Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Voice of Music

There is terminology regarding the reason for this post--G.A.S. I don't have to offer any additional explanation for those that have suffered from it. For the uninitiated, the acronym stands for "Gear Acquisition Syndrome" and it infects musicians of all ages, sex, creed and color. I think that the episodes that I've had have been fairly mild. So far, each of the amplifiers that I have offered a post about has its place of importance as far as my harmonica hobby goes (which I still need to provide more historical detail to). The 1483 with the Python cab provides the "boom" needed to hang with bands that get a little loud, the Kalamazoo can provide a little home practice without irritating the neighbors and can play out in small, reasonably volumed venues and the Ol' Smoky just fell in my lap for $1.25.

So, I had two 6L6 powered amplifiers and one EL84 and began to think in terms of maybe getting a 6V6 tubed amplifier for yet another tonal difference. I really had no serious intentions and thought that I would look around eBay and see what was floating around (I always hear a little voice that says, "Put you hands on your head and back away from the keyboard."). I scrolled through the auction fairly rapidly and casually, but kept coming back to a little amplifier head that had been pulled from an old phonograph. The bid price of $100 and the fact that the seller claimed that it had "tone for days" with his guitar, that it had been gone through by his amp tech, that he would include "primo" power tubes and throw in a guitar cord, intrigued me enough to offer my top bid of $125. Of course, I never expected that bid to last long at all and, of course, I was surprised the next day when I was once again informed, "Congratulations, You Won!"--another item that no one else wants.

I knew what to expect with the $1.25 Ol' Smoky amp, but I was hoping for more of a "plug and play" with the Voice of Music since the owner had been playing his guitar through it. The amp arrived in good shape. The "primo" tubes were a couple of different branded 6V6 power tubes. He did include a couple of extra preamp tubes for tone experimenting. I took a chance and plugged the amp in, connected it to my old Sunn cabinet, blew a few harp notes and it didn't sound half bad. I plugged it into the Python cab and it sounded a bit better. I then went into investigation mode.

I found a website dedicated to Voice of Music products of yore and discovered my model was a V-M 160 and was designed in 1952 as an institutional amplifier (for schools and such) to power record turntables and the like. It also was used in a phonograph console, which contained a sliding tray for the amplifier. It was configured to be powered by two 6V6GT tubes, a 5y3 rectifier, and two 12ax7 preamp tubes to generate 8 watts. These amplifiers were produced in a Benton Harbor, Michigan plant and like a great deal of such equipment produced in the '50s, they were built to last--I mean, here it is producing tones in 2008.

After opening the amp up to check out the guts, it was obvious that NO amp tech had gone through the thing. There were a couple of resistors and a capacitor that were added or had values changed to produce a little more gain for guitarists (which is not needed for harp) and the addition of a 1/4 speaker jack and that was about it. There was no indication that the power filter capacitors had been replaced since the fifties or that any of the electrolytic capacitors had been updated. THEN, I went about taking voltage measurements and they were too darned high in both the preamp and power section of the amp and the bias readings on the power tubes exceeded those recommended for 6V6 varieties. Beats me how the seller was playing guitar through this thing without blowing tubes and causing meltdowns to occur. E-mail visits with my guru, Stephen Schneider, led me back down the revamp road.

I replaced the power filter capacitors with ones designed to handle more voltages and on Stephen's suggestion ran two of them separate from the can capacitor for hum reduction. I replaced all the electrolytic capacitors and removed the components designed to increase gain. None of this achieved a drop in power section voltage and Stephen suggested adding a zener diode to get the voltages down to reasonable levels (we had done that in the Ol' Smoky amp successfully). This worked, but the bias on the 6V6 tubes were still running way hot. I had put in brand new reissue Tungsol 6V6 tubes and they sound pretty good in the amp, but when I visually tested them in a darkened room, I noticed a faint pink stripe down the sides that indicated a bit of red plating was taking place and could lead to tube failure and a meltdown scenario. The suggestion of running JJ 6V6s, because of their ability to handle higher voltages, solved that problem. They are tonally different from the Tungsols, but sound pretty darned good.

What I thought was a little gritty distortion being produced by the amp (that actually didn't sound too bad) turned out to be a dirty volume pot, and a spritz there cleaned that up. I then went to changing around preamp tubes to see what combinations worked best with my harp mics and speaker cabs. You harp players know the drill. The higher the preamp tube gain, the more likely feedback howl from the amplifier will occur at lower volumes than we'd like. So, we are normally working on being able to achieve the highest volume before feedback, thus lower gain preamp tubes may be the ticket. Since this amp could be boosted just a notch shy of wide open on the volume knob with two of the higher gain 12ax7 tubes slotted for action with a fairly hot mic, then it looked like it would be more of a matter of tone taste than feedback reduction that I would be after. I played around with the usual suspects in the 12a?7 variety and my ears constantly fool me, but right now I'm liking the Tungsol reissue 12ax7 with a 12av7 (a tube that Stephen recommended as a cheaper alternative to the 12au7 or 12ay7 with relatively low gain).

