Big Joe Louis – Interview

January 7, 2009 in Uncategorized

The unexpurgated version of the interview that appears in Issue 85!

Singer, guitarist, songwriter and musicologist Big Joe Louis is a veteran of the UK blues scene. He plays in the UK and Europe both solo and with His Blues Kings. He also tours with many American artists, who value his style of playing. In 2007, he left his job as a blues consultant with the Performing Rights Society.

What have you been doing since you stopped working for PRS? Did you have a sabbatical?

I took one trip to the States with a friend of mine, to buy records, look round record fairs and track down a guy in Boston who had owned a record shop since 1962. Apart from that, it was all playing. I went to Australia and New Zealand and went to the States twice, all the usual Scandinavian places. I go to Scandinavia a lot.

The Scandinavians are very keen on the blues.

They are but I have been doing it a lot there and I work with so many good musicians there.

Do you book through the Norsk Blues Union?

They don’t book as a union. I think there are about 80 clubs in Norway. They have really good co-operation, which means that they will try and swing it that if somebody is available, they’ll say, ‘Look, if we take him for Thursday, why don’t you take him for Friday?’ So when we were at the studio Michael, the bass player, told me that we had three nights in a row, just around Oslo, in February, doing a tour with Sven Zetterberg. He’s a singer, guitar player and harmonica player. He’s fantastic!
He came over here and played at the Mean Fiddler (in Harlesden, now closed). It was a jazz festival, A Taste of Swedish Jazz.

Who tours with you? Do you take your band or play solo?

It varies. The Australia I was with Lynwood Slim, the harmonica player from California. The trip to America, I took my drummer Peter with me but we played with Billy Flynn, (piano player) Carl Sunny Leyland and Jimmy Sutton, who is a fantastic bass player from Chicago. It was a really good band.
We played a show in Chicago, at Delilah’s. Lots of people came out. Dick Shurman and Wes Race came out; Wes was the guy who turned Bruce Iglauer (of Alligator Records) on to Hound Dog Taylor He was the legendary guy who phoned Bruce up from a bar and said listen to this and Bruce came over. You know Dick Shurman, the record producer and writer.
Then we went up and did the Green Bay Festival. It was like Colne, Burnley, Cognac, Hemsby, and Rhythm Riot! all rolled into one. It is on Lake Michigan, north of Milwaukee in Wisconsin.
I think we will be going back in the Spring, to do some shows in Chicago, possible with Mud Morganfield. He sent me a message today, saying, ‘Come over here and work with me!’
A musician in Chicago told me, it is not that they pay well but there are so many clubs.
They don’t pay well but, you know, we don’t just do this for money. I think it is fine for the versatile sidemen who can do all kinds of things. But if you are a person who does one thing as well as you can….
In the States, they have lost your kind of blues player. There are a lot of rock-blues players but people don’t play like you any more. They find it really entertaining to hear blues as it used to be done.
Ever since I have been playing, I have had people come up to me and say, ‘I come from Chicago/Detroit/New Orleans/San Francisco, you know we never hear this kind of music there.’ I never used to believe them, until I went there, and I’ve listened to the records these people make. There really aren’t! There are a few people, but you go into the clubs and most of the bands don’t (play it like I do).

The blues has mutated.

It has. Music has to change but it doesn’t mean you have to enjoy every step of that change.
Americans do tell me that British blues is closer to the blues of the fifties and the sixties that it is in America.
People always go, ‘You’ve got that retro sound’, or ‘You’ve got that old sound’ or whatever. Then the people they think of as modern people, are people that have that seventies Freddie King sound. That’s supposed to be modern? If they were modern, they would be doing it with samples and hip-hop. People like Michael Messer maybe.
What people now call modern blues seems to be based on British rock-blues, to me. Because of my background, I never grew up listening to that music. It really doesn’t man anything to me. I got asked by a Finnish magazine, why did I think British blues was so popular around the world. I said, ‘Do you know what, I have absolutely no idea!’ That’s not to say that there aren’t some really good musicians her but it’s that type of music that people call British Blues with a capital B, rather than people who just happen to be born here.

