When Chase Garret got a small keyboard with two free lessons and a Scott Joplin CD for Christmas his mother told the nine-year-old, "Make grandma happy, listen to it." He recognized "The Entertainer" because the local ice cream truck played it. Eighteen years later St. Louis gets to enjoy the fruits of those gifts at Chase Garrett's 8th Annual Piano Stomp.
Garrett grew up in Iowa City with parents who loved the blues. James, Taylor, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, Tracey Chapman and B.B. King were all part of the music collection. The free piano lessons morphed into years of them. By his teenage years Chase says, "My lessons were more my bringing in tunes and getting help in learning how to play them." Otis Spann's Chicago style and hall of famer Ricky Nye's boogie-woogie piano became favorites.
An email to Nye from the 16-year-old Garrett turned into an opportunity to see him play at a house party in Iowa. Ricky invited him up to play with him and even asked him to do another short song. Chase laughs at the memory because "I had no idea of stage presence or time and I played an 8-minute song." A friendship blossomed and Nye invited him to his own 8th annual Blues and Boogie Summit in Cincinnati where other players also took him under their wings.
When Chase was 19 his mother died. A small inheritance inspired him to do something positive in tribute to her. Thus, in 2010 the first annual Piano Stomp in Iowa City. He rented a hall and passed out thousands of flyers and 625 people came. A tradition was born and even as he pursued his blues and boogie passion around the world, Chase would always return home to produce the Piano Stomp.
Over the next six years Garrett would live and play in France, New York City, Boston, Austria, and Madison, WI. The piano bar scene in La La Land is the La Caveau de la Huchette in Paris where he plays every year. While in Boston he became a certified piano technician. In NYC he met his good friend Ethan Leinwand. Ethan's St. Louis experience encouraged Chase to move here in 2015.
Early on he met Emily Richards, a vocalist looking to put a band together. It was the beginning of something beautiful. Today Sweetie and the Toothaches style of KC Swing and Jump Blues attracts a real dance crowd. Chase, the band's musical director says, "The music is influenced by our love for Count Basie, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and always, Otis Spann."
Chase found a piano town in St. Louis with its blues and barrelhouse tradition of great players like Lonnie Johnson, Johnnie Johnson who themselves built on generations of earlier players. "Bringing the Stomp here just made sense," Garrett says, "This is a town with an audience that will really appreciate it." After a night in Iowa City, the Stomp is bringing a full band including vocalist Emily Richards, four horns and four piano players including an extraordinary Parisian, the fourteen-year-old Nirek Mokar. "That," Chase says, "is part of playing it forward like Ricky Nye did for me."
Dion Brown the Executive Director of the National Blues Museum shares Garrett's enthusiasm: "We are happy to partner with Chase because music and history are a match for our mission and the Legends Room with its intimate space and state of the art acoustics is a perfect venue for the 8th Annual Piano Stomp." Along with the NBM, the St. Louis Blues Society and Blues City Deli are also helping to sponsor the journey to St. Louis for two concerts on Saturday, November 11, an afternoon showcase at Blues City Deli at 1 p.m. and the evening show at 7 p.m. at the NBM.
So get ready to Stomp. The stages are set. The Steinway B Grand Piano will be open at the Blues Museum where the dance floor is waiting, and all those fingers are already itchin' to hit those ivories. Let the good times roll.
Click the image below to see all of Bob Baugh's photos of the evening at the NBM.
Editor's note: This article is cross-published with the Nov/Dec issue of the St. Louis Blues Society's BluesLetter.
A dozen years ago Marquise Knox served notice that the prodigy had arrived with his Baby Blues Showcase appearance at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soup. Over the next decade, mentored by the best of the old Delta bluesmen, Knox would hone his musical, songwriting and stage skills and surround himself with some of the best musicians in town. His new album Black and Blue -- the release of which was celebrated at the Pageant on Friday, September, 29 -- shows that the prodigy has truly grown into the bluesman.
As a teenager Knox was embraced by the blues community. Locally Henry Townsend and Big George Brock were mentors. A meeting in Clarksdale with legendary blues drummer Sam Lay led him to Chad Kassem and a record deal. He recorded his first CD, Manchild at 16 with the Michael Burks Band at the Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas. It would be followed by Here I Am in 2011.
In the following years Knox toured and playing regularly around town. He tapped season pros like Matt Lawder on guitar and Michael Battle on drums to join him. Bass player Gus Thornton joined in 2013. They call each other family. You can see their love and respect they have for each other while performing.
Black and Blue, recorded at the September 2016 Bowlful of Blues Fest in Newton Iowa, gives us what Marquise Knox fans know best -- the sweat, grit, power, improvisation and emotion of his live performances. Like all their shows, they did not have a playlist because as Marquise says, "I like to gauge the crowd and play what I feel will work." It was a concert full of surprises.
The first was the band didn't even know that it was recorded. Iowa Public Radio had gotten Knox's permission to record months earlier but he forgot about it. After the show they found out by listening to the tape. They liked what they heard. It fit with Marquise's desire to self-produce on his own record label and his awareness that "you can't make no money until you write your own stuff."
Black and Blue showcases all Knox's skills along with those of his talented bandmates. The opening with riffs on "It's Not Right" put you in a Stevie Ray Vaughn frame of mind. The up-tempo "When My Baby Moves" pairs nicely with his R&B flavored love song, "Sweet Smell." The song ends by morphing into the hard electric blues "Commit a Crime" with Marquise's harp at the steering wheel.
The next two track start on the same chord but head in different directions. "You Keep Asking Me" takes off in an upbeat style to tell a tale about love gone wrong. "Shine in the Rain" slows things down for a song about love, loss and rescue. The final song "One More Reason (To Have the Blues)" with its references to the lead poisoning tragedy in Flint Michigan echoes the social consciousness of the Delta musicians that sang about the floods and tragedies of their times.
The last surprise in Black and Blue comes when Marquise asks and answers the question with a B.B. King style "Can a Young Man Play the Blues." The next track, "Bluesman," is about who Marquise has become. The band was surprised by his choice of this Skip James song because they had never played it. But they are pros as Matt Lawder says, "I know how to follow progressions and we did it." This has become Marquise Knox's signature song. He often leaves the stage greeting his fans and filling the rooms with his powerful voice. He and the band have embraced the song. "It fits me," Marquise says, "This is who I am. I am a bluesman."
Click below to see all of Bob Baugh's photos from the evening.
Andy Novara has been a staple of Folk School of KDHX for the past 5 years. An accomplished guitar, banjo, and mandolin player, Novara uses transcription improvisation and attention to fundamentals as a technique in his performance and instruction technique.
His current band, River Bend Bluegrass is playing The Stage at KDHX on Saturday, September 9.
Andy took time for a chat with Keith Dudding, host of KDHX’s Down Yonder for a discussion on his history, learning and instructional style, and the foundation of River Bend.
Keith Dudding: Full disclosure, I have taught at the Folk School since they opened its doors, but this is the first time that you have been the Program Coordinator.
Andy Novara: Yes.
KD: Tell us a little bit about the Folk School and give us a little history.
AN: I started working at the Folk School about five years ago. This was great for me because it was finding that actual outlet for my interest in bluegrass and old time music, plus the teaching aspect of it. It's very rare that you can kind of find these type of two situations going together. In other words, there's a lot of teaching opportunities, but not so much in the field that I enjoy to play in, in bluegrass and old time, things like that.
KD: Well, since you bring it up, let's review your musical history and how you came to be a bluegrass ... I've heard you play many occasions. You got skills, and you share that through your teaching. What was your first instrument?
AN: It went between guitar and banjo. They're all kind of simultaneously at the same time. I went through a rock phase like anybody else did. But the main instrument, I would say, probably guitar. It was when I really started getting into music it was guitar.
KD: The first music you tried to play on guitar was rock and roll, or what was your-
AN: Oh, man. No. Well my mom actually taught me "Sunshine of Your Love" riff. I don't know if that counts as your first.
KD: Way to go, Mom!
AN: I know. I always give her credit for that, but I think when I first started out I was into Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was, in my mind, as the greatest of all time.
KD: When was your first introduction to bluegrass music that you recall?
AN: Actually, around that same time, my father was an official wildlife biologist. I was working on a refuge for summers. The first exposure to that was there was a man named Dave Prosser. I bet you know his brother, Zane.
KD: Zane, I know Zane. Of course, yeah.
AN: Dave is an outstanding banjo player and he'd always have Flatt and Scruggs going in the truck. I first heard that through him and got the inkling of this style of music. It was through him, working and hearing that music and watching him play banjo. I took a couple lessons from him and hung out at his house. The whole bit. That's really where I got started in bluegrass music, through him.
KD: Pursuing it ever since and playing at a very high level, if I may say.
AN: I appreciate it.
KD: Well, since you mentioned taking lessons, are you self-taught, essentially, on all your instruments?
AN: I would say self-taught. But I'm always seeking out other players at festivals and things, show me a lick. There's a lot of local guys that have helped me out, Cecil Tinnon, Greg Silsby. He's great. All the local guys that I've picked things up off of.
KD: Now you share that through both teaching at the Folk School and other locations.
AN: Yeah, exactly. That's the idea with me teaching, is just sharing what I've learned from other people along the way.
KD: What’s your, I don't want to say a "secret" of teaching, but what have you found about ... You can play some very complicated stuff.
KD: You break down Tony Rice licks and work out solos, which that ain't easy...when people are up to a certain level of proficiency and they want to make that leap, what's the challenge? How do you help them get from where they are to where they want to be?
AN: At a higher level of proficiency, a lot of times what I like to do is just teach them how to listen to records.
AN: It seems simple enough, but a lot of people don't dive to this subtleties of these old records. There's ways of repetitive listening. With today's technology you can even slow some of these things down to the point of where you can rip it and learn how to play it on your instrument. I think that's a huge thing because, I'd hear J.D. Crowe's stories of him learning all the Scruggs solos from records. Slowing the RPM down. It's nothing new.
KD: Just a little bit about the instructional approach of the Folk School--Because you were looking for an outlet, you found the Folk School 5 years ago. What's the school philosophy, or what makes it different than just taking private lessons from somebody like you?
AN: Well, the school in general is the idea being that we get other students together. The Folk School, we have group classes with all different types of age levels and abilities and get them to play together. So, that's one of the most important things about music, I would think, is the idea of playing with other people as soon as possible. Having a common vision of how to progress forward as a group. I think that helps the learning, not to sound weird, but you're almost held accountable to your buddies in the classes. You gotta hold up your end of the bargain on this tune. We have showcase sessions where they actually perform in front of the public, so that's very interesting for students to try to get all the material worked up.
KD: And the listening part, I mean one on one it's like you and an instructor, and if it ain't you it's the instructor. But here if you're playing-
AN: Right, you listen to other people and you learn from your fellow students as well, it's not just the instructor. You might hear a great mandolin lick from some guy in your class and, hey can you teach me that. That's what I enjoy about it. I learn things from my students all the time. They bring in tunes that they want to learn, or different things I haven't heard. It's definitely a kind of group environment and that's what I really enjoy about the Folk School.
KD: In addition to the lessons and the classes on individual instruments, the Folk School also offers classes in ensembles.
AN: Yes, in ensemble groups, in other words we have bluegrass ensembles, we have country ensembles, we have Beatles ensembles, John Hartford ensembles going right now. So those are specialized classes dealing with a certain subset of music. So, the Hartford class, for example, would just be doing Hartford songs.
KD: In addition to the ensemble classes you also have the jam sessions.
AN: 3 times a month. They're on Saturdays and Sundays, they're held here at the stage or over at the Folk School, which is a great opportunity to learn it's open to the public, all ages and ability levels.
KD: As fine a guitar player as you are, and you are one fine guitar player. You don't play guitar in your own bluegrass band. That's because you got the other guy-
AN: Exactly, I got the other, great guitar player Dustin Greer, to take the reins.
KD: You guys are both majorly skilled. How do you decide who's gonna play guitar. Did you, rock paper scissors. Was it a coin flip-
AN: We flipped a coin, we flipped a coin.
