Featured Interview – J.T. Lauritsen

imageEven on the darkest, coldest winter nights in America, folks have blues to keep them warm. And the same is true in far-off Norway, where the sun sets in the fall in some regions and doesn’t rise again until spring and where J.T. Lauritsen consistently throws logs on the musical fire to chase the chill away.

A century after its birth, the blues truly has become a universal language – something that’s evident by an ever-increasing number of foreign artists whose roots are firmly planted in the cotton fields, Memphis and Chicago and who cross oceans in an attempt to establish themselves in the land where the music was born.

Jan Tore Lauritsen is one of those special talents, frequently appearing at the Big Blues Bender, Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise and other major venues across the U.S. as well as the Notodden Blues Festival and other major events across Europe – something he’s been doing since forming his group. The Buckshot Hunters, 30 years ago.

Although he’s known far and wide today for delivering an interesting mix of contemporary blues, soul and more on accordion and harmonica – a mix he bills as “Norwegian blue-eyed soul,” he started out as a child as an organist, eventually switching instruments after lugging a Hammond B3 organ and all its gear to gigs for years.

But J.T.’s no stranger to hard work – as Blues Blast learned in a recent Skype interview on a frigid weekday afternoon. He was seated at his computer in his office with the sun reflecting off the snow that covered the ground outside the windows behind him. He’d just returned home after a hard day working on the railroad – a job that’s kept a roof over his head and food on the table during the epidemic – and one that he’s maintained for 37 years despite his success in the music world.

“I started out delivering mail,” he says, “then went to school to be a Wagenmeister (German for ‘wagon technician’), watching over the train before it was leaving,” he says. He became skilled in all aspects of maintaining cars and engines, and, for about a decade, he was in charge of a shop that dealt exclusively keeping wheel sets humming on the rails.

At age 53, he insists: “I’m not getting any younger. They recently shifted me over to working security and to teaching workshops on brake systems for different kinds of locomotives and wagens (cars). It’s been a very strange year – especially when you consider that, for the last ten years, music has taken up all of my time…almost.”

A native of Lillestrøm – a municipality of 86,000 residents about 14 miles east of Oslo in the southeast corner of the nation, Lauritsen became infatuated with music at age six, when his father gave him a Magnus organ. Manufactured by a company based in Poland, it’s been a popular teaching tool for beginners across Europe since the ‘50s. Its features include three octaves of piano keys accompanied by a side panel of buttons that provide vocal chording in a manner similar to a harmonica with a fan blowing wind across reeds.

“If you have a talent, you go to a piano or an organ,” Lauritsen says.

A quick learner, he graduated to a full-size Hammond– and lessons – pretty quickly. “I didn’t do my homework, but I was lucky because one of my teachers liked my improvisation. By the time I was eight or nine, I’d sit and jam with him.

“All those years, my dad had a huge collection of music…all kinds…country music, blues, Cliff Richard, Elvis. I still have some of his old vinyl records from ’55 or ’56. But then I saw all these great artists playing on TV, and it really hit me – especially a Charles Brown show because he wasn’t very well known in Norway at that time.”

The keyboard player in Johnny Moore & the Three Blazers and a songwriter who penned both the classic “Driftin’ Blues” and “Merry Christmas Baby,” Brown was a major influence on young Ray Charles after establishing himself as a major star following World War II, but he worked for decades as a janitor in a building for senior citizens after his soft-toned, classically influenced style went out of favor. By the time J.T. discovered him, he’d returned to glory in the ‘80s, when he toured frequently with Bonnie Raitt.

“Ray Charles was one of my early favorites,” Lauritsen says. “He did so many different things, but everything he did was pure magic. He really touched me with his vocals and how he played. Every time I saw him, it was magic! And B.B. King has always been a favorite, too.”

His first gigs came at age 14 and proved so successful that he’s played before live audiences ever since, initially performing on a Hammond C3 that he picked up for $500. “I was dragging that around alone to gigs in my trailer,” he says, “and it was in very good condition” – something that improved thanks to the tinkering of a good friend, Paul Wagnberg, a Swedish B3 player who recorded on J.T.’s early albums and who’s now a doctor.

imageLauritsen acquired the organ of his dreams by chance after a trip to Nashville. He popped into a music store in Printer’s Alley one day in search of a B3. The guy proprietor it didn’t have one on premises, but gave him the card of a man living north of the city — the son of a recently deceased MD who was trying to sell the one his dad formerly played.

