Featured interview – Maurice John Vaughn

maurice john vaughn photo 1At a time when a great many contemporary blues artists crank out a new CD every year or two to sell from the bandstand between sets, it’s been a lot longer than that since Chicago multi-instrumentalist Maurice John Vaughn has had a full-length piece of fresh product out under his own name.

Way back in 2001, Toledo, Ohio-based Blue Suit Records released Vaughn’s most recent album, Dangerous Road. That just doesn’t make sense, considering how solid that album and the ones he’d previously put together for Alligator and his own Reecy imprint were. They showcased a versatile artist equally conversant in traditionally rooted Chicago blues and modern, soul-inflected material, a true triple threat on guitar, saxophone, and vocals.

Now Vaughn plans to take matters into his own hands—and not just in the recording studio. He’s about to make the leap into the booking business, not just to supplement the engagements his agent gets him, but to work with singer Joseph Morganfield, youngest son of the legendary Muddy Waters, and Freddie Dixon, Willie Dixon’s bass-playing offspring and a founder of the Original Chicago Blues All Stars. They’re planning a trip to California for a June festival appearance with Big Bill Morganfield, and if things go right, a lot more than that.

“I’m going to be sort of jumping between being a booking agent, a road manager, a transportation guy, a piano player–whatever they need,” says Maurice, who foresees a longer West Coast jaunt before winter sets in. “In September, we have a big festival planned, like a revue type tour, with a few big dates for the whole Joseph Morganfield band and the whole Original Chicago Blues All Stars band. I’m taking them out there. I’ve got a bus now, so I’m going to take everybody out there in the bus.”

Good things have been happening for Vaughn. On February 26, the Original Chicago Blues All Stars (Dixon, drummer Jimmy Tillman, and guitarist John Watkins are their nucleus) honored Maurice at their Blue Monday International Blues Gala award ceremony at Chicago’s Harold Washington Cultural Center. He just returned from playing the Maintenance Shop in Ames, Iowa, where Maurice’s troupe included three sons of mighty Windy City blues legends: Morganfield, Dixon, and drummer Tim Taylor, whose late father was guitarist Eddie Taylor.

The revue concept admittedly swims against the tide in this era of slimmed-down touring. “That’s what we’re doing, exactly the opposite,” says Maurice. “Everybody’s trying to downsize. They’re trying to pick one guy out of the band and have their band play with you. How does your band ever get going? Your band is sitting home going, ‘They never take us anywhere!’ So this is what we’re trying to do, book it like that with the whole band.”

Vaughn has his own trip to Brazil slated for next month. “I played in Brazil twice, once with the Original Chicago Blues All Stars and once they brought me over by myself out to play,” he reports. Maurice also plans to tour Florida and South Carolina for four weeks in July with singer Donald Ray Johnson, the former drummer for the popular disco band A Taste of Honey, who now performs blues.

maurice john vaughn photo 22018 marks Vaughn’s golden anniversary as a professional musician. “This is 50 years for me in the business performing,” he marvels. “I was just thinking about that the other day—in December of ‘68, I had my first gig!” Back then, a teen-aged Vaughn was strictly playing R&B with a youthful outfit called the Gents of Soul. Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Maurice was attending Juliette G. Low Upper Grade Center when he caught the musical bug.

“I was in seventh and eighth grade. They were talking to the students about being in the band. I was interested in that, so that’s when I joined the band, back in ’64,” he says. “I started on the drums, really. This was an orchestra-style thing. We played everything, from George Gershwin to ‘Bolero,’ things like that. We played all the orchestra music and some of the more popular theme songs from some of the movies, like Dr. No.”

While attending Lindblom High School, located in Englewood on the South Side, Maurice was recruited by the Gents of Soul. “They were already playing,” he says. “They said they were looking for a sax player. I had bought a clarinet, and they heard me playing the clarinet. They said, ‘Wow! We need a sax player!’ So I rented a sax so I could play with them.”

The Gents lived up to their moniker, playing Top 40 soul. “Everything that came on the radio stations that we listened to, mainly soul stations and R&B, Motown stuff,” says Vaughn. The band played at “different functions—mainly things back then were social club events.”

In 1975, Maurice joined yet another soul band, the Chosen Few. They were fronted by singer Elvin Spencer, who had previously released early ‘70s solo singles on the Winner and Twinight logos (Syl Johnson produced Elvin’s “Lift This Hurt” on Twinight). “We just called him Spencer,” says Maurice. “I played with them for just maybe four or five months or something like that. They weren’t really doing that many gigs.”

Maurice was with the Chosen Few long enough to play on their 45 for Chuck Sibit’s Mod-Art label (headquartered at 10358 S. Forest Avenue on Chicago’s South Side) pairing “Cut Me In” and “We Are The Chosen Few.” All eight members were credited with writing both sides. “They just put everybody’s name down there,” he says. “Everybody contributed something. I was working with the horn players. That’s why I did the horn arrangements.” After Maurice left, the Chosen Few played with Windy City soul great Walter Jackson.

