The Blues3 By T.E. Mattox
t's one thing to walk into a room, shake hands, sit down, and strike up a conversation with a legendary bluesman. It's quite another to step through the door and find yourself surrounded by THREE of the genres most-respected and well-loved masters. Hell, who am I kidding; it's hallucinogenic! Throughout the 1980's and '90's a host of the countries blues elders were touring in support of newly released material and re-mastered retrospectives. Around 1990 Blind Pig put together a collective of label mates, old friends and self-described co-conspirators to do just that. This particular road show would be driven by a tight, New York 'working class' blues band called Little Mike and the Tornadoes, and headlined by the triple threat of Lester 'Big Daddy' Kinsey, Joe Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins and longtime Wolf sideman, Hubert Sumlin.
Perkins, Sumlin and Kinsey… at the Palomino, North Hollywood, CA – circa: 1990. Photo: T.E. Mattox
For fans it was the ultimate 'Legends' tour, turns out the journey was just as special for the 'legends.' "I was so glad to see this guy, Big Daddy, man." Hubert smiles while squeezing Kinsey's shoulder. "I wanna' tell you the truth, man, I was glad to see this guy." The look of sheer happiness on all three of their faces confirmed the sentiment. It almost seemed secondary that the group would repeatedly take the stage and tear off some of the earthiest and rawest, low-down blues this side of Mississippi. I don't think the men realized, or for that matter even cared they were adding volumes to their storied careers. No, this raucous and joy-filled romp through Southern California was simply giving three old friends one more opportunity to do what they loved; and they were dead set on having some real fun doing it. And Lord have mercy, did they ever!!
Six Degrees of Mud
Our conversation really began with how all three men seemed to share a personal connection with Muddy. "If it hadn't been for Muddy Waters," Big Daddy says, "I probably wouldn't be playing blues today. He was the first blues man I heard play blues live, from a child. I was originally born and raised in Mississippi. Mud used to come out in the community where I grew up and do Friday and Saturday night fish fries all around the big plantations, you know? At that particular time I was really too young to go to these places…legal," he chuckles. "I'd sneak off, you know? And peep in and listen. The first time I heard Muddy Waters play I must have been nine or ten years old. I was playing a little bit of gospel at the time, but when I heard him play that's when I started trying to get off in the blues. At that time he was playing acoustic and bottle-neck slide. Man, I thought that was the most beautiful sound I ever heard. And at the time I was very easy to learn. I'd hold that sound in my head and go back and get my guitar, get off in a corner somewhere and play it lick-for-lick. Pretty soon I was playing the blues myself."
Pinetop pounds out a deep blue rhythm. Photo: T.E. Mattox
Pinetop had more of a direct connection, playing and touring with Muddy for... "Twelve long years…12 years!" Didn't you replace Otis Spann? "Well, in a way I did. Otis had quit him and I started playin' in the band with him. That was '69. 1969, so I played with him up until '80." Some pretty good memories from that time? (Pinetop is grinning from ear-to-ear) "Oh, I loved playing in Muddy's band, man. I loved it 'cause he had the 'stomp-down' blues stuff. That's why I loved it."
Turning toward Hubert, he starts to grin when I ask, wasn't Muddy the reason you briefly parted ways with the Wolf? "Yes, I went with Muddy. I'll tell you what; Muddy had these 41 nighters… (laughing) That's when I first got to Chicago from the South and man, them 41-nighters that was the hardest I ever worked in my life. I told the Wolf, 'Well, he offered me more money.' You know what I mean? (laughing) I was working for 12 dollars and 50 cents and he (Muddy) offered me $24 dollars. You know what I'm talking about? Twice the money! Hey who wouldn't jump at that? But I didn't know about the 41-nighters. Hubert said he worked with Otis Spann everyday for two hours down in Muddy's basement to learn all the songs, "I got so I could play 'em and I really enjoyed it. Muddy said, 'We gonna' leave tomorrow!' (laughing) Man, I was workin' out there so hard, man...and then I had to…I couldn't sit down. So when we got back to Chicago, we drove all the way from Miami, Florida back to Chicago and worked THAT NIGHT. Hey, I had them hemorrhoids, man. And so he (Muddy) got mad with me. He say, 'Hey man you ain't feeling right.' And I done drove all the way, you know what I'm talking about?
