James Montgomery has a long history in the music business. Born on a small farm in Michigan and raised in Detroit, he went to college in New England, and has become a fixture in the blues scene.
As a teenager growing up in Detroit, Montgomery learned first-hand from the masters; James Cotton, John Lee Hooker and Jr. Wells by hanging out at the legendary Chessmate nightclub during their gigs.
“I had a blues band in high school called The Montgomery Miller Blues Band that was very successful. We even opened up for Iggy Pop (and The Stooges).and also the MC5. Their guitarist, Wayne Kramer, became my guitarist later on when I moved to Boston.”
“I left Detroit because I got accepted at Boston University and because I was very familiar with the music environment in Boston, I decided to leave my hometown for a more active blues scene. I wanted to be a writer so I took writing classes and graduated with a degree in English Language and Literature.”
During this time, the blues/r&b scene in college-town Boston was huge and it didn’t take much for Montgomery to find himself in the midst of an exciting explosion of white American ears hearing the blues for the first time.
“My first year in college, 1970, I had a band with my dorm-mate Skunk Baxter (Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers). It was like a jam band and we played all the time at B.U.; in all the dorms. I then stopped for a year or two to pursue my study of Hinduism and after a summer in Detroit I returned to Boston and got hired by The Colwell-Winfield Band and started my own band not long after.”
“I asked my boss Billy Colwell to play in a band with me and my Detroit buddy, Bill Mather. He said ‘O.K. But we have to name it after you in case it sucks” (laughs) Hence the James Montgomery Band. The blues scene was very vibrant then. Peter Wolf was largely responsible for “getting the word out” with his radio show and his magnificent performances with The J.Geils Band.”
“Meanwhile the folk movement had also turned a lot of people on to blues nationwide and that interest was furthered by the famous “British Invasion”. Blues greats ranging from Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells to John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, and Savoy Brown were gigging regularly. You had to figure out which artists you were gonna see on any given night because sometimes there would be a major blues act in 3 or 4 clubs the same evening.”
By this time, the press was also reporting on the quickly expanding blues scene as the camaraderie between bands tightened. Day by day the New England music universe was becoming larger and larger and was being watched by fans all over the world.
“Jon Landau who is now Springsteen’s manager, wrote in one of the local Boston papers something like; “there are a lot of bands in Boston, but The J.Geils Band, Aerosmith and The James Montgomery Band rule the roost!” There was never a competition between us, at least to my knowledge.”
“I met Steven (Tyler) at Wurlitzer Music one day and he asked me if they could open a show for us. So we put Aerosmith on a show at Boston University. It was funny because the “opener” had all this gear, huge Marshall stacks and effects and a huge banner and when they cleared the stage there were our little Fenders. (laughs)”
The James Montgomery Band, a blues/r&b group from New England with a frontman from Detroit, was the first Northern act to sign with Southern Rock label Capricorn Records where he met Greg Allman.
His friendship remains strong with Allman to this day and in fact during a recent ABB trip to Boston, James was invited up to play “Statesboro Blues” with the legendary band in front of a few thousand screaming people.
Greg Allman on James Montgomery: “He is so great after all these years.”
“We got signed to a multi-record deal with Capricorn and I first met them when I went to a Rashaan Rolland Kirk concert and they walked in to say hi. I didn’t know who they were cause I only really listened to “black” music back then. (laughs) The Allman Brothers tours were a great hang. Of all the bands we toured with: Springsteen, Foghat, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynrd, to Steve Miller, Zappa, and all the blues greats, they were the easiest to work with.”
“They called everybody backstage “partner” and “buddy” and allowed us to use anything and everything they had. They even let us eat with them. I met Greg when he came to our dressing room to say hello. I was the only one there at the time so we had a great talk. We remain friends to this day and I still sit in with them on occasion. They are great to play with because the actually “play” and don’t just go through the motions. There is ALWAYS a lot of energy up there with them and it is all good.”
Meanwhile back in Boston, James went to Martha’s Vineyard and recruited the senior member of Massachusetts’ First Family of Music, Alex (A.T.) Taylor and formed James Montgomery Alex Taylor and The Eastcoast Funkbusters; a band that focused more on r&b than traditional blues.
“Alex was the one who influenced his brothers James, Livingston and Huey and sister Kate to get into the blues and to get into singing, as far as I know. He was a fantastic guy and one of the best singers ever on this planet. He was also a bit of a wild guy. (laughs) Dan Ackroyd and Paul Shafer eventually joined this band for a short while which led to me becoming a “Blues Brother” from time to time with Dan (Ackroyd) and Jim (Belushi) especially if they are playing East of the Mississippi. When John Belushi passed Dan said something to me like: “He was a good man and a bad boy”. Same with Alex. My favorite A.T. song is “I’m Smokin’ At The Gas Pump and my Butt’s About To Fall” (laughs).
Jim Belushi on James Montgomery: “I love calling him up onstage. He always hits a homer. He’s simply the best.”
As his reputation spread throughout the music industry James met with icons and did his best to stay out of trouble: which as any blues artist knows; isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the dream from the reality.
“I’ve met just about everybody in this business. I tell people; “hang out long enough and you’ll meet ’em all”. Mick Jagger I met when I came into my dressing room on New Year’s Eve at Trax in NYC and he was all alone in there. He had come to see the band because the owner had told him about us. Wayne Kramer from MC5 was my guitarist and Bobby Chouinard (Duke and The Drivers, Billy Squire) was my drummer. I had spent a couple of days with George Harrison but there was something about being with Mick Jagger all alone…..That was the only time I’ve ever felt a bit awkward at first. We ended up playing harmonica together and singing some Muddy Waters songs and had a ball.”
“I remember one night staying up late with Charlie Daniels at a hotel in Utica, NY and I think every room there was occupied by someone in either his entourage or mine. It was a wild night. Charlie and I heard a lot of stuff going on outside his room but we opted to just talk and not participate in the loud activities in the hall we tried not to listen to. In the morning, I got up and looked out the window to see what kind of day it would be and I saw a television, a few chairs and a few telephones in the pool. I called up the road managers and Charlie and told them to look out their windows and I said: “I don’t know about you but I think we’re checking out.” I’ve never seen two bands get out of a hotel so quickly in my life. (laughs). Skynrd used to have to leave thousands of dollars in deposit at hotels once word got out on how they left their rooms.”
From his earliest days in music the friendship and influences of the first generation blues artists has remained paramount to his focus onstage and off.
“I’ve had the opportunity to jam with all of my favorite blues artists”, James recalls. “I played in a band with John Lee Hooker when I was around 19 and we became life-long friends. In fact, the last conversation I had with him was about a month before his death. He told me he “finally got the respect he deserved.” It was heartwarming to hear this as so few blues musicians ever do. He had me over for dinner once and he answered the door in a sharkskin outfit wearing a frilly, housewife apron and holding a wooden spoon and a glass of Jim Beam. He had a deep, rich stutter and he said: “MMMMontgomery. I I I I can cook and burn.” “
“When Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells came to town sometimes they would stay at my band’s house to save money. One night, me and Jr. nailed a bologna sandwich to the wall that looked the same years later when we moved out. Must have been a lot of preservatives in that sandwich! (laughs) Years later Buddy would use our band on some road trips so he didn’t have to bring in guys from Chicago.”
“I knew Muddy Waters but only played with him once at Paul’s Mall. I was still in my college band and I was a wreck thinking about going up there with him but it worked out well. Otis Spann was the guy who calmed me down and he taught me a few things about what to do when you play with Muddy like setting up the next solo and playing behind the beat.”
“B.B. and I played together the night they caught Son of Sam on Long Island. The announcement of his capture got more applause than either me or B.B. He also called me onstage the night they closed down Paul’s Mall and after my first song he said to me: “James, they’re all yours” and took Lucille and left me to front the band. (laughs)
“My closest friend of all the great blues musicians I have worked with is James Cotton and I’ve known him since I was 16 or 17.”
“We met at “The Chessmate” in Detroit. We have done a ton of shows together over the years and in the old days he would call me up and leave the stage after a couple of songs and leave me to front the band. Jr. Wells used to do that with me as well. Sometimes I would have to end Jr’s set and tell everyone he would be right back.”
“Cotton is doing really well and we are making a documentary about him through Judy Lasker, Charlie Burke and The Reel Blues Fest. It should be great considering Cotton’s amazing life. There is very little he hasn’t enjoyed or gone through and the fact that he played in Sonny Boy’s band and Muddy’s band is the ultimate for a blues guy. We talk frequently. He calls me “Son” and I call him “Dad”.
James Montgomery also has playing with Johnny Winter and his band on his resume and the greatest blues slide guitarist alive also plays on Montgomery’s latest CD release: “From Detroit to the Delta”.
Johnny Winter on James Montgomery: “I LOVE James Montgomery!”
“I spent about 4 years on the road with The Johnny Winter Band and he is not only one of the best bluesmen, maybe THE best slide guitarist and knowledgeable guys out there but he is also a great guy who calls it as he sees it.”
“For instance, when we were in Europe and the band met Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull and bassist Scott Spray says: “pretty cool meeting Ian Anderson, huh?” Johnny, who was sitting maybe 3 feet from Ian, replied: “I hate Jethro Tull. I don’t think flute belongs in rock and roll. I think it sucks!”
“Johnny and I bonded because I was the one who would stay up all night with him talking and listening to blues songs. We always had a contest to see who could identify the songs first as they came up on satellite radio. He won 90% of the time!”
“One of my favorite nights was when Pinetop Perkins came to visit us at The House of Blues in Chicago. Pinetop and Muddy thought of Johnny as their “son”. Another memorable night was when Robert Plant got on his knees and thanking Johnny for being his biggest influence. Or when the guys from Van Halen scrambled to get cocktail napkins for Johnny to sign at The Viper Club in L.A.”
More recently, James has released a new CD “From Detroit to the Delta” and has recorded the title song for “Delta Rising” a T.V. documentary starring Morgan Freeman. His star continues to shine brightly and his reputation never ceases to grow rapidly. From Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, James Montgomery’s career in music just seems to be getting better and better.
“My new CD is called “From Detroit to the Delta” and it traces my 40 year journey from when I started my band until I finally made it to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Morgan hosted me and producers Laura Bernieri and Christy Scott-Cashman on our trip to the Delta and we put a picture of his place on the back cover. It’s my best album EVER. We try to show all the permutations of blues music from the plantation days until now.”
“It features Johnny Winter, James Cotton, Brad Whitford and Joey Kramer from Aerosmith, The Uptown Horns, and rapper DMC from RunDMC. There is a lot of playing on it. George McCann plays some of the best guitar you will ever hear. My bassist David Hull did a masterful production job and Seth Pappas nails the drums.”
“Our original connection to Morgan Freeman was because I was the “blues consultant” for a movie called “Delta Storm” that was trying to be put into production. It tells the story of Delta blues.”
“Morgan, who loves that part of the country and both blues and classical (!!!) music, became involved after meeting the producers during their many trips down South for pre-production. I’m featured in it along with Morgan, Willie Nelson, Charlie Musselwhite, Mose Alison, Ruby Wilson, Super Chikan, the young horn player Grace Kelly and a host of others including Clarksdale’s Mayor Bill Luckett and the owner of Boston’s long lost Paul’s Mall and current club Sculler’s, Fred Taylor.” For info on it visit:
Visit James Montgomery’s website at www.jamesmontgomery.com
Photos by Kevin Keating and Rick Andrews as marked © 2013 Blues Blast Magazine.
Interviewer A. J. Wachtel is a long-time entertainment journalist in New England and the East Coast who currently writes for The Boston Blues Society and The Noise Magazine. He is well known in the Boston and N.Y.C areas for his work in the Blues for the last two decades.
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