Once in a blue moon, a musician comes along who’s able to cross mediums effortlessly as he delivers a thoroughly modern touch to songs that existed decades before he was born or creates new tunes that fit seamlessly into what’s come before.
That’s the case for Joel Paterson, the guitar master best known to blues audiences for his work with The Cash Box Kings, a band that’s been delivering post-War jump and electric blues since being formed by harp player/guitarist Joe Nosek while a University of Wisconsin student in 2001.
The Kings cut their first album a year later and shot to international prominence in 2007 when they added the powerful voice of Oscar Wilson to handle lead vocals. The guitar seat, meanwhile, has been occupied by a revolving group of top Midwesterners, including Paterson, founding member Travis Koopman, Steve Freund and Billy Flynn with Joel a standout instrumentalist in the band in recent years.
Both Flynn and Paterson were involved in Royal Mint, the Kings’ latest Alligator Records release, which finished in second place behind label mate Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio on the Living Blues magazine radio charts for 2017, quite an honor considering that data is gathered from broadcasters around the globe.
But that’s only the tip of the musical iceberg where Paterson’s involved. While still with The Cash Box Kings in spirit and although his relationship with band mates remains strong, his work with the band has become less frequent because of the demand for his work in other areas.
“Way back in the early ‘80s, I was into punk rock like all the other weirdos,” recalls the Madison, Wis., native. “I was 13 years old, and I wanted to be a punk rock drummer. That’s all I knew about.”
Like many future musicians, Joel grew up in a home that included a large, diverse record collection. In this case, it belonged to his mother who was heavily into ‘60s folk and blues.
“I’d always pick out records and play them randomly,” Paterson recalls. “I’ve told this story before, but one day I put on The Best Of Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was a reissue of an album previously released as Autobiography In Blue with Lightnin’ alone playing acoustic guitar.
“I put it on and literally did a 180 with everything. ‘What is this,’ I wondered. From then on, I wanted to play guitar, not drums. I borrowed one from a friend of my mom’s and taught myself how to play just by listening to that record.”
Hopkins was playing everything in the key of E on that disc, making things easier to follow. And Paterson began expanded his skills by befriending a couple of local street musicians, who clued him in on guitarist techniques while they played for tips on the street around town.
“I play a lot of different styles today,” Joel says. “But when I got into the blues, I was always into the 1920s finger pickers. In my mind, that’s still the way I play, just in different incarnations.”
Paterson broadened his musical education when he began frequenting B-Side Records, a store that’s still going strong in Madison today. He learned to love the stylings of Blind Blake, the Piedmont-style guitarist who recorded for Paramount between 1926 and 1932 and whose sound resembled ragtime piano.
Then he moved on to Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy, and he acquired as many copies of first-generation blues label Yazoo records as he could afford in the process.
“That’s still my favorite way to listen to the old ‘20s blues,” he says. “Today, people will hear me playing like Chet Atkins or (Elvis guitarist) Scotty Moore or Jazz Gillum finger style, and they’ll ask me: ‘How did you learn that? How can I do it too?’
“They want an easy answer. But I tell ‘em: ‘I’m still playing the same thumb pattern that Blind Blake or John Hurt did in the ‘20s — they should study that. And I’m not sure how far back that style goes because they didn’t start recording it until 1925.”
Paterson’s musical journey grew to include early Chicago artists Robert Nighthawk and Muddy Waters, then Freddie and B.B. King, Albert Collins and Magic Sam as well as a host of jazz, jump and country artists, including Charlie Christian, Tiny Grimes, Barney Kessel, Les Paul, Grant Green, Merle Travis and Chet Atkins – with Paterson copping chops at every stop along his way.
He began playing on the street himself while a UW student. “I started working with an upright bass player named Todd Cambio,” Joel recalls. “We made pretty good money playing country blues, especially in the fall after football games.”
And he got to experience many of the top bluesmen in Chicago, too. They frequently made the three-hour drive up from the big city to play the clubs that populated the college town.
Paterson graduated Wisconsin with an art degree, but started playing blues professionally almost immediately. He jokes that his education has gone to waste. In truth, however, it’s come in pretty handy because he uses it to design album packaging for Ventrella Records, the label he’s owned and operated since releasing his solo country blues CD, Down In The Bottom, in 2001. Like the music he plays, many of his covers reinvigorate the feel of older days.
One of the most fluid, stylish pickers on the planet, Joel’s versatility is beyond compare — as evidenced by the elegant instrumental CD, Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar, he released to critical acclaim on Bloodshot Records last holiday season. It’s a collection of timeless tunes – everything from “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to “Winter Wonderland” and “Silver Bells” — all delivered in a style that would fit comfortably in the 1950s or ‘60s.
“I spent almost a year working on it and four months recording it,” Joel says. “People have been bugging me forever to make a Christmas record, so I finally forced myself to do it. It was difficult. Working on Christmas tunes and playing gigs. I was working on them right up until the last second. It’s a lot of jazz and Western swing, and heavily influenced by Les Paul.”
Like Les did in the past, Joel overdubbed the lead guitar tracks with literally hundreds of variations that interlace brilliantly. Despite coming out fairly late in the season, the CD was so well received that he had a tough time keeping up with demand, and he plans to reintroduce it and put it out on vinyl for the first time when The Hawk starts blowing again off Lake Michigan next fall.
About five months prior to releasing the Christmas album, he produced the One Room Blues CD for Airway Records, which presented Kings bandmate Wilson in a soul-blues format for the first time despite having loved it from childhood, having grown up surrounded by it on Chicago’s South Side.
“That turned out good – that was a lot of fun,” Joel says. “It was a loose thing. I arranged the music, we had one rehearsal and I went in there and recorded it, and we knocked it out in a couple of days.”
Despite the short turn-around, it received rave reviews.
Depending on the evening, you might find Paterson playing straight-ahead ‘20s acoustic blues, but you’ll run across him in the top jazz joints in the Windy City, too. Look elsewhere, and there he’ll be, playing honky-tonk, jump, rockabilly, country or Western swing, too. Look again and he’ll even be playing pedal steel.
His history as a sessions musician includes work with Pokey LaFarge, country artists The Cactus Blossoms, rockabilly and roots star JD McPherson, mod-pop mavericks The Insomniacs, roots artist Rachel Ries, Canadian acoustic blues guitarist Steve Dawson, Milwaukee blues harp legend Jim Liban and hot jazz keyboard player Carl Sonny Leyland, among others.
He and Wilson work together whenever Oscar’s in town. “I still play with him whenever I can,” Joel says. “I have him in my jazz band sometimes. I have him in my blues band. We do a whole different side of Oscar that some people might not hear.”
A traditional bluesman at heart, Joel does admit that he frequently works in other areas. “I’m just doing what I do, which is playing in a zillion bands around Chicago and paying my rent,” he says.
As hectic as it might be and as impossible as it might be to others, it’s a schedule he’s been maintaining for years. He works steadily with at least four different bands, all delivering distinctly different brands of music, in addition to appearing as a guest with other acts around town. His own gigs feature a core group of musicians who switch hats as deftly as he does. It’s a continuing challenge because they’re such a talented group, they’re often booked to work elsewhere.
“It would be fun to put them all together into one supergroup,” Paterson says. “But the economics of it makes it impossible. All bands in Chicago have to be kinda small to make a living.”
One ensemble, The Modern Sounds, tries to emulate the classic blues, swing and rockabilly feel of Los Angeles-based Modern Records – hence the name. Founded by Saul, Jules and Joe Bihari in 1945 and in operation into the ‘60s, its lineup included Etta James, Joe Houston and Ike and Tina Turner. Paterson teams with Beau Sample on upright bass and Alex Hall on drums in a trio format to deliver a big sound that includes three-piece harmonies. Both men are also involved with Joel’s label.
“That’s a lot of fun for me because we can go into any situation and figure out what to do for each occasion depending on the club or the audience,” Paterson says. “We can play the blues, swing or jazz. When we back up Oscar Wilson, we can do a lot of old rhythm-‘n’-blues. We’re like the session guys who can kinda fit in with anybody.”
Or you might find him working with The Western Elstons, playing honkytonk, rock and country on guitar and pedal steel, accompanied by bassist Casey McDonaugh and guitarist/vocalist Scott Ligon. “They’re an amazing band to play with,” he says. “They’re amazing harmony singers, just like the Everly Brothers or the Lehman Brothers. So they just sing their songs and I try to stay out of their way, playing guitar licks and solos.”
If their names are familiar, they should be. Paterson works with them when they’re not touring with NRBQ, a band that’s traveled the world for five decades, fusing everything from pop to jazz to blues and Tin Pan Alley and that’s known for its spontaneous live performances.
“I bought a junker pedal steel in a music store about 10 years ago, maybe more,” Joel says. “I said: ‘What the hell is this thing?’ I didn’t know the first thing about it, but really got into it. It’s the kind of instrument you really have to become obsessed with for about five years before you can do anything on it.”
He doesn’t play it often, but does include it on his recordings.
“A lot of the gigs I play are with Devil In A Woodpile, which plays a lot of ragtime,” Paterson continues. “I’ve been with that band on and off for about 15 years. We play every Thursday at The Hideout (in the River North neighborhood) with Beau and Rick Sherry, who plays harmonica and washboard. I play acoustic National metal-body guitar. We play all ‘20s and ‘30s blues. That’s where I get that out of my system – the fingerpicking stuff, Washboard Sam, Robert Johnson and Blind Blake.”
Other nights, Paterson’s at the Green Mill in Uptown. Opened in the early 1900s as a roadhouse and restaurant, its checkered history includes being both a meeting place for Al Capone and other gangsters and a cabaret that once was home to Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor and Charlie Chaplin. It’s also been Chicago’s top jazz venue for the better part of the past century.
“The Green Mill is probably my favorite room to play because it hasn’t changed much since the 1940s,” Joel says. “When you play there, you really feel like you’re back in the day.”
It’s there that he works in an organ trio with Chris Foreman, a Chicago keyboard institution, and Hall or Mike Schick on drums. “We play behind the bar every Sunday,” Joel says. “That’s where the original stage used to be.
“Chris loves Jimmy McGriff, so we play a lot of his 1960s blues and soul/jazz. It’s a real education for me. He’s amazing to try and keep up with. That gig doesn’t kick off until 11 p.m., so it’s a really different, late-night crowd. All the night owls and people who work in bars come out to hear us.
“It’s great for me because I get to play anything from B.B. and Freddie to Bill Jennings and Charlie Christian to Kenny Burrell and Grant Green – all great guitar players. That’s a dream come true because Foreman makes that possible.”
And there are frequent spinoffs of all four groups depending on Joel’s bookings, including one with Ligon and McDonaugh that plays old-school soul, more work with Liban, who was the first bandleader to hire Paterson for a paying gig in the ‘90s, and other work as The Joel Paterson Trio, a jazz ensemble.
“I just do whatever makes sense,” he says, “which includes at the Honky Tonk BBQ (at 18th and Racine), where I play a dinner set every month as a duo. Sometimes it’s me and Oscar, other times me and Beau or someone else. It keeps things interesting.”
Because of his schedule, Paterson doesn’t get to hear other Windy City guitarists very often, but he has great respect for several others, including jazz master Andy Brown and Israeli-born, Chicago-based jazz and bluesman Guy King, who recently hired him for a Green Mill gig.
“That was a lot of fun,” Joel says. “Normally, we guitar players don’t get to play together because of budgets. He’s a guy I really love because he mixes blues and jazz in a way that’s really hard to pull off – and he can sing. He also comes out to my Sunday gigs sometimes and sits in. It’s always a pleasure. He’s very enthusiastic, and he loves music.”
But that’s not all!
Paterson’s constantly constructing new musical rosters depending on the gig. “What I enjoy doing is, whenever I’m hired for a festival or show, is to figure out the best lineup – new bands than never existed before. It keeps things fresh, especially when you put people together who’ve never met before. There are so many great musicians out there right now and it’s hard to keep track of peoples’ schedules these days, making it a real challenge.”
With all that on his plate in Chicago, Paterson doesn’t venture out of the Windy City very often. “That’s kinda how I like it,” he admits. “I like to go out for little trips and little festivals. But I don’t know how people do that and travel all the time. I don’t have the connections to do it, either, because I’ve been working so long just around town.
“I love going to Europe for a week or so. But if you want to keep your regular gigs going, you can’t leave town much because you lose them to other musicians.
“Back in the day, I would’ve been just a guitar player,” he points out. “Computers have not made our lives easier because, now, we have to do everything. Now, I have to design a website, I have to be my own booking agent, my own graphic designer and more.”
How does he keep everything straight? Email tag mostly, Joel says, “which is one of the least fun things about the music business these days. Every day — when you think you’re going to practice or learn new songs for your gig tonight — you realize you’ve spent the whole day playing email tag.
“Computers are a love-hate thing for all of us. It’s amazing that we can speak to people all over the world and meet people on Facebook or wherever. But there are times when it bogs you down trying to keep up with it.
“There are times when I just want to disappear for a week and play guitar. But after I do, I feel guilty I did it! Man, I can’t believe I feel guilty about practicing! That’s what I was supposed to be doing!”
When asked if he had any suggestions for younger guitarists, Paterson referenced the internet once more. “There’s a lot of great players out there,” he says. “I’ve seen ‘em all over Instagram, Facebook and other places.
“They’re amazing technically and seem to be pleasing people while sitting in their rooms playing a mile a minute. It makes me think: ‘Jeez, how do these people learn this stuff?’ because I didn’t do any of that when I was that young.
“But I don’t hear ‘em playing any songs. Without getting into the older styles, they’re not getting into the soul of it. That’s the one thing that seems to be missing these days in a world where there’s so much information available on the internet. There aren’t very many (young guitarists) who are digging in to the history of the music and who are really understanding what they’re playing.
“That’s very important with the blues,” Joel says, “because the blues is not difficult technically to understand. It gets its power is from the way you communicate emotion and dynamics. It comes through tone and understanding.”
Not incessant flurries of notes that flow like a torrent across the net nowadays.
If you’re going to play blues, you have to respect its history, Paterson insists. “It goes wa-a-ay back. And it’s far more than people playing guitar licks in videos on the computer. I work on my technique all the time. It never ends. And I’d rather hear more songs rather than licks.
“But,” he adds with a chuckle, “I’m probably more guilty of that than anyone else.”
One listen to Paterson in action, however, shows beyond a shadow of doubt that that’s untrue. He all class with not a shred of shredding.
You can learn more about Joel, check out some of his videos or pick up his music by visiting his website: www.joelpaterson.com.
Check out Joel’s Facebook page at: www.joelpaterson.com
Interviewer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. 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.