One of the great stories to emerge in the blues world over the past several weeks is the return of Lynwood Slim to the scene. For the past two years Slim has been incapacitated and, for a time, hospitalized with a series of very serious health issues. It wasn’t too many months ago that we thought we might lose the world renowned blues man. Seeing and hearing him ever perform again was out of the question. Well that was a few months ago and Slim is back. In anticipation of his return to the concert stage on June 24th, I caught up with multi-talented performer and recording artist. I also caught up with a hell of a good guy and one tough S.O.B.
David Mac (DM): How are you feeling these days? You sound great on the phone and even better on the four guest appearances I have seen you play in the past few weeks.
Lynwood Slim (LS): I’m still a little sick and a little weak, I have to take a variety of drugs but, as I understand from talking to other people who have had this affliction, it just takes time. Every day I get a little better, I get a little stronger and it took me a long time. It was just a matter of mind over matter so to speak.
DM: You had us all pretty worried just a few months ago.
LS: I was pretty damn close to checking out. I was ready to go. I had lived a pretty good life. I mean I had walked down the Champs de Elysee in Paris with my instruments, and I was thinking “I’m just a kid from Lynwood.” I just gave up. I thought to myself, “I’ve been around the world, went out with hundreds of woman, I’ve had more than my share and I’ve been everywhere.” I have had a very colorful existence. I’ve led quite a life. I’ve been married three times. I was ready man. I’ve overcome a lot of stuff.
DM: Such as...
LS: When I was a kid I was into drugs and crime and incarcerations and all that goes with that lifestyle. Then I got sick and I laid there in the hospital bed thinking about it all. I just gave up man.
DM: What brought you back from the abyss?
LS: One day some of the guys started to come around and hang out with me in the hospital. Mostly Junior Watson and Kid Ramos...they are my true blue pals. Other guys came by, like Larry Taylor and Richard Innes, and all the guys I’ve been playing with for so many years. They are the “A” team. They kept coming in and telling me “Look Slim you’re tough. You are one of the toughest guys we’ve ever known. If anybody can beat this you can.” I had my mom helping me. She was instrumental in taking me to the doctors and running interference for all the Medicare and insurance crap.
The benefit you guys put on at the Tiki Bar meant so much to me, not only financially of course, but psychologically and emotionally as well. It was great, it was wonderful. I was overwhelmed to tears man, that all my pals, Rod Piazza, Kim Wilson and all these musicians I know, would take their time and play for nothing. Those guys don’t play for nothing... let me tell you (laughs). They were generally concerned about me man. It just proved to me that I had more friends than I realized and that I had an impact on people that I never even considered. I thought when I first got sick, “Oh fuck it, nobody gives a shit. It’s just me.” I had to deal with it myself, but pretty soon all of a sudden I started getting phone calls. People started coming to see me in the hospital. One night I had like 25 people in the room and the nurses were saying “Hey….there is an awful lot of people in here.” It was quite a cast of characters let me tell you. I was overwhelmed.
DM: The outpouring of support then started coming from all over. I know Nico Duportal helped put on a benefit in Paris for instance.
LS: There were two benefits in France and two in Minnesota. I am just so grateful.
DM: We are grateful to have you back.
LS: I am really excited to be back performing again. This Sunday is real big deal for me.
DM: Let’s back up a minute. Do you ever remember a time in your life when you weren’t aware of blues music? What was it you heard that started you on this path?
LS: Not really when I was a kid, I was like a lot of kids, I used to listen to the radio a lot. In those days Jimmy Reed actually crossed over into main stream radio. He had chart hits and so on. I just always loved his sound and I always liked the harmonica.
When I was a teenager, I went with some friends to a place up north called Angel Falls and had consumed some lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). I was wandering through the woods one day and I saw a hippie sitting on a rock playing the harmonica and I thought, “Wow, that sounds pretty cool.” Jimmy Reed came to mind and it was all I thought about the rest of the weekend.
One day I opened my friend’s car, we used to roll joints and wrap them in a rubber band so we could just peel them off and chain smoke them, and he had a harmonica in his car. I said “Hey, there’s a harmonica”. He told me I could have it. I was 14, maybe 15 and I had a harmonica in my pocket and I just kept it in there and I started blowing in and out on it and thinking about Jimmy Reed.
I didn’t get past the 8th grade. I had been incarcerated in some youth facilities and eventually made my way into the state system for a little while. I thought this was definitely no life to live. I still kept on with the drug routine and I got to be 19 or 20. That’s what I attribute to being sick, using class “A” narcotics, ya know, for getting hepatitis C. I had it for 30 years and didn’t know it. I can attribute that to using drugs as a teenager. At the time though I had no idea how I would get out of the life.
DM: What was your main motivation or inspiration that got you out of “the life?”
LS: Self preservation… I asked myself, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life in prison?” I was on my way to San Quentin or Folsom. It was just a matter of time before I ended up within the system. Once you get into that system it’s really hard to get out of it. I just said “I’ve had enough,” and I just stopped, I stopped hanging out, I stopped using drugs I stopped doing all of it and I just concentrated on music.
