Wednesday, December 30, 2009

21Century Blues Man

If the time period was 400-300 BC and we lived in ancient Greece Watermelon Slim would be Plato, Socrates and Aristotle all rolled up into one.  Slim is a very complicated man and a very deep thinker. Some journalist’s have written that he is a member of Mensa. Slim clearly pointed out to me that he is not a member of that intellectual group, although he did qualify for it.  It is my opinion Slim is in a much higher intellectual group, the group of creative thinkers that has given the world its greatest masterpieces namely ART. Art is what sets us apart from the rest of the pecking order.  Slim manipulates audio like a matador manipulates a bull. He uses a Regal Dobro style guitar to awaken the audio Gods. His musical intellectual level is way above any I've seen or heard. We both are children of the turbulent sixties and share some common experiences.
My friend, Tony Basile (Ana Popovic's USA road manager) and I visited Slims band mates before the show. Tony is close friends with both Cliff (bass) and Ronnie (Guitar). They are another story onto themselves and let’s just say that they are a great asset to Slim.
I interviewed Watermelon Slim at the hotel he was staying in prior to his appearance at Buddy Guy’s Legends this past August 21. Slim, as he likes to be called, is an artist in every sense of the word. He uses all media to express human creativity. He is best known for his music and many of his fans know him for his songwriting and performance abilities.  
We knocked on Slims door and he opened it slowly with an Iron in hand. He was in the process of ironing a red shirt for his performance. We found ourselves a seat. Slim stretched out, and lit up a freshly rolled cigarette.
Tony:  The last time I saw you was in August. We did a Festival in wheeling West Virginia. The Wheeling Festival. 
Slim:    Well, that’s been some time.Tony and Slim talk over each other about how long it’s been and Slim mentions one year and Tony another. (Recorder is in audible at this point) 
Slim:    I played it in ‘06 too. That’s when my African Thumb piano came up missing. That was my concert quality one. 
Tony:   It never showed up turned up 
Slim:   I have never been able to find another one. They don’t make them anymore. 
Gatorman:    Was it about this big. (I gestured with both hands to indicate a shoe box) 
Slim:    Smaller than that the tenor variety with seventeen keys.  Shu Tracy Kalimba on it. 
Gatorman:    Will have to put a lookout for it. 
Slim:    If you can find it that would be great. It used to be reasonably common in music stores. 
Gatorman:    I think I’ve got one in my shed at home. I’ll have to search for it. 
Gatorman:    Slim you recorded an album while you were stationed in Vietnam. Is that correct? 
Slim:    No that is journalism nonsense. I was well out of the Army. The war was still going on. 
Gatorman:     What year was that? 
Slim:    I started recording that in 72. 
Gatorman:    You were out in what 1970? 
Slim:    I did not record while I was in Vietnam. I don’t know too many people who did that. 
Gatorman:    That was an experience wasn’t it?(Long Pause) 
Slim:    That’s a whole new interview.   You know it didn’t affect me as bad as it did some people. You know with combat. I do not have any claim in with the V.A. I should on a matter of principle, although it takes a long time. I’ve never considered myself disabled so I have never filed. The last thing the V.A. did for me ahh, It turns out I had six wisdom teeth and the army took out four of them. That was that same year 1972. 
Gatorman:    I thought you were going to say you had 6 wisdom teeth and the army took out 8 of them. Knowing how the military works.  
Slim (chuckles):    I had earaches in both ears. I knew I had mumps, and I had no idea what the hell was going on up there and one of the doctors cottoned to it right away he said come on down to the dentistry section. They took a panoramic X-Ray and I had four wisdom teeth in my top and two showing and two pushing down on the ones that were showing and that was what was causing the pain and that doctor immediately picked up on that. 
Gatorman:     I am very interested in how you approach songwriting. 
Slim:    I’m a journalist as far as my songwriting technique. I’ve always called myself a Musician who can also write. I am a trained writer, a trained observer. I’ve degrees in both observance and writing. I mean you take that song like “Bloody Burmese Blues”. I wrote it the day that the Burmese shot their Buddhist monks in the streets down there in ’07. It was in fact September the 27th. And I just looked at the headlines which was a quote from a couple of English Tourists that were staying in Rangoon that day. They were several stories above the fighting or the shooting or whatever they called it and ah they said “We’re in this lovely hotel looking down at a war zone.” That was the first line of the song. I just started writing the song on the newspaper. The paper was kind of deteriorating you know. That’s kind of the way I write my songs. I see something happen or I hear something happens to me or somebody else and I’m trained to write about it you know. 
Gatorman:   You have two degrees in Journalism right. 
Slim:   I have a degree in journalism and two in History. 
Gatorman:   History? 
Slim:   Yeah. The first degree is in history and journalism. And then the masters’ degree is in History, to be exact. 
Gatorman:   You are a member of Mensa also.  
Slim:   No! I’m not a member of Mensa. I’m going to clean up all these journalistic errors. I’m not a member of Mensa. I qualified for Mensa with the IQ test I took when I entered the military. That was in 1969. I scored 142 in what’s called the AFQT and that put me in Mensa territory. The rest of the story is in 1977 I took my next IQ test to go to Graduate school. By that point I scored 114. So that’s one point a year off for twenty eight years in a row. This is 2009 and that means I’m going to be fighting borderline retardation. I’ve  got half-zimers. I can’t remember half of what I use to.   
Gatorman:   Which half the good half or the bad half? 
Slim:   You’ll have to ask the resident up here. (Points to head) I’ve got one brain cell working, one on reserve and I try not to call him too often. 
Tony:   How do you put the music to the words? 
Slim:  That use to be the hardest thing, because I’m not a great musician. I’m a talented Lyricist.  
Gatorman:   I like the term artist. 
Slim:   Overall I’m an artist. Let’s talk more about that in a minute, but what I am is a singer songwriter but with the writer comes the third. I’m a singer first a songwriter before being any kind of instrumentalist. I’m not a great instrumentalist. I’m an above average harp player and I have a unique style in my guitar playing. There is no one that would ever say that I am a technical virtuoso on the guitar. I’m a pretty raw guitarist. I’ve improved my guitar playing more than anything that I’ve been doing since I quit my last truck driving job. The difference is not that I can play just about anything with anybody because I can’t. I’ve become more of a master of my own Style. 
Gatorman:  You are a true artist. 
Slim:   Over all I’m an artist, the artist and the artist part does not stop with the music. The artist part, I’m a painter. I’m trying to semi retire, so I can spend more unlimited time with brush and oil and canvas and mixed media going into sculpture and stuff like that. I’ve got more to do then just music. I have a biography that’s in the taxing stage right now. I’m writing a venture with a California newspaper reporter named Michael Kenstrum. (Inaudible at this point. Sorry Michael if I got it wrong). So I’m really trying to semi-retire. I’m having a hard time doing that because I can’t seem to do a bad show. 
Gatorman:  People really like you. You can’t become a slave to that though. 
Slim: Sometimes I just say sorry folks I really have to live my own life. I’m going through this with my band right now, because my band depends on me for their income. You know at some point in time I’d like to be able to say I’m going home for awhile. At some point I’d like to say it’s about me, but I’m having a very difficult time saying that. 
Tony: I think everyone does. 
Slim: It’s very hard to say no to people. I’m recording another record in October. I didn’t even really mean to set myself up for the one I recorded that came out. 
Slim: Yeah. “The Chicken Coop”. I didn’t really, but I tried to warn them that they would not make money on this record. I tried to warn them that I really wasn’t interested in touring it or doing anything with this album. I liked to be not doing as much as I am.  One of the reasons I would find it hard to be a journalist in this day and age is because of touch typing. In order to do the work well you have to touch type. Fifteen articles a day. 
Gatorman:  I’ve a hard time with one. 
Slim: I just don’t because I’m a two finger typer 
Gatorman:  Do you like story writing as opposed to songwriting. They are just about one in the same. 
Slim:    I don’t write fiction. My songs tend to be autobiographical. Not all, by any means. I have never gotten any farther than the beginning stages of a novel or a play. There is a play rumbling around in there that needs to be done at some point.  About the mafia only Ionic Pentameter Shakespeare style like the Soprano’s. 
Gatorman:  I understand that you carry the complete works of Shakespeare with you. Is that true?   
Slim:    Oh yeah. I’m not carrying it now. But I do sometimes. In fact I carried it around in England. It made an impression there.   GATORMAN                           GIFTS?
© Copyright Terrance B. Lape all rights reserved. Reproduction of this website, in whole or in part, in any form or medium without express written permission from author is prohibited. All use is subject to our Terms of Use  Some photos by Kathy Crnich 

