Guitar News Weekly
Barry Levenson Interview
Barry Levenson Interview:
SURE PROTECTION AGAINST THE "COPYMAT WHITE BLUES PLAGUE"
by Dean L. Farley - Leomuser@aol.com
In today's modern blues music, it is virtually impossible to innoculate yourself against this much beloved genre's most feared disease; the "CopyMat White Blues Plague." This devastating illness, nearly always fatal, seems to target only young white male "blues guitarists" as its victims. A strikingly similar trait was found during the "Sickle Cell Anemia" scare years ago, when this odd cellular mutation seemed to manifest itself only in the bloodstreams of our country's black population. The Plague's early signs and symptoms are easily identified; initially, the guitarist loses his ability to hear above 438 cycles per second, therefore aurally tricking himself into tuning his instrument a half step lower than concert pitch. Then, the guitarist will begin to notice the appearance of heavy calluses, characteristically located underneath either one of the big toes. These calluses are caused by what doctors are now labeling "Stompitus"; referring to the depressing [albeit very annoying] inability to play guitar without the heavy use of "stomp boxes." And, most notably, the Ibanez Tube Screamer, [poor thing] seems to be the most abused "box" of all during this particular stage of the illness. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta is completely baffled by this Plague's very reason to exist. Even after countless scientific field studies, which were exclusively conducted in the western quadrant/delta region of Mississippi [where the vast and almost total majority of our country's true legendary "Bluesmen" were conceived and raised], the CDC has found NO EVIDENCE whatsoever linking the Plague's sinister origins as being native to this rich musical geographical vicinity.
Confused and back at the drawing board once again, the CDC is attempting to pinpoint other suspect areas for their examination in the continuing hunt for the Plague's evil roots. Death from this Plague is swift and brutal, most often occurring at jam sessions when the young guitarist snidely asks the other members of the band to tune their instruments down to accomodate his odd sense of tuning...Coroners have reported that more often than not, the moment of death occurs when a massive blow to the head renders the guitarist unconscious, then as the result of this trauma, suffers a complete loss of blood. The second most common cause of death comes when the infected musician is striken by a sudden embolism of the brain, directly after hearing the members of the jam session reply to his request with, "Hey, dude, WE ain't tuning down for nobody....but YOU CAN play in F!"
Above parody aside, there IS great hope in escaping this tragic "blues dilemma" that soothingly comes in the form of one Barry Levenson [not to be confused with the famous movie director of nearly the same name]. Levenson is the answer for keeping the "Black Blues Tradition" alive and breathing. Barry Levenson is a triple threat contender for the most inspiring white blues guitarist since SRV. Not only does he play with fire and finesse, he isn't your typical Blues player at ALL. He doesn't keep a "blues riff catalog" in his head [or his material], what you will hear in his soulful playing is the new "voice" of the Blues for many years to come. Barry also happens to be the Artist and Repertoire force behind the Denmark-based Storyville Records, whose fifty years of loyalty to the art of Blues [and Jazz] is nothing short of astounding. Levenson's Storyville debut, "Heart to Hand" set ablaze the ears of a hungry mass of blues fans, weary of hearing the ravaging effects of the "CopyMat White Blues Plague" on radio waves and performing stages worldwide. He undoubtably will bring a new meaning to the phrase "Look, mom, NO Pedals!" It's time to cut to the chase with straight talk from Pittsburgh, PA's leading blues exponent extraordinaire, Barry Levenson.
DF: How old were you when you started playing the guitar and what got you really going initially?
BL: Well, I grew up in pretty much of a "hicktown", that was about an hour from Piitsburgh, Pennsylvania. What was odd about were I was living was that there were houses near me that still had cows and barns.I was a regular "hick kid" and some of the kids in our school started playing in bands and stuff. I picked up the guitar at 14 and went to the local music store and the guy tried to teach me "Mary Had a Little Lamb" from that first Mel Bay book [laughs] and I absolutely HATED it! It was embarassing, so I put it down [laughs]. My dad had rented me a 335-style [Gibson] Trini Lopez which was a pretty cool little guitar, and I said, "well, this isn't what I want to do" so I stopped playing like two weeks afterwards. At 16, I got another guitar and by then I was hanging out with these older guys and I was going to Pittsburg, the big city, and a couple of these guys took me and got me stoned and played me Buddy Guy and Junior Wells "It's My Life, Baby." That completely blew my mind...completely destroyed me! They played me Chicago Blues and just the greatest music all day. It was all Chicago Blues.
BL: That was it! So I left there and staggered out into the sunlight [laughs] and went to the record store where I picked up a Downbeat magazine that had given Buddy Guy's "A Man and His Blues" a five-star review. They talked about his slashing vibrato and his whole wild crazy style, so I bought that record and went home and that was it! What was really interesting was
like the next day, I went down to the K Mart and bought a B.B. King record that was on Kent, which ironically, I later was signed to!
BL: "The Jungle"----it's the really weird psychedelic cover on where they have him standing there and they painted this little jungle around him, it was out-of sight, I mean it's unbelievable, I don't think that you can get that cover on CD! It was just on one of those cheap records that you could buy on the way out of the store. I had been off to college for about a year [still playing the blues] and I was planning on becoming a college English teacher, but I came back to Pittsburgh and locked myself in my room for about a year, I said, "Screw that, THIS is what I want to do!" I mean honest to God! My mother would leave like food at the door [laughs], my parents thought I was completely whacked!
BL: I guess a lot of us went through that, huh?
BL: Oh, totally.....yeah!
BL: Yeah, I know, there was a four of five year period where my dad wouldn't talk to me! He thought that I should be in the "looney bin!" And I learned that record note-for note, I took those little cheap diet pills called "crossroads", I mean, I would play until the joints of my fingers came out of their sockets one day! I had to go to the doctor to have him pop them back in, believe it or not! I love my dad an awful lot, he's been incredibly supportive.
BL: You know, it's really weird, people say that, but I think when you love something, the easiest thing to do is to work hard at something you really love, because it doesn't even feel like "work". For me, I've had very few regular jobs and I've gone through, like a temporary job, there's periods when you need some money and I had a temporary job where I would work eight or nine hours on a loading dock thinking, "you know, this is prison, if THIS is what most people have to do", I'd be going, "Oh Lord!" That is really rough...
BL: I've been blessed in the fact that I have had actually only one regular job in my whole life!
BL: Believe or not, it was called "Loft"...that was the worst name, I swear to God [laughs]! We practiced in a loft. This was when I was about 17 or 18 and we played together for about three years. In that band, one of the things that I was doing, was [pause] I had a really good memory and I could play things note for note, like Albert King's "Live Wire: Blues Power" and things like that. I had my little "mental textbook" of licks and I'd go through them. I could go to a gig and regurgitate these solos, note for note, it was just like, "Okay, here's B.B. King's "Live at the Regal" note for note, here's Albert King note for note" and so on. One night when I was driving to a gig, all of a sudden I had a revelation! I was driving and saying to myself, "you know what, I DON'T wanna do this anymore, I don't want to play these solos note for note." It's too hard for one thing and it feels funny, it feels weird, so this is the God's honest truth, I said to myself, "If I don't hear anything original in my own mind, I'm not going to play!" So we went to the gig and we plugged in and I would play a lick from some record and I would stop playing! The guys in the band are going, "What's the matter, what's wrong with you?", and I said, "I'm not going to play this crap anymore that I learned note for note, that's it! By the end of the night, I was struggling through these solos that really didn't have anything to do with anyone else's playing! I thought, "I'm going to play something and I'm going to STOP, I'm going to hear something, then I'm going to play it and then I'm going to stop, I'm going to learn how to play all over again.". You know, it didn't take that long to do, though it did take a while to get out of the mental set of playing things note for note. To this day, I tell everybody, cause I do a lot of teaching, but when I play, I don't care how fast or how slow, I play something and then I stop and then play something else and then I stop.That's it! And I never thought about it consciously, as being a good or a bad thing [or whatever]. Me, it was the only way that I could be honest about improvising, or else I'm just bullshitting people and myself by throwing out these note for note things.
BL: And, I can't connect them to my own soul or feelings if I going to play them note for note. So, that was a big revelation for me! That led me to the next part of my "mini-odyssey."
BL: Right, exactly! I had another revelation. I got out of the blues-rock thing, it broke up because of ego things and I joined a
big rock band in Pittsburgh called Glory that was opening up for people like Malo and The Glass Harp. It was a really great band, we had two guitar players and an organ player, so we did stuff in harmony, great lead singer, that band could've been signed it was just amazing. Then all the egos, blah, blah, blah......so after that, I said, "you know, this music is a lot of crap, there's a lot of image, this and that, I don't wanna do this anymore, I just want to play black music." Then I started backing up these four black singers, any time there was a band in Pittsburgh that had an R&B thing, I was the white guy in the club playing!
Everybody loved me, they said to me that I was "soulful", I never had any problems, everybody always treated me great. So I'm playing in this black club and this big guy comes walking in and we get done playing, he says "Hey, man, you're a bad guitar player, you've got a lot of soul, you're mouthing all of your licks [like B.B. King]." You know, I'd make "guitar faces!" So he said to me, "Hey, let's get together and jam sometime." Now, at this point I was pretty cocky because I thought I was a hot-shot blues guitar player and all of the black people were going, "Man, you BAD!", so I go over to his little dinky ghetto apartment with my `54 maple neck Strat. We sit down to play, and he's playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman with strings on it the size of telephone cables, so he says "lets play a blues" and I'm thinking, "I'm going to burn this bluesman, I'm going to eat you alive!" At that point, I didn't understand the whole thing about theory, I never hung out with the other musicians, except for the other guitar players that were playing kind of sort of like me. Even though I was considered to be one of the best in Pittsburgh, it was a rather small pond! Anyhow, we sit down and he says "let's play a blues", I say "great, what key?" and he goes "F"! I'm thinking "F, what the hell kind of key is that for the blues?" I hated F [laughs]!
BL: Yeah! Now, I love it, but back then [laughs] I was like "no way!" We start playing this blues in F and this guy starts playing all these chords faster than I could play single notes! He was playing this extremely phenomenal, beyond belief jazz music, the guy had grown up and studied with, lived and slept on George Benson's floor! [laughs] He had played with Lou Donaldson,
Groove Holmes and hung out with Grant Green! This guy was a world-class player.
BL: Luther DeJaurnette. I still talk to him, he's still in Pittsburgh, he is one of the greatest musicians, not just guitarists, I learned more from him just about music than everything I have learned put together!
BL: He BLEW MY MIND! He started playing all that stuff and I almost started to cry...I laid down my guitar and said, "I quit, I don't know anything, I wanna know what you're doing and I don't care what it takes!" [laughs] I spent the next two or three years hanging out with Luther, and he treated me, like absolutely better than if he was my father. He put me in a band with him where I had to actually learn the chords, I couldn't even play the chords, like minor 9ths, #11s, aug13s... things I had never heard of! He was an amazing guitarist, he would play sixty choruses of "Misty" sitting there without any accompaniment and I was like sitting there blown out of my mind! laughs]
BL: They were the Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Kenny Burrell type of things. It wasn't so esoteric, using an example such as Johnny Smith for instance. Now Luther wasn't a string bender and he thought that I was an amazing guitarist for my own little niche.In fact, one of the first gigs we did together, I did a solo and the whole room stood up! I was embarrassed because my little pentatonic solo was lame compared to his melodic explorations. That is when I started to realise for the first time, that reaching people didn't have anything to do with how complex what you played was. In other words, his solos were harmonically complicated, like a Pat Martino type solo but the average person was actually more able to hear my little "B.B. King excursions" than his type of solo. As far as I was concerned, I said to myself, "since I can play like B.B. King [sort of], it must be easy to do and I can't even figure out what George Benson's doing", so I figured this stuff must be a higher artform.
You can do that, but that's a stupid thing to think because they're equal! That's what I thought at the time, so I bowed down to him and he became my guru and I learned a ton of stuff.
BL: I never said that I wasn't going to bend strings again anymore, I played most of this stuff on a Stratocaster. I did get an ES-175 because I wanted to have a decent jazz box.
BL: No, geez, a `57 with humbuckers but I sold that and the `54 Strat. That 175, to me, was a revelation, it started me off on a real nice path where I could dip into both things. I tried to be a jazz guitarist for a while, but my heart was really into bending strings, too! I just had to reconcile this stuff , so after a short time I didn't want to stay in Pittsburgh anymore. I started to do a little studio work and something that I really hate doing, which was taking gigs for money... like casuals, and I backed up an Elvis imitator for a month and that was it! I was out of there and I moved to Boston.
BL: Yeah, I just signed up at Berklee [School of Music] for some arranging courses, I just wanted to know what I was doing.
Luther was actually an "ear player" too, although he knew a lot about the guitar, I'd imagine that.he had perfect pitch. He was one of these people that was just a "natural" player, and it's something that I realized, that to play jazz and figure out the chord/scale relationships was not the way I wanted to play! I didn't want to sit there and go, "here's the minor ninth chord, let's see, I can play this scale." That wasn't musical to me, and Luther was born and grew up playing jazz, like white kids grew up playing rock and getting off on playing Eric Clapton, or Eddie Van Halen solos.
BL: Yeah, the shredding thing!
BL: That's really cool that you heard that American Indian thing! [laughs]! I'm interested in the micro-tonal possibilities of string bending. String bending to me [pause] I'm really fascinated and into vibrato and string bending! To me, that's one of the reasons why I play, because it's the most expressive thing that you can do on any instrument.
BL: One of the things I got out of Berklee that was really nice was that I began to understand how music was put together, it wasn't so much just a "guitar thing." By then, I was playing in the house band at a place called "The Sugar Shack" were all these black R&B people would come through. I was heavily into the blues, but now, I had the "jazz" thing going along with it and I was able to understand what I was playing, I was able to analyze it, which opened up a lot of doors for me.
BL: Once I had an idea, it gave me more [pause] like in other words, if I was playing ah, you know I learned a lot of chord/scale relationships, I learned some things about the guitar and about music in general that gave me more confidence to be a better soloist or a better musician in general. I spent a lot of time learning songs, I was really fascinated by being able to put on a record and learn it. This is funny, I bought all of "The Band" records and I had brought a bunch of records up there with me
and I learned all of the songs. Then, I would learn all the jazz standards, I was able to learn anything and I understood how easy it was to learn stuff, cause [before] I didn't know why a chord progression was what it was, what were keys, blah, blah, blah! So I was able to put names to some of the things that I was doing. I learned passing tones, neighboring tones and I learned how do do horn arranging. It was a great experience. Physically, I was playing in the club like from eight o' clock until two and I would come home around four in the morning and go to school at seven, then come home and practice. I did this for about a year and I had physically, I wouldn't say I had a breakdown, but I was completely exhausted!
BL: Completely....so I went back to Pittsburgh!
BL: Well, I think my sound is pretty pure for one thing. I think I have a certain melodic sense, kind of my own, from all the influences and the stuff we talked about. My string bending and everything connected to my feelings puts across a certain vibe that people can relate to. They see that I am putting myself out there soufully and that's what I am trying to do! I don't mean that egotistically, I try to dig in and get as much feeling as I possibly can when I'm playing. I'm not that interested in the technical aspect of it, I am really interested in the "feeling" aspect, because that's the kind of music that the blues is! I love to pay tribute to, but I refuse to be an imitator....I refuse! My whole thing still to this day is when I'm hearing lines, is basically what can I do to the chord and how can I alter it? You can play a flat nine over a slow blues as long as you resolve it. It's a matter of just understanding; I think that you understand it and you hear it, you can play anything! The main thing to do is, that you don't want to loose people! Since I've been playing in front of people for a long time, which is one of the things that I love, is to play FOR PEOPLE so you make sure that you don't loose them, you want to MOVE THEM. I play simpler, there's a lot of stuff I that I could play but I don't play---you know that I edit, because I want to be a communicator. My two concepts are number one, to play over the chord or at least to be aware of it [as to how it functions] on a subconscious level and other one is to play something and then stop.
BL: I have always played just through an amp. Sometimes through a solo, I'll switch pickups ten or fifteen times, I don't even think about it, really! Some cool happy "accidents" happen soundwise, you can actually make a technique out of it [laughs]. I have a technique that I am working on that's my own personal thing, that in the next couple of years I might evolve to One of the things that I've always wanted to do, ever since I was a kid was to make the guitar "talk".
BL: I hear a "crying" sound all the time, Roy Buchanan was a big influence on me and I got to see him when he was really playing well. I really like the way that you can play a guitar with just your hands and there's so many sounds you can get out of it. You know where I got a lot of that from was "T-Bone" Walker. His touch...he got such beautiful sounds by picking near the bridge. I learned that just by moving your right hand around; B.B. King does the thing where he rakes across the strings and makes the notes jump out. You take all these little techniques, like Hubert Sumlin "popping" with his thumb, all these different things, and you realize that you have a big tone palette on your right hand! I never sat down and worked that out, it just evolved.
I use all five pickups and I'm switching all the time, it depends on what I'm playing and what the band is playing, I don't even know! Sometimes, I'll start a solo and just move it whenever the mood strikes me.
BL: I am acting as Karl Knudsen's [head of Storyville Records, Denmark] liason here in the States. He's got a couple of other people, but he relies on me he's spent a couple of days at my house out here [in L.A.]. Karl's a wonderful guy, a real music lover, one of these guys who's recorded a lot of these old jazz and blues artists for years. His label has done really well and he wanted to have more of an American-type branch of the label. He liked my record and got ahold of it, I don't really know how, I don't remember sending it to him. I had a few record companies interested, but nowadays it's virtually impossible to get signed! The label thing is just ridiculous. The Blues labels are really only interested mainly in the black artists or if you're out there 300 days a year so you can make money for them. It's gotten kind of weird, so to make a long story short, Karl was interested in siging me and I wanted more than to be signed, I wanted to have some sort of part in his label where I could be more than just an artist. Karl brought this up, he said, "well, you could do some producing for me and you could do A&R." I said, "great" so, basically, my job is to find some talent which I have been looking into to record them. That's it....real simple.
BL: Besides all the great blues and jazz players that everyone has heard of, I really love Jimmie Vaughan, he's a minimalistic genious. Junior Watson is also a complete original. What else can you say about Danny Gatton, if you think you've developed a new trick, he did it ALL! And another hundred thousand players that are too numerous to mention.
BL: I got a deal for a great sax player/blues singer named Elliot Chavers. He's an older guy that played with everyone from T-Bone Walker to Joe Turner and was a big part of the Central Avenue scene during the heyday of jump blues in Los Angeles. I'm also producing a great singer/bass player from the Bay Area, Jake Sampson. Just finished a really great record by a Delta blues guitarist and singer named Jake Matson. It's a really cool record and Matson is a great Delta guitarist with a lot of fire and a beautiful touch. I have a guitar record which I want to work on with all these really great West Coast guitar players. It's not a complilation, but a Freddie King type of record with the same rhythm section.All of these fine guitar players, a lot of them I can't say because if anything comes out in print, they might get upset before anything is finalized.
BL: It'll be the "Best of the West Coast" I think, which will be pretty amazing!
BL: "The Most of the Coast", there's a good title, I got to remember that!
BL: I love it, I'll give you credit! [laughs]
BL: Well, Dean, I just want to stay busy, musically, as possible. I'm trying to hook up a "Storyville Revue Tour" for next fall and next year with a bunch of these projects all in one band. Also, I want to go to Europe; it's great to play over there! I also have a book that I am working on, I'm going to do another record at the end of the summer. Some people say that not being a singer must be limiting. But in a sense, it really challenges you to come up with things that are unique. I have some rough ideas...I want to do a spiritual with gospel singers, I also want to do a Roy Buchanan tribute and an Eric Gale tribute, who I feel was sadly neglected in terms of his impact on the electric guitar. I want to delve deeper into Jazz, I also have a few surprizes up my sleeve! And I wish to keep looking for talent that deserves to be heard. So, all in all, I feel very fortunate that I can live my life in a musically creative fashion and get paid for it [laughs]. And just try to grow musically and as a person.
BL: I have an incredible `61 Stratocaster that came original in natural wood and unfinished from my understanding. This is my baby, just an unbelievable axe! For amps, they're two Blackface Super Reverbs and a Twin. I also own a `61 ES-335 block neck model, the first year they had block inlays. As far as strings, I use S.I.T's which go something like .011, .014, .018,
.028, .038, and .050. Pretty simple setup actually.
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