From Will Shade’s (Memphis Jug Band) washtub to Homesick James’ plank to Kyle Perry’s (Homemade Jamz Blues Band) Ford muffler version, the bass guitar has undergone numerous tweaks and changes in the world of blues music over the past 80 years or so.
But according to Chicago blues great Greg ‘E.G.’ McDaniel, it really doesn’t matter what the configuration is – or even how many strings the thing has – at the end of the day, a bass is just a bass.
“Under certain instances in the past, I’ve come under scrutiny from some people for playing a 5-string bass. I find it funny, because really and truly, if you want to play bass, a 4-string bass is three strings too many, because a washtub only had one,” McDaniel recently laughed. “I don’t see too many people playing 4-strings and complaining about the extra three strings, so I just marvel at that. But bass is just a frequency – it’s a foundation – it’s how low you need to get. If it’s done tastefully, it doesn’t matter how many strings you have. I mean, some guys on the circuit even play 6-string basses … but I can’t play a 6-string.”
Smart money says that should McDaniel ever decide he wanted to play a 6-string bass, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel for the gifted musician. A quick rundown of a few of the projects that he’s currently involved in – and who he’s involved in them with – says all that one needs to know about the talents of E.G. McDaniel.
“I’ve got several little projects going on and at the same time, I still play with Jimmy Burns. Sadly enough, Byther Smith is kind of retired, so I’m not really playing with him anymore,” he said. “But I’ve been helping friends out – I’ve been working with Matthew Skoller and working with Studebaker John and I’ve been playing bass with Mud Morganfield for six years and three albums, now. Of course I worked on Linsey Alexander’s newest material (Come Back Baby (Delmark Records)) and I just played on a track for my friend Dave Weld. And Jimmy’s (Burns) got a new one coming out, too. I’ve also worked on Eric Noden’s new album, along with Joe Filisko and Kenny Smith. So this has been a really productive year for me so far.”
As if he didn’t already have enough irons in the fire, McDaniel has also been busy playing with his trio, SonicSoul.
“It’s John Bruhnke on guitar and vocals, along with Kevin Johnston on drums and vocals and yours truly on bass and vocals,” McDaniel said. “We play at Buddy Guy’s all the time; he loves us. It’s a power-blues trio and we play everything from traditional to classic blues and Clapton and Hendrix.”
SonicSoul recently wrapped up recording sessions for an upcoming album.
The Urban Tumbleweeds – a duo comprised of Scott Neve and McDaniel – can also be found gigging around the Windy City.
McDaniel was recently a part of the Muddy Waters Centennial Tribute at the 32nd annual Chicago Blues Festival.
“It’s a very cool thing, because my dad would also be 100 years old. I understand how traditions go; I mean everybody only really thinks of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but there were other people that were around before they were, of which my dad was one of them,” he said. “In my eyes, he (McDaniel’s dad) didn’t get the fame he deserved, because people would say that he was too bluesy for jazz and too jazzy for the blues. But my dad really was a catalyst in this city and I’d liken him to be pretty much like the T-Bone Walker of Chicago. Matter of fact – he knew T-Bone Walker well.”
McDaniel’s father was none other than Floyd ‘Butter’ (“Billie Holiday gave him that nickname,” he said. “Because he was smooth on chord changes and was impeccably dressed, as well.”) McDaniel, famed guitarist that worked with Fats Waller and was also in the Ink Spots and The Four Blazes. Floyd McDaniel passed away 20 years ago on July 22, 1995.
“My dad was to be on the cover of Living Blues magazine, but unfortunately he passed away a day after his birthday, so they gave him the centerfold (of that month’s issue). He was only 80 years old for one day,” McDaniel said.
When McDaniel speaks of his father, it’s easy to understand the bond the two men shared.