Even though he focused solely on sax with the Gents of Soul and then the Chosen Few, Maurice began learning his way around a guitar as early as 1971. “I couldn’t find enough work playing saxophone. I was wanting to start seriously playing guitar, because I was playing for a couple of singing groups,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to write back then, but I was trying to figure out how these songs went, and all the chords and everything. I was a little frustrated waiting on other guitar players to write everything, and I started playing one.

“I wasn’t singing—a little background stuff. Then I had to start singing after awhile.”

maurice john vaughn photo 3As the decade progressed, Vaughn drifted a bit closer to the genre that he’s now known worldwide for. “I actually was playing some blues, because we played blues when I was playing with this group, Greg Donald and the Rhythmers. They had one guy that did all blues all the time. His name was Si Perry. He was part of the revue,” says Maurice. “We had a female vocalist, Emma Francis. She sang all Aretha Franklin kind of stuff. We had a guy, he would come up and do sort of Johnnie Taylor-type stuff.

“Then we had another guy, he wasn’t actually part of the group, but he would come anytime we were playing somewhere and do his one or two songs. He would bring a crowd of people with him. His name was just Southside Red. He would perform. And we had two shake dancers that performed with the group from time to time too—Rosie A-Go-Go and Brenda Silver Hips or whatever her name was. Greg Donald was the drummer and the leader of the band. His father was the manager. We later changed the name to Modified Productions. In the disco days, in the ‘70s, they changed the name to Modified Productions.”

Uptown was a rough place in those days, as Vaughn learned the hard way when the Rhythmers held down a residence at the Baritz Lounge, a once-classy joint situated at the intersection of Sheridan and Irving Park Roads. “We only had two off days. We played there five days a week,” he remembers. “On one of my off days, somebody got shot. So we came back, we had no crowd. We came back to play our five-day gig, and we had almost nobody in the place.”

Maurice made his full-fledged blues conversion in November of 1979, although he’d been playing behind veteran soul-blues vocalist Lee Shot Williams. “We’d go out every now and then, do some gigs with him in Mansfield, Ohio. That’s where his manager lived,” he says. “We also carried Melvina Allen out that way.” But it was while Vaughn was playing at a joint at 23rd and South Cottage Grove that harpist Little Mack Simmons was involved with that opportunity came knocking.

“I was playing with Professor and the Love Finders–Professor Eddie Lusk, the keyboard player,” he says. “We were playing a gig down there, and then Phil Guy came in and sat in with us. He told Professor that he needed a group to play. He had five weeks of gigs in Canada. ‘Heck, yeah, we want to go for five weeks!’ So we went with Phil.” Vaughn played on the guitarist’s 1982 JSP album The Red Hot Blues of Phil Guy.

“I was supposed to play guitar and sax, and I ended up just playing saxophone on ‘Garbage Man Blues’ and things like that because they did the session while I was out of town,” says Vaughn. “There was nothing left to add but the horns, so I ended up putting the saxophone on there.” Maurice also appeared on Phil’s encore set with big brother Buddy for JSP the next year, Bad Luck Boy.

Word spread fast about Vaughn’s extraordinary versatility. “Professor got me an audition with Luther Allison when he was in town,” he says. “We weren’t doing that much with Phil after awhile. He’d come home and be satisfied working the Checkerboard or something like that once every week. We wanted to do some more of that touring kind of stuff. And Professor said, ‘Hey, man, there’s this guy—we’ll go in and play with him!’ And we cut the audition with Luther, and I ended up playing with him about seven months in 1980 to early ‘81. Then he fired everybody.”

maurice john vaoghn photo 4Next came a tour with newcomer Valerie Wellington. “We came back, and then I went out with Son Seals in ‘82. I played with him for about four months, ‘til he fired me,” says Vaughn, who made his first European jaunt as a member of Seals’ band. “In ‘83,” he says. “I’d never been on an airplane before, and I was 31 years old.” Maurice also spent some time playing behind bass-playing singer Queen Sylvia Embry. “Queen Sylvia fired us too–and for working her gig while she was gone,” says Vaughn. “The club owner said, ‘Hey, you can work here while she’s going to Europe for three weeks!’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that!’ We worked there one time. She found out we worked in her place that she worked at, and that was it!”

A.C. Reed hired Maurice in ‘84 for a lengthier stint. “I really liked playing with A.C.,” Vaughn says. “He was a lot of fun to work with. I didn’t get a chance to play my saxophone as much, because I played guitar all the time with him because he played saxophone.” In addition to hitting the road with the droll saxman (his first gig with him was four nights in Albuquerque), Maurice played guitar on Reed’s 1987 Alligator album I’m in the Wrong Business!. “I also did some horn parts on that album that I didn’t really get credit for,” he notes. Before that, A.C. and Maurice cut a 1985 LP together for the French Blue Phoenix logo, I Got Money.

