THE OTIS GRAND STORY
by Mick Rainsford
first published in "Blues Gazzette", Aug,1996
"don’t mistake enthusiasm for megalomania....I know the sound I want and I lead from the front, and my success and reputation has been built on that, and it shows in my music".
Otis Grand has been described as the "Gentle Giant of the Blues", "a monster guitarist", "the monarch of British blues", and "part BB and a shade of T-Bone all wrapped up with the energy of Buddy Guy", and although he is rightly proud of all the accolades he has received, to Otis, the most important thing is the music... his music... the blues...and it’s survival, an ideal he pursues with an uncompromising attitude and zeal that is often misinterpreted, but is unmistakably driven by a love and enthusiasm for the blues that is the catalyst for his music and his talent. This is the story of Otis Grand.....Bluesman.
Otis was born in 1955, one of seven children. None of Otis’ family were musical, so his only exposure to music during his childhood came from "listening to my father’s record collection of Nat King Cole, he loved him and always played his records. I remember my old man calling me to his bedroom late one night to tell me that Nat Cole had died and I was relieved because I thought I was being called in for a whacking. Cole’s music was important to my old man, he was a strict authoritarian and brought us up under the rule of the whip, so I guess Nat King Cole soothed his temper".
Otis, whose family now lived in California, first picked up the guitar in 1963, influenced by the guitar instrumental bands of that time, the Ventures, Dick Dale, Surfaris, etc., and it is this obsession with instrumental music that he blames for him not singing, pointing out that instrumental music was the ‘in thing’ in the early 60’s. The guitar became a ruling passion in Otis’ life as he later graduated to full time pedal steel guitar, lap steel, mandolin, bouzouki, and "anything stringed".
His love affair with the blues was fuelled when he "became aware of blues through black radio stations in the Bay Area playing blues records by artists like B. B. King and Albert King", and he was encouraged by a neighbour who was a country blues guitarist, "I used to hand over pocket money to him, to teach me chords and riffs", but it was to be one record and one artist who was to light the fire that was to indelibly shape Otis’ future when "at the age of sixteen my whole world was turned upside down when my friend from high school, Chuck DeCosta, played me B.B. King ‘Live At The Regal’. From then on I was deeply immersed in electric city blues". Apart from B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James and Luther Allison were to become major influences, while his acoustic inspiration came via Josh White and, inevitably, Robert Johnson.
It wasn’t long before Otis bought his first electric guitar and immersed himself in mastering and developing his technique, often with potentially fatal consequences, and always to the virtual exclusion of everything else, a dedicated approach that he was to carry forward into his professional career. "My first electric was a Sears Roebuck Dan Electro with the amp in the guitar case. Man I practised day and night, until my old man thought there was something wrong with me because I never went out to play with other kids. The thing is, my amp must have had a short circuit in it, ‘cos once in a while I would get this electric jolt from the amp, but I didn’t care because I went on playing ... good thing the current was 110 volts and not 220 like in England".
His passion for the blues, "I never did get interested in the rock thing, Hendrix, Cream etc., and the only white bands that I liked were Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite who were big in California and were playing straight real blues as close as possible to the black players. It was these guys who were really important in bringing black music to a white audience", made it inevitable that his first band, The Unknowns, a high school band featuring two guitars, bass, drums and a keyboard player who also sang, would concentrate on playing R & B covers at local dances, and at the age of nineteen he formed his first professional band, "The band was called The Bliss Blues Band, and was me on guitar, Ted Swedenburg on vocals and rhythm guitar, Craig Lichtenwaller on bass, a harp player named George and a drummer called Roger. Craig is now a successful record producer in Virginia. At the same time, I was also playing deep Delta blues bottle neck as a duo with Ted from the electric band. I was approached by a record label to do a solo acoustic blues album, which I recorded for them at age 20. It was never released, and I hold the masters, but I will never release it because I sing on it ...and you know that’s bad".
Otis had now taken to frequenting the proliferation of blues clubs in the Bay area, and it was at clubs like Eli’s Mile High Club that he got to see and appreciate artists like Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Pee Wee Crayton, L C Robinson and Cool Papa, but it was seeing B. B. King opening for a San Francisco acid band at the Fillmore West, that was to fashion Otis’ musical direction within the blues genre, the power and passion of the performance instilling in him an infatuation with horns that he was to carry throughout his future bands.
