Extensive Interview With Sugar Brown

Samm Bennett Interviews Sugar Brown

February 15, 2014

Q: Sugar Brown’s Sad Day is dotted with blues and Americana classics like It Hurts Me Too, John Henry, Rollin’ and Tumblin’ and others, and you invest them with an authority of sound that speaks to your deep feel for such material. When did you first start *discovering* the blues and American roots music?
Sugar Brown: I first discovered blues music when I was fourteen, back in Bowling Green, Ohio. I heard music on a television commercial and liked it, but I didn’t know what the music was called, let alone who was playing it. So I went to my local record shop and I asked the guy behind the counter, “What’s the music that’s played on that tv commercial?” After he figured out what commercial I was talking about, he said, “Oh, that’s the blues.” I said, “Oh, I see. What LP would you recommend to me to listen to this music?” He took me into the aisles of records and gave me a record: “John Hammond ‘Live’” It had a bright red cover with a picture of Hammond blowing harmonica on a rack. His face looked like he was in some amount of pain. I bought it having absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I took it home and listened to it on my Panasonic record player/tape deck. The sounds of that record freaked me out, it was so haunting and shaking. I’ve never forgotten the sound of Hammond singing “One Kind of Favour.” That’s how I first discovered blues: It was in Bowling Green, Ohio, circa 1985. It involves a tv commercial and a John Hammond LP, that’s all I can remember.
Also around that time, I was also listening to cassette tapes of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits volume 2 and a Van Morrison’s album with the Chieftains. I was already also listening to the Grateful Dead as well as the Velvet Underground. Then in 1988, when I was sixteen, things changed when I bought Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years, also with no idea of what I was getting myself into. I bought it in Ohio and took it with me on a summer trip to Osaka, Japan, where I was going to stay with a host family on an exchange program. That album altered something in my mind; I wasn’t the same after that, even though now it’s just a normal outlook on life. But at the time, all I knew was that I’d suddenly found myself on a higher plateau of understanding music, that’s the only way I can put it without sounding strange. Waits’ music carried me into my college years in Chicago beginning in 1989. That was a time when a lot of my peers were going to Nirvana shows, coming back from concerts bloodied and bruised from flying pieces of drum-kit shrapnel. I preferred the more peaceful blues scene on the south and west sides of Chicago. I was just drawn to it, and it became a weekly practice and thing to do. Eventually, I started playing harmonica in Taildragger’s band. After I played some gigs with Willie Smith, that was it for me, I thought, “I think I’d like to play this music for the rest of my life!”
Q: You spent several years in Chicago playing the clubs with various blues musicians. Which musician(s) had the deepest influence on you during your years in Chicago playing the blues circuit? And what would you say was the most valuable lesson you learned about music or performance during your years there?
SB: Well, honestly, I don’t know if what I was doing in Chicago constitutes playing the “blues circuit,” since my gigging was limited to weekly gigs on the West Side. As far as musicians in Chicago who influenced me go, I’d have to say that, really, it goes back to the time I was a student at the University of Chicago. When I was a sophomore, I became friends with a local blues musician and Hyde Park denizen named Dave Waldman. He left Columbia University in the 1970s and moved to Chicago to play blues music. By the time I met him around 1990, he’d been in Hyde Park for many years and was a very well-known “blues guy.” He introduced me to the music of Little Walter, and subsequently taught me many things on the harmonica. He’s one of the best blues harmonica players I’ve ever heard, especially in the style or spirit of Little Walter. He himself got tips on harp from Paul Oscher in New York City. In the 1980s, Waldman used to play harmonica with Eddie Taylor, Big Smokey Smothers, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Smith, and Taildragger, to name a few. Waldman was then in a blues band called The Ice Cream Men. They played weekly at Lilies on the northside of Chicago. Steve Cushing played drums, Illinois Slim and Waldman would play guitars, and Scott Dirks played harp. Eventually, Johnny Burgin—a fellow undergrad and friend at the University of Chicago student— joined the group as second guitar player. The Ice Cream Men would start the night off with some tunes then back-up and feature great blues musicians from around town, including Jimmie Lee Robinson (vocals and guitar), Big Smokey Smothers (vocals and guitar), Big Wheeler (vocals and harp), and Taildragger (vocals). Eventually, I started sitting-in on harp. I remember Taildragger asking me on stage before he started the next song if I knew “Baby, Please don’t’ Go.” Fortunately, I’d learned to copy a lot of the Little Walter parts on one of the Muddy versions of the tune, so I said, “Yes, I know it.” He started the song and I jumped in and I felt so good playing with the rest of the band. Not long after that, Taildragger asked me to play in his band. All to say that, for me, Dave Waldman opened up the world of blues in Chicago to me, and I’m really grateful to him for that. Besides Waldman, Johnny Burgin taught me a lot on the guitar. He had the West Side style down cold, was deeply musical and driven like nobody’s business to play. He taught me a lot on guitar. Kenny Smith was also in Taildragger’s band, and he along with his father, the late Willie Smith, taught me the sound and feel of great drumming for the first time in my life. Through them, I learned of how drumming can help the harmonica really take off and soar.
