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 Adolescence [1952-1970]
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 instance.
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 my life.
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 as well.
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 you bought?
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 is today.
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 him well.
Q. How often were you going?
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 happen.
Q. Did you talk to the musicians.
A. Yeah, talked to all of them, especially Junior.
Q. So you were only in Chicago for about a year before you went to college.
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 years.
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 and anxieties.
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 [1976-Early 1990’s]
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 disequilibrium.
Q. Was your repertoire original?
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 your dad?
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 do?
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 clubs again?
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 that matter.
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 Amy’s family.
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 to clubs?
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 on Drums.
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, full-time?
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 before.
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 audience.
Q. So you’re still doing this.
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 together.
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 it.
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 working?
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 us working.
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 band.
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 out front.
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 1992. …
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 with Billy.
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 were issues.
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 the band.
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 with us.
Q. We will get back to that. Covington is going to cost you more than a singer. Were you playing with Deitra and Bob Carter?
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 until 1993?
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 night.
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 Jon McDonald?
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 good.
Q. Both did a lot of work at every tough level in Blues, dealing with demanding bandleaders.
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 with.
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 ’92.
A. That is correct.
Q. Deitra coming in ’93?
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 unit.
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 Heat.
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 and entertainer.
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 that role?
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 to go.
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, in 1994.
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 for instance.
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 all levels.
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” to me.
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 disadvantages?
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 distribution.
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 our own.
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 tunes.
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 with you?
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 whoever?
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 is cooperation.
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, Max Valldeneu…
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 himself more?
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 out?
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 and clear?
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 work with?
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 “Frites”.
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 gigs?
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 friendship.
Q. So you tried out some vocalists?
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 the album?
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 renown.
Q. But it took more time to record that CD compared to those you had previously released.
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 so far.
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 vocalists?
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 the recording?
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 all well.
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 level too.
Q. What did Billy Boy do?
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 or his?
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 Handyman CD?
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 sing?
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 on tours.
Q. What was his playing like?
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 he did.
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 one.
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 by Chuck.
Q. With Mississippi Heat, what kind of geographic range are you talking about?
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 in Chicago.
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 presence. …/…
[To be continued]
This interview was conducted on November 16th, 1998 (Updated and Edited, 2006)