guitar/harmonica duo, in the tradition of the great Sonny Terry and Brownie
McGhee, Lee Bates and Billy Newton have a wealth of experience behind them,
playing festivals and venues all over the U.K and Europe.
Billy Newton is one
of the hottest harp players around, equally at home with the down-home wail of
Sonny Terry and Noah Lewis or the big city sounds of Little Walter and Snooky
Lee is a fine
guitarist and singer, playing Delta and ragtime blues as well as being a
formidable slide player; hammering out Son House and Bukka White songs on an old
National or playing dirty electric-style riffs.
deliver a hugely entertaining set of tunes taken from the Delta, Chicago,
Ragtime, Jug-Band, Hokum as well as their own compositions and all delivered
with the dose of irreverent humour that makes them crowd pleasers wherever they
perform. They are guaranteed to get you up dancing and having a good time!______________________________________________________________________
Alan What are your first
Lee My Dad loves Blues and
always had a great record collection. When I was very young I loved listening to
Ry Cooder’s early albums; Into The Purple Valley etc, that’s a very early
musical memory for me. I also recall liking the Hokum Hotshots first album, some
of the lyrics tickled me and I liked the music. Apparently when I was very young
my parents would put on records by people like John James and Dale Miller to get
me off to sleep!
My first memories of listening to music would be on the radio; The Billy Cotton
Show, The Black and White Minstrels even. At family get-togethers too, where my
Grandad would sing and play harmonica with his long time duo partner Titch
Clark. When ever my grandparents went on holiday, usually to relatives in Dunoon,
they would always bring us kids back harmonicas. From about 4 years old, every
year we’d get an harmonica, I think it was solely to annoy the neighbours!
Alan Did you always was to
become a musician?
Lee I think from being about
12 years old I wanted to be playing the guitar. My Dad took me to the South Tyne
Folk and Blues Club and I saw Brian Cookman, who was tremendous (if people have
never seen or heard of him they’ve really missed out. Sadly he died a few years
ago but there are a couple of clips of him on YouTube). I also saw people like
Ray Stubbs and the Hotshots and knew I wanted to be like them.
I wasn’t going to be happy just
playing records; I wanted to make the noises myself.
As long as I can remember I wanted to play music. If it could be blown, batted
or plucked I had a go. We had a music teacher called Mr. Errington in the 1st
and 2nd year of senior school. He encouraged every pupil to play some
form of instrument; guitar, recorder, tambourine…anything. He was a folk singer
who gave us our first taste of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt.
He was a pretty cool guy.
Alan How did you get started
Lee I started playing the
guitar when I was about 15/16 years old. I just wanted to be a slide player and
that’s pretty much all I focused on until I was in my early twenties. I’d
probably still say that slide guitar is my main instrument.
Initially we started going around the folk and blues clubs, fifteen years old
pretending to be eighteen!
Alan What kind of material
were you playing in the early days?
Lee When I first started my
main repertoire was Robert Johnson songs, I also did things by Muddy Waters and
I did odd things by the likes of Catfish Keith and a John Mooney song or two. I
even had an arrangement of a Rory Gallagher song in there too.
I started out with long time friend Neil Dalton playing (or trying to play) in
the styles of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon
and Big Bill Broonzy.
Alan Who are your favourite
blues artists (both old and new)?
Lee My favourite blues singer
of all time is undoubtedly Muddy Waters. I love Muddy. He was just the best; it
doesn’t get any better than Muddy!
Of the contemporary players…well,
the Carolina Chocolate Drops are phenomenally good! I pretty much like all of
Alvin Youngblood Hart’s stuff, acoustic or electric. Paul Rishell and Annie
Raines are great. I also think Doug MacLeod is absolutely fantastic; he’s a
great live performer and an exceedingly nice man to boot!
There are so many, from the acoustic players; Sonny Terry, both Sonny Boys,
Hammie Nixon, Peg Leg Sam and Tom Ball, more recently. Electric style - both the
Walters, James Cotton, George Smith, Little Willie Anderson, Snooky Prior,
William Clarke, Rod Piazza, Mark Hummel, Rick Estrin, Kim Wilson, James
that’s just the harp players!
Alan Who has influenced you
the most in your music writing and playing?
Lee Writing wise, I’m not
sure. Most of the songs we have written are rehashes of older blues things! I’m
not a terribly prolific songwriter I must admit. I try to write things so the
audience wouldn’t know if it was one of our songs or a cover of an old blues
song… unless we tell them!
