Doug MacLeod shares the truth about the blues
By Naughty Mickie firstname.lastname@example.org
As I dialed his phone number, I was nervous. After all, I was going to interview a classic bluesman who had played with the likes of Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson, Big Joe Turner and a who's who's list of the best in the biz. But when he answered the phone, Doug MacLeod's easy going manner set me completely at ease. I could've been munching on 'cue in the backyard of a longtime friend, rather than speaking with a consummate musicians' musician.
I decided to start my questions at the beginning.
"How did you get your start?" I asked.
"I had a bad stutter when I was a boy," MacLeod replies. "It was tough being a teenager, I just couldn't get any girls. Then I started to play bass in this band and it didn't matter if I stuttered or not, they started to come up. They even felt sorry for me because I had a stutter and I milked that for all it was worth. Somehow or another I found a voice and I think it was blues. I think once I found the music of blues, I suddenly found this voice that I could express myself in.''
"Why did you switch to guitar?"
"It had to do with girls again," MacLeod chuckles. "I was in this band, we were playing in St. Louis and we got done with this show, it was like a teen hop, we were playing blues actually. I was sitting in the back with the saxophone player and I noticed that the guitar player, who was really one of the ugliest guys who ever walked the earth, oh boy, I mean it was a shame, well, there was about four or five girls around him. Then this one pretty girl walks up to me and I said, 'Well, okay, this is going to be easy, this is great; this is where the balance comes out.' And she said, 'Who are you?' And I said, 'I'm the bass player.' She said, 'Oh, oh, you're the bass player?' I go, 'Yeah.' And she walked on to where the guitar player was. So I turned to the saxophone player, Gene Gray, I said, 'Gene, I'm changing. I'm going to start playing guitar now. If that idiot can get five girls, I can at least get one.' Well, I wish I could say it was a great artistic experience, but it wasn't-- it was women.''
I have to giggle because many of the guitar players I know took up an axe in hopes of getting attention from the girls.
While growing up, MacLeod's mother was in the town symphony, but the house stood strangely silent. Occasionally, he would play guitar for his parents, but the would "just put up with it."
"It was strange. There was no music in my house, none. I don't think my father liked it," MacLeod says. "My dad's father was a Gaelic folk singer in Nova Scotia. We never had any music in the house. My mother played violin, but there was never music around the house, I had to sneak it in.''
After a high school education, MacLeod went into the military where he would meet his destiny.
"That's sort of where my life changed, I got a lot out
of that. I got discipline out of the Navy. I was kind of a wild kid.'' MacLeod
recalls, "That's when I met this old one-eyed blues singer who just changed
my life. I was playing country blues at the time, acoustic blues, and I was in
Norfolk, Virginia. I was pretty good, they even wrote an article on me. I was
called 'The King of the Tidewater Blues;' I was 19. I had girls that were 21,
22, so they kept me in Pabst Blue Ribbon. I thought I was it. This guy said to
me, 'Would you like to meet this guy that they say ran with Blind Lemon
Jefferson?' Now of course, Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the original country
blues artists, one of the first guys to make a recording. And I said, 'Yeah, I
would like to meet him.' But I wasn't going to go up there for him to teach me
anything, I wanted him to hear me play and say, 'That white guy is really good.'
That's what I wanted."
The "guy" was none other than famous bluesman Ernie Banks.
"So I get up there with this attitude," MacLeod continues. "And I remember him, he had one eye, a chocolate-skinned guy with a skin head, he was wearing a white T-shirt with denim slacks on. He lived in a two-story house that was all torn down except for his kitchen, that's where he lived in, and he had a little dog named Lemon, that walked around where ever he'd go.
"We sat down and I said, 'Mr. Banks, are we going to play some blues?' He said, 'No. I'm not going to play any blues.' I said, 'Why not?' And he said, 'My wife died, she's in heaven and I want her to be happy, so I'm not going to play you any blues, I'm going to play a spiritual song.'
"Of course that's not why I came up there, so I offered him a glass of wine. And after the glass of wine, we played some blues. He looked at me the whole time, with that one eye, it made me nervous. He said, 'At first I want to hear that boy there, you boy, play.' So I played something from the show and it was horrible. I wanted to show off and it was terrible. When I got done looked at him and said, 'Okay man, what did you think of that? Pretty good, huh?' I was showing my attitude. Then he looked at me and said, 'You give me that guitar boy.' And he took my guitar and put a bottleneck on and tuned that thing down in about 70 seconds and played this thing that aah-- and when he was done, he looked at me with that one eye and said, 'Which one moves you more boy, yours or mine?' I said, 'Yours did sir.' And he said, 'You want to play blues?' I said, 'Yes sir.' And he then he said, 'Never play a note you don't believe.'
"As I was walking out the door I was so embarrassed. My friends were already down by the car, a little Volkswagen. And as I was walking out the door, he put his hand on my shoulder and looked at me with that one eye and said, 'Boy, you know where I live.' To this day I'm not sure-- I asked him, 'Does that mean I can come back?' He said, 'You heard what I said boy.' And he pushed me out the door. To this day I'm not sure what he meant.
"He could have meant that I know exactly where he lives in Norfolk, Virginia, that I could come back there or that I know where he lives in his heart and soul. He could say more with one word. I truly believe that as I grow older because in my life in blues I have known guys that could say an awful lot in one or two notes. We hooked up and it was through him that I lost color.''
MacLeod ended up spending less than a year with Banks before he died, but during that time, MacLeod asked him how to write his own songs.
"'You've taught me about mojos and crossroads and all this kind of stuff and bones and all that, I don't really want to know any more about that, it scares me to death,' MacLeod said to Banks one day. "And I said, 'What am I going to write about if I'm going to be a bluesman?' And he said, 'Have you ever been lonely?' I said, 'Yeah.' 'Have you ever needed a woman?' I said, 'Yeah.' 'Have you ever need money for that little place you got?' I had a little place for $40 a month. I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'That's the blues too, boy. Write about what you know.''
MacLeod later took an "early out" of the Navy. He wanted to study at the Berkelee School of music, but he was required to attend college first, so he went to the University of Missouri. During that period of time, if you couldn't read or write music, you couldn't get into Berkelee without a note, so Don James, a friend of Oliver Nelson, heard MacLeod play and agreed to write a recommendation. MacLeod did not graduate; he stayed as long as he could, but he had already been making a living playing music since he was 14.
When MacLeod's not busy playing his tunes, he enjoys cooking, barbecuing and using his smoker. He especially likes to smoke ribs, chicken and catfish, using pecan or hickory woods. MacLeod laughs when he says that his dog, Rufus, likes his hobby too.
MacLeod also has a sixteen-year-old son, Jesse, who's into football and baseball. And between games, MacLeod is finding time to work on a new album, play at festivals around the world and work with Don Young of National Guitars on a new type of axe.
Don't get the idea that bluesmen are set in their ways and don't mess with technology, MacLeod is very aware of the advantages that the Internet has to offer artists. The biggest concern he has is that better technology doesn't let us lose sight of our feelings.
He also finds that the Web is great for checking out records before you purchase them.
MacLeod doesn't use any specific formula to write, in fact, like many musicians, the creativity usually comes when he's dead tired. The music forces him to stay up even though he may want to sleep.
MacLeod says that there are so many things available to young musicians now, such as CDs and books, but what is lacking are the older musicians who can teach them the true meaning of their craft.
"When these guys go, that all goes with them,'' he says sadly.
He feels that even the musicians who learned from the bluesmasters are different and that music in general is going is different directions.
"I think (the blues) are obscured in a way.'' MacLeod goes on, "It's not a color thing. It's not about picking cotton. There aren't too many black guys now out of New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles that are picking cotton other than picking their BVDs out of the May Company. There's some guys down in Mississippi that's doing it, that's still blues down there. But it's not the real life, the blues for people that are living in Seattle, living in Belgium. Blues is the human condition. Like that old man told me, you just want somebody to love you, you want to be able to make sure that your family is taken care of, you worry about that, that's the blues. It's not just picking cotton, it's more than that.''
After we said our good byes and I hung up the telephone, I
had to sit quietly for a few minutes to absorb the wisdom that MacLeod had
imparted to me. And of all the things he told me, I think I will always remember
the words that MacLeod has now passed on to me, "Never play a note you
For tour information and more visit www.doug-macleod.com. Check out Doug MacLeod's latest album, "Whose Truth Whose Lies" on Audioquest Music. You can also hear him live as he hosts "Nothing but the Blues" 2-7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on KLON 88.1 FM.
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