Although the early 70’s proved to be bland years for blues, Otis still managed to sit in with many of the big names of the genre, continually learning and honing his skills, and it was during this period he was to be christened Otis, by a Chicago singer/guitarist called Eddie Ray, with whom He had a regular gig as a second guitarist. "He was very good when he was not drunk or doped up..and this was the reason he was not recorded. He had many offers but he would not get it together for the session, in fact he was involved in too many shady going’s on to sometimes meet the gig, or he would show up without any amp, because he had sold it. I now know he left town for good, pity, ‘cos he was very good, and I learned a lot from him, and he encouraged me to go out on my own as an instrumentalist. He let me do all the instrumental songs in the list and would introduce me saying, "We gonna let Otis’ Guitar do the singing now", in fact it was Eddie Ray who started call me Otis in the early 70’s and it stuck".
One of Oakland’s other prestigious blues clubs was Larry Blake’s on Telegraph Ave., and it was hear that Otis was to meet and strike up a lifelong friendship and musical respect for Curtis Salgado, an artist who would later be featured on Otis’ own recordings, but who at that time was playing harp and sharing the vocal duties with another young artist, who was unbeknowingly on the threshold of stardom. "Larry Blake’s was an important club in Oakland, and all the most important blues names would come and play there. Robert Cray was friends with the artist booker for the club, and he would bring Cray’s band down from Oregon to play three consecutive nights to help them gain a reputation and save money. Cray’s sound was completely different from what it is now, he played mostly covers, but his own arrangements, and was sharing the front-line with singer/harpist Curtis Salgado. He played a Gibson ES 345 semi-hollow body and had a more classical blues sound, but man Cray’s sound was developing fast and everyone knew he was going to make it. He was a pleasant shy guy who loved to talk about music. When he made it big he repaid the booker at Larry Blake’s by hiring him to play guitar with his band ..Tim Kaihatsu".
It was also at Larry Blake’s, in the early 80’s, that Otis was to meet the talented and enigmatic Joe Louis Walker, the two artists striking up an instant rapport and respect for each other both as individuals and musicians. "I was jamming at Larry Blakes and he (Joe Louis Walker) showed up. He introduced himself and we talked blues, and from that day on we were the best of friends. I play with his band, he plays with me etc., and in fact Joe always tell me that I am the brother he never had. Joe has had a tremendous influence on my musical and professional life from the way to run bands to arranging songs to be interesting and showing me how to play chord formats etc".
Before his first meeting with Joe, in Oakland, Otis had temporarily relocated to Europe. When hearing of the success artists like Luther Allison and Memphis Slim had carved out for themselves there, in 1977 Otis decided to move to France, to cash in on the European blues boom, but his expectations were dashed as he recalls. "We all heard that blues is real big and respected in Europe, but this was not to happen. I formed a big band, which went nowhere, because the venues did not exist. All they had was dingy little basements that hold 50 if lucky, and the money was no good. So I got involved with a bunch of American ex-pats playing country music and formed a Bob Wills style western swing band. I was the pedal steel guitarist in this outfit and we survived playing a lot of church work, and corporate gigs".
Despite the failure of his first trip to Europe, Otis was to return in 1985 after meeting and marrying a Welsh girl, and deciding to follow her to England, intending to "locate an established blues band and ease my way into it. No go! There wasn’t one single band on the scene in London playing anything that resembled real blues, which was a shame, because this was the land that gave birth to Peter Green, Eric Clapton and John Mayall. I thought that you would have an abundance of Mick Fleetwoods and Jon McVie’s, but no way, the scene was full of plodding rock drummers and heavy handed bass players".
Although this situation may have seemed a problem at first, as Otis strived to establish himself on the British blues scene, he quickly realised that it was actually a blessing in disguise, as it meant that the only way he could achieve his ambitions was to start from scratch and build the sort of band that would play the blues exactly the way that he wanted, shaped, guided and encouraged by his personal vision of the music. "So this gave me the opportunity to start the one and only real blues band in the style of B. B. King and Johnny Otis, playing big band city blues, in England. So again I set out visiting every pub in the city to recruit members for my project. If I liked a player, I would approach him and offer him the gig. Pretty soon I had a full ten piece band. We did gigs at the Latchmere, Kings Head on Fulham Road and the Mean Fiddler, which just opened, and because I was friends with Vince Power and he liked the band, he would book us once a month. This was the best break we ever had".
Finding a blues vocalist who fitted the conception Otis had mapped out for his band proved a real stumbling block, but he eventually recognised the blues potential he was looking for in a soul singer "I had already fired three vocalists by the time I saw Earl Green singing 60’s soul classics in a restaurant. After talking I told him what I had in mind, but he had a day job, and was not too easy about touring. I knew he was not a blues singer but loved classic soul, but I gave him plenty of tapes to start learning the songs and change his style", the addition of Earl to the line-up completing the first incarnation of the Dance Kings with which Otis was really satisfied.
