JAMES MONTGOMERY REALLY BLOWS
by A.J. Wachtel
James Montgomery is going to have a huge year. But every 12-month period for him is an enormous annum because he is a true rhythm and blues star. I just went to see the Allman Brothers Band with him and more than 10 strangers came up to us and asked him if he was really James Montgomery; and this was before we had even made it to the “will call” window. A true musical descendant of Sonny Boy Williamson, Montgomery is one of the legendary harp-players who make New England his home and his personality, focus, and devotion make him one of the best-loved artists in the area. James Montgomery really blows is an understatement.
Noise: Who plays on your new CD, and what we can expect from it?
James: We are hoping to get the CD out sometime late September or at least in October. It features Johnny Winter, Brad Whitford, Joey Kramer, James Cotton, the Uptown Horns and DMC from RunDMC. Johnny plays arguably the best slide guitar he has played since Highway 61 backed up by my band and the two Aerosmith guys. Kramer sounds like a freight train on this one!
Noise: You are on the soundtrack of a Morgan Freeman movie that is being re-released this year. Tell me about this and how did it happen?
James: The documentary, Delta Rising, about delta blues has been re-licensed for release this fall. It features me, Morgan Freeman, Willie Nelson, Charlie Musselwhite, Grace Kelly, Mose Allison, and a host of delta musicians including Super Chickan (spelled with an “a”). I was approached by Laura Bernieri to act as a blues consultant on a Christy Cashman movie called Delta Storm which so far has not happened. Somehow the one project morphed into the documentary when Laura met Micheal Afendakis who was down there filming a documentary about a white guy from San Francisco who had become an adept delta style guitar player.
Noise: You are involved in many charities and appear at a lot of benefits that help various causes. What organizations are you involved with and what has your help meant to these non-profits?
James: I do 10 to 15 non-profit benefits a year for a variety of causes. My main charities are the Reel Blues Fest of which I am president and DeviBlue of which I am founder and executive director. Both of these aim to provide free on-going health care for New England blues artists (or national blues artists who are in New England at any given time). The Reel Blues Fest also provides assistance to the Woods Hole Film Festival. DeviBlue is currently going through a huge re-structure and promises to be much more effective in the up-coming year. Three of our more well known musicians who benefited from the program include Johnny Winter who is doing extremely well, K.D. Bell, and Weepin’ Willie. My current charity work often includes being part of or putting together supergroups to raise money. Musicians who have been part of these programs include Huey Lewis, two Aerosmith members, Alice Cooper, members of KISS, members of Cheap Trick, Jim Belushi, former members of the group Boston, the Uptown Horns, Matt Kelly from the Dropkick Murphys, Johnny A, James Cotton, Chad Smith from the Chili Peppers, Simon Kirk of Bad Company, Kim Wilson from the Thunderbirds, two members of the Cars, Skunk Baxter from Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, and many others.
Noise: You were the first Northern act to be signed by Southern label Capricorn Records. A Detroit blues artist living in Massachusetts. How did this event occur?
James: We got signed to Capricorn due in large part to the huge numbers we were doing at shows throughout the Northeast. Phil Walden saw us in Long Island and loved the band. Atlantic and Warner Brothers were also interested, but we liked the small label vibe of Capricorn. We got a huge deal even by today’s standards. Grew up in Detroit, out of Boston, but somehow we were called Southern rock! Go figure.
Noise: You just played at the Bank of America Pavilion with the Allman Brothers Band on “Statesboro Blues.” What was that like?
James: We started touring with the Allman Brothers around 1974, maybe ’73. It wasn’t too long before Gregg and Dickie started asking me to sit in. Being on stage with them is always exciting! They are great guys (in every incarnation of the band) and they always come to play! It’s a musician’s dream.
Noise: You studied at Boston University in the late ’60s. What was the local music scene and Kenmore Square like back in those days? What were the first local bands you saw here?
James: I came to Boston University in 1967 largely because of the music scene. I played in two high school bands and I knew all the clubs and venues in Boston before I got here. The local music scene was fantastic. There were lots of original Boston bands and national acts playing one of at least seven or eight venues practically every night. WBCN was fantastic! I saw Skunk Baxter and John Lincoln Wright back then and the Geils band used to rehearse in my basement in Brookline Village. I met Barry Tashian at one of their rehearsals back then. Peter Wolf, Magic Dick, Seth, DK, and Steven Jo were great to watch. I met Steven Tyler at Wurlitzers and had Aerosmith open a show for us at BU. Bonnie Raitt and I were doing blues shows together when we were about 20 years old! Van Morrison was living in Cambridge and we used to sit in with John Lee Hooker backed up by the Billy Colwell Band on Boylston Street. Colwell Winfield Band was my first gig in Boston while I was a junior at BU. The music scene was about as good as it gets.
Noise: You have been a big part of the local music scene for four decades. What’s different now in terms of clubs, audiences, radio airplay, and pay?
James: Although there are fewer really good venues to play now then there were 41 years ago when I started the band, my band has not really been affected too much by the changes in the music scene. We started at a time when you could build a following just by playing well. We have kept our following intact for the most part and continue to work a lot. We still get airplay on stations that are formatted to handle our music and continue to sell tickets. Our price remains decent and I find myself, along with business partners like John Ippolito and Susan Maguire, creating shows and events for the band. You have to be inventive in today’s economy. We just did 10,000 in Newburyport, and 3,000 in Scituate last week. I do get the impression it is more difficult to play a lot and build up a following if you haven’t done so already.
Noise: Currently, is it better to sign with a major label or put your own music out yourself?
James: If you are big enough to sign with a big label it is still a good way to go. The trouble is that you have to be really big for a label to pay attention to you. For most bands it is better to put out your own CD and find a great company or manager to make sure you are distributed correctly and that you have great promotion including a big presence on the Internet. If you can figure out how to get thousands, if not millions, of hits it goes a long way. I have over 300,000 hits on just the first 12 pages of my YouTube.
Noise: Who of the great artists have you performed with?
James: I’ve been fortunate to play with some of the best artists in the business. I’ve toured with everybody at this point including Aerosmith, Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Allman Brothers, Skynyrd, Tucker, Foreigner, well… almost all the ’70s and ’80s bands. I have shared the stage jamming with B.B., Buddy Guy, Jr. Wells, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Wolf, Steven Tyler and Aerosmith, the Allman Brothers, Les Paul, James Taylor, Grace Kelly, Delbert McClinton, Matt Murphy, John Hammond, John Sebastian, the Blues Brothers with Dan and Jim, Johnny Winter, Warren Haynes, Susan Tedeschi, two members of Cheap Trick, former members of Boston, Farren, Butcher, two members of the Cars, Mark Farner, Commander Cody, and I could keep going for another 20 minutes to remember half of the others. It’s been great and I’ve played with a lot. I’ve recorded with Kid Rock on Uncle Cracker’s Double Wide and earned a gold record for that (it went platinum) and jammed with Mick Jagger after a New Year’s show and spent two days with George Harrison. There is a lot more, but you get the idea.
Noise: You and blues harp icon James Cotton are old friends. Tell me what his legacy is and what do you think your own legacy will be?
James: James Cotton is my mentor and longest-known friend in the music business outside of Cris Cioe from the Uptown Horns. I met him in my mid-teens and we continue to play together to this day. He calls me “Son,” I call him “Dad.” Cotton has one of the greatest legacies in all of music having played as an integral member of both Sonny Boy Williamson’s band and also Muddy Waters. He will be remembered forever as one of the best who ever lived. He is doing really well right now and we are making a documentary on him that features Huey Lewis, Kim Wilson, and many other fantastic musicians. I would never think about what my legacy would be. I just love playing and working and trying to serve the less fortunate. No legacy there.
Noise: You performed in Johnny Winter’s band for four years. What’s it like playing in a legend’s band; is it all downhill from here?
James: Playing with Johnny Winter was one of the most rewarding periods of my life. He is a true legend and one of the nicest people I have met in my years in this business. Every time you hit the stage with him it is an honor. We became good friends and spent many, many hours after shows talking and hanging out. He knows more about the blues than anyone I have met. It was like being at the feet of a master. I left the band after he had a huge upturn in terms of his health and started working more regularly. I simply did not have the time to be both a sideman for him and keep my own career going. I was being offered a CD and a part in the documentary with Morgan Freeman, and my band was looking at some huge shows. Things have worked out very well for me post-Johnny Winter as they have for him. He continues to be one of the biggest names in blues and rock ’n’ roll.
Noise: What’s in the future for James Montgomery?
James: In the near future I have to get this CD out! Also I am working on an emerging artist series with Susan Maguire (called the Powerhouse Breakout Emerging Artist Series ) at the Liberty Hotel that looks on track to be on national television. I’ve started a company with John Ippolito called James Montgomery Events and that has unlimited possibilities. We are currently at the International Golf Course in Bolton with that and also the Nantasket Beach Resort Club. My foundation will take off this year also. So that’s the future, touring to support a new CD, capitalizing on the re-release of a movie, expanding business, doing national TV, promoting supergroups for charities, and making sure my foundation is able to serve my fellow blues musicians.