Interview with band leader Pierre Lacocque with Niles Frantz
November 16, 1998 and edited in 2006
(Niles Frantz Freelance Journalist, Host Of WBEZ Weekly Blues
Radio Show "Coming Home")
Part I: Childhood
and Adolescence [1952-1970]
Part II: The
College Years: Montreal, Canada [1970 - 1976]
Part III: Back
to Chicago [1976-Early 1990's]
Part IV: The
Birth of Mississippi Heat [1996-1999]
Part I: Childhood and
Q. First I want to
talk a little bit about your personal history
to get some basic facts. Tell me where and when
you were born.
A. I was born October 13, 1952 in Jerusalem, Israel.
We are a Christian family and my father is anOld
Testament Scholar. We lived in Israel a few times.
The first time was between 1951 and 1953. My dad
went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as
a Biblical researcher. We later returned to Jerusalem
for one year in 1963. I was then eleven years
old. We left Israel in 1953. After Jerusalem we
lived two years in Ludwigshafen-Am-Rhine, Germany.
My father had to do his military service as an
Army Chaplain. After Germany we moved to Alsace,
France. My dad was a Protestant minister. He had
received a job to serve in a beautiful mountain
village called Neuviller. It was situated in Alsace
and was about thirty minutes from Strasbourg.
While we live happily there, my dad was finishing
his doctorate in Theology at the University of
Strasbourg. We lived in Neuviller from 1955 to
1957. From France we moved to Brussels, Belgium.
By then my dad, though still a minister, decided
to lean towards the academia and began teaching
Old Testament at the Faculte de Theologie Protestante
de Belgique. Today he's world famous in his field.
Though now retired, he still travels the world
to lecture. My mother goes with him wherever she
is able to. In spite of being of Belgian descent
where all the Lacocques as well as the Tournays
(my mother's side) came from that country for
numerous generations, I didn't begin to live there
until I was 5 or 6 years old.
Q. That's great. Do
you have any brothers or sisters?
A. Yes, I have an older brother, Michel. He is
19 months older than I, and is heavily involved
in Mississippi Heat. His birth date is March 12,
1951, and he is born in Ransart, Belgium. Then
I have a sister Elisabeth who was born in Strasbourg,
France, in 1956... July 10, 1956. She's quite
artistically inclined, and has done four of our
CD covers. We are a close family.
Q. Are there any other
musicians in your family?
A. My mother used to play the piano, church and
classical music basically. My sister eventually
learned to play the piano as well but not professionally
or anything like that, just as a hobby. My children
and especially Elisabeth's children are quite
musical though. Michel's son Jeremy also plays
bass. My father tells me that a maternal uncle
of his played the harmonica.
A. His name was Henry Lurkin.
And on my maternal grandmother's side, the Van
der Lindens, one of my mom's uncle, Bernard, also
played it. My mother recalls hearing him play
in her parents' backyard. They had passed away
by the time I was born.
Q. What would they
play on the harmonica?
A. French Folk songs. Given the fact that my family
on both sides were quite religious -- my paternal
grandfather Jean Lacocque was also a minister;
and my mother's side of the family helped build
their town church in Ransart, Belgium -- I have
to assume they also played church tunes. You know,
this was the time when the harmonica began to
be pretty popular. It tended to be played with
double reeds which when played gave an accordion-like
sound. So Polkas, folk and popular tunes of the
time were hummed in my parents' homes. But I don't
know how advanced my great uncles were on the
harmonica. They never made a career out of it
as I did, however.
Q. Was there music
in your life? Did you listen to records or radio
as a family or individual?
A. Well... my family was VERY intellectual. I
say "very" because my father had only
passion for Philosophy and intense Theological
scholarship. So anything to do with nonintellectual
activities like music or sports was not well received.
In my case, my love for soccer and music [I loved
listening to Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha
Franklin, Little Richards...] were considered
petty and frivolous. However my father did like
Gospel and Jazz. I remember times when he was
particularly happy listening to Sidney Bechet,
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzerald. So I do have
special memories around music as occasional bursts
of joy in the family. Reading and studying the
Latin and Greek classics, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus,
Sartre, Old Testament books and any of the Judeo-Christian
philosophers like Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel
was greatly encouraged at home. So was watching
heavy existential films by Ingmar Bergman, for
Indeed, the idea of relaxing and having fun as
I was naturally inclined to do, did not fit well
with the Protestant ethics instilled in my parents...
especially on my dad's side. Music was very important
to me, and I enjoyed it. I had to find creative
ways to listen on my own time. I would go to my
bedroom, shut the door and put the radio on softly
so as not to alert my dad. As far back as I can
remember, my father was writing books, sermons,
articles... you name it. I don't ever recall seeing
him without a note pad and pen, reading, taking
notes, writing. He needed absolute quietness.
He was one of those intense scholars... like many
artists ... who needed complete peace to concentrate
and create. So hobbies like listening to soccer
games on the radio and/or music enjoyment had
to be done subtly and un-intrusively. However,
it is to my father that I give credit to introducing
me to the harmonica.
When we lived in France - I must have been 3 or
4 years old - my father bought me a harmonica.
A plastic, green harmonica. Coincidentally, its
shape looks exactly like those Hohner Golden Melody
harmonicas I play today. Except that instead of
being green, the harmonicas I now play are red-colored.
When I began playing Blues at seventeen years
old I used Hohner Marine Bands. They have a different
size or look to the one my dad first gave me.
Later on, I shifted to Hohner Golden Melodies,
which have more of a round look to them and look
like the one my father bought me. Funny, I have
been thinking about that lately. So when I was
introduced to the harmonica we were living in
Neuviller, France. I remember crying when I heard
the sounds that came out of that toy!
Q. Explain this to
me a little more. The sound of the instrument
was bringing tears to you.
A. Yes. I remember blowing in it. I remember the
sounds, the sounds coming out from this instrument.
It hit me so deeply that I began crying. It echoed
what was inside of me. So I knew very early that
the harmonica was THE instrument for me. Harmonica
songs I heard in my childhood, like the Beatles,
grabbed me somewhat. Yet not enough for me to
drop everything and say: "This is it".
That came much later when I came to live in Chicago
in 1969. In my youth it was songs by Ray Charles,
Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding that spoke to
me the most.
Q. Soul singers.
A. Very interested in that.
Q. So how old were
you when you enjoyed this music?
A. I would say early teens. We lived in Brussels
in a suburb called Anderlecht. We lived there
from about 1958 to 1968... I have great memories
of Anderlecht. I was passionate about professional
soccer, and there is a well-known team in that
town with that name. To this day, I receive in
Chicago a weekly magazine from my country giving
me fresh news from that club, and the ongoing
Belgian soccer competition. But to return to my
history with the harmonica, my father who traveled
a lot as a Biblical scholar, came back one year
from India with a couple of gifts for me: A harmonica
- a Hohner Marine Band - and a "Sergeant
Pepper Band" Beatles album. Another gift
was a flat knife made in India
... a beautiful knife that you had to unfold to
open. I was quite pleased with that. That was
around 1964. I was about twelve years old at the
time, and I had never tried to play any tunes
on the harmonica 'till then.
In spite of that new harp which fascinated me,
I didn't hear anything on record or radio that
inspired me to play it. That came later, when
we moved to Chicago. Before 1969, I had no idea
Blues music existed.
A. Sure there were tunes by the Beatles and the
Rolling Stones with harmonica playing on it. During
my pre-Chicago years I loved the harmonica but
didn't know deep blue notes could be played on
them. These are the harp sounds that later transformed
Q. So when you played
the harmonica as an adolescent, what did you play?
A. I tried simple melodies. Nothing advanced.
I love melodies on the harmonica, I really do.
I tried to play some of the stuff the Beatles
did, not too well though. I still hadn't gotten
that "bug" to play with mastery. Considering
the profound affection I have for the harmonica,
I am puzzled that I didn't play it sooner than
at seventeen years old because my love for it
was always deep.
Q. So you moved to
this country when?
A. In the summer of 1969. After Belgium we returned
one year to Israel from 1963 to 1964. My father
had received another scholarship to study in Jerusalem.
We returned to Brussels in 1964. Shortly after
that dad received an offer to teach for a year
at the Chicago Theological Seminary. He began
traveling back and forth from Brussels to Chicago
until they made him an offer to teach there for
a full year. My brother Michel and I were attached
to our school, so for that one year we stayed
in Brussels in two separate families to be able
to stay as students at Ecole Maimonides, our school.
Our parents took Elisabeth with them to the Windy
City. Ever since Kindergarten and all the way
up to High School my brother, sister and I attended
Maimonides, a Jewish Orthodox School. We were
the only non-Jews ever to study there. My dad's
father during World War II hid Jewish families
from the Nazis. My mother's family also took care
of entire families, hiding them and/or bringing
them food and clothing to their hiding places.
My maternal uncle, mom's older brother, took an
active part in the local Resistance but was taken
to a concentration camp and killed. Actually someone
snitched on him. As happened in many cities, there
was unfortunately a pro-Nazi faction in my mother's
town, Ransart. My maternal grandfather, an underground
Resistance leader, was also caught by the Germans.
He never spoke under torture so no one got killed
because of him. He once told me they did medical
experiments on him, and injected substances in
his lower body... He even was put in front of
firing squads a few times to make him talk. Each
time he was saved by a priest he knew, who vouched
for his innocence. This is a long story to say
that my family was deeply influenced by Jewish
History, its existential thinking and Theology
It is a fact that some members of my family did
consider converting to Judaism at one point or
another during their lives. This actually occurred
when my dad's father converted to Judaism later
in life. After my grandmother died, he married
a Jewish lady and moved to Israel, near Tel-Aviv.
He died in Israel in 1978. Anyways, my paternal
grandfather Jean Lacocque or "Pepere "
as we called him, knew the Grand Rabbi in Belgium.
Jean wanted us to attend Maimonides School. He
convinced the Grand Rabbi that it was the mission
of the Jew to welcome non-Jews if they show interest
in learning about Judaism. And that is literally
how we got to go to that school... From Kindergarten
all the way to High School, my siblings and I
learned Modern and Biblical Hebrew, Jewish Scholars
like Rashi and the Talmud, Latin, Greek, English,
Dutch, German ... The school was ultra religious.
Some of our friends later became Rabbis. ... My
dad was publishing a lot, and as I said above,
in 1966 he received an offer to teach in Chicago
for a year. That year Michel was about to finish
Secondary school and he and I were also attached
to our friends at Maimonides. So my parents left
with my sister Elisabeth while Michel and I stayed
with separate families in Brussels.
They returned to Brussels the following year.
While in Brussels in 1968, my dad received a tenured
position at the Chicago Theological Seminary.
He had taught there on and off since 1966. So
in the summer of 1969 the five us moved permanently
to Chicago. That year changed my life forever.
Once we settled in Chicago my sister Elisabeth
and I went to The University of Chicago Lab School,
a High School affiliated to that University. Michel
went to the University of Chicago, and entered
as a freshman in Comparative Literature. The Lab
School gave me credit for my studies in Belgium.
That meant I could combine my junior and senior
year in one academic year.
That Fall 1969, on a Saturday night, I walked
from our home on Dorchester and 58th to a nearby
concert hall called Ida Noyes. The event was sponsored
by The University of Chicago. I had no idea I
was to hear Blues music, let alone harp maestro
Big Walter Horton! I don't recall going there
with anyone but myself. At Ida Noyes I heard a
music I never heard before. The music shook me,
shook me. There was an older man playing the harmonica
the way I had never heard before. The sounds that
came out of that instrument sent shivers all through
me. I was awe-struck!!! I thought if I had to
invent a soulful music for the harmonica I would
have invented what I was hearing. The deep sounds,
the moaning, the amplified tones... I did recognize
one tune that night though: Big Walter played
La Cucaracha, Blues style. What a thrill!!! I
have enjoyed recorded versions of that tune by
Big Walter over the years. He returned to it often
during his live shows. When I recorded "Ghost
Daddy" on our Handyman CD I was able to insert
Big Walter's La Cucaracha melody. ... Listening
to the Walter's band that night and his harp was
a marvelous experience... a Peak Experience...
From one moment to the next I was a new man. I
now had discovered a new means of expressing myself;
and with my all-time favorite instrument to boot!!!
By the next Monday morning, I bought me a harp.
Q. Do you remember
where you bought the harmonica?
A. Harper Court in Hyde Park. We were living on
Dorchester and 58th, also in Hyde Park. The store
was far away by walk. But I didn't care.
Q. What was it that
A. A Hohner Marine Band upon the store manager's
recommendation. I started buying books on how
to play Blues. I also began buying albums with
harp players on them. Besides Big Walter, I got
into Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, Junior Wells,
Papa Lightfoot, James Cotton, John Mayall , the
two Sonny Boy Williamsons, and Charlie Musselwhite,
among others. I followed Muddy Waters' albums
closely as he always had great harp players working
with him. I spent six, seven, eight hours a day
learning how to play it. I kept that practice
rhythm for years. My parents never interfered
with my hobby. You know, the harmonica can be
an obnoxious instrument. It can be as devastating
as a badly played violin. When I hear beginning
harp players, I think "Oh, my God... how
awful..." Yet my parents never discouraged
me from my newfound passion.
Q. Did you ever want
to play anything else like the piano or guitar?
