Issue 18-25 June 20, 2024

Cover photo © 2024 Bob Kieser

 In This Issue 

Ben Levin has our feature interview with Tom Holland. We have six Blues reviews for you this week including a book about the song “I Went Down To St. James Infirmary” plus new music from Johnny Burgin, Eden Brent, Stevie And The Blue Flames, T Bear and Stefan Hillesheim. Scroll down and check it out!

 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6 

imageRobert W. Harwood – I Went Down To St. James Infirmary

Genius Music Books

258 pages Softcover edition

Originally published in 2008, and now in its third edition, this book delves into the origins of a truly classic blues song. One might think that several hundred pages on one song amounts to a fair degree of overkill, but author Robert Harwood’s research uncovered more than a few surprising twists and turns in the song’s genesis.

Harwood admits that his first effort at chronicling the song’s history, A Rake’s Progress in 2004, was a fool’s errand as much of the information he used was proven to be inaccurate by subsequent research. Determined to get it right, he has continued his voyage of discovery, and has updated his work as new additional significant information was discovered.

The story line seems to be taken from a Hollywood script. Within a few pages in the “Introduction,” he manages to set off on his quest with references to jazz trombone great Jack Teagarden, singer Lou Rawls, Bob Dylan, and Blind Willie McTell, who claimed to have written the song, “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” which Harwood offers was actually written by Porter Grainger. A piano player who once backed up Bessie Smith, Grainger was a prolific songwriter, with hundreds of tunes to his name. His tune is one of several the author feels had an influence on “St. James Infirmary,” including the traditional English folk song “The Unfortunate Rake” and the “Streets of Laredo.”

As promising as those threads may be, Harwood ultimately finds what might be the holy grail in Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag, published in 1927 with music and lyrics for 290 songs, including two versions of “Those Gambler Blues,” neither of which mention St. James Infirmary. However, lyrically, both bore a strong resemblance to the song that ultimately has captured the attention of music fans for decades. It all started in New York City in 1927 when Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra recorded the song for the first time.

From there, the tale moves on to Carl “Deacon” Moore, a singing drummer and impressive showman, who worked with composer Phil Baxter and his band. The duo claimed to have authored a number of songs, including the title song. Moore indulged in plenty of hillbilly humor based on his upbringing in Arkansas. That leads Harwood into a review of lost art of minstrelsy, certainly an influence on Moore, and the issues of black face and Jim Crow laws emerging through song & dance routines.

As the story continues, another variation of the song was recorded by a banjo-picking Baptist minister by the name of Buell Kazee from the rural Kentucky mountains. His version came after the one by Williams, but months before the notable version by the legendary Louis Armstrong hit the market, which adds more mystery to the saga as noted arranger Don Redman is the credited songwriter. The success of Armstrong’s record caused a flurry of activity as various songwriters filed copyrights under different titles.

One man moved to the top of the heap. Irving Mills worked for Mills Music, Inc, a company founded by his older brother. Irving was responsible for seeking out great songs and talented artists to play them. He started copyrighting songs, often using the name Joe Primrose, as he did with “St. James Infirmary.” That takes Harwood deep into the fascinating world of music publishing, including a detour through the tangled web around the song “Lovesick Blues,” first recorded by the black-faced minstrel Emmitt Miller, then later a huge hit for Hank Williams. Equally interesting are the references to a cast of characters including Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and heavy weight champion Jack Johnson.

The final chapter reviews a 1931 court case involving Mills Music and a rival publisher over the use of the St. James title. Some witnesses testified as to hearing the song much earlier, including one who claimed to have heard it in Florida in 1916 while working with the Silas Green traveling black minstrel show. The value of the copyright is borne out in the fact that the Armstrong record sold over 300,000 copies in just the first year after it’s release. In the end, Harwood manages to pull all of the pieces together to make sense of complicated story with many interesting plot twists.

The book also includes several appendixes with the authors comments on a number of early recordings of the song in it’s various variations, additional history on Porter Grainger and Carl Moore, and a section on the different versions, with 23 separate listings for 1927-1930. Included throughout the book are B&W photos, press releases, musical scores, and advertising fliers that give added details to the story.

“St. James Infirmary” is an undisputed classic, with covers by artists ranging from Bobby “Blue” Bland to Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Kudos to Harwood for continuing to update his work as new, meaningful information is uncovered. His research has allowed him to illuminate a compelling story for readers, one that will certainly add new layers to their appreciation for the song.

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!

 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6 

imageJohnny Burgin – Ramblin’ from Coast to Coast

Straight Shooter Records SHOT 045

12 songs – 46 minutes

A former University of Chicago student who dreamed about a career as a writer, Johnny Burgin has been traveling the world as a bluesman since working with Tail Dragger, Billy Boy Arnold and Pinetop Perkins. Now in his mid-50s, the grass doesn’t have time to grow under his feet because he’s one of the most active road dogs in the world, working with top-flight talent wherever he’s traveling, and, thanks to albums like this one, recording performances to share with the world.

One of the most stylish guitarists in the Windy City tradition, he’s back in the good, old U.S.A. – not exactly coast-to-coast as the title infers, but to Rochester, N.Y., Cincinnati, Memphis and Dallas to be exact — for this platter after recently serving up CDs captured in Spain and Japan. There’s still an international element to it, however, because it’s on Denmark’s Straight Shooter Records instead of Johnny’s longtime partnership with Delmark.

It’s a star-studded affair that includes 20 artists in potent, but limited roles, including vocalists John Blues Boyd and Rae Gordon, pianists Ben Levin, Christian Dozzier and Hanna PK, guitarists Dylan Bishop and Jad Tarij, bassists Jon Hay and Mike Morgan in a lineup that also includes drummers Danny Banks, Reo Casey, David Plouffe and Shorty Starr, bassists Chris Matheos, organist Barry Seelen and backup singers Lisa Leuschner Andersen, Marina Crouse and Jill Dineen.

Recorded by Hay in Memphis, Casey in Dallas, Dave Anderson in Rochester and Matt Hueneman in Cincinnati, the set was mixed and mastered by Kid Andersen at his world-renowned Greaseland Studios in California. “Ramblin’ from Coast to Coast” lopes out of the gate with a sprightly shuffle as Burgin hits the highway because his lady’s love has turned to distain and delivers his lyrics in a pleasant, assertive tenor. His and Tariq’s prowess on the six-string comes to the fore mid-tune in the break.

The slow-blues burner “Gettin’ My Blues On” definitely does the trick to follow, asserting that all the singer wants to do is have a good time, as the female chorus adds depth to amplify the seriousness of his separation. The mood brightens instantly with the medium-tempo shuffle, “I Need Something Sweet,” which finds Johnny in a late-night prowl for a treat to eat despite the knowledge that his doctor has warned him that eating too much sugar can lead to a heart attack.

Penned by Billy Flynn and one of only two covers in the set,  the slow-and-solid “Silent Suffering” follows as Burgin yearns for relief from some unspoken sorrow but knows he can’t be consoled. Dozzler works out mid-tune before Johnny’s stellar picking extends the shuffle. “Stepladder Blues” is a new song, but it would have fit comfortably in the setlist of any singer in the Windy City in the ‘70s or ‘80s as it euphemistically announces the intent to climb high to get at his lady’s peaches in the tree.

The uptempo “Cincinnati Boogie” is up next, blazing down Highway 74 as it celebrates the city as the “Harlem of the Midlands.” Its driven forward by the steady rhythms of Starr and mastery of Levin. But it’s soon on to the West Coast to celebrate “Fresno Woman.” It’s a deep-in-the-pocket effort with Johnny on slide and directed at a no-nonsense woman who knows how to love her man. Burgin yields the mic for the next two pleasers and turns to harp as Boyd delivers “I’m Playing Straight,” the assertion that his intentions are honest as he hits on a woman. Then it’s Gordon’s turn for the uptempo blazer, “Older and Wiser,” which announces the singer’s no longer falling for the jive from her man that used to drive her crazy.

“I Was Right for the First Time” follows with timeless appeal as Johnny states that, for the first time in his life, he was right to kick his woman out the door. Unfortunately, he comes to the realization after he’s welcomed her back into his home. A cover of Boyd’s “Vacation from the Blues” before closes with “Never Tried to Get Ahead,” a sweet number that asserts he’s always tried to be his own man in whatever he might do.

If you crave a heaping helping of Chicago blues by someone who really knows what he’s doing, you’ll love this one. It’s all that and more!

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Mason, Ohio, his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.

 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6 

imageEden Brent – Getaway Blues

Yellow Dog Records YDR 2716

9 songs – 39 minutes

It’s been a decade since two-fisted keyboard player/tunesmith Eden Brent has released an album, but she hasn’t lost a beat and returns in style with this CD. It’s a powerful set that mixes songs laced with familiar double-entendre messages and intimate ballads that will leave you yearning for more.

Based out of Greenville, Miss., where she was born into a family of riverboat captains and guitarists, Brent’s mother was a big band singer and fashion model, and Eden grew up exposed to the giants of the blues world at the city’s annual Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival. A classically trained pianist and vocalist, she was mentored by the great Abie “Boogaloo” Ames for 20 years before winning the solo/duo division of the International Blues Challenge in 2006.

A six-time nominee and one-time winner of the Pinetop Perkins Award as the Blues Music Awards piano player of the year, Brent’s also taken home trophies for acoustic artist and acoustic album honors, and she’s been a finalist for traditional female vocalist, best new artist and more. And this direct, unadorned treasure will probably put her in line for more.

Recorded in London, mixed in Memphis and mastered in New Jersey, Gateway Blues is a collaboration between Eden and her British-born producer husband, Bob Dowell, who also delivers bass throughout. They’re supported by a pair of Dowell’s former bandmates: guitarist Rob Updegraff and drummer Pat Levett.

“Getaway Blues” pulls out of the station in true barrelhouse style as Brent emulates the chugging of a railroad train and whistle with her right hand as her warm voice lightheartedly celebrates her departure from a troubled relationship. The rhythm section drives home the message, and Updegraff provides accents throughout. The languorous “Watch the World Go By” flows like the river as Eden describes feeling sorry for herself because of some unspoken affront by a lover, powers a glass of whiskey and contemplates as the water flows.

Inspired by Jimmy Reed’s “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” “What You Want” adopts an uptempo New Orleans-flavored rhumba beat to follow and brighten the mood as Brent promises to give her man everything and anything she can to make him happy before she delivers the intimate, simple and country-flavored “You on My Mind,” a sweet ballad penned by Dowell that celebrates dark clouds and rain “as long as you’re around.”

Delivered from the standpoint of the “other woman” who realizes the man she’s with is there for a good time and nothing else, the propulsive, contemporary blues, “He Talks About You,” is up next. The singer reassures the wife that – even though her hubby’s strays – it’s impossible to take his place because the wife is always on his mind, something that will last as long as she’s wearing her wedding ring. The Big Easy beat returns in “Just Because I Love You,” which carries forward the message, stating that, as long as the couple’s together, everything will be okay.

The ballad “Mississippi River Got Me Crying” delivers the feel of life on the river on a steamy summer night before the slow-and-easy “Rust” uses metaphors to describe the closeness of her man in an environment where even rust can’t stop a train from rolling down the tracks. The album closes with the medium-tempo “Gas Pumping Man,” honoring the grease monkeys who fill tanks and keep drivers on the road.

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Mason, Ohio, his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.


 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 6 

imageStevie And The Blue Flames – Destination: Blues


11 songs – 41 minutes

Stevie and The Blue Flames have been a fixture in Seattle since the 1980s and have released over 10 full length albums over the years. Destination: Blues is their latest release and a fine addition to their catalogue, with 10 original tracks and an excellent cover of Elmore James’ classic “Stranger Blues”.

Steve Bailey is the frontman and heartbeat of the band, writing all the songs in addition to providing lead vocals and harmonica on every track and adding rhythm and/or slide guitar to three of them. He is joined by a variety of musicians, including core band members Steve Blood (guitar) and Ray Hartman (bass), together with Richard Newman (guitar) and David Hudson (drums) on six songs each. Additional musicians include Patrick McDanel, James Clark and Al Cantey on bass, Carl Martin, Marty Lockwood and Scott Gordon on drums, guitarist Curtis Smith, Dennis Ellis on sax, and pianist Dan Newton.

Destination: Blues is top drawer, modern, harmonica-led blues. Bailey is an outstandingly expressive harp player and he sings in a sly, witty, conversational style not unlike the great Rick Estrin and indeed the album often recalls the likes of Estrin’s Nightcats or Sugar Ray and the BlueTones. Producer and engineer, Richard Newman, has captured a great live sound and some splendid performances.

The album kicks off with the wildly swinging “Blue Flames Bar B Que” advertising what sounds like a raucous house party, with Lockwood absolutely nailing the drum groove. That leads nicely into the toe-tapping “Every Dog Has His Day” in which the emotionally put-upon Bailey notes that “every dog has its day and I wonder when it’s gonna be mine.”

“First Class Fool” features some choice interplay between Bailey’s harp and the guitars of Newman and Blood, while the funky “Blues Comes A Callin'” highlights Bailey’s clever knack of writing modern blues songs that sit wholly within the genre but rarely rely on a straight-forward 12-bar structure.

The majority of the tracks are upbeat, danceable numbers that will no doubt work superbly in a live setting. Indeed, on the basis of this release, if you’re in the Seattle region, you need to hunt out this band wherever they are playing. The primitive rock’n’roll of “Let Me Go” features a cool slide solo from Bailey, while the instrumental, “Slim And Love Dealers” allows him to really stretch out on harmonica and “Tell Me When” has some of the grit of Britain’s Dr. Feelgood and a neat key change leading into the guitar solo.

The only time the band slows the pace (but not the intensity) is on the Mississippi blues of “Unemployment Blues”, which features one of the best harp solos you’ll hear all year as Bailey really gives it his all.

The album ends on the one-chord John Lee Hooker-esque “Down And Out”, with another ace harp solo, a fitting closing to a really impressive release. Well worth checking out.

Reviewer Rhys “Lightnin'” Williams plays guitar in a blues band based in Cambridge, England. He also has a day gig as a lawyer.

 Featured Interview – Tom Holland 

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

Writer Ben Levin is a pianist/vocalist based in Cincinnati, OH. Ben has released four albums on the Vizztone Label Group and has three Blues Music Award nominations.

 Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6 

imageT Bear – The Way of the World

Quarto Valley Records

13 tracks – 52 minutes

T. Bear was born Richard Gerstein in New York City and was raised in the Caribbean. In the 1970’s, Richard took on the pseudonym of Richard T. Bear and performed keyboards for many acts of the era including Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Blues Brothers, Richie Havens, Cher, Edgar Winter, Gene Simmons and many more. In 1978, he signed with RCA Records and released Red, Hot & Blue which featured Les Dudek, Billy Squier, and The Brecker Brothers. However, like many other musicians, he struggled with sobriety and stepped away from his music career.

He conquered his issues with alcohol and became instrumental in the development of the Musicians Picnic and served on its Board of Directors. That led to the creation of the Musicians Assistance Program, which is now part of the MusiCares Foundation.

He attributes his turn around to his wife, Nina, who encouraged his efforts. Now skip ahead almost three decades. Following his wife’s death and with her prior encouragement, he returned to the music industry now using just T Bear as his pseudonym. He recorded his first new album, Fresh Bear Tracks, in 2021 produced by Tony Braunagel, and with Laurence Juber, formerly with Paul McCartney & Wings, on guitar. He called up old friends who readily agreed to play on the album. The friends included Stephen Stills, Edgar Winter, Tom Scott, Walter Trout, and many others.  Recently he has been touring as part of Walter Trout’s band.

With this current album, Tony Braunagel again produced the album and plays drums and percussion. Laurence Juber continues on guitar, and Lenny Castro provides additional percussion along with a large group of guest performers. Thirteen original tracks all written or co-written by T Bear are included.

The title track kicks off with a slight rocker as he identifies that “sharks never stop swimming, writers need a beginning, and cheaters never stop winning, that is the way of the world”. He further notes that “Evangelists never stop sinning, politicians never stop grinning” and continues with a long list of other contributors to the world’s problems with tongue firmly in his cheek. He should have known better before he would “Sign on the Dotted Line”, a failed love story with a slight reggae beat. Teresa James guests in a duet on “Before the Fall”, as he notes “electric soul has spoken, the battle woken, so we wouldn’t falter, the candles on the altar, hanging on dreams so dearly” and “he wept for your love”. Laurence’s guitar smoothly glides through the song.

“Jewel” features a particularly stand-out piano run in a sleepy late-night bar song as he cries that “I am bleeding blue over you” noting that she is “the shiniest golden nugget I have ever seen”.  “Walter Mitty’s Glasses” moves into a slightly jazzy groove and a shift into a reggae rhythm as he is “afraid you might melt away”. Teresa James rejoins him on “A Change Will Do Me Good”, another rocker with a Bo Diddley beat and a shift to an organ lead.

The song moves into a Latin rhythm as he “was trying to have some fun” but now “I run down the highway” as “Your Husband’s Got a Gun”.  “This Bird Has Flown” has nothing to do with Paul McCartney’s similarly named track.  The song is a smooth easy glide featuring Benmont Tench on organ and a jazzy interlude with Lee Thornberg on trumpet. The song tells the tale of the woman that was “like a ship on the stormy sea”. “Breathe” has already had airplay as a cut by Walter Trout on his latest album, “Broken”. T Bear’s vocals and piano lead provides the song with an additional texture.

“They Can Kill You” is a turn to funk with Lee Thornberg again providing trumpet and trombone and with Mike Finnigan on organ. Halfway through the song after identifying the many ways of death, he announces that “They” are girls, “but what a beautiful way to go”. “Dinner For One” has a bit of a rhumba beat as he laments on the efforts he put into a dinner with remembrances of his lost love. His lyrics offer a powerful image of the woman for whom he obviously had so much love. “True Romance” is a nice follow-up to the previous song as he says your love is “hidden in my heart, in my mind is where you will always stay.”

The closing song “Red Harvest” is shown as a bonus song with Paul Rodgers on vocals and Leland Sklar on bass. It starts with a military cadence as it cries for the family and children losing their lives in a horrible battle. While never directly named, the song clearly and strongly provides a clarity to the horribleness of the battle that exists in Ukraine.

T. Bear’s voice has a southern twang that sometimes brings to mind Dr. John or Leon Russell. His lyricism paints ample pictures of the themes of each song. It is hard not to be moved by the latter two romantic songs or by the picture he paints of the horrors of war in “Red Harvest”. But many of the songs are for pure fun and easily accomplishes that as well.

Writer John Sacksteder is a retired civil engineer in Louisville, Kentucky who has a lifelong love of music, particularly the blues. He is currently the Editor of the Kentuckiana Blues Society’s monthly newsletter.

 Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6 

imageStefan Hillesheim – When I’m Gone

self release

13 songs time – 52:07

German transplant Stefan Hillesheim has a firm and refreshing grip on guitar blues, and a good voice to go with it. He originally came to Los Angeles and now resides in Chicago. He truly shines on slide guitar as well as regular lead. He pays debt to Robert Johnson and Elmore James in four cover songs and his own compositions are strong in the blues tradition. His band of Darryl Wright on bass and Dionte Skinner on drums are important pieces in the sound. Sumito Ariyo Ariyoshi from Billy Branch & The S.O.B.s contributes his piano skills.

The three Elmore James songs-“Done Somebody Wrong”, “The Sky Is Crying” and “It Hurts Me Too” do justice to James while at the same time breathing new life into them. Much the same can be said for his version of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom”.

They hit an infectious groove on the title track “When I’m Gone”, punctuated by his sinuous slide guitar. The funky “My Poor Heart” goes for straight ahead jazzy chording and single string soloing. Their versatility is displayed on the slow, slide infused “The Love I Had For You”. The slow and deliberate “Better Man” concludes with a brief burst of guitar pyrotechnics. A reflection on a domineering significant other is covered in “Always Get To Hear From You” with its’ witty lyrics.

Daryl Wright’s bass interplay with the guitar is a second lead on “Worries, Worries”. His wandering bass lines throughout the recording are intriguing. He rips out stinging blues notes against Daryl’s mighty bass lines on “To Be Loved By You”. Stefan reverts back to his trusty slide for the energetic “On Down The Highway”. His guitar is always superb, but once again the bass gives him a run for his money on “Sick Of Your Love”.

This does an ol’ Bluesdog good. Guy’s such as this truly revitalize the blues and gives hope for the future. His guitar is all over the place. It doesn’t hurt one bit that he employs a sturdy drummer and an octopus of a bass player. If this guy doesn’t achieve greater recognition there is definitely something wrong in the Cosmos. Don’t pass up this shot of crazy blues energy!!!

Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.

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