The State Of The Blues of Yesterday And Today
By Devon Wendell
I recently had a candid conversation with Kim Wilson. Wilson has been the front man and co-founder of The Fabulous Thunderbirds for over 30 years now and has also enjoyed a fruitful and influential solo career. Considered by many to be one of the greatest blues harmonica players and singers alive, he has shared his unique blend of blues, soul, and rock with some of the greatest pioneers in music: Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Eddie Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, John Lee Hooker, Paul Simon, Buddy Guy, and many more. Wilson continues to tour and to preserve American musical history.
DW: How do you see the state of the blues today? Are the glory days over?
KW: Yes, been over for many years. All you can do is be nostalgic and modern at the same time. When I was growing up, the college kids were finding Muddy Waters plus the English kids were so enthusiastic and gave a lot of publicity to the older American blues players. There was so much going on in the ’60s with the blues, but the true heydays were from ’51-’59. That period will never be topped. You listen to those recordings of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, and Little Walter, and wow! People like myself, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Lazy Lester and Albert Collins to name a few, continued through the ’80’s. Thank God I got to start playing with those guys in the late ’60’s and ’70’s.
DW: Tell me about the first harmonica you ever had. How old were you?
KW: I was 17 years old. It was a Marine band that cost $1.75 at the time. I saw a guy playing a harp in school, and blues was big with a lot of white kids at the time. So I thought, “Hey I can do that better than them,” so I got started. Once I got into my first bands, I got serious about my influences — like George “Harmonica” Smith and James Cotton. I was a singer first and the next thing you know I’m playing with Eddie Taylor, Johnny Shines, Fenton Robinson, Albert Collins, Lowell Fulson. It was blues history, both here in California and in Austin when I’d be playing at Antone’s with all those great players coming through.
DW: How did moving to California change your musical career?
KW: I moved to California from Detroit when I was 9. California radio at that time changed my life forever. Especially living in Goleta. Wow. Everything was on AM radio at the time, plus you had those offshore stations. And between the two, you’d hear everything from Little Walter, Bobby Bland, Slim Harpo — all this blues. And at the same time they were playing James Brown, Otis Redding, The Singing Nun, and “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” [laughter]. Then, after a while, the crossover stuff came in, and it was never the same.
DW: Besides your own incredible legacy as a solo artist and with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, you’ve played alongside some of the greatest pioneers of blues and r&b, like Eddie Taylor, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and so many more. Who do you have the fondest memories of playing with?
KW: Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers. That was the peak of it. They were so respectful. At first it was “Yes sir, thank you sir,” but as much as I had to give them the respect they deserved, by the end of the day, you’ve got to write your own chapter in the book and blow. That’s what I did. No one can take that away from me.
DW: You’ve often said that Muddy Waters was your greatest influence and mentor. What it was like working and spending time with Muddy?
KW: As young as I was, wow! I was 23-24 and Muddy was making me stand up in front of the audience saying to everyone, “This guy’s the best thing since Little Walter.” Even if it wasn’t true, I can never forget that. But at the same time, you’ve got to keep your head on your shoulders. You can’t just dwell on a few influences or you’ll never grow.
DW: Did you ever get the chance to play with Howlin’ Wolf? And if so, what was it like?
KW: I did. I did a show with Wolf towards the end of his life. He was very ill at the time and taking nitroglycerin on stage. I met Hubert Sumlin there, and Albert Collins was there, too. Hubert and Albert had each other in headlocks shouting, “Look who I found!” That band was Hubert, S.P. Leary, Detroit Junior, and Eddie Shaw. There’s nothing like the Wolf. He was the greatest voice in the blues ever. As much as I love Muddy and he was a mentor, Wolf is my favorite blues singer of all time.
KW: Well, it’s about musical freedom. Walter certainly had that. I do whatever it takes to get an emotional response from an audience. Each influence takes you in a different direction. It’s more about feeling than being an acrobat who plays a zillion notes. Big Walter was a huge influence on me, too. He offered me a spot in his band and said to me; “I won’t just teach you how to play, I’ll teach you how to be a man.” [Laughter] I was one of the last guys to get in with those legends.
DW: You played Little Walter’s music on the Grammy nominated soundtrack for the film Cadillac Records. How were you able capture his style so well while maintaining your own musical identity?
