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© 2008
Interview with
Big Joe Louis

3 July 2008

British blues leads the way at the Savonsolmu Beach & Blues Party in Eastern Finland. One of the headliners, Big Joe Louis, spared a moment and shared some of his thoughts on music and culture.

Bandleader of the Blues Kings and a veteran of numerous Finnish gigs,
Big Joe Louis will be back in Finland this week. Big Joe will be one of the headliners at the Savonsolmu Beach & Blues Party in Pieksämäki, eastern Finland. In addition, he plays the city of Jyväskylä, middle Finland as well as the Capital, Helsinki. He will be backed by a local trio: Tommy Barkman (harmonica), Jaska Prepula (bass) and Juppo Paavola (drums).

Big Joe Louis spared a moment and shared his views on cultural differences, his background in Jamaica and the UK and, naturally, the blues and the legends of the music.

You were born and grew up in Jamaica. What kind of musical influence did that have on you?
I always had music around me.  My parents both loved music and growing up in Jamaica, it was everywhere - in school, church, the street, on the radio and at home.
English Home   Finnish Home
Calypso, ska, rocksteady, reggae and some soul music was the music we heard. Pop and rock music wasn't popular, although you could sometimes hear country music (I remember my father playing "Gunfighter Ballads" by Marty Robbins a lot).

Do you come from a musical family?
Music and acting - yes.  My grandfather was a professional musician and travelled from the Netherlands to Scotland to Cuba playing music.  My grandmother was a singing teacher.  My father was an actor and my mother also acted, taught music and played the clarinet.  My youngest brother is a professional musician in New Zealand, my sister was an actor, model and dancer and my oldest brother is a member of a couple of singing groups.

What was the very first song/artist that really got you started in music?
I really don't remember any one song or artist, because music was there from the beginning.   The first live performances I remember seeing were by Byron Lee & The Dragonaires, a very popular Jamaican group with a really good stage show. 

What/who was your first blues influence?
It was a cheap LP called "All The Blues All The Time" on Ember Records.  It had a Howlin' Wolf song on it and I had never heard anything like that before - it was so exciting...   After that, I bought a 2LP of Skip James' Vanguard recordings - very different from Wolf, but I loved the "strange" sound and the personal words.

You moved to the UK as a boy. Was there a cultural shock?
It was a very, very big shock.   We moved from the exciting city of Kingston to a small town in Kent where we had no connection to the area, and no family and no friends.    I hated the climate and darkness.   Although I had been to Britain to visit my Scottish grandmother a couple of times, I had never seen a winter or snow.  The food was strange.  

People lived, talked and thought differently.  We were no longer close to the sea.  The attitudes were very different and many, many people were racially prejudiced.    Living in a small town in the country was not for me and so I moved to London, soon after my 17th birthday. Even after living in the UK for many years, it still doesn't feel like home.

What kind of a schoolboy/youngster were you? Was music always your main interest?
At school, I knew no one and it was tough as a teenager to make new friends, especially when people made fun of my Jamaican accent.   Apart from music and reading books, I wasn't really interested in much else.   Friends I had didn't like the music I liked - they liked of heavy and progressive rock and I liked reggae, soul and blues.  

Please describe the birth of The Blues Kings in brief.
In the early 1980s when I first tried to play blues, it was really hard to find musicians I wanted to play with.  The rock/blues sound was what people played and I hated that.  Cilla Huggins (of Rooster Blues Records, Blues Unlimited and Juke Blues magazines) introduced me to the veteran harmonica player Shakey Vick at a Junior Wells/Buddy Guy concert and he helped me a lot by introducing me to some more sympathetic musicians like Bernie Pallo and Gordon Smith. They all played with me for a while and then I met drummer Martin Deegan who became my first drummer around 1986.  I didn’t like bass guitarists so in the early years, I had a second guitarist playing bass parts, until Tony Hilton left Howlin’ Wilf (James Hunter) to join my group.  He played double bass and that was really the beginning of the Blues Kings.

Which one of your own albums is the most important to you?

That’s a difficult question. They all mean different things to me but I think maybe “Big 16” is the one which I’m most proud of because of the sound, the songs and the good times I had recording it. 

Britons have a great history in breaking the blues for a wider audience. What do you think are the main ingredients that have made British blues this good and important?
I don't know why.  Apart from the music played by my British musician friends, I don't listen to it and have never been interested in it.   Maybe it's popular because some people find it easier to get introduced to a new type of music if the people playing it are from a similar background or heritage as them.   Or maybe blues with rock influences is just more popular...

You and your band have backed so many blues legends. What has been the most memorable experience and why?
We have been so lucky to have had the chance to perform with lots of great and interesting performers over the years.  So many of them have given me very memorable experiences and I remember each one for different reasons. I've played shows with Lazy Lester for 15 years and he's one of the funniest guys to be around.  Playing with Louisiana gospel singer/guitarist Rev Charlie Jackson was like a dream come true for me.  I had loved his records for many years and when a promoter asked him to come from playing in his church in Louisiana to a festival and TV show in Ireland, it was like a dream come true.   Memories of working (and spending time) with artists like Big Bad Smitty, Booba Barnes, Big Jack Johnson and Big Lucky Carter will stay with me forever.

Any "juicy" stories about a blues legend you've worked with…?
All of the artists I've worked with have been very well behaved and I have no scandal or gossip about any of them. Maybe one or two liked a drink a little bit too much, but that's about it. 

Your future plans: new album, new tours, etc?
I do have plans to make new recordings but only when I’m totally ready – there’s no point in making a record unless you have something to say with your songs and so when the time is right, I will do it.   I enjoyed recording my last single (“Go-Go Train”) in Helsinki for Timmion Records and I hope that we will make another one soon.    I will continue to go wherever the music takes me – I love to travel and have been very lucky to have been to so many different places.

You've played several times in Finland. What is your opinion on Finnish people/audience and Finland as a country?
I’ve always enjoyed coming to Finland. Before I came, I expected it to be like Scandinavia, but soon realised that it’s very different.   Finnish blues audiences seem to be pretty deeply into the music and think about it and feel it.    

Who do you think are the most notable Finnish blues artists/bands?
I’ve had the chance to meet and work with some fine Finnish musicians like Jaska Prepula, Juppo Paavola and Jo’ Buddy as well as Nicole Willis’ Soul Investigators band.   

Your message to the readers of What can we expect from your Finnish gigs in July?
It’s been over one year since I came to Finland and I’m really looking forward to it. I have some new true-life songs and new grooves and I hope that the Finnish people come to listen, to dance and to enjoy the music and performance. It’s deep and I don’t think it sounds like other people’s music because my music comes from inside me and from my life and so my songs are true. 


Big Joe Louis Timeline

1961 Born in Kingston, Jamaica
1970's Moved to the UK
1986 Formed The Blues Kings
1989 First album with The Blues Kings
1992 Second album released "The Stars in the Sky"
1993 Groundbreaking tour of Norway and Russia
1993 Best British Blues Vocalist
1994 Best British Blues Vocalist
1996 Third album released "Big Sixteen"
1998 Toured the USA
1999 Toured the USA
2000 Joined the Big Town Playboys as singer for two years
2001 Album with the Big Town Playboys "Western World"
2007 Single "Go-Go Train" with the Soul Investigators (Finland)
2008 Finnish gigs in Pieksämäki, Jyväskylä, Helsinki

Links: Big Joe Louis
website and MySpace
Big Joe Louis