Blues Music Now! feature

An interview with Otis Grand

by Birgitta Larsson

Otis GrandThe man of many awards: British Blues Connection - Award Winner of "Best UK Blues Guitarist" seven times in a row (1990-96), Blues Association of France - Golden Award Winner of "Best European Blues Guitarist" twice (1998-99), and so much more. The man who is an incarnation of professionalism. I met Otis Grand in Eslov, a little town in southern Sweden, a day in October 2001 at the annual Blues Festival there.

Can you tell me a little about your background?

I've been playing the guitar since the age of 13, that was a long time ago. I turned professional at the age of 19, when I went to the University at Berkeley, California. I supported myself by playing guitar at clubs in a duo, an acoustic blues duo.

Did you play blues from the beginning?

I have never played anything else but blues. I have never attempted to play anything else. I have never listened to anything else but blues, and its derivatives, anything that comes from it. I love western swing, people like Bob Wills, so that's the stuff I listen to. During my days in San Francisco, the big thing in San Francisco was acid rock. People like, for instance, Jefferson Airplane. They were big and you were supposed to drop acid and take drugs and listen to music like that. But I wasn't into that. I was turned on by the guitar of B.B. King, and Albert King in the '60s. They were not popular, but I had this feeling for the blues and I never stopped listening to it. My roots are in the record player. I didn't grow up on a cotton farm or anything like that! I listened and watched my favorites. You had people like B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells coming across, they were touring, making great records for Delmark and King. I was turned on and I stayed turned on. I'm proud to say that in the last 35 years my love for the blues has never stopped, and in fact it's getting greater and greater. It might seem corny, but I think I'm on a mission to introduce the blues to a lot new people.

That's a fine mission I think!

Yes thank you. And I travel everywhere to spots where the big blues guys would refuse to go, like Turkey, Russia, Hungary We tour a lot throughout the world. Only Africa is left. I used to tour Canada and USA, with different bands. I recently was in San Francisco with the Joe Louis Walker band, he's a friend of mine, we just made a record, and we toured over there. And now, back up here, in Eslov. Then we go back to England, and then France. I'm happy to say that I'm not a big super star, but my career has sustained itself in a slow-but-sure way. I love to play guitar, and I love to turn on young kids to blues guitar. I've got a lot of kids that are coming up to me, from all ages, sometimes only 10 years old, saying "Man, I love the way you play guitar. Tell me what to do." The thing about playin' blues guitar is: you don't have to think about it. You just have to feel it. The minute you start thinking about playing blues guitar, then you can't really achieve real true blues, because you're playing too technical. I have seen so many guitar players who like blues but play it too technical. That is boring, really boring for the audience. So I tell people: don't worry about it, go lock yourself up in a room, listen to the old recordings and don't let your mind worry about it. Let your heart and soul absorb it. It may sound strange and corny, but this is the way I that I have done it and still do. I listen to records by my favorite people like B.B. King, and I always carry a tape with me of B.B. King's live blues show, "Blues is King." It's a record he put out in 1967. I play it before I go on the show. And I find it's a process, a symbiotic process. A lot of that stuff comes out through me. That process is a spiritual kind of thing, it's not mental. I don't think of the notes, I don't think of how I play. I just grab the strings and -- you've seen me play: I fight the devil you know. And that is not a show, it's not an act. I feel and I play the way I look. Fighting the devil, that's what it is. I don't even think about it, sometimes I don't even know who I am.

Sometimes you seem to be in a trance

Right. I am in a trance, and a lot of people are saying: "My god, hey, it's only a show, don't play so hard!" but I can't! I've gotta give a 1000 percent to the people who come to see me.

Freddie King seemed to have about the same feel about it, being in trance.

Yes, and look at Muddy Waters. He was really in a trance. After he had played at a show, he needed two hours to recover. And that's the real stuff. The old Buddy Guy, when I saw him in the '60s and '70s, was also like that. B.B. King's still like this. Another great guy that I love is Albert Collins, talking about being possessed by the devil!

