Featured Interview – Rich Kirch

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It doesn’t exactly state it on his resume, but guitarist Rich Kirch is a trouper. Fresh from a slice or two from the surgeon’s scalpel, Rich is a little miffed that it seems like it’s going to take a lot longer than the week or so the surgeon prophesied it would take to get back into playing shape. He’s recovering from gall bladder surgery.

“Well, I’m better than I was a few days ago. I had to get my gall bladder out, you know. They told me they would poke a couple of holes in me and pull it out of my belly. But they cut open my chest and went in that way. That’s what hurts. A 3 inch incision. The worst part of the process is just worryin’ about having it done, ya know? I’ll be okay, I just have to heal up. I just tried to do a little playin’ and puttin’ a pillow in between my body and my guitar helps. Bein’ able to play takes your mind off of everything.

This past May, after the recent death of one of my best friends and terrific Blues bass player Frank Bandy, I went back to Chicago. Frank’s wife Lisa, gifted me with Frank’s Fender Precision bass and many of his Blues records. I almost didn’t make the trip as I had my first gall bladder attack at SFO leaving for Chicago. At the airport, I got this sudden pain in my side. It went away for a couple of months, but started botherin’ me again, so I had it checked out and was told my gall bladder needed to come out.

I think of when we were young and how we used to run all over the country when I was playin’ with Chicago Bluesman Jimmy Dawkins. He was the first guy I really started travelin’ with back in the ’70s. When I came around the Blues scene, I was about 18 years old. The Blues musicians I was hangin’ around were 20, 30 and 40 years older than me. They were drinkin’ Wild Turkey, Old Crow and Jim Beam. I would try to keep up with them thinkin’, I had plenty of time, since they were a lot older than me.

I did the whole thing. You kinda come to that fork in the road where one sign says continue livin’ and the other one says die soon.”

Rich Kirch was born in Chicago in 1955. A studied journeyman guitarist, aside from touring and recording with the aforementioned Dawkins, Kirch spent the last 13 years of John Lee Hooker’s life as a member of John Lee’s Coast To Coast Blues Band. He has also recorded albums under his own name including Rich Kirch Augusta Boulevard featuring John Lee Hooker, Big Walter Horton, Sam Lay, Charlie Musselwhite, Freddie Roulette and Pete Sears, produced by John Paul Dejoria.

He has graced the performance stage with the likes of Jimmy Rogers and Charlie Musselwhite and toured extensively, including at 7 treks to Europe. Not to mention the U.S., Canada and Brazil. Solid.

Here he recounts his story.

rich Kirch photo 2“As a child, I was into baseball. If music hadn’t found me, I would have pursued it further. I was inspired to get into music the first time I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan show. I was lookin’ through the window and thought the guitars were a pretty cool thing. Later, as I got into buying records, I kept seeing the name Willie Dixon on them. I didn’t know anything about the Blues but the records I liked had Willie Dixon’s name.

Later still, these guys I knew who were more familiar with the Blues, let me come over. We’d be sittin’ around drinkin’ Boone’s Farm and listenin’ to the radio. I heard the DJ say the name John Lee Hooker. I thought I never heard of this guy before. Then the DJ played Serves You Right To Suffer. Little did I know about what the future would bring.

I remember hitchikin’ to the record store and askin’ the the clerk, ‘Do you have any records by this guy, John Lee Hooker?’. He sent me over to the Blues section. I didn’t know anything about the Blues section. Prior to that, I’d get my Rolling Stones records, the early British stuff; Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac and, like I said, had seen Willie Dixon’s name on some of their stuff. I had no clue at the time that a lot of those Blues guys were still alive and in Chicago. More and more I was discoverin’ info. The first 2 Blues records I bought were by James Cotton; Cotton In Your Ear and The James Cotton Blues Band.

I remember back then the 7-Eleven’s and the White Hen Pantry’s used to sell racks of cut out records that you could buy for less than a dollar. I bought a lot of my Blues records at those places.

My dad bought my sister a Sears Silvertone guitar when I was about 10 years old. The first time I picked it up, I was able to pick out the melody to Louie Louie. I thought that was pretty cool and took my first guitar lesson shortly after that . My first teacher was a great player but a horrible teacher. He would do all the playin’ and then leave the room after tellin’ me to practice. He’d go smoke cigarettes and drink coffee with his buddies. I didn’t learn much from him. When I found garage bands in the neighborhood, I would watch the guitar players and try to remember 10 licks to practice at home. I’d be lucky to remember one. I learned much more when I was a teenager going to the Blues clubs, starting in 1973, and sittin’ right in front of the guitar player. I ended up learnin’ a lot from various Blues guys I played with. I still have my first electric guitar, a Gibson SG that I bought with paper route money when I was about 14. I have a few guitars that I’ve had most of my career. Jimmy Dawkins sold me Magic Sam’s pea colored 1962 Stratocaster that Sam’s wife gave him when he died in ’68. I got it from Jimmy in about 1981. Unfortunately, I sold it in about 2004.

When I got with John Lee Hooker’s Coast To Coast Blues Band in 1988, he was playin a Gibson 335 and so was Mike Osborne who was also in the band. At first I was playing my Guild, but John said to break up the sound, that I should play a Stratocaster. Though I sold the Magic Sam Strat, I’ve been playin’ one ever since.

I started hangin’ out with Rick Kreher who eventually played with Muddy Waters the last few years before Muddy passed. We became good friends and would go down to the Southside and Westside clubs 4 and 5 times a week. Theresa’s Lounge was like a Blues festival every night. Junior Wells and James Cotton would be there all the time. Sammy Lawhorn would be playing guitar, Byther Smith 2nd guitar, Herman Applewhite on bass and Nate Applewhite played drums. Of course there were others too. John Primer came later on. Even though I was only 18 years old, nobody ever bothered me. The only problem we ever had was with the police. They’d see Rick and I down there with long hair and would wanna know what we were doin’.

We’d go to all the clubs;The Checkerboard Lounge, which, at the time was co-owned by Buddy Guy, The Queen Bee Lounge, Florence’s Lounge where Hound Dog Taylor played all the time. After he left it became Magic Slim’s home base. There used to be a Chicago entertainment paper that I believe was called The Reader. It had 3 pages of listings for Blues clubs.

rich Kirch photo 3I kinda feel like I caught the tail end of the old Blues guys. I must’ve seen Howlin’ Wolf 50 times at places like the 1815 Club when he was in town there at the end. I remember back in 1976, Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Freddie King all died that year. (It was also the year I met John Lee Hooker). Around that time, Rick and I went to a Westside club that I believe was called the Rat Trap. It was wintertime and there was no heat in the place. The guys in the band were playin’ with their winter coats on. They were backin’ the great Hip Linkchain who let me and Rick sit in. Afterward he asked for our numbers.

A couple of weeks later, the woman I was renting a room from told me a Jimmy Dawson called. I didn’t know any Jimmy Dawson but I called the number and it was Jimmy Dawkins, whom I’d seen play many times. Hip Linkchain had given him my number. He asked me if I could do a gig with him at the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska. That was my first out of town gig. We all drove up together. It was Tyrone Centuray on drums, Sylvester Boines on bass with myself playin’ 2nd guitar to Jimmy Dawkins. They had just returned from a tour of Japan. Jimmy Johnson quit the band when they returned and Jimmy Dawkins hired me sometime in ’75.

Now, Jimmy Dawkins had actually played the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s with Otis Rush at the Fillmore. He also knew Mike Bloomfield from Bloomfield’s days in Chicago. Jimmy Dawkins got ahold of of Bloomfield and got us some gigs in the Bay Area including the Keystone in Berkeley and the Sleeping Lady in Fairfax.

We drove out here in Jimmy Dawkins Suburban with all our gear. At the time Dawkins played through 2 custom bottoms with either 3 fifteen inch speakers or 3 twelves. Plus he had a Marshall. His setup came up to my chin. I was playin’ with a twin reverb and the bass player had a custom bottom though I can’t remember what size amp he used. We also crammed the drum kit and the four of us in that Suburban. After a mechanical false start, we made it to Berkeley 4 days later. We ate way too much Kentucky Fried Chicken! We met Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites outside the Keystone. Between the fall of ’76 and the winter of ’77, we must’ve done that round trip 3 times, staying out here a month or 2 at a time. I gotta say, one of the true joys of bein’ on the road as a travelin’ musician is checkin’ out the record stores and pawn shops after checkin’ in at the hotel.

In August of ’76 Bloomfield got us a gig at the Savoy-Tivoli in San Francisco. It was supposed to be Jimmy Reed’s gig, but he died the day before in Oakland. We went back to Chicago not long after that.

In June of ’77 we went to Europe and played a festival with Dr. Ross, Louisiana Red and Memphis Slim, which was very cool as we actually backed Slim. We played France, Germany and Switzerland. The French patrons of the Blues, Jacques Morgantini and his wife Marcelle, produced the tour and brought us over. Jacques produced many records for the Black & Blue label in Europe and Marcelle owned MCM Records for which Jacques directed many sessions for. They were from Pau, France and in ’75 and ’76, Marcelle and her son came to Chicago and made some important recordings in Chicago Blues clubs. I wasn’t quite in the Jimmy Dawkins band when they came in ’75, but I did the sessions they recorded of the band in ’76. During the mid-seventies I also worked with Hip Linkchain.

rich Kirch photo 4Now, I liked all those Blues guys. Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, but John Lee was always my favorite. There was a club on the North side of Chicago, The Wise Fools, that had music seven nights a week. They’d have the out of town acts on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday with Chicago Blues on Wednesday through Saturday. This particular week in 1976, I think John Lee was playin’ on Monday and Tuesday and we, the Jimmy Dawkins Band followed him the rest of the week.

I had never seen John Lee Hooker before in a club setting. But when the drummer Tyrone Centuray and I went down to the club to see JLH, the line was down the street—it wasn’t a very big club. Because we knew the doorman as we’d played there also, he let us in. That night I got introduced to John Lee and the band including the woman singing with them at the time named Terry Aleo, whom I started hangin’ out with. Through her, every time John would come to town, I’d go pick him up at the airport. Whenever we’d play the same festivals, I would hang out with him. Gradually through those years, I got to know him more and more. Eventually he started inviting me to come see him in California. At first I thought he was just being nice, which he was, but we became great friends. Now that he’s gone, I really miss him.

I moved out here in 1988 and lived with John Lee Hooker for 3 years. At first we lived in Redwood Shores, near Redwood City. Somebody told John that property was a lot cheaper in Vallejo so he contacted a real estate woman who showed us about 3 houses. After that, John was tired and didn’t want to see anymore. The real estate person said, ‘Ok, just let me know when you want to look at some more.’ John said, ‘That’s okay. I’ll just take the big one. The blue one.’

I still remember the address. It was 163 Primrose Lane in Vallejo. It was a nice house. But John didn’t like climbin’ stairs, so he never went upstairs before he bought it. He had his room downstairs, with a sliding glass door that went out to his hot tub. Coast To Coast band member, tenor player Kenny Baker and I each had a room down the hall from John. John’s nephew Archie had a room upstairs.

JLH loved baseball. At the house he would have a game on TV, one on the radio and all the while be checkin’ on the scores of the other games bein’ played everyday. When he’d have barbecues at the house, Dusty Baker would come by. When we played Phoenix during spring training, Dusty would bring other SF Giants players to the gig.

I’m really proud to be associated with the Chicago Blues and West Coast Blues scenes. I look at the photos and posters I have and realize, just about everyone is gone from that era. It’s bittersweet.

I’ve been doin some recording down in Santa Cruz for producer Brian Brinkerhoff and Frank Swart, bass player at Need to Know Music Productions. We’re workin’ on material by Sonny Rhodes, Guitar Shorty and Cash McCall. Other guitar players involved are Duke Robillard and Harvey Mandel. I’m in a hurry to get back to it. I don’t want to waste any time.”

For more info on Rich Kirch, visit www.richkirch.com.

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