Then adding more 'injury to insult' Hubert continued, "And shoot, there was a little fan sittin' up there behind the bar at the 708 Club, so I went to turn this little old metal fan around, man… Blue Blazes come out of my mouth and my eyes!" (laughing)
Doing that '220 Tango' proved to be the last straw, Hubert said. "So I called Wolf at intermission, and told him I wanted to work for him…I was tired. Wolf told me, 'Nah, you gotta' stay with Muddy, you LEFT me! About 5 minutes later, he was there man, and I was back!" Hubert's eyes soften and you still see the relief on his face even now… "And I stayed with him all the way through till he passed."
The Early Years
Can we go back a little, to the beginning of your musical journeys? Big Daddy starts, "I guess by the time I was thirteen years old there was an older fella' in my community who played guitar and he went around doing the same thing Muddy Waters was doing but wasn't as famous as Mud. Big Daddy told me he was a regional Mississippi bluesman by the name of "Bishop. He had heard of me, so one day at the community general store he say, 'Hey boy, I'm going to be playing down in Tunica this weekend, you wanna' go with me? I say, 'Yes Sir! (laughing) I'll go. He (Bishop) was a much older man," and Kinsey remembers telling him, "I'll go but you'll have to bring me a guitar, my daddy won't let me take mine. In fact, I'm gonna' have to slip off. So that Friday afternoon, late afternoon I went to the pasture to get the cows, you know? I carried my dog with me and I let the cows out of the pasture and my dog would get 'em home. I hopped in the car with him (Bishop) and we cut out! That was on a Friday.
Big Daddy - larger than life blues. Photo: T.E.Mattox
So man, we went on down and we was playing for a house party about 3 miles outside the town of Tunica. We got there about 9 o'clock that night and the thing started about 10:30, man." (laughing) "They was drinking a lot of corn liquor. Home brew… in other words homemade beer and stuff, and gamblin'. I was a big boy for my age, but I'm THIRTEEN years old!" (laughing) "And we got to goin' and people got to dancin' and women all over me, you know?" (laughing) "We played all night that night, slept all day that day. Then Saturday night that same thing. Slept all day Sunday and played. Now, I'm getting nervous now. It's the first time I EVER stayed away from home. We left there about 11 o'clock Sunday night; everybody had to work Monday morning.
Man, when I got home my dad, he didn't know where the heck I was. He had been walking and driving all night tryin' to find me. Unfortunately for me, when he (Bishop) let me out of the car, we kinda' stayed off the main road, I stepped out the car right in my dad's arms almost. He was standing there like he knew I was with this man, you know? The guy he let me out and shot off. My dad, he was so glad to see me, he told me, he said, whenever he was mad at me he called me Lester Jr. He said, 'Lester Jr. as soon as I get over being glad to see you, I'm going to give you a lickin' that you'll never forget.' And ahhh, he kept his promise man, after I got home… That was the last time my father ever gave me a lickin'. That ended my career for a long time. I just stopped playin'. I put my guitar in the corner and I didn't pick it up no more until after I got married and my wife started having kids."
"When my boys started growing up, I saw they were going to be musically inclined and then I picked up the guitar and started teaching them what I hadn't forgot. And the rest of course, is history. And that's the beginning of my career as a bluesman. And like I said, it ended for a few years (laughing) because of my dad. My dad was a Pentecostal minister, he never did approve of me playing blues… until my first album, 'Bad Situation.' He kinda' gave me his blessing then. He listened to it and he complimented me on the writing of the tunes and the sound and I've been going strong ever since."
Pinetop says he too was initially influenced by a bluesman, just not a piano playing bluesman. "You see my first instrument was a guitar. I used to play guitar first. I heard a man named Blind Lemon Jefferson way back there, he came to my school…man, that cat could play! And I said, 'man look at that guy play."
Hearing Pinetop talk about Blind Lemon, suddenly I knew how Hubert felt when he grabbed that metal fan at the 708 Club. Electricity shot through me…You saw Blind Lemon play? "Yeah, he played at my school. I was at school… and I liked that. And when I first started out I tried playing on the guitar. You know that wire on a broom? (diddley bow) "I stretched that upside the wall up there and get me a 'kick-flavored' bottle and started playing that thing before I started playing the guitar."
Big Daddy chimes in. "I built one of those things myself. One string on the wall… with two staples upside the wall, one way up high and one down low. Then I took bottles… for bridges and tightened it. Broke the neck off a coke bottle to make a slide, you know?"
Pinetop nods his head, "Yeah and you had the whole house for a bass sound. Comin' out of the doors, windows."
Big Daddy adds, "I done that before I got my first instrument."
Pinetop laughs, "Me too. Must have been 5 or 6 years old."
Pinetop moved from guitar to piano due to necessity. An unhappy woman with a knife 'encouraged him' to switch instruments. Pinetop points to his arm, "a bad lady in Arkansas hit me in that muscle, you see?" Turns out she cut his arm and severed tendons to the point he couldn't close his hand normally, "I can pound down, but I can't squeeze down. That's what left me with piano, see?'
So basically you're saying a woman is responsible for your blues? "Sure enough! Every once in a while, I still pick up a guitar and play a note or two on it. Can't do it long, though."
Who influenced you on piano? "Well I tell you, I liked the way Memphis Slim played. I learned a bunch of his stuff; I really loved the way he played." But the biggest influence for Pinetop was his namesake, 'Pinetop' Smith. "He was my idol, you know?" The moniker stuck after Perkins recut Smith's classic 'Pinetop's Boogie,' "I think it was 1950 and everybody's been calling me 'Pinetop' ever since."
Hubert, you had an older brother who played, was he an influence? "He didn't show me ANYTHING! I tried to get him to learn me man, but he wouldn't show me ANYTHING. But I kept a-watchin' him though and I wanted to play so badly. Man, my mother worked so hard and only made 8 dollars a week and she spent a whole $8 on me to get a guitar. A whole weeks salary, man. Ohhh… a first guitar and I learned man, I learned. It didn't take me long either, I was playing, boy. I heard all those old guys, man. Wolf, Charlie Patton and all them guys, man. I didn't get a chance to see him (Patton) but I had some old warped records. (He wobbles his hand) E-I-E-I-E-I!! (he laughs) It was warped so bad. Had one of the first old phonographs you had to wind it up, man."
"Spann had this pint of 'Old Granddad,' and the cops stopped us. I said, 'Hey man, we're ALL going to jail tonight. I can see it now.'"
— Hubert Sumlin
You were just a kid when you first met Howlin' Wolf, tell us about that.
"He was a great guy. I used to go see him at least when I first met him, he was playin' this place in Arkansas. I was too young to get in the place, you know? I was a little kid. So I see these cement blocks near the club, you know? Sit on the cement blocks and where the bandstand was I was in one part and he's in one part and they also had the band, so the bandstand was setting back in the back. I know where it was and they throw'd me out two or three times. There was a line of women and I crawled up between their legs and I got in there." He was soon discovered, "'Looky here, you can't be in here, you're too young.' So finally they got tired of throwing me out (he's laughing) so I finally got the chance to go in.
Hubert leans into it. Photo: T.E.Mattox
I tell you what happened… one night I had been to see this guy (Wolf) three or four times. On weekends, because they only had music, blues on the weekends, like Friday or Saturday… Sunday. So I wanted to see this guy so bad but they kept a-throwing me out of the joint. So I got me some Coca-Cola crates, you know and stacked 'em up near a little window up there up over the bandstand. Man, somebody yanked them Coca-Cola crates out from underneath me and ohhh… over on my head I went, man. And he (Wolf) say, 'Hey, let him stay.' The Wolf! He say 'Let him stay!' So he set me down between Willie Johnson and Matt Murphy and who else, ahhh, the OLD guys. "Hey, he let me stay! 'Yeah, get him a chair, let him stay. This boy gonna' be a good musician one of these days…' (laughing)
I stayed and he finally took me home that night. And I said, thank you very much. So he take me home to mama, man. She wanted to get a hold of me, man…BAD, bad. He (Wolf) said, 'Please don't whip that boy. He likes me, he likes the music, he's gonna' be a good musician.'
