Lifelong journalist Marty Gunther talks about the Blues, North Carolina Blues scene, and Blues Blast magazine

"The Blues is an artform that’s continually evolving, and all change is inevitable despite being primarily three chords and a one-four-five scale. I’m all for innovation. But what I regret most is that the great majority of young players today lack the basic understanding that the space between notes is just as important as the notes themselves."

Marty Gunther: I'll Write The Blues For You

Marty Gunther caught the Blues at age 12. By age 16, he’d already made up his mind to explore the music at its root in Chicago, something he accomplished in 1970, when he relocated there after college. The lessons he learned about the music – and life – during the years that followed proved so important that he vowed someday to repay the blessings he’d received. As a musician – he was taught how to play harmonica by Sugar Blue and co-founded the Nucklebusters, a fixture on the South Florida music scene since the late ‘80s.              (Marty Gunther & Benny Turner, 2018 / Photo by Sallie Bengtson)

A lifelong journalist away from the stage, he’s fulfilling his promise during his “retirement” by serving as senior writer at Blues Blast Magazine, the most widely circulated Blues publication in the world, as a columnist for the Chicago Blues Guide website, as member of the board of directors of the Charlotte (NC) Blues Society and and as a contributor to the U.S. Library of Congress’ archive of essays on historical recordings.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

The music has affected every aspect of my life from the day I first heard Muddy Waters perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1960. The sounds emanating from the stage that day were so steeped in emotion that they differed from anything I’d ever heard before. Like a drug, the music proved addicting, setting me on a never-ending path in which I began educating myself about it and sought out more and more.

What moment changed your music life the most?

In the years that followed, I was blessed to catch Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Dixon, T-Bone Walker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and dozens of other first-generation Bluesmen in action. The two other seminal moments in my life came in 1966, when I had a conversation with Mississippi John Hurt at a coffeehouse in Providence and was in the eighth row at Newport when Howlin’ Wolf crawled across the stage, singing “Moanin’ at Midnight.” The power of his performance that afternoon still resonates within me today and, at that instant, I vowed to move to Chicago and immerse myself in the Blues community as quickly as I could – something I achieved in 1970.

I quickly discovered that I had a second family that I never knew I had. Most of them were of a different color and living in poverty despite their talents, but they possessed something that was absent within my birth family: the ability to feel and express true emotions. They clung me to their chests and taught me lessons about life that I would have never learned without their guidance. It’s because of their kindness that I pay their blessings forward through the work I do to promote the music today.

"A wise man once said: “If you don’t love the Blues, you’ve got a hole in your soul.” And it’s as true today as it was when first spoken. Simply open your heart to the music and let the spirit flow. The world will be in a much better place if you do!" (Marty Gunther & Henry Gray / Photo by Bob Corritore)

Why was the Blues never a part of the pop/popular music?

All you have to do is take a glance at the history of the American music scene and you’ll quickly understand that that’s untrue.

While it’s true that recordings by African-American artists were labeled “race records” and targeted solely at a Black audience in the years following World War I, there was a major shift in the industry following World War II. In 1949, Billboard magazine rebranded its “Race Records” listings as “Rhythm and Blues Recordings” because Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris were pumping out hit after hit with universal appeal at the same time a growing number of White artists began covering the same songs note-for-note and reissuing them simultaneously for a different audience – something that accelerated in the 1950s.

Small café society combos in New York and Kansas City began crossing over with tunes steeped in both Blues and jazz. With Jackie Brenston on lead vocals, Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm released “Rocket 88,” which many critics credit with being the first ever rock-‘n’-roll record. Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed followed with dozens of hits. Then Elvis Presley, a true Blues fan, hit the jackpot by releasing his own versions of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s Allright (Mama)” – both of which he’d heard as a child when growing up in Tupelo, Miss.

But things started going south for the Blues when Pat Boone, Elvis’ chief rival on the airwaves in the late ‘50s, started doing something that’s outlawed today: releasing, squeaky-clean, soulless note-for-note covers of songs by Black artists when they were still riding high on the R&B charts, including Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” Big Joe Turner’s “Flip, Flop & Fly” and other Blues-drenched hits with impunity and reaping a fortune in the process.