Monday, December 21, 2009

Photo courtesy of
I have known Cyrus and Lee for about Five years. I first met them at a jam session in Riverdale, Illinois. They hosted it every Sunday. The first time I heard them I liked them. Cyrus is a master vocalist and blues harpist. Lady Lee has one of the most riveting female voices I have ever heard. She has a very deep baritone voice that is totally unexpected.
I recently was invited to a private birthday party for Cyrus. I of course attended and was glad I did. Cyrus and Lady Lee sang a duet called "Make me Yours" by Betty Swan. It was one of the most heartfelt performances I have ever witnessed. You could tell by that one song that they are the "BLUES COUPLE". They perform many duets and are a true joy to the Chicago blues Scene.
I asked my blues buddy Jim, if we could conduct the interview at his house. He agreed. I was to meet Cyrus and Lee at a gas station around the corner from his home. We meet and they followed me to Jim’s house. Jim lives on a very prominent golf course in a suburb of Chicago. After pleasantries were exchanged we moved outside on a deck/porch that has a view of a pond with a large fountain. The fountain created a splashing sound similar to a waterfall. It set the mood for a very relaxed atmosphere. It was perfect for the interview. The evening sun was just setting and the temperature was a cool 70 degrees. We all popped a top settled in and chatted.
Gatorman: I want to thank you Cyrus Hayes and Lady Lee for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet and to answer a couple of questions. You two are a couple. Right?
Cyrus: Yes
Gatorman: How did you first meet?
Cyrus: We met in a club called Different Strokes.
Gatorman: Can you tell me a little bit about where you born?
Cyrus: I was born In Arkansas.
Gatorman: What Part?
Cyrus: Little Rock.
Gatorman: How about you Lady Lee?
Lady Lee: I was born in Lexington Mississippi.
Gatorman: What was that like, big family, small family?
Cyrus: Kind of a small family.
Gatorman: What was the first song you can remember hearing or listening to?
Cyrus: “Scratch My Back” You know Slim Harpo.
Gatorman: Yeah sure, How about you Lady Lee? Do you remember the first song you listened to? I want you to go way back. 6, 7, 8 years old.
Lady Lee: I wasn’t into music.
Gatorman: Really, not at all?
Lady Lee: No, not at all. (laughs)
Jim: When did you become interested in music?
Lady Lee: Aw, when I came to Chicago.
Gatorman: Which was?
Lady Lee: I used to, aw, in 1970. I used to like to write. I still do. I like to write music. And I didn’t get into music until I meet Cyrus.
Jim: Love at first sight?
Lady Lee: (Glances at Cyrus) No…..Not at first sight. (laughs)
Gatorman: So you came to Chicago in 1970 then. Why did you come to Chicago?
Lady Lee: Well…..I had to leave there my Grandma kicked me out.
Gatorman: What about you Cyrus? When did you come to Chicago?
Cyrus: I was up here with a Band. We tried to make it here in the recording business. We lasted a little while, but some of the guys, their wives called them back home so I stayed up here.
Gatorman: What was the name of that group?
Cyrus: The name of the group was (long pause) "The Click."
Gatorman: The Click. What year was that?
Cyrus: That was in 1987.
Gatorman: When did you first start playing? When did you decide this is what you wanted to do?
Cyrus: When I was about 12 years old.
Gatorman: What year was that 1960 or so.
Cyrus: I did a lot of talent shows, schools and I won every talent show I was in.
Gatorman: What kind of type of performance did you do? Vocals or…
Cyrus: Vocals and piano.
Gatorman: I know you are a keyboard player.
Gatorman: How about you Lady Lee? Who influenced you to start singing?
Lady Lee: Cyrus.
Gatorman: Did you have hard time getting on stage initially?
Lady Lee: Yes I did. He used to throw me up there. I used to goof up all the time. (laughs) He would make me get up there and sing anyway.
Gatorman: It is a good thing he did, for us.
Lady Lee: Yes, a good thing he did.
Gatorman: Who are you listening to currently?
Cyrus: I listen to a lot of Albert… Yeah Albert King. Yeah I did a show with Albert in like 1989
Gatorman: I didn’t know that.
Cyrus: Yeah,,,I opened up for Albert King,,, it was in Little rock. Down by the community center.
Gatorman: Very cool. How about you Lady Lee, who do you, listen to?
Lady Lee: Denise Lasalle.
Gatorman: Cyrus when did you start on the harmonica? Were you 12 or,,,,,
Cyrus: I started when I was about 6 or 7.
Gatorman: Wow you were a young child when you started.
Cyrus: Yeah. I started fooling around with a harp.
Gatorman: Where did you get the harmonica from?
Cyrus: My dad.
Gatorman: Your Dad Played.
Cyrus: Yeah he played a little bit.
Gatorman: How about your mother did she sing?
Cyrus: Yeah she sung.
Gatorman: You came from a musical background obviously.
Cyrus: Plus I went to Philander Smith College for voice lessons.
Gatorman: Did it do any good? (Lady Lee and I break out laughing)
Cyrus: (busts out laughing) Yeah man.
Gatorman: Just joking Cyrus.
Cyrus: Did me a lot of good. If hadn’t been for that I would not be where I am today.
Gatorman: All kidding aside you are one of the greatest vocalists I have ever heard. Both you and Lady Lee are terrific. Lady Lee you just started singing when Cyrus forced you onto the stage?
Lady Lee: He forced me
Gatorman: He forced you huh.
Lady Lee: Yeah he really forced me yeah.
Gatorman: Can you remember the very first place that you played and got paid? The very first paying gig?
Cyrus: Yeah this club in Little Rock called the “Rocket 88 Club”
Gatorman: Rocket 88. How old were you at the time?
Cyrus: About 14 or 15.
Gatorman: How much did you make back then?
Cyrus: 20 or 30 a night.
Gatorman: For the whole band?
Cyrus: Just for one guy.
Gatorman: What was that 1964-65?
Cyrus: Yeah around there.
Gatorman: That was pretty good money back then. In 1960 the average salary was 2.50 an hour.
Cyrus: Yeah
Gatorman: What about you Lady Lee? The first time you performed was it with Cyrus?
Lady Lee: First time performance was with Cyrus.
Gatorman: Where was that performance?
Lady Lee: It was on the West side. I forget (Directed at Cyrus) wasn’t it a small club?
Cyrus: Wood’s Lounge
Gatorman: W-o-o-d’s Lounge?
Cyrus: Yeah, over by the Delta Fish market.
Gatorman: (towards Lady Lee) How did you like performing?
Lady Lee: I didn’t like it at the time. (laughs)
Gatorman: No. You didn’t like it?
Lady Lee: No. Not when I started out.
Gatorman: You like it now?
Lady Lee: Yeah in the last couple of years I’m beginning to like it. Before that I never cared for it that much.
Gatorman: Now that’s amazing given the talent that you have.
Lady Lee: Yeah I just started liking it for a couple of years now. I’m taking it serious.
Jim: Cyrus plays the keys. Lee are you getting into playing the keys?
Lady Lee: You mean the keyboards?
Jim: Yeah.
Lady Lee: No. I don’t mess with the keyboard. I play the harmonica now.
Jim: Oh, do you?
Gatorman: I saw them doing a duet.
Lady Lee: I play a little harmonica now.
Gatorman: Can you tell me the size of largest audience you played for and where?
Cyrus: Aww…… It was in Little Rock. About 5-6,000.
Gatorman: How about you Lady Lee?
Lady Lee: The most I played for was at the fest.
Gatorman: Chicago Blues Fest?
Lady Lee: Yes.
Gatorman: How hard is it for you to keep a solid band together?
Cyrus: It’s very hard Terry. I call the guys Mo.
Gatorman: You call them what? Say that again
Cyrus: I call them mo, because they want mo money.
Gatorman: They all want mo money don’t they?
Cyrus: The gigs don’t pay that much and they still want mo money. I have to fiddle around this and that in order to keep things going.
Gatorman: Everybody thinks you’re making a million bucks. Don’t they?
Cyrus: Yeah making a million bucks.
Gatorman: I saw you a couple of weeks ago at the cool river club. The band you had was one of the best bands I ever heard. That was one hot band. I mean it was really good. Walter Scott on Guitar, Darryl Wright on Bass. Cyrus I hope you don’t mind this next question, what’s with the bird calls?
Cyrus: What with the bird calls? Just something to enthuse the audience.
Gatorman: It does, it really gets their attention! It really works and it’s pretty cool. Lady Lee how did you develop the baritone voice?
Lady Lee: The Baritone?
Gatorman: Sing so low.
Lady Lee: Oh I don’t know. (laughs) It’s just natural.
Gatorman: Did Cyrus encourage you in that range?
Lady Lee: No, Cyrus likes that sweet sound.
Cyrus: She just bought out that range.
Gatorman: She just laid it on, ya! You didn’t know that was coming did you?
Cyrus: No! It’s like a hurricane coming through the wind.
Lady Lee: He likes them little sweet voices.
Gatorman: You both recently played the Chicago Blues Fest on the Gibson stage. How did you like that? How did you feel about it?
Cyrus: I feel great about it. That was my second time. Both times was on the Gibson stage.
Gatorman: You really had a good crowd considering the weather.
Cyrus: It was about the same as last year.
Gatorman: How did you like it Lady Lee?
Lady Lee: I loved it, I really loved it.
Gatorman: There are a lot of people around the world that will read this interview and the Chicago Blues Fest is considered the ultimate fest and place to play. Do you feel it is?
Both Cyrus and Lee: Yeah it is.
Gatorman: What can we expect for you both next. What’s new what’s going to happen?
Cyrus: We going to try working another album.
Gatorman: You do have a CD out already, what is the name of it?
Gatorman: You wrote the title track. Mr. President didn’t you?
Cyrus: I did.
Gatorman: Why did you write that particular song?
Cyrus: Well, because we are all dealing with hard times and it seems like everybody is going through it today and people getting laid off the job.
Gatorman: It is a very difficult situation out there for everybody.
Cyrus: Sure is!
I looked at the time. It was time to wrap it up and we had to get going to The Cool River Club. The pro jam was just about to start. We all got in our cars, Jim in his Porsche, Lady Lee and Cyrus in their Concord and I followed lastly in my 37 miles to the gallon, 1995 Saturn. Considering the current economic conditions times I really do love my car.
Blues Me Or Lose Me, Terrance " Gatorman" Lape Copyright July 2009 Terrance B. Lape If you want a cd email