“I miss my dad a great deal … I really do. My dad was my best friend – incredibly so. Our bond-ship was very, very deep. My dad also delivered me (when E.G. was born). We never had an argument and we never raised our voice at each other,” he said. “I’ve got a sister who’s 82-years-old and she can vouch for that. We never got spanked. We talked things out with our folks. My dad always said, ‘Hey, I don’t have to treat you like you’re a farm animal in a zoo. We don’t have to go there.’ He was just an awesome guy. And when it came to music, the thing I really loved about my dad was that he got it. He was the one that really opened up my eyes to hearing sounds and listening to what people were trying to play and what they were trying to do. That still carries over to this day.”
McDaniel’s parents met when Floyd was playing with Cab Calloway.
“My mother (Bessie Jackson) was a pianist, she was one of Marian McParland’s Women of Jazz. So, I pretty much grew up with music,” he said.
In addition to having parents that were famous musicians, one of McDaniel’s cousins also ended up setting a trend or two in the world of rock-n-roll and roots-related music.
“Well, Bo Diddley – Ellas Otha Bates McDaniel – was my cousin. So my family all had their own things going. My folks were all active in my development (as a musician), for sure. I started playing early on,” he said. “It’s funny, but when I came into the Chicago blues as we know it, I really didn’t get my feet wet until around 1983. But I was basically Byther Smith’s bass player on and off through the years since I was 14.”
With the musical pedigree that has long run through the McDaniel family, it sure seems like young E.G. was almost pre-destined for a career of playing music. However, he says there were a few bumps in the road of the path that he ultimately chose to travel.
“Well, to be honest, there were moments where I actually had my doubts,” he laughed.
Long before he would become one of Chicago’s first-call bassists, McDaniel’s initial endeavors of the musical nature began with him bashing on the drums.
“I first started on drums and I had my cousin Terry Thompson teaching me how to play. But I switched over to bass because he was getting a little heavy-handed with me, and I was like, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this,’” McDaniel said. “But I loved the drums and I still do play them, but for the most part, bass was the new first love and I’ve never put it down since I was 6-years-old. And I had a lot of terrific bass players around me to pull from – guys that played with my dad. One of the first bass players I ever met was a friend of my dad’s – Bob Stroger. Bob is still one of my great mentors.”
McDaniel’s relationship with the great Byther Smith didn’t start out on the bandstand; rather, it started out on the front porch of Smith’s house.
“I was his paperboy – he lived in the neighborhood – and I saw him playing and that started it. Really, Byther was the one that is pretty much responsible for me getting to know a lot of the inner-people of the blues,” he said. “I don’t know if many people know this, but Byther Smith was the first bassist in the city to have an electric Fender bass. Unfortunately, he just sold it. It was a 1954 Fender P-bass. Byther was the bass player, with Buddy (Guy) the guitarist, Junior Wells on harp and Fred Bellow and S.P. Leary as drummers back then (that artists called upon).”
Leary was a close friend of the McDaniel family, as was Detroit Junior, who lived with Smith at the time.
“There was no shortage of people around to play with,” said McDaniel. “The list of people that I’ve had the pleasure of playing with is a long one. I’ve had the privilege of not only playing with the newer guys, but with the older cats, as well. Guys like Eddy ‘The Chief’ Clearwater and Carey Bell and Hubert Sumlin and Robert Junior Lockwood and Otis Rush – he lives down the street from me. And Magic Slim was a good friend.”
He would grow up and play with some of the most-accomplished bluesmen to ever hit Chicago, but back when he initially started spreading his musical wings, cats like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were front and center in McDaniel’s musical universe.
“Someone asked me one time if my musical influences were guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? When I was coming up and playing and was 10 or so, that was my grandparent’s music, man.’ And they didn’t want you around their records,” he laughed. “They played those records at their parties, where children were to be seen and not heard. But we were into our own music, which was not the stuff they listened to, which we thought of as old-fashioned. I was listening to everything from Frankie Avalon to Johnny Mathis and Brook Benton and Roberta Flack and on to The Yardbirds and Turtles and The Byrds. That was all in my face.”
His grandmother on his mother’s side lived on fabled Maxwell Street and even though he was not old enough to identify just who it was playing outside, young McDaniel did hear bits and pieces of the blues ever so often while visiting there.
