Tom Lavin of Powder Blues talks about his Band, John Lee Hooker, Montreux Jazz Festival & his favor ES 345

"Blues is like violin.  It’s easy to play it badly and very hard to get it right".

Tom Lavin: "Blues + Jazz = BLAZZ!"

For over three decades Powder Blues has been Canada’s premier blues band. They mix Swing, Blues, Jazz, Rock & Roll and R & B into their unique sound. This has resulted in an appeal so wide that people from seven to seventy often swing side by side at a Powder Blues concert.  Over the years the band has toured ceaselessly throughout Canada, the United States and overseas, spreading the joy of a music that makes people smile and dance.

Though fads come and go Powder Blues has stayed true to its roots. When they first hit the recording scene in late 1979, with their debut album, ‘Uncut’, after nearly two years of wood shedding in Vancouver’s then flourishing nightclub scene, the big record labels shrugged their efforts off as ‘not commercial’, saying there was ‘no market for the blues’.

Undiscouraged, the band pressed the album and proceeded to sell it off stage and deliver it to radio stations. Switchboards at the radio stations lit up with calls asking ‘who’s that?’ and other stations followed suit. After selling nearly 30,000 copies in a matter of weeks, the major record labels entered a bidding war for the right to distribute this ‘non-commercial’ product nationally. RCA won the contract and to date Powder Blues albums have gone on to sell over a million copies worldwide.

Band highlights include winning Canada’s most prestigious music award, the Juno, headlining and recording live at the world-famous Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, winning a W.C. Handy Award in Memphis, Tennessee and touring Europe and the Soviet Union. They have appeared in concert with legends like Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, James Brown, Albert Collins, James Cotton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Who, ZZ Top, the Doobie Brothers, Edgar Winter and Tower of Power.

Leader, Tom Lavin has written many of the band’s best-known songs including ‘Doin’ It Right’[‘On the Wrong Side of Town’] and ‘Boppin With the Blues’. Born in Chicago where he learned his craft by watching and working with local bands and ‘blues legends’, Tom moved to Vancouver in the late sixties to study filmmaking.  bandsBy night he worked as a musician in the thriving downtown nightclub scene. This eventually led to working as a studio musician and subsequently, to his role as record producer and studio owner.

Over the 40-plus years that Tom has been singing and playing guitar he has won awards including BCMIA awards for ‘Guitarist, Singer, Songwriter and Producer of the Year’, a CMIA Juno award for ‘Best New Band’ and the American W.C. Handy award for ‘Best Foreign Blues Band’. He has over a dozen ‘Gold, Platinum and Double Platinum’ records for playing on, writing for or producing such bands as Powder Blues, Prism, April Wine, Long John Baldry, Amos Garrett, and many others.  His studio, Blue Wave, has gold records for Powder Blues and numerous other artists and has recorded music for countless products, movies and TV shows.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Mr. Lavin, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?

I started hearing and seeing blues when I was about five or six years old at the old Maxwell Street market on the near southwest side of Chicago where great bluesmen sat on the stoops of buildings on Sunday morning and played the blues and people to put nickels in their cigar boxes.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?

The first song I learned was when I was five.  A man that worked for my dad gave me a ukulele and taught me how to sing and play a song called “I Only Want a Buddy Not a Sweetheart (Cause Buddies Never Make You Blue)”.  The first time I saw a real blues show was when my aunt took me to an auditorium at the University of Chicago on the south side where Muddy Waters’ band was playing along with a number of other local blues guys.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

Blues is like violin.  It’s easy to play it badly and very hard to get it right.  It has to come from the heart, the soul and experience to have any meaning.  It gave me a porthole that opened up the inner world of music, a world I’ve spent my life in.

Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

Done right it should come from them all.

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

When I’m performing on stage and the lights are such that I can see the audience, I always have a feeling that I can tell exactly who is actually listening and hearing.  Lots of people will be there and partake and enjoy but there are always a select few who will transcend this and truly be able to tune in the wavelength of what is happening on a high level.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best moment is always when the band unites in a magic way.  There are so many factors involved.  The sound has to be just right, the groove hypnotic, the telepathic connection between the players.  When this happens the music achieves another order of magnitude; it becomes an ‘entity’ and can seemingly march around a room on its own.  At times like this I have felt that rather than me playing my music, that music was being played through me. 

Tell me about the beginning of Powder Blues. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

I was coming off a period of cocaine use and realized that if you use enough ‘powder’ you wind up with the blues.  Being able to focus on creating the band was a great therapy for getting me off using drugs.  That would have been in March of 1978.

Which artists have you worked with & which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best friend?