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Alligator Records

Part One

Alligator Records
Bruce Iglauer

Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for me.    How did you first start in the record business? I came to Chicago at the beginning of 1970 to work for Bob Koester, my mentor and hero, at his label, Delmark Records, and in his store, the (still wonderful) Jazz Record Mart. I thought I was going to stay for a year and then go to graduate school, but I’m still here. At first I just wanted to be around the blues scene, and to see recordings being made. I became Bob’s shadow; if he went to a South or West Side club, I went along. If he went to the studio, I was there as gopher. If he was editing tape, I wanted to watch. My first recording session was “Junior Wells’ South Side Blues Jam” with Buddy Guy, Louis Myers, Otis Span, Fred Below and Earnest Johnson. It was like going to heaven. I also got to watch/help out on sessions with Robert Lockwood Jr., Roosevelt Sykes, Jimmy Dawkins and a few others. I never dreamed of having my own label; I just wanted to work for Delmark. Bob is still a huge hero to me, and I feel he’s never gotten the credit he deserves as a key figure in bringing the blues to the world. I walk in his footsteps. At that time, the entire blues scene was in the black community, and I was going to the little ghetto blues bars 4-5 nights a week. The music was often just terrific, and the atmosphere was very special. The musicians and the audience were basically the same people, and they communicated in a way that I don’t see when blues is more of a presentation, as it usually is today. The people in these ghetto clubs shared a cultural understanding, a history and understood blues as a way to heal everyone’s emotional wounds, not just a form of entertainment. Those nights were some of the happiest experiences of my life. Often I was the only white person there, and almost everyone was very friendly and welcoming. Sometimes the street was a little scary, but the clubs (which were basically neighborhood bars with a band) were full of working class people who understood that I was there for the music, and appreciated it. This was before I was a record guy; I was just a fan, and a “hippie” (at least in appearance). I got to know a lot of musicians personally.

Junior Wells always kept an eye on me and we drank on street corners. People like Lefty Dizz , Eddie Shaw, Big Bad Ben and Magic Slim were really nice to me. Why the Blues? It’s hard to explain, and I don’t entirely understand it myself. They say that if you don’t love the blues, you have a hole in your soul. Well, it seems like the blues fills the hole in my soul. From the first time I really heard blues, at a Fred McDowell performance in 1966, it was as though blues spoke directly to the innermost part of me. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. I felt Fred’s music was the most honest, direct and emotional thing I had ever heard. After that, other kinds of music seemed false and plastic. These days, I’m not an easy man to move with music, but when the blues works for me, it still works just like it did that first time. Blues has made me happier than I ever imagined, and it’s wrenched me more than I ever imagined. Sometimes it’s so good it makes me cry (in a good way). First and foremost, I’m a fan. That’s crucial in understanding what Alligator is about. I made a label to share my fan-dom with others. In 1971 you left another blues label shortly after you recorded Hound Dog Taylor & the House Rockers. Did you have any idea at that time that you would become one of the most influential Blues Men in the industry today?

