Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with blues great James Montgomery
James Montgomery is a blues great, amassing countless accolades and hit records over the past thirty years. He’s best known for his harmonica playing, singing, and high energy performing. In 1970 he formed The James Montgomery Band and has toured with the Allman Brothers, Aerosmith, The J. Geils Band, The Johnny Winter Band, Bruce Springsteen, and many others.
Pillow Talking had such a phenomenal time talking to James. He’s a sharp, funny, gracious guy. While we included all the good stuff in the interview (and more!) we chatted a while longer about this and that. It actually was hard to hang up! We think we even got an invite to come out to stay at his house. We wish James all the best and can’t wait to see him live, very soon – we’re fortunate he tours a lot in the Northeast, so anywhere for us is a hop, skip, and a jump!
PT: Thank you so much for granting this interview! (Wayne) We have a lot in common. My wife has a lot of family connections in Boston like you do. I majored in English and sociology. I know you went to BU and were an English major as well. All of that aside, why don’t you tell us how you got on to the path for blues music?
JM: I had a radio show for years and I interviewed blues musicians. And then when I joined the Johnny Winter Band, I didn’t have time to do the show anymore. But the reason I bring that up is that every blues musician I interviewed except for maybe two of them – I had a 110 interviews by the time it was over – has a moment. Rock and Roll people – they all say, “I wanted to play guitar,” or “I really like rock and roll,” or “I wanted to get girls,” or “I wanted to wear Beatle boots” – whatever the reason. But with blues musicians, they all can tell you the moment it hit them. Maybe it was somebody they saw, like with Bonnie Raitt – she was sitting around at a camp fire and the counselor finally played a blues song and she said, “Whoa! Listen to that!”
That happened to me when I was 15 when I watched my first live blues band – actually a jug band – but they played some blues numbers. I had a couple of bands in high school and they were both successful. We were opening up for people like Iggy Pop. Then I got accepted to a bunch of colleges but the one that really excited about was BU because I already knew about the music scene there.
My first two weeks at the dormitory I started a jam band with a guitar player whose name was Skunk Baxter. We were 17 years old. And of course Skunk went on to become lead guitar player for the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. So I really started playing in college and then my last two years I played pretty seriously. But by the time I graduated from BU it looked as though I was going to be an English teacher. I had a bunch of deans in my corner and people who were encouraging me to teach there. But then we got a really huge, HUGE offer from the Allman Brothers’ record label, Capricorn. So it was like $15,000 to teach at BU or $250,000 to tour with the Allman Brothers. I can remember calling my father and saying, “I know we were excited about me teaching at BU but just to let you know I’m going full time into rock and roll.” And there was a pause on the other end of the phone – a really long pause and he goes, “You know, Jim, I’m glad to see we spent $20,000 on your education and now you’re going to make your living playing a child’s toy.”
JM: That was because I’m a harmonica player. I started to argue with him, but I realized he really hit the nail on the head. So that’s how I went from BU student to a touring blues and rock musician.
PT: What a story! You were originally from Detroit, right?
PT: Did your family and your dad finally come around?
JM: Well, he was kind of joking when he said that. Of course, in those days I think my first semester cost like $975 so we didn’t actually spend $20,000 on my education. But he said it jokingly. He was always supportive. We would rehearse in my basement sometimes, probably much to their chagrin.
JB: I just play the harmonica. People often ask is that all you play? Let’s face it, it is a child’s toy (laughs). Ten thousand or more youngsters will get one in their Christmas stocking (laughs). But I heard a guy play a blues harmonica and it really struck a chord within me. That guy is Crispin Cioe, who is now in the Uptown Horns [band] and they recorded with J Geils, The Stones, and James Brown. I put him on every record I made – I always put the Uptown Horns on – I’m still playing 51 years later with a guy who I saw play harmonica for the first time.
JM: As small as it is – I just play a little ten-hole diatonic – you would think that you would [eventually] learn how to play everything that you could possibly play on that little instrument, but it’s a never ending journey and every time I see someone play and it’s something I haven’t played yet, it’s a wonderful, ongoing spiritual challenge.