Otis now set about establishing the Dance Kings as a real force on the British blues scene, their infectious brand of swinging West Coast R&B using the influences of artists like Jimmy Liggins and Johnny Otis, and infusing it with a contemporary feel that produced a style of blues that was unique in it’s concept (in Britain) and on the verge of taking the it’s blues scene by storm, their big break coming when Otis "managed to bamboozle my way as support to Gary Glitter Band at the Royal Albert Hall in 1987", a prestigious gig that was to give Otis and the Dance Kings the exposure they needed to launch themselves at a national level, "we opened up for Gary to a capacity crowd, with plenty of college kids. Alan Robinson, a promoter, was at the gig and signed me up for agency and management, and we started playing colleges and universities all over England".
Alan Robinson was also instrumental in getting Otis and the Dance Kings their first record deal, "He obtained a deal for us with Special Delivery Records, three labels were interested, Red Lightning, Topic and one other, but in the end we chose Topic because the label boss, Tony Engle, agreed to fly Joe Louis Walker over from the States to produce the record, which we cut in two days, mixed in one and released two months later". The resulting album, ‘Always Hot’ (Special Delivery SPD 1019), of which Otis said "I love some of the blues I did on it, but it was mostly big band arrangements", was released in 1988 and drew the following comment from Norman Darwen in Blues&Rhythm, "this is an impressive debut from a ten man aggregation rapidly making a name for themselves both in Britain and Europe", and this sentiment was echoed when the record was voted ‘Winner..Best Blues Album’ in the 1989 British Blues Foundation Awards.
By now, Otis had also come to the attention of John Stedman, whose JSP label was famed for financing and releasing recordings by little known and little recorded black American blues artists, and he recognised how valuable Otis would be when recording artists whose music required that authentic Big Band blues and R&B sound that Otis had perfected. "John was recording old black blues artist at that time, but he knew he had a problem with English backing bands who were too rock orientated and not easily flexible to play in the style of whoever artist they were backing", this collaboration was to provide Otis with a further opportunity to demonstrate his versatility and talent by linking him up in the studio with some of the cream of the American blues and R&B scene, the first being that enigmatic showman, David Kearney, better known as Guitar Shorty. "We had already backed Guitar Shorty for a French tour, and I believe either Short requested my band or JSP wanted us, so we hooked up with Shorty one day before the session. John Stedman wanted a pure blues album, but Shorty had something else in mind. He was riding the reputation that he was married to Jimi Hendrix’s sister and he taught Jimi how to play, so on the day of the session he shows up with a million foot pedals, fuzz wah wah, everything in the land. John Stedman and I looked at each other in bewilderment and we both said to each other "You tell him". I was chosen to inform him that there was no need for all that stuff and we wanted a pure blues album which he was capable of doing. To break the news to Shorty I used the old Howling Wolf story when he was cutting the "Electric Wolf" album and when he walked into the session and found all the white players with long hair and fuzz pedals, he said to one of them "Boy, you go and get that hair cut, and on your way to the barber throw that shit in the river". Pointing at the pedals, Shorty got the message and requested that he use his wah wah pedal on one song only. The session was one day. We cut the songs in twelve hours, and I mixed the record all night, and I remember Shorty was so sleepy in the middle of one tune, "As The Years Go By", that he wouldn’t bother to tune his guitar, so I had to go and over dub my guitar parts later. The mixing was hell, because we had to do 10 songs in the middle on the night. But I did it, and the album was very spontaneous, almost a jam, but the critics loved the rough edges and it even won a W. C. Handy Award for Best Foreign Blues Album". This session served to demonstrate the single mindedness and respect for blues as an art form, that has become a major feature of Otis’ work, both live and in the studio, an attitude that has sometimes resulted in Otis being misunderstood both as a band leader and a musician, a claim he counters by saying "don’t mistake enthusiasm for megalomania. I can’t afford to have ten musicians all trying to do their own thing. The band carries my name, I pay the wage bill, and if the overall sound is not what the customer expects, it’s me who carries the can, the musicians still have to be paid, so it’s me who calls the shots. I know the sound I want and I lead from the front, and my success and reputation has been built on that, and it shows in my music".
The success of ‘My Way or The Highway’ (JSP CD 245) persuaded John Stedman to give Otis full rein on their next collaboration, recording legendary Texas bluesman Phillip Walker. "Doing Philip Walker was easier, I knew him and his style, and so I had a chance to write new tunes for him. John Stedman was impressed with my work on Shorty, and gave me full freedom to produce Walker. Philip arrived three days prior to the session and stayed at my house where we picked and worked on the songs, and JSP really splurged out on this project by budgeting for three days studio time", and the resulting CD, "Big Blues From Texas" proved so successful that it was voted Blues&Rhythm magazines CD of the month in December 1993.
