An Interview with Barry Goldberg of the Chicago Blues Reunion
By Casey Pukl
Oh, loyal blog readers, today you are in for a serious treat. I’m not going to lie here, I’m usually pretty prepared for my interviews and know how to keep my composure. However, this was one of those exceptions where I found myself pretty speechless and struggling to find questions instead of praise.
It’s no secret that I’m a songwriting junkie. If there’s one topic I could talk about day in and day out, it’s the writing process. What inspires a songwriter? What do they focus on? How much editing do they do? What song forms are their favorites? The list goes on and on.
Ladies and gents, Barry Goldberg did not disappoint. From talking about his early days of listening to a who’s who of Hammond organ players to his years of writing with legend Gerry Goffin, this man is a treasure chest of music history. Did I mention that he’s also played with Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin? Goldberg also has writing credits for Rod Stewart, Gladys Knight, Steve Miller, Joe Cocker, Percy Sledge… you get the picture. Without further preface and fanfare, I’ll just invite you to read what well may be one of my favorite and most memorable interviews thus far.
CP: I know, last I heard, is you guys were working on a documentary and you had a lot of stuff going on.
BG: Yeah, I’m creating what I consider to be the definitive documentary of the Chicago blues scene from the ‘60s, you know, the evolution of blues into folk rock, and how we contributed to that and our relationship with the old blues masters. Being from Chicago, there’s a lot of people that are playing at the club developed relationships as teenagers with the great legendary blues masters like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and being from Chicago, we would go out to the West Side and the South Side and sit in, and learn all we could about Chicago blues firsthand from these wonderful people. That’s what the film is basically about. Then, it also has a section about the British Invasion and how they perceived the blues when they first heard the Chicago blues, and how they got the records— like the Rolling Stones, they got their name from Muddy Waters. You know, the whole deal.
CP: That’s awesome. Is the documentary out already? I know there was talk of it coming out in the spring.
BG: It is just being tightened up now; it’s 90 percent finished. It should be out in the fall.
CP: Excellent. Well, I’m looking forward to that. There have been some really great music documentaries out lately, so that’ll be exciting.
BG: Oh, this is really wonderful you know, it’s featuring Bob Dylan and Jack White, from The White Stripes, Buddy Guy, BB King, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, all of our buddies, and all of the people that we have played with in the past.
CP: Tell me a little bit about how you got your start playing.
BG: My mother was a pianist. She was on the Yiddish stage, the Jewish stage, and she was a child actress, and she always played piano and accompanied herself. But she also played the boogie-woogie like, you know, like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons— all the great ones, she listened to. So I listened to them around the house, and she started showing me some licks, and we started playing duets together. You know, plus, she turned me out to all the boogie-woogie piano playing records from the ‘40s and the ‘50s, and that’s pretty much how I got into it. As I evolved as a teenager, I started listening to the rock ‘n’ roll stuff like Jerry Lee Lewis and a lot of Fats Domino and Little Richard, all the greats. But what really got me, and I discovered it on my little radio- my transistor radio at the end of the dial- was a station called “Jam with Sam.” At 12 o’ clock midnight, he would go down to the basement and put on Little Walter, “Blue Lights” was his theme song, and he would find this magical, mystical cruise through the blues world. And that’s what really got me.
CP: What attracted you to the Hammond organ?
BG: I just loved the instrument from when I first heard Ethel Smith. That’s the first person I listened to. She had a song out called “Tico Tico”, and there was something about the sound of the organ. After that, I listened to Lenny Dee. He had a record out called “Plantation Boogie” and I was infatuated with the sound of the organ. Then came Bill Doggett and Earl Bostick and Doc Bagby and all those funky guys. And that’s what really turned me on to the B3, a unique keyboard instrument and before its time, you know?
Oh, and of course Jimmy Smith. Jimmy Smith was the great master who just blew my mind. No one could play like him.
CP: That’s a pretty solid background.
BG: Those were my influences.
