Featured Interview – Chris O’Leary

imageMuddy Waters’ 1977 masterpiece Hard Again had a life-altering, seismic effect on Chris O’Leary. So did a performance from his later-to-be boss. These epiphanies were the result of the guidance and influence of his father. Chris recounts:

“I grew up right here in New York, in Schenectady. And ah Dad, Dad played everything in the house. Everything growing up from Mantovani to Muddy Waters to Springsteen to everything. Yeah it was one of those households. It’s funny the first concert that I ever went to was The Band at Palace Theater in Albany. It was when Richard was still alive but it was after Robbie had left so it was the Cate Brothers and Levon and Richard and Rick and Garth. That was my first concert. So Dad was a really good musical influence. He bought me when I was 11 or so, I had heard “Mannish Boy” on the Last Waltz, so he bought me Hard Again and that was it. I heard James Cotton, I was done. It’s probably the most important record of my life. It is an amazing record. Afterwards I got into, you know, the 50’s Muddy with Walter and Jimmy Rogers and Otis Spann. And you know I love those records. But, my favorite Muddy Waters record is Hard Again. The production is, just everything about that record, the sounds, the performance, it’s just perfect.”

Chris O’Leary is a disciple of Levon Helm and James Cotton. Enamored with the harmonica at a young impressionable age by Cotton’s tour de force on Hard Again and having that holistic rustic group service-of-the-song trip of The Band baked into his consciousness with that first concert experience, Chris has continually honored and created within both traditions. O’Leary has also had the distinct pleasure of being befriended by Cotton and being mentored by Helm. A funny and instantly conspiratorial guy, O’Leary has made a living for the past decade on his own solo merit and hard work. Hard Again is often billed as Muddy’s “comeback” record. The truth is that Muddy never left, he and his brothers in arms like Cotton, lived their music, no separation between life and career. Muddy was able to continually reinvigorate his career by staying true to his music and being Real Deal. Chris O’Leary has lived his music the same way. He has had at least two Hard Again moments throughout his life and he is on the verge of a third.

First to understand Chris O’Leary you have to understand his love affair with the savage Cotton school of harmonica.

“As far as my playing technique I’m a Cotton guy. Like I said that Hard Again record, I’ve never heard anybody before or since who plays with that much balls. His playing on that record is just, I listen to it now. It’s just brutal. It’s straight heart through the instrument, it’s like mmmm. I’ve never really gotten past that, nor did I want to. That’s where I want to be and that’s what I aspire to do when I play. I’m a tongue blocker, but like Cotton I don’t tongue block everything. I’m not the greatest harmonica player in the world but I play from the seat of my pants. The best piece of advice I got was from Kim Wilson when I was with Levon. He said: ‘If you’re not playing by the seat of your pants you’re really not playing.’ You’re parroting or your regurgitating but your not in the moment.”

A former Hohner endorsee, Chris is now with Seydel Harmonicas:

“I had seen that a lot of the players that I respect so much: Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel and James Cotton especially, had started playing Seydel Harmonicas. So I called up Rupert who was like the North American artist rep guy. I said ‘hey Rubert my name is Chris O’Leary.’ He said ‘hey Chris I know who you are.’ I’m like ‘ah, I’m looking for a home.’ He said ‘you like our harmonicas.’ I said I don’t know. So I got a Classic, basically it’s like a Marine Band, it’s a one comb, it’s like the old Marine Band. They’re like really quality instruments and I’m with Seydel and I’m happy. They’re really well made. The Green company is just as old as Hohner; it’s just they were on the other side of the border (laughs). That company spent most of last century in East Germany so their name isn’t quite the same as Hohner you know. But they’re still made there and they’re great instruments. Oh and the customer relations couldn’t be any better. So I became a Seydel endorsee.”

