Clash Road Trip: Sugar Blue Interview

Chicago harp player
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In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

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Read an interview with blues harmonica player Sugar Blue conducted in Chicago.

We just arrived in Chicago last night, so tell me a little about the city. What is the part of Chicago that you would recommend that we see, and what’s the sites that should be seen for music fans?

Sugar Blue: Well first of all, you’re in Corky Siegel’s house, so that’s a good place to begin. That’s a very good place to begin. There were a lot of clubs that are gone now, but let’s not talk about those that are gone, let’s talk about the ones that are still here. You’ve definitely got to go and visit Buddy Guy’s Legends. Though it has moved from its old place, I think the Checkerboard Lounge is still open. There’s a place called Blues on Halstead, which is right across from another place called the Kingston Mines, which are long-time blues venues. There’s a wonderful place run by a little old Italian lady called Rose’s Lounge on the west side, which is wonderful. I don’t know whether [Lee’s] Unleaded Blues is still open - maybe Corky can tell you - but there used to be a place called Unleaded Blues that was great.

Corky: I don’t get out much, Sugar.

Sugar: [Sings] “Don’t get round much anymore...” (Laughs) Alright Cork. Holly keeps you on a short leash, huh? (Laughs)

Could you tell us a little bit about why Chicago is a hub of blues and how it became so?

Sugar: It has to do with the fact that many of the train lines that were leaving Mississippi ended up in Chicago. Back during the Great - if you would call it - Diaspora, when people started to move out of Mississippi, they came up the train line that was closest to them and that ended at Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. Chicago was the largest city, and offered the most opportunities. So cats naturally congregated there and they brought the music with them, and well, the rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.

There’s obviously a great legacy here in terms of the people that started up in making music here, Chess Records and everything...

Sugar: Even before Chess Records, man - people like Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind John Davis, and um, the great guitar player - I can’t think of his name - but anyway, they all recorded together, and recorded many of the great tunes that were recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson on Bluebird Records, and I think that was back in the Thirties. Big Bill Broonzy! I mean, more people than I can actually remember - they’ll come to me, but probably after the interview’s over. (Laughs)

How did your own career begin?

Sugar: I started playing harmonica when I was about ten or eleven. I tried playing saxophone but that didn’t work out for me. I tried playing violin but I was vile at it. When I really got into the saxophone, I really loved it but my mother hated it. She was like, ‘Okay, that’s just too much noise for you and me to be in the same house together!’ So my aunt gave me a harmonica and I started playing it and at some point my mom felt really bad about taking away the saxophone and she saw I was really into the music, so she took me to see Little Stevie Wonder, who at the time was twelve-years-old and was playing at the Apollo Theatre. I went there and I fell in love with the music and the man and the instrument, of course, and I started trying to play it seriously. I was into all kinds of folk music, you know, Dylan, and so forth like that, and I started listening to some of his influences - people like Victoria Spivey and Big Boy Crudup, stuff like that. When I started getting into that, eventually I got into the cats from Mississippi - Muddy Waters, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson - and when I finally heard all of that stuff, I was like, ‘Okay, I like it! I’m crazy about this stuff!’ And when I heard Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter, that was the beginning of the end, that was it for me: I was going to be a musician.

And did you get a chance to play with these guys as well?

Sugar: I got a chance to play with people like Yank Rachell, Blind John Davis, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, James Cotton... Yeah, I mean I played with the original Aces from Little Walter’s band, Son Seals, just some of all of the cats who were around back then.

You also played on The Rolling Stones’ song ‘Miss You’. How did that come about?

Sugar: That didn’t happen in Chicago actually, that happened in Paris. (Laughs) At some point, I spent about six months in Chicago before I literally moved there, and I went back to New York and I went to see Memphis Slim play at a place called the Top Of The Gate in the West Village. I got to sit in with him and we sat down and we talked, and he eventually let me sit in with him. And after I sat in with him, we had a drink, and we were talking, so I asked him, ‘What do you think are the chances of me going to Paris to play some music?’ And he said, ‘Well, if you’ve got the chutzpah and you’re willing to pay your dues, come on over, you know, I’ll give you a hand’. And I did, and I eventually ended up running into The Rolling Stones. It was about a year or so after I had moved to Paris that I ran into them.

And did they see you playing or did you sort of strike up a conversation with them?

