A BluesWax Tribute To
Michael “Iron Man” Burks
July 30, 1957 – May 6, 2012
We sadly interupt our usual coverage to pay tribute to our friend Michael Burks. Part Two of our interview with Peter Karp and Sue Foley will continue on this page next week. Please check out this week’s Photo Page where some of our photographers share some photographs of Michael Burks.
From the press release from Alligator Records:
The family of late blues legend Michael “Iron Man” Burks has announced plans for a memorial and musical celebration on Sunday, May 20, 2012. The event, open to the public, will take place rain or shine at 3 p.m. CST at Riverwoods On The Ouachita, Bradley Ferry Road, in Burks’ hometown of Camden, Arkansas. Guests are encouraged to bring instruments, lawn chairs, and coolers.
Burks died in Atlanta on Sunday, May 6, 2012. He was 54 years old. He was returning from a tour of Europe and collapsed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and could not be revived.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations in Burks’ name be made to the HART Fund of The Blues Foundation, which aids musicians with health care needs.
Michael “Iron Man” Burks earned his moniker by his hours-long, intensely physical performances, fearsome guitar attack, and tough, smoky vocals. He also earned it by the thousands of miles he personally logged behind the wheel of his touring van. Burks was a true modern blues hero whose music was driven by an intense, blue collar work ethic that had won him well-deserved national and international recognition. His instantly identifiable guitar sound and his live charisma earned him four Blues Music Award nominations. He won the 2004 Living Blues magazine Critics’ Award for Best Guitarist.
Born in Milwaukee in 1957, Burks grew up immersed in the blues, and learned to play guitar at an early age. His family moved to Camden, Arkansas in the early 1970s. There, Burks and his siblings helped their father build the Bradley Ferry Country Club — a 300-seat juke joint. By this time Michael was fronting his own band as well as backing several of the blues and R&B greats that passed through town. Burks left music to raise a family and returned to performing blues in the 1990s.
After self-releasing his first CD in 1997, Burks signed with Chicago’s Alligator Records in 2001 and released three critically acclaimed albums. GuitarOne named his debut album, Make It Rain, one of the Top 200 greatest guitar recordings of all time. He toured the world, headlining blues festivals, concert halls, and clubs. His status as an Arkansas musical hero was confirmed by his receipt of the prestigious Sonny Payne Award for Blues Excellence in 2006, presented by the Delta Cultural Center, and by his multiple headlining appearances at The Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival. Burks had just finished recording his fourth Alligator CD, which is due for release at the end of July 2012.
John Hahn, Manager of Shemekia Copeland and Award-Winning Songwriter
I was fortunate enough to write five songs with Michael. We’d start by going to a restaurant and end up talking for hours about where he grew up, the local characters, anything that might be material for a song. He had great stories…little hometown Arkansas stuff and really put himself into whatever we worked on.
All real…no cliches.
Most of all, I remember the trip Michael made to entertain the troops in Iraq with us on the Bluzapalooza Tour. Michael just rocked and really gave it his all night after night. Like he always did. He must have perspired ten pounds away every night in that desert atmosphere. But he never stopped giving it everything he had. And the troops loved him for it. He got standing o’s night after night.
Just an incredible entertainer and the nicest sweetest guy ever.
I got to know Michael Burks a little better after we did a Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue show in Kansas City a couple years ago. That performance became a track on the live album we did for Alligator. His performance on that record was worth the price of the CD by itself.
My best memory of Michael was at King Biscuit last year in Helena, Arkansas. He his wife Bobby and a few friends set up camp there and Micheal works the barbeque grill the whole time. They feed anybody who comes by to visit. I’m glad I took him up on the invitation. He made me a giant, juicy steak that I couldn’t even come close to finishing. It was a real nice time. A lot of people really looked up to Michael, I had become one of those people.
It’s Saturday, June 4, 2011, and Michael Burks is headlining Jackson, Tennessee’s Shannon Street Blues Festival. The downtown Court Square is the new festival site, rather than the Farmers Market of years past. The festival seems more successful this year. There are more vendors and attendees, and the whole community is involved. The stage sits right in front of City Hall. It faces the courthouse lawn and is flanked by downtown storefronts with residential loft apartments above. It’s a charming new location, but one of the stipulations of the festival’s permit this year is that the music cease prior to midnight. Everybody is talking about the curfew because this is the first year for this new site, and all are hopeful that this will be the official site from now on.
