The way Calvin ‘Vino’ Louden figured it, he’d just hit the big time.
And why not?
After all, he’d been asked to go out on the road as a guitarist for a big star (Bobby Rush) that had a big hit (“Chicken Heads”) burning up the radio charts. Not only that, but the rest of Rush’s band even let Louden ride shotgun to his first gig – at what surely had to be a huge show-palace, filled to the brim with a huge audience – in the front-seat of the group’s van, a plum spot for sure.
But, as it often times happens out on that big highway of playing the blues, things are not always what they seem to be.
“I thought, ‘Oh, man, this is so cool. The guys are riding in the back and they let me sit up front.’ Well, about 20 miles down the road, the floorboard starts moving … turns out there was a piece of cardboard in the floor that was covering up a huge hole. We were going to Waterloo, Iowa in the dead of winter and that cold air was just pouring up out of that hole. That’s why they let me get up front. It was freezing,” laughed Louden. “Then we finally get to the place and we walk inside and have to slide the jukebox and some tables out of the way and that was the stage. And there were only a few people in there that saw the show that night. I made $30.”
But as Louden, who would go on to become one of the most sought-after blues guitarists on the Windy City scene found out that night, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing for five people or in front of five thousand, you better give it your all every time you hit the stage.
“Bobby got into his thing and he was talkin’ and he was walkin’ all around the place and he had those few people that were there in the palm of his hand,” said Louden. “I had never seen anything like that. He was goin’ over and touchin’ people and really interacting with the audience in a big way. And that made a huge impression on me.”
Louden’s trek over the ensuing years have no doubt been filled with the normal highs and lows that most musicians experience, whether driving all night in sub-freezing temperatures to play in a near-empty bar, or whether flying first-class to play in front of a sold-out festival crowd. Either way, he’s learned to adapt and deal with both scenarios with equal aplomb. But neither of those situations, or anything else he’d ever encountered playing the blues, prepared Louden for the aftermath of the early morning hours of Aug. 23, 2008.
On their way back home from a gig, Koko Taylor’s Blues machine was involved in a serious van accident near Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Louden, who was a guitarist for Taylor at that time, along with fellow guitar player Shunsuke Kikota, bass player Ricky Nelson and keyboardist Stanley Banks all received life-threatening injuries from the mishap and all underwent surgery, and were all very lucky to have survived the devastating accident, Louden especially. His pelvis was broken in nine places; he had a C2 neck fracture; his diaphragm was ruptured; and he had two heart attacks during surgery. After being on life-support, Louden basically had to re-learn how to do everything – walk, talk, swallow and regain command of all his bodily functions. Playing the guitar – at that point – didn’t even factor into the equation.
“At the time, I didn’t know – or didn’t believe – just how messed up I was. Nobody could convince me that I was in as bad a shape as I really was, because I had only ever been in the hospital to visit my mom or a sick friend before that,” he said. “I went from a hundred to zero, just like that (after the accident).”
His arduous journey from zero back up to hundred would be one that would not be made overnight. It would take years of hard work, faith and support from others.
And it started with one thing:
“I kept fighting and kept believing that I would be able to walk and talk again. Then, I kept fighting and believing that I would be able to play again. Fortunately, my mind was still strong through that whole process,” he said. “But I did have my hills and my valleys through the ordeal. They were explaining the situation that I was in and telling me what I would be able and would not be able to do. But I held fast in my belief. I do believe that God kept me here for a reason. I remember telling Him that if he let me get my skills back, I would promise to take time and play in his house and to praise His name.”
True to his word, upon release from the hospital, Louden began playing guitar on Sundays at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the same kind of house of worship he attended as a youth growing up in Hayti, Missouri. “Playing guitar in the church gave me the spiritual inspiration to keep fighting and to keep getting better,” he said. “That was my catalyst to keep pushing.”
There was going to be no doubt whatsoever that Louden’s accident and his long road to recovery would have a large and bearing impact on the way that he approaches his music these days.
“It had a huge effect on how I approach my music now. It gave me a more intense appreciation for being able to play and share my music. Everybody’s got their niche, or thing that they do well and I’ve been blessed to be able to entertain people. People that I don’t really even know, I’ve been able to reach out and touch them through this powerful, spiritual thing called music,” he said. “And when that was snatched away from me, it was devastating, to say the least.”
Louden was born in Hayti, Missouri (also hometown to Hall of Fame blues bassist Bob Stroger) and spent a portion of his childhood bouncing between there and points up north. His dad was a seasonal picker and when apples were in season, the family would spend time in Michigan. Louden moved to Chicago when he was 8, but would still spend his summers in Hayti as a young man.
“I try to explain to people that don’t know just where (Hayti) the Bootheel county is,” laughed Louden. “You throw a rock one way (south) and you’re in Arkansas and you throw a rock in the other direction (east) and you’re in Tennessee.”
It was a rock thrown a considerable distance north, in Chicago, where he first got a taste of the music that would shape the rest of his life, thanks to an uncle that would let young Vino tag along to some places that he was not really supposed to be in, because of his tender age.
“I had an uncle that passed away not too long ago by the name of Len Bland – his real name was Leonard Blake, but he went by Len Bland – and he was sort of my mentor. I would see him go out and play with a bunch of guys and I would bug and bug him to go, and occasionally, he would take me with him.”
It was at one of those spots that Louden got an unforgettable up-close and personal meeting with one of the all-time greats – Howlin’ Wolf.
“The Wolf, I remember was this big man and had these big ‘ole hands and had a big voice and was scary,” laughed Louden. “I was standing over in the corner and peeking around, watching him play and he said, ‘Hey, boy! You like the blues?’ And that scared the heck out of me and I ran back behind the table. My uncle Len told me, ‘Yeah, man, he’s alright.’ And he was. He was a really sweet guy and I had the chance to meet him as I got older and he was cool. But he was just this big, powerful guy, especially to a little kid.”
Though he might have been a bit young to be in the establishments that his uncle played in, and even though his first meeting with The Wolf ‘almost scared me away from liking the blues,’ young Vino Louden was not exactly shy.
“Yeah, the music was just so powerful and I remember how the people would jump around and dance and I kinda got my ‘in’ with them because I would come out from behind my uncle’s amp and dance; I would do the ‘James Brown,’” he said. “And they would throw quarters at me, so I would get my little hustle on.”
His first real professional gig on the blues circuit came when Louden was barely into his 20s, with the late, great Mighty Joe Young. Although Young had already carved out a nice reputation for playing his brand of blues, it took awhile before Louden realized just who he had hooked up with.
“Ignorance is bliss and it helps you sometimes. I wasn’t aware that he (Young) was as imminent as he was,” said Louden. “He was a sweet guy and in my experience with him, he was very sharing. I was playing anything that I could make a couple of bucks on when I joined up with him – Top 40, R&B … stuff like that – and a lot of that was rhythm work. He would sit down and show me lines and approaches (on the guitar) for the blues.”
Louden quickly lapped all the tricks and techniques that Young was more than happy to show him, and then Mighty Joe didn’t have any qualms about letting some of the spotlight showcase those lessons that were learned.
“He would give me solos and make me go out to the front of the stage. He’d say, ‘They can’t see you standing back there in the corner, get out front.’ The gigs that I had prior to playing with him, backing up vocalists or other front-men, they weren’t like that. They were the stars and they wanted you to stay back in the shadows,” Louden said. “But Joe wasn’t like that. He was the opposite of that. He pushed me out there and I’d do my 15 bars and start to head back to the back of the stage and he’d say, ‘No, stay there and do some more.’ He always told me, ‘When it’s your turn, don’t be shy, don’t be submissive. Go out there and tear that guitar up.’ Working with Joe was a great experience.”
With the seemingly endless parade of great Chicago blues guitarists over the years (those that made it nationally, as well as those that had the talent but didn’t make much of a splash outside of the city), it would be understandable if an up-and-coming player felt a bit overwhelmed, or maybe even a little like he didn’t belong in such heady company. But for Louden, that was never really an issue.
“I didn’t have any problem acknowledging someone when they were good, whether or not they were someone that I could reach out and touch and see live, or whether they were a recording artist. I admired other great players as opposed to being intimidated by them,” he said. “When I found someone that was good and I thought they had something to offer, I would walk up to them and say, “Hey, how did you do that?’ And if they told me, they did. If they didn’t, they didn’t. Oh, well. I never really shied away from anyone. I just figured if they were good, that meant I had to do more woodshedding. But it all starts with you just being who you are.”
Louden’s abilities to burn up and down the fretboard of a guitar are by no means strictly limited to the blues. What makes him such an in-demand player is the way that he adds audio brush strokes of other colors onto the palette he paints with, mixing hints of jazz and funk, along with some old-fashioned country swing, into his techno-colored take on the spectrum of the blues.
“Once I start playing, it’s all subconscious. When I was coming up, the radio stations I listened to was WVON-AM and they played different genres of music with DJs like Bill ‘Butterball’ Crane, Herb Kent, E. Rodney Jones and at about 9 at night, Pervis Spann – The All-Night Blues Man – would come on. I was supposed to be asleep, but I would hide up under the covers with my little transistor radio and listen to him play. I would hear Wolf and Muddy and those guys,” said Louden. “The other kids in the neighborhood would be listening to James Brown and Sam Cooke and all those kinds of acts that were hot at that time. Then I also listened to WLS and got into groups like Grand Funk Railroad and Uriah Heep and even Loggins and Messina, because of that melodic style that they played.”
Louden also fell under the spell of the great David T. Walker, a jazz studio guitarist who played on albums from the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and Donald Byrd, to name a few.
“He could play the guitar different from everybody else. Other guitarists needed a band, but he could play and say everything he needed to by himself. And that grabbed my ear,” Louden said. “He and George Benson and Wes Montgomery were guys I liked, too. It was all a different style from what I was used to hearing. Most of the guitar players were heading to the left, so I decided to lean the other direction and learn something from the right. All of that stuff influenced me. I never put a label on myself and said, ‘OK, I’m going to be a jazz player, or a blues player or a funk player.’ I just played what I liked.”
Back before most people thought of Louden as a purely blues guitarist with Koko’s Blues Machine, he also pulled duty in the great soul/gospel singer, Otis Clay’s band on three or four occasions.
“Otis would sit down and have these great sessions … if you could keep up with him. He’d go, ‘See … when you’re doing … what you need …’ And then he’d tap on his watch and go, ‘See … it’s about timing. About timing,’” Louden said. “And I’d think, ‘OK. What did he just actually say?’ Then down the road you’d be at a gig and he’d do something and it would all make sense. ‘Oh, that’s what he was trying to tell us.’ Otis was a great teacher. And oh, man, did that guy have a meticulous ear. You’d better be in tune if you were playing with him. He’d be smiling out at the audience and then if you were doing something on the bandstand that he didn’t like, he’d turn around and give you a big ‘ole scowl and say, ‘Come on, now!’ Then he’d turn back to the audience and sing, ‘Well, you should love the children.’ And it got to the point that people would be coming to the show just to see who (which member of the band) Otis would break down. It was crazy. Being with him was some incredible on-the-job training, for sure.”
Though occasionally still forced to battle some physical remnants of his horrible accident almost six years ago, Loudon is still intently focused on playing the blues and is in the process of laying down a new batch of songs onto disc.
“I’m working on some new material and I’m also in the process of trying to decide whether to shop it to a record label, or whether to put it out on my own,” he said. “I’ve got plenty of material ready to go. Now I just have to figure out how I want to present it. I do acoustic solo material – old-school type of blues – in addition to the more up-tempo electric stuff I do with the band, so I’m trying to figure out which way I want to go first. I was blessed to have been with Koko around the world two or three times and people seemed to dig what I was doing there. Hopefully, a record label will say, ‘If he helped the band sound like that under those situations, doing someone else’s music, what would he sound like on his own?”
Visit Vino on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/vinolouden
Photo by Marilyn Stringer.