Sugar Blue likes to tell people that blues isn’t tragic, it’s black magic, but he adds that b.l.u.e.s stands for black life under egregious suppression. A veteran blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter, Sugar Blue is a cat who has lived 13 of his nine lives.
Born James Whiting in 1949 to an absent father and a mother who was a chorus singer and dancer at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The future bluesman who did for the harmonica what Hendrix did for guitar lost five of his six brothers to street violence. Moving from tenement to tenement as a child he avoided the street by burying himself in the pages of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Hemmingway’s Old Man in The Sea. He jumped three grades when he transferred from Catholic to public school.
As a youngster he wanted to play saxophone like Lester Young. But his mother would have none of the squealing that marked his practices. Legend has it that she took him to see Little Stevie Wonder when both he and Stevie were 12 because she felt guilty about refusing to listen to his practicing while encouraging him to take up the quieter harp. “No,” he says, “she took me to see Stevie Wonder because she wanted to see Stevie Wonder. Actually, I think if I was meant to play sax I would have gone after one, and I’d have bought one and managed to play it.”
Instead, the harp, in his words, became part of him. His goal? To make his playing on what some call the poor man’s sax as fluid as the instrument his mother wouldn’t let him play. “I still listen to a lot of saxophone players and trumpeters and listened a lot to Charlie Christian and a lot of big band stuff long before I ever got into the blues.”
By the time he was 18, he was playing in the street, hanging out in the heart of the folk movement, the West Village, listening to Dylan as much as he was Lester Young. “There were never any harmonica players that did anything for me outside of Dylan. Now, Dylan played some of the raggediest stuff that you’d ever want to hear played on a harmonica, ok? But within the context of his music it was perfect. It fit so very perfectly into what he was doing. He had a very plaintive sound. I loved him back then because I loved listening to the words he was writing. I loved the songs that he was writing. His acoustic period was very touching for me.
“I sat down and tried to play along with some of the stuff that he was doing, and I was saying, ‘S***, he doesn’t need this kind of cleanliness.’ He needs that raw talent that he paints with to be able to get away with what he does, and that raspy, almost in-pitch voice and that squeaky harp and that very dry acoustic guitar just fit so well, man. It was perfect.
“I remember, I played Bob Dylan for my mother who was a singer with big bands back in the day, and she said, ‘He can’t sing. He can barely play, and what the hell is he talking about?’ And I’m like, ‘Mom, listen to this song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and she liked that. She liked the story.”
When he was 25 Sugar Blue met Victoria Spivey, a kind of one-woman Harlem Renaissance, the first black woman to own her own record label, Spivey Records, in 1962. She wrote songs, sang them and accompanied herself on piano and organ. Her first release featured Dylan as an accompanist. Sugar Blue was jamming on MacDougal and 8th when he first encountered her.
“Victoria was the self-described Black Queen of America, and she drove up in a black 1947 torpedo-back Cadillac that was in pristine condition, and it looked like they’d just drove it off the showroom floor. She was dressed in the high style of the late ’40s, crinoline and those big picture hats and gloves and those wonderful, old platform-styled shoes. I mean she looked like she’d just stepped out of a film in the ’40s, and she was wonderful. She stood there, and she listened to us.”
Patti Smith was in the audience and dropped a $50 bill in Sugar Blue’s hat. “She and Victoria started talking. When she went on her way, Victoria came over to us after we had finished our set and said, ‘Would you like to record?’ I was like, ‘Record?’ Hell, I’d been playing in the streets for about a year. The last thing in the world I was thinking about was recording in the studio. I had no idea how to (do that).
“I think she liked what she heard. I was working very hard to sound like Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Water, and I was playing my little semi-jazz licks and whatnot and having fun with the music, man, and we kept a good crowd. We entertained the people well, and that’s what she liked about it.
Sugar Blue jumped at the Black Queen’s offer and eventually became a session musician on Johnny Shines’ Too Wet to Plow. At the time of her offer he was an Army deserter from Vietnam, a potentially capital offense in time of war. “I figured what the hell did I have to lose? I’d spent years dodging bullets in Harlem and so what? I’m gonna go to Vietnam and do the same? Screw that. A war is a war, and basically I was just going from one war zone to another.”
Eventually, he turned himself in and was court martialed. At the time of his court martial, his father had been murdered, and he was a member of the Black Panthers. His defense lawyer was a young lieutenant fresh out of college.