Not at all. When I recorded Hound Dog (while I was still working at Delmark Records), all I hoped was to sell enough copies to make another record. I never dreamed of a catalog of 260 albums. Hell, I never dreamed of having an employee! Everything was day to day, just trying to make my company survive. I never wanted to be a businessman, but I realized early on that unless I was good at business, I couldn’t make more records. So, I learned. A lot of people I know tried to start labels at that time. They loved the music but didn’t take time to learn the business. What did it cost for that very first record? That’s easy—my first studio bill was $956 dollars. That included cutting the master disc. We recorded direct to two-track, mixing as we went. There was nothing to do over. We recorded each song a couple of times, and chose the best versions.  I paid the band $960 dollars--$480 for Hound Dog and $240 each for the other two members of the band. Of course, that was an advance. They made thousands on royalties over the years. I pressed 1000 LP's, and got the jackets printed on credit. Then the hard work began! In the start up years, what were some of the challenges you faced? Essentially, everything, I had no distributors, no radio play, no press, no booking for the artists I recorded, no road management, nothing. I was on my own. So, I found distributors (some of them I knew as Delmark distributors, but others I had to find; I wanted distributors who weren’t so specialized that they only dealt with a few stores), made my own contacts with radio and press, booked the bands, traveled with them, published their music, and pretty much did everything, including packing and shipping the boxes of LPs. I could only afford to release one album a year, and if that one didn’t sell, it was hard to get the distributors to pay me for anything. I was operating out of an efficiency apartment in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. It took two years to move to a three-room apartment, and a year later I bought a small house. It took from 1971, when I started, until 1985, before I wasn’t living in the same place as Alligator. I didn’t have a full time employee until 1977. Eventually I had seven people coming to my house, with LPs warehoused in the basement and 7000 cassettes in the kitchen. I knew then it was time to move, either the label or me. I chose to move the label, and I still live in the house. Alligator has never stopped being a challenge, or a battle. Actually, this may be the hardest time ever in the history of the label. I don’t know how record labels are going to survive the closing of literally thousands of stores and the rampant illegal downloading. Plus blues is not at the peak of its popularity right now. We need some young champions of the music who have a vision for taking the blues into the future. Can you name some of the very first artist’s you recorded? Sure. Hound Dog Taylor, Big Walter Horton, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins and the Living Chicago Blues series, which had 18 different artists spread over six LPs. It’s now four CDs. Can you tell us a little bit about the costs involved to develop an artist for recording? Every album varies in costs. First, there is the cost of the musicians, both the sidemen and the leader. These can vary a lot. Then there’s the studio cost—typically $600 to $1000 per day. In the old days, recording tape was a big expense, often $1500 or more for an album. We usually spend between three and ten days recording, and mixing is usually about three songs a day. There are artists who record really quickly, like Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, and artists who need more time. When I’m the producer (I’ve produced or co-produced about 125 albums), I prefer the faster artists. I’m not super patient! I like to do as much rehearsal as possible. I don’t think the studio is the place to experiment with arrangements. The studio is the place to get the best possible performance. But sometimes, when I’m working with an out of town band, we have to pull a lot of the music together in the studio. Once I’ve recorded and mixed, then there’s mastering (usually around $1000-$1500 if you want it done right), photos, packaging. And then we get to manufacture about 4500 CDs that we give away as promo copies, to radio, press, and retailers. Then we have to buy retail programs at the stores—things like listening posts and top shelf positions and featured placements. None of those things are free. And we have to do our basic advertising. Usually this means that we’re spending $15-20,000 per release to set up the recording in the marketplace before we sell a single copy. In the meantime, we’re working with the artist, the booking agent and hopefully a professional artist manager to do tour planning, so that the artist is out in front of the public when the new release is being promoted. We have about three months when the media and stores will think of something as a new release. After that, it’s back catalog.  During that three month period, we will spend additional money advertising and publicizing every gig the artist does. We continue to publicize gigs after that, but our big advertising push is in those first 90 days. One thing that’s important to understand is that we have to pay for all these things, on a product that gives us a profit of around $6 per CD (less for a downloaded album).  So it’s a very risky proposition. Alligator spends more promoting a release than anyone else in blues, and I like to think we do it better. How do you find new artists? I’m constantly listening to artists, both on demos or home made recordings (or on other labels) and at live gigs. The first thing I go by is my gut feeling. Does this artist reach my emotions, stir me, touch a little of my soul? It’s MY label; I have to believe in everything we release. Alligator probably signs at the most one or two new artists a year. So, as you’d imagine, these decisions are terribly important. Besides the cost of making a new record, including paying the artist, we spend tens of thousands of dollars promoting, marketing and advertising every new release. And of course we also spend hundreds of hours of human time trying to attract the attention of the media, the retailers and potential customers. Plus, for every artist or band we sign, this means there are hundreds that we don’t sign. If one of them had been a better choice (or maybe not signing anyone new and attempting to further promote our existing roster of artists would have been the smartest choice), then we have wasted a huge amount of time and money. In 2009, the new artists we signed were Buckwheat Zydeco and Tommy Castro, who were obviously already well-established acts. Plus, we released the debut by Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, who had begun life as Little Charlie and the Nightcats and spent their whole recording career with Alligator. In 2008, we signed Janiva Magness, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater and Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King. Again, these were artists who had already had some success on other labels. The last artists we signed who had not been on a nationally distributed label before Alligator were Eric Lindell in 2006 and Michael Burks in 2002. So, obviously, one thing I look at when considering artists is their previous recording history, including their sales history. I’m always looking for artists who have done a lot to establish their own fan base, whether locally and regionally or nationally. I need artists who have some sense of how to take care of their own careers, or who may have some kind of professional management or booking agent. I can’t deal with artists who are ‘weekend warriors’ or who are unprepared for major touring; getting in front of audiences is the best way blues and roots artists can create fans and sell their music. There isn’t enough radio and other media for blues and roots to make touring less than totally essential.