I suppose that a lot of people think anything British is hip. In Europe, they revere British blues artists more than we do.

That’s true. I work far more over there, at better shows, than I ever do here. That’s because the British taste is not the kind of taste that I have. The British audience doesn’t seem to go out as much.
When I started playing this music, the idea of any kind of career or any kind of paid gig was just a joke, I just did it because I had to do it; I wanted to do it and I enjoyed playing with King David. That was it. The years go by. People asked you to make records and you start doing shows and you get paid and that is really good. But if all that went away tomorrow, I would still keep doing it. As far as fashions are concerned, who cares? Ten, twenty years ago, whenever it was, the fashion was to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan; a few years ago, the fashion was to sound like a West Coast harp band. I think, if you have a style, your are comfortable in that style, do that style!
I don’t think many musicians get into it deeply. I don’t know how many musicians enjoy listening to records. They appreciate technique but how many times do I go out to a show and I see a musician there? I went to see Tommy Brown at The Ace Café, a couple of weeks ago. He’s a great Atlanta rhythm & blues singer, fantastic singer! (Bandleader of the backing band) Harry Lang came up and he said, ‘I am really glad you came, but then you always come to the shows that I do, whether it’s Charles Walker or whoever!’ I said, ‘Yes, because I love music.’ I don’t go to ever single show, but when there is somebody that I like, I’ll look around and there are lots of the people who come to all my shows and lots of other people’s shows, who are not musicians but you don’t often see musicians and they are not all working.
I can remember, when I started, talking to older musicians whom I reckoned would know an awful lot more about the music and trying to get them talking about records. If you don’t know about where the music you play comes from, how are you going to absorb anything?

The only person I see regularly at gigs is Ian Siegal. I see him at loads of things.

Yeah! Well, Ian’s deep into it.
I think some people are musicians because they really like playing their instrument. It’s like an exercise thing for them. Everyone’s different; there is no right way or wrong way.
When I started getting into the music, I just had to know everything about it all. I had to learn and find records and discover new sounds, all the time. That’s the way I am now. I’ve done this and that, listened very little to new blues records because I am listening to Gospel records, to soul records, funk records and reggae records. It’s very rare I hear a blues record that I’ve heard that makes me rock back in my seat and go ‘Wow!’

I am amazed at the many American musicians who don’t know anything about their music. I find that some of the black guys, like Syl Johnson, are more knowledgeable about everything than the average white American. The ones who travel outside America are much more worldly than the average stay at home American.

Travel is a great thing. It is just so good for people to do that. I spend so much time travelling. You were joking about (Robben Ford) commuting eight hours to Denmark. I would do that all the time, practical things aside, you’ve got to be at home, relationship and that sort of thing, but I just love to travel. I have been doing it since I was in arms. I haven’t stopped and I am always thinking where’ somewhere else I can go. I’ll be going to Canada in the Spring, and the North-West (of the States) Seattle, Washington State, Oregon, Idaho!

Where did you go in Australia?

We went all over, in Australia that just means the coasts. We landed in Perth, played in Perth, then went up the coast. Then we flew over to Brisbane for a show. Then a couple of shows around Sydney, then Melbourne, a big festival, The Great Southern Blues & Rockabilly Festival, at a place called Narooma, which is about six hours south of Sydney. We were there for about three weeks altogether. At the festival, there were The Holmes Brothers, Watermelon Slim was there. They are good crowd the Australians; they come out. I like them. The New Zealanders, again, I just went over and did a couple of shows there. I did two solo show on the North Island. I just didn’t have time to get to the south. My brother lives out there, he’s a musician too. In Rotorua, where the hot lava mud stinks like bad eggs, you get to those places where you never imagined you would ever get to.

Have you played at The Mustique Blues Festival?

Not since 2005; I have done it three times. That was great for me because it was the first time I’ve really got back to the Caribbean. I don’t have family there any more. I don’t mind the journey; it’s worth it once you get there. I was really grateful for that.