On schedule, Michael and the band take the stage at 10 p.m., and from the downbeat, it’s apparent that this is what “saving the best for last” sounds like. It sounds sweet as dessert. Happy people rush down front and peer up at Michael like some kind of blues god, and that’s what he is. His show is timeless and classic, and he plays some old favorites like “Cadillac Assembly Line.” It’s hot as hell, even tonight, but the whole crowd is dancing, all ages and every color. His guitar sings and cries, and he does too. He is so smooth. It’s a beautiful set.
Around 11:30, and in plenty of time to meet the midnight curfew, Michael finishes the set with one of those stretchy guitar wails, and the crowd goes wild. He answers them with an upbeat encore, and after a virtuoso solo, bends a final note in smooth, sustained vibrato. Again, the crowd shouts with ovation and Michael bows. Then another encore. It’s 11:45. Wide-eyed city officials glance back and forth from wristwatch to stage and wristwatch to stage, with every ovation, relief, with every encore, anxiety. Encore! Ovation! It’s 11:55 and another encore! The officials are serious faced and in stance to intervene, to stop the show according to the permit. Oh, the excitement! Iron Man cheerfully disturbing the peace and thrilling the crowd! What nerve! At last, mere seconds before midnight, the last resounding riff, and Michael ends the show with a broad smile. How exhilarating! Oh, for just one more encore!
Aaron Moreland, of Moreland & Arbuckle
Michael was a top-notch guy in every way. Musically, he was undoubtedly my favorite “burn it to the ground” guitar player. There is no one who will be able to fill those shoes. His singing was super soulful. He meant every single note that came out of his mouth and his guitar. He was a true gentleman and brought grace to the music scene. Michael loved to play music. It was never about anything more than THE MUSIC. I will surely miss his to-the-point gentleness, as much as his music. I am lucky to have gotten the opportunity to spend time with him in Iraq on the Bluzapalooza tour. May he Rest In Peace.
Dustin Arbuckle, of Moreland & Arbuckle
Michael was unquestionably one of my favorite artists on the modern blues scene. I was always excited to see that we’d be on a festival bill together because I knew it would be a killer show. He would go out there and level a crowd, just completely melt your face, but in a way that was his own. Michael never sounded like some generic blues-rock guitar slinger. There was too much taste and character to his playing. You practically had to drag the guy off stage when was really feeling it. He worked his ass off up there! He was a sweetheart of a guy, always funny and easy going. I can honestly say that one of my favorite memories from our time touring in the Middle East was hanging on the bus, listening to Michael tell funny stories about his grandkids. We’ve really lost a great one here, both a person and an artist. Gonna miss you, man.
I best memory of Michael was when we toured together in Iraq with the Bluzapolooza Tour. He could really snore. On this particular night we all where in open barracks. My bunk was on top of Michael’s. Michael and I had been laughing and talking all evening and into the night. As we all continued to laugh and talk we noticed a roar coming from Michael’s bunk. It was Michael snoring so loud that the entire barracks could not go to sleep. People starting milling around looking for sanctuary from the snoring. This is when I gave Michael the name “The Snore King.” I will forever love my buddy “The Snore King.”
For years I watched Michael Burks perform at blues festivals, and on the Blues Cruise one year up close. I always marveled at his intensity. The sound and passion in his voice, delivered with an authentic soul shout. Then he would solo, and chorus after chorus, the pace held, the phrasing weaved in and around the groove, his notes were on and serious.
Then in 2008 I went to Iraq to play for the troops, the trip was sponsored by Bluzapalooza, courtesy of my great friend Steve Simon. I was the musical director and was thrilled to find that Michael would be one of the artists in our revue. There was nothing for me to direct. I just played behind this man every night and he burned.
I’ll never forget that musical experience and how easy it was to hang with his gentle spirit and great sense of humor. We laughed our way through a difficult trip.
Long live the spirit of Michael Burks.
Paul Benjamin, North Atlantic Blues Festival
I had the honor to know this man, a giant in the blues world, but Michael was also a giant as a person who always took time to make everyone around him feel like he had been their friend forever. We had some great times in Rockland, Maine, when he played for his fans from the northeast, and some great times at King Biscuit. Lobsters in Maine and big jucy steaks at the Biscuit. He always held court at his camping site at the Biscuit and now he is holding court with his blues buddies in heaven.
We lost another member of our Blues family way too soon. I will always remember his music and the great times we had, but I will never forget the man, Mr. Michael Burks.
Marilyn Stringer, Blues Revue and BluesWax photographer
I first heard Michael Burks play in 2004 at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival and from that point on I was a fan. His music touched me deeply – I always want to close my eyes and “go there” with him when he played. I met his wife Bobbie on the Blues Cruise in 2009 and we became instant friends (although I didn’t know she was Michael’s wife). We all became friends by the end of that cruise and I always made sure I could see him play wherever he was. When he insisted I attend their wedding reception in Helena, Arkansas, the night before the 2010 King Biscuit Festival, I made sure I was there. What I saw in Helena at the Burks Campground Condominium Compound was the side of Michael that would come out while he played – fun loving! He loved to hang out and cook for his friends and was as kind and generous in life as he was on stage. I loved it when he would be deep into a song, zero in on someone, and then stick his tongue and make faces at you, and go right back to playing. Michael always told anyone who would listen that I was his favorite photographer and I was flattered and honored but I have to say that he was my favorite performer to photograph. To even capture an ounce of his passion and happiness in a photo was even more of an honor for me. I treasure my friendship with Michael and Bobbie Burks. I will still close my eyes and “go there” when I hear his music but I will surely miss being in the presence of the truly gifted, loving, passionate, and joyful friend that Michael Burks was for everyone.
Brian D. Holland, Blues Revue contributing writer
The few times I had spoken to Michael he was extremely cheerful, and he emanated an air of strength and determination. He was an upbeat, positive individual, one who loved life, the guitar, and the blues. He was proud of his family upbringing and the music heritage that grew from it. Michael will be remembered for the power and emotion he exerted into his music, both instrumentally and vocally, and for an amazing ability to push the blues to its limits. He was an exciting performer.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, BluesWax columnist, author, and musician
I had just delivered one of my gospel lectures on the blues cruise. These lectures always hold special meaning to black and white musicians from the South. Many of the songs I played remind them of times long forgotten. I was sitting outside on the pool deck when Michael walked up and began telling me about the tent revivals and gospel programs he had attended as a child in Arkansas. He said those gospel songs reminded him of a peaceful time and place…
A place to which he has now returned.
Chip Eagle, publisher of Blues Revue and BluesWax
Michael Burks was a complicatedly simple man. He had a great sense of humor, though he kept that to himself too much. He and I shared a bond that only those members of the Bluzapalooza troupe that traveled to Iraq and Kuwait can truly know. We are a band of brothers and sisters and one of us has fallen. I have spoken with and cried with several of that band in the past days and some have been able to share their feelings on this page. Some couldn’t, and I understand. Michael was a huge guitar player, pretty much as big as it gets. He was that way as a human also. While I have wonderful memories of his music, it is the childlike qualities of his pure joy in sharing how much he missed his family, especially the children, that strike me most sitting here. He and his beautiful bride Bobbie were a truly picturesque couple and Michael was so proud of her. When they married the pride on his face was brighter than the diamond on her hand. That is where my heart goes; we all will always have his music (just not enough of it) but Bobbie and little Bobblehead and all his family will now only have Michael in their hearts and memories. May Michael Burks’ joy live on!
And lastly, here’s a blast-from-the-past from the BluesWax archives.
BluesWax Sittin’ In With
March 15, 2006
By Phil Reser
Michael Burks entered the world with blues in his blood and his personal music career now stretches back 30 years. Joe Burks, Michael’s grandfather, played acoustic, Delta-style Blues guitar in the juke joints of the family’s hometown of Camden, Arkansas. His father, Frederick, was a bass player, who for years worked in steel mills and refineries during the day and spent his evenings performing in blues clubs.
Frederick Burks began teaching Michael the guitar when he was two years old. By the age of five, he was studying his father’s record collection and by the time he was six, he played his first gig during a trip to Camden. The young guitarist took the stage at a local juke joint with his cousin’s band and thrilled an unsuspecting audience. By the time he was 13 years old he got his first real music job, playing guitar in a traveling band that sometimes backed up the late Texas Blues legend T-Bone Walker.
In the early 1970s, Michael’s dad, Michael, and his siblings helped their father build the Bradley Ferry Country Club – a 300-seat juke joint – with their bare hands. By this time Michael was fronting his own band as well as backing several of the blues and R&B greats that passed through town. Business at the Bradley Ferry thrived for years, with Michael Burks leading the house band every Thursday through Saturday night. When the Bradley Ferry finally closed in the mid-1980s, Michael, a new father, decided to find a day job. For over a decade he worked as a mechanical technician for Lockheed-Martin.
His desire to perform remained strong however, and in 1994 he formed a new band and began playing clubs and regional festivals. After years of performing without a record, Michael released a self-produced debut, From The Inside Out, in 1997. The album took the blues world by storm. In 2000, Burks received a W.C. Handy Blues Award nomination for Best New Artist, even though he had already been out there as a hard-working professional for many years. He knew at that point, he had to pursue his musical career full time once again and began to play more festivals than ever before, including a spot at the Chicago Blues Festival, where his performance earned him a deal with Alligator Records in 2001. That contract has resulted in two releases, the 2001 disc Make It Rain and 2003′s I Smell Smoke. Burks and BluesWax‘s Phil Reser had an inspiring and fun conversation about his musical journey and his commitment to the Blues.
Phil Reser for BluesWax: Growing up in Arkansas, what was your take on the music scene there and how did the geographic area influences you?
Michael Burks: Well, being from the South, I was exposed to especially the R&B guys and a lot of the Blues guys during that era. I was just a kid, but I still got a chance to go around and see a lot of those guys because of my father knew them and played with many of them. He always took me around them. I think I’ve been blessed and enriched by meeting and watching guys who most people never heard of perform because some died off and others just stopped playing music period. Guys like Rufus Thomas, Johnny Taylor, Bobby “Blue” Bland, O.V. Wright, and Freddie King came right through my hometown and stopping at a local juke joint.
BW: Can you highlight a few musical influences from your father, grandfather, and others that played a part in your interest in the blues?
MB: My cousin was probably the most noteworthy of the musicians in my family. Back then he was pretty well known because he had a little record out that actually did pretty well. I think it was called “The Buzzard,” a single 45, his name was Little Guitar Pickens and he had a 10- or 12-piece band. Pickens played the guitar and was a badass cat and he always had a four- or five-piece horn section. Sometimes, he would use two drummers. That was the first band that I got to set in with when I was six years old.
“I was six years old and I played my first
time on the stage in front of a lot of people.”
BW: Six years old, that’s incredible?
MB: I was six years old and I played my first time on the stage in front of a lot of people. You see, my dad had been bragging all this time that my boys can play, my boys can play and you know how most people reacted, those boys can’t play, and they’re just kids. And then one night the club owner might have been a little loaded with something he was drinking, but he told my cousin, let them boys get up there and play. I want to hear them play. My cousin said, “Hey, we’ve got five or six hundred people packed in, are you sure you want them to play?” He said, “Yeah, this is my damn place. I want to see what they can do up there.” So he let us up there to play about three songs and people were standing with their mouths open and couldn’t believe we could play so well. From then on, every time we came in the club owner would let us play. And it made the older guys jealous because when we did play we got all the tips.
BW: Tell me about the history of juke joints and what role they played in communities like your own?
MB: They were always there, as long as I’ve known in my hometown of Camden, and it was a small town of maybe, fourteen or fifteen thousand people. There was a railroad track that actually divided the town and on my side of the tracks there were at least seven or eight juke joints and probably about the same on the other side. And that was just in town and not including the little juke joints back in the woods. So you know what I’m saying, that town was jumping any time of the week or any time of the night. Most all of them didn’t have live bands, but you could get something to eat and drink and listen to the jukebox. My dad was actually the first person to bring live music or a band to Camden. He was the first one to put together a band that played around town in the different juke joints. The juke joints came about in the small towns outside the big cities in the South. They would take anything and make a juke joint club out of it. An old house or a barn, I played in a lot of places like that. You’d walk into some of them and they’d be about to fall down. No windows in it and definitely had no air conditioning and if it was cold most of the heat was from wood burning stoves or a 55-gallon drum that someone made a stove out of. But it was an interesting experience because most of the places would have a makeshift bar and a C-Bird jukebox and you had to have a pool table in it. I played in places with names like A Bucket of Blood, one that was called A Hole In the Wall, and one called the Goat Place. I saw people get shot and cut in those places many a time. The good thing about it was that I was small I could hide behind the juke box or crawl behind the pool table while everybody was fighting and stuff so I wouldn’t get hurt.
BW: Well, if you can survive that kind of history, you deserve the recognition you’re getting today.
MB: Oh yeah, I’ve been in places where some guy got mad and went out to the parking lot and got a gun from his car and would shoot right into the joint. So you would train yourself to hit the floor. Somebody ask me one time why we bought such big amplifiers and I said after a while you get smart and know you can use them to hide behind. So I’d get behind my amp when those guys would start shooting or throwing bottles and stuff. And after things settled down, we would always go back to playing.
BW: So what about your family joint, the Bradley Ferry Country Club?
MB: We had been in business with a couple of other guys and it would get greedy. So my dad said, “We’re going to build our own joint and forget all of these other people.” So we built the place from the ground up and when we finished it, we were partners with nobody. It took us two to three years to build the club because we did it out of our own pockets. My dad was a concrete finisher and a carpenter so it was no big deal to build it. We called it a juke joint, but it was really a nice club. It seated about 350 to 400 people; it had a stage and dressing rooms and two bars, billiard tables, and a gambling shack where they shot dice. You had to have that; it was a necessity to have some gambling in the back to make folks happy.
BW: Now, you were able to gain a lot of musical business out of that club, right?
MB: Definitely, because my band was the house band and we played three or four nights a week. We also helped back up a lot of the acts that came through there. We had such a great business there that we actually got in trouble with the locals, the other club and juke joint owners because we had such a big draw that they didn’t have any business. They complained to the local sheriff and judges that were taking the shakedown money because they still had to pay shake down and they weren’t making any money. We were making all the money. They actually put the squeeze on us because we had all the people. We went back and forth trying to work things out, but we ended up having to pay such a huge shake down that we had to shut the club down. It was a whole lot of politics and being around my dad, I got a chance to experience it because I was a pretty good-sized young man and I always had to watch my dad’s back. We shut down for a couple of years and then remodeled and opened back up and someone burnt our club down.
“If you feel you’re destined to make something
out of your life, you need to pursue it.”
BW: You were raised and lived quite a bit of your life, like most people, in an everyday, blue-collar lifestyle, how hard was it to keep the music going, while working for the man and has that background gave you any attributes that helped you along the musical path?
MB: I wouldn’t even say blue collar; I’d say poor. My grandfather was a carpenter and later a mechanic. He was also a licensed barber and opened a shop. Coming from that area, my grandfather was pretty smart and took care of his family, which rubbed off on my dad. He wasn’t a real educated man, he might have finished the sixth grade maybe. But he had to go to work early because my grandmother and grandfather divorced and split when he was about 13 years old and he had to go to work to support his self and my grandmother and his sisters. So, he started early, but he never gave up. He sacrificed his childhood to work for his family, but he never really gave up his dreams. It was always his own dream to own his own business and to be in music. He loved playing and wanted to be out on the road doing that, too. But he never got a chance to do that. So I’ve sort of taken over that dream. It’s a hard struggle, but if it’s something you want to do, you have to take the time to do it and try the best to make it happen. And I believe that’s true with anything in the world that someone wants to do. If you feel you’re destined to make something out of your life, you need to pursue it. I tell my daughter, whatever you want to be in life you can be it. Don’t ever say you can’t do this or that. You’ve just got to put both feet forward and go for it.
BW: Do you recall a point in your musical learning curve when you suddenly gained a relaxed confidence and moved from just playing the songs and started feeling passion and soul with your music on stage?
MB: Back when we were just playing the clubs, it was more like playing a part, you know, you get up on stage and play your part and the others play theirs and we’re making music. But when I dropped the music and went to work to support my family and had to deal with everyday life that’s when I picked up a guitar again, I was full of all that experience and I suddenly had a lot to say in my music. I was doing more emotional playing than playing a part in a song. I started putting that emotion into it because I had real feeling and the music I was doing made sense to me.
BW: What’s special about the Blues to you and how would you describe how you like to play it?
MB: Well, it’s the way I play, when I first hit that stage, it’s 180 percent emotional to me. The songs that I play and the lyrics that I sing all mean and say something to me. It’s not that all Blues is about bad things, sad or depressing, but it’s about life and life is really an emotional merry-go-round. By the end of the night, I’m drained because there has been so much emotion thrown out on that stage that it has come to a boiling point. The whole band is just totally fired up at the end of the night that we’re like supercharged or something. And the Blues is like that. I see a lot of guys that think they’re great players and know all the scales and the runs, but their playing is cold. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great players, but people can feel and tell when you actually are putting your heart and soul into it and not just going up there going through the motions. Me, I can’t help it. I feel what I play and when I do a song I put every ounce of emotion into it because you’re a storyteller and you have to get that over to your audience. You have to tell that story right or people don’t get it.
BW: I don’t know how you started singing, but was it more difficult than playing the guitar and what was it like when you started combining the instrument and your vocals together?
MB: I started singing late, about ten years ago. For years I was a guitar player and not a singer. I would sing a little bit of background, but I always had another guy doing the lead singing. I was always standing to the side with the vocals just doing some harmony, I wasn’t singing like I do now, all night long. After I came and started back to playing again, I figured if this was going to be a real job for me that I needed to learn to sing my own songs. I concentrated on learning both the lead singing, but working it in with my guitar playing. It wasn’t easy; it took me about three or four years to get it down. And I’m still working on it, trying to get better with my vocals. But, if you work on anything long enough, it will happen for you.
BW: Why the choice of the Gibson Flying V as your guitar, does it display uniqueness that you prefer with your sound?
MB: It really does, it’s not for looks; I love that guitar. Actually, I had always played a Gibson 335 and I loved that long, skinny neck and the tone of the guitar. But I hated that body because when I was young, it was so big, you couldn’t see anything on stage except my legs and my head, so I came to hate that guitar just because of that. I also tried playing a Les Paul, but it had a short, fat neck on it, even though I loved the tone. When I first picked up my first Flying V it had a long, skinny neck, had the play ability of the 335, but it had a tone and character of a Les Paul and the 335, so I thought, “Damn, I can have the best of both worlds with this instrument.” So, I fell in love with it.
BW: How did Alligator Records find you, how did they explain their interest in your signing with the label, and what were your immediate thoughts and response like?
MB: After I initially met Bruce [Iglauer] at the Kings Blues Festival around 1994 or ’95, he told me at first that he wasn’t interested in signing up a band, but was just listening. After the show, he told people, like myself, what you needed to improve your show and yourself. I don’t know how others might have responded to him, but I would listen to him because this man had been in the Blues and around all these great players, so he had to know something. So I would do these things and the next year or so, he would see me again and I would improve and he’d tell me other things. So that went on for three or four years and then I played the Chicago Blues Festival in 2000. He came to that and had some DJ guy with him and told me again that he was just checking me out to see how I’m doing. I said, all right Bruce, as usual. I did my show, which was all original tunes and tied into my first self-produced CD. We burnt it up. Bruce was sitting there chewing on his cigar and I kept looking over his way to see what kind of expression he had. I didn’t want him to know I was wondering about his reaction, but he was watching the show and didn’t move a bit. When we were finished and were walking off the stage, Bruce had come backstage and was standing there and said, “Man, after a performance like that, we’re going to have to make a record.” I said, “Sure Bruce, I’ve heard stuff from you for four years and I’m used to this.” But, he kept saying, I’m going to call you; I’m going to call you. Yeah, sure Bruce, and I really wanted to take him seriously, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. So, by the time I made it from Chicago back to Camden, there were several messages for me at home and I thought this guy is serious now. Man, I felt like half the world was lifted off my shoulders and that I was really doing something right and that I might have a chance to go somewhere with my music.
BW: And you guys are doing great now?
MB: We’ve been doing great, I’ve actually been writing songs for a new album the last three months, hopefully it will be out by June. We’ve been doing 200-plus touring dates a year, so we stay real busy. Considering the way the economy has slowed down, we’ve been fortunate and things have been steady for us.
BW: What has been the best experiences playing in Europe and what differences do you see in the audiences there and here in the states?
MB: The Europeans come out to our shows. If they like you, man, you have no problem selling out your shows or selling your CDs. When I first went over there, I didn’t know what to expect and I was in Holland and in Germany and they would just sit there smoking cigarettes and looking at you, there was no response, just staring a hole through you. I thought, “Man, they must hate me because they’re not showing anything.” But at the end of the show, they came up to me saying, “Oh Michael, you’re so great, we just totally enjoyed you.” Now, after a lot of shows over there, it’s getting really nice. The promoter for our German shows says that he never sees the crowd react to any group like they do our band. The Germans are really conservative and never clap or holler at the musical acts. But they do with us. I have such a great time playing Europe. We’ll be playing a Jazz festival in Switzerland in January.
BW: When audiences come to see you live, what more can they expect if they’ve only heard your CDs?
MB: Our live shows are always so much more because they’re so intense and so long. I have had problems with different club owners because they want you to come in there and play a 45- or 75-minute set and take a break and play another set. That isn’t the way I grew up playing, playing in the juke joints you started playing at 8 or 9 in the evening until the sun came up. That’s all I really…all I know how to do. If I play 45 minutes and break, I feel like I’ve cheated the people. Now that I’ve been playing around for a time, the club people know I’m going to be up there playing for two or three hours before I walk off the stage and they love it. So they leave me alone and Michael plays it the way he wants to play it. I’ll tell you it don’t make any difference how short your set is, as long as the people are having a good time and dancing, they’re going to drink, so the club is going to make money and the people are happy, there can’t be anything wrong with a long set.
BW: How does one get a hold of copies of your first recording, From the Inside Out? Are there plans to re-release it with Alligator?
MB: I had talked to Bruce about it and hopefully we can re-release it or just print up some copies and sell it through Alligator. It’s hard to get a copy of it except on eBay. One guy told me he was pissed about how much one of those original was running on eBay, I guess it runs from sixty to ninety bucks for one CD. I personally followed one copy and saw it go for $448. I was like thinking, I know I’ve got a copy at the house somewhere, I should be putting it on there myself and selling it for half that. To me, we did that CD for promotional reasons, to send to clubs. We did that recording in a house on an eight-track machine. Every song on it, I wrote and arranged and completely produced the CD. People were buying it off the stage back then, in fact, I made only 500 copies of it. I guess that’s why people are so desperate to get one. If I recall, I gave about half of them away for publicity and to friends. It was sure amazing to see that one get on the radio and to be successful at getting people to listen to me. Then it got nominated for a W.C. Handy Award and I couldn’t believe it. I was at home and they called me from the ceremony and this guy called me and said, “Michael, why aren’t you here at the awards?” I said, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “Your CD was nominated for Best New Album of the Year.” And I said, “You got to be kidding.” And I hadn’t even heard about it. I was riding on cloud nine. I’ll tell you it really lit a fire under me and I still don’t know who it was that called me.
BW: After all the years you’ve been out there performing – what do see as your challenges now?
MB: The biggest challenge is to stay on the road; it’s so expensive to have a band touring. A lot of venues have closed so it makes it harder to connect the dots because you have to have so far between your gigs to make your tour successful. But I’m not giving up or backing down. I’m still pushing like the day I got back into this because I made a promise to myself that this is what I’m going to do. If I were out here thinking I was going to get rich, I would have probably quit a long time ago. I’m just trying to make a living at it. I love the music, I love doing what I’m doing, as long as I can afford to do it and got my health, I’ll be out here hard and strong.
Phil Reser is a contributing editor at BluesWax.
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