James Wheeler

I’m not sure how long I’ve known James, probably somewhere between 25-30 years. I first met James when Frank Pellegrino hired him to play with us at the Monday night blues jam at the Kingston Mines. He was not particularly talkative, but it was obvious that he not only was a very experienced musician, but that he took it seriously. So my first impression of James was something like, “I’d better not piss this guy off.” It took me years to understand that he had a sense of humor.

A few years later, I did my first tour with Otis Rush, along with James, Sumito (Ariyo) Ariyoshi, and Sam Burton. And I felt then like I knew him a little better, and that maybe he thought I could play. And came slowly to realize that he actually liked it. When he called, he would greet me with a hearty “Harleone!” When the opportunity came to work with him in another jam setting, this time at Rosa’s, I was glad to get on board.

A couple of years ago Frank Pellegrino had James and me nominated for a Chicago Music Award. We didn’t think we would win, but James was a good sport, and we went to the ceremony and had a good time watching, and shared a few laughs.

James WAS a serious musician. I liked playing with him because he was a disappearing breed. He liked chords and chord changes. He could be patient, but he wanted his stuff played right. He wasn’t shy about correcting you, and if you persisted in not getting it, you might get an eye roll or two. It was good to know he approved of what you were doing. He especially was fond of Ariyo, and it is sad to see that mutual admiration broken up. If you watch his last Rosa’s jam on gigity.tv, you can see that at the end of the night, James pulls out a list of songs he wants to try. He was always writing down song ideas or lyrics and whatnot. He was not one for sitting around doing nothing. He told me that he actually had enough stuff for 3 CDs. We started working on the first one in 2013, and I know he wanted to get it finished. I hope we can do that for him.

Rest In Peace


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Goodbye, 2014

It was a very good year, and I want to thank everybody who helped to make it that way.

Thanks to “Sax” Gordon Beadle, Andy Lösche, Tad Robinson, and Alex Schultz for bringing me to the Dubai Jazz Festival in February.

Thanks to Dave Specter for getting me on countless planes to do four trips to Europe, as well as a whole lot of local gigs.

To the Old Town School of Folk Music, for steady employment that keeps me afloat. And all of my students, from who I have learned so much.

To my band-mates in the Blue Coast Band for tolerating me as their booking person, and to Buddy Guy’s Legends, the House Of Blues, The Smokedaddy, and others who hired us.

To Paul Kaye for his contributions.

To Shaw’s Crab House for the steady work over the last 20 years. To Tony Manguillo and everyone at Rosa’s Lounge for all of the Thursdays. Special mention to James Wheeler, who left this world on Christmas Eve. I know that I am going to miss him terribly.

To my wife, Kristin Huysken, for the loving company I am blessed with every day. To my brother, Robert Terson, for his support and encouragement.

Here comes 2015. I have a birthday on Saturday. Hoping that the world will still need me and feed me when I’m 64..

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40 Years of Misspent Musicianship (or, I Fool Around With Matches and Dynamite)

I came across this recently. It’s an old article, but I’ve encountered this person’s editorializing before. http://racetraitor.org/blues.html (an interesting concept in itself) Go ahead and check it out. Did you? Are you back? Alright, then.

Things have changed in the last 20 years. The trend of white people playing blues, or something blues derived,  has continued, in fact increased in spite of these sentiments, and the music has become increasingly rocked out, much like the changes that country music has undergone. These high energy versions of American music forms have become big business, as the consumer gets more of what he is offered by the corporations that control big radio and recording. While there are still people who pursue more traditional paths, maybe the larger audience just does not know it’s there.

This is a dated editorial. (1995).  Maybe this is all irrelevant now. The battle has been lost, the barbarians have broken down the gates and sit in the ruins of the temple. Still, there it is, so apparently some people still find these arguments valid. One wonders why this is still on line. Some folks just never give up.

To begin presenting the (white blues critics) case against white people playing the blues (This was supposedly meant to be no more than a justification of an editorial policy. If so, why so much hostility?) , the author starts out by referencing  an equally old article from the same site.

What follows is a brief history of the arguments of white critics like the founders of Living Blues magazine against white blues artists authenticity, and the opinion that white artists hurt the music and black performers livelihoods.

The author is one of the founders of Living Blues magazine, and  the apparent go to guy when the editorial policy of the magazine is challenged, i.e. why they don’t cover white artists The position is that their focus is strictly on black culture. Right off the bat we are on thin ice here. We have white people who think that they are experts on black culture editorializing on the subject. And just a little hypocritical too, as the magazine has always taken advertising dollars from white artists. (Things have changed. LB now does reviews of white artists recordings. And the latest issue prominently mentions the passing of Johnny Winter, the “whitest” of the white.  How unprincipled.) Not only that, but they can’t stick to the subject in their editorials without smearing white players as a group.

So the editorials are printed, and lo and behold, the backlash is more negative feedback from readers. This brings on more editorials.

Living Blues is not enough of a forum. So one of their associates has a piece published in Guitar Player (Now who reads Guitar Player, hmnn???! Perhaps guitar players? Including a lot of white guitar players?)

These critics seem to be taken aback when readers responses to these positions is negative. As if they don’t know that they are throwing red meat out there. Giving some people a pencil and a piece of paper is like giving a chimpanzee matches and dynamite. And so when 99% of the responses are negative, our man singles out a nut job as an example to support his case.

This kind of ignorance on the part of GP readers is apparently intolerable. So yet another editorial goes out and, amazing, the response is still negative! But we are having a ball, no? And we are a lot smarter than all of these people!

A couple of interesting statements:

1) “What many of the critics of magazine coverage are driving at is that they and their accomplices would like to receive coverage in Living Blues, principally because it is the pioneering magazine that covers black artists, i.e. “real” blues artists. They know, however, that they can’t raise this as an issue without revealing that they, too, believe that white blues are somehow inferior. In truth, the white artists receive considerable coverage in Blues Access, Blues Revue Quarterly, and other magazines, but these magazines don’t carry the stamp of approval that Living Blues does, for strictly racial reasons.

Really? The “stamp of approval” from who, where? From other white experts of black culture? From yourself? And revelations of a musical inferiority complex! Thank you, Doctor. Is there a medication for that?

2) “Who are these people for whom race doesn’t matter? Not the average white blues artist. In fact, many white blues performers who, we are told, bring their own “authenticity” to their craft, display a mad craving for approval from black listeners and black artists, (not to mention black-oriented blues magazines like Living Blues). Whenever the battle is enjoined, in person or in the letters and editorial columns of Living Blues, Guitar Player, or Blues Revue Quarterly, a white blues performer writes a pseudo-palliative “brotherhood” letter and just happens to mention all the black artists with whom he’s performed, with the plain intention of proving that he must be acceptable or all of these obviously authentic artists wouldn’t have welcomed his company. In itself this attitude embodies the entire contradiction of the existence of white blues. If white blues is autonomous and self-authenticating, why is black approval needed? If it is not autonomous and self-authenticating, and the craving for black approval seems to suggest this, why is it not the weak and imitative form its detractors claim? This question remains with us. “

And these poor critics are suffering from readers’ “vituperative abuse.”

This is a neat trap. Name any of the black artists you played with, and you reveal your “mad craving for approval from black listeners and black artists,” as well as your “plain intentions of proving” your acceptability.  The blues does do strange things to some folks. I don’t disagree with the gentleman on everything. Its just the broad brush he and his cronies paint with. And the notion of white experts/protectors of black culture. I wonder, If musicians don’t really get it, how come writers do? So I’m exposed as an imitator and exploiter, dying inside for the approval of black artists and audiences, and he is a special white  expert of black culture who has never met me, but knows my deep psychological desperation. Sheesh! You’ve got me. I admit it.  I wanted to play with the black artists I was seeing. I wanted to play with anyone! And everyone was doing it (when everyone was not jumping off of a cliff). White guys playing with black artists. And, oh my goodness, black artists letting white guys play with them! I was lucky, even though I was catching the tail end. The classic sides had been recorded, and many of the artists were dead or not to be around forever. I not only got to sit in with people, but most of them were encouraging and welcoming. If you could play, they would let you sit in, even hire you. Didn’t they know that they were diluting the authenticity of their own music, while depriving black sidemen of a gig?

I doubt that my presence led artist X to “greater financial success.” I think he just liked the way I played his stuff. Or perhaps, horrors, he foolishly allowed me to hold him back by diluting the authenticity of his music!

The best thing that happened for me was meeting Artist Y (Isn’t this silly?), and helping him put together a band and the songs that he would perform for the rest of his career. We were two blacks and three whites. We all agree that we had the best times of our lives. And we recorded some good tracks, at least that’s what people tell me. Or maybe his honky sidemen are the reason he lost those two Grammys. Or maybe we should have exerted enough influence to put him over the top.

And we encountered race issues. The ones we had to negotiate amongst ourselves, and the more obvious ones. Like the motel clerks who would tell us they had no reservations for us. We started sending a white guy in to get the rooms.

If whitey stopped playing it, would whitey be willing to stop writing about it? I mean, doesn’t this take space away from black critics? Oh, I forgot, “Black music critics have bigger fish to fry, preferring to concentrate on rap and more popular artists.” There you have it. Maybe black writers don’t care about this aspect of black culture with the passion that white ones do. I might be virtually burned at the stake were I to make the outlandish suggestion that black musicians have bigger fish to fry and that leaves it to white artists to carry on the blues tradition.

I once posed this question to one of these geniuses. What if we all got out and let black people be in charge of the playing? And the criticism. And the record companies. And the clubs. And the whole scene. His response? “They’re not ready for that yet.”

Ouch! Freudian slip? Well meaning but paternalistic caretaker?

It’s not that I’m crazy about the state of the art. Hipster blues costuming is not something I’ve ever gone for, along with bizarre jive talk and over the top blues-rock guitar histrionics. I encounter countless students for who the frame of reference for blues is Stevie Ray Vaughn (along with his legions of mimics) and Eric Clapton. And there are a whole lot of annoying 12 year-old blues men shooting salvos of notes from their Stratocasters and singing about losing their babies. And (Jeez, Harlan, don’t say hordes) gaggles of Japanese blues artists and zealots, and Germans and Italians and Swedes and Argentinians and so on. And do I dare point out that you can walk into one of Chicago’s blues tourist traps and hear a kind of over the top funk blues, served up by black rhythm sections with drummers  filling every hole and bassists slapping themselves silly? Or that there are high profile black performers whose blues has more than a little Jimi Hendrix/Stevie Ray in it? (Lord, I am getting into a world of trouble here. Have I stepped on the third rail yet?) I like to play blues the way I learned it. I also am still trying to unravel the mysteries of James Jamerson’s genius. Lately I’ve taken to trying to spend more time working on my reading skills (Is that a white thing? I know a black man who plays the piano. When I first met him, I asked, in my hippest and stupidest way possible, “So what kind of shit do you play?” He could barely suppress his amusement as he replied, “I’m a concert pianist!”).

As has been noted, the right to play is not an issue. For the critics, it’s an issue of purity. Well there ain’t no purity. More and more, it seems to be largely about being somebody. Being a blues big-shot. The blues the way we originally heard it is pretty much gone, but there’s some money to be made off of the word blues. Would people be less upset if they labeled thing correctly, like calling them blues-rock festivals, blues-rock societies and so on? Hey, we got a gig at a great derivative blues rock festival next month! Alright!

You know what? I’ve heard well played music from people of all colors. I’ve also witnessed a broad rainbow of cartoonish blues butchery.

I like a lot of Southern Soul. Now, do you think that Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn “diluted” the Stax sound? That Tommy Cogbill’s lifeless bass work caused those James Carr and Aretha Franklin tracks to be “inferior?”? That the Swampers in Muscle Shoals produced music that is “deeply impoverished?” Did Charley Pride sing country music well? Should Fats Domino have recorded that Hank Williams song? Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is considered by some to be Ray Charles’ best work. Naysayers discouraged him from recording it, but he knew he had a good idea. Musicians just don’t know what they should be playing, do they? If they would only listen to critics…

Maybe it is all whitey’s fault. For opening up blues clubs and bringing out the music from the neighborhoods it was played in, for producing records, forming blues societies, festivals, blues competitions, publishing magazines (!) etc.  Alan Lomax ought to shoulder a lot of the responsibility. And let’s heap some blame on the Beatles, Stones and all of those Brits for making us all want to be musicians. And what do musicians do? Well, they play what they hear, especially what catches their fancy. Musician hear, musician do. Writer write. One could consider whether the blues and its creators would be better off today untouched by white control of everything economic and commercial (which includes Grammys). Would it still be the same blues?

Some of my history and opinions on these things can be read in an interview I did for Michael Limnios: http://blues.gr/profiles/blogs/bassist-harlan-lee-terson-talks-about-lonnie-brooks-otis-rush

For a more insightful study, check out this thesis by a German student of the subject, Ulrich Adelt. It’s long, but he’s a lot more articulate than I am, and unlike me he has no skin, so to speak, in the game. http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1313&context=etd

And for a black performer’s take on such matters, (the late) Chick Willis speaks: http://www.bluestrust.com/Blues%20Trust/chicks_rant.htm

And don’t forget to have a nice day.




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To Hell and Back

Home sweet home. After 14 hours of travel on three planes, I get to finally unwind. Good thing after not sleeping well for four nights in Hell.

Hell, Norway, that is, a very lovely little town near Trondheim. Nice blues festival, nice people beautiful weather, jet lag.

Our group was Dave Specter’s band, Dave , Mike Schlick, John Kattke and myself, with featured singers Lurrie Bell, Jimmy Johnson, and Sharon Lewis.  Fridays show featured Jimmy, and was a 45 minute affair, while Saturday included everyone. I believe this was my first two hour show. Wait, I take it back. Last year we were getting ready to wind up early at the House Of Blues, when a bunch of Russians and a group from Connecticut walked in, and we just went on and on.

But I digress.

It’s nice to be able to do some of these trips. Ive never done it to death like some I know, and the Old Town School keeps me fairly well employed. This year I’ve made four of these long ones, starting with the Dubai gig in February. There’s one to go, The Lucerne Blues Festival in November, which is a great one. Jimmy Johnson will be on that one too. Jimmy is 85, and it’s humbling to see hem deal with the rigors of international travel. And I keep thinking that I’m getting MY ass kicked…

One odd thing. Getting to the last plane today, I was pulled aside for screening. I was one of the last ones on the plane. No problem, except sweating getting overhead space for the instrument.

And I can sleep well tonight knowing we are being protected from attack by middle aged Jewish musicians.

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A week in the life of a working musician

I played last night at the Sin City Blues & Soul Revival in Las Vegas with my old friend, singer extraordinaire Tad Robinson. Tad told me this joke once: “How do you get a musician to complain? Give him a gig.” I swear I’m not bitching, but I bit off a lot this past week.

I worked 10 out of 11 nights, starting with September 5. I’ve also been teaching a 20 hour week at the Old Town School. I try not to say no too often, and I’ve learned that when somebody gives you an opportunity, you might not get another chance if you turn it down. So when I got an offer to do two days of recording on Wednesday and Thursday, I grabbed it. That meant 2 days of recording, teaching and club work. By Friday, I was tired, but had the luxury of not having to do anything until the evening. Nothing, that is except shop, laundry, pack, practice for the festival, and so on.

Saturday is typically my longest day. My first student is generally at 10:30 or 11:00 AM, I teach one or two classes in the afternoon, and then more privates until around six. I knocked off this Saturday, because I had arranged to do the music for a close friend’s daughter’s wedding. I had Tad come up to augment the band, and we all had a great time. I had not been informed of the couple’s first dance wish, but we scrambled on ipods and phones to find a chart and lyrics, and we pulled it off. Everyone was very happy.

Early Sunday morning, I met Tad at the airport to go to Vegas. He had shopped for flights and wound up on an airline that is low cost, but has an amazing fee business going on. I had learned earlier in the week that not only do they charge for carry-on baggage, but that the price at the airport would be mind-boggling. So we got a more reasonable fee in advance online. I was faced for the first time with putting a bass guitar in baggage. I picked the instrument I thought I could best afford to rebuild (I have two parts basses built for travel purposes, and used a double bass bag, cleverly putting my clothes in the second compartment so I would only have to pay for one bag. But by the time I got to the airport, I could not face doing it. I found it less stressful to pay another $20.00 to gate check the instrument, and after I got to Las Vegas, I spend a half hour on the phone to spend another $10.00 to do the same returning.

The festival was at The Riviera, on the older part of the Las Vegas Strip. It is an older place, and while not exactly shabby, show it’s age. There is no avoiding walking through the casino to get to the elevator to your room, and it has the aroma of tobacco and alcohol. It did not seem particularly busy most of the time. There were four stages, and ours was on the penthouse floor of the Monaco Tower. It held perhaps 600. We had a few issues. The B3 organ and Leslie speaker were not functioning, there were sound problems, and it took a while to get our set underway. I was having a tough time with the bass I had chosen to travel with, and frankly, was more than a little worn out at that point. But Tad, while not being a perfect booker of flights, is a great singer, harmonica player and performer. At the end of our set, the crowd was on their feet, and I heard numerous comments on how good we were. So what do I know?

This morning we went to the airport for our return flight. I waited outside the plane for someone to come and gate check my bass. when no one showed, an amazing thing happened. The pilot offered to let me keep the instrument with him in the cockpit. The perfect end to a busy period. Not quite. When I got home, I went to the school and taught two bass classes for good measure.

Only four gigs this week, should be a walk in the park.

Posted in Thoughts on the State of the Blues

Goodbye, Joe

Last Sunday, I learned of the passing of two friends. Neither event was unexpected, but it does cause one to stop and reflect.

First, learned of Mike’s passing. I was copied on an email from Bobbie, his significant other. It was not unexpected. Mike had been gamely battling a rare cancer for quite some time, and recent missives had indicated that the end was near.
I first met Mike about 20 years ago. At that point, he was already well along on his journey of personal growth. He  had come a long way from the angry, driven person he had been. He was a big, soft spoken, loving guy.
I once had a gig in Osaka, Japan with Otis Rush, and it happened that Mike’s son Aaron was living there, and he was going to be visiting at the same time. What a sight it was to see my big friend from Chicago find his seat in the crowd of Japanese fans. Afterward, we all met and walked around Osaka, Mike gamely limping along as he was dealing with a bum knee.
After his retirement, Mike left Chicago, but he always made it a point to look me up and spend some time with me when he was visiting. I always got a lot out of a conversation with Mike. He was one of the few non musicians I knew who could look at my situation and size it up with great insight. He “got” it without me having to explain a thing. I found that to be very validating. The last time I saw him he and Bobbie came to the house and had lunch with Kris and me.
Mike met his end with dignity, peace, and a sense of wonder as to where his journey was taking him next. And, happily, was surrounded by loving friends and family.

Then came the facebook posts about Joe Kelley losing to lung cancer. This was not unexpected either.
I first heard of Joe Kelley in my late teens. I would wait all week in the late ’60s for late night FM radio, which we referred to as underground radio, as opposed to the top 40 on the AM band. There were a couple of DJs I listened to on WOPA, broadcast from the Oak Park Arms Hotel. First, we would hear Scorpio, and then Psyche. Psyche (Her actual name was Gwen) would play a lot of Albert King (my mind-blowing introduction to the man), and kept asking “Have you heard the Joe Kelley Blues Band?”
The first time I heard Joe Kelley play was at an amazing 12 hour blues event that was held at the old, old, band shell in Chicago’s Grant Park. We got there at 5 or 6 AM to be up front, and the line-up was a who’s who of Chicago Blues. It started with Willie Dixon and Johnny Shines, progressed to Otis Spann (In a green suit that I’ll never forget,) and ended with Muddy Waters. And in the middle of all this, was Joe Kelley. He may have been the only white performer, but my memory is a little blurry.
I got to know and gig with Joe a few years later. One place I remember well was the Gallery, a hole in the wall in Albany Park, on Lawrence Avenue. I also used to play there with Lonnie Brooks. Joe had a few substance problems. He told me some amazing stories of addiction. I remember that I had just gotten my car out of the body shop, and at the end of a gig at the Gallery, he hit it. But it was hard to be angry at him. He was a sweet guy, and a great player.
Joe went on the manage the Kingston Mines for a few years. He was in and out of recovery. He would walk around the Mines drinking from a gallon milk container of coffee. He went to Texas for a time, returned, slipped, recovered, slipped, rode his motorcycle.
The last time I saw Joe was when he sat in on a gig with my band back in March. I thought he sounded good. The last time I spoke with him on the phone, he told me the doctors thought they had found a mass in his lung. I guess they were right.
And so it goes…

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Shawn Pittman

I had the pleasure last Thursday of doing a gig with my friend, drummer Jon Hiller, and his friend, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Shawn Pittman. Shawn is from Oklahoma, and currently resides in Austin.  The gig was for Friends Of The Blues in Kankakee, Illinois, in a local Moose Hall.

There is a lot of stuff out there with a “Texas sound,” that is very Stevie Ray derivative, but I have to say after my experience with Shawn, that he is for real. Although under the weather, and playing in a venue off the beaten path, this guy truly delivered an ass kicking, no holds barred performance. He writes, sings, and plays with ability and intensity. I kid you not.

I didn’t get any material to study until Tuesday. I spent a couple of days driving around listening to a few of his CDs. I was lucky enough to nail most of the stuff, and I hope to get more opportunities to play with this guy.

Check him out at http://shawnpittman.com/  It ought to be worth your while.

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