Featured interview — Dick Shurman


Cover photo © Laura Carbone

A Blues Hall of Fame inductee and a Grammy winner for his studio work on Showdown! — the tour-de-force Alligator release that showcased Robert Cray, Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland, his liner notes have graced more than 100 albums. As an essayist, his text has accompanied important box-set compilations of both B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, and he’s been the driving force behind LPs and CDs – with everyone from Earl Hooker, Otis Rush, Charlie Musselwhite and Fenton Robinson to Eddie C. Campbell, Lurrie Bell and Magic Slim to Roy Buchanan, Johnny Winter, Mike Ledbetter and Monster Mike Welch and many, many more.

And through it all, he’s worked his magic without the need for self-promotion as he’s remained modest and unassuming in his comfort zone away from the glare of the spotlight shining on those around him.

Interviews like this one — which took place prior to one of the Chicago Blues Festival where he’d be directing major showcases — are few and far between for Shurman but always come jam-packed with inside stories and good humor – and this one was no exception. Like Elvin Bishop, Johnny Burgin and a few other current bluesmen, he came to the Windy City to study at the University of Chicago but quickly discovered that the nearby clubs on the South Side provided an entirely different education, too.

“I like to tell people that I’m a direct descendant of Frederick Mendelssohn on one side of my family and that both of my maternal grandparents on the other side were deaf,” he chuckles. “When you hear a whirring sound in the background of one of my productions, that’s Mendelssohn turning over in his grave!”

Born on May 23, 1950, in Los Alamos, N.M., where his dad was a physics researcher after serving in the military during World War II, Dick grew up in Seattle, Wash., where the family relocated when his father landed a job with Boeing. His introduction to the blues came thanks to an Emerald City Top 40 radio station as he was entering his teens.

“Every once in a while, they’d let a blues song slip through,” Shurman remembers. “‘Boom Boom’ by John Lee Hooker was No. 1 for a while. ‘Memphis’ by Lonnie Mack was No. 1. I remember hearing (Little Johnny Taylor’s) ‘Part Time Love,’ (Bobby “Blue” Bland’s) ‘Turn on Your Love Light’…there was the ‘folk-blues’ thing going on, too.

“I didn’t realize it ‘til later but my parents’ attorney and his wife were the hosts to a whole lot of the visiting ‘rediscovered’ folk-blues people when they’d play coffeehouses and folklore society gigs. And they had a son who was really into it. I remember him playing me some Lightnin’ Hopkins early on.”

The seed planted, Dick’s interest grew during the British “invasion” when the Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds and other bands hijacked the airwaves with their own blues-infused brand of rock-‘n’-roll, and it increased dramatically when “a friend came back for Christmas break from college with those first two (Paul) Butterfield albums,” he says.

“I tried to find a guitar teacher in Seattle who could teach me blues, but I was probably looking in the wrong places. But I did have a good friend, Steve Bailey – he still plays in a band called Stevie & the Blue Flames. We had the perfect combination: My parents had the tape recorder and he had a job.”

The duo scoured Seattle record scores in search of LPs, which were extremely rare during that generation. When they did find one, though, Bailey had the money to buy it and Shurman began expanding his knowledge by copying it to the family’s reel-to-reel. It had nothing to do, he says, with laying the groundwork for Dick’s future endeavors, adding: “I didn’t have a clue then about how the sausage is made!”

imageBack then, he had no idea that Guitar Shorty and Johnnie Bassett were working regular afternoon gigs together and that George Hurst, a Bay Area piano player/guitarist who was a good friend of Johnny Heartsman – a multi-instrumentalist Shurman would record as an adult – was around town for a while, too. Even if he had, he was too young to catch them in action.

“I got drawn to Chicago blues by records,” Dick says. “The weekend of my senior prom, Junior Wells was playing out there for two nights with Louis Myers on guitar and I went to that instead of the dance. To tell you how little I knew, I walked up to Louis and said: ‘Are you Walter Williams,’ which was Lefty Dizz’s real name, because he was on Junior’s latest LP (Coming at You on Vanguard).

“But they could tell my interest. The bass player was shocked when he discovered I knew who Freddie King was because most white folks back then were clueless. They were very encouraging and told me that I could come by their hotel. And by the time I did, they both said: ‘Hey, look me up when you come to Chicago.’”

Shurman credits both Myers and Otis Rush for teaching him about Chicago blues when he arrived on the shores of Lake Michigan at age 18 in 1968. It didn’t take long before he found that he was spending so much time in neighborhood clubs – frequently capturing live performances on tape – that it was interfering with his education.

“The university was so close to everything on the South Side,” he notes, “only a five-minute cab ride to Theresa’s, Pepper’s – where he got stuck up — and the Blue Flame.”

Myers lived a mile away on the opposite side of Washington Park, Rush two or three miles to the south, and he was in walking distance of the homes of Johnny Shines, Bobby Bland guitarist Wayne Bennett, Little Brother Montgomery, Jody Williams and guitarist Reggie Boyd – all of whom quickly became friends along with Willie Dixon, Magic Sam, Mighty Joe Young and others.

“It was all right there for me,” Shurman remembers fondly. “There weren’t that many people like me then, and I was soaking it up.

“It didn’t make for studying though. That’s why I only stayed at the university for a year. I’d figured out how to get a B with the least amount of effort.” It was the same path, he says, that Elvin had followed a few years earlier. He’d selected physics as a major because he knew that if he did well enough on quizzes he wouldn’t have to put in lab time, thereby giving him the space to pursue music.

“I didn’t want to go through school that way,” Shurman says. “But on Wednesday night, if I had the choice of studying for either a German vocabulary quiz or tape record Earl Hooker at Pepper’s, it was a very easy call.”

Shurman actually began recording artists as a hobby, noting that even in the Windy City, “there were hardly any records available for blues artists,” Shurman remembers. “There wasn’t even a printed post-War blues discography back then. The list of people that had zero albums – or close to it – was stunning.

“I told Wolf once: ‘I don’t want to do anything commercial. I just want to have all your records and can’t get enough of your music.’ He said (emulating his gruff voice): ‘That’s too bad. I was hopin’ you’d make yourself some money.’

“Otis Rush used to pick me up every Friday night with my 50-lb. tape recorder and bagful of mics and wires. There was one night when I was taping Otis at Pepper’s – it was just a trio…him, Earnest Gatewood on bass and Sam Lay on drums – and Sam had this really shyster couple managing him. It was a great warm-up set. They were doing all these Muddy tunes with Sam singing.

“The manager and his wife were giving me these side-eye stares when I was running the tape, and Sam came up to me afterward and said: ‘Don’t worry about ‘em. I told ‘em I’d take the tape away from you later, but don’t worry about it. I have no plans to,’ bless his heart.

“Those guys wanted to help me and were great about it. I’d make ‘em a copy of anything if they wanted it. But I intentionally never make it in professional quality because – every once in a while – I’d make a mistake and the wrong person would get ahold of it.

“One guy that I didn’t tape who asked me if I wanted to was Magic Sam. Bob Koester (who made Sam a star on his Delmark label) asked me not to.”

imageThat’s one of his biggest regrets –along with never getting the chance to work with West Coast guitar legend Pee Wee Crayton, a dear friend who succumbed to a heart attack when the Dick was still making a name for himself. Bobby King, who worked with Bland, Eddy Clearwater and Freddie King, is another.

The Chicago blues scene eventually proved too much of a temptation, and Shurman returned to Seattle – and his girlfriend – with plans to enroll in the University of Washington, where he eventually earned a degree in anthropology.

But he did manage to make a quick trip back to Chicago just prior to the school year after hearing that Willie Johnson, Wolf’s first guitarist – and one of his heroes, had just returned to action after a long absence. Not only did Dick fulfill a dream of recording him, but he also interviewed him for Britain’s Blues Unlimited, the world’s first magazine of its kind, which published from 1963 to the late ‘80s.

“At the time, I wondered what I could do to help the musicians and to help the blues,” Sherman remembers. “I didn’t know that I was going to end up producing records, but I figured I could be like a mediator to people and make more people aware of it. And one of the best ways I could think to do that was to write articles.

“I knew about Blues Unlimited because I bought my first copy the first time I went into the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago. I still have it — it has (Mike) Bloomfield’s autograph and phone number on the back.