Chris’ search for Chicago harp perfection has brought him to a boutique corner of the gear world:

“As far as microphones and amps. My microphones are made by the same guy who makes my amps. He’s in New England, he’s in Connecticut. He’s a guy by the name of Gary Onofrio. He makes these Sonny Jr Amplifiers. And ah they’re great amps. I’ve been playing through his amps for a long time. They’re hand wired and they’re built for harmonica. He knows his stuff, not only that, he’s a fantastic harmonica player. I heard some demos of his amp and I really dug it. And, I went to him and he had a couple right there and I went and played a few. I’ve had three different models of his and they’ve all been great amps. You know sometimes, depending on where we are at, I’ll play an old Fender. But, when I can, I’ll play the Sonny Jr. I’m used to it and it’s got that old Chicago type tone. His microphone that he makes is basically an old Shure element. He gets these elements from these old 50’s Green Bullets. And he stuffs it into a little Turner type shell. My hands aren’t huge, I mean I don’t have Sonny Boy hands, you know. Sonny Boy could cup a basketball. So cupping that Green Bullet sometimes I can’t get the compression that I want. So this is the perfect compromise. It’s got that dirt like a Green Bullet but it’s got a small shell so I can get my mitts on it and get that dirty Chicago sound.”

imageIn upstate New York, Chris searched for direction and had his first Hard Again moment in his then fledgling music career.

“I got a harmonica and a guitar and got into the usual cast of characters. Then after High School you know I played in some bands. But, then I joined the Marine Corps, so music was kind of put on hold for a while. When I was down in North Carolina I got exposed to some real Blues, real live Blues. And that kind of planted the seed a little bit further. And then when I got out of the Corps, I had had it (laughs). After seven years I had had it. I went over to Desert Storm and you know I was done. So I came back and I went to this school on the Hudson River called Marist College down Poughkeepsie. There was this really great Blues community there revolving around this little shit hole (laughs) ah called the Sidetrack. It was this like little bar, literally on the wrong side of the track. I went to a music store in the area and asked where can I hear or play some Blues and they said ‘go Sunday nights down at the Sidetrack.’ It was that kind of place where you never knew who was gonna play. Hubert Sumlin would play there. Lowell Fulson would play there. And in the actual Hudson Valley community, in that area, there was Pete Kanaras from the Nighthawks, and this guy Andy Follett, and Little Sam Davis, and Murali Coryell, and Joe Louis Walker ended up settling there, later. But all these people formed this great little Blues community.”

Chris’s musical trip was straight Chicago Blues and after seven years in the Marine Corps he was ready to push forward. He found some great help.

“I hooked up with this guy Pat O’Shea and we started playing the regional, you know locally and then regionally. And you know music became more important than school work. You know when you’re playing five nights a week it’s hard to um, get your school work done. And then somewhere along the line we made a demo. And this guy George Lembesis got a copy from me, while we were making it, like roughs, and brought it over. He was the photographer for the reunited Band, and he put it in Levon’s boom box. And Levon said (Levon accent) ‘who the hell are these boys?’ And George was like ‘they’re from across the river.’ And Levon was like ‘the Hudson River?’ (laughs) And George was like ‘yeah.’ Cause it was straight, like straight, Chicago. I mean I had real tunnel vision back then. I mean that’s what we did, traditional 50’s and 60’s Chicago type stuff.

So Levon came out and played on it (the demo). And then he started showing up at gigs and stuff. He had just finished his first bout with cancer. So he wasn’t singing, but he was playing his ass off. So we got this call one day, we were doing a jam in Hopewell Junction and we got a call from Butch, who was Levon’s manager, saying: ‘Tomorrow at 1 you guys got to come down to the barn. This is sort of an important deal. I’ve got a business proposition that the boss wants to put by you.’ So I went down and Levon said ‘I want you guys to be my house band at my club on Decatur Street in New Orleans.’ And that changed my life.”

Throwing everything he had at his music, Chris made the decision to jump in with both feet. This was the graduate school of Roots music with Professor Emeritus Helm at the snare drum wheel.