Joe Houston was to be JSP’s next project, ‘Return Of The Honk’, a session Otis was really looking forward to, but as with Shorty, the session was to have it’s own problems. "Joe Houston was the session I was really looking forward to, and I convinced John Stedman to do a retro honking tenor R & B CD with Joe, and Joe agreed. The dates were booked and I flew my drummer, Neil Gouvin from Boston especially for his big band drumming, and England’s premier honker, Ray Gelato, was also booked to lend a hand. The day arrived and the whole band met for rehearsals, Joe showed up, but after one tune he throws his sax on the floor and he says "I ain’t doing that shit", meaning honking sax and R & B. He stated that he was tired of that reputation and he was capable of better things, and can we please let him do Elmore James tunes and Muddy Waters, and he wanted to do Cleo’s mood. Everyone in the room was silent. Is this the end of the session before it started? No coaxing could change Houston’s mind. He did not want to play honking tenor on this record and that was final. I informed John Stedman of the problem and he must have seen his financial investment going down the drain, as he didn’t say much except may be @*"!%/. A two hour standstill was quickly broken when pissed off, I went to Joe and with rage and anger told him that the band has agreed to do an R & B album and that we "Were gonna do it with him or without him". I guess the image of 6’3", 220 pounder standing over him with rage in his eyes changed his mind because 5 minutes later a big smile takes-over and he says "Otis, I’ll do it for you only". So we cut the record still under deep reluctance from Joe. He played his ass off on the songs, but he sat down throughout the session. Never stood to solo, and he never made an effort to sing into the mike. I had one guy in the room try to follow him with the mike, so we could capture the stuff on tape. He only did one rehearsal and one take, that’s it, and nothing on Earth would get him to do another take or overdub. But in spite of his unco-operation we still came up with a great product. I know because Joe Houston called me from Los Angeles 3 months later to tell me that he wants to do another honking sax album with me".
Despite his success under his own name, Otis still likes to be involved in promoting the careers of lesser known artists, a sign of his love for the blues " I have a few projects lined up for JSP. We wanted to record Maurice McKinnies from Oakland. He is a true blues artist in the Jimmy Reed tradition, and he plays harp and guitar at the same time and I knew him from my Oakland days. We also want to record Big Bones, also from Oakland and who also plays harp and sings. but the project with Maurice is postponed because he suffered a stroke recently and is paralysed on one side and can’t play".
In 1991 Otis was voted best UK blues guitarist by the British Blues Foundation, the first of seven consecutive wins in that category, culminating in him being the first artist, along with Bonnie Raitt, to be honoured with a new Award, ‘UK Gallery of Greats’, in 1995.
Meanwhile, between November 27-30, 1990, Otis had recorded a session in Lyon, France, featuring his own band, including vocalist Earl Green, plus special guests Joe Louis Walker, Pee Wee Ellis, Jimmy "T99" Nelson and Calvin Owens, the all star line-up demonstrating the respect with which he had come to be regarded by his fellow artists. "I recorded ‘He Knows The Blues’ for a new French label, who did not have the knowledge to push a product. They paid for all the artists I wanted, to be flown in from America to record in Lyon, France, and it was an easy session because I had written the material way before and the band was truly rehearsed, but they couldn’t do anything with the finished masters, and they sat on the shelf for a year". ‘He Knows The Blues’ seemed set to languish indefinitely in France, until fate and Joe Louis Walker stepped in to make Bob Fisher and Sequel Records aware of the talent and potential that was literally ‘sitting on their doorstep’. "Sequel had just put out the Successful Blues Guitar Box Vol. I. and Joe Walker was included in it, so Otis made a hint to Bob Fisher that he should include me in the next one. I called Bob myself one month later, and appropriately enough he was working on Vol. 2 and "yes he wants to include me, and would I send him a track". I sent him "SRV/My Mood Too", a slow blues which we recorded live in the studio. Bob called back and said he loved that tune, and would I have some more, and I told him "I have a whole CD sitting unreleased". He took it for release World-wide and the rest is history as they say". This was to presage the start of a relationship that is based on mutual respect, Otis saying, "Bob Fisher has been an important part in my career, because he believes in what I do and likes it. He is extremely well knowledgeable in blues and knows instinctively what’s good, and he also believes in promoting a product for long term gains, rather than short term profits. He has many contacts World-wide and he manages to place my product on Fantasy Records, and Japan’s P-Vine Records".
