Photo credit - Brian Zahorodniuk
After listening to Harpdog Brown’s terrific new album “Naturally” in February, I knew I had to get him on the phone for my weekly blues show “How Blue Can You Get”, which airs Sundays at noon Alberta time on K-Rock (www.953krock.com) in Cold Lake. As luck would have it Dog was available, and quite chatty…l
With a name like ‘Harpdog Brown’ you gotta be a lifelong blues guy…
Well…. It’s not like I was born with it, but it seems like it’s been there most of my life. I’ve got to blame The Rolling Stones, because I was a Stones fan first.
But I kind of decided to search into where The Stones were influenced, and I looked at some of the songwriters on their first albums and dug into that. That’s where I found McKinley Morganfield and Wolf and Jimmy Reed and whatnot, right?
Keith Richards says in his book that when The Stones first started, their goal was to be a really good Chicago blues band.
Yeah, and they certainly achieved that! They even recorded at Chess Studios at, what is it, 2120 South Michigan Avenue- they wrote a little instrumental on the address…
Did you grow up in a musical household?
Well, my mother- I’m adopted- my adopted mother was very musical, had a lap steel guitar. I remember way back to when I was 5, she’d put it on my lap and, you know, hold the slide in my hand, and she’d put like a finger pick on my thumb, and I kinda played around on what I called the “wee-wah”. (both laugh) I couldn’t say ‘guitar’! She had a piano, my mother has the ability to pretty much play any musical instrument she gets her hands on. So of course, that’s got nothing to do with DNA, that’s environmental. She was, she is very artistic, and she just kinda forced me to do a lot of things on my own to entertain myself, I guess. It was like drawing or whatever…
Just to bide some time, so she could do the things that mothers did back then, which was slave around the house, right? Which was polishing the hardwood floors, and baking the cakes, and all that shit, you know? So it really just became more of a… kind of what to do to buy her own time to do what she had to do to get me off her back and entertained! (both laugh)
For the ‘influences’ portion of the radio show, if we’re going to put a Stones song in there, which one would you pick, and why?
Their first album was my first album, I think it was Newest Hit Makers, I think I Just Wanna Make Love To You was on there, I’m A King Bee was on there, there was Can I Get A Witness on there I think. I guess maybe King Bee mighte… I mean it’s a Slim Harpo tune, right?
And where’d I learn to play the harmonica? Well Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed were pretty much the main foundation of what I call (my) harmonica language skills.
Comes from Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo. And so you kind of kill two birds with one stone with King Bee.
As a singer, you strike me as being somewhere in the neighborhood of Long John Baldry. Was he anything of an influence on you?
No- however I did meet him and share a stage with him a few times but no, he never really influenced me. I hear sometimes people equate me with Long John and I mean (low English accent) I don’t talk like this! (both laugh)
Who did you look up to as a singer?
I guess I wanted to sound like Jagger. I remember reading somewhere that Jagger had said that he felt singers could actually over- enunciate lyrics, which I equate with, like, Pat Boone, or ‘singing it too white’.
Yeah, yeah, the real whitebread stuff…
‘Tutti Fruitti, oh Rudy! (over-enunciated) (both laugh) as opposed to the originals! I equate it with being able to tell a good joke- if you can hear it well and tell it well, then you heard it well. It’s all about timing and phrasing, and enunciation to make things as funny as they possibly can be. You really don’t want to iron out the wrinkles, you know? Certain wrinkles are needed, I guess. So I learned that inadvertently from Jagger. And in fact when I was 16 years old and playing around house parties and bush parties and whatnot, a buddy of mine was kind of the singer and I was the guitar player. I don’t have any favorites, I can’t pinpoint one particular thing, even one particular color for that matter. You’re gonna hate me because I’m very opinionated but I’m not black and white, you know? There’s lots of shades of grey with the things I like that have influenced me in many odd ways. I found as I grew and developed that I was drawn to vocal similarities. And then, of course, lyrical content is of utmost importance with me- I won’t sing a song I don’t believe in.
You won’t be with a woman if she’s not treating you right, I’ll pack my bags and hit the road, I won’t track you down and beat on you. So I’ve never sang any violent songs because I’m really not a violent guy.
You mention being turned onto the blues by The Stones. The rock & roll acts I liked as a teenager in the 70’s were mostly blues-based. When you started really getting into the blues, who were some of the artists you were listening to?
Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy, Little Walter, and then there’s Jimmy Reed and Slim Harpo. I was lucky enough to have stumbled into a band of older guys when I was 21, I bent my first notes when I was (about) 18 and these guys kind of guided me, right? Listening to, they were setting me up with cassettes of stuff to listen to. But I had my favorites, like Howlin’ Wolf hits albums that I used to listen to a lot, and Muddy Waters’ stuff. When I was learning how to play the harmonica, these guys told me “don’t even listen to Walter yet, he’ll mess you up (laughter) so I trusted them. And eventually I got my ears wrapped around Little Walter’s brilliance, but if you can’t hear it you can’t grab it. It’s like trying to learn how to play alto sax, and you wanna take your first bite out of Charlie Parker, and that ain’t gonna work. You gotta find a foundation of the language, and then you start getting into the details of someone like the Bird,.
Yyou have to walk before you can run…
You’ve been gigging since you were a teenager… how long have you been ‘Harpdog’?
I got named ‘Harpdog’on a Wednesday night, somewhere around late ’89 when a friend of mine & I went and sat in with a band we were buddies with in Kitsilano Beach. So we were living out in Vancouver back then. I’m born and raised in Edmonton, but I moved to Vancouver for the first time in ’87, and 2 years later I’m sittin’ in with Gene Garcia & The Midnighters.
And in a little Kitsilano joint called Mama Gold’s.
And there was 2 young guys, well dressed, sitting right up front. We showed up just around the end of the first set, me and my sax playin’ buddy, and I set up my little amplifier… we’re talking ‘small’, like a little postage stamp on the stage. I’m on the dance floor and I put my amplifier up behind me, these two young fellahs were sittin’ within arm’s reach, basically, of where I was standing. They instantly took a shine to me, and started sending me drinks. By the 3rd set, which was our second set, they started throwing drinks around to the band, these young fellahs, all of 19 or 20 years old.
At the end of the night they started chanting “Harpdog! Harpdog!” right? (John laughs) It didn’t really sink in until about a week later when I was having an afternoon nap- I was kinda laying in bed, mulling around how ‘I gotta re-invent myself’…
And I need a good handle, I’m thinkin’ ‘what were those guys calling me? Harpdog. Hmmm… how come I never heard of any Harpdogs before?’ This was 1989, I mean the blues had been at least a hundred years in the history and there’d been no Harpdog Jones, or Harpdog Williams, or Harpdog Green. And it kinda felt like some kind of destiny had happened when all that took place, just on an incidental Wednesday night out at Kitsilano Beach, right, by 2 unknown assailants! (laugh) And Hollywood wasn’t doing any “What up, dog?” , none of that dog shit was going on.. No offence about dog shit!
No worries! (both laugh)
They weren’t using those kind of terms, you know? So it was really weird to receive such a handle and I went “Alright, yeah… that sounds good to me.” My first gig as Harpdog Brown was at The Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, and I really wanted a name for the band. I didn’t wanna just be ‘The Harpdog Brown Band’….
I wanted “Harpdog Brown & The Somethings”. I’d played The Commodore a handful of times, from ’88 to 1990, when I became Harpdog, I was playing in a tribute band from 1988 to 1990, they were doing a Blues Brothers tribute and I kind of reluctantly hired on because I thought I was selling out, you know?
But you gotta pay the rent, right?
Well there’s that, and I was new to the scene in Vancouver, and honestly I’m kinda glad that I had that. I really had to allow myself to just lighten up a little bit, and don’t take this stuff so seriously, right? And inadvertently, it did allow me to kind of get a little bigger than life, and just kind of lighten up, and don’t take the music too too seriously. In the course of two years of that Blues Brothers tribute, I got hired and fired twice! They said ‘due to attitude’ and I said ‘yeah, I’ve got it and you guys don’t.’ (both laugh) My very first gig in Vancouver was under the guise of… I called myself “Elweed” instead of “Elwood” (both laugh) So I was under the guise of Elweed Delaney Blues in a Blues Brothers tribute band called Wired, and the first place I played in Vancouver- Commodore Ballroom! You can’t start any better that that!
It’s a great room, I’ve been there several times!
It’s just unfortunate I was wasn’t me, I was playing somebody else. But I had a lot of fun with it, and I probably played The Commodore about 20-odd times, just with that band because they loved it some much. So anyways, I was at The Commodore Ballroom and pondering ‘name for the band, name for the band, gotta have a name for the band’, and that night I was thinking ‘Well okay, what kind of a dog would I be? If somebody was to draw me, what kind of a dog would I be drawn out as?’
Something that’s addresses your character…
Yeah, exactly. I ruled out all the dogs I wouldn’t be, you know? I wouldn’t be a small dog because I never was, I wouldn’t be a ‘no nose’ dog because I got a profile, I wouldn’t be a long haired dog, because those days are gone, or a little poodle or anything like that. So I was ruling out all the dogs I wouldn’t be and by the time I got home to my little apartment on the east side, and caught myself in a mirror, looked at myself at, like, 7 o’clock in the morning. I probably closed the bar up with the owner, Drew Burns, you know, and we go down to the street level together and the sun was already up. So I was a little worse for wear when I got home, looked at myself and my eyes are kinda hangin’ low and bloodshot, and I went ‘a bloodhound!!’ (John laughs) So I named my band The Bloodhounds. So it’s been Harpdog Brown & The Bloodhounds since March of 1990. The second gig Harpdog Brown ever did was at The Commodore Ballroom, and I had the name “And The Bloodhounds”. So the first time I played there it was The Harpdog Brown Band, and a few months later, it was Harpdog Brown & The Bloodhounds and it’s been that way ever since- 22 years ago now.
Okay, Now I have to step in here because we’re kinda running out of time, but if we could jump ahead and talk about… is it the two albums that you have so far? (note: Dog had sent me “Live At The Vat” and “Naturally” the week before the interview)
I’ve got like 7 out, and I sent you the two that I have in print. My first recording was in 1990, a live recording at The Sidetrack Café with The Bloodhounds. Of course that was before everything was CD, and I got in the business too late to be on vinyl, but I’m still thinking about doing something on vinyl now that it’s coming back.
My first was “Live At The Sidetrack Café”. Then in 1992 I won the “New Talent Demo Award” from Factor, and they gave me 24 hours to re-do the demo of the song I submitted on a 4 track, and they gave me 24 hours at Blue Wave Studios in Vancouver…
…with Tom Lavin, and we spent the first hour re-doing that song, and then with the other 23 hours we had, we put together a 15 song album, and released that under the name of “Beware Of Dog”. That was my first official CD, “Beware of Dog” in 1992.
What can you tell me about “Live At The Vat”? ( Red Deer venue) That would’ve been 8 years later?
It was like a perfect storm. I had Willy McCaulder from The Powder Blues Band doing some touring with us. He started doing some work with me back in ’95, so I had him lined up for a string of dates around October 2000. And we had a Friday night, October the 13th, at The Vat, under a full moon no less!
Now that’s the perfect storm, but I’ll rewind a little bit. I was doing a festival that summer, and I ran into a guy who I considered to have the best ears in and around the Red Deer region. He was at this festival we were doing in Sylvan Lake that summer, and I asked him what he was doing Friday the 13th. He said “Nothin’” and I said “Well listen, I’ve got a show at The Vat- would you come and be my sound guy?” And he said “Well I’d love to”, he says “listen, I’ve got a couple of A-Dats, I could record the night.” I said “What’ll that cost?” and he says “Well, with A-Dat tape for 3 hours of recording? About 500 bucks.” I said “Okay, it’d be about a buck-50 if I just have you come and do sound, but for 350 bucks more I can record it? Yeah…” I said, “Let’s give ‘er a whirl!”
I’d already done a good live recording in Portland in ‘94, I thought “great opportunity” so we did. That day, the joint- The Vat is a roadside juke joint so they put us up at a hotel in town. So we finished the sound check, and that day it was just kinda dawning on me “Wow this is kinda cool, Friday the 13th, full moon, all that stuff”. We’re checking into the hotel, me and the bass player… we all got separate rooms but we’re checking in together, I get my key and I look at it, said “Gary, look at this” and I show him the number on the key; “3-1-3”. (John laughs) On the 13th of October, under a full moon, and he’s just goes “that adds up to 7.” (both laugh) It does indeed! (I say) “Let’s try to get in 13 songs an hour, let’s get a 13 song album out.” We had a great night, we recorded all 3 hours, buddy that night made me flat cassette recordings of all 3 sets. I listened to them for probably month and a half or so, kind of whittled down what I thought were the better performances of the songs…
Dubbed that onto another disc, then put it into some kind of a song order that I thought would roll well. By the time I was ready to mix it down, I drove down to Sylvan where this guy lived, and brought like 24 beer and we bought a couple of pizzas, and we mixed down the whole album in 8 hours.
And honestly, I think I kind of went about it back to front, because he gave me a look… you normally start mixing down with drums.
Right… (as if I knew that!)
And then they work their way up, and the last thing they do is they put on the vocals on top. Then I said “Let’s start with the ceiling, then we’ll work our way down.” So we started with the vocals, then the harp and then the guitar, then the bass.. .er, the piano, then the bass, then the drums. I think it worked well, because it established the perimeters, right? Then we just kind of beefed it up as we went down. Instead of having it weight so heavy, and by the time you go to put something on top there’s no room?
Yeah, I’ve always been a little unorthodox, I guess, in my approaches, but that’s how we did Live At The Vat. Actually, the album is entitled Once In A Howling’ Moon.
That’s right, I’ve got it in front of me…
I did a little research and found out that the full moon on a Friday the 13th is a very rare moon. Like, it doesn’t come around more than (once) in 49 years or something, is what I learned. And they said that moon was called a “howlin’ moon” and it just kinda raised the hairs on the back of my neck when I heard that, so I called the album “Once In A Howlin’ Moon”.
Perfect! Now, the new album “Naturally” (is) a little different, not a Bloodhounds album. It’s really bare bones, and it really reminds me of walking down the street on a rainy night, you hear some interesting noises coming from a dingy little basement club, you walk down the stairs and there’s a, maybe at the end of the bar there’s a little stage, and there’s guys jamming away. It’s you and Graham Guest and Gordie Matthews and Brian Coglin. Did you know going in that you were going to do something a little more stripped down? Was that always the plan?
Well yeah. I started doing some acoustic work and duo work with Graham, actually, around ’09, and we cut our first album January… in fact it was on my birthday, January 28th, somewhere around there. Maybe we cut it the week before and we mixed it on my birthday. Anyway, we did the album in 8 hours.
7 & ½ hours, I think, including mix down, and that was called Above And Beyond. I’m out of those copies but it is available on iTunes, but I’m out of that album…
I’ll definitely go looking for it…
But we did that in, like, 8 hours’ time, and we toured together with that. It was just me and him- him on a grand piano, and me on harp and vocals. So then a year goes by, and I kind of want to go in and spend a little more time and a little more money?
And there was a couple of songs I wanted to do. I was looking for a clarinetist, and Gordie Matthews… I mean, I’d known of him but never really met him until about a couple hours before the session. We did the Naturally session in March of 2011, and I called him up. In fact I called to hire him for a festival gig up in Fort McMurray for August of last year. I offered him some decent take for a 90 minute set and then in the same phone call I said “Listen, I’m also going into the studio”. He’s also friends with Barry Allen and he does a lot of studio work for Barry Allen who, incidentally… Barry Allen is the guy that first discovered k.d. lang, and Gordie Matthews was k.d. lang’s guitar player in The Reclines and he’s played, like, The Tonight Show and The Letterman Show, he’s been on all the big shows, right? And he’s a serious, serious veteran.
But I asked him if he would come and sing backup on a couple of songs, and he said to me “You know Dog, nobody’s ever asked me to do that! I played on a lot of recording sessions, but I’ve never once been asked to sing and I’ll tell ya, as long as you give me credit, I’ll do it pro bono” he said! (both laugh)
So he came down and gave his time, and we had him lay 2nd backup vocals on like 3 tracks. It was a lot of fun and it was great to have him on board. I only had very little time, it’s funny… I had booked March 1,2 and 3 for studio time, and on the 25th or something of February, I’m calling the studio to make sure that everything is up and ready for us, and he says “Um, sorry Dog, I don’t have you in my books.” And I go “What?!? What do you mean?!?” I had a CD release planned on the 25th of March, and now I’m being told “Well, we can squeeze you in on the 17th, 18th and 19th of March”, a week before the CD release in Calgary…
So we kinda… well, we did it. We went in the studio, and we did that in, like, 2 days, but Graham and I were gigging all the while, both the Friday and Saturday night, so we recorded Friday day, and then played Friday night, then recorded all day Saturday, then came out and played Saturday night, and then Sunday we mixed down. I had 20-25 pressed copies to take down to Calgary on the following Friday. So miracles happen!
How did you go about choosing the songs for this album? You’ve got some of my favorites, like… everybody’s done Saturday Night Fish Fry, that’s just a great ‘party blues’ song. Did you have a list of songs you wanted to do? How did that work?
Well we’d been touring a lot, right? So I’d kinda start putting in more songs that I’ve always wanted to do. And the thing about Graham Guest is I really haven’t found much that he can’t accomplish on the piano. So really, my imagination is the only limitation that we have. If there’s anything I’d bring to him, for instance that Tell That Woman, you know that Willie Dixon tune?
When I first heard that recording all I could say was “Oh man, if I could ever find somebody to play that… If I could ever find a guy that could play that, boy that’d be a great song to do!” Well, I rest my case. This guy can playing anything that I’ve put him up to. I’d never even had a chance to perform Saturday Night Fish Fry, I’ve loved it for years, but nobody wanted to do it. I think I might have… I DID do it, back in the early days of The Bloodhounds because I had a tenor sax player in the band back then, the guy that was with me when I got named Harpdog, Jerry Cook.
So those songs, they were kind of faves to me for years- same with Blue Light Boogie, all the covers, Ain’t Misbehavin’… We just started doing those songs and they were working well.
There’s just one more song I’m going to ask you about on the album before I let you go, and I think I even noted it in the review, “Sacrifice”… you were channeling your inner Louis Armstrong on that. What can you tell me about that one?
Well, Sacrifice was written by one of the original guitar players in The Bloodhounds, Wayne Bearzan. He wrote that one and Fine Little Girl Rag. And he wrote those for me back in 1991, he submitted them to us when we were rehearsing and putting together our own book back in 1990, 90-91, he submitted these two songs to me and I loved them. He was kind of the type of guy who would just sort of witness my life, and then tailor songs to me, it was great. Sacrifice was on the Beware Of Dog album, but I really wanted to bring it back to life. And so I showed it to Graham and we started doing it, and it started slaying, and ta-da, we got a keeper.
Tthe first time I listened to the album, Sacrifice is the one that grabbed me right away.
Cool. Thank you. Yeah, it’s one of my favorites, and it truly is about my life. So yeah, you’re right. Vocal influences? Satchmo in a big way, love him to death. Louis Jordan too. I like to think that I have more than one color of my voice, you know?
Oh absolutely, yeah.
When I’m singing Saturday Night Fish Fry, there’s no ‘Satchmo-isms’ or any kind of indication that I got Satch in my back pocket, you know?
Yeah- whatever the song calls for, really.
Yes… yeah, true, and that’s kind of how I see it. I see it like certain songs call for certain colors and, you know, you gotta be colorful! (both laugh) I’m pretty fortunate with having and being blessed with character and color in my voice, so I just paint it as I see it.