Bassist Scot Sutherland had the Aeroplane Blues (as opposed to Robert Johnson’s Terraplane Blues!) when we touched base with him on the eve of Blues Cruise # 32 on which he sailed with the Welch-Ledbetter Connection, the band that he anchors with his bass chops. When he and his wife arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, the airline had misplaced their luggage. Fortunately, it was located and delivered to the Sutherland’s hotel after midnight. We did the interview on the Sunday morning before the cruise launched.
As joyous as the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruises usually are, #32 is marked with melancholia due to the sudden and tragic passing of Mike Ledbetter of the Welch-Ledbetter Connection. The hugely popular and talented Ledbetter died as the result of medical emergency at his Illinois home on January 21, 2019.
“Let me tell you man, to me it’s still unbelievable. You know, I was at his funeral. I saw him. I thought I’d be well and put a little closure to it. Now, it’s as if Mike Welch and the rest of the band is in a foggy haze. It comes and goes. It’s gonna be bittersweet on this cruise, you know? I think it will help us by talkin’ about it and cryin’ some more man,” says Scot.
The question is raised, who will play and sing Mike Ledbetter’s part?
“Curtis Salgado. Mike always loved Curtis and what Curtis did. We thought about it, you know, who could come and fill that spot. Curtis was the only one that really kinda stuck out. I mean, there’s gonna be singers like Danielle Nicole and Victor Wainwright that are coming up to do a couple, but Curtis is gonna do the bulk of it. We can’t thank him enough for steppin’ in and doin’ it.”
Scot Sutherland was born a half a century ago in Central Iowa and says he has always loved music.
“As a kid in elementary school, I sang in the school choir, chorus and church choir. My mom and dad always had the radio on and they had a couple of Elvis records and some Country recordings around the house. There was always some kinda music around.”
Scot recalled the first time he saw a famous musician live, at the impressionable age of 8.
“I remember my mom taking me to see Kenny Rogers live in about 1977. I was probably about 8. He was pretty much at the top of his career at the time with hits like “The Gambler”. It was in a huge hall.
“When I was very young I wanted to be a drummer. What little kid doesn’t? I remember asking my mom if I could play drums in the school music program. She called the school and they said, ‘We’d love to have him play but he has to take at least a year of piano in order to be in the percussion program.’ Unfortunately, as an 8 year old, I wasn’t really hip to playin’ piano. It didn’t dawn on me that I probably could’ve went to a music store and got private drum lessons.
“At that time, my life consisted of my school, friends, neighborhood and parents. Outside of that, I really didn’t know much. Long story short, middle school came and went and when I got to high school, it seemed like everyone was playing guitar or drums. I started to think that if I really wanted to get into this racket, maybe I should play bass. I figured that in order to get involved with my peers, I should consider bass, cuz nobody I knew was playin’ bass. I was 14 when I got my first one and it didn’t put me off at all. I wasn’t like a frustrated guitarist. I took right to it and thirty-five years later, I’m still playin’ the thing!”
Thirty-five years notwithstanding, Scot Sutherland is perhaps the youngest ever inductee into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame.
“I guess,” he says. “I cant think of anybody off the top of my head that would be younger. I’ve been doing it a long time. I started playing Blues and R&B music when I was in high school. I just turned 50 recently so it’s an honor.”
Scot’s career is dotted with awards for high achievement. He was a member of the Tommy Castro Band that won the 2010 Band of the Year at the Blues Music Award festivities that year. The band also won the Best Contemporary Blues Album award for their release, Hard Believer.
In 2013 Scot was nominated by the Blues Foundation for bassist of the year. Albums that he played on in 2017; Mike Zito & The Wheel, Keep Coming Back and Albert Castiglia’s, Big Dog, were both nominated for Blues Rock Album of the Year. He has toured the world several times over and worked with the best.
“The largest crowd I’ve played for was estimated at 85,000 in Brazil. People ask me, what it like to play in front of that many people. Well, the thing is, you don’t really sense all those people. I mean, you see the two or three hundred people in front of the stage, but after that, it’s just a wash. You know there’s a lot of people out there but it doesn’t make you nervous. That was a great moment in my career with Tommy Castro.
“Backing up the legend Pinetop Perkins was a good one too. That was back when he was 70 years of age in the early ’90s. Back when he was still drinkin’ and havin’ a good ol’ time. I was also able to back up Son Seals in the last year of his life. We did two short little tours and festivals with him. I was playin’ with the James Solberg Band. James is known for his work with Luther Allison. He was Luther Allison’s right hand man for like thirty-plus years. They wrote and co-wrote together. Son Seals was real fragile at that point but was still kickin’ butt on guitar. It was a beautiful thing, a great experience for me. I’ve backed up a lot of people, but those are kind of the highlights for me, because in my eyes, those guys are heroes and legends that I’ve been listening to my whole life. When you get to play with them, that’s pretty big stuff in my opinion.”
So what does the first call bass man use in his gear arsenal?
“Uh, usually live, I use an Ampeg amp, SVT series, the big tube amps. I have a couple of those heads. I use 410 cabinets or 810 if it’s a larger venue. If I use an amp in the studio, it’s usually an Ampeg B-12 or B-15. Those are great for recording. I also like mics that pick up the low end, like an Electro-Voice RE20. And sometimes, I just go direct into the board using a pre amp tube that warms it up a little bit. For Blues or Roots-type music, I like the warmer bass tone that you get from tubes. I think it fills up the sound a little better in that situation as opposed to using a solid state amp. I like the warmer sound.
“Axe-wise I have a 1972 Fender Precision bass, (signed by Rocco Prestia and Donald “Duck” Dunn. I have a 1977 Fender Jazz bass. I don’t usually take the ’72 out much anymore. I have another Precision whose specs are from the ’70s, but it’s actually a newer bass. And I have a Fender Precision fretless with a 1975 body and a ’77 neck, kind of a Frankenstein with a Jazz pickup. It’s a great bass.”
The fretless conversation of course brings up a Jaco Pastorius anecdote.
“Man, I play bass. Every bass player in the world is a Jaco fan! I never got the chance to see him live. I discovered him in high school when I was playing in the Jazz band. My saxophone playing peer handed me a cassette and said, ‘Take this home and check it out.’ It was Heavy Weather by Weather Report. It had “Birdland” on it. I went home and listened to it and remember going back the next day and asking my friend, who was playing guitar on the intro to “Birdland”? He said, ‘That’s not a guitarist, that’s Jaco Pastorius playin’ bass.’ I said, ‘What?’ That really blew my mind and opened my head up quite a bit. Bein’ in the Jazz band in high school was cool because the band director was pretty cool. We’d be playin’ uh, the Maynard Ferguson chart of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and I was the type of kid that would investigate, so I bought the Headhunters record by Herbie. I was 15 years old and that blew my mind too. That was kinda like my intro to real greasy Funk.”
Scot also relates how he became the first call bassist in Des Moines.
“I played with Lucky Peterson a few times and backed him up. There was a club in Des Moines called Blues On Grand. Sometimes the artist would come through without a band, so I always got the call to play bass on those gigs. It allowed me to strike up a rapport with the artist and possibly get hired again. I met a lot of people that way, man. I like to think I’m the first call guy in Des Moines to this day.”
On his way off the phone to the Blues Cruise boat, Scot sends a shout out to Blues fans.
“I’m really thankful and appreciative of all the support and hope to see everybody at a live show soon. That’s the whole thing man, keep this ball rollin’. The key to that is the people comin’ out.”
For more info on Scot Sutherland, please visit his website at https://www.scotsutherlandbass.com