This is what's wrong with the new blues guys. A lot of them are taking it too seriously. They're not looking at the soulful or spiritual side of the blues. They're too academic. They're more interested in intricate arrangements and that stuff. There's a lot of bands that I don't want to mention, cause a lot of them are my friends, but a lot of them are too technical. What the hell for? But have you ever seen Albert Collins, or Buddy Guy in the 60s and 70s? That's the kind of blues that I'd like to spread and let people watch. That's the kind of music that people should go back to. I call it the true blues.

I recently saw Otis Rush for the first time, and although he´s old now, and almost a shadow of what he used to be, still it was a magic moment to me.

Otis Rush is one of the greatest blues figures in the world, and he can still do it. But as you know he's not very well, mentally, so he's going through a lot of mental anguish. But when he's OK, nobody plays better than him. If you look at it, the great masters are all dead or dying. B.B. King is about to retire, Buddy Guy wants to be a rock star. To be honest with you, I think it is just Otis Rush who is still there.

I grew up watching these guys 30 years ago. And I didn't say that I wanted to steal their act or the way they played. This is simply the way I feel the blues should be played. These are the people who created that kind of music. Let's not forget them! We don't wanna listen to Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shephard and those blond beautiful guys. I want you guys to be able to appreciate the old music that kept me up all night. Cause these guys used to do 6-hour-shows! They used to play till 3-4 o'clock in the morning. That's the music! And if you've noticed, I play blues that you can dance to. And this is what those guys were doing; they were playing dance music. I don't want people to forget those old guys like Magic Sam or Freddie King because they are dead. I love to be able to be in a position where I might not make a lot of money, but can be presenting the blues of Freddie King ­ as it was. Exactly close to it. Not because I went to school and studied music, but because I know the feeling. I've got the feeling from it.

But you also have your own style. However, you can really play very similar to blues giant guitarists, if you want to: B.B. King, Freddie King and a whole bunch of others. I noticed that at a performance at Mojo Blues Bar in Copenhagen a few years ago. You are very talented in that!

Otis Grand, Ike Turner Well I don't copy anybody. I play in the style of B.B. King, but I don´t play note for note. Everyone of those guys I've seen, I've played like a lot of them, and I have opened to them, and I treat them like my fathers. They're much older than me. I had the chance to work with the great Ike Turner, who everyone knows only as a wife beater, but he is one of the greatest blues guitarists alive today. And he was very inventive. When I grew up I listened to Ike Turner playing his whammy bar on the guitar, doing all those great R & B things. And when I had the chance to join him and his band, it was a dream come true! I respect these guys and I try to learn from them, and of course I ask them all these unanswered questions I have. "Hey, how did you do that?" And most of them love to show you. I learned how to play the whammy bar just like Ike Turner, directly from him. I learned a part of the B.B. King vibrato from B.B. himself, and from Albert Collins how to tune a guitar. And they love to tell people! And they tell you that they also have learned from others! They love to tell you that if you like their sound, don't worry about it because their sound came from someone else. They listened to T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson and all those people before them.

Blues is a commitment, you can't say "Right, I'm gonna learn to play the blues today," and then the next night "No I'm gonna be a rock star" or "No, I wanna be a jazz soloist." You can't do that cause blues is a commitment. It'd be like Gary Moore from England, he is a heavy rock guitar player, and one night he said: "I think I'm gonna be a blues player," so he hired Albert Collins to play with him, to get the legitimacy. He did the record, and sold a million. And then he was like: "OK, I'll be a rock guitarist again" That's not a commitment! He thinks he will gain some more legitimacy and a little more respect by playing blues.

How are you able to get such a perfect sound and such a perfect performance? Do you have a concept for that and for being a bandleader?

Every band needs a leader. I believe there's no democracy in bands. If you have democracy in a band you end up with an avant-garde band. 'Cause every musician is gonna be playing his own thing at the same time. You can end up sounding like those bands in New York in the '70s, the Andy Warhol stuff. But for all the great bands from Count Basie to Duke Ellington, even B.B. and Bobby Bland, you have to have a leader. You have to have a sound concept, you have to have the arrangements and an overall control. So that they'll be able to play your vision. It's a product and it has to be, it doesn't matter which musician is playing, but the Otis Grand sound's gotta be there, it's gonna be the same product everytime. It´s like the Coca Cola formula. Don't fuck with it. This is it, this is my sound. My sound is based entirely on that B.B. King sound from the middle and early '60s, when he had two horn players, and recorded those wonderful albums like "Live at the Regal" and "Blues is King." Before he picked up this giant horn section. The concept is there, you have to be a leader and get the best out of your musicians. You gotta be able to control the flow of the show to a climax. I feed off the audience, I feel what they want, I know what they want. I'm always there. Not talking to them, but communicating with eyes, feeling what they want and their reactions. So I know if they want to continue to dance or listen to some blues guitar or saxophones. I can tell that right away, I've been doing this for 30 years. At a concert you gotta look at the audience, straight in the eye, and then you're gonna find out. Read their eyes and find out what they want, and then give it to them. You can't ignore the audience, those are your people there. As far as my guitar sound, my guitar tone, I use the classic setup. I play my guitar straight into an amplifier, no effects, no pedals, no nothing. I use an old 1965 Fender black face Super reverb amp, a Fender stratocaster guitar, and a Gibson ES-335 guitar with a trapeze tail. And it's straight stuff ­ only flesh and bones and wood, nothing else.

Dance KingsHow is it like to have a big blues band?

Well, sometimes it's hard economically to tour with a big band, more hotel rooms, airline tickets and so on. But the overall result is that it's indispensable, I cannot play in small bands. I've played with horns ever since I started playing, and I just love the sound. There are not too many people like me left out there who carry a big band and play old-style blues. I'm one of the old breeds, the old school kind of guy. I do it the hard way. Maybe I'm a fool but I love my music.

You live in England nowadays?

Yes, I live in London now. Before that I lived in Paris, France, for five years. And I've lived in New York, Austin, Texas, and Oakland, California. I'd like to think of myself as international. And you never know, now my eyes are set on Scandinavia. I love Scandinavia. Sweden, Finland, and Norway. I just love those three countries for the honesty of the people. I really love the people here. And I know it's really cold and it's hard, but a lot of my best friends are from Scandinavia and I do a lot of work here. I like the old-style values. I think the rest of Europe is getting screwed up. But then you have Sweden and small towns like this, it's still the same: old values. I'm an old man, and I like old values so I might end up living in ... I don't know... maybe Eslov! All I want is a place to sleep.

What do you think about the present situation for the blues?

Right now blues is having a really hard time, in America especially. A lot of the major blues record companies have dropped all their artists. A lot of the labels are not signing anybody anymore, a lot of the labels are having a hard time getting paid by the distributors. I think Alligator Records, Rounder Records, and Blind Pig are having a really hard time. My record label in the States, Valley Entertainment, is definitely having a hard time! It would be left to us just to tour and bring live music to everybody. I think what happened was that the labels got too excited about blues acts and signed up too many people. And of course these records don't sell because commercial radio is stronger than you think. Commercial radio pumps out Spice Girls all the time, and Ricky Martin, 24 hours a day to all these people. And they don't know any better. You'll never find blues tunes on commercial radio, so the people go buy Spice Girls and Ricky Martin records. They don't have a chance to listen to alternative music, so therefore the record sales suffer. It's very hard. But I'm lucky enough to still be recording, I've made a record that is coming out soon, with Joe Louis Walker. It's a duet record, and it's called "Guitar Brothers." So luckily, I still record. I make maybe one record a year or one every second year. I certainly don't make a record every four months. My career is slowly but surely. I don't go way up there. It took 40 years for John Lee Hooker to be recognized, took 40 years for B.B. King to become rich. B.B. told me he got so much money from "Riding with the King," the record he made with Eric Clapton, that he doesn't have to play again. He's gonna continue to play because he loves to play. "Riding with the King" is a year old, that's when he made his money. The rest of the time was hard work. B.B. makes money from live appearances, he doesn't really sell a lot of records, but he made a record with a big rock star and he's got the millions now. B.B.'s gonna retire soon. So anybody who has a chance to see B.B. King , this year ­ see him! -- or else you're gonna regret it.

I saw him about three years ago for the first time, but I must say I like your sound better.

Oh come on! B.B. is the master.

Well he's a genius of course, but personally I find him a bit too sophisticated.

