“Once I got into the Royal Southern Brotherhood (2012), Johnny Winter said to me, ‘Man, why are you in this band?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s a great opportunity, and my manager has kinda put it together,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s not blues. Why are you playing in this band? I don’t understand,’ and I said, ‘I’m just doing what I’m being directed to do, and it’s gonna help my career. It’s gonna help boost my career.”
“He said, ‘I hear ya, but, Mike, you’re a good blues player, and that last record Pearl River (2009), that’s a good blues record.’ He didn’t say anything bad about the Royal Southern Brotherhood, He just said, ‘This isn’t a blues band. I don’t know why you’re in this band. Mike, you’re a really good blues guitarist. We need you to play blues. You should be playing blues, not this.’”
Johnny Winter understood and Mike Zito learned from Winter that the trick in rocking the blues is not to let the energy bury the heart. It has to do with spontaneity. The truth has to be strong enough that it surfs the top of the wave and never gets buried in the undertow. It’s like tai chi. You use your opponent’s thrust to carry him through and conquer. The power of rock can be the enemy in blues, but the real opponent is not the 110-decibel stringed attack of a shredder guitarist but life’s challenge channeled into a primal scream, a cathartic release from the frustrations that threaten to bury the spirit.
If the artist stays on top and lets his emotions rule, the propulsion of the music underscores the message. It’s tricky. And it usually takes experience as a road warrior to pull it off. Mike Zito found the balance between energy and real emotion in the work of Johnny Winter, Walter Trout, and Luther Allison, all of whom released their primal scream in their music. All struggled with substance abuse. All discovered that their music was stronger than their addictions. Each threw himself into communicating that revelation to their fans.
“The goal is to just continue to try not to think so much about what I wanna play and play whatever is gonna come out,” says Zito. “Apparently, that’s what I’m supposed to do and that thing of being very comfortable with yourself. Some people are just not made for that, and the more I do this and the longer I’ve been sober – almost 14 years now – I’m very comfortable. If I go on stage and I play a bad note. I don’t care. It’s ok. I’m trying to get to the good – trying to do something. I’m not just playin’ that. I’m trying to get to whatever it is I got going on, and I’m comfortable with that, I’m realizing now that’s exactly how all my heroes (do it).”
“I feel like now is the time to do this. I’m doing it, and I’m gonna keep doing it. I wanna make more records that are fun, that are fun for the genre, that are fun for me to go play that hopefully people – you know, always liked blues when it’s sad and awful, but like B. B. King said, ‘It really should make you feel better. It should be enjoyable.’
It was Walter Trout who helped Zito get clean, just as Carlos Santana helped Trout years earlier, basically with an intervention.
“I started playing music. I got into drugs and alcohol really bad, and it mostly put an end to it all. I had chances to get into this in the late ’90s. Bruce at Alligator was talking to me and Thomas Ruf. Walter Trout was bringing my records to Ruf Records in 1997, but I just got so bad on drugs. Walter played with me and saw I was so messed up, that he sat me down and gave me so much shit and yelled at me and chided me. And so, it (getting a record contract) didn’t happen back then, thank God, because it wouldn’t have worked out. I’d have blown it all.
“When I was opening up for him in St. Louis and I was on drugs, he knew it. He had known me for a couple of years by then. Like I say, he grabbed me and threw me and told me the story about how Santana had done the same thing to him. And he said, ‘Look, Mike, you have the responsibility to the music and to your family and to yourself’ and he said. ‘Look, you can’t play these shows. You’re too shitty.’
“I was trying to break out. Tommy Castro would come to town or Tab Benoit or Walter Trout. When one of those guys was coming to town and doing a show, I was the guy who got to open up. I was trying to make inroads, and Walter had become quite an influence on me and that was really like, ‘Oh, man. I don’t get to do these shows with you.’ And I think I made him mad. It didn’t get me to quit doing drugs the next day, but I know that within a couple years, 2003 was when I cleaned up. He was one of the first ones I called and told him. And when I told him, he cried on the phone and said, ‘Any time you want to call me, night or day, any time you need to call somebody if you need a drink or need some dope, you need to call me and I’ll talk to you.”
Trout plays on “Highway Mama” in Zito’s latest album Make Blues Not War, and Zito appears on Walter Trout’s new CD, We’re All in This Together.
Walter was still recovering from a liver transplant that almost killed him when he cut “Highway Mama” for Make Blues Not War. “I hired an engineer, and they went to Walter’s house, and they brought in a whole recording setup, and they put this amp over in this big living room and miked it all up, and then he sat in the kitchen all day at his house and worked out the guitar.
“And what’s really funny is he called me and he goes, ‘All right, I’ve been doing this track for four or five hours, but I don’t want it to be overdone. I’ve got one I really worked on. I think it’s really good. Then, the second one sounds like a damned teenager in the garage, and I gotta be honest with ya. That’s the one I like.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s the one I like, too.’ He spent three hours working on one and at the very end, he thought, ‘Well, I’ll just play whatever the hell I’m feeling.’ And, of course, that’s the one we ended up using.
