Featured Interview – Randy Chortkoff

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

That’s an age-old riddle that may never be solved.

That’s almost as perplexing as when an out-of-work hardware store employee applies for a job at a bank and finds out that experience is required for the position. Nothing wrong with that, but how does he get that experience without first having that job?

That paradox is also relevant to groups other than poultry, retail clerks and bank tellers.

Apparently, it applies to blues musicians, as well.

So says Randy Chortkoff.

“There’s a huge catch-22 that musicians are caught in that is a sad thing, but it’s also one that I think is important for people to know about,” he said. “Labels won’t sign bands because they don’t have booking representation. But then a booking agency won’t take them on and sign them, because they don’t have good label representation. So the musician is caught right in the middle. It’s really a frustrating situation. There’s only a few booking agencies and they’re filled up. They just can’t take on new acts. It’s just a tough way to go for good blues musicians.”

Chortkoff has experience with both sides of that coin.

Not only is he a blues musician, playing harmonica for the southern-California based Mannish Boys, he’s also a manager, a promoter, a record label executive and the founder and guiding light of Delta Groove Records (www.deltagroovemusic.com).

And according to Chortkoff, even some of the brightest new players on the scene are tangled up in finding the right balance between record labels and booking agencies.

“We just put out an album, probably one of the best blues albums in the last 10 years, on a guy named Shawn Pittman,” he said. “He’s from Austin and he’s young, good-looking and is just a monster guitar player. He’s also a monster singer and writes these incredible blues songs that sound like they were written in Chicago years ago. And he recorded the whole album himself. He played drums, he played bass, piano, guitar, vocals, background vocals – did everything himself. He’s got a van, a band and he’s ready to go out and work. And I can’t get him signed to a booking agency. They’re full and are just not taking on any clients. They don’t have enough staff. So it’s just difficult for musicians these days.”

And, as stated above, that can make it extremely difficult for an artist to get an album out to the masses for public consumption, because even you have an album ready, but no label muscle behind you, what do you really have?

“Well, I will stick my neck out on occasion and put out an album, like Shawn’s, just because it’s so good,” Chortkoff said. “And Terry Hanck (former horn player for Elvin Bishop) submitted an album to me that was already recorded and was just so good, I couldn’t say no. And I just finished doing an album on Big Pete, a white harmonica player and singer from Holland who is just incredible. And that’s a real risky situation, because not only does he not have representation over here, he’s also not from over here. But he’s just so good.”

So just like with other rules-of-thumb, thankfully, there are exceptions in the world of the blues music business.

Especially at a record label that has went from zero-to-60 in about two seconds flat. Just barely a half-decade old, Delta Groove has already managed to find a sweet spot with blues lovers from all ends of the globe.

But with the failure rate for startup businesses at a staggeringly-high rate since the dawn of the new millennium, especially when the music industry is involved, how does one manage to carve out a niche for himself in such rapid time?

“I only put out music that I feel passionate about. I don’t do it for the monetary gain, because there really is no monetary gain.”

“The answer is – I’ve done this because I have a really strong passion for the music. So I will not put anything out that I feel will just be commercial and will only make money,” Chortkoff said. “I only put out music that I feel passionate about. I don’t do it for the monetary gain, because there really is no monetary gain. So I think the success of the label is due to; A: the music, which managed to really appeal to the true blues lovers, and; B: I felt it was really important when I started the label that the three people I hired in the beginning – my cousin who is great with graphics and art, along with the guy I hired to do radio promotion – had the same pride and passion for the music that I did. Jeff Fleenor was one of the founding staff and a great producer, too. We’re a family-oriented label. And getting back to the radio promotion, when we started out, I insisted that the people that did promotions make personal contact with the stations and the DJs and the reviewers. Instead of just sending out e-mails like most companies do, I wanted us to establish personal relationships, have a personal touch.”

That, along with some eye-catching, attention-grabbing announcements, certainly helped speed up the process of heralding the debut of Delta Groove.

“I believe in promotions and marketing, so I took my savings and I put it into doing big, full-page color ads in magazines, really trying to make a big splash,” he said.

And as history will show, that big splash turned into something of a tidal wave.

Delta Groove won the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in 2009.

“Even in the first year that I had Delta Groove, it almost surpassed all the labels that had been around for years, in the sense that we got nominated for 10 or 12 Handy Awards,” Chortkoff said. “And that has continued over the course of the following years, too. We haven’t won a lot of them, but I think it’s more important to just get the nominations, because the people that nominate are the ones that really know the music and appreciate it. The radio programmers, the writers, the DJs, the reviewers, they’re the ones doing the nominating. And then the voters usually vote for the big names.”

It sure doesn’t hurt matters when you can have veterans of the blues like Elvin Bishop, Tracy Nelson, Phillip Walker and Rod Piazza calling your label home.

But Chortkoff also realized that today’s blues-buying public have their ears wrapped around a host of different sounds, moving from the storied 12-bar, country blues progressions, all the way to the balls-to-the-wall wail of the buzz-inducing jamband practitioners of 2011.

So, wisely paying attention to what consumers crave, a new member of the Delta Groove family was birthed.

“I realized that in order to keep the label going and keep some money coming in so we can continue; I had to do some blues/roots music that was more on the commercially-oriented side. Stuff that appealed to the rock/blues element,” said Chortkoff. “So rather than put it out on Delta Groove, which I would like to keep rather pure and true to the traditional side of blues, I created a subsidiary that I wanted to be very eclectic, with a mix of rootsy music that could lean over to the rock or even jazz side of things. And that’s how Eclecto Groove was born. And I signed Ana Popovic and Mike Zito and Nick Curran and put Jason Ricci on that label. And Kirk Fletcher’s last record had more of a jazzy/rock sort of feel, so that album’s on there. So the subsidiary that is Eclecto Groove was done so as not to disturb the purity of Delta Groove.”

Learning how Randy Chortkoff spent his free evenings as an impressionistic young man helps explain the thought process behind the diverse roster of artists that make up Delta/Eclecto Groove.

It’s a lot like the way that Bill Graham ran the Fillmore West, or the way that Chet Helm booked talent for the Family Dog in the psychedelic 60s.

Take chances, have fun and let it all hang out.

“When I was listening to a lot of rock music in the 60s, I was fortunate enough to be in San Francisco when Bill Graham would have people like Jimmy Reed and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells playing with bands like The Cream and Jimi Hendrix and Fleetwood Mac, which at that time was just a blues band,” said Chortkoff. “And that mixture of bands really attracted me. And then down the street from my house in Los Angeles was a place called The Ash Grove, a guy named Ed Pearl ran the place, and you could go in there, even if you were under 18. It was like a coffee house and he’d have Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf play there. So I got to experience all that stuff.”

Like many of that era who came under the spell of the blues, Chortkoff really can’t pinpoint exactly when the blues bug bit. He just knows he got bit in a big way.

“I think it’s really like anyone who likes the blues – when I was young, for some reason, black music appealed to me. Like when I first heard James Brown, or Sam Cooke … even when I was in my early teens – 13 or 14 – for some reason, that music really touched me,” he said. “And then of course, being a product of the 60s, I heard a lot of other kinds of music, like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and The Yardbirds, but I was always drawn to the bluesy side of things. I really can’t explain what the attraction was, but I just think that kind of music touches people in a certain kind of way that is really profound.”

After taking up the harmonica, courtesy of the inspiration provided by some of those British Invasion bands, Chortkoff later found himself immersed in the Los Angeles blues scene even deeper, becoming a promoter.

“Yeah, later I became a promoter and put on shows in L.A. with some of the blues artists that I had been fortunate enough to meet. Guys like Jimmy Rogers and Dave and Louis Myers,” he said. “I ended up working with a bunch of Chicago players and it was just a really cool experience. Luther Tucker, who played guitar for just about everybody, helped get me in touch with all these people. It just kind of blossomed from there and I started these yearly events called The Blues Hall of Fame Festivals – A Tribute to Little Walter, and I was working at the same time as a harmonica player with, and also managing, King Ernest. And we went in the studio and recorded an album.”

“Then I found that Billy Boy Arnold was still alive and in great shape, living in Chicago, at the time,” Chortkoff said. “So I brought him out for a Little Walter show and then ended up doing a little tour with him. At the end of that tour, I brought him in the studio and recorded an album. And I shopped that album and the King Ernest album to various blues labels. Well, Bruce Iglauer at Alligator Records picked up the Billy Boy album (1993’s Back Where I Belong) and Jerry Gordon at Evidence Records picked up the King Ernest album.”

That’s not too shabby, going two-for-two on your first two attempts at finding a home for your initial two projects.

Though he would soon end up going three-for-three, as Chortkoff soon found out, the wind can change directions in a hurry in the music business.

“I also recorded a Finis Tasby album called Jump Children and Evidence Records picked that one up, too,” he said. “Finally, I produced one on Kirk Fletcher, called Shades of Blue. It had Kim Wilson on it, Janiva Magness on it, Finis Tasby on it … all kinds of great people on it. And then I produced one on Paris Slim, who is in the Mannish Boys. And I went to shop those. Well, something had happened, I don’t know what, but nobody picked them up. So here I had these two albums, so I just said, ‘well, if I can’t beat ‘em, I’ll join ‘em.’ I knew nothing about running a record label, but I had a little bit of money saved up from my day job – working in the film industry – so I started Delta Groove. That was going on seven years ago. And those were the first two albums, followed by albums from Rod Piazza, and then the Hollywood Blue Flames, and it just progressed from there.”

And although he’s knee-deep in the blues from the standpoint of being a label owner, producer, marketer and talent scout, Chortkoff still manages to work enough time into his weekly schedule to step out front, instead of behind the scenes, to blow off steam, and a mean harp, for the Mannish Boys.

“It gives me a chance to play. I don’t consider myself the kind of harmonica player that Mitch Kashmar or Rod Piazza or Kim Wilson are,” he said. “But I’ve got my own little shtick and I seem to get over a bit. But I just never had the patience to make it a full-time career and sit and study like those other guys. I’m just not at that level.”

With a rotating cast of some of the biggest and best players on the west coast, the Mannish Boys is more like a living, breathing, ever-evolving organism, than it is a typical blues band.

All part of the plan, according to Chortkoff.

“For me, the whole concept of the Mannish Boys was to put together something similar to what Ike Turner and Johnny Otis used to do with their shows – they were revues,” said Chortkoff. “They were wonderful. There wasn’t just one band playing at a concert, it was like a little blues festival all rolled up into one performance. So since I knew so many wonderful musicians in Los Angeles, I decided to put together a core band and have a revolving list of guest artists. And right now, we’re in a transition, where the Mannish Boys will be doing our next album with a whole new lineup.”

In addition to Chortkoff, this edition of the Mannish Boys features Jimmy Bott, Willie J. Campbell, Kirk Fletcher, Shawn Pittman, Paris Slim, Finis Tasby and Sugar Ray Rayford.

With its warm, sunny climate and show-biz glitter, southern California often gets the short shaft when discussing blues hot-spots.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of the tremendous history the blues has in California. But to name a few, you’ve got T-Bone Walker, George Smith, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Pee Wee Crayton … I could go on and on,” Chortkoff said. “Those are guys that recorded in Los Angeles. And in the 70s and 80s, the L.A. scene spawned people like William Clarke and James Harman and Rod Piazza, so there’s always been a heavy blues scene here.”

A heavy blues scene that Chortkoff was involved in before he probably even knew what the blues were.

“My dad was a carpet layer when I was young and that’s how he supported his family. But he was a big jazz fan and him and his buddy Abe used to go to Central Avenue (the Mecca for jazz and blues in L.A. in the 40s and 50s). Somehow, he got backstage at a Louis Armstrong show and ended up meeting Louis,” he said. “And he and Abe became very good friends with Louis Armstrong. So whenever he was in town, he’d bring his wife and band-mates to our house. I was just 5 or 6 years old, but they’d have these informal jam sessions and eat and drink. And I absorbed a lot of that. Maybe that’s where I got that initial influence.”

Wherever that initial influence came from, one thing is sure – it’s served Randy Chortkoff well over the course of the ensuing decades.

Even in these musically-turbulent times.

“Today, it’s very, very, very difficult to keep a record label going. There’s so much download rip-off stuff happening,” he said. “And the CD stores are vanishing. Right when our label was gaining some momentum, Tower Records closed, Virgin Records closed … all the major recordstores closed. So I can’t really predict the future – I don’t have a crystal ball. Our Web site, www.deltagroovemusic.com, is a great place to buy our music at a discount and there are lots of great videos, photos and information on our artists there. But I don’t know where the label industry and the music industry is headed – I kind of live in the ‘now’ and try to stay in the ‘now’ – I’m just hanging in there until the bitter end. And until the money drives up completely, I’ll be involved one way or another.”

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