Cover photo © 2023 Bob Hakins
One mark of success in the music industry is to receive a Grammy nomination for a recording project. Of course, actual receiving the coveted Grammy statue would be a pinnacle achievement.
With just two categories of consideration for blues music, the odds for getting a nomination are slim. Among the releases that were finalists for the 2021 awards, there was one contributor who appeared on two of the albums in the Best Traditional Blues Album category. Kim Wilson’s Take Me Back! On M.C. Records, and the Alligator Records album 100 Years Of The Blues, featuring Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite, shared one key contributor.
Bob Welsh handles the keyboards on Wilson’s release, then adds guitar and piano on the Bishop/Musselwhite collaboration. His presence on both albums speaks volumes about his talents in addition to his ability to be the expert sideman, the musician who ties the arrangement together while making everyone else sound better. That level of musicianship is rare indeed.
At 14 years old, Welsh started learning to play bass, quickly growing tired of trying to deal with the instrument’s thick strings. He made the switch to guitar and never looked back. A decade later, he began playing piano, mostly to get a spot in a good friend’s band.
He is rightfully proud of being a part of two sterling examples of the best that traditional blues has to offer.
“I’ve known Kim Wilson since the early 1990s. He would put together a band once a year as an offshoot of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I would usually be a part of that, sometimes on guitar, sometimes piano, and sometimes both. About ten years ago, I started recording with him. For the last year, I have been a member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
“One day Kim called me to invite me to join the band. I of course said, yes! We play a lot of the blues stuff, but we also do the Thunderbirds tunes, which is different than the blues routine. I still play with Elvin Bishop occasionally, but he is now semi-retired. I also do some gigs with Charlie Musselwhite. So, far I am grateful for being able to juggle all of the opportunities. Last year, I was on the road with Kim and the T-Birds for all of August and September, then have had festivals and other dates every month. We will probably be out there a lot more as I think Kim really wants to work this year.
“The sad part of this is that Kim used to have the very best guys in those blues bands. He had Barrelhouse Chuck on keyboards, Larry Taylor on bass, and Richard Innes on drums. They are all gone now. When I was playing with guitarist Rusty Zinn’s band, Kim would hire Rusty to back him on the blues thing, and then I would tag along. After I got to know Kim, he would hire me once in a while, probably when Chuck couldn’t make the gig. Sometimes Kim would hire me to play guitar with Chuck on keyboards, and I got to play with Richard and Larry, which was a real treat. All three of those guys are greatly missed!’
After reading a newspaper article that had plenty of nice things to say about Zinn, Welsh decided to check him out.
“The piece described Rusty as a vintage sounding guitar player who knew how to back-up harmonica players. I was into harmonica at the time, so I figured he was someone I needed to check out. We hit it off right away, became instant friends, and ended up rooming together. At that point, I was up & coming, so I was taking guitar lessons from Rusty, and messing around with the piano, which I had a natural affinity for. Rusty told me that if I learned how to play the piano, he would let me tour with him in his band. So I did, because I really wanted to play.
“It probably should have taken me longer to get to that point, but Rusty really needed a keyboard player. We lived in a place in Emeryville, California, that had a piano in the basement. But there were no lights, so I would take candles and flashlights down there so I could practice and practice. Rusty would make me cassette tapes, and I would play them on this recorder, stuff by Big Maceo Merriweather and Little Brother Montgomery. I did my best to learn it, even taking a few lessons from Pinetop Perkins, which helped quite a bit. After six months, I was decent enough to go on the road. In my opinion, it took a few years before I started to sound OK.”
Zinn was constantly giving Welsh stuff to listen to by the best blues guitarists and keyboard players. In return, Welsh would share his affinity for reggae music with his friend. Over time, Zinn developed a passion for the reggae sounds that trumped his love for blues music.
“I was a real fan at the time. I had collected some records by Jackie Opel, guitarist Lynn Taitt, and Ernest Ranglin. These days, Rusty knows 900 times more than me about that music. He is still turning me on to reggae artists I have never heard of before. I’m always asking him who plays guitar on what tracks.”
“Those shows were so much fun! I loved playing with the rhythm section of Wes Starr on drums and Randy Bermudes on bass. They are two of my favorites, personally and musically. Then I got to sit next to Anson Funderburgh and watch a master guitarist at work.”