“When the bands were out there, I would hear them bangin’ and clangin’ down the street, but I didn’t know who those people were, because I was just a kid,” he said. “I could have seen Muddy Waters then – could have. But those were grown-ups playing for grown-ups and us kids weren’t to go out there.”
Mud Morganfield’s Son of the Seventh Son (Severn Records) grabbed a whole host of awards when it hit the streets a couple of years ago and it immediately brought back memories of the hey-day of the Chicago blues, days when Mud’s father – Muddy Waters – was the king of the Chicago blues. According to McDaniel, the album was every bit as fun to play on is it is to listen to.
“It’s a wonderful experience to be involved with Mud, because Mud’s a good friend of mine. And of course, Kenny Smith is playing drums and he’s a good friend of mine, as well … but more importantly, I also used to play bass for Kenny’s dad (Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith),” he said. “So that’s a bond that we all share, our dad’s were all well-known musicians. It’s just so much fun to play with Mud. He’s well on his way and is really doing it. I admire him in so many ways. I can’t emulate my dad, because I don’t play guitar. I wished I did, but I don’t.”
McDaniel is just as at home with a big, ‘ole standup bass pinned up against his body as he is with a smaller electric one cradled under his arms.
“I just love bass. It’s all in the application. Everybody plays electric these days, so if I play standup with people that are playing loud, it’s not going to work. It’s just going to feed back. It’s hard to play an upright through that, with all the loud guitars,” he said. “It’s hard to manipulate a standup through all that electric power, but I love upright as much as I love the electric bass. And for the past few years, I’ve also been playing a B-flat tuba … and I’m getting better. One of these days if I can get enough money together, I’d love to be able to own a sousaphone. I just love bass … it’s the foundation for everything.”
That helps explain why, when it comes to listening to – or breaking down – music, McDaniel’s ears are immediately interested in what the lower frequencies are doing.
“I like rhythm sections. I’m not the keenest on guitar players, because my attitude is – while guitar players are great – they can’t do it without a bonafide rhythm section. Guitar players get all the credit, but it’s like, ‘Man, listen to the band that’s kickin’ behind them.’ No doubt, Albert Collins was awesome, but when he had Aron Burton playing behind him, Albert was allowed to do his thing,” McDaniel said. “And then you’ve got Johnny B. Gayden and Marty Bender – who are both friends of mine – and when they were playing behind him, he could stretch out even more. So rhythm sections are really important and I think they should get their just due. People don’t notice them because they’re so focused on the guitar. But at the same time, those people are stomping their feet and bopping their heads and breaking their necks and they don’t understand, but that’s the rhythm section doing that.”
Over the years, McDaniel has laid down the low end on more studio sessions and on more bandstands than the average person can shake a stick at. From Eddie Taylor, Jr., to Fruteland Jackson to Little Arthur Duncan to Jody Williams and everyone in between, McDaniel has played with them all. But no matter the situation – or the artist that he’s playing with – McDaniel’s mission remains the same each and every time out.
“Job number one is really focusing on the individual that I’m playing behind. If I can get in the mind of the person that I’m working with, I can pretty much give that person what they need. I’m not just up there to play whatever. I’m up there to play what the artist wants,” he said. “But I can’t do it alone. For example, in the Jimmy Burns Band, I play with two other great musicians that really go unsung. One is (guitarist) Anthony Palmer and the other is Bryant T. Parker. Bryant is a fantastic drummer that’s played with Mavis (Staples) and with Taj Mahal and Anthony’s played with Otis Rush and Joanna Connor and just a who’s-who of other great artists. He’s smokin’. I would really like to think that we’ve helped to propel Jimmy Burns to where he is today.”
McDaniel’s ‘Blues Godmother’ – Katherine Davis – was not only instrumental in introducing him to Jimmy Burns, she also helped McDaniel realize just how rich his musical legacy really was.
“She’s the only one of my dad’s friends – and I do mean the only one – to reach back after my dad died and say, ‘You guys really need to listen to this guy play.’ She’s opened up the doors to so many opportunities … I really owe her a debt of gratitude,” McDaniel said. “She’s looked after me close to 30 years now. She introduced me to so many people … just all these wonderful people.”