B.B. is tired now. But man, if you'd seen B.B. in the 60s or the 70s... wow! That motherfucker was so wild. You think I was making faces? B.B. was sucking eggs all night. We call it sucking eggs , you know sucking lemons. B.B. was hard and loud. He'd take his fender twin reverb and turn up all the dials to 10. He loved to play hard, B.B. King. First time I saw him was in 1966 or 1967 and I was "Wow! I wanna be like him." And at that time I think he was 40. And he was playing so hard, so clear, it was unbelievable! That created an impression on me that is still with me, 'til this day. All my life I think of that night...gotta be like him.

Are you ever longing for the U.S.?

No. I love the sunshine of California, the food of California. But I love the security of Europe. There's a lot of madness in the States. The society is so competitive that it's disgusting. First of all, if you play blues in America ­ forget it! The money is so little. That's why I came to Europe. In the U.S. they'll pay you $50 a night for a man. That's stupid! It's a "take it or leave it" situation. In Europe the money is there, and the respect is there, security is there, and your kids can grow up safe. I'd rather be here. I love to be here. But I visit US two to three times a year.

You have got so many awards. Is there any in particular that is special to you?

Otis Grand We have a rock magazine called "Guitarist" in England, it's very influential. And they voted me one of the top 50 blues guitarists that had ever walked the face of Earth. To open a magazine and to see my heroes, and I'm there with them! There's B.B. King, there's T-Bone Walker, there's Albert Collins, there's Freddie King. All those guys! And I'm up there! Hey, somebody recognizes me! You have to believe that I don't do this for fame, I still think I'm a young kid, even at my age of 51, I still think I'm a young kid learning how to play blues guitar. So when I get these awards, I'm kind of embarrassed, 'cause hey! I grew up listening to these guys, and now I'm at the same pages as them. So it's hard for me to understand that. But I appreciate it when they do that! I also appreciate when you say, "Hey you sound better than B.B. King". I don't accept it, but I appreciate it. The award "50 best blues guitarists ever," is a tremendous honor for me. But I'm embarrassed you know!

In England I was voted best blues guitarist for seven years, and in the end they said, "No more, get out of here." Nobody's allowed to vote for me anymore. To give somebody else a chance. So they put me in the Hall of Fame. Now I've been voted the best blues guitarist in Europe. In France. Twice, and maybe a third year, and then so on. To me, I highly appreciate the acknowledgment. But I still think I'm just a touring blues guitarist. The kid who loved the blues. You've seen a picture of me when I was 13 years old with my first electric guitar, and I wanted to be a blues man type. From that kid till now, it's a long journey. I've been everywhere, done everything, played everywhere. But I still have that same attitude. I'm still trying to learn to play the blues. I can never say "Right, I've done it, fuck you all." To me every night is audition night. Last night at Eslov I was auditioning for the audience. As far as I am concerned, nobody knew Otis Grand, so I have to give them a 1000 percent, to win them over, to make them love me. A lot of bands say, "OK so we've made a hit record, let's just do these 45 minutes and get the hell out of here." For me it's like every night is audition night. People pay money to see you, you gotta give them the show.

Yesterday I noticed that you addressed to several people in the audience and gave them sort of a personal show. Some of them you gave the time of their lives, you even cared for a drunk guy. I liked that humble attitude.

Well I did that because the guy wanted attention and was making a lot of noises, so I said "OK I'll come to you." So I jumped off the stage and came to him.

Are there any young black artists nowadays that you like?

I love Robert Cray, no matter what anyone says about him. When I was living up in Oakland, Robert Cray was starting up as a blues man. And I know he's still a blues guitarist, although he's had a lot of commercial success. A lot of people don't like him because they think he's sanitized, but I know Robert Cray and he can play blues better than anybody. When he feels like it, and when he doesn't have to do a show, he plays the blues like nobody plays the blues. I am very jealous, because he is also a GREAT singer. He's one of my favorites of all time. And I think he should be included there, amongst those guys like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and B.B. King. But unfortunately the young black guys, they don't want to be blues men anymore. A lot of the young blues guys really want to be rock guys. Guitar players, they want to play Jimi Hendrix et cetera. They're not interested in blues, because it doesn't make any money. Everybody's looking for that immediate success. Although, I think there's a guy: Alvin Youngblood Hart. I like what he does, I think it's fantastic. I'm just really impressed by his records, going back deep to the roots. But pretty generally, there's nothing really I dig about them, the new breed, black or white. My favorites are still the old guys, besides from Robert Cray, who is the only guy I go out and buy his records of. I don't buy anybody else's records.