PT: (Wayne) Well, I think I may have mentioned I took guitar lessons and all I can remember is Love Me Tender and The Volga Boatmen. But I do have a harmonica.
JM: I’m going to remember that the next time I go in to record The Volga Boatmen (laughs). You’re going to be my first call. So keep your chops up!
PT: (Laughs) (Wayne) I will. Another funny story – but I really do have a C harmonica and we actually are training our Golden Doodle with it (laughs). (Stephanie) When he’s misbehaving I just have to threaten to get the harmonica!
JM: (Laughs) What do you call a harmonica player’s accompanist? Fido. And how do you know when a harmonica player is done with a solo? The dog stops howling.
PT: (Laughs) (Stephanie) There you have it.
JM: And here’s another one. These two harmonica players walk into a bar – well, it could happen.
PT: (Laughs) That’s great. We think it applies to more than harmonica players.
JM: And dogs do howl when they hear harmonicas.
PT: (Stephanie) Well, I can’t play it, but I just blow the highest note to get him to stop whatever he’s doing.
JM: (Laughs) The pet industry is a billion-dollar business. After we hang up the phone, I’m going to think how we can make millions of dollars training dogs with the harmonica!
PT: (Laughs) We’re all for that. (Wayne) All kidding aside, when I first got my harmonica, I thought Wow, this has got to be easy to play. There’s only a certain amount of holes. I started playing it and I was like Damn, this is hard to do! I couldn’t even play one hole at a time in the beginning.
JM: It does take a while to play a single note. My theory was this: When I saw that jug band – not only did it strike me that I wanted to play blues music but I also thought at that time that I’d like to be in a band, too. So I looked at the guitar and I thought to play the guitar good enough to be in a band takes a few years. And to get good enough to play bass or drums takes a few years, too. But with the harmonica, within six months you could be good enough to get up there and start playing. So if you stick at it for about six months you’ll be good enough to at least get on stage with somebody and play. In the meantime – the flip side of that is that you can carry it around with you and play it whenever you feel like it much to the chagrin of anyone who is with you at the soda shop or walking down the street with you and the school bus with you or whatever (laughs). Because people react much the same way your dog does!
PT: (Laughs) Well we are certain that people don’t howl when you play the harmonica except maybe in enthusiasm and enjoyment. You started out at the top – with the Allman Brothers.
JM: It was a year after I graduated college. We started getting offers right out of college. We were on the cover of a couple of magazines in Boston when I was still in college. So we signed with the Allman Brothers and started recording for Capricorn and spent our first twelve to fifteen years doing that. We weren’t like other blues bands – jump in a van and grind it out and build up a circuit. We started out ten days with the Allman Brothers, twenty days with Lynyrd Skynyrd, ten days with Steve Miller and basically worked with every major group in the world. We did Bruce Springsteen’s first tour. The night I met Bruce Springsteen he sold seventy-five tickets. He was playing a one-hundred-fifty seater – only half full. So we ended up on his first tour playing colleges in the Northeast. Then we played clubs for about a year. And then the next thing you know everything we did was either a war memorial or a civic center. Or in the case of the Allman Brothers at some fairgrounds we were seeing 175,000 people a night.
JM: We did two albums with them then we did an album with Allen Toussaint, the legendary New Orleans producer. Since that time my whole journey has been the gamut of playing – headlining – 2000 seaters, opening for Aerosmith. I’ll still do work where I’ll open for Aerosmith and do shows for 20,000 or so. I’m the perfect person to do a reality movie about because one day my dressing room is as good as it gets and they have waiters and they’re serving beef tenderloin with port wine and the next day I’m in the basement of a nightclub in Cambridge where you’re changing in the room where they keep the booze.
JM: And then my favorite dressing room was one which was a half blues club and half strip joint and we had to share the dressing room with the strippers.
PT: (Laughs) (Stephanie) That must have been so terrible for you (laughs)!
JM: Yes. It was so terrible to be in there with these young girls changing their clothes. It was awful!
PT: (Stephanie) Oh my God, and then of course you never recovered (laughs)!
JM: We were already at the show (laughs)!
PT: (Stephanie) You mentioned all these great places in and around Boston. I love it. My parents are from Boston and we spend so much time there.
JM: I love it there. I’m so glad I moved there. I go back to Detroit and visit, but it’s so rough in Detroit right now. But Boston has a very healthy music scene. A very healthy scene for the arts. I attribute it to the fact that you can’t be standing on any corner in Boston and not be in someone’s college campus.
PT: That’s true.
JM: With colleges come people’s eclectic tastes. When I started my band in Boston, you had a better chance of working if you played a genre of music like blues or jazz or played original music than if you played Top 40 cover music.
PT: (Stephanie) And Boston is just a warm and inviting place regardless of the size.
JM: It’s like a big college town. It’s a big Ann Arbor, you know (laughs).
PT: Are you still involved with the Boston group, the Blues Society?
JM: Yes. I was very active in it for a while. We kind of went off into two different factions – amicably – and we are all still very close. But the Boston Blues community is extremely tight-knit and close. When one of us is in the hospital or whatever, everyone always rallies to their support. I wanted to concentrate more on providing healthcare, so I started an organization called Devi Blue – our mission was strictly about providing free ongoing health care. I’ve since moved to Newport Rhode Island, but I am going to relocate that 501(c)(3) organization here. We would raise $10,000 in a benefit – if you are lucky you can raise $10,000 to $15,000. Sometimes the money we raised for the person would last a week. So I put together a program to support clinics, doctors, and hospitals in return for free healthcare. A lot of hospitals in their charter would be required to do a certain amount of work for free anyway. And then we would give money to free clinics. They had never heard of that before. The main thing we did was to get people who were familiar with programs in the medical industry who could match up people who needed them. For example, one guy who passed away, Weeping Willy, didn’t know he was eligible for VA care. So we got him top-of-the-line VA care. And then went he went in as a VA they get a call from chief of staff at Tufts University Medical who says we are sending in William Robertson today and want a full report when he’s done. So people would go into these programs that they were eligible for and there was always a heavy-duty doctor looking over their shoulder.
PT: That’s .wonderful.
JM: Basically, I did the New England Blues Society for a couple of years but really branched out into providing healthcare.
PT: If we can ever promote one of your fundraisers down the road, we’d love to do it!
JM: Don’t say that because you and Stephanie will be the first ones to know next time I do this.
PT: (Laughs) We will be right there helping you! Our blog is really helpful in getting exposure and the word out about things like that.
On a completely different note, and you probably answered this generally, but what or who were your earliest musical influences?
JM: I was a big Elvis fan when I was in elementary school. Of course I wasn’t born then, but I was in elementary school – just kidding – But I remember there was a talent contest and this is interesting because you guys are in show biz as well, but I entered this talent contest for 9-10-11 year-olds. Some could actually tap dance, some could actually do ballet; others could play Chopin on the piano, others could play saxophone or violin. I mean these kids really had talent. I had my older brother play “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley and I had my collar turned up, burnt some cork and put on sideburns, and pantomimed “Hound Dog” with a plastic guitar.
PT: And of course, you won.
JM: I did win and that’s when I determined right there that you really don’t have to have talent to go far in this business (laughs). So my earliest influences were all rock and roll. Like everyone else, I was into Dion and the Belmonts, Leslie Gore, Frankie Avalon, Ed “Kooky” Burns, and all those people. I’m sure your blog readers have no idea who these people are (laughs). I remember riding up on my horse and buggy to see one off those shows (laughs). But when I was fifteen and heard blues then it was like a passion for me. Of course, there were a lot of groups like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles who were tremendously influenced by the blues. Europeans and especially the British in those days knew much more about American roots music than Americans – and were much bigger fans. So I was a big fan of all the groups that came out of England, like The Stones, Alan Price, and The Animals. And [the band] Them when Van Morrison was with them. These were all blues-based pop bands and I loved all that stuff. But basically once I got into the blues, I got in neck-deep and just saw everybody. By the time I was seventeen years old and by the time I graduated high school I met Lou Rawls, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, and everyone. Some of these guys like John Lee Hooker became lifelong friends. I played in his band when I was nineteen. James Cotton and I are still close enough that when I call and his wife/manager answers the phone she says, “Oh your Dad wants to talk to you.” He calls me Son and I call him Dad.
PT: (Laughs) That’s great.
JM: I’ve played with Muddy Waters. Junior Wells and I remained really close until he passed. I still see Buddy Guy occasionally. He used to put his band up in my house in Cambridge to save money. And then sometimes to save money he wouldn’t even bring his band up to Boston – he would just have my band back him up. That way he wouldn’t have to pay hotels and expenses. So my biggest influences were the English bands that came over and blues artists of every kind from rural to urban. As a matter of fact, when I was learning how to play harmonica, I used to play in the basement and I was tremendously out of tune – you need different harmonicas for different keys. But I would close my eyes and think about, Jimmy Wells, Muddy Waters, Mick Jagger, and The Beatles – and eventually throughout my life I’ve had a chance to play with every one of those people I dreamed about playing with. My brother John became George Harrison’s promotion director for a little bit so I got to spend a few days with George and that was great. So almost everyone I thought of when I was a kid I ended up playing with.
PT: (Wayne) I can really relate to that. I was a child of the sixties and seventies. My wife is more than a bit younger – I call her my trophy wife –
JM: Well, in that case, she is a trophy wife and congratulations!
PT: (Laughs) (Wayne) When the British invasion occurred and all the kids were following The Beatles and The Stones, I took a different path and followed Elvis who was very much influenced by the blues. To this day, I am still a huge Elvis fan.
JM: You are correct about Elvis’ influence. Muddy Waters once said the blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. As everyone knows – who is even the slightest bit knowledgeable – rock and roll came directly from blues – to the extent that when Elvis was doing all those hip shake movements that they wouldn’t film from the waist down – Muddy Waters had been doing every one of those fifteen years before Elvis.
JM: So Elvis was a great stealer and I mean that in the great sense of the word. When I first met Peter Wolf from the J. Geils band he said, “James, remember one thing. The amateur copies, the professonals steal.”
PT: (Stephanie) That’s Wayne’s favorite expression (laughs)!!
JM: Well, to steal you have to make it your own. If you copy it, it doesn’t ring true. But if you steal it, you have to make it your own. You have to assimilate it. Elvis was great at that and the whole thing with Sun Records and the records that Elvis put out in his early days. When that happened, there were a lot of Deep South black entertainers and musicians traveling from town to town and were playing little juke joints who all of a sudden saw their music on a worldwide stage. It was a great time for them. I talked to Rufus Thomas about that, you know the guy who did the Funky Chicken, and he said when these records started coming out, especially when WADI radio started playing the records, and they heard their music on the radio, and they saw people advertising their products to them, that’s when they realized that their road was going to become much more open and helped that arch toward freedom to be more viable. So you have to give Elvis some credit for that, too.
PT: You’ve seen and experienced the whole evolution of music from blues to rock and beyond. What do you think the impact of social media has been on the industry?
JM: Well…a couple of things. I remember I had Huey Lewis up here as one of my super groups along with James Cotton and J. Geils—
PT: (Stephanie) J. Geils and Huey Lewis – the first two concerts I ever went to!
JM: (Laughs) Well, I had them both in the same band one night with guys from The Thunderbirds, the Uptown Horns, and Dropkick Murphys. But I was driving around with Huey and I was playing one of my latest songs and he said, “You know, back in the day that would have been a hit record but that’s not how the business is anymore.” And then he happened to throw in, “When my record ‘Sports’ was out, I was selling 250,000 copies a week.” So in the days when you could have a “hit” record – you can still have them now – but only if you are in the top echelon and only if they will carry your record in Target, Walmart, and Best Buy. When somebody has a hit record now if they sell four to seven million records that’s huge – and I’m not saying that that was not huge in the old days, but in the old days you could sell a million records and still get flack from your record label. Now when the group Boston put out their record they sold seventeen million records on the first try and Alanis Morissette came close with sixteen million. But that record that Boston has will never be broken. As Huey pointed out, you can’t put out a CD that’s going to sell seventeen million records anymore because of downloading and because of social media and because everyone has different ways to access music.
Obviously, I don’t feel too bad for the big-time entertainers who get their stuff downloaded but I always feel really bad for the songwriter because the songwriter doesn’t make any money if something gets downloaded. I really think that somehow these songwriters should make the money they deserve for writing it. In those days you had to have a major label because if I made a record I couldn’t go down to my basement and press twenty thousand copies of vinyl LPs.
One of the things that is really good about how the music business has changed is that anybody can make a record [now]. With five thousand dollars whether they borrow from their parents or do a GoFundMe or something, you get five thousand, you can go to a studio and get a reasonably knowledgeable engineer and make a record. You can’t have the strings section and the French horns there, but you can make a record. So in that regard, the fact anyone can make a CD and if you’re savvy enough to know how to use the Internet, you get some kind of hits on it – so it’s kind of a wide open business now. And I think you have to like that. I think you have to like the idea that if you’re young and talented and might not have gotten a record deal where they’re going to press vinyl for you, you can still put out your own music and still get discovered on the Internet by people who normally wouldn’t know who you were. So I think there’s good and bad about social media and the music business. I would have to think overall that if I was a young person I would be thrilled at the social media that could enable me to put up my own record in the hopes of getting hundreds of thousands of hits on it.
PT: (Stephanie) Or if Ellen DeGeneres sees you performing and puts you on her show you’re made.
JM: (Laughs) As a matter of fact, if you can help me get on Ellen’s show, let me know. I’ll dance up and down the aisle. Whatever I have to do to get on her show. Ellen is a really good dancer. I love that little move she does. I think I might be able to get on the show and dance with her.
PT: We will certainly keep that in mind.
JM: Please do. As a matter of fact, if I get on before you guys, I’ll make sure there is a slot for you on future episodes!
PT: (Laughs) Cool. We’ll hold you to that! (Stephanie) I’ve always wanted to meet her! The other thing about social media that is a good thing – and one we are experiencing too – you have a fan base, a website, and fans can instantly find out what you’re doing, where you are performing, send you fan mail.
JM: That’s right. You have a blog that gets 400,000-plus hits a month so you are probably more acutely aware of this than I am (laughs). But I get fans who call up or send me an email if there is a mistake on the listing. I’ll get emails from people who say James, have your web guy look at your site because there is a mistake. But that’s another reason why I love this business. I’ve become extremely close friends with some people only because they’ve seen me play so many times.
PT: That’s great! So what advice would you give up and coming musicians?
JM: Obviously the old joke is don’t give up your day gig, but I’m not going to say that. I’ve mentored a certain number of people. Susan Tedeschi started singing with me when she was fourteen and I would have her up on a couple of songs. I’d let her get out there and sing and back her up. Before Nora Jones got signed, she was working with a producer in New York and he wanted her to get a feel for working with a real live band, so she sang with me when she was seventeen. Grace Kelly who is now in Jon Batiste’s band on the Stephen Colbert show – she sang with me when she was twelve years old. I’m her blues mentor but she was amazing at twelve. She was one of the most amazing stars I’ve ever seen. So I’ve had talks with young people about the business and music. The first thing I tell all of them – and their parents – is go as long as you can with this before you make it a business. If you’re that good and are fifteen and a label wants to sign you, I usually say wait. If you’re fifteen and a label wants to sign you for fifty thousand dollars, chances are they will want to sign you for two hundred thousand when you’re twenty. Don’t make it a business when you’re young. And I tell the parents don’t tell them what they should be doing on stage. There was one young kid that I mentored for a while who was really, really good – actually this happened twice – where one of the parents was so overbearing that both of these youngsters eventually just lost interest in music. The kids know more about what to do then [their parents] do because they’re acting from the point of a forty-year-old. Any fifteen-year-old knows what a fifteen-year-old should be doing more so than a forty-year-old. You guys have kids – you know what I’m talking about.
PT: Oh, yeah. We know! Our kids are in touch with everything, music included. We wouldn’t profess to know what teenagers like.
JM: Yeah! You can’t teach them to be hip. And then I tell them all the corny stuff, but the real stuff – if you visualize something and you dream it, then you have a dream and intention – and then you have will —so you imagine it, make it an intention and then willfully pursue it. So that’s the Dr. Wayne Dyer introduction (laughs).
PT: That’s really great advice. (Stephanie) Wayne always says things like that!
So, do you remember what the best advice was that you ever received?
JM: Um…I think it was to call this number and talk to you guys! I can’t think of anything better than that at this moment.
PT: (Laughs) Flattery will get you everywhere! – 300,000 hits for sure!
JM: That’s a difficult question to answer. I never wrote any advice down, so this would be an intuitive answer. Guys like James Cotton, John Lee Hooker – they would advise me in terms of how to phrase – how to run a band on stage – everything I do on stage – even though a lot of blues people think I do too much rock and roll – I stole it from James Cotton. I remember getting a lot of advice as to how to go forward as a blues musician. In terms of getting advice about a career and stuff like that – I think that my high school band and college band did well enough that people didn’t really give me advice because they thought I was doing pretty good. I don’t know.
PT: Cool. Do you remember the worst criticism you ever received?
JM: Yeah, yeah. I do remember that. And believe me, a lot of professional athletes are the same way – you can’t get too up or down and a lot of athletes are superstitious and they don’t read anything about them anyway. I understand that. As a musician, I always read my reviews. Here was one in (laughs) Circus Magazine – I hope they’re out of business by now – I think they are – (laughs) If they are not out of business, I am advising everyone who sees Circus Magazine not to buy their hideous rag!
PT: (Laughs) We know this is going to be good.
JM: (Laughs) I think they called me sleazy and deceptive. Sleazy – I could understand. You look at me on stage I can look sleazy. But I don’t know how they figured I was deceptive. They never talked to me.
PT: (Laughs) That is too funny!
JM: Deceptive and sleazy is a pretty good criticism. And I got one when I was with Johnny Winter. Johnny was in really bad shape when I joined the book. I can say that because it is in the movie and the book. At first they had me stand in front of Johnny in the middle of the stage and they put Johnny off to the side. I was against that, but they said, no, no, no, you’re going to front the band and stand in the middle of the stage. So I got a guy who threw a sixteen-ounce beer on me on that show and later wrote to me – sent me an email – I don’t know if you can say a-hole on the radio, but on the blog you can say anything!
PT: That’s right.
JM: So that was pretty scathing. I actually emailed that guy back and said, “Listen everyone is up there because we love Johnny. We are not up there for ourselves. I make much less money fronting Johnny Winter than if I front my own band.” He sent me back an apologetic email and we actually became email friends for a while. We exchanged tips on organic juicing.
PT: (Laughs) Wow!
JM: (Laughs) I can’t tell you what bad advice I got, but bad reviews – I got a million of them! The last one I got – in the context of selling out one of the best rooms in New England, Center for the Arts in Natick, they hire all major acts. That’s why they hire me – we get two encores. I swear to God – two encores – two full-house standing ovations. We played for two hours and twenty minutes, the crowd is going nuts, we sell CDs. And then I get an email or a blog somewhere: These guys are too old to be on stage! What are they doing up there wearing rock and roll pants? The guy criticized my pants (laughs)! For some, people there just is no pleasing them.
PT: Yeah, everybody is a critic, as they say. Of course they also say “Any ink is good ink.”
JM: I agree. As I said, if you get a good review you can’t get too elated by it and if you get a bad review you can’t get too upset about it (laughs). I also know there were times when I got a better review then I should have.
PT: We’re sure that can’t be true.
Ok, it’s time to play the lightning round. Here’s where we throw out something and you answer off the top of your head. Ready?
PT: The most creative person you ever worked with?
JM: Bruce Springsteen.
PT: Really? Cool. Tell us why.
JM: That’s just off the top of my head, but I think he’s such a talented songwriter.
PT: Most charismatic?
JM: Mick Jagger.
PT: We don’t even have to ask you why on that one!
JM: I’ve met everybody. But for me, I was more impressed by the day I spent talking to Arthur Miller the playwright; the day I spent with Alan Ginsburg; the day I spent with George Plimpton; the day I spent with David Halberstam; the day I spent with Tom Brady. I’m always more impressed with spending time with people I met outside the music business. I’ve never been really star struck. When I met George Harrison, it was like, “Hey George, how you doing?” But for some reason when I walked into my dressing room on New Year’s Eve and unexpectedly it’s just me and Mick standing there – that was the only time I was ever star struck. I was like, “Whoa – look at that! It’s freaking Mick!” And we had a ball. We ended up singing Muddy Waters’ songs.
PT: Really awesome. It’s incredible where your music has taken you!
What about hardest working?
JM: James Cotton. And I would have to say B.B. King. We were playing Springfield, Massachusetts and I remember Cotton coming off of stage after his third encore – last song of the night. It’s like one-thirty in the morning – we were playing the Palace in Springfield and he’d been on the road for twenty days. And he comes into the van. And I say, “So what hotel you staying at?” He said, “I’m driving back to Chicago.” I said, “Okay, but make sure somebody else spells you.” And he’s like, “No, no, I’m doing it myself.” Then he got in the van and drove from Springfield to Chicago after a grueling three-encore night and a twenty-day road trip.
And I will say blues musicians are really hard-working. It’s a niche market. It’s one- to two-percent of the marketplace – and if you want to make a living at it you have to work hard.
PT: Cool. So, how about most laid back?
JM: Wow, three or four come to mind.
PT: You can say a couple.
JM: Well, in some respects I want to say Greg Allman. To sit down with him in the dressing room or to sit down with him at the hotel and just talk – an extremely laid back guy. Believe it or not, when Kid Rock is at home and not on the road, extremely laid back. He’s almost laid back to the point of being shy. But the Allman Brothers was the most laid back group you could ever work for. Whatever you wanted. “Oh, you want to use our lights? Go ahead. Use this effect? Go ahead. You want to eat with us tonight? Come on in and have some food.”
PT: Awesome. Last one. Most Versatile.
JM: My first response was going to be Grace Kelly because she plays so many different genres and can adapt so readily in any musical thing you throw at her. In a lot of respects, when you say most versatile I think of the “sidemen.” Guys that can play keyboard, drums, etc. and they can do it well.
PT: So can you tell us what’s on the future agenda for you?
JM: Well, we’ve started a documentary on James Cotton and I have partnered on that. They flew me to Chicago. I’m going to be on a documentary about Paul Butterfield that should be out sometime in early summer I think. I’m finishing up a record that is being produced by Paul Nelson, Johnny Winter’s guitar player, and close friend and functioned as his manager.
PT: We know Paul well. We interviewed him recently. (See Pillow Talking’s Interview with Paul Nelson)
JM: Paul is a great guy. As much as I was around to get the ball rolling for him (Johnny Winter) I got the doctor to get him off the drugs, Johnny Winter’s last five years were arguably the best five years that he had and I always want listeners and readers like yours to know that Johnny Winter was in the best shape of his life the last five years he was around. And Paul Nelson had a lot to do with it – everything to do with it in a way. So Paul is producing a record for me right now and he won a Grammy last year — with Johnny.
PT: Yes, he did.
JM: So Paul is producing where we are doing like a tribute to Paul Butterfield. I also work with the Johnny Winter All-Star Band doing a lot of touring with that outfit. My band – I’ve got arguably the best blues band in the country. David Hull on bass who played with Buddy – when he was seventeen or eighteen – and plays with The Joe Perry Project and occasionally with Aerosmith. My guitar player George McCann played with The Blues Brothers, Steven Tyler’s solo band. My drummer Jeff Thompson who has also played with Bellevue Cadillac. So my guys love to work and I love to work. We have a lot of CDs coming out including one where all the money will go to help veterans. So we have a full plate.
PT: Great band! Our last question. If you could sum up your life in one word, what would that be?
JM: Spiritual. That came to me right away, but I wanted to think about it for a few seconds. Spiritual is the word.
PT: Great, great answer, great interview! Thank you so much!