Interview of Sugar Blue by Monica L. Yasher

Posted on 8/25/2010 by Monica Yasher

Sugar Blue is probably most known for his signature riff and solo on the Rolling Stones' hit, "Miss You" from their "Some Girls" album.  However, Sugar Blue has much more to him than that!  He is a Grammy award winner who is a performer, singer, harp player, songwriter, and producer of blues music.  His career has always been anchored in the Blues as he has played many different genres with many artists such as Dylan, Fats Domino, and James Cotton, to name a few.  Please join me to read as Sugar Blue talks about Willie Dixon and the words he has given him to think about in his career, his childhood growing up in Harlem, what it takes to be a great harp player and his latest accomplishment of his new CD, "Threshold".

Monica: Hello Sugar Blue. I would love to talk to you about your new CD, your harmonica work, your life and whatever message you want me to carry on for you. OK?

Sugar Blue: Sure.

M: Let’s start with the CD. I understand that you named it, “Threshold”, because it opened new musical territory for you. What does that mean?

SB: Actually, it means quite literally what it says. There is some material that is…like for instance, “Living Your Love”. It’s a tune that is very important to me because it touches on my life experience in Harlem and inner city places. The musical format is different. It’s the blues, but very different. It’s a different take on the blues. A song like, “Average Guy”, “Stop the War”, “Don’t Call Me”, “Trouble”, is a different musical direction for me. So that’s why I decided to call this “Threshold”.

The blues is always going to be the blues. It’s in the way you approach the music. I took a different tact. I tried to bring principles of music that I heard over the last five, ten years. I tried to bring something …a new genesis to it. You can’t remake the music. But you can remake your concept and approach to the music. That’s what I tried to do.

M: I gathered that. It’s blues to rock to funk to jazz and to ballads. I was wondering your thoughts on if it’s better to have this wide range or do you think it is better to concentrate, and I’ll put in quotes, "a sound". There are a couple schools of thought to this.

SB: In my musical career I have played with people like Louisiana Red and Willie Dixon. I have also had the opportunity to play with people like Lionel Hampton, The Rolling Stones, and Prince. I think these different experiences that I have had musically, need to be incorporated to what I am musically. I don’t think that to ignore any one of these influences is necessary.

Actually it is very important, as Willie Dixon put it so well, To pick up the fruits that come from the roots of the blues. It’s like that we must try to rejuvenate the music and to add the feel of our own time and to make the music relevant in our time. To continue to repeat what has been done fifty, sixty, a hundred years ago, makes the music redundant and irreverent to our time, and I don’t think that is a good way to approach this music.

M: That’s a really excellent answer Sugar Blue. I saw that you are a producer and artist.  Why didn’t you choose to have someone to produce you? Did you find it difficult to be both-the producer and artist?

SB: Actually it is trying to wear two hats. Yet at the same time, it gives me the possibility to approach the songs and sounds and the production from my concept of how I have written the songs. That’s very important, because no one understands the music like myself and the people that I have written the music with. It’s basically my story, and I don’t think anyone knows how to tell it as well as I do.

M: Thank you for answering and sharing that you are a songwriter. Let’s talk about the songwriting. How did you tackle this project? A theme with song development? Or songs that you grouped together?

SB: As a songwriter, I must say that probably one of my greatest influences was Mr. Willie Dixon. Dixon’s concept, as he explained to me, was to put what you feel is most important at the forefront. Think about it, and then create around it. He said, if you believe in the story you are telling, you will be able to frame it well. So that was my basic thought. First to find out about something that I thought was very important, a story to tell for me. From that point, we moved on.

A song like “Average Guy”, for instance, this song comes from an experience I had of meeting a guy who had lost his home, his job. And, he was wondering how in the heck he was going to be able to maintain his family. He was wondering about the future of his children. I mean, he was hanging out at the blues bar listening to blues and trying to smile through his pain. He said at one point, “Man, this situation is nearly, nearly impossible. This situation, I don’t know what to do. It needs to change. But, I don’t know what to do about it because I‘m just an average guy.”

