For the past two years, I would get a phone call every couple of months or so from the titan of the blues piano, Fred Kaplan. Fred shared with me his enthusiasm for the recordings that he was making with Bharath Rajakumar. Fred communicates on the phone like he does with his keyboard. That is to say with tremendous precision, clarity and always with purpose. He would make sure that I knew that the Montreal resident, Bharath Rajakumar, is a very gifted musician and producer. He wanted to make sure I knew that these recordings were very special and he wanted to make sure I knew why they were special.
Fred was a founding member of the Hollywood Fats Band in the 1970’s. His ability to play in many of the blues and jazz sub-genres and idioms, as both a pianist and organist, has made him an in-demand sideman for literally countless recording sessions. He is, what fellow Fats Band co-founder, singer, harmonica player and principal song writer Al Blake calls, a “brilliant musician”. If you know Al, even a little, you know he doesn’t have a penchant for hyperbole and doesn’t hand out that type of praise wholesale. Kaplan, along with Blake, as well as Hollywood Fats band alum bassist Larry Taylor and drummer Richard Innes, have reformed under the banner of The Hollywood Blue Flames. They have recruited west coast blues guitar icon Junior Watson to fill the guitar slot vacated by the late, great Hollywood Fats. It is, however, Kaplan’s latest album that was the focus of this interview.
It has been my experience that sometimes when I anticipate a recording to this degree I can be disappointed. So when Fred handed me a copy of his brand new album called, Hold My Mule last May at the Doheny Blues Festival in Dana Point, CA, I was looking forward to listening to it and at the same time preparing myself for a slight let down. When I heard the record, however, I was floored. At 17 songs, not only is it a generous helping of all original music written by Fred, it is an album that is imbibed with sophistication and warmth. It also lays down some serious grooves.
I knew immediately upon hearing this CD that, as soon as our schedules permitted, I would be sitting down with Fred and discussing this album with him. We finally were able to hook up last week in a quiet supper club at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. The restaurant wasn’t scheduled to open for another couple of hours, so we had the joint to ourselves. Appropriately enough, the background music that was “piped” into the restaurant was 50’s era piano jazz recordings. The environment was very conducive to a relaxed and, as one might suspect, candid conversation. I rolled “tape” and this is a portion of that conversation.
David Mac (DM): Your new album Fred, in my view, is an old school, modern masterpiece. It is the kind of recording you just don’t hear anymore.
Fred Kaplan (FK): It was kind of a dream project for me. I had to finance it on my own because all the record companies that I talked to thought I was crazy for wanting to record the way that we did. Had I not met and befriended Bharath Rajakumar, I probably wouldn’t have made the record. He was able to allow me to make the album I’ve always wanted to make. Just for the record, no pun intended, the band is recorded live and it’s recorded with vintage equipment like a quarter inch tape recorder, that uses mono tape, built in the 40s. We used microphones from the 30s, 40s and 50s. We used outboard gear, mixers and stuff from the 40s and 50s.
DM: The sound you were looking for and ultimately able to achieve goes way beyond the equipment though.
FK: Absolutely! The other parts of the equation are just as important, more so actually. It is about having the right room, the right atmosphere and, of course, the right musicians.
DM: I want to talk more about the recording process itself, but let’s take a few moments at the outset and talk about the musicians on this recording. Let’s start with the rhythm section (tongue now firmly planted in cheek). Have you worked much in the past with Richard Innes, the drummer on these sessions?
FK: (laughing) Richard and I go back to 1974. He’s the original drummer with the Hollywood Fats Band, now the Hollywood Blue Flames. Richard and I have been close friends for many years, and musical cohorts. He’s one of the only drummers I know where all I have to do is look at him and he knows what to play. Sometimes he knows what I’m going to do before I do it. He just follows me and I can just find him anytime. I don’t have to say anything when I’m playing. I can just look at him or I don’t even look at him. I just play it and he hears it and he knows what to play. He is a fantastic drummer. There’s nobody really like him in blues today. I play with a lot of wonderful drummers, but Richard has a specific talent for interpreting blues from a very traditional standpoint.
Kedar Roy is the bass player on this album. He is the same way. He has a certain feel for this music. I met Kedar through Junior (Watson). He is a close friend of Junior’s. They worked together for a long time. I only met him a few years ago. Kedar is a fantastic player who has a passion to learn traditional blues and play what we play. When he doesn’t know the groove, we’ll play it for him once, or twice at the most, and he gets it right away. He’s a very quick study. He also has a real wonderful tone. By the way we didn’t use an amplifier for the bass on these sessions. Everything is done acoustically.
