STEVE FREUND INTERVIEW
A Chicago Tradition
June 2, 2004
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Steve Freund had fast become a favorite of mine since that first time I saw him some years ago at the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco. After digging deeper into his past, I had seen that he is truly a "living legend." Being the quintessential sideman for many legends, and local players, and now fronting his own band, Steve Freund has paid his blues dues.
Photo by Joe Lempkowski
While talking with him, it dawned on me that Steve has blues blood in his veins. He lives and breathes the blues and there's no other road for him. I also got sad because of the hard road he's journeyed and still traveling just to survive as a bluesman. Sometimes it's painful to get inside a blues player's head, I've noticed.
I nervously approached him about an interview and to my amazement, he accepted.
I picked him up (I had Steve Freund in my car!!) and we had lunch in the scenic town of Benicia. I had to do that reality check every so often and no, I wasn't dreaming.
I had much to ask but remember, this is just a small fraction of what this singer, songwriter, bandleader, producer, and guitarist has accomplished.
Much has already been said about his Chicago to San Francisco years but little has been mentioned about the beginning. The very beginning, so we'll start there.
From The Beginning
Mo: Let?s start at the beginning. I wanna talk about where you?re from.
Steve: Brooklyn, New York.
Mo: I saw a photo of where you?re from, what?s that called, "Kings Highway?"
Steve: Kings Highway was a main street running down our area. Kinda like Columbus Avenue runs down San Francisco. Something like that. It?s a lot longer though. It goes for miles and miles.
Mo: You were born and raised there?
Steve: I was born in raised in Brooklyn, NY. Born in 1952 and lived there until 1976 when I left for Chicago.
Mo: Tell me about your family. Do you have siblings?
Steve: I have one brother.
Mo: Is he still back there [NY]?
Steve: No, he?s floatin? around. He?s into the communal way of living right now. Right now he?s in Canada. He?s four and half years younger than me.
Mo: Your father?
Steve: He passed away in 1980.
Mo: What did he do for a living?
Steve: He was an accountant.
Mo: Your mom?
Steve: She was a housewife and she was a pianist. She was a piano teacher in her early years. So I grew up with piano in the house.
Mo: What did your parents listen to?
Steve: My mother played classical music but she always liked what she used to call ?pop?. It was really like jazzy stuff. What we listened to was popular at the time in the 50s and 60s. What they listened to changed. I didn?t always listen to what they listened to but when I was a little boy I did and that was whatever was on TV mostly like Ed Sullivan. At the time it was good music. We had Louis Armstrong who was always a big influence on me. We had Perry Como, and of course Sinatra and all those kinda guys. Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. I guess it was what you call jazz but more on the pop side. They didn?t listen to bee-bop or anything like that. Don?t forget they were children of the depression era. Their music was the swing era so that was part of it. To be honest with you?they really didn?t play many records. We didn?t really play records in the house. My mother played live music. She used to sit at the piano and play classical piano pieces and it was just great.
Mo: Did she try to give you lessons?
Steve: She tried to and I just don?t have the aptitude. To play piano you have to be able to have bilateral symmetry to be able to play left and right simultaneously. Independently. I just don?t have that. I?ve always wanted to. I?m a frustrated piano player but that?s another story.
Mo: Growing up in Brooklyn, what was your dream as a kid?
Steve: My dream? To be a pro baseball player. To be in the Yankees. At first. That?s a pretty normal dream for a kid. We were all into baseball and sports then.
Mo: When did you start playin? music? When did you pick up guitar?
Steve: I picked it up briefly when I was about 14 or 15. I tried to pick out some of the folk tunes that were being played like ?House of the Rising Sun? and things like that. I rented a guitar actually one summer. I gave it back and I put it back down ?til I was about in my 16th year. When I was about 17, I decided to go for it for real. I lived in an apartment building. Lots of people. We lived in a highly populated part of the country. I knew a lot of people, and I had several friends that played guitar. I used to just pick up their guitar once in awhile and piddle around and try and learn something. Right around 1969, I decided to really go for it. I actually bought a cheap electric guitar, but I originally wanted to be a bass player. I put a small deposit down on a bass in the local music store, and got a job as a busboy.
Mo: That was your first job?
Steve: No, I?ve had other jobs. I had my first job when I was 12, after school working as a delivery boy for a pharmacy. I did that job after school, on and off, for about three or four years. But this other job was as a busboy. That was a terrible job. I earned enough money to buy the bass, except when I went back with the money the bass was gone. They sold it out from under me. I was a just a kid then. They said I waited too long. It was a long time ago. There was a six-string guitar sitting right there, the exact color, the same brand except it was a regular guitar. So I bought that. I had the money in my hand and I said well?I?ll just buy this guitar and I?ll learn the bass lines and then I?ll come back and buy a bass later on. But I never did. I just got the guitar and I started playing six-string guitar. That was that.
Mo: What were you listening to then?
Steve: I was listening to blues. I was heavily into blues. It all came at once to me at that time. It was a big rush. Everything from Albert King and Creedence Clearwater, Cream, B.B. King, all about the same time! We listened to Led Zeppelin and B.B. King live at the Regal back to back, right then and there, it was no distinction. We knew it was a distinction but we would just get high and listen to all these crazy different records. I used to go and see all these acts. I went to many, many concerts back in 1968 up until about 1972.
I would mostly try and go to see guys like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, or Muddy Waters, or Lightnin? Hopkins. I did go and see Led Zeppelin because a lot of times, you had a hardcore bluesman open up for these blues/rock bands. That was the blues/rock revival time, just like you had it out here [West coast]. We had the Fillmore East, and we had Central Park, had great concerts, and they had other venues. We had a lot of coffee houses. I could actually go see Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, intimately, sitting like two feet away. I could sit at their feet, which I did several times. Lightnin? Hopkins, I could reach out and touch him. I was right there.
I saw Janis Joplin one night, the original Canned Heat, Freddy King many times, Albert King many times, B.B. King a bunch of times. I saw Woody Herman, too. I also got into the swing stuff. I discovered Eddie Lang and Django Rheinhardt. Within a two-year period, my influences expanded ridiculously.
Mo: So, the blues found you, more or less?
Steve: I had been influenced by blues, unknowingly, even as a small child. Louis Armstrong was on TV all the time back then. I remember sitting there, I was like 5 or 6 years old, watching Louis Armstrong and being fascinated by him. I didn?t know what it was at the time but I felt that it was a very emotional thing that he was doing on TV. He was workin?, he was playin?. I could tell it wasn?t memorized. I could tell in my little kid?s head that he was just doing this as he feels. Unknowingly, that was improvisation that I was watching. That stayed with me. The music of the time, popular music on the radio, was Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. These are the influences. Elvis influenced all the little kids at the time. I remember seeing teenagers standing on street corners, singing doo-wop harmonies together. Those were my earliest musical influences. Not that I knew I?d be playin? it someday but it was stuff that I liked and it made me feel good. Went through the English Invasion with the Beatles and Herman?s Hermits, and all the pop stuff. We even had little dances in our public school, in fifth grade. Every Friday, they took the last hour of the school day, we stopped school work, and the teacher brought a record player in, and she use to spin records and we danced in the classroom!! It was like socializing. These are the things we had going on then.
Mo: Tell me about your first band?
Steve: Didn?t have a band. I was a street musician in Greenwich Village at first. There was a little place called the Mills Tavern on Bleeker Street. It was a total dive. It was the lowest of the low. It was owned by a Mafia type of guy. He had a pool table, and three or four nights a week, he put a piece of plywood on top of this pool table, and a duet or a trio would play. They didn?t have drums because you need a special license; you need a Cabaret license to have drums, so they had two guys, a guitar player and a harmonica player. The guitar player is still a friend of mine, his name is Robert Ross. He?s a fantastic musician. The harmonica player passed away. He was an older guy named Bill Dicey. I had seen Bill Dicey play harmonica with John Hammond back in ?69. John Hammond used to, and still does sometimes, plays with a bands, electric bands, and Bill Dicey was the harp player. I saw him playing in this little dive bar and I went in and became friends with him. Bill Dicey let me come up and sit on the pool table and play. He was the first guy who really let me play on stage.
There was also a band called The Brooklyn Blues Busters. Johnny Ace was the bass player. The Johnny Ace that we have here in San Francisco. They used to have an open jam every Monday night in Brooklyn. I would take the subway there and try to sit in. They let me sit in a few times but I was just a beginner.
Bill Dicey really nurtured me, and Robert Ross and I played on the streets of Greenwich Village. You could make quite a bit of money. This is a little later, going into 1974.
I didn?t really play in public until about 1974. I would go out to these jam sessions and I would go see live bands, but to actually play, it was about 1974 when I started goin? out and sitting in. Eventually I did some gigs with Bill Dicey. I played on the street with him, and some little clubs in the Village. That was my beginning there. I didn?t really get into the band thing until I moved to Chicago in 1976 and then it really exploded for me. That was a whole different thing. That?s a whole world unto itself.