Seizing on Boone’s success, other White artists followed in his footsteps around the same time true Blues lovers were “rediscovering” musicians who’d enjoyed extreme success with race records and introduced them to people like me at places like Newport and concert halls in England and Germany.

So, you see, Blues DID enjoy a period of popularity during which the music was misrepresented as jazz or early rock. But it quickly fell out of favor in the mid-‘60s following the Civil Rights Act and the emergence of soul music through Motown and Stax.

With the exception of the Gulf Coast and some hotbeds across the American South, the great majority of people of color understandably turned their backs on Blues because of its unquestionable birth during the 200 years of slavery and the century of mistreatment that followed after Emancipation following the Civil War.

Fortunately for all of us Blues lovers, our small corner of the music world has been dominating by B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker and dozens of other major stars. But the cultural disassociation has endured for multiple generations – something that – hopefully – is on the wane with the continuing emergence of young Black artists who are reclaiming their birthright and doing all they can to reclaim the music from a seemingly never-ending wave of White musicians who, like Pat Boone, have misappropriated the industry and have no understanding about the true nature of the music they believe they’re playing.

"The music has affected every aspect of my life from the day I first heard Muddy Waters perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1960. The sounds emanating from the stage that day were so steeped in emotion that they differed from anything I’d ever heard before. Like a drug, the music proved addicting, setting me on a never-ending path in which I began educating myself about it and sought out more and more." (Marty Gunther & Bobby Rush / Photo by Kyoung Rodriguez)

You're a long time author/writer of Blues Blast Magazine. How did that relationship come about?

I spent the bulk of my life in the publishing industry, most of which was spent in mid-level executive positions that focused on design and production and other periods where I worked as a police-and-court reporter, sports editor and as associate managing editor of a country music magazine. As I approached the end of my career more than a decade ago, I was looking for an outlet to fulfill my promise to repay the Blues community for all the blessings I’d received. I was already a subscriber to Blues Blast and decided to reach out to its publisher/editor, Bob Kieser, when he posted a notice in search of “new” talent. After an exchange of emails and a pleasant, lengthy phone conversation, I’ve been an active contributor ever since.

What do you love most about the act of writing?

It’s something that’s come second nature to me. I received my first newspaper byline in 1964 and the words have been flowing ever since. I honed my skills as a reporter and then as a rewrite person for several different publications for about 20 years before shifting to executive positions in which I penned nothing but headlines and captions for decades. Re-entering the writing domain was a challenge at first. But my background made for a quick adjustment.

For most folks, writing is a challenge. For me, it’s a pleasant juggling act. Writing a review is pretty formulaic…a few paragraphs to introduce the reader to the artist, a rundown on the musicians, etc., involved and then song-by-song details. Interviews are a different matter entirely.

I’m not a question-and-answer guy. I like to have conversations instead because they allow my subjects to take the words in directions questions won’t. In most cases, I also build my words on the framework of the artist’s story because, in my belief, the Blues community is so isolated that even the biggest fan knows little or nothing about their favorite musician’s backstory and the influences that helped turn them into the stars they are today. My biggest joy comes from mixing those elements along with fresh insights gleaned from the chat and producing a cohesive story that’s interesting, informative and delivers an often overlooked history lesson or two, too.

"I spent the bulk of my life in the publishing industry, most of which was spent in mid-level executive positions that focused on design and production and other periods where I worked as a police-and-court reporter, sports editor and as associate managing editor of a country music magazine. As I approached the end of my career more than a decade ago, I was looking for an outlet to fulfill my promise to repay the Blues community for all the blessings I’d received." (Marty Gunther & Jerry Jeff Walker, c.1970s)

Blues and Media will have to adapt to the new changes. What are your predictions for the music industry? How do you think the music industry will adapt to it?

I can’t predict where the industry as a whole is heading because it’s in continuous flux. But something definitely has to be done to insure a better source of income for all but the top one per cent of recording artists today. It’s no secret that the great majority musicians are like Catholic priests. They take a vow of poverty when they take up an instrument, and that’s never been more true for folks in the Blues world.

Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal and a host of other digital outlets are putting a stranglehold on 99.9 percent of the entire music industry. Spotify, the industry leader, pays out an average three-tenths of a cent per download – a figure so low than an artist needs about 40,000 streams to pay for a tank of gas or to buy his family a decent meal.