The climate is perfect.

For me it is; I grew up there. I was there with Errol Linton the first time I did Mustique. You get off that plane and you smell – you can’t describe it because you’ve had that memory stuck inside you – and you take a deep breath and you are home. You get off the plane in Barbados and then you get a little plane. The best place is St Vincent. Mustique is a beautiful place but it’s not like any part of the Caribbean I’d ever been to before. It’s a beautiful place and I’d love to go there again, but St Vincent and Bequia are the Caribbean I knew, markets, fish in the streets, children playing football in the street, motorbikes driving up and down.

Basil (..Charles, promoter of the Mustique Blues festival) raises money for children on St Vincent.

Yes, that’s exactly what we go for, the educational foundation; he had put about thirty children through schools in the ten years since the festival started (in 1995), when I was there.
You go there and you are away for eighteen nights and you have one night off. You play on a couple of other islands, Bequia and St Vincent, but it changes from year to year. Bless her, Dana (Gillespie) does so much work for it; she organises it. I know it’s a lot of organisation, not just when you are there: finding the people, talking them into doing it, booking them and, when she gets back, she goes down to Brixton and spends three weeks in a recording studio mixing all the tracks for the album. She does everything with her heart.

Do you write much?

Yes I do. Unlike most people that I know who do this, I can’t sit and write a song, because they all just come to me. There have been times in my life, like when I made the Big Sixteen record, when I was going through all sorts of changes, like getting divorced, all that sort of stuff, women here and there and stuff, and the songs just came to me. I could walk down the street and I would have a song at the end of the walk; it would just come. I’ve tried sometimes to sit down and think, ‘OK, let’s write a song. Where do you start?’ and I just don’t know where to start. I just have no idea. When they come, they come. Because of the way I write songs, all based on my life and experiences, I won’t sing a song about things that don’t mean anything to me. I can’t do it.
I was talking to this really good Danish musician at the weekend. He was saying to me that he was trying to put himself in other people’s shoes. Someone told him, to be a really good songwriter you have to imagine that you are somebody else. I said, ‘Great, if that works for you, that’s good but I just can’t do that!’
Last year I met a couple of people who maybe influenced me or had funny situations with (such as) this girl I met in a bar in Brisbane, so before I know it there was a song called “She Said Yes And I Said No”. It came out of that. It is really difficult, because you can go a long time without a song. It’s like you’re waiting for rain. I always keep a piece of paper on me.

You hear stories about songs written on napkins and back of envelopes. Mrs Spooner Oldham told me her (songwriter) husband got up, went to work and came home at 5.30 p.m. He just wrote songs all day, but of course not all of them were great songs.

That’s a professional songwriter; they are people who are creating songs, unlike what I do, which is turning what I am feeling into music and singing. So, somebody can say something and I’m thinking, ‘Oh yeah!’ and it will sit in my mind and sit there and sit there and it will come out, or I’ll feel something about someone or I’ll miss somebody, be thinking about somebody and that’ll come out in a song. My music doesn’t come from the head, it comes from the neck down, apart from the thinking about people; it’s not a conscious thing. I’ve dreamt songs and I wake up and I think, ‘Wow was that a song?’ and then you think, ‘Did somebody else write that? May be I heard that some where else.’ Then you think no that’s a song about that person or that event in your life. I don’t know where it comes from or how it works. I have always been drawn to that kind of music.
Some people listen to music in a different way from me. They will appreciate the structure of it; they will be impressed by the technique that has gone into it or the way the song has been constructed or the way it is played or the production. I have always put a record on or hear something and I go (with an intake of breath) ‘What is this?’ It can be my kind of music. So I will be tuning into pirate radio stations and I will hear some new reggae record and I’ll pull over and wait for the DJ to say what it is and write it down and go out to my local record shop and try and track it down.

I hear lots of stories about songs written on a table napkin or the back of an envelope. Then some people tell me they come off the road and sit down and write the new album in three weeks and they talk about it as if it is a penance. The songs aren’t necessarily any better that way.

