Recording Straight Natural Blues Music For Ten Years
One of the most overlooked events of 2007 was the tenth anniversary of Electro-Fi Records. In 1996, President and Founder Andrew Galloway, a life-long record collector and fan of music, decided to create a record label. With the release of the first Electro-Fi CD Little Mack Is Back by Little Mack Simmons, his dream came true in 1997. ďReal deal blues, its what we started to do and itís what we still like to do. We record artists that people should hear and help to find work for them.Ē Galloway, who also enjoys old movies and art, has been using a successful formula for his recordings right from the start. ďI donít ever wanna cut a CD that the artist is not happy with. What I do is I get the right players, then step back out of the way, and let them make the kinda record they wanna make,Ē Galloway asserted. The label initially concentrated on venerating the older generation of blues musicians such as Snooky Pryor, Curley Bridges, and Sam Myers. ďNow weíre focused on artists who are touring more and those artists tend to be younger artists. Iím interested in artists who are taking their vision of what blues is and are bringing it to the people on an ongoing basis.Ē
If you arenít familiar with this enduring label and what they do, allow Galloway to sum things up. ďNo teenage guitar heroes, no aging rock stars, no tribute CDs, no blues fusion CDs, Ö, just plenty of straight natural blues music served up by some of the real originators from blues musicís greatest generation alongside with the best of this generationís emerging artists, to whom the torch of the blues tradition has been passed.Ē
Billy Boy Arnold
Their most recent releases include Harrison Kennedy High Country Blues, Sharrie Williams Iím Here To Stay, and a tenth year anniversary compilation called Maximum Mojo. In 2008, they are planning to release new CDs by Julian Fauth, Billy Boy Arnold, Curley Bridges, and Lilí Dave Thompson.
For me, it feels like Electro-Fi Records has always been around. They have been part of my blues life right from the beginning. I first met label president Andrew Galloway in the late í90s at a Little Mack Simmons gig in Brantford, Ontario. When you sit and talk with Galloway the love he has for our music comes across loud and clear. Andrew and I are Canadian and we live within hours of each other. So itís a bit ironic that we held the following interview at the 2007 Pocono Blues Festival in Blakeslee, Pennsylvania which is approximately 450 miles from where we live.
Tim Holek: Congratulations on achieving the tenth anniversary of Electro-Fi Records. How did you go about launching the label and getting Little Mack Simmons to be your first recorded artist?
Andrew Galloway: Iíd been a record collector. I love music in general and the blues in particular. I was coming up to my fortieth birthday [and thought] if Iím gonna have a label nowís the time. If it doesnít work out, I can call it a mid-life crisis. A guy called Doctor Nick, a harmonica player in Toronto, Ontario, knew that I was starting a label. He used to go to Chicago. One time he came back raving about Little Mack Simmons and Nick is the worldís number one Little Walter fan. I knew Little Mack from his 45 [rpm] records that heíd done on the Bea and Baby label and labels like that in the í50s. The next time I went to Chicago, I checked Mack out. I got to know him and I was really knocked out by him too. Mack was a real fine harp player and also a real fine singer. I thought Mack had a real nice balance [of the two] and he had a great background. He was a childhood friend of James Cotton. They grew up together. Mack told me he and James used to skip off school when they were kids. Theyíd go under this bridge and theyíd play harp under there where there was great natural reverb. One day Mackís mother was walking by and she caught both of them [skipping school] and gave them a whooping. It must have been 60 years later that I met James Cotton and he still remembered Little Mackís mother catching them one time skipping school and giving them an incredible whooping. Mack was a real deal guy. He lived in St. Louis and then came to Chicago with his wife who worked with Little Walter. Mack used to go out and hear Walter playing in the clubs. He didnít tour a lot and he had a few road blocks a long the way in his life. In 1996, I thought this is just the kind of guy I want to record. He has got the history, a good voice, and he had been under-recorded. I brought him up to Toronto in October of 1996 and got Fathead [a joyful and popular five-piece blues and R&B band] to record with him. We went in and cut that and Mack was real happy with it. That was Little Mack Is Back. It came out on Mackís birthday January 27, 1997. We did a big birthday party and CD release party at the Silver Dollar [Torontoís popular blues club]. I wish I could release CDs that quick now. It takes longer now but that was the first one. For a guy that couldnít read or write, he knew literally 500 songs. He would just pull them out of the air and play them. He always put his own stamp on it. The next CD I did was an acoustic disc with him called Somewhere On Down The Line. His health was a little dicey then. Unfortunately, he got colon cancer. As much as he liked those two CDs, he had his own label which meant a lot to him. It was called the PM/Simmons label. In the late 70s, he put a lot of 45s out [on that label]. We remastered them and put them out on a CD called The PM/Simmons Collection. That was the last one we did with him. I learned a lot from him. He was a really interesting first artist and a talented guy to start the label off with.
TH: What do you think he would have thought had he lived and known what Electro-Fi has become today?
AG: I think he would have liked it because after working with him we started working with Snooky Pryor. They knew each other from the old days in Chicago. Mack would come and watch Snooky play. They were guys from the same generation. The label has grown from there and has spread out in a few different directions but weíre still trying to do today what we did then, which is record artists that people should hear and find work for them to get the word out.
TH: As recent as the Lilí Dave Thompson CD Got To Get Over You and as far back as the first Little Mack CD, youíve been bringing artists to Toronto to record with the best Canadian blues artists. Whose idea was that?
AG: That was mine. Iím often asked why I donít record in Chicago. I could but there is a surplus of real good studios [in Toronto]. Alec Fraser [an in-demand producer and bass player] really understands the blues and has contributed so much to Electro-Fi. As you know there are a lot of real good musicians up our way [in Canada]. The Canadian players are thrilled to be playing with a legend like Snooky and a lot of the legends are thrilled with the caliber of the [Canadian] musicians. Curley Bridges [who was born outside Raleigh, North Carolina in 1934, and whose career has spanned the blues, R&B and the dawning of rock 'n' roll] was a guy who had lived up in Barrie, Ontario and hadnít recorded in 30 years. I thought Chris Whiteley [a multi-instrumentalist] is a guy who really digs what he does. So I brought them together to record [Keys To The Blues]. They got on like a house on fire and theyíve done about 40 festivals.
TH: Do you feel this has aided the knowledge of the general blues listener to how much talent we have in Canada?
AG: I think it has. Everyone is kinda partial to their own hometown, but Toronto [has such a rich musical background]. I think it goes back to the days when Curley Bridges and Frank Motley Jr. were playing R&B together there in 1955. Then, Levon [Helm] and the Hawks with Ronnie Hawkins came along as did Oscar Petersen. It [bringing U.S. artists up to Toronto to record with Canadian artists] really was to blow the horn of the Canadians and Toronto in particular. Toronto was a hot bed of talent and it still is to this day. There are wonderful players there like Jack de Keyzer [a very popular blues and roots artist] who Iíve been privileged to work with in the studio. Jack played on the Sam Myers CD. Sam didnít know who the guy was but by the end of their session he was asking Jack if he wanted to move to the States to start a band. Jack is so generous and has such a good instinct. When we did the second Harmonica Shah record, Jack was just what Shah needed. He was such a support for him. It was a real collaboration. Thatís what I like to see. Paul Oscher, who is on my label, says Muddy [Waters] always loved coming to Toronto. I have a good selection of earlier Living Blues magazines. I was reading one the other day from around 1974. In it each city had a report about whatís going down. Whoever was doing the Toronto one listed Muddy Waters, Howliní Wolf, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, and Jimmy Reed performing at different clubs. I donít think people realized how good they had it.
TH: What were and are some of the ways that you get the word out about the label?
AG: You try to market it the best you can and advertise but word of mouth is still the best. As you know the blues market is a small market but itís a loyal market. I have people whoíve bought every CD weíve put out. I just wish there was more. Sure, if people are already familiar with an artist theyíll come to their shows, but word of mouth is the best. You know yourself if someone recommends an artist you keep an ear out for him. We have good distribution in the US and in Europe as well as in Canada. Iíve been able to take artists over to Europe several times. Thatís always gone favorably. Real deal blues its what we started to do and itís what we still like to do. Now weíre focused on artists who are touring more and those artists tend to be younger artists. They have to earn a living so they are out on the road more regularly.
TH: What kind of background did you have when you started the label? Was it a background in the music business?
AG: Not so much other than being a life long fan of music. Ever since I was a kid, I loved music and I collected records for years and saw a lot of live shows. I had a corporate communications company. We supplied audio/visual equipment. We would set up meetings, bring in a sound system or large screen video, provide the P.A. system. I did that for about 15 years and then I sold my share of that in 1999. There was no way I could do both that and the label. My heart was with the label. The audio/visual company paid out over five years which was great seed money to keep the label going. Now the label is kinda self-sufficient. We struggle but parts are good.
TH: What was your first exposure to blues?
AG: I heard it on the radio as a kid. Artists like Jimmy Reed, things like that. Then it was a combination of the Cream and [Rolling] Stones who helped me to realize that Mckinley Morganfield was Muddy Waters and Chester Burnett was Howliní Wolf. When I was a teenager they lowered the drinking age to 18 for a couple years. I went to see some rock band on Yonge Street [Torontoís major arterial street that is known for its shops, restaurants, and bars] and it was sold out, but the Colonial Tavern was right behind the street and Howliní Wolf was playing there. I only had the vaguest idea who Howliní Wolf was. It was a few years before he passed away so his health was a bit shady. I went up and got a seat by the stage. It blew my mind. It was too intense for younger listeners (laughter). I was riveted. I had heard blues records but I had never seen a live blues show before that. Seeing the Wolf with no frame of reference for it, it just totally blew my mind. I was like wow.
TH: Weíve talked a bit about the traditional old school guys who weíve lost far too many of. Iíd say the majority of your releases could be classified into the old school blues category. Since we keep losing the greats of that era, are you concerned that there will come a time when no one will be performing that style of blues any longer?
AG: To be honest a lot of the artists from that generation have passed away. We lost Snooky Pryor and Sam Myers in 2006. Those artists firmly believed the blues will never die and I firmly believe that too. The main difference now is touring is so much more important. Itís nice to work with more of this generationís players like Lilí Dave Thompson and Fruteland Jackson. In the last couple years, as you know, weíve lost so many [of the older generation blues greats]. I call it the greatest generation of the blues Ė that post-war generation like Junior Wells. So many of those artists are gone but there are still a lot of interesting younger generation players that are stepping up to take the place and carry on the blues tradition. In the younger generation there are artists like Julian Fauth, Fruteland Jackson, and Harrison Kennedy who goes back to the early í70s with Chairman Of The Board. Kenny Blues Boss Wayne is a wonderful piano guy and I think the piano is very under-rated. Thereís just not that many great piano players in the blues. Iím proud to say with Curley, Kenny, and Julian they are three of the better ones and Iím fortunate enough to work with them.
There is always people to pass the torch to. Iím not one of these guys concerned with the dictionary definition of what is the blues. What is the blues is what you think is the blues. What I like is what I like and thatís what I promote. My ears and mind are open to a wide range of blues. Look at a guy like Harmonica Shah who is 61 and grew up in the í50s. He just does spontaneous stuff. He just basically makes the songs up out of what happens to him on the way to the gig. Lightniní Hopkins used to do that a lot and thereís not many people who do that now. To me, an amazing thing about the blues right now is the song writing. There are so many instrumentalists in the blues who just wanna use the song as an excuse for a ten minute guitar solo. Thatís not my cup of tea. I like story songs.
TH: To commemorate the labelís tenth anniversary, you released a CD that highlights ten years of the best in blues music from Electro-Fi Records. How difficult was it to select the songs for the tenth anniversary CD? Where some of the songs suggestions from fans?
AG: I was a little selfish and included a lot of my personal favorites (laugher). I did ask fans and people who had worked with the label over the years for input. I got some great ideas and I just wanted to cover the bases and pay homage to Snooky Pryor, Sam Myers, and Little Mack Simmons. Snooky and Mel did a record together called Double Shot. There is one song on there, in particular, called Work ĎTil My Days Are Done which is the closing song on the anniversary collection. It really summed up Snooky and guys of that generation. They did that song with no rehearsal. Itís not even like a 12 bar blues where one of them could have thought well Iíll just follow the 12 bars. Itís got a gospel type of chord structure. Those two guys could communicate without speaking. They nailed that on one take out of the blue with no run through and Iíve never seen anybody be able to do that the way they could. I really looked at the first couple of years strongly. Itís a two disc set called Maximum Mojo. There are 32 tracks on Maximum Mojo in total. The first disc focuses on the early years and the second disc features a transition to artists like Paul Oscher, Fruteland Jackson, Harrison Kennedy, and Mark Hummel. Itís a little bit like what Mark Hummel does with his live show Harmonica Blowout. He showcases the older guys, like Billy Boy Arnold and Lazy Lester, but he gets his own thing across as well. Thatís kinda what Iím trying to do with the label. TH: Are there any previously unreleased songs on the anniversary collection?
AG: There is an unreleased gem from the late Sam Myers with Mel Brown and its Robert Jr. Lockwoodís Sweet Little Woman From Maine. Itís a beautiful version of that with Sam singing and playing harp and Mel playing his extraordinary guitar. The only reason why we left that off Samís CD [Coming from the Old School] is we had a surplus of great soul blues already on that record. We put that one song aside and now itís a perfect bonus.
TH: Do you have any special memories from specific recordings?
AG: Mississippi Wrecking Crew thatís close to my heart. To work with Snooky Pryor who was the first guy to amplify the harp and really was the guy who cut the first post war Chicago blues record in the late í40s. Now there is a guy who I had to pinch myself when Iíd be in the studio with him. Iíd think to myself I donít believe Snooky Pryor is here. What a gentleman. Iíll never forget him and Iíll always miss him. I think about him all the time. I learned so much about music and life from working with him. He was one of the happiest people. He was always laughing. He had a tough life and was very aware of the hardships that he and others of his generation had been subjected to but he didnít let it scar him. He just rose above all that stuff.
I suggested to do a record to celebrate Snookyís eightieth birthday. I asked him to name his dream band. He listed off Mel, Pinetop Perkins, Willie ďBig EyesĒ Smith, and Bob Stroger. Then we got Jeff Healey [a prolific blues-rock guitarist as well as a noted jazz musician] involved. Snooky was such a pro. He was so well organized and knew exactly what he wanted to do. Pinetopís management, God love them, were really looking out for him. They said Pinetop is 90 and he can only play on four songs, so we agreed to that. Then, he gets there and he played on every one because those were his friends. He loved hanging out with them. He didnít want to go back to the hotel and sit in the room by himself. That record was a highlight.
And the Sam Myers record was a highlight too. He worked so much with Anson and the Rockets and toured a lot. He had a chance maybe more than other guys from his generation to really get out there and tour and meet a lot of people and play a lot and go to Europe several times. His health sadly started to fail virtually a couple months after I did that record. Not for any monetary reasons but Iím just so glad that we were able to do that record. He was so well organized and I heard horror stories about him being a gruff old dude and it will be a nightmare. You know what? He was a pussycat. He was the coolest guy. He and Mel [who performs on the CD and grew up with Sam in Jackson, Mississippi] got a long great. He was so happy to have a record out under his own name. It meant so much to him. At that stage he really wanted to do his own recording project. I was happy I could facilitate that. Thatís what I see my role as. There is a lot of people who can do their own CDs and they maybe donít need a label. But Iíd say with people like Curley Bridges or Sam Myers if you can facilitate it and get the right players, then step back out of the way, be a sounding board but let them make the kinda record they wanna make, thatís the key. I sit back. I soak it all in and I learn. Iím not going to tell Snooky Pryor how to play the harp or Sam Myers how to sing or Mel Brown how to play guitar. I wouldnít dare. Iíd be in a gutter somewhere.
TH: Mel Brown wasnít that excited to get hooked up with a label or to record again. What did you do to win him over?
AG: I nagged him (laughter). Iím pretty sure he agreed to do a CD just to get rid of me. I knew Mel and his background and the great career he had working with Bobby Blue Bland. Mel recorded five albums for ABC Impulse that are rare items to find. I have them all. Snooky wanted Mel on his first Electro-Fi album. Once I heard Mel in the studio and how good he was I said, Mel listen if you have any interest at anytime to make a record. He said, no Iím retired. I like to play golf and do the occasional gig. I donít need any hassle or any worry. I respected that but every time I saw him I asked him. Finally he said alright weíll try one. And that one was Neck Bones & Caviar and won the 2001 W.C. Handy Blues Award for Comeback Blues Album Of The Year. Then, there was a mutual trust and weíve done a couple of projects including his latest Blues A Beautiful Thing. A lot of people donít know how good of a keyboard player he is. Iím proud that on a lot of his Electro-Fi records he plays some B3 organ and keyboards. When he was a member of the Antoneís [the renowned Austin, Texas nightclub] house band he was there for whatever was needed. If it was a guitar player or keyboard player. He is humble and has no ego at all. To me he is one of the top ten blues guitarists in the world today. A lot of people consider Mel to be shy. He just needs time to take to get to know you. You gotta kinda prove yourself to Mel but once you do, he is the greatest guy.
TH: Mel has been a session man on so many of your Electro-Fi projects. How did that come about?
AG: There wouldnít be an Electro-Fi Records without Mel Brown. He is one of the premier guitar players in the world. In 2007, he won the Living Blues Readerís Poll Award for Most Outstanding Musician (Guitar). I look at it like this. We have Mel Brown, perhaps one of the best blues guitarists ever, sitting up in Kitchener, Ontario. Mel could play a paper clip and make great music come out of it so I thought why not involve Mel with as much stuff as he wants to do? Iíve had him perform on a lot of records. Iíve just done a Billy Boy Arnold record, which Iím very excited about. We had Billy Flynn on guitar and Mel played guitar and piano. Its Billy Boyís tribute to his mentor Sonny Boy. Billy Boy had never met Mel but he knew of his records from the í60s. So Melís reputation precedes him. Mel doesnít tell me a lot of trivia about his career. I tend to find things out about him from other people. When Hendrix was a hit in England in í67 he came back to the States and was going to open on a tour with the Monkees. He was in Los Angeles where Mel was living at the time where he was doing a lot of studio work. At the time Mel had a weekly gig at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. Jimi came to Melís show, sat in the front row, stayed for the whole show, and when Mel came off the stage Jimi said man you play real good. How many guitar players do you know that have had Jimi Hendrix tell them that they play real good?
TH: With the record industry in the sad state that itís in, what signs are you getting that Electro-Fi is still continuing to grow?
AG: I got into it ten years ago just when the decline started. My timing was perfect (laughter). We are holding our own, which I consider an achievement. You have to be inventive. You have to market it. You have to look at downloads, iTunes. I am active in those areas. Now we really look to artists that tour more. In this generation I look to artists who have something to say and have something to offer musically. But I also look at guys who wanna go out [on the road]. Itís hard with the cost of gas and motels. Thereís clubs closing or are only open Thursday through Saturday night. Thatís a harder life than I could take. I go out sometimes for a week with an artist and I have to rest up for a week when I get home. These guys are doing it virtually none stop. So Iím interested in artists who are taking their vision of what blues is and are bringing it to the people on an ongoing basis.
TH: Can you talk about your most recent releases as well as what you have planned for 2008?
AG: Harrison Kennedy has been in Canada for years but his family is from Tennessee. He has an African-American background and they always referred to the Canadian branch of the family as those folks up in the high country. So he had to call his new record High Country Blues. He is a great songwriter, wrote 14 original tunes, and is a wonderful singer who used to be in the Chairmen Of The Board, a successful R&B group in the early í70s. He has really got back to his blues roots.
I met Sharrie Williams in Lucerne, Switzerland which is where I saw her play for the first time. I was real impressed with her. She and Otis Clay did kind of a little duet. [Some of which can be found on Clayís Blind Pig release Respect Yourself, which was recorded at that performance]. They turned the Christmas lights on at the end of the Lucerne Blues Festival and she sang Silent Night. It was great and I thought wow, what a wonderful vocalist. Then I got to know Michael Cloeren [director and founder of the Pocono Blues Festival, where Williams has performed twice and set a record for CD sales]. He pitched me the idea of working with Sharrie. I had done a CD with Miss Angel [called Thatís The Way I Tumble] but I thought maybe I hadnít given the ladies a fair shake. Electro-Fi has mainly recorded male artists so I thought OK. I was really impressed with Sharrie and she had all original material and was a great songwriter. I knew she was a good sized blues artist in Europe. I thought it would be a cool challenge to try and shine the light on her in North America. I like the fact that Michael was very much involved. We have similar tastes in blues and heís a great promoter. He produced the CD [with Sharrie] and did a wonderful job with it with her band. Itís called Iím Here To Stay and I really think she is.
Julian Fauth is one of the most inventive young song writers. He is known mostly in Toronto, Ontario. He was nominated for a Juno Award [the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy Award] for Blues Album Of The Year in 2006 [for his CD Songs Of Vice and Sorrow]. Heíll have a new CD coming out in early 2008. We are doing a special project with Billy Boy Arnold. It is going to be a tribute to Sonny Boy number one who was his mentor who he knew. The sixtieth anniversary of Sonny Boyís passing happens in 2008 so thatís a nice way to pay tribute via a CD that Billy Boy has wanted to do for years. Iím also going to record Curley Bridges and Lilí Dave Thompson again.
TH: What sacrifices have you had to make in order to keep the label afloat and do you have any regrets?
AG: To have a blues label in 2007 is a challenge to say the least. Between the production and marketing of it, Iíve been able to scale it down and cut costs. All in all Iím glad I sold my audio/visual company. Iíd do it again if I had to. Personally Iíve lost some friends like Snooky and Sam but Iíve met so many wonderful people along the way. Blues people are just the best people in the world. Hindsight is 20/20 so sometimes I think I wish I recorded this guy or that gal or I wish Iíd done another CD with this person, but all in all Iím pretty satisfied. Not every CD is a masterpiece but I think the quality and standards have been pretty high. What I judge it by is not so much what I think but what the artist thinks. I donít ever wanna cut a CD that the artist is not happy with. Iím happy to say virtually all of the artists Iíve worked with really like the CD they did on Electro-Fi. Even though itís a challenge financially at times, I hear from people that Iíve never met. When you hear from people you donít know and theyíve been touched by the music itís a real rush. That goes back to when I was a record collector and after a tough day, Iíd put on my favorite record and it was better than drugs. It takes you where you want to be. It builds your soul up and itís the most wonderful thing in the world. The fact that other people have experienced music that Iíve had a hand in and played a small role in creating is such a thrill. Regrets Iíve had a few but we are clear sailing. I wonít make any predictions about another ten by I certainly hope that we will do another ten.