CP: On top of being such a great organ player, I know you’re an incredible songwriter as well. You’ve written a bunch with Gerry Goffin— just some incredible hits. Can you tell me a little bit about your songwriting process and how you get started?
BG: Well, I always liked to write songs. I still love to write songs! In the beginning, the first professional song that I really wrote was a song called “Sittin’ in Circles” for The Electric Flag. Steve Miller also recorded that, so that was my first venture into songwriting and you know, I was sort of a musician first that liked to produce records too, and the songwriting was sort of a luxury thing for me and when I had time to do it, I never thought I was going to make any money out of it or anything. Around 1971, I was living in New York, and a manager friend of mine, Bennett Glotzer, who was Albert Grossman’s partner — he used to represent Bob Dylan when I played with Dylan and The Electric Flag, and Janis Joplin- wanted me to meet someone and had Gerry Goffin in his office. You know, and my god, Gerry was like a legendary songwriter with Carole King and, I mean, these guys were professional songwriters. Goffin, and King, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weile, and you know, Neil Sedaka, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich- they were like the guys. I always saw their names on records, and Gerry wrote some of the greatest songs ever, ever written, like “Natural Woman” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “Up On The Roof.” Gerry had just broken up with Carole and was still looking for a new writing partner.
And, uh, you know, I said, “Well, why don’t you come over for dinner?” I invited him over, you know, made him dinner. We got to be really close friends, and for the first year, we were working really hard trying to write together. And Gerry would always want to write anti-war songs or protest songs. Screen Gems, who was a publisher at the time, never really took me serious as a songwriter. Gerry said, “Well, you’re just a musician.” And I said, “Well, yeah, I’m a musician! I’m proud to be a musician. I’ll never be a songwriter.” He said, “Okay.” and they said, in the beginning, “If we like the song, you’ll come up and play it for us. If we like it, we’ll give you $75.” I said, “Oh my god, that would be good enough for a tuna casserole tonight, so that would be great.” So I was playing, literally, for food, you know.
I said to Gerry, finally, “I can’t write these protest songs anymore. I need you to write a commercial lyric for me.” So he looked at me, and he grabbed his pad, and he scribbled some lyrics on the pad. About five minutes later, he threw it at me and said, “Is this what you want?” I said, “Yeah, this is what I want.” I was working on a song for Albert King, and Albert King was my hero. I wanted to write a song for him. So I wrote this sort of bluesy, rock kind of melody, and the lyrics were really phenomenal. I took it to Memphis, and Albert King’s producer at Stax Records. We cut a demo of the song in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and then we went to Memphis and he says, “No, sorry, I don’t hear it for Albert.” Six months later, the head at Voodoo Records call me up and said, “You’re gonna love this. Gladys Knight and the Pips just cut this song.” And he played it for me over the phone, and I was just totally- I almost passed out! It was so good. It became the number one song. So the next week, you know, Screen Gems was the publisher who said I could never be a songwriter, sent me a case of Dom Perignon, and all of a sudden, I was a songwriter! I felt that’s how that began. Then Gerry and I wrote several other songs that were recorded by artists like The Neville Brothers, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker. You know, it was just a wonderful thing, my collaboration with Gerry. He taught me so much about songwriting.
CP: That’s such a cool story! (Laughs super nervously like any mega songwriting geek would).
BG: (Laughs) It is pretty cool.
CP: It really is! You’ll have to excuse me, because I’m a little short on words right now. I’m a big songwriting mega-nerd, so this is all very exciting to me right now.
BG: And, you know, I basically lucked out. I met this person that introduced me to Gerry Goffin, and it wouldn’t have happened, you know, without a great lyricist.
BG: I think that makes a difference in someone that puts out a song. You can write a great melody, but they are always looking for the profile lyric for the artist. We were lucky too with the next song that became a top ten song for Rod Stewart, “It’s Not The Spotlight.” I’m actually still writing with Gerry, so that’s a great thing.
