James Armstrong’s first axe as a child, like many boys, was the drum kit.
“It seems like kids just wanna beat on something,” he reminisces. “My dad got me lessons from some great pro jazz drummers, whose names I can’t remember. He and I then did little duets. Actually kind of a novelty act. We’d go to these little art centers and schools. I’d be this little kid on drums and he’d play some guitar but I never felt it. Did that for a few years then decided I wanted to play saxophone, cuz my dad wanted me to play anything. Just play! So for about nine months my sax teacher had me playing in the corner of the room toward the wall to “get the sound.”
“But my dad had all these guitars around. I’d pick’em up and try’em here and there. One day, at about the age of nine, I grabbed a guitar on the couch in the living room. I did something and it made sense! I did something else and that worked. I did a couple of other things and went, whoa, I think this might work. And at that point, I just kept going.”
Attracted as he was to the guitar, young James found it kind of difficult having to take music theory lessons from his dad every day after school.
“It was rough. All my peers were outside playin’. My dad had chalkboard on wheels in the living room. As soon as I got home from school, I’d have to do music school with my dad as the teacher. I learned to read and write music. It was a big thing, but I didn’t enjoy it. I struggled with it into my early teen years.”
“My dad was tight with Kenny Burrell. Kenny called one day and invited us to a session with his band and a surprise guest at UCLA. I’m already packed and ready to go. Kenny welcomed us backstage and gave us front & center seats. The surprise guest was Stevie Wonder and his band. When Kenny’s band finished many of them stayed on to play with Stevie. They were mostly studio Jazz cats who read music and didn’t play by ear. That was fine for the first few songs until Stevie pulled the charts sayin’, ‘I ‘m not goin’ by the charts. I’m just gonna play what I wanna play.’ So, most of Kenny Burrell’s guys left the stage cuz they weren’t able to feel the music.”
“I said to my dad, “Look, look! Those guys can only play if they can read it. They can’t feel it.” He said, “All right all right, you’re right,” and from that point forward he lightened up on the theory lessons. I wanted to read, but I wanted to feel it too. There are a lot of cats that can do both, but at that time I couldn’t.”
“Now, at this point, I haven’t read anything in years. Musically I know my chords. I know what’s going down. When I write a song, I use Pro Tools Audio or whatever. I just put all the instruments in and forward it to the band. When we go to record it they’ve already heard it. If they need charts, they write them for themselves; not full charts for an orchestra. It’s just E flat, B, G, that type of thing.”
From about the age of about thirteen, James wanted to be a Hendrix. “I started trying to walk like him and talk like him. My buddy and I used to wear the headband like him.
His music was all I listened to. I got into the Rock and Folk side even though I’d heard the Blues all my life at home with my dad. I wasn’t trying to rebel. I was trying to grow musically. The first touring band I was ever with was a Country band. I was seventeen and I went out for six weeks with a full Country & Western band. I was the band’s only guitarist and was the youngest in the band by many years.”
When asked about his mark as the youngest guitarist to ever join the legendary West Coast Bluesman Smokey Wilson’s Band, Armstrong reminisces,
“Down in South Central man, I was like nineteen, wasn’t even supposed to be in there. Everyone else in the band was in their forties. I didn’t really grow up in the hood, I was on the beach doin’ that thing, but I knew about the hood. I went to this club—my dad had to buy me a sports coat ‘cuz I didn’t have one, to do the gig. So I’m standing on stage weighing about one hundred forty pounds in those days and all the cats in the band were bigger than me. So on the first break, we go outside to have a taste. So I’m gonna get in the circle to pass the bottle around. I was trying to be funny so I said, ‘look at you guys. You’re all just fat.’ Cuz they all had a bulge. As if on cue, each one of these five men opened their sport coat at the same time to reveal that they were all packin’, detective style. Man, I was the only guy on stage without a gun! I wish I could remember the name of that place.”
“At the age of twenty-two, I still wanted to be like Jimi Hendrix. In my mind, I felt that if I could just meet Mitch Mitchell or Noel Redding, I would have arrived.”
“I figured if I just kept playing harder, faster, better and get around the right circle, that eventually I would meet one of these two men. I knew it would happen someday but thought I had another ten, fifteen years to go. I had known Coco Montoya since I was twelve years old. He and I used to go to this private jam in Hollywood, down at this place called The Central on Sunset Boulevard. It was the spot for Rock guys, Blues guys, you name it.”
“Anyway, Coco said to me while there, ‘James, come with me. There’s someone I want you to meet.’ I walk over and Coco says, ‘Mitch Mitchell, James Armstrong. James Armstrong, Mitch Mitchell.’ CoCo and I had a band at the time called CoCo and James. Two weeks later we’re playing a gig and Mitch Mitchell played drums with us for two nights.”
“That messed me up man, because I didn’t have a goal after that. I had been just trying to play and get good and meet him. In my mind, I wasn’t good yet. I didn’t get to meet Hendrix but I met and played with the next best thing. In my opinion, in his prime he and JH were so locked, they could’ve performed as a duo. If you analyze some of the stuff they did you realize they were locked to the core of the soul.”
“The bad part about the gig was his drumming was terrible. Some of the worst I’ve heard. Over the top bad. His timing was off. After the last show, I had to ask him what happened. He said to me, ‘James, kid, I’ve gotta tell ya. After Jimi died, I lost it. I just can’t feel it anymore.’ James continues, “And that’s when I really learned that sometimes when you’re that connected to someone musically and that person is gone, you just can’t get it back.”
When asked about his time under Albert Collin’s wing, Armstrong seeks to clarify misquotes.
“A lot of what’s been printed is misleading. What happened was, I met Albert through CoCo. He used to come out to our gigs and sit in with us. Albert lived in Vegas. We would go to his house and hang out. He was always very helpful and talked to me a lot. We played a lot onstage together and somehow it’s been written that he tutored me musically. That’s not really true. The conversations we had were about life in general. He did want me to play in his band at one point but my creative energies were elsewhere when he asked.”
“But after all that, I was back home and I got to thinking that there weren’t many young African-American guys playing the Blues. I said to myself, ‘look at you James, you’re out here trying to be a Rock guy. What about what your dad and his friends showed you. Who’s gonna keep that alive?’ And that’s when everything changed. I thought that maybe I could contribute somehow. I started feelin’ it. I knew then that my dad was my first guitar angel.”
“I have nerve damage in my whole left arm. My whole arm looks smaller because of it. My index finger is basically the strongest in my left hand which is only at sixty percent of what it was before the injury. My middle finger is a little weaker. My third finger doesn’t bend at the first joint. My baby finger is crazy. It just does what it wants and sometimes don’t do nothin’. I call myself the best two finger guitarist on the planet that I know of, but it’s actually two and a half.”
“I was living in Sunnyvale, California in 1996. It was touted as the third safest city in northern California. We didn’t lock doors. There were families all around us in our neighborhood.”
“At the time I had two sons. James Jr. was two and a half, just starting to walk. John was nine months old. My wife was going to chiropractor school. We had a nanny who had John on her lap. It was about 8:00 a.m. I was playing with James on the floor. The door opens and there’s this guy.”
“Now I’m 155 pounds and stand 5’9”. I’ve had two fights in my life, one when I was five years old. I’m not a violent guy but I know the streets. So, right away I say, ‘what do you want? Why the fuck are you in my house?’ He goes, “shh, shh.” I’m following him and he goes off into the kitchen. He starts looking in drawers. I thought he was looking for money or drugs or something. I don’t know what the fuck he’s doing. All I know to do, being the non violent person I am is to call 911.”
“So I go back into the living room and I’m dialing 911. As I was dialing, that little voice in my head told me to turn around. When I did, he already had the knife cocked back. The first stab wound was in my upper left shoulder. I dropped the phone and started fighting then, trying to get him off me. I got stabbed in the side and the other side, the back. I’m going, this ain’t workin.”
“I guess when you’re goin’ through that, you’re all in shock. Anyway, the nanny runs into the bedroom and locks the door with John, my nine month old. James Jr. doesn’t know what’s goin’ on, he’s grabbin’ daddy’s leg, tryin’ to hold on to me. We lived on the second story. Me and the guy are fighting back and forth. I figure if I can get outside to the balcony, he’ll just deal with me and leave my boys alone. I get to the door and out to the balcony.”
“I didn’t realize the guy picked up James Jr. and threw him over the balcony!”
It was concrete down below. I figured my son was dead. He was knocked out. I picked him up and walked twenty feet to the curb and collapsed from the loss of blood. I’m holding my son on my chest and I see the guy coming down the stairs with the knife in his hand. I figure he’s going to finish us off. But he actually went the other way down the alley. I guess he carjacked somebody, hurt an old man, barricaded himself in a hotel somewhere and the police finally got him. He was sentenced to about 30 years in the pen. They say he was high on meth. That’s what happened.”
“James Jr. is twenty years old now and lives in Norway with his mom. He’s started playing guitar and keyboard. When he emailed me an mp3 of his playing, it broke me down. I always wanted one of them to play. John is eighteen and I have another soon Joel, who was born after the knife attack.”
“I couldn’t move my whole arm for nine months after the attack. You know it’s said that you have electricity in your body. One day my ex-wife and I were watching TV. I was on the couch. Suddenly in the middle of my palm, it felt like a little shock. Five seconds later, I’m on the floor yelling and screaming holding my left wrist ‘cuz it felt like lightning bolts were going into my palm. I found out later it was some of the nerves trying to reconnect. It’s never happened again but the doctor says that was the start of the nerves reconnecting. With nerve damage you never know.”
Though Armstrong thought it was over in the days and dark nights after his horrific injury, he was back working within two years. His song “Pennies and Picks” from Got It Goin’ On, earned him a W.C. Handy Award nomination for Song of the Year. Armstrong was also nominated for Contemporary Male Blues Guitarist of the Year. “That really makes me feel good. I also feel good about my songs being in movies. My song Bank of Love was in ‘Hear No Evil’ starring Martin Sheen as well as ‘Speechless’ starring Michael Keeton and Geena Davis. I think my song Two Sides to Every Story is in the movie ‘The Florentine.’ That mailbox money comes in handy.”
Armstrong reflects on his relationship with producer/songwriter/bassist Bob Trenchard at Catfood Records, the label responsible for his last two albums. “I met Bob Trenchard through one of my guitar angels, Mike Ross. We were shopping my album, Blues At The Border. I had written some songs with a person for the album and that person became a dickhead in the process and suddenly, we couldn’t use three of the songs. Bob Trenchard got wind of it, called me and said, ‘Look James, you wanna come down to Texas, you and I sit down, write a few songs and we’ll make this work.’
“I flew to Texas, wrote a few songs and that’s where the whole thing started. The thing with Bob is he is a great writer and arranger and it’s very interesting for me because I don’t consider myself a Soul guy. I think though, that because of my vocals I get classified as a Soul Blues guy and that used to bother me. Bob is more of a Soul writer and Catfood Records is a Soul Blues label. When I started writing with Bob and he’d bring something to the table, I had to change it to make it fit for me and fit for him. So the result has been great for me because my musical ideas are expanding because I’d never tried to put that Soul feeling into it and I’m doing that now.”
When asked about the genesis of his new cd project, Guitar Angels, Armstrong explains, “I really do believe I have angels. How is came about was after I got hurt, I couldn’t play at all.”
“They had a big benefit for me at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz. Bernard Allison, Chris Cain and Coco Montoya were there. Doug Macleod was there. They were trying to raise money for me. My career and life seemed to be over. I was onstage with all those guys in a line. I have one finger that kinda moves a little bit and my second finger just barely moves and I’m trying to play but it sounds like shit. I’m standing in a line on stage with all my friends and people I knew well. Guys I used to kick guitar ass with. In my head I hear a very loud voice that says YOU DON’T BELONG IN THIS CLUB ANYMORE. It sounds like someone is screaming at me. So right off the side of the stage was the dressing room. While someone else was doing a solo, I quietly unplugged my guitar and went into the dressing room and packed all my shit, got in my car and drove home.”
“I was sitting there at home crying, saying to myself that it’s true, it’s over and the phone rings. I pick up and it’s Coco. He says, ‘Where in the fuck are you. The benefit’s for you and you just leave? What’s wrong with you?’ I said man, I heard this voice say YOU DON’T BELONG IN THIS CLUB ANYMORE. Coco said, ‘James, don’t ever listen to that voice. It’s a lie.’ In a nutshell, that’s why Coco Montoya is one of my angels. He helped me keep going. Angels can help you keep going.”
“Joe Louis Walker is another one of my angels. A few months after the benefit at Moe’s Alley, JLW invited me down to Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco to hear him play. When I walk in, he says to the crowd, ‘Ladies and gentleman, James Armstrong in the house,’ blah, blah, blah. And in those days, I really didn’t wanna play anymore. I had really given up to an extent, ‘cuz you know, I couldn’t play with that hand. Anyway, Joe calls me up on stage and I’m going, ‘Joe, no.’
“The crowd is going, ‘yeah, go up!’ So I go up and I’m tryin’ to play a solo and tears are coming out of my eyes ‘cuz it hurts so bad. It was like somebody stickin’ needles in your whole hand. So I look over at Joe and I say, “I can’t play anymore. I gotta stop.” He looked me in the eye and said, “Play motherfucker, play your guitar!” And that’s why Joe Louis Walker is one of my angels.
“Mike Ross is one of my main angels. After all I’d been through at the time, Hightone Records still believed in me. I didn’t wanna tour. I wanted to give it up. But they said, ‘James let’s do it! One more cd, one more tour. Come on, you can do it.’ And I knew I couldn’t. So I said, fuck it. I’d get these people off my back. Everybody will leave James Armstrong alone and I can go somewhere and figure out what I’m gonna do next. So we decide to audition another guitar player for the band.
“It was in San Francisco. I had never had another guitar player. I was it. I’d always used keyboards. So a few guys came to the audition. It didn’t work. The last cat that came in was this dude Mike Ross. I had never met him before. He had a nice attitude. Just played, you know? So, I had to make a decision ‘cuz we were going on the road in a few weeks. This man could’ve stolen my show. ‘Cuz I literally wanted to be in the back line. I didn’t wanna be up front. I was so embarrassed. I couldn’t play. They built a table for me ‘cuz my wrist wasn’t working and I had to try to play slide. That’s how I learned to play slide ‘cuz my fingers didn’t move.
“Anyway, this man, over weeks and weeks and weeks, he easily could’ve just stepped up and started singing, getting the spotlight. You know, there’s a line that you don’t cross when you’re a sideman. That man, for a year and a half, never crossed that line. He was always supportive. We got to the point where I could play just a little bit, he knew when to take over if I got tired. He’d just take over and give me words of encouragement, “you ok? It’s ok, you can do it.” He could’ve stolen everything. Most people would’ve.
“It would be like, “this guy can’t play. He ain’t gon’ do nothin’. Let me just step up here and let the people know who I am. Man, he changed my whole life. Every time I would do a new little lick, or a finger would bend a little more, before I could look at him smiling, he’d be smiling at me. He could hear it. I’m starting to get emotional. It’s that Jimi Hendrix/Mitch Mitchell thing I was talking about. That’s the kind of lock Mike and I had.
“Even today. You have no idea. It’s still messed up. But in those days I just couldn’t move things He was the first guitar angel. That’s where the idea for the song first came from. Years later, I was someplace playing and he was there and I introduced him to the crowd. I said, ladies and gentleman, this is my guitar angel. And I said to myself, oh damn! I like that title. I’m a title guy. I usually write songs from titles. Mike Ross has played on every cd I’ve made since I got injured. He also produced the last two. He co-produced the last one with Jim Gaines. Mike Ross has a heart of gold. I wouldn’t be talkin’ to you now if I hadn’t met him.”
Armstrong’s sojourn has taken him from L.A. to the S.F.Bay Area to the Midwest. He says, “Currently I’m in Springfield, Illinois ‘cuz Grandma’s got a new friend! I’m in a new relationship. Grandma’s Got A New Friend is the first track on the new album. Her name is Alice. We’d seen each other over the years but never dated. Whenever I played Springfield, she’d be at the shows—she was a big fan.
“We hooked up two years ago. After we’d been together a few months, I had to meet her family. She’s got a large family. So she invited them all over. It was this big meet and greet James type thing. I was living there and they all came over to meet me. You know, I’ve got some charisma. I figured, this is gonna be cool. I’ll just do the James Armstrong and everybody will love me. There were thirty or forty of her family there. After three or four hours, everybody left. She and I are sitting on the couch and I say. ‘Babe, how’d I do?’ ‘You did great. You were wonderful,’ she said. ‘They all loved you. Except for Lily.’
“Lily is her six year old granddaughter. She said Lily grabbed her hand and led her into the bedroom and closed the door. Lily looked up at Alice and said, ‘Grandma, who’s that man? Grandma what does he do for a living? Grandma, where does he sleep?’ I cracked up. The song title popped right into my head. I called Mike Ross, my guitar angel friend and said, ‘man I got this idea for a song. So we started emailin’ and that’s what happened. Grandma’s Got A New Friend! Now Lily and I text each other telling each other, ‘I love you more.’ She actually sings background on the track”
When asked about his gear, James relates that he used to keep a lot of guitars. “For years, I was endorsed by G&L guitars, which was Leo Fender’s last company. I had a full endorsement, a lot of guitars. But, like an idiot, I got rid of them all except for one. It’s a Strat G&L. That’s basically my baby. It’s well used. The neck is all brown. It’s got cigarette burns on it, but it’s my main axe. I have some other ones and if I feel like getting a different tone, I might switch. But I try to get the job done with the one.”
Somehow as we end our time together, we get on the subject of life on the road. JA says some of the recent press and remarks made about B.B. King’s live shows of late bother him.
“I’m very upset for two reasons. The first reason is that some of the people who write this stuff don’t know that this man has been on the road probably longer than anybody on the planet. He was doing more than three hundred twenty dates a year back in the 60’s. For a man to be in his eighties and be vilified for a couple of bad nights, I mean please.
“The other side of it is his camp. I for one wanna see B.B. not go out sounding really bad. Everybody’s genes are different. Some people can make it work through their nineties, change the show and make it work. B.B. has always been B.B. He’s the king.
“Maybe he doesn’t wanna change his show. But, it falls back on whoever is handling him. B.B.’s still getting maybe fifty grand or more for his two hours so I don’t think he needs the money. Maybe some of his many kids are bitchin’, maybe his management is saying this is not gonna last forever. Let me get some money. That would be bad. Maybe B.B. doesn’t want to do it and they are pushin’ him to do it. Maybe they are giving him a little extra medication like Johnny Winter’s manager did.
“Seriously, I don’t know what the facts are. It’s sad that the press is putting him down. But he could be like Johnny Guitar Watson, wanting to die onstage.
“That’s me. I’d like to die onstage. But I hope that before that time comes, Alice will say, ‘no, come on. You can’t. It’s sounding bad. Your legacy is not gonna be there.’ That’s what I’m worried about with B.B. I’m not sure which angle is true but I would hate for him to go out with people only remembering the bad B.B. Another side of it to is the bandleader’s relationship to his band. It ain’t about you so much as it is your band that has been with you. It’s the guys that you are taking care of. Guys that you’ve been playin’ with a long time. They’re your friends. And if you stop, they’re outta work. I think that B.B. is that type of bandleader. I know I am.
“While I’m at it let me speak on my band. I got a guy, Darrell Wright on bass, outta Chicago. Worked with Mavis Staples. My drummer is also outta Chicago. His name is Lewis Powell. My keyboardist is outta Indianapolis and his name is Brett Donavan. I love these guys. We’ve been playing around Chicago recently and we are getting ready to go on the road for awhile. It’s soundin’ good and I’m happy that we’re all feelin’ it.”
James Armstrong’s official website is www.jarmblues.com.
Photo by Bob Kieser.