Cover photo © Bob Kieser
Ever since his arrival in 1987, Matthew Skoller has been a major part of the vibrant Chicago blues scene. He has recorded five albums under his own name. His heartfelt vocals and dynamic harmonica playing have allowed him to stay busy in a competitive environment.
In 2009, he joined his brother Larry on the Chicago Blues: A Living History project, which produced two albums of masterful blues music from a variety of artists including John Primer, Lurrie Bell, Billy Boy Arnold, and Billy Branch, garnering a Grammy nomination as well as a 2009 Blues Blast Music Award in the Best Traditional Blues Recording category. He also played on the Heritage Blues Orchestra’s Still I Rise album, which also received a Grammy nomination.
For his third interview with Blues Blast, Skoller talks about how he got started playing the harmonica, some of his harmonica influences, his foray into the world of alcoholic spirits, and his plans for the future.
Born upstate in Canton, New York in 1962, Skoller’s early life involved several moves due to his father’s profession.
“Everybody in the family was born in New York City except for me, which is a point that they don’t always get right. My father was professor of Cinematography at the State University in Canton. A few years later, we moved to NYC in Greenwich Village, where he taught at NYU. My dad set up film departments across the country. Next we moved to the West coast. where he worked at UCLA for several years. The one consistent thing in all of the moves was our record collection, which was massive, and quite eclectic.
“My older brother Larry and I were listening to all kinds of sounds, but we were drawn to blues music. In 1976, we relocated to Milwaukee, where Dad created the film department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Larry was already playing guitar. By the time I was 14 years old, I was a huge Lightnin’ Hopkins fan. There was an album called First Meeting that featured Hopkins paired with Brownie McGhee. It was the first time the two musicians had met.
“Most of the album was done like a string band with Hopkins and McGhee on guitar along with Big Joe Williams plus Sonny Terry on harmonica and Jimmy Bond on upright bass. It is such an incredible recording that I had it memorized well before the move to Wisconsin. Picture a white kid sitting in Vermont listening to Big Joe sing, “She used to live on Indiana, and she moved on down to Cottage Grove. The woman had a lean on my money, and a mortgage on my soul.” I thought he was singing about the state and a small town someplace. When I finally made it to Chicago, I got lost on the South Side one day and, in the course of driving around, I saw the street signs that clued me in on what Big Joe had really been singing about.”
Larry had been playing guitar for a few years, with lessons helping the learning curve. The brothers would join friends after school to jam, with Matthew taking on the lead vocal role, improvising lyrics along the way. One day, Larry had an idea.
“Out of the blue, he told me to go buy some harmonicas. There had been some harmonicas in the house that both of us tried to blow, but never took very seriously. Following his suggestion, I went to the music store and bought four Hohner Marine Band harmonicas for about $6.50 each. You couldn’t try them out, and once you blew into them, you couldn’t return it. I knew enough to know that you could blow and draw on a harmonica. I am not a mystical person, but while I sat in the car checking out the new instruments, a feeling came over me that I would blowing the harp for the rest of my life.
“In 1971, we lived on Morton Street and 7th Ave in the west Greenwich Village. The actor Elliott Gould lived on the same block. He would hang out with us kids. He played stickball, street hockey, and the big one was basketball. My brother Larry was a very advanced, graceful basketball player. Gould took a liking to Larry, taking him to Knicks games and inviting the kids to hang out at his apartment. One year, he gave everyone on the block a Marine Band harmonica. That was my first exposure to the harmonica.
“The first harmonica riff I managed to learn was a long, mournful note from Sonny Terry that was him going from a “number 4” to a “number 5” draw, letting the harp wail. That was the most magical sound to me. I was completely bit after that. Then I discovered the other harmonica players.
“From early on, the two harp players that had a profound effect on me were Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) and Junior Wells. Later on I got into James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, and the other masters. As I became more proficient, and my ear became better so that I was could actually hear what he was doing, I fell head over heels for Little Walter. I never tried to be a Little Walter guy in the same way that I immersed myself in the Rice Miller style. Whenever I want to do some graduate work, I go back to Little Walter to chip away at that mountain.
“One could call Miller a minimalist. His music was accessible. I could hear the riffs, then the find the notes. With Little Walter, he was so virtuosic that a lot of times the notes you think he is playing are actually silence. I also loved how playful Miller was with his hand vibrato chops, something that I found quite exciting. because it reminded me of the human voice. Several other aspects of his playing that were attractive were the percussive effects he could create on the harp, and how he could play horn lines, some jazzy stuff. And he was a great wordsmith too! It was all so magical.