The only guy that has an amp at all is Junior and it’s a very small, little electric amplifier that only has two knobs on it. One says tone and the other says volume. Junior is one of the few guitar players that I’ve ever played with who knows how to work with an acoustic piano. He knows that I don’t have a volume knob. All I have are my fingers. This also applies to Kedar and Richard. All we have is our hands, we didn’t have volume knobs and there wasn’t anybody in the studio raising and lowering the volume levels. We were responsible for the specific dynamics of the song during these recording sessions. Junior understands that as well. He follows in with the right volume level at the very beginning and when it’s time for him to solo, he turns it up a little bit, but he backs right down and plays the rhythm parts with the piano the way it used to be done. Nobody hardly does that anymore, man. The only guys that I know that can actually do that are jazz guys who play at low volume with an acoustic piano player but I don’t know any blues guys that can do that.
DM: You and Junior, like Richard go way back.
FK: Oh yeah. I first met Junior when he first started playing with Rod Piazza.
DM: When was that?
FK: Right after the formation of the Hollywood Fats Band in the mid 70’s. He is a very creative guitar player. Like me, he doesn’t want to sound like one particular guy, he sounds like six or seven or eight different guys.
DM: All you West Coasters have an East Coast dude in the band with you.
FK: Right...Gordon Beadle AKA Sax Gordon is based out of Boston. He was introduced to me by Junior. I’ve known about him for some time, but Junior knew him personally. So we started talking on the phone and I told him I’d like to make this record and we started swapping musical ideas on the internet, emails, telephone calls and playing records for each other. He told me, “I don’t know anybody that plays like you guys, I want to make this record with you.” I like the saxophone because that was the featured instrument in blues before the electric guitar became so prominent. Before that everything was piano and horn oriented. So having a guy like Gordon on the session was so important. I came to find out as I got to know him better musically and as a person that he had a pretty big vocabulary from which to draw. He digs a lot of the same horn players that I like.
DM: Such as...
FK: He digs all the jazz guys like Arnett Cobb, Willis Jackson, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray stuff like that. He digs Bird. I mean he likes all the same guys I like... Sonny Stitt, Sonny Criss, there’s so many great horn players. Gene Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, I mean I could go on and on.
These are all guys that I listened to, even back in the day when Fats was alive in the 70s and early 80s. I’ve always had a penchant for jazz, even though I play blues, because there are a lot of great piano players who could cross over between jazz and blues and I always dug guys like that.
DM: Like Gene Harris...
FK: Exactly! I was friends with Gene Harris. He was a big inspiration for me because he was a very bluesy, jazz piano player. Take Oscar Peterson for instance. I met him a couple of times, we weren’t friends or anything like that, but he was a very bluesy, jazz player as well. There were a bunch of guys like that. Horace Silver comes to mind. A lot of musicians prior to getting their careers going in one specific direction straddled the jazz world, the R&B or the blues world because they had to be flexible to be available for as many gigs as possible so they could make a living and feed their families. Consequently, there were some great records that were made in the 30s, 40s and 50s with a horn/piano band that sometimes used a guitarist. If you listen carefully man, they’re playing jazz but it’s very bluesy. It’s very advanced stuff. They’re playing really cool music. That’s the stuff that Junior and I talked about doing and then when we got Gordon in the mix, it just changed everything because Gordon added another dimension to what we wanted to do.
DM: Let’s talk about your playing on the album. You play both piano and what sounds like a B3.
FK: I played organ on a few cuts too because I wanted people to hear the role of what the organ sounded like. It may be more of a 50s kind of thing. I used a greasy little Hammond B3. Nothing quite sounds like a B3. The Hammond organ has such a unique sound. The piano is what I am known for, but I did want to include a few organ tunes on the album so people would understand that I’m a contender in that arena as well. It’s just the type of organ music that I dig and wanted to play. It is a little greasier than what most people put out these days.
DM: Who were some of the people who made records like that back in the day?
Shirley Scott, she made some great records, and guys like Baby Face Willette and Freddie Roach who is another influence of mine. Big John Patton is also an influence. Another cat is Charles Earland. I got to meet him and talk with him a bunch of times. What a great player. There’s cats out there that can play their asses off on the organ and there’s some younger guys too that are trying to find that groove and maintain that sound.
As far as the piano is concerned, I didn’t want to necessarily make it the lead instrument on every song. If you listen to the songs on the album the piano is featured from time to time, but it’s not always the focal point. I was trying to find Los Angeles, you know around World War II or in the immediate post war years. That’s kind of what I was leaning towards, trying to find the feel of what the west coast sounded like in the 40s and maybe early 50s. My son David plays bongos and congas on a couple of songs. He is becoming a fine drummer and his playing also helps give it a little of that west coast coolness.
It’s just like cooking a great meal and someone asks, “What’s the theme of the meal? Is it Italian, is it Mexican is it Middle Eastern?” Everybody has to agree on the theme and then everybody gets to add their own ingredients for this fantastic feast.
DM: Now this may be the time in our discussion when you discuss those other elements that make this such a unique recording...such as the room and the atmosphere that you mentioned earlier.