I had an epiphany at that point. I said, “Man , the average guy makes the world turn as we know it.” It’s without him…we all go to the five food groups, the farmers, the people that clean the aisles, the people that stock the food, the people that ring the cash register, the doctors, the nurses. The people that do that most menial jobs, we could not exist without them, because we are all interconnected. To me, it was very important to tell this story about this man. About all of us really. We are all the average guy when it comes down to it.

M: I don’t know who it was that said something like that we need to respect the garbage collector as much as the brain surgeon.

SB: Neither can do their job without the other.

M: Truth is, God willing, that I will need a garbage collector far more than a brain surgeon in my life.

SB: Amen with that!

M: I mean, who is really more important to the majority of people?

SB: People tend to look down or to the side. To me that is a small way of looking at people. We are all interconnected. We are like fingers in a hand. If one is missing, then we can’t function well. And, which is more important, the pinky or the thumb? Excuse me, they are all important, equally!

M: That’s such a good point. I would like to talk to you about your harmonica playing. That’s one thing that intrigues me. What does it take to be a good harmonica player?

SB: I think you have to have a desire to play the instrument, a love for the music, and tenacity. If you are willing to stick to it and work at it, you can achieve it. It is like any goal. Any instrument, anything you wish to achieve, if you work hard enough at it, you can have it. You can make it your own.

M: I read that you played records and you played along with it. Harmonica is a tough thing to learn. Someone can’t teach it to you like a guitar.

SB: First I’ve played for many years with the radio and records, before I ever even imagined going out and playing with a band. I mean, I must have played ten, twelve, fifteen years before I took a stage. The most difficult for me, was to make a single note. You know

M: Yes! I DO know!

SB: Once I had gotten a hold of how to make a single note, then it was putting one note behind another or next to another and learning a little bit about melody and harmony. I learned by ear. I’m an ear player. I figured the best way to learn was to learn from the best. So I bought records by Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Sonny Jerry, Stevie Wonder. I listened to everyone that I could that played a harmonica. I listened to Bob Dylan. I listened to Lee Oscar from War. I just continued to play and play. Eventually I met some harmonica players. A good friend of mine who passed away, Bill Dicey, who taught me how to tongue block. I went to concerts to see people like Junior Wells and Big Walter Horton…James Cotton.

When I got close enough to the instrument to be able to imitate, then I began to try to create. It’s just a question of perseverance and loving what you do. I look at it like this, if you love, then you will be able to convince someone the object of your affection that you need it.

M: What is your gear of choice?

SB: I’ve been playing Hohner harmonicas for a large part of my career. I recently picked up harmonicas by Harrison harmonicas. He is a young entrepreneur that has started building harmonicas in America, and started his own company and puts out a wonderful instrument. That’s where I stay, behind Hohner and Harrison. I use tube amplifiers because tubes give a warmer sound. They are essential for the electric sound. I like the Green Bullet by Shure. And, I like to tinker with them!

M: Just like a guitar player! They are always ripping stuff off and putting stuff on! You guys are all the same! I want to go back on something we started to touch upon. You are from Harlem and your mother…

SB: My mother was originally from Roanoke, VA, and the family moved North in the early thirties. My grandmother lived in Philadelphia. My mother had a wonderful voice, and she wanted to sing other than church music, which my Grandma didn’t want. So my mother moved to New York. In the thirties, Harlem was the place to be if you were a black musician. It was the heart and soul of the musical world back in the day.

M: That’s where you grew up? It surprised me to read that you played in the streets…with your mother’s background…that took me off guard. How did she feel about that?

SB: At one point my mother got out of the music business because she started having kids. She took that responsibility seriously. She maintained her friendships with singers and the love of the music. I grew up around her friends and around the music. It just became a part of my life. It was something I wanted to do as early as I can remember. Other kids wanted to be firemen, cowboys, spacemen. I wanted to be a musician. I knew from the time I was five years old, that I wanted to play music.

M: That’s amazing.

