Featured Interview – Johnny Iguana

imageBorn in New Jersey, Johnny Iguana (Brian Berkowitz) grew up in Philadelphia, where his family moved when he was eight years old. His career in music began when he started piano lessons with his mother, on the same day with the same teacher. One can only imagine what that experience was like!

“I don’t remember if I wanted to take lessons, or my parents wanted me to try. They bought a piano, and we took lessons. Mom did really well at first while I struggled. But then we went on totally different trajectories. My Dad has said that, at that time, my left and right hands could work independently of each other. That wasn’t the case for my mother, who got very frustrated, and eventually she quit.

“But I was really into it. By the time I was eleven, I would stay inside on a beautiful Saturday to practice. No baseball or anything because I was so obsessed. I was getting sheet music for piano for songs by Rush, Michael Jackson, and Van Halen. I wanted to play everything, including classical.”

Taking lessons until he was 13 years old, Iguana then started playing in bands. The next “aha” moment occurred when his uncle gifted him some life-altering albums.

“My uncle got me LP copies of Junior Wells HooDoo Man Blues on Delmark Records, Jimmy Smith’s Organ Grinder Swing, and he gave me some cassette tapes with the Treniers, Lonnie Mack, and the original Fleetwood Mac band recordings with Otis Spann on piano, which was a revelation.

“He was a guitar player who lived in Boston, and got to see Spann play live, told me that Spann’s left hand was uncannily steady. Once I heard Spann’s duo recordings with S.P. Leary on drums, I drilled for a whole day, endeavoring to learn those patterns and to get my left hand to keep a steady rhythm. Then I had to learn the Jimmy Smith bass patterns on the organ. By the time I was fifteen, I was pretty fully qualified as a bass player on the keyboards. The strong point of the players that I listened to was their left hand.

“By that age, I was into punk and New Wave. Still, there was nothing antique about hearing Hoodoo Man Blues. It sounded so fresh, like Junior Wells was taking the baton from James Brown within blues music. When you hear “Snatch It Back And Hold It,” it is hard not to turn that up and get excited. You can hear the sound of inspiration. None of that music seems old and tired to me.

“There is a lot of music that doesn’t justify its existence. But the best pre-war blues up through the 1960 and 1970 decades is full of swagger and pain. Those recordings led me to find other people that were into blues and jazz, and I started playing in blues bands when I was just old enough to drive.”

Iguana was playing on portable keyboards in those days, instruments that fell far short of doing the piano or organ any justice. It took some time before he was able to get a keyboard that had a credible sound.

“Usually you start off with an all-purpose keyboard. What I had then was more suited for a New Wave band sound. The piano and organ sounds were more of an afterthought in favor synthesized tones like a Roland keyboard. I remember playing with great enthusiasm. But I am sure if I listened to some tapes from those days, which I have, I doubt I would last very long. Too many notes, way too fast, too excitable, and the sound sucks!

“That band was three young white guys in suits playing in an all-black area in Philadelphia. The audience was half local black people while the other half was people from my high school who had fake ids, and were delighted to have a place where they could have a drink without anybody carding them. We were heroes in the school. But the people there realized how much we loved the music, this African-American contribution to world culture that is still one of the best things anyone has ever done!

“That was like our Cavern Club days. We did Monday nights at Carter’s, three sets. We were really excited kids, like a young version of the Yardbirds. We would play ‘Mustang Sally” and “Land Of A 1000 Dances” five times faster than the originals. It was three hours a night plus practice time, so you get up to speed pretty quickly.”

When he went to college, Iguana moved to New York City, where he got a job writing cover copy for the back of books, which fit nicely with his English major at school. While he wasn’t sure that he was going to play music for anything more than fun, he had a organ in his bedroom that allowed him to keep practicing.

“My local bar, Coyote Kate’s in mid-town Manhattan, was a place where you drink cheap beer out of a glass boot. They had a short-lived blues jam. The guy that ran it used to be in the Junior Wells band. One night he told Junior was going to be in town the next day or two. So I went to see him. Junior was between piano players. Rob, the guy who ran the jam, told Junior that I really knew his music.

image“So I had live tryouts in Boston and Providence, RI, after which Junior offered me the job, and I moved to Chicago. I had only been in NYC for two years, working at my job for 11 months. But there was no turning down being in Junior’s band. That was during the blues boom in the ’90s. At age twenty-three, I went on a 35 day European tour.

‘It wasn’t just that it was a cool gig and we traveled the world. Junior was my guy! He was the one that swept me into the music. We played every song off of Hoodoo Man Blues plus half of the songs off Southside Blues Jam, another classic album on the Delmark label. I had Junior’s phone number in my Rolodex. It was a very meaningful gig for me in particular. Before long, I also had the phone number for Otis Rush too.”

Other members of Junior’s band at that time included Willie “The Touch” Hayes on drums, who played in Magic Sam’s band when he was a teenager, and Little Joe Burton on trombone, who had been B.B. King’s band leader. On saxophone, the band featured Doug Fagan, who spent time in the James Cotton Blues Band.

“It was kind of a Spinal Tap situation. I was in the band for three years and there must have been eighteen players different during that period. Things changed pretty rapidly. At the start, it was mostly older people than me, all of them veterans of big name bands. At the end of my tenure, the band was younger players like me. I didn’t find it as invigorating to be around people like myself! I enjoyed learning from the elders rather than yukking it up with the kids.”

After leaving the Wells band, Iguana took another job as a writer, and formed a band with some childhood friends who had moved to Chicago. It was a trio named Stevie Lizard & His All Reptile Orchestra, kind of a reunion of the band that had held court at Carter’s in Philadelphia. That was the start of the many projects that he has been involved in over the last 20-plus years, and also the genesis of his Johnny Iguana stage name.

Another thrill came with a phone call from Otis Rush, asking Iguana to join his band for an East coast tour. The highlight was a festival they did in New Jersey along with Carey Bell, Jimmie Vaughan, and Little Milton.

“Otis was very sporadic with his touring in those days, and beyond. That made me really sad. When you hear an Otis Rush record, you are hearing the Pavarotti of the blues. His singing, and the vibrato on his guitar, are two of the most other-worldly, beautiful sounds that have ever come from the blues sphere.

“If he had kept it together, and kept putting out records, he could have been at the very top of the blues world for many years. He just wasn’t physically and spiritually aligned for that kind of output.

“After that, I had a band called oh my god, which I started with a singer I had heard. People described that band as Queen meets Medeski Martin & Wood. We did dramatic, slightly theatrical, punky but melodic rock. I played mostly over-driven organ with synth and piano. We did quite well, headlining at Park West and the Metro, which are really big venues in Chicago. The prime years were 2000 to 2004, then going on and off until the end in 2009.”

Realizing that touring provided opportunity, Iguana has continued to do free-lance writing on music, movies, and other things. His income from writing helps absorb a healthy portion of his touring expenses, sitting in the passenger seat writing for up to twenty hours a week.

He also played on the two Chicago Blues: A Living History Grammy-nominated recordings and the Muddy Waters 100 album. His participation included tours that took him to Indonesia, the Middle East, Europe, and Japan several times.

“I am lucky in that there aren’t as many fully-qualified Chicago blues piano players, like there are for other instruments. So I have been able to get some great studio and touring work. I have probably been on about 25 blues albums for other artists.”

imageIn 2010, Iguana started another band, the Claudettes, which is still going strong. Their first release, Infernal Piano Plot Hatched, came out in 2013, highlighting the piano/drums line-up, playing blues with a garage band attitude with Michael Caskey on drums and percussion.

“We had our fifth release come out earlier this year on Forty Below Records, High Times In The Dark. We worked with a known producer, Ted Hutt, who has done releases for acts like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Old Crow Medicine Show. The band now includes Berit Ulseth on vocals and the multi-talented Zach Verdoorn on bass, guitar, and vocals. Then Delmark decided to do the blues piano album, which is a thrill since one of my prized possessions is a signed copy of Junior’s Hoodoo Man Blues.

“So this was going to be my year. And, of course, the year I picked for all of this activity is the one with a once-in-a-century pandemic! I am not alone in this. I feel for so many people. There’s a lot of wreckage in the ravine. The question now is, are things going to get better fast enough to rescue the folks who really need rescuing?”

The Claudettes had the option of delaying the April release of the new album, but decide to press on.

“When a record sits on the shelf for a length of time, eventually it doesn’t resonate, even with the people who made it. The songs were meaningful, but now you have moved on. You are suppose to time the release with a spate of shows and, of course, we didn’t have any. We had a radio and PR campaign all lined up. Everything went great except for all of the shows getting canceled.

“So my office is now a graveyard of boxes and boxes of Cd and LP versions of the Claudettes album and my Delmark release. The saving grace is that they are both roots music, so they should age well. They should still sound great a year from now.

“It has always been so hard for musicians and venues to make enough money to get by. When you factor in decreasing capacity because of guidelines, or people fearing to go out, a lot of venues can’t open at half capacity. And the bands only stand to make half as much, which is not sustainable. It isn’t like it was happy days before this started, but most people were able to get by. Now it may be that we were in a golden age, and didn’t even know it.

“For older blues artists, like Billy Boy Arnold who just turned 85 years old, they don’t have a lot of time to lose. It’s not just about money. They are artists, and their output, their legacy is important. To take several years off creates a critical situation for them.”

Trying to make the best of it, Iguana feels he has been prolific during the down time, doing a lot of writing. He is not a big fan of live streaming, so he has limited his participation to one event. The Claudettes have recorded a new album piecemeal over a six month period, Covid-19 style. The band has developed a great chemistry, so recording the various parts independently still allows the band to put together a great record.

The plan for his blues piano record began with a text message Iguana received from producer Larry Skoller, who has received multiple blues award nominations for his work on the two Chicago Blues: A Living History projects, And Still I Rise by the Heritage Blues Orchestra, and the Muddy Waters 100 album.

Iguana was shooting pool at the time, trying to get over losing a desired slot at a Montreal festival.

‘I was grumpy, expressing my sour grape attitude. Larry said, you know what, I am going to produce a piano album for you. My other band, the Claudettes, has received a lot of great press, and we have toured around the world. There is blues in our music, but we are really more of an indie rock band with blues, jazz, and soul in there plus lots of piano. Larry felt that it was time for me to have a blues album out under my own name, and he wanted to produce it.

“Larry has only produced four projects, and he has received four Grammy nominations. He is choosy, but when he does something it has a strong concept. And he is really good at what he does. So I was very excited. We decided to not just feature me, but to make it a tribute to the masters of Chicago blues piano, with each track referencing a great point in that history.

“Then we combined those tracks with my own compositions, which are distinctive and idiosyncratic. Our goal was to honor the past while asserting the importance of maintaining your own voice, which is true in any type of music.

image“We had an ambitious plan for Chicago Spectacular!. It couldn’t have gone any better. Someone would have to not be a particular fan of Chicago blues to not enjoy it. Larry and I had a real concept of what we wanted, and what we wanted to avoid. I’m really proud of the way it turned out.

“The first thing we did was settle on which of my tunes we were going to use. Then Larry and I exchanged e-mails with different ideas for songs that had great piano players on the original session. The ones we settled on were songs that featured Little Johnny Jones, Big Maceo, Sunnyland Slim, Big Moose Walker, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, and Joshua Altheimer, who played with Big Bill Broonzy.

‘One concept I had was that I didn’t want any bass guitar on the vocal tunes. My feeling is that there has been too much separation of instruments on blues records over the last forty years. The vocal is here, the guitar is over there, the piano in-between, everybody in their own little box.

“I wanted it to be like a Sonny Boy Williamson recording, kind of a Dixieland jazz idea. When the piano is soloing, so is the harmonica, so we get that live sound, kind of messy. We got plenty of help from Lil’ Ed, Billy Flynn, Bob Margolin, Matthew Skoller, John Primer, Kenny Smith, Michael Caskey, Bill Dickens on bass, and Billy Boy Arnold.”

When Iguana started planning for a tour, he knew that he would not be able to get those artists to join him, as they all had their own touring plans. Larry Skoller provided one name for Iguana to consider.

“Phillip-Michael Scales is B.B. King’s nephew. He was a late add to the project. As a younger singer and guitarist, he calls his music indie soul, but there is a roots element to it. He has resisted getting into blues, wanting to find his own way. So I called him, said I was looking for someone to be the front person on tour. As it turned out, he was ready to wave the white flag and get into the music that is his birth right. So we featured him on “Lady Day And John Coltrane,” which is a song written by Gil Scott-Heron.

“Sometimes I say that blues is Spanish, and jazz is Portuguese. I don’t speak any Portuguese, so I don’t really know how to play jazz. Growing up in Philadelphia, near where jazz organist Jimmy Smith was from, so I have always loved the stuff that kind of borders blues and jazz. Artists like Mose Allison, Bobby Timmons, Richard “Groove” Holmes, and Jimmy McGriff, people who never get too far from blues.

“On my song, “Hammer And Tickle,” I had Mose in my head when I went to take the solo. He was always so cool and relaxed. He never sounds spazzy. My criticism of myself is that I often get over-excited, start slamming the keys. I once played at a piano bar when I was with the Junior Wells band, when Van Morrison was in the house. He asked someone who the bloke was that was pounding on the piano. Sometimes I think Van was right, that I need to play with a little bit more elegance.

“I saw Mose several times. He had a certain intensity, yet he was such a cool customer. I envy that, because I am more of a hot customer! There was plenty of anger and frustration in his songs, but they where often delivered with a smile and a laugh. I was told once that he never really felt like he had a home in music. The people in the South considered him to be hoity-toity Northerner, more of an academic due to his literary and poetic skills. The people in the North thought of him as a southern rube. So he probably felt like a misfit.

“I can definitely identify with that to a degree. I love blues music, and I love playing it. But for some people, I am not bluesy enough because I play other music. I play classical and I grew up playing in punk bands. People in the indie rock scene think of blues as really square. You can upset people when you don’t easily fit into a box. I just hope folks will stay safe, and store up their enthusiasm for the live music experience. As Lou Reed said, ‘we need a busload of faith to get by’!”

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