And of course there’s Taildragger himself, who was always very kind and supportive of my being in his band. By which I mean, Taildragger always defended my place in the band when he was sometimes criticized for hiring a “Chinaman” (me) and a “white boy” (Johnny) instead of hiring black musicians on the west side who were more experienced and also in need of gigs. The 5101 Club and the Delta Fish Market, after all, were considered good weekly gigs on the west side. But Taildragger never hesitated to defend his choice of band members, and always argued that he liked us for wanting to learn blues from him, and that he also trusted us. Of course, in return, we had to set-up and tear down all the gear….(laughter). I earned $35 per gig.
Taildragger taught me by example how to stand up and sing in front of people. Now, I don’t and can’t sing like him, but he did get me to sing in the first place. At the same time, he’d say, “If you don’t sing, you ain’t getting paid.” So I guess I also learned how economic coercion and musical performance are deeply related (laughter). I never thought I’d sing before I joined that band, but he made me realize that you can’t just play blues, you got to sing the blues. It’s got to come out. Not only will you not get paid, but the audience will become bored unless there’s singing. Lastly, Taildragger would say, “Take your time, take your time!” This is something I still think about when I perform.
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from playing those gigs in Chicago, in addition to “taking my time,” was how to improvise playing music. For one thing, while I mostly listened to blues music at that time, I also started to learn about free jazz, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Eventually, I listened to Ornette Coleman and loved it. But even at the beginning of my gigging in blues bands, I liked the idea of improvisation, and thought that live blues contained within it a fundamental element of improvisational playing that I wanted to do, or at least try to do. Because of this, I think I became better at learning how to perform on instruments and sing with others while feeling the other sources of sound on stage, and doing this on the fly. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Of course, this was partly because I wasn’t really good enough yet on any instrument to improvise well, so maybe I’m just mixing up confusion and improvisation (laughter)…. But I’d improvise by using whatever I did know from what I’d learned and tried to make it work with the band. In school, I learned about the French word, “bricoleur”, somebody who makes things up as they go along and uses whatever tools they have at hand to do their fabricating. I guess that’s what I was doing, a kind of bricoleuring with blues.
Q: Sugar Brown, your record has a truly *vintage* sonic character and personality. As you mention in your liner notes, it is indeed very reminiscent of the sound of the classic Chess recordings, and was in fact recorded using vintage recording gear from the 1940s and 50s. The sound of the recording seems the perfect match for the very raw and characteristically *live*, and yes, vintage sound of your band. Did knowing about how this collection of songs would be recorded have an influence on your selection of material for the sessions? Or in how you chose to interpret the material you recorded?
SB: Well, this recording came about after I met Bharath Rajakumar. He lives in Montreal but I met him for the first time in Toronto in the spring of 2011. I’d been a fan of his since 2005, when I learned of his music on YouTube, and now we’ve become great and deep friends. He’s like a brother to me now. But when I first heard his music, I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was amazed by his harmonica playing; to my ears, it was the best blues harp playing I’d ever heard by a living man. And I loved his singing. For years I just enjoyed watching his videos and his band, which featured drummer Ben Caissie and guitarist Colin Perry. They were playing the music I loved most—Little Walter songs, Muddy songs, Jimmy Rogers, Elmore James, all the greats. They really knew how to swing, and I never heard a band play Little Walter songs like that or quite that well. It’s because I’m a die-hard Little Walter fan that I initially wanted to meet Bharath and eventually ask him to play on and record my album. Soon after I met him in Toronto, I called him up and we talked about blues and Little Walter’s music in particular. We both quickly learned that we have the same blues bible. It comes in three books: Muddy, Jimmy Rogers, and Little Walter. That’s the core for me. Bharath is a kindred spirit this way, too. Meeting him was like finding a brother I always thought was an impossibility. Two weeks after I talked to him on the phone about recording, I was in his studio in Montreal ready to record. I was more than ready.