KW: It’s not really my thing to just come in and knock things out. I just tried to capture the energy. Luckily they let me wing it a little. There’s no way you’re going to capture the original spot on, because it’s all improvisation. Walter was improvising. Your own style will always be up front. [Producer] Steve Jordan was very cool. I relish being nominated for a Grammy.
DW: Has jazz had an impact on your playing?
KW: Absolutely. Some of my influences were Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Wayne Shorter, Miles, Art Blakey, Charlie Christian, and Kenny Burrell, who’s still amazing today. But I also love George Jones, Hank Williams, and Buck Owens. There’s that side to me as well.
DW: How would you describe your approach to making recordings?
KW: I always want to present a broad amount of influences, a taste of everything I can do, plus put down the harp and sing. From Bobby Bland to Memphis Slim and Otis Rush. That sound. For the blues stuff, if I don’t always record to mono, I mix to it. Nothing can replace that analog sound.
DW: You hear a lot of blues artists record digitally now.
KM: Yeah, it doesn’t sound right. You’ve got to have a pure sound.
DW: Do you think the troubled state of today’s economy has had an impact on the blues?
KW: It’s had an impact on everything. The local watering holes where you’d hear some real blues in have gone down. And now you got these guys walking into clubs with Marshall stacks calling their music the blues and it’s just pollution. There’s this misrepresentation of what real blues is now. That stuff is not the blues. The purity is lost.
DW: Can you explain the difference between your work as front man, as co-founder of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and as a solo artist?
KW: My solo stuff is more traditional and with the Thunderbirds there’s a hybrid of soul, country, and blues. I don’t have to call off a song with either band, I can just start playing. There’s never any dead air when I perform with either band, too; it’s always happening.
DW: There have always been many clichéd images of the blues harmonica player in popular media, from Hollywood celebs trying to play the harp in beer commercials wearing the shades and hat ala the Blues Brothers, to the hobo on the train, or prison inmate. Do you think these images make it harder for the instrument to be taken seriously as a distinct musical craft on its own?
KW: Yeah, but If they’re doing it with respect and sincerity, it’s fine. Bruce Willis actually loves the music. Unless it’s a clown show, it doesn’t bother me. Even the Blues Brothers pointed out who wrote each song and talked about a band. Even if you’re wearing a tutu up there, if it’s genuine, it will work.
KW: I’m really a blues singer first but soul is what I grew up on. The Four Tops, The Temptations, it was all around me at the same time. I found that playing that r&b beat was important to the people. Even James Cotton covered “Knock On Wood” and it sounded nothing like Eddie Floyd [Laughter]. That beat is so important to me.
DW: Do you play both diatonic and chromatic harps? What the difference in approach?
KW: Oh yes. I’m not one of those chromatic over blowers, though, and I only play chromatic with my solo group and never with the Thunderbirds. I won’t mention any names, but you’ve got people playing the same chromatic runs over and over. I don’t do that.
DW: How do other instruments like saxes, trumpets, guitar, and vocals influence your phrasing on the harp?
KW: Anything that catches my ear. It’s always a melodic thing. There’s this T-Bone Walker lick I play on harp that T-Bone would always play on guitar. Vocalists only influence my singing, though I did learn to play melodies on harp by humming them first.
DW: Muddy Waters often said that one “Must pay the cost out there to play the blues,” or have survived “Real problems,” yet the music has even found its way onto American Idol. How do you think Muddy would feel about that?
KW: Really? Are you serious?
DW: Afraid so.
KW: (after a pause) I think he’d be ok with it, actually. He’d say, “It’s about time the music got a little respect.” Unless they’re doing it poorly.
DW: Are there any new harp players out there today who have caught your ear?
KW: Yeah, Vincent Bury with his band The Salt Shakers. A player from Montreal named Barath Rajakumar, and I like Steve Mariner a lot too.
DW: How would you like future generations to remember your music?
KW: I’d like them to consider me part of the players I grew up with, like Muddy Waters, Eddie Taylor, James Cotton.
DW: What do you have to say to those young music students out there who think the blues is easy to play?
KW: If the real thing was easy to play, there would be a lot more people doing it, really playing, and especially singing, the blues.
DW: Thanks for your time!
KW: Thank you; it’s been a pleasure.