Do you know any Swedish blues artists?

Yeah, I love Knockout Greg. And there's a guy called Dan Klarskov (Danish; my remark), he's good. Let me see remind me, and I'll tell you!

Well we have for instance Sven Zetterberg.

Oh Sven, oh yeah, he's fantastic. Sven's good.

He sometimes plays with Knockout Greg.

Oh really? Well that's good. Sven is like me, he has that true feeling. I like that. I love Scandinavian blues; you find Norwegian bands that are amazing. Although they replicate, they play exactly note for note some of the sounds. But I think they've got it really well. Knockout Greg and Blue Weather, they play the California jump perfectly.

Do you know of Peps Persson?

Yeah, Peps he's good. I can't remember these names; it's hard for me. I think the blues has a stronger foundation in Scandinavia than anywhere else in Europe. I think that as far as Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark are concerned, the blues has a very powerful foundation, with more blues festivals than anywhere else in the world. With more blues followers. It's got something to do with being totally depressed all year. Cold and depressed! Ha ha. But the Scandinavians seem to love the blues, and I've seen some great bands, and I've played at great festivals, and have a lot of great friends here.

This is also where a lot of the old guys have been rediscovered. The blues was totally dead in the '70s, but it was kept alive over here. In Scandinavia and France. Buddy Guy never recorded for 10 years except for French and English labels. A lot of these old guys could not make a living in America but there were touring festivals in Scandinavia in the '60s and '70s. Have you ever seen Freddie King's famous TV show from a Swedish festival? You look at it, and it's like wow!

You've written many songs but you don't sing a lot.

I used to sing, but my approach, my technique was so bad, so my throat is damaged. So I don't sing anymore. But I know to formulate a song, and write songs with partners. I like to record original music. Unfortunately I don't think I'm gonna be able to sing again. But it's OK, I let my guitar do the singing.

The singer and all the other guys in your band yesterday were very good, I think.

Yes, they are very talented musicians, very good guys. Johnny Henderson on the piano for instance, he's so young, only 21 years old. Beautiful player. I pick guys who are good players but also good personalities, so that we don't have a hard time.

Someone told me that you are very strict with alcohol.

Well, they can drink after the show, but not before the show. Think of yourself as a lawyer: if you're a lawyer and drink 10 beers and then go to court, you can't defend your client, you'll lose your case. For me, me and my musicians have to go to court and present our case. If everyone of my musicians is drunk, it's not gonna be a good case, we're gonna fail. It's the same attitude. So the guys can drink as much as you want to after the show, but not before. I've seen so many bands come up with 15 beers on the stage, and they're drinking. They don't give a shit about their sound and don't give a shit about their audience. That's not my attitude. That's an old-style attitude: don't drink on stage. And of course that's a big battle, because musicians like to drink. So I have to be very strict. In which case: nothing on the hospitality rider. And it works. It's not being a dictator, it's not being too protective, it's just common sense.

If you hadn't become a musician, what would your life look like?

I´d become an FBI agent. Cause I like knowledge, information. I like discovering. It's a good lifestyle. I didn't say CIA, I said FBI. My career would have been like that. I did a degree in anthropology (UC Berkeley, CA, 1974), which is basically research, analysis, and discoveries of people and mankind; the study of mankind. And I stopped after that course, I'm not an anthropologist, but an anthropologist is basically an investigative agent, so the FBI would have been a good job.

About your records: is there any of them that you like particulary, that is your favorite?

Yes, "Nothing Else Matters." I like it because of the great band and the great songs.

A final question: Are you a happy man?


Main records with Otis Grand

Always Hot 1988 vinyl. CD re-issue Indigo Records, 1997.
He Knows the Blues Sequel Records, 1992.
Nothing Else Matters Sequel Records, 1994.
Perfume & Grime Sequel Records, 1996.
The Blues Session Vol. 1 JSP Records, 1997.
Grand Union (with Anson Funderburgh & Debbie Davies) Blueside Records, 1998.
Live Anthology Vol. 1 Mystic Records, 2000.

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