Sure enough I finally end up working with the guy… 25 years. I was with the guy longer than anybody was. So he was just like a father to me. Yes, it got to be that way. He was great and a great guy to work for.
Hubert's life-long dream had come true. "I been wanting to do this thing a LONG time, man. In the sanctified church, my people… that's when I made my first, mistake (laughing) my mother and all my family are sanctified, man. And hey I want to get up there with the other musicians, man. There were musicians in the church who played some pretty good stuff man and I got up there man, and messed around and thought about Muddy Waters and Wolf, man. (laughing) Momma know'd I was…" (laughing) Mothers ALWAYS know.
The Blues Highway with Family and Friends
Big Daddy says the Kinsey Report is all about family. "I started Donald playing and he took it and ran with it." (Donald toured with Albert King, Bob Marley and appeared regularly on Roy Buchanan recordings) "My oldest boy (Ralph) he got started on drums about 8 years old. When the oldest boy was about 10 and Donald was 9, we was giggin' as a family."
Pinetop also had a family connection in music. "I played four years with Sonny Boy Williamson before I played with Muddy," he tells me and adds, "My first wife was his first cousin." Sonny Boy had quite the reputation; did you always get along? "We'd get into sometimes, he'd get back there in the crap room, you know? He'd have all the money and say, 'I'll get you all next time." (laughing) "Sonny Boy was so fast," Pinetop remembers "he'd get out of money and he'd start to preach. He would preach to get him some money, man. Take his harp man, and amplifier and get out on the street and put his hat on the street and have a hat full of money, man. Sonny Boy was something else."
I mention that every blues album I seem to pick up these days has your name on it; James Cotton, Luther Tucker, Koko Taylor…when do you sleep? Pinetop laughs and Big Daddy interjects, "He's also on MY album, 'Bad Situation.' Pinetop smiles and says, "That's BAD, man… It kicks."
Looking back at Big Daddy, you must be very proud of your sons. "Oh Yeah! I am… I am. They worked with me all their life. We started headlining them as a result of 'Edge of the City' on Alligator."
Pinetop adds, "He's got some beautiful boys, man."
Hubert, you've played with some pretty talented musicians, tell us about James Cotton? "James Cotton? We grew up together! Cotton was down there in this little old town and we got together and he was the first guy I played with. He had a guitar player by the name of Pat Hare. He had a little band and we played all over Arkansas, man and Mississippi and Wolf heard about me with Cotton. And I didn't know the man was in the house…that would have scared me anyway; you know what I'm talking about? So when I left Cotton, I went with the Wolf. Sure did."
You've worked with some amazing harp players… "I worked with George 'Harmonica" Smith a couple of weeks before I got to Chicago to play with Wolf. George Smith came by and said, 'Hey man you wanna' play, you got two weeks before you got to work.' Man, I got there to play and it's the first time I seen Little Walter and all these guys, man. And they scared the devil outta' me, man. (laughing) Eddie Boyd and all these guys, man. It was GREAT! I played with Charlie Musselwhite a couple times in Chicago when he came through. And I wasn't doing anything and he wanted me to work with him a couple of nights."
One more fan of the legendary Hubert Sumlin
I heard you got in some trouble once, back in your youth…a little run-in with the law…what happened? (Hubert puts on his best I'm innocent face, but can't hold it very long) "I was with Muddy. (laughing) We was down in Tampa, Florida and see at that time you could buy guns or anything just over the bar… over the counter. I had a little old .25, I bought. It was a cute little thing. Everybody else bought'em, so why not? We ALL had guns. On the way back in the suburbs in Chicago, Spann had this pint of 'Old Granddad, you know? Hadn't been opened, so he was gonna' pass me the bottle over the seat. And the cops stopped us, man. I said, 'Hey man, we're ALL going to jail tonight. I can see it now.' And sure enough man, he searched me 3 times, and I had a little trench coat on, you know? It had a little pocket right here, (he points to the inside of his jacket) and that's where my gun was. Twice he didn't find it. But I'm trying to talk for Otis Spann and he said 'wait a minute you must be the LEADER!' (laughing) He went back and searched me, AGAIN! And he found the gun. Oh Boy… he called me 'Baby-Faced Nelson,' man. (laughing)
But after they checked everything out, the guns and things and found out they hadn't been used or nothin' and hadn't killed anybody and found out where we bought'em at. They let us go. But, we still had to go to court, you know what I mean? So we go to court, we didn't get the guns back, but they put me on probation for 4 four years." (laughing)
You ever carry a gun since? "Never!" (laughing)
Pinetop, you mentioned Sonny Boy being fast and loose, who do you think was THE wildest? Without hesitation Perkins says, "Little Walter! He was WILD, man. He'd get into it. He'd get into fights and couldn't win 'em." (laughing) "They'd beat him up, man."