KD: Because you are almost interchangeable apart from your styles ... I'm sure you could point out the differences. You must be able to sit back and go, wow, to either one of you.
AN: Sure. I always feel me and Dustin are kind of birds of a feather as far as our interests and our playing styles. But, Dustin's just an incredible musician and I'm lucky to play with him, weekly. So, I'm learning stuff from him constantly.
KD: Thing I like about your band is that, you guys could play away from the music or you could go out as far out as you wanted to. But, that's not the point. You guys are really, you're tied to the traditional sound and even so you play a lot of hot licks and a lot of great stuff. But, it's not like let's stretch it out and expand, it's like, let's execute the form.
AN: Sure. The idea of being with that band is trying to execute a well thought out show. In the vein of the Monroes, the Stanley Brothers, that type of thing. Having not too many jam outs. Everything is pretty structured as far as breaks and back ups and things like that. It's just the music that we like to listen to and it's music that we like to play so, we hope other people enjoy it as well.
KD: Playing The Stage here at KDHX on, I just looked at the sign, Saturday the 9th.
AN: Yes sir.
KD: I got it right. And something else coming up after that, I'm sure there is.
AN: There's a lot going on. We're playing at Picking on the Huzzah, a festival coming down late September. So, that should be fun playing in the resort area. We're just actually finishing up an album right now, getting it mastered. Final stages of that so we're pretty excited. I probably have that coming out sometime late Fall.
KD: Cool, well looking forward to hearing that and playing it on KDHX. Thank you for the visit and-
AN: Oh thank you.
KD: Thank you for your work as program coordinator at the Folk School and also your work in River Bend. Looking forward to seeing you at The Stage here on the 9th! Go see them, they're great!
River Bend Bluegrass perform at the Stage @ KDHX on Friday, September 9 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets available online.
When Gus Thornton's Momma showed him the Christmas catalogue he told her he wanted the $3 Lone Ranger and Tonto guitar. Little did he know then that nearly sixty years later his choice would lead him being on the Legends Stage at the National Blues Museum with David Dee where both were honored for "Keeping the Blues Alive."
The September 8, 2017 recognition event was part of the museums Howlin' Friday show that featuring George Brock who received the first "Keeping the Blues Alive" award last April. Dion Brown, Executive Director of the NBM, says: "We started this award as a way to recognize the invaluable contributions of our local musicians to blues music. At the same time, we recognize it takes more than a front person to keep the blues alive and we intend to honor those folks too." Gus Thornton, Marquise Knox's bassist and one of premiere players in the country, provides a perfect example.
Thornton isn't a frontman, never has been. But he is a bass man and in Marquise Knox's words "a bedrock, my bedrock." His longtime bandmate in Kim Massie and the Solid Senders, guitarist Steve Martin, agrees: "Bass players in general don't get credit. They're in back. That's the way it is. But, you sure notice when they're not there because the bottom falls out. The bass is the glue that holds a band together." B.B. King knew that. His daughter, Shirley King, says, "Look at the pictures. My Daddy always kept the bass player next to him. He said 'the bass was the most important instrument for keeping the music together.'"
Learnin' the Licks
Influenced by Memphis, Motown and the Beatles on their home radio, Gus's career started out with living room concerts with his brothers and sisters and writing a song, "Cincinnati Blues." The only problem was the guitar wasn't tuned properly, he didn't know how to play and he played it upside down. By middle school, a real acoustic guitar, picks, and Webb Pierce and Homer and Jethro albums became part of the self-learning process. Gus says, "I learned hip country music." Lessons from Dan Jones at Sonny Shields music store in East St. Louis also helped.
An attempt to play in the junior high l band didn't work out. They didn't need guitars. He was told he didn't have an embouchure for trumpet. He wanted to try sax but they said he would have to learn clarinet. "Clarinet," Gus says, "No way I was doing that. The clarinet section was all girls." He quit the school band and looked for other outlets.
Playing with friends became one of those outlets but when they went to form a band there was a problem. Like most kids they all started out on guitar so they found themselves with three guitars and no bass. Gus became the bass volunteer picking out the notes on four strings of his guitar. Turns out it was a pretty smart move.
The other outlet was a gospel group he joined at 14. The Illinois Special recruited Thornton, who when he told them "I'm not that good," responded "that's okay, we'll teach you." And they did according to Gus: "They helped my ear out by having to listen to harmony, the lead singer and understanding changes and how to hear them."
From Young Disciples to Albert King
The road to Thornton's success came in 1968 during high school when the auditioned at the South Side Center in East St. Louis for the Young Disciples. This legendary model cities program (1967-72) was developed by Allen Merry a woodwind player who had toured or recorded with Curtis Amy, Ray Charles, Hank Williams Jr., and Little Richard. It was designed to help keep kids off the streets in the troubled times of the late '60s but it became much more. It became an opportunity for kids to tap and develop their talents in a mini Motown.
Merry exposed kids to all kinds of music. Thornton says, "We got it all -- Motown, Memphis, Big Band -- I saw Stan Kenton, Ray Charles, James Brown and more." The 80 members of the Young Disciples had multiple singing, dance, music groups and even a comedy act. They learned how to perform, book shows, manage, wire equipment, start a record company, and make records even booking time at Sun Studios in Memphis.
Gus's first record credits come from those days as he performed as part of the rhythm section backing up various groups like Primes, the Primettes (after the Motown groups), the Debonaires and the Debonettes, The Georgettes, the Gents and the Meditations. It was an exciting time that included teenage friends like Renee Smith, Marsha Evans, and Sharon Clarke all of whom later worked with Oliver Sain.
The Disciples came to an end in 1972 and Gus took his Fender Precision to form his own band, F Troop and later the Free Spirit Band which included Oliver Johnson a horn player. Johnson got a job with Albert King's band ('75-'81) when that Free Spirit broke up. Thornton would go with him by to watch them practice. He had met Albert during the Disciple days. In 1977 King asked him to join the band for a West Coast trip. Gus thought, "I want to see California and there's knee deep snow here," so he went.
The rehearsals were cool but onstage everything went off the rails as Albert showed a side that many musicians had seen: "King was yelling at me onstage. I couldn't do anything right. He was saying, 'I'm gonna pull the trigger (fire him).'" By Chicago Gus thought it was over and he planned to quit but he says, "Albert got nicer the closer they got to home. So I decided to stay a few more weeks." It turned into years of traveling the US and Europe. He became close friends with King and another young guy who used to come and jam with them, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Those relationships would prove pivotal in coming years.
In 1979 another bass player, Frank Dauber, joined the band. He also was a bus driver, mechanic and brought his own band. Gus was appointed the road manager which taught him money management and booking skills but he became a part time player. He eventually left the band and came home. It turned out to be a good move. He began freelancing and found he had become established. Everyone wanted Gus Thornton. He had the chops and the rep after touring with one of the greatest blues talents in the country.
In 1983 Albert King asked him to return to the band. Again, what Gus thought would be a few weeks turned into years and three albums: San Francisco 83, I'm in a Phone Booth, Baby and In Session (with Stevie Ray Vaughn). Over the next two decades he would record with the best in the business including: SRV and Blues at Sunrise with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Two Fisted Mama with Katie Webster, two albums with Johnnie Jonson -- Blue Hand Johnnie and Johnnie Be Eighty! And Still Bad, and Can't Stop Now with Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne. He has more than 25 albums to his credit with the new Marquise Knox release Black and Blue being the latest.
It was the early albums with King that Thornton says "taught me how to make real records by getting closer to the actual production and learning how to do professional photo shoots." He says "friendship with Albert and Stevie, jamming with Stevie's band and meeting other famous musicians" are all part of his special memories of those times.
You Gotta Have Heart
Thornton is a guy that gets all the good adjectives -- nicest, kind hearted, sweetest, friendliest, calm, cool, laid back, easy going, effortless, encouraging, etc. Marquise Knox says that every time he tells Gus "you're too cool," Gus says, "No, I'm just careful."
He has a soft spot for young musicians like Marquise when he was a kid and the up and coming Matt "The Rattlesnake" Lesch. Matt was star struck when Knox invited him to sit in with the band four years ago. "I knew Gus was the guy on In Sessions and I still watch it. I asked him for an autograph and he asked me for mine. We have stayed in touch ever since."
Don't let the descriptions fool you. There is a tenacity and focus in his seemingly effortless playing style and as Steve Martin puts it a personal "strength in the face of diversity." St. Louis saw the latter when he suffered a stroke onstage at the 1996 Big Muddy Blues Fest. When the EMT's arrived Gus realized, "I couldn't tell them where the pain was. I couldn't talk. I couldn't point. Half my body was paralyzed." Their quick actions helped save his life. However, it was the beginning of a long journey to a 2011 heart transplant.
Today he works in support of heart research. One of his fellow transplant patients who works with him is an old Disciples alumnus, Sharon Clark. They have played fundraisers together to raise money for the research. He also remains close to the family of his heart donor Anthony "Tony" Mather. Just prior to appearing at this year's Big Muddy he held an emotional reunion with them in Wisconsin. Thornton is still overwhelmed and grateful to St. Louis Blues Society Mission Fund and the blues community for their support though his heart related health issues.
Gus came back from the transplant to rejoin the Kim Massie and the Solid Senders. A couple of years later Marquise Knox asked him to become part of his band. He had known and admired Gus since he was a kid. Gus had encouraged him because he wanted to pass the torch and keep the blues alive. It was a great match. The band, which includes Matt Lawler (guitar) and Michael Battle (drums), all say, "we are a family." They look out for Gus on road trips making sure he gets the appropriate rest and has comfortable arrangements for long drives.
There is a symmetry in seeing Thornton with Knox. Gus started as the talented young guy playing with the old pro, Albert King. Now the tables are turned. He's the old pro working with the talented young gun. Their love and respect for one another was obvious on the Legends Stage. As Knox puts it at the ceremony: "Gus is living history. He is a legend and it is time he got the recognition he deserves. I hope I'll be as good as a man as those I've learned from, David Dee and Gus Thornton."
There was a lot of blues history jamming on stage following the ceremony. Gus and David Dee joined George Brock for a rousing rendition of B.B. King's "How Blue Can You Get." Then Marquise came up taking Matt Leach's guitar for "Two Trains Running (Still a Fool)" and "Walkin' the Dog" while Ben Wells, Tommy Bankhead's drummer, kept the beat. Gus was there playing his style of "being in the groove, not getting in the way," and loving every minute of it.
Yes, it was a night to be remembered for a guy who has contributed mightily to "Keeping the Blues Alive" in St. Louis. Gus's humble response to the evenings accolades was to recognize his partner, Lisa Carr, his family and to offer up these words: "I have always tried to treat others the way I would like to be treated. It would be a better world if we all treated each other that way." Amen, brother.
Click below to see Bob Baugh's photographs of the event.
"It had been a little bit too long," says three-time Grammy Award winning singer, songwriter and guitarist Ben Harper about reuniting with his long-time band, The Innocent Criminals. After six years apart, the backing group, which includes bassist Juan Nelson, percussionist Leon Mobley, drummer Oliver Charles, lead guitarist Jason Mozersky and keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Jason Yates, began rehearsing together again in 2015 to jump back in the studio. They released a new album, Call it What it Is, in 2016 and are currently touring in support, making a stop at The Pageant on September 11.
"Everybody was ready and had a lot to bring to the table. We personally had lived a lot of lives in the time that we stopped touring together," says Harper. "We never stopped being friends, but stopping touring. So with us getting back together, there was a lot to catch up on; but any grievances had already been aired at that point, which was nice. We were able to start again with a clear path."
Call it What it Is sounds like a classic Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals record, a blending of styles from reggae and roots rock to folk and blues, anchored by the sound of Harper's ever-soulful voice and signature Weissenborn lap slide guitar. Harper has never shied away from addressing social issues like racism, classism and social justice in his music, and this album no exception, particularly the title track, which mentions the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Ezell Ford and Michael Brown by name, demanding, "Call it what it is -- murder."
About a year before recording the album, Harper released a video of an acoustic version of the song on YouTube and was taken aback by the response.
"Some people had their arms wide open for that song and some people ducked. It definitely taught me a lot about not only just the division in America, but the division within the people who listened to my own music," he says.
"It being the record title has led the charge for that record. It was a title that certain people had second-guessed as so forward and demanding and speaking in absolutes in its own way; and for me, that's what punk rock is about. I'm not punk rock, but punk soul, punk folk, roots rock, protest music -- protest music that not only is just a song, but that makes you actually want to protest. It's only real protest music if it makes you want to protest. I just had to lead with it."
The heaviness of that opener is balanced with lighter tunes like "Shine," "Pink Balloon," and nostalgic "When Sex Was Dirty." Beautifully simple ballad "All That Has Grown" is just Harper's voice and lap slide without the backing of the band.
Harper began his guitar career in his early teens. It was in his blood, so to speak. For more than 50 years, his family has owned the Folk Music Center Museum & Store in Claremont, Calif., where he grew up receiving a first-hand music education from his grandparents, parents and every musician who walked through the door. He knew early on that slide guitar, particularly the rare antique Weissenborn lap slides, would be his instrument of choice.
"I discovered the Weissenborns early. It was the sound of slide guitar period that spoke to me, and when I started reaching towards it to play at an early age, I felt like I could get around better on the slide guitar when it was on my lap," he says. "Because it was such an eccentric environment I grew up in, lap steel guitar and dulcimers and autoharps and guitars and instruments that were played on the lap were just normal to me."
"I'd see every instrumentalist that played a unique instrument come through my family's store. I'd see them playing lap steel guitar and regular bottleneck slide, and I'd hear flat pickers and finger pickers and shredders come in, so I really did have a lot to gravitate toward," says Harper. "But I definitely was pulled toward lap guitar and I played fretless guitar before I played guitar with frets. I didn't even care that guitars had frets until I was 18 or 19 years old."
Raised in a family of musicians, it was the realization of a lifelong dream when Harper finally collaborated with his mother, songwriter Ellen Harper, to release an album of folk tunes in 2014 appropriately titled Childhood Home. Though she put her professional music career on hold to raise Ben and his two brothers, he says she continued to put pen to paper and keep writing songs. A collaboration seemed inevitable, but they never could find the time.
"It was something she and I always talked about. It would be part of every conversation at every family holiday," he says. "We finally both had the time and we had the material. It surprised me how challenging it was to select the right material to do a duet record with your mom. You can't just do any old love songs, so it forced us to pick our material very carefully, which I'm proud to say that we did. It was a healing process in the only way that music is and I think you can hear it woven into the words and into the textures in that record."
The year prior, Harper saw another dream collaboration finally come to fruition when he released the album Get Up! with one of his musical heroes, Charlie Musselwhite, which went on to win the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2014. The effort was also a long time coming, he says.
"I've been listening to Charlie all my life. Charlie Musselwhite is one of the pillars of the Blues and my family had not only a record collection, but a music archive, so of course Charlie was deeply woven into that. I first recorded with Charlie and John Lee Hooker on what was to be John Lee's last studio record, and from that, Charlie and I have just been lifelong friends."
The pair recently completed a follow-up album called "No Mercy in This Land" that they plan to release in March or April of next year.
Outside of music, Harper has long been involved in various causes, backing up the social messages in his music with grassroots activism. Along with his wife, his most recent project was setting up the New Light Boys' Home in Khela-Ghar, India to provide the sons of women in prostitution the opportunity to grow up in a safe and secure environment and realize their full potential. The Harpers worked with CNN Hero Urmi Basu to creating the new home.
"She has had a girls' home for many years that is an institution in Calcutta. My wife and I came to the conclusion that we also needed to address the boys and give a place for the boys there. And so we took to building a boys' home there this year with Urmi," Harper says.
"That is what I've been putting the majority of my focus into lately; but I'm always looking for a cause, because to me that is the purpose and the point of it all -- if you can reach outside your own life and at least even hold the door for somebody. It's all about holding the door."
Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals will appear with Hey King at The Pageant on Monday, September 11 at 8 p.m.