Cincinnati Slim: Blue note from Cincinnati

Nathan Lautier, translated by Darragh Hayes-Moriarty
5 Juillet 2015

Originally from Ohio, Cincinnati Slim has about a thirty year career behind him, and has traversed the United States. Today he sets the hearts of French blues lovers aflutter. Because this artist does not sing blues, he lives it. A meeting with this peerless artist.

Credits Mathieu Reyrolle
Credits Mathieu Reyrolle
Le Journal International: Hello, Cincinnati Slim, and thank you for having accepted this interview. To start, could you introduce yourself?

Cincinnati Slim: I am an American, and have been a professional musician for twenty years. I started playing music when I was 8 years old, I played in my first band when I was 13 I think, and professionally when I was 22. I have always played with bands, at the time I was a singer and harmonica player. I had never played the guitar alone on stage before arriving in France six years ago. It was my wife who pushed me.

JI: You said that you started your first group when you were 13. Was it already blues music?

CS: At the time, when I was 13, the popular music in my city, Cincinnati, was a mix of blues, rockabilly, rhythm and blues. Funk artists were very popular. Freddy King, James Brown,..we were kids, children, who dreamed of being musicians and I started with the drums. We played all the pieces that were popular at the time.

JI: I read that you started blues after something clicked hearing Howlin’ Wolf on the radio?

CS: Yeah, it’s a moment I always remember, as though it were last week. I was 14 I think. I was in bed, with a little radio and of course I was doing something I shouldn’t have, I was listening to music late at night. At the time, there was a radio station in Chicago: WLAC. And Cincinnati, where I come from, it’s far from Chicago, far, far...maybe 250km...No, sorry, it’s 600km from Chicago! So when I stumbled across WLAC on my little radio, I came across Howlin’ Wolf. It was a style that I had never heard. I knew blues, funk, but that was something else, it was Chicago Blues. Howlin’ Wolf had a unique voice, an incredible presence, and even in recordings that would come across. I remember I heard “Smokestack lightnin’”. And that scared me! There was a scream in my little ears, and at the same time that touched me enormously. And it is since then that I have followed the way of blues.

The truth at the centre of the music

JI: What touches you most in blues? The message, the musicality? What pushed you to play blues?

CS: Blues is not just a question of the message. The thing that important artists have in common is the truth. The truth. Without the truth, it’s weak. Technically magnificent maybe, but weak. Without the truth of soul, of heart, there would be no blues. And that, if it is particularly true for music, it is even more so for blues. Because blues is technically simple, it’s not really difficult. But to get a touch of magic, one must play with truth, and that’s the most important.

JI: And you always talk of Chicago Blues, what is Chicago Blues exactly?

CS: At the end of the 1940s, start of the 1950s, in Chicago there were a lot of poor people and black farmers from the south (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia) who had left the south because the level of racism was insufferable. It was never easy there, but in the 1940s and 50s it was unliveable. They left therefore partially because of racism and also to find a new life because there in the south, there was nothing but farmers. There were many who passed through Cincinnati, New York, Detroit and Chicago.

Chicago at the time was an enormous city, almost the same size as New York, and a history of music can be found there that does not exist anywhere else. New York was nothing but jazz. So when the poor black people arrived, they brought their southern music, and they started to play in the streets and in the bars. But the problem is that in a bar, there are a lot of drunk people who talk loudly and make noise, and music with an acoustic guitar...that doesn’t go well. So, they started to use electric guitars, that is the first thing that profoundly changed music and which formed the sound of Chicago. It was Mississippi Blues, but amplified thanks to a drum behind and a bass guitar to the side. Groove was already present in music, but being amplified gave it a new sound, which had never been heard.

And after came the entrepreneurs who did business with recordings, like Just Records. It was a crazy time, all the artists that are still well known today arriving in the same place at the same time: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dickson, Little Walter. These giants of electric blues, of amplified blues, they were all there together at the same time. And that, that’s the sound of Chicago. That, that’s Chicago.

JI: What is the difference with Delta Blues? As for you, what style of blues would you define yourself more as?

CS: Southern Blues is acoustic. It’s played in a duo or sometimes a trio with acoustic guitars or a resonator guitar that is not amplified. It’s very traditional. Delta Blues, it’s a unique style, there is also blues from the north of Mississippi. another that comes from Georgia, Piedmont. And me, I am sort of a mixture of all these styles.

When I play solo, it’s not at all the same. It’s not the same as when I play in a trio. The trio is a lot more like an electric group: we don’t have a drummer, that reminds me of Chicago. But when I play solo, it’s a mixture of blues, of North Delta, of all these people from North County, Piedmont. I wrote in Cincinnati, where I grew up. My blues is made from all these influences.

“I have never played or sang a piece which does not touch me.”

JI: So, your influences, it’s Howlin’ Wolf as you said. Are there other artists who influence you? When I saw you in concert, when you sang, that kind of resembled how Joe Cocker could sing, and the way you played the guitar, I felt it was somewhat similar to Eric Clapton when he plays.

CS: That’s kind, but I am not a guitarist, I am a novice in the subject, I only know bass guitars. I started the guitar to be able to go on stage solo, and the first time was in France. I was frightened the first time! I was bizarre, I wasn’t used to it. Now it is better, I enjoy doing solo concerts. Today, I play the guitar fairly well, it enables me to accompany my voice, but also to tell a story. In every song, it is important to tell something, you have to say something.

Regarding my voice, I started singing in choirs when I was 8. I loved what Joe Cocker did, it’s an imitation of blues artists, real American blues artists. Me, I sing what I feel, even when I sing other people’s songs, classic songs. I have never played or sang a piece which does not touch me. I put a part of me into every piece.

JI: You say that you only know how to play the bass guitar. Yet, you have started playing with a bottleneck. It’s not easy to play.

CS: It’s not so complicated. And also you know, there is a different tuning, my guitar is not tuned normally. It is tuned in the blues style, the tradition…

JI: What is that, that tradition? How is it tuned?

CS: There are several ways of tuning that one can use. I used open D for tuning. It’s D A D F# A D. I am not going to retranscribe that with the French system!

JI: Re La Re Fa So sharp La Re.

CS: That’s it. The French music system is different to the American one. We teach music with “do re me”, but only for very little children. And after, we teach people a phrase “Every good boy deserves a favour.” The initials form EGBDAF ( Mi, So, Ti, Re, Fa) and after it’s FACE (Fa, La, Do, Mi). So for me, it’s always a problem, I often play in Mi, en Fa, in Re, and sometimes in So. It’s strange, it’s hard to speak of notes like that!

JI: We’ll speak about other things so. You also play the harmonica. Have you played for long?

CS: Yes, since I was 14.

JI: And you have never wanted to play the guitar and the harmonica together? Like Bruce Springsteen in Streets of Philadelphia or Neil Young?

CS: No, I have never done that. because I am a beginner in the guitar, I started to play 7 or 8 years ago at most. And I have played the harmonica for 47 years, but it’s still almost impossible for me to play it on a stand. I can do it because my style is linear, with my hands. It’s almost more like a saxophone. In a trio, I play the guitar and so it’s hard to join the two. That is why I don’t play the harmonica at lot at the moment. If one day I look for a drummer, I could do what I did in the United States at the time: bass, drum, guitar and me on the harmonica. I did that for a long time.

JI: You mention the saxophone. Do you also play that?

CS: Ah, yes! We could say that. But me and the saxophone, it was like a bad marriage. It was really tiring. I tried, tried, tried for five years and after we split up. No, for me it’s the voice, the harmonica, the guitar and the drum. The drum was my first instrument.

A thirty seven year career, and notable meetings

JI: So if I remember correctly, you began your career in 1977, so it started rather long ago. What has changed between 1977 and today in your career?

CS: The problem I have now with my career is the fact that the system in France is difficult. The social system is more adapted to the needs of artists, that helps to cover them, but we cannot do as many events as in America. At the time I was used to playing 4 or 5 times a week. While in France, it is very expensive for patrons of bars and festival organisers to propose a date, with all the administrative problems. That is why I am always looking for a representative agent, because it is too difficult, it is almost impossible. Even for French musicians, it’s difficult. Imagine for me!

JI: So there you mention your old group, it was Cincinnati Slim and the Headhunters, is that it? Are you still in contact with them today?

CS: Yes...there were 34 people who passed through the group. Yes I am tiring, I am demanding. But I am still in contact with them. In fact, I was in the United States in the summer of 2013 and I played there for the first time in years. And I saw a lot of old colleagues, former co workers, people who I played with. Wille Ray, the guitarist I just spoke about was there. And a drummer, a young man...he’s not young now, but at the time! That was nice. The band still plays and something which pleases me a lot is the fact that, even if it was difficult at the time, even if I was tiring, I was demanding and I knew exactly what I wanted to have and it was like that. I put rules in place and that was the way it was. But after ten or fifteen years, the people who left the group because they were sick of me, they say to me “You know what? You were right, you were right and I appreciate that a lot.” And for me, that’s a great satisfaction. That pleases me a lot because in fact, it’s not necessarily a case of “I was right”, it’s a case of “He understands now what I was doing at the time.”

JI: If I’m not wrong, you have opened for enormous artists: BB King, Bo Diddley, Bobby Bland, Lonnie Mack… Did you meet them or was it that you were part of a festival but you never saw them? Have you met all of them?

CS: Yes, in fact I have opened for BB King 7 times. He was very nice, it was him who asked the organisers, when he passed through my region, if I was available to open. And that was an honour. And I played with Bo Diddley two times. At the time, he didn’t have a group. It was the organiser’s responsibility to provide him with a group and all the material, he didn’t have anything but himself and his guitar.

JI: And Bo Diddley, you were his musician, was that good too? You skipped over him quickly.

CS: Ah, Bo Diddley...With BB, like I said, there was no one but us in the opening. He was always nice with me. I have little stories. The first or second time we opened for BB King, we did our set, we let the stage and BB’s band arrived afterward. It’s like an opening when BB King’s band play, they do two or three pieces and it’s after that that BB comes on stage. And I was behind the band. I was behind the stage and I watched BB’s group and suddenly I realised that BB was there! I said “Hello!” and it was always so well dressed, always, in a suit. I said “Well, BB, you are always well dressed, it’s great!” and he said to me “Yes, it’s to respect the public. You have to dress as though you’re going to church. It’s the people who make the show. It’s the people who pay our salary.”

The new generation: do you love it or hate it?

JI: Do you listen to new blues artists, young artists, what sort?

CS: Yes, a little.

JI: What do you think?

CS: When you say “new”, that means someone still alive, is it?

JI: That means young people, for example I had Keb’Mo’ in my mind.

CS: Ok, the new generation of artists that are still alive, yes. There are many artists that I find are huge. And many others that play all the notes but...I don’t like them. And often, now, I find that there are many young blues guitarists that copy Stevie Ray Vaughan, for example. They play a lot of notes, a lot of techniques but they say nothing. The most important thing for a soloist, no matter what instrument, is to say something. Damn it, say something! Tell a story! If you start to play, playing and saying nothing, that does nothing! It’s like a drunk in a bar, talking...rambling!

JI: Are there any artists of the new generation that you really like?

CS: Yes, you spoke of Keb’Mo’. Keb’Mo’ isn’t necessarily a blues artist, but is one I like a lot. Kim Wilson, I love. There is a guy from Texas, a guitarist called Anson Funderburgh, who is excellent. The others, I don’t know, there now. But there are many young people who play blues, who I like. Eric Bibb, for example, He is great. He plays with truth, with his soul.

JI: Finally, do you have plans for the future?

CS: Yes, we are in the middle of doing the second album. It’s not clear, the bassist often plays in winter in ski resorts. I am going to play the drums and we are going to record the rhythmic section together, bass, drum and guitar and afterwards add all the solos, the voices etc. I hope that that is going to come out around September/October. That’s the plan.