One day I was sitting on a bench waiting for a bus in Southgate, CA, and all of a sudden it was as if the clouds had parted and the sun shone down on the harmonica in my hand. I had an epiphany and it was, “There’s the ticket right there in your hand. That’s it”
DM: What kind of music, if any, did you hear around the house as a kid?
LS: My old man was a lush. I’d come home and he’d be listening to bebop jazz, so I had a steady diet of that when I was a kid. He’d listen to Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Charlie Parker, and so on and so forth. I took it a little further. I’d listen to Willie Bobo, Barney Kessel and all that. I was fortunate enough to go see these cats when they would play at the Lighthouse. I remember seeing Mose Allison and the Modern Jazz Quartet there as well. I also saw the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. I saw the Doors and Lee Michaels too. The Shrine Auditorium used to rock when I was a kid. I had always dug music and there was plenty to choose from.
I went to see Muddy Waters at the Ashgrove. I got a steady diet of seeing Muddy. I saw T -Bone Walker. I started playing with Pee Wee Crayton when I was a kid.
DM: Is there any performer or performance that had a specific impact on your playing and career path?
LS: I went to see Muddy one time and he had Paul Oscher playing with him. Oscher was very young back then obviously, but I had never seen anyone play harmonica like that. When he played with Muddy, he did all the right stuff. I went into a record store and bought my first Muddy Waters record called, Sail On. That’s the first time I heard Little Walter. I was just so impressed with what you can do with the harmonica.
In those days I lived with my grandparents, because my mom was doing whatever she was doing. My grandfather had a gas station, I had to work there and take an ass kicking. I drove them crazy. I was playing and learning, playing and learning, it was just constant learning and listening all the time. I got my first band together when I was 19.
On Saturday, my day off, I’d take the bus from Lynwood all the way up to Pasadena to buy records at this place called J&F Southern Record Sales. It was owned by two guys, John and Scott Harmer. I started talking to them and they were really nice guys. They knew their shit about music and they said, “We heard Minnesota is really good as far as the music scene goes”. I knew music is what I really wanted to do. I’d gone through a plethora of jobs from loading trucks, to driving trucks, to machines, to hanging drywall.
I met this girl from Paramount and we got married. I came home one day and said “We’re packing it up. We can’t raise a kid here in this neighborhood. We’re going to Minnesota.” So we sold everything and we headed to Minneapolis. I walked into this club when I got there and there was a band called Aces, Straights and Shuffles. They were looking for a singer and harmonica player. Kim Wilson had been in that band, he had just split to go to Texas. I ended up playing in that band for a long time. I lived in Minnesota for 15 years. They had a great music scene there in those days. I bought a home, got divorced, remarried and I decided to go to Europe. So I packed up all my shit, sold my house and went to Amsterdam. I hung around a little bit and came back.
DM: Back to Minnesota... California?
LS: I went to Chicago and played there for a while. My mom called and said, “You haven’t been home for 20 years, why don’t you come home for awhile” so I said ok, and came back. I got hooked up with Junior (Watson) and the rest as they say is history. He’s one of my best friends in the world. He’s also the hippest blues guitar player there is. There ain’t nobody like him. Nobody hears it like he does. Junior is literally the idiot savant of the guitar. He knows more about the guitar than anybody in the world.
DM: You have also worked a lot with Kid Ramos through the years.
LS: Kid is a great guitar player too, equally as great but different. These guys are personal friends, I know their families. I’m close to both these men.
DM: How did your association with the Brazilian group, The Igor Prado Band come about?
LS: I got an email from Igor actually and he asked if I was interested in coming to Brazil to produce a record for him. I said, “Send me some of your music.” He did, and it sounded pretty good. It was their first record, they were pretty young, hell they were real young (laughs). I flew down there. I got in the studio with them and they said “Will will you sing a song” and I said “Well yeah sure, what song do you want me to sing?” Igor looks at me and said, “All of them.”
I was totally unprepared for that, then they went in the room and did something in a 4/4 time signature that was a tribute to some swing stuff and I was in shock. I was literally in shock at how good they were, the drummer, the bass player the guitar player and not one of them was 25. The sax player was 20 and he was as good as anyone I’ve heard in my life. Better than most, his name is Denilson Martins. He is a great cat. Igor blew me away, he’s left handed and he plays upside down. As soon as we did the record, I was like wow... I couldn’t get over how good the record was. I put some of my own money into the project. I had to make sure this thing came out. It was released on Delta Groove Music.
DM: You took these guys out on the road with you as well.
LS: Oh yea. We played Switzerland, Spain, France, Italy and Holland. We had a bunch of dates booked here in the U.S. we played at the Doheny Blues Festival and the festival up in Simi Valley the following week and that was it. I got sick and it was all over. That was two years ago. In the middle of battling the Hep C, I had a stroke. I couldn’t walk. My speech was slurred I couldn’t do anything. I had to do hours of physical therapy. It was really just a case of mind over matter.