Most Blues artists rely on CD sales at shows to make ends meet, something that’s becoming increasingly difficult. Not only are CDs rapidly falling out of favor with consumers, but putting a tour together is now problematic, too, because so many venues have closed in recent years because of COVID and the economic downturn that’s followed.

Something – I don’t know what – has to be done to change things…and FAST!

What would you say characterizes North Carolina Blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes?

The state has a rich Blues tradition that dates back to the 1930s, when Blind Boy Fuller and others established the Piedmont tradition. Both Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were born here along with Alga Mae Hinton, Elizabeth Cotten, Etta Baker and others, and Reverend Gary Davis, Nappy Brown, Bob Margolin and others have called it home.

There are four major Blues society across the state, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean almost to the Central time zone, and its major population centers – Charlotte and the Research Triangle (Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham) – are within a half-day’s driving distance of Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Nashville, making it a key transit point on the Blues highway. On first sight, it appears to be an ideal locale for national talent to ply their trade.

Unfortunately, however, even in the biggest cities, Blues is often a hard sell. One reason is that there simply aren’t enough Blues-specific nightclubs available for profitable tours. Many of the biggest names are represented by the Intrepid Artists agency, which calls Charlotte home, and make semi-regular appearances here. But many of the mid- to upper-level bands haven’t paid a visit since the long-running Double Door Tavern, the only fulltime Blues club in the city, shuttered its doors about a decade ago.

For local bands and big stars alike, it’s also problematic to fill rooms and get rebooked because there’s no real publicity for fans to plan for upcoming events. The local Blues societies do all they can, but both the free weekly and daily newspapers that used to provide coverage either have gone out of business or cut so much staff that there’s no one left to do the job.

It’s a problem in North Carolina, and I’m sure it’s one that also exists far beyond our borders.

"Fortunately for all of us Blues lovers, our small corner of the music world has been dominating by B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker and dozens of other major stars." (Photo: Marty Gunther with Little Milton's statue at The Blues Foundation, 2019 Memphis TN)

As a co-founder of Nucklebusters. Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts which you’d like to share with us?

My own playing days were limited because hearing problems (now resolved) forced me to abandon the stage. As a Nucklebuster, paying in front of 8,000 folks at a festival as the opening act for George Thorogood & the Destroyers was a treat. And as a student of the harmonica, my biggest thrill came at an after-hours party in Chicago when I traded licks for a couple of hours in a circle composed of my dear friend Sugar Blue, Gary Primich, Mark “The Blues Cannon” Hannon, Dave Waldman and one or two other top young players in the city at the time.

I’m more proud of what the band accomplished after my departure. Its rotating lineup included Tommy D’Quatro (Duke Robillard, Roomful of Blues), Greg Szczneiak (Wild Cherry) and Tim Kuchta (The Groove Things) on drums Jason Ricci, Billy Burns and Johnny Charles on harp, Josh Smith on guitar and a who’s who of major guest stars. Even more important, however, for the better part of the past 25 years, co-founder/guitarist “Famous” Frank Ward hosted weekly events in at Boston’s in Delray Beach and the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton that imported major talent on a regular basis. His hard work help turn South Florida into the Blues mecca it is today.

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

The Blues is an artform that’s continually evolving, and all change is inevitable despite being primarily three chords and a one-four-five scale. I’m all for innovation. But what I regret most is that the great majority of young players today lack the basic understanding that the space between notes is just as important as the notes themselves.

We live in a world full of young guitar heroes who seemingly believe that Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan invented the medium. They play a million intense notes a minute totally unaware that a true Blues master can emote more emotion out of a single note delivered at a whisper than they produce in an entire set or song. One of my biggest regrets that Stevie never lived to fulfill his destiny. He was a sensational student of the masters and had finally synthesized all of his lessons into a style truly his own at the time of his passing. Sadly, few people got to experience it.

I pray and look forward to the day when artists relearn the basics: that all of the emotion in the Blues comes through the modulation of sound and the feel of notes created by the silence that surrounds them.

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

A wise man once said: “If you don’t love the Blues, you’ve got a hole in your soul.” And it’s as true today as it was when first spoken. Simply open your heart to the music and let the spirit flow. The world will be in a much better place if you do!

(Photo: Marty Gunther, Rick Estrin & Jimmy Johnson, 2012)

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