How did Blue Largo form?
I have been actively playing blues in San Diego since 1982, when I was a member of the King Biscuit Blues Band. We had a regular gig back then at a local club called the Mandolin Wind, which was every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, for fifty weeks out of the year. I was in that band for around four years, but I believe they had that gig for something ten years! Alicia, who is both my wife and vocalist for Blue Largo was working as a waitress at the Mandolin Wind when I was playing there, and although I had a self imposed policy of not dating waitresses who worked there, in case it didn’t work out, that policy pretty much went out the window with Alicia. Although Alicia wasn’t singing professionally back then, she had this very genuine love for rhythm and blues and jazz, so much so that she always targeted venues that featured live blues and jazz when she was looking for waitressing jobs. And although Alicia was not singing professionally, she had a great voice and would learn all these Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn standards, just for the love of learning them. And when I’d hear singing them a capella, I was incredibly moved by the soul and emotion in the way she sang. Meanwhile, throughout the late 1980’s and nineties, after I left King Biscuit, I had two pretty successful bands of my own, on a local level, The Rhumboogies (with Earl Thomas) and The Juke Stompers. But I was never much of a singer, so the big challenge for me was always trying to find and keep a good vocalist who fit in with what we were doing both musically and personally. And whenever I found myself in this bind, I’d try to convince Alicia to sing with us. I knew she could bring the same soul and passion to my band that she had when she was just singing by herself. But she always turned me down, claiming she didn’t need to be on stage and that she was happy being a “shower singer.” But then one day in 1999, to my great surprise she finally said she’d give it a try, and that is how Blue Largo was formed, nineteen years ago!
Are you all from Southern California? Everyone in our band lives in San Diego County, and some of us are native San Diegans, while others moved here from other places. Alicia was born and raised in San Diego, but I am from right outside of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and I believe having grown up there in the late sixties and seventies has greatly informed my music and especially my attitude about playing.
Is the blues scene in Southern California pretty active? For most of the eighties and nineties, San Diego had one of the most thriving blues scenes in the country. We could play twenty to twenty five nights a month without even really trying. But I’ve seen things slow down tremendously over the past decade, and unfortunately I believe that’s pretty typical throughout the country. When I first started playing blues in San Diego, I was still in my twenties, and our audience was in their twenties or thirties. They were young, and could go out to bars and listen to live music and drink four or five nights a week. But today those people are in their sixties, and it’s just a lot harder at that age to have the wherewithal to be doing that on a regular basis. I know it is for me. These folks will come out for a special event like a CD Release Party, a benefit or a festival, but not so much to the bars on a regular basis. So a lot of the clubs that have had blues are trying new and different things, like rockabilly or cover bands, in an attempt to bring in a younger crowd. And to make the matter even worse, while there are fewer venues willing to hire blues bands today, it seems like there are more blues bands competing for the few gigs that are left for us.
What is your song writing process like as a group? We don’t write as a group. I am pretty much the sole songwriter for the group. Up until 2015, I never thought of myself as a songwriter, nor was it something I even thought about pursuing. My thing was always to try and master playing traditional blues guitar, in the vain of artists such as T Bone Walker, early BB King, Freddy King, Magic Sam, Bill Jennings and Tiny Grimes, to name a few. Paying tribute to my musical inspirations, as honestly and genuinely as I could, was my focus, not originality. But one day around 2014, I went to a Bonnie Raitt show here in San Diego, and I guess that was a life changing event for me. I never even owned a Bonnie Raitt record or saw her live before that, but she obviously had a major impact on me that night. Aside from the fact that it was a very intimate and incredibly soulful show, when I left the theater I kept thinking about how cool it was that while Bonnie has such a deep love and understanding of traditional blues, but yet she never tries to sound like Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thorton or Ruth Brown. She writes, sings and plays completely in her own voice, and while those traditional blues influences can be heard and felt in her music, the finished product is one hundred percent Bonnie Raitt. And without consciously intending to “write a song,” I came home that night and wrote a song that I called “Sing Your Own Song.” I just jotted it down, without really having any intentions to do anything further with it. Then, probably close to a year later, Alicia motivated me to think about making another cd. We hadn’t recorded since 2003, largely due to a neurological condition that I developed called focal dystonia, which affected the coordination in my right hand. But by 2015, I thought I was healed enough to where I could once again feel comfortable putting something permanent on tape. When we decided to record again, I figured that we’d follow our own motus operandi of finding ten or twelve obscure vintage blues songs from artists like Louis Jordan, the Nat King Cole Trio, Dinah Washington or T Bone Walker, and trying to cover them with as much authenticity as we could. But then I remembered jotting down those lyrics the night I saw Bonnie Raitt, and I thought I’d revisit them and see if maybe we could get an original song on the record as well. Well, when I first went back to review this “song,” I couldn’t remember or even begin to contemplate what kind of melody and chord changes I had for the lyrics, so I quickly thought to myself, “forget it, there’s not really anything there.” Then I went out for a bike ride, and I started singing, “Sing your own song, be your own self, or nobody else will care. Shout it out loud, shout it out proud, for the whole wide world to hear.” And I realized it’s a gospel melody with gospel chord changes! I came home, picked up my guitar, and probably had the complete song within fifteen minutes. Now the real crazy thing is that every time I would go out for a bike ride after that, a new song would come to me, and by the time we recorded our third album, entitled “Sing Your Own Song” we had seven original songs for it. And fortunately, that wonderful gift has kept on giving, so there are eleven original songs on our new album, “Before The Devil Steals Your Soul.”
Have you been doing a lot of live shows? Well, in light of what I was saying earlier about how much the scene has slowed down over the years, when Alicia and I started Blue Largo we were playing around ten to fifteen gigs a month, then it went to nine to twelve, four or five, and now it’s often less than that. However, we have played some nice, higher profile gigs over the past couple of years, including the San Diego Blues Festival, the Baja Blues Festival in Rosarito, Mexico, San Diego’s Gator by the Bay Festival, the Adams Avenue Street Festival and the Belly Up Stage at the San Diego County Fair.
Between you and Alicia, were you in bands before Blue Largo? I’ve been in bands pretty much my entire life, at least since I was around eleven or twelve years old.
Eric, are you self taught on the guitar? Or did you take lessons? I took basic guitar lessons as a kid, learning the strings, notes, basic chords and songs like “On Top Of Old Smokey’ and “Merrily, Merrily Row Your Boat.” But beyond that, I mostly learned from records and going out to watch other guitar players play live. When I was coming up there was no such thing as YouTube or anything like that, but I broke a hell of a lot of rewind buttons on my cassette players! Over the years I also became friends with some of the greatest blues guitar players in the world like Ronnie Earl, Anson Funderburgh, Kid Ramos, Jr. Watson and the late Hollywood Fats, so I was fortunate enough to pick their brains here and there, and learn some things that way.
Where do you record? We recorded our first album, “What A Day” (2001) at Pacifica Studios in Los Angeles, and it was produced by Rick Holmstrom, who has been Mavis Staples’ guitar player and musical director for the past ten years. We recorded our second album, “Still In Love With You” (2003) at a local studio in Escondido, California. We recorded our third album, “Sing Your Own Song” (2015) at Sacred Cat Studio in Oceanside, California. My close friend Nathan James, who is recognized as a true blues guitar virtuoso throughout the world, owns Sacred Cat, and he also co-produced “Sing Your Own Song” with me. Finally, we recorded our brand new record, “Before The Devil Steals Your Soul” (2018) at Sacred Cat, Thunderbird Analogue Studios in Oceanside, and Rarefied Studios in San Diego. Nathan still engineered, mixed and co-produced “Devil,” but he wanted us to use another studio that had a real Hammond B3 organ, which we did not have on our previous record.
Tell us about your latest project. Our latest project, “Before The Devil Steals Your Soul” follows very much in the same vain as our previous album, “Sing Your Own Song,” in the sense that it is primarily original material, with current lyrics relevant to the world we are living in today, but the music and overall vibe of the record is pretty much 1960’s rhythm and blues, with some gospel and a Cuban guitar instrumental in there as well. That’s why I call our music “Original, Vintage rhythm and blues.” The two songs on the record that I consider to be the crux of the album’s message are “Wash Away,” addressing the current state of our country, and “Same Race,” which specifically addresses the multitude of police shootings of unarmed black men and boys over the past several years. A video of this song will likely be out by February. There’s a song called “Monrovia,” which is the first “fictional story” song I’ve ever written. It’s about a love triangle, betrayal, jealousy and ultimately murder, and has somewhat of a Quentin Tarantino or Enio Marcone Spaghetti Western soundtrack vibe to it. It seems that a lot of people really like this one from the comments I hear. We have a slow ballad, in the vain of Ray Charles, called The Long Goodbye, which deals with the loss of a loved one from Alzheimer’s, and the title track, which is a gospel groove with a full gospel choir, telling you to live your life to the fullest, in truth and righteousness, before it’s too late, before The Devil Steals Your Soul! And there is a song called “I’m Alive,” which is about the power of music itself to break down walls, bring people together, and make us want to live up to our highest ideals. Finally, we did cover versions of Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It’s kinda funny that we chose to record a song that is as well known as “Brokenhearted,” because as a traditional blues musician I always tried to play more obscure covers, and steer away from what I referred to as the top forty of the blues. But I became obsessed with this song over the past year, and with brokenhearted people, and the resilience of the human spirit that fortunately helps most of us eventually get over our broken hearts. I also figured that since the song is not a blues, and since we’re no longer really a “blues band,” that it’d be cool to do it. Alicia brought “Feeling Good” to the record, and it’s definitely one of her strongest performances, amongst many, on there. I loved the idea of recording it because it totally fit with the overall musical ambiance of the record, and even more so because Nina Simone often used her music as a vehicle to speak out for human rights and justice, which again is a major theme of this album.
What can we expect from you in the future? As they say, “One can never tell what the future holds,” but my hope is that we can start playing more regularly, and maybe get on a few festivals for next summer. I hope we can also record another album within the next few years, but that will largely depend on whether we have enough songs that are worth recording. As of now, I probably do have enough song ideas or half written songs for another album, but putting them together into good songs is a whole other story. So with that, I better sign off now and get back on that bike!