“When I came home to Norway, I sent him an email,” Lauritsen remembers. “The B3 had been in the living room for over 30 years – complete with the pedals, seat and even the paper and the oil you drip on the inside. It was dark mahogany, too – unusual because most B3s are more like blond. I paid $5,000 for it, another $1,200 to ship it to Norway and $1,000 or so for parts.”

It was a beautiful instrument, and brought J.T. years of enjoyment. But after gigging with it for year years, he eventually grew weary of transporting the 400-plus pound keyboard, its Leslie speaker and other equipment on and off stage.

“It was a good investment,” he says. “I eventually decided to sell it to take care of my wife and my house. I got $15,000 for it. I knew that if I wanted to buy another one, they’d still be one available somewhere. But sometimes, money isn’t!”

By the time Lauritsen played the Notodden Blues Festival in 1987, he was ready to go in another direction. “Some dude had an accordion, and I borrowed it from him for a song,” he says, “and I had so-o-o much fun with it.

“The next year, the same guy was there, and I asked him if it was possible to borrow it for a whole night. He said: ‘Buy me a drink, and it’s okay!’ I bought him two. I came to realize that it was so much easier to play that I went out and bought one for myself.

“But I’m not an accordion player,” he insists. “I don’t play with the left hand (the black buttons that provide the bottom), only the right because I have a bass player in my band. I can do it now, but not like the real maestros. In my head, I’m still playing a Hammond B3.”

In simple terms, his attack differs greatly from the accordion masters who dominate the zydeco and Cajun world. Many artists in that field play piano or chromatic accordions, which enable them to play counterpoint on the left hand buttons while the right delivers the lead. J.T. uses a diatonic accordion, which – like the B3 – works more like a harmonica.

“I enjoy it more and more with each passing year,” he says, “and I just add it when it’s comfortable for me to play. You registrate the accordion the same way you do an organ to play a song. (select the proper stops, for more on organ Registration click HERE) For me, my philosophy is to make good-time music and feel good when it’s done.”

That comes across through deep, bluesy runs more common to Memphis and Chicago blues and soul rather than the repetitive drone that sometimes turns off some listeners to zydeco.

The accordion has been his trademark since 1989, but was initially a major challenge because he found himself struggling to support guitar players who were far more comfortable delivering their leads when he was on B3. After a decade, he says, he is losing faith in the instrument – something that changed through the encouragement from Chubby Carrier, C.J. Chenier and Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone after befriending them at mutual festival appearances and J.T.’s trips to the U.S.

Despite only being in his early 50s, Lauritsen is now an elder statesman in the Norwegian blues community, which has been making a major impact internationally in recent years despite the fact that the music had been far more popular in the U.K., France and Netherlands before Norse fans started to embrace it in the ‘70s.

imageSeveral major American artists planted the seeds in Scandinavia during tours, and there are other Norwegians who’ve come before him – most notably guitarist Knut Reiersrud, but the person who made the biggest impact in the country is someone you’re probably unaware of: David “Rock Bottom” York, an often overlooked powerhouse harmonica player and songwriter who was born in Brooksville, Ind., in 1948.

The brother-in-law of acoustic guitarist Roy Book Binder and late-life caretaker for Diamond Teeth Mary McClain, Bessie Smith’s half-sister, Rock was based out of Bradenton, Fla., for decades and a fixture on the club circuit across the Southeast. He died in his sleep at age 53 in 2001, but not before laying the groundwork for the blues across Scandinavia, where he toured frequently for the final two decades of his life.

He and his band, The Silver Kings and – later — The Cutaways, became a notorious, overnight sensation after playing their tune, “My Balls Are Blue from Loving You” on a national TV show, dedicating it to Nancy Reagan and describing her as their favorite groupie. It caused such a furor that the Norwegian ambassador to the U.S. eventually issued a formal apology for the transgression.

But from then on, Rock was a superstar in a foreign land. . Several other of his originals have been in regular rotation on the airwaves ever since thanks to covers by local bands. An enigmatic man who hired and fired band members on a whim. During one tour, he abandoned one bandmate in a desolate region close to the Arctic Circle only to circle around, pick him up and ferry him to an airport the next day.

Gruff but possessing a huge heart, he groomed dozens of young musicians and relentlessly pursued gigs for friends near and far. One of his protégés was Vidar Busk, a Norwegian guitarist who came to the U.S. to join his band at age 15. Rock served as his surrogate father for five years before Busk returned home in 1990 and began establishing himself as a star in his own right.

“The first time I saw Rock was at Notodden in ’88,” J.T. remembers fondly. “He brought Diamond Teeth Mary on the tour. I was 19 years old at the time, they were playing this cruise on a small lake. He saw me with an accordion on my back – not to play with anyone, but because I had it on loan for the whole day.

“He grabbed my shoulder and said: ‘Can you play on that?’ I said: ‘Well, I love playin’ on it. If you want me to play with you, I’d love that, too.’ He gave me a smile and said: ‘C’mon, brother!’

“We played for two hours that day. I was very disciplined, and played only when he gave me the shot. He’d really liked it. He hadn’t expected for me to be playing accordion that way. From then on, we started exchanging emails, and I’d play with him whenever he’d come on tour.

“In 2000, both our bands were at a festival on the west coast, and he asked me if I’d like to come to Florida. We started making plans to tour together the following year, and he gave me a list of all of the equipment he had that I could play when we did.”

Sadly, Rock’s death came a few months before it was scheduled to take place.

Another event that changed the music scene in Norway was the arrival of the original Blues Brothers in Scandinavia in the early ‘90s, fostering huge interest in blues-infused R&B, Lauritsen says. “All across Europe, things changed. One (copycat) band after another started up. I even did it myself for a while, wearing all black with a band called Black & Blues – a 10-piece band with three vocalists and a horn section.”

imageLauritsen has been fronting his own group — initially called Buckshot Blues Band – since 1991, and Busk was a member of the early lineup, J.T. says, noting: “When Vidar came home, everybody wanted to play with him. But I had Paul — this great B3 player — with me and one of Vidar’s friends was also on drums. We went from jams to occasional gigs in town to getting good crowds.”

They released their debut CD, Buckshot Hunters, in 1995 and changed their name to mirror the title shortly thereafter. The international tours that came as a result helped pay for their next release, My Kind of Blues, in 1999 and Make a Better World in 2001, which featured a young Kid Andersen on six-string just prior to emigrating to the U.S. Norwegian Blues News tabbed the disc as its album of the year.

“Kid was just 17 years old,” remembers Lauritsen who’s 12 years his senior. “He’d been playing in all the house bands at the local blues clubs for a while, and we brought him aboard to tour and gig with us. He was also on our album Perfect Moves in 2004.”

That disc took J.T. and his group in a new musical direction. Primarily an original set penned by Lauritsen and guitarist Arnfinn Tørrisen, who’s remained at Lauritsen’s side since 1994, it encompassed soul and blues-rock with a taste of Tex-Mex thrown in for good measure instead of their usual all-blues mix.

Norway has truly been a blues have since 1998, when 13 music lovers in Notodden – about 70 miles west of Oslo – pooled their money to fund a hometown festival that quickly evolved into the largest event of its type in Europe, drawing 25,000 people or more annually. Four years later, the blues society in the nation’s capital founded the Norwegian Blues Union, an organization that provides workshops for younger musicians, coordinates bands’ tours and provides a network for about 70 other societies and nightclubs from the North Sea to inside the Arctic Circle.

Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen E-Street Band and Sopranos fame conducts his annual Little Stephen’s Blues School in Notodden. A band program for both teens and young adults that’s produced several talents, it operates prior to the festival and culminates with a live concert by participants at the festival itself. And the University of South-Eastern Norway offers an accredited, two-semester course in the music.

It’s no wonder that Norse musicians are making the inroads internationally that they are today. Busk, for one, has gone on to capture a pair of Spellemann Prizes, Norway’s equivalent to the Grammys, while Andersen has become a world treasure as a multi-instrumentalist and album producer, too.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in the world,” J.T. insists, “The blues are a universal language. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s even better when you’re playing with a band like the Buckshot Hunters that know each other so well after working 20 years together.”

They served as the backing band for Earl King — the legendary New Orleans guitarist who wrote Professor Longhair’s trademark song, “Big Chief,” and “Come On,” which has been covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Freddie King – at the Hell Blues Festival and soaked up blues history backstage from Louisiana Red and other bluesmen during other visits, too.

And American audiences have come to know Lauritsen well since 2006, when he sailed as a special guest on the first-ever fall Legendary Rhythm & Blues. He recording his CD Squeezeboxing for Severn Records in Maryland in 2007 and has toured frequently with Memphis-based harp player Billy Gibson since befriending him on another cruise a year later.

For the past two decades, J.T.’s also has been conducting blues cruises of his own, sailing for three days in the spring and three days in the fall on ships operated by Color Line. Spring trips feature European bands, but the fall journeys – which hold about 2,000 passengers – have become bucket-list dreams for blues lovers around the globe.

