would hear those records coming from the living room...and being a small boy and all it would scare me.  Especially Howling Wolf... what a beautiful haunting voice.

                                                                                  Photo: Ian Powell

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned? In what age did you play your first gig and how was it like (where, with whom etc.)?
The first gig I went to was held in the downtown vacant city parking lot. some friends of mine were in a band...they did Beatle songs...the Stones...some Motown...and Chuck Berry...the parking lot was filled with screaming girls...I thought...that's a cool idea...mom and dad...I’m starting a band! I was about 15 at the time.   and I may back up just a bit...my 1st gig was at a new years' eve gig with my dads' band...I was six years old...I made 15 dollars for covering Hound Dog by Elvis...I wiggled and shook my hips too.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
I get my inspiration from the same place Robert Johnson and the great blues songwriter Willie Dixon got theirs from...women. There ain't no
Amusement park ride can give you the excitement that a good or bad relationship can give you. Matter of a fact I’m going through some stuff right now...but it's just another traffic jam on the road of life...I’ll make it thru.  Anyways some blues classics that I dig and identify with are....
Black Night by Muddy Waters his vocal goes deep south into my soul...it tears me up. the little red rooster by Howling Wolf,  the Wolf delivers a haunting strut in his pleading vocal...along with some simple down the road slide playing...also I dig sonny boys' nine below zero...it's cold...he's cold...she's cold...but nine below zero makes a pretty damn hot lil' record...amazing stuff!  How can there be a favorite?

                                                                                  Photo: Ian Powell

Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?
Well when I write I have to be able to think of the song and work out melodies and so forth...so definitely....gotta use my brain....my heart shows its' blood during a performance of some sort...it might be a midnight recording session ...with nothing but a 100 dollar guitar and a Vox amp to get you through or a night in Cleveland Ohio where only twenty people showed up to see you perform....and eight of them are playing pool… the other twelve are requesting songs like smoke on the water or stairway to heaven...very good songs mind you...but that's not why you came...that's why they came. so you start to dig deeper...that's when the soul takes the elevator up...up to support the heart ....to replenish the heart....to take it and baptize it...renewing the heart...thus allowing the brain ...the heart and the soul to work as an electrifying trio that I call The raw emotions.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
What does the blues mean to me? It means my people didn't suffer in vain....in other words...Robert Johnson ...Blind Willie ΜcTell...Son House and so many others gave strength and hope to many African - Americans at a time when strength was measured by how many bags of cotton you could pick ....therefore making hope...well  ....hopeless.  But thank GOD...those guys played on....now the whole world can rock out and gather strength and hope in these new times.

What do you learn about yourself from music?
Who I truly am....and I must take this opportunity to say I love all kinds of music... be bop ... hip hop... country... rock... hard rock... pop... man I even got a copy of the Monkees greatest hits... I am sorry about the passing of Davy Jones... but if you listen Closely Mickey Dolenz had a real nice soulful bluesy voice...as far as music and me...there's  no separation... unless it's a  function at my kids school...but then they are involved in theater...band or something that has some music in it... sometimes I hear beautiful musical sounds within the rhythm of my wiper blades  or maybe if a swivel chair makes a strange noise I might pick up a bit of a melody in it.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?
I got to play guitar for Muddy some time back...that was at a place called Bogart’s in Cinchy Ohio...he was a wonderful guy...the whole band were just beautiful people...he gave me his address and phone number...wanted me to come to his home in Chicago for a visit...and then he passed...I was really sad.  I once walled 5 miles in snow almost knee deep carrying an ovation acoustic guitar just to see if I could meet and open for the very lovely and talented Joan Armatrading...and she said ...drum roll......yes!   I was slaphappy for about a year!

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet? From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I think I would love to meet Robert Johnson...but not at the crossroads.  Bring on Mr. Eric Clapton   and the bar chord poet himself....Mr. Chuck Berry....those guys rock!  Me? I’ve been influenced by so many...it's all a big beautiful experience!

Are there any memories with Reverend Willie J. Creagh, which you’d like to share with us? What advice Rev Willie J. Creagh given to you?
My dad taught me a great deal...not only about music... but life in general... I mean yes of course he taught me the show tricks of the old blues masters like playing the axe behind your head... between your legs... you know that sort of thing....but he also took me to school on the subject of right and wrong... why judge? We have judges that do that... and they get paid for it. Why hate? We have idiots that do that... and someday they too must pay...if you believe in a heaven or hell or karma.  He used to say ...you can be kind...gentle and understanding and still be strong...still be a human being...still be a man...these days  I miss both of my parents. there are some day to day questions I would love to ask them...I know they would have the answers...they always seem to know what to say whether I liked it or not...it wasn't what I wanted...but many times it was what I needed.

You have open act with many musicians. It must be hard, but which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you? And why?
Honestly....every gig......whether as a headliner or opener...you must become the sponge...soak it in the positive and the negative...I say learn and keep learning...enjoy....enjoy it all....someday even the bad gigs might find its place in your memory with a smile...just maybe.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
For me I think the blues has always stayed around because ...it has always been a release form of music ...just like gospel music...you can be blue...but you can also rise up and celebrate through song.....I wishes the blues...happiness...

What are you thinking when you guys are on stage, how would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage? What compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?
when I’m on stage with the guys I’m thinking this is a beautiful moment...lets add some more color to it....I’m always hoping for some sort of spiritual connection....as a performer you have to be ready to wed your vibe with your audience....the musical kozmic high is your honeymoon. so you should enjoy it all.  The biggest compliment anyone can give.....is by letting us know you had a wonderful time.

What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
I don't know if this is a secret musical dream or not.....but I would love to come to Europe and play some festivals and clubs...you know just groove all over that beautiful continent......hey anybody out there wanna bring me to Athens? I rock hard...I don't eat much...I do drink a lot of tea...besides working for a cheap bluesman’s wage ...I am housebroken....anybody???   
What turns me on?   People...people with turned on minds and fresh ideas and a taste for the curiously exotic....happiness is....sharing cloud 9 with your favorite queen of hearts.  Can we all dig it? I know I can.

What do you think of psychedelic blues rock & how close is to the blues? What is the “think” you miss from the psychedelic Blues era?
Psychedelic blues rock and the straight blues... era... I mean... ah real blues... my question is what is real blues anymore? ...the psychedelic strain is just turned on ...turned up and tuned in.  Tuned in to what?   Maybe if you dream in color then for you it might be more of a rainbow of sounds trying to make a connection...someplace outside the concert hall or arena....didn't the man say...excuse me while I kiss the sky?    meanwhile the Chicago electric blues wears a blue collar union man’s attitude and  reeks of factory smoke and fired up melted hot night life......country acoustic blues...sweats ....dirty  Mississippi mud...it rings loud...pure and clear ...with the sting of a delta catfish. It all depends what is your blues of choice...maybe you love all three.  Maybe you want to come up with your own gears of blues music.  but I will tell you this...and I go back to Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters....Robert played an acoustic...that was handed to him by the devil....Muddy played an electric guitar that was handed to him by the devil...but the devil also bought muddy an amp...muddy plugged in....changed the blues forever.!  And it's been changing ever since.  Hell even acoustic players want a pickup and some knobs to go with their tone....hmmm I consider Buddy Guys album sweet tea...psychedelic.  That cat is simply amazing!    
I miss Hendrix....Janis Joplin...Brian Jones, Jim Morrison....and that's just to name a few. also I miss the experimenting...too many groups are hung up what I call a vanilla or clear plexiglas’s sound....hey guys that can be cool up to a point...you don't always have to be the gate keepers....let your hair down...get into the gate and start jammin' again....have some fun...just because it's called the blues....you don't have to be blue to play it.

What would you ask of Jimi Hendrix? What would you had given to Clapton-Bruce-Baker? How you would spend a day with the Canned Heat?
If I could ask Mr. Hendrix a question, I would love to know...where he keeps his other ten fingers?  And what would I give to Cream? No doubt my entire gear...after they’ve finished these set...why bother…right?   And how would I spend a day with Canned Heat?  Going up the country of course!

What is the current state of the live music scene in Midwestern U.S.A, where you live?
Gigs everywhere.....if you're willing to put up your 1st born and home to play them...there just way too many bands....some of them have no instruments...but they have a name and a fist full of fans.

What characterize the sound and the music philosophy of Willie Phoenix? What were your favorite guitars, effects and amps back then?
My sound is a raw garage blues of electronic noise I guess... I mean to say it rocks. I used fender guitars usually old Squire Strats...Vox fuzz...Vox wah pedal...any loud amp pretty much will do...can't use Marshall...I’m probably  the only person on the planet who can't dial in a great sound from a great amp... and Marshall is a great amp.

You had pretty interesting project - CD 101 Andyman-A-Thon benefiting Children's Charities in Columbus, OH - Where did you get that idea?
The cd 101 Andyman-A-Thon was started by DJ Andyman Davis... every Xmas season.... he would stay on the air without rest or sleep raising money so that kids will have a merry Xmas... also... I believed children’s' hospital received some of the monies. Sadly Andy passed away. He was and still is a great guy... we miss him dearly.....   

The Essential Willie Phoenix Website

                                                                          Photo: Michael Gruber

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