Mo: How old were you then?
Steve: I left New York when I was 24.
Mo: During that time, or when you got your first guitar, was it your dream to be a bluesman?
Steve: It was an unannounced dream in the back of my head. I made the commitment to do that probably around 1974. I realized I couldn?t do it in New York. It just didn?t support the blues scene. Whereas Chicago had 40 or 50 blues clubs at that time.
Mo: Were your parents supportive of you wanting to be a bluesman?
Steve: Not really, at first. They wanted me to get a college degree or hit the work force and get security. Musicians have no security. I just followed my heart.
Mo: That?s why you left New York? To pursue the blues?
Steve: Absolutely. Nothing else.
Mo: You left by yourself?
Steve: I went with a friend named Paul Cooper. We borrowed my parents' car and drove out to Chicago, made an exploratory trip, earlier. We stayed out in Chicago for about 10 days, then we drove back to New York. I stayed for about another month, and I said, 'What the hell am I doing here?!' I had a day job in retail, selling sporting goods at a store in downtown Manhattan. I just said one day, 'What the hell am I doing here? I don?t want to be here. I want to be in Chicago with Sunnyland Slim and all these guys playin? guitar!!' and that?s what I did. I just picked up my guitar, one suitcase, I had saved up a thousand bucks. I bought a one-way plane ticket to Chicago, and I never turned back.
Mo: So you met Sunnyland in??
Steve: I met Sunnyland in 1969 in New York City. I was the ripe old age of 17. He was with Willie Dixon?s Chicago Blues All-Stars. They played at a place called The Electric Circus in the East Village. A small room with a stage and a wooden floor, kind of a small ballroom. It was Willie Dixon on bass, he was the bandleader. Big Walter Horton on harmonica, Sunnyland Slim on piano, Johnny Shines on guitar, Clifton James on drums, and the opening act was none other than Otis Spann and S.P. Leary. They did a show and they left their dressing room doors wide open. Everybody was just coming backstage and hangin? out. Of all the people, Sunnyland, for some reason, really moved me. His persona moved me. I got the courage to approach him and talk to him. It was just like talking to my grandfather.
Mo: Was that first time you had ever seen him or heard of him?
Steve: I had heard of him. I had one LP by him. I was a blues nut! I got a lot of my best information from reading album covers. I knew who he was but I was more of a Willie Dixon freak. I wouldn?t buy any record that didn?t have Willie Dixon?s name on it, back when I was a teenager. Sunnyland invited me to come to Chicago and play with him, and he gave me his business card, so seven years after that, I showed up in Chicago. He let me sit in right away. He actually started giving me little gigs here and there right away. That was that.
The Chicago Years
Mo: Now you?re in Chicago. Where was the first place you lived there?
Steve: Diversey Arms Hotel. A flop house, on Diversey Avenue, down by the lake, which is now a super expensive neighborhood, but at that time it was a funky area. It was $12 a night. Sunnyland Slim use to come and pick me up. His girlfriend at the time was Big Time Sarah. They used to drive up from the Southside, pick me up, take me back down, all the way to the Southside to this gig at the Flying Fox which is a four o?clock club. We use to play from around 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. I mostly played second guitar but he liked me and he was apprenticing me, trying to break me in. I met a lot of cool people there. That?s where I met Jimmy Johnson. I met Jimmy Johnson right away; he was one of my first buddies. I?m still very good friends with him to this day.
So, I did that and I started hangin? out at the local clubs in the north side. I also had a gig very early on in a really rough neighborhood on the Westside of Chicago. It was called David & Thelma?s Lounge. The singer was a guy named Tail Dragger. He?s still alive and kickin?. Hubert Sumlin was the guitar player. So right away, I?m on stage with Hubert Sumlin! Tail Dragger?s style is Howlin? Wolf, and when Howlin? Wolf died, he kinda grabbed the whole band to get them to play with him. Everyone except Eddie Shaw. So they hired me to play along with Hubert. Sunnyland recommended me. I did that for awhile and that was a very scary gig!
Mo: Why?s that?
Steve: It was in the deepest part of the ghetto. At that time gangs were literally walkin? into nightclubs and for no reason just start shootin? up the place. Hubert said the night before I got there, a gang came in and just started shootin? for no reason. He dived under a table! So, that was a rough place. Especially if you didn?t have a car.
Mo: So, we just went over your first gigs, were you really nervous your first time on stage?
Steve: No, you know why I never got nervous? Because they never made me feel nervous. They really welcomed me and they treated me really, really well. I felt at home. Spencer Jarrett, who I had met and played with in New York, came out to Chicago a few times and hung out with me at some of those early gigs. He later moved to Columbus, Ohio, and joined Dave Workman's band. Both of them are now Bay Area residents as well.
Mo: I was readin? in your bio and I was wondering what was meant by ??he has spent many a ?patient? evenings backing Big Walter Horton?? What is meant by ?patient evenings??
Steve: Well, Big Walter and Floyd Jones played together. Floyd played bass. They knew each other for many, many years. In fact, Big Walter ran away from home when he was a small boy and Floyd Jones? mother raised him up as part of the family, but they were constantly bickering! [laughing]. Walter would interrupt Floyd all the time. Floyd was very mellow. Walter had to be the center of attention, ya know. Every time Floyd would get on the mic and say something, Walter would either say something over it or start playing really loud. Even when he was trying to say something nice. They would constantly be arguing back and forth. I was sitting dead in the middle. My friends use to call me the ?ringmaster? because I was right in the middle. Here I am, 26 years old and these guys are in their late 60s or 70s, and I am trying to make peace all the time and play the song and make it good. That was my role. I did that for two years.
Mo: So, your first gig in Chicago was with Sunnyland Slim?
Steve: Yeah, Sunnyland actually gave me my first paying gig in Chicago. I started getting a lot of gigs right away, though.
Mo: So, you didn?t have to go out and hang out at jams?.
Steve: Yeah! I did all that. I did everything. The thing is, I didn?t work every night but I was out every night. I lived in a motel for quite awhile. I would go out every single night. I used to walk a mile each way, with my guitar, just to sit in. The first guy I sat in with, on my first night in town, was Homesick James. That was before I actually moved there. There was a club called Elsewhere on Lincoln. Which is kinda like the Saloon [San Francisco]. No cover, pass the hat. The people that were playing on stage were people like Homesick James, Sunnyland Slim, Big Walter Horton, Floyd Jones, Blind John Davis, Little Brother Montgomery, and Jimmy Walker?it was incredible! Seven nights a week of Living Legends! So, if I didn?t play with Sunnyland somewhere, which was only once a week maybe, I was at this place!! I would find myself sitting at a table with Fred Below, Big Walter Horton and Louis Myers, smokin? cigarettes and drinkin? with these guys and I?m just a baby and these guys are legends!! That?s why I went out every night. Three hundred sixty-five nights a year, for about the first ten years, from about 1976, probably, until my child was born in 1986, I would say I was out every single night either working or sitting in. It was a constant thing, you know what I mean? It was a life style.
Mo: So basically, your first steady gig was with Sunnyland Slim?
Steve: The thing is that it didn?t last that long because I wasn?t that good. He would only use me on low money gigs; he wouldn?t use me on the better gigs. When he played Elsewhere on Lincoln, one night a week, or the Flying Fox, he did hire me. But the thing was?I would show up with my guitar and my little amp but I wasn?t that good yet. I could play decent solos but I didn?t really have it together to play accompaniment properly. This was a learning process. I would show up and sometimes be the guitar player. I?d get like $10, $12 or $15. Most the time I would show and Eddie Taylor was there playin? guitar already, or Louis Myers, or Hubert. Mostly it was Eddie Taylor. What happened is I would play with those guys. I?d play second guitar. I?d watch Eddie Taylor play the rhythm and I?d try and pick it up and then Eddie would move on and start playin? the more intricate things. I would just play the basics. That?s how I apprenticed my way up to try to learn how to play what we call ?the bottom?, the low end part. So, on those nights, I?d get some free beer and maybe Sunny would give me five bucks. That was my entrance into Sunnyland's band.
There was a piano player, Johnny ?Big Moose? Walker, who played piano and he used to play with Earl Hooker. He played bass too. He had a gig at the Kingston Mines and one of my earliest gigs was playin? with him. The thing was? I didn?t have an amp yet big enough to play that gig. So he used to rent me an amp. If I remember correctly, the rental fee he was charging was more than he was paying! [Laughing.] He use to charge me $15 to rent the amp but he?d pay like $10 so I?d have to come up with five bucks. I didn?t know any better than. I was just a kid.
Mo: I read somewhere that you hung out with Sunny for what?15 years?