Sugar: No, actually what happened was Cubby Broccoli was in town filming the new James Bond film, and one of his go-fers happened to be at a party that I was playing at, and his apartment was right across from Mick Jagger’s, and he heard me and he said, ‘You know, Mick Jagger’s in town cutting a record and he could probably use some harmonica like the way you play.’ And I’m going, ‘Yeah, sure. Right, okay. Besides, Mick plays harmonica.’ And he goes, ‘Oh yeah, but he doesn’t do it like you do. Give me your phone number.’ And I’m going, ‘Okay, this guy is pulling my leg off.’ But I gave him my number anyway, and a few days later I got a call from this guy with a really heavy cockney accent - which I found out Mick puts on and off when he wants to - and I was like, ‘Okay, somebody is really having fun with me here’, you know, because the accent was so heavy I said, ‘Somebody’s putting this on. This is a joke, and I’m the butt of this joke.’ And he told me to come out to Pathé-Marconi Studio in the Bois de Boulogne. And if you know anything about the Bois de Boulogne, it is an infamous meeting place for transsexuals. I didn’t know that until I asked some friends of mine - I said, ‘I’m going out to the Bois de Boulogne’, and the guy says, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He says, ‘Blue, there are things about you I didn’t know!’ (Laughs) And I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ And he says, ‘Well, the boys that are girls and the girls that are boys hang out there.’ And now I’m really convinced that someone’s after me, and to make a laughing stock of me. But I said, ‘What the hell, I’ll go, I’ll give it a shot.’ So I get in the cab, and it’s nearing twilight, and the cab driver gets me out there and this huge building - because the Pathe-Marconi studios is where they record the National Symphony Orchestra of France, and so it’s an immense building. All around it is surrounded by the woods of Boulogne. So, when we get out there, the cab driver’s like - the sun’s going down - and he says, ‘Monsieur, are you sure that you want to get out of the cab here?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, this is the place.’ He says, ‘Ah oui oui, bon. C’est la vie, good for you!’ So I paid the guy, I get out, and I start hearing wolf-whistles from the woods, and I look around and there all of these guys with boobs and the extra things that guys have, and I’m going like, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting out of here!’ So I started banging on the doors to the studio, because there were doors all up and down this place - it looked like a huge airplane hanger. So finally Mick Jagger pops his head out of a door way down the building, and he says, ‘Hey, is that Sugar Blue?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, let me in!’ (Laughs) So I got in, and they were busy warming up the band and having a good old time like the Stones do, and we got into the studio and after about two or three hours of jamming, they turned on the recorders and away we went.

And the rest is history.

Sugar: Yes indeed.

So what have you been doing recently, what have you been working on at home?

Sugar: I just released a new album, ‘Threshold’, and it seems to be selling fairly well. We’ve been on a tour in the States and overseas, and we have a trip coming up. So we’re off to Egypt in about three or four days for a tour of about a week, and then we’re back in the States.

Are you hitting the UK at all?

Sugar: No, actually we don’t have any plans for the UK as of yet. Maybe in March. We’ll see. If the Queen says it’s all right! (Laughs)

What do you think is happening in the music scene of Chicago now, and how do you think it’s going to transpire in the future?

Sugar: I’ve been out of Chicago for the last six or seven years, but I’ve seen some pretty hot young players coming up. I think that Chicago will always be in some way or another a centre for the music because the history is so strong there. You got people like Buddy Guy, Jimmy Johnson, and Wolf’s saxophone player, Eddie Shaw - these cats are probably the history of the music, and they’re not leaving Chicago anytime soon. And I think Corky’s going to be there, unless he moves to Hawaii or something. And you’ve got my good friend Billy Branch, who’s very much a part of the scene. So, I think the Blues will do fine, it’s in good hands.

This is the beginning of our road trip - we’re all heading down to New Orleans over the next two weeks, and to places like Memphis and Clarksdale. Have you been down that way? Is there anywhere you would recommend that we stop and see?

Sugar: In Memphis? If you’re going to Memphis, you’ve got to stop by Beale Street, and hit B.B. King’s joint. And then you got to go find yourself some ribs. There’s also the Burkle Slave Haven, which is a very important part - it’s a national landmark, and its association with the blues goes without saying. You have the Stax Museum, and Sun Studios, so there’s quite a lot to do and see there. Don’t miss the Burkle Estate - many people do. I think it’s a very important part... And the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther was shot. It’s very educational and another important piece of your tour.

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