‘He Knows The Blues’ was released to great critical acclaim, Bill Moodie in Juke Blues calling it "absolutely indispensable", and Chris Smith in Blues & Rhythm stating it "is the best contemporary blues recording I’ve heard in a long, long time", and this opinion was not confined to this side of the Atlantic, as it was a W.C. Handy Award nominee for Best Blues Album, ‘SRV / My Mood Too’ was nominated as Best Song and Otis himself was nominated as Best Instrumentalist-Guitar, in their 1993 Awards, while back in his adopted home, Otis swept the board in the British Blues Foundation Awards, winning three categories, Best Blues Guitarist, Best Blues Band and Best Blues Album, and the CD was also Blues & Rhythm’s CD of the month in March, 1993. ‘He Knows The Blues’ had proved to be the catalyst that projected Otis’ explosive talents on to the world stage.
Having prised open the American blues market, Otis decided to use his new found status and cull the best facilities and talent available by making his next recording in the USA. "I had already started doing gigs over in America on the East Coast and playing the newly opened House Of Blues in Boston, where I met all these great players, like Roomful, Ronnie Earl and Sugar Ray, who was without a band. When it came to doing a follow up CD, Boston was the natural choice. I called George Lewis, a veteran producer of the early 80’s and he set up the session and booked up the players that I requested. Luckily January is a slow month for all musicians, and I pretty much got all the players that I wanted, and to top it up, there was a severe snow storm on the east coast, which forced all of us to stay at the studio, and no-one could go home. We cut fifteen songs in three days. We were doing 5 a day, and all was smooth and the players were so supportive. Kim Wilson flew in and did his track and he was so professional. He loved it, and offered me three more unrecorded songs of his to do in the future. The session was the easiest recording in my life and it showed me the value of working with people who love and respect the music they play, because between them, the musicians must have had over 100 years of experience playing blues". The artists who collaborated on the sessions reads like a who’s who of contemporary blues including Neil Gouvin (drums), Michael "Mudcat" Ward (bass), Anthony Geraci (piano and keyboards), Gordon Beadle and Rich Lataille (tenor and alto sax respectively) and three of the finest vocalists on the current blues scene, Sugar Ray Norcia, Kim Wilson, and Otis’ old friend Curtis Salgado, and wit that sort of line-up it was inevitable that ‘Nothing Else Matters....’ would be a success, and the critics loved it, but importantly, despite the array of talent paraded on the set, they all recognised that it was Otis’ immense talent that stood out, grabbing the spotlight in a way few other instrumentalists ever could. Bill Moodie in Juke Blues commented that Otis "succeeds in what Robert Cray has been attempting....a stunningly impressive and contemporary album with a timeless feel to it", Norman Darwen in Blues & Rhythm commenting "throughout Otis’s burning, searing, pure blues playing maintains the important thread of consistency...all that’s good about modern blues", Jacques Depoorter in Living Blues stating "this is definitely one of the best contemporary blues albums I have heard...highly recommended" and Mark E. Gallo in Blues Access proclaiming "the brightest shining moments invariably come from the man whose name is on the cover....new master on the rise...Otis, your guitar feats are nothing short of inspired".
Although Otis’s international success was opening up countless opportunities, their were problems developing at home with his regular band, and true to his single minded belief in his music , Otis was not prepared to let his live work suffer or compromise his dedication to the blues, so "on returning home, it was clear then that I had to purge my band of malcontents, and I was determined to do more blues. To top it up they refused to play tracks off the new CD, because they were not on it, so the singer, the horns and the drummer had to go. At first he (Earl Green) did it (sang the blues) willingly, but after a couple of years he started to moan about the blues and wanted to do more of a soul thing...Al Jarreau etc., and It got to a point where if I asked the band to learn a new blues he would refuse and I guess the time had come to call it quits, because you just can’t run a band with members who did not like the music that you stood for. I was the blues police then, and did not want a band with ten different styles, because the singer liked this, and the piano player liked that. I always said love it or leave it. So, I hired a French drummer and a bass player, an Irish horn section and a Jamaican singer, and we were on the road again. I now have a great singer, also originally from Jamaica, by the name of "Brother" Roy Oakley. He is great, with wonderful natural phrasing, and absolute time keeping. He also was not exposed to blues, but he has a natural love with Howling Wolf and Elmore James".