While he was part of John Nemeth’s band, playing a cruise, Welsh met the legendary guitarist Elvin Bishop, who heard Welsh play. About a month later, Bishop called the piano player about doing a short tour. But Welsh was already committed to dates with his current employer.
“At that time, I was living at Greaseland Studios, Kid Andersen’s place. I had always appreciated Elvin’s band, sound, and his guitar playing. It was time for me to get out of living in a recording studio. I’d come off tour, get to the house, and there would be an amplifier set up in my room. It was hard to get some rest. There was a need to change my living situation, and not tour all of the time. So I called Elvin up because he was looking for a guitar player at the time. I asked him what he thought about me playing with you. He hired me. That was that!
“We would use the whole house at Greaselend. There was stuff everywhere. And boy, does it sound great in there. It just wasn’t for me. I was at the point where I wanted to live on my own. It was great playing with John, but it felt like it was time to change the scene. It came down to the fact that I wanted to play with Elvin Bishop. So I started with Elvin around 2010, which is the longest I have ever been with anyone. He is a fine band leader, with plenty of great stories, and very generous about showcasing his band members. He has taught me a lot of guitar playing, particularly when it comes to playing a solo.
“Elvin said there should be three main parts. You start off real bold, to grab the attention of the audience, then you play something to keep their attention in the middle, and finally play something simple at the end to let them know that you are done. That advice got me to work out solos and practice them. Elvin is like a mathematical genius. He comes up with these little parts and places on the guitar to play them that I would never think of. He’d say, play this. I would think, oh shit, then sit there and fumble around until I could get it. Every now and then, he will play something I have never heard him play before.”
Welsh yearns for the days when he could hear a few notes, and immediately know if was B.B. King Albert King, Albert Collins, or Freddie King. He feels that these days, many guitarists use similar pedal boards, run through a certain guitar and amplifier, so if you close your eyes, you can’t really tell who is who.
“There have been times on a recording session where I would play something I thought was really cool. Elvin would look over and tell me, no, that’s not it. That sounds like something somebody else would do. Play it your own way. So I would work on it until I came up with something true to what he wanted. He is a helluva guy.
“I am lucky to be playing with Elvin, and with Kim Wilson, who is a force of nature on stage. I am playing on all cylinders with him. He shoots from the hip. There is no set list. He just calls out a tune, maybe a slow blues in the key of G, and he starts playing. So we are doing a slow blues, and you don’t have time to think about sounding like B.B. King or Robert Jr. Lockwood. You just have to play and make it work right off the cuff. Half way through, you realize that you are doing a B.B. King tune, but playing it like Buddy Guy. It is too late to go back, so he have to finish it out. You just have to play, and consequently you sound like yourself.”
The Zinn connection paid off at another point for Welsh in his career, a moment when another legendary blues artist, harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite, was searching for a keyboard player.
“I can thank Rusty for getting me into that band a long time ago. Charlie had never heard me play, so I sent him a cassette tape of me doing Big Maceo and Otis Spann tunes. He hired me right off the bat. I was with the band for about three years. At that point, I had only been playing live for about 5-6 years. He had a five piece band with me playing keys and guitar, with Kirk Fletcher on guitar. When Kirk quit, Charlie hired Kid Andersen on guitar, and a decision was made to trim the band down to a four piece unit. So my position was eliminated.
“So I hadn’t played with Charlie in quite some time. He and Elvin started doing this duo thing. Since I am still with Elvin, he got me into the routine of backing up the two of them on guitar and keyboards. Charlie and I hit it off again. Now if Matthew Stubbs or Kid are not available, Charlie will hire me to be a part of his band. So I am back with him again.
“Elvin and Charlie are amazing live. They have an endless amounts of stories to tell the audience every night, about what it was like growing up in Chicago. They both have different ways of approaching a song, particularly when it comes to timing. I have to be good at keeping things together. Charlie will switch between harp and guitar, Elvin plays guitar, so I am the balance between the two in the background. I am lucky to be there! Thank God that Chicago blues is my forte, so I can speak their language. I love Chicago blues more than anything else. I guess that’s why I am lucky enough to play with them, because Elvin trusts me enough to back him up. Being able to play keys and guitar allows me to move on the chess board in a positive direction.”
There are challenges to being a duo threat. Sitting down and playing piano allows you get relaxed, then you have to stand up, face the audience, and play guitar.
