“The Stronger Your Roots, The Stronger Your Fruits”

Friday, January 13, 2012 17:42

An Interview with Sugar Blue

by: Casey Pukl

If there’s one thing that you’ve got to love about harmonica virtuoso Sugar Blue, it’s his whole-hearted dedication to the blues tradition. Raised in Harlem, NY, Blue found fame in Paris when he met the Rolling Stones in a chance encounter. Before he knew it, he was recording with one of the most famous rock bands in history, and his signature sound was the staple of one of their greatest hits, “Missing You”. But what might be even more remarkable about Sugar Blue is his dedication to having his own sound with his own band rather than being someone elses’ side man.

Decades later, he still remains one of the greatest living legends in blues. Having played with Willie Dixon, Big Walter Horton, Memphis Slim, Stan Getz, Frank Zappa and more, Blue is truly one of a kind. Take a read through my interview with him about what’s in store for 2012, and who he can’t get enough of. 

CP: What have you been up to this year?

SB: What am I up to? Well, we’re currently working on recording a new live album. I’m also working on a new studio album as well. We just brought on a new keyboard player who has been great, and I’m very excited about. I’ve also been writing a lot of new material, so that’s happening. Oh, and we’re working on a new DVD!

CP: Is that all? (Laughs)

SB: (Laughs) 2012 is going to be a busy year! Got a lot of great projects going on.

CP: Sounds like it! Do you have any preliminary dates or time frames for any of the album releases or anything?

SB: Not yet. I’m not hurrying anything. What can I say? I’m incredibly meticulous! We’re working on everything and tweaking things. I want to give the music lovers the best product we possibly can.

CP: I’m sure it’ll be well worth the wait!

SB: Yes it will be. I’m really happy about how all of it is going so far.

CP: You said you’ve been doing a lot of writing lately— let’s talk a little about your writing process.

SB: Sure.

CP: How has your writing process evolved over the years? Do you have any set process, or does it change?

SB: Well, I’ll tell you this. I had the pleasure of working with the great Willie Dixon. He’s really considered the, “Poet Laureate of the Blues”. But he always told me that when it comes to writing songs, the first thing to do is think about something that motivates you, that you feel deeply about, and then you expound on it. Think about that thing or person or whatever, and if it’s something that you truly feel deeply about, put some music to it.

CP: That makes it sound so easy!

SB: Well, that’s what I always think about. If you create from your heart and from a place of genuine emotion, you’ll connect with others who feel deeply.

CP: So do you usually start lyrically going from that train of thought?

SB: Yeah, I usually start from a lyrical idea. Coming from a blues background, I’m really more of a poet who is in love with music. Music is really poetry and philosophy. A good hook is like having a conversation. That’s the key. We all feel deeply; it’s part of the human experience. I just put music to it.

CP: Seriously, you make it sound so simple.

SB: It is simple. All music has that one unifying human element.

CP: Going into that a little bit, you play a ton of different styles that are all really derived from the same blues tradition. Do you approach them all the same way?

SB: Once again, I’ll refer back to my good friend Willie Dixon. He used to say this all the time, and I still say it all the time because, quite frankly, no one has said it better yet. He used to say, “The blues are the roots. The rest of the music are the fruits.” It doesn’t matter if it’s rock, pop, rap, reggae, jazz, anything. It all comes from the blues. Music is so deeply connected to the blues.

CP: So true. I mean really, where would every other genre be without the I, IV, V?

SB: We’d still be listening to fox trots if it weren’t for blues. The blues is one of the most valuable and important American exports. You know, the Beatles, the Stones, Clapton, all of those bands that we love, they’re all blues based. They brought it back in that whole British Invasion period of rock, but it all is based in blues.

CP: Speaking of the Rolling Stones, let’s talk about that a little bit. You recorded with them, and they offered you a permanent session spot, right?

SB: Yeah, you know, my time with the Rolling Stones was a really wonderful and important time. It was a really important connection in my life. Playing with them on what was really one of the biggest albums of their entire career, I was fortunate. That album was everywhere. It was around the entire world. It exploded!

Before I went to Paris and everything happened with them, I was in New York City playing with Memphis Slim, and I asked him what he thought of me moving to Paris and playing with him there. He said to me, “If you’re adventurous enough, then make the move.” So I did, and I played the streets and all that. And then I ran into the Stones through some friends and stuff, and went into the studio and recorded a bunch of songs with them. But I was with them when that record broke in 1978. I mean, “Miss You” was the hit of the year at that time.

So I again asked Memphis Slim what I should do after that when they offered me the permanent position. That was when he told me that I should study my craft in Chicago. And the reality was that I didn’t want to be a sideman forever. I loved playing with the Stones, and the experience was so important in my life and my career, but I had my own thing happening. I wanted to write my own material and do my own thing. So, I moved to Chicago and started really studying. That was when I started playing with Willie Dixon. I played with him for about two years, and I really learned so much from him.

CP: Did it take long to put your own band together after that?

SB: Not really. I put the band together and we recorded the, “Blue Blazes” record. That album was mostly covers, including, “Miss You” that I originally did with the Stones. But then, the next album “In Your Eyes”, was all originals and just one cover.

CP: All of your albums have a really timeless yet current feel to them.

SB: Thank you. I really try to stay on the forefront of everything. You know, I really think that the last two or three years have really been some of the best efforts of my career. In recording “Code Blue” and “Threshold”, if I’m allowed to say it, I really just think that I made some really great music on there.

CP: You can say that all you want, because it’s true!

SB: (Laughs) I’m proud of it. I’m looking forward to the new material as well. It’s all going to be incredible.

CP: I know we all can’t wait. Last question before we wrap up— who do you listen to?

SB: Oh, I listen to a lot of Miles Davis, Sly Stone, the Beatles, Bill Dickens, Stevie Wonder, let’s see. Who have I been listening to lately? I listen to a lot of Motown, Chuck Berry, a lot of things like that. Classics.

CP: All the good old classics for sure.

SB: Always listen to the roots. You know, the stronger the roots, the stronger the fruits.

Special thanks to Sugar Blue for his time! Be sure to catch his show and take a listen to our Spotify playlist!

Sugar Blue

WHAT: Sugar Blue
WHEN: Friday, January 20, 2012, 9:30pm
TICKETS: $10-$28 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile