Featured Interview – Bernie Pearl

Cover photo by Bob Kieser © 2014 Blues Blast Magazine

Brownie, Sonny, Lightnin,’ Sam said;

Learn this music and understand;

It comes from true life into your heart;

And we’re going to help you make a start.

 – From “Sittin’ On The Right Side Of The Blues”

The above lyrics from the title track of California bluesman Bernie Pearl’s 2011 compact disc name-check some highly-regarded and well-respected pioneers of the blues. But those are more significant to Pearl than just some random names pulled out of a dusty ‘ole history book. Those are some of the names that Pearl saw play, hung out with, got to know as people and even shared the stage with on many occasions at the fabled Ash Grove. Those are some of the names that helped Pearl first step onto what has now became a lifelong path of playing the authentic blues. Even the title of that song, ‘Sittin’ On The Right Side Of The Blues” is an homage to those legends, for it was on the right side of the stage where Pearl sat at the Ash Grove, just so he could watch their hands in action.

Pearl gives a tip of the hat and hearty thanks to Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Big Joe Williams and more, on his newest long-player, Take Your Time (Bee Bump Music). Just like his previous release was, Take Your Time earned a Blues Blast Award nomination for Best Acoustic Album this year.

“It’s been a year of challenge and it’s been a year of great satisfaction. I had a health issue at the end of last year (2013), which has been solved and I’ve been fine ever since. But really, it was my first time ever having any kind of health issue and I’m 75, so my apple cart was upset a little bit, but it’s under control and I’m fine,” Pearl said. “That coincided with the finishing of Take Your Time and really from the start of the year, promoting the album and doing my CD release concerts, along with various other gigs, it was a real challenge. But the way it’s worked out – with the Blues Blast nomination and with the airplay it’s gotten and all the good reviews – has been very gratifying. I do think it’s my best work.”

Take Your Time represents more than just an album title to Pearl. It’s also a fragment of advice that was given to him by Rossville, Tennessee’s favorite son – Mississippi Fred McDowell.

“That’s what he used to say and I think that’s good advice for not only playing music and playing the blues, but also when used as a life lesson; don’t hurry,” Pearl said. “Mance Lipscomb used to say similar things, but that was one of Fred’s things he would say when we were playing, ‘Take your time, take your time. Don’t hurry it, let it go where it needs to go.’”

The fantastically-gifted Barbara Morrison makes a special guest appearance on Take Your Time, lending her prodigious vocal talents on three of the tracks. Even though Pearl and Morrison had never sang together on an album before, their vocals mesh and intertwine spot-on, complementing each other as though they’ve been playing together on a regular basis (“That’s a tribute to her artistry,” Pearl said. “I’d never had the audacity to sing with her before.”).

“I had met Barbara in 1981 when we were both involved in a stage production that was an adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play called Yerma. The director wanted to put it in a fictitious deep-south setting with an all-black cast. He got in touch with me to provide some authentic music that would work with the songs and the dialogue,” he said. “Barbara was a member of the cast and as soon as I heard her sing, I recognized her as somebody extraordinaire. It turned out that at that time, she was working with Johnny Otis and ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and Big Joe Turner and people I knew, so we became friends at that time.”

Friends, but not yet collaborators at that point in time; that would come several decades later.

“We always talked about doing something together – and this was in 1981 – so we come to 2014 and I mentioned to her that I had been in the studio for the first session, which was just the bass player and myself. I wrote her an e-mail saying that I was really happy with the session and she wrote back to me and said, ‘Could you use a girl singer?” laughed Pearl. “And she wanted to do it, so we had one session with her and remarkably, the session was on a Wednesday and she came over the Monday night before that and we went over the songs and I made a tape for her of them. She learned them and we had the lyrics in the studio and we went through them, mostly in one take on everything. One of the things that I was most pleased with out of the sessions was the way our vocals worked together … I mean, I really didn’t know what was going to happen when we sang together, so I’m glad it came off like it did.”