“I had just moved into a place with my soon to be wife/ex-wife. We had just gotten a place and I said ‘ah yeah I got to go.’ When a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-er asks you to be the house band at his club in New Orleans you sort of have got to go. So I did. I went down there and for years we played 5 nights a week with Levon down on Decatur Street. That opened up my mind. When I stepped off the plan, up until then I was like tunnel vision. It was Muddy, and Walter and Wolf and Junior Wells and Cotton. And that’s all I listened to, that’s what I lived for. When I got down into New Orleans my mind was blown. Music that still resonated as Blues was completely different. And different from street corner to street corner. Whether it was a Dixieland band or a band playing Meters type funk or a brass band whatever. New Orleans changed my entire musical outlook, it did. It was great.”

Levon Helm was Chris’s mentor and friend. They developed a strong loving bond over the years together. The lessons Levon imparted to Chris easily bubble up.

“Probably the greatest piece of advice I ever got musically was from Helm, and Helm said ‘play the song.’ Do whatever you’re doing, you know, the song is a song and it’s got a message or it’s got a story. If whatever you’re doing when you’re playing your instrument isn’t forwarding that then, you know, you’re up there playing for yourself. He said (haha) once about a certain guitar player who will go unnamed, he said (in Levon voice) ‘damn Chris there’s a lot of notes, that motherfucker have to play all of ‘em?’ He had 1,000 and 1 of those. ‘Someone’s got to tell that motherfucker it’s a bass guitar.’ There’s 1,000 and 1 Helm-ism that I could quote.”

Levon’s music and his legacy looms large on Chris. The lessons learned and the physical vibrations of the music are still at the forefront of his music.

“When I was with Levon I never sang Band material, I couldn’t. How could you sing a guy’s songs, a voice like that, with him behind you on the drums not being able to sing. So we never did any of that stuff. I regret it now. To have been able play ‘Don’t Do it’ or ‘Cripple Creek’ with Levon would have been the thrill of my life. So we do it now to pay homage to the guy because he made my career, I loved him and I miss him. And it’s some of the greatest music ever.”

After a long time on the road grafting his music with Levon to his life, Chris had another Hard Again moment.

“The club closed down a couple years later and Levon brought us out on the road as his band the Barn Burners. Me and Amy did all the singing, his daughter Amy. And Bobby Keys joined the band, from the Stones. It was the time, it was the time of my life. But, I lost my voice. I got vocal nods, or whatever they call those damn things. And I pushed it. You know I’ve never really been a trained vocalist or anything, I just sang from the seat of my pants. The doctor said ‘you got to stop singing or you’ll do irreparable harm.’ So that’s what I did. Life took over, you know. The one year turned into seven. Yeah, I got a job as a cop. But, seven years later in a divorce, theimagere was like a hole there. So I called up Levon and I called up Bob Margolin, some people, you know, people that I’d known. And I put out that first record. For about six years I did it part time. I was like balancing the cop job with music. I was doing the cop job full time and still doing a 100 nights a year. Then my back gave out, old injuries from the Marine Corps caught up with me. I couldn’t do the cop job anymore. So, last year we did 180 nights, this year we were on pace to do another really good year. But, that’s sort of fallen off until life comes back to normal. That’s it in a nutshell, that’s the story, it’s been a life (laughs).”

It is a testament to passion, talent and a pure ability to grind that Chris O’Leary was able to hammer out 100 nights a year while holding down a full time job as a Police Officer for so long. Chris works so hard, plays so much and is now so eclectic, it is hard for him to keep a consistent band. Drummer Andrei Koribanics has been with O’Leary for two albums and new bassist Andy Heniburg is the most recent person to hold down that seat.