It was Otis’s single minded belief in his talent. and his personal conception of how he wanted to portray the blues, and his relentless dedication in pursuing his ideals, ( a characteristic he probably inherited from his father’s disciplined approach to life), that garnered the reputation of his egotism and arrogance as a live performer, and prompted his statement not to "confuse enthusiasm for megalomania", a statement that is confirmed by his continuing and growing reputation of leading one of the most authentic and exciting blues bands on the scene today, and the constant requests from touring American blues artists to have Otis as their backing band. "Since the early days of running bands, I knew what makes bands break up. Too much democracy, no strong leadership, and no musical identity are a few reasons why bands end up in disappointment. I knew that I was not going to waste all my efforts in getting this band started by catering to individual peoples whims and fancy, and I strongly believed in not furthering anyone’s career but mine, so, if I had trouble with a singer, piano players, or sax player, I always said the same thing to them, "If you are not happy with what you are doing here, go and do your own thing, but don’t do it all over me". There are a million musicians out there, and right now anyone could be in The Big Blues Band. My reputation as the real thing in England, leading a disciplined band with horns, kept visiting artists asking for my support on their tours in Europe, and I would turn down people I did not believe in or who I thought might be troublesome on the road, but I loved backing Robert Ward who was an excellent songwriter and guitar player".
Following up on a success like ‘Nothing Else Matters,,,," was going to prove a real problem for both Otis and Sequel, but this only served to inspire Otis, who along with Bob Fisher, set about making plans for and recording the new CD, as Otis explains. "Bob Fisher of Sequel Records, and I, sat down to discuss it in late 1995, and the main topic was how we were going to top the last one. We had all the stars, great players, good songs, a big issue for any artist and his record label. We had to be different, completely different, so I didn’t want to call up all those guys from Boston, Sugar Ray... and do it again, more of the same. It would have been nice, but I wouldn’t have considered that creative, and I always like to top myself too, so I suggested to Bob, maybe I could do it in San Francisco where I know a lot of people. Austin, Memphis, someone even mentioned Detroit, Motor City sounds, but the whole idea was one thing, we had to follow up on the success of very commercial tunes contained on the last CD. Numbers like ‘Finish Line’, ‘No Reason’, ‘Commonsense’, which incidentally at the time of release were receiving twenty to thirty airplays per day, on English stations from Jazz FM to BBC 1, and various local BBC stations, so although I can make a straight blues album in my sleep, I felt that maybe I owed it to myself to take the blues a little further, so it was Bob Fisher who simply suggested New Orleans, which is the old capitol of hits in the 50’s. The New Orleans sound has always been revolutionary, always been new, an amalgamation of all different types of music, and basically it has balls, guts, lets face it, Guitar Slim came out of there, Little Richard, and all those beautiful ballads from the 50’s, so we thought that’s a good place to kind of make our mark, as my ideas for the new CD were to take the blues a little further, modernise it, amalgamate it, change it but not to sell it out. I see no harm in taking a funky tune and putting blues guitar on it to keep it on the straight and narrow, B. B. King did it, Albert Collins did it. So, New Orleans was the place, and Bob Fisher’s connection was a man called Marshall Seahorne, a very interesting character who recorded Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf in the early 50’s, and played an important role in the sound of that city, in terms of his work with Alan Toussaint and the Sea-Saint Studios, where incidentally Paul McCartney and Paul Simon recorded in the 70’s, just because of the sound they had there. So, just like the late 50’s and 60’s when New Orleans was ‘Hit City’ in the USA, a lot of artists from other cities throughout the States started sending their own artists to record in New Orleans to get that sound, like Bobby Bland was sent there, so on and so forth, so I guess Bobby Fisher wanted to send me there to get the sound. So this is late ‘95 and I made the calls as usual, decided who I wanted to use. All the songs had already been written I always write songs, I had a bagful of songs again and demoed on them and of course when it came to the choice of singers Curtis Salgado was at the top of the list. I wanted Kim Wilson but he wasn’t available so Darrell Nulisch who I played with in Boston many, many times was a good choice and Robert Ward was the other one in mind but unfortunately, during the session, at the time of the session Robert was arrested and jailed, it was some misdemeanour, so he was not available. A real shame.