We’ve had the pleasure of performing with so many great musicians over the years.  Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson, B.B. King, Luther Allison, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Tower of Power, Stevie Ray Vaughn (before he was known), Albert Collns, James Cotton, Sly Stone, ZZ Top, The Doobie Brothers, the Who, Jeff Healey and so many more.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs and recording with the Powder blues?

When we played with the Who at the Vancouver Coliseum in 1980 we received a call after the show from our road crew who was on the way to our next concert with our second set of gear.  They told us that our equipment truck had gone over a cliff and that though they had lived all the gear was destroyed.  They said there was nothing bigger than a small piece of firewood left and that we should just bring a match to light a fire and some marshmallows to roast.

Describe the ideal sound of rhythm section to you? How do you characterizes your Band?

You should be able to listen to just what the drummer is playing and have it sound like music.  The tempo must be consistent and it must swing.  The bass player is like glue; he plays with the drummer but also holds the rest of the band together.

What were your favorite guitars back then, where did you pick up your guitar style?

When Powder Blues first started I played a 1963 Fender Stratocaster (sunburst, rosewood neck, all stock).  After about a year I switched to a 1959 Gibson ES 345 with stop tailpiece, six-position Varitone and two PAF pickups (stock). I’ve played 345’s ever since but without the Varitone switch, wired with the tone controls; just two volume knobs and the three-position pickup select switch.  Early on I listened to a lot of Freddie King.  Later I was influenced by my friendship with Lowell Fulson.

In which songs can someone hear the best of your guitar work? Three words to describe your sound & your progress?

I like some of the guitar work on the first album, UNCUT.  Also a little known album called “Let’s Get Loose’.  There are some things I like on ‘Swingin the Blues’ and ‘blues + jazz = BLAZZ!’

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I don’t think there are blues secrets any more than there are chord secrets.  If you ‘get it’ you always will and if you don’t you never will.  To me the key is really meaning what you say and saying what you mean.  A real blues player doesn’t play ‘licks’; he sings through his guitar and sometimes laughs, screams and cries too.

How did you first meet Stevie Ray Vaughan & James Cotton?

I met SRV in Austin Texas in 1980 or 1981. We were playing a club gig at the Rome Inn where he was also appearing.  I had gotten to town a night early and went to see him and double trouble playing at a tiny store-front joint the night before.  He was better that night than anything that has ever gotten on an SRV record.  I actually think he peaked before he was ever recorded.  I remember thinking that anyone that ‘on fire’ would either die young or burn out quick. He was very nice to me and said he really enjoyed our band. James Cotton has shared many a bill with us both in Canada and the US and also at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and the North Sea Festival in Den Hague, Holland. Though I had Seen James Cotton often in Chicago I first met him in 1971 when we were on the same bill in Vancouver, BC.

What advice has given Willie Dixon, which memory from him makes you smile?

When he was older and had made some money he moved to a comfortable old suburb of Chicago called Oak Park.  Having come up from poverty and now living in a wealthy neigborhood he would tell us proudly “squirrels play on my front lawn’.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience with John Lee Hooker & Albert Collins.

Hooker was a big Powder Blues fan.  He invited the whole band and road crew over to his house in San Bruno California one spring day in 1983 when wwe were on tour in California and personally cooked fried chicken for the whole bunch of us. He would often just come up on our stage with us, unannounced when we were both in the same town.  We’d immediately go into a Hooker-style boogie and he would improve a song on the spot.  We played with Albert Collins one night at a now-defunct joint in Cambridge Massachusetts called ‘Jonathan Swift’s’. He had a great band that included A.C. Reed on tenor, Johnnie B. Gayden on bass and Casey Jones on drums. He was quite a fireball of a guy.

What kind of guy was James Brown?

Dynamite.  We played with him in Edmonton and also in LA.  At the LA gig, Jaco Pastorius who often showed up at our LA gigs, cornered me in a dressing room and played Freddie King’s ‘Hideaway’, both rhythm and lead parts simultaneously on a Fender Precision bass to prove to me that he was really a ‘bluescat’ at heart.

Any memories from Montreux Jazz Festival?

Montreux was a special experience for us because we were performing on the same stage at the same festival with a number of my boyhood blues idols. What was particularly memorable was when we were being interviewed by the Press and because we were white they were asking us what right we had to play the blues. John Lee Hooker was there and butted in saying that as far as he was concerned we were the real thing and had just as much right as anyone there to play the blues. After that we were reviewed very favorably by the Press

Are there any “Chicago memories” of all these “blues cats” which you’d like to share with us?

There were so many greats that never got the recognition they might have including Left Dizz, Hound Dog Taylor and Southside Johnny Young, a blues mandolin player that I did some of my first gigs with on North Clark Street in Chicago.  He could make that mandolin sound like BB King and he was so short and fat that it almost looked like a bowtie when he put It on. He was very kind to me and I’ll always feel indebted to him for allowing me the courtesy of playing with him when I was just starting out. 

What are some of the memorable stories from ZZ Top, Doobie Bros & Who you've had?

We played a show with ZZ Top in 1982 and debuted a new tune I’d written called ‘Lovin, Kissin and Huggin’.  Within six months ZZ Top had a hit on the radio call Gimme all your lovin (Kissin and a Huggin too). Coincidence?  I think not.  Nevertheless I think Billy Gibbons is a fine guitarist.  Last time we played with the Doobies Michael MacDonald AND Tom Johnston.  They’re a great band.

Tell me a few things about the “Blue Wave”, how that came about?

I built Blue Wave I in 1977. The first album I cut was on a 16 track 3M machine I had bought in LA that had previously been owned by Herb Alpert and had recorded ‘Tijuana Taxi’ and other ‘Tijuana Brass’ hits.  This first record, the first Powder Blues album, UNCUT’, eventually went over double platinum in Canada and sold hundreds of thousands more copies the world over. 

When I had a disagreement with the landlord I decided to build Blue Wave II.  I was out late one night (early one summer morning) half-drunk after a wild party and was riding my bike as the sun came up. I stopped at an old house that was boarded up and climbed to the roof to watch the sunrise.  When I climbed down I noticed it was for sale.  When I had nearly sobered up I called the owner and arranged to buy it that same day. 

Once I realized what I had done I bought a used drafting table and started making drawings for what would soon become Blue Wave II, a 20 thousand square foot, four story building.  I went to a bank and borrowed money and a year later it was up and recording.  Since then many artists have made a lot of great records there.  It is still in daily use.  At the moment I am producing a fine blues guitarist/singer named James Rogers.  You can hear some of our latest stuff on YouTube.

What the difference between producer and musician Tom Lavin? What characterizes the sound of Blue Wave?

I don’t think there is a difference.  In a word I’m a minimalist. I mostly think less is more.  My approach is simple.  I like instruments to sound on record the same way they sound to me when I am standing in a nice room listening to a well-tuned instrument being played by a fine musician.  Feel always takes precedence over perfection.  In tune?  In time? Groove? With honesty and feeling?  Then it’s good.

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would avoid to do again?

Though I have few regrets I think I would have toured less and spent more time in the studio.  Also if I‘d known I was going to get this old I might have taken better care of myself.  All in all I feel I’ve lead a rather charmed life.

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new, what was the last record you bought?

There are so many.  For singers I love Johnnie Adams, Howlin Wolf, Bobby Bland.  For blues guitar, Freddie, BB, Albert King, Albert Collins, Gatemouth Brown.  For piano Spann’s the man.  For harp Little Walter, Walter Horton, James Cotton, Carey Bell.  Last rcord I bought?  Hampton Hawes ‘Live at Shelly’s Mann Hole’.

From the musical point of view is there any difference between US & Canadian Blues?

Not in my book.

What is the difference between a musician living and working in the U.S. and one in Canada?

It’s easier of Americans to work in Canada than it is for Canadians to work in the US.  In recent years the laws have gotten so tough and so expensive that only the high priced touring acts make it over the border going south.  It’s a pity.  Too bad there isn’t a cultural passport that makes borders transparent to artists.  After all doesn’t art make boundaries transparent to people?

How has the blues business changed over the years since you first started in music?

When I first started playing full-time in 1969 there were 50 venues in Vancouver where I could work six nights a week (albeit for starvation wages often in strip clubs).  This allowed my generation of musicians to learn their trade on the job.  There is simply no substitute for six hours a night, six night a week music gigs. I know other guys during that era that would work a lunch-time shift too and after the club they were playing shut down at 2:00 am they would go play at a booze can or after-hours joint.  These days there’s no clubs. Kids with bands work a straight job and save their money so they can go on a money-losing tour and break even.  It’s kinda sad for them. I’m hoping live music will stage a comeback one of these fine days but I’m not holding my breath.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES.

Blues is the roots of all Western music.  For musical evolution to occur, whenever it branches out it will have to come back and re-examine that from which it arose.  Blues, in its simplicity is a beautiful entrance door for a person to enter the world of musical experience.  Though their ear may evolve to appreciate some other type of music they will digest it all the better for having had the experience of knowing its origins.  As long as there are humans that feel we will have the blues.  When you have the blues and you listen to the blues you can lose your blues.  My wish?  That blues will never die.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

Eventually?  Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, John Coltrane.  Not blues you say?  Think again.

Powder Blues Band's website


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