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Early Blues Interview
'The Blues Duo'
Tommy Allen
(Guitarist/singer/songwriter) & Johnny Hewitt (Harmonica player/singer)


"Tommy Allen has worked for almost 15 years in the blues scene with bands like Marcus Malone, Nicky Moore, The Producers, and his own band Trafficker. Tommy has also been guitarist for top touring American bluesmen Mojo Buford, Big Joe Turner and Otis Taylor. In 2001 he was a guitarist for girl band The Sugababes playing national TV shows and Radio One which became a single for London Records. Trafficker has supported artist like Walter Trout and performed on ‘The Paul Jones Show’ on BBC Radio 2. Trafficker has three albums, the latest 'Fade To Black' can be found on Napster, CDbaby, Apple iTunes and Amazon. In 2010 Tommy joined Johnny Hewitt to form 'Tommy Allen and Johnny Hewitt - the Chicago Street Style Blues Duo' which is based on a real raw harmonica and guitar setup. Also in 2010 Tommy put together the 'Tommy Allen Band' which is a purer kind of blues than the style that trafficker produce".
  - Tommy's 'Linked-In' Profile

"Johnny Hewitt is from the Northwest of England and is best known as the Harmonica player/Vocalist for Smokehouse, a Chicago style Blues band soaked in the sounds of the 1950's Chess records label. Johnny has worked the British blues scene for more than 10 years and has been playing harmonica for over 20 years, his tone and passion is evident in his live performances. His love for blues music and for the lives and personalities of the musicians, started in the late 1980s at age 16 when he heard harmonica players such as Little Walter, Sonny boy Williamson II & Big Walter Horton on the radio. Later on he found the modern greats like William Clarke and Kim Wilson. He continues to perform at blues festivals and clubs across England & Wales, as frontman for Smokehouse and has recently teamed up with top guitarist/singer Tommy Allen in their popular Chicago style Blues Duo, along with his role as Harp player in the Tommy Allen Band. Johnny also plays sideman to various acoustic blues artists from around Europe & the USA".
  - Johnny's Website bio

© Copyright 2013 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

After doing a photoshoot with Tommy and Johnny in Manchester we spent some time chatting about their musical backgrounds, their various bands and their style of music.

Alan:       What are your first musical memories - Tommy, I think you grew up Shropshire and Johnny somewhere in the North-West?

Johnny:    Yes, Runcorn.

Tommy:    I grew up in Hampshire. My musical memories are of my dad's country and western and my mum's rock and roll. 

Johnny:    Not something that was in the family really.  It wasn't a musical family, pretty much something that's just come to me.  And it was blues, it wasn't something that all my mates were listening to, it was Bob Dylan, roots music and blues.  I don't really recall music being something that was around the household.

Tommy:    Mine's the opposite.  We had a lot of music on, a lot of rock and roll, especially Elvis.  My Dad's Boxcar Willie, all the old Country & Western, not the modern. 

Alan:        Did you always want to become a musician?

Tommy:    No, I was interested in most things that kids are I suppose but I found music when I was 13 or 14.

Johnny:    It was not something that I ever thought of or dreamed of doing but it was something that I couldn't escape once I felt what you could do with the music; it was something you get hooked on and it's so expressive that it becomes part of your life. 

© Copyright 2013 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

Alan:        How did you get started being musicians?

Johnny:    I didn't know any musicians when I started playing harmonica and guitar.  It came through socialising locally and going to some local music nights, watching bands and gradually meeting up with people.  And then, at the time I was doing an apprenticeship as a joiner at ICI and there was an old shack that was being scrapped, an old cylinder shed in the ICI grounds and my Dad bought it me for 10p, he just had to sign a chitty to get it out of the gate.  It's still at home now, it's my Dad's wood shed now.  It was Johnny's shack and everyone in Runcorn knew it as Johnny's shack, it was just in the hills by my Dad's house.  I was the only harp player but there were many guitarists and singers and from about the age of 17 that place was bouncing. 

Tommy:    Once I'd taught myself how to play I went busking when I was about 16 or 17 and I used to save up the money for driving lessons because that was the first thing you need to do as a musician.  From then, once I'd passed and got a little old car I went into London to jam nights and networked.  The first band I got in was Marcus Malone when I was about 18 and I met him at a Robin Bibi jam night in South Wimbledon, so I was gigging with him and then Nicky Moore got to hear and I got a phone call so I joined Nicky's band.  Then I went as guitarist with the Sugababes   The person who got me into the Sugababes was at the same jam night but I hadn't see him for ages but he remembered me.  Then I got my own band, and then bits and bobs onwards.

Alan:