Veteran blues-rocker Mike Reilly talks about Elvin Bishop, Allman Brothers, B.B., Hooker; and his Harley

" (Blues) It’s a culture. It’s truly a genre that no matter what country you’re from, you get it. You move to the groove, it all translates."

Mike Reilly: Blues & Rock Rider

B.B. King once said that playing the Blues was like having to be black twice.  “Stevie Ray Vaughan missed on both counts, but I never noticed,” he concluded.  The same can be said of Mike Reilly, who’s played with both B.B. King and Stevie Ray. Mike may not be black, but he knows the Blues, and he’s been playing them for a long time.  Like Muddy Waters–another legend Mike’s shared the stage with–he’s still delivering ’cause he’s got a long memory.

Mike remembers growing up in Fullerton, California during the sixties and seventies. He remembers the night his father, Robert (guitarist who used to jam with Django Reinhardt), accidentally busting up his drum kit. To replace the drums, his dad bought his nine year-old son a trombone.  Mike remembers his first Rock album–The Allman Brothers Band. And he remembers when, the following year, he bought an album that totally changed his life–Freddy King’s Getting Ready. Mike, now thirteen, was ready-ready to play the Blues. Sadly, Mike also remembers losing his big brother Bobby, a talented musician who died in 1980. Although there have been other musical influences in his life-from Duane Allman to Bill Champlin–none was more important than his brother Bobby. That same year, Mike got into the Sharpshooter Band (with Wayne Sharp, Jaimoe and Lamar Williams).  That gig led to Elvin Bishop. And from Elvin came gigs with James Lee Hooker, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Albert Collins, Billy Gibbons and The Band.

Michael Joseph Reilly has had the rare opportunity of playing with most of the musicians who influenced him. Maybe this is why he sometimes refers to himself as the Forrest Gump of Rock.  He’s released four albums as The Mike Reilly Band (various artists at various times included Dan Toler, Taj Mahal, Kid Ramos, Garth Hudson and Gregg Allman), and these days he continues to perform with an All-star lineup.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Mike Reilly sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Our sound is what it’s always been, guitar oriented dual harmony and slide solo’s. I was for sure influenced by The Allman Brothers, Little Feat, The Band and Freddie King. The MRB touches on swing, jazz, country, Chicago and Delta. Let’s say a melting pot gumbo of it all. The band’s progress after 30 years is having many of the original members still with me has made it easy to know what the other is thinking. We reach for things most wouldn’t and pull it off.

As far as what I try to do to keep growing, let everyone have solo’s, on my own I work out of the Joe Pass chord Book, and I learned this years ago… play like it might be your last time.

"I hope musicians utilize real performance. Play in the same room at the same time. But as it all goes to digital in the end unless you’re recording analog to vinyl, I think it’s whatever works."

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues and what does the Blues mean to you?

It’s wonderful to listen to the blues, wonderful to play them and just not live them.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

 I’d have to say 1975 to 1986 were the years I met most of my hero’s and then to play with them was awesome.

The years 1990- 2003 were a very busy for the band. We were getting calls to back up folks like Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, recording with Joe Walsh and playing the big stages didn’t hurt either. There was a three year period we got to be Gregg Allman’s backup band from 1990-92.  

The worst… I’d have to say turning down Stevie Ray and Gregg Allman’s management Strike Force, Alex Hodges and Willie Perkins. We should have done it! However, I am still with Willie’s label Atlas Records out of Macon, Georgia.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

It’s a culture. It’s truly a genre that no matter what country you’re from, you get it. You move to the groove, it all translates.

"Jazz to Southern Rock; the best example would be the band Sea Level. This band consisted of three of the former Allman Brothers, Jaimoe Johnson, Lamar Williams and Chuck Level at the time." Photo: Mike with Jaimoe and Lamar Williams

Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time with Sharpshooter Band?

I loved this band. It was all mostly fun. I started out by helping guitar players to audition, but I was not in the band. Wayne Sharp, Jaimoe and Lamar Williams discussed the fact that I was better than most that showed to audition. They came to my house on my 23rd birthday and told me I had the gig. To play with such a band was an honor. Recording. We did a few tunes, filmed and recorded at RCA Annex. Unfortunately, Katrina got the masters, but to be in the room where they filmed Lawrence Welk, I love Lucy studio shots, Elvis cut Precious Lord, we really laid down a very live tight show. Let me not forget, he introduced me to my wife of thirty three years Jani and helped me get the gig with Elvin Bishop.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

A cool moment for me was opening for Joe Walsh in 1987 and having Gregg Allman special guest with my band. I knew I had turned a corner in my career which just kept going. The best jam I would have to say happened one night at the Stone in San Francisco. I was with Elvin Bishop and on this night Levon Helm and Rick Danko came to sit in, it was a three hour show and we had a article written in the SF Times about how most everybody stayed till the sun came up, a very infamous party was had.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

The most important experiences was meeting Freddie King and Dangerous Dan Toler. I met Freddie at the infamous Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, CA in 1976. I was with Kid Ramos when this happened. We went to High school together and Freddie saw us just soaking every lick from him we could, he invites us backstage and the rest was like Christmas to Kid and me.

I met Dangerous Dan during his time in the Allman Brothers Band. It was like we were lost brothers. I would later have a band with him and his brother Frankie Toler. Dan taught me much on guitar. Recording with him was a lesson on its own. He would later advise me to leave the Bishop band, they would have me come out and play in what was The Gregg Allman Band. The brothers had just broken up, we were on a triple bill with Stevie Ray opening, Elvin and then Gregg. Try being in the middle of those cats. The best advice I ever got was from Gregg, he told me when I hire band mates, make sure they are a better musician than you. He was right. 

