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Paul Lamb, Harmonica Player

interviewed Jan 2005. Photos by Andy Hall

Back in the mid 80s, if you were listening with the right kind of ears, it was possible to sense an evolution in the blues. On both sides of the Atlantic there seemed to be a new, younger, generation exploring the roots and taking things off in new directions.

A more swingin' west-coasty rockabilly-infused 'real blues' sound was emerging; people were returning to the original records from the 40s and 50s blues greats, rather than the later reworkings, and trying to recapture that feeling: a back-to-basics approach with a rock 'n' roll, rather than rock, sensibility.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds had done their fabulous indeed early albums, and Rod Piazza's 'Harpburn' was never off the record player round my house. Just around the corner were Little Charlie & The Nightcats, William Clarke, James Harman and others. Paul Lamb was to be right there among them.

The first time I saw him was about '88 with The Blues Burglars in a little club in Hampshire. It was clear he was part of this new world of the blues. He had that ability to swing, that rich, fat, tone, and the chops, that until then I'd only heard on records or seen once, a year before, when I'd watched Piazza ‘upset the joint’ in a pub in Birmingham (Midlands, not Alabama).

Shortly after that gig, Paul moved to London and formed The Kingsnakes. The first album on Blue Horizon in 1990 set out their stall. These were men with leopardskin and they weren't afraid to use it. They were also men who could play – who had something to add.

Paul's playing has gone on to be influential not just in the UK and Europe but all over the world, though few have come close to his (unique?) ability to combine a fantastic Sonny Terry-influenced acoustic style with that powerful, juicy, amplified tone. These days it would be fair to say that he ranks amongst the greatest players worldwide. Internationally recognised and multi-award winning, he’s shared the stage with many of the modern masters and been counted among them.

As American magazine Blues Review put it
“His total and convincing command of the blues harp idiom make him more than a mere imitator, he's an instrumental voice worth following ”

We met in a North London pub on a dreary January day. Paul proved to be an amiable and entertaining host and we ended up spending the most of the afternoon discussing things 'as they are said to be'.

I started off by asking what had prompted Paul's move to London from the North East:

Lamb: "I had to really, for the music. We'd had quite a lot of success with the Blues Burglars in the Newcastle area. I'd got them signed with a Label called Red Lightnin' which was a harmonica label – the owner Peter Shertser had heard some stuff and got us down to London doing supports for Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. I got in with John Steadman who was a record producer and had an agency who did a lot of work with Phil Guy, Lowell Fulson, Louisiana Red, and I was working with those guys.

We did two recordings with them and we were starting to get a bit of a name on the blues circuit. But the Burglars were more into that rockier type of blues and I was still looking for that upright bass/west coast sound – the real sound, you know. The lads in the Burglars were getting a bit homesick and in the end only Johnny Whitehill came down with me and I looked around for the musicians to put together. We did the first album and it moved from there. I couldn't have done it from the North East."

You quickly found a niche in what was then a thriving London blues scene, centred around the old Station Tavern near Latimer Road tube. How does the scene then compare to now?

Lamb: "About 10 or 12 years ago there was a bigger scene for all blues players – there was places like the Station Tavern which was like a bar scene core for the blues players. At that particular period – '88/'89, there was myself, Big Joe Louis and his Blues Kings... and at the Station Tavern even on a Tuesday night we had people queuing down the street to see us, and so agencies started looking out for us and putting us on at the 100 club and stuff. There were so many places, like the Jazz Café, which doesn't really support blues that much now, and I was doing the Mean Fiddler four or five times a year, which was a great venue.

Nowadays, I wouldn't say there's a scene anywhere. For me, I've been traveling and working for so long I've built a reputation that I can go to the same clubs, theatres or festivals and I can guarantee a crowd. But you have to have those smaller places for people to develop. They're not there for the guys now – you can't make it in the bars. There isn't any middle ground. The only one in the London area would be Ain't Nothing But in Kingly Street.

We need something that sets it off again – it's an age thing. My age group, who were at the Station Tavern, we're all getting older now, so now we need another generation to come along and take that place. I'm getting into the older generation, but blues is a maturing music anyway, the older you get, the more recognition you can get, so that's fine for me. But you need a younger generation – like my son Ryan. He's 15 and playing good guitar and I'm trying to get him going and push him to a more modern style. He'd rather play the older styles, the west coast swing/Hollywood Fats style. I'd rather he didn't have to do it the hard way, sleeping on floors and traveling in vans and building a reputation like I had to."

Apart from your son, where do you think the next generation is going to come from?

Lamb: "Well, you've got to change the music a little bit I think, move with the times, but it's still got to have that feeling, still got to get the hairs on the back of the neck, you know?

Nowadays it's easier for the younger players. When I started in the North East when I was 15, just getting hold of stuff was difficult. No videos or CDs, just a record that you'd get hold of from somewhere and play over and over again, but now there's videos and DVDs, you can download stuff on the Web and home in on it. You can learn it and make it sound like the heroes, but you've just got to get that spirit. I don't know where it comes from, there’s just certain people that have it.

There's a young lad called Lee Sankey who's trying to do something, trying to change things a little bit, and I take my hat off to him. He's written some good songs, done some good CDs. And there's a young kid up in the North East called Lynden Anderson – he's got some good ideas, trying to play a bit different from the rest of the mob. If I can get him in to open for us I will."

You're recording a new album in early February. Will you doing doing it in what James Harman calls the '...old school, real guy way: Real people singing and playing instruments... in a big room, together, at the same time'...?

Lamb: "Oh yes. The only thing we'll probably dub will be the brass section – it's basically a live gig. We'll not even bother using the studio. We'll just run through a few things and say 'That's the way it's gonna go'... but you've got to watch on the day because me and the band have to feel good, and it's gotta be inspired.

I might take a 24-bar solo, or a 36, or even 48 – it depends where the feel is and where it's going, and the way the band's working with it. That's the way you gotta work with this music because it's all about feel.

I record the same as like Muddy Waters and the old boys – they might have had format in their head, but then they just went and recorded after a gig. With blues it's gotta be done that way. I've done it in the past going over and over it and got nowhere. Nowadays I'll do three takes of the one song and I know which'll be the best one – the first one. I say to the band 'you only get three takes lads, and that's it!'.

I think it's going to be fantastic… it's with the current band, and my son's probably gonna play on it a bit, and there's gonna be a brass section as well. I'm going a little bit different, although you're still gonna get my brand of the blues. I'm starting to do a lot more singing too now. I've always done it, back in the early 70s in the folk clubs and that.

With the style of Paul Lamb & The Kingsnakes I think that the harmonica has to be played right to make it work – I mean the way I put it in, it's like a horn section, and the whole sound of the band is the harmonica being there all the time. The vocalist is singing and there'll be stabs that I'll do. If I was singing it would be like Kim Wilson or Rod Piazza, it would be coming off it, but there's a few things I wanna do myself on vocals – I can cut it on that, so it's gonna be on the new album."

Last year you were in the states for Jerry Portnoy's 60th birthday with a lot of other famous harmonica players... How did they find having a this Geordie bloke there...?

Lamb: "Well, I was invited, because I've been friends with them, and worked with them, Gerry and Rick [Estrin] and everybody. There's a video that was done out there – all of us just sitting in a hotel room. There's me, Kim (Wilson), Rick, Jerry, Sugar Ray Norcia, and we're all just talking about the music in general, and I'm like an outcast in a way, but it's not that much different to be being in in the North East when I was growing up... the mining, that's all there was, the black coal, there was nothing much for us to do but to get out and try and make a living, not far removed from the Harlem ghettos or the Mississippi Delta. I call it the Blyth Delta – that's where I come from. I don't even think about creed or colour or anything, I'm just playing that music; it is black American music I suppose, but now it's worldwide, universal.

When I first started doing this big fat harp style there weren't that many people doing it, but people like me and Rod Piazza , William Clarke… all came the same way about the same time. In Europe I influenced a lot of people, but when it became popular, like with The Thunderbirds and Piazza, I was starting to make a name for myself and people said 'Oh, he's copying – wearing the shades'. I wasn't copying, no way.

What happened was we were all listening to the same guys – Little Walter, Big Walter, so it's bound to sound a little bit similar. But the difference that I've got with those players is the Sonny Terry thing, and that's what I think made me different to everybody else. Not that I'm just playing Sonny Terry, but the way I play as well, what I learned from Sonny – putting that skip or whatever in the harmonica. It's my individual sound."

How did it come about that you met Sonny, and spent time playing with him and Brownie McGhee?

Lamb: "Well what happened was Steve Rye, who used to play with The Groundhogs was promoting various people and brought Sonny and Brownie across in the 70s. I'd entered a competition in a magazine, sent it in and didn't think anything of it. But Steve was one of the judges and I got a letter saying 'you've gotta come down – you sound like one of the greatest exponents of the Sonny Terry sound'. I'm just a kid and I'm thinking 'What's going on?'

So I went, and was invited to play at the World Harmonica Championships – and I came second! That's how I met Sonny. We became friends and I spent a lot of time with him in New York. He took sick, and had a tour in the mid-70s – Brownie called me up and I went with him. For me that was fantastic. I was 21."

Is playing still 'fantastic' for you?

Lamb: Aye, I love it. Music for me is a hard game, but it's not just a job, the music is part of me. It's a fantastic way of communicating to people, and I'm expressing what I'm feeling. If I've got a message for any of the players out there it's to enjoy it – musicians just do your thing!

I'll drink to that.