NOW, I had a nice sounding, working 6V6 version for a harmonica amplifier and it fits in neatly between the 1483 and the Kalamazoo in terms of wattage, especially when pushing a 2x10 cab. It'll push the Python, but if I'm going to go through the trouble to haul that cab out, it'll be with the 1483. A nice, new speaker cabinet with a couple of Weber vintage 10s would be an awesome accessory for the Voice of Music, but I'll probably just end up doing a cheap upgrade to the Sunn cab. I do want to try and make a little chassis cabinet for the amp, that I could just stack on top of whatever cab and plug and play. Anyway--Still have a little Sears amp to discuss.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Blues Education Pt. 3

Disco had pretty much nailed live music venues from the mid to late '70s in San Marcos, but the movement that started the Cosmic Cowboy wave continued rolling with the Outlaw country music of Willie, Waylon and the boys. Jerry Jeff Walker's was one of the most popular party bands on the college circuit and "Sangria Wine" was quite the sing-a-long tune. The Cheatham Street Warehouse kept the live scene going by booking him, Gary P. Nunn, Alvin Crow, Asleep At The Wheel, Ray Wylie Hubbard and others on occasion. In between these bookings were the wannabees. Willie Nelson played at one of the first city sponsored Chilympiad cook-offs way before he was a house-hold name and returned to headline several more (matter of fact, my first date with my wife was at a such a show). Gruene Hall, a short 15 miles from town, booked similar talent along with the likes of Doug Sahm, who was enjoying a quite a surge in popularity, along his Farfisa (or Vox as pointed out in the comment section) organ master Augie Meyers. The Getaway nightclub, named after the Steve McQueen movie filmed in town, kept local country bands employed. The Cheyenne Social Club opened up late in the decade a began packing the house with "stone" country bands, one of which continued reach unprecedented success.

Once upon a time, in one of my journalism classrooms, I got to know a fellow by the name of Ron Cable who asked me what I was up to for a particular evening. Not much, I told him. He said that a good band was playing at Cheatham Street and if I had nothing to do that I should show up and bring a few friends. We did and I saw fairly quickly why he wanted us to come out--he was the lead guitarist. Oh well, maybe he didn't tell me, thinking that I would doubt the talent of such a band and not show. It didn't take long at all for the front man's vocals to catch my attention. He had absolutely the best voice that I had ever heard live and in person. He was a cut above any of the acts that had been through this bar and he was a student at Southwest Texas State University. He told me that this was his first gig with the band and I told him how impressed I was with his singing and told him that his voice should take him somewhere--that was an understatement. Soon after that, The Cheyenne Social Club began booking The Ace and the Hole band with George Strait every Thursday night for a $3 cover charge. They soon became the hottest ticket in town.

So, country and western music more or less was ruling the day when I left San Marcos in 1979. There was a club called the Too Bitter which booked local guitar hero Van Wilks and other rock bands frequently. Krackerjack with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Tommy Shannon trekked in from Austin on occasion to liven up the club and create sparks, but not often enough. Still had to head over to the state capital to catch much in the way of blues and one club in particular became the Mecca for the music.

Sad to say that I made it to Antone's only once during my tenure in college. Clifford Antone was booking legends such as Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Lazy Lester and Buddy Guy. The problem was that ticket prices were normally $20 and up, during a time that few places asked more than $4 for a cover charge. Even the Armadillo World Headquarters, which was mashing musical genres together on one bill, rarely charged more than a $3 entry fee--even for ZZTop. I had sporadic transportation back then and seldom could convince anyone, that I knew, that a night at Antone's was worth the price and then a career move took me away.