Once in the studio, the spirit quickly moved through Morrison and her natural talents easily sprang to life.

“We were listening to the Lightnin’ Hopkins tune (“Katie Mae”) that the bass player (Mike Berry) and I had recorded and she said, ‘Oh, that makes me want to moan.’ And so she did it (moaned) in the studio in an entirely different place (in the song) than where it ended up,” said Pearl. “When we got to that place, I said, ‘Let’s see if we can move her moaning over here and use it instead of a sax solo.’ It was just completely fortuitous and it worked out perfectly and brought a great deal of smiles to all of us.”

Pearl’s lifelong involvement in blues music covers more territory than simply just playing guitar, singing and writing songs. He’s also been a producer, a promoter of concerts and festivals, a teacher (of guitar), an educator (on the history of the blues) and a disc jockey. That’s a lot of different balls to juggle – sometimes all at the same time – but Pearl just seems to take it all in stride.

“Well, the only real time when that becomes a challenge – and I’m glad I don’t do it anymore – is when I’ve produced a festival or show and was also emcee, producer and bandleader,” he said. “That’s hard … too hard. But I love teaching. When I go out to play a festival, I always offer instructions or workshops or lectures of some kind. I really enjoy sharing my perception of things. I don’t play every style of blues, but I’ve taken on certain styles that I’ve made headways with.”

All the different styles of blues that Pearl has played and experimented with over the years had a comfortable and cozy home on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles from the late ‘50s until the early ‘70s at the fabled Ash Grove. There, Bernie’s brother Ed Pearl, the owner and operator of the Ash Grove, booked artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal and Sleepy John Estes – to name just a very few – as well as now-iconic roots-based performers such as Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and Flatt and Scruggs. And for the lion’s share of those 15 years the coffeehouse/club was thriving, you could bet that Bernie Pearl was there, soaking it all in.

“In the ‘50s, there was a very vital black scene (in southern California) that I and very few other white people had anything to do with or any connection to. We had such a depth of everything from ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson to T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton – the more polished acts – to guys like George “Harmonica’ Smith and Harmonica Fats and dozens and dozens of great players like that in those days. The Ash Grove was where people got exposed to hearing the real stuff … it was a real forum. I give a lot of credit to my brother for being so open to bringing in not only the Son Houses and the Bukka Whites, but also the local black performers that started coming in because people like Big Mama Thornton and Howlin’ Wolf played there,” Pearl said. “That helped some of the local artists to find a home there and that’s how I ended up meeting most of them.”

Not only did Bernie Pearl meet and hang out with most of those legendary artists that stopped in to play at the Ash Grove, he was also fortunate to end up calling many of them ‘friend’ and along the way, he picked up some priceless first-hand lessons on how to play the real-deal blues from the hands of the masters themselves.

“It was a revelation. And really, most of the education came from the hanging-out part. I, for one, didn’t approach them from a ‘teach-me-how-to-do-that’ perspective; it was more from the personalizing aspect of knowing them as people and their entirely-different experiences,” he said. “They were only too open to talk about their lives, and in many cases, they willingly shared their music. But more importantly to me, they shared the background of the music and what it meant. They never set up a standard of ‘you’re white, so you really can’t do it.’ Along that tangent, they were pretty much universally upset – in their own language – that ‘my own peoples don’t learn my music.’ They were very much afraid that their music would die with them. Most all of them expressed that and were all very encouraging. The really great revelation was how they were as people … some were more gregarious than others, but they were all pretty open to friendships and personal relationships; and these were the legendary masters.”

One of those masters – Brownie McGhee – ended up spending some one-on-one time with Pearl, showing him some of the nuances of the Piedmont style of blues picking.

“I approached him and asked him for some paid lessons and ended up taking a few of those with him for a couple of years. I don’t play much in Brownie’s style, but that was really my start. It was sitting in my brother’s kitchen with me and Brownie on guitar and Sonny Terry sitting beside, gently blowing his harp and going ‘Whoop, whoop, whoop.’ That’s a pretty good kick. And learning with Brownie prepared me for Lightnin’ who came along a year or two later. I got a lesson from him and started working on his stuff and pretty soon, I was playing with him. I never did take the stage with Brownie, though. Lightnin’ would say, ‘Learn this.’ Then go away for a couple of months and come back and we’d pick right back up.”

Although he may not have criss-crossed the globe with her, Pearl did pull a tour of duty in Big Mama Thornton’s band back in the day.

“I was only with her for like six weeks. I had just came back from a summer in New York and showed up at the Ash Grove and my brother asked me who played better blues on the electric guitar, me or my partner David. I said, ‘I do.’ And he told me that Big Mama’s guitar player either quit or was fired and she needed a guitar player for that night,” Pearl laughed. “So I went and got my guitar and sat in the dressing room and played some B.B. King riffs for her and she liked them, so she hired me. I was with her for a few weeks and she was indeed a character. She was a real person; she could be rough-and-tough, but my take on it was she was a woman alone in a rough man’s world and she had to have a gruff exterior to survive. I was really not that well-versed on the electric guitar at that time. I was looking to do more Lightnin’ Hopkins kind of stuff, and to be truthful, I didn’t cut it after awhile and I was let go. But we remained friends after I left her band. She was a great artist.”

Pearl never really had any sort of master-plan or grand designs on becoming a musician. It’s not like he just woke up in 2014 and realized that he’d been playing the blues for five decades, but …

“It was kind of a gradual decline; I slowly fell into the pit and only come up for air by teaching and doing this or that,” he laughed. “But I love the whole thing. I love the blues, I love the blues people, I love the repertoire … I love the comradery, and I’ve pretty much just tried to focus on that.”

A defining moment in Pearl’s transformation into a bluesman came early on, way back in 1958, when not as a performer, but rather as a customer, he attended a show at the Ash Grove.

“Yeah, my epiphany came very early on. I was sitting at a table with a couple of friends and it was a folk music show – the headlining act was some local folk renown at the time, one that the crowd came to see – and the opening act was Jesse Fuller, the one-man band. When he started playing, me and my friends went nuts. At a certain point I looked around and was expecting the house to be jumping, but the folk music crowd was just sitting there, sipping their cappuccino and waiting for Jesse to get off the stage,” he said. “So that’s the moment that the drum started beating in my head. I thought that was way too compelling. At that time I didn’t think I would ever understand what he was playing, or what the blues were, I just knew I was seeing something special.”

Southern California still has a healthy blues scene these days, but in Pearl’s eyes, it’s hard-pressed to keep pace with what it once was when the Ash Grove was the destination for real-deal blues and folk.

“I have to say that it’s (the blues scene in southern California) devolved into something that I’m not much a part of. I don’t hear a lot of variety in approaches and I don’t hear much traditional blues being done,” he said. “A lot of it is really rock-oriented, and then you have the west coast jump thing, but it’s primarily a white scene. So I haven’t been really involved with the local scene for awhile. There’s a lot of blues and a lot of blues bands and blues players here. I’m constantly amazed at how many really good guitar players there are. But ultimately, I think a lot of them have not adhered to the ‘take your time and be yourself’ principal. I do get a little tired of the emphasis being on the show, rather than the more palpable content of the blues.”

Tentative plans are being made for Pearl and Morrison to reunite next year for a set of country blues in a festival-type setting. Fingers are being crossed that the duo has the opportunity to head back into the studio and lay down some of those country blues tunes onto disc. Whether or not that comes to fruition, one thing is certain; Bernie Pearl is going to keep doing what he’s done for over five decades now, which is just to be Bernie Pearl.

“Lightnin’ Hopkins and Smokey Wilson gave me the same advice, decades apart, and that was to be yourself,” he said. “So I don’t try anything that is not of myself. That’s what I do.”

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