With as many musicians as he’s employed over the course of the past six-plus decades, there’s probably no accurate way to ever tally the number of times that James ‘Mr. Superharp’ Cotton has uttered the words, ‘Hey, new guy.’
No doubt he never meant those words to be an insult, but when he looked around the bandstand and saw a newbie member of his crew, that was just the way Cotton would initially communicate with them.
Just inside the start of the New Millennium, one of those new guys in Cotton’s band was guitarist Tom Holland.
And just as clearly as if it happened yesterday, Holland remembers the instant he went from being the ‘new guy’ to just plain, ‘ole ‘Tom’ in the James Cotton Blues Band.
“The first tour that I went on with him, I think we were out on the west coast somewhere for three or four weeks. For the first week or so, he knew I was the new guy and could never remember my name. It was always, ‘Hey, new guy. Hey, new guy.’ We were playing somewhere and he threw me a solo and I pulled out some old Luther Tucker or (Robert Junior) Lockwood stuff. He swung around in his chair and his eyes got all big,” Holland recently said. “After the gig, he said, ‘Now what’s your name again?’ I said, ‘Tom.’ And he said, ‘Tom, you’ve got a job for as long as I’m willing to give you one.’ That was when it started to sink in that I may be able to play with James Cotton for a while. He was like, ‘I didn’t think anybody still played that kind of stuff.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah there’s still some of us out there.'”
Holland’s last gig with Cotton -with whom he played with for 11 years – was at the 2014 King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. Since then, he’s managed to down-shift things just a bit.
“I’ve been taking it easy since I got off the road with James Cotton a couple of years ago. It was one of those things where he’s not getting any younger and he was starting to slow down (touring). It was to the point that I was working more in Chicago and in the Midwest,” he said. “It was just not financially feasible for me anymore. I’ve got a family to feed and trying to do that on a bluesman’s salary is tough enough already. I’ve been mostly just working local around Chicago, plus doing a few runs here and there if somebody calls. I’ve pretty much been staying home and being dad.”
Despite his ‘domestic turn’ of the past couple of years, Holland and The Shuffle Kings (Holland – guitar and vocals; Mike Scharf – bass; Tino Cortes – drums; Big D – Harp) have still been dishing out heaping helpings of the real-deal Chicago blues on a weekly basis, just as they’ve been doing for the past two decades now. Through a good, old-fashioned work ethic and a desire to succeed, the group has managed to become one of the ‘must see’ blues bands currently on the Windy City circuit.
“I’ve always been of the mindset to work, work, work and sooner or later, it all falls into place,” is how Holland explains The Shuffle Kings’ rise to the top of the pack in Chicago. “It also helps that I had been out on the road as a sideman with Cotton, Eddy Clearwater and John Primer … all those guys.”
There’s no shortage of blues bands these days that mix in liberal does of funk and rock-n-roll with the more traditional leanings of the blues. While The Shuffle Kings could most certainly do this too, they choose not to. Their main focus today is the same as it was 20 years ago – deliver a straight-ahead, true Chicago blues experience in the manner that the forefathers of the genre did back in their hey-day.
“That was the style of blues that grabbed me the most. I mean, I can funk-it and I can rock-it, but I’ve noticed that everybody else is doing that now. It’s not that I’m pigeon-holing myself, but my reputation is that I play the old Chicago stuff … and play it well,” he said. “That’s worked out for me, because there are bands on every corner and nine times out of ten, they’re all playing the same stuff. So we’ve always stuck to our guns and it’s always worked out for us.”
Holland has recently been in the recording studio, laying down tracks for what appears to be a follow-up to 2013’s No Fluff, Just The Stuff.
“I was just in the studio a couple of weeks ago working on some stuff with Darren Jay Fallas (a guitarist originally from Memphis) . He’s going to school (Art Institute of Chicago) up here doing recording stuff in the audio department and he was like, ‘Do you have anything you need to record? I’ve got to do a project and I figured you would be a good one to ask.’ So we went in and knocked out a bunch of material for probably another record in one afternoon,” he said. “I’m always working on something.”
Age differences in any kind of a relationship have the potential to turn into a huge stumbling block. You can oftentimes multiply those issues by 10 when it comes to one generation of musicians working with another generation. But even though Holland has spent considerable time working with bluesmen who were much older than he was, he somehow has avoided ever letting a difference in age get in the way of simply playing the blues.