“I was also offered to do a radio show, Urban Blues. It ran for three-and-a-half years on KRAB-FM. They have a website today, and to my embarrassment (chuckles), have some of my episodes online. In retrospect, I’m pleased with my (musical) tastes but appalled by my ignorance at the time.

“I also wrote a paper for a class at the University of Washington about Earl Hooker, and the Seattle Folklore Society published it. Chris Strachwitz (founder of Arhoolie Records) saw it. That’s how Earl’s tapes from Pepper’s and Theresa’s wound up on his label as the LP, The Moon Is Rising.

“It was Earl at his absolute best – and he was the best I ever saw. Nobody ever tried to compete with him on any kind of serious level. He knew he had a little something extra that none of them did.”

During the same trip, he earned his first legitimate recording credits after an acquaintance, George Paulus, sought him out to record Big John Wrencher, the one-armed harmonica player for what would become the LP Maxwell Street Alley Blues, the second release on his Barrelhouse Records label.

“He had a really cheap-ass Wollensak reel-to-reel, and I said: ‘I can get a better sound. I’ll help you out if you want.’

“I rode with him, and we picked up the band – John, guitarist Little Buddy Thomas and drummer Playboy Vinson. John was a wonderful person, but he had the most impoverished apartment I’d ever been in. I didn’t do any producing or make any suggestions – I wouldn’t have known what to suggest! I just ran the tape recorder. But it was great to be there.”

Meanwhile, back home, Seattle – the eventual birthplace of grunge and home to punk — was pretty much a blues wasteland. Back then, many of the rockers were standing in what Dick terms “the shadow of Ray Charles.”

There were a few bluesy guitarists, one of whom spent 18 months touring with Freddie King, and another, Joe Johansen, who with organist Dave Lewis, who was a big local star “until he went away for sticking up my childhood drug store,” Shurman says. “Rock bands like The Dynamics — who had Larry Coryell on guitar — were really into R&B…and (sax player) Marcus Doubleday, who supposedly made it a big part of the dynamics when he introduced heroin into the Electric Flag.

image“All the bands were doing (Duke Records bandleader) Joe Scott arrangements. And Coryell himself apparently figured out Hendrix was from the Northwest when he heard ‘Come On (Let the Good Times Roll),’ on Electric Ladyland ‘cause all the bands used to do that in Seattle.”

An excellent student, Shurman made trips back to Chicago every chance he could, and he rejected an offer for post-graduate studies in music linguistics at Princeton. “I realized pretty quickly that there were only two things I could do as an anthropologist — “go to Pago Pago or teach it…and I didn’t want to do either,” he says. “So I hitchhiked to the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Jazz & Blues Festival in the summer of ’72 and rendezvoused with two friends from Seattle who were driving around the country collecting advertising artifacts. On our way back to Seattle, we figured out my life.”

The duo both possessed degrees in library science and were living comfortable lives with plenty of freedom. They told him: ‘You know, you could get the state of Illinois to give you a scholarship to get a library degree and also a work agreement so you’d have a job back there, too.’”

Shurman jumped at the idea, earning his master’s at the U. of W. and relocating to Chicagoland soon after. He worked in the field — primarily as a specialist in library automation — until retiring in 2015.

“I was lucky,” he says. “I always had jobs that gave me a lot of autonomy, and librarians would think it was more than cool when accolades (about music) would come my way. My board would want me to take ‘em to clubs to hear Albert King and stuff like that.

“For me, it wasn’t like the guys who had a day job in a steel mill, worked until 4 p.m., took a nap and then played ghetto clubs at night. Jody Williams used to email me at 4 a.m., and I asked him one time if he was just getting up or going to bed. He told me he was about to go to work.”

An amazingly gifted guitarist, Williams starred in the ‘50s alongside Bo Diddley but became disillusioned with show business after his trademark riff was appropriated as the hook for Mickey and Sylvia’s mid-‘50s chart-topper, “Love Is Strange.” He spent decades working as a technical engineer for Xerox and storing his six-string under his bed before recording two sensational CDs for Evidence Records after retirement, both of which were produced by Shurman who’d been encouraging him for years to come home to the blues.

“But I feel really lucky,” Shurman says, “especially considering that I had a day job that restricted my freedom of movement. The amount of stuff that I have on my bucket list…I have only gratitude. I’m not very frustrated that I didn’t get to everybody. I’m much more grateful for all the great people who I did.”

Back in the city, Dick quickly became a welcome addition to the inner circle of blues aficionados who circled Koester – a group that included Living Blues magazine founders Jim and Amy O’Neal, future Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer, longtime Delmark producer Steve Thomashefsky, future Muddy Waters guitarist Rick Kreher and producer/journalist/musician Wes Race – and eventually started calling themselves “Blues Amalgamated.”

Shurman credits Race – who, along with Iglauer, co-produced Hound Dog Taylor & the House Rockers’ eponymous LP, the first-ever Alligator release – with opening the door for him to both print and the studio.

“He had a blues column, but was leaving Chicago and asked me if I’d like to take it over in ‘75,” Dick recalls. “And Wes was also tight with Delmark because he and the Koesters were all from Wichita. When Delmark signed Otis, he suggested to them that I’d be useful because Otis and Bob didn’t really connect.

“Bob had always been good about inviting me to sessions, and I learned some by watching him. So Steve Thomashefsky – who was the leader — and I did Cold Day in Hell. Then I recorded Louis and Bob Myers and talked Frank Scott into compiling that as part of Chicago Blues at Home (a star-studded 1977 release on Advent that also included John Littlejohn, Eddie Taylor, Homesick James, Johnny Shines and Jimmy Rogers).”

His interest in studio work grew quickly after teaming with Steve Wisner, the owner of the short-lived Mr. Blues imprint. He wrote the liner notes for Good Rockin’ Charles’ self-titled album and then became the associate producer of both Eddie C. Campbell’s King of the Jungle album and second disc for Mojo Buford, too.

He shifted to Alligator a year later, where Iglauer brought him on as a co-producer after signing Albert Collins to the label at Shurman’s suggestion. Dick worked the floor with Bruce in the control room for the stellar Ice Pickin’, the first of seven Collins albums he did for the label along with five others for Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Heartsman and Fenton Robinson. Today, Dick credits Bruce for teaching him the most about recording.

imageIn the years since, Shurman’s work has spanned the globe with dozens of releases on Sonet in Denmark, Black Magic in Germany, Mr. R&B in Sweden, Double Trouble in the Netherlands and other labels across North America, including Blind Pig, Virgin, multiple runs at Delmark, Pointblank, Evidence and more. And despite the depth of straight-ahead blues in his catalog, he’s relished his work with the blues-rockers.

“Part of the bond between guys like me and Johnny and me and Roy was our shared love for traditional blues,” he says. “We all came from the same stuff. I remember one day Billy Branch came in to do some stuff with Johnny Winter and he told Johnny: ‘You play more blues than most of the cats here because they want to be playin’ somethin’ else.’

“Johnny’s mission was to come to Chicago to record real blues albums, and Roy had pretty much the same kinda thing. He had a wide definition structurally of blues, but it was kinda a pilgrimage for him, too.”

There truly is something special about the music and people who make it, Shurman says. “Rod Piazza calls it ‘the chosen who’ – the people who hear it and it hits ‘em. I tell people it’s like preaching: You have to have the calling. Your life wouldn’t be complete without it. If not, there’s too many reasons why it doesn’t make sense.

“Maybe it’s because it’s so visceral. One of the things that drew me to it as a kid was that it seemed much more adult than the pap that pop culture was feeding me on Top 40 radio and TV. Only later did I realize that ‘adult perspective’ has its pros and cons…like ‘if you whoop her and she needs it, the judge won’t let you explain…

“But it did seem adult to me…not borrowing Daddy’s Jag and putting a surfboard on it. One of Bruce Iglauer’s theories is that the beat of the blues is similar to the beat of a human heart. True or not, it’s interesting to contemplate. And it’s amazing how it transcends cultures and societies. I’ve been overseas and only five percent of the audience knows what the artist’s saying or what the words are – and feeling it just as deep as anybody here feels it.”

As someone who grew up in an analog, straight-to-tape world, Dick is now a discipline of digital recording. “I know that some people hold on to warmth by tracking some instruments on analog tape,” he says, “and then transferring it to digital. But, to me, that’s kinda like postponing the inevitable.

“But there’s ways that it can be helpful and ways it can be abused. But even in the early days, digital was criticized for sounding ‘brittle.’ That was because, in order to press LPs, they used to push the high end…what they call the RIAA curve. With CDs, you don’t have to push the high end. The definition is better and the reproduction is more even across the spectrum. But in the early days of CDs, they were still doing it and causing a problem.

“There are a lot of great things about digital: being able to see waveforms, being able to crossfade, non-destructive editing, not having limitation in the number of tracks – those are all great – and not having to buy and carry reels of 2-in. tape, too!

“Plus, I love it for mixing. In the old days, the final mix was the pass when you had to make all the moves – raise or lower faders, mute channels, whatever you were gonna do. And sometimes it took more than two hands to do it. Now, in digital, the final pass is when you don’t do anything ‘cause you’ve layered all your moves and just checking your work and making sure you didn’t miss anything.

“I don’t like to take many shortcuts or loop stuff. I don’t like to copy and repeat stuff unless there’s any alternative. I like to keep it true to the feel of performance. The only drawback is overusing your tools. At this point, the battle’s over. Digital won!”

imageOne of his best received efforts in recent years has been Right Place, Right Time, the Delta Groove release that catapulted Monster Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter into the stratosphere, dominating the 2018 Blues Music Awards, capturing band and traditional album of the year honors and nominations for Welch as guitarist and Ledbetter as vocalist and B.B. King Entertainer of the year, too – bittersweet honors because Ledbetter died suddenly at age 33 from complications from epilepsy a few months later with plans for a follow-up already underway.

Although many folks in the industry believe him to be the major force for getting them together, Shurman claims that he’s getting more credit than he should despite the fact that he coordinated the electrifying performance that brought them together – a tribute to Otis Rush at the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival.

“No. 1,” he says, “it wasn’t my idea that they play together. I originally hired Mike Ledbetter because he had recorded Otis tunes with (Rush disciple) Ronnie Earl (on the album Father’s Day). I thought Ledbetter was gonna play with Ronnie, who was also on the bill. But Mike Ledbetter called me and asked me if I’d mind if he sang with Monster Mike instead.

“I said: ‘Well, okay.’

“So it was serendipity that they played together at all. And then the part that really blew people away was when Mike started singing ‘I Can’t Quit You, Baby’ at the end, which wasn’t my plan either. Originally, Eddy Clearwater was gonna do it because he’d sung the previous tune.

“But Eddy told me at soundcheck that it wasn’t a key that he could sing it in, so I was now ‘well…fuck…who’s gonna start the encore?’ and everybody’s yelling at me: ‘Get Mike! Get Mike!’

“That all happened of its own accord. But I did tell ‘em at the end of the set: ‘You know you’ve gotta record something, right?’ Those two youngbloods blew a whole lot of seasoned talent off the stage that night. It was an amazing thing to see.”

There’s one thing that most fans of Ledbetter don’t realize about him, Shurman says: “As great as he sang Otis Rush, he was even better at singing Freddie King – and hardly anybody knows that because he didn’t do it much — and they didn’t record any of it.”

Of the current crop of young blues artists, Dick’s “a huge Jontavious Willis fan and the circle that he’s the chairman of the board of with Marquise Knox and Kingfish. I’m trying to encourage Stephen Hull from Wisconsin who’s in that circle, too. There’s a guy here from Liberia named Joey J. Saye who’s getting around some.”

And other current favorites include Linsey Alexander’s son Nick, Anne Harris and Melody Angel as well as YouTube sensation Mac McDaniel.

Shurman’s latest effort is a new album from Martin Lang and Rusty Zinn that includes Billy Flynn and Little Frank on rhythm guitars and Johnny Iguana on piano. “That’s the second one I’ve done with Martin,” he says, “and it’s being mastered now.”

What’s next?

“It might not happen, but there’s a label that wants me to do one with Billy Boy Arnold,” he says. “Billy says he wants to do it, but I’m waiting to see if the label makes the business commitment.”

But no matter who he works with next, there’s one thing for certain: Dick insists that he’ll always be “the invisible hand” as a producer, adding: “I don’t want people to listen to something I did and say: ‘Wow! Dick Shurman did a great job.’ I want ‘em to think the artist did a great job, not me!”

Check out the small type on the next CD you buy. You won’t see his name on the cover. But if it’s in the credits, rest assured it’s a winner!

Please follow and like us: