Brad Vickers began his professional career by learning how not to walk.
Although he and his brother had been playing guitar together for several years, his first opportunity to play for a living legend—though Vickers didn’t know it when he took the gig—came one night when he was 18.
“A friend of mine who was playing there called up my mom—I still wasn’t old enough to play in clubs—to ask her if she would let me sub for him; he asked her not to tell me who I’d be playing with because he knew I was such a huge fan of this guy and he knew I might be too nervous to do it if I knew beforehand,” says Vickers. Always supportive of her children’s musical lives, his mother sent her son off.
When he walked into the club to set up, he saw “a Latino drummer and a Latino piano player” and was a little worried about being able to keep up since it wasn’t his usual style of music. Pretty soon, though, he found out what kind of music he’d be playing when Chuck Berry walked out onto the stage.
“Now I knew why my friend didn’t tell my mom,” he laughs. In the moments before Berry launched into his signature opening riffs, the guitarist walked over to each musician to tell him how he wanted him to play. When he came to Vickers, Berry said, “bass player: no walking.” “Well,” said Vickers, “I didn’t know what walking was, or I’d never called the way I sometimes played by that name, but I just nodded in agreement.”
When Berry launched into his first song, Vickers started walking up and down the bass, playing the groove he knew to play with the song. Berry stopped the song in after a few bars, saying something wasn’t right; they launched into another song, with Vickers playing the way he knew to play, and Berry stopping the song again. Finally, Berry launched into “Maybelline,” with Vickers playing the same lines. “Chuck did his little duck walk over on my part of the stage, and he was smiling at the audience on one side of his face, and scowling at me with the other.
He growled at me, ‘didn’t I say no walking, bass player?'” Vickers replied, “But Mr. Berry, I’m not walking; I’m just standing still.” He started laughing, and Vickers started a career playing with bluesmen from Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin to Bo Diddley and Jimmy Rogers, among many others.
Vickers was attracted to the blues early. He’s grateful that his parents gave him the opportunity to hear so many different kinds of music; his dad as into country and his mom listened to jazz.
“When I was 9 or 10,” he says, “I started to hear a certain cut of music that I was attracted to: blues, country blues, jazz.” Then, one Christmas, Vickers’ mother bought him a record that changed his life and sent him down the blues road. “She bought me Jimmy Reed Plays 12-String Guitar, which was all instrumental, and I heard the way he used the guitar as his vocal track; I was so into that sound that I started going to record stores looking for more Jimmy Reed albums; then I found out he sang, too,” Vickers laughs. Jimmy Reed led to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley; “I was attracted to music with a groove,” he says.
Vickers and his brother used to sing and play guitar around the house growing up. Tired of playing on a beat up guitar, he asked his father one Christmas for a better guitar; instead, he got a bass. “I found out later that my grandfather had told my father to get me a bass instead of a guitar, that I would get more work that way since guitar players were a dime a dozen. He turned out to be right, of course, but I remember that I was really disappointed that Christmas,” Vickers laughs. “I wish I had started guitar earlier,” Vickers reflects, “because even though being a sideman has helped my career a lot, I feel like I’d have been a lot farther along by now if I’d started guitar sooner.”
After his gig with Berry, though, Vickers has never lacked any work. Early on he once got a gig playing bass with Lightnin’ Hopkins. “Lightnin’ prayed to God that I could play his music,” Vickers laughs, “and I had to show him and tell him that I’d been playing his music all my life.”
Vickers played with a Chicago Blues band in the mid-1980s, Little Mike and the Tornadoes; they were a little like The Nighthawks, according to Vickers, whom Mike had backed on the East Coast. Vickers left Mike in the mid-’90s with the idea of doing his own thing, and he met up with Margey Peters, who became his musical partner, and with whom he sometimes writes songs. Eventually he formed the Vestapolitans—”Margey suggested the name”—which is named after the open chord tuning—Vestapol—that Vickers uses and “it also starts with the same letter as my last name,” laughs Vickers.
Along the way to forming his own band and crafting his own eclectic brand of blues that he refers to as “American Roots and Roll,” Vickers traveled with, backed, and learned some valuable lessons from great bluesmen like Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, and Bo Diddley.
Vickers was playing with Pinetop Perkins on the East Coast at the time, and Perkins said he had a friend he’d like to get into these clubs. Perkins’ friend, of course, turned out to be Sumlin, and Vickers recalls what a humbling experience it was working with Sumlin. “He was a great human being,” says Vickers.
According to Vickers, playing with Sumlin is itself a one-of-a-kind experience: “When one plays with Hubert, it’s almost like a spiritual experience. When he took a solo on a song, he’d just turn the room around; a lot of people can do that with loud vocals, but Hubert had this way of expressing himself on guitar that was very organic and could take you to another plane with his music.” It’s no wonder, Vickers emphasizes, that guitarists from Clapton to Santana to Jeff Beck and others would come to pay homage to Hubert; “it was fun to watch that happen.”
Sumlin wasn’t just a musical mentor to Vickers, though. “He taught me a lot of stuff about life,” recalls Vickers. “I learned how to live on the road from him: how to sleep sitting up, how to roll up my clothes so they wouldn’t get wrinkled, the little tricks and trades of life,” laughs Vickers.