“When I went full time, it’s tough to get somebody to commit to 180 nights a year when they have a family or they got home commitments. I had a road band, the saxes were always the same, bass, drums were always the same. I had Chris Vitarello for awhile but then he went with Bruce (Katz) and he could balance that for awhile. Chris is my favorite guitar player on the planet plus he’s my buddy. So I’m looking for a full time guitar player, I am. But the guys that I have are great. I use Pete Kanaras a lot. Pete played with the Nighthawks for a long time, for almost 10 years and he knows all the stuff. But he can only go out so far, so long. And there’s a guy, an old friend of mine, Pete Hop. He would be the perfect guitar player for the band but again he’s not ready to do all the road work that I want to do. And there’s one horn player that’s been with me since the beginning. And again he runs his own, he’s a contractor, his name is Andy Stahl. He can only do certain number of dates.

So, I’m either going to platoon guys like I’m doing right now, or find somebody. But, the gig is all over the place. My influences and my songwriting are all over the place, especially now. So it’s not the most simple gig in the world. It’s a lot originals, a lot of covers that run the gambit. But I’ll find somebody.”

Platooning musicians through a band that is as diverse and expansive as O’Leary’s is really tough. A band leader has to make sure he is able to do his thing and deliver to his fans, especially with a rotating cast of characters. Chris preps his bands.

“I got a whole bunch of live recordings. So before they come out on the road, we’ll do rehearsals of course, but they will get live recordings of us. They’ll get the studio stuff, and they’ll get video and audio recordings of the band live. So they’ll get a really good idea of what to play and what not to play before they step on stage. And of course we’ll rehearse. But I’m not one to over rehearse stuff either. People have lives, and there’s a fine line between tight and stale. I love a band that’s tight, but that can be accomplished by watching the band leader and knowing the music. It doesn’t have to be the same rehearsed stops and starts, sometimes that comes across show band-y and stale and that’s not where we want to be. Like I said it’s a fine line.

I watched this video of Van Morrison in the 70’s just working his band like he was James Brown, I mean just workin’ em. Everybody was in tune, everybody was on the same page. And you could tell it was different every night. They watched him, and sometimes they missed but who cares? It was live, it was real. I love that. I love it when it’s spontaneous but still tight. It’s music as far as I’m concerned. And Levon was all for that. He was in the moment man. He played in the moment. If there ever was a band that was truly a band, where the sum was the equal of its parts, you know, it was that Band. You take one person out and it’s not even close to being the same thing. Levon was all about that, he was all about making a band. God bless him, I miss him.”

Chris O’Leary is not only a great harp player and passionate singer he is an effective and prolific songwriter.

“I’m a songwriter, that’s what I like to do. I think I got something to say. And in this music I think my perspective is a little unique given my life and the stuff I’ve been through. So I try to write about what I know. I write lyrics first, I’m a lyricist first and foremost and usually there’s a story involved. And then once I have a lyrical hook then I’ll go to the guitar. I’ll go to the guitar and I’ll find a melody and find the key that works for me vocally. So it’s lyrics first, whether it’s a lyrical hook or something that sticks in my mind.

The greatest invention ever is the phone and that damn, that stupid memo recorder. I can’t imagine, well, I can imagine, I must’ve lost thousands of songs. Guys like Dylan, I can’t imagine, you know John Prine or Tom Waits. Just being able to come up, their inspiration, and come up with the stuff they do and then commit it to somewhere, somewhere permanent where it’s not gonna get lost. I read somewhere that Gregg Allman wrote ‘Midnight Rider’ in like 5 minutes. He got it, it came to him and luckily he wrote it down. Because stuff like that is fleeting. Sometimes the faucet is on, sometimes it is off. And when it’s on, thank God for this phone, cause I’ll be driving or whatever and I listen to it and it’s a little brutal, you know. I try not to listen back to it with anyone else in the room you know, because it’s often brutal. But I capture it and that’s how I write. I’ll get an idea or a vocal cue or a vocal hook, a lyrical something and I’ll expound on it and expand into a melody on the guitar, find a key and then I’ll roll.”

imageChris’ past two records have been on Ben Elliott’s American Showplace Music. Chris met Ben under some unique circumstances:

“I had played on this Hubert Sumlin record (About Them Shoes) when I was with Levon. This record, I swear to God, is the most expensive Blues record ever made. I mean Levon’s on it, Clapton’s on it, Keith Richards is producing. They had me come in and blow some harp and do some vocals, and it was an experience. But I met this guy Ben Elliott, and Ben was the engineer, he was Keith Richards’ engineer. And it was this strip club/studio. In front is a strip club and in the back there is this studio (laughs). It was almost surreal. I’m sitting there at a strip club with James Cotton and Hubert Sumlin, Levon Helm, drinking beer, waiting to do our song. It was bizarre.”