But when I arranged to have this recording done with Bharath in Montreal, I didn’t concern myself with how he was going to record my album. I simply let him do what he thought he needed to do. I loved the sound on his album “Friday Night Fatty” and he said his present set-up was different and that it would sound even better. That was good enough for me. At that point, all I was interested in was in recording my songs and preferably getting Bharath to play harmonica on some of them. As for the recording, I entrusted it to him completely and didn’t think about it or even ask that much. He told me he was using a reel to reel similar to the ones used in Chess studios; that he could get amazing echo; and that the vocal mics were great. Moreover, he told me that he had many of the old amplifiers that Little Walter used to play back in the day. I’d never met anyone who pursued tone so relentlessly and scientifically as Bharath. I was amazed by his knowledge of the recording equipment and gear and of how to record this style of music like Chess did. For example, when Little Walter recorded the rapturous instrumental “Blue Lights,” there’s a moment at the end of the song when Walter crescendos and the echo goes crazy for the duration of the crescendo. Bharath knew how to produce this effect with his recording set-up, and it was all organically and inventively put together with the old mixers and various combinations of parts. Now, I didn’t realize how fully he was capable of producing these sounds until after I recorded with him. For example, the first tune I did in the studio was “Act like you Love Me.” I did that one solo. It was just me, a ’63 Gibson Melody Maker (short scale!), and one of Bharath’s National amps. Incidentally, this was the only song that wasn’t recorded onto tape, but onto wire, using Ben’s old wire recorder connected up to the mixers. But for this song, Bharath came up with the idea to tape a dollar coin under my boot heel. We put a mic on the floor next to my boot. I’ve sworn not to divulge the precise secrets on how they got that echo (laughter), but the result was an echo on my foot tapping that’s uncannily similar to the sound of the echo on the high-hat on Little Walter’s “Juke.” This is the kind of magic Bharath could conjure up in that studio.
But before I went into the studio, I had no idea how anything would be recorded or sound. I was really quite an ignoramus, I didn’t even know much about guitar amps. I just went in there and was prepared for anything and was just focused on performing the music. Initially, I intended to record a solo record and wasn’t even completely sure if Bharath or Ben would accompany me and on which tunes. I knew at least that I wanted Bharath to blow harp on “Sad Day.” That was a big reason I wanted to work with Bharath on this recording in the first place. But I was ready to sing and record all solo when I got there. But after I recorded the first tune, “Act Like you Love Me,” Bharath and Ben just naturally joined in on the other songs, taking up various instruments or jumping into the recording booth. We turned the session in a series of duets and trios, and eventually did a few numbers as a quartet with Ben on drums, Bharath on harp or guitar, and Zak Izbinsky on guitar. I had a list of forty songs ready to record in order of importance to me, and I just went down the list as we went along. In five days, we recorded more than twenty-two songs; fifteen or so made it to the album.
Q: One of the points about the recording that one notices over the course of many of the tunes is how your vocal sometimes goes a little “off-mic”. This is almost unheard-of in contemporary recordings, and certainly adds to the feeling of looseness and spontaneity normally associated with *folk* or *field recordings*. I find it very refreshing: a definite feature, not a bug. Is going off-mic from time to time something you were just *doing*, without any thought of it, or is it part of the aesthetic you were aiming for on this record?
SB: Right…..the pesky “off-mic” issue… I was definitely not aiming to sing “off-mic.” I’m sure many people would probably disagree with you and think it’s a bug and not a feature of the recording, but like you I don’t mind it at all because it reveals plainly the historicality of the moment of recording, that it’s happening right now, that it’s not touched up or made into a fake, perfect performance. As you say, it’s more like a field recording. I like that idea. Can’t take it back with live off the floor stuff, I like that, too. You gotta live with yourself and learn to enjoy it, minor blemishes and all. Moreover, I think you can feel the room better because of this, as it turns out; going off-mic reveals the space of that studio, which is expansive and airy. But ironically, I was actually consciously trying throughout the sessions to sing very closely into the mic because I was told to. I guess I just got too excited or delirious and naturally fell “off-mic”—a lot (laughter). Before this interview, I was actually starting to think I should really correct this problem, but now that I know you think it’s a good feature, maybe I should work on perfecting going off-mic! (laughter) But I’d also offer another explanation: I was fearful of electrocution. We were using old microphones along with ungrounded guitar amplifiers, all from the fifties, and I’d already zapped myself a few times. Electrocution around the lips can keep you spontaneous, all right…Ah hell, I don’t know, maybe I should’ve just worn a rubber mask.
Q: You play guitar and harmonica on the record, but you started your blues career many years back, in Chicago, specifically as a blues harp player, didn’t you? Has your background as a harmonica specialist influenced your guitar playing in any specific ways? Or, for that matter, your singing?
SB: Yes, I was a harmonica player in Chicago, but I also played a little second or rhythm guitar. Harmonica playing definitely guided my practicing and playing on the guitar. I started playing more guitar after I left Chicago because I found myself frustrated by “blues guitar players” who didn’t seem to understand how to play blues on guitar with and for the harmonica, especially for the amplified harp. While playing harmonica, I need  to hear the bass of the guitar because it gives the basic harmonic drive and rhythmic momentum to let the harp do its thing on top, like the way Jimmy Rogers or Robert Jr. Lockwood play “under” and for Little Walter’s harmonica playing. The key with this style of guitar playing is that you have to keep the bass strings on the guitar thumping while simultaneously pinching the high strings to play chiming notes and chords. This is impossible to do if you play with a pick because if you hold a pick, you can’t pinch the strings while keeping the bass strings going with your thumb at the same time. This way, you can support the harp on the bottom of the guitar but also comment on or respond to the harmonica lines with the high strings. Dave Waldman in Chicago taught me this stuff initially. I then learned more by watching people like Dave Myers play solo gigs on guitar at the old Checkerboard Lounge. He was a true master; he invented this shit when he played with Little Walter.
Q: Turning the Velvet Underground’s “Run Run Run” into a blues-style vamp was a fabulous idea. Has that song been a part of your repertoire for a while now or did you work it up for these sessions? And continuing along this line, what tunes, if any, did you specifically write for these sessions with these players, or which covers did you choose especially for these sessions?
SB: I’m happy you asked me about this song, because I’m really proud of the way we played and recorded it. I was messing around in open D-minor tuning for a couple of years before the session, and came up with what I thought was an odd feel and groove. I’ve been a fan of the Velvets since my high school years and always loved the song. So I figured, “Why not do ‘Run, Run, Run,’ and reinvent it through my open-D minor blues-grinder?” I figured, maybe at least Mo Tucker might not mind my strange effort! So I started performing this song at least a year before the session, and when I got to Montreal to do the session, I immediately knew that I had to ask Bharath to blow chromatic harmonica on it. I do the song in open-D minor, so it’s natural to use a C chromatic harp. D-minor and a C-chromatic harp is a great combination that’s been tried and tested by the greats like Muddy and Walter. So while in Montreal, I had a sudden epiphany during a night off from recording. I realized that the rhythm of the tune—the way I played it, that is— was similar to Muddy Water’s song, “Natural Born Lover,” which featured Little Walter on chromatic. I conveyed this idea the next day to Bharath and he understood exactly what I was thinking about and knew what to do immediately. His harp accompaniment is so awesome, so moody; and he recorded a tidal wave of a chromatic solo that’s as powerful Little Walter’s solo on Muddy’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You”. I’m really proud of how we worked out that song during the session. His solo still blows me away every time I hear it. I played very quietly on guitar so the harp could have that dramatic effect.
In general, my plan for the recording was to do mostly original tunes but I knew I also wanted to do something by Muddy or Jimmy Rogers, or songs in their style, and have Bharath blow harp while I played guitar. “Sad Day” is basically a Muddy “cover” with my own lyrics and a Jimmy Rogers style guitar part. I also love playing slide in open D a la Elmore James so we worked out “Picking the Blues” with Bharath on second guitar and Ben on drums. That worked out beautifully, though we must have done that tune at least ten times before we found the right tempo and groove. That’s the first track on the album. As for other covers, I also recorded an R.L. Burnside tune, “Poor Black Mattie,” as well as a Bob Dylan song, “Million Miles,” but I decided not to put them on the record for various reasons.
But, to answer your question, with the exception of “Sad Day,” I didn’t plan in advance who would play on this or that song. We just made it up as we went along, trying out duet and trio combinations. We’d never played together before, but it was obvious that we spoke the same language of blues music rooted in Muddy, Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and others, and it was like meeting people who spoke the same language in a foreign country. We were very receptive to each other and knew we were onto a great collaboration. So I’d say, for example, “Ok guys, here’s a song of mine called, “Hook-a-Boogie.” It’s a boogie. My guitar part goes like this, and this is how I’d like to sing it. Can you guys jump in?” Bharath came up with a brilliant bass guitar part, like a steady Bo Diddley twang of the kind you can hear on Little Walter’s “Rollercoaster.” This now gave the song a counter-rhythm for my guitar part, and it’s this combo that makes the song groove. Ben then knew just the right feel and groove on drums. Sometimes he’d jump on bass and play like Big Crawford. We briefly discussed matters at hand, figured out a general division of labor, gave each song a shot, and if it worked, we’d do a few takes and picked the best one. We’d then move on to the next song. I know the boys had some troubles with the gear occasionally, but other than that, I think back to the recording process with them as being a lot of fun and exciting, super chill, and ultimately really productive.
Q: Your “Hook-a-Boogie” is just as natural a boogie tune as could be imagined. Could’ve been written decades ago, meaning it’s got a truly “authentic” feel to it. When it comes to boogie, what artists spring to mind for you?
SB: Aw shucks, Samm, thanks! The original idea of that song of course came from the music of John Lee Hooker. Bharath provided the perfect bassline and counter point, giving it a kind of Bo Diddley feel as well. Basically, I like dark and mean boogies, like those in the key of A by Eddie Taylor or Magic Sam, or those in open G by John Lee Hooker. In Chicago, Johnny B. Moore played amazing boogies in the style of Magic Sam, adding his own unique pulse. I love R.L. Burnside’s boogies; he also plays in open G a lot. Junior Kimbrough has some great boogies, in my opinion. And of course I can’t think about boogies unless I think of Lightin’ Hopkins, whose one of my all time favorite blues musicians, I just love his boogies…. When I was in Chicago, I used to occasionally hear Maxwell Street Davis play some amazing boogies that, when I think of it now, remind me of Robert Petway’s music. Canned Heat played amazing boogies, too. I like boogies on piano, too.
Q: Your collaborators on “Sugar Brown’s Sad Day” all have an obvious affinity for Chicago blues: the sound is there, the grooves are there, the necessary looseness and rawness are all there. Can you tell us a little more about them and their backgrounds?
SB: All of these guys were born and raised in Montreal. I discovered this great city through them. Bharath is slightly younger than I am, and Ben is a few years younger than Bharath. Bharath is what you’d call an “Anglophone” in Montreal, even though he’s fluent in French. It’s because his father learned English in Philadelphia as a young doctor from southern India. His mom is of Welsh descent. So for Bharath, English was the common language in the house. Growing up in Montreal, he worked different jobs but hearing Little Walter’s music when he was seventeen or eighteen put him on a path to enlightenment and incredible artistry. He’s been playing the harmonica and singing the blues with great musicians in Canada and Europe ever since, and now plays more and more in California with blues greats like guitarist Junior Watson and pianist Fred Kaplan. For a decade or so, his band, Bharath and the Rhythm Four, played every Friday at the Griffintown Café in Montreal, an amazing run for any band and venue. They really developed an amazing scene there. Ben’s been playing with Bharath for a long time and also plays drums in rockabilly and other roots music bands in and around Montreal and Quebec.
Q: What’s next for Sugar Brown? Do you have plans to work with these same players again?
SB:Well, I just want to keep on performing, singing, and writing new songs and recording them. I’ve been recording at Bharath’s studio in Montreal over the past year with some new material, and I have another friend and bandmate, Julia Narveson, who also records full-track mono on old gear. She plays second guitar with me now. She’s in a jug band called the Ever Loving Jug Band. I’m also working with Ronnie Hayward, perhaps the greatest upright bass player I’ve ever met. He’s well known already, especially in the rockabilly world, and he’s one hep cat. And, I’m going to definitely keep on working with Bharath in one way or another. Gig-wise, in the near future, I’ll be playing here and there in Toronto, and then will play at a couple of music festivals in June and July, including the Mariposa Folk Festival. I also plan to go back into the recording studio in June.

[1] Samm Bennett, born in 1957 in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, is a singer and songwriter and player of various instruments such as drums, percussion, 1-string and 3-string guitars, jaw harps, mouth bow, electronics, toys and found objects. He has pursued his own musical vision for the past 37 years, and continues his work as a soloist and as a leader or member of several different ensembles in Tokyo, where he has resided for the past 18 years. Learn more about him and his music at http://www.polarityrecords.com