Rappin’ Chicago Blues.
Calvin “Vino” louden is a Blues Artist with a world wide reputation. Probably most famous for his part as the bandleader and guitar player with Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine. Before that, he fronted with other stars; Bobby Rush, Cicero Blake, Otis Clay, Mighty Joe Young,to name a few.
Yours Truly met Vino at the Skanevik Bluesfestival 2013, in Norway, where backed up Blues singer Nora Jean. I was sitting with her in the hotel garden, when, who I thought was her keyboard player, joined us. We came to talk about guitar players, and I contributed with the rumors I’ve heard about Vino Louden. How he came back after a car accident, and learned to play again. “The keyboard player” listened quitely to my story, and eventually says; “Well, I can tell you more about that, because I am Vino Louden”!
I was stunned! I didn’t expect that Vino would ever play in Norway, after the accident. His longtime achievement as the bandleader for Koko Taylor came to a dramatic end, when the band’s van crashed near Black River Falls, WI, on their way to a show in Thief River Falls, MN. Seriously injured, he recovered and is back on the international Blues scenes. Koko Taylor wasn’t in the van, but died a year later, in 2009. Anyway, here’s the exclusive interview, which is a piece of Chicago Blues History, seen from Vino’s perspective.
Uncle Joe – Len Bland
I may not have known what the Blues was called then, coming up on the South Side of Chicago. My mom Louise and I came from Hayti, Missouri, just to find a better life for she and I. Even though it was six of us, I was the last of the six. She came up to Chicago to find a work, with intents to send for the other kids later on, when she got established. Anyway, she was singing in a choir, so I heard music all the time. Hearing her singing, it kind of got into my spirit. And flashed forward a lot of years. I had an uncle called Joe. His real name was Leric Blake, but he worked by the name Len Bland. I used to see him go out and play with a piano player named Lovie Lee. And he played different stuff with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.
In Club DeLisa and other spots. I would see him dressed up with his guitar, and stuff. And I wanted to be like Uncle Len. I remember him coming in our house. when he was getting ready doing a show. I asked him to show me how to play the guitar. Because I wanted to dress up like him and go out and play. I was young, might have been ten years. Or younger than that, if I can recall. He sat down and played a couple of licks, which might have been something real simple. But to me it sounded like he was playing a concert, or something. It sounded like a bunch of notes. “Man, that’s too fast”! I said.
He unplugged his stuff and said; “Boy, you ain’t got no soul”, and he walked away from me. I don’t know what his intent was, but I do know that it was the seed that was planted in me, when he did that. “I’m gonna show him”. I guess it was important to me, to let show him that I did have soul. And that I was able to play that guitar. I think that’s pretty close to when I think I got started. I didn’t know that it was called the Blues, I just knew I liked it. I used to hear it all the time. And when my uncle was playing or practicing, what ever. And my mom would play John Lee Hooker and different folks like that. I guess that’s how I got started.
My uncle Joe was one of them “plucky plucky” guitar player. He used to sit on that stoop and play that thing all night long, and get him some “moonshine”. He would sit there, hollering at the moon, all night long. He was pretty good at that thing. He said; “Boy, I heard you wanna play guitar. You better learn you some Jimmy Reed. That’s gonna stick to your guts”!
I didn’t answer him, because he was a grown person telling me what to do. I wouldn’t hear about them old folks, back then. I kinda followed him a little bit, but I said; “I wanna learn me some James Brown”! I gotta play that slick stuff, to get the girls come in on me. They won’t be coming, talking about that sad stuff. But he insisted; “Boy, I’m telling you, learn you some Jimmy Reed and you’re always gonna stick to that. You gotta get some Blues under your belt. That’s where you come from, it’s in your genes, it’s in your blood”! I heard him and the first tune I ever learned was “Bright Lights, Big City”.
Blues on the Radio
I used to hear the music on the radio, because we had two radio stations. WVON was a black radio station, owned by Leonard and Phil Chess. The brothers who are famous for the legendary Chess Records. The other was WIS, a rock or white radio station. But I liked it all, because WVON would play Gospel, Blues and R&B. It was so many influences out there. I can nail to the wall, but I can’t say one in particular. Of course it was the poppy ones, that almost anybody with any kind of love for the music, would say Muddy, Wolf and all those guys. You know, the legends. But it was much more than just them. Not to say that that wasn’t enough inspiration to me. It was a combination of all that. I heard John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, The Temptations and Lightning Hopkins. I heard, and didn’t know who she was back then, that’s ironic! I heard Koko Taylor with that Wang-Dang-Doodle song. Oh man, it’s so many names I can’t remember right now. Solomon Burke, you name it...
Like I said, we had the one radio station. And I liked when I could sit with my uncle and listen to hear him play. Or listen to them playing his records. He had this tune called “Operator”. He must have re-recorded that tune about ten times, over the years. Updating it, or whatever, I don’t know. On WVON you would hear, say Gospel in the morning. You heard the radio DJs; Bill “Butterball” Crane, Herb Kent “The Cool Gent”. He would play the oldies, the dusties, or whatever. We heard E. Rodney Jones, Bernardine C. Washington and Pervis Spann, “The All Night Blues Man”. I would listen to Pervis at night and he used to make me mad. Because he would be on there and say; “I got the phone lines open and I want you to call me. But I don’t want no mens calling me. I just want the ladies to call me and tell me what you want me to play. But like I said, I don’t want no men calling me”. I used to think; well, I want to hear this particular song, but he don’t want no men calling him. I felt like I want to call him too and tell him what I want to hear, a particular Blues tune.
But that’s how he rose, that’s what he did. He had that same saying; “I don’t want no men calling my number, if you do I will hang up on you. Just the ladies call me”. He would play the older stuff late at night. That was late for me back then, it was like ten o’clock at night, or somewhere around it. And when the radio would sign off, they used to play this tune with E. Rodney Jones; “Father open our eyes, so that we may see”. I don’t know the rest of the song, but when we heard that, no more radio for you! It just faded out...
But I sit there with that radio and my mom used to buy 45”s. I u
ed to sit and listen to them and I would learn them all from the A-sides. I played that all day, and it was several of them. I learned every note of it, the bass part, the guitar part, the vocal part, everything I could... And the next day I flipped over to the B-sides. I learned everything on them too. I had a drive, man! It was just something about it, I get the “hot itchy stingies”, just thinking about going to get my guitar. I guess it’s like a guy that wants to drink, but can’t get that first drink. Wanting to get his next drink and they won’t allow him get the next drink. Or, you’re in love with somebody, that’s more closer to it, what it was. Let’s say that when you’re in love with somebody, you can’t wait to see her. And you’ll get that “goosebumps feeling” all over, because you’re anticipated seeing this person. That was how I was about getting my guitar, putting it into my hands and playing it. It just did something to me that nothing else could match, you know!
The early days
Let me tell you, I was ready when I first started, ha ha ha. I was ready, but I didn’t know I was ready. Well, there’s a couple of things that happened along the way with me. I didn’t start playing to be a professional. It was something that kept me out of the streets, for two reasons.
Number one; it was something I loved doing, because I was around music. Or music was always around me. My Mama was always singing. Although she was singing Gospel songs, every now and then she would sing a Sam Cooke song, or something like that. Oh, that “Little Red Rooster”! And this woman down the street used to always play this tune. We knew that “Mr. Jones”, whatever his name was, didn’t come home after work. Because she sticked speakers in the window, and she played; “If you see my little red rooster, tell him to come home to me”. And she would play that song all day long, until he showed up. It was like the whole neighbourhood would know that “Mr. Jones” ain’t came home. And I would hear that song over and over. It becomes assuring when you keep hearing something repeatedly. So, even when I wasn’t trying to listen to the Blues, it was coming at me. Along with living it too, you know. We’re talking about the 60s and stuff, I came about in Chicago. Yeah, it was no easy row to hoe back then. But it was better than being down south, But it was no cakewalk, by no stretch of the imagination. That’s a whole other story, and I’m not getting into that.
There were places on the South Side of Chicago, and I imagine on the West Side too. But I was on the South Side, mostly until I got older. Where you can go from one street all the way to the other end. Not just a block, but maybe a mile. There would just be clubs with bands playing, back and forth. It was just live, really a live entertainment thing. It was corner stores, neighbourhood stores and grocery stores. And then you had the Guys and Gals clubs, “The Regal” and the “Met Theatre”. They just had entertainment everywhere. I don’t know if it was all black owned, but I know a lot of the small business were. You could see the acts come in with their buses. We lived in one area, one neighbourhood. So we went; “Oh, there goes Jackie Wilson in that bus”! And we ran behind the bus, hoping we could get a glimpse at him. Or, “there goes Muddy and Wolf, they’re coming to town”. You could see the posters upside the trees and stuff...
My uncle would sometimes take me and let me sit around in the car, parked in the alley. When they were sound checking or rehearsing, so I could hear them. I’d be sitting in the car, until it get dark out there. Nobody came to mess with me. I just sat in the car, a little guy, sitting there listening. One day he took me in, and I met Howlin’ Wolf. One of his hands were bigger than both of mine put together and that was frightening. “Hey there little man, I heard you wanna play the Blues”. I didn’t know what to say, yes or no. Back then I was scared to say anything. I just shut my mouth and walked away. Believe me or not, I didn’t talk much back then, ha ha ha! It was unpopular with the older folks, when they were talking. Like treating you; “Here’s grown folks talking, shut up boy”! That type of things. So, you just answered the question, or nod your head and walked away. You don’t sit there to have a conversation with grown folks. “Don’t be looking at my mouth while I’m talking, stay in your place, little boy”! That was my experience with meeting the Wolf.
When I was small, still that same age, Jimmy Reed Jr. used to rehears down the street on the South Side. This guy named Lester Holmes was playing drums with him back then. I used to go stand outside, listen to them rehearsing. This was when I was able to go places on my own, a little bit. Or I sneaked away, I was supposed to not go to the corner. But I looked around and ran down there, because I knew where it was. They had guitars, so I’ve seen them walking in with guitars. It was like a snake charmer, “Oh, they’re gonna play the guitar, they’re gonna play music”! Sometimes I would get my butt ass whipped, but I’m going down there anyway. Though I knew I’d getting trouble when I get back. Because “Mr. So and So” is gonna tell on me; “You let that boy go down the street, I’ve seen him around there”. When I got home I heard; “Go get that switch boy! You might as well bring it on in the house with you. Because you’re gonna get that butt torn up”. I was like; “Oh mama, I was just listening to the music, I wasn’t doing nothing”. She was; “What did I tell you”?
People want to put labels on everything, it was all in there, without no separation. It was a hit, or it wasn’t a hit. But whatever, the temperament of the music was. And because I grew up in the neighbourhood, Wolf and Muddy was all over the place. Chess Records was right down 4-5 miles from the house. The black community was all in one area. So, Blues was always around us. But my Grand Daddy too, he messed around with a guitar. He never did nothing beyond sitting on the porch with it. I didn’t get to be around him, could be if he was younger. But he passed on about the time I started messing with the guitar. But like my uncle Joe said, it was in my blood already, from my other folks playing.
But back to your question! Actually we used to rehears a lot. You may call it a jam, whatever. You ran into the cats that are trying to play too, and of course you wanna be cool. But I didn’t know whether it was called Blues, or whatever. It was just music to me. I listened to everything, from Charley Clark, David T. Walker, Wes Montgomery to Bo Diddley. Whatever they played on the radio. On which, back then, you could hear good Blues, or good R&B. It was only one radio station, like I said. And in another part of the town a day, you would hear jazz, or this or that. And you knew around between 11 and 1, your’e gonna hear some Blues, that this DJ exclusively played. Which was cool, but I’m sure that it was some politics in that, maybe. I didn’t know nothing about that back then, but I know it now...
But you got the chance to hear that music. Now, if you don’t go into a club, or look it up on the internet, you can’t hear Blues. You can’t just tune it in. Or you can pay for a satellite radio, I guess. But they play the same frequent tunes, with guys who are already famous. None of the up and comers, who keep it alive. You gotta keep everything and put fresh blood in there. Personally I don’t have any problems with any of it, because music is music! Music has no colour, but Blues Music has a foundation. Or a base, from which it came. Just as calypso music has a base from where it came. It doesn’t mean that everybody can’t play calypso. To me, there should be a respect for from which it came. The people who lived it, who are living it, who will be living it... When I’m dead and gone, I’ll still be going through what Blues is. Not to say that anybody can’t have the Blues.
Much the same as, would I be totally accepted if I went to Ireland, and was really good at playing the bagpipe? I learned how to play this bagpipe really well, with my heart. And they put me in front of an Irish guy, who plays the bagpipe. I don’t know, do you think so? So, for me to see accolade in folks who have not lived it. Going through the gender of the history of where, whens it came. The music looses all authenticness. Not to say that anything can’t be mimicked, or replicated. But is it coming from a pure place, and do you feel it? See, when you’re exposed to something that’s not real, after a while it becomes authentic to you. Who ever that is, whatever it is. If you get generically based on anything, then your generic becomes authentic to you. And eventually the original, the real thing, becomes something that has not existed. Unfortunately I think that’s kind of what happened with the Blues. You didn’t ask me that, but I share that with you.
The guys I started jammin with, they didn’t hold on to Blues like I did. I grabbed on with both hands, man! But it was this guy named Robert Stinis, I remember well. He played saxophone and his folks had a little change they liked to donate. They had a little money because of their grandparents, or they great grandparents. They had their own little business, and stuff. Unfortunately that makes the difference whether you’re successful, or not. You know, the pigmentation... So, he was able to get certain equipments and stuff. We would go by his house and jam, because he could afford to buy the instruments. Stinis was a real cool cat. He was never a real good player, but he kept the equipment and we hang out in his basement. It’s the little things that takes you to the bigger things. Not necessary things that you would say that this is the direction I need to go. I wanna go in order to get me there, to a destination. By me playing with Stinis was something very basic. I don’t know what the hell we were playing. We just played what we liked to hear. We didn’t necessarily sit down and analyzed it. If it was Blues in it, it has to be bluesy, you know.
Stinis ran me into the place where Jimmy Reed Jr. used to rehears. They never let me come down in there, because I was scared and nervous. I had a Tiesco guitar, for which I saved up enough money selling Christmas cards. Going door to door, selling boxes of Christmas cards. And eventually I would shuffle snow. To get the prize they got in the book. I thought it was a real folk guitar, but it was a plastic folk guitar. My auntie had a “speak easy” downstairs. Because on Sundays you couldn’t get no liquor in our neighbourhood. She would buy six packs for her little basement, with wall panelling, and stuff. It wasn’t like an open bar down there in the basement, but the guys in the neighbourhood would come down there and get their little drink out of it. I’d be upstairs and she hit on the ceiling “Boy, come on down here”! I would go down there dancing, and they would throw quarters at my feet. For me to do the James Brown movements, the flips and stuff. For it to be a couple of more pennies,
I would tore that guitar up, to make 3-4 dollars. And then walk ten blocks to the music store, and I told the owner; “Here I got some more money on this guitar”! It was like 65 dollars, or something, and it took me almost a year to get that guitar. With dancing, cutting grass, selling Christmas cars, shovelling snow, or taking Mrs. So and So to the grocers.
Back to Stinis, we were down there making noise. He had those big, tall rock speakers, covering up half the basement. One day, this guy rode past in a happenstance. A guy named Roscoe Jackson, who played a big Hammond B3. And he would do gigs where we had to wear shirt and ties, and jackets that didn’t fit right. He did a little bit of everything and he did Charles Irwin. Which wasn’t Blues, I guess you could call it jazzy. He played stuff like that and we did fashion shows with him. He was the first cat I made some money with. It wasn’t per se playing straight up Blues. But I was still at home and I could go out and make 20-25-35 dollars. And that was a lot of money back then. The bug bit me, though it wasn’t the Blues bug, it was just music then. I was trying to get the guys to play Blues, you know. I’m like; “We can keep on working playing this stuff”! They wouldn’t buy it, they just kept on trying to play “the slick stuff”. I’m like; “That slick stuff is gonna move on. We’re a good band, so let’s rehears real hard and play the Blues. I’m talking about the real deal”! I couldn’t get them to get along with it, so eventually I just had to remove myself from them. Because we had too different ideas on per se success.
It was a great deal of steppingstones. I mean, there were some names I don’t even know who the hell they were. I could try to write some names, it might not necessary be in order. I’ve done some gigs with Michael Cane. He was no big name, but he was a good musician. We did some little gigs with this group called “The Brighter Side Of Darkness”. They had a huge hit with “Love Jones”. I had an agent that had us playing around different places. We were supposed to start playing in these restaurants and Michael got a call from Ralph Eskridge, one of the guys who were sitting in that group. He said; “Hey man, we’re going down to Indianapolis soon. We want you to play with us down there”! Well, they had strings and all of that, because they was with Capitol Records. Their music was played on the radio. I’m like; “This is one gig”! And with my hook, who had us working back then, we was making 100 dollars a piece. We’re talking about the early 70s. And we were gonna do this gig with “The Brighter Side Of Darkness”! So, that broke that up, we did one gig with them. But the record company told them that they didn’t want to have another band, so they fired us. And I’ve told my band that this was gonna happen. That them guys wasn’t gonna keep us in their band. They were looking out for themselves. They were young and they got a record deal.
That was Michael Cane, and “Alive And Kicking” is what I think we called ourselves. But later on, between jobs and whatever I ended up with, I got in this group that was kind of famous in the neighbourhood, “Maheen Company”. A guy named Ronnie Hicks was the bandleader, and still is, I think. And Lester Holmes who played with Jimmy Reed Jr. was my buddy. So, Lester, by playing with them, he got me the audition to play with “Masheen Company”, because he played with both groups. So, I got through, I played with them, but they were doing R&B and Top 40, that was on the radio. That was the guys I couldn’t convince that we should play the Blues.
My first steppingstone of any fame, was playing behind this Blues artist called Cicero Blake. He was from the West Side Blues, but Cicero was working up on the north side. When the South Side clubs, the black clubs, had dried up. There was no more entertainment, unless there were “social clubs”, where a group of people were doing a party in the hall. But it was hardly any clubs where you could just go every weekend. They were indisposed. So, all the clubs started being up north; “Wise Fools”, “Kingston Mines”, “Blues on Halstead”, “Blues etc”, and a few other ones I can’t think of. That was the places to be if you were trying to do this thing called Blues, in Chicago. Plus some suburban places, and of course Buddy’s. I played behind Cicero Blake in his group “Masheen Company” at “Blues on Halsted”. That was a big deal, just to get to the North Side, to play at the North Side’s clubs.
I didn’t care nothing about singing, at that time. Well, I sang with that R&B group “Masheen Company”. Mostly background, they let me sing one lead. The tunes when I got to sing with them, was always blues tunes. I did “Bright Lights, Big City”. I sang “A ship made of paper”, if that’s the title? And the tune, I don’t think it was blues, by General Crook,; “Gimmie some”. I got a lot of gigs out of auditions in playing that tune. Because I had a wah-wah, I was really good with that wah-wah. For me not to be using that at all now, but that was one of the things that helped me get gigs.
I didn’t so many South Side clubs, I did the “Checkerboard Lounge” a few times. I got to play with Lefty Dizz down there. And Lefty said;”You know, you remind me of myself when I was a young boy”! And I played with Lee “Shot” Williams and Mack Simmons. Mack had a studio and he’d let you rehears in there. He had a tape recorder going on, while you were rehearsing. And stealing stuff, ha ha ha! That you just might have been messing around with. “Y’all go in there and rehears... go ahead and play”! If he heard something he liked, he could put it on somebody’s record. But we didn’t know and we didn’t care. We was just glad to be able to rehears somewhere. Yeah, Mack turned that reel to reel player on. “I’m recording this, in case y’all want to remember something”. But we never got a copy of it, you know how that go. It was down there where he had his studio.
And then sometimes he would get to go in the Chess Studios. While we would be in his studio rehearsing. The fact, that we was maybe to be in the Chess Studios, was a big thrill for us. He wasn’t a lot of days in Chess Studios, he didn’t have a lot of activity back then. I guess he would get some time off, in there. I don’t know if he did something with the tapes or not. Because he said; “They would charge you for the recordings”. So, I don’t know what happened with that.
The first cat I played on the road with, and made a nickel, made some money with, was Bobby Rush. He was the first one who took me out on the highway, though he could have left me at home. I was working at a bank then, and I had a car. So, the musicians would let me hang around them, because they was “bumming” a ride out of me. That was cool with me because I got to hang around with musicians that was doing it full time, or whatever. I just played whenever I could, because I had a day job. I met Bobby Rush at this place called “High Chaparral”. He was just standing there, having that curly hair, the Bobby Rush look. 30 years, or 40 years younger. I don’t know how long ago that was. But he had that hit “Sue”, or it might have been “Chicken Heads”? It was like amazing to see the cats that you hear stuff on the radio, standing up there with him. And he said; “You got a guitar? Go and get that sucker, and come on back, and go out of town with me”! I jumped into my car, rushed home, it was dead or one! I got home and I told Mama that I was going on the road with Bobby Rush. She said nothing, because I was working on a day job, so she really couldn’t say much. I just let her know that I was going.
I had a silk sharkskin suit on, and these plastic shoes. It was supposed to be leather, but it was plastic. And the guys in the band got in the back of the truck. They let me sit in the front, next to Bobby. I’m like; “These cats are really cool, they let me sit up here, next to the star”. Well, the floorboard started moving, about one hour into the trip. It was a big old hole in the floor. They just had a cardboard box covering up the hole. And eventually that cardboard started breaking up. The wind started whistling up through the floor, up my pant legs. We were way out there, I can’t make them turn around. And the heat wasn’t working, I was freezing my ass off.
We went to this place in Waterloo, Iowa. I don’t remember the name of the place, but I do remember that incident! And when we got to the place, I was thinking, where are we gonna play in here? Bobby started to move the tables out of the way, and the jukebox! That was the stage, pushing tables around. And I don’t know if he played guitar back then? He used to hang it around his neck, anyway. He hit a couple of notes, but didn’t really play. He did his antics and he was talking stuff. He was squatting and did the “chicken jerk” and stuff. I was watching that and I was like; “Wow, this guy is an entertainer”! So, I made it home, and
I kind of kicked it with him for a while. Off and on, whenever he would have some work. He didn’t live that far from us, I used to ride my bike by his house, just to hang out with him...
Things moved on, I’m probably missing some names, but I played with some other folks... Along the way, some kind of way. It’s a lot of musicians, so you run into all kind of folks Like through highschool, you meet some guys, and you get a band going. One of them was down in southern Illinois called the “Barbecue Churchband”. We were playing at a place in Chicago, called “The Skyway Lounge”. That was one of the ones that was left. That didn’t got swallowed up, you know, did go out of business. I ran me into this other cat, and they had a hook-up to play with Ike & Tina Turner. We were rehearsing for an audition to play with them. Well, at that time, I didn’t go on that, because I had a regular job. And I was not sure that I should make that move. Going out the country, getting on the road with Ike & Tina, so I turned that down.
I moved on with a couple of other different bands. I went up with Cicero Blake at this point, playing on the North Side. I got to meet folks up there, I started meeting Blues artists; Son Seals, Jimmy Johnson, Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater. So many different cats I ran into and would hear them play. I was sitting at the back of the bar and just checked them out. They had Otis Clay and I would see him playing. They had a magazine, they still have it now I guess. a paper called “The Reader”. You coud look in there and see everyody who was playing in the different clubs, and who they had playing there. Well, Otis Clay, everytime I looked, he was playing somewhere. He was working his butt off. I decided to go hang around one of the places he was playing. What I noticed was that he would have one guitar one time, another guitar player another time. It seemed like he never had the same cats in the band. So, I approached Bridget Lockett, who was his bandleader, a girl playing trumpet. I gave her my card, or my number on a piece of paper. And she said; “Yeah, Otis is always looking for a guitar player. But you gotta rehearse”! I said; “I ain’t got no prolem with that”. I didn’t know what I was asking for, because they used to rehearse 7-8 hours on their shows, 2-3 days a week. Because he was really a stickler. His famous way was; “You gotta be in tune, gotta be in tune”! He would get that far with his work, for her to do the work, to get his stuff together. We reahearsed it this place called Madge’s, over on the West Side. Where we was dodging the roaches, and the rodents running across the floor
But Otis was the first who took me overseas and we did the “Blues Peer Festival” in Belgium. We were supposed to be the intermission act. Because it was other blues acts, pert se authentic blues acts, there too. Little Charlie and the Nightcats, I was seeing them come on. We were supposed to be the intermission, but it didn’t work out that way. When we hit the stage, it was so strong and powerful, that nobody went anywhere. We were all the way overseas for that one gig. It was sort of kinda crazy, to go that far for one show. But Otis said; “You gotta plant seed, you gotta pay your dues”. With that one show going over there,
we ended up doing a six week tour.
I would always go back and forth between Otis, Artie “Blues Boy” White and Cicero Blake. It was like a tringle between them. One would do something crazy, shorten my money or something. I would get mad and I leave, and go play with the other one. When he would do something to me stupid, and I leave them. Then I played with Little Milton, whenever he fired his band, or when his season was low. Put them on hiatus, or whatever he would do. And then Artie would play shows with Milton on the shows. And we had to back up both of them, for one pay. I would get mad about that and I leave him. They just treat you like any kind of things, but I loved playing music.
I learned a lot from Otis Clay, because he’s a sure businessman. And he knows his music. He was kinda hard, I think manupilatively hard. Some of it was by design, and some of it was just unnecesary. But I learned a lot there. Learned what not to do, what to do and when to do it. I learned how to handle my business, through just watching him. Not that he was teaching me, or showing me. But just experiencing that whole thing. He taught me how to deal with people. And not to be ashamed, or scared to say no, it’s not gonna work for me. Or sometimes to plant a seed and let it germinate. Because you may not get nothing right then. But down the road, it will turn into something, by always putting something in. That’s a cold fact, you never know. When you ‘re planting the right seed, the right season, it might grow and it it might not. But that’s the nature of the business you’re in, or any business really. Because he used to always say; “Music – Business”. Not music/business, but “music – BUSINESS”, emphasizing that business.
He was a sure teacher, without that classroom type of thing. Because he would sit up and talk, and you had to filter out what the heck he was saying. For me, it would sink in later on, what he ment by that. He would tap at his watch and go; “Timing is everything. You see man, in tune, you gotta be in tune”! I aways used to think he ment you’re in 440hz attuned. But he was not meaning just attuned, as far as beeing in 440. You gotta be in tune with the music, in tune with people, with business... In tune with where you’re going, where you have been. In what you think you wanna be, in tune with everything. But he would never explain it to you.
He would just say it and let you figure it out for yourself. In a way, he was a kind of a teacher. They used to call me and him horsehead, though they didn’t say it to him. When they said I look like Otis, I think back to when the guys used to joke me about; “Yeah, you must be Otis Clay’s son”. I don’t know why, because the man is a genius, as far as I’m concerned. But they used to piss me off, they said that I look like him. Maybe because he had made me mad, or something, at the time. Because he would do that, do some shit that you didn’t like.
As far as him hitting the stage, he is a master of entertainment. But he’s a master of smoking mirrors also. Using that mike and fading it away, and moving it around. Getting you to hear him sing a note, without actually hearing the note. I wouldn’t wanna live it again, what I did with Otis, and stuff. But I’m glad I went through that door, that I went to that school. And I’ll tell anybody that. I would never want to be, like beholding to him, as far as being his one and only guitar player. Or playing with him exclusively. Because there’s a lot of reasons I won’t get into. But me going to that school, I think was a necessary per se evil. To make me ready for the next phase. He got me ready for the next places I went.
I was always with, most of the time, with somebody. With a group, or with theese guys. When Otis came up with that I was going overseas, I felt like I hadn’t arrived before. Because all the bluescats, or whatever, had been overseas. I had never been anywhere. So, when he gave me that opportunity, the band that I was with, they was like; “Man, you can’t go. If you go, you can’t be in the band no more”. I’m like; “Y’all got but one gig I’m gonna miss, this man has got 6 weeks worth of work. He kept on; “I ain’t gonna be checking with you to see if you can work, or not, bla, bla, bla”. I said; “Well, shit”! But I was scared,
it weighed on my mind for a minute. It was a couple of cats that did that to me, but I made a decision. And it shouldn’t be a hard decision, but at that time it was. Because I’m not a band jumper, you know. If I’m there, I’m there. I’ve tried the best through the good and bad, and mostly the ugly, ha, ha ha... So, when Ronnie Hicks gave me that ultimatum, he was just cold and callous with it. And I had sacrified a lot to stay in the band, I was at a place of scarifice at that point. And you’re gonna begrudge me an opportunity to go somewhere and do something. Then, you’re not for me.
Anyway, I went on with Otis, and the rest is history. We kicked asses over there, I got the experience of being overseas, and seen what that was. Some place else that you can go, where people would appreciate the music! Wich is here in Europe. That gave me a hope. If you’re strong enough to stand on your own two feet, you don’t need a band with you. I’m talking about as far as for me being able to play this music. I always had a group, but you know, you could be Vino and go somewhere. You do what you gotta do, to try to stay in the music.
So, I was playing with this guy named J.W. Williams, at the “Kingston Mines”, and a couple of other places. that he played regular. We made a trip out to New York and played there. That was something that I wouldn’t repeat again. But I went through it. We got back, and I was really tired of that gig, for a lot of different reasons. I was gigging around, after I was up with Otis. But I went to japan with him. He hadn’t been back there in years. I went there with him, so that pretty much ended our relationship. After going back and forth with him. You’re gone 2 or 3 months and go back. I was drained at that point, as far as being with him, or playing with him. It was all enough that I had eaten, that I leared out of that experience. And becuase “Masheen Company” said; “You can¨t be back with us”. And I really didn’t want to go back, because I had tasted the other side
I had played with two big girls, Gloria Hardiman, and I did some with Valeire Wellington. Both large ladies with a big voice, related to the West Side. Through them I met some people. It just kind of migrated from that. The order of things, sometimes gets a little foggy, because there was so may different groups. But the thing that would take me to Koko Taylor is that I got tired of working with guys. Because it was always some kind of testosterone thing, whatever. “My chest is bigger than yours”, and that type of thing. I got tired of that whole scene, having to go through that with them. Everything had been fine, or some girl looked at you. But they’re the star, and the girls should bee looking at them. Now, you’re not playing correctly, though you’re playing the same thing you’ve always been playing. But now, all of a sudden, it’s something wrong with what you’re playing, mysteriously...
Mighty Joe Young
Then somewhere down the line, I ran into a real cool cat, man! That kinda saved my opinion of playing the Blues. This super duper nice guy named Mighty Joe Young. I ran into my saviour at that point, per se, if I can use that word? Now! Like I said, I got tired of being with the guys. But Mighty Joe gave me a refreshed attitude toward it. And he played the same instrument, he played guitar as well. He was this nice cat, that always would say; “Get out there”! I’m like; squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. “Look I give you a solo, you’re doing the solo. Get out there, Let the people see who’s talking to them”! And I’m like; “No, I stay here behind you, I’m okey right here in this corner. Don’t look at me”, ha, ha, ha! You wouldn’t believe that now, right? “Don’t look at me, don’t look at me, I’m back here in the corner. I’m just trying to back up somebody, don’t you dare look at me, I’ll run off the stage if you look at me”, ha, ha, ha! Joe wasn’t one of those egoistical cats, he’d be like; “If I give you a solo, I want you to get out there and get the goodie out of it”!
He would sit down with me, because he was a learned guitar player. Wether people thought he was a good guitar player, or not. He was a studio musician, so he could read, or whatever. He would show me chords and different things, that you should have in your repertoir. You know, you can do different things with it, but theese are things you should know. If you want to play the Blues. I would just hang with Joe, even when he didn’t have gigs. He didn’t work a lot back then, because he had that pinched nerve, or something. So, he was doing a little bit of something. He didn’t pay that well no more either, but he was such a nice cat. It was like working for my uncle Joe again, from back when. I didn’t work with him, but I walked miles just to hang out with him. I would just go by Mighty Joe’s house, just to be with him. He liked boxing and he had all these video tapes of boxers. And I’ll go over there, I get some juice, or some coffee, or something. And we’d sit down in the basemant there, we would get the guitars and messed around.
Well I did a show down in Peoria, Illinois, with Joe. And a guy named Jim Dortch, who played keyboards, I brought him in with the band. Jim and I were really good friends, he was another learned guy. More so than a great player, though he was a good player. But he was a very educated person, and Jim brought to the table some other tings, than strictly music then.
We went down to Peoria and we opened up the show for Koko Taylor. When we got through playing, Koko sent “Whiskey Man”, who was her driver. That’s a heck of a name for a driver, isn’t it? She sent him over to the stage, to tell me and Jim that she wanted to see us. She was getting ready to do her “Jump for Joy” album. That she probably would need a guitar player and a keyboard player. To play on her album, that she was getting to do. And she liked what she heard coming of the stage. Anyway, that didn’t work out for me. She ended up using Jim and Chriss Johnson, who was her regular guitar player, that she used. He was the nephew of Koko’s late husband Pops Taylor, who passed away. Who did most 90%, or 99% of her guitar arrangements, in the studio with “Alligator Records”. So, I didn’t get to play on that album, but Jim brought the album by the house. And let me hear what was going on. It was alive and kicking, it was funky!
So I was still playing with this guy J.W. Williams at the “Kingston Mines”. When Koko came in, about 2 o’clock am. The clubowner Doc Pellegrino moved folks out of the way, and sat Koko right upfront. Well, at that time at night, that’s when J.W. would kinda take a rest, on that particular set. And if he had somebody in the band that could sing, he had them go upfront and sing. It was perfect timing, or ment to be, because there Koko walked in. But she had already seen me down there in Peoria. I didn’t play on the album, so I’m like; “Okey, whatever. I met the lady, she got my mumber”. Things just moved on, you know. She came in and she said; “I’ve seen you on that Mississippi Valley”. I’d forgot I’ve done that with Otis Clay. I had a long ponytail back then. She said; I’ve seen you with Otis Clay
in Mississippi Valley, with that long hair”. That’s how she said it to me, in my opinion. “I come here looking for a guitar player, and see if you want to do something”?
I was jeking around. I didn’t know her that well, but I still was jerking around. But she got to know my personality later, and know that I never was trying to be offensive to her. I said; “Do something, what are you talking about, do something”? Ha, ha, ha... And she’s like; “I’m talking about playing some music”. I was; “Aah, okey. Excuse me Koko, but I don’t discuss business around loud music and alcohol. Because I want you to hear clearly what I’m saying, and what you’re saying to me. So we don’t have no misconceptions down the road. Because I gotta be able to trust you, and you gotta be able to trust me, out there on that road”. And she stopped, took a step back, looked at me and said; “I like that, I like that a lot. You got business, see I likes that. You call me, etcetera, or I call you, gimmie your number”.
So, a week or two went past, and I ain’t heard from her. I’m like; “Oh, okey, that was just a shot in the dark, ain’t nothing going on”. A couple of moth went past. I get a phone call about 7 o’clock in the morning. Well, I got off from Kingston Mines at 5 o’clock in the morning. So, when she called I’m like; “Huh, hello”. ”This is Koko Taylor, da, da, da”. I was like; “Yeah, a hah”. She kept on; “Whats wrong, this is Koko”! I said; “I understand, what’s going on”? She was; “Hm, do you want to do some business, or what”? I said; “Koko, I just got off from the Kingston Mines, at 5 o’clock this morning”. She said;
“Oh, baby, I’m sorry, because I was getting ready to hang this phone up. And call me somebody else”. I was talking all in the clouds and stuff, I said; “Yes, because I just got into the bed”. And she said; “Ah, baby, I’m sorry. I call you back, or you call me, when you get up. But you call me today, now. Because I’ll be around here, ready to do something. So you let me know what you’re going to do”.
Eventually, I went out to her house, to talk about business, at some point. It still didn’t happen that day, but we were out there and we talked. Because she wasn’t a type of person who just kick you out of the band. Even when you had done some bull crap. If you had been with her, she kinda hung in there with you. As long as you would apologize it and try to straighten up your act. I’ve seen her doing that time and time again. And we used to run into different sorts of opinions and things. But she knew I respected her. So, most of the time we were able to resolve anything. She would be kinda tough. because I believe she had to. Or felt she had to. I mean, that was her history of being kinda rough. I’m imaging, I wasn’t there for the whole haul. Or I can’t say, I can only go for some stuff I won’t repeat, that she said to me.That made me think that, or feel that, or know that. It wasn’t an easy egg to crack, per se.
She brought me in as her bandleader straight away. And there were guys that were there before I got there. That thought they might be the bandleader, but she brought me in. She respected my plan, I guess enough, for whatever my personality was, that I could get the job done. Me coming in with the band, was kinda rough at first. Because they’re looking at me; "Who the hell are you? To come in here, out of nowhere, and tell us what to do”. I went through that with those guys, and I got all of that straight.
My main thing was my focus with her. That’s one thing a lot of artists don’t understand, who never played an instrument. Not to say that they’re dumb, or anything like that. That’s not were I’m coming from. But there’s a whole other idiom, when you play an instrument. A certain understanding. They may have been told about it, but you have to play it. In order to really get the definition of being able to play with someone. Just because you’re good, and because I’m good, and we both learned the same song. It doesn’t mean that we will play well together, even though we try.
It doesn’t mean that you’re not a good musician, and that I’m not a good musician. It’s just that the spirits, or whatever you want to call it, don’t fit. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole. That was my quagmire with her. Through the 21 somehow musicians that came through the door, and out again, during my time there. That’s a lot of guys. But through it all, I survived. And through it all, nobody ever said that Koko’s band sounded bad. I take pride in that fact, as being her bandleader. I made a lot of enemies with the guys, because the bottom line was me trying to satisfy her. You know what I mean, because that’s who I’m working for, be it right, or be it wrong. Okey, sometimes she would say some stuff, that was kinda way over the fence. That had nothing to do with what the reality was. She’s a human being, just as I am. Because she’s famous doesn’t make her perfect. I realized that, and neither am I. I learned to have the willow tree effect, being strong without breaking.
And that wasn’t always there. One person who taught me that was, God rest his soul. He was a rhythm guitar player, by the name of Eddie King. He went through a lot, of whatever he went through. To end up being backing someone, to be backing Koko. Because he had his own thing going, for a number of years. He had some things that happened in his life, that put him in that position. So, me being who I am, and seeing the personality he was. Some of it was a bit of ambient jealousing. You’re gonna have that with some of the same instruments.
It comes with the territory, most of the time. Not all the time, but 99,9% of the time, you’re gonna have that competitive thing. It’s good having competition, because it keeps both of you guys sharp. The audience gets to reap the benefits of that. And we would go at each other, we kept each other on our toes. If Eddie would sting something, I gotta sting that harder. When I sting it harder, Eddie would get two amps, and turned them on 10. “You gotta put it right here, put that bitch in, right here, right here”. You know, I had it in me from the showband days. But Eddie got the cane, he’s stepping, he got his little thing going. When he’s starting doing that, I’m doing it too. He was like; “Man, you little old dick, you’re doing that shit”. You heard him all the time; “Man, that’s allright man, I like that”! And the other guys would be on the other side of stage, aside from him. They would just stand on one spot. Half of the time, they’re too drunk to play. Or too fucked up, on whatever they’re fucked up on. Much less move around. And Eddie was very animated! Some people say he didn’t play that well. But whatever, the man, he was showtime. I try not too hard to go on the negative, I try to pull the good part out of it. This man had a history, and when it’s time to hit the stage, no matter what. He, or she, or them went through a showtime.
There were times when Eddie and I was literally grabbing on each other. Tosseling behind the stage. The MC would annouce; “Allright, Blues Machine”! When we’ll go out there, we’ll be smiling at each other, picking up them guitars. And jumping off the stage, running around in circles, and stuff. On the floor, on our backs, crawling. And when the show was over with, we’re back again, smashing on each other. “Damn you motcherfucker, I’ll whip your little ass, you little motherfucker”! But we lived through it, and then we go; “Come on man, let me buy you something. Man I’m sorry, man, but you get on my god damn nerves,
fuck you”, ha, ha, ha...
We were around each other more than we were with our families. Because Koko worked 200, something days a year, when I got with her. We were out there, gone for 15 out of the 30 days, at least. And that’s a lot of time, spending with somebody. Smelling their toes on the bus. And then get to the hotel. We were doubiling up, back then. You still was with somebody you had no problem seeing, even when you got into the hotel. You’ll get tired of each other. Then you’re on the stage together, you soundcheck together. You ride down the street together, you eat together. Dawg gonnit! I wouldn’t be with my woman that much. And you can’t get the bandleaders to see that. They’re just looking at it, trying to save a quarter. You need some time for yourself, so that you can be fresh to play. Anyway, we went through all that. Eventually Eddie left. I won’t get into the details of that, but he wasn’t in the band anymore.
The Blues Machine
And eventually, Jerry Murphy, the bass player, left. He was instrumental of keeping me in the band. He left, for whatever reasons that he left. Frank Alexander left, so all the original guys left. For one reason or another, that I won’t go into spefically, though I know why. But they all left the band. One by one of other people took their positions. None of the guys ever were replaceable. Eddie King was never replaceable. Frank Alexander could never be replaced. Jerry Murphy wasn’t replaceable, he could never be replaced. Oh God, I miss Jerry, oh boy! Though there were people that came in, that played those positions. But the original Blues Machine, that I joined, “Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine” was the real deal. Sweat down to your kneecaps, leave everything on the stage, no prisoners. “Here it is baby, here it comes”! And everything that’s left there, at that club, you know they do have a show, when we got through it. That was our whole premise. There’s no outside, there’s no tomorrow, there’s no yesterday. It’s right now and here’s everything that we got. This is what we lived, this is what we do!
The guys that came in, not to say they weren’t good musicians, but they didn’t come from that clothes. And the peolpe said the Blues Machine is a good band, and stayed a good band, with good shows. I went through a lot prospering, or a lot of fist fights. But more arguments than fist fights. With guys that wanted to come in and change the routine, to what they wanted. Then sometimes be crosshairs with Koko, who would tell them something. Werether she said it that way, or they interpreted it in a different way, than she meant it. That would cause me frictions, because when she said; “I’m doing the verse like this. But you’re not playing the part like it’s supposed to be played. And I need it to be played like this”. When we hit the stage and it’s still not like she wanted, she would look at me. “Vino, you’re supposed to be the bandleader, get this shit right”. She didn’t say shit, but “S.H.I.T”. You’re about to make me curse up in heah”!
I only brought one musician in as the bandleader. But they won’t let me bring more good guys. If you give me dull razorblade, and then you get mad at me because you got stubbles. “I heard of so and so that he was good”. But that doesn’t mean he would fit into this situation. Be half a monkey, be he don’t want to take instructions. They’re gonna show her one thing, because she’s the paymaster. She’s the boss, she’s a Queen, she’s a legend. But they show me something else. Kiss her bootie, and tell me go take it somewhere... Due all that and hear her rapp, when she would get mad at me. And then still play good.
Ronnie Baker Brooks and I put together “The Alligator All Stars”, as they called it. It was half of Lonnie Brooks band and half of Koko’s band. We toured around with “B.B. King Tour”. Ronnie was good, he’s getting better and better. Of corse, he was always a good player. Ronnie was the other guitar player and we had Jerry Murphy on bass. And Kevin, I don’t know his last name, but a bam-bam on drums. It was at “Woodlands Texas Festival”, we played on that together. Koko was; “I’m not ashamed of my game. If I hear something I don’t like, I’m gonna let you know about it”. She was talking with the guys. And Ronnie told me; “Man, you know I always respected you, Vino. But backing up Koko, and she does what she does, to get what she wants. And for you to play as well as you do, with that type of situation. Man, I got double, doubles respect for you, being able to play that well. With all of that coming at you, all that tension, all that distraction from playing. All that anger, or dissapointment, or accusations. And you still play that well. I take my hat off to you, brother. There’s no way I could play like that, like you play under those circumstances”. I didn’t know how to take that, it was a kind of cool. That somebody’s eyes were open.
You can talk about it, and you do talk about it. You come off the road, you gotta air it out. Things that happened, that didn’t happen. You gotta air out, before you get back in again. You know, even boxers get a 60 seconds breakes, before they get back out there and fight. You gotta get rid of it, you gotta throw it away, you gotta air it out, let that pressure go. Otherwise people go crazy, if you in there and say something, or do something you ain’t got no damn business doing. You never would have done it, if you had let that pressure go. Like Koko said to me a lot of times; “Playing in a band is like a marriage. Is not always gonna be sunshine and roses, it’s not always gonna be that. You gotta deal with the bad times, as well as the good”.
And then my Mama and she would get together and gang up on me. They were born about 30 miles apart, the same day, same month, same year. When we get back home there and her daughter Cookie used to cook a lot. And they get to talking, because Mama knew Koko from the records. And then her son was playing with Koko, they did get to talking. They found out that they didn’t live that far from each other. “Yeah, Louise, I keep him in line now. Yeah girl, I have to let you know I’m your road mama. You get him going, I get him coming, we get him coming and going. We keep him straight, Louise”.
Yeah, she was so cool, man. For as much as she would fuzz and stomp on my neck, she would do some things that was so sweet, it would get my teeth fall out. For the least of my sense, she was not boring. She had you on your toes, one way or the other. It was an exciting time in my life. She would pull me to her side, “Vino, now you keep on writing them songs. See, cause them songs are gonna be here after you’re gone. I’m done making mine, I’m gonna be alright. Now, if you come up with an idea and you need a little help, I’ll help you out. I don’t want nothing, because I want you to do something with yourself. Because you’re like a little son to me. And keep that pen on that paper. You hear people talking, write that down. You might not have nothing to go along with it today. But later on, somebody else say something, and you put the two together. And now you got your one first line, now you’re on your way”...
She would inspire me. A lot of bandleaders would be like; “Sit down, be pregnant, sit back there barefooting. And don’t try to aspire to do nothing”. She had her times when she would get mad, when I would not do as she said. Like when I went to Paris on my own. She was; “Okey, you’re gonna do that then. Fly then, go ahead and fly. You got the nerve to leave me here, go on and fly then, negro”! ha, ha, ha. They probably were planning on getting rid of me. I’m not sure, but I heard they were planning on getting rid of me. Because I had the nerve to go try to do something on my own.
We weren’t working that much during the time. She was being sick off and on. And in order for me to try to stay in the band, I had to do what I had to do, to take care of me and mine. So I’d seen a gap, where I would only miss one show. “But if I go and do this, if I’m absent for a gig or two, I can hold on until things get better here. So that I can be here, where you need me, or wherever you want me”. Because if I wasn’t important to her, she would just say; “By”! I had to have allegience to my family as well. And when things weren’t where I could keep a roof over my head, I’m not gonna be good for her, or myself. So, as a man, I have to make those decisions. I’m a human being before I’m a musician. And I think things went on, despite we had that conversation. That situation just didn’t pan out for them. “If I’m supposed to be a son for you, allow me to be a man and take care of my mannish responsibilities. I need to go where I can get this money. You’re not working. I don’t wanna loan from you, because I owe you. And I don’t wanna owe you, that’s just digging a deeper hole for me. I’m gonna miss one show, you can have somebody to come in, and do that one show. Your reputation is not gonna be tarnish. They are coming to see you, not me”.
When you’re used to something, it makes you comfortable. You don’t want nobody get out of the place. Because you want them to stay, where you want them to stay. Regardless of all the talk, and all the conversations. Once they get in that comfort zone, they want you right there, where they want you. She ain’t have to worry about me not showing up on time. They don’t have to worry about me getting drunk, screwed up, or fucked up. About me not playing her music, like she want to. About me not caring about the music. How I carry myself, how I’m dressed. She doesn’t have to worry about none of that. That’s a musician that you don’t have to worry about nothing of that. Oh, and you can party. Ooh! ha, ha, ha... And you can fuzz at me and I don’t curse you out. You can say stuff that you ain’t got no busniss saying to me. And I you just go; “Yes, ma’am”! They don’t get that everyday. You don’t get a husband
to say yes ma’am, after you do all that to him.
But, then I had the accident, when the driver went to sleep. And I fought through all the trials and tribulations, of trying to get myself physically okey. Just to be a person, much less be a musician. I’m still fighting, but my fingers are moving. My spirit is alive and kicking. And the story goes on...
By Krister Palais – Photos by Krister Palais and Aigars Lapsa