In the autumn of 2001 I went to a concert with a polish bluesband, The Nightshift of the Blues. It was an acoustic band with a lightning fast harmonica player who in a tough voice sang in polish. The band was a huge success! Two years later the band was invited to the same festival in Norrkoping, Sweden and I took the opportunity to interview the frontman of the band. Slawek Wierzcholski turned out not to be just a great and friendly bluesman, he´s also one of Polands most known blues musicians. He has recorded 15 albums and has played harmonica with Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite and Louisiana Red
You have made many albums, but you´re young! Born in 1958. How did you start?
I began to play the blues pretty late - I was 21 or something. However, I was fascinated with American culture for a long time, which is partly because of the political situation in Poland at that time. We were behind so called Iron Curtain. American music, not only blues, but also jazz, was something mystical, something from the free world. So, it was not only art which mattered but also the touch of freedom for us. Three were some great jazz musicans in Poland as early as 1950ties but there was no blues players till the end of 1970-ties. Nobody played blues in Poland, just because people didn´t know about this music. There were no records, no radio… Yes, one might hear heard the word "blues" like for instance, jazzmen would say: "do you feel the blues?" It sounded mysterious but I had no idea what it meant! I think that I in the 1970´s I heard the blues on the radio for the first time in my life. It was Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee LP "Live at the Second Fret". I think it is one of their best, because they have recorded plenty of records and this one is especially good one. And you know, it made such an impression on me! Those guys singing together accompanied only by their two instruments. It sounded like a music from heaven for me! I was truly shocked! That was the beginning of my fascination with the blues. This blues broadcast was each week, so I would record songs on my tape recorder. It was sacred time for me when they broadcasted thet program! It was a Polish Radio "3" broadcast, in which I consequently would work as a DJ several years later. I worked as a radio DJ for twelve years at this radio station. There was a fantastic lady who was leading this blues show, her name was Majka Jurkowska. She´s gone now, and I would come to her, talk to her and so on, and when she was gone I took over her show.
So Majka was one of the first to introduce blues in Poland?
Yes, I think she was one of the first. A very sweet lady. She was not only great as a radio DJ, but she also had fantastic blues LPs which she played on her show. American LPs were terribly expensive and difficult to get. Because in the 70´s there where not so many blues labels in America. You had Rooster, Delmark and few else. And in Europe there were only a few.By the way, there was a very good blues LP produced in Poland in 1976. That year, Muddy Waters Blues Band played a concert in Warsaw and it was recorded! (Illegally, in the matter of fact). I bought about hundred of the those LPs and I would trade them to Sweden for American LPs in return! Because it was much cheaper to trade than to buy American LPs. I was a student at the university at that time and I had not much money. Trading was the only way to get this music. The Muddy album were valuable as a collectors item in Sweden, Finland and Norway. And it was so difficult to get blues albums in Poland at that time - I mean in the eighties. It was not only the matter of money, but you couldn´t get those records even if you had money. So it was hard work to get familiar with the blues. I loved that music and I couldn´t get it, but anyway I managed!
Perhaps, the blues was first heard Poland in 1957 when Big Bill Ramsey came to Poland and he played Caldonia. But the first Polish blues bands… It´s difficult to say because they were not pure blues, they played so called Big Beat, it was something like pop songs with drums and guitars. This was in the sixties, then the first Polish blues band began its career , it was called Breakout. They began in 1968. This was the first Polish blues band. They played in the style of John Mayall & the Blues Breakers. From the period of Hard Road LP. I was not the first one to play blues in Poland! (laugh). In the seventies they were very popular, they were played on the radio on so on… When I started in 1982, there was a good time for blues in Poland, some who played was Taduesz Nalepa from Breakout, Elzbieta Mielczarek , the bands Easy Rider and Krzak… Also some others. The freedom movement of "Solidarity" collapsed and there was state of war announced by the communist party go but it was allowed to play blues in Poland because communist government wanted young people to have something to keep them out of the politics and this music was new at the time, I mean many people heard the blues for the first time. They played blues on the big festivals, they played it on the radio
Was there kind of a collapse in the late 1980´s. Was there a generation shift?
[Elzbieta] lives in Germany, but the other [I mentioned] play, Irek Dudek is the director of Rawa Blues festival. He´s more of an organizer now than a player. Of course , the young people like 16-18, they´re not interested in the blues at all, because they don´t know nothing, because they don´t listen on [blues on] the radio. The problem is the blues is getting a bit older, I mean the audience is getting a bit older. The people who listened to my band in the eghties, they are still listening to me but I would also like to attract younger people with my music. Sometimes they come with their kids, sometimes some kids come, but you know it´s not hip. Dance music, hiphop, pop and techno are hip.
When did you start to play harmonica?
I was about 20. Sonny Terry was my man! His style is very difficult and kind of simple at the same time. He uses only a few channels of the harmonica . But how much he can play with these few notes! I was always fascinated with an acoustic blues. The fascination with Chicago style came later. In the end of the 1970´s, I was a fascinated with American culture in general. I would learn English, (which was not popular at that time in Poland). I was a law student and during summer vacation, I got a job as a guide for an American group. I met a fantastic lady, I fell in love and we decided to get married! So, I went to the States in 1980 and I stayed there for one year and there, that´s where I learned to play harmonica. Mainly by listening to other people play in the clubs .Then I got fascinated with the Chicago sound! But hey! - after Sonny Terry there was Sonny Boy Williamson! Sonny Boy is still one of my main names. Not many notes, but lots of feeling. And what a sound of harmonica. Great vocals, too!
When I got better on harmonica I discovered Charlie Musselwhite. I got all his LPs and I copied his licks. I studied his licks for hours week after week. Years later, in 1993 had an honour to have him on o my CD called "Chory na bluesa". He played solos on four songs. It was very important for me! Great Musselwhite playing my stuff! I even lost interest in playing harmonica for a year or two because it was like playing with my God! Later I met many important blues men, but Musselwhite is still my main man. We are still in touch. We exchange e-mails, he sends me jokes and so on. Generally, Charlie Musselwhite got me into more technical harmonica playing.
It must have been fantastic to be in Chicago and play with Junior Wells and others…
I worked at the same time. I worked hard. I was painting the walls and I would clean the backyards and stuff like that... I was not good enough to to play in the clubs, so I just played some jams and I would listen. I would play on so called Blue Mondays. I would go Checkerboard Lounge, Kingston Mines or other clubs and I would jam with guys like Junior Wells or Detroit Junior. I stayed in Chicago for half of a year and the rest of the time I spent in Bloomington, Indiana. I attended School of Music at the Indiana University, where I learned a bit. So I was lucky to go the States. Although, I didn't marry my lady :!
How was Chicago then in 1980-1981?
I think they had about fifty blues clubs at the time! I would go pretty often to Checkerboard Lounge, tough place, dangerous place but Buddy Guy and Junior Wells would play there quite often. I often visited The Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S, they were the most important. I think Kingston Mines that´s where I heard the first American blues band It was The Chicago Slim Blues Band. I still have their LP. It is one of the best LPs in my collection! Chicago Slim… it was legendary Nick Gravenities! I met him personally. Nice guy, smoking constantly fat cigars . I didn´t know who Nick Gravenities was then. And he wrote songs for Janis Joplin and Paul Butterfield, he sang with Electric Flag… Fantastic singer, good slide guitar player and man: he could blow the harmonica! What a tone! And it was very raw and very loud. It was something! I got crazy with that sound and generally with the Chicago blues. I still love it!
When I came back to Poland from the States I decided I wanted to make a band. I graduated from the law faculty at the university , but I knew that was not for me. I have never practiced the law.
Did you start Nocna Zmiana Bluesa (the The Nightshift of the Blues) then?
That was maybe the second or third band. My first band was called Mixer Blues or something. It was not to mention, it was amateur. You know when I came back from the States, I had a Gibson guitar, a Les Paul, I had some harmonicas and tried to sing. I joined the band which already played. They took me because I knew English and I tried to sing which was VERY rare at that time. It was a band with saxophones, heavy Chicago style but that was not for me. Then I had something similar to Tampa Red, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I don't like loud music, so we played with acoustic guitar as a rhythm instrument, with an upright bass and violin. We were unusual, which helped us. We were not that good technically but had a lot of energy and we loved that music. And the audience would love us!
You played most covers then?
Yes, only the covers. I was not interested in writing my own stuff. I also wanted to sing in English. Although I was so fascinated with acoustic sounds I wanted to sing like Howling Wolf! Which was ridiculous! When I listen to my early LPs these days I´m ashamed. It was so unnatural. I´m not much of a singer, now but I try to just be natural. Besides I write my own stuff. If I sing my stuff, it´s O.K. Even if I am not the best singer, I believe.
How is your band today?
Acoustic bass guitar, drums, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, violin and me on harmonica and vocals.
I saw you when you were in Norrköping for two years ago, 2001. You had your own style, playing with a full acoustic band. You played fast high runs on the harmonica. You had a very technical style then?
I had a time when I had this technical approach, I would write two books on harmonica technique. Those books are the first harmonica instruction books in Poland The first one was for beginners and it was so popular and I wrote another one for advanced. I also teach at the workshops. Although right now I´m not so much into technical aspect. The feeling is more important. Tone is everything! That´s what I teach in my workshops. Don´t try to be fast, remember about the tone! However, I still like to play fast, complicated runs in a high register of harmonica from time to time. Which is not easy. I also play some jazzy tunes on chromatic.
What would you call your style of blues?
It´s very personal and it´s not a pure blues. I was a blues purist years ago, and now there´s a little bit of folk and touch of jazz in my playing. . I think I have my own style as a singer-songwriter. Songwriting is very important for me. In December 2003 a CD was released called "Chorzy na bluesa". Nineteen Polish bands play my songs! I am proud of them and of that CD! Some of the players are my former harmonica students. And there are some ladies singing really sweet!
So you think there´s some development of the blues still possible?
Yes! Certainly! Blues is so alive and changing. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan was something fresh and new in blues more than 20 years ago. He was revolutionary and refreshing! He kind of found a new way of playing guitar and nobody could play blues like him. Now many people play like him and it´s nothing special anymore. But he was very creative. (As a matter of fact he would play mostly Albert King licks and make them sounding fresh, original and his own) At the same time was very creative .To ee creative is very important. I´m not interested in singing Sweet Home Chicago exactly like Magic Sam did. Some people think that his version is the best ever recorded. Period. So, the only way to perfection is to try to play as similar to him as possible. The more you imitate Magic Sam the better you are! It is totally wrong attitude. Blues is also an art form! If you want to be an artist you must be creative! And I try to be honest to the blues roots and to be creative at the same time. But like many young people crazy about the blues, on my earlier recordings I would sing in English trying to be very very black. Now I only sing in Polish . I think it´s more natural and creative and I also had a need to sing my own. For some people its weird, it´s strange to sing blues in Polish but I think that blues is an international music. Back in the fifties it was only an American music but now it´s international. To tell you an interesting thing, I try to collect blues records from different countries with a touch of their own element. I got Brasilian blues, I got blues from Romania and Hungary, from different countries, about twenty countries, and I think if they have their own approach. In Scandinavia I know Knut Reiersrud, I have his last CD. I´m not too crazy about his approach. It´s looking forward, they call it nu-blues and I do not think that mixing the blues with hip-hop, scratches, samples is the right way. But who knows?
In Sweden many new bands play a kind of jump blues…
In Germany it´s the same. I play in Germany from time to time, the bands over there are very good, but they are not creative I would say. It is like in this example with Magic Sam and his divine version of Sweet Home Chicago…
You have this more experimental approach to blues…
Yes, it´s experimental, but you know, it´s experimenting in traditional way! I don´t care for electronics at all, No loops, no electronic, no sampling, no turntable scratches. Just to be creative with acoustic instruments. Like Guy Davis, Billy Branch, Chris Smither, Eric Bibb, early Anders Osborne or early Carlos del Junco.
So there be no Slawek Goes Hip-hop….
No at all! Let's take Knut Reiersrud, he´s great, but his approach is not interesting for me at all. There is no soul in electronically produced music. It the soul is the most important thing. Maybe [his way turns out to be] he´s right in ten years… But I think I´m incorporating parts of different styles…. Like Robert Cray. It´s a bit pop a bit soul, but he´s still blues, right? I don't sound like Cray at all. It is just a matter of an attitude.
I´ve read there´s going to be a book about you?
Yes, it´s ready. Last year my band celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Two Polish journalists wrote the book, which is called just like my most famous songs Chory na bluesa. It´s hard to translate… that means I´m crazy about the blues, or I have a sickness, an illness, which is called blues and the book is called like that. There are a lot of pictures with famous blues men I had an honour to meet, like Musselwhite, BB King, Louisiana Red, Junior Wells, The Blues Brothers band and many others. Talking about Louisiana Red - I have made a whole CD with Louisiana Red .When we met in Poland he had problems with his backbone, he still has. In the eighties it was not so bad, but he was feeling real bad. I said; "Red. I have a medicine for you. I have similar problems with my backbone from time to time." And he said, "No, I don´t believe I want to take any more medicine for my aching back. Nothing helps." However, I convinced him to lay on his belly and I rubbed his back. It felt kind of strange you know, to rub this big black guy but I did it. Red stands on his feet and he shouts :It´s magic! No pain! The ointment didn't work for a long time, but for half an hour Red felt like new born! He just loved me for that! Ten years ago when I was in France he was questioned by a group of journalists. When he saw me he run away from them shouting Slawek! My dear!!! The journalists who treated Red like a living legend were very curious why is Red so enthusiastic about me. But I just told them that Red likes me so much because I am so good harmonica player! (laugh)
You write in a Polish blues magazine?
Yes, Twoj Blues, that means Your blues. You know I always liked to write, write about blues. If I was not a musician I´d be a radio DJ or a journalist. I also know quite a lot about blues history andI like to write about that. It´s like my hobby, but coincidentally my hobby is something very connected to the blues.
You´re quite involved in the blues scene in Poland. You had this blues radio show and now you wrote in the Twoj Blues. Is there any blues radio in Poland?
Well, I still have a radio show, but it´s only local, but I had my blues show for twelve years, at the most popular polish radio. Today, there is not much blues on the radio or TV. But this music is popular in Poland! For example, we have eighteen blues festivals! I´m a director of one of them, it´s called THT - Torun Harmonica Top. Torun is my town. The festival takes place in May, 1-3, There are bluesmen from 6 different countries. The best known are The Nighthawks. There is also a harmonica competition. The first prize is almost like thousand Euros! Maybe some harmonica players from Sweden or just blues lovers would like to come?
To find out more about the harmonica contest or to buy Slaweks recods you can write to him at blues @ ofek.pl
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