Not being able to afford to self produce a record for his long time label Vizztone, Chris was shopping for a home. Chris found it at Showplace. It came with inspiration and a fertile space to continue to push his many influences.

“So I’d known Ben from those sessions. So I heard he’d put a label together. Bruce Katz was on it and Bruce hooked me up with Ben. The last 2 records I put out with American Showplace. I’ve never been with a producer that good, with an engineer that good, with those kind of ears. We had finished the last record which was 7 Minutes Late, and during those sessions we probably did 4 extra tracks of more like Americana type stuff actually, like a mix. As far as I’m concerned Americana, the fact that it doesn’t include Blues. A lot of the Americana you hear is so Country orientated. Blues is just as much American music, if not more, than any other music. The original material is sort of going in that direction.”

Chris is at the precipice of yet another Hard Again moment. Sadly, Ben Elliott passed away due to a longtime fight with cancer in April. The loss of his label president, engineer, producer and friend and the COVID-19 crisis have sent Chris’ future into flux.

“Just recently, 3 weeks ago Ben passed away. Yeah he had been fighting cancer and I thought he had it knocked. Ben was a fighter, I thought he had it knocked. He got a lung infection. He was the label. He was the studio. His vision, his ears, his expertise was the label…It’s just a shit storm between the COVID thing and losing Ben which I didn’t really see coming, I knew he was sick, but I honestly didn’t see it coming…who knows…like any other workin’ band I had up through July booked and nothing is going, but you make due. Like everybody else, just sitting here waiting for this crap to blow over.”

Chris O’Leary has lived a long life in just 52 years. He is a relatively new father. “Greatest thing ever. Waited a long time, I mean I’m 52 and he’s 4. But, man it’s the greatest thing ever. Truly.” Chris is appreciative of the many chances he has received and he has made the best of them. For those who want to sensationalize the trials and tribulations of life, he has had many “comebacks.” But he says he is “blessed.” He has been able to sit at the feet of his heroes and use them as role models for the entangled hard fought and Hard Again musical life. Chris has been rewarded by those heroes.

“I can say it about Levon and I can say it about James Cotton. It’s a rare thing and it’s a wonderful thing when your heroes exceed your expectations. You build somebody up in your head, cause like I’ve said James Cotton was the reason I play harmonica and The Band was the first concert I ever saw in my life. To become friends with Cotton and to play with Levon. I mean your hero could be a dick. And then where are you left? But in the case of these 2 guys, Cotton was a giant and not only that he was as forthcoming with information or stories or anything I wanted to know and Levon was just the same way. To a young musician it was everything, truly it was everything. I was blessed, I am, I’m blessed, cause I was a hacker (chuckles). I was in the right place at the right time, (chuckles) truly, I lucked out. I remember people telling me that. And the thing is, and I can relate this to losing Ben too, you always think you have more time. You always think, you know ‘I don’t have to tell this person how I feel or how important they are to me, cause I can always tell ‘em tomorrow.’ Until you don’t have any time left. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Levon. I was told that he was sick and by the time I got home, I was on the road, he was in a coma. And with Ben it was like BAM, he was done, it was over. I was just like, I was flabbergasted. But yeah, Helm and Cotton, it’s a wonderful thing when your heroes exceed your expectations.”

Find Chris O’Leary at http://thechrisolearyband.net/ and hopefully soon out on the road.

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