A. Yes. For me the piano was a noble and sophisticated
instrument. I love the piano. I compose on the
piano, badly, but I play it to figure out bass
lines and melodies. If I hear a song I'm drawn
to, I try to figure out the bass and melody on
it. I've been using the piano in this way since
the mid-1990s. This approach has widened my creative
options. Be this as it may, the harmonica has
always been THE instrument for me.
Q. All right, so you
heard Walter Horton and it changed your life.
Q. So when did you
next pursue music?
A. I bought records and harp books. I went to
hear James Cotton , Carey Bell, Paul Osher and
people like that. I sometimes went with Michel
and friends to Theresa's where Junior Wells was
playing. I would have never gone to Theresa's
had it not been for my brother Michel's encouragements.
I was too shy to do that on my own. Michel saw
something in the new me he appreciated. He could
see that my chronic internal struggles and sadness
were transcended through my musical inspirations.
I think he was moved by that early on. He still
Q. So did Michel take
you out to clubs?
A. Yes, literally, literally. We took taxis from
Hyde Park to Theresa's, and that is how I got
to know Junior Wells. He is the first one that
gave me encouragements to continue playing. When
we went to Theresa's, Carey Bell and James Cotton
would often be there. Billy Branch used to go
too, but I didn't meet him until much later. I
was a real beginner. Only about 7 months of practice
under my belt when I first met Junior. I remember
Michel talking to Junior, and he managed to convince
him to get me on stage and jam with him. Junior
called me up. We played together. As we played
he hugged me. I remember his eyes looking at me.
I saw approval. Junior seemed touched by my playing.
Perhaps I should say by what I was TRYING to play.
He gave me his 16-hole chromatic harmonica.
This is a true story. He also gave me a 10-hole
Marine Band harp of his. It was in the key of
E. Junior could sing in any key. But he liked
higher keys for the harp like High F or High G.
I said: "look, I cannot take these harps."
He replied: "you have to... Keep them"
I told Junior that Michel and I would treat him
to a special lunch the next day -- this was a
Sunday night I believe-- and should he still feel
like giving them to me I would then accept them.
He insisted I keep the E-harp, and said he would
come the next day. I kept that harp for years.
We set the time, and gave him the address for
the next day. We worked hard at fixing a nice
meal for him. I believe we had prepared Chicken
Kiev, among other tasty foods. He never showed
up. As weird as it may sound, I was not disappointed.
I was feeling confident I was on the right track
musically. Junior Wells' blessing to continue
playing the harp was more than enough for me.
I have met Junior again over the years. He always
seemed taken by my harp playing.
Q. Who else was playing
with Junior at Theresa's?
A. Sammy Lawhorn, Phil Guy, Nate Applewhite, Muddy
Waters Jr. ... I don't know where Nate is now.
He disappeared from the Chicago scene. I liked
him. I especially liked Sammy... a kind and likable
man. Years later, I found out from George Baze
that he learned guitar from Sammy Lawhorn. Phil
Guy was also nice to me but I didn't get to know
Q. How often were you
A. Not often.
Q. How often did you
get on stage there.
A. I suppose I went a dozen times over the years.
I was living in Canada from 1970 to 1976. I went
because of Michel's encouragement. He made it
Q. Did you talk to
A. Yeah, talked to all of them, especially Junior.
Q. So you were only
in Chicago for about a year before you went to
A. That is correct.
Q. Is there a story
you want to tell about something that happened
in October 1992.
A. Yeah. October 24th. We were playing at Shades.
Q. Where is Shades?
A. Shades was in Deerfield, IL, on Milwaukee Avenue.
Mississippi Heat was the opening act for him.
We had Calvin Jones on bass that night, Billy
Flynn, James Wheeler, and Allen Kirk on drums
too. We only made $260.00 for the band that night!
George Baze was fronting Junior's band. He and
I met for the first time that night. George later
told me that Junior was impressed with my harp
playing and told him "That is the way a harp
should sound." Junior came to me after the
opener, and said he wanted to buy my amps. "I
love your tone... " he said. I played through
two amps that night. A big one, and a small one
I had the club mike.
Q. What kind of amps?
A. A Fender Super-Reverb, black face. And the
smaller one was a Fender Super Champ. So he said
"I am buying your amps." I respectfully
told Junior that they weren't for sale. He said
"That ain't what I am asking you Pierre ...
I am asking you how much you want." He went
to his sock, and took a huge rolls of hundred
dollar bills wrapped with rubber bands. He took
the rubber bands off, and started putting money
down on my Super Reverb. He went up to one thousand
dollars. I told him I had no other amps besides
those two. He didn't even listen and replied:
"How much do you want?" He got up to
fifteen hundred and was willing to go higher.
Our conversation went back and forth like this
for about 15, 20 minutes. He wouldn't budge. Same
with me, though I must say I was flattered. I
didn't sell the amplifiers to Junior. Every time
he and I met in subsequent years, we hit it off
quite well. Once we met at Sarreguemines, France,
in 1995. His band and Mississippi Heat were featured
at that Blues Festival. We again hit it off as
if we had known each other forever. I always appreciated
the man. I know his death was difficult to bear
for many people. It certainly was for me. I made
a point to go to his funeral on January 23rd,
1998, and paid my respects. It was on a Friday.
Q. George Baze was
playing at the time for Junior?
A. George Baze was Junior's front man and guitar
player. I liked his playing and singing. I asked
for his card. The rest is history. He became a
regular Mississippi Heat member. Whenever Billy
was unavailable to work with us, I hired George.
He traveled with me to Canada and Europe many
times. This lasted for years until George joined
the band in 1997. When he died on October 9th
1998, he had been with us for over a year. We
are proud of his contribution on our Handyman
CD. He loved that album.
Part II: The College
Years: Montreal, Canada [1970 - 1976]
Q. Describe your college
A. I graduated from the University of Chicago
Laboratory School in 1970. I also wanted to finish
my European High School diploma in French (known
as "Le Baccalaureat Francais"). There
was no such a program in Chicago. My choice was
to either go to Los Angeles or Montreal. At that
time, these were the only two cities that provided
that French Baccalaureat degree. Why did I want
that diploma? I don't know. The European High
School system is so hard I wanted to prove to
myself I was smart enough to get it. I chose Montreal
because it is a French-speaking city. A beautiful
one I might add. I went to Montreal for one year.
From 1970 to 1971. I got my diploma but I decided
to stay there and study at McGill University.
At that time, McGill was dominantly English speaking.
All classes were taught in that language. Over
the years, things have changed and classes are
now also taught in French. I became interested
in Psychology. I loved Montreal. I had close friends,
many of whom were musicians.
The good thing for the three of us Lacocque children,
my father being a Professor, his Seminary covered
our undergraduate tuitions. McGill University's
tuition cost was cheap: $900.00 American dollars
a year. My family was always poor. While teaching
in Belgium, for instance, my father in Belgium
wouldn't get paid for weeks at a time. My maternal
grandparents would come to our help. They played
a central role in our lives. Besides loving us
dearly they send food, and whatever else we needed
whenever they knew we struggled financially. This
was especially so when we lived far away, like
in Israel and in France. My Bachelor degree was
in Psychology. I received it in 1974. Instead
of returning to Chicago where my immediate family
now lived, I decided to stay at McGill for two
extra years. I wanted to study Counseling Psychology
at the graduate level. I received my Master's
degree from McGill in 1976, and returned to Chicago
soon after that.
Q. So were you doing
music at this time?
A. Yes. While in Montreal from 1970 to 1976, I
started meeting local Blues musicians. With a
few exceptions, they were all influenced by the
British scene. So I got to hear renditions of
Eric Clapton's and John Mayall's songs, among
others. John Mayall was influential on my early
harp-playing style. I used to enjoy performing
his "Room to Move" live. I remember
he used a F# harp while the rest of his band played
in C#. Quite unusual key for a harp tune. John
Mayall played harp with taste and melody. He still
does. Over the years, he plays more background
harp than anything else on his tunes. Be it as
it may, he wasn't too hard to learn from. To this
day I am interested in him because his musical
arrangements are creative, and also because he
makes every song count. Something I pay attention
with my own songs too. And his band members have
always been outstanding: Eric Clapton, Peter Green,
Coco Montoya or Buddy Whittington, for example.
What moves me the most as a musician, and harp
player in particular, is tone and melodic phrasings.
Little Walter was phenomenal in that department.
In the early 1970's I was playing in Montreal
with a band called the Albert Failey Blues Band.
To this day I haven't figured out where that name
came from. It was not connected to any of the
band's names or their relatives. I stayed with
them for about a year but quit to join another
band called Oven. Weird sounding name. Oven, a
quartet, was dynamic and passionate. While I continued
to play and study at McGill, I was going through
a personal crisis: Being lonely in Montreal away
from my family now living in Chicago. I experienced
severe anxieties and panic attacks, as well as
despair. I was suffering a lot. Playing blues
at the time was twofold for me: Incredibly pleasing
and incredibly devastating. Very strange, I don't
have that anymore. I haven't felt that conflict
in years. My wife Vickie and my two children Jonathan
and Natalie, and my family's support have a lot
to do with giving me solid grounding and roots.
Oven, formerly called Genesis (like the famed
band), was a blues-rock band. Our songs were influenced
by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Hendricks. The lead
guitarist's name was Michael Curtis. One of the
best I have ever heard. He still lives in Montreal
but stopped playing professionally. He also studied
at McGill, and lived in a student resident Hall
next to mine. ... We had a band reunion in September
of 1992 at the G-Sharp club in Montreal. Gary
Sharp, the owner and a very good friend of mine
flew me in from Chicago for these two gigs. It
brought warm memories. Gary, who had been my manager
while in Montreal, a dear friend and an "angel"
in my life, died of an unexpected heart attack
a few years ago. It was quite a shock to us all.
We were about the same ages he and I, though he
loved to party hard... I still keep in touch with
our bass player Stuart Patterson and guitar player,
Michael Curtis. Stuart Patterson still plays professionally
in that town and leads his own band. He is a great
musician. A consummate pro. One of the nicest
man you'll ever meet. As far as Marty is concerned,
our Oven drummer, I lost track of his whereabouts.
I heard he joined a band in Toronto. These cats
were awesome musicians. I stayed with Oven for
a couple of years until I couldn't handle my depressions
One factor that helped me cope in Montreal is
that I always found people who cared about me.
I know that sounds strange. Even when I was in
the deepest of sadness and despair, I had people
showing caring towards me. One of my McGill professors,
Dr. Marv Westwood, invited me to live with him
and his wife. He knew I was alone in Montreal,
and took a liking for me. In spite of my gigging
and turmoil, I happened to be a good student which
may have also helped my cause. I lived with them
for a year and left the graduate student housing
I had stayed at previously. He, another professor
of mine, Professor Bill Talley, and my best friend
Ron Cadieux made my suffering more bearable ...
In spite of these supportive figures or "angels"
in my life, I wasn't able to lift myself out of
my inner troubles. I was dealing with suicidal
feelings. I decided to stop playing music, and
to orient myself towards intellectual endeavors.
Up to that point I had kept my feelings to myself,
and had not practice the art of expressing myself
in words. It was time for me to find ways of explaining
to myself what my life's meaning and purpose was
all about. I was experiencing a full-fledged identity
crisis. I started reading existential books on
the meaning of life. Judeo-Christian philosophers
and theologians attracted me the most. I started
to connect more formerly with the intellectual
side of my family, and began reading the same
authors they had spoken to me about for years
but never showed interest in. It helped me so
much. I started taking notes. It was a healing
process. What I read answered my questions. The
authors spoke of the meaning of anxiety, of life,
of vocation... I wrote down things that pertained
to me. I started accumulating all sorts of notes
and quotes, which I filed under various headings.
This was the birth of a new exciting era for me.
An era that saved me from sinking to a point of
no return. These notes were to help me later at
Northwestern University as I referred to them
in my papers and class discussions. ... By 1976,
the year I graduated with my Masters in Counseling,
I stopped playing music to focus on the philosophical
side of me. I pursued intensely and passionately,
reading, writing, and taking notes that pertained
to my situation and confusions. I was hooked on
existentialists like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre,
Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Rollo May, Paul Tournier,
Abraham Heschel, Viktor Frankl, and especially
Albert Schweitzer. It was very intense. This passion
lasted for 14 years, until about 1988 or 1989
when I decided to return full-time to music.
Part III: Back to Chicago
Q. Do you think music
was opening you up too much?
A. Yes, that is exactly it. It was way too much.
I didn't feel like I had a home. It was the beginning
of an agonizing ride. My parents eventually realized
I had unfinished business with them. They willingly
and lovingly worked with me to work through whatever
sadness I had about my childhood. Issues such
as the numerous countries and cultures we had
lived in and encountered away from Belgium, or
the fact I had missed being around my maternal
grandparents and cousins, having to cope with
being a Christian in a Jewish orthodox school,
and so forth. My siblings and I have always been
foreigners. Different from people around us. I
have often thought that this helped me appreciate
the plight of some of my African-Americans friends
in this country.
Q. Weren't you part
of a band that won some kind of awards for Blues?
A. Yes, that is correct. With the band I just
spoke about, Oven. We won first place at the Montreal
Battle of the Band in 1975. After we won the "Battle",
our quartet received great press. We hoped it
would open the door for a recording contract.
That was the winning price the Battle of the Bands
promoters had advertised in the papers prior to
the contest. So we won it. The sponsor of the
Battle was a lawyer. I think he went bankrupt.
Maybe he chickened out. Either way he disappeared
and never kept his promise. Regardless of that,
I was going to quit Oven anyways as it was clear
at the time that I had to attend to my emotional
Q. Was your repertoire
A. I wrote a few original tunes, mainly instrumentals.
They were influenced by Little Walter tunes, who
to this day remain my mentor and inspiration.
Oven rehearsed often, and it showed during our
live performances. This is a feat because to this
day I have rarely met musicians liking to rehearse.
Unless it is for a recording, that is. Even that
can turn into an ordeal. As a bandleader I used
to bite my tongue on this issue, trying to work
around it without resorting to unpleasant confrontations.
I no longer hold back. I don't tolerate this anymore.
Either you rehearse or you go your way, and we
go ours. We've definitely learned the hard way.
It is not by chance that one of Mississippi Heat's
CD's is entitled Learned The Hard Way. ... The
lyrics I wrote to that title track don't address
the issue I'm sharing with you now, but the title
of the album definitely pertains to Michel and
I having learned certain do's and don't as band
leader and manager of a professional band.
Q. So, when did you
come back to the U.S.?
A. I came back in 1976. Up until then I was in
Montreal. I returned to Chicago to be closer to
my loved ones.
Q. So you stopped playing?
A. I stopped playing with bands. I played for
myself on and off but with little inspiration.
I pursued a Ph.D. in Counseling and Clinical Psychology
at Northwestern University two years later. That
was in 1978. I did it fast. Northwestern University
gave me two years credits for my Masters at McGill.
I had done the equivalence of three years of supervised
counseling work in Montreal, including a full
year internship. I had basically finished the
research to my doctoral dissertation before I
entered the University.
As I said, ever since my Montreal days in the
early 1970's, I had folders of psychological notes
as a result of my need to find a way out of my
existential hell... They existed for private reasons,
not for academic ones. These folders and notes
turned out to have saved me years of tedious post-graduate
work. Not to mention the financial burden these
years saved me. I chose as my dissertation title:
"Meaning in Life: Healthy and Pathological
Aspects". All I had to do to finish my doctorate
was to follow advanced Clinical Psychology courses
as well as a full-year internship at the Illinois
State Psychiatric Institute in Chicago (1977-1978).
After graduation in 1978 I became a psychotherapist
and pursued intellectual activities. Though I
always enjoyed working with clients and patients,
I also discovered a passion for writing and publishing
professional papers. For fourteen years, I published
articles, book reviews, even a book with my dad
on topics close to my heart; namely issues pertaining
to how the experience of a meaning in life correlates
with being mentally healthy. Obviously, the two
do not go hand in hand as Hitler, Stalin, the
KKK and so many evil persons do have a purpose
and passion in life. That brought me an exciting
challenge to explain and demonstrate such point
as well as to propose a revised mental heath theory
which includes specific ethics at its core ...
Q. So after fourteen
years, what drew you back into playing music again?
A. Well, this intellectual momentum that I had
led me to feel I was becoming old too fast. You
see, in being a psychologist, the whole idea is
to be a wise man. The goal is basically similar
to a Shaman, Priest, Rabbi or Minister: To understand,
contain and manage the mystery and meaning of
emotions, and to help people find a path out of
their labyrinth. But during these fourteen years
I began to feel like I distanced myself too much
from my emotional core, my spontaneous side. The
side that makes me feel happy to be alive.
By 1988, 1989 I hit bottom again. This time it
was from over accentuating my intellectual side
at the expense of the vibrant, spontaneous child-like
side. You can call it a mid-life crisis. Whatever
it was, it hit me again like a ton of bricks.
Despair took over again. I was about 37 or 38
years old. I was happily married -- I had met
Vickie in 1978, and we married in 1980. But I
felt an emptiness in my life. As addictive as
my intellectual passions were, I felt I didn't
have as much time as I wished to be close to my
two chidden, Jonathan and Natalie, at the time
seven and four respectively. And Vickie as well.
For fourteen years my excitement was to read,
study, write and publish.
Q. Were you following
A. On hindsight it's an undeniable fact. We have
much in common.
Q. What then?
A. Well, my love for my kids and wife helped me
bear this new crisis. I realized I was not as
part of the family as much as I could have. On
hindsight, my obsession with writing and publishing
was like being involved with a mistress, as weird
as it sounds. So, I think these realizations got
me to change. This was not a mere intellectual
decision. I knew I had to find a healthier equilibrium
in life. My passion for harp playing came back.
From one day to the next, the urge to return to
Blues music overtook me. From feeling lost and
confused, I finally found my calling. Ever since
I got back as a full-time musician, everything
has fallen into place for me. As deeply immersed
as I am in playing, I have tamed my urges to relentlessly
create at the expense of my family. I guess I've
matured. Everyone in the family is now comfortable
with my pace.
Q. What did you physically
A. I think I knew in my heart of hearts that if
I continued my intellectual pursuits I wouldn't
enjoy the gold I had in my life. My wife Vickie
was feeling increasingly abandoned by my intellectual
passion. More than I had ever realized. Something
had to be done. I began longing for the harp.
And that is what I did.
Q. So you started playing.
Q. In the house and
A. Both. When I took the harp seriously again,
I had lost complete touch with the Blues scene.
On rare occasions I had gone to Wise Fools Pub
or Kingston Mines to see Big Walter or James Cotton
play but I lost track of new recordings, especially
the newer harp maestros like William Clarke, Rod
Piazza, Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, Gary Primich,
Mark Hummel, and so forth. I had never heard of
Kim Wilson, and after Little Walter, he is one
of the best harp player alive today, or ever for
My first official gig in Chicago was at my church
in Oak Park, Illinois. As I said earlier, we are
a Christian family. So one Sunday a new couple
came to our church. They had recently moved to
Oak Park. The man is Jewish and his wife is Christian.
They just had a baby boy and came out to check
our church. The man was not a practicing Jew.
So I started talking to him, and welcomed him
to our church. I asked what brought him in. He
said it was his wife Amy. I asked him "What
do you do?" He said he was a musician, a
Jazz singer. I said "It's nice to meet a
musician... the music I love is Blues." His
eyes lit and said, "Let me tell you the truth,
I am a Blues singer". His name was Tad Robinson.
Tad was one of the first musician, and harp player,
I connected with in Chicago since my return in
1976. Our families became friends, and we started
socializing. He invited me to some of his gigs,
and let me sit in. I started thinking of ways
to get gigs. And that is how the first Blues Benefit
at my Oak Park church [Pilgrim Church] came into
being. We started a yearly Blues Benefit event
for Pilgrim. An event we kept for years. It was
a huge success financially... Tad left Chicago
a few years ago. He now lives in Indiana, near
Q. Okay so you meet
Tad Robinson in your church.
A. I am thrilled. I am practicing everyday and
now I am back.
Q. Did he take you
A. Yeah. He was playing with the Mojo Kings at
the time. He had just left Big Shoulders and had
recorded a few tracks on their last CD. The Mojo
Kings had Mark Brombach on piano, Steve Freund
on guitar, Harlan Terson on bass and John Hiller
Q. So then what happened.
A. Well, I started meeting musicians through Tad.
I was trying to re-hook with the Blues harmonica
world. Someone mentioned the name of this guitar
player, Joe Zaklan. I don't know how I got a hold
of him. Joe also plays harmonica. I called him
to see if he knew of a band that could use a harp
player. He said, "I'm playing with friends
every Sunday at a place called No Exit. Why don't
you join us. We play between 4PM and 7 PM."
I started going. Bass player and singer Sonny
Wimberly, formerly with Muddy Waters, and Carl
Schneider on piano -- he could play in any key
-- were the better known musicians at these informal
gigs. It was led by drummer Michael Lynn. I played
at No Exit every Sundays, between November 1990
to July 1991. That is how I re-hooked with the
Chicago Blues scene. Sonny would come regularly.
We hit it off right away. He was appreciative
of me and my playing, and would pay me out of
his pocket. He took me under his wings. Through
these gigs I also met Jon McDonald who eventually
was to become Mississippi Heat first guitar player.
Q. So you didn't get
to know Sonny very long.
A. No. He died August 24th, 1991.
Q. It is like he was
there to help you get back.
A. Amazing, I am telling you. I will never forget
his kindness towards me. We had recording plans
and we were rehearsing.
Q. That is exciting,
really exciting. All right. So you are gigging
around. You are connecting with people like Steve
Freund. Really well known names.
Q. What is US Blues?
A. It was a club Sonny and I often played at.
It was located in a basement. It had a small surface
area, including its bandstand.
Q. Where is No Exit?
A. North of Chicago. Near Loyola University. Northeast
side of Chicago.
Q. US Blues?
A. US Blues has folded now. Old Town on Wells
Street, I believe. We did lots of weekends there…
After Sonny died, I started calling around to
connect with Blues bands in the Chicago area.
I found an Illinois Entertainer magazine with
printed names and phone numbers of such bands.
They had a special edition on local bands. From
that list I called Willie Kent to ask if he needed
a harp player. At that time I didn't know any
of the people I called. Including Willie. I eventually
got a hold of Tre, of the Blue Lights band. I
told him I had been in Canada for a long time,
and was looking for a Chicago-based band. He invited
me to sit in with him. He loved my playing, and
asked me to come back. So I stayed with Tre for
awhile. In the meantime I got to know his drummer
Cleotis Cole, who also played for Doug McDonald
and the Blue Mirror Band. Cleo is a great guy.
He too liked my playing. He talked to Doug about
me. As I got to know Doug and his band, I felt
they were more compatible musically with what
I wanted. So I joined his band. I stayed with
Doug from July 1991 to January 1992. We had great
times together. His guitar playing is awesome.
One of the top player in Chicago... A great singer
and entertainer. He played Albert King tunes,
and songs in minor keys which I loved. I enjoyed
his enthusiasm. Eventually we had creative differences
because I was starting to build my own repertoire
of songs. So by the end of that year we decided
to go in our own direction. To this day we are
good friends. Sometimes I invite Doug play to
play with Mississippi Heat.
Part IV: The Birth
of Mississippi Heat [1996-1999]
Q. So how often do
these bands play, like once a week or weekend,
A. Moderate pace. We played at the Checkerboards
every Thursdays and Doug McDonald would have weekend
gigs every two weeks or so. So it was not overwhelming.
At the Checkerboards on Thursdays, Junior Wells
would come and sit in with us. I got to get reacquainted
with Junior. I also met other musicians like Little
Smokey Smothers and Ray Allison - at that time
working with Buddy Guy - whom I had never met
Q. So you're playing
in black clubs and black neighborhoods.
A. Yes very much so. In the suburbs, we used to
play at places like Long John's, The Red Room,
and At the Tracks were whites folks were in the
Q. So you're still
A. At that time I worked full-time as a Psychologist.
I was in charge of Harper College's mental health
services in Palatine, Illinois. Soon after I left
Doug and began Mississippi Heat, I left Harper
to work part-time. Social workers friends of mine
hired me to work for their psychotherapy practice.
That was in 1993. This part-time job gives me
freedom to play music full-time. Without it my
family couldn't live well. It also liberates me
from feeling guilty about doing what I love to
do, because it brings dependable income home.
Q. And you are playing
4, 5, 6 times a month.
A. Right, Yeah. ... With Doug's band I hit a lull.
So after I left, Jon McDonald [no relations to
Doug even if Jon jokingly called him "my
distant relative"], one of the best cultured
Blues guitar player I know, and whom I had befriended
at No Exit, invited me to one of his gigs.
Q. So we are talking
about how Mississippi Heat actually started coming
A. Jon McDonald knew I was looking for work. On
December 28, 1991 I worked with him at Cafe Lura,
in Chicago. This was the night where I first met
Robert Covington. He was on drums that day. I
think Harlan Terson was on bass. I remember Robert
double-parking in front of the club with his Cadillac,
unloading his drums. I took an immediate liking
to him. And it was mutual. We played together,
and the chemistry was so nice that my brother
Michel, who was in the audience listening to us,
thought about forming a new band. I loved the
thought of working with Jon because my musical
interest were definitely in Delta-based Chicago
Blues. So we called Robert and Jon to discuss
this idea of a new band. Michel volunteered to
serve as our manager. Since Bob Stroger and Robert
were playing regularly, we called Bob and also
asked him to join. On that late December 1991
evening the Mississippi Heat concept was born!!!
Our first gig as a new unit was a few weeks later
at Hugh's Too, in a northern suburb club. I don't
think Bob Stroger was with us yet.
Q. So you are calling
yourself Mississippi Heat?
A. No, No. We were looking for a name. Robert
and I were excited and talked on the phone a lot.
We first came up with "Mississippi Knights."
We played at Hugh's Too (near Chicago) under that
name. We had another gig at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap
in Hyde Park under that name too. Shortly after
the band was formed, with Bob Stroger now with
us -- he and Robert worked also with Sunnyland
Slim; and Bob with Jimmy Rogers -- my son Jonathan
who was about 9 years old at that time came up
with the name "Heat" in "Mississippi
Heat". We felt it fitted perfectly, and we
jumped on that name. That is one of the reasons
I like our name because Jonathan came up with
it. Robert was a Mississippian, and he also took
pride with our "Mississippi" name. Moreover,
as you know the harp being called the "Mississippi
Saxophone" down South didn't hurt us either.
And finally, we wanted to show reverence to Delta
Blues for influencing us all. To this day fans
and people in the media tell us how catchy and
attractive the name is.
Q. So what did that
band sound like then?
A. At the time, we played traditional post-war
Blues of the early 1950's. Jimmy Rogers types
of songs, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells tunes.
... Robert also sang songs from his Red Beans
album Golden Voice, as well as covers like "Country
Girl", which he particularly enjoyed singing.
We recorded that tune during the taping of the
Straight From The Heart CD, by we have never released
Early 1950's Chicago Blues was the main focus
however. Jon McDonald had an incredible blues
culture, and played a variety of Blues guitar
styles, including pre-war acoustic Blues. With
Stroger in the band, Bob also provided a traditional
feel to it. Bob Stroger's first gig with us was
in February 1992 at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap.
Q. What is your role
in the band? Is everyone contributing?
A. From the very beginning I was the bandleader,
and I was respected as such by everybody. I always
shared the spotlight with the band. Everyone who
could contribute something was invited to share.
Q. So describe how
you hooked up with Bob Stroger.
A. We had a gig February 15th, 1992 at Jimmy's
Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park. Robert Covington said
it would be great to have him. So my brother Michel,
as our manager, called him. He loved Bob just
by talking with him on the phone. Bob accepted
the gig. He was still with Jimmy Rogers and Sunnyland
Slim at the time. So that was the first time.
As with the other members of the band, we hit
it off great. And we loved what we heard.
Q. So now you got your
first official rhythm section.
Q. Stroger, Covington
and you and Jon McDonald?
A. That is correct.
Q. Four people?
Q. So what was Covington
doing at that time? Was he in demand?
A. Very much in demand. Covington was a regular
artist at the Kingston Mines club. He was singing
there a lot. With time, it turned out that Robert
missed more and more Mississippi Heat gigs. We
eventually hired drummer Bob Carter who besides
Jon and Bob, also sang particularly well. He was
an awesome Blues drummer, and I liked him. From
four members we became five. By this time in Robert's
career he didn't like to sing while playing drums.
He loved being a front man. A role he did admirably
well. Robert had a natural charm about him, and
was quite charismatic as an entertainer. His singing
was superb and soulful. He often left me spellbound.
He had his audience in the palm of his hands.
After his untimely death in 1996 (he was born
December 13th, 1941), I wrote a Reggae-like Blues
tune about him highlighting his talents as a musician
and friend. I haven't recorded it as yet. The
name of the tune is, of course, "Golden Voice"...
Q. So Covington was
out front, stand up singer.
A. Absolutely. People loved him.
Q. So you were gigging
under Mississippi Heat?
Q. How often were you
A. Well, Michel was able to get us lots of work
at Jimmy's. It didn't pay much but we made good
money because friends and family came in droves.
It is a small cozy Pub. We received donations.
These often came up to $70.00 a man. That is a
lot considering how small the club is. Friends
were willing to support these gigs. Everyone in
the band was committed to make it happen.
Q. So these places
that you are playing are they used to having blues?
A. Some did, some didn't. For instance, no other
bands had ever played at Jimmy's before us. Michel
made it happen. He found creative ways to keep
Q. What is the scene
like in 1992 compared to what it like today?
A. We did well at places like Rosa's on Sundays.
We were regulars at Dixie Q also. We played at
the University of Chicago, and had a few other
regular places. Of course Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap
was our first home base.
Q. Is Jon MacDonald
black or white?
Q. Covington is black.
Q. Stroger is black.
Q. So are there many
other mixed bands out there working in 1992?
A. I'm not sure.
Q. What I basically
see is either all white bands or all black bands.
Generally, that is changing. More and more you
are starting to see black guys fronting mostly
white bands. Buddy does that, and Otis Rush at
times does that. His band changes all the time.
Sammy Myers fronting Anson Funderburgh's band.
1992 isn't a million years ago ...
A. Sonny Wimberly's band, The Blues Invaders,
was all white except for him. But I can't really
comment on the composition of Chicago's blues
band now or in the early 1990's. I am not the
kind of guy who goes out at night if I'm not gigging.
I have a family. To this day I'm often told by
the Blues community and fans alike that we were
unique as far as our sound and looks because of
our age differences, and the black and white mix.
Bob Stroger and later, James Wheeler, formerly
with Otis Rush, were the older veterans in the
Q. All right so the
four of you formed this core of Mississippi Heat,
five of you now. Bob (Covington) is out front.
A. Yes. I always called him Robert, though. He
was our front man.
Q. So you work pretty
steadily for how long? Roughly?
A. Robert was always a member of the band but
he was busier and busier. So we had to start thinking
of what to do to replace him when he was unavailable.
Q. Does he gig on his
own or with other people ...
A. He did a few gigs on his own. However, Kingston
Mines was his bread and butter. They payed him
well. Occasionally he, Stroger, Steve Freund and
sax player Sam Burkhardt would go to Europe under
the name "The Big Four." They were Sunnyland's
band without Sunnyland being present. Sunnyland
was up in years by the time I got to meet that
legendary piano player, and could not travel well.
A gentle and likable man.
Q. Is Covington fronting
his band at Kingston Mines?
A. There is a house band he hired, and who knew
his material. He was a mainstay over there. He
liked working with us though, and often freed
himself from previous engagements to be with us.
Even when it meant less money for him. There was
something pleasing to him about Mississippi Heat.
As we grew more and more in demand, it was clear
we had to find a replacement for Robert. That
came after we recorded our first CD, Straight
From The Heart. Shortly before that, in the summer
of 1992, we had received an invitation to go to
South America: To Punto del Este, Uruguay. But
before that recording we went through a few guitar
players before settling with two: Billy Flynn
and James Wheeler. A few months into the band,
things didn't work out between Jon McDonald and
us. So we decided to part. ... We are still good
friends today. Jon is a faithful and committed
friend. He comes through when I need his advice
and support. I do the same for him. After Jon
left, we then turned to Little Smokey whom I had
met at the Checkerboards, and who was eager to
join. We were excited to have him as a singer
and guitar player. Covington was still part of
the band, even if we sometimes played without
him. But this situation didn't last but a few
months. Conflicts arose in the band ...
Q. Well, Covington
is a singer, Little Smokey is a singer. I could
see where there might be a challenge who is really
A. That was I believe the main reason why it didn't
work out. As much as I appreciated Smokey's guitar
style and stage presence, I felt that his contribution
was not compatible with our democratic band philosophy.
Little Smokey stayed with us a few months only.
Billy Flynn's name was suggested to us through
David Waldman. David is a well-known harp player
in Chicago whom I had met at Jimmy's. So I called
Billy and hired him for a gig. That was in August
Q. I was wondering
in that first core of people when you were just
starting out, were there are wild nights that
particularly stand out?
A. At that time we had not traveled as a unit.
Our relationship among ourselves was pleasant
and positive. But in terms of wild stuff, these
occurred a few years later ... like witnessing
a hold-up, for example, or seeing overturned cars
while returning from a gig in Canada ... stories
like that. That came later on when we began traveling.
Q. So you hooked up
A. After our first gig together, Billy said he
was interested in working with us again. And thus
began a long relationship which lasted until 1997.
Billy was well versed in many Blues guitar styles.
He rarely repeated songs from one gig to another.
That was refreshing to me as I hate to repeat
the same material if I can help it. Myself, too,
I try to bring new tunes at gigs. I love that
challenge. Billy also sang original songs he had
written. I learned a lot from him. The thing about
Billy Flynn though was that he lived in Green
Bay, Wisconsin, four hours away from Chicago.
So this became an issue, especially during the
Winter months. Billy also suffered from a severe
chronic medical condition: Arthritis since adolescence.
Q. So with Billy there
A. Absolutely. But we kept him. He still made
most of the gigs anyways. Plus he is one of the
most cultured Blues guitar players I have ever
met. A walking encyclopedia of the Blues. He plays
Albert Collins, BB King, Robert Jr. Lockwood ,
Earl Hooker, Muddy Waters, including their slide
guitar styles, Jimmy Rogers and Louis Myers note
for note. He was a welcomed musical addition to
Q. So how did the other
issues you talked about enter into it.
A. I wanted to be prepared in the event Billy
couldn't make a gig. I wanted a second guitar
player who knew our material and could step in
whenever I needed him to. Covington was my confidante.
He agreed with my idea and told me about James
Wheeler. James played for Robert at the Kingston
Mines, and still was with Otis Rush at the time.
He looked up to Robert. So I went to see him,
and liked what I heard. James' first gig with
us was in September 1992 at the Blue Note in Rockford,
IL. Our friendship began to grow. He was an awesome
guitar player. Wheeler was a quiet introverted
man, more so than most people I knew, and a deep
person. The band was looking forward to travel
internationally... Europe, Canada ... so we could
make more money. We shaped the band towards that
goal. This is about the time we received the offer
from Uruguay. A friend of Vickie and I, a physician
here in Chicago, introduced us to his brother
visiting him from Uruguay. He was a big business
man over there, connected to the holiday resort
Punto Del Este. So after meeting us and hearing
the band, he said "I am taking you to play
in my country". So Michel's creative wheels
began turning. He thought that if we are to play
at that fancy Resort, we have to show up with
a legitimate CD.
My brother is uncanny as a PR man. He is the backbone
to our fame and notoriety. He always comes up
with great ideas for the band. More often than
not, these turn up into gold. He is the perfect
manager. ... The five of us, Robert, Bob, James,
Billy and myself were excited with doing a CD
for the Uruguayan trip.
Q. So you made the
CD to sell down there?
A. To sell down there, and to put us on the Blues
map. But we recorded it specifically to get a
job in Uruguay. We knew the recording would also
be useful in getting local, national and international
gigs. Which in fact that CD, Straight From The
Heart, did do for us.
The irony is that we never went to Uruguay !!!
The closest we have ever been to Uruguay as a
band was in 1998 when we played at an international
music festival in Caracas, Venezuela. Be it as
it may, Straight From The Heart was very good
to us. It opened many doors.
Q. What was the experience
making the CD?
A. Exciting. We had many songs. I had been playing
my tunes live already with the band, so recording
them went smoothly. I urged everyone to bring
original material. Billy brought in four of his
songs. I brought in seven. I wrote a song for
Sonny Wimberly who had died in August 1992 . On
a side note, that song, "Heartbroken",
was also a song Junior Wells wanted to buy from
us. He had heard it in Michel's car between sets
at Shades  and loved it. Junior sang along
with such passion, Michel and I were taken aback.
… I re-recorded that song with Inetta Visor
on vocals on our Footprints On The Ceiling CD
(2002). But to return to our first recording,
Straight From The Heart, besides Billy's and my
tunes, James Wheeler also sang "Bad Luck"
and "Mother in Law Blues". Robert was
our featured lead singer/drummer. As I said we
began to work consistently but had to replace
Robert, too tied up at Kingston Mines. Bob Stroger
then suggested we reach out to Deitra Farr, a
singer he knew well. So I went to see her at Blue
Chicago. Jon McDonald was playing with her at
the time, and was leading her band.
Q. Do you know how
Bob knew her?
A. They were good friends. In past years, she
had hired Bob to play in her band. ... I eventually
called Deitra, and she accepted to give Mississippi
Heat a shot. We played at a place called Otto's
in DeKalb, IL. That was January 15th, 1993. That
evening I had Sam Lay on drums, and Calvin Jones
on bass. Stroger I believe had a gig with Jimmy
Rogers. At that time Sam and Calvin often played
Q. We will get back
to that. Covington is going to cost you more than
a singer. Were you playing with Deitra and Bob
A. Yes, I had Bob Carter on drums for a long while
before I leaned towards Sam Lay. Bob Carter was
becoming unreliable. So I let him go.
Q. Sammy Lay is great,
quite a history.
A. He took Bob Carter's place.
Q. Deitra didn't come
A. That's right.
Q. You said that you
got Wheeler in as your back up.
A. That is correct.
Q. I know that in time
George Baze became a full-time member of your
band, but at that time, was he like your back
up for Billy Flynn?
A. Yes, that is exactly the way it went. We went
with George to Canada and Europe when Billy couldn't
make it due to illness. I would take George and
James Wheeler. I loved traveling with George.
He was the nicest man you'd ever meet. A true
friend, and a team player.
Q. I saw you guys in
town once, that barbecue place.
A. You mean Brother Jimmy's?
Q. Brother Jimmy's.
I saw you guys there, and George was there that
A. Yeah. George was always with us when Billy
could not make it. …
Q. OK we will return
to george Baze in a while. But for now, was there
an incident causing Covington to leave the band?
A. There never were problems between Covington
and us. Years after Deitra joined, my drummer
Allen Kirk couldn't make a trip with the band.
I hired Covington as his temporary replacement
for a Canadian road trip (1996). It turned out
to be a most pleasant trip. Robert died a few
months later. I'm glad we had a chance to spend
quality times together on and off the bandstand.
Robert was a hilarious man. Quite a funny storyteller.
He often talked about his adventures as a younger
man. He would put us in stitches. Robert was consistent
in his support towards me. He loved our band's
philosophy. I wrote tunes for him. We were supposed
to record a CD under his name, and had started
to rehearse. But his health failed drastically.
He died shortly after. After his passing I recorded
songs he and I co-wrote. For example: "One
More Chance" on our Handyman CD. I asked
Billy Boy Arnold to sing that one (Billy Boy also
sang another Covington/Lacocque tune entitled
"Gonna Leave And Ler Her Be" on our
Footprints On The Ceiling CD). Billy Boy did a
superb job. A pleasure to have in the studio !!!
Q. Great. All right,
so that brings us up to Deitra. How was the chemistry
when you guys met?
A. She quickly became a dear and trusted friend.
An incredible ally. At first she was nervous playing
with new people. But she stuck in there, and soon
joined the band full-time.
Q. What was she doing
at the time?
A. At the time she wasn't too busy as a singer.
She had had major surgery, and was out of work
because of that. I think she earned a living through
substitute teaching. It was marvelous to have
her with Mississippi Heat. Her energy, soulfulness,
drama, and intensity onstage was a breath of fresh
air. She added spark to an already passionate
band. Being a bandleader was a new experience
for me. And leading a group of seasoned professional
veterans was an added dimension to contend with.
Early on she advised me as to how best handle
delicate situations within the band, such as two
musicians having difficulties with one another,
or how to present a trip to Europe that didn't
pay well but would bring exposure and future bookings
if we went. Deitra was committed to make the band
a success. She often took my side when a band
member became too insensitive towards me, or was
acting out unfairly. My nickname in that band
was "Sweet Pea". I had mixed feelings
about it because I didn't like being considered
as too kind as a bandleader. My nickname for her
was "Mama D".
Q. When did you start
using two guitars?
A. As of September 1992.
Q. Covington was still
singing but you had a two-guitar band?
A. That is correct.
Q. So there was a period
there before Deitra.
A. That is correct, Billy and James were part
of the band before she was.
Q. So what does the
band sound like back then? Different than with
A. The band sound was fuller because two guitars
added a dimension one guitar player cannot do
on his own. Moreover, original materials increased
but we were still doing Chicago Blues covers.
Billy and I were bringing new songs. James also
began to do so but that came later. So it was
again 1950's type of amplified Blues, and peppy.
I don't know exactly when Allen Kirk joined us.
I believe it was around March or April 1993. As
a drummer he also added spark and passion.
Prior to Allen joining Mississippi Heat I had
asked Sam Lay to join our band. He was interested
but said he was at a crossroads with his career,
and thought it was best to go on his own. It is
then that I asked Allen to join. Allen often played
at the Kingston Mines as well, and knew most members
in the band.
Q. Do you play every
week at this point?
Q. You have six people
in the band now, including yourself. So you got
to offer these people some work.
Q. What did James and
Billy bring new to Mississippi Heat, what qualities
did they have as musicians?
A. Early on, James focused only on being a rhythm
guitar player. Billy and James were awesome together,
never in each other's way, contributing and building
together. James contributed by supporting Bob's
bass work, and playing a higher octave than Bob
to provide a fuller sound to the rhythm section.
James has great musical depth. His guitar style
is influenced by the Westside Blues sound, but
he found ways to harmonize with what we played.
Billy was excellent at rhythm as well but added
a Muddy Waters-Jimmy Rogers-Robert Lockwood Jr.
feel to what we played. So I had two guitarists
with different tones and styles. It felt very
Q. Both did a lot of
work at every tough level in Blues, dealing with
A. Right, exactly.
Q. So Deitra comes
along. That has to give you a whole different
series of things.
A. Now we have power in addition to everything
else. Deitra had an awesome physical presence.
Personally I do not thrive on being a showman
on stage. Some people are natural at it. They
do it with style and soul. Covington could, so
did Deitra. She did it for us. She was such a
natural with the crowd. Mesmerizing. People had
an incredible reaction to her singing. She initially
sang covers, but she was a trooper. As soon as
we recorded our second album, Learned The Heard
Way, she insisted to shift her song repertoire
to the original material on that CD. We worked
well together, she and I. She was easy to work
Q. I think that is
a really important point for someone that is a
writer as Deitra is, in the many meanings of that
term, to sing someone else's lyrics.
A. I was honored and touched by her willingness
to sing my songs. I appreciated her enthusiasm.
She never challenged me being the bandleader,
as inexperienced as I was. I wasn't as lucky with
some other members, but overall everyone showed
respect and motivation to make it together as
a unit. Even during delicate times, when I didn't
handle a band situation well, she never went after
me, never. Deitra has a powerful personality with
strong opinions and principles. She took me under
her wings, and I will always remember that with
fondness. Always will. For instance, she served
as our navigator. She would stay awake to keep
me company when I drove.
Q. Billy Flynn and
James Wheeler coming in late summer, early fall
A. That is correct.
Q. Deitra coming in
A. Deitra's first gig with us was January 15th,
1993 at Otto's in DeKalb. She had been recommended
by Bob Stroger, who had known her over the years.
Bob had played with her band. She came highly
recommended by him. We wanted to preserve a traditional
sound, and she was one of the few that Bob could
think of that would fit into the band's musical
vision. Indeed she did. Her song selections were
compatible with ours. She loved Little Walter.
The chemistry between us, musically and as friends,
was always positive. She started that day, January
15th, and stayed with us until December 26th,
1996. That is when the band decided as a whole,
to stop. We were all burned out and there were
issues we could not resolve among ourselves, namely
vision on where we were going. Some band members
wanted to work more and travel often. For other
members, like myself, it was because of family
and part-time work situations. We didn't feel
comfortable working every night or traveling on
the road without also opportunities to attend
to our children and families. Eventually our visions
clashed. We had strong personalities in the band,
so morale was affected. Michel and I were in the
middle of it. Michel in particular as booking
agent and manager. So we decided to break up the
It happened that it didn't turn out that way though.
Some members left like Deitra, James and Allen.
Billy, Bob and I continued. After some soul searching,
I knew I wanted to continue playing under Mississippi
Q. That is great. I
know Deitra was very vocal about what she did
and didn't want to do, what she liked and didn't
like, what she wanted to sing and want she didn't
want to sing.
Q. Was it that way
from the beginning or did it grow with the familiarity?
A. One aspect to our personalities, Michel and
I, is that we get attached to the musicians we
work with. It still is as true today as it was
years ago. Mississippi Heat brings about close
bonds and relationships.
Q. What are the qualities
that make up that uniqueness?
A. For her?
Q. At that point?
A. Well I think at that point we felt we were
six against the world. More precisely, we were
seven as Michel was, and still is a crucial member
of our band. Without him there would not be a
Mississippi Heat. He handles all the hard work,
spends hours and hours on the phone to get us
work, to find places we could travel to, money
and loans to fund our recordings, and so forth.
He is the most important piece in our survival
as a band. And this he does selflessly, lovingly,
and free of charge. There is so little money to
be made that he often gets no cut to the deals
he works for us. Like Covington, Bob Stroger,
George Baze, and many others through the years,
he believes in Mississippi Heat.
With Allen Kirk we found our sixth and final member.
He joined us around April '93. As I said he brought
in excitement to our songs. That was compatible
with us being a lively and inspired band. He also
agreed that we had something unique here, and
that we were willing to pay our dues to reach
success. That meant, for instance, to take gigs
that didn't pay much but with the hope that it
would lead to better things. This was certainly
one reason for our longetivity. Bob Stroger in
particular and James Wheeler were instrumental
in supporting that view. They had been around
the block many times. So they had been in many
bands and knew Mississippi Heat was special. That
conviction carried clout among everyone else.
This band was exciting to be in, and its flavor
was unique. There was a fresh flavor. Musically
speaking, for instance, even Deitra had a unique
timing in her singing style. She had a knack at
working with bass lines. Her style and my harp
playing fitted very well. The chemistry was right.
Q. She doesn't have
that very affected quality that I find in a lot
of singers. She is a singer, a pure singer.
A. She absolutely is. She was a delight as a musician
Q. So getting the commitment
of guys like Wheeler and Stroger to be with Mississippi
Heat full time must have been very gratifying.
Like yes, we will leave these established name
artists and throw in with you.
A. That was a compliment and encouraging to Michel
and I. We were touched by what was unfolding before
us. Michel played a crucial role here as well,
as he is such a caring and giving person. Everyone
appreciated his devotion and passion for the band.
Q. How would you describe
A. Michel was holding the band in a secure fashion.
His demeanor, his temperament, his style were
reassuring. He was, and still is, non ambivalent
about where we were heading. He had never done
any booking before but was glad to learn. As you
can imagine, this responsibility is often ungrateful,
and difficult at best. Jobs are hard to find.
Club owners and Festival directors can be difficult,
and change all the time. He would be so excited
whenever he found a gig though. That was what
kept him going: Gigs, gigs, gigs and the joy it
brought us to work together. Michel was new to
the music world. The band liked him.
My brother is one of the angels in my life I spoke
about. He did it because he knows what music means
to me. I will be eternally grateful to him for
allowing me to live one of the happiest periods
of my life. My wife Vickie has played, and continues
to play, an equally supportive role for me. My
sister Elisabeth supported me by doing the Art
work and design on four of our CD's. That is one
of the many ways she shows, and continues to show
her support. She often comes to our shows. Her
presence in the audience means a lot to me ...
To return to Michel, there was a vibe of passion,
clarity, and wisdom. He is also a deep and honest
man. People trust Michel. So that contributed
a great deal to Mississippi Heat's morale and
sense of security. We were seven people against
the world, not six.
Q. That is great. So
the vision is really big. You played in Chicago
and other Midwest states. You played Canada. You
played Europe. So tell me where this band started
A. Michel was working hours and hours a day to
find work. In one of his phone calls, he found
out about a festival in Ecaussinnes, Belgium.
They have a yearly Blues festival, which began
in 1987. He called them, and they were excited
Michel and I were originally from Belgium, from
the Southern part of the country, Wallonia. Ecaussinnes
is only a few miles away from Ransart. My mother
and Michel were born in that Belgian town. My
family on my mother's side had lived there for
generations. My dad's family too, though born
in Liege, East of Belgium, eventually also settled
in Ransart. My parents met and fell in love in
Ransart ... The Festival knowing all of these
facts got us to travel to Ecaussinnes. 1994 was
the year of Mississippi Heat's first international
trip. We stayed for a week.
A made-for-TV movie was made of our live performances
during that trip. This was a $250,000 budget movie
called Back To The Roots filmed both there, and
in Chicago. It was shown on Belgian national TV
during Prime time on a Friday. We get to return
to Europe at least once a year since then. Canada
has also been welcoming to us. Sometimes we travel
there two, three or four times a year. Michel
got us to go to the Montreal International Jazz
Festival. One of the biggest musical event in
the world. We hooked up with an agency in Montreal
that helped us with other gigs as well, Productions
Bros. Thomas LeBlond and Rene Moisan, among others
represent that agency. They still work with us.
They have been consistently supportive. These
are two of our staunchest supporters, in good
and bad times. They are simply a delight to work
with, and trustworthy.
Q. Wasn't there a week
of dates or something in Canada that really helped
to coalesce this band?
A. Yes, that happened at the Montreal Jazz Festival,
Q. What do you remember
from that Canadian trip?
A. It was our first trip we drove as a band. I
rented a trailer and we used my wife's old blue
Chrysler van. The trip made us connect on a deeper
level. There were also frustrating moments. For
example, we were supposed to be driven to the
jazz festival from our five stars hotel. The driver
dropped us off about a block from the festival.
New bandleader that I was, I had no idea what
was right, and what was not. Deitra wore high
heels. Plus the band for some reason didn't like
walking a block or so from the drop off point.
Montreal Police had closed the streets leading
to our concert hall, and there was nothing I could
do to change that. So I had no ideas as to how
to soothe my musicians concerns, except to tell
them what the driver was telling me in French.
There was a lot of frustration going on. I felt
small as a dime. In retrospect I would never handle
it the same way but more firmly and less hesitantly.
Sometimes discussions alone don't resolve conflicts.
I learned the hard way.
At the time I didn't know how to handle those
emotional reactions. There was nothing we could
do because the driver had told me he had no power
to remove the Police barricades. We were also
surrounded by a mass of fans going to the concert
Hall. So even if the barricades had been removed
it would have taken a long time to get through
... I explained it to the band, and they still
didn't like it, feeling I guess that the Festival
people could have planned this better. ... So
we had a band meeting that night, very emotional.
There was a lot of yelling about stuff that made
little sense to me. But somehow after losing it
myself, and yelling back out of frustration as
well, things quieted down. It was the beginning
of a new relationship within the band. That night
we had one of the best shows we ever had together.
The emotionality was so high. Prior to going on
stage we did hesitate going to our show. We had
an incredible concert. We were mentioned as one
of the best band of the entire Festival, and got
great reviews from the newspapers. That Festival
opened doors for us to come back to Canada.
We firmed up our relationship with Production
Bros who took care of our Canadian bookings. The
province of Quebec has a strong liking for the
band. I always look forward to traveling there.
Being French-speaking allows me to get close to
the fans. We are well received. The fact that
I speak their native language seems to help bring
about a unique closeness with our audience. The
same is true when we tour Belgium, France or Switzerland
Q. We actually jumped
ahead from the recording Learn The Hard Way which
put the band definitively on the map. How would
you characterize the sessions on this album compared
to the previous album?
A. There was already good reviews and reactions
to Straight From The Heart. Learned The Hard Way
took place after we had traveled and gelled as
a band. So the band tightness was more cemented
compared to the first CD. James and Billy had
joined in August and September 1992, and we had
gone to the studio for Straight From The Heart
a month or two later. This second time around
we had a longer and deeper history together, on
Q. You got ten songs
on here, Deitra has two, Billy has one, and then
there are two covers: Big Bill Broonzy's "Keep
Your Hands Off Her", and Little Walter's
tune "Mean Old World", Deitra's theme
song. It is obvious that you have a strong commitment
in doing original material.
A. Yes. For many reasons, really. I'll speak for
myself. I like traditional Blues and I am influenced
by it. But I also like to give our songs a fresh
twist to keep it meaningfully present for me.
As a harmonica player, I knew early that repeating
note for note what the harp Masters have done
before me would be unfulfilling. I knew I couldn't
repeat the exact same nuances at exactly the same
time as they had done, all the time. I enjoy learning
and repeating licks already recorded by these
Masters, but they do not fulfill me if I only
stick to a jukebox style of playing. Some harp
players obviously do. I don't. To this day when
I hear an incredible harmonica player repeating
a well-known harp cover I rarely enjoy it. Especially
if it was previously recorded by Little Walter.
I know those tunes by heart... I may appreciate
their attempts to repeat the Master in question,
yet I know the precise timing of the melody, the
pauses, where the warbles and chords go, and where
and when in the phrasing, and so forth. Very few
harp player do this well. Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza,
Steve Cohen [ex-Leroy Airmaster Band] and Jim
Liban in Milwaukee are rare exceptions. For them,
and a handful of others, you can expect a great
rendition of Little Walter's "Roller Coaster"
for instance. But as for me, I don't have such
interest. Like many harp players I can come close
to a Little Walter tune [for me one of the hardest,
if not THE hardest of all harp Masters to emulate].
In truth, this blues harp approach isn't what
inspires me ultimately. I thrive on exploring
fresh Blues harp lines. I do not restrict myself
to old well-known lines to express what's in my
heart and soul. I feel more alive and more fulfilled
doing my own thing while respecting and integrating
Blues Tradition. Paul DeLay in Portland, Oregon,
is a good example of doing his own thing. Deitra
was similar about her singing. She sang as DEITRA,
not as Koko Taylor, Memphis Minnie, Aretha Franklin
or Billie Holiday. I enjoyed her fresh style.
I am also fond of Katherine Davis' and Inetta
Visor's singing styles because they too have their
own distinct singing style. I find them soothing
and soulful too.
Q. Can you describe
the song writing process?
A. I approach this in a variety of ways. Whatever
I do to write a song, I never deviate from one
single fact: I must be INSPIRED by what I'm working
on. What drives me to compose and write is often
a single guitar lick within a recorded song, an
organ chord, a horn melody, or a harp lick I hear
in my head. All I know is that I got to be moved
by what I hear. I take out that lick and build
on it to work on what I feel in my heart. I create
a melody out of it, a tempo, and so forth. Often
I find bass lines and ideas out of jamming' on
my own, spontaneously. A harp or horn phrasing
on a record may pop up and grab me, for example.
From there I go to the piano and see what I can
do with that lick. Whether I'm working on an instrumental
or a song with lyrics, I proceed like that. I
like warm, fat deep sounds like those of a church
organ. I like to set those sounds up with high
notes, which sometimes create a feeling of searching;
but the deep warm sounds are "home"
Q. How about lyrically?
A. I typically start with a melody and bass line.
I first go with the mood these evoke in me. From
that emotional response I let myself daydream:
Perhaps an image of a hobo on a train wishing
for love to soothe his loneliness - see the tune
"Hobo Blues" on the CD Footprints On
The Ceiling - someone regretting a lost relationship,
and so forth. I let the mood guide me and shape
my images. For example, on our album Learn The
Hard Way, I wrote a minor-blues song called "Lonely
Nights No More". Minor keys tunes tend to
be so sad. That wasn't the association I visualized
in my mind's eye. I saw a tender aspect to this
song, and transformed it into a love song. This
love tune, a crowd favorite, is deeper than if
it had been written in a major key.
Q. That is great. So
you feel that Learn The Hard Way was an advance
from Straight From The Heart.
A. Yes, because everybody was equally committed,
involved or invested in this process. At that
time we already had a history behind us that showed
up in the musical process.
Q. Are there any things
that happened during the time that you were touring
and working with this group that illustrate for
you the nature of the relationships? Something
like the Montreal thing I think is perfect. But
are there things that happened while you were
playing clubs or touring which for you really
illustrate the relationships of this band for
you individually or a group of six?
A. We joked a lot among ourselves. We teased each
other lovingly. Deitra could be easily teased
in a loving way. We had her laugh often. Or songs
that had significance to the band members. Like
we had a song "The Wrong Guy" we enjoyed
doing live, or we would call Bob Stroger the "Shy
Guy" after a song we had just recorded, "Don't
Dare Call" [on the CD Thunder In My Heart].
We often smiled playing our tunes because we could
associate a history to it as a unit. There was
a feeling on invincibility and deep caring...
When Billy was accosted by some Skin Heads in
Brussels, for instance, Allen Kirk, our drummer,
was on them like a ton of bricks (that's only
one of the reasons why we called him "The
Captain"; he was our Captain Kirk). When
one of us was less inspired than usual on stage,
the whole band would pick him or her up; Deitra
would go to dab a sweaty brow or one of us would
play a particularly inviting line that would draw
a smile or some response. We carried equipment
for each other, we ate together even on off days,
we walked in the cities, celebrated each other
birthdays -- and I mean for the four years we
were together, not just on one or two idealized
trips. As Wheeler said in the "Back to the
Roots" movie on Mississippi Heat, "I
am Mississippi Heat, Deitra is Mississippi Heat,
Pierre is Mississippi Heat... That's what this
band is all about."
Q. Tell me about the
song "Je Me Souviens" [Learned The Hard
Way CD]. I assume that because it has French words
in it that it was something you wrote. But it
turns out it was something Deitra wrote.
A. Deitra wrote and did a superb job with this.
She wrote it during one of our trips to Montreal.
You know, in the Province of Quebec, car license
plates have an inscription "Je Me Souviens"
printed on them. She asked Michel what that meant.
Michel explained it meant "I remember...
it has a historical, political connection to Quebec...
before it freed itself from English ruling."
Something along those lines. So she took that
image and placed it within a romantic concept.
Needless to say that song was well received in
Quebec. The audience hearing French words really
appreciated Deitra making an effort. Billy did
a great job on slide guitar. The song was basically
a vocal-slide guitar Elmore James type of interchange,
and worked out admirably well. The band appreciated
the tune because we knew it was a song she penned
and liked. It evoked nostalgia for a good trip
Deitra was prone to joke with everyone, especially
with Allen. He was comical too, and they often
laughed wholeheartedly. People always noticed
and remarked how happy we were; we were always
laughing about something, I mean laughing hard,
to tears, just carrying out. I felt like I was
in 8th grade but we were getting standing ovations...
Some fans would steal Deitra's towels during performances
and run away with it, or cry and say they had
been healed. I remember one man in Chicago at
the Cubby Bear who came crying to Deitra and told
her that he had planned to kill himself but that
she had saved him... Bob and James were a little
bit more reserved but went along too. When James
got loose he had incredible wit. Still water runs
deep. That applies well to both James and Bob
Stroger. When they spoke, wisdom was in the air.
They put things in the proper perspective whenever
we tried to resolve rifts or conflicts. These
two gentlemen were special.
Q. So this Learn The
Hard Way, which came in 1994 was your second independently
produced stuff. You are not on a label so I guess
you are trying to sell the CD's off the stage
or through magazines.
A. Yes we did. And this we did extremely well.
It paid for all of our expenses and advertisement,
and so forth. Neither Michel nor I brought any
income home. CD sales were used towards band salaries
- everyone made the same amount, no matter what
- and was used towards phone bills and other unavoidable
expenses. That is still the way we survive today.
We also had to borrow money to do all this. Everyone
in the band sacrificed to stay together. That
explains why when we broke up the band deep feelings
of disappointment and bitterness arose. The seven
of us gave everything we had.
Q. Subsequently, you
put out the Thunder In My Heart album. What was
that a couple years later in 1996?
Q. So, you got another
one in the can. What do you think about making
your own records? What are the advantages and
A. Joy and the freedom to create the way the band
felt like recording it. Nobody is saying you can't
do this song. You know, it gave us creative license,
and a freedom a label would not give us. I am
at a different stage now, and I like to work for
well-known record labels for different reasons.
One of them is "label identity", and
the other is distribution. We really need more
Q. That means getting
the CD's to stores rather than selling off the
bandstand or mail order.
A. Yes, that is exactly right. We have a good
reputation and name but we can't do it all on
Q. What about the Thunder
In My Heart album?
A. I'm fond of the first three albums but Thunder
In My Heart is one of my favorites. By this time
the band's morale began to shift. We knew we had
a good, good band but somehow we didn't have any
recording offers coming our way. We received a
recording contract from one HUGE and well-known
Blues label, a five years, 3 CD's offer, but with
the condition that we record without one specific
member of the band. Michel and I didn't feel comfortable
with that. We had survived as a team; we sank
or swam as a team. We declined the offer. No one
else showed much interest. We were on our own.
And our morale got affected, in part, by that.
Q. Well you were at
least negotiating from somewhat of a point of
strength. You had put together successful, good
sounding albums and you were moving from what
I understand, numbers of albums off the bandstand
comparable to things being put off by albums.
A. That is a fact right there. That has always
been our strength. So what we have to do is once
any CD comes out, is struggle a while, but not
too much. We tend to sell many CD's at clubs and
places that know us. We have a strong fan AND
radio support wherever we go.
Q. What are some of
the key places for Mississippi Heat?
A. Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium,
Holland... In the Chicago-land area there are
clubs receptive to us like "House Of Blues",
"Frankie's Blue Room" in Naperville,
and "Pop's For Champagne" in Highwood.
We play there regularly, and have celebrated a
few New Years Eve parties with them as the feature
band. Frankie's, for instance, has given us extra
money to hire a horn section. New Year 1998-1999
I hired three back-up singers and five horns...
In Madison, Wisconsin we had a place called the
Harmony Bar. Used to be one of our home-away-from-home
places we liked. Buddy Guy's Legends has also
been good to us over the years. We sell a lot
of CD's there. Red Key Palace Theater in Redkey,
Indiana, is a place we love and are always well
received, full of fans. As soon as the first set
starts, people stand up and start clapping.
Q. One of the things
you have done on various albums and that I know
from talking to you, Michel, and people in the
band, is to really work with and encourage people
to bring material to the band and actually step
up and sing. There are two things I want to know
about that. One: Why is that important to you?
And Second: Who are you proud for having done
that to? Who has actually done that?
A. I was proud of Bob Stroger and James Wheeler.
Billy was already singing and recording with the
Legendary Blues Band, and he had done his own
recordings on his label Easy Baby. Bob Stroger
had never recorded vocally before though he would
sing with The Big Four and/or with Sunnyland Slim.
I am proud and pleased that Bob took the courage
to record his singing. We even have alternate
takes by Bob that were never released. Like "What
Goes On In the Dark". So I take some credit
for recording Bob's singing. When people bring
their own material they become partners on stage
instead of mere sidemen. To make this even more
enticing to them, we told the musicians that we
owned only the recorded version(s) of their songs
but that they could keep full ownership of their
Q. What did it take
to get Bob Stroger to put a song on an album?
What were the things you had to do to help draw
that out of him?
A. It was not as hard as it sounds. My sense was
that Bob wanted to try it. It was not like he
had not thought of it. But I detected that he
probably would welcome the idea. I just asked
him. He was a musician who practiced his vocals
on his own. He would consult Robert Covington
for singing tips.
Ever since he had joined the band in 1992 he sang
a couple a tunes a night. Bob was adored by our
fans. They loved his stage presence and everlasting
smile. As I said earlier, his nickname in the
band was "The Shy Guy" so I wrote a
song called "Don't Dare Call" with him
specifically in mind. The Bossa Nova Blues tune
is about a guy who hesitates calling a woman he's
interested in. Bob did a great job. He also sang
" Keep Your Hands Off Her" a Big Bill
Broonzy tune. People loved Bob. Actually I never
met anyone who didn't.
Q. What about Wheeler?
I know he had club bands forever, since he was
a kid, backing up Otis Clay. Obviously he was
out there a long time but did he sing or did he
just sort stay play background.
A. My understanding is that he did sing a few
with Otis Rush, so by the time he joined the band,
I already knew he was a good singer. There is
something about James that was so appealing. He
is such an unassuming man that people may misread
that demeanor as not knowing his stuff. That is
so untrue. It's the opposite. James is in the
genius category. So was Billy. They are both monster
guitar players. James could play all kinds of
music. Note for note. He knew hundred of tunes.
These guys were heavyweights.
Q. Well Wheeler has
his own albums on Delmark Records now.
Q. We have talked about
that fact that you sort of helped bring James
Wheeler and Bob Stroger back out, make sure they
were recognized, make sure they were recorded.
How about James original songs, do you know if
he was doing them much in public before he worked
A. James is an introvert. He likes to be left
by himself. He has the profile of a true artist.
Besides writing songs, he is a poet and painter
in his spare time. But I know he loves to write
songs. Billy was exactly the same. So James had
songs in the can. He was always discreet about
that fact. His brother, Golden Wheeler, once told
me that ever since childhood James would spend
time on his own, playing guitar, even at parties.
He could find him away from the group practicing
quietly in an adjacent room. James is a man that
needs to be brought out otherwise he keeps to
himself. He once showed me a folder of songs he
had written. … His nickname was "The
Sheriff". He would actually perform on special
occasions with cowboy boots, hat and star...
Q. Why is that important
to you to have that happen to James and Bob or
A. Mississippi Heat is not only about me. It transcends
me, I am the bandleader, that is true, I write
most of the tunes and I have a strong impact on
the flavor of who we are. However, I always looked
as this as a "WE" experience. The more
we are in it together the more we are unified.
The concept of Mississippi Heat is not, and has
never been about sidemen backing me up, with me
at the center. It is not another harp-led band
where everyone plays behind the bandleader, and
just backs him up. Such bands, as exciting as
they can be, tend to be one-dimensional. They
can lose "something" after a while.
At least from my perspective. I don't mind contributing
while in the background. I enjoy supporting singers
like Katherine Davis or Inetta Visor. I like contributing
as a horn would, and being in supportive role.
That vision has been with me forever.
Q. Yes I think that
is really important. If you look at bands like
Willie Kent's band or Magic Slim's band, even
though they too have very distinct recognizable
personalities, they play in an ensemble style.
That is crucial to this kind of music. It is not
someone standing out front wailing, and a couple
invisible other people.
A. Exactly, that would be opposite to what Mississippi
Heat stands for. I never really wanted the limelight.
Even though over the years I have acquired the
reputation to be the core force behind the band.
Ultimately, my happiness lies in a democratic
approach in sharing the limelight. As we say in
Belgium, "L'Union Fait La Force"; that
is, good things or power only comes when there
I thrive on showing my musicians off. Everyone's
name is recognized, and often mentioned during
gigs. When Barrelhouse Chuck played with the Heat,
it was with pride that I backed him up. He is
such a great piano player. One of the very best
I have ever heard. I loved watching him do his
thing. The same goes with George Baze, Steve Doyle,
Chris Winters, Chris "Hambone" Cameron,
When Inetta Visor comes up on stage I'm eager
to welcome her, and make her look like a million
dollar. I really do. She can expect 100% from
me. Never less. And besides, I approach each gigs
as if it were my last one. Who knows how much
time I have left on this good earth.
Q. That leads right
where I wanted to go next, which is good. Considering
that you have had new band members since 1997,
some like Kenny Smith who are still with you today,
and some that have moved on, Is it still a sort
of democratic process, or is Pierre sort of asserting
A. There has been a shift. Over the years, as
Mississippi Heat is getting better known, I am
now recognized by fans and club owners alike as
the constant driving/creative force behind the
band's identity. The fact that I write and compose
most of the recorded tunes on our CD's has also
brought some of the notoriety spotlight on me.
This focal point is also reflected during our
live shows. Typically, the band begins each show
or sets without me, and they call me up after
a tune or two. That is when I get introduced as
one of the stars of our show (the other one being
our lead singer, who has not yet come stage).
Be this as it may, I continue to have inspiring
musicians play in Mississippi Heat. For a while,
for instance, Barrelhouse Chuck joined the band
(1997 - 1999). His piano and organ playing as
well as his singing continued the Delta tradition.
His Sunnyland Slim - Otis Spann - Leroy Carr-
and Pinetop Perkins-influenced piano style, among
others, was a breath of fresh air for me. Before
Chuck I had never played with a Blues pianist.
I learned so much playing with him. Chuck is awesome,
a national treasure who can play any old piano
style. He's so devoted to the roots of his music
that he paid with his own money to have a stone
put on Leroy Carr's tomb in Indianapolis. He'll
never tell you, but I was there. He plays and
lives with heart, he's so vulnerable because he
feels so deeply. We were good friends. While Billy
was still in the band they would spend lots of
time-sharing stories and names of old 78's records
they had heard and/or bought. Both are heavy record
collectors. It was a delight to see their excitement.
But to return to your question, Mississippi Heat
is still democratic today. The philosophy hasn't
changed much. However, with all the lessons I
learned as a bandleader, it is especially off
stage that Michel and I have changed. I will not
get into specific examples from the past that
taught me harsh lessons because that is our private
laundry. Michel as manager and I as bandleader
have grown wiser. We have learned incredible things
hanging around our former and present musicians.
Invaluable lessons in the school of life.
Q. That is good [looking
at the band's resume]: wait a second, what is
unreleased live album?
A. Well that is a live recording we did in late
Fall 1996 in Switzerland at the Lucerne Blues
Festival. We recorded three live gigs in Switzerland:
One of which was when we headlined the Festival
on Saturday November 16th of that year. Even though
the recording engineer at Lucerne FORGOT to roll
the ADAT tape for most of the first set, the rest
of the concert turned out great. It was a magical
evening. What was captured on tape represents
an accurate picture of how smooth and tight the
bands was. We performed tunes from previous albums
and newer material also.
Q. So are you still
holding it with the possibility of putting it
A. Down the years, yes. Soon after that tour,
we decided to dissolve the band as we had irreconcilable
differences. So releasing a live album, as tempting
as it was, was not going to be of any immediate
help to us.
Q. Do you own it free
A. Yes. I did pre-mixes with Paul Serano at Delmark's
studios. The mixing needs further work but we
ran out of money.
Q. Super, that is fun
to know. So the band breaks up late '96.
A. Correct. December 26th.
Q. So it is you, Billy
and Bob who are left from the old line-up. What
do you do? Do you continue gigging? Who do you
A. The gigs keep coming. I hired a new drummer,
Kenny Smith, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith's
son. He still is with me today. A remarkable musician.
One of the best drummers I have ever heard. One
of the most MUSICAL drummers I know. A good buddy
of mine too.
Q. Willie Smith who
played with Muddy.
A. Exactly, he is nicknamed "Big Eyes"
in contrast to his son Kenny who is known as "Beedy
Eyes". When Kenny can't make a gig, I have
occasionally turned to Willie in the past. Like
his son, Willie is a great guy. Quite witty too.
Q. Didn't Billy Flynn
have a nickname given by the band. Something to
do with his food preferences?
A. Billy Flynn loved to eat. He always seemed
to think of food. He loved deserts. So did Allen.
Q. Wasn't Billy's name
A. Oh, yes. One food he was crazy about in Belgium
was the local French fries. We called him "Frites"
which is the French word for French fries in Belgium.
I'm another maniac when it comes to digging "Frites".
There's truly a unique taste to these fries, I'm
telling you. They are famous world-wide!!!
Q. Are they different
than American French fries?
A. Oh yes. The Belgian fries are prepared in two
different steps: Fried for a while in one type
of oil, then in another type of oil. Wherever
we went on tour, the band always got together
for a group meal. Michel and I made a point at
making everyone as comfortable and well taken
care of as we possibly could. We used some of
the CD sales towards that end. We wanted to contribute
towards keeping morale up. Once a day we went
to restaurants where we could all gather together.
That is still the policy and culture of the band
today. On the road we get together at least once
a day. Eating together is always a big event.
In the 1990's, when we returned to tour Belgium,
our favorite restaurant was an Italian one named
"Restaurant Italie" in the South of
Belgium. They have posted our group picture on
their restaurant walls. ...
Q. So Kenny is on drums?
A. Yes. Then I looked at Mary Lane as a replacement
for Deitra. It worked out for a few months. She
loved Jimmy Reed, and we did lots of lumps. Quite
compatible with my taste. We didn't feel we had
found a perfect match, so we decided to part ways.
Mary is a delightful person. Sweet and likable.
Great blues history too. ...
After the break-up in December 1996, Michel and
I were so demoralized that we thought we wouldn't
survive with a newer band. But it was quite a
revelation to us to discover that the opposite
was true. Gigs never stopped coming. Fans continued,
and are still continuing to come.
There had been a momentum even before Deitra joined.
Gigs were coming but not as fast as later on.
The new line-up with Deitra was so good that we
became in more demand. For example Willie Kent
recommended us to a club he couldn't play at due
to previous engagements. He knew us well and recommended
us. Willie is a friend, and has occasionally played
with Mississippi Heat when I was in pinch. This
is only an example among others. So we had a greater
momentum soon after we found our final band line-up.
Things picked up and picked up. From a few weekends
a month we jumped at playing weekly and hitting
the road, going to places like Kentucky and Minnesota.
Q. So that's where
it came from... Eventually some people were up
for heavier traveling and some weren't.
A. That is correct. After a few years of intense
gigging, the traveling rate became an issue. Some
of us, including myself, had a family; some of
us had health problems, some had part time jobs
they didn't want to lose. Some wanted a continuous,
and a higher income. Our conflicts had little
to do with music. They were more about opinions
as to where we were heading. Most gigs didn't
offer much money so I can see why some members
wanted more, for instance. However, my wife for
one, was starting to complain about me being gone
so much, especially when we had two young children
at home. I missed them too, and her point was
well taken. Other members had children, and had
no choice but to be at home to raise them. Differences
began to grow.
High money offers were not coming as we hoped.
We weren't on any known label yet. We were considered
as a rising band but had no "label identity".
Some US festivals hesitated to hire us because
of that. It was hard to take because we had an
inspiring show. Michel sometimes was a scapegoat
because some members wondered why he couldn't
pull off miracles as he was known to do in the
past, and convince these festivals to take a chance
on us. The bottom line, frankly, is that without
a well-established label backing us up we couldn't
jump to the big times. In many ways they would
have saved that line up. We opened for Etta James,
Lonnie Brooks, Lucky Peterson and Junior Wells
for example, and had the crowds going. But we
knew that to be headliners in this country we
needed to be on a label.
We had a long and impressive resume in Europe
and Canada, but the US was tough. In Europe we
were headliners in major festivals, and we performed
in large concert halls. But these came far and
few between. Here in the US, on the other hand,
work was slow and competitive. Well-paid gigs
and recording contracts didn't follow. Michel
worked even harder than ever but couldn't do more.
He is an awesome and tireless manager. Many times
he pulls miracles to give us work. It is true
to this very day. For instance, as I said earlier
our first Belgium tour we owe solely to him presenting
the Belgian card as an entry to the Ecaussinnes
Blues Festival. He also managed - and I don't
know how - to get a Belgian movie crew to do a
documentary film on us. We used the money of these
projects to pay for our airfare! We often went
to Europe on similar creative ideas. Without his
relentless work and ingenuity, we would have rarely
traveled abroad. All in all, there was nothing
else that we could have done to save that band.
Q. What was the biggest
A. There were dozens. Among them Toronto, Montreal,
Lucerne, Nottoden (Norway), and many more in countries
like Holland, Belgium, and Germany. So how does
a band's morale weather playing in Chicago for
$500.00 when they just played the night before
in Switzerland for thousand of dollars.
Q. San Francisco?
A. San Francisco or New Orleans, we couldn't make
those. We had offers but the expense to cover
gas, food and lodging for such a large band was
not worthwhile. The money was not enough.
Q. I am glad we covered
that. It makes it clearer. Meanwhile in 1997,
you now have a one-guitar band?
A. Yes. Billy stayed, and I replaced James Wheeler
with a fantastic keyboard player, Barrelhouse
Chuck. I had known his name for years, and knew
he was a heck of a piano player. So I called him
early in 1997 and asked him if he was free. We
hit it off right away. He loved the harmonica
too. So we hit it off personally, and musically.
Our relationship was special. I appreciated his
Q. So you tried out
A. Yes. As I said, Mary Lane stayed with us awhile.
Then we worked shortly with Shirley Johnson. She
was easy to work with. But the timing wasn't not
right for her to join the band. Then we went with
Zora Young who stayed with us for a long while.
Zora was a delight, and a great entertainer. But
Zora too had plans of her own. So we went with
Katherine Davis. That was in August 1997. She
too was a pleasure to have in the band. She was
nothing but a team player. A kind and gentle person
too. I can count on words of wisdom whenever I
ask her for an advice. She's got a great musical
feel to her singing. I loved her style. Her songs
were fresh and exciting. Our fans loved her, as
they would with Inetta later on.
Q. How did people book
you? On your reputation, or rebooking you on the
strength of your newer sound?
A. After December 1996 we worried it was going
to be hard shifting to a new band in terms of
fans and club owners. But it did not turn out
that way. I have never had any negative comments
about our line-up being less exciting than before.
It was surprising to us, but of course, it was
reassuring. Gigs didn't stop coming. The relationship
with clubs remained. Festivals, however, were
harder to get at first because they wanted to
hear a CD with the new band members and sound.
However, one thing about the band that maintained
our reputation, is that we are known for bringing
good musicians. I don't bring people who I know
won't lift the band. I know that is one reason
why we keep on doing well.
Q. I think you may
have answered my last question, but let me pose
it to you anyway to see if you have any other
thoughts. The norm in blues is that it is not
band oriented. It is personality oriented. If
you look on the CDs on the shelves behind me,
almost everything there is somebody's name. It
is one person out front singing with whatever
instrument they play, and their sidemen. With
some of them, it is always the same group. You
know, if you take the Mighty Flyers, even they
have had band members' changes. Piazza's group,
or Sam Myers, or the Thunderbirds had a steady
group for a while, but even they changed. So the
norm in blues is much more personality driven,
and not band driven the way rock and roll is where
you got bands out there with names and the same
three, four or five people who stay together for
twenty years. What I am saying is that Mississippi
Heat is different from that. You don't have a
person's name out front although you highlight
all the different people. What my question is,
How does that affect how you get work, and what
you do in your level of recognition? Do you feel
that in any way it's a hindrance not to promote
Pierre Lacocque? Is there anything that you would
like to add?
A. With the years in this business behind me,
a natural phenomenon is unfolding. My name is
now associated as being the central focus of Mississippi
Heat. After all is said and done, I am the only
consistent full-time member of this band, regardless
of line-up presentations. This important fact
offset strongly the fact that when I do change
musicians, there is little impact on whether or
not we get gigs. The consequences to changing
lineups have not been devastating at all. However,
it did affect Festival work in the beginning of
the rebuilding period (around 1997). But with
our CD Handyman, and Footprints On The Ceiling
soon after, things were fast moving again. We
played at the 1999 Chicago Blues Fest, for instance.
On the main stage.
But to return to your question, the fact we had
good relations with clubs helped as well. Michel
and I always make a point to work smoothly with
owners. We are easy to deal with. It remains that
we had no other choice but to record a new CD
if we wanted to reach our goal: To travel abroad,
and get quality billing. We had to show that creatively
we were as solid as ever, and that Mississippi
Heat is strong and viable. A point we answered
with Handyman, for instance.
Q. When did you do
A. April 5th to 7th, 1998. We did it at Tone Zone
Recording Studio in Chicago. The same place we
recorded Thunder In My Heart, Handyman, Footprints
On The Ceiling, and Glad You're Mine. For the
Handyman CD, we used Michael Freeman as our recording
engineer. He deservedly became co-producer as
the project unfolded. Michael turned out to be
an incredible ally during that recording, and
those that followed too. His suggestions and ideas
were tasteful, and on the money. His work is world
Q. But it took more
time to record that CD compared to those you had
A. "Mighty long time", as says Sonny
Boy Williamson. It was a painful birthing process.
Much harder than all the previous CD's I had done
A. There were different reasons for that. For
the first time ever we used horns; a group of
eight background vocalists; and special guests
like Carl Weathersby, Billy Boy Arnold and Zora
Young. All that meant extra studio time. For instance,
I have great fondness for Billy Boy. He and I
hit it off well musically too. Like Covington
and Sonny Wimberly, he was always supportive of
my playing. So I wanted him to be a special guest
on our CD. He did three marvelous tunes. They
turned out to be gems. But it took special studio
times to do these songs right.
Then the horns were also a big deal to contend
with. They had to return a couple of times to
finish their work. Background vocalists too had
to come back because we did about eight tunes
with them. So there was a lot of time and money
involved. Some musicians had to redo part of their
singing. One of our guitar players, George Baze
was dying of cancer at the time, and couldn't
finish his playing in one sitting. On top of that,
studio time was hard to find. And finally the
mixing of each tune took numerous hours. There
were so many facets to each tune, with horns,
organ, guitars and all, that we didn't want the
sound to come across cluttered. That's when Michael's
Freeman genius took over. We worked well together.
It took eight months to finish the project. When
I hear the mastered recording I sigh in deep relief.
It turned out to be awesome! It makes it all worthwhile.
Regarding the Handyman CD, we are proud of George's
"last testament". He gave everything
he had to make the recording a success. I miss
him so much. I think about him often. That's how
deep his impact was on me ...
Q. This was the first
time for horns and choir?
A. Absolutely is.
Q. Who played the horns?
A. We had Sonny Seals on saxophone, Bill McFarlan
on trombone [he did all the arrangements] and
Philip Perkins on trumpet. Strong horn section.
Q. Who were the background
A. We had eight singers including Katherine Davis.
We also had Nate Griffin who guided the group
with his vocal arrangements. He added an inspiring
dimension to the project.
Q. Was it a group that
worked together or did you put them together for
A. Katherine contacted them all. The background
vocalists were her "baby". We gave her
green light to hire whomever she desired. Some
worked with her in a gospel group. She knew them
Q. Excellent. Are they
on all the songs?
A. No. We didn't want to be too heavy on that
sound, and that included the horns. Less is more.
We didn't want to turn this CD into a non-Blues
happening. We wanted to stay as close to our regular
sound as possible. On some songs the horns are
incredibly helpful as on the New Orleans Rumba
"Ghost Daddy", and the title track "Handyman".
The Background voices lift Barrelhouse Chuck's
tune "Farewell To S.P. Leary" to another
Q. What did Billy Boy
A. Billy Boy recorded three tunes with us. Gentleman
as always, he was well prepared. We recorded the
melody lines to "Ghost Daddy". We played
harp together note for note for two verses. I
feel privileged to have done that with him. He
also did the chromatic harmonica intro on "It
Hurts to be Lonesome", and sang "One
More Chance", a tune Covington and I wrote.
He sang and played lead harp on a song called
"Dirty Deal" [an older, unreleased,
and totally different version to the one recorded
a few years later with Inetta Visor on a 2005
CrossCut Records release called Glad You're Mine],
with me in the background. But we had too many
songs to choose from for the Handyman CD. So we
didn't release it. Hopefully we'll do that in
the future. We have occasionally taken Billy Boy
on the road to special events.
Q. Did he do your songs
Q. That is great.
A. He even said that these songs are among the
best he has ever recorded.
Q. Who else, you said
you had some other special guests?
A. Yes, I had Carl Weathersby on all the tunes.
I have known him for years, from the days when
he was still with Billy Branch. He occasionally
plays as a featured guest with Mississippi Heat.
I first met him while on tour in Europe. I got
along with him, so did Michel. Moreover I knew
he did great work with harp players. So I wanted
him on the album. He and George had a beautiful
relationship, both on and off the bandstand. They
had lots in common in their personal histories.
For instance, both had gone to Vietnam, and often
reminisced about that. Carl is a faithful friend.
If he can help us we know we can rely on him.
His playing on our Handyman, Footprints On The
Ceiling, and Glad You're Mine recordings CDs,
is soulful and masterful.
Q. He has been around
a long time. Did he have a bigger role than just
playing a guitar?
A. I don't know about bigger - in what sense?
Q. Well did he help
with arrangement or production?
A. We had band rehearsals where he gave his input
like on "Payday" for example. He suggested
I play higher notes on the harp during my solo
because it would better fit the texture of the
tune. He also made suggestions about an ending
of a Katherine's tune, and other things like that.
Everyone participated in rehearsals. He contributed
as much as anybody else.
Q. Who else is on the
A. I have Zora Young as a guest on one song. She's
is a friend who helped us in the past.
Q. What song does she
A. It is called " Stay With Me". A fun
tune. Boogie Woogie style. It turned out to be
a great song. She did a good job.
Q. Is Katherine Davis
on your CD?
A. Katherine is the featured female vocalist on
the album. She contributed two of her own tunes
"Excuse Me", and "These Men Look
Good to Me". She did one of mine that I wrote
for her " Don't Cross Me". It goes something
like "My name is Katherine ... and I've got
heart and soul... but don't cross me baby... cause
I won't take that at all." Her vocals on
that CD are amazing. She combines power and smoothness
in one breath. A nice combination! I also invited
Wilbert Crosby on rhythm guitar. I wanted to add
a fuller sound to some of the tunes. George's
health was failing drastically. So I turned to
Will to help finish some of George's rhythm tracks.
Q. Wow. I know Will,
he is a good player.
A. Excellent player.
Q. So what was the
band before you went into the studio?
A. Six of us: George Baze on guitar, Barrelhouse
Chuck on piano and organ, Katherine Davis, Ike
Anderson on bass [June 1997-January 1999] and
Q. And Kenny.
A. Yes, Kenny Smith, with me since early 1997.
Q. I have two questions,
why don't you tell me how George came into the
band and what was his role in this recording.
He has three tunes on Handyman including the title
track. I remember seeing you guys at Brother Jimmy's
BBQ and Blues. George was actually playing cause
Billy couldn't make it.
A. That's right. As I said earlier, I met George
in October 1992. He was playing with Junior Wells
at the time. That's the night I spoke about where
Junior wanted to buy my amps. That was at Shades
in Deerfield, Illinois. I liked his stage presence,
his playing and singing. George had a great voice.
Everyone liked his singing. A real Blues voice.
People smiled when he played. He also could sustain
a note on his guitar, and gleefully look at the
audience. He was such a good front man. George
began playing with me in 1993 whenever James or
Billy couldn't make a gig. It was to George that
I always turned to fill the vacant spot. He was
already part of the Mississippi Heat family. I
would take him to Canada or Europe. As I said
earlier, George was a trouper, an easy guy to
get along with.
In spite of a slight speech impediment, he would
crack jokes and enjoy the band off stage. He had
a sharp wit. There was nothing but a positive
aura about him. And for a bandleader you can imagine
how exciting that is. I can't say that about too
many musicians I've had to deal with over the
years! So he was like a breath of fresh air. He
played nothing but Southside type of Blues though
he sometimes ventured into crowds' requests like
"Mustang Sally" or "Rainin' in
Georgia" as well. He knew R&B tunes,
and could back up any guests inspired to do so.
His guitar playing was sober, to the point and
always soulful. Great tube tone. He played cultured
guitar lines. He was a perfect fit. No one in
the original band ever objected when he came along
Q. What was his playing
A. His playing was tasty, never overcrowding.
As I said, he had an awesome ability to hold one
note while grinning at the audience. George was
like Bob Stroger in many ways, in terms in how
the audience responded. They loved everything
Q. When did you find
out he was sick?
A. That came in late '97, early '98. It became
obvious that his health was failing. He wouldn't
talk much about it. We could see he had to put
more effort in his playing. What Michel and I
decided to do was to keep him working with us
no matter how frail he had become. We didn't care
about money. We dug in our pockets to hire another
great guitar player, Michael Thomas, to support
him on stage. Michael stayed with the band until
2004. At the time I had only one guitar player
as Chuck handled the keyboards.
The chemotherapy and illness wiped George out.
But we kept him to the end. He got no pressure
to do more playing or singing than he could muster.
He had our blessing to step down and rest whenever
he felt the need. We cared for him to the very
end. Michel, in particular, was instrumental in
that department. He found ways to help George's
family through grants and other funds. He even
brought them food when the going got too tough
for them. We loved George.
Q. What was George's
role in the recording?
A. George played on every tune on the CD. He sang
four, three of which appears on "Handyman".
We rehearsed a lot he and I. He had input in the
tunes like everyone else. He loved my song "Payday".
I had written the tune with a funky bass line.
As he rehearsed it at home he explored an R&B
avenue. He proposed it to me and I loved it. So
we became co-authors. Everyone likes "Payday".
It is a radio-friendly tune. So is his other tune
he sang on the CD called "Handyman".
Q. So he has a couple
of vocals on this recording?
A. Yes. Three. "Dog in My Backyard"
(his signature song), "Payday" and "Handyman".
Q. How is this set
of recording sessions different from the ones
you did in the past? We talked about different
lineup. Was there a different feeling? Were you
more or less responsible?
A. The pressure on me was enormous this time around.
I had never worked so hard on a CD prior to this
Q. Have you guys ever
thought about auditioning male lead vocals?
A. We definitely thought of it as well. Our trademark,
of course, over the years has been to feature
a female vocalist. We tried male vocalists before,
as we did with Robert Covington but never found
the right chemistry. We are extremely pleased
with Inetta Visor, as we were with Katherine Davis
before her. So right now this is a moot point.
Q. Excellent. ... So
what were you doing around 1997, 1998, 1999 working
with this band?
A. We worked often. Chuck and I also played as
a duet; piano and harp. Sometimes we added a great
drummer named John Carpenter. We did small clubs,
coffee houses, restaurants, you name it. It was
fun. Lots of fun. Chuck and I were planning to
worked on an acoustic CD, but it never came to
fruition. However, there is one acoustic tune
appearing on our Handyman CD, entitled "Cornell
Street Boogie". A nice melodic tune written
Q. With Mississippi
Heat, what kind of geographic range are you talking
A. We went to Venezuela to headline an international
music festival in Caracas. We also traveled out
of the country (Canada, Belgium, France, Germany...).
But we did mostly the Midwest: Wisconsin, Michigan,
Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana ... as well as working
Q. At this point, in
1998, what are your musical goals and aspirations?
A. Well one thing that has always worked for me
is creating new tunes and writing lyrics for them.
I enjoy composing melodies. So I haven't ever
stopped doing so, even during mixing my albums.
I tend to practice most days of the week, and
search for fresh ideas. So I don't see much change
necessarily in the future in terms of that. From
a creative point of view I am quite happy.
Q. Your band is in
a place where you are pleased with it?
Q. That is excellent.
A. I have seasoned and likable musicians.
Q. I want to talk about
one thing, see if you're comfortable talking about
it: Has there been an inordinate amount of death
around you and this group? Sonny Wimberly passed,
Robert Covington passed, George Baze has passed.
I know that James and Bob lost their daughters
a while back in somewhat inexplicable ways. I
don't even know what to ask about that other than
put it out there, and to say do you have any reaction
or do you feel it has had any impact?
A. Well it definitely did. In more ways than one,
and on different levels. One thing about the original
band is that we were like a close family unit:
What went on in the personal life of one member
affected the rest of us too. We knew each other's
families. So when sad things happened to Bob or
James, we of course felt for them. Bob also lost
Sunnyland, Jimmy Rogers and another dear friend
besides his daughter. And this in the space of
the last few months. So we all tried to help as
best we could. Donations of moneys from everyone,
home-made cooked foods, phone calls and so forth.
Whatever we could to help, we did.
Personally, realizing how short life can be, has
hit me hard. I don't know as a musician how long
I have to do what I love. And the same goes to
the many musicians I know well, and care for.
So appreciating people while they are alive is
certainly a lesson I learned in recent years.
Robert's death, George's death, and Sonny's death
had a tremendous impact on me. I miss them, their
[To be continued]
This interview was conducted on November 16th,
1998 (Updated and Edited, 2006)