Robert Junior Lockwood was long known as a person that wanted things done his way and was never in the mood to put up with any gruff. But on the flip side of the coin, if you were in his inner-circle, he could be one of the kindest men around and McDaniel saw both sides while playing with the legend one evening at Eddy Clearwater’s Reservation Blues club.
“He (Lockwood) could really strike fear into the hearts of people. I’ll never forget this humbling experience. Two songs into his set, all these flashbulbs start going off and Robert Junior didn’t like that. He didn’t want to be exploited and have his picture taken and then sold and have his image marketed or whatever. In the old Indian culture, they didn’t want a photograph taken of them because they thought you were trying to steal their soul. Well, Robert Junior stops the music and yells for Leroy Brown – who was working the door – to lock the front door. He then told Leroy to get everybody’s cameras, or to get their film, because he didn’t want pictures taken of him,” McDaniel said. “Well, I was really nervous because in my bag, I had a picture that was taken at a blues festival of the two of us playing and I was going to have him sign it. After we finished the set, he was still hot under the collar about people snapping his picture. Well, I never ask for autographs, but I did want that picture signed as a memento, seeing how he was the son of Robert Johnson. So I asked him and he said, ‘Are you kidding me? You know me better that that. Give me the picture.’ So I did and he signed it and I freaked out. I said, ‘I know how you feel about autographs and people taking pictures.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but I know you. I don’t know them. I know you’re not going to sell this.’ That was very humbling and was a ‘wow’ moment for me. He was really a nice man.”
It was while hanging around and playing at the once-mighty Checkerboard Lounge when McDaniel received some essential advice from one half of the legendary Aces – bass player Dave Myers.
“He was a very discerning bass player. He’d always tell me, ‘Don’t you be like the rest of them … all that modern stuff … yuk,’” laughed McDaniel. “But you know, everybody has their era; that’s just inevitable. I mean, even now, we don’t play blues like they did in the ’20s and we we don’t play blues like they did in the ’30s, even though some of us would like to try to reenact those days.”
According to McDaniel, the way the Chicago blues sound in these days and times has as much to do with the social, political and economic climates of the 21st century as it does with anything else.
“Take it from a person who had a dad that came from those days (early days of modern Chicago blues); he was like, ‘Well, times were different (back then), presidents were different, money was different, Eco-systems were different, social systems were different, so you really can’t go back.’ You can try, but you just had to be there,” McDaniel said. “And I understand that. I think it’s great that people keep the traditions alive, but there comes a point in time where I believe there are a lot of musicians that have their own voice for the next coming of the blues and they shouldn’t be left alone just because people may think, ‘They’re not playing the blues.’”
No matter how they may be dissected, labeled – or even totally ignored – the blues of today are still the blues and that doesn’t figure to change anytime soon.
“The blues will always be here; it just has different values attached, due to everybody’s social and economic system. That’s what my dad said back then and that’s still the truth today,” McDaniel said. “This is just a different era. I don’t believe in pigeon-holing – I say, ‘Let people play.’ I remember as a kid playing in the ’60s and ’70s, it was all about doing your own thing. People didn’t care back in those days whether you were white or black. It didn’t matter; it was about doing your own thing, your own vibe, your own bag. That’s why they let Hendrix do his thing and just look at what he did. I don’t like the tags that sometimes go with the blues these days. For instance, if John Mayer does it, it’s great. But then say you have someone like Eric Davis – God rest his soul – doing it, then it’s like, ‘That’s not the blues.’ Well, Eric was playing the blues, John Mayer plays the blues … it’s all the blues … and it’s all good. Not everybody can play the same.”
And just what are the blues?
“The blues is always about somebody’s life history. Somebody’s telling you about their story; about their life,” McDaniel said. “Whether something happened with a woman they had, or like when Byther Smith talks about Housefire, which was about a real house fire he was in. To me, the blues speak about your life.”
Visit E.G.’s website at: http://users.rcn.com/eg123/
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine