Featured Interview – Lucious Spiller

imageIt is not surprising that Lucious Spiller has chosen to live in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which was the birthplace of John Lee Hooker and Sam Cooke, and where both Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf once called home. Clarksdale is a diverse, intriguing, unpretentious town full of character and authentic blues, which are all words which could easily describe Spiller. Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Spiller at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, a festival which has been described by Johnny Rawls as “more intimate, more down-to-earth than other festivals…you can smell it, you can taste it, you can feel it in the air.”

Spiller arrived for the interview in a car which appeared to be held together with duct tape. The car also provided almost no ability to see out the back window, which was a deficiency that did not concern him because “I’m looking forward, not back.” Spiller apologized ahead of time, thinking that he might be hard to follow in an interview because “I tend to talk in a Pulp Fiction kind of way.” Regarding the state of his car, he explained that a year ago “a huge storm passed through Clarksdale and a 90-foot oak tree fell in front of our house. The wind was so strong it uprooted the tree. It was good thing it didn’t fall on our house and instead fell at an angle and hit the side of the carport my car was under. My car was holding it up and I wasn’t able to move my car for several days. I’m still not able to open the back of it, or one of my passenger doors, so I’m ‘Afro-Engineering’ it.”

Spiller was a two-time International Blues Challenge finalist (placing second in the Solo/Duo category in 2014) and received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Influential Musicianship and Stage Mastery at the first annual Bass Players’ Ball in Little Rock, Arkansas. He comes from a long line of bluesmen, and his father bought him a guitar and taught him his first chords around age four. Plus, he is the nephew of Magic Sam, and is related by marriage to Eddie Clearwater and Carey Bell.

Spiller remembered that Magic Sam used to come to visit his father frequently and he would hear them play together. He added that he had an uncle “who could play accordion really well—music is probably in our DNA.” While those relatives were all a strong influence, he noted that his singing style comes from Larry Davis, “the guy who wrote Texas Flood.”. He stated that when he was a teenager, he mainly played the bass and was hired as a bass-player for Larry Davis. Davis coached him, telling Spiller, “you have a great voice, but you sing too hard—you’ve got to sing soft.” Spiller has also played bass for Albert King, Fenton Robinson and Calvin Levy, noting “that was my music school instead of going to the Berklee School of Music.”

Spiller did graduate college. “I was going to be a music major, but I had never taken a lesson. I was all self-taught by ear. So here I was, making D’s and F’s in music theory, and it was confusing me, going against everything I already knew from being self-taught. So, I changed my major to education and got a degree in elementary art education. You know sometimes kids go to college just to satisfy their parents.”

Spiller reported that his education continued when he formed a band with T-Roy Betton.

image“I learned from him musically how to run a band, how to be the leader, and about song selection. Back in the day I couldn’t even sing and play bass at the same time, but our singer retired, so I had to step up to the microphone.” He later switched back to guitar as he struck out on his own. When asked if he ever missed playing bass, he stated that he has been “picking it up lately at home, and when I’m playing a solo, you’ll notice I’m usually playing the bass line.”

Those who have seen Spiller play may have noticed that he always starts his shows with “Walk with Me, Lord.”

“It’s an old Negro spiritual they used to sing back in the day, in church. It means a lot to me. The first time I sang it was at my grandmother’s funeral—it was her favorite song”. He has also said, in the past, that he believes this song can “cleanse the spirit of the room.”

However, not everyone appreciates him mixing gospel with the blues.

“Some people ask me what I’m doing, bringing the church to the people in the clubs. I do it because it may touch somebody. My uncle, said, ‘you can’t be straddling the fence that way,’ but I told him I’m sitting on the fence with my legs on both sides. God has given me this talent. I have never taken a formal lesson in my life and I can’t read music. Gospel comes from the blues.”

He stated that he considers himself a spiritual person, and his faith has given him strength during the COVID pandemic, which was difficult because “we’re depending on live streaming for money, but I’m old school, and if you are trying to line up and paste different parts together, well I feel like it cuts into your creativity.”

However, he has managed to stay positive, and pointed out that there were some good things about the pandemic “like I’ve never washed my hands so many times in my whole life”.

He noted, “I base my values on the Bible’s stories, like Job. He lost his whole family but never once cussed God and regained everything tenfold. That’s how my father was when he passed from cancer. He never once cussed God for putting those afflictions on him. If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you’ll get everything you need.”

imageSpiller noted that writing songs can be very therapeutic.

“I’m pretty much writing about different life experiences, like in “Put the Blame on Me.” It came from my life events, you know, when you feel like the world was against you. A lot of my songs came from my experiences with relationships. I had to deal with racism growing up too, because we were the first Black family in my neighborhood, growing up in suburbia of St. Louis. I have a song, “Save the World,” about people walking around so politically correct, smiling in my face for financial gain, but would you want me living next door to you? I think it’s very timely now.”

When asked what he thought about some recent public statements people have made indicating their opinion that Caucasian artists should not be playing the blues, Spiller responded:

“Well, I don’t know how Delbert McClinton beats Kingfish for the Grammy, but color has nothing to do with it. The Blues ain’t Black–it’s the blues. Charlie Patton was mixed. My grandfather was half-White, and I’m part Mississippi Choctaw, that’s why I have a red tint to my skin, and my son is mixed. Doc Watson is an excellent singer of the blues. I grew up on all kinds of music— Elton John, Paul McCartney, Edgar Winter, and the list goes on. Racism is passed on by generation to generation, but you’ve got to be a chain breaker. It ain’t Black and it ain’t White—it’s just the blues and it don’t matter what color you are.”

We asked if he believed it was sometimes difficult to get younger Black musicians interested in the blues and he agreed.

“Younger Black kids in Clarksdale say they don’t like the blues, but I’m hoping to get kids interested in it. I mentored Kingfish when he was young and carried him to his first Guitar Center. I used to do some Blues in the Schools shows, although I haven’t done any since the pandemic. I’d really like to get back to doing those again”.

Spiller also was a “Griot teacher,” as part of a non-profit organization that seeks to connect creativity with academic success in children and give them hope about their future. The West African word ‘Griot’ means storyteller, and keeper of the culture. Spiller also reported that he has been “working on a children’s blues project called Pat Your Foot.

image“I test drove it on some kids and they responded well to it. I have some video of a little girl up in Harlem dancing to that song, but I just need to find someone who can put the video together for me because I barely know how to work my phone. I’d like to make the video to try to keep the blues alive with the kids—you’ve got to pass it on.”

Spiller has performed with or opened for a variety of artists, including Bo Diddly, James Brown, Albert King, Big Jack Johnson, T-Model Ford, Bobby Rush, Luther Allison and many more. Spiller has also been featured on the series Moonshine, and Mojo Hands, in which Roger Stolle, (owner of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art), and Jeff Konkel document a road trip to visit important places and artists of the Delta Blues. Roger Stolle has indicated that when people call and want a blues musician to play a festival, Spiller is usually his first choice.

“I recommend Spiller not only because of his musicianship, but because he’s a character. He is a good guy, a character, interesting, and culturally connected to the scene. And he has taken a big interest in the older blues musicians, many of whom are no longer with us. All of that figures into who you want to represent Clarksdale Mississippi, and the blues.”

Spiller was also prominently featured in the documentary, True Delta: Keeping the Blues Alive, and was the subject of another documentary entitled Walk with Me: Lucious Spiller, Called to Sing the Blues, which was produced, written, and directed by Lee Quinby. That documentary outlined a typical week for Spiller, and featured the unique aspects of Clarksdale, Mississippi along with clips of Spiller playing in local clubs.

When Spiller plays, the audience is compelled to listen, and his charisma fills the room. This talented musician can frequently be found playing around town in Clarksdale, and those who witness his shows will soon see why his agent refers to Spiller as “the most unfamous famous person there is.”

As Watermelon Slim once said of Spiller, “if he don’t know how to play it, it ain’t worth the mention.” Lucious Spiller does not currently have a website but can be reached at blue.spiller.booking@gmail.com.

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