I’m from Chicago, Illinois I was born December 9th 1977 so in blues terms I’m still a baby. I’ve been on the road since I was eighteen, pretty much went straight out of high school onto the road. My dad had a gigantic record collection and my parents’ bedroom was like two walls of LPs and then in the living room, one wall all LPs, everything from classical to jazz, blues, r&b, rock. He listened to some of everything but he predominantly liked blues and r&b and soul music and it was those that was always being played around the house. So when I started playing guitar when I was eleven, I had seen Eddie Van Halen on MTV and thought that’s what I want to do, and so like every kid who wants something bad I kept on and on and they finally got me a guitar and I got all excited for some months and then it went under the bed.
I think it was in freshman year of high school I had played baseball and wanted to make a go at it and I tried out for the baseball team and on the first day of try outs I broke my index finger, which turned out to be my fretting hand, so I had a cast on my hand for a couple of months and once that started healing I thought I would give the guitar a shot, as I wasn’t going to play baseball, so I started messing around with the guitar again and being left handed my parents bought me a right handed guitar, not knowing there were right and left handed guitars. Before I started taking lessons and was just messing around with it, the heavy strings were on the bottom so at first I would try and bend the bottom string not realizing that I should be bending the top strings, because the guitar was flipped upside down and backwards. When I first started taking lessons I was told about this and that the skinny strings should be on the bottom. But Albert King and Otis Rush, that’s how they played was upside down and backwards.
But I had the strings turned around and started taking lessons that way. The instructor asked me what type of music I wanted to play. The instructor was just a local guy at the neighborhood music store and it was funny because when I started messing around with the guitar I realized my fingers were never going to move as fast as Eddie Van Halen’s. Hearing blues and r&b all the time when I was a kid, it was like I thought there was something in that blues stuff, and I went for the first couple of lessons and the instructor asked me if I really wanted to play the blues as he loved the blues. He said that all the kids my age wanted to learn all the rock and roll stuff and he said he was going to have some fun stuff with me. I took lessons for maybe a year and a half and I was fourteen at the time and I took lessons until I had got the basics down. Every week he would get me to learn a song a week and as soon as I had got the basics down I could pick things up by ear and I would say that I wanted to learn a certain song and he would write out all the chord changes and next week I would go back, and then he said that I didn’t need him any more as I had picked up the solos myself.
My source of blues reference was through my dad and his blues collection and having it being played in the house all the time, I guess it had kinda been ingrained in my head already. I guess it came as second nature.
I then started sneaking into the clubs when I was sixteen, places like the Checkerboard and other hole in the wall clubs on the South side and me and my friends knew the clubs that didn’t check your ID, and that was mostly all of the clubs on the South side, because as long as you had money to get in the door they didn’t really care. Marty Sammon, Buddy Guy’s keyboard player, he and I grew up together and he and I would sneak into the clubs. We were always at the Checkerboard, which of course is not there anymore. I would hang out with Magic Slim, John Primer, Johnny Dollar, Vance Kelly and a bunch of other folks. I was watching back then and soaking up stuff. Magic Slim had Sundays and Mondays at the Checkerboard and when he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, John Primer took over the Sundays and Mondays which was right around the time when Primer left Slim’s band and went out on his own.
So it started out with me hanging out with Magic Slim and Primer and then Slim moved and I kept going there with Marty, but he said he had seen what he wanted to see and he stopped hanging out there and I kept going, and it took maybe three or four months of just sitting there watching Primer for me to say I played a little guitar and that I could sit in if they wanted me to. And so once in a while he would let me sit in, and maybe after six months of me being there every Sunday and Monday, he told me he had this gig and that he needed a guitar player for it and he asked me if I wanted to do it.
Sure I did and we were going to meet at the Checkerboard and ride to the gig, it was in one of the suburbs. I was eighteen at that point and we did the first set and then John pulled me aside and told me he liked the way I play and he asked me how much I drink on a gig and what drugs I use and what is it going to take to keep me around. I told him I don’t drink on gigs, no drugs and the only thing I do is smoke cigarettes and when you need me, call me. So I ended up playing with John for almost three years around 1997 time. We went all over the US and Canada and we recorded one record on Wolf. When we recorded that record for Wolf, John was going to Europe and he had told me to get a passport and I went and got that, but after that John told me that they didn’t get me a ticket but that when he was gone with the band he asked me to take over the Sundays and Mondays at the Checkerboard in his place, which I did.
Now Sundays and Mondays was a little quiet and we would be playing and there would be two or three people at the bar and we were lucky to make gas money home. So John went to Europe for four weeks and I called on a bunch of my friends who had already been going to the Checkerboard, because at the time Vance Kelly was playing there every Thursday and they all loved Vance. I told them to come and see me on Sundays and Mondays and after a couple of weeks the owner L.C. Thurman told me that he wasn’t sure what I was doing and that he was thinking of telling John that he didn’t want him back at the club because we had been doing so good. I had to tell him I wasn’t trying to steal John’s gig and that I was just doing what he had asked me to do. John was ok with it all and said that he would love some of my friends to come along and see him play.
John’s band back then was a rotating door and on the weekend gigs we usually had Earl Howell on drums and Nick Holt on bass when Magic Slim wasn’t on the road. But for the Checkerboard gigs half the time either the bass player wouldn’t show up, as he knew he wasn’t going to make any money, or the drummer wouldn’t show for the same reason or it would be just me and John because he knew I would show up either way.
So I was working with John and he had got to the point where he was pretty much staying around Chicago and mid west and Milwaukee, like within a two hundred mile radius of Chicago and we weren’t working that much, and a friend of mine was playing bass for Eddy Clearwater and his guitar player from Canada at the time, his work visa was up, and so Eddy was looking for a guitar player and my friend told me to come to the club where they were playing and he would introduce me to Eddy. So I went down and met Eddy and a week later Eddy called me and said he would like to hire me for a few gigs, and if it works out maybe I’ll hire you full time; so he hired me and a B3 organ player.
I think Eddy was trying to figure out if he wanted to stay with the two guitar thing or if he wanted to have organ and after about three months the organ player disappeared and I ended up getting the gig with Eddy and I was with him for three and a half years. Eddy was the first guy I went to Europe with and I had never been on a plane or any of that so it was a first time in Europe and first time on a plane, so that was good for me. When I played with Eddy we went to Europe a bunch and both he and I are left handed guitar players which caused some amusement for some.
Then I got married and I thought that maybe I would stay off the road a bit and that was when I made the conscious effort to focus on my own thing. I had my own band from when I was playing with Primer but it was more a means of filling the holes when I wasn’t playing with John or touring with him, so as to keep busy. It’s called Tom Holland And The Shuffle Kings. I probably started doing little gigs with my band in 1998 and once I had started with John I had never sung in public and the first thing John said to me was do I sing, and I told him no. He said that guitar players are a dime a dozen in Chicago and that if I wanted to stand out I had better learn how to sing, and the other reason was he wanted me to open his show with two or thee songs, so I had better learn how to sing some songs.
So I learnt how to sing enough songs to get me through a short set. So I got better at singing and gradually built it up. When I was with Eddy I was the band leader for him and my responsibility was that if we got someone new in the band I had to make sure they knew what they were doing. When Eddy had his own club he asked me to run the jam night on Sundays and that’s where the Shuffle Kings found their footing and I did that jam for maybe two years every Sunday when we were in town. That’s where the Shuffle Kings really came together, which made me think that I could really do something with it.
We got some gigs around the mid west and that’s when I thought I could make a go of being a band leader. I quit Eddy’s band in part because I needed a break from the road and being just married. I focused on getting my band known around Chicago and then, after about a year, my wife and I were on vacation visiting a friend of hers in New York. My cell phone went off and it was James Cotton’s management and they wanted a guitar player to go out on the road with James for a month. So I went for that.
So off I went to California in the van with the band and they played Cotton CDs the whole time getting me to listen to them and I told them I had been playing with harp players for ever. They asked me why I didn’t ask how much I would get or where the gig was and I told them that when Cotton calls you don’t say no. This was around 2003 and in the band was Slam Allen playing guitar and singing, Mark Mack and Charles Mack who were brothers and Charles played bass and Mark played drums. I was told I was filling in for that tour and that it may lead to something but it may not.
We played at Eli’s Mile High club in Oakland, the famous Bay area club, and we got done with the gig and we were waiting to get paid and the manager told me that I fitted in really well and I told him I knew James’ material and had been listening to it all my life and had been playing this stuff with my band. So that led me to play with James for twelve years, so my one month fill in gig turned into a twelve year fill in gig. That was a full time thing and when I first started playing with James, although he wasn’t that young, we were playing two hundred and fifty gigs a year. So I jumped back into playing all the time and used to be home about a week or a month if that.
I did some recordings with James, one was when he got resigned to Alligator Records, on that Giant album. He recorded that with his road band of the time. James was in between record labels at that point and he had been seeing everyone self releasing CDs and he wanted to try that, as he could keep all the money. So we went into the studio, cut that record and they shopped it, and Bruce Iglauer picked it up. James asked me to sing some stuff on that album although Slam Allen did most of the singing on the gigs.
I was with James from 2003 through to 2015. James told me that I had a job for life with him as I could do the Luther Tucker and Robert Lockwood lines. It pretty much turned out that is was a job to the end of his life. I left his band at the beginning of 2015 and his health was starting to decline by that time, to where we would have tours lined up and they would get cancelled a week or so before we were supposed to start out on the tour and it became a thing that I had family to support. I didn’t really want to leave but I couldn’t stay there when gigs were getting cancelled and I didn’t have enough time to get something else in its place.
A lot of the clubs I worked at in Chicago would be booked out a couple of months in advance and I didn’t want to start calling around asking bands if they needed a guitar player. So leaving James was strictly that I had to look after my family type of thing. When I had time off the road with James I would work with my band around Chicago and other artists who needed a guitarist such as Grana’ Louise, Matthew Skoller and John Primer, who told me I would always have a job in his band if I needed it.
J.W. Williams, Big Time Sarah, and I worked a lot at Blue Chicago so I ended up working with a lot of the female blues singers who play that club like Zora Young and Shirley Johnson. I did some gigs with Charlie Love and I have worked pretty much with everyone in Chicago at one point and a lot of that would be I would go out to hang out and someone wouldn’t show up so it just so happened that I had my guitar in the car.
So I’ve been an on call guitarist for many over the years. The band leaders in Chicago knew that I would be on time and that I wouldn’t be getting messed up on the gigs and, as long as they told me what they wanted and what they were going to do, I would learn whatever they wanted and as soon as the gig rolled around I would be ready to go.
After James I was back to trying to make a go of my own band. I put out a self produced record called No Fluff Just The Stuff in 2013. I got some good buzz with that and a lot of the clubs liked the fact I had been with James Cotton for years and because I had worked with James for that long I knew club owners and promoters all over the place and it was a matter of calling and see who would cash in the favor if I needed it. I was trying to get my foot in the door. I’ve pretty much been doing my own thing since then.
I still work with a number of different people in Chicago like in 2015 I ended up coming to Europe with Lil Ed because his regular guitar player Mike had some health problems two weeks before they were due to go to Europe, and that was a month’s tour, so Ed phoned me in a panic and asked me to go with him. So I had to move a few gigs of my own. Apart from that I have been focusing on my own thing.
In the last few years I was with Cotton and was off the road and wasn’t doing my own thing I was working a lot with Matthew Skoller. We still work together today and Mathew has this new band Chicago Wind that I am part of, along with Deitra Farr, Felton Crews and others. So I have been juggling those gigs with my own gigs and I remain an on call guitarist. When I left Cotton I was worried that things may backfire as I had done that for twelve years, but once the word got out in Chicago that I wasn’t with Cotton any more the phone started ringing. So I did the Lil Ed tour and I’ve worked with Shawn Holt for maybe a year, Magic Slim’s son, and also juggling my own stuff. After being with James for that length of time I was fully burnt out with going on the road so when I left James I played mainly Chicago for a good while. I was enjoying sleeping in my own bed every night. Staying home taking care for my wife also was important.
Over the years I’ve recorded with John Primer, Eddy Clearwater, some live tracks with him from the Boston Blues Festival, Sandra Hall out of Atlanta, James Cotton, Mud Morganfield on the first record he did, a self produced thing. He had been sitting in with, and hanging out with, John Primer before he went out on his own and John put him onto me, so I worked with Mud a little bit but that was when I was still working with Cotton. I couldn’t do all of Mud’s gigs though, because of being on the road with Cotton. I recorded with Grana’ Louise on her Delmark Getting Kinda Rough album. I’ve also recorded with Alabama Mike who is singing now with Andy T on his Taylor Made Blues album. I got on that recording through his drummer at that time, we had worked together in the past, and he had played Mike some of the songs I had written, so Mike wanted to record a couple of them and he wanted me to fly to California and play on those songs, so that’s what I did.
I played on half of Cotton’s Cotton Mouth Man. Tom Hambridge produced that and it had a bunch of guest artists on it as well. The tracks that Warren Hayes and Greg Allman played on are the tracks I played guitar on. We went in the studio knowing that those artists would be on those tracks, who did their thing later.
I’m working on putting out another album and I have enough material but it’s finding the time to get it together. Maybe Delmark may be interested. Me and Steve Wagner have kicked around the idea of me putting out something on Delmark. Before I started playing guitar, my dad and I would go down to the Jazz Record Mart every other Sunday, which was owned by Bob Koester who owned Delmark. I was nine or ten years old and my dad would sell Bob his old LPs and get $500 in store credit and he would get a $100 worth of CDs and that’s how I built up my library. Bob was always telling stories about this and that, so even at a young age I was soaking this up, so that’s why Delmark would be a good fit as well.
I’ve been doing some work with Omar Coleman and I have known Omar since I was doing the jam at Eddy Clearwater’s place. He was just starting to come around then and we have become good friends over the years and he has worked with me on some stuff and I have worked with him on some stuff. I’ve not recorded with him as yet though.
The Shuffle Kings has been a stable band and, coming from being a side man myself, I thought when I start my own band I will make sure my band gets taken care of. Music is a full time thing for me and has been pretty much all of my career. I’ve had the occasional odd job here and there to keep the lights on.
Interview of this Chicago based guitarist and singer took place in Lucerne, Switzerland. Many thanks go to Jim Feeney for all of his help.