Traveling between Oslo and Kiel, Germany, that lineup is always loaded with top U.S. talent — Nick Moss, Mike Zito, Tad Robinson, Junior Watson, Gibson and dozens of others in the past. A weekend sailing, it takes place prior to the Dark Season Blues Festival, an annual event inside the Arctic Circle on the Svalbard archipelago a few days before the sun sets for the final time in the year. Many people who make the cruise spend three days on the high seas, get to enjoy Oslo for a day or two and then jet to Svalbard to take in the entire experience in a place like no other on earth.

A frequent visitor to Norway since J.T. invited him to perform on the ship, Gibson has performed about 150 gigs with Lauritsen across Scandinavia as well more together in the U.S. ever since. Some of those performances are available on Buckshot’s 2009 album, Live, which spans 14 years of travel.

A quality harp player himself, Lauritsen says his knowledge about the instrument expanded through conversations with Gibson rather than lessons. And Robbin Ford’s harp-playing brother/bandmate, Mark, provided more guidance during frequent Norse excursions in the ‘90s.

imageMark amazed me in how he can make a harp sound like a guitar,” J.T. remembers. “He’s an extremely technical, advanced player. Back then, I couldn’t imagine how he could do sounds like he did with all the effects and everything – something I understand today. And (Californian) Andy Just helped me too.

“All those West Coast players have a different style. The vibrato is different. And Rick Estrin…he’s different from all the other guys! If you want to learn, you have to understand how they do it by talking about it – and practice.”

A trip to Memphis along with his drummer, Big Jon Grimsby, in 2012 for the Blues Music Awards led to Lauritsen fulfilling one of his dreams: to record at the legendary Ardent Studios, where everyone from Al Green to ZZ Top has laid down hits since the ‘60s.

“We were staying with Billy, and talked about Ardent all the time because Billy’s house was two blocks away,” J.T. says. “The afternoon before the BMAs – on Thursday, I went there and asked if it was possible to have a room and an engineer available for Saturday. And they did.

“I spent the night asking everyone at the BMAs and the after-parties the next day if they’d like to come hang out with us. Fortunately for me, Victor Wainwright, Greg Gumpel, Deanna Bogart, Jimmy Carpenter, Mike Zito, Dave Fields, Willie J. Campbell, Reba Russell, Larry McCray and others all said yes!”

Released as Playing by the Rules, the disc featured several songs from that session as well as another that included the late Swedish guitarist Sven Zetterberg and others in Norway.

Lauritsen has been firing on all cylinders ever since. His 2018 release, Blue-Eyed Soul Vol. 1, it earned him his first-ever Spelleman nomination, and its follow-up, last year’s Blue-Eyed Soul Vol. 2, is just as strong despite the lack of promotion because of its release during the coronavirus shutdown. The response to the first disc was been tremendous internationally, he says, noting that it didn’t help that the titles steered listeners to the music even if they weren’t that familiar with him.

And, fortunately, there was a multitude of additional recordings that didn’t make it to the first CD, which came in handy when the world came to a screeching halt. “We went to Florida in January and February, did the Delbert McClinton (Sandy Beaches) cruise and the Boquete Jazz & Blues Festival in Panama, then we were home for three weeks – and BAM! Everything closed down,” Lauritsen remembers. “What was I gonna do? Vol. 2!

“I already had all this material, and did a couple of more sessions in March, too. The real magic for this one is that all of the horn arrangements were done by my friend Børge-Are S. Halvorson. It took everything into another direction than the first one.

“If you work with good people, great – and surprising – things happen. That’s something that’s happened over and over again in the past 25 years.”

Lauritsen was looking forward to return to the U.S. for this year’s Tampa Blues Festival, which was postponed for a year just prior to this interview. He’s still hoping to sail on both his own cruise this fall as well as the Legendary cruise, where he’s booked to host jams.

“If the gates open, I’m ready to come,” he says. “I want to play for people as soon as I can. I hope everyone takes the vaccine, but know that this virus will be here for a while. Take the shots, though. You can start living life more normal.

“It’s not dangerous,’ he insists, “and it’s common sense to do.”

Another thing on his bucket list is to travel to Chicago and do a Windy City-style blues album, something he’s been discussed with Moss for years. He’s also dreaming about returning to Tennessee for a new Buckshot Hunters release, too.

In the meantime, you can enjoy a small taste of Lauritsen’s beautiful tenor voice on a brand-new release: Curtis Salgado’s CD, Damage Control. That’s him harmonizing and singing counterpoint in support for the tune “I Don’t Do That No More.”

Like everyone else in the world today, J.T.’s in a quandary about what will actually happen next. “I don’t know what it’s gonna be,” he says. “But I’m working on new songs, and I’ll be ready – that’s all I can say!”

Check out Lauritsen’s music and learn more about him by visiting his website: www.jtlauritsen.com

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