Playing wise, the biggest influence
on my whole approach to music and performance comes from; The Hokum Hotshots,
who are great… great performers and musicians… Brian Cookman who heavily
influenced the kind of stage ‘patter’ I do, as well as being a great player,
nobody does that Jug Band stuff as well as Brian and probably Ray Stubbs for his
no nonsense, play it like you mean it style.
These guys are every bit as good
their American counterparts, and there are countless others; Gordon Smith, Rob
Mason, Steve Phillips etc, etc who get overlooked because they’re not from the
Playing influences would be back to Sonny Terry, Little Walter, Sonny Boy 1 and
2. Song writing; James Harman, Rick Estrin, Tom Ball. I like the way Harman can
put a story across in a song. I like the way Rick and Tom put comedy into their
Alan What first attracted you
to the blues?
Lee I don’t know what it was.
Something in the music just spoke to me, I don’t know why. I just love it!
Listening to the Alexis Corner blues programme. Hearing some of the greats on
there and getting serial numbers and record labels off him as he played these
Alan What was the best blues
album you ever had?
Lee For me it has to be Hard
Again by Muddy Waters. From the opening, where Muddy sings the beginning of
Mannish Boy, unaccompanied apart from Johnny Winter’s guitar phrases… his voice
always raises the hairs on the back of my neck. It’s incredible, Muddy’s voice.
I’d sell my soul to sing like that!
Sonny Terry ‘Blues from Everywhere’. I managed to get it signed by Sonny and
Brownie. I also used it to nail my first harmonica piece which was Crow Jane.
Alan Lee, what is your
Lee I’d have to say my ’31
National Duolian, it’s a great slide guitar. It needs some work doing to it at
the moment and when I get that done it’ll be even better! I also love my Harmony
Sovereign, I always wanted a guitar like Mance Lipscombe’s and now I’ve got one!
What harps do you play and which is your favourite?
I always play Marine Band by Hohner. I have tried just about all the main
harmonica manufacturers over the years but prefer Marine Band.
Alan Are there any particular
songs that you play that have special meaning to you?
Lee 'White Trash',
which is on the new CD. It’s one of Brian Cookman’s songs and I always feel I
have to do it justice; I won’t do it live unless the audience is right. I’d like
to think Brain would approve of our version.
'Crazy about My Baby' played by Little Walter but written by Willie Dixon
and of our own I think 'Brampton Blues', which is about a place we played
and I think Lee summed it up in the lyrics.
Alan Why do you think the
north east of England has so much blues talent?
Lee I’m really not sure. It
does seem to produce more than it’s fair share though doesn’t it? Going back to
the Animals in the early sixties. Then there’s Gordon Smith, another lad from
South Shields, he recorded his first album for Blue Horizon when he was 18! It
would be very lengthy list if you started to write all the players down!
I don’t know what it is. Perhaps
the music resonates more in an area which has always been economically
depressed, a history of no money and hard times, hard manual labour etc. Maybe
that’s crap! I don’t know what it is…something in the water maybe?
I could say I think the North East has had some tough times over the years. A
black spot for work…poor health etc, but I think we’re just lucky. All the
artists I went to see play over the last 35 years played because they loved the
music. They all had good jobs but were taken by the power of the music and what
it stood for. They wanted to help preserve it and pass it on.
Alan When did you both get
Lee About 7 years
ago I think! I was still playing solo and had been since the last harp player
I’d been in a duo with, Neil Cater, moved away. Billy hadn’t played for a while,
since he’d left the Scandalous Bachelors… and he’d had a few health problems. I
think Billy wanted to get back to his roots a bit after years of playing hundred
mile and hour R’n’B with the Bachelors. Jim Murray from the Hotshots suggested
we talk to each other and we took it from there.
Alan How did you both get
involved with The Last Gasp Spasm Band?
Lee Well, for people that
don’t know, the Last Gasp Spasm Band is a five piece jug band consisting of us,
the Hokum Hotshots and (our secret weapon) Michael ‘Fruit-lips’ Watson on Jug.
It mainly came about because the
Hotshots wanted to form a jug band after the death of Brian Cookman, to try and
keep the jug band flame burning a bit. They’d been toying with who to ask and I
think we seemed like the logical choice. Brooks Blues Club in London has hosted
a Charity night every year for the last few years, in memory of Brian, who
co-founded the club. A couple of years back we got asked to play and that gave
us the opportunity to ‘unleash’ the jug band. Its great fun and I consider it an
honour to play with them!
There seems to be a slight upsurge
in interest in this kind of music at the moment, what with the success of the
Carolina Chocolate drops and now there are few acts of this ilk appearing; The
South Memphis String Band, with Alvin Youngblood Hart for instance. And there is
also increased interest in instruments like Ukuleles, banjo and mandolin too. We
feature all of those and more besides!
Alan Tell me about the making
of your new album 'Nothing But Trouble'.
Lee We recorded it in two
sessions a year apart! Don’t ask why, it was never the intention to do it that
way, but we couldn’t get dates to go back into the studio… we recorded it with
Ron Angus who does a lot of recording for Topic Records; Bob Fox and people like
that and he was fitting us in where he could and we kept getting gigs on the
dates that were free!
But, having the gap worked out well
as, in the interim, the jug band had started and we were incorporating some of
that into our duo gigs and doing a few gigs with ‘Fruit-lips’ guesting with us
and we put some of that jug band stuff onto the CD.
It was pretty much recorded the way
we play live, although there are a few overdubs on the recording. We’re pretty
happy with it; it’s a good snapshot of where we are, musically, now. It shows
the full breadth, pretty much, of what we do. There are traditional delta blues,
some Piedmont and Georgia type things, some electric boogie, a little old-timey,
the jug band tunes and even several of our own tracks too.
Lee and I decided to make a new album to represent the way we are playing now.
We play in number of different style, so it seemed the right time to put this
together. We had Michael ‘Fruit-Lips’ Watson playing Jug on four of the tracks
which helped put a different slant on the album. We were going to have other
guests on this CD but our work schedule and theirs always seemed to cross. There
are still plenty of ideas left to come.
Alan Some music styles may be
fads but the blues is always with us. Why do you think that is?
Lee Because it’s honest. It’s
a music which deals with the fundamentals of life; happiness, sadness, loss,
love, sex… you name it there’ll be a blues song about it. Of course, that may be
There is something primal about it
that makes people keep returning to it, its good foot stompin’ music! People
forget that Blues was essentially party music, it was music to dance to, get
drunk to… fun music. Somewhere down the line it started to get viewed as
depressing but that’s not the case at all.
To me the blues is built on solid foundations, it has a base from which you can
go off in many directions but still have the main core to come back to.
Alan How do you see the
future of pure blues music?
Lee Well, hopefully it will
continue… it would be nice to see an upswing in interest in the acoustic side of
the music. I feel this often gets overlooked, especially at festivals where you
often find either no acoustic stage or even acoustic acts featured. You
sometimes get the impression that if you’re not playing a Strat then you’re not
playing ‘proper’ blues!
It’s great to see people like Jack
Blackman and Luzy Zirins coming through, let’s just hope they stick with the
There does seem to be resurgence in
interest in string bands, jug bands, that kind of thing. People seem to be
turning back to this music, which has often been ignored, and I think that’s got
to be healthy.
Maybe the great interest in Seasick
Steve will have some effect on the rest of us and turn a few people on to the
music, which can only be a good thing.
The blues has had some lean times in the past but it has always come back
Alan What are your future
plans / gigs / tours / joint ventures / albums?
Lee Well, we intend to keep
playing, doing as much as we can. Billy and I decided at the start of the year
that we were going to cut right back on the bar gigs we’d been doing. We needed
to do those to get ourselves known, get our names about, but we’d had enough of
travelling miles for little money in some, sometimes awful, places where people
didn’t really care if you were playing or not! We decided to concentrate on
clubs and festivals and that will continue to be our focus. Ideally we’d like to
get into some gigs/festivals in Europe too.
There will, hopefully, be an album
from the Last Gasp Spasm Band out before too long and we’d like to go out and do
some dates with the jug band since it’s such great fun.
We’re also involved with running a
blues club, the Blues Lounge (again with the Hotshots). So far we’ve just put
odd, infrequent, gigs on; Simon Prager, Doug MacLeod and Steve James for
instance but we’re going try a regular, monthly gig. We’re hoping to get Gordon
Smith for the first one in October and we have Ray Stubbs booked for November
and Gypsy Bill Williams doing our Christmas show. There isn’t anywhere putting
blues on in our neck of the woods these days, so we figured that if we wanted to
see some good blues acts we’d better put them on ourselves!
My Feeling for the future is to keep playing the music I love for many years to
come. I know Lee is of the same mind. So, here’s to the next forty years.
That’ll make me 94. Lee might have to go solo for the next 30 years after that.
Thank you Lee and Billy, I really appreciate your time.
Alan White - earlyblues.com
Lee and Billy with the Hokum Hotshots
and Michael 'Fruit-lips' Watson
as the Last Gasp Spasm Band
on the Acoustic Stage at the
British R&B Festival 28th August 2009, then again as a duo
on 29th August.
Not to be missed!
Blues Interviews List
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