As far as the rhythm section was concerned I needed some great players who are very experienced in the studio so Steve Gomes on bass, and Rob Stupka and Neil Gouvin both on drums came to mind, and they were arranged and available, then we called the horn players, pedigree New Orleans horn players, played with Doctor John’s band, Irma Thomas’s band and started with the Dave Bartholomew band, so those guys were all set up and ready. The Hammond player came from Doctor John’s band too, so we were lucky in that sense. So I got the players all ready in the rhythm section, the horn section, the keyboards, the singers, and I’m so glad that Curtis Salgado was available. The date was booked for the studio and we got a great studio, the Sea-Saint, booked in New Orleans, and time came nearer and you know the funny thing, I hadn’t realised that the dates I had booked for the studio, the 16th February - like 26th February was the great time of the great Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which sends the city up in great chaos and you know no rooming was available for all of us, and I’m flying everybody left and right, so no rooming was available. We had to finally either get some accommodation 45 miles out of New Orleans and drive in everyday or cancel the session, so what the hell. We lived in Slidell, which is Redneck city, and worked in east New Orleans which is black New Orleans really and the contrast we saw on a daily basis was incredible. Going on a morning and working in a studio with a lot of black deprivation and crime and then go back at night and live in a white city U.S.A and it’s Rednecks all the way. Incidentally, Rob Stupka the drummer’s a wonderful musician and a great great session drummer who has worked with people from Luther Allison to Maynard Ferguson and I needed a drummer who could play all kinds of styles from funk to blues to shuffles to everything, not be restricted by one style of playing. Like I said, steady, rock steady, preferable for the session. You see all our songs were not straightforward blues, they didn’t have the usual 12 bar 3 chord changes, I tried to surpass myself this time. I worked in ballads, which are a kind of a reminder of the old southern soul. I worked some blues. I worked some funky stuff which may even resemble the Meters with Albert Collins on guitar. So anyway, let me just name the guys on the record, that’s Rob Stupka on drums, Neil Gouvin on drums, also Steve Gomes on bass, Darrell Nulisch on vocals, Curtis Salgado on vocals, Bruce Elsenson on Hammond B3, Chuck Chaplin on piano, on the tenor saxophone is Amadi Castanell, on alto is Joe Salisbury Jr., on trumpet is Stacey Cole. I also had the pleasure and privilege of getting Eddie Bo playing piano on one track, the great Eddie Bo, I’ve always admired him for his great 50’s rhythm and blues hits like ‘Oh,Oh’ etc., also Al Rapone on Zydeco accordion, diatonic accordion. You might think ‘what is Al Rapone doing on a blues album’, but that’s part of the whole scheme of things, because this to me is an album of amalgamation, a marriage of styles, so my blues guitar and Al Rapone’s Zydeco and so on and so forth. So, I flew in earlier, you know to make sure things are working out fine and get the rehearsal space and all the things I needed to do to get the production going and make sure the studio’s ready, the equipment’s fine and working but when the word got out that I was in town of course people started calling in, you know, wanting to be in a session. Earl King showed up and wished us good luck and I tried to get him to do a number but he was contracted to Black Top, so I guess he couldn’t appear. Like I said we got Eddie Bo who’s a favourite of mine, we got Bruce Katz and Rod Carey from Ron Levy’s band, who happened to be in town, so we got them in to work a track. Al Rapone was there, we had a lot of people that I knew and didn’t know from New Orleans music scene. John Mooney was there, he’s that white dude slide guitarist from all that area. Al Rapone and I cut a little track called ‘Magic Mood’ which happens to be my wife’s favourite instrumental and it really works, you know, Zydeco accordion with a kind of Magic Slim style blues guitar and I call it ‘World Music, World Blues’. We also had Toni Lynn Washington, a great female singer from Boston, drop in and lay down the one vocal, so it’s kind of star studded you know, very various. Ultimately we ended up cutting with 18 songs and we discarded 2 because we didn’t feel we could follow up. It was a 10 day tracking session so 20 songs is pretty good. This really adds to my intention to only work with American musicians because we work fast, no matter how complicated the chordular changes, we work fast. Whereas my previous experiences in Europe and in England, without mentioning any names, have been very distraught and very difficult and you know I’m always kind of looking behind me trying to figure out if the drummer’s playing it right and if the band remembered the arrangement. With American musicians, man, this is second nature for them, it’s, you don’t have to tell them twice what you want from them, you just say it and you’ve got it. So it takes me to the kind of 18 songs which I guess Bob Fisher’s going to wilt down to 14 or 15, although as of today, which is 24th April, he’s had a hard time deciding which ones to leave out so you might end up with 1« CD’s or 2 CD’s worth of music, but we felt that, I can go on making new blues albums for the rest of my life, straight blues albums easy, but there was a wider market that we hoped to achieve and in any case blues was becoming and is becoming diluted by every Tom, Dick and Jean-Paul from anywhere in the world starting up their own blues band and shuffling along and how many times can you play "Mojo Working" or any of that friggin’ Chicago shit.
