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Featured Interview – Big James Montgomery

The blues are the blues are the blues are the blues … pretty much.

But add a dash of East Bay grease, a pinch of Philly funk and a scoopful of New Orleans jazz to that batch of blues and what you get is?

“I like to categorize my music as Chicago soul blues and that has a lot to do with my influences,” said trombonist, vocalist, songwriter and bandleader Big James Montgomery. “I try to mix it up a little bit, that’s my intent, that’s what I came up on.”

A heady mixture of all the above is what has helped separate Big James and the Chicago Playboys apart from the pack for the last several years. Blues is definitely the central figure in the group’s sound, but it’s not the kind of blues that makes one want to hunker down in the corner of a bar, slouched over a whiskey-and-Coke. It’s the kind of blues that makes you want to grab your partner by the hand and hit the dance floor, reveling in the brass-laden boogie.

“Taking nothing away from the masters, because they’re the ones that set the stage for people like myself, but if I was to do that same kind of blues today, I wouldn’t last long,” Montgomery said. “I can do traditional blues like Muddy Waters, but I try to more or less focus on Big James’ music. I mean I do some covers, but I sure can’t sing Muddy Waters like Muddy Waters could. And at the same time, can’t nobody sing Big James’ music like Big James.”

Montgomery, who started playing the trombone his freshman year in high school, is very adamant about paying the proper respect that is due to the forefathers of the blues, but at the same time, he doesn’t want the story to simply stop with Muddy, Wolf, Otis or Koko.

“I try and put a contemporary spin on things, because when people are dancing and partying and having a good time, that helps attract younger people to this music,” he explained. “And that’s the only way we’re going to help this music to survive, is by getting the younger people into it. Then, when those younger people find out this is the blues, hopefully they’ll go back and check out some Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy and see where I got my stuff from. But you have to keep the younger people involved in the music if you want it to survive and continue to grow.”

And what if Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Little Walter and all the other stage-setters of the Chicago blues were still alive and well?

“All those cats made it possible for me to do what I do and if they were here today, I believe with all my heart that they would be putting a contemporary spin on things and wouldn’t be content to just rehash all the stuff that they had done in the past, no matter how great it was,” Montgomery said. “The bottom line is, we can never make better the stuff that they did, so we have to continue to move forward.”

Turned on as a 7-year-old when he sat on the side of the stage and watched James Brown burn up the bandstand at the Capital Theater in Chicago, Montgomery later fell under the spell of the mighty Parliament-Funkadelic, and seeing Big James and the Chicago Playboys do their thing in concert, both influences are readily evident.

While the stage show grabs all the attention because of its high-energy, no-holds-barred attack, an often overlooked part of Big James and the Chicago Playboys’ arsenal are the original compositions that Montgomery writes.

“I write about the things and the people that touch my life,” he said. “I live the songs that I’m singing … I live those experiences. That’s why when I sing my own stuff I can sing it with more feeling, because I’m singing it about my life experiences.”

One of those songs – “Coldest Man I Ever Knew” – the live version which can be found on The Big Payback (Blind Pig Records), is about the man that took Montgomery to see the James Brown concert that changed his life – his father.

“My father was a major influence on me. He wasn’t a musician … he was a hustler …but he such a major part of my life. A lot of people that I know weren’t blessed to have a father in their life,” he said. “He really molded me. I wanted to so much be like him, the way he carried himself and the way he took care of me and my brother.”

Montgomery has been busily crafting a batch of new tunes and the band has been road-testing the material, with the group poised to enter the studio at any time and cut another album for Blind Pig. And from the way he sounds, Montgomery is bursting at the seams to get started on the new project.

“I’m all ready to go (into the studio), I’ve got all my songs and stuff,” he said. “I’ve been playing them at the shows with the band, so they’re tight and ready to record. I’m excited about it (the new CD), too. I’ve got a story to tell.”

The working title for the disc is Dose of the Blues.

“The songs on there are about the things that I’ve been going through the last couple of years, the things that are on my mind,” said Montgomery. “My music is my way of expressing myself, the way that I get out what I’m feeling inside. I try not to get too political, though.”

Maybe not too political, but Montgomery has no problem addressing the issues of the day, including the trouble that the average person has when scanning the radio dial in the Windy City, looking for even the faintest hint of the blues.

“On my song, “Dose of the Blues” I’m speaking about – ‘Every time I turn my radio on, I hear the same old songs. Every time I turn my TV on, I hear the same old songs. It’s so sad but true, I don’t know what to do. But what they could really use is a dose of these blues – Chicago style,’” he laughed. “When you turn the radio on, you’re going to hear the same 10 or 20 songs every day, and none of them are blues. About the only blues station we can get is Bluesville on Sirius and I listen to it when I’m in my truck. They knocked my man that had a blues show on WXRT off the air and that was just for one hour on Monday nights … and they took him off. So Chicago is the blues capital of the world, but we don’t have a blues station that you can turn to and listen to every day and that’s not right.”

The band that Montgomery now fronts was originally called (Little) Johnny Christian and the Chicago Playboys. Montgomery joined up with Christian in the late 80s and played with him until his passing in 1993. While Christian’s passing certainly came as a shock to the group, according to Montgomery, there was something of a succession plan in place at the time.

“I already knew what I had to do, because me and him (Christian) had talked about what to do if the situation came up,” he said. “We were fishing one day and he told me that if something ever happened to him, he wanted us to keep the band going on in his memory, because the band was all he ever had. I said, ‘Oh, man, Johnny, ain’t nothin’ gonna’ happen to you, you’ll be here forever.’ Well, we didn’t know how sick he was – he must have known – but we didn’t and not too long after that, Johnny passed. Johnny was the one that really started to let me sing and do a few numbers before he came out.”

After Christian’s passing, Montgomery did just what his mentor asked him to do – keep the Chicago Playboys alive.

“The only thing I could do was to keep the band going. But believe me, I never thought about fronting the band. That was never my intention,” he said. “We started doing gigs and things and I started doing most of the singing. Well, we got booked to do the Chicago Blues Festival by Barry Dolins, but he said that I had to step out front if we got the gig. It couldn’t just be the Chicago Playboys – he wanted it to be Big James and the Chicago Playboys. So I ran it by the rest of the guys in the band and they said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go.’ That’s how it became Big James and the Chicago Playboys. That was in 1996 and I haven’t looked back since. We put out five CDs on our own small label – Jamot Music – and then got signed to Blind Pig. I’m very blessed and very humbled to have those CDs out. If someone would have told me that I’d have CDs out under my own name, I’d have told them they were crazy. I just always thought I’d be a sideman.”

Montgomery’s first real gig with a true blues artist was with Little Milton Campbell at 19-years-old (“I lied and told them I was 21,” Montgomery laughed). He stayed with Little Milton for three years before moving on to play in Albert King’s band for a few months.

From the outside looking in, it would appear that you couldn’t find two more different bandleaders than Little Milton – who always had a big smile on his face and seemed to be happy – and Albert King – who most times favored a frown and looked like he had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. But according to Montgomery, the pair may not have been so different after all.

“I’m gonna’ tell you, that Little Milton could be tough, too. He could be hard on you, too. He had a very easy-going persona, but when it came to the band, boy, he was hard on us,” he said. “And Albert was more … well, Albert was Albert. But the big difference I remember about the two, when I was playing with Little Milton, we had a show – a revue – and it was like a machine. Then going to play with Albert, you didn’t know what he was gonna’ do or when he was gonna’ do it or what key he was gonna’ do it in. You just had to be ready.”

In addition to playing with some of the all-time great blues guitarists, such as Little Milton, Albert King, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, Montgomery was also extremely close to a young firebrand that was just starting to leave his mark on the world of the blues before being senselessly killed in downtown Chicago late this fall – Eric ‘Guitar’ Davis.

“I’ve been blessed to play with some of the best and let me tell you, he was right up there with them. He was just a Hell of a young musician. I was the one that gave him his name, Eric ‘Guitar’ Davis. What happened was, one night I was down at the old Buddy Guy’s at a Monday night jam. I was just hanging out and there was a kid up there playing, and I was like, ‘Wow. Who’s that?’ After he came off the stage, I went and introduced myself and he said, ‘I know who you are.’ I said, ‘Who you playing with?’ He said, ‘Nobody.’ So I asked him if he wanted to play with me and he was like, ‘Hell yeah.’ So we exchanged numbers and when my regular guitar player couldn’t make it, I would take Eric with me. We played a lot of clubs and festivals and I knew back then that Eric was not going to be a sideman for very long. I knew he was going to have to be out front with his own band. One day we were playing a gig in Kentucky and onstage I just said, ‘Ladies and gentleman, Eric ‘Guitar’ Davis and that just stuck. But me and Eric was real close. His death really hurt me. It really, really, really set this whole community back. I really think that Eric was going to be one of those to take the blues to the next stage, before he was cut down like that. It’s just terrible the way things are like that these days.”

Things are certainly different in 2014 than they were back when Johnny Christian and the Chicago Playboys were the house band at the great Checkerboard Lounge. And though he’s extremely happy to be in the place that he is these days, Montgomery still has fond memories of those long-ago nights.

“We played behind whoever came up (at the Checkerboard) and that was an experience, now – a real education. We were playing six nights a week … I miss it so much,” he said. “We weren’t making a lot of money, but I really had the most fun back then. Today things are just totally different. Now, there aren’t hardly any clubs to play in and dates are few and far between.”

Check out Big James and the Chicago Playboys’ Web site at: www.bigjames.com

For booking inquires, contact Piedmont Talent: www.piedmonttalent.com

Photo by Bob Kieser.

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