Steve: What happened was? for the first two years or so, Sunny would use me here and there. Then he hooked me up with a man named Lee Jackson, who I did that ?Lee Jackson Boogie? in honor of. He was a guitar player. Sunnyland, what he did, he hooked me up with Lee. He said 'Lee, I want you to meet this guy Steve. Steve meet Lee Jackson?' and Lee hired me to play second guitar behind him. That?s where I really learned how to play rhythm guitar and back up somebody else. I did that with Lee for about a year, year and half or so and then he got killed. He was killed in a domestic dispute. It?s really a weird story and I might as well tell you now?.
I was living with a woman and it was a very tenuous relationship, to say the least. We were on and off. We were fightin? like crazy all the time. Not a very good relationship. Anyway?she had gotten pregnant. She didn?t want to have the baby. We decided that she was going to have an abortion. So, as unpleasant as it was, we went that day to the hospital and had it done and then I drove her home. I stayed with her the whole time and went through it all with her. We got home and I was suppose to play with Lee Jackson that night. I asked her, 'If you want I can just cancel the gig and I?ll stay home.' She said, 'No, it?s OK. The doctor gave me a bunch of valiums. I?ll just take some valium, watch TV and go to sleep, you just go out and do the gig.'
So, I went out and did the gig. I called her about 11 p.m. and she sounded really groggy, everything was OK, she was gonna go to sleep. Alright, so I do the gig. At the end of the gig, at about 1:30, Lee says, 'Steve, let?s go over to the Kingston Mines [Club across the street] and have a nightcap.' They're open ?til 4 o?clock. We went over there and we just started drinkin? like crazy and we closed it down. Next thing I knew, it was like 3:45 am. So, he went home and I went home. I get home around 4:30 am and my girlfriend is awake and livid with rage! Insanely so! She actually pulled a knife on me that night. Nobody got cut or anything. There was a tremendous tumult and the neighbor called the cops. The cops came over and quelled the situation, but they suggested I sleep somewhere else. So I did. I went to a motel. Now?during this period of time, when I wasn?t doing gigs, I was drivin? a taxi. I had done that in New York City. That?s one of the ways I always made a little money to survive. The next day I had gotten my cab in the afternoon, about 3:30 p.m., starting on my 12-hour shift. I was driving down past the club we had played the night before. It was probably around 6 p.m. and as I drive by I see Sunnyland, Eddie Taylor, Big Time Sarah, just a bunch of blues musicians standing in front of the club as I?m drivin? down the street. They see me in my cab and they?re wavin? 'Steve, come here, come here' but I had someone in my cab so I couldn?t stop. I continued on my route and I got busy and drove for about three or four hours. Every night it would quiet down around 10 or 11 p.m. I stopped back at the bar and I found out that the reason they were all there that afternoon is because Lee Jackson had gone home the night before just as I did. Just as I got into a domestic argument with my partner, he got into one too, except he was killed! The exact same night! It was as if it was a choice of God taking me or Lee and he took Lee. It was weird!! He was shot in the back of the head. We don?t know who really did it, but his wife took the rap for it.
Mo: Ever record with Sunnyland?
Steve: Sunnyland appeared on both of my LPs, Romance Without Finance and Set Me Free with Gloria Hardiman. We did one as a band called, Chicago Jump with the band we always played with.
Mo: How did he die and where were you when it happened?
Steve: He just started getting ill. Later on he got kidney failure, he kept getting pneumonia, things like that. He was in and out of the hospital about the time I left Chicago to move to California. I visited him in the hospital a couple of times, kept calling him. I had just moved here, and he went into the hospital one more time. I visited him soon after when I came back to Chicago for some gigs. He died while I was here in California, and I went back for the funeral. Strange as it sounds, during the time of his last stay in the hospital, just before he passed, my lower back went out on me. It had never happened before. I was in excruciating pain for several weeks, and I had to go on tour with that pain. I went back to Chicago for his funeral, and the band acted as his pallbearers. I had played with Slim from 1976 until I left in 1994. It was a very sad time for me, the end of a chapter in my life.
Mo: What was your association with Hubert Sumlin?
Steve: He was one of the first guys I ever met down there. He was so nice to me. I idolized him in a way, as a musician. I don?t idolize people as humans because I think we?re all the same, but, as a musician, he?s just a genius. At that time he was really, really into it. I love Hubert. I think he?s just a great person. A great musician. He treated me great. Like I said, I played those first gigs with him.
He started hanging out in Chicago less and less. He started hangin? out in Texas at Antones. Then he moved to Milwaukee. He just wouldn?t come down to Chicago quite as much as he used to. We did a couple of European tours together as part of a package deal. Did some more gigs with Sunnyland where we had two guitars. It was great! I learned a lot watching him and listening to him.
Mo: Do you see Hubert much anymore?
Steve: No, I haven?t seen him in quite a few years. They?re doing a book on him and the author called me up and interviewed me for the book. It?s great they?re doing a book on Hubert.
Mo: Did you ever play with Magic Slim?
Steve: Not only did I play with him, I produced one of his albums. I produced Gravel Road on Blind Pig records in about 1990, I believe. He?s fantastic. I used to see him all the time and sit in with him all the time. Great fun.
Mo: Let?s talk about Gloria Hardiman. What?s she up to these days?
Steve: I don?t know. Someone said she started singing again. She took time to raise three kids. Right up to that record we did Set Me Free, she had a set of twins and she had another kid, so that made three. She?s really a gospel singer. Her father was a preacher of some sort. I think she sang with Andre Crouch.
Mo: How did you two meet?
Steve: I had these two guys wanting do a record on me but they wanted me to do it with a vocalist. I wanted to do it with Valerie Wellington. Valerie is someone you should know; she was fantastic! She died way too young. She was making it to the top. She is somebody you definitely need to get hip to. I said, 'Well, I want to do it with Valerie, or whoever you want.' I just wanted to do this record. This was important to me.
Mo: What year was this?
Steve: Oh man?this was in the early 80s. 1983 or ?84. They found Gloria. They said, 'Well, we found a really great singer for you,' and she IS great.
Mo: You hadn?t heard of her before than?
Steve: Yeah, I had seen her. She was playing around town.
Mo: What label was that?
Steve: Just a little local label called Razor Records. They put out maybe three records. They put out one on this woman, Queen Sylvia Embry, and her husband John Embry. They both passed away now. I think they put out one on Byther Smith, and then they put out the one on us. Just two guys. Just two fans who pooled their little money together and put out some records. Just like people do today.
Mo: Did you enjoy making that record?
Steve: That record was fun. We did it at the famous Universal Studios in Chicago. It was done totally live. No overdubs.
Mo: Were you pleased with the outcome?
Steve: I was very happy with the outcome. I liked my playing but my vocals were quite weak alongside Gloria?s.
Mo: Who was on it?
Steve: Bob Stroger, Harlan Terson, Fred Grady, Eddie Turner, Sam Burckhardt, Sunnyland Slim, Ken Sajdak, Gail Washington, and Diane Holmes, my ex-wife.
We formed a band after that record. We called it The Blueprints. We played in Canada, NYC, Philly, and some other places and gigs in Chicago. Unfortunately, egos got in the way and it self-destructed in about 6 months. It was a really cool band. Gloria and Eddie Turner, the drummer, had twins together and eventually she dropped out of the scene to be a mom. I hear she is back singing again. Even though we had conflicts, I remain friends with all the members to this day.
Mo: So your second record, Romance Without Finance, how do you like that one?
Steve: I liked it except I think my singing is horrendous on it. I?m embarrassed by the singing. I think I sing much more in pitch today. I had to do it. I wanted to do a record, ya know?
Mo: Which label was that?
Steve: That was on Red Beans, which was also put out by a major jazz label, Steeplechase, from Denmark. Erwin Helfer and Pete Crawford, one of my best friends, owned Red Beans. They eventually sold the Red Beans products to Evidence records. Evidence owns the master tapes. That also was done live in the studio.
Mo: Do you think they?ll ever redistribute them?
Steve: To be honest, I hope not. It would be nice to be on Evidence but I prefer people not to hear me sing like that.
Mo: I really like it a lot. Now during these first two records, [1983-86], is this when you started steppin? out on your own? Did you have your own band?
Mo: Who was in your band?
Steve: Bob Stroger, who you might know. I used Bob Stroger or Harlan Terson. Tried to get Robert Covington who was from The Big Four Blues Band. I had either Barrelhouse Chuck or Ken Sajdak on piano. A guy named Donny Nicholo on piano. Ron Soren on harmonica. Just too many people. Dave Specter was in my band, too, for awhile. I started some other guys out too.
Mo: "Jesse?s Jump." You wrote that song. Is that your son?s song?
Mo: Damn, you were writin? back then. When did you start writing?
Steve: I started writing as soon as I did the recordings. Way back then.
Mo: What about Dave Specter? Wasn?t he a student of yours?
Steve: Yes he was. Jimmy Johnson introduced us. Dave had moved back to Chicago, he was going to college in Southern Illinois; he dropped out of college, and moved back to Chicago. He started hangin? out at B.L.U.E.S. A young guy, big guy, he got a job as a doorman. He always liked music but hadn?t quite been pointed in the right direction yet. He knew what he wanted but he wasn?t sure which way to go to get it. So, he approached Jimmy Johnson.
Mo: He wasn?t playin? guitar at the time?
Steve: He owned a guitar but he was just a rank beginner. He asked Jimmy for lessons and Jimmy declined. He was traveling around a lot and he couldn?t give them. Jimmy introduced us and Dave became my student at that point. I lived in a little room at that time and he used to come and take lessons from me.
Mo: Were you teaching anybody else?
Steve: Oh yeah, I?ve taught quite a lot of people over the years.
Mo: Well?I like you two on stage together. You have chemistry. You can tell he looks up to you. Kind of a father/son thing?
Steve: More like a brother thing.
Mo: Jimmy Johnson? You?re still good friends with him? How come he never tours out here?
Steve: Jimmy?s quite old now, I think he is in his middle seventies. Whenever I go to Chicago, I haven?t been played Chicago in a few years, but every time I do, it seems that Jimmy, Lonnie Brooks, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush, show up at my gigs and hang out! It?s like a tremendous honor and a tremendous amount of pressure on me!! Last two times I played at Legends, all those guys were there and they stayed the whole night. Shot pool and we had a lot of fun.
Mo: The Big Four Blues band?who was in that band?
Steve: Myself, Bob Stroger, Robert Covington and Sam Burckhardt, the sax player.
Mo: Did you become The Big Four Blues Band after Sunnyland had passed?
Steve: We used to play every Sunday night with Sunnyland Slim and then we started getting gigs on our own. Sunny couldn?t go. He was just too old to do those tours. I came up with the name actually. Willie Dixon had a band called, ?The Big Three? so I said let?s just call ourselves the Big Four. Everybody liked it so that?s what we did. That was that.
Mo: How many records did you record together?
Steve: Just one. It was on that MCA German label. We recorded live in Germany in one afternoon.
Mo: Did you tour with Sunnyland at all?
Steve: Yes I did, a lot. We did a lot of Canadian stuff together. We did New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1989, together. We did some NYC stuff together. We did a lot of duets together, just Sunny and I.
Mo: Tell me about Luther Allison?.
Steve: Aaah, man?Luther?I had been playing with Big Walter, that was every Sunday and Monday, with Walter and Floyd [Jones], and a friend of mine called me and said, 'Hey man, Luther Allison is looking for a guitar player to go to Europe for a major tour and somebody told him about you. I heard through the grapevine that he?s coming down to see you tomorrow night.' I said, 'Whoa!' I didn?t even have a passport!! I was completely unprepared. I was honored. So, there I am, I?m playin? with Big Walter and all of a sudden, I raise my head and sittin? right in front of me at the bar, is Luther Allison!! I had never met him but I had seen his picture on album covers. Well, he sat through that set and on the break he just said 'Hey boy?you sound pretty good. You want to go to Europe?'
Mo: This was while you were with Sunnyland?
Steve: Oh yeah!! I was with a lot of people. I was this "house" sideman at that point. I was playing five and six nights a week with different people. I would play with Sunnyland one night a week, Big Walter and Floyd Jones two nights a week, Jimmie Walker one night a week right there at that same club. I was like the house guitar player for many years at this club, it seemed. I played with Big Smokey Smothers on matinees. Eddie Taylor would hire me sometimes. Johnny Little John would hire me, so I was workin? usually six nights a week for many years.
I had never been to Europe. Everybody was tellin? me to go to Europe, you?ll love it. This was back in ?79 or ?80. Luther hired me to go for ten weeks straight!! That is major time. Nobody does that anymore. Ten weeks straight!! If you?re away from home for three weeks, that?s a long time. He hired me. The money was awful but I did it. He got me a statement from his agent to get me an expedited passport. I went down to the office in downtown Chicago and I got one in a few days. I was set to go. I told everybody that I?ve got this opportunity and they all wished me well and when I came back after ten weeks, I got all my gigs back. They held my gigs for me. For ten weeks, they hired somebody else and they let me come back which is just amazing.
Mo: Were you familiar with Luther?s material? He writes some different arrangements.
Steve: He had good arrangements; he did a lot of Albert King type stuff. He did some B.B. King stuff.
He gave me a cassette and I had a tape player. I took it on the airplane and listened to it on the way to Europe. We got to Europe and we had the first night off. We were totally jet-lagged. I didn?t even have to bring a guitar. Yamaha was supplying all the equipment for everybody. There was a guitar waitin? there for me. So, I?m in my hotel room the first night and I hear a knock at my door. It?s Luther Allison in black, silk pajamas! He says, ?Whatchu doin?? He had his guitar with him and we sat up all night, just me and him, with him showin? me his stuff. I got it!! I picked it up and after two gigs or so, I was there. We just did the tour. Ten weeks of one-nighters. I had like two days off in ten weeks. Every night was a one-nighter. Everyday we drove from four to ten hours and then did a gig. Same thing over and over. It was excruciating. Good thing I was young.
Mo: Good experience for you?
Steve: Looking back on it?yeah, I?m glad I did it but it was horrendous. It wouldn?t have been so bad if we could?ve spent time in one place.
Mo: What was Luther like?
Steve: The hardest working guy I?ve ever worked with. He didn?t take breaks, he?d do one three hour set and just sweat his ass off. One night, we were playing the French Riviera at night on a castle. On the rooftop of the castle. They set up lights and power, and it was crowded. I saw him in the backdrop of the moon. I saw steam rising off his back! It was incredible! Great, great, performer. High energy, lived to play, and he just loved it. That?s all he ever did. Later on, in 1995, Living Blues Magazine commissioned me to interview him as a feature. I did it here in San Francisco. He succumbed to cancer shortly thereafter.
Mo: I could just go on and on and on about everybody you?ve been with and we?d be here all day! On that note?is there anybody you want to add that didn?t get mentioned, that should?ve been mentioned?
Steve: Louis Myers. Louis was a genius. Johnny Little John is one of my favorites. Great guy to work with. We had so much fun. Little Brother Montgomery and Blind John Davis; the epitome of musicians. They had the whole world of music in their hands; they could play anything at any time. The history of American music. I use to see them as close as I am to you and stand over their shoulder and watch them play. Got to play with them a little bit. Got to play and tour with James Cotton. He?s a heavy player. Early on I did some shows with Paul Butterfield, which was way cool. Got to play with Bo Diddly one night which interesting. I toured with Koko Taylor. A European tour with Koko. Then a Canadian tour. We used to do a lot of Canadian work. It was a big market for us. There were four or five cities up there, where you could play six nights in a row in one venue and then move on to the next city so it was pretty cool. Except it was winter almost every time.
Mo: Why would you want to leave such a blues rich area? You?ve got several gigs, put out a couple of albums, why would you want to leave?
Steve: Several reasons; my marriage failed and fell apart. My mother died. I had been to a lot of funerals. Sunnyland was?well?it really hurt me to see Sunnyland like that. I was sinking into a pit of depression. My quality of life wasn?t good.
I did a tour out in California with James Cotton and we drove up and down the coast in March. It was brutally cold and icy in Chicago, and out here, it?s paradise! Drivin? from L.A. to Santa Barbara and back to San Francisco, and I said, 'You know? I could live out here!' It was time for a change. I was waiting for something to lead me to something and California is where?s it was at.
Funny thing because my guitar that I had brought back in Brooklyn, in the 70s, which I still have today, the only guitar I played for about 15 years, I didn?t realize this until years later out here but the serial number of the guitar is 101707. You don?t see the meaning in that? Highway 101 and 707 is my area code. It?s like I was meant of be here!! I really feel that. I?m a superstitious person. That was definitely a sign and I didn?t realize it at the time.
The San Francisco Beat
Mo: Did think the music scene was awesome out here, and what lured you out here?
Steve: I did a tour with Sunnyland Slim in 1978 out here [S.F.]. I knew people and I still have a very good friend out here named Harry Duncun. He books Bimbo?s. At the time, he booked Sunnyland on several tours. He plays very nice harp.
He also booked Boz Scaggs and plays harp with him too sometimes. So we came out here back in ?78 and that is when I met Harry. I had met Walter Shufflesworth in Chicago back in the early 80's. He had the Dynatones. I first moved to southern California, down by the Santa Barbara area, where I met Jon Lawton and my other friend Tom Bucy, and I hung out with them a little bit. I came up here [northern California] to explore the Oakland area. I had also met Mark Hummel back in Chicago. I eventually did some shows with him, when Rusty Zinn couldn't make them. This was in 1994. I drove all my stuff out here, had it in storage, I wasn?t makin? it down in the southern part so I came up here. Jimmy Rodgers was playin? at Yoshi?s. I came up here and I found a whole bunch of people I knew or that knew me. Walter offered me a gig right away in the Dynatones.
Mo: That was your first California [steady] gig?
Steve: That was my first California gig up here. I didn?t even have a place to live! I had a gig with no place to live. I found a place in either the Guardian or the SF Weekly [local papers]. I got a room in a house shared by four other people. I lived there for about a year. I did a lot of touring with the Dynatones in that year. As far as Salt Lake City, northern California, Oregon, a lot of Reno and Vegas, a lot of casino work. We were out a lot. I also made inroads here, as a sideman, and I worked with other singers like Joyce [Juce] Garcia, Cathy Lemons and Applejack. Boz Scaggs called me and I started doing some things with him. Eventually I just set down some roots here and I?ve been here almost ten years now.
Mo: Do you miss the Chicago scene at all?
Steve: I miss my friends but a lot of my friends have died. Even the younger ones, guys my own age, several have passed away. Last time I was there, I did my last CD [I?ll Be Your Mule 2001].
Mo: When you arrived on the scene [S.F.], was it inviting?
Steve: People were nice to me. Very nice people here. Anthony Paule was very helpful in getting me gigs when I first moved out here. Mark Hummel too was very supportive. Boz really motivated me to pursue my career as a leader again. I had become complacent as a sideman, but he, Applejack, and I started messing around in his studio on Tuesdays and he recorded a demo for me. He actually gave Delmark his recording of "Jumping At Shadows" that we used on "C" For Chicago. That was recorded here in San Francisco. Boz is an extremely generous person. The Dynatones were a lot of fun. A lot of fun in that band. I?m a bluesman at heart. They played some blues but the emphasis is more soul and dance music.
Mo: How long were you with them, and who was in the Dynatones at that time?
Steve: A year and a half. It was Walter of course on drums as the bandleader. Mike Rose was on trumpet. Rick Munson on sax. Bill Singletary on bass. We went through two vocalists while I was there, Johnny "HiFi" Fitipaldi and Jackie Payne. I also sang a few numbers each night.
Mo: Any other longstanding gigs you have out here?
Steve: I?ve been playing on and off with Juce Garcia about that long. I?ve been playing with Cathy Lemons and Johnny Ace since about 1995, on and off. I still do the occasional show with Mark Hummel, and we recently recorded a live CD that should be released sometime soon.
Mo: Your discography is so long. Recorded with so many from here to Chicago. Not including your own, any particular project stand out?
Steve: Yeah, Barkin? Bill. We did one record on Delmark. As far as my playing goes?I felt I did really well on that one.
Cathy Lemons CD [Dark Road---Saloon Recordings] I think is really high quality. I?m very happy with what I did on that one. I?m on a lot of it. I?m really proud of my work on that one. It?s an excellent CD.
I am also happy with the Delmark stuff I did on my own. I also dig one I produced and played on with Andrew B.B. Odom, on Flying Fish. That one is called Goin' To California. Prophetic, huh?
Mo: Do you ever get restless backing people?
Steve: It all depends on who. Some people are just not as emotional as me. I?m very emotional about it. If someone is pushing me, like a really good vocalist, a piano player, or whoever, it just drives me to even greater heights and I do get very excited. Sometimes, the people just don?t care as much, like they are just going through the motions. I still try to push myself to play. I try to create something every time I play. Sometimes it?s hard and sometimes it comes very easy.
Mo: Where?s home when your playing?
Steve: In these parts, The Ivy Room [Albany, California] and The Saloon [SF].
Mo: Has living here been musically fulfilling for you?
Steve: At times, yes. Absolutely.
Mo: Do you think the Bay Area is saturated with great musicians?
Steve: I think there are some really awesome musicians here. I think there?s more musicians and bands than there are venues, yes. It seems to be the problem all over.
Mo: I know you?ve heard me complain about this before. You're too damn generous handing off solos and ?Freund Time? when I want to hear Steve?s guitar and singing! Always handing off to guests on stage and always having guests. I really don?t want to hear anybody else when I go to hear Freund! What do YOU get out of sharing and what is your philosophy on all that?
Steve: Karma. My karma is very important to me. Like I said, when I came to Chicago, I had guys like Hubert Sumlin giving me their guitar?he laid it over my shoulders and actually put it on me! What kind of honor is that? How could I be anything less than gracious to another young person? Not age wise but another musician. Especially if I know they really love the blues and they really need to be nurtured like that.
You like me and it?s highly flattering, but that is part of Steve Freund. It?s a tradition and it?s a Chicago thing. Musicians in Chicago are not jealous. They learn from each other. We work together like a club. We have to stick together as part of networking, I guess. Everybody would sit in with everybody! Sunnyland would have all these great guys come in. Willie Mabon walked in one night. Sunnyland called him right up to the stage. Hubert Sumlin would let all kinds of musicians play. Now, if a guy isn?t that good, you let him play one or two numbers and that?s it. If the guy?s a great musician, you welcome him because to have an excellent musician come to your show is a high form of flattery. You don?t see that here too much. In Chicago, half the crowd every night were musicians.
Mo: Your shows are that way. I see that at your gigs.
Steve: That?s cool, but a lot of musicians don?t come out. In Chicago, the clubs are really close. You could walk to many. I use to walk to three or four clubs in a night. Here you have to drive an hour. I know that for you to drive to the Ivy Room, that?s like an hour. For B.J. and some of the other people that come up from San Jose, it?s a long drive. Musicians have to drive too. I have musicians that drive up from San Jose. I?m not gonna let a guy drive all the way from San Jose, and he?s a good player, and not let him sit in. I can?t let everybody sit in but I try to let my friends sit in if I can. It?s a good thing. It nurtures them, it makes them want to play more, it enhances the whole scene. It puts out good, positive energy. We learn from each other. I learn from other people all the time. So that?s the way it is.
Mo: Do you ever feel like it should be just a Steve Freund show, and maybe you should limit the amount of people you have sittin? in. Really step out and shine for the whole show. What?s your take on that?
Steve: I do that. You don?t see me doing that [sit-ins] at Biscuits & Blues [SF Blues Club] or Blues Festivals. But, if I?m doing the Saloon or the Ivy Room, these intimate neighborhood bars, that?s the time to do it. I wouldn?t do it at a major venue. Unless some major star came up, maybe. For the most part I have the awareness of where I am and to make the right decision on when it?s appropriate to let people sit in.
Mo: Well?I don?t do Biscuits, and I don?t do festivals, so that leaves me out! Make sure you get one in for me every once in awhile. I do respect your stand on that, Steve. Sorry if I nag you too much on that issue and yes, you do add a sense of community to the blues scene out here.
Mo: How do you come up with ideas?
Steve: I don?t consider myself a good songwriter. It?s a little hard for me to answer these questions. Compared to some of my favorite songwriters like Willie Dixon, Percy Mayfield, or Big Bill Broonzy, I think my stuff is kinda childish. I try to come up with ideas of my own personal life experience. Try to make it appealing to every person. Everybody experiences similar things. We all go through love, life, death, money problems, health problems, things like that. It?s just a matter of making it entertaining and amusing, in a way, while rhyming it.
Mo: Is it hard for you?
Steve: Very hard. Some songs come real quick. A lot of times I get ideas when I?m on hikes with my dog. That?s where I got the ?I?ll Be Your Mule? idea. I was on a hiking trail, here in Vallejo. I came up with this idea and I started singing it to myself, in my head. I went home and wrote down a line, and then later another line came, and another, and I kind of put it together.
I?m in the process right now of finishing up a couple of songs for this next CD. When I go home today, I?ll probably add a line here and there. I?m always reworking them. Get an idea and then I might go back, cross out one line, or one word, and just pop something else in.
Mo: Do you ever get ideas that you just have to have so and so perform on a particular song you?ve just written. Like it was written for that person to play on it?
Steve: The personnel is not dictated by me; it?s usually dictated by the record company. I can?t always get who I want.
Mo: First song you wrote?
Steve: It?s on Romance Without Finance, and it?s probably, "Never Picked No Cotton."
Mo: Do you have a favorite song of yours?
Steve: "I?ll Be Your Mule." I like that a lot. I consider myself a mule anyway. The ?mule? thing is old country slang and the old guys use to call each other that. They use to call each other mule. I remember Johnny Little John would walk into the club and the first thing he?d say, 'How ya doin? mule?' Sunnyland would say, 'Whatchu know mule?'
If you think about what a mule is, it?s an animal of labor. It never quits. Might not be the fastest animal. It?s slow and steady and it gets the job done. That?s why I consider myself to be a mule in certain aspects.
Mo: That?s what the song is about?
Steve: Yeah, pretty much. You can count on a mule even though he might be cantankerous. If you treat the mule right, you?ve got a really good friend. If you betray him, it?s over. The mule represents, to me, trust and inner strength.
Mo: That?s one of your favorites, huh?
Steve: "A Dollar A Mile" is too, actually. Even though I?m not too happy with the vocals on it, I think the lyrics are applicable today.
Mo: Heck yeah! Were you drivin? around North Beach [SF] or something? when you came up with that one?
Steve: Yeah, but also in parts of Chicago, on a Friday or Saturday night, it's just insane to try to park. I lived under a mile away. I had to drive sometimes because I had to drop off my amp. I would pull up, I would drive 30 seconds to one minute to get there, then drive around for a half an hour trying to find parking! It?s really like that almost anytime you go down to North Beach or Fisherman?s Wharf. The song just makes sense. With the price of gas today, that line is quite topical.
Mo: It should be two dollars a mile nowadays.
Steve: That?s what I charge [laughs].
Mo: Instrumentals. You write some really wonderful instrumentals. I love to hear instrumentals and how come you don?t do more of those?
Steve: It?s hard to come up with ideas. So much has been done already, it?s hard to find something fresh. I?m just not that creative.
Mo: "Cool Dream." Where did you get the idea for that?
Steve: I came up with that little signature lick back in Chicago. It?s a pretty little lick. I don?t think, in that case, the title really means anything. Although, what had happened in Chicago is, I use to go to Maxwell Street every Sunday. Maxwell Street has since been torn down, but it was this giant area and every Sunday morning, from dawn to dusk, was this gigantic flea market. Unbelievable! You could buy anything there, and I did. You had guys playin? blues all day. This was the Southside of Chicago. I used to go there every Sunday, whenever I was in town.
There was this one year we had a tremendous heat wave. Man, it was the worst. Chicago had the worst heat waves. I was down there one Sunday and it was excruciatingly hot and someone had opened up a fire hydrant and it was shootin? water out. So I went and I drank out of it. Usually, that wouldn?t be such a problem, since city water was what I drank at home anyway. I didn?t know, but I found out later that a pipe had burst and they were getting sewer water in there. Anyway, I drank from this thing and about twelve hours later, I was living on the toilet seat because I just got so ill. It was one of the worse times in my life. I was sweating profusely, I was dehydrated, I had some kind of dysentery or whatever, too weak to even go a doctor. I probably lost ten pounds in three days. I was just sitting around and sweating. Walking around the house naked, it was so hot!
I remember just being so ill and I had a moment where I felt OK and I sat down on the couch, picked up my guitar, and I played that lick. I put it all together and that?s when I named it "Cool Dream." I was dreaming of being cool. That?s the story on that!
Mo: "'C' For Chicago." Did you write this song before you left Chicago when you were thinking about leaving, or after you already got out here?
Steve: I had already been out here about two or three years. I came up with the guitar part first. The guitar part was inspired by a bleak winter?s day here in California. One of those awful periods. Rain for days. The rain was coming down like little icicles, I remember. Sitting, looking out my window, really depressing mood, and I just came up with that lowdown guitar figure.
"'C? For Chicago" is actually about my trip, alone from Chicago, my very first time with my pick up truck with a trailer, driving across country. That?s exactly how I felt coming out here.
Mo: So you do get inspired to write from depressing times?
Steve: Oh yeah.
Mo: There?s one part I?m not quite sure about in that particular song and it goes, ?and my pistol is my rider and I can?t be satisfied??
Steve: I carried a revolver with me on the front seat the whole time under my hat. It?s about rollin? out on the road, that?s what it?s about. ?My rider? is my pistol instead of a person.
Mo: Do you think your style is jazzy?
Mo: Not even a touch?
Steve: Maybe a touch. I?m not a jazz guitar player. I?m just a string bending type of player. The difference between the jazz players is they don't bend strings, if you want to get down to the musical aspect of it. They bend a little bit but they don?t do these full big bends the way us blues guys do. That's a major difference. Blues guys use lighter strings and bend. Albert King, Freddy King and B.B. King, for example, there?s a lot of bending. It?s all bending. That?s how you get that blues quality.
Mo: ?Jumpin? At Shadows.? What made you want to cover that song? Does it have special meaning to you?
Steve: That song is about somebody who is having turmoil in their life. That?s what that signifies. Jumping at shadows is when you're feeling paranoid or not sure if you?re on the right path in life.
Mo: Is that where you were at at that moment?
Steve: Yeah! Leaving Chicago and coming out here was a traumatic experience. My birth sign is Cancer and we?re homebodies. I have my shell with me all the time. I carry my little shell with me wherever I go. I know change is good sometimes, but uprooting oneself is difficult. I like to set down roots and grow things, which is what I?m doing now. Get into the roots of things. I just don?t dig moving around too much.
Mo: Tell me about Steve Freund, the producer.
Steve: I haven?t really done any producing in awhile. I produced a couple of projects for Wendy Dewitt lately. I did some work for Blind Pig records. I did Magic Slim, Snooky Pryor, and Henry Gray, the piano player. B.B. Odom, that was for Flying Fish records.
Mo: How do you like producing?
Steve: Producing was good. Those were all live recordings, it was different. It was a little easier. When you do your multi-tracking and stuff, it?s much more technically oriented. In producing the engineer is so important. When I get the credit for producing I say I was more like a musical director. I was assigning parts here and there, making suggestions, endings, trying to bring the best out of vocalists. I did Mark Hummel?s CD a few years back [Heart of Chicago---Tonecool Records]. That was good. Some really great musicians on that one.
Mo: Got any you?re most proud of?
Steve: Boy, that?s hard to pick. I think Mark Hummel stands up there right along side B.B. Odom album. [Goin? To California]. The B.B. Odom was incredible because he was such a soulful singer. I was the guitar player as well as the producer. I was really able to express myself as a musician as well as a director.
Mo: Have you self-produced any albums?
Steve: No, never produced an album. I?ve produced some demo tapes but I?m not good at producing myself. I like to have an outside set of ears, an impartial set of ears of someone I trust to listen. I?d do more producing if somebody wants me to. Call me.
Singin? the Blues
Mo: Do you like singing?
Steve: I do sometimes, when I?m on pitch, yeah [laughing].
Mo: Do you like your voice?
Steve: Startin? to like it more and more. I didn?t for a long time.
Mo: Who?s inspired you most as a singer?
Steve: Sunnyland. He made me sing. I wouldn?t be singing if not for him. I didn?t wanna sing---he forced me to sing. He said, "Everybody in my band works. I?m singin?, you sing."
When he would sing, it was world class, and when I would sing, people would get up and walk out [laughs]. I had personal friends of mine, who I love and respected, walk out, go outside smoke a cigarette, and when I was done singin?, they?d come back in.
Mo: Did that hurt you feelings?
Steve: Oh?it depressed me like hell.
Mo: Did you tell Sunny you didn?t want to sing anymore?
Steve: Yeah! I remember I said 'Sunny, I don?t want to sing no more.'
I remember this one night, on a break, I said 'Oh, to hell with this' and I went and sat outside by myself. I lit up a cigarette and I?m sayin? 'Aaah man.' Sunny walks out says 'What?s the matter boy?'
I said, 'Sunny, look. I don?t want to sing anymore, especially after you. You?re a world class singer and I can barely sing in tune. People are hating it, they're walking out!'
He says, 'No? no? no. Look how old I am. Look how long I been doin? this. It didn?t come easy. It?s not gonna come easy for you. You just have to keep doin? it. If you wanna play in my band, you have to sing.
I kept goin?, tryin? to get to that place where I feel good about it.
Mo: When was that?
Steve: That was in the early eighties.
Mo: Well, I thank Sunnyland for making you sing. I like your voice. Your voice has changed dramatically since the mid eighties. Do you like your voice now?
Steve: Like I say?I do hit some clunkers sometimes?.Singing is a real gift. There are so many elements to it. You have to phrase correctly, or else you?re gonna sound like an idiot.
Blues is an African- American music form. People sometimes have this preconceived notion that if you?re gonna sing blues you?re supposed to sound as if you were born in the delta, and I wasn?t. I was born out east. You sing the way you talk. That?s a natural singer. I like natural singers. I still don?t consider myself a singer. I consider myself a guitar player who tries to sing!
That?s where I?m at. I?m trying to constantly aspire to being a better vocalist. It?s a hard road.
Mo: Any favorite singers?
Steve: I would have to say Bessie Smith, Freddy King and on the modern scene today, Kim Wilson. One of my all time favorites. I think he?s got a great sound.
There was a guy who used to live out here named, Roger Troy. Jelly Roy Troy, and he played bass. He played with Mike Bloomfield, he played with Nick Gravenites, and he was part of the Electric Flag. He passed away maybe 14 or 15 years ago. He was an incredible singer!! Roger "Jellyroll" Troy. Even Sunnyland remarked about how wonderful he was. We loved him! That?s a guy you should know about. Boz Scaggs is one of my favorite singers as well. He's a wonderful singer.