Because I admire Robert Cray and I love the work he’s doing, I guess he’s one of the few guys whose taken blues into the 90s without selling it out. I think he’s a powerful songwriter, powerful singer but if you listen to his lyrics he’s very commercial and I guess that’s the difference between your average Chicago band who are still in the ‘woke up this morning’ mode or Robert Cray whose lyrics are as effective as say Stevie Winwood or Robert Palmer. So, with that in mind I sat down to write real songs with real lyrics and real arrangements that are blues based, but hopefully will be radio friendly, so we can attract a wider audience. Now I’m not a blues nazi or whatever it is, I love my blues hard and real and I like it in the B. B. King style and the big city style, big horns, big guitar, big everything happening, I’m a big guy so the sound is big and that’s how I like to record and I just needed to kind of spread my wings a little bit and see how it works. But in the last three years or so I’ve been travelling all over the World and taken my road show to places like Budapest in Hungary, Istanbul in Turkey, Ismir, Ankara and places like that, Greece, and wherever I went they loved the blues. Not only that but they had a deep knowledge for the blues and a deep feeling for it, and that set me to thinking, because we’re talking about people in Turkey who knew everything there is to know about blues, the old guys, the masters, but there were some people who knew everything about me. We went to work in Lapland, literally near the North Pole where they don’t get much music anyway, but they are very well informed people and they know what’s happening and had the feel for it and that’s what got me thinking if the blues has spread all over the World and people have started to accept it, they must have a deep rooted feeling for it already in their culture. So, I started listening to local music you know Turkish, Greek, Scandinavian, Italian, Southern Italian, Sicilian, whatever, you name it, and they all had some form of music that resembled the blues, so I wanted to work with that in a way, hence my Zydeco accordion song and my Greek bouzouki song which is literally a kind of battle of blues cultures and it works. I got a funky New Orleans blues with Albert Collins style guitar on it, a kind of a Greek/Asian slow blues with a bouzouki on it, I’ve got congas on it, I have an instrumental, Hop Wilson style, with a pedal steel guitar, a tune that would kick the ass out of anybody man. Everything’s coming from the heart, everything’s blues, but in a way that takes it further way out into a kind of future amalgamation, a marriage, I like to call it universal blues because I met a lot of people who love it and this music here, my music associates that love, a universal love and feel for the blues, a multicultural love. You don’t have to be black and from Mississippi now to play the blues, and to enjoy it you don’t have to be white and secretive and living in Bexley Heath or Birmingham. You don’t have to run and operate a blues magazine to enjoy it, you just got to feel the blues and people from the mountains of Ankara to the people of the deprivation of Budapest in Hungary, they all love and feel it and this C.D. is the first universal blues album and no mistake. Don’t get me wrong that I’m selling out, I didn’t do a heavy metal job on this record, I didn’t put fuzz boxes on my guitar or play wah wah, it’s just my respect to all kinds of cultures and music. Incidentally I recorded a blues rap and that’s gonna freak out a lot of people, but I think rap is the blues of the black American people of the 90s. Since they invited the old original form of the 12 bar blues that we know of, they have all the right to reinvent it as it is today. I think the black man in current America is more deprived and suppressed than the late 19th century early black Americans for the 20th century black man the inner city deprivation is worse, and so is drug addiction, so they invented their blues in the form of rap and that struck me as king of concurrent with what I’m trying to do. So what I did was to take a rap beat and did what I do best, I put some blues guitar on it and believe me it works, it works better than you can imagine and if you can imagine a blues rap with all that fierce early 60’s Buddy Guy and, say Magic Sam guitar on it you know it’ll work, it works so much I think Bob Fisher loves it enough to put it out as a single.
Ultimately I don’t know what’s going to be cut or what’s gonna stay, that’s not my decision but I’m very happy about it, it’s the best godamn record I ever made in terms of songwriting, in terms of lyrics and in terms of concept which is very important today. Too many blues albums are not saying much, not achieving much and are basically a re-hash of the same old songs, so many covers of the same songs. I see records that people shamelessly put out with the same godamn standards over and over and over, and this why I felt blues may be losing audiences rather than gaining, because it’s not going on, it’s not going forward. People may be buying Eric Clapton records but they’re certainly not buying anybody else’s. People sell 500 copies and they think that’s important, but if Ronnie Earl sells a thousand records that’s nothing. We need to take it up to a wider audience and I hope this record does it for me, I believe in it, it’s a record of feel, a record of no compromise, great players, great songs and the production values are the best and it’s entitled "Perfume and Grime". "Perfume" is love and soul, sweet southern soul, and "Grime" is the new name for blues in the 90’s, dirty, rude and tough, which is what New Orleans is all about, love, soul, dirt, toughness and nasty blues".
Otis pulls no punches when discussing the blues, but his ideas and thoughts are directed by the realism that if the blues are not only to survive, but to reach and attract a wider audience, then they must constantly adapt to meet the social and cultural changes which are so prevalent in the world today, but this must be done without compromising the traditional roots and values that are the very essence of the music. "Perfume and Grime" is testimony to these values and in Otis Grand, the blues world has an artist who epitomises everything that’s good about the modern blues scene, and if Willie Dixon could say "I am the blues", then surely Otis Grand could rightly claim "I am the future of the blues".