Talking Blues with Doug MacLeod
Last column I shared the first part of my conversation with consummate blues guitarist Doug MacLeod, who is nominated by the Blues Foundation for three 2016 Blues Music Awards – best acoustic artist, best acoustic album, and best song (You Got It Good (and That Ain’t Bad). I hope you’ll savor his further stories as much as I have while getting them ready for you. In Part One, we learned how he found his blues first mentor, Ernest Banks, who, incidentally, called him “Dubb.” Here we encounter Big Mama Thornton, Pee Wee Crayton and others in the LA blues scene, in which Doug was accepted despite being a distinct racial minority. Also, don’t forget that Doug MacLeod is performing at McCables on March 26 along with his frequent collaborator, bassist Denny Croy, and blues vocalist Lawrence Lebo.
AC: Have you been influenced by women blues performers to any great extent?
DM: I don’t know if to any great extent. When I was coming up it was not that common a thing. Maybe if you’re a male you listened more to males. But I was saying recently that I was really influenced by Nina Simone. She sang the blues, jazz. Think about Dinah Washington.
AC: Did you meet either of them?
DM: No, but I did play for Mama Thornton. I remember feeling goosebumps when she did certain notes. It was in the old Parisian Room here in LA. I remember Uncle George Smith arranged for me to play with her.
AC: What was her personality like?
DM: Oh, she was rough. You got time for a story?
AC: I do, I do.
DM: So we got done with a set and I thought I played pretty good and I were sitting down by myself. And she came right over to me, she looked right in my face and she said (hoarse whisper), “Do you like me?) I said, “Yes.” She said, “What you like about me?” The thing that came out of my mouth was, “I like your eyes.” At the time she was wearing men’s clothes and she kind of liked the ladies, you know. “You like what??” “I like your eyes.” She goes, “Oh, baby!!” (Laughing) I could do no wrong after that. She went over to (her friend) George and said, “you know what little Dubb just told Mama? Dubb told Mama that he loves Mama’s eyes!” George said, “He do?” I could do no wrong!
One time we were playing in the Parisian room – Big Mama Thornton, Pee Wee Crayton…Big Mama wanted to hear some guitar. Pee Wee – who happens to be the godfather of my son –she says, “I want to hear Dubb play. I thought Pee Wee was going to be all mad, but later he came over to me and said, “Douglas, I just want to know one thing.” “What’s that?” “What the – did you do to that woman?” (Laughs) She liked me, she liked what I said about her.
AC: The right words came out.
DM: I think have been blessed that way. You know what I mean? I think somehow the right words have always come out for me.
AC: Did your association with blues people start to affect the way you speak, your intonation?
DM: I used to have trouble talking. That started when I was a kid. I was abused when I was a little boy. I think that messed me up and I had a stutter. You know, like all stutterers, you hold things in because speaking is so embarrassing. You can’t get a word out and people are trying to anticipate the word you trying to say. Well, I remember when I tried singing. (And I could do that…) and I thought when I’m singing, I have a voice that doesn’t stutter, I’m taking that voice. I was playing bass in those days in St. Louis and I was around blues people a lot. If you’re going to play blues, you have to be around it. I heard them saying, I tried to sing, and this voice came out.
AC: If we can return to the technical side of blues playing, do you remember who introduced you to the bottleneck?
DM: Ernest Banks. I always wanted to know how he made it. Then one day he said, “Boy, you want to go with me?” I said, “Sure.” So we went down to this liquor store, general store kind of place. And he’d take a bottle of wine and look at it and put it back up. Take another bottle, put it back up. I thought he was looking at the price. But what he was looking at was how long the neck was and how thick he perceived that glass to be. So we go back and we drink some of that wine. And meanwhile he take a little dish and put lighter fluid in it and put in a shoelace and when we got done drinking the wine he take a penny out and start scraping around the neck of the bottle. And then he’d take the shoelace and tie it tight around the scraper. And then he’d hold the bottle and take a zippo lighter and light it up. And he had a bucket of ice water by his chair and he would just roll this around. But it would be jagged. So what he’d do, he’d hold up the drinking end and he said, “Boy, this is for playing.” And he’d flip it. Then he’d go, “This is for protecting.” The jagged and was for protecting.
AC: And today you go to a music store and it’s all there done for you. Do you think that duct tape tip – putting the tape on the inside of the bottleneck so it won’t move around – is widely known?
DM: Maybe not. I think that duct tape just helps the bottleneck stay on your finger, but it’s hard to get the tape there on the inside the slide just right. You do it with a pencil.
AC: Do you have any other tips that might help people who can’t see you but they would be reading what you tell them?
DM: For playing blues? Concrete tips? You know, I’ve got to go back to the first man, Ernest Banks. “Never sing about what you don’t know about and never play a note you don’t believe.” I think those are two real good concrete tips. Play this music honestly and then as far as the gear, I’ll tell you something, I use one guitar.
AC: What t kind do you play?
DM: It’s the National M-1 that they actually made for me because they wanted me to play one that was in the catalog. I had one that was Frankenstein. It was an older National M-1 but it had P-90 on it, Highlander pickup, we were trying to find some way to amplify it so it would sound natural. Then people wanted to get a version of it but the cost of that guitar with all the stuff that we had on it was too much. So they asked me if I would play one that was in the catalog and they would make it for me and give it to me. And I said, “If I don’t like it, can I go back to playing the mule – that was the name we gave to the Frankenstein. And they said, “Sure.” They gave it to me and three months later they called me and asked me how I like to the guitar. I said, “I like it.” “Have you named it?” I said, “No.” He said (in a worried voice), “Oh.”
AC: You hadn’t bonded yet.
DM: We hadn’t bonded yet. So maybe another month went by and he called again and asked me if I had named it. I said, “Her name is Moon.” It’s like what Honey Boy Edwards and I talked about. The old blues guys, the old fellows, Blind Blake, Robert Johnson – they used one guitar, they traveled with one instrument. This instrument plays everything. Like you saw last night – different tunings. I just put heavy gauge strings on it – D Addario flat tops –I like the sound of them. It’s a medium gauge string except for the high E which is a 14 instead of a 13. That instrument – I fingerpick with it, play slide with it. I play different tunings – standard tuning, dropped D tuning, what I call bastard-G tuning, open-D tuning.
AC: You’ve gotten down the art of telling a story while you’re changing tuning. That must really be nerve-wracking at least in the beginning.
DM: (laughing) Sometimes your ear – you just don’t hear it. Sometimes the bear gets you. But most of the time I be getting through the woods safely.
AC: I remember last night you mentioned that the old blues man didn’t just listen to other bluesmen. They were interested in all kinds of music.
DM: Robert Johnson and used to listen to Gene Autry because he was on the radio. That’s what Honey Boy said. They might’ve been listening to jazz, to Louis Armstrong. Lonnie Johnson.
AC: What you listen to?
DM: I’m a big fan of Ahmad Jamal. I’m also a fan of Jimmy McGriff, an organ player, Hank Crawford, Kenny Burrell, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery. And then I still love listening to Lightning Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, I never get tired of listening to them. I listen to some country – Jerry Reed is still one of my favorites. And I listen to Jerry Butler, I could listen to him all day long, I love his sound. Of course, Albert and BB.
AC: What did you mean by the little brother has to follow the big brother?
DM: In slide, to dampen the tone, so you get what I called the Tampa Red tone. So in my teaching, I tell them that’s going to be the big brother and you have to pick another finger to be the little brother. So wherever the big brother goes little brother follows. Then you get that dampen sound. The student is listening or thinking, “There’s the big brother. Now the little brother’s got to come behind him.” Then you get that tone.
AC: You think that metaphor helps people to get the concept?
DM: Hope so.
Audrey Coleman is a journalist and ethnomusicologist who explores traditional and world musics in Southern California and beyond.