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Red Lick Records



Early Blues Interview
Lee Bates and Billy Newton

© Copyright 2008 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

A classic 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 Pryor. 

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.  

Together they 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 musical memories?

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!  

Billy    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. 

Billy    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 in music?

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. 

Billy    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.  

Billy    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! 

Billy    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 Harman…Charlie Musslewhite.

And 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 States.    

Billy    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 songs. 

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! 

Billy    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 records.

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!

Billy    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 favourite guitar?

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!

© Copyright 2008 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

Alan    Billy, What harps do you play and which is your favourite?

Billy    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. 

Billy    '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? 

Billy    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 together?

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! 

© Copyright 2008 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Billy    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 utter bollocks!

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. 

Billy    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 blues!

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. 

Billy    The blues has had some lean times in the past but it has always come back stronger. 

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! 

Billy    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.

Alan   Thank you Lee and Billy, I really appreciate your time.

Alan White  -  earlyblues.com



See Lee and Billy with the Hokum Hotshots and Michael 'Fruit-lips' Watson as the Last Gasp Spasm Band on the Acoustic Stage at the Colne Great British R&B Festival 28th August 2009, then again as a duo on 29th August.
Not to be missed!

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