I never dreamed that an interview with school officials with Brenham ISD would lead to a 29 year teaching career there, but they were desperately trying to fill a journalism position that sprang open in the middle of the summer of '79 and when I showed up the start of school was only a few weeks away--so I was hired and stayed on for the duration. I didn't expect to find much in the way of blues in the record bins in the one shop in town, so I was surprised to see Stevie Ray Vaughan staring at me from the cover of his inaugural release, Texas Flood. I knew that eventually someone would recognize that the boy had talent and would put it down on record. I didn't know just what impact his presence would mean to the blues world outside of Austin, Texas. The Fabulous Thunderbirds with Jimmy Vaughan had already been stirring the pot, but Stevie Ray boiled it over and a re-surgence in interest began and was prodded along by such nonsense as the Blues Brothers phenomenon. Not long afterward, I spotted the unmistakable tatooed torso of Johnny Winter on his Alligator records produced, Guitar Slinger, which put him back on the map that SRV was outlining. Johnny Winter was one of those blues/rock guys that I failed to mention earlier that impressed me in the early '70s. His Progressive Blues Experiment, with future SRV bassman Tommy Shannon, was a favorite of mine and included the harp playing of Big Walter Horton. He was hailed as a mighty guitar hero by the new rock rag Rolling Stone magazine and his career skyrocketed, but he applied his heroics to playing rock music which sold a bit better than blues. Substance abuse derailed his career and he returned to his true blues credentials in the late '70s and early '80s. He still played in his million notes a minute style, but it was all blues. What was most important to me about the Winter release was discovery of a record label devoted to blues music, albeit "house rocking" blues music, and which gave me a mail-order outlet for my music and clued me into the Living Blues magazine to which I promptly subscribed.

I began to build a blues library of music and literature beginning with receiving my first Alligator records catalog and also after discovering Frank Scott's Down Home Music (now called Roots and Rhythm) mail order company that sold plenty of blues titles. He also had an excellent blues review book entitled The Down Home Guide to the Blues, that provided excellent information for the blues neophyte in me. Soon I was reading about rural blues, urban blues, Chicago blues, Delta blues, and deep blues by researchers such as Robert Palmer, Paul Oliver, Peter Gulranick, Samuel Charters and Steven Calt and was becoming much more knowledgeable about the music that I fell for over a decade earlier. It was still difficult to get copies of what the critics termed "essential" blues albums because many were long out of print and the cassette format rapidly began replacing the vinyl record and tons of those records never made it to tape. I began to also discover the relatively new and small record labels such as Blind Pig, Blacktop, Flying Fish, and Rounder that carried a blues catalog of more recent artists. Living Blues magazine was soon joined by Blues Revue and Blues Access as major blues publication. All three subscriptions dented my budget.

Early in the '90s, when it seemed that the blues revival was waning, something very strange happened. Columbia Records decided to release the complete recordings of the great Robert Johnson's 1936-37 songs recorded in San Antonio and Dallas. In a short period of time, the bluesman's box set reach "Gold" record sales and major labels began combing their vaults for what they felt would amount to pre-war blues gold. It also stirred my interest in the old timers and pretty I gained an immense appreciation and fascination for Charlie Patton, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Willie Brown, etc...and these recordings became readily available. So, I went way back in time and studied the music of the originators and was amazed at the depth of the music. The worldwide web sprang to life and suddenly my music had retailers online dedicated to the genre--life was good.

Eric Clapton kept the boost going by re-visiting his blues roots with 1994's From The Cradle on which he offered covers of classic electric blues from the likes of Otis Rush, Elmore James, Lowell Fulsom and others. He proved to his doubting record label that new blues recordings could prove profitable, as the release was one of his biggest sellers. He also praised blues veterans such as Buddy Guy and BB King and paired up with them on recordings and in concert. In recent years, he paid tribute to his main man Robert Johnson by cutting two different discs (one acoustic and one electric) and a dvd of the proceedings to high acclaim.

I regained my appreciation for the sound of the blues harmonica in the mid '80s when a movie called Crossroads that mixed blues fiction with fact and was filled with Hollywood hokum, but contained some great music. It was the first movie to highlight a story involving and including the blues, so I liked it. What caught my ear and yanked around on it the most was the harmonica playing of Sonny Terry and John "Juke" Logan, who provide the sounds for actor Joe Seneca character. It was at that point that I decided that I could do that and I set out to do it and have been trying to get it down ever since. Anyway--still to come: harpin' the blues.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Barrelhouse Chuck

Barrelhouse Chuck

And The All-Star Blues Band

Got My Eyes On You

The Sirens Records

Since I'm on a Kim Wilson jag after the T-Bird's gig, figured that I'd put my two cents in as to what I think is one of his finest examples of recorded Chicago style blues harp. When called upon, he plays an incredible sideman and has done so with Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and many others. I mentioned to him, at the gig posted below, that when anyone asks me now about Chicago bluesharp, that I just tell them to listen to Barrelhouse Chuck's newest release. His eyes lit up, he smiled and exclaimed, "Yeah, that's a good one!"
Anyone who calls themselves a fan of piano blues music knows that Chuck Goering, better known as Barrelhouse Chuck, has been hammering the keys around the Chicago area for decades. They also know that he has been intent on carrying on the tradition of the great Chicago bluesmen that influenced him to move to the Windy City from Florida many moons ago.

