Blues ’66, Part One

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Blues ’66, Part One

This article first appeared in Issue 5 of   Crawdaddy   in Sept. 1966.

Eric Burdon is lead singer of the Animals, a British rock ‘n’ roll group best known for “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “House of the Rising Sun.” The Animals’ newest LP is reviewed elsewhere in this issue. This interview was recorded in a Boston hotel in early August 1966; Dan Alexander, engineer; Pamela Matz, transcriber; Paul Williams, interviewer & editor.

CRAWDADDY: How much do you think American blues, both the material and the vocal styling, has had to do with your group’s actual success?

ERIC: About everything, I suppose. I learned everything I learned from listening to American records, getting to America, watching American artists…I’m twenty-five now, and when I was about twelve I used to listen to—the rock craze hadn’t started yet, but there was a singer who lived downstairs to me who used to go to the States and he was a country & western fan; and among the c&w stuff he used to bring back were one or two Negro records. And there was a tremendous excitement for me in what people like Lionel Hampton were doing. I don’t know. I didn’t even want to think about it at the time. I just knew it excited us and it was different. And I had a feeling for it.

CRAWDADDY: When the Animals started out were you already a blues group?

ERIC: Yes, technically, physically a blues group.

CRAWDADDY: You were playing the kind of stuff Korner [Alexis Korner is the leader of a well-known British blues group] is doing?

ERIC: Yeah, in fact we started out exactly the same time Korner did. When he was playing in London, we were playing in Newcastle. But the thing is, Korner was known already on the jazz scene, and to him it was more of an experiment. It was what he’d always been wanting to do. And we were young and at the time—we’ve always been commercial, we’ve always tried to make a living from it, and at the time we were doing stuff, Buddy Holly-type numbers, and what we used to do was try to do a few Joe Turner-type things as well. And eventually the kids…well, we kept on playing through every craze. There was a time when rock ‘n’ roll slacked off and there was a big string thing, you know, doing good string things badly; and we kept on playing what we were playing originally and the kids started listening to that more than anything else, and that’s when the rhythm & blues craze sort of caught on in England.

CRAWDADDY: You originally made it with blues—”Rising Sun” and the John Lee Hooker stuff—but since about a year ago your singles have been pretty much rock ‘n’ roll. Obviously, you do that because that stuff will sell and the other stuff won’t. Do you think people still aren’t ready for straight blues on the radio?

ERIC: I think they never will be, really. Because the blues is a personal thing and it really is a folk form of music, it really is a deep form of music. A lot of unhep musicians, they say that anybody can play blues, and, sure, a technically good musician could play a twelve-bar sequence on his head backwards. I mean, that’s not the point. I mean, John Lee Hooker can’t play a bloody note, he can’t even play a twelve-bar chord sequence, but what he creates, when he goes out onstage, nobody in the world can do it like that. And that’s the beauty of it, and it’s difficult for people to understand. Ninety-five percent of the general public, they need a hook-line to listen to, so they can go “Pa-per-back Wri-ter”…it’s got to have a catchy melody and it’s got to have, I don’t know what it is, really. But I don’t think blues will ever be as popular as it has been in the Negro scene in America, when blues was everything, you know, in the thirties and forties.

CRAWDADDY: How about something like “When a Man Loves a Woman”? Would you call that blues?

ERIC: No, I wouldn’t. I don’t think it is blues. It’s blues-influenced, but it’s also part gospel, it’s part pop, it’s part everything. And this is why the Animals are breaking up, this is why I’m branching out by myself. Because I realize now that I’ve gone through the schooling period of learning from the American Negroes, but now I want to try and advance and use whatever English influences there are inside me and develop the two. Which means almost trying to develop the pretty side of myself as well as the dumb-gut side, if there is one. I want to combine the two and use them and develop them because I think it’d be a goof to try and keep on singing blues the rest of my life.

CRAWDADDY: You’ve done some writing of your own material, and I imagine you’re going to try and do more in the future. How much of this have you tried to write in the blues idiom?

ERIC: Well, I’ve got about three books full of blues that I’ve written, but I haven’t used them because as I say we’re trying to make a living, and if I recorded all those blues things it wouldn’t make a living. I mean it’s obvious. We just passed the gold record sales stage for The Best of the Animals, which in my estimation is the worst LP that was ever put together. And the best LP we ever put together is Animal Tracks, which in England was big, but in America didn’t figure anywhere in the charts. You see, what we think is good is not what the general public thinks is good, that’s the whole problem.

CRAWDADDY: So which do you want to do?

ERIC: I want to do both. I want to walk the line. Obviously the answer to it all is to make money respectably, like the Righteous Brothers do, like Ray Charles has done; you know, like a lot of people have done. And this is what I want to achieve. Because let’s face it, you’ve got to live.

CRAWDADDY: Mostly I guess we’ve been talking about the American scene. ls it much different in England? Isn’t there a better reception for blues stuff over there?

ERIC: Yeah. The only thing is, you have to remember you can put England five times into Texas. It’s like one state. And there’s only one scene in England, that’s London, and whatever happens in London happens in the rest of the country eventually. And our London scene is just as big as your Greenwich Village scene, it’s like you’re talking about a whole country the same way you could talk about Greenwich Village. That’s why it’s more appreciated.

CRAWDADDY: ls it still possible for good down-home bluesmen to get gigs in
England?

ERIC: Yeah, I think so. We preached so long in our hometown about certain artists.
We used to stand onstage and talk at the audience every night, tell them what to buy and so forth. And when John Lee Hooker came to Newcastle, there were 500 still waiting outside on the street to get in to see him, which was fantastic. It knocked me over when I saw that.

CRAWDADDY: It hasn’t happened here yet by any means…How do your personal tastes in music run?

ERIC: I like Spanish music, I like Indian music…I’ve been listening to Ravi Shankar since I was about seventeen. I just picked up a record which I had never heard of before and started listening to it and liking it. I couldn’t understand it, but I liked it. And I’ve always been a big fan of B. B. King’s, but all I reckon much on is the boss of the whole batch: Ray Charles.

CRAWDADDY: What do you think of the Negro music that’s on the air right now, the Motown sound and like that?

ERIC: Well, when we were in Detroit I caused a bit of a disturbance there because I said on the radio I didn’t like Motown, I thought it was whitened Negro music, it had taken the wildness and corralled it. I don’t know if that’s the new development or not, but I don’t like it. You can listen to records, and you know when they’re cut in the South. I mean, you hear Otis Redding or Solomon Burke or Joe Tex, and you can immediately tell that they were cut below the Mason-Dixon line. There’s so much more rawness in them. Motown is just too pretty for me. Some of their artists are good, obviously, but I don’t like it.

CRAWDADDY: What about this new group you’re forming?

ERIC: Well, Barry Jenkins is staying with us on drums, but it’ll be a completely new group. If they’re good enough, they’ll be recording with me and traveling with me and everything, because that’s the best way to do things. But I also want to record with a big orchestra, which I’m doing next week in New York. And I’ve cut some other tracks in Los Angeles.

CRAWDADDY: This is still on MGM?

ERIC: Yeah.

CRAWDADDY: What do you think of Tom Wilson [the Animals’ present producer at
MGM]?

ERIC: He’s great, he’s one of the most unbiased, unprejudiced people I’ve ever met. In every way. And it’s good to work with him because he realizes on every artist he records what to get out of him and what he can get out of him, and I’m looking forward to working with him in the future.

CRAWDADDY: ls this act still going to be called the Animals, or are they sort of going to fade away?

ERIC: I’d like to break out completely by myself, but unfortunately MGM wouldn’t let us, so we’ll have to use the name for a short while anyway.

CRAWDADDY: How much do you still plan to do in blues and gospel in the future?

ERIC: Well, I’m cutting an LP with Clara Ward in New York Sept. 5. I’m going to sing the lead things, and they’re going to do the shouts. And I’m looking forward to it. It’s groovy, you know. I’ll have to do down-home-type raw stuff. I want to do it on that, obviously. And Otis Redding wants to record us in his studio in Memphis. We’d be singing with his band. He wanted to produce a record. It’s just an idea, but the thing is I’m contracted with MGM. If it could be done it, would be nice…

CRAWDADDY: About performing, is the relevant thing to you the medium, or something you’re saying?

ERIC: Well, when Ray Charles was talking about soul, he said, “I think you just make the song so much a personal part of you, that you don’t sing the song, you express it.” I say: You don’t sing a song, you make love to it. Everybody outside the soul realm of singing, they just sing words and music, nothing else, but anybody in the soul field gets into the thing. You don’t have to have experienced it, but you’ve just got to be able to feel it.

CRAWDADDY: Do you think you get much across at the concerts?

ERIC: Well, there’s always a percentage of kids who come to listen, and you’ve always got to think about them. Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes the audiences get too wild and too stupid and too crazy and there’s nothing you can do

CRAWDADDY: I’ve always had the feeling that groups as popular as you aren’t given the chance to do a decent concert.

ERIC: Yeah, that’s true to a certain extent, but America’s changing the same way England changed, and rock ‘n’ roIl’s finally becoming respectable. I mean, that night in New York [the Rheingold concert in Central Park August 3] was a perfect example. We played to two houses of about 4,000 kids and there was absolute silence, and no trouble getting in and no trouble getting out. When I got there the other night and saw all the cops, I thought, we should tell the people that we don’t need cops anymore to keep the kids back because they’ve grown up and become young adults and they’re digging the music and they’re not there just to scream and be wild and cause trouble. This happened in London about eighteen months to two years ago, and you find the teenage audiences in places like the Marquee and the Flamingo and clubs like that are just as quiet and just as receptive as any jazz audience in any auditorium anywhere.

CRAWDADDY: ls a good audience important to you?

ERIC: Oh yes, the most important thing of the lot. Sometimes we just don’t bother to work if the audience is bad. I like an audience that you can talk to, that are hep and know what you’re trying to say. You feel they’re talking back to you. I can’t get over this audience in New York, great, fantastic…It’s different working in the studio, but I love that too because the great thing is, you’re going to hear it back.

CRAWDADDY: Do you think of yourself as a professional singer now; are you in this for life?

ERIC: I’d like to be, but I want to learn the technical side, and I want to make movies. I do a lot of photography right now, and I’ve had a couple of offers for acting in films. When a good one comes along, I want to take it, because I really think I could act, because in my position, being English and not really into the American way of life, I’ve had to act the blues anyway. I’ve had to get inside it and think about it and feel it, before I even got here, because the blues comes out of police with nightsticks and Cadillac cars and the heat, and we don’t have that in England.

CRAWDADDY: Do you think of the blues as an alive thing, or are we just working from the blues now?

ERIC: Well, I think it’s changed, but it’s still there. I mean, somebody came to me a few weeks ago when I was in England and raved about this record, Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High,” and said, “It’s so new and different, so vital!” And the lyrics are the old blues lyrics, “I love my baby like a schoolboy loves his pie,” you know, that’s from 1917 or something. The blues is probably going to disappear and be absorbed into music the same way as traditional jazz was, New Orleans jazz and gospel music and all that. But you know, it’s still there.

[Howlin’ Wolf is a well-known Chicago blues singer who performs and records with an ampli?ed band in the Chicago style. This interview was taped in Cambridge’s Club 47 in July 1966; Paul Williams & Peter Guralnick interviewing; Pamela Matz transcribing; Paul Williams editor. ]

CRAWDADDY: How do you like the old-style singers like Charlie Patton, Bukka White?

WOLF: Well you see, I come up with some of them. They taught me. Charlie Patton and Son House, Willie Brown and, uh, a lot of those guys.

CRAWDADDY: You traveled around with them?

WOLF: No, you see, they were living on the plantation and I’d go to their house at night when they quit work. You know, a big crowd of people be around, listening to them playing, and I got interested in it. First piece I ever played in my life was by Charlie Patton, was a tune about hook up my pony and saddle up my black mare. From there I got with Dick Banks and Jim Holloway from Drew, Miss. Then I got with another guy, his name was…can’t ‘call his name now, but he was a Banks too, and we run around the plantation on a Saturday night, and play that stuff.

CRAWDADDY: Did you get “Spoonful” from Charlie Patton?

WOLF: Yeah, he was the first man I ever heard sing that, and “Red Rooster” too.

CRAWDADDY: Now some of your stuff’s being recorded by other people—”Red
Rooster’ got to #1 in England—what do you think of groups like the Rolling Stones?

WOLF: Wonderful, wonderful. I worked with them, and the Muleskinners too…they dig me the most, you know.

CRAWDADDY: Have you heard an American group, the Blues Project, who’ve recorded “Spoonful” and “Little Baby” and “Back Door Man”?

WOLF: No, I never heard them, but I hope they make a good success with it, because they are good songs. I’d like to meet all those people who will sing my numbers. That gives me a real kick-off, you know, when other people introduce my songs. That gives them a push, that gives me a push, too. That’s why I think somebody can sing your numbers, and it comes back up; and if people liked it in the first place, that makes it go farther.

CRAWDADDY: Do you find it very different to perform before a Negro audience and a white audience?

WOLF: Well, one way, no, and one way, yeah. You see, just to tell the truth, colored peoples they don’t give you a push-off. You see, the difference between white people and my people, they just sit there and they don’t give you nothing. White people, they’ll give you some reaction, that makes you interested while doing it. Give a person a little shove-off, he gets his mind on what he wants to do and he’ll do it well. But he goes to a place and nobody gives him no shove-
off, and he doubts himself, he thinks they don’t want him there. Although the colored people like my music, and they turn out by the droves, they wouldn’t find me unless I give them the build-up.

CRAWDADDY: What made you decide to use a sax player in your band?

WOLF: On account of dances. See, not in a place like this, I wouldn’t need it, but at dances you need, oh, a piano, a sax, to fill the music up, make it blend, and then you don’t have to work so hard; so that’s why I use them, so I won’t have to push any more when I’m playing for a dance.

CRAWDADDY: You and Hubert [Hubert Sumlin, lead guitar in Wolf’s band] have been together a long time, haven’t you’?

WOLF: Yes, I partly raised him, from a kid.

CRAWDADDY: He’s a real fine guitarist.

WOLF: Well, that’s why I don’t play much. I used to play a lot, but since he been a young man, I just let him stand out and I sing. But I help him some, you know, and when he gets ready for me, he’ll let me know; and I’ll go help him on some numbers.

CRAWDADDY: ls he from your home town?

WOLF: No, he’s born in Greenwood, Miss., but his father moved to Arkansas. I come in possession of him in West Memphis, Arkansas. See, by my playing around through the country he fell in love with me and he wanted to stay with me, so I just kept him. I saw his people, and they agreed for him to stay with me. So I trained him how to play guitar; I saw he was interested.

CRAWDADDY: Do you think blues is dying out?

WOLF: No…you see, blues is a thing, a lot of people don’t understand what blues is, blues is problems. If you don’t have problems today, you have them tomorrow. You see, problems is, well, you might want to do something and you can’t do it, and it’ll worry you and get on your nerves and that’s what’s called blues, you might have some kind of business, somebody take half of it or take it all from you, well it turn you mad, see, you worked for it and they’re taking it away from you, well that takes something from you, and nine out of ten, you go to thinking evil; comes from the blues, you understand, that’s the blues.

CRAWDADDY: Are there a lot of good young blues singers coming up, or do you think the kids are turning to something else?

WOLF: Well, you see, it’s just what people want to do. If a guy or some people want to be in jazz, well, don’t pour no hot water on him ‘cause he got his mind to be jazz. Here’s a bunch over here want to be flying beyond the moon. Well, don’t get mad with him, that’s his desire, that’s what he likes. You can’t take a man’s freedom away from him. See, me and you might go and eat breakfast, I might like bacon, you might want hamburger, so that’s the way it is, it’s what taste you got.

CRAWDADDY: What do you think of the white kids who are working in blues now?

WOLF: Well l like Paul [Paul Butterfield & band], he’s a wonderful person, he grown up in it just like that other boy, what’s his name, somewhere out in California, that “Hound Dog” number…

CRAWDADDY: You mean Elvis?

WOLF: Elvis Presley, well, he made a fortune on it, he made it his way, yeah, he started from the blues, it’s just what you want to do.

CRAWDADDY: But he stopped.

WOLF: Well, if he stopped, he stopped. It’s nothing to laugh at. He made his pull from the blues. If he hadn’t went over and played the blues, he might not have been able to press the numbers he wanted to play. The people might not have accepted. It’s up to the people who want to push you. If people’s out there pushing you, can’t nobody stop you; and if they’re against you, you’re just supposed to go home.

CRAWDADDY: Of your own stuff, do you have any songs you particularly like?

WOLF: Well, I just play them, l play them because the people like them, you know.

CRAWDADDY: Yeah, but just personally there must be some things you really like.

WOLF: No. I just like to play any music sounds good to me, whether it’s jazz or anything, if it sound pleasing to my ears I listen to it.

CRAWDADDY: But you figure you’re singing blues now because that’s what you can do best, or because that’s what people want?

WOLF: I just think that’s what the people want, the blues, there’s no need of fooling yourself.

CRAWDADDY: And if there weren’t any people, you know, listening to the blues…
?WOLF: If there wasn’t any people listening, there wouldn’t be no Wolf.

[Howlin’ Wolf has three albums on Chess and an LP of early recordings on Custom: Eric Burden & the Animals have ?ve albums on MGM.]

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