Mo: Is it nice to just put down the guitar and just really belt one out once in awhile?
Steve: Yeah, it?s a thrill.
Mo: Would you like to that more often?
Steve: Yeah but I just don?t think that I?m really at that level of a vocalist to do it, but yeah, I?d do it on a small scale. I probably wouldn?t want to do it as a full time thing.
Mo: No, just once in awhile put down the guitar, that kinda deal.
Steve: Oh, it?s a totally different world. It?s like going from driving a milk truck to driving a sports car. Because all that pressure is gone. You can concentrate all your energy on the presentation.
Mo: You can tell the difference.
Steve: Oh really? Well a lot of times we record like that. First we do a scratch vocal. A rough vocal so the band can have a reference point. Then later on you can attempt a better take by just standing there with the microphone without your instrument in hand.
Mo: That?s why you get some good vocals on records because it?s all overdubbed?
Steve: Some of the best recordings are live. A really great artist doesn?t have to overdub. Some of my stuff is live. You just have better concentration if you don't have to play your instrument at the same time. I prefer live recordings because that is how you capture the true sound of an artist.
It?s All In The Hormones
Mo: I don?t know if you realize it or not but your singing, along with that guitar, has a special effect on the ladies. Do you realize the effect your music has on people, especially the ladies?
Steve: No. I?m sure not every woman would say that. You might, but maybe not many others.
Mo: Quite a few that I know of. Your fans.
Steve: Wow. I guess I?m expressing myself well then. Are you feeling male energy? What exactly is being brought out? I?m not sure.
It?s a sexual art form at its best. It?s hypnotic. To me, I would describe the music as "hormonal." It?s always been like that ever since I first got bit.
It?s a feeling and an attitude that I hear from the artist. It makes changes in my body. It makes my brain exude hormones! It can be happy hormones or sad hormones. It?s a mood altering thing. That?s why I do this. I can alter my own mood. The guy next to me on stage can alter my mood. It?s a changing, it?s life. You really feel alive, if that?s what you mean.
Mo: Do you think your music affects men the same way it does women? Like I said, I know quite a few of women who?aaah to hell with it. I?m just gonna say it?at times, it?s orgasmic!!
Steve: Not only me though, you get that off of other artists, I'm sure.
Mo: Sure but, your music does have that special effect.
Steve: Well, that is one of the highest compliments I have ever gotten in my life. I mean that sincerely. It?s mind boggling for someone to tell you that. I don?t even know what to say. You?re telling me that with what I?m doing, I have a purpose. I?m doing something good. A lot of times us musicians, we?re up here and we?re basically playing sometimes for minimum wage almost and we ask ourselves, "what the hell are we doing?I mean we?re fifty year old men here?."
I guess we are doing something right. We don?t always know that. When you tell somebody that, it?s very important to us. Thank you.
Mo: It?s therapy, you gotta know that!!
Steve: Well, it?s therapy for us too!
Mo: Wanna talk about record labels at all? How is it with Delmark?
Steve: It?s very prestigious to be on Delmark. If you look at their catalog, it is a who's who of jazz and blues. They?re still independent, though. It?s not like they have huge bucks behind them. They still struggle along. They supply a great service to the music world. They?re constantly reissuing old products. Bob Koester is a walking encyclopedia of music and film. The only thing is you just don?t make any money when you record. It?s not rewarding financially but it?s an honor to be on Delmark.
Mo: Ever play slide?
Steve: I do around the house but I?ve never recorded with it and I don?t bring it out [to gigs].
Mo: Ever think about it for a gig?
Steve: No, but I might start doing it. I?d have to bring a guitar dedicated to it. You really want to adjust the guitar to really sound good with the slide. Have to make some changes in the action. Raise the strings. I just haven?t done that. Probably start out with some Elmore James stuff.
Mo: You got a favorite instrument you like hearing?
Steve: Piano. I?m a piano freak. I have a nice electric piano at home and I can?t even play it. But I?m a piano freak. Because of my mother.
Mo: Play anything else?
Steve: I play bass.
Mo: When you?re getting? ready to go into a solo, how do you approach it?
Steve: It?s like walking into a room. Just walk into a room and look around you. I feel different every moment that I?m alive so I just try to "be here now" with it. I respect the song as an entity, and I try to work within the boundaries of that particular song. Just as an artist that paints a picture, I?m given a certain frame to work with and I wanna work within that frame.
In other words?I wouldn?t go into a Robert Johnson song and try some kinda fast rock oriented guitar. And then visa-versa, if I?m playing a jazzier number, I?m not gonna go in and try to play some Tampa Red licks. I just try to work within it and then try to be creative from that point.
Mo: Do you ever feed off something?
Steve: I feed off the musicians. I can feed off a person out in the audience. I feed off the audience most the time. If it?s a very small audience then I feed off another musician. If that doesn?t work then I have to feed off myself. [Laughing.] That is weird!
Mo: What do you get out of the audience?
Steve: I get energy back. It?s an exchange of energy, that?s what it is. I take music at a very spiritual level. I wanna move people. Music moves me, like I said, hormonally, and the only way to go is to get everybody else?s hormones movin? around. Alter their consciousness. Like a drug.
Mo: Well yeah. An addicting drug too!
Steve: Well, you understand that. A lot of people don?t!! A lot of people just go and get drunk and talk loud. They don?t get it. Again, it?s a trade off.
Mo: Do you think you feed more off a crowd that?s really gettin? down, dancin?, or do prefer a crowd that sits, watches, and listens?
Steve: The ideal crowd would be a knowledgeable blues crowd that likes to dance. People who know the songs or are at least familiar with the genre. People who will respect you enough to not scream at their boyfriend/girlfriend while you're playing a lowdown solo, but are able to get out there and dance and sweat, talk, drink and have a good time at the same time, respectfully. It?s an exchange of good positive energy.
As opposed to a guy who comes in off the street, with a harmonica, can?t play it, and then is gonna pull it out and play along with the band. Now that?s the low end of the spectrum. It happens a lot. It happened to me last Thursday!!
At the end of the first song, you sometimes know where the gig is gonna go, by the crowds reaction. Sometimes you have to work extra hard to win them over.
Mo: What do think when you see people singing along to your songs?
Steve: If they actually know the words? Well?I say I can?t believe they know my song. That?s kinda cool. That probably inspires me to perform better. That?s a compliment. They actually have the CD or heard it somewhere. That?s what we live for.
Mo: Do you realize that you have young players going to your shows, listening, watching, looking up to you, trying to emulate your style. How does that make you feel?
Steve: It?s good energy. It?s just the way I learned in Chicago, by goin? out every night. In a way, I?m kinda passing on what I learned from the masters. Like Louis Myer, Hubert [Sumlin], Eddie Taylor?. As they say, we?re keeping their memory "green."
Some guys get it off records because they didn?t have the opportunity to see these guys live. I was fortunate to be able to. There are guys like Nick Gravenites who were actually able to see these guys live. He got to see Big Bill Broonzy and Little Walter, imagine that!!
I was with Sunnyland who actually got to see Bessie Smith. These are all handed down. It?s a great thing to be able to hand down an art form. It?s an oral tradition.
You could read about it but it?s not the same as seeing somebody who actually does it or is being a part of something. Then in turn, if they get something from me, I would say, it?s their obligation to continue that tradition and nurture the next generation.
We were all kids once. Every ninety-year-old man was once a baby!! You have to hand it down to the next generation.
Mo: Some call you a ?Living Legend?, a master. How does that make you feel?
Steve: I take it with a grain of salt. It?s a compliment but I don?t believe it. I don?t think I have legendary status. Maybe some day. That word is getting thrown around too easily.
Mo: I?ve noticed recently that your playing is going up a notch. A bit more aggressive.
Steve: Yeah, I?ve noticed that too.
Lately I?ve noticed it because I had a really slow winter, and I didn?t play too much, and now I?m out there playing and I?m really happy to be out there doin' it. I?m just emoting more.
We all have personal issues goin? on. If you?re able to take a negative thing going on in your life and use that to make positive energy, well, that?s what I think I?m doing.
Mo: So, you get inspired more when you?re going through hard times?
Steve: Exactly. It seems to work for me. That?s why I got into it to begin with as a teenager. Maybe it?s a release for me. It?s an alternative to taking drugs and getting into trouble. It?s better for me.
Mo: Do you think you?re demanding on stage with your band?
Steve: Yep. On certain things I am. I want them to watch me and when there?s a break, I want everybody to break. I just want everybody to play heads up. I just want it to be as a team.
Not to be the greatest musician in the world. I don?t expect everybody to a virtuoso. As long as we do things together, I?ll have a great time.
Endings are important to me. I really like tight endings. I?m not as demanding as some people. I?ve heard horror stories about some. I think I?m mellow, in a way. I?m not gonna ridicule somebody on stage. Some people do that.