“I was like, ‘Oh, God. I’ve got the junior JAG officer.’ Yeah, I thought at least I was gonna do some time, you know? (But my defense attorney) was like a preacher in the Baptist Church, man, and he had their ears.
“The most important thing that he said was how can you expect a soldier to have any respect for what he’s doing and who he’s fighting for when the Commander in Chief (Richard Nixon) is about to be kicked out of the White House? He said, ‘This is enough to ruin the morale of any soldier.’ And they stopped the trial right there. I mean, they stopped the trial, and they took a recess. I came back and I was free to go.
“I think basically, the reason they ended all that crap was because they didn’t want it on the records. Screw the war! Screw all those bastards that drug us over there to fight for nothing. Later for that. I don’t really want to talk about it. This is the most I’ve conversed about that since it happened.”
Victoria Spivey introduced Sugar Blue to Memphis Slim who would eventually convince him to move to Paris in 1978. Slim was playing Top of The Gate, and Sugar Blue screwed up the courage to ask the vaunted bluesman to let him sit in.
“He said, ‘Well, I’ll let you sit in, but if you mess up my music see the size 14 here? I’m gonna put it where the sun don’t shine.’ I was like, what the hell. I (took) that chance, and I played.
“He liked it, and we had a drink, we talked, and I asked him what did he think about me going to France to do what I do, and he said, ‘Well, they like Sonny Boy Williamson, and if you’ve got the courage and the stick-to-itiveness to go for it, why not? Give it a try. Nothing beats a try, but a sell.’ And so about two or three weeks later, I was on a plane, and that was a good move for me.”
In Paris he recorded “Miss You” with the Rolling Stones and made his debut solo album Crossroads and From Paris to Chicago. He also got to hang with Luther Allison who he thinks would have eclipsed Buddy Guy had he lived into the new millennium. But it was Willie Dixon who gave Sugar Blue his Ph.D. in blues when the emerging blues man came back to the states and moved to Chicago in the early ’80s.
Sugar Blue by this time was a firecracker of a blues harp player, his style forged in the street with influences ranging from Dylan to Coltrane but seasoned with Sonny Boy Williamson’s Delta grit. It would take a man the caliber of Willie Dixon, blues’ most celebrated A&R man, to tame him down.
“Willie Dixon told me, ‘Son, a bluesman ain’t but half a bluesman if he ain’t got some stories to tell. I don’t care how well you play. You gotta understand the music that you’re playing is only the framework. That’s the frame of the picture. The true picture, the true picture of the blues is the songs that you write. The songs that you write are the canvas and the painting. All the rest of that stuff, if you ain’t got nothing to talk about, and you play your ass off basically all you got is the solo.’ I was like, ‘Yes, sir, Mr. Dixon.’
“What I wanted to do with Dixon’s music didn’t work. When I did what he wanted me to do with it, it worked. So I found out that with all the technique I’d been working on all those years, and figuring out what I wanted to do, I needed some direction to fit his music because his music had a particular groove, and he had a particular way he needed it to be played.
“After I messed up a live recording that we did and then I listened to it back, I was like, oh, my God! It was like somebody needed to burn all of these, and from that point on I started doing exactly what Dixon wanted me to do, and then when it came time for me to solo, he said, ‘Then do whatever you want to do, but up until that point I want you to play what I want you to play,’ and he was right. That I could not accept that from a genius like him just shows you how immature I was at the time.”
Sugar Blue performed on Willie Dixon’s Grammy-winning album Hidden Charms released in 1989.
Alligator released two Sugar Blue albums licensed from a Japanese label, Blue Blazes in 1994 with his own solo version of The Stones’ “Miss You” and In Your Eyes in 1995. In a 2011 interview with Living Blues, Alligator’s CEO Bruce Iglauer is quoted as saying he wouldn’t sign Sugar Blues because he was a hothead. “He might have been right back in those days,” admits Sugar Blue today, then adds, “I just wanted to do things my own way. I was more stubborn than anything else.”
Growing up with violence that was killing off his family but rubbing shoulders with some of music’s greatest exponents from around the world and holding his own gave Sugar Blue an attitude that would eventually come back to threaten his muse in the form of drug addiction.
“I mean I know that I have an egregious personality, so I have to watch out for what I do. I didn’t know it back in those days. Then, too, I knew that I was basically trying to stop the pain that I felt about so much of my growing up, seeing so many of my friends and my brothers cut down before they had a chance to even live. So, I was basically insulating myself from the pain of that stuff by doing these drugs, and I didn’t understand it that way at the time, but that’s what was going on.
“There came a point where I decided, it’s either I’m going to get off, or I’m going to die from this s***. So, there really wasn’t much of a choice. It was either death or my music, my life, my daughter, my wife up to that time. Everything that I had worked for as a musician up to that time was about to go down the toilet and me along with it. So, it really wasn’t a difficult decision to make.
“(But) it was difficult to do, and it’s a fight I have to deal with every day, but you know, there were so many people that didn’t make the choice that I did that are not here today that were acquaintances of mine. So I did the only common sense thing. I quit!”
The insidious pull of that addiction never leaves him. “There are those little synapses in my brain that are buried real deep and sometimes they wake up and they go, ‘We want it, we want it, we want it!’ And I say, ‘F**** you! F**** you!’
He says he doesn’t buy into the old saw that musicians like Coltrane and Miles saw drugs as an assist to their creativity. “No I didn’t buy that. I didn’t buy into that. No, it was just something I did. It was something I did. I thought it was hip. I thought it was cool, but it wasn’t.”
We did this interview the day after his son James’ third birthday. “My daughter moved back from France, and so we invited over a bunch of friends of ours, his Godmothers and his Godfather, And we had a wonderful party, beautiful champagne that as given to me last year that I saved until his birthday. We had a great time, lots of gifts. He got a saxophone and a trumpet and a drumstick bag and new drumsticks. Oh, he was a happy little camper.”
Voyage, Sugar Blue’s latest album, is a masterpiece, an autobiographical showcase of one man’s epic struggle the break the bonds through a creativity that chronicles his epic struggles. On the inside cover is a picture of him with James, and the sparkle on Daddy’s face shows right through his dark glasses. The young boy has brought out a side of Sugar Blue only hinted at in his earlier releases.
I told him in our interview, “There’s such a yin and a yang to your music. On one hand it’s light and simple and airy, but on another it’s very dense and complicated. You can listen to it on both levels and enjoy it equally from either one.”
I am reminded of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” when I listen. Like John Sebastian, Sugar Blue is able to take an instrument that’s often associated with sadness and give it a sunny disposition that’s all honey and daisies on a summer day.
And some people think blues’ only color is blue.
No, this album connects the dots between Sugar Blue’s disparate influences and is an aural resume of his colorful life story. His harp playing displays a masters’ command of an instrument that he makes far more versatile than its pejorative definition of a poor man’s saxophone. While honoring his blues legacy with a tip of the hat to Sonny Boy Williamson, he acknowledges Dylan’s contribution to the genre in making the instrument an accompaniment that puts his words into a setting like a diamond in the ring of knowledge and personal experience.
Like Willie Dixon taught him he paints pictures with his songs that allow the astute listener to hear the intricacies of his Lester Young and Coltrane jazz inflections while at the same time offering the casual listener a pleasant diversion that explodes beyond the fundamental catharsis that is the blues to be appreciated on a pop music level.
To bring the kind of intellect he has together in a genre as guttural as the blues is a rare gift. Not only does Sugar Blue succeed in this endeavor, he creates autobiographical truths in his music that make it all the more stunning when you know the back story.
“On My Way (Sarah’s Song)” is a father’s loving tribute to the struggles his 25-year-old daughter has gone through and secondarily the story of his own bouts in search of maturity. “12 Steps” announces his success in fighting back the life destroying cancer of addiction. “Love Is Everywhere” is a celebration of his relationship with his wife/bass player/co-writer Ilaria Lantierie and his son James whose gurgling and ecstatic laughter on the song become music to our ears. “New York City” is an ode to a home that’s so nice, they named it twice. “Mercedes Blues” is a contemporary triumph of triple entendre and a bow to traditional blues’ strengths.
Early in his career, Sugar Blue got to sit in with the avant garde jazz master Sun Ra at the Jazz Loft in New York. “He said, ‘I like the way you’re playing, son. I never heard anyone playing one of them little harps like that. I want you to come on the road with me,’ and one of my greatest regrets is that I did not go with him. I would have learned so much, but at the time I was AWOL, and I was thinking I’m gonna go back a couple weeks to the Army and turn myself in. Oh, hell, I spent another six months before I did that, Ha, ha.”
I asked him if he thought his mother’s insights into culture were an extension of the Harlem renaissance. “You could say that. You could say that. The complexity of the music and the vibe was totally different. The Harlem Renaissance was a black thing, period.”
Visit Sugar’s website at: www.sugar-blue.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.