PIERRE LACOCQUE’S MISSISSIPPI HEAT
A CONVERSATION WITH GIOVANNI ROBINO
JUNE 19, 2022
Belgian by birth and Chicagoan by adoption, a virtuoso of the harmonica with an entirely original and elegant breathing technique, innovative in his approaching to the post-war Chicago blues, Pierre Lacocque through its direct extension, the Mississippi Heat, has been able to give rise to the incarnation of his own musical vision, “traditional blues with a unique sound”.
In addition to being the architect, he is also the author, producer and the center of gravity of the entire band. Madeleine celebrates the group’s thirtieth anniversary and scores what is certainly one of the best records of this historic formation; a record that also wants to be a tribute to the concept of roots, represented here in both family and artistic terms, given the presence of many musicians who have been part of the band’s past.
In the interview that follows, with Pierre Lacocque we talk about his new recording, Madeleine …
.1. Mississippi Heat has always been a band deeply rooted in the Chicago blues tradition, although it has a modern sound. Partly due to your innovative, virtuosic harp playing. Do you agree with this description?
We do indeed have a post-war modern electric sound. My joy as a musician, above all else, is to be drawn into a creative process. A process that relies on recorded blues history, for sure, but which also brings up a fresh perspective. A Mississippi Heat recording is an opportunity to bring ideas. Not only new musical arrangements and lyrics, but also a unique harmonica approach.
.2. The opening track, “Silent Too Long”, sounds like the perfect example of a modern sound. The harmonica part and Giles Corey’s guitar have a great role in this.
Absolutely. Giles is one of my favorite guitar players. He is quick to grasp what I intend to do in a song. He can shift from a traditional blues style to a Reggae, to a rollicking boogie, or to a swing effortlessly. “On a dime” as we say here. I often work with him to lay down my new songs before meeting with the band.
Carl Weathersby, and Chris “Hambone” Cameron are also such world-class musicians. I feel their commitment and caring. Ensemble work is a joy for me. You will notice that the guests I have had for years on our recordings tend to be the same artists. I consider them to be an integral part of the Mississippi Heat’s sound. They bring the panoramic vision I have for my songs. Some tunes require a pure Delta approach, some a Santana-esque feel, and others, for example, a Reggae playing style. I trust and appreciate everyone on my team, as well as my co-producer Michael Freeman. He and I have worked on 6 of Mississippi Heat’s 13 recordings to date. God willing, I look forward to recording more projects with him.
.3. Another one that reflect a modern sound may be your song, “At The Lucky Star”. It mixes funk, New Orleans vibes and even some gospel influences when you are listening to the backup vocals.
You are right. While I honor the 1950’s post-war sound in my songs, I also bring in as many inspiring musical genres as I can find, and then I “blues-them-up”! As for me, the key factor for going forward with a song is to be excited about it: its melody, its lyrics, and its mood. A tune can take weeks or months to write. Without being enthused about the writing process, it would not be worth the time. I wanted a New Orleans’ feel to “At The Lucky Star”. Incidentally, the melody for that tune I had worked on circa 1996! That was during the Deitra Farr-Billy Flynn-Bob Stroger-Allen Kirk and James Wheeler days. I never sat down to write the lyrics or the arrangements until I worked on Madeleine.
.4. And it’s been a long running band too! With this release, it celebrates its 30th anniversary and we have to say that, through the years, the band was the training ground for several Chicago blues musicians who, from there, started their solo careers. I’m thinking of Deitra Farr, Bob Stroger, Billy Flynn, Carl Weathersby, Kenny “Beedy Eye” Smith, to name a few.
Well, thank you for this compliment but these amazing artists already had a name. I don‘t feel comfortable taking credit for their post-Mississippi Heat careers. However, I believe that having been members or guests on Mississippi Heat recordings did not hurt them either. We record as often as possible. Usually every 2 years – except for Madeleine, due in part to the Covid-19 mess – so whoever records with us receives wide attention.
.5. The band’s personnel have changed over the years, but its trademark and artistic vision has remained indelible. Starting from traditional Chicago blues, you’ve added sometimes elements of Zydeco, Latin and World music sounds too. On Madeleine we find “Havana En Mi Alma” for instance, with its Reggae flavor.
Oh yes. That song was written during our visit to Cuba in November of 2016. My wife Victoria (“Vickie”) hails from Cuba. She was born in Havana.
She was 15 years old when she fled her country to the Chicago. So, it was a moving experience to see where she had lived. While I know and love many Cubans in the USA – I have Cuban godchildren, nephews and nieces, for instance – to experience the people living there evoked a deep respect and an appreciation for them. I decided to use a Reggae music to my lyrics as this Jamaican music tends to mix the emotions of despair with hope. Which is what I detected while I was meeting the people. Incidentally, we were in Havana when Fidel Castro passed away on November 25th, 2016. Everything closed for one week. Especially entertainment places.
.6. The first tune that sounds deep into Chicago tradition is “Batty Crazy”. It features lead vocals from Daneshia Hamilton, a young singer who also appears on “Nothin’ I Can Do”, and on a couple of other tunes. She’s the last singer to sit in and make her debut in the band.
Daneshia is a remarkable singer. She was referred to us by my drummer of 10 years, Terrence “T-Man” Williams. Daneshia sings with the band when Inetta Visor cannot. I also often hire both at shows. They make a fabulous singing pair! Inetta has had health issues which can hinder her traveling. She remains our Super Guest, especially when we perform in Chicago.
.7. Another Chicago tune is the song “Uninvited Guest” featuring Mississippi Heat’s friend Lurrie Bell on both vocals and an immediately recognizable guitar.
When I presented the music and lyrics of “Uninvited Guest” to Lurrie, he immediately liked the song. Listening to the recorded version you can detect that he was inspired by it. Lurrie Bell is a treasure. We have a special bond, way beyond the music. I could say the same thing about Kenny Smith, Terrence Williams, Carl Weathersby, Inetta Visor, and others too. It began years ago with Jon McDonald, Robert Covington, Deitra Farr, and Katherine Davis. This continues to this day. I have found a family in the blues world.
.8. Historic singer Inetta Visor shows up on “Empy Nest Blues” and on the final track “Trouble” that also feature Carl Weathersby’s guitar and a tasty trumpet solo from Mark Franklin.
Inetta’s stage presence is delightful. Fans adore her voice and personality. And so do I. She is quite a good songwriter as well. I am blessed to have her as a friend. There’s little I wouldn’t do for her. I feel the same coming from her. I trust that our bond will be life-long.
Speaking of Mark Franklin’s trumpet playing, I knew that Cuban Music typically use trumpets on their vintage recordings. So, on my song “Havana En Mi Alma” I also asked Mark to do a solo on it. What a contribution! No wonder that he is being nominated for Best Horn (trumpet) in Blues Blast Magazine this year.
.9. Another Mississippi Heat’s alumni, Michael Dotson, appears on lead vocals and guitar on “Everybody Do Somethin’”.
Yes. Michael is a stellar songwriter. He brought a vintage-yet-unique sound to Mississippi Heat. He worked and recorded with us for about 9 to 10 years. His wife hails from Athens, Greece. His family needed him closer to home. So, he returned to Greece after Madeleine was recorded (and just before Covid-19 hit the USA). It is such a pleasure to know and work with him.
.10. The album’s title track, “Madeleine”, is named after your maternal grandmother’s first name. It is the only instrumental tune here. In addition to finding Lurrie Bell once again on guitar, we can hear your passionate and heartfelt harp blowing throughout.
It was a challenge recording this instrumental as the grief and thankfulness were intertwined. Our “Mamy” (Madeleine) was one of the few highlights in my childhood. Not to get into details, but my earliest years in Belgium were filled with a feeling of not belonging to this world.
Our “Mamy” was a sanctuary for me (and to my two siblings, Michel (19 months older than I) and Elisabeth (4 years younger than I) as well. Mamy had a 4th grade education. She was smart as a whip and uncannily perceptive. She read people well. Neighbors came to her for advice. People from her village and family members also did. Mamy had gone through 2 World Wars. She and my grandfather (“Papy”) lost their first-born to a concentration camp in Mauthausen (Austria) during the Nazi’s occupation of Belgium. Her son “Jean” was 17 years old when he was taken. My grandfather “Papy” – whom we adored – had also been tortured by the Nazis for being a local Resistance leader. He was placed in front of a firing squad on two separate occasions and was to be rescued by a priest who vouched for his innocence. This priest pleaded with the Nazis by saying that our grandfather was a foreman at the local glass factory, hence a “leader”. Which happens to have been true (besides the fact that Papy was also leading a local Resistance group). Someone had unfortunately snitched on him.
And yet, despite their bottomless grief for a lost son, their love for us was steady, profound, and uplifting.
This love was more overtly expressed by Mamy but was no less felt from Papy, who was more of an introvert. The song “Madeleine” is also a thanksgiving song to our grandfather.
.11. Guests of the party are also the horn players (trumpeter Mark Franklin and sax man Kirk Smothers), and master keyboardist Johnny Iguana.
As I enjoy playing the harmonica as a “horn”, I am biased about them! Horn players have a knack at selecting rhythmic and melodic timings that enrich a song. Subtlety and phrasing can be overlooked by musicians, be they guitar or harmonica players, for example. What I appreciate about Mark Franklin and Kirk Smothers is that they are smooth and do not over play.
Johnny Iguana is one of the few traditional blues piano players in Chicago. His playing is beautiful and tasty. He can play non-blues piano styles equally well, but he will deliver a vintage Otis Spann style if the song asks for it.
I must also mention take a moment to show my appreciation for “Hambone” (Christopher Cameron) who has recorded with Mississippi Heat on piano and B-3 organ ever since our 2005 CrossCut Records album, Glad You’re Mine (CCR 11085). Hambone is a genius, who can also play many musical styles, including, of course, Chicago blues. He was John Mayall’s keyboard player for a while! While Hambone’s playing on Madeleine is delightful, even unparalleled, I enjoy Johnny Iguana’s playing. Johnny Iguana guests on other recordings of ours, such as Cab Driving Man (Delmark Records, DE848, 2016).
.12. It seems like, with Madeleine (the album), you’ve wanted to pay homage both to your musical and personal history; seems like this album may represent a steppingstone for you, right?
I am faithful to my friends. I keep Mississippi Heat as a tight-knit group. If one of my musicians cannot make a particular gig, I go to another one who has recorded with us before and knows the material. I rarely go outside a narrow list when I hire a temporary replacement. Madeleine is a good example of the consistency of the band’s core and overall membership.