Featured Interview – Tom Holland

Cover photo © 2024 Bob Kieser

imageTom Holland is a guitarist/vocalist from Chicago, Illinois. He has released three albums under his name and provided backing on albums for legendary artists including John Primer, James Cotton, and Mud Morganfield. As a bandleader he has toured all over the U.S., Europe, and South America.

Ben: “I was looking through some of the interviews you’ve done previously, and you’ve mentioned a few times that your folks had a really extensive LP record collection in your home.”

“Yes, very much so…From pretty much if somebody made noise on some kind of musical instrument, they had it.”

Ben: “Do you recall anything that stands out in particular? Was there one record that you remember just putting on again and again?”

“It was kind of a thing of you didn’t touch, you know. You could look at ’em, but you didn’t touch the records. I never, up until I was a teenager, actually put a record onto the record player. I’d pull them out and I’d just look at them and study them. I had also garnered a bit of appreciation for LP art. Unless my Dad took out a record and put it on, I didn’t know what was on that record. I’d hope it sounds as good as it looks!”

Ben: So, they would put on anything, right Tom? Some blues but also a lot of different styles.

“Oh, yeah and my dad, you know, didn’t really play any musical instruments. He just really loved music. Once he saw that I was interested in playing music, then it was kind of like okay here, we’ll put this one on. Listen to this listen to that, so you know, that was how that all started. And then as, you know, when CDs came into prominence… we spent probably, if not every Saturday, at least a couple Saturdays a month…He’d get a bunch of his old jazz records or blues records and we’d go downtown to the Jazz Record Mart.”

Ben: That must have been so much fun.

“Yeah, so he would sell Bob Koester his old LPs and Bob would be going through it… he’d pull one out, or he’d see an LP and he’d have a story about whoever that was. He’d start telling stories and, that was a whole ‘nother level of education that I didn’t realize I was getting until way later on, especially when I started playing.”

Ben: “Would you say you were pre-teens when you were going to the Record Mart with your dad?”

“I was probably 13, 14.”

Ben: “Around this time when your folks started realizing you were interested in music, did they ever take you out to see some live music?”

“Every summer, my dad and I, we’d always go down to the Chicago Blues Festival…usually like the Saturday of Blues Fest, we would go down there, as a family. I’ve got two brothers and a sister. They’d pack us all into the car and we’d go spend the day downtown, at Grant Park. My brothers and sister had no interest in any of that. It was just pretty much me and my dad were down there to get mesmerized and the rest of them just kind of walked around Grant Park.”

Ben: “Are there any artists that come to mind looking back on those Chicago Blues Fests that you were able to see live?”

“It was probably ’91 or ’92… it was Brownie McGee, and then, after his set, it was Robert Lockwood, Dave Myers, I think Barrelhouse Chuck was on piano, and I remember those two. Especially…Then I think later on maybe seeing Magic Slim… Maybe that was the year because I was starting to get serious with the guitar, but for whatever reason I always remembered seeing Brownie McGee and then Lockwood and just having my mind blown.”

Ben: “You mentioned in a lot of interviews when you first grabbed the guitar, you really wanted to be Eddie Van Halen.”

image“Yes, I did. I saw that stuff and said that’s it right there! When I started to take lessons, I had naturally gravitated towards the blues stuff. For whatever reasons I said ‘Yeah, that whole Eddie Van Halen thing… looked good, but this(blues) is what I want to do.’”

Ben: “For your first guitar, your folks didn’t know they made left-handed guitars?”

“No, they bought a classical nylon string guitar…with a giant baseball bat neck. It was right-handed…I just held it left-handed because I was left-handed. I didn’t know there was left or right.”

Ben: “You’ve talked about learning how to bend the strings and you were essentially bending the lower strings.”

“Yeah, I was trying to bend the bass notes…the big fatter strings. I was like ‘Oh, if this is how this is going to go, this guitar is not for me.’”

When Tom was a teenager, he gave up the guitar for almost a year to pursue other hobbies. He was a freshman on his first day in high school when he broke his index finger trying out for baseball. Tom’s finger healed and he decided to give guitar another shot. He started practicing again and learned to switch the strings on the guitar around to make it easier for him to play left-handed. He also began running around the city with his neighborhood friend Marty Sammon, who later was the long-time keyboardist for Buddy Guy, visiting various blues clubs.

“Marty and I used to go up to Blues on Halstead or Kingston Mines and just stand out on the street…Blues on Halstead had two windows at the front of the club…you could look in and see the band…You could hear it clear as a bell. Then Marty started gigging with Eddie C Campbell and Phil Guy…I started tagging along with Marty on some of those gigs and I’d sit in.”

One of the regular shows that Marty and Tom played at this time was every Tuesday night at a beauty parlor with L.V. Banks.

“They had a little raised floor…L.V. would set up in the middle of this beauty salon while people are getting their hair did. It was just like a Tuesday night blues party. 90% of the time we weren’t getting paid. For us it was just ‘man this is great’. We didn’t know any better.”

Ben: “How many people would be in there while you guys are playing?”

“They had maybe a dozen. At the end of the summer, they would always have a big block party. They’d cook all kinds of food and have bands outside, and one year we played with L.V.  They ran out of food. They would have a line, two blocks long. The owners had two plates of food for Marty and I. They’re like go in the back of the beauty salon and eat, because if anyone sees you are eating food that they didn’t get there’s gonna be trouble.”

Ben: “The band was L.V., you, Marty, was it just the three of you guys?”

“It was L.V.’s regular band. He had a bass player and a drummer. I think the bass player was a guy named Ike Anderson, who worked with Fenton Robinson back in the 80s. He worked with Buddy and Junior for years. The drummer was this guy named Jerry Price, who was always dressed to the nines. It could be 102 degrees outside… In a three-piece suit, big hat, snakeskin shoes, the whole nine yards…I’ll never forget that he had the lightest touch on drums. It was like he was playing on pillows. Nine times out of ten, you didn’t even know he was back there playing. Every now and again L.V. would turn around and just ‘Come on! Come on! Hit it hard! Hit it hard!’ L.V. was the first guy I played with where in my mind I’m like it’s supposed to be, four beats and then we change. It’d be maybe a beat and a half and boom we’re gonna change. Or we’re gonna go 14 bars, and then we’re gonna change. L.V. played a lot of soul and R&B stuff too. It was baptism by fire trying to learn all these R&B tunes… and trying to learn from L.V. was horrible because he was playing them all wrong in the first place. That was where I started to learn, you always gotta watch the front guy.”

Ben: “Around this time, you’re gigging with L.V., you’re 15, 16…so this is the time you talk about going into the Checkerboard to see Magic Slim?”

image“Yeah… Marty and I would sneak into the Checkerboard. When we started hanging out, he had never heard of Otis Spann. Marty was always big into the ragtime and New Orleans stuff. I was like ‘you need to listen to Roosevelt Sykes, you need to listen to Otis Spann, you need to listen to Sunnyland Slim.’ I was turning Marty onto all of the Chicago guys…and Marty had a car…so it was like ‘Hey man let’s go to the Checkerboard’. After a while, Marty got bored and was just like ‘This is too old school for me, I wanna hear something more uptempo…more modern.’ I kept going back. I’d borrow my folks’ car… ‘okay I’m headed over to Marty’s house’, and I’d go head to the ghetto. Had they known what I was doing they would have never let me out of the house.”

Ben: “By this time, Tom, when you started going alone, had you already built kind of a rapport with maybe some of the bartenders or the owners, so you felt comfortable going alone?”

“Not Really. I was young and stupid and thought I was invincible. I had my five bucks to get into the door. I wasn’t drinking any booze. I’d sit at the back of the bar with my Coca Cola and just watch…observe everything going on around me. Then Slim moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, so Primer took over the Sundays and Mondays that Slim used to be doing. I kept going back to see Primer, and after a while I was finally like ‘hey I play a little guitar’. And they’d say ‘oh yeah you wanna sit in? I’ll get you up.’ He’s like ‘here, you wanna play mine?’ I say ‘yeah man, I’m left-handed I can’t do anything with that.’ ‘Well, next week bring your guitar.’”

Tom returned to the Checkerboard with his left-handed guitar and eagerly waited for the opportunity to play with the band. He would sit in the back of the bar and it would take weeks for Primer to invite him to sit in.

“He finally relented, and I got to sit in. Then I was sitting in with him all the time…kept coming back and sitting in. And then finally he was like, ‘Hey listen, my harp player’s out of town. I need a guitar player to play this gig. Can you do it?’ I was 17, 18 years old at the time…that was the beginning of the end for me. When I started playing with Primer at the Checkerboard, they liked soul blues…Just as much as they liked Muddy Waters, they liked O.V. Wright, Joe Simon, and Tyrone Davis. I started figuring that stuff out with L.V., not realizing I was figuring it all out wrong. Primer would do one or two of the same tunes and would look at me and go ‘What the hell? No, no, no, like this.’”

Despite confusion over chord changes to soul songs, L.V. Banks gave young Tom a priceless opportunity to learn how to work in a Chicago blues band, and was proud when he learned Tom had begun to work with John Primer.

“L.V. would be like a proud Papa: ‘Yeah, that’s Tom! Yeah, I taught Tom everything he knows. Look at him now. Look at all that stuff I taught him. He’s, he’s playing with John Primer. He’s going out on the road. He’s going to be good one day.’”

Ben: “You’ve mentioned that your first gig with Primer was at a club in the suburbs and you guys met at the Checkerboard before you went out.”

“Yes, and then we got lost on the way to the club. This was the mid 90s, so there was no GPS, no Map Quest. You looked in the big Atlas book and said ‘Okay, I hope I’m going the right way.’ It was me on guitar, it was John, and then Nick Holt was on bass…and Earl Howell was playing drums.”

Ben: “Oh man, what a band.”

“My first gig with John was basically Magic Slim and the Teardrops without Magic Slim.”

Ben: “Is there a reason you guys would meet at the Checkerboard; did John live close to there?”

“When I started going out on the road with him…I found out he lived less than a mile from where I lived with my folks. So, we both drove an extra 20, 30 minutes to get to the Checkerboard to go to the gig. “

imageBen: “Playing this first gig with John, was it like another baptism by fire, or did you feel like you had a general sense after sitting in with him so many times?”

“Yes and no. I was a ball of nerves. I was scared to death. There was a certain air of professionalism around Primer, I knew his history. I knew he was Muddy’s last guitar player. I knew he had been playing with Slim, I knew he played with Willie Dixon, with Junior, with all these guys. At the time John had a couple records out on Wolf Records…I wore them out. I’m figuring he’s gonna play most of these songs and of course he played hardly any of them.”

Ben: “Did you have a rehearsal before this gig?”

“With John we never rehearsed. That was one of the things with Primer that always amazed me. Both Primer and Magic Slim were like human jukeboxes…’d listen to a song a couple of times and we’d go show up at the gig that night and play it. When we were out on the road with Primer, he had a box full of tapes. I remember there was one record, Albert King and Little Milton on Stax. John loved that tape. We would ride 15 hours and that tape would just finish one side and go to the next side.”

Ben: “Did that drive you nuts after a little while?”

“After a couple of days of hearing nothing but Albert King and Little Milton. Yes, we were all ready to throw that tape out of the van.”

Tom toured regularly with John Primer for almost three years and received great advice and mentorship.

“If the band had to room together, John always would grab me, ‘all right, Tom’s with me’, every once in a while, he’d show me something in the hotel. Every once in a while, I would say ‘Hey man, why don’t you show me something?’ ‘No, we gotta go to sleep, we gotta be up early in the morning.’ Every once in a while, he’d be like ‘here…do it like this, not like that…’, but most of the time it was on stage. You get the stink eye.”

Ben: “How far out of Chicago were you working with John?”

“We’d go to the East coast. I remember we did a couple runs where we’d go all the way to like Miami. This was before Florida’s blues scene was like it is now…We’d play Atlanta, then we’d play Jacksonville, and then maybe Tampa, and then go all the way to Miami. Then drive from Miami back to Chicago. Just straight roll, in the van for 24 hours because John didn’t want anyone else to drive.”

Ben: “After you worked with John for a few years, how did you end up connecting with Eddie Clearwater?”

“When I was playing with John, we were playing in Blue Chicago. Since I had been playing there with John, nobody at the bar knew I was underage. That was the only Northside club that never questioned ‘hey man where’s your ID’. I didn’t cause any trouble, I wasn’t drinking. I was tipping way too well for Diet Cokes and waters. They never questioned anything. Eddie’s was the only band at that time that played Blue Chicago that didn’t have a woman singer.”

Tom befriended one of the waitresses who was dating Eddie Clearwater’s bass player, Pat McKeever. Tom and Pat soon became tight and when there was an opening in the band, Pat recommended Tom.

“There were a couple times where we’d be playing there (Blue Chicago), with John, and there was Eddie sitting in the back of the room. Looking back on it now, he’s sitting in the back of the room checking me out. At that time, John’s schedule had fallen way off. We weren’t working much. Eddie said ‘listen. I’m going to hire you and I’m going to hire a keyboard player. I’m going to hire both of you for six months. And at the end of six months, whoever I like better will stay.’ Since John wasn’t working that much, there was never really a conflict.”

The six months soon went by and Tom was chosen to stay with Eddie Clearwater.

image“I got the gig. I said to John, ‘I don’t wanna quit your band, but Eddie’s got a lot more work than you do, and I’m going with Eddie.’ John was a little upset. We didn’t speak for probably a year or two. It was a father son kind of relationship type of thing.”

Ben: “That’s tough.”

Tom would go see Primer’s band whenever he had the opportunity. He remained friends with the band but explained that for a while, John would see him and walk the other way.

“After a while he (Primer) was like ‘I didn’t appreciate the way you left the band. I wasn’t done teaching you everything you should’ve learned.’ But he was like ‘We’re cool now…of all the guys I had playing in my band, you were the one that showed the most promise, and I just wanted to make sure you didn’t fall down the wrong path.’ We’ve been good ever since.”

Tom joined Eddy Clearwater’s band for about three years, working with various Chicago rhythm sections, and playing his first European tour.

“Merle Perkins was hired, and you know Merle’s played with everybody… He had an idea of how a bass player should sound, and he wasn’t afraid to tell said bass player what he was doing right or wrong. “

Ben: “I’ve worked with a bass player who’s particularly hard on drummers, so I know what you mean. It’s an interesting relationship.”

“You know the bass player and drummer are the foundation of everything… Merle would get on every bass player and every bass player would go back to Eddie and say, ‘Hey man, if he’s gonna keep breathing down my neck, I’m out.’”

The band went through countless bass players, but Tom and Merle remained. When Eddie went to Europe, his manager connected Tom with Atlanta-based blues singer Sandra Hall who hired Tom for some gigs and to record on her album. Eddie regretted going to Europe without Tom and promised to take him on the next tour. Tom had also begun to work on his own solo project at this time.

“The first record I did, Tom Holland and The Shuffle Kings…I was still working with Eddie Clearwater. I recorded that record a week after I got married…the following week I left Eddie’s band.”

After working with blues legend Eddie Clearwater, Tom was hired by another legendary bluesman, James Cotton.

Ben: “What were some of the big lessons you learned from working so long with Cotton?”

“Music wise, everything was up-tempo. There’s a reason all his bands were always working a lot…it’s party music…it’s dance music. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve always taken away. Keep it up tempo and keep people’s asses moving and everything will be alright. Matthew Skoller used to laugh,‘I like doing gigs with you after you haven’t been on the road with Cotton for a while, then I won’t be doing everything at warp speed.’”

Ben: “Even in his 70’s and early 80’s it’s like a rocket.”

“Oh yeah, it wasn’t as fast as it was 25, 30 years ago, but he was still packing a wallop.”

Tom toured all over the world with Cotton and headlined the world-famous King Biscuit Blues Festival every year with the band. He even played a tour in Israel.

“That was one of the most fun trips we ever had…Kenny Neal Jr. was playing drums…and Kenny’s brother Noel on bass. I ended up walking around the beachfront in Tel Aviv and ran up on this bar called Mike’s place, which at the time was the only Americanized bar in Israel. We ended up there all week closing that bar out…we’d party in there ‘till 7 in the morning. It was crazy because Mike’s Place shared a wall with the U.S. Embassy and over the past 40 years had been bombed three or four times. It was crazy because you have all these armed guards at the gate of the Embassy right next to this bar where all of these younger people are hanging and just getting hammered. The owner’s like ‘Five years ago, the last time the Embassy was bombed, we had to rebuild that wall.’”

imageTom and the band stayed safe during their tour and had an amazing time playing gigs with Cotton. He played on two of Cotton’s albums on Alligator, Giant (2010) and Cotton Mouth Man (2012). Tom loved playing with Cotton, but as he became older, it became difficult for Tom to remain in the band.

“He was in his 80s. At that point he had stopped partying…he was as straight and narrow as you could be. He was getting up in age and his body was finally starting to catch up to him.”

After working with James Cotton, Tom pursued his own project and has been touring throughout the U.S., Europe, and South America. I caught up with him following a three-week tour of France.

“Probably 9 out of the 13 gigs were sellouts. For somebody that’s not that well known outside of Chicago…it’s kind of crazy to me.”

Ben: “That’s got to be a great feeling.”

“We don’t ever think ‘everybody knows we are.’ I’m still amazed that people want to throw money at me to play. I tend to joke with people like ‘Fooled another one!’ It was virtually all new venues.”

Ben: “Wow, so new audiences too.”

“It was nice that I was able to bring CDs to sell and actually sold out before I came home.”

Ben: “Speaking of CDs, do you have any plans to go back into the studio?”

“I’m looking at maybe early fall, probably wintertime, going back into the studio to knock out another record. It’s been too long since the last official record. I’ve got enough material, it’s just a matter of booking the studio time and getting down to it.”

Tom Holland is one of the greatest purveyors of Chicago blues on the scene today. He learned from the great bluesmen John Primer, Eddie Clearwater, and James Cotton, and developed a sound that honors these men and has become uniquely his own. He’ll be busy throughout the rest of this year and is touring the Midwest later this summer. You can stay up to date with Tom’s schedule at https://tomhollandshufflekings.com/.

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