Featured Interview – Chris Beard

The worst thing about being Prince of Blues must be dealing with the steady stream of know-it-alls and born skeptics who doubt your talent and credibility. In this opinionated world it sometimes gets difficult to separate the stars from the studio musicians. The best thing about being a member of the imperial elite must by waking up every morning and knowing that tonight’s gig will allow you to mingle with the commoners and share an experience that transcends class and everything else. Read on and see how a member of the royal family lives the Blues.

Blues Blast: Tell me about your 2010 CD, Who I Am And What I Do. You have fellow sons of famous blues artists Ronnie Baker Brooks and Bernard Allison contributing to it on five of the twelve songs. Who are some of the other people who play on it?

Chris Beard: My new cd “Who I Am And What I Do” is about me and my music. The various styles of Blues that are incorporated in it and in my life. I wrote five of them and Ronnie co-wrote four of the songs on the CD. Me and Ronnie are great friends and I have the greatest respect for him as an artist. Ronnie is a great songwriter and that’s why I came to him for his help doing this album. I with my life experiences and his knowledge and writing experience is what gives these songs their flair.

I hadn’t written in years before this album: Ronnie gave me the push I needed to get started writing and the end result is what you get from two son’s of Father’s of the Blues. The song “That’s The Way Love Was Meant To Be” by Bernard Allison I have always liked since I first heard it over ten years ago. Bernard and I are very close, like brothers so to speak. His father and mine were very close. I love his style and his father’s work just blows me away. So I asked Bernard if I could record the song. I did a little a little re-arranging: added some horns and basically made it my own.

BB: How does it feel to be a member of the ultra-exclusive “artistic sons of well-known performers club” ?

CB: It is a great honor to be the son of one of the great blues artists of our time. Just like for me, as well as my friends, we have a responsibility to keep this music alive and carry it to the next level. Sharing our style of the blues with the world and also sharing our experience and knowledge and pass on what we’ve learned about this beautiful music we call the Blues.

BB: Your vocals have been compared to your family friend Johnny “Guitar” Watson-especially noticeable on Allison’s ballad “That’s The Way Love Was Meant To Be’. Tell me about Johnny’s influence and who else you listen to for inspiration.

CB: I loved Johnny “Guitar” Watson. He was so cool and he had so much soul. He had the feel of the Blues from the old school but had a modern day feel with his music and had some great stories ! Others that have inspired me: Number One, my Dad with his traditional background and knowledge of the Blues has helped me out so much. I also loved the way Albert King played and his phrasing. His phrasing was off the hook. Man, Albert would be playing that guitar and it would sound like a rocket taking off at times. Luther Allison was so great. Way ahead of his time with his playing and the grooves and the beats he came up with in his music. Buddy Guy. There are so many great players that mold the blues to where it is today. But I must admit the funk and the modern feel that they all had has done the most with me. Along with Motown and all it brought to music. I incorporate it all into who I am and what I do.

BB: Your brother Duane is involved in alot of ways in your career. Does he see and hear things exactly like you or is it more a yin/yang relationship?

CB: Well A.J., as far as my brother goes, we grew up in the same house and both were exposed to the Blues at a young age. My brother is very talented and plays several instruments including guitar and keyboards. He also has a great voice. Like anyone else, I listen to what he has to say, listen to his suggestions and take what I need and leave the rest. My brother is also a great songwriter and wrote “After I Say I Do’ the seventh track on my CD. My brother was the other ear i needed to complete the CD. He could hear what I could not and I was open to what he was saying. My brother was always more into r & b and funk then Blues so I took what knowledge he brought to the table and I mixed in what I already knew and it made what the world and my Blues fans are hearing today.

BB: What are some of the bands in Chicago you listen to and admire today?

CB: On the top of the list of bands I like and admire out of Chicago is Buddy Guy. He was and still is one of my mentors and one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He came up with the “great ones’ and has learned from the best and I learn from him. Next there is the Brooks Family. First, there is Dad who is great in his own right with the different style of Blues he brings to the table. Then there’s Ronnie and Wayne. Both have different styles but both are great and fantastic guitar players. They are like brothers to me. And both are great songwriters also. Then Little Ed Imperials with a very unique style of his own and a great artist himself. There’s Rico McFarland and so many more great guitar players in Chicago it would take me all day to name them all.

BB: Your guitar playing is great and you have a unique and compelling voice. Your high-energy shows are legendary. You play guitar with your teeth too. What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done onstage?

CB: My show is all-inclusive. It’s not so much what I do onstage as what I do off-stage. I’m audience driven and I make audiences part of my show. I walk in the crowd. I walk on the bar. I walk outside. I carry the audience with me as I play in the middle of the street on a good day when the weather is nice. I sit on women’s’ laps and sing to them. I get behind the bar and sip a coke with a straw while I’m playing. I do what feels good to me at the time.

I love to make the people happy and I love making my show different. The walk in the crowd thing goes way back to Guitar Slim’s days. Buddy Guy does it. Albert Collins done it. I just add a little more flair to my show. I like to leave the audience excited they were there and had seen a great band and a great show.

BB: After your CD Livewire came out in 2005 you suffered a stroke and it took you two years to recover. What were some of the difficulties you faced and overcame and what role did your career as a Blues artist play as you got better?

CB: That was a crucial time for me when I had my stroke. The CD was released in May , 2005 and I had my stroke in June. I had to cancel a lot of show’s, festivals and other dates. It was devastating for me; I had to learn how to read, write and talk all over again. My whole right side was paralyzed. The second day I was in the hospital my Dad brought me a guitar up. I couldn’t do much but I tried and kept on trying. It took me about two weeks before i could even touch the strings with my right hand and even longer before I could really use my hand properly to strum. Or to hit the strings separately. I hired another guitar player and took him on the road a couple of months after I left the hospital because I wanted my music to remain the same: with lot’s of guitar.

When I wasn’t on the road I went to Occupational Therapy. I also went to a therapist that specialized in working with musicians. We have two leading music schools in upstate N.Y. The Eastman School of Music and The Hochstein School of Music. My therapist worked with musicians there and I went to therapy with her five or six times a week. I was determined to get it back no matter what anyone else around the country was saying.. Word was that I wasn’t playing anymore and people were doubting my willingness and my will power. During the course of my recovery I remembered something my Dad taught me when I was young and wanted to play fast like some of the players I had heard. He said “take your time, the speed will come. Just take your time.” Also, I remembered why I began playing in the first place. Making the guitar talk and say something with my phrasing and sending a message with my playing.

So since I couldn’t play fast in any way after my stroke I concentrated on saying a lot with as few notes as possible and sending a message out and speaking my feelings through my guitar. If I don’t feel it I can’t expect my audience to feel it. I love playing the Blues and I feel it through and through. One last thing about my stroke. While in therapy, my therapist told me the only way I was gonna be able to do what I used to do was to just do it. So that’s when I told the other guitar player I hired “thanks but no thanks” and that’s when I let him go and began to force myself to play more. And I put so much pressure on my poor left hand that it was doing a lot of the work. I got tendonitis and had to get a cortisone shot and then surgery. It was all worth it so there you go.

BB: I’ve seen you play both Les Pauls and Strats. What’s the benefit of using two greatly different sounding guitars to create your sound?

CB: That’s an easy question to answer. I love both of those guitars. First, both guitars have a different sound and I may use a different guitar on different songs on my records. So I like to duplicate what is there. they are both unique in their tones but they both sound great. I have several guitars, some of them you may never see onstage but I use them in the studio. Sometimes I bring them all out but most of the time I travel I just bring four. Two Les Pauls and two Strats. One is a maple neck which gives off a bright sound and the other is a regular rosewood and that is the same on the Les Pauls. I usually have all my guitars customizeded to where I like them to sound. And I change pickups to get different tones. I love guitars but the feel is the thing.

BB: You’ve toured with your Dad, Joe Beard, and old family friend Matt “Guitar” Murphy. What’s it like touring with your Dad? Competitive? Any great father stories like “tuck in your shirt” or “comb your hair” ? Any great music stories about growing up in a Blues household?

CB: I have a lot of stories about my Dad and the great artists that have been in my life. When i was five, I played my first song which was “Green Onions” (Booker T & The MG’s). My mother overheard me and said to my father “Look Joe, he’s playing”. He wasn’t amazed. He was like “the boy is five years old. he should have been playing when he was like three” until waiting until I was five. One of my memories of Luther Allison was the time he came to play in Rochester, NY where we live. When me and my father and Luther were backstage and he said “I’m gonna call you two up when I go back onstage and I want you to come up and play with me. So he called us up separately and he had a blue Lucille that is the B.B. King version of the Gibson 355 and he handed it to me and said “play the motherfucker”, so I did. That is one of the great things I remember about Luther. He was way ahead of his times musically and a very nice man. I remember Matt “Guitar” Murphy staying at our house when he was in town and he would fall asleep holding the guitar and I would ask him why and he said to me “I practice all the time and the guitar has to become an extension of your body almost like it’s part of you”. Also, Dad is very traditional when it comes to his music. He’s not too fond of chords in his Blues. He wants the rhythm guitar player to do the same as the bass. He likes it real simple. He’s never going to change; we’ve tried me and my brother. I remember playing with my father and he would give me this look like “you know better than that”. I seem to have the same look with my band when they do something they’re not supposed to do onstage.

BB: I’ve read that your Dad told you early on “If you can do it with your mouth you can do it with your guitar”. How true is this and how important?

CB: This is very true. If I listen to the song or what the guitar player is doing enough I can mimic it with my mouth and then it’s inside of me and when I pick up a guitar I can then figure it out that way. Like Dad said, if you can do it with your mouth you can do it with your guitar.

BB: How strong and influential do you think the Chicago music scene is currently?

CB: I do believe that Chicago is very influential on the Blues today because it is where a lot of the Blues players were molded and came out of it. It truly is the home of the Blues. Great players come out of there and I love playing Chicago. I’ve played there so much I feel like it’s a second home to me.

BB: How can your fans keep up to date with your life and career?

CB: My plan is a simple one: keeping the Blues alive, carrying it to the next level and putting Chris Beard into the history of this beautiful music. This has been passed down to me and someone has to do it. I stay in touch with my fans through my website www.chrisbeard1.com , facebook, myspace and whatever way I can.

BB: Any advice to young musicians trying to get their music heard in these tough economic times?

CB: I suggest this to all young musicians trying to get their music heard, try and get a record deal. They can also try using CD Baby , iTunes. If they really want some feedback send it to Bruce Igluger. i don’t always like his methods but he’s an honest man and will tell you the truth. Mostly, keep true to yourself and keep an open mind and be willing to learn. And if you stay out there, be seen- hard work pays off. Keep doing what you’re doing and the audience will come. If you’ve got something good someone will want a piece of you. That is the way this world is : Write good songs that people can relate to and can put themselves in your music.

Interviewer A. J. Wachtel is a long-time entertainment journalist in New England and the East Coast who currently writes for The Boston Blues Society and The Noise Magazine. He is well known in the Boston and N.Y.C areas for his work in the Blues for the last two decades.

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