SB: I didn’t know what instrument that I wanted to play. It was something that was in my head ever since I was a little boy. In grade school I tried playing the flute. I tried saxophone. I tried the violin. At some point I started to bring the saxophone home and driving my poor Mom out of her mine! She decided that either the saxophone or I could stay in the house, but not the two of us together! (We laughed).

M: That’s funny!

SB: The saxophone went back to the school, and I was disheartened and sad little kid. I got a harmonica for my birthday from my Aunt. That was my beginning of my love affair with the harmonica!

M: Let’s get to your affiliation with the Rolling Stones. Do you think you were blues when you were playing with the Rolling Stones?

SB: My influence and the school I went to was old school. It all comes from the blues to me. I don’t care what you are playing. You can’t play rock and roll…the better you can play the blues, the better you can play rock and roll. The Stones were an English Blues band when they started out.

M: They embraced the blues.

SB: Well if you don’t embrace the blues, you can’t understand rock and roll, because that’s the heart and soul of the music.

M: Do you think that’s true of kids today?

SB: I think kids today don’t have the opportunity to research or be exposed to that as I was when I was a kid. Everything is so prepackaged, so MTV. You have television programs where people come on the stage and vote. There is no longer a tradition of learning from father to son. Mother to daughter, if you would, which the music was all about in the day. It is up to the individual, young woman or man to do their own research, to basically become musicologists to find out about the source of this music.  And, it‘s not that easy.

M: You were very fortunate to be exposed to the people you were exposed to . You were very lucky.

SB: At some point I went to the library. I asked who’s this guy or that guy. I went to the library and did research. I had to find out. It’s very important for a musician to be part musicologist.

M: I think you are right. There are many that have shared their musical journey of research with me in order to understand where the music came from, to the core of the music.

SB: Let me quote Willie Dixon again. He said, “The blues is the roots, and the rest are the fruits”. Let me expand to say, if you never know the roots you will never grow the fruits. Your tree will be incomplete.

M: Can you tell me a special moment with Willie?

SB: One of the things that was influential that rests in my mind…he sat down with me and he said, “Young man, do you know the most important term in the word Bluesman?” And, I said, “No sir. What is it?”

He said, the word is Man. From the man comes the music, and before you can understand what it takes to make this music, you must understand what it is and what it takes to be a man. That rested with me.

M: OK. I’m trying to understand. Do you think that he meant that as a man you needed to love and loose?  Or, live as a man with all the heartache that goes with the blues? What do you think?

SB: I think he meant that , first you must go from boy to man. You must learn to be responsible and sensitive, sensible, caring and a strong part of your community before you can speak about it.

M: That is insightful.

SB: Music is a sound that can bring harmony to humanity if you listen to it.

M: I have to share with you a true story I read. There’s this world renowned violin player and he is playing in Grand Central Station this extremely difficult piece of music on a 2 million dollar violin...

SB: I’ve seen it.

M: Nobody stopped to listen. Isn’t that sad?

SB: That is the world we live in today. We seldom listen to a musician. We seldom listen to each other.
If you are there to listen, then you will enjoy the music. That’s one of the reasons why they created electric instruments. So you could get to the people that want to hear.

M: I never knew that. Thank you. I have only one more question for you. What’s it like to get a Grammy?

SB: It was quite an experience! When I was nominated, I thought, oh yeah, that’s really nice. I then put the piece of paper in a drawer and forgot about it.

M: Did you really?

SB: Oh yeah. I forgot about it. I remembered someone called me at the house and said, “Hey you won a Grammy!” And, I thought, yeah right! (We laughed) It was the same kind of experience when Bob Dylan wanted me to record with him and I said, “Yeah Right”.

M: And, you did!

SB: When the Stones called, the same thing! But, it happened. I felt very happy. Very blessed. It was a blessing. A gift from the muse.

M: That’s cool.. I really enjoyed speaking with you! You truly helped me learn a few things with music today.

SB: Just play what you feel, that way you are real.

Copyright © 2010 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.
Photograph Copyright © 2010 Nelson Onofre. All Rights Reserved.

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

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