Mo: On some of your songs, with the vocal harmonizing and almost acoustic feel, you really catch that "old time feeling." Do you strive to catch that sound?
Steve: I don?t have to strive. It just comes natural because of the way I was taught. I was inspired by originals. Original people who made the music. I guess it?s rubbed off and I?m able to capture it in my own way. My own voice.
The Boz Story
Mo: Do you have any favorite tours that really stand out?
Steve: Boz Scaggs---when we did the Northern California tour. It was excellent! Touring with James Cotton was pretty cool.
Mo: So, Boz Scaggs, huh? How did you two hook up?
Steve: The original meeting between us was when Boz was in Chicago. I didn?t know him then. I was playing with Sunnyland Slim on a Sunday night at B.L.U.E.S., and I had just produced the Henry Gray album. It wasn?t even out yet. All I had was a cassette copy of the session, and it was roughly mixed. I brought it down to B.L.U.E.S and in between sets I popped it into the house P.A. cassette to see what would reaction, if any, I would get. I played it instead of the jukebox.
I was up there tuning my guitar and somebody said 'Excuse me?' I turned around and he says, 'Excuse me, who is that playing right now?'
I said, 'That?s a guy named Henry Gray. He used to play piano for Howlin? Wolf and that?s a new album coming out that I just produced and I was just checking it out.'
He goes, 'It sounds really good. By the way, my name is Boz.'
I looked at him and I said, 'Boz?.'
He goes, 'Boz Scaggs.'
I said, 'Ohhh, hey!' and I introduced myself to him.
I said, 'I have that first Steve Miller record, Sailor. That?s a really cool album.' Boz was featured prominently on that LP.
We started talking and on the next break we talked some more. I think he sat in and played a number or two with Sunny.
About two or three years later, Harry Duncun put together a Sunnyland tribute show at Slim?s. I think it was 1992. They flew us all out here. Me, Sunnyland, and the band. Junior Wells. Luther Tucker. Some local guys played as well.
Boz, of course, was part owner of the club. He played with us. That?s how we really hooked up.
When I moved out here in 1994, Boz heard about it and called me.
Behind Slim?s he owns a little recording studio. We?d all get down together every Tuesday night, just for kicks. Apple Jack, myself, Boz, and different musicians, and we would just play real good stuff.
He got his studio geared up, had a really good engineer workin?, and eventually he asked me to play on that CD, Come on Home [1997 Virgin Records]. That?s the Boz story.
Mo: Ever think of strayin? away from the blues a little bit and tryin? something new?
Steve: No. I just love blues so much that I really don?t aspire to do anything but that. I?m just stuck in the blues!
Mo: Do you think the "hobbyist blues players" make it hard for the professionals by taking gigs for cheap, or nothing at all?
Steve: Well?they do take a lot of gigs. They?ll play for cheap, yeah. If they wanna play, fine. I?ve turned down quite a few gigs lately because I have very strong principles and I refuse to compromise on some of them.
Everybody starts off as a hobbyist. We just don?t show up as a pro. You have to start somewhere. I?ve had day jobs throughout my early years. I don?t really hold a grudge. Live and let live. I do my thing and I try to stand above it all and let my music speak for itself. If you get it, you get it. If you don?t get it, go hire the hobby guy. That?s as far as that issue goes.
Mo: Is there ever a time when you feel uninspired, and you just want to give it all up?
Steve: I do during the dark winter months when it?s very, very slow and I?m not making any money. Still, I don?t want to call and beg for low end gigs. I say I?m gonna get a day job but I never do.
Mo: What does it take to get you outta that? More gigs?
Steve: Gigs always help. I have a very strong work ethic and my self esteem is based a lot upon how much I work. Self esteem has a lot to do with how I feel.
Mo: Do you have a dream gig?
Steve: I?ve played it! Otis Rush at the San Francisco Blues Festival. That was my dream gig. I didn?t know it would be but it turned out to be once me and Otis played together. It was mind-boggling to me. It was the most emotional playing I have ever experienced. It was an out-of-body experience. For me, but I don?t know if it was for Otis!! [laughing]. He certainly inspired me to understand why I got into this to begin with. Because of the music.
Mo: You?ve been a big fan of his for awhile?
Steve: Oh yeah!! Otis is unbelievably soulful. He exudes soul.
Mo: Have you ever played with him before?
Steve: Yeah?.One of my greatest memories. I had already moved here and I went back for one of my visits. I played at Buddy Guy?s Legends and Otis came down to my gig. I invited him up on stage. He came up and I gave him my guitar but he wouldn?t take it. He said, 'No, you play. I want you to play behind me.'
He just stood up there with a microphone and sang. That was another true highlight. That?s an affirmation when Otis Rush tells you that he likes your guitar playing.
Mo: Were you nervous?
Steve: I only get nervous when I?m not playing. Once I?m playing, I feel good.
Mo: We?ve talked about day jobs and you?ve had plenty?.
Steve: Oh yeah?today?I haven?t had a day job since 1995. I was doing furniture repair and refinishing in Alameda. It lasted about six weeks. I was juggling that and gigs at the same time. I was living in Richmond. It was a twelve-mile trip and it took an hour and twenty minutes!! It wasn't good and they basically said that it?s not workin? out, bye! [laughing].
Mo: Do things seem so hard right now that it makes you want to go out and get a day job?
Steve: I have a lot of financial responsibilities. I have child support for three more years. I have a house payment, the price of gas is through the roof?yeah, it is hard. I do need to find something else to do. My life?s experience is that every time I get a day job, the music always comes through. I guess I?m just gonna sit and wait unless a killer day job comes along.
Mo: If you could sit, talk, and jam, with anybody, who would it be?
Steve: It's a toss-up between B.B. King and Big Bill Broonzy.
Mo: Is there a most memorable moment you?d like to share?
Steve: There was an old piano player from Chicago named Jimmy Yancey. Pretty famous and he had a big hit called, "The Yancey Special." He passed on back in the 50?s, I think. His wife lived on and her name was Mama Yancey. A really small little woman and she could barely walk when I saw her. She used to play with Erwin Helfer, a piano player from Chicago. This was early on when I first got there in the 70s.
She would just sit up there in a chair and sing. Erwin would back her up and sometimes they had a drummer. She was this frail, old woman. My parents came to visit once and my mother came to the show. I brought her to see them. My mother was so moved that she went up and hugged and kissed Mama Yancey. That was a heavy time for me. That stays in my head.
Mo: Obviously you?ve been around many greats, you?ve suffered many losses. Tell me about a death that really, really affected you.
Steve: I?ve strengthened myself against death. I had a childhood friend and she was my buddy when I was like five or six years old. She died. I don?t know why, she was my age. That really hurt me. I girded myself to death at a very young age, when I was like six or seven years old.
I pretended one night that my parents had died and how would I act. I put myself in a scenario and I armored my heart. I knew it would happen someday. As sick as that sounds, I did that.
My father died suddenly one day in 1980. He went to work and never showed up back home. He died in an elevator in NYC. I was in Chicago. My mother completely fell apart. My brother was in the Army and couldn't be found. I had to fly to Manhattan and identify his body in the morgue and make funeral arrangements. I was still in my twenties. It was very difficult but I did it. I had the inner-strength to take care of business.
Death? I?ve never really been devastated by it and I?ve lost some great friends. It's a part of life.
Mo: What was the last thing you listened to?
Steve: Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman Band.
Mo: What new is going on?
Steve: I?m gonna go to Chicago in a two weeks to do a new CD with Dave Specter. I?m gonna go to Norway the next week and do five days in Oslo. Me, featured with Norwegian musicians.
In July, I?m going to England to play a major festival at a place called, Cumberia, which is on the border of Scotland.
Then back here, just do my gardening, my music and just see what else comes up.
Mo: So, you?re going back to record?
Steve: Goin? back to Chicago to record a joint effort with Steve Freund and Dave Specter.
Mo: Who else is gonna be on it?
Steve: We?ve got Harlan Terson on bass. We?ve got Marty Binder on drums. We?ve got Rob Waters on Hammond B-3, and we?re trying to get Barrelhouse Chuck as a guest on piano.
Mo: Released when?
Steve: My guess is probably next summer.
Mo: Any originals?
Steve: I have three originals. I think Dave has a couple of original instrumentals.
Mo: Quite a few instrumentals on there, huh?
Steve: Yeah, I think we?re gonna do about five instrumentals on it.
Mo: ?Hoverin? Hawk? [new song Steve's been playin' at gigs lately] gonna be on there?
Steve: I?ve got to finish it up. I have to go home now and finish it.
Mo: Well, Steve. I think that about covers it. I want to thank you for your valuable time and sharing what?s inside that blues head of yours. This has been a real honor hanging out and talking with you for a few hours. You just don?t know!!
Good luck to you on your new project and tours and I?ll be seeing you at your gigs!!
...da Blues Traveler
Copyright 2004 by Maureen Hayes. All rights reserved.