Conversations about music
Blues, jazz, rockabilly, country and gospel are all a part of the rich musical history of Memphis. Yet the local music industry has faded in recent years, with few artists recording here and local musicians often finding it hard to earn a living.
“Conversations about music, “ is a series of interviews to examine the Memphis music industry and its prospects of regaining national stature.
Today’s interview is with Bonnie Raitt. Born in Burbank, Calif., she became interested in blues at an early age and taught herself to play the guitar by the age of 12. After attending Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., for a few years, she left to pursue a career as a singer in clubs in Boston and New York. With a strong foundation in the blues, she has tried over the years to allow her music to evolve into new and creative areas. Her albums frequently include songs written by popular songwriters such as Jackson Browne as well as traditional blues standards. She lives in Los Angeles.
Memphis music: a talk with singer Bonnie Raitt
Q — Although you clearly have developed a music style that is all your own, it is said you learned slide guitar from Mississippi Fred McDowell and blues phrasing from Sippie Wallace. You regularly include songs from Robert Johnson when you perform. McDowell and Johnson both were born within a 100-mile radius of Memphis. McDowell, a Tennessean, spent several years working in Memphis. Do you have any feeling of kinship for the Memphis-Mississippi Delta region that stimulated their growth as artists?
A — I would say that most of the music that I do and that has influenced me the most has come right out of Memphis or thereabouts. Stax-Volt and Willie Mitchell and Al Green and especially the older blues people like Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis and Memphis Minnie, who was one of the greatest blues guitar players. She was the first woman I ever heard play blues guitar. If it weren’t for the music that came out of that region, I probably wouldn’t even be in the business.
Q — Who are some of the other Memphis musicians who have influenced you?
A — In terms of the R&B music, of which I am a big fan, the Stax-Volt sound and Willie Mitchell’s studio and those people are a major influence on anything that I look at for songs to do, either going back or thinking about how I can incorporate those sounds into a modern context. I, for one, am happy to see black music played more on the radio in the crossover sense, but I wish there was a way to obliterate those categories. Memphis music’s heyday came when I was growing up. There was no black or white radio, everyone just played good music. You could hear the Temptations, the Supremes, Sam and Dave, and the Beatles all on the same radio station. I would like to see that situation come back because I think there are a lot of good black musicians who have always been ignored, especially in the financial sense, considering the number of white artists who are making a lot of money having been influenced by what they do. I think it is time some sort of focus was put on this. I’m always real sad because I was lucky enough to know a lot of the great blues people, the traditional blues artists as well as the ones from Chicago, and a lot of them have passed on, and unfortunately that music heritage has been relegated to some kind of cult. I would like to see some sort of foundation or organization bring that type of music to life so people can appreciate where it comes from.
Q — Music is ever-changing. Do you see ways for the blues to evolve into something new and different? I suppose what I have in mind is the transformation Tina Turner has undergone in recent years.
A — A lot of times British music has led the way for us to get back to our own roots. It was the Rolling Stones who turned people onto Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, when in the United States there was just a little bit of a blues revival in the folk sense. Once again it is happening in England, where the color line is not as evident as it is here, and we are being influenced by British music which is much more funk and dance oriented. So I see a swing back to R&B, which, to me, is as much the roots of rock and roll as anything you could point to. As someone who lives to rhythm and blues I’m real excited about that. When someone like Tina Turner gets recognition, that leads the way for other people to follow, people like myself. No one likes to play for just a few people. The people who play R&B would like to make a living at it.
Q — The blues that you found so appealing was just a step away from the music created in Memphis by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Otis Redding and Jerry Lee Lewis and others of their generation. Did those people have an impact on your life?
A — Oh, yes. All of them. All of them were major talents. . . I’ve never liked to put labels on things, but I think one of the things that is interesting about that part of the country is how many country musicians in that area listened to R&B and vise versa. There were a lot of blues musicians who were influenced by the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride. Of course, the biggest example of the blending of the two was Elvis Presley. . .
Q — Do you see a common denominator in the music from this region?
A — I can feel the thread but I really wouldn’t know how to explain it. . . it’s more or less something I like, something that is real in the same way country music is real talking about everyday things … I just can’t explain it as well as I can play it.
Q — You have performed regularly in Memphis over the years. How do you find it as a place to perform?
A — Oh, it’s fantastic . . .the way the shows are put together is indicative of a good place. I would like to play there more often.
Q — Have you heard about the renovations on Beale Street? Have you ever visited Beale Street?
A — I haven’t had a chance yet. I’ve never had much time to spend in Memphis because we have always left the next day. I used to go visit Fred (McDowell) in Como. I would fly into Memphis and drive down. . .Is the money for Beale coming from a civic organization? Great. That’s the one thing I wanted to say about revitalizing the music. The first thing to do is recognize the past. Create a museum, a place where young musicians can learn about the music. An archives where people could listen to tapes and see videos … a place to learn where the music came from. Just get it out there where people can be influenced by it, then maybe you would see it in the clubs again.
Q — Have you ever recorded in Memphis?
Q — Have you ever considered recording in Memphis?
A — Yes. I wanted to record with Willie Mitchell for a long time. But I had a band that was based in Los Angeles… I got involved with them and the kind of music we were doing together . . . but I don’t rule out anything. I have thought about it, it’s just that it hasn’t happened yet.
Q — Memphis is undertaking a second look at its record industry. There are signs the city is headed in a new direction. The mayor has announced a plan to make land and buildings available to already succesful record producers who will move to the city.
A — Wouldn’t that be great. I think that is a good idea. . . It’s kind of hard to pick everyone up and move them for two months away from their wives and children. It’s expensive to put people up in hotels. If they really want to see musicians go to Memphis to record they should arrange some kind of apartment building situation where they could have a kitchen and people could bring their families. You know, to stay in a hotel for six nights could run you more than half the budget you would have in L.A. for one week.
Q — What would it take to get you to record in Memphis?
A — Well, I’d have to have a reason for starters. In other words, if everyone I’m working with lives out here and is perfectly happy to stay here I’d be reluctant to leave… to me, music is wherever you find the connection. It’s not necessarily the city. But I do think it would be very good to have Memphis revitalized as a recording center. I’m not saying anything against it. I’m just saying right now there is no reason to just pick up and move to Memphis.
Q — What do you look for in a recording studio? Is it the equipment? The people who produce the records? The location? What are the ingredients for a good studio?
A — Bascially, just finding the right people. The only reason you do it where you live is so people can be around their families and it saves money. It would be kind of crazy to pick up and move somewhere else . . . but on the other hand, you tend to go where the producer is. So if someone is producing something out of Memphis that I like, then maybe in that case I would fly in and talk to the producer, and maybe we would use local musicians. But I would have to be pretty unhappy with my band to do that, and I’m excited about them now. So I don’t associate the town with the music . . . Memphis doesn’t have much of a reputation for music lately. There are not a lot of big producers there … I would just like to see more character come out of the music that is being played now. I think it is getting too homogenized. Who knows, if they get some good studios in Memphis and there is a way to move everyone down there without it costing an arm and a leg then there would be a reason to go down there. Other than that Memphis is a great place to play. I wish I could tour there more often.
Q — It has been said that interest in the blues is waning. Do you find that to be the case? Would you encourage or discourage up-and-coming musicians who want to make a career out of playing the blues?
A — I doubt whether traditional blues, or traditional bluegrass or traditional anything will ever be mainstream . . . but in terms of blues bands — and I’m going out acoustically myself next week — if you’re trying to sell more than a few records I don’t think it will work. It’s about time people broke the monopoly the records companies and the radios have where everything is formulated and decided in one city. I would like to see the return of college stations and progressive radio formats, so that all kinds of music could have a forum. Since Memphis is the home of the blues, it certainly ought to be a hotbed for that kind of music. I’m afraid that pretty soon because of a lack of interest in blues artists, except among the British, the Japanese and the Europeans, who always have supported the blues more than Americans, it will begin to die out. I would like to see this new generation be able to go to clubs and see it played instead of hearing it on records, or hearing me sing a blues song. It’s fine if they find out about Sippie Wallace from me, but they should go and buy Sippie Wallace’s records, too.
Q — Where would the music industry be if the Mid-South — and the people associated with its music — had never existed? Can you picture what your career would be today if the blues had never existed?
A — The whole basis of Amercian music was born right out of the region where you are sitting … the roots of jazz, blues, rock and roll, all came from that one area.
Q — What advice would you give those in Memphis who want to rejuvenate the music industry in the city?
A — For starters I would give them congratulations. I think it is great that the mayor is actually giving some support and it’s not just a couple of blues society people with no money, no matter how good their intentions. I would continue with the renovation of Beale Street . . . and have clubs book good bands, and give people work … I’m also for having some kind of living history, where people can go in and watch videos of some of the great musicians in live performance or listen to 78s that have been transferred to tape. I think there should be a public tape library where people could go in and listen . . . I think it could be real exciting to have some kind of a center there. There could be one in Chicago, but it’s hard in these times of a recession to think about things like that. People have got the blues too bad to think about studying it.
Q — What kind of plans do you have for the immediate future?
A — I’m getting ready to go on tour with Paul Barrere of Little Feat and Catfish Hodge. I think those guys opened for us the last time we were in Memphis . Catfish Hodge and Paul have been playing acoustics. They call themselves the Blues Busters. We had so much fun on the road that me and my guitar player Johnny Lee Schell are going out as a quartet, playing in Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Portland. Maybe we’ll take out little Blues Buster revue and go through Memphis. It’s going to be so much fun. It’s really fun to play an acoustic set.
James Dickerson is an editorial writer for The Commercial Appeal.