While each generation of male blues guitar players in Chicago gets plenty of attention, praise, and gigs, there are women out there working just as hard, playing with same passion and skill as their male counterparts. In Part 2 of this piece, we visit with three players who have been an integral part of the Chicago community for multiple decades.
Kate Moss certainly has a full plate as mother to her thirteen year-old daughter, Sadie, a full-time job as a designer, and a guitarist in a working blues group, the Smiley Tillmon Band. “I took the job when Sadie got a bit older. A friend was moving her office to the Loop area and needed design help. So I started working there three years ago, four days a week, partly because Sadie kept asking me why I didn’t have a job like her friends parents. I was doing free-lance work out of the house before that. Sadie being older makes it all work.
“About four and a half years ago, I was out in Colorado when I got a call from guitarist Billy Flynn. He wanted to refer me to a band he had been playing with. It was Smiley Tillmon, who wanted somebody on a full-time basis. It was pretty cool to get a referral from Billy. My first gig with Smiley was at the Beverly Arts Center. Felicia Fields was singing with the band at that time. She has a really great voice, does lots of theater work and has been nominated for Tony Awards. We were doing gigs on the south side of the city. Then I started bringing the band north. We got gigs at Legends, a regular gig at River Roast, B.L.U.E.S, and Smoke Daddy. Smiley is quite the character, and fun to play with. He knows over a thousand songs, so you never know what he knows. He has a broad range of influences. We play a couple times a week, which is perfect for me”.
When it comes to gear, Moss likes to mix things up. “I had been playing a boutique guitar, made by Kauer out in Sacramento, through my Fender Blues Junior. We don’t play huge rooms, so the amp is plenty loud. It has the clean Fender sound, with nice reverb. But lately I have borrowed Nick’s (Moss) Gibson SG, Bernie model, and I’m digging the Gibson sound. When I was playing with Jimmy Vivino at Blues on the Top last year, I borrowed a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop from Don Ritter at Category 5 Amplification, which is another amp I use. I was having a ball playing it, and Jimmy said, hey, you have found your sound! I have been feeling real comfortable with necks and the sound that comes out those two”.
“I’m not a tech head, and I can never seem to get the sound out of a Strat like Anson Funderburgh or Nick can. I should probably take some lessons from Nick, because he has put so much time into knowing what’s what. How many guitars does the guy have? That would be a different interview! It compliments what Smiley gets out of his Hohner, which is similar to a Gibson ES-335. I get a little more crunch, and he has a real clean sound, so it balances out pretty well”.
Moss started on guitar as a kid, taking lessons and practicing out of method books. She admits to getting bored at times, laying the guitar down until inspiration struck again. Later in high school, she became a huge Eric Clapton fan. She kept seeing Clapton’s references to Buddy Guy as one of his influences. “I was at a gas station in the suburbs, on my way to the Art Institute of Chicago my junior year. I spotted this sweet looking red Ferrari pulling out, and I realized that it was him, Buddy Guy, that guitarist Clapton was talking about. So I screamed ”Buddy”. He stopped, rolled down his window, and said hello. It was right around the time that Damn Right I Got The Blues came out. He was just starting to enjoy his new-found popularity. I blurted out that I played guitar, which I barely did. Buddy told me to come down to the club to show him what I knew. That was the start of our friendship. Urban myths being what they are, all of a sudden I was his protege. I never took lessons from him, but he did show me a few things. He would also get me up to play at the club, which was terrifying, as I was just starting out. But those were great experiences, back in the early 1990s, which was how I got started playing the blues. Legend’s quickly became my second home”.
Moss played with the Chicago Blues Angels for five years, which featured Armando Cortez on guitar. Once Sadie was born, Moss put the guitars away for a decade as her life revolved around other things. Nick had taught her a few things on bass and Kate filled in for his band for about a year in 2003, when the late Barrelhouse Chuck was a member. “In 2011, I was at Blues on the Top. Samantha Fish needed a bass player, so I sat in and that helped me get the bug back. I used to play the tennis racket in the mirror a lot, wanting to be Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders! Whatever song I was listening to, the guitar was the instrument I was hearing. Now it vacillates between guitar and bass”.
Viewing the Chicago blues community as a true family, Moss is grateful to be surrounded by so many great musicians. “I went to see Eric Gales at Legend’s last year. I got seated with Mike Wheeler and Carlos Johnson. From Buddy to Mike, it is so great to know these guys. They are very accepting, always telling me to bring my guitar so we can jam. And that feeling extends beyond the city. I was on the Blues cruise earlier this year. At one point I walked by Walter Trout, who was with his wife & son. I said hello, Family Trout, and Walter said hello back. I mentioned that I planned to see his show the next evening. He told me to bring my guitar and we will twelve bar blues ourselves into a comma. That stuff means a lot”.
For more info on Kate Moss and the Smiley Tillmon Band: www.smileytillmonband.com
Listening to her husband’s advice, Liz Mandeville makes sure that she has quality equipment so people take her seriously, checking out every guitar that she has a chance to play. “We met at a gig, when I had one Stratocaster, one electric-acoustic Ibanez, and a cheapo, classical cat-gut nylon string that was my original guitar. From there, I went to having about twenty-two guitars! What I use depends on the size of the venue. My go-to guitar is my Gibson Les Paul, which my husband traded me for a Strat. I think I got the better end of the deal! The Strat was a beautiful blonde model that was just too big for my hands. I’ve tried all different brands of strings and have settled on the Fender Bullets. I love the sound of tube amps but I have a wardrobe of amps, including some solid state models. You can’t go wrong with a Fender Deluxe, or the Blues Junior if it is a tiny room”.
Given her background in theater studies, it is no surprise that Mandeville believes in looking good on stage. “Fiona Boyes and I once had a conversation about how you can be taken seriously as guitar and a female. Fiona was a real fan and friend of Hubert Sumlin, so she tried to imitate what Hubert wore. She looks really awesome in pants and a cool bowling shirt. But I am kind of vain! Part of getting ready for the stage is dressing up, doing the hair, the make-up, the artifice of show business. And I have a huge wardrobe, so that is all part of the ritual, just as another part is tuning my guitar, making sure I have an extra set of strings and a tuner”.
“I used to use a large effects pedal board. But on a trip to South Africa, the airline made me take it out of the suitcase I had so carefully packed it in. The plane ended up running over all of these really wonderful pedals that I used to make myself sound different. Lately I have been working with Minoru Maruyama, who depends on his fingers and amp to get the tone he wants without any pedals. I started thinking maybe I should give it try. Every guitar player is on a quest for the ultimate tone. That is part of what it means to be a guitar player. Albert Collins and Billy Gibbons are two of my favorites but they have completely different sounds. So you keep trying different guitar and amplifier combos to get that “sound”.
The desire to play guitar stemmed from a sense of being out-of-touch when her family moved during her high school years. Living in the suburbs, she felt like an outcast where everyone else had grown up and gone through school together. She searched for a way in. “There was a group of cool kids that I wanted to hang out with – and I noticed they all played musical instruments. One guy played mandolin, another played banjo. So I figured I should use the guitar as a vehicle to achieve social acceptance with this particular group. But what I discovered with the guitar is that you are never done learning how to play. Once you reach a certain level, you discover a whole new texture that opens up. No matter how much I learn, I am never done. So I continue to challenge myself, taking lessons and talking to other players about their techniques. The guitar is an ever-evolving vista of newness”.
“Probably about 80% of what I do is rhythm guitar. Anybody can learn scales, licks, and tricks. But if you really want to serve the song, you need to learn how to play good, interesting rhythm. My Gibson Les Paul gives me the versatility I need for doing lead and rhythm. It gives me the clean, warm, mellow tone that I like, but will give me a bit of dirt and lots of sustain for lead. I don’t use much tremolo or distortion. The goal is to have the guitar sound like my singing voice, and to tell a story. So the perfect tone that I look for is one that is emotive as the human voice”.
No matter what sex you are, there is a certain level of professionalism that is expected of any musician working on the Chicago blues scene. Learning to play right-handed when she is naturally left-handed probably slowed Mandeville’s quest to reach that level. But she persevered, especially in last ten years or so, giving her playing an honest assessment. “I think women hold themselves to a higher standard. A woman is more likely to say, I suck, while men are usually better at the positive self-talk. Biologists have generalized that women work better in groups. Women tend to be more more deflective when given praise”.
“Other guitar players have been very helpful. Just about everyone I have played with has taught me something that I have used, from my first husband teaching me the first position lump-de-lump they used in all the Jimmy Reed songs, to an Albert Collins thing I learned just recently after a guitar playing friend hipped me to this guitar website where they showed how to play one of Albert’s licks. I put it into my bag of tricks and use it all the time, as well as hammer-on techniques or chord voicings. I can look it a particular thing and tell you that John Hill showed me that or Michael Dotson taught me that. The men I have played in bands with like Mike Gibb, Michael Dotson, Chris Winters, or Minoru considered me the other guitar player, not just a supporting character. It has to be a symbiotic relationship,where hopefully we aren’t playing the same thing. You want to play parts that support each other and the song”.
“Fans like me as a singer and a front person. When I started taking more of a lead role with my guitar playing, people would tell me that I shouldn’t do it, you are a really good vocalist but you aren’t as flexible on guitar. I let those comments roll off my back and went ahead, trying as learn as much as I could, to be versatile. I am not a shredder or the fastest gunslinger on the block. I try to speak through the guitar in a voice that is as important to the song as what I am singing. If you want to be accepted, or you want to get hired, you had better be good!”
More information on Liz Mandeville can be found here: www.facebook.com/Liz-Mandeville-the-Blue-Points-75430358101/
It is a brief, under-three minute clip on YouTube, from the 2014 North Atlantic Blues Festival, that has been viewed over 1.1 million times, featuring Joanna Connor ripping through an energized slide guitar solo excursion.