Some people out there who make a record because they think they have to make a record. I haven’t made a record for years, a full album in my own name although I have done the singles and I’ve done collaborations. It’s because, if I haven’t got anything to say, I’ll keep my mouth shut.

Would Ace Records put something out, if you wanted to do it?

Every record I have made, Ace has ended up putting out. I have no idea.
I have worked in the music business for twenty-something years, when I am not singing. That’s how I have been able to do all my music. You need to look at the business to know how it is changing.
You know, I am really a traditionalist in some ways but music is music. I love travelling around with my little Walkman, 6,000 songs on it. So wherever I am I can listen to it. If it’s a new recording, a CD is just a piece of computer software and they take up space. Yeah, I’ll take a download of it. Every 45 I buy, I record.

Tell me about your singing voice. I’ve heard you roar in the Howlin’ Wolf register mostly but sometimes I’ve heard you sing in a soft and dulcet register as well.

I don’t know because I am not really technical. I just open (my mouth) and it comes out. It’s loud I know that. I don’t consciously think this is a purry number or this is a roary number. If it’s a song that really means a lot more to me than some of the other ones, particularly of they are my songs, I just start to do it with my eyes shut a lot of the time and then at the end of the song, it is almost like a wake up; I open my eyes and look round and think, ‘Who are these people in my room?’

Do other people record your songs?

Yes if they want to. I did a version of one of my songs with Corinna (Greyson), years ago. It was really nice. She asked if I minded if they recorded it and would I like to play and sing on it. I think I just played on it.
Because a lot of them are personal, I think it is hard or other people to put themselves in that place. They are not just ‘Baby, let’s have a good time, boogie, boogie, boogie!’

So you don’t actively sell your songs.

No, people hear them and like them. May be on the new record there will be songs that other people will do. I know there are some people in Europe who have picked up songs of mine from records and do them. I’m not a songwriter with a capital S, I just write down what I feel. I’d love people to record my songs. It would be really interesting to hear different takes on them.

January looks like a trip to the States and Canada, Portland Seattle, Washington State, up to Vancouver (BC) then maybe down to California but I’m not sure. In February and March, pretty much every weekend I’ll be going over for a show in Sweden, Denmark or Norway. I’m doing some touring with Sven Zetterberg, who is one of the greatest! I am really looking forward to that because I have known him for years and we have jammed together occasionally but we have a lot of musical taste in common. When you meet somebody and you connect with him or her on that level, that’s pretty good. He asked me if I would come over and do some shows with him and I am really pleased.
I think we are doing some show with Mud (Morganfield) in March. I did The Ain’t Nothing But Festival with Mud, at Mijas in June. We’ll bring him to London and some other parts. He normally does shows for Shakedown Blues, at Caistor near Peterborough. Mud is such a good performer that he needs to be seen in other places. I’ll see if we can set up a central London show and get around the country maybe.
So, all the way through to April looks very busy. Then I will come back and go to Spain, which will be nice after the Winter and the Spring spent in frozen Scandinavia.

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Comments (3)


  1. Jim Cutler says:

    I was introduced to Big Joe Louis by my cousin Bob Pearce at the Platform Tavern in Southampton. The sound was fantastic and I have not missed a gig of Joe’s in Southampton since.

  2. eric ranzoni says:

    I saw Big Joe Louis playing at the Station Tavern when I was just a tourist in London in the 90s…back then I couldn’t even think that now, after many years, I live in London and have played with him accompanying the son of Muddy Waters!

  3. Peter Gold says:

    Saw Big Loe Louis in Mustique at Basil’s Bar Jan 2002. I know he did a live interview and played records on Dell Richardson’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” program on Radio Caroline many years ago. The show (mainy Rock n Roll ) stills goes out every Tuesday evening 6-9pm. I’ve also been a guest on the show and a few years ago played I’ve Got A Brand New Home by The Big Town Playboys with Joe on vocals.

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