DM: The handful of times I have heard you perform on guest slots in the past few weeks you have that voice back. I sure you are aware that, for many fans out there, it is that voice that separates you from the pack. It is unique in the contemporary blues world let’s talk about that instrument.
LS: The human voice is the ultimate musical instrument. There is nothing as pure, far ranging as the human voice. It is not by accident I got into singing. I realized that after awhile, the harmonica playing wouldn’t propel me to any degree of success. When you play the harmonica, you’ve pretty much got to sing if you are going to make it.
I learned how to sing from listening to all the greats, Ray Charles, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. I learned how to sing off time. I mean not on the beat, like most white people do. I sing off time. Billie Holiday was probably the best of anybody at doing that. A lot of people don’t realize that’s how you do that. A lot of guys sing right on the beat man, they just don’t understand.
DM: Frank Sinatra as I recall was a white guy.
LS: (laughs)Yeah, but he got it. Take the song, It happened in Monterey, every other popular artist would sing that song the same way. Sinatra would do it this way. He would sing (singing) 'It happened (pause) in Monterey (pause) a long time ago.'
DM: It seems like there are just so many bands that are fronted by harp playing singers.
LS: Yet there are very few guys who can actually play the harmonica and sing. I can count them on one hand here in the United States.
DM: Why is that?
LS: It’s because the harmonica is so esoteric that people cannot really discern what you’re doing. People don’t know the technique, they don’t know the position, they don’t know it because they can’t see it. They can see every other instrument and how the notes are made. With the harmonica they can’t see it so they don’t understand it.
DM: I have always contended that is the reason so many people think it is easy to play. They get over because the audience like you said, doesn’t know the difference.
LS: Exactly! There is this new guy who is getting over out there, Grady Champion. Oh God, is that guy awful. He’s horrible man, horrible. That guy is rotten, he ain’t no good at all. He needs the woodshed for another five years at least.
DM: (trying to keep a straight face, while tongue is firmly planted in cheek) Yeah, but Slim, he won the 2010 International Blues Challenge.
LS: (laughing) I believe you have a firm grasp on the problem Mac. Listen, you have to approach the harmonica with the same mentality and dedication you would as a grand piano, or playing any musical instrument for that matter. A lot of people simply don’t do that. I got in an argument with Lee Oskar once about time and tone, he said “Tone ain’t nothing, notes are everything.” I vehemently disagreed.
DM: Let’s talk about the third “instrument” you bring to the bandstand, the flute. How did your fascination with that come about?
LS: As I mentioned earlier, I was exposed to jazz at an early age. I started out playing trumpet when I was twelve years old but switched to sax. I grew up living in apartments and couldn’t play the sax because it bothered the neighbors so much they would call the cops. I then picked up the flute and could play in the apartment without pissing everybody off. It is quieter. Actually, I love everything about the flute. It is just so beautiful. Not only that, I was into Herbie Mann, like everybody else in those days. I don’t think I knew anybody who didn’t have his album, At the Village Gate.
DM: You have always garnered such a tremendous amount of respect from your audiences but you are a favorite of the other musicians out there as well.
LS: I don’t think of myself as “the front man.” I work with the band. I don’t overplay. A lot of guys overplay and they just play and play and play and they lose the crowd. I play just enough to grab the audience, then I stop and I’ll let somebody else play. I could probably use a little more brashness or be more gregarious in that respect, but I don’t think so. I think I’m doing ok. I always play with the best guys and, fortunately for me, they all like playing with me. I’ve had some of the great musicians say ”Slim, we love the way you play, the way you talk to the people, and play the music and you work with us.” They don’t back me up, I work with them.
I think there’s a certain amount of humility necessary for any player. I think a certain amount of humility serves everybody pretty well. All of the really great musicians who I’ve played with and who I’ve known have all been humble guys. As far as I go, I’m humble and I’ve always wanted musical acceptance from my peers as opposed to the audience, probably to a fault. I’m not like some people that just go out and say “I’m here, I’m the singer, I’m the harmonica player, It’s my show.” I’m in the band man, I work with the band. I take the approach, ‘song before solo’.
DM: Amen. What’s next for Lynwood Slim?
LS: What’s next is Sunday at the Tiki Bar. I told John (JR) that I wouldn’t take a gig before then. I have known John and his sister Liz a long time. They are dear friends. I am really looking forward to the gig.
After that I’ll be going to Paris in a few weeks. I’ll make another record pretty soon. In November I am going to Australia. In the meantime, I would like to book some local dates and continue to work on my chops.
When I was sick, I didn’t care about money, I didn’t care about music, I didn’t care about sex, I didn’t care about nothing. I was just so sick I didn’t care. So now that I’m back, I’m starting to think about all of those things again. (laughs) They’re all coming back to me slowly but surely.
DM: It’s great to have you back.
LS: Thanks Mac.