“I am a naturally shy person, so I never wanted all of the attention. I much prefer being a sideman. All of that takes getting used to. I still can have some slight anxiety about playing live. Having to go out there and play lead guitar took me decades to get really comfortable. John Nemeth is another phenomenal talent who taught me plenty about playing. Being shy, when I was in John’s band, I would stand back by my amp. One night, he put masking tape at the edge of the stage, and told me that was where he wanted me to stand for the show. Now I step up to the edge of the stage naturally. He always has great players. He has a cool thing going.
“I got hired by John to play guitar on a show in Basel, Switzerland. The other guitar players were Kid Andersen and Jon Hay, the outstanding guitarist in Nemeth’s current band. It was after Covid, so I had been on my couch for a year, and struggling with a bad back. I am standing on stage between them, little Jon Hay and giant Kid Andersen. They were shredding, with me caught between two tornadoes. And then Doug Deming shows up! It was a really good show.”
Welsh has backed up many of the best harmonica players in the blues world. Few musicians have a resume that includes stints with the artists already mentioned, but when you add Lazy Lester, James Cotton, Snooky Pryor, James Harman, Billy Boy Arnold, Mark Hummel, and Aki Kumar, it is clear that Welsh has some unique skills.
“I always loved the guitar players that were behind the harmonica players, people like Luther Tucker and Robert Jr. Lockwood, the way the two guitar players worked together. Thankfully, there are harmonica players out there looking for like-minded individuals. And I love the piano playing too. Living in California, those guys were out here quite a bit. I was really fortunate to work with Cotton and Arnold a handful of times. They loved to hear the piano, as it reminds them of the guys they used to play with. That was one of the greatest pleasures of my life, playing with the masters.
Currently living in the Bay area of San Francisco. Welsh was born in California, but was raised in Covington, Louisiana, across the lake from New Orleans. His father was in the Navy, then became a pilot for Delta Airlines. Welsh isn’t sure why the decision was made to move to Louisiana instead of a spot closer to Delta’s hub in Atlanta. But he quickly got up to speed on the intoxicating sounds generated by the New Orleans musical community.
“I got to see all kinds of great music, but I didn’t always realize what I was seeing until later in life when I became a blues fan. I remember I saw Eddie Bo with the great Wayne Bennett on guitar. I loved that place.”
Other artists that influenced Welsh on piano include Lafayette Leake, Sunnyland Slim, Johnnie Johnson, and Champion Jack Dupree.
“Sunnyland, Pinetop, Big Maceo, and Otis Spann are the piano players I have studied the most. I mentioned the lessons I took with Pinetop. I also got a lesson from Jim Pugh that helped me quite a bit. Jim showed me how to play gospel chords. I am still trying to figure out how to play them in every key. He also told me that if there was a piano or organ solo that really moved me, that I should should try to learn it note for note. That is how you can learn the correct phrasing. When I sat down with Pinetop, I had a recorder running while we played. He taught me how to play this certain left-hand thing on the “44 Blues.” I learned a lot just sitting next to him. But Otis Spann, you can’t go wrong. If you just listened to him and nobody else, you would probably be all right as a piano player.
“Champion Jack Dupree released an album called Blues From The Gutter, which grabbed me right away. It is a masterpiece, one of the best blues albums you will ever hear. His phrasing on the piano is so succinct, and he uses the damper pedal to great effect. I wanted to learn as much as I could from the record. Maybe some of the phrasing might have come naturally to me because I could feel the music. I did a few shows with Lynwood Slim back in the 1990s. He used to do a Champion Jack tune called “Stumbling Block.” That was probably the first time I heard Jack’s name.”
While Welsh is most comfortable as a sideman, he has plans for a release this year under his own name.
“I cut some tunes at Greaseland not too long ago. Kid plays on it, with June Core and Marty Dodson on drums. Alabama Mike sings a lot of the songs. Jon Atkinson also did a couple vocals. We released a couple of the songs as singles, but I want to record a few more tunes. Then I will plan to put out a solo album this year, so be on the lookout for that. Elvin Bishop is a big fan of Mike’s, who is also a fine chef. There was a party at Greaseland, and Mike catered the whole thing, with great soul food like BBQ and collard greens. Those are the moments that remind me how lucky and grateful I am to be playing this music.”