Photo: Mike with Allman Brothers, Gregg Allman and Toler Brothers           

What is the usual funny story that you heard from your father, Robert, about Django Reinhardt?

I thought it was funny my dad showed Django one of the first electric guitars he’d seen. He was in the army just got into France before the battle of the Bulge and luck of the Irish; he got invited up to play. Mind you, I was blessed having guys like Leo Fender stopping by our house, my dad demonstrated Telecasters at county fairs in 1949, he was a very talented player. The first song I learned was “Rose Room” by Django... All I wanted to do was learn Strange Brew by Crèam.

Are there any memories from Taj Mahal, Billy Gibbons and Gregg Allman which you’d like to share with us?

Ah, Taj Mahal and my dear old friend Larry Fulcher, who was Taj’s bass player, would do the introduction. As well as bring The Phantom Blues Band to record with me on my CD “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed”. My late brother Bob Reilly taught Larry bass guitar back in the 60’s. Now Taj can be the sweetest cat. We cooked during the sessions, Taj and my wife Jani were making Gumbo, we filmed it all and perhaps someday you’ll see it.

Billy Gibbons is a major influence on my playing as well. I met him at a friend’s house, Johnny Pag, who was a motorcycle builder in Costa Mesa. Pag had built Billy’s bike ZZ Funk. It would be some years later that I got invited to Billy’s house in Hollywood. I had just purchased a real nice Les Paul I wanted him to check out. We played for hours!  And, then I got to see Pearly Gates! Once again I’m blessed.

Gregg Allman and I are kindred spirits. We both lost our brothers, we both loved Harley Davidson’s and we both kept up with each other as far as the partying went. In the 80’s, he would often come up to Silverado Canyon in California where we and most of my band were living. Gregg just liked being in the country and It was during this time that we got tight. He’s still a dear friend.

"It’s wonderful to listen to the blues, wonderful to play them and just not live them." Photo: Mike with Elvin Bishop and Gregg Allman

What do you miss most nowadays from the 70s? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

The 70’s? Cheap gas, no helmet law and the parties. My hopes and fears, that music will soon become too perfect sounding, that is too much digital. I hope musicians utilize real performance. Play in the same room at the same time. But as it all goes to digital in the end unless you’re recording analog to vinyl, I think it’s whatever works.

Which memory from Elvin Bishop, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and The Band makes you smile?

Well, Elvin and Albert are in the same one… rolling dice backstage after a gig and I saw Albert take all of Elvin’s money!

The last time I saw Stevie Ray was in El Paso, Texas for a balloon fest. He was in shock to see me pop up. I had a friend with me that wanted to show him some old guitars, Stevie checked them out, we had a couple of laughs and that was it. 

The Band, they weren’t using that title when I met them, they were using their own names. My first gig with them, I was on the way down to the stage and Rick Danko handed me his bass and tells me to play it the first three songs. The look on my face was that of shock!  However, we pulled it off. Rick was my roommate on the road; Garth and Levon were both very dear to me.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and BB King?

John Lee Hooker was at my 25th birthday at the Saddle Rack in San Jose, CA. Elvin said to John, “the pup (me) is playing hot guitar”. John Lee looked up at me and said FI, FI, FIRE the Fool! He actually did not long after.

Willie Dixon was wonderful. We were on a sound stage at what had been the studio Disney had made the Disney Cartoons. Everyone who showed up was there to praise Willie. Stephen Stills, Billy Preston, Katey Segal, Bonnie Bramlett and Richie Hayward just to name a few. It was to record the song called, “Let Me See the Light”, by Mike Finnigan.

And for B.B., this is just a dream story come true. I was recording with Joe Walsh in 1987 at a Memphis, TN studio. We were staying at the same hotel as B.B. and Bobby Blue Bland stayed three days a week. Wayne Bennett, who was Bobby’s guitarist and also the man who taught Duane Allman “Stormy Monday”, invited me to his room to jam. It turned out B.B. and Wayne go back to the 50’s and B.B. had given Wayne the blonde ES-350 you see in all the early posters of the King. I walked in the room and all three of us started playing, sharing stories and it would happen a couple times a week for the month we were in Memphis.

As far as Muddy I had a brief introduction from Johnny Winter.

"I love to ride my Harley, swim in the ocean and hang with my wife, grandkids, my dogs and good friends. This is what I like to do in my free time and turns me on both." Photo Mike with B.B. King and Wayne Bennett

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Jazz and Southern Rock?

Blues meets Folk; Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee hooking up with Woody Guthrie.

Jazz to Southern Rock; the best example would be the band Sea Level. This band consisted of three of the former Allman Brothers, Jaimoe Johnson, Lamar Williams and Chuck Level at the time. This is definitely one of the most influential bands for me period.

How has the blues Rock changed over the years? Do you believe in the existence of real Blues Rock nowadays?

Internet has changed everything. Yes, I am Blues Rock….

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

To be in Chicago in 1965 the day the Rolling Stones came to record with their mentors, like Muddy, Howlin Wolf and Willie Dixon.

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What turns you on? Happiness is……

I love to ride my Harley, swim in the ocean and hang with my wife, grandkids, my dogs and good friends. This is what I like to do in my free time and turns me on both.

Happiness is waking up every day and be able to do it all again.

The Mike Reilly Band- official website

Photo: On the Harley-Davidson, Mike and his wife, Jani

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