There was plenty of studio activity for Vaughn during the ‘80s. He backed dynamic drummer Casey Jones on his Solid Blue set for Rooster Blues, played on and produced Zora Young’s debut album Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones, and helmed a single on his own Reecy label by boisterous piano man Detroit Junior. Reecy was the original home to Vaughn’s own 1984 debut album, Generic Blues Album. Its profoundly stark artwork—black print on a white background, no liner notes or photos—was a matter of necessity.

“It was mainly the cost, because I asked the (printer) how much for the black-and-white album, and how much for the color album. The color album was like three or four times as much as the black-and-white album. I said, ‘Well, I’ll have the black-and-white album!’ Now I have to have something catchy, so that’s why I came up with the Generic Blues Album,” says Vaughn.

The earliest copies of Generic Blues Album were released in jackets with a hole in the middle so the labels showed, like a 12-inch disco single. “A second run after that first 300 were printed at a T-shirt shop because I didn’t have money for a professional printer. But this guy at the T-shirt shop said, ‘I’ll do ‘em for you!’ He had albums all over his T-shirt place, drying out!” laughs Maurice. “The third run, that’s when I was able to get a printer to come in and make it look a lot better.”

maurice john vaughn photo 5If the packaging was admittedly rudimentary, its contents were anything but. Doubling on guitar and sax and abetted by keyboardist Leo Davis, bassist Kenny Pickens, and drummer Bill Leathers, Vaughn put together eight contemporary blues originals with some inventive lyrical twists; “Computer Took My Job” was right up-to-the-minute. “I was writing about the things that were happening around me,” says Vaughn. “I had some friends of mine that were losing their jobs because of the computer era.”

Alligator Records boss Bruce Iglauer invited Vaughn to be on the label’s 1987 anthology The New Bluebloods, which introduced a new generation of Chicago blues artists to the world, including Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, the Kinsey Report, Melvin Taylor, and Michael Coleman. The moody “Nothing Left To Believe In” was Maurice’s contribution to the disc. Alligator picked up Generic Blues Album the next year, and when the firm later reissued it on CD, it added “Nothing Left To Believe In” and its session mate “Wolf Bite” to the set. “Mainly people in Europe, they like that kind of stuff. They like the Howlin’ Wolf stuff,” says Maurice. “I make sure I always do something like that when I go over there.”

Alligator released Vaughn’s encore set, In The Shadow of the City, in 1993. “That CD was a compromise of kind of what I wanted and what Bruce wanted to put together there too,” says Maurice, who tackled pianist Jimmy Walker’s romping “Small Town Baby” on the disc. “That was one of the first tunes that we recorded,” he says. “It took a long time to do that, but I was so happy when we were able to do ‘Small Town Baby,’ do one of Jimmy Walker’s songs, because I was working with him at the time. I think he was about 90 when he recorded with me.” Another standout selection, “I Want To Be Your Spy,” was chosen to grace The Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection, winning Vaughn more new fans. “They might not know about my whole CD, but they know about that one song,” he notes.

Maurice had a pair of songs on Blue Chicago’s 1997 compilation Clark Street Ramblers. “One was a Detroit Junior song, ‘Turn Up The Heat,’ which we also recorded with him on his CD,” he says. Dangerous Road followed in 2001. “It was a little different,” he says. “I had a potpourri of musicians on there. In fact, my first song that I have on there, ‘Talking To Each Other With The Music,’ I have Italian musicians on there. I have French musicians on there that are friends of mine. We were all working together.”

Vaughn has done some fine work with singer Shirley Johnson over the years. He produced her 1992 Appaloosa album Looking For Love, playing guitar and writing four of its selections, notably “I’ve Got To Find Me A Lover.” “I asked her some things about her, and then I wrote the song,” he says. “And she loved it.” He was also involved with Johnson’s Delmark CDs Killer Diller (2002) and Blues Attack (2009) and played with her at Blue Chicago until about a year ago. If you look closely, you’ll see him along with Casey Jones and Professor Eddie Lusk playing behind Johnson during a scene in the 1991 private eye thriller V.I. Warshawski that was filmed at Chicago’s famous Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. “I’ve got a movie credit,” he notes proudly. “I’m one of the musicians in the movie, so that was good enough for me.”

Technically, Vaughn hasn’t been a Chicago bluesman for the last three decades, living over the border in Michigan City, Indiana. “My wife and I agreed it was a little safer place for the kids to grow up,” he says. “Chicago’s an hour away for me. I can’t just come to Chicago and hang out, like, ‘Hey, man, you want a gig?’”

We’re pleased to report that Maurice is finally preparing to release a fresh album. “I have about three CDs worth of material that I’ve recorded already, but haven’t put out yet,” he says. “Some of it’s mixed, some of it’s not mixed. So I’m trying to get that all ready. I will have a CD out within the next couple of months, hopefully.”

Visit Maurice’s facebook page at : www.facebook.com/maurice.j.vaughn.7

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