This disc is a tribute to, not only some of his piano mentors such as Sunnyland Slim, Memphis Slim, Detroit Junior, Big Moose Walker and Little Brother Montgomery, but also to the soundscape of the music itself and his friends who have passed on that were instrumental in it's creation. He covers tunes by the aforementioned piano giants and Floyd Jones, Big Smokey Smothers, Eddie Taylor and Muddy Waters. The music moves from the ensemble playing of the '50s with piano and harp leading the way, to the early '60s sounds that added guitar solos to the mix with a little organ layered upon it. By employing Muddy alumni, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, to hold down the bottom end and throwing ringers like Joel Foy, Eddie Taylor Jr. and Wilson into the mix he is able to get away with the "And The All-Star Blues Band" title. I don't imagine that he had to do a heck of a lot of explaining in the studio with these cats in tow.

Not many discs kick off with instrumentals, but Chuck's piano leads into Floyd's Blues with Kim's fat toned harp boosting the rhythm and throwing down tasty leads that weave around the groove and sets the tone for what follows. Goering orchestrates much like a veteran conductor. Sometimes his piano is the focus, such as on the double-fisted hammering he gets going on Memphis Slim's Mother Earth, but he allows Eddie Taylor Jr.'s guitar picking just as much space on the tune. On Big Brother Montgomery's Mama You Don't Mean Me No Good, one assumes that it is he that is doing the ivory tickling, but he turns that duty over to Elko Izumi-Gallwas and just sings the tune. I really don't mean to say "just" sings, because Chuck really floored me with his vocals each time that he opened his mouth and let loose in a voice packed with emotion. He gets especially deep into it on Floyd Jones' School Days (with Kim playing some great 1st position harp) and Muddy Waters' Just To Be With You, which I've never heard anyone but Muddy sing better--he nails it and Wilson puts on a Chicago bluesharp clinic on this one. He turns the vocals over to Eddie Jr. for senior's Big Town Playboy, an absolute highlight for me because I'd never heard Jr. sing or play and felt he may just be one of those siblings jumping in to capitalize on the name. Teaches me to jump to conclusion--he's for real.

Chuck even sits out entirely on Cleo's Mood, which showcases Mr. Wilson and just what chops he chooses to amaze us with and allows Joel Foy and Eddie Jr. to strech out and bounce lead riffs off each other. Both guitarist have such a feel for this type of music and are given ample and equal opportunities to shine. Joel is featured pretty heavily on his own instrumental Red River Rhumba, that he puts a minor feel Albert Collins' spin to and has Kim moving exquisitely from chromatic harp to diatonic and back again.

Oh, I guess I could go on and on with the gushing accolades regarding the musicianhip on each and every tune, but trust me "they ain't no clunkers" here and it pretty much has it all, regardless of whether one's taste leans towards piano, guitar, harmonica or just some well sung blues. For one of the best modern productions of Chicago blues, pick up Barrelhouse Chuck's Got My Eyes On You. Anyway--

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

I got the chance to meet my hero last night and I told him so. In interviews, Kim Wilson always mentions his musical heroes such as Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers whom he shared stages and impressed with his harmonica skills. He speaks of his blues harp influences, such as Little and Big Walter and both Sonny Boys. When I caught up with him a short few minutes before showtime at the Wolf Pen Creek Amphitheater (blogged about below), I told him that we didn't have those guys around any longer, "But we still have Kim Wilson". Might sound like a corny thing to say, but I meant it and I think he appreciated it--he sure squeezed my hand firmly. I also told him that I couldn't believe that Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller were both playing with him. He said, "You know those guys?" I told him that, yeah, I had seen them play and felt that they were two of the best blues guitarists around. "Yeah, and I've got 'em now!"

So, with Johnny Moeller stage right, Mike Keller stage left and Kim Wilson smack dab in the middle, The Fabulous Thunderbirds rocked the house in inibitable T-Birds fashion. Nothing different, nothing earthshattering new, just what one comes to expect at a show led down the road by the best damn harp player on the planet. They went from their typical mix of R&B/Soul, stone cold blues and rock 'n' roll, managing to sound as fresh as the day "Tuff Enough" hit the charts and every day since. Even though Wilson is the only thing consistant about the band lineup, he never has hit a stage without the best band mates that he can round up, and this is the best Thunderbirds' contingent that I've ever heard, which was pretty clear from the opening notes that Johnny Moeller hit on his Strat to set an R&B tone with Mike Keller supplying outstanding Telecaster rhythm. Keller laid back on rhthym guitar for several cuts and then stepped forward and began absolutely shredding the night. That's kinda sorta how it went. The Moeller/Keller killer guitar double whammy that I was expecting and hoping to see transpire. Of course, when Kim finally got around to picking up his Astatic mic and blowing through his amp (pictured above-The early '60s Twin sat atop a short speaker cab), I was in harp heaven. He always puts it down way too often, but he gives those that have never heard him a dose of what Chicago blues harp is all about and when he's left on stage alone, blasting a rhythmic orgy of riffs, he leaves little doubt that he IS the master. Also, of course, a band ain't a band without a rhythm section and Kim's hired hands followed, lead, and pushed the band in every direction that it headed. Johnny's drummer brother Jason just flat worked telepathically with bassist Randy Bermudes (Kim's bald headed stunt double). The T-Birds ruled.

The best part about this show is that my daughter Erica and new son-in-law, Danny Ross, my wife, Virginia and son, John all were in attendance with me and got a better understanding of what all the fuss is about (my fuss, anyway). They were thoroughly entertained.

I had caught up with Johnny Moeller while we were enjoying the opening act. I told him that we had met years ago in Bryan, Texas at the Third Floor Cantina. I told him that I had gone over to see Rob Roy Parnell, but sat with my mouth open watching him play guitar. I told him that he sure had a sweet gig now and he gushed about what a treat it was playing with Kim and what a wonderful guy he was. He said that they had just returned from a rewarding European tour and that they should have a cd out by the end of September with this band.

P.S.-Kim said that a movie is in the works about Chess records and that he and the guys are in it. Sweet. That'll be hard to beat. Oh, in the photos at the top of the blog: Johnny's got the Strat and Mike's doing it up on the Telecaster. Anyway--

The Band (of Heathens)

I had researched a bit about the band that was due to open for The Fabulous Thunderbirds at the Wolf Pen Creek Amphitheater in College Station and knew to expect a talented group that was the latest "Buzz" out of Austin. They absolutely lived up to their billing and pretty much impressed the substantial crowd at the site, which is a really fine venue operated by the College Station parks department complete with a moat that separates the stars on stage from the stargazers.

Back in the day, when I wrote a little more often on my live music experiences, I would have had a pen and tablet in hand jotting down impressions as they happened and duly noting set lists. It's more enjoyable to just let it flow and relate from memory--faulty or not. Not as much need to go into background, bio information because all that is available at a mouse click. Let me just say that these guys are going to be stars--if not as a group, then individually. As a group, though, they have a remarkable chemistry that works on all levels.

Take the Band, Little Feat, mix in a touch of Lynard Skynard and mash it all together and you'll have an idea of what the Band of Heathens sound like. Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist and Colin Brooks take turns singing on each others songs that I'm certain will end up on radio playlists frequently. All three play guitar on stage in various combinations of the stringed instrument--acoustic, dobro, electric Fenders, electric slide, lap steel, etc...with Brooks strapping on the most variety. All three demostrated complete command of the instruments and making them work harmoniously and harmony can absolutely be applied to their vocals, as most of the songs had a chorus that everyone joined in on, included bassman, Seth Whitney, and drummer, John Chipman. They made joyful, glorious, toneful sounds when they all chimed into the rhythm.

I'll be honest in saying that I'm not sure who was who during the proceedings and I'm a little too lazy right now to conduct the reseach by listening to their cd for the fourth time today. Last night, though, one of the guys had an excellent voice for the bluesy stuff that they laid out, another gave 'em a country feel and the other got them rock and rolling. Bottom line is this: They ain't the blues, but they could do it and anything else Americana. They COULD sing, COULD play the hell out of guitars and did it all on very well written songs. Just go and check them out at: . Anyway--Up Next: The T-Birds.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Sam Myers

I mentioned "In the Beginning", the post that kicks off this blog, that I intended to resurrect some of my articles that I wrote for long defunct publications or websites. This would be one of them. Back then, Blues Access was one of three major blues magazines on the market. It was put out by Cary Wolfson and managed by Leland Rucker as a labor of love that eventually just got too expensive to operate successfully. I'll always be beholding to these two guys for agreeing to publish my article on Sam Myers.

To me, Sam was one of the few authentic blues harmonica players still alive and doing it well at the time (he lost the battle with cancer a couple of years ago before he had much of a chance to enjoy the success of his highly aclaimed solo album, Coming From the Old School). I'd read very few articles about Sam over the years and wondered why he wasn't in print more than he was. There were articles that featured Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets with quotes from Sam, but not a whole lot more. I really had no plans of writing anything the night that I went to catch Anson and the band until the opportunity just presented itself:

A couple, a bartender and another solitary figure on a barstool were the only other occupants when we walked into the room. It's true that the first freezing temperatures of the season are rolling into Bryan, Texas, but I expected to find a few more bodies in the warm Third Floor Cantina less than an hour before Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets' scheduled performance.

