Blues Music Now! feature

And I got back into playing because I saw Luther Allison near the time he died and he said you're either (a bluesman) or you aren't. — Paul Filipowicz

Blues in the heartland — Paul Filipowicz

by Steven Sharp

Wisconsin blues guitarist Paul Filipowicz in Aztalan, Wis., July 1998.
(Photos by Steve Sharp and John Hart)

With its vast corn fields and ancient Indian mounds, Aztalan in south central Wisconsin seems an unlikely place to find a bluesman. Yet, after years of drifting from the Midwest to the West, then down to Texas, veteran guitarist Paul Filipowicz now calls this small village home.

"My wife is originally from this area," Filipowicz says. "We were driving around one day a few years ago near Aztalan State Park and we said 'Hey, this isn't too bad for southern Wisconsin.' We saw a house for sale and we were able to put a down payment on it, and here we are."

Filipowicz, his wife, and three boys who range in age from 8 to 11 years old, now live in a farmhouse in Aztalan, not far from the village's "crossroads" intersection of county highways.

"Hey, it's Flip," the bartender at the Yacht Club, located at the crossroads, says as Filipowicz strides into the tavern one recent weekday afternoon. With the threat of rain, Filipowicz has taken the day off from his job as a self-employed roofer. He's wearing a black t-shirt that proclaims "No black, no white, just BLUES." The regulars seated in the tavern nod their greetings to the barrel-chested Filipowicz as he settles in at the bar. A poster advertising his latest CD, "Never Had It So Good," on Texas-based Gila Records is tacked to a bulletin board in the bar next to photos of local fishermen and their catches.

"There's a lot of good people and neighbors around here," Filipowicz says of Aztalan. "And as a traveling musician, I can get to Madison and Milwaukee quickly on I-94 and I can even get up to Wausau in two hours, and down to Chicago. I like the highway access."

Filipowicz has been a blues guitar player for most of his 48 years. He got his start not long after hearing the legendary Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters on the radio as a child growing up just south of Chicago. At the age of 15, his father moved the family to nearby Fort Atkinson where he took at a dairy farm.

"At that time, I couldn't believe that he'd do that to us," Filipowicz says of his father's relocation of the family to the rural locale. "Man, I showed up in Fort Atkinson and I had my hair all greased back and they looked at me like I was from another planet. But I got used to it, and then I was only there for a few years."

"My dad was a great harmonica player," Filipowicz adds. "He played the old time standards."

Filipowicz discovered blues when he was exposed to it on the radio as a boy.

"I heard it first in 1956 or 1957. We had a radio and my brother got the ingenious idea of hooking it up to the metal bed, and we were able to get stations out of Oklahoma and that's where I first heard Muddy and Howlin' Wolf. I heard them back to back. I heard their harmonica and I thought 'Now that's the way it should be played,' as opposed to what my dad was doing. Before that, I just heard my dad playing that schmaltzy stuff. Ever since then, I've been on a blues jag."

Filipowicz recalls that he had no money to buy blues music until he was in his early teens. But when he was eventually able to scrape together enough cash, he bought a blues compilation album which contained the music of Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Wolf.

"And the thing I remember is that it had Wolf's "How Many More Years" on it and that was the first song I learned. I learned the one- and three-chord progressions that you could use to play that song and I learned guitar from that."

Before Filipowicz learned to play the guitar, he was blowing harmonica — or as it's known in blues, "the harp."

"I actually learned guitar from playing the harp," he says. "My family always had guitars and junk instruments lying around. We had a beat up guitar with four strings on it and I got into feeling the vibrations of the guitar against body. I even used to hold it to my head. I was eight or nine years-old and I was goofin' around with it."

For the young Filipowicz, West Side Chicago blues guitarist Magic Sam Maghett was the man. In fact, the late master Maghett, who died at in 1969 the age of 32 after suffering a heart attack, is still a favorite of Filipowicz.

"He was a real influence. I finger pick, so Freddie King and Albert King are favorites of mine because they play with their fingers. Listening to them helped me refine what I was doin.'"

Filipowicz began his career in blues as a street musician. When he turned 21, he played one of his first shows at the Mint Lounge in a building that now stands vacant at the intersection of Humboldt and North avenues in Milwaukee.

"That was a good experience. We did three nights for a total of about $15 in 1971. Before that, I was playing parties," he recalls. "I remember that, at the Mint, the first time we were there, we didn't have enough material, and later we mixed things around and stretched it into five sets. We did some Charlie Musselwhite and some stuff in A-minor. We did some Johnny Shines, Walter Horton, Junior Wells — 'Snatch It Back and Hold It,' and 'Killing Floor.'"

Also around that time, Filipowicz recalls that he discovered and immersed himself in the blues of Texas-based musicians, including Albert Collins and T-Bone Walker. Threads of the Texas blues guitar sound are woven into his style.

Filipowicz says he "toughed out" the 1970s and 1980s playing his blues throughout Wisconsin and in the South, and he lived briefly in Los Angeles, Denver, Colo. and Albuquerque, N.M.

During that time as well, he had opportunities to jam with many blues greats, including Luther Allison and Jimmy Dawkins. In fact, Filipowicz's hard-driving blues sound, with its slashing, stinging guitar, is particularly reminiscent of Allison's style. And he recalls that Dawkins allowed him to sit-in with him at a gig in the early 1980s.

"He taught me a lot in five minutes," Filipowicz recalls of Dawkins. "He told me how to develop a rapport with the audience and how to make the band smell like a rose. He taught me frontman type stuff, how to conduct myself on a stage."

In the mid-1980s, Filipowicz recorded an album entitled "Lucky Seven" and traveled down to Texas with some bandmates in a unit he named the Hellhounds. In 1985 they could be found playing around Dallas and Fort Worth. "We played all the way down to Corpus Christi," he says.

Paul Filipowicz

"And then I came back, and me and my wife decided to have a family. At that point, I had never lived anywhere for more than a year or so."

He decided to put his music on the back burner and did so for a decade.

"I was out of it for 10 years, getting my three boys healthy," he says. "And my wife wanted me home for supper. Then Albert Collins and Albert King both died in 1995," he recalls. "Now, I was raised on live blues shows, and I began to think 'Hey, the kids can't see a good blues show anymore. I can't even take my wife out to see good stuff.' And I got back into playing because I saw Luther Allison near the time he died and he said you're either (a bluesman) or you aren't."

In nearly no time, at the urging of fellow musician Smokey Logg, Filipowicz was picked up by the Texas-based Gila Monster Records. Following his 1996 debut disc, "Goin' For the Throat," Gila released Filipowicz's "Never Had It So Good" in 1997. Filipowicz composed most of the material on both discs and has received critical praise for his efforts in Living Blues magazine, as well as in the French publication Soul Bag.

Filipowicz most recent band is called The Madison All-Stars and features James Brown's old drummer, the respected Clyde Stubblefield.

"I picked up some of this band after they got tired of running around as members of Luther Allison's band," Filipowicz says.

Filipowicz stresses that he's not a blues purist, although he admits that he has no rock influences and his record collection consists of nothing but blues albums.

"I just want people to be able to hear a good blues show," he says. "And when I go to play at a club — it can be anybody's mom and pop-type of place and we turn it into a blues joint."

"Gimme whatever soda you've got — root beer, I don't care," Filipowicz tells the bartender at the Yacht Club. It seems a bit of an odd request coming from a bluesman whose face betrays the years he's spent living on the road, playing innumerable smoky old roadhouses. One might think that Filipowicz would have a taste for something a little stronger than root beer. But Filipowicz admits he's on the wagon and hasn't smoked or drank in nine months. He's serious about making his comeback to the blues scene a success, and he says that his recent focus on his health has done wonders for his voice.

"I can really tell the difference," he says.

"My goal?" Filipowicz says, mulling over an interviewer's final question. "Well, I'd like to be able to feed my family strictly by playing my music. And I think I can do that — quit the roofing work — in about three years."

To contact Filipowicz, call (920) 699-5445

Gila Monster Media's e-mail address is:

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