CP: That’s a great partnership! Wow. When you’re writing a song, is there anything in particular that you’re really listening for to know that, you know that this is the one?
BG: Well, like I said, it’s the lyrics really. If I have a great lyric, you know, that’s the difference right there. I’ll listen to people now like Adele and try to get into a groove for the artist and the style, and the feeling. But you never know now what anybody is looking for. It’s so across the board now. You know, with the hip hop stuff, and there’s very little market right now for songwriting. But that’s what I do. I listen to records, and people and songs that turn me on. You know, I was listening to The Stones a few years ago, and I wrote a song called, “Audience For My Pain” with Gerry, and the melody is just sort of real Stones-y, and I got into their vibe. You know, you just get into it because you love it so much. Rod Stewart, when I wrote that song, I listened to “Maggie May”. I listened to “Reason to Believe”. I love their music so much, you know, it just transfers into my head, and I come out with their vibe and their melody. Instead The Neville Brothers cut the song, and Sam and Dave, and a few others cut the song, but I came really close to getting a Stones record out of that song.
CP: Wow. I know you just touched on this a little, but you’ve seen this music business go through so many changes and evolve so much. Have you really had to change the way you conduct business, especially over the last 15 years or so with all the digital downloads, streaming, changing labels, and all that kind of stuff? Have you really had to make a change?
BG: Absolutely. You know, it was sort of a natural change too, because I did a lot of TV and film work to subsidize myself. I was pretty good at it, and the songwriting thing was dissipating a little bit, you know. There was becoming less and less of a market for a song. I just was sitting in with some people and playing, and said, “Oh my god.” I just forgot the reason I started in music. I started as a musician, and the response you get and the feeling you get when you’re playing in front of people, and you’re playing your act, you’re playing your instrument with other people who you like playing with, and the thrill of it all, that’s why I started, you know? That’s what makes it worthwhile. Sure, it’s good to make money and to have good pay, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about that feeling, you know?
BG: So I started playing again, and you know, what do you do? I went back to the blues. That’s where I started. And that’s still my favorite kind of music. That’s the music that’s straight from my heart, that I feel more than any other. I love rock ‘n’ roll, but nothing does it for me like the blues. You know, that’s the direct emotion that I get, and I really get off playing. I played with my buddies, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, and all the great blues guys just give me such thrills, like Otis Rush when he shakes the string, or B.B. King. They all have their distinctive playing.
So I just thought why don’t we all get together again- the guys that survived, the guys that I started out with like Nick Gravenites, Corky Siegel, Sam Lay from the Butterfield Band, and start playing again together. Charlie Musselwhite would come in and out of the scene and play some gigs with us, and that’s what’s been getting me off in the last 10 years— playing again, and how much fun I’m having playing with the guys I started out with.
Looking over at them and saying, “Hey man, how ya’ doin’ today, Nick? We’re gonna do ‘Born in Chicago’ tonight,” the song that got him in the Chicago Hall of Fame that Butterfield made famous, and you know, we’re going to do “Sloppy Drunk” tonight, the Jimmy Rogers song. I mean, Nick Gravenites, to me, is a pure, classic blues artist. He’s one of the greatest singers of all time, and Dick and I were together with The Electric Flag with Buddy Miles, and every time we play together, you know, we just look over at one another and you know, there’s a feeling of love for the music. Getting each other off, you know, and that’s what this band does.
CP: What are you guys most looking forward to about coming out to San Diego and playing for us at Anthology next week?
BG: Well, we’re just looking to get everybody off! You know, and for us to get off, and having that response again! Bringing the people a little bit about the Chicago blues feeling, just making everybody happy, and we’re really looking forward to it, to playing together and having a good time with the blues.
Special thanks to Barry for his time, delightful sense of humor, and most of all, for sharing his experiences over the years. It truly was a delight, and I hope you’ll all join us on Friday night to watch the incredible Chicago Blues Reunion show!
Chicago Blues Reunion on Spotify