But I immediately recognized the hulking figure on the barstool as Funderburgh's front man and harmonicist, Sam Myers. As a harp player, I wanted a chance to talk with him, but my initial attempts at establishing a dialogue were met with clipped, bored answers like, "yeah","uh huh" and "that's right". I felt as if maybe I shouldn't bother him before his gig, turned away to my traveling companion and told him how Myers once played drums with Elmore James.

"Elmore James and I go way back," Myers interrupted. "I knew all those guys that played back then." (Myers is legally blind, but his hearing is acute). And thus began a conversation with a most articulate musician. We talked harmonicas; he now prefers the Hohner Masterklasse to his old workhorse, the Hohner Marine Band. Part of the reason is that he feels the company uses different wood to make them today than it used to, and he says the more expensive Meisterklasse allows him to change out reed plates if a reed goes bad instead of replacing the entire instrument.

We talked equipment. Sam plays his harp through a pair of Fender Bassman amplifiers that have a short patch cable connecting the two together and it gives him a rich stage sound. He expained that the amp series provides the best tone for him. We discussed his old Astatic microphone that he blows through with a tongue-blocking technique, and he seem perplexed that I was interested in his harp playing and his methods. "I just blow, man," he said.

When I tried to explain that other players would want to know how he get those nice fat single notes, he said that they should know how to do that already. I said, yea, they did, but they are always interested in knowing how the masters do it. He listened to the rest of my harp questions, but it became apparent that he prides himself foremost as a singer: his business card sports a flaming harmonica logo, but the only words on the card are "Blue Singer Extraordinaire".

Throughout the evening's performance he lived up to his billing. He went from crooning and phrasing words in a style that would make a Sinatra fan take notice to full-throated roars that resurrected the ghost of Big Joe Turner. As Funderburgh's shuffles took us to Texas and points in between, Myers' harp and vocals led us over to the Delta and up to Chicago. He deserves to be mentioned alongside Little Walter and Big Walter and both Sonny Boys for his harp style and tone, and Little Milton, Bobby Bland and B.B. King for his vocal dynamics.

"My first musical instruments were trumpet and drums," he said. "I didn't pick up a harmonica until much later, sometime in my twenties. I never did appreciate harmonicas as much as I did horns."

Myers was born in Laurel, Mississippi in 1938 and attended the Piney Woods County Line Schools. "I chose music and played horn in the band and sang in the choir. We sang gospel and other types of music. We formed the men's chorus and sang in quartets and other groups. This is where I learned my voice training."

Myers began playing harmonica after hearing it on records and liking the sound. "I was way into music. I went out and bought a bunch of harmonicas," he said. "They were plastic ones--they didn't have metal ones around. So I tried blowing until I could match the key on the records and learned to play. Since they were easy to carry, I decided that was the way to go. I don't have any heroes that influenced me or anything like that. Little Walter and Big Walter and Sonny Boy, we all came up together doing our thing. So they never were really heroes or anything, I was doing the same thing that they were," said Myers.

He began visiting Chicago as far back as 1949 and witnessed first-hand the nascent sound that became known as Chicago blues. "The first band I got together was when I went to Chicago and formed the Windy City Six," he said. "When the army got most of those guys, I got back with Elmore."

It was Myers' harp that flavored James' rendition of "Look Over Yonder Wall" and his drumming that drove "Shake Your Moneymaker". He toured with James' bands for almost 16 years in the 1950s and '60s. "We played throughout the South on the "Chitlin Circuit" and everywhere else. I didn't just record and play with Elmore. We ran together and were close friends. It would take a couple of hours to tell you all the things that Elmore and I got into together," he said. "He was just a regular guy, like anybody else. We used to own a whiskey still and I'll tell you what we mostly made. We made mostly rye. You make rye from rye seed, just like you make corn liquor from corn.

"I played on a lot of Elmore's stuff. People will ask me sometimes, 'Is that your beat, man that's good stuff?' I'll say, yeah, 'I put that beat in there', but, you know, it's not a big deal."

In Jackson, Mississippi, Myers began fronting and playing harp for King Mose and the Royal Rockers. Drummer Mose led them around Mississippi, Louisiaana and Arkansas in the late '50s and early '60s. He remembers recording "Sleeping in the Ground"/"My Love is Here to Stay" in 1957 for Johnny Vincent's Ace logo and "You Don't Have to Go"/"Sad, Sad Lonesome Day" in 1960 for Bobby Robinson's Fury Records with this group.

"Sleeping in the Ground" has been covered by other artists, including Eric Clapton, but it has yielded little profits for author Myers. "I didn't make anything off Eric Clapton's recording. Oh, yeah, they paid money for it. I didn't get any of it, but somebody did. I didn't sell my rights. Whoever ran the publishing company would put their name on it and get paid for it. I wrote it and got nothing. I'll tell you something else. They have something that they call public domain. They say that if a song is old enough, it belongs to the public and anyone can record it. I think that's bullshit!"

From 1979 to 1982, Myers fronted the Mississippi Delta Blues Band and recorded for the TJ label out of Palo Alto, California. "Most of those guys were from California. I was the only one in the group from Mississippi," he said. "We toured all over the place. We toured Europe and just about everywhere else."

He was playing with Robert Jr. Lockwood about the time he met up with Anson Funderburgh during a recording session. "Yeah, I go way back with Robert Jr. Lockwood. We are very close friends, and we played a lot together through the years," said Myers. "No one can back a harmonica player like Robert Jr. Lockwood. He and Jimmy Rogers are the only ones left that can really do it like it used to be done.

"Robert Jr. was the one that made it happen on record with Sonny Boy and Little Walter and those guys. He and Luther Tucker could really back up those guys. He brought the jazz guitar into the blues, and it really fit. He can teach guitar and he can play any style that you want. Most people don't appreciate how good Robert Jr. Lockwood is on his own. I saw Robert Jr. back in October. He is doing OK. His wife, Annie, had recently passed on," said Myers. (Robert Jr. Lockwood died this past year).

The room was beginning to fill up, and several people, recognizing Myers, wanted to schmooze. He turned away no admirers, especially a young Hispanic lady that had traveled four hours just to see Sam sing and play. She got her picture taken with him, and Myers, a natural emcee with remarkable charm on stage, returned the favor by mentioning how honored he was by her dedication to the band during his patter with the audience.

When somebody asked if he could buy him a drink, Myer's reply suggested that he looks after his health these days: he requested a diet cola. His song, "I Done Quit Getting Sloppy Drunk", took on a more autobiographical meaning. "Oh, no, I was never much of a drinker--even in my younger day," he said. "I've got to watch my blood sugar level."

Speaking about an impending tour to France, Myers speaks wistfully about the times he had toured Europe and how much they like their blues overseas. "Yeah, they treat bluesmen real nice over there. They respect the music much more than they do here in the States. If you get canceled out when you get to a club or something over there, they'll take care of you. They'll make sure and see that you have a place to stay and see that your are looked after. They know that you are a long way from home. I'll tell you one other thing. Those European women look after their men. They'll go to work and feed you and you can stay at the house. So, if you are a lazy man, it is a good place to be," he said.

Hooking up with Funderburgh and the Rockets has allowed Myers the chance to receive the recognition that he has long deserved. He took to the road with the Rockets after they recorded My Love is Here to Stay in 1985, and the chemistry continued unabated. Their latest collaboration is a celebration of that union, That's What They Want, on Black Top Records. They stay on the road constantly, their styles have meshed beautifully and the critics annually claim the Rockets as being one of the best live bands on the circuit.

"I wish we could stay out there all the time," Myers admitted. "I like traveling and I don't really care about living in Dallas. I moved there to be close to the band. Colorado is one place I don't like to go to and we keep going back there because Anson's wife is from there."

To cold? "No, the air makes it hard for me to breathe."

So, does he go out and jam around Dallas' busy blues scene when he has time off?

"No, I don't go out jamming like a lot of fellows do. I'll go out and check out some friends and hang out. I'll sing sometimes when asked, but I don't play any harmonica. I don't go around with harmonicas in my pocket or anything like that. The only time I play harp is with Anson."

OKAY--There you have it. I could have gone through the article and updated it with things like; Black Top Records not existing any longer and that Sam and crew recorded several other efforts since this was written, but I decided to simply re-type it as it was written in Blues Access #33, warts and all.

We lost a good one when Sam Myers died and he'll be tough to replace, but Anson is still plying his trade as one of the best in the business. I know that he has featured John Nemeth and Darrell Nulisch on harp and vocals for a few gigs and saw that he's even featuring James Harman at an upcoming festival.

Jeff Horton has a website that is still up at and he published a biography about Sam last year. Check there for more details. Anyway--

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

T-Bird Rhythm

Anyone that is within shouting distance of College Station, Texas this Saturday night (and with 5 different Texas A&M graduation ceremonies, beginning Friday, there should be a few folks over there) needs to make it over to an outdoor city-run amphitheater called Wolf Pen Creek--next door to Post Oak Mall. I've never been there myself and may never make it back, but I'm planning on catching Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds in action.

Looks to be a pleasant enough venue. They are booked as part of a Spring/Summer concert series that runs from 8-10pm. Don't see why they'd book an opening act for a two hour event, but a band called The Band of Heathens is due up first. I've never heard them, but I have heard the buzz as far as them being something of a hot item in Austin. Might be worthy. I'd still like to hear Kim and the boys going at it for the entire time, though, especially since he has Johnny Moeller bending strings for him now. In my opinion, Johnny is one of the BEST blues guitarists on the scene today. He's just got it--complete and soulful. His brother, Jay, is the drummer now. Both trekked in from Denton, Texas way before Clifford Antone was incarcerated and duly impressed him enough to keep them around his clubs as regulars.

So, I've got my wife, son, daughter #2 with husband and whoever else believes me, talked into visiting Wolf Creek Pen Amphitheater with blankets, coolers and coldcuts for a butt-rocking picnic. Anyway--I'll report back on this one.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Python

When the Silvertone 1483 was testing out to be a substantially toneful harp amp, it was pretty obvious that the 2x10 Sunn cabinet was not going to project enough volume from a live stage. Stephen S hammered home the point that more speaker area translates to more volume dispersion needed in a real world scenario. The 1483 test runs plugged into his multi-speaker cabs illustrated the difference extremely well. So, the move to upgrade began.

After checking around the 'Net and elsewhere for cab and speaker prices, it was pretty much ascertained that I'd have to "poor boy" it once again. I began researching the discussion boards and forums for anything related to speaker cabinet construction. I also decided to go with a 4X10 configuration, using the two Weber Vintage alnicos from the Sunn cab and then placing an order for two Weber Signature ceramic speakers that were on sale. I sent the Weber alnicos into Ted Weber to have the ohms changed from 16 to 8, in order for the configuration to end up matching an 8 ohm load. I had no idea how the combination of ceramics and alnicos would sound, but I had heard that Sonny Jr used a similar combo in his, then new, 4X10 amplifiers. I did feel that the ceramics would provide a little more bottom end than four alnicos.

Then, I sat out to construct my own speaker cabinet. Not having the tools to build a cab with the much preferred finger jointing or dove tailed construction, I had to use cleats, screws and glue to stick it all together. I decided to go with 1x12 pine for the framework and 3/8 baltic birch plywood for the baffle board. I set to work doing the necessary cutting, drilling, glueing, screwing and bracing and soon had a box resembling the beginnings of speaker cabinet that measure out to a square 26 1/2" by 26 1/2". I was told that a floating baffle was the way to go for the type of tone generation that I was looking to achieve from the effort and the weight dictated that installing a set of caster wheels would lower the stress on the old body.

I had already decided to enlist the aid of my wife when it came time to covering the amp with tweed or tolex or whatever, because she had spent time wallpapering our house walls and the skill and approach of that duty appeared to be somewhat similar. I also involved her in the process of helping me choose which covering to use--hands down, it was the faux Python that won her over with black grill cloth. She did a fabulous job of slicing, tucking and glueing the tolex down and the finished product turned out to be a thing of beauty--but how would it sound.

Stephen S invited me back over to his "live lab" where he was involved in running a jam with one of the best blues guitarists in the state, Jonn Richardson, who was, by the way, impressed with the Python (this was a few years ago and the venue is now non-existant as such a place). I sat and listened to SS put the 1483 through its paces with it's new companion and thought that it sounded great--of course his natural tone can make a lot of combos sound great. After the first set, they got me up and allowed me more extended jam time than I expected. Everyone complimented me, so that was worth the trip over to the club and SS thought that we'd hit on the right combo and the rig was definitely a winner. The Python ruled the night. The 1483 is pictured sitting atop the Python accompanying the Silvertone posts. I'd planned to post additional photos today (5/6/08), but the camera's battery went dead, but they'll be forth coming. Anyway--

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Going Postless for the History Fair

Gotta perform one of my last duties as a teacher and accompany a few of my students that did well enough to make it to the Texas State History Fair. I squabbled a bit with the curriculum director over whether or not I should require world geography students work on a history project when it would mean giving up my geography projects, she decide I should, so they've been entering the contest for the past three years. Placing in the top three at the regional contest in their category sends them to the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin for the state competition. The students that show up in Austin, eat, breathe, and live history fair and always prove to us just how out of our element we are. This year may be different, with a documentary by a couple of students that just may give 'em a run for the money. Who knows, maybe we'll get a paid trip to Maryland for nationals. The museum, itself, is a treasure that every Texan needs to experience.

Now, back in the day and to keep things relative, I might have worked a way to slip off to Antone's for an hour or two and catch whoever was laying it down in the name of blues. Sad thing is that you'd be hard pressed to find a weekend that a blues band is booked into the world famous home of the blues. Oh, yeah, they'll cycle a few through every now and then, but something is wrong here--guess its all about the money.

The Rolling Stones Martin Scorcese flick is premiering at the museum's IMAX and I reckon that would be a great way to spend some time, but I also reckon that tickets were sucked up some time ago. Guess we could listen to the tribute band that'll be playing on site. Not.

So, I won't be back in until Sunday. If I've got an interesting tale, I'll leave it here. Anyway--