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Friday, May 31, 2013

Spotlight shining brightly for Chicago blues musician Liz Mandeville

Chicago Blues Hall of Fame inductees, Liz Mandeville, left, and Buddy Guy, right.

By ERIC SCHELKOPF
 

Blues singer, songwriter, guitarist, record label owner, author, speaker, painter - Liz Mandeville is a true renaissance woman and a fervent promoter of the blues.

So it is not surprising that Mandeville, www.lizmandeville.com, was recently inducted in the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. The power that she creates on stage will be in full display when Mandeville and the Blue Points perform from noon to 1 p.m. June 8 on the Front Porch Stage at the Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park in Chicago. A full festival schedule is at www.cityofchicago.org.

I had the chance to talk to Mandeville about her recent honor.


Q - Congratulations on being inducted in the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. How does it feel being inducted, especially at the same time as blues legends like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy?

Thank you! I was surprised and deeply honored to be inducted. Muddy Waters is probably the biggest influence on me.


His was the first blues record I ever bought. His vocal interpretation, the way he inflected and colored his words and the licks he sang were what informed me as a blues singer. Willie Dixon wrote a lot of the material my idols, Muddy, Koko Taylor and other Chess Recording artists recorded.

He also influenced me as to what was a blues song and how do you write one that’s really authentic. Buddy Guy, it goes without saying, is my hero, a living legend. 




I’m so proud to be in regular rotation at his club. His songs “Bluebird On My Shoulder” inspired several of my own compositions and my vocal on “Juice Head Man” is a direct nod to that song. He’s a great interpreter and an amazing musician.

Q- Who do you see being inducted 20 years from now?

I could not begin to guess.

Q - Speaking of blues legends, the late Willie "Big Eyes" Smith urged you to start your own music label and the last recordings of Smith on both harp and drum are captured on "Clarksdale," your first CD on your music label, Blue Kitty Music. How was it working with Smith on that CD and how did he influence you over the years?

Willie Smith was always very professional. He was “on time and in the pocket”, the greatest compliment you can pay a blues drummer! He was a pleasure to work with throughout my knowing him. 



From ’94- ’99 I had a regular weekly gig at Blue Chicago with Aron Burton’s Band, young Kenny Smith was our drummer but he was still in high school. So when he couldn’t make the gig he sent his dad and that’s how I started playing with Willie Smith!

But that’s not how I met him. Back in the early 90’s my first husband, Willie Greeson, left my band to play with the Legendary Blues Band. That was the Muddy Waters Band without Muddy.

Calvin “Fuzz” Jones on bass, Pinetop Perkins on keys, Madison Slim on harp and Willie Smith, who played drums, was the band leader. It was my then husband’s dream job for which he’d left his home in Dalton, Georgia,  and played all those dates on the road with me in our band.

The timing couldn’t have been worse! When he got the call to play with the LBB, I’d just sunk every dime I had in the world into a recording project, and booked us for a tour to tighten up the originals we’d recorded and our overall show.

I’d also booked a showcase date at Legends to end the tour and invited every important person in the blues world to try to get us a label deal and they all showed! But, although I did all the writing and booking, Willie Greeson had been the band leader in our group, so when he left at this critical moment the whole band flew apart and I was left with nothing.

I had to put a band of hired guns together to honor the contracts I’d negotiated (something I’d never done on my own), figure out what keys I did the songs in, and since I had no experience leading a band,  I could only get the guys to play the cover tunes.

It was a terrible career setback. Obviously I didn’t get the Rounder or Alligator deal, they weren’t interested in a white girl singing cover tunes.

But I met Willie Smith when I’d go to drop my Willie off at his place for their tours. I met the whole family then and ended up playing gigs with a then teenaged Kenny Smith, Willie’s son and an estimable drummer in his own right.

Then, over the next year, one by one the other Legendary’s left the band to pursue solo careers. Willie Smith found it very hard to book a Legendary Blues Band with only one legend in it, HIM!

His agent split and he got a new guy who was enthusiastic but had no connections. I sat down with him and gave him every lead I had in the U.S. and Canada. He never forgot that I’d done that.

I guess that’s why after all these years he decided to help me.




I’d gone to Rosa’s Lounge to celebrate the Joined At the Hip Grammy win. I said to Willie, “Man I been wanting to make a record with you since ’98!” and he’s like “What? 1998?” and I said “Yeah! I wanted to make a disc with you and Willie Kent and George Baze and Allen Batts” and he said, “Well, Allen moved to Arkansas and those other cats is dead!” “I know!” I said, but I still want to make that record!” and he said, “Book the time, Lizzie, book the time! And we ain't givin this record to none of them labels! You’re starting your own label and I’m gonna help you.”

So that’s how Blue Kitty Music got started, right there at Rosa’s Lounge that fateful February night. I did book the time and we were in the studio two weeks later laying down the first five tracks.

That’s Willie Smith’s voice you hear at the beginning of "Clarksdale" on the track “Roadside Produce Stand." He and Darryl and I were working out an arrangement in the studio and we’d been joking around and it got on tape.

I decided to lead off the CD with it so that Willie’s voice, his exuberance and his spirit would live on. I had no idea when we recorded those tracks he’d be dead before the year was out.

He was SO alive, in his 70’s yet fit, youthful and handsome. I asked him, ‘Should I call you about the next session?” and he said “Just text me.”

Q - You are a prolific writer, writing all of your songs for your CDs. Do you ever find it hard to find inspiration? What do you like writing about?

I’ve been writing original songs since I can remember. I used to climb up on our neighbors' piano and play by ear till my grandma heard me and got us a piano.

I remember one time my mom was getting her hair done at Marshall Fields and they had a toy department outside the beauty salon. I was waiting for my mother, she’d told me, “Play with the toys and don’t get in trouble!”

They had this little four octave piano there so I sat down and started playing songs and singing all by ear. I actually drew a crowd and people were clapping, but when my mother came out of the salon she was not at all happy.

She gave me a whipping like I’d never had. I guess I wasn’t supposed to draw attention to myself, it was a week before I could sit down!

I thought I’d gotten some writers block while I was laid up after surgery in 2010, but then my friend came from Holland to visit and started asking me, “What have you written? Where are your new songs?” and I was like, “Well, I've been laying around not doing anything much” but he wouldn’t let it go and finally I said, “Well I wrote some songs but they’re not much…” and he insisted on hearing some of them so I played him one.

It turned out to be the song Eddie Shaw blows on "Clarksdale, "  “Sweet Potatoe Pie” so I guess my idea of writers block is other people’s idea of prolific!

I get a lot of ideas when I’m out walking my dog, or trying to drive (I have more scribbled songs on deposit tickets in the back of my checkbook! I never seem to have paper when I’m driving). In fact, the title track of my fourth Earwig CD, "Red Top," was written on the highway while I was driving past Red Top, Georgia.

I also get lots of great lyrics while taking a shower, which can be very frustrating while I’m dripping all over the floor looking for a pen! I draw inspiration from everywhere, reading a book, looking at a piece of art, hearing someone tell me a story.

Right now, I’m working on some songs for Shirley Johnson’s next project. I went to her show and watched her sing, then she sat down with me and we talked and the next day one of her anecdotes had morphed itself into a song! 

Q - Your song "Scratch the Kitty" held the number one spot for 22 weeks on the Cashbox Charts in 2010. Did you ever think that song would have such an impact? What do you think it was about that song that connected so well?

 


That song was inspired by an anecdote my brother in law, Alvin Holmes, told my husband. They’d been sitting around playing video games all afternoon and out of the blue Alvin looks over and says to my husband, “Carl, sometimes you have to scratch the kitty.”

Then he turns back to the game without another word. My husband comes home a few hours later and says to me, “Alvin said the strangest thing to me today.” And he related the whole episode and I said “Wait a minute…” and the whole song just came like that!

I’d always loved the theatre, I love word play and double entendre. I can’t stand a song that’s too blatant or obvious, but when I wrote that song I actually used my cat Frankie as a model.

My Frankie was one of those yellow tabby cats and one time a young girl was canvassing for Greenpeace and I asked her in because it was raining and I felt sorry for her. She had an English accent and she saw my cat and exclaimed “How precious! A Ginger Tabby!”

I never forgot that turn of phrase, so I used It in the song. I think people liked it because it’s entirely innocent and could be sung for children or a nanny, but if you’re a dirty minded so and so it’s as filthy as you want to make it. People like that!

Q - Your dad sang and played folk songs. Did he push you to become a musician? What drew you to the blues in the first place?

My dad was an artist and a cowboy and a dreamer, he never pushed me to do anything but be myself. He never gave me unsolicited advice, so when he talked, I listened.

He did record some of my original tunes when I was in high school and sent them off to Nashville, but they weren’t interested. I miss my dad every day!

No, the blues was stalking me all my life. I was in love with this hippie guy named Eric Burnhart. If Eric had said, “I have two tickets to hell, would you like to go?” I would have said, “What time should I be ready?”

Well, Eric took me to see Luther Allison live in a club in Oshkosh, Wis., and after the first note from Luther’s guitar I was so hooked it was sick.

I moved to Chicago shortly after, wandered into the first Kingston Mines and met my long term mentor, Aron Burton, who always gave me very good sound advice.

Not long after that I met Willie Greeson, who was so addicted to the blues he’d traveled halfway across the country to make it his life’s work and he played me Jimmy Reed until I got hooked too.

That was that.

Q - Even though rock derives so much from the blues, it seems that the blues continues to take a back seat to rock. What will it take to get more people interested in blues music? 

Blues music must be on TV. It must have its own station like VH1 or MTV.

It must have travel series and performance shows and concerts to get over. I was very hopeful that the movie "Cadillac Records" would turn on this generation like the Blues Brothers turned on a generation and Stevie Ray Vaughan turned on another, but it just didn’t ignite.

Oh well, if they had a reality TV camera following some of my people around, they’d start to say “Snookie who?” Believe me, we started it!



Q - You are also a painter. I understand that you view the visual arts as "food for the soul." Do you draw inspiration for your paintings from the same place as you do your songs? Do you need both music and art in your life? 

Back in the day a guy named Albert Brooks made a movie called “The Muse” that starred him and Michelle Pfeiffer. See that movie and you’ll understand what it takes to be me!

My writing muse demands books, magazines, movies, plays, afternoons at great museums of the world, she wants to travel, she wants to spa, she wants to be entertained both by other writers, by other musicians, she wants to be read to by the original author, she needs me to do things to help other people or she won’t produce!

For a few years she needed to go to Paris every year, then one year it wasn’t enough. For the past few years it’s been Clarksdale, Miss., that has given her joy.

This has also been a great joy for me and I’ve made some wonderful friends all over the world thanks to her constant need for sensory input. Sometimes I can just take her to the Art Institute of Chicago for an afternoon, but sometimes she needs to go shopping at some extravagant little shop or on the Internet. It’s expensive!!

I need art, sculpture, paintings, I need books and lots of them, I need more than 300 channels of TV, and great food. I need stimulating conversation. I understand that all other people need is sex, that must be nice, and a lot less trouble.

Recently, I’ve discovered computer art and also started making jewelry as well as painting. I like to paint scenes from the blues life and views from the van, so my paintings are either very colorful and filled with people or they’re landscapes rushing by.

My dad was really helpful in my early artistic life. He bought me a set of acrylic paints which I took on the road with me to help pass the time while touring.

I realized awhile back that I’ve been painting for sport for as long as I’ve been a musician for hire. I’m fortunate to have such pastimes that give me so much pleasure of expression.

If I hit that lottery I’d like to make an endowment to put art and music teachers into all the Chicago Public Schools. I think that  our culture suffers from lack of cultural education.

People need an understanding of art and music to be whole. We’re missing that.
 

Q - What goals do you have for Blue Kitty Music? Would you like to sign other artists to your label?

I’ve recently talked to a few artists about doing a compilation CD that would feature several of my favorite underappreciated people. I’d like to put out at least one disc a year and have four artists doing three songs each, or vice versa.

Then I’d like to mount a tour with these people featured on a series of concerts.  It’s a lot of work and planning and I do it all myself out of my own pocket,  so it all takes longer than I’d like, but yes, there will be more Blue Kitty Projects with other artists!

Writing for Shirley Johnson kind of opened my ears to hearing other voices from my pen. It’s wonderful to hear someone singing something you’ve written!

I love collaborating with other artists, trying new things, as long as we’re all having fun doing it. Life should be fun and art should make you joyful.

Life is too full of sadness and disappointment to be seeking other than to spread pleasure. My own experiences both in my childhood and early career were so difficult to overcome that I decided along the way that I only want to work with people I like, promote people who are good at heart and do things to make people laugh and feel better.

Even a song that I write that makes you cry in the end had let you release some pain, so it’s all good.

Last  year I’d planned to do a Blue Kitty Christmas CD, but only got one track finished. That track featured my Dutch friend (the one who made me get on with it and record "Sweet Potatoe Pie") Peter Struijk on slide, Rockin Johnny Burgin on guitar and Martin Lange on harp. 




We used it to raise money for the Red Cross Hurricane Sandy Relief. I’m planning another track for this year, also for the Red Cross. Who knows, in a few years we’ll have a whole disc!

I’m also working on remixing some of my material with some young, talented DJ’s and producers. I am not one of the crowd that loudly proclaims the death of the blues while holding a foot to its throat when it’ s trying to evolve! Art will change, music will change, it’s change or die, isn’t it? One of my favorite movie quotes is Clint Eastwood from "Heartbreak Ridge," as the tough Marine, Thomas “Gunny” Highway, says “Improvise, adapt and overcome!”

That is my motto and should be the motto of every living blues artist that wants this music to continue. Even Willie Smith said, “I ain't trying to play the same stuff I was in the 1950’s. I ain't the same guy I was then, the music ain't the same. It couldn’t be the same if it wanted to be!”

Now, out of all the self proclaimed carriers of the blues torch I think Willie Smith is the guy I’m a be listening to!

Q - You've done so many things. Do you have any dream projects or collaborations?


When I was 20-something, I took classes at The School of Metaphysics. I don’t think it exists anymore, but one of the assignments was “write a list of all the things you want to accomplish.”

So I wrote down travel to Europe, get a college degree, learn to speak French, have a world class band, make a CD, own a building, be able to cook gourmet food, have friends on more than one continent, be respected by my musical peers, have a good touring vehicle, write award winning songs, make money from my music…”

There were about 20 things I wanted to do. Well, I guess I have to write a new list, because I did all those things and more. I’m always surprised to think I’ve done so many things, in fact, unless I’m looking at a list of things I’ve accomplished, it doesn’t seem to me like I’ve really done much!


I have yet to win a Nobel Prize or to be asked to perform for the President or the Queen, I’ve never played Carnegie Hall or even the Pabst Theatre In Milwaukee where I grew up. Although I’ve won songwriting contests and been inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame, I have yet to be nominated for a Blues Music Award!

I’d love to play Milwaukee Summerfest, (I’d like a good agent so I wouldn’t have to also do the booking for everything!) I’d like to return to Europe to play music with my friends there. I’d love to play in the Orient and Australia sometime before the flight is too daunting to imagine.