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BWW Interview: Sugar Blue Returns with New Album, 'Voyage'

Gonna have to take you back about thirty years, but we will go a damn sight further when it comes to the voice over the phone. With the passing of time, we are seeing the losses of artists from all forms of music, some who can never be replaced.

One who grew up in the circles of legends, to play with them and to carve out his own legacy is Sugar Blue. With the release of his first recording in five years, Voyage finds Blue working through mostly original material, at times circumspect, but in all ways fearless.

His perception of the new album? "It's a little jazzy, it's a little R&B, but it all comes through the basic root, and that's the blues you know," he tells me, "and as Willie Dixon has said so many times, 'the blues are the roots, the rest of the music are the fruits.' And I come through the roots, and I'm just trying to pick some fruits!"

Emotion, mostly laughter punctuates Blue's conversation. Voyage has a slightly surprising selection; his signature, effected harp plows through "One" and "Mercedes Blues." A John Lee Hooker boogie underlies "Time," a song Blue takes up. "When I was a kid," Blue explains, "I didn't think too much about time, because I thought I had as much of it as anybody could ever wish to have, but, as I've gotten older and possibly, hopefully a little wiser I noticed that time is, you know, you're allotted so much of it and you'd better use it to the best of your ability because at some point it runs out. Like sand in an hourglass you know, so I wrote 'Time' because you don't have an unlimited amount of it."

The ballad-like "On My Way" is another he discusses. "That is a song I wrote for my daughter," Blue says. "She was up against it for a while, you know, she didn't know which way she was going, or how she was gonna get there. So I sat down and I wrote that song because I was worried about her, whether she realized that the obstacles she was facing were just a bump in the road. And after I wrote it I kinda realized that 'hey, this song is relevant to my life as well,' -- and too many others, I would think."

The topic turns serious for "Life on the Run," lyrics inspired by the shooting of Tamir Rice. At his mention, Blue turns even more impassioned. "I was..." he begins; he then pauses and continues with an upturn of displeasure, "I was nonplussed, you know. You shoot down as 12-year-old child in the middle of a playground for playing w/a plastic gun? I could not believe it; I mean I was in tears, I was angry. I have a little boy, you know? And I'm saying, 'this could be my kid or anybody else's kid, for God's sake'."

Blue goes on: "I had six brothers, I'm one of seven boys, and there are two of us left, you know, so I know what gun violence and trigger happy policemen can do. (The song) was to bleed some of the anger and pain out of me, because I did not know what to do. So when I wrote that song it was an effort to heal myself, if possible, to get it out of my system, as much as I possibly could, until the next one."

One track that stood out was an homage to Blue's hometown, "NYC." Acoustic blues (with a scratchy record effect to boot), Blue tells of his Harlem upbringing and those who inspired him. "It was great, you know," he recalls. "I met and hung out with, and called uncles some of the great musicians of the thirties, forties and fifties. It was fantastic, it was wonderful; I didn't know who these people were at the time.

'I was very young, especially when I met Billie Holiday, I was too young to be aware of anything except a nipple in a bottle you know," he says with a laugh, "feed me! As I got older and started hanging out around the Apollo and I started realizing, 'Gee, my mother's friends are really famous'. At some point I started getting into the music, and started really paying attention to the names on the back of the album covers, and I was amazed. They were just folks that came around the house and hung out, ate, laughed and talked, and it wasn't till later till I realized who some of these folks were."

No surprise the Big Band Era was where Blue drew his first inspiration. "The first record that I remember moving me very much," he says, "was a tune called 'PC Blues' by Lester Young, and then there was another record called 'Flying Home,' by the great vibraphone player, Lionel Hampton...and I was smitten and bitten!"

Blue's first attempt at making music came "about the sixth grade," he says. "I brought an alto saxophone home with me and I started squeaking and squawking on it. And after about a week my mom couldn't take anymore. She loved music, but she hated to listen to people practice. So she said, 'Well son, you can stay here or it can stay here, but you both cannot stay here together.' I was heartbroken, so my aunt bought me a harmonica and I've been paying it ever since."

My first hearing of Sugar Blue came from a compilation of an early eighties Montreaux Jazz Festival. Blue's solo performance of "Another Man Done Gone" was striking for the power of the performance. "That particular tune was very heavily influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson," he says, "his whole take on playing solo harmonica and singing, you know. My God, I must have worked on that tune for years before I ever got a chance to record it."

Possibly, Blue let me in on how that style evolved: "I was very much into Little Water, and Sonny Boy Williamson has always been a great influence," he explains, "but I started listening a lot to guitar, trumpet and saxophone players. Lester Young, Miles Davis, B.B. King, cause I loved his way of playing blues guitar was so smooth, so jazzy if you will; Charlie Christian and Jimi Hendrix, a very eclectic mix of some very wonderful musicians. I listened to some of everything, rock, swing, R&B, I mean all of it, Stevie Wonder was an influence also; basically I would just listened to the music, and if something really wowed me I would try to absorb as much of it as I could."

Live in Europe: Lucerna Music Hall, Prague, 1988

Blue is especially fond of his years overseas, the opportunities to tour there and engage with fans that may not have been native to the music, but embraced it. "I fell in love with France," Blue says, "I lived there for about seven or eight years. I remember the first time I went to Poland: it was before the fall of the Soviet Union. We were playing there, I had never experienced an audience like that. They were in seventh heaven; they loved it so much it was scary (laughs)! I guess they had to listen to the music on the QT, and when they finally got an opportunity to listen to it live, jazz blues, and so forth, they lost their minds. It was incredible and the most exciting experience with an audience I've ever had in my live. I love them to this day."

Mainstream music fans will especially know Blue for his distinctive harp riff on the Rolling Stones hit, "Miss You." "I had been playing with Louisiana Red back in the early seventies," he recalls, "and Keith Richards was aware of me because of a record called Red, White and Blues, and so I was busking in France, and playing at a little tavern that was a cavern (laughs) and they came out to see me, you know? And not too long after that I got a call, asking if I'd like to come to the studio and work with them, and I said, 'Sure, why not'?"

The circles Blue has traveled in also included Prince. His recent passing hit Blue as it has nearly all others. "Prince rocked my head, man," he exclaims, "I was on the road with him for about a year...first time I heard about it I thought somebody was making a really bad joke. Sad, very very sad. He was one of the greatest. I put him up there with Miles Davis, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Ray Charles, one of the greatest players that ever did it. Really fantastic musician."

The Voyage tour currently will be a series of shows in the Midwest, primarily Chicago. "They're gonna get me, the best I can possibly be," Blue says as his enthusiasm returns. "My love and joy at playing the music, you know, and I love for people to feel the music as I feel it. To feel love for the music as I love the music.

"The blues is part of the black tradition," he continues, "and I'm very proud to be a part of it, and continue to espouse that tradition. And hopefully as Willie Dixon said, 'Boy you can't be shootin' blanks, you gotta be addin' somethin' to the cannon'! And that what I've been trying to do, and I guess it's been my life's work."

Sugar Blue closes with this: "Many people think that the blues is a downer you know and it's sad and it's miserable...but I'd like to tell them all, the blues isn't tragic, the blues is black magic!"

Photo Credits: Ricardo Abbondanza

Prague Photo: Public Domain

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