Of course I look for artists who have their own sound and style, well connected to blues but not repeating what’s already been done. This is a tough row to hoe for artists. The pressure is often to do familiar songs and re-create familiar sounds. But Muddy Waters didn’t become famous by coping Son House and Robert Johnson. B.B. didn’t become famous trying to copy T-Bone Walker. So creating your own songs, or taking other people’s songs and making something fresh from them, is essential for anyone hoping to be signed with Alligator. Above all, there is the live performance. If an artist can thrill me on stage (and I’m a tough sell), then I’m interested. That includes the ability to play but also to sing really well, and to communicate with the audience. I do still listen to demos, but it’s been a long time since I found an artist based on his or her demo recording. And these days so many artists who aren’t ‘ready’ are financing their own albums and sending them to me. They are expecting me to take an hour of my life to listen to their album, and are often resentful when I only listen to the first four songs. As almost no one else in the industry listens to demos at all, I would hope they would be thrilled just to get a listen, but often my honest response leads to an angry reply, not a ‘thank you for taking the time’ note. No one wants to hear “you can’t sing”, even when they asked for my opinion. And “you can’t sing” (said really nicely) is my most common criticism of demos and self-made records that I receive. Can you tell us some of the steps involved in recording an artist? One thing that distinguishes Alligator from most other blues labels is how much preparation we put in before recording. In the old days, when so much of the standard blues repertoire was still new to younger fans, labels like Delmark could bring artists into the studio and if they didn’t write a lot (like Magic Sam), they could still make great records of songs that are familiar now but weren’t then. Now I work very closely with my artists on repertoire and arrangements, to try to make each album as fresh and original as possible. If I am producer, I generally rehearse quite a bit before we get to the studio, trying to figure out how to give each song its individual identity, planning the dynamics, and honing the lyrics. I try to involve the whole band in creating the arrangement. Musicians play with more fire if they have some ownership of the arrangement instead of just coming in playing a pre-defined part. Plus, sessions are more fun that way. Some of my artists produce themselves, like Tinsley Ellis , Rick Estrin, Eric Lindell, Lee Rocker and Roomful of Blues. Some bring their own producers, like Marcia Ball, Janiva Magness and Tommy Castro. For some, like Lil’ Ed, Michael Burks and Smokin’ Joe Kubek; Bnois King, I produce with the artist. Under almost all circumstances, I’m going to be involved with the choice of songs and give some input on the arrangements. One thing I like to point out is that I am running a commercial record company, albeit in a specialized field of music. I’m not just saying to my artists “express yourself.” I want them to make honest records that they believe in, with songs they want to perform live. But I also have strong feelings about what each artist’s most distinctive talents are, and why I wanted them on Alligator. I’m not shy about saying to an artist, “that’s the kind of song your fans like” or “that’s not really a song that is showing what makes you special” or “that’s one that will challenge the public definition of you.” Generally I will insist on approving the mixes and mastering, and want input into the order of songs on an album. I am often called a control freak, but that’s mostly by people who don’t understand the kind of input a label normally has into its releases (outside the world of blues). It’s my job to sell the final album. If the artist gives me something that I can’t sell, then I’m going to disappoint him or her. I have had situations where an artist wants very much to make an album that I don’t believe shows the artist’s strengths, or I simply believe is wrong-headed for that artist, and that I won’t be able to market effectively. In that case, I have sometimes released an artist rather than put out an album I don’t believe in. What do you look for in a new artist or signing an artist? I’ve answered some of this already, but to summarize—I want artists who have a real musical vision, with at least one foot firmly in the blues/R&B tradition but other elements that make their music personal and different from what’s already been done. I want artists with both vocal and instrumental talent. I ideally want artists who write their own material, or can personalize songs written by others. The point is of course that they need to have a distinctive, personal sound. I absolutely need artists who know how to deliver on stage. Blues and roots music is all about communication skills, both musical and visual. It’s not only music, it’s also show business, so a visually boring act is not for me (though I know that some artists can hold stock still and keep the attention of the audience through their intensity). I need artists who understand that they are in the business of being professional musicians, and that it’s a full time job. The fun part is doing a show. The un-fun part is leading a band (very different skill set), honoring contracts, working with booking agents, being media-available and media-friendly, not getting too ‘relaxed’ on substances to keep from delivering a top notch show and total professionalism. I need artists who have already established some kind of fan base, even if it’s just local; I need to have something to build on. Ideally, I’d like artists who are internet-savvy and take care of things like Myspace and Facebook. And of course I need artists who are prepared to sell their CDs from the stage, understand how to do that, and don’t think they are ‘above’ taking the fans’ money! But ultimately the real and final question is—does their music move me?  I have built Alligator to be a label that has a consistently of quality, rootedness, and musical urgency. I have to believe in every release. The Alligator Logo is also the Bruce Seal Of Approval. I admit there are some releases I like better than others, but my concept of the label is all killer, no filler. Terry " Gatorman" Lape PART TWO NEXT WEEK © Copyright Terrance B. Lape all rights reserved. Reproduction of this website, in whole or in part, in any form or medium without express written permission from Terrance B. Lape is prohibited. All use is subject to our Terms of Use Bookmark Us @