FK: We recorded in all kinds of places, including in people’s homes. We recorded in warehouses. We recorded in store fronts. We recorded in unusual places. We even did one session in a Jewish synagogue. They had a great piano in all these places. So finding a room that had a little bit of natural live sound and a decent piano were the main things we looked for. That’s what we really needed.
Bharath has a really great talent in finding the sweet spot in any room really quickly. He can walk in and in five minutes he’ll know exactly where to put the mics. We’ll play one song, two songs at the most. He’ll adjust the mics a little bit, change the position a tiny bit here or there and that’s it. Then we just turn on the tape recorder and hit record and the rest is just us playing. When you hear the band playing softer, that’s us playing softer. When you hear the band playing louder, that’s us playing louder. When Gordon wanted to take a solo, he would just lean into the piano mic a little bit. That’s the way it used to be done. Nobody records that way anymore because everything’s overproduced. Multi-track recording is great if you’re not a good musician, but if you’re a really solid player, which all these guys are, you don’t need it. Most of the tracks are one takes. Once we got the levels where we wanted them in the room and the musicians were comfortable, we just played man and whatever got recorded is how we put it out.
DM: That leaves the environment in which these recording sessions took place.
FK: We didn’t invite a lot of people over. We kept it small and private. We tried to create a really fun, relaxed environment. I stress the word “relaxed”. We had food that we like to eat and drinks we like to drink. I tried to have a few creature comforts from home so to speak, in the studio, so that everybody wasn’t looking at their watch. In fact I told everybody to take their watches off, “We’re not on the clock here. Let’s just have fun and record.” If we wanted to take a break, we took a break. If we wanted to eat, we ate. If we wanted to go outside and smoke a cigar we did that. I didn’t tell anybody what to do. We just played like we’re having fun at someone’s house, which is really what we’re doing.
DM: Why aren’t more records done this way?
FK: That’s easy. It is because they don’t know how. This type of recording process is a lost art form since the advent of modern technology. It is like somebody who knew how to write hieroglyphics and then they died. It is as if they took the knowledge with them. That’s kind of what happened in the world of recording.
DM: The album title is interesting, Hold My Mule. I don’t know if many people know what that means. Would you explain that expression to our readers?
“Hold My Mule” is a term that came out of the black church, probably around the turn of the century. It’s a very old black colloquialism that basically means, “I‘m going to worship whether you like it or not.” It’s a whole interesting story that came out of the black church and you can still hear it in some black churches today particularly with older folks.
DM: There is a secondary meaning in which I am more familiar.
FK: Let me explain. Let’s say you take your wife or your girlfriend out dancing and while you were dancing some girl cuts in and starts dancing in your wife’s place. Your wife then might walk over to the bar and put her purse down. She might take off her gloves. She might look at her friend and say “hold my mule” which basically means she’s about to kick somebody’s ass. It is essentially a regional and somewhat ethnic colloquialism. The second meaning primarily became part of the nomenclature in and around World War II.
There are lots of phrases that came out of the black church like that. I just hadn’t heard that in a long time. I was fortunate enough to have grown up around some older black musicians who took me to church when I was younger. Sometimes I heard the expression, "hold my mule" around older black gospel singers in a church and I never quite knew what it meant until they explained it to me later. It wasn’t until years later that I heard the expression used in a secular context when I was hanging around with blues folks like Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson, Albert Collins, Big Joe Turner and some of the other cats that lived and played in Los Angeles back in the day.
DM: One of the many things I enjoy about the album is the wide variety of music you present within the context you have discussed. I particularly like the tune Tropical Ivories. It, along with other numbers, shows the real depth of musical styles that can be mined from this period.
FK: That is good example. Tropical Ivories has a Caribbean feel with kind of an Afro-Cuban groove. It sounds like maybe one of the records you might have heard in the 40s coming out of Cuba or Puerto Rico. That’s the style I was shooting for anyway. It makes you want to get a small dog and move down to the beach in Havana. The guys never played that in their lives, I showed it to them and it was like a one take deal. We actually recorded it in one take and it happened to work out real good. It is also one of my favorites on the album.
DM: Why an all instrumental album?
FK: For starters, I don’t sing. I’ve been a session player on hundreds of blues records for singers over the years. I wanted people to really hear and see the piano and organ up front. I wanted people to really appreciate the immense talent that I have to work with and the ability that they have to interpret a language that’s all but forgotten. I happened to be real blessed in finding guys that have done their homework as individuals and as a collective
DM: I know the album is very new but how has it been received so far?
FK: People that actually buy it and listen to it really dig it because it doesn’t sound like anything they’ve heard in a long time. I get a lot of compliments because it reminds folks of the old records. I had some young people come up and ask me at a gig “How did you get that sound?” Other people don’t really think consciously about it, they just like the sound of it. It makes them feel good, they just say, “Hey man, it makes me want to get out of my chair and dance. When I’m driving my foot starts tapping, I don’t know why but, it just happens. It’s got a good feel.”
DM: After all, at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. Thanks Fred.
FK: You got that right. Thanks Dave.