Big Daddy adds, "The last fight he was into he just didn't heal up from that one."
Pinetop is shaking his head in agreement. "He didn't care how big they was, he'd jump into it and know he couldn't win. He'd go and jump on you. He's Creole… them folks was kinda' mean."
Big Daddy seemed to think Walter was "nervous" and probably suffered from "anxiety. So many bluesmen don't have the ability to control…or have any control over themselves. They get mesmerized and they take it out on the world. They don't know the reason why they can't succeed, or be successful and a lot of them just get angry with the world."
Hubert, I can only imagine some of the wild clubs and bars you've played in over the years, any stand out? "We played in places… man. I tell you there was one guy... we played in a place called 'Paradise Beach.' A place set in Mobile Bay, there were two ways in and out of that place… both ends. You couldn't go out, but the front. We had just made 'Evil,' we'd just recorded 'Evil' with the Wolf, and that house was FULL of people, man. A guy was standing right in front of me. I heard something like, 'pow, pow, pow, pow' I thought it was just fire crackers, you know? Really. That place was FULL of folk's man. This guy leaned back and pushed forward and every time I pushed him… 'He's DEAD!' He's dead, this guy done lighted him up, man. The first guy I ever seen… man. I had a Gibson guitar, I'll never forget it. The guitar went that way, the neck went THAT way and I went THIS way, man! This woman had a kitchen, and her bedroom was on this side… Man, I went through that kitchen and crawled up under that bed. This is the wrong place, so the cops had to get us outta' there… we didn't get a chance to play. When the Wolf went to holler… 'EVIL' that's when them shots rang out… yeah! Yeah! First time I ever seen that, man."
Hubert and Big Daddy tearing it up… Photo: T.E. Mattox
All three men had travelled the world playing the blues for literally, hundreds of thousands of fans. And when the blues explosion erupted in Europe during the 1960's, Hubert remembered fondly touring with friends Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon.
"Yeah, we were there for three weeks. They were runnin' us around like cattle. We were doing 3 months of playing in 3 weeks. People brought us from Amsterdam and man, we played so many places… But, I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it."
Sumlin would become an influence to countless European musicians and aspiring blues players. From Clapton and Page to Mick and Keith, Hubert's guitar even impacted a young American who just happened to be living in England at the time.
"Hendrix... Oh boy, I liked him VERY MUCH! We was very good friends, man. We (Howlin' Wolf) played Liverpool, England, you know? The Beatles home. Looking at this guy comin' in there and straight to the bandstand and Wolf's eyes got THAT big, man. He thought this guy was crazy… Wolf know'd this guy was a musician though, you know? He know'd he was a musician, then he come up on the bandstand and Wolf let him play, man. He (Wolf) asked him, 'you gotta' be a musician, man.'" (laughing) Hendrix responded, "'yes, can I play your guitar?' He started playin' with his teeth, man. And Wolf wanted to hire the guy, man! But he (Hendrix) already had his thing; you know what I'm talking about? And he was just getting started. But he was a great guy, man."