If you had never had the pleasure of attending one of Joanna’s shows, the video would undoubtedly make you an instant fan. But that is only part of the story. (View video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWter1w4vWE)
As Joanna explains, “I have never put one of my own videos on YouTube, nor do I spend much time on the Internet. One day, the guy that shot that video called to tell me that the clip was over 100,000 views in Russia. Needless to say I was shocked! I had one video at the time that had maybe 30,000 views. There is a website in Brazil that had five million views, one in Italy with four million. When you add in Scandinavia and China, we think that video has been viewed about forty million times. He was wise enough to film it and put it out there. There is a video on The Chive, which younger people use for comedy and music, that had over a million views in thirty days. My landlords saw it, said oh my God, we didn’t know you did that!”
Admitting that she may be the least gear-headed musician on the planet, Connor also avoids music stores, being satisfied with her small collection of instruments. “I have nothing against gear if that is your passion. Besides my acoustic guitar, I have a knock-off resonator plus a Gibson Les Paul Classic 1960 reissue and an SG. I love the Les Paul – will play it until it literally falls apart. It feels like it is part of me. Other guitarists switch instruments regularly, but the Virgo in me makes touch really important. Every guitar has it’s own feel, even from one Les Paul to another Les Paul. I want the guitar to be so familiar to me. That is why I can play the slide with my eyes closed and be so accurate. There is no feeling, because you are gliding over frets, but I know the guitar so well. It is the same as Stephen Curry shooting baskets with the lights out at the gym because he has done it so many times”.
“I use a lot of amps at the clubs and own a couple of Peavey units. I prefer a loud, clean amp that I can dirty up with some effects pedals and overdrive. That’s my disappointing gear talk! To be honest, you need a good instrument, but it is all in the touch. Somebody can play a $3,000 Les Paul and make it sound like a $60 knock-off from K-Mart because of the way they play. With any instrument, a real musician will make it sound really good. When I teach guitar, I am very picky about how my students play a note. That is more important than anything”.
In her early twenties when she arrived in Chicago from Massachusetts, Connor was alone without a car, using the CTA bus line to get to the South and West side clubs to soak-up the blues culture. “I would get on buses with a Fender Twin amp, doing everything myself. Some people were supportive, some were not. I was a young, thin woman that guys wanted to hit on. It was a mixed bag of reactions. But I was determined to become a guitar player and learn from the masters. Eventually I was backing Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Junior Wells, the Myers brothers, and Lefty Dizz plus a year playing the Checkerboard Lounge with the 43rd Street Blues Band. In 1988, I started my own band, played Kingston Mines for six months twice a week, then hit the road for seventeen years, ten of which were mostly in Europe. Thomas Ruf had me fill in on a tour after another guitar player dropped out. That led to opening for Luther Allison, ZZ Top, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Joe Cocker”.
“Being a woman in any field, whether you are a trailblazer or an oddity, you will always face different attitudes. Plus I was a single mom, which is a whole other dynamic. I was just determined to do what I wanted to do”. Initially, the guitarist wanted to be a drummer. The band leader told her that girls don’t play the drums, so Connor started learning the saxophone. “The guitar just drew me in. Plus, it is a lot easier to sing & play guitar than to sing & play sax. Any stringed instrument is the most expressive. Now I consider myself a guitar player who sings”.
In 2000, Connor went back to college to become a teacher, cutting back on the touring and staying in the Midwest with occasional festival bookings. When she decided to send her son to a private high school, she started working more, getting three nights a week at Kingston Mines in 2005, plus the House of Blues and Legend’s. With a regular, five night per week local schedule, there was no need to be on the road. “Part of the reason I went back to school was that I disgusted, feeling like my career was going nowhere after all the effort I had put into it. Now that I am older, I look at it philosophically, that what is meant to be, will be. I may not have done everything right, but I worked really hard, jumped through the hoops. Now I am the Mom who Shreds! And that is fine, because being a Mom came first and music second. I told my kid that when I turn sixty, I might just hang up the guitar and do something else that I love. But then I might keep playing 200 shows a year!”
When asked about changes in the Chicago blues scene over her career, Joanna didn’t mice words. “I will be brutally honest. The talent level has gone way down. There used to be so many stellar acts playing the clubs – and that is not the case any more. Don’t get me wrong – there are great players out there. But there is no comparison to what it was when I first got here. Drugs, particularly crack, took down a lot of musicians and destroyed plenty of bands. A lot of people who should be at the forefront of the music are either dead, missed their opportunity, or blew too many chances. It depleted the talent pool, especially with bass players. And the younger African-American musicians haven’t followed in the blues footsteps. But that young man, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, from Mississippi – wow, unbelievable. I am blown away by his talent. We just need more players like that. The music waxes and wanes, but there will always be something going on with the blues. At the Mines these days, after 11 pm, the audience is mostly under the age of thirty-five. They love it, which has really invigorated me”.
For more on Joanna Connor, go to: http://joannaconnor.com
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!