If Sumlin was Vickers’ uncle and best friend, Pinetop Perkins was Vickers’ self-proclaimed godfather.
“That’s what he called himself,” says Vickers. A lot of other entertainers questioned it when he called himself my godfather, recalls Vickers, but he was like my grandfather.”
Albert King took Vickers under his wing because Vickers was Perkins’ godson, and in the South being asked to play the role of godfather means that the child’s family is especially close to the person on whom it bestows that title. Perkins was the elder statesman, remembers Vickers. “Muddy Waters always treated Pinetop as an equal. Pinetop could do anything on stage, and Muddy wouldn’t say anything.” Perkins always put on a good show and was full of fun, according to Vickers, and he was an inspiration to a lot of people. “He also showed me some tricks of life,” laughs Vickers; “he taught me to eat hard boiled eggs and cheese before I drank to keep from getting drunk.”
Vickers also spent some time with Bo Diddley, though not as much as he would have liked; Vickers says he wished he could have spent more time with Diddley. “As a musician, Bo Diddley was underappreciated for many years; he’s a great songwriter, and many people don’t recognize that about him. But, like Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed, his music has such a groove—it has the rhythm but then it takes that rhythm one step further—that it acts like a bridge to all this music and makes it easy for you to get into it right away.”
Vickers draws on all of these influences, and more, in his music. On their newest album, That’s What They Say (ManHatTone) Brad Vickers and His Vestapolitans (Dave Gross, Margey Peters, Bill Rankin; joined by friends Matt Cowan, Jim Davis, Charles Burnham, Mikey Junior, Christine Santelli, Gina Sicilia) celebrate the eclectic sounds of the music that is at once the roots and the branches of blues: folk, swing, jazz, gospel, gypsy, ragtime.
The album opens with a rousing version of Tampa Red’s “Seminole Blues,” and moves into the folk blues of “Don’t You Love Your Daddy No More?” which Vickers learned from Leadbelly. Vickers confidently leads his band through old-time Appalachian music on “Mountain Sparrow,” gospel-inflected blues on “Fightin’,” and rag-mama-rag good-time music on “Twenty-First Century Rag.” Although the album features two covers—and Vickers tries to put at least one song by Tampa Red on his albums—the remainder of the songs on the album are originals, written either by Vickers or Peters, or co-written by them. “Songwriting is a process,” he says; “it usually starts with an idea of what I want to convey; sometimes I pick up a guitar and a passage or chord changes or a lick comes to me.” Vickers also writes poetry which helps with his songwriting. “I deal with emotions in my songs—in-and-out-of-love—but Margey writes great stories with social commentary in them.” “Blues,” he laughs, “is about the mistreatment you’ve felt; either the bad times when you’re going through it or the good times you want to have.” Vickers concludes that great songs “make you aware of your surroundings and provide some kind of understanding of life. They help you enjoy life and share that joy with others.”
According to Vickers, the blues are in good shape these days.
“I think it’s in a renaissance, and it’s very healthy,” he says. Blues encompass a lot of genres, Vickers believes, and people are discovering just how integral blues is to many different kinds of music and that it can’t really be isolated from other genres.
“I know I’ve grown,” he says, “from having a narrow mind to having an open mind. I’ve started to appreciate everything; I grew up playing Chicago blues but I have grew to embrace and appreciate the similarities that blues has with pop and country.” Vickers’ embrace of the broad spectrum of the roots and branches of the blues comes across loud and clear not only on That’s What They Say but also on his previous album, Great Day in the Morning (ManHatTone 2013). Vickers adds fiddle and banjo to the tunes on these albums as he captures some of the earliest sounds of acoustic folk blues. On Great Day in the Morning, he and his Vestapolitans cover a Tampa Red song, “Anna Lee Blues,” featuring the bottleneck guitar sound that Tampa Red started in 1925, as well as Memphis Minnie’s “Frisco Town,” and adds some Hammond B3 organ to one number (“Together for Good”) for that gospel feel. “I want people to hear the soul of the blues and see the persona I’m creating with my music,”
Vickers definitely has a vision of the blues that sets him apart and gives him access to come circles that other blues musicians might not always have. Although he feels like he’s just at the start of getting his name out there, Vickers music cuts across many genres and broadens its appeal to listeners now hearing the similarities in the country blues and bluegrass-fueled rock rhythms of Chris Stapleton, or the blues shouts of roots musicians Alabama Shakes, or the gospel and blues driven tunes of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams.
“I know people are looking for the next Stevie Ray Vaughan,” Vickers observes, “but there are a lot of talented people out there playing blues in this Americana tradition that recognizes the ways that genres weave into each other.” Vickers says that he’s come full circle himself starting out in folk blues and now returning to it.
With his and Peters’ fun and insightful lyrics and his romps through the fields of jazz, ragtime, folk blues, country blues, rock, and gospel, Vickers demonstrates he know just when to lay down the right lick on the right instrument and create and deliver the tasty mix he so fondly calls “American roots and roll.”
“I’m just trying to carry on tradition,” he says; “I want to make people aware that there was a cut of blues that was there all along.”
Visit Brad’s website at www.bradvickers.com
Photos by Nelson Onofre © 2015
Journalist Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. writes about music and music books for No Depression, American Songwriter, Country Standard Time, and Wide Open Country.