“When I first started out, I hung around all the old guys and just soaked it all up. They saw that I kept coming around and finally said, ‘Maybe we should teach this boy,'” laughed Holland. “That’s pretty much how it all started for me. Just hanging out in Chicago and making it work anyway I could. When I was growing up, my dad’s record collection was gigantic. He had everything from classical to blues, rock, jazz … you name it. So from a very early age I was listening to music. I was listening to music before I really knew what it was. I was a bit of a blues nerd when I was learning to play and I soaked up everything I could. When I started sneaking into clubs, I wasn’t drinking. I would sit at the end of the bar with a glass of water and just watch. I would have enough money with me where I could butter up the old guys and buy them a drink and ask them to tell me what I needed to know about playing the blues. I really wanted to learn and I really wanted those guys to open up to me and help me learn. I was 17- or 18-years-old … this white kid in these bars asking all these questions. There were plenty of times when I’d go to see somebody and they knew I was trying to learn, so they’d turn their backs so I couldn’t see what they were doing. But later on, it was like, ‘You know why we turned our back on you? It was because you listen with your ears; you learn with your ears. Your eyes can do it to a point, but you’ve got to hear it.'”
Holland also spent two years with the great John Primer, after seeing Muddy Waters’ former guitarist up close and personal at one of his regular stomping grounds.
“When I started playing with John, it was right around the time that Junior Wells passed away. Me and Marty Sammon (keyboardist who has played on albums by Buddy Guy, Lil’ Ed, Devon Allman and Eddie C. Campbell, to name just a few) grew up together and he was out on the scene a little bit before I was. He took me down to The Checkerboard Lounge on a Sunday or Monday to see John. John had hired him (Sammon) to play on a couple of dates, so I went along with him for a couple of Sundays and Mondays,” said Holland. “After a couple of times, Marty was like, ‘OK. I know what I need to do.’ So he stopped going, but I didn’t. I kept going back for another couple of months – every Sunday and Monday when John was not on the road. Finally, one night John was like, ‘Hey, man. What are you doing Thursday?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘Alright, I got a gig out in one of the suburbs and I need a guitar player for it. Can you do it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ So we went out that Thursday and played the first set and was on break and John sold a few CDs and after he got done with that, he comes over and said, ‘Alright. I have three questions. Number one, what drugs do you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t do any of that stuff … I’ve already seen what it does to some of these guys on the scene, so I don’t touch any of that.’ He said, ‘OK. The second question is, when can you work? And the third question is, you’ve got a job until you don’t want it anymore.’ I was like, ‘OK.’
With Holland on board as the ‘new guy,’ Primer could have thrown him to the wolves once they hit the road. Instead, Holland found out that Primer really cared about him and was not hesitant to look out for the young man.
“I think we were playing at Warm Daddies in Philly and was checking into one of the old hotels downtown. They had given the band two big suite rooms to cut down on expenses and everybody would just pile into one of the rooms. The other two guys were still in the van when John and I went to check in at the hotel desk. John said to me, ‘You and me are rooming together, because you don’t need to room with those knuckleheads.’ After the gig, we get back to the hotel room and get out the guitars and he’d show me some stuff,” Holland said.
It was also on that same road trip when Primer convinced Holland to do something that he had pretty much decided that he would never be able to do – play slide guitar.
“John said to me, ‘By the time you leave this band, you’ll know how to do two things. You’ll know how to play behind anybody and you’re going to know how to play slide.’ I said, ‘My fingers are a little fat to play slide; I don’t think I can do it.’ But he would not take no for an answer,” said Holland. “We’d be playing a gig and John would end his solo, look at me and stick his pinky finger up … meaning play slide. I was like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ He’d keep it up and then he finally walked over and said, ‘If you want to get paid, you better put that slide on your finger.’ Well, that was the end of that and it finally sank in.”
Not too long after he left Primer’s employ and was working with Eddy ‘The Chief’ Clearwater, Holland realized just how much he had absorbed from his time with Primer.
“Yeah, the running joke around Chicago for a while was that I was ‘Little’ John Primer,” he laughed. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve sure been called worse.’ That’s not a bad problem to have.”
Holland doesn’t take his tenure with legends like Cotton, Primer and Clearwater lightly. He knows that the opportunity to play with icons like those don’t come around on a daily basis. As such, he made sure to make the most of his time with those gentlemen, almost the way a good pupil pays attention to the lessons his teacher is delivering.
“Every band that I’ve ever been out on the road with, I’ve learned something. If you’re not learning, there’s no sense in doing it. With James, I had never seen someone that could read a crowd the way that he did,” he said. “It helps that his stuff was always high-energy, but he knew how to read the crowd … there was never a set-list or anything like that. It was always flying by the seat of our pants. We knew what we had to get done, but the only set tune was the one that he came up (to the stage) on. After that, all bets were off. I learned how to read a crowd from James and that’s kept me working.”
Thanks to being born and raised in Chicago – not to mention his dad’s impressive album collection – Holland grew up with the blues as his primary musical focus. He took lessons for a brief period of time, but today he doesn’t consider himself to be that well-versed in musical theory. Nor does he really seemed interested in learning such.
“When I first started, I did take lessons for a little while to get the basics down. Then, I would just sit and play the records over and over again until I got it. In terms of knowing my instrument; I know it. But in terms of theory, I’m like, ‘Well, I know I can play it all, but I can’t tell you what the chords are.’ I know where my fingers go,” he said. “There were times where I’d be out somewhere and someone would say, ‘I need you to play a diminished seventh.’ I’d say, ‘Just play it one time and let me hear it and I’ll figure it out from there.’ I would hear, ‘If you’re going to be doing this for a living, it would be wise to learn your theory.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know that’s probably a good idea, but I don’t want it to cloud anything.'”
Maybe Holland is not the world’s foremost authority on fretboard theory, but he is the owner of something that a lot of other guitarists would die to have – their very own signature model guitar. Holland’s is the Delaney Shuffle King.
He explains its origins.
“I had been playing St. Blues guitars for a bunch of years. Through playing with Cotton, I had gotten an endorsement with them. The guy that I dealt with there had left the company to pursue something else. He was the guy that got me pretty much anything I needed at St. Blues. I had run into Mike Delaney somewhere along the line and he was always like, ‘If you ever want to try anything else, I’ll gladly make you a guitar … however you want.’ A week or two after my guy at St. Blues left the company, Mike sent me an e-mail saying, ‘I heard your guy left. How’s that going for you? My offer is still open, if you want me to build you anything, just let me know.’ I started thinking about it and I did have an idea (for a guitar) in my head that’s been there since I was a kid. So I got in touch with Mike and explained what I was thinking of and asked him if he could do it. He said, ‘Oh, yeah. No problem.’ So I had him build the first Shuffle King model – the seafoam green one. When I got that, all the other guitars went in the closet. That guitar was the guitar for me. It took me a while, but I finally found the guy that knows how to do it the way I want it.”
Then, a not-so-surprising thing started to happen; other people wanted a Delaney Shuffle King guitar.
“A couple months after I started playing the Shuffle King model, we were going all over the world with James. Mike and I were talking and I said, ‘You’re probably going to start getting people calling you and e-mailing you asking about the guitar.’ He said, ‘That would be wonderful.’ That’s what happened with the St. Blues stuff. I was playing them all over the world and they’d (the company) call and say, ‘You must have just gotten back from such-and-such place. A bunch of people saw you playing there and want to know about your guitar.’ Well, that started happening with the Delaney guitar, too. Mike was like, ‘Would you be open to having that be your signature model? Would you be cool with us selling them to the public? We can all make some money.’ I said, ‘Yeah, man.’ I know they’ve sold a good number of those Shuffle Kings since then. After I started playing the Delaney and Mike Zito was playing a Delaney and Samantha Fish was playing a Delaney, Mike was like, ‘Man, between you Mike and Samantha, I’m cornering the blues market. That’s a beautiful thing … people really do love those guitars.'”
Being a working musician means that there’s no shortage of challenges to beat and hoops to jump through in order to be successful. Many have started down the path towards playing the blues for a living, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath them along the way. As has been proven time and time again, trying to earn a meager living by playing the blues is not something that should be attempted by the faint-hearted or weak-willed.
Good thing that Holland is neither of those.
“Honestly, I’m hard-headed. Once I figured out I like to play music and that I might be able to make a go at it, that’s all I’ve done. I had it in my head as soon as I started playing guitar, that was what I was going to do,” he said. “So far – knock on wood – it’s worked. I tell people I’ve been doing this too long to change now.”
Visit Tom’s website at: www.tomhollandshufflekings.com
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.