Speaking of great guys, I would be totally remiss if we didn't talk a little about the driving force and back-beat of this travelling road show; Little Mike and the Tornadoes. Little Mike Markowitz formed the original Tornadoes in New York back in 1978. With a well-earned reputation for straight ahead blues, the band earned the respect of a number of blues greats, not to mention a legion of fans. The Tornadoes ended up on speed dial every time a blues musician came through the Big Apple with a need to add some 'torque' to their performance. From Big Walter Horton and Otis Rush to Jimmy Rogers and Big Mama Thornton, Little Mike and the Tornadoes have backed, toured or recorded with some of the most prominent blues players of the last four decades. The good news; Little Mike and the Tornadoes continue to perform today. In fact, they have a European tour scheduled this summer and can be seen and heard regularly throughout the Southeastern U.S. Most currently, in support of their latest offering; 'Forgive Me' out now on ElRob Records.
As a close friend of all three bluesmen, I really wanted Little Mike's perspective on this tour and he told me he too, shared a connection with Muddy Waters. "His was the sound that hit me the hardest. I used to go and see Muddy anytime he was within 150 miles of New York." he said. "That very direct, real blues with no rock and roll… featuring the worlds best harmonica players. He is easily the biggest influence on the band and my playing."
Since you mentioned harmonica players, tell me a little about your friend, Paul Butterfield? "I had a regular gig in NYC in the Village and he used to live there. He would pop in and play and we became friends. He was very cool. When I was calling myself a blues purist he said he was a 'music purist.' That changed my attitude a little." Little Mike then reminded me, "Pinetop used to play big band jazz before he met Sonny Boy."
What are your favorite memories of working with Pinetop, Hubert and Big Daddy? "How warm and genuine they were. The music was great. It was a chance to work and learn along side my heroes. We did well over 100, maybe 200 shows together, but when we went to Italy in 1989 (maybe 90), it was the closest I ever felt to being a star. They loved us. Jimmy Rogers too, was on a lot of shows with us."
Pinetop, Little Mike, Hubert Sumlin & Jimmy Rogers. Photo courtesy of Little Mike
I know you pulled double-duty producing and playing on a few of their albums? "Yes. 'After Hours,' 'Heaven' and 'Heart and Soul' which feature James Cotton, all on Blind Pig." The guys returned the favor by playing on the Tornadoes album, 'Heart Attack.' Was the studio any different than a 'live' gig? "It was always fun to play and work with them, but the studio is always a little more stressful because you have to be so deliberate. We didn't just play it like a gig. Because of all the factors that can affect a recording, you have to be more business like."
Living on the road with those guys must have been a riot? "Of course the downtime and conversations in hotels, restaurants, dressing rooms, was always full of heart warming and funny moments. We laughed a lot in those times. He (Pinetop) used to whip my ass in Pinochle, every time! I would get so mad, I would throw the cards down… and he would laugh and laugh. Many of the best stories have to stay on the road."
Little Mike being 'schooled' in the finer points of 'Pinochle.' Photos: courtesy of Little Mike
We've lost all of them now, but the music remains. It's got to put a smile on your face when you listen back to some of those recordings? "It does; and it makes me miss them too. I wish I would have delayed the Tornadoes solo career at times, but at the time we had record offers in place, if we went independent. It was time for me to make my mark. But I wish I could have done more with them, and still stayed on my own. But I did visit Pine, Hubert, and Jimmy a lot through the years."
I think I speak for blues fans everywhere when I say; the feeling of loss is mutual. The one true saving grace is the music that each of them left us. Check out Big Daddy Kinsey and the Kinsey Report's, 'Bad Situation' or the disc, 'Edge of the City.' For Hubert start with 'About Them Shoes' from 2003 or maybe 'Blues Anytime!' from 1994 or anything, seriously anything from Howlin' Wolf…period! Pinetop's 'After Hours' is always a good listen and about every blues album you've ever owned, because the guy is probably on it.
And finally a huge Thank You to Little Mike. Take a listen to 'Heart Attack,' or my fave, 'Payday' or their most current project, 'Forgive Me.' Even better, get out and see Little Mike and the Tornadoes 'live.' You'll thank me later.
Related Articles: The Blues and Lives Well-Lived; JoeWillie "Pinetop" Perkins; Ode to Little Walter; Charlie Musselwhite; Eddie "Mr. Cleanhead" Vinson; Blues Storytellers; Honeyboy Edwards; Willie Dixon; Otis Rush; Buddy Guy