Featured Interview – Kate Moss


Cover photo © 2023 Kerry Langford

imageThe spotlight shines bright on folks who pump out chart-topping albums and write hit songs, but there are some individuals in the blues world who are equally deserving of your attention despite toiling diligently a footstep or two out of view. They fly under the radar despite making contributions far beyond what most folks realize or believe. Kate Moss is a prime example.

The Chicago-based guitarist who’s anchored the Smiley Tillmon Band for a decade, Kate’s a former Blues Music Award nominee as bassist and a world-class graphic artist who’s the creative force behind dozens of album covers for Delmark and other labels, press kits, logos, websites and ads for other artists and businesses – all the while keeping things together as a full-time mom and wife of blues superhero Nick Moss, too.

In her own modest way, Kate Moss is a multi-dimensional star of the first order.

Blues Blast caught up with her recently as she was catching her breath on the weekend from a life that also includes new, full-time responsibilities as the senior designer for the Windy City’s world-famed lakefront treasure, Shedd Aquarium.

As a child, Kate always had an interest in playing six-string. “In junior high, I wanted to be Chrissie Hynde (of The Pretenders),” she says. “I used to ‘play’ the tennis racket in front of the mirror wanting to be her.

“I took lessons early on,” she says, “and I always thought about it. But never really stuck with it…practicing, going to lessons. I’d take ‘em for a while then quit and try it again later. There never was anything that kept me going.

“I’d pick up little, rudimentary stuff out of songbooks, method books and things like that. I’d go to this little music store in (south suburban) Matteson. I was just learning on my own, and nothin’ really stuck until I got into the blues, really.”

But art’s another matter entirely.

As the daughter of the late Bert Hoddinott Jr. — a revered painter and illustrator who served as the longtime art director at Foote, Cone & Belding, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world – she has one of the strongest pedigrees imaginable in that field. A Clio Award winner – the top prize in the advertising game – he was the driving force behind the “Raid Kills Bugs Dead” campaign in the 1960s that launched the company to the top of the pesticide world.

For Kate, the music bug finally took hold when she followed in her father’s footsteps and was enrolled as a freshman or sophomore at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I was wa-a-ay into (Eric) Clapton back in the day,” she remembers. “I listened to everything that he’d ever done…The Yardbirds…Derek & the Dominoes…and really dug into blues influences.

“He used to talk about ‘em a lot in his interviews…which I give him credit for…and I picked up every story I could find about him. He kept talking about one of his greatest influences, which was Buddy Guy, and I started digging into Buddy’s stuff bit by bit.”

imageTaking classes on Michigan Avenue, Moss paid regular visits to Rose Records a couple of blocks to the west and other vendors in the area, picking up Guy’s albums and eventually getting into Magic Slim and Freddie King, too.

A couple of years later, however, a chance encounter with Buddy would change her life forever – and provide the opportunity for a deep dive into his world. It came during her senior year in school – shortly after Guy’s Grammy-winning comeback album, Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues, and just prior to the release of Feels Like Rain, his equally stunning follow-up.

“I went to gas up at a Shell station in Olympia Fields – where my parents lived (in the south suburbs)…I was going to a print job or something,” Moss recalls. “I pull in and I see this red Ferrari, and go: ‘Damn! Nice car!’

“The driver had gone in to pay. And when he came back, I went: ‘Oh, my god! I think that’s Buddy Guy!’ I got out to put gas in my car…he circled around to leave…and something just possessed me to scream his name…‘BUDDY!’

“He stopped and rolled down his window, and I said: ‘Hey, I’m a fan of yours!’ And something possessed me to say ‘I play guitar’ when I was literally just starting. He was so friendly and so nice…with a big smile on his face…and said: ‘Come down to my club.’”

After co-owning the Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd Street for decades, Guy had opened Legends in the South Loop only a year or two earlier,  and Kate quickly became a regular, noting: “The first band I saw was Jim Liban, the great harmonica player from Milwaukee, and Legends quickly became my second home.”

Despite some reports circulating that Guy taught her how to play, she insists, it’s nothing more than an urban legend. “But he did give me a few tips,” she says.

“I started going to the jams there and playing a little bit — and then more and more – still playing by ear and picking up different things here and there. I got to know (Delmark artists) Dave Specter and Steve Freund a little bit, and they showed me a few things.”

The Chicago blues community has always – for the most part — been a large, supportive, sometimes dysfunctional extended family connected by relationships formed in the city’s clubs on on its stages. For a novice, jams at clubs like Legends can be so frightening that a single bad night can destroy a lifelong dream. Or it can be the place an individual plants the seed for major success.

For Kate, it proved to be a springboard. Her confidence grew as she polished her skills and she also built friendships that led to greater challenges – like the invitation at the end of the decade from Mondo Cortez to join his group, Chicago Blues Angels. Her first professional gig came as his second guitarist player.

A high-energy outfit that delivers a soulful mix of blues, rock and roots, the Angels have been a top draw in the city and traveling the world since 1999. The band’s always included rising young talent in its lineup and major guest stars – including harp giant Kim Wilson, guitarist Kid Ramos and late keyboard wizard Gene Taylor – have appeared on their albums.

During that era, Kate says, she was also “kinda like the ‘self-assigned’ photographer at Legends. I got to know the staff, hang out and got to meet everybody. I went through (the club) all the time, taking a bunch of photos, and they’d put them up on the walls and stuff. It was just a great place for me.”

imageThat includes future hubby Nick, who was playing with Jimmy Rogers at the time. “I was shooting photos, and just happened to get him (in one of her frames),” she notes. “I got to know him after that because he knew Mondo and we ran in the same circles.

“We were friends for a long time before we actually got together. It was a good way to get to know each other.”

During their early years together, the bass player in Moss’ band, the Flip Tops, left the group and Nick – who’d started his career playing bottom for both Buddy Scott and Jimmy Dawkins – asked: “Hey, can you play bass for me?” Kate recalls. “He just literally taught me some bass, and I chilled with him, Barrelhouse Chuck and (drummer) Smokey Campbell and toured them for the next year and a half.”

As time progressed, she began designing the posters Legends has used for Guy’s annual January residency. Her typography adorns the marquee at the new location of the club, which also features a picture of Buddy captured by Paul Natkin, the legendary Windy City photographer – and she also created the Blues Blast logo at the top of this page, too.

Kate’s modest recording career began in 2001, when the Angels released Movin’ Out on Nick’s burgeoning Blue Bella label, which launched three years earlier with First Offense, his debut CD – the packaging for which was designed by Kate, who’s credited under her maiden name.

“I played around with Mondo three years or so,” she says. “And then I got pregnant with Miss Sadie Mae (the Mosses’ now college-sophomore daughter). I hung it up for a while in 2003, and she was born in ’04.”

For the better part of the decade that followed, Kate’s guitar collected dust as she concentrated on being a mom and running Moonshine Design, the one-woman graphic arts business she started after a lengthy stint at Delmark Records, a relationship that began in the early ‘90s when she joined the staff and worked alongside art director Al Brandtner, who’d been creating packaging and promotions for the company for decades.

“He took me under his wing,” Kate says affectionately. “He was old-school. He worked on LPs long before CDs became a thing, and he was very, very artistic in the way he approached design, which I love.”

It was a seamless transition when Moss assumed his duties after he retired, and she started working closely with Sue Koester — label founder Bob Koester’s wife – on the firm’s advertising. Away from the office, however, word of mouth about Kate’s talents spread, and Moonshine came into being as a steady stream of independent artists started coming to her for design services, too, and other labels, including Fuel, followed.

She currently designs for Germany’s Ruf Records, whose roster includes Kenny Neal, Eddie 9V, Ally Venable, Bernard Allison and others, and Joe Bonamassa’s two recently launched labels, KTBA (Keeping the Blues Alive) and Journeyman. And she’s cracked the Canadian market by handling packaging duties for guitarist JW-Jones, a recent International Blues Challenge winner as a member of HOROJO Trio, and Steve Marriner of MonkeyJunk – all the while, making music again, too.

Kate got the bug to play again in 2011, when she accompanied the rebranded Nick Moss Band when they played Blues From the Top in Winter Park, Colo., an annual three-day festival sponsored by the Grand County Blues Society. “Joanne Shaw Taylor was supposed to be in the lineup,” she remembers, “but got stuck in the UK for a family matter.

“At the time, Samantha Fish was just starting to make a name for herself, and John Catt (the blues society founder) gave her the opportunity to step up on the main stage. I knew a little bit more about bass at that point, and John asked if I’d play with her. That’s kinda when I started playing guitar again, too.”

imageIn addition to running the festival, the society also operates one of the most important charities in the blues world. Founded in 2007, Blue Star Connection is a non-profit that works with music therapists and hospitals to bring live music and instruments to children suffering from cancer and other major health issues. They also sponsor fundraisers and other events around the country to promote their cause.

One of their most successful ventures was the creation in 2012 of the supergroup, The Healers. Anchored by Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie fame and former Stevie Ray Vaughan and current Bonamassa keyboard player Reese Wynans, the lineup included Fish and Kate on guitars and a rhythm section composed of two-thirds of Trampled Under Foot: Danielle Nicole on bass and brother Kris Schnebelen on percussion.

“It was a great opportunity and great project to work on,” Moss says. “We did gigs at Blues From the Top, a fundraiser in Indianapolis, a recording session at Knuckleheads in Kansas City and another there when the album came out.”

Entitled Live at Knuckleheads and featuring Moonshine Design packaging, the show was released as a CD/DVD package and was honored as a finalist for DVD of the year in the 2014 Blues Music Awards.

Still a strong Blue Star supporter, Kate says, she’s not as involved with them as she used to be. “I just don’t have the bandwidth with the new full-time gig,” she notes, “but I’m there when they need me or need something. But they’ve got a lot of great people working on it and Blues From the Top even now. They had a killer lineup this year (Blood Brothers Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia, Hall, Fish, Jimmy Carpenter, Shemekia Copeland, Larry McCray and several others).”

And her responsibilities with the Smiley Tillmon Band cut into her free time, too.

A Georgia native raised in South Florida, Tillmon’s career includes being the guitarist in Sammy Ambrose & the Afro-Beats, a calypso-based ensemble that also included members of soul great Betty Wright’s family. They toured from Miami into Canada and recorded the original version of Al Kooper’s “This Diamond Ring” for the Musicor label in 1964. A year later, Gary Lewis & the Playboys cut another version for Liberty that soared to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart on its way into inclusion in the American songbook.

A 2017 Chicago Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Smiley relocated to Chicago around the same time that tune became a hit and has remained in the Windy City ever since.

A genuine crowd-pleaser who possesses fluid skills on the six-string, a rich voice and a larger-than-life personality, Tillmon became a fixture in the city’s blues scene while backing Billy “The Kid” Emerson – a master tunesmith whose material became hits for the Beatles, Elvis Presley and dozens of others – along with future soul-blues queen Denise LaSalle and other South Siders. But he took a day job with the Chicago school district in the late ‘70s to support his wife and five kids and abandoned the stage.

Now 83, he didn’t start playing again until his 2007 retirement. That’s when he started teaming with bassist Tom Rezetko to launch the first version of the Smiley Tillmon band. The lineup’s changed occasionally, but Rezetko has remained steadfastly at his side ever since. And even though it’s been 16 years since Smiley left the school district, Moss says, he’s so beloved that former teachers and administrators regularly populate the audience whenever he plays out.

She took over six-string duties in 2013, replacing Grammy winner Billy Flynn, who’d been holding down the spot on a part-time basis. “I was in Colorado for a Blue Star event,” Kate notes, “and Billy called, wanting to know if it’d be okay to refer me to Tom because they needed a female guitar player for a women-of-the-blues night at the Beverly Arts Center.”

No fly-by-night operation, the Beverly is based on the Southwest Side and regularly books major events into its 2,100-seat theater. And this was no exception. The headliners that night included Felicia P. Fields, a former gospel singer who became one of the most beloved stage actresses in the Windy City before going on to win a Tony nomination for her role as Sofia in The Color Purple, and Shirley Johnson, the vocal powerhouse who’s recorded multiple albums for Delmark and Italy’s Appaloosa and is best known for the song “Killer Diller.”

imageAs for Kate, her role was far more than Billy indicated at first. She wasn’t filling in for him. She found herself on the marquee as one of the featured acts, and Flynn was in his usual spot beside Tillmon, Rezetko, drummer David Sims and former Black Crowes keyboard player Brother John Kattke – all of whom were providing support for the ladies in the spotlight.

“Billy thought it would be a good fit,” Moss remembers. “So I agreed to do it. I brushed up on a few songs that he and Smiley were doing, I had a great time – and Smiley loved it!”

Flynn subsequently ceded his seat to Kate, as he continued his work as a headliner and other work, which includes membership in another Windy City institution, the Cash Box Kings. Smiley’s group didn’t drop a beat with Moss in the lineup. In fact, with her help, the band actually broke out of their South Side comfort zone and started working better-paying gigs up north at Smoke Daddy, River Roast, House of Blues, B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and Legends.

And Moss recently made her mark as an international talent, too, once again accompanying the Moss band, this time to Basel, Switzerland, for the Groove Now! Festival, where they were anchoring all three nights of the event and during which Kate and Bia Marchese, the uber-talented vocalist wife of Nick’s Brazilian bassist, Rodrigo Mantovani, shared billing as the Chicago Blues Queens.

“Nick let me tag along,” she notes. “And the promoter, Patrick Kaiser, is a very cool guy. He likes to put together different packages…in a good way…to keep people interested. The first night, Thursday, it was Nick’s band, doing stuff from their new album. On Friday, it was the same backup band, but Bia sang and I played guitar. That was a lot of fun. And Sax Gordon was there, too. He’s the best!”

Moss is now back home in Chicago and maintaining perfect balance as she juggles full time work at Shedd with gigs with Smiley and the occasional freelance assignment, too. But there is one more ball she’d like to add to the mix: an album for Tillman, who’s never had one of his own.

“We’ve been talking about it for years,” she says. “I think it’d be a great thing for him to leave his mark. But it’ll take some work because Smiley doesn’t write much. Maybe Nick could help produce and find some good material. Maybe it’ll be a matter of getting a few people to write three or four songs and add them to some of our covers. But Smiley’s 83. We need to get our rears in gear to make it happen.”

Meanwhile, she insists, “check out the Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling’s new CD, Get Your Back into It. It rocks!”

Find out what Kate and/or Smiley are up to next by visiting their websites: www.katemossmusic.com and www.smileytillmonband.com.

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