(Listen to some Sugar Blue while reading this exclusive interview; here’s a playlist of some of his best songs here (link opens in new window)
You were born and raised in New York. What was it like to grow up in Harlem?
New York is my hometown and, like anyone’s place of birth, it is to me like the womb, the place that nurtured me, the prism through which my youth was focused.
I feel I was fortunate to have grown up around the corner from the Apollo Theater. Harlem has a rich musical tradition, swing, bop, blues and hip hop. All of these forms were not born there but they found a climate there to grow and evolve.
How did you choose to play the harmonica? Most kids are attracted by the guitar…
I did not choose the harmonica… the harmonica chose me!!!
I messed around with the guitar but there was something about the harmonica that spoke to me, as if the breath were given a language all could hear and understand no matter what tongue they spoke. I love this instrument.
It is like if you went over the physical limits of your instrument, they said. You created a sound that you would not expect from that instrument…. How did it happen?
I listen to a lot of people; I listen to guitar players, saxophone players, I listen to drummers, I listen to organists… and I just wanted to try and take the instrument that I thought closest to, and putting to it as much of my heart as I could, and as much of the music that I heard around me. I didn’t particularly try to do something that nobody ever did before. I was just trying to do something I never did before.
How did you reach your sound?
You practice… you play stuff like Little Walter, Stevie Wonder (who is actually a great harmonica player!) Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Smith, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Sonny Boy Willliamson.
I listen to these cats a lot; they influence my music a lot.
And you practice some more! Then scales… arpeggios… rhythm and endurance exercises… keep practicing!
How many harmonicas do you play with during the show? What are their differences, like sizes, sounds and functions?
I play diatonic harmonica and it is a necessity that I have all of the keys at my fingertips.
There are three different sizes of diatonic harmonicas, Mississippi saxophones or harps as the legacy blues men used to refer to them.
There is the ubiquitous 10-hole, the 12-hole Marine Band and the three-sixty-five 14-hole Marine Band that has a lower octave in the C-tuned version.
You put the harmonicas across your body onstage. Why did you design it that way?
I used to keep them in a box that I would sit atop the amplifier and it was tedious and distracting to have to turn my back to the audience whenever I wanted to change keys. One day, I accidentally knocked the entire box off of the amp and they all tumbled backstage!!!
That was when I decided to make a change. Necessity is the mother of invention, it is said!!
What music do you listen to?
I listen to everything. I listen to folk music, jazz, hip hop, funk.
I listen to rock and roll, I listen to classical, I listen to everything!
Lately, I grew very fond of ancient instruments, such as the sheng, the Chinese grandfather of the harmonica.
You started playing harmonica at about 10 years old. Who introduced you to that musical instrument?
I tried violin in school but I was terrible; I loved saxophone but my mom could not bear the noise I was making!!! So, when my aunt bought me my first harmonica, I played it constantly until one day it miraculously disappeared!!
I was forced to buy another and this time I hid it from my mom and started practicing… and practicing… and practicing! I still do.
Was there any particular moment that you decided to become a professional musician?
I saw Stevie Wonder performing at the Apollo Theater when he was 12. We are the same age. We were living around the corner from that theater in Harlem and my mother had been a singer and dancer there — I was impressed by Stevie’s performance and thought that I wanted to do it too. I had a dream come true when I actually had the opportunity to perform on stage at the famed Apollo Theater.
You started out as a street musician – where did you play in the city Were you able to make a living from it?
I played from one end of Manhattan to the other actually, but we made our best money on McDougal and in Washington Square Park. I remember playing with a great washboard player by the name of Washboard Doc; he was a fabulously rhythmic cat!
We had a great time and made a good living at it.
Do you miss the days as a street musician?
Being a street musician in New York and Paris gave me a unique opportunity to connect with people from all walks of life… it gave me self reliance when it was my only means of support. It strengthened me and gave me insight and understanding that I would never have had without that experience.
The legend says Mick Jagger spotted you while playing in the subway in Paris… How did that happen?
Seriously…can you imagine Mick Jagger catching the subway??? 😉
The legend is funnier than the truth sometimes… but let’s say I was in the right place at the right time as the Night Tripper put it, pure luck; it turned out well for all of us.
You played on The Rolling Stones’ hit Miss You That harp lick is known all over the world. What are some of your memories from playing with them?
Aaaah… those were the crazy rock’n’roll days!
It was a blast. Mick, Ronnie and Keith were a gas, gas, gas!!!
I still remember the concert at Knebworth where we witnessed Led Zeppelin’s final concert.Long days that became long nights, I was really happy to be playing with them and quite proud of the work I did. especially on Miss You and Down in the Hole. I think it helped to bring the harmonica to the forefront of rock and roll.’
You won a Grammy Award in 1985 with Blues Explosion. Do you see this as another important landmark in your career?
It was a gift from the muses and I am truly appreciative. I’ve been fortunate.
You also played with a lot of giants of jazz. Quite another musical dimension than blues or rock?
It all comes from the blues man! As Willie Dixon put it so well, “The blues are the roots, the rest are the fruits!”
From Louis Armstrong to Michael Jackson and all in between, it wouldn’t be, without the blues, — you feel me?
You also shared the stage with giants like Willie Dixon, Prince, Frank Zappa, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan… quite a list! Was Bob Dylan an inspiration to you?
I have been blessed to meet these wonderful musicians, to have the possibility of playing with them has been a dream come true.
Dylan was always so thoughtful about the matters of the world and I took a lesson from him. It was an honor and pleasure to work with him. He plays from the heart, just as he writes.
How about the genius Frank Zappa?
He was a master. Frank Zappa was a genius!
His music speaks far more eloquently of him than I ever could.
What is it about the blues that makes it so lasting, durable and relevant, even after all these years?
It is one of the most human of sounds and feelings and it carries at its heart the truth when it is played by those who know what that truth is; even when it’s not, the music has a power that is difficult to sully.
With all the achievements you’ve got, including a Grammy, and all the great artists you’ve worked with, is there any music genre you want to challenge yourself with and any more musicians you want to play with?
I have been blessed by the muses for my devotion to Mistress Music; I consider myself fortunate. The one dream on my bucket list would be to work with the incredible Quincy Jones. As for new genres… we will see what the future brings!
What have you been doing recently? What are your other current projects?
We are in the final stages of production on our new album, CD for you young ones.
It’s going to be titled COLORS and it features an eclectic collection of songs that I am proud of.
I am very nervous, as usual, at the looming end of studio days. Everything has to be perfect and my wife keeps telling me it’s beautiful, and if I didn’t listen to her, I would never get out of the studio!
COLORS is a fitting title for this new project, written and recorded on four continents, and I can’t wait for you to hear it!
So, look out — here we come!!
Keep up to date with Sugar Blue’s new stuff at his website: http://www.sugar-blue.com/