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chicago Blues News: L V Banks

What can I write about L V Banks? L V is a Chicago West side blues artist that has no comparison.
He was born just outside Benoit, Mississippi. He moved to Greenville as a teenager. He served for four years in the army During the Korean war. Upon his release from military service he returned to Greenville and stepped off the train right into the hottest blues area of its day. Little Milton, Ike turner and their contemporaries allowed L V an opportunity to polish his craft.
His first band included Nick Charles (Billy Branch S.O.B.),Eddie Shaw on Sax and guitar man L.
B B King heard him and offered this advice “You got the voice that sings and swings so you better squeeze them strings.” L V moved to Chicago in 1965 and has lived in the same apartment since that move. He currently resides right around the corner from the current President’s house.
In 1995 Wolf Records recorded his first CD called “Ruby”.
“Hard to Love a Woman” is a straight forward driving Elmore James style rocking Blues.
The title cut “Ruby” is a nicely written almost funky Sam and Dave type number. It has a wonderful piano solo. One of the lines states “I’ll eat a rainbow” typical L V humor.
“Express Love” is in the style of B B king. It has a great opening lead guitar riff and L V’s solo work is really illustrates the Chicago west side style.
“Lonely Room” is another 1-4-5 that talks about how lonely one can be while waiting on someone who never comes. This cut has that down home style. It is one of my favorites
“Miss You Babe” moves right along and is a dancer that changes from a shuffle to a swing and back again. He writes about going to the corner to get a sweet roll and a cup of coffee. L V is the only blues man that I am aware of that sings about that particular subject. This number really cooks.
“I love My Guitar” is another tune that shows a strong B B influence. The subject matter is about a blues man’s love for his guitar and a love for his woman. Guess who wins? A blues man’s guitar will always win, because it is always true. Oh. and it does what the blues man asks of it.
“I made a Mistake” is very reminiscent of High Heel sneakers. It has the same groove which is a good thing and is very up-tempo with an outstanding guitar line and piano solo. It is quite fitting that it follows "I love my guitar", because L V kicks out his woman and does not want to be bothered with her anymore.
“Pipe Layer”. This song talks about hard times and a man’s quest for work and his landing a job as a layer of pipe. Of course anyone can read between the lines on this one.
“What happened to our Love?” Talks about relationships and love lost.
“Falling to Pieces” is another B B influenced number that drives right along with the guitar hook and lead guitar work.
“Bobby Sock Baby” talks about letting that young love go and it’s a number that cooks right along. This is one of two songs on this Cd that L V did not write
“Love Light” L V has one of the best versions out there with his cover. His vocals are right there and it is of course very well performed. L V ‘s second song that was authored by someone else.
The band includes
Michael Thomas (second guitar)
Allan Batts (keys)
Dave Kay (Bass)
Jerry Price (drums)
This CD “Ruby” showcases a blues man at his best and should be in your collection filed under “Chicago Blues”.

Authors note
I may be a little bit partial to L V Banks; he played in my back yard for my daughter’s engagement / moving to Dallas party. He also is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet.
You can get L V’s CD “Ruby” on or direct from Wolf Records. Go to Shop and put L V Banks in the search engine.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

CHicago Blues; Big Dog's Guitar care tips

Marty Mercer Joliet

I get countless people at the shop with problems with scratchy volume & tone pots on their guitars, amps, basses. I get their equipment in & see that they are completely covered in dust, dirt & grime.

I try to explain to people that dust is the enemy.
If musicians would take a little more time to properly clean their equipment,
they could avoid (sometimes costly) repairs.

(Picture Marty at work re-fretting)

The other day I had a guitar brought to me that was so horrible,
I actually could not clean the pot. I wound up replacing the part at an additional cost to the client. Just like any other electronic equipment in your home, when dust gets into the crevices it destroys it after time.

Let me give everyone a few simple tips you can take to make your equipment last a little longer & save you some money on needless repairs.
• After playing – wipe the instrument down with a clean lint free cloth.
• This will make your strings last longer & wipe off the oils from your hands.
• Store the instrument in its case to keep the dust off of it.
• If storing it on a guitar stand out in the open, cover it with an old towel or sheet to keep the dust off.
• Twice a month – or more often depending on use- clean the instrument with a liquid cleaner to remove fingerprints, dust, & gunk.
• An inexpensive way to do this is to make a solution of 2 cups of water, 1/4 cup of white distilled vinegar.
• (It’s not only less expensive, but often it’s better for the finishes to avoid harsh chemicals.)
• Store it in an old recycled spray bottle & label it so as not to confuse it with something else.
I believe that if you follow these steps that your guitar / bass will perform better with less down time sitting in the repair shop !
From the album: In the Shop
By Stone City Repair Shop

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