There is little doubt that Jim Pugh is one of the elite keyboard players in blues music. His resume and recording discography is a virtual who’s-who of legendary blues artists as well as some top-selling rock musicians. But Pugh’s story took one of those unexpected turns a few years back when, for the first time in decades, he had time to ponder what meant the most to him.
Pugh started out playing piano at a young age. While in high school, he was part of a band with some friends. One of the members, Peter Dammann, is now the Artistic Director for the Waterfront Blues Festival. When he was about thirteen years old, Pugh would take the EL subway in to Chicago to buy records at the world-famous Jazz record Mart. Owner Bob Koester made a point of turning Pugh on to lots of cool records by artists like Gene Ammons, artists that he would have never listened to without Koester’s encouragement.
“The life I had then, I was shameless and fearless. As a freshman, I was told I needed some kind of activity. So I joined the Dance committee, and was immediately asked to hire a band for the freshman dance. With Bob Koester’s help, I called up Willie Dixon, who was managing Koko Taylor at that time. We negotiated the deal, but eventually I had to turn it over to Eunice Jackson’s mom, who was the adult on the committee. Years later I was doing the Santa Cruz blues fest with Robert Cray. Willie Dixon’s widow was there. She was talking to several blues authorities when I walked by. One of them, Mike Kappus, who knew the story, introduced me to Marie Dixon as the fourteen year-old who called Willie years ago. Just then, Dick Waterman, stepped in to visit with her. As I was walking away, I heard a woman saying, “excuse me, hey, excuse me”. When I turned around, Marie said, “I was the one who answered the phone call that day!”
“For those of us that grew up in the Midwest, the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival was ground zero for blues music. I wanted to go but at fifteen years old, my parents wouldn’t let me. I did attend the 1969 Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park, which was the first one. They didn’t have artists like B.B. or Albert King. It was mostly Chicago blues artists like Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim, and Big Joe Williams. Big Joe was amazing, to see that kind of history. That was real influential”.
Growing up along the North shore of Chicago in Winnetka, his family lived next to a train station, rattling the house with each passing locomotive. Pugh relives those days through a Facebook group of dedicated fans of Northwestern trains. Once he moved to California after finishing high school, Pugh started playing organ, influenced in large part by Chester Thompson, the organ player for Tower Of Power.
“At that time I wasn’t very happy, so it was just time to live somewhere else. I was the youngest one in my family. A lot of people I knew or were related to seem to end up Boston or New York, along one of the coasts. I figured it would it would be easier to live in California. I went to college at the University of the Pacific for about three months before dropping out. Then I lived in San Francisco playing any kind of music that I could find. I played dance classes, played Mexican music for years, and all types of music in clubs what was called the “ghetto” in those days. When I dropped out, my parents said that I could do what I wanted until I ran out of money, then I could home and they would tell me what I was going to do next. I never went back”.
In the early 1970s, many of the venues he played at in Fillmore District and Hunter’s Point had an organ with bass pedals, not a piano. The clubs hired bands without a bass player, expecting the organ to cover the low end of the sound spectrum.
“I learned how to do that pretty quickly, otherwise you wouldn’t get the gig, even though it didn’t pay that well. In those days I was working with Joe Louis Walker and Fillmore Slim. When I was twenty-one, I joined a group that was made up of people from Sly Stone’s Band and Cold Blood. They had a record deal. I did that for 4-5 years. We were very successful regionally and at one point had a Top 15 hit record. The band was called Rubicon. After that, I started working with Elvin Bishop, and through that, I got connected at a well-known blues club called Larry Blake’s. Basically, if you look at the evolution of the Robert Cray Band, the Rat house band at the club ended up being the band in one form or another that backed up Cray up until I left in 2015”.
“At one point, I was playing a place called Joe’s Nairobi Lounge in East Palo Alto. I had really long hair, sort of a white Afro. One night this woman came in, saw me, and told me that if I came to her hair parlor, she could give me a six week relax, a blow-out that would make my hair more even and natural. I was playing there every night, so one day I went into this beauty shop. Being white and male were two things that were not common in this place. She applied this stuff on my hair that promptly burned my scalp. I believe it is the reason that my hair fell out early. When she was finished, I looked in the mirror – and it looked worse! It looked like one of those Civil War photos. I went home and naturally put away my Stacy Adams shoes and the sharkskin suit in favor of Levis, a work shirt, and my Converse tennis shoes. I was just going to be me”.
“A lot of the gigs I’ve had playing with different people came from playing in various house bands. There was a nightclub in San Francisco called Slim’s, which was owned by Boz Scaggs. I played with him in this straight-up, Texas roadhouse band backing up everybody from Earl King to Lee Dorsey, Albert Collins and Otis Clay. Sometimes I would tour up and down the West coast with people like Otis Rush. I knew Robert Cray for years before I started playing with him. It’s not always about the biggest and the baddest, but more about building relationships”.
The Rat band backed up Etta James for several shows. Her band was an amalgamation of players from all over California. Pugh ended up working with the legendary singer for a decade, touring and recording, even cutting several records with her after he had started in the Cray band.
“I knew her sons, who were in the band. The first time I went to Europe was with Etta, and that was an amazing time. I went to Nashville to make some records with her. She told me, you know how you play here, when you play with me, that thing that you do there, just do that all the time! It was a certain gospel turn, low, heavy left hand thing that she really liked. She used it as a pivot point to sing on, this low octave slam. She influenced me a lot, and was a big help. I have never been very good about copying people. I just play the way I play. She was instrumental in getting me to forget about other stuff and to just do what I do, who I am. So I worked for years with Boz, then worked with Chris Isaak for years, and also Todd Rundgren. But I didn’t really change the way I played much to fit. I can’t do that. I won’t say that I played straight-up Otis Spann stuff when I was with Rundgren, but more so than you might think”.
In 1989, Pugh started his tenure with Cray, which was a full-time job with a full-time salary. But along with the benefits of the job came plenty of work, as the Cray was working eight to nine months out of the year, a pace that came close to the schedule that B.B. King maintained for decades.
“My kids grew up while I was on the road. But I am very, very lucky to be have been able to raise a family, own a house, get the kids through college. It hasn’t been easy. I’m going to be playing bar mitzvahs until I am ninety to pay for it! My wife and I had four kids together. We went from having two to having four in one afternoon, had twins. But I am very grateful that I was able to all this. Now, in the last five years, I guess I have sort of re-invented myself. I am having a lot of fun, and it seems like the Foundation is doing well, doing good things for other people”.
The idea for the Little Village Foundation came from months of soul-searching after Pugh’s twenty-five year stint as a member of Robert Cray’s band came to an end. Feeling quite cynical about the music business, not for the first time, Pugh found himself at a personal crossroads.
“First of all, nobody wants a sixty year old piano player! That’s not going to happen. And I wasn’t interested in getting back on a bus, riding to New York. I am done with that. A friend of mine told me to figure out what my passions are, then we can figure out a way to make some kind of thing out of it. It was a bit of a mid-life crisis. So I spent three months volunteering at a botanical garden every day shoveling mulch. It gave me plenty of time to think. This will sound corny as hell, but I realized is that I have a passion for music, I like helping people in small ways, not big ways, and I’m not a big “joiner,” so large organizations have little appeal. Groups like the American Cancer Society are great, but that is not what appeals to me. I like diversity, discovering the calm, and the commonality, of various forms of music and cultures. I can listen to “Call To Prayer” and it sounds like Johnnie Taylor. The emotional commonality really registers with me”.
“From that, some people that I know suggested the idea of starting a record label that would encompass those things. And maybe it should be a non-profit endeavor. I arrived at all of this slowly. So that is why the Little Village Foundation has never sold one CD. All of the proceeds go to the artists. They own all of their intellectual property. The label does not own the publishing rights to their songs. Not only do they own everything, they also don’t have to pay for anything. The productions costs, musicians, studio time, promotion, manufacturing, all the elements of the record company process that companies have traditionally charged to the artist don’t exist here. It all goes to the artist. Now I go around trying to find like-minded who would support something like this, as a not-for-profit. I have been really fortunate that as I get better at it, things at the Foundation have steadily grown”.
“Typically, I have found the artists on the label. Part of it is that I am not looking for the brightest and best, say in guitar players. I have played with Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, with Cray, and with Albert Collins, plus there plenty of great musicians out there, and I have recorded with lots of great musicians. But that is not necessarily the criteria that I use. These days, I believe that to go along with great musicianship, you have to have content that has something to say, is compelling, and tells a story. I am proud that the record we did with guitarist Chris Cain propelled him greater recognition around the world. That is the sort of thing we are interested in”.
“It is hard to imagine that singer Wee Willie Walker would have been offered a record deal, which is why we decided to do it. Rick Estrin and Kid Andersen were huge backers of that project. We recorded a couple of sessions with Wee Willie, but they didn’t know if there was any interest. They had contacted a few labels without success. So I said, I’ll start a record company and it will be a non-profit label. So I talked a friend of mine into donating the initial seed money. Then I got the local Rotary chapter to be the fiscal sponsors, so people could make donations and get a tax deduction. We weren’t a non-profit yet as the process to become a 501-C3 organization takes some time”.
“The whole Little Village Foundation came out of that record. A lot of the people that we have recorded would not have recorded in other circumstances. But many of them have now gone on to record with other people. Unlike many record companies where there is some kind of long-term, multi-record contracts, our artists are not locked in. If they want to go to a bigger label, a real record company, that is a metric I use with potential donors. We did a Chris Cain album, and now he is signed to Alligator Records. We did the Kevin Burt disc. now he is with Mike Zito’s label, Gulf Coast Records, and singer Whitney Shay is on Ruf Records. At least half a dozen of our twenty-five artists have signed with other labels. That is truly great”.
“Music can be a competitive business. All of that bitterness and resentment is now gone for me. My only regret is that I wish I had started ten years earlier. But I don’t think I could have done it earlier, as I didn’t know then what I know now. I have been playing blues since I was fifteen, so that makes it fifty years. I can’t stray to far from that. Blues is such a wide genre, but I wish that it encompassed more. For example, I wish the Blues Foundation would consider gospel quartet music in their awards process. To me, the best blues band in America is a mile from the Foundation in Memphis. That is Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s. Their singing and playing is unbelievable. Just because you substitute “God” for “girl” doesn’t mean that it should be discounted”.
“B.B. King was in a gospel quartet before he ever played blues. There was a guitarist with the Dixie Hummingbirds, Howard Carroll, who was one of the first well-known quartet guitar players. He takes a fine solo on the song “Christian Automobile,” and it is not that much of a stretch to go from that kind of playing to the soulful playing of Curtis Mayfield, from Curtis on to Jimi Hendrix, and then to Stevie Ray Vaughan. So all of these guitar players who think they are playing Hendrix or Stevie Ray licks are really playing Howard Carroll licks”.
“I have had success with the one gospel quartet that I work with, the Sons of the Soul Revivers, in getting them on blues, folk, and jazz festivals. Their music translates across the board. Another example is a video on YouTube featuring the Five Blind Boys of Alabama on a 1950s gospel program. It sounds just like Magic Sam, but recorded ten years or so earlier. It sounds just like West Side Soul. I used to tell people that would come out to see me do shows in Oakland in churches that they could do anything they want, but not to raise their hand above your shoulders. If you do that, they will come and save you, dunk you in the water”.
“I am excited about a new partnership with Arhoolie Foundation to present short, sheltered-in-place live video recordings of artists. We are calling it the “Working From Home” series. Arhoolie Records got sold and given to the Folkways label, so they are no longer in the record business. The first video we did was on Xochitl Morales, which is two sisters, both of whom attend Harvard University, doing mariachi music. The second episode is with C.J. Chenier, then we will have with the Sons of the Soul Revivers, a gospel quartet. In the future for blues music, Mary Flower will do one, as will Kevin Burt. We will be interchanging those videos with ones from artists that Arhoolie previously had on their label”.
“It is great for me because, all my life, I have primarily been a blues musician. I feel like there is is a larger audience for blues music than the one exists right now for it. By having a diverse range of artists on the Little Village label, it brings people interested in other genres to the blues. That especially applies to fans of Latin, Hispanic, and Mexican music. There is a teen-aged mariachi band out in Bakersfield, they are all huge fans of Bobby “Blue” Bland. That cross-pollinization of music is what we are trying to further. It is all blues music to me, just in Spanish or in French by C.J. Chenier”.
Pugh manages to stay busy. His keyboard work is featured on the the latest release from saxophonist Terry Hanck, I Still Get Excited, and on the new album from guitarist Jose Ramirez, Here I Come, produced by Anson Funderburgh.
“To be honest, I am kind of glad that I am not a full-time musician right now, that I have this other job. It is hard for musicians to figure out how to monetize something to get by. It seems like the live-stream shows work well the first time you do it, not so well the more you do it. That is why we are partnering with Arhoolie on the streaming. I am trying to find a different lane, and their YouTube channel is connected to the Chris Strachwitz (founder of Arhoolie) archive at UCLA University. They are like-minded people”.