Zito’s entry into the blues, like most great practitioners, was not simple or easy. “Well, I didn’t have a hard life (growing up). That’s for sure, but you don’t know you’re poor when you’re a kid. We just lived in a four-family flat for 15 years in the middle of south St. Louis. There were five of us in five rooms. I didn’t know that was unusual. There was plenty of other people on the block living the same way. I can’t say I had hardship. We always had food. My dad worked at Anheuser Busch, and they were so much older than me. He was born in like 1922.
“So, their big thing was we always had food on the table. We went to Catholic school. They wanted us to have the best education we could. So, we were not the worst case by any means. I didn’t realize things were the way they were until later. We ate neck bones and pig’s feet all the time because we didn’t have any money. I love neck bones and pig’s feet. They’re great, but no one played music at all.
“When I asked for a guitar, they thought I was crazy. But they bought me one out of the J.C. Penny catalog in 1977 or ’78, and so they weren’t not supportive. But I don’t think they ever realized you could do this. It was like. ‘Come on, you know. You need to get a job. We don’t play music. You know, you just need to be a down to earth person and go work.’ I think those were my mom’s exact words. Ha, ha. Ha. But they lived to see me become successful, and they were very proud. Like wow. You stuck with it. That’s really good. They saw me starting to support my family and stuff. But that was kind of early on. It was just very average lower middle class.”
Zito spent a decade working in a local guitar shop while playing in local clubs seven nights a week. He was a founding member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood with Cyril Neville, guitarist Devon Allman (son of Gregg Allman), bassist Charlie Wooton (of Zydefunk), and Yonrico Scott (former drummer for the Derek Trucks Band). The group released its self-titled debut album on the Ruf label in 2012. He left that group in 2014. He’s released 12 solo albums for Electro Groove and Ruf Records and won several Blues Music Awards am\nd a Blues Blast Award working with four great producers: David Z, Tony Braunegal, Jim Gaines, Anders Osborne and Tom Hambridge.
“I have been very blessed. I’ve worked with all of those guys, and it’s been like going to school. I take notes. I pay attention. I’m not in there goofing off. I get a chance to work with these guys. I kinda want to know what they’re doing. I want to learn something. I can say they’re all a little different, and they’re all a lot the same.
“Tony Braunigal as a producer is a more like the music. not turning the knobs or the mixing or any of that kind of stuff. Tony will forever be in my heart because he helped me make my first real album, the Today album (2008), and I was with him and David Z together, but Tony came to my house in Nederland, Texas and stayed with me. We went through the song book, and picked out all the songs, and we talked about arrangements. We didn’t make everything perfect before we went in, but he made it comfortable for me ’cause I went into the studio with (James “Hutch”) Hutchinson from the Bonnie Raitt Band and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. I went into the studio with these guys and below nerve racking the first time. But he made things comfortable that way.
“David’s wide open. He’s got lots of ideas, but he comes from making more pop stuff, and he got into making blues records We made Pearl River together. He knew what I wanted to do. We wanted to record a live blues album. We recorded 14 songs in one day. We had been playing on the road, and we had all these tunes, and they were blues tunes, and we knew all of them, and I remember we set everything up, and we played the first song for a soundcheck and he said, ‘Ok, got that one! Watcha got? What’s next?’ And we were like, ‘Whoa! I didn’t even know we were doing it yet.’ He goes, ‘That’s fine. Let’s just keep going,’ and that really turned me onto like, ok, no, I see. I get it.”
“Pearl River,” the title song features Cyril Neville. and it won the Blues Music Award as Song of the Year in 2009.
“Cyril wasn’t there, but we did that song that day. Cyril was living in Austin at the time after Katrina, and so we had to send him the tracks. He wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music, and then we sent him the tracks. I learned a lot right away from David Z there. He’s got a thing. He says, ‘Look, you either got it or you don’t. That’s that, and it doesn’t even mean you’re either good or you’re not, but it’s like today right now. You either can do this right now or you can’t do this right now. And if you start playing the guitar solo, and you want to do it over, if we do it more than three times, we ain’t got it. So, let’s move on. We’ll come back and do it again tomorrow because it’s not going to be any good again not really, ok?’
“Anders Osborne (Keep Coming Back, 2015) again is more like Tony Braunigal. He didn’t get as involved in mixing, but that was a very different great record, and great experience. Just really different because he didn’t want the musicians he brought in to even know what key the song was that I was going to play. He didn’t want anything rehearsed at all, and I dug that.
“I would start to play the beginning of the song, and then the band just fell in, and they were not my band. They didn’t know the song, and they had no piece of paper that told them anything about the song, and if he caught me telling the bass player, ‘Hey, it’s in the key of E,’ he didn’t want anybody to know what happened. He wanted it to happen. So, we did that album in a day and a half. It was very quick.
“That’s probably the least blues records I made where it’s more 4-chord songs rather than three-chord blues. But I was concerned. I kept writing songs, and I kept going, ‘There’s a little bit of departure,’ and he was like, ‘No, we can make anything blues. You’re gonna play anything like from the heart. That was the thing I took away. That was like alright, there’s a formula that goes with blues. You take blues as an art form like jazz. There’s a 12-bar. There’s an 8-bar. There’s a formula.”
“I didn’t work with Jim Gaines until we did the Royal Southern Brotherhood, and by then Jim was a legend. I picked his brain on all the Stevie Ray Vaughan stories and Carlos Santana I could get out of him. They all have a different approach and Jim’s very talented obviously. He’s also very sweet.
“In the studio with Jim Gaines if you’re doing something maybe he doesn’t like, he’ll say, ‘You know, that’s pretty good. If we tried this.’ It’s a smooth way of making a person feel comfortable and going, ‘Yeah.’ He gets that out of people. David Z will go, ‘Man, that sounds like shit. This is not working. So, let’s do something something else.’ And you’ve gotta be able to take that. You have to be able to roll with that. That makes me laugh. I start laughing like you did. Oh, I’m out, but obviously there are people that are fragile. They’re not ready for that.
“Tom Hambridge (who produced Make Blues Not War) is a producer I’ve wanted to work with all of my life since I bought Just Won’t Burn by Susan Tedeschi, and I’ve loved that record. I was like ‘Man, this is great. I liked her, and I liked the tunes on the record and I was like, ‘Who is this Tom Hambridge guy?’ I started following him, and I’d just slowly start seeing him do more records and more records and more things. Then, he starts doing the Buddy Guy stuff. I met him on the Delbert McClinton cruise seven years ago. I said, ‘Man, I have been dying to make a record with you.’ And he’s like, ‘Man, let’s do it. Let’s do it. I was just getting into the Royal Southern Brotherhood. There’s all these things going on. It just didn’t line up, and every year I see him on the cruise, and every year I tell him I wanna make records. And he goes, ‘Well, you told me last year, and I didn’t hear from you. I’m ready.”
Hambridge really got into Zito’s head with the song about his son “Chip Off the Old Block.” “As time got closer to the recording, we stated getting an idea on what we would do, and I said, ‘Look, my son is 21. I want him to come down and play on this record, great guitar player, and I’ve never had him do this before, a song for him, and I told him, ‘For the life of me, it’s my son, and I keep coming up with what to me seems corny. Maybe something like “Chip Off the Block” or something,’ and he said, ‘Man, I’ve got it. We talked for about an hour, and we went back and he wrote that song, and that song kicks ass, and my son I think he plays awesome on it.’
“Tom and I come from rock and roll, and old rock and roll and into blues and we’re not far apart in age, and we like the same stuff, and he likes to rock and let it all hang out and again, we do the record the same way. We were in the studio two days with the band and cut the entire album, and we wrote “Make Blues Not War” after the end of the first day. Two days later, we had the album done. And he takes it off and mixes it.
“They’re all great producers. I like all those. I would make records with all of them again. Tom can write all the tunes for you. He can bring the A game. He can play the shit out of the drums. He knows how to mix and master that record. There’s so much I learned watching him. I said, ‘Man, he can do it all. It’s very impressive, and he’s a nice guy of top of it.
This spring Zito toured with Tommy Castro and his band The Painkillers and plays on the Elvin Bishop song “Rock Bottom” on Castro’s just released Stompin’ Ground CD. I saw them on the third stop of the tour in Albany, New York. It was like they’d played together since they were kids. “Tommy’s pretty much a straight shooter. He doesn’t really jam a lot. I mean he’ll get up and do a blues ……but their show is pretty straight forward. They do the tunes, but he’s really on this kick now. He wants to make sure we get loose, man, and we always kinda let things happen. By the time we hit Albany, the show was pretty good, you know. We did one rehearsal. His band is fantastic. I give a lot of it to the band. They seemed like they were up for the task.
“They’re already talking about next spring again, another tour, you go out for another month. I know there are some things we talked about (too many bands have stayed home) Of course, he’s got a tour bus, so we’d go with him. It would be great to get my group up on stage. We could all play at once. (Chuckle)
“I play on his next album. We did an Elvin Bishop cover. I was just on tour in California, and I was calling him to ask him if he was around, and maybe he wanted to come see me when I was playing to sit in, and he said, ‘Well, I’m making a record, and it happens to be in the exact same time.’ Kid Andersen has a studio in the same town I was playin’ in and he said, ‘Why don’t you come by the studio, and then you’d play on the tune, and that ended up as the first song of the night every night of the tour we did. We played the Elvin Bishop song (“Rock Bottom”) every night. It was fun. It worked out. That’s a great record.”
Mike Zito just won the Blues Blast Rock Blues Album of the Year Award for Make Blues Not War. Well deserved, the album represents all that’s good about todays’ blues scene. “For a while there wasn’t a lotta great songwriting in the blues. A lot of rehashed old shit. Since I’ve gotten in this game the last 10 years, a lot more better songs and newer art and the genre’s stretching out some.
“I feel like now is the time to do this. I’m doing it, and I’m gonna keep doing it. I wanna make more records that are fun, that are fun for the genre, that are fun for me to go play that hopefully people – you know, always liked blues when it’s sad and awful, but like B. B. King said, ‘It really should make you feel better. It should be enjoyable.”
Visit Mike’s website at: www.mikezito.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.