“He also had a really, pronounced, very fast throat vibrato that he used in an elegant way. That technique can take over your style, to the point of being annoying. It is like putting too much salt in a dish, so you have to be careful. The instrument can be quite annoying in the wrong hands.
“I would say that 80% of the time, I play acoustic harp so that I am free to do hand vibratos. It allows me to use the harp as a vocal instrument. It is like going from a Hammond B-3 organ through an amplifier to sounding like a trumpet with a mute on the end of it playing wah-wah-wah. Playing harmonica can be like having 3–4 instruments at your disposal. Tonally, it is very versatile.
With the exception of one period, Skoller has stayed true to that course, wanting to put a harp in his mouth every time he see’s one. During the pandemic lock-down, he found himself unmotivated and sad, rarely touching a harmonica. Thankfully, the desire to play has returned.
Music has not been the sole avenue that Skoller has utilized to support himself/ He got involved in wine sales at a time when money was tight. It opened up a whole new world to explore, and he dove deep into it.
“Spirits are still part of my program. In 1990. I didn’t have a lot of gigs, and I had just started dating a woman who has been my wife for close to thirty years. She came up to me one morning, want ads from the Chicago Tribune in hand, pointing to one that said, “Must have good communication skills, and love wine.” She looked at me, saying “Go get your job, baby!” So I put on the one suit that I owned and went to interview for a job selling wine over the phone. The cool thing was they taught you sales skills as well as wine knowledge. I ended up being the Rookie of the Year. It helped that I lived in France for a year around 1984, spending most of my time trying out all of the different styles of wine.
“In 2001 , I played the Blues Passion Festival in Cognac, France, with brother Larry on guitar. He met a woman who worked for the festival, eventually moving to France to marry her and start a family. We both started digging deep into the Cognac culture. After meeting a local master distiller who took us under his wing, Larry had the idea of taking unblended cognac selections from single family vineyards across the various sub-districts of the Cognac region to market and distribute in the US. We were pioneers in bringing artisan cognac to the United States.
“I was told that getting this started was going to be very difficult because Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martel, and Courvoisier had the market cornered. Those people were so right! It was really, really difficult. I spent many years, and many partners, trying to make the project lucrative. It would take a huge amount of money to combat the big four, which we didn’t have.”
While his venture in selling spirits did not pan out the way he envisioned it would, Skoller gained a lot of useful knowledge. And he got the idea for an event that combined his interests in a way that allows him to share his passions with others.
“I developed an event called “Cognac & Blues with Matthew Skoller”. It is an amazing experience. I did one 3-4 months ago at the City Winery in NYC, with the great Junior Mack on guitar. In the past here in Chicago, I have used guitarists Billy Flynn or Lurrie Bell as my accompanist. People sit at a table with all of this stemware and a tasting place mat. There are five different cognacs and a couple cognac aperitifs poured and situated on the place mat for sampling. My accompanist and I sit in front of the table, starting things off by playing a song. Then I introduce each cognac, literally pairing the cognac to my music. Everyone has loads of fun, as they get copious amounts of cognac and music, leading them to great heights of joy! However, the pandemic destroyed whatever little business we had built, and I was tired of the uphill battle”.
In 2016, Skoller released an album entitled Blues Immigrant, with several songs addressing his thoughts on being an “outsider” as a white blues musician. The title song was nominated for the 2017 Blues Music Award in the Song Of The Year category, the second nomination he had received for that award. The first recognition came for the song, “The Devil Ain’t Got No Music,” which was the title track for a superb Lurrie Bell project that Skoller produced.
With the world slowly getting back to some form of normal, Skoller is excited about new opportunities that have come his way. He recently received some good news that certainly has raised that excitement a few more notches.
“I just got a grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Events to help finance a new CD project, so I have to get started on that with my band, Chicago Wind, which is morphing into something different than it was before the pandemic. Guitarist Tom Holland has been working with other artists and his own band. Vocalist Deitra Farr has announced her retirement.
“It will still be the same rhythm section with Felton Crews on bass and Marc Wilson on drums. Those guys are amazing, one of the best rhythm sections in the business. They are always right in the pocket, bringing decades of experience. On guitar, it will probably be Will Crosby when he is available. We will call the band Chicago Wind, as that is going to be my brand moving forward. If you go to see Chicago Wind, you’ll at least know Matthew Skoller will be in the band, singing and playing harmonica.
“I also recently started collaborating again with the great guitarist, Will Crosby, who did the arrangements for my very first recording, Bone To Pick With You. He also played guitar on that 1996 release. I first saw him in Eddy Clearwater’s band. I was struck by his creativity and technical mastery on the guitar. Will had been touring with the Staple Singers, then in 2012 he was hired by Aretha Franklin, playing in her band the last five years of her life. So he has been outside the blues community for a spell. We ran into each other, deciding to play together, which we do on Monday nights as a duo at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge in Chicago.
“Some time back, Will figured out how to support himself without having to play $100 gigs at the tourist blues clubs in the city. I wasn’t so fortunate. I spent many, many years doing just that. These days, the only two clubs that I play are Buddy Guy’s Legends and Rosa’s Lounge, and I don’t play them very often. One thing the pandemic taught me was that I could lose all of my gigs, and still survive.
“I think a lot of the club owners have effectively burned out a lot of musicians by overworking them. A standard gig might be a 70 minute set starting at 9 pm, then a half hour break, followed by 80 minute set, another 30 minute break, and then a final 60 minute set. That is brutal and really hard on your body, especially for older musicians. It just drains you. Now that I am emerging into being an elder, at least chronologically, as a soon-to-be 60 year old musician, I don’t want to waste the finite amount of gigs I have left to play. I am not interested in making the Chicago land baron club owners any wealthier than they already are.
“I understand why my colleagues work at those places. You are between a rock and a hard place in this industry as you try to earn a living, and those clubs are steady work, so I totally get it. But as I learned, I don’t need them, those gigs aren’t good for me, and I don’t see myself going back in that direction.”
For several years Skoller has been the Program Director for the Logan Center Bluesfest, which is arts center for the University of Chicago. Another outgrowth of the free time that the pandemic provided is a new feature on Skoller’s website,
“There is a section that I call “Blues And World Report With Matthew Skoller,” a series of podcasts including five interviews that are available on my site and on Spotify. I started with singer Deitra Farr, then did one with a 25 year old outstanding musician, Jontavious Willis, who I brought in to play last year’s Logan Center fest. I also interviewed drummer Kenny Smith, who was seven years old the first time he heard me play, at Century Hall in Milwaukee, where I sat in with his dad, Willie Smith, and the Legendary Blues Band.
“Then I did a two part, epic interview with Lurrie Bell, who I have known since 1981. I recommend both of them to anyone who is a Lurrie Bell fan. We are close, old friends, so Lurrie really opens up. We also play a bit on it. Additionally, I have a Jimmy Burns interview that will be published soon, and a two-part Billy Boy Arnold interview talking about his career and his newly released, outstanding memoir. I also have one with Bobby Rush, who also released his memoir. He and Billy Boy didn’t drink or do drugs, so both books give a sober recounting of the golden years of Chicago blues that we fetishize so much. I highly recommend both books to all blues lovers.
“I also have Part 1 of an interview with Dom Flemons, an award-winning acoustic artist who was a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. We were in the midst of talking on Zoom, and suddenly all of the electricity went out on my block, one of 2,500 Commonwealth Edison customers affected. It took some time to reschedule as Dom has had a very busy spring.
“I love all aspects of creating a podcast – the research to prepare, the interview, the editing, and the writing it compels me to do. So I am getting back to work, playing gigs to survive, and dealing with some family issues, but also trying to create the time and resources to do the podcasts on a regular basis, hoping to figure out some method of monetizing the podcasts down the road.
“There is an awakening happening right now. Jontavious Willis is part of a group of young African-American blues artists and fans. They are embracing the music of their ancestors, owning it, while being extremely articulate and militant about their knowledge of the music. They don’t need anyone to tell them what blues is. They certainly don’t need old white guys telling them what the blues is. I’m talking about Jontavious, Marquise Knox, Andrew Alli, Stephen Hull, Buffalo Nichols, and of course Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram.
“These young artists are formidable as artists, and as human beings. The list goes on and is growing quickly. I am so happy to witness this generational phenomenon. It would interesting to unpack this and figure out why it is happening right now. Their presence and their analysis of what has been going on in the blues industry is causing a lot of people who have not wanted to think about race and blues to acknowledge the current racial upheaval, a moment of coming to consciousness for people who have been blind to it. I think it is a very important moment. People need to have some tough conversations so that they can understand the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. I think it is a fantastic turn of events. I’m super excited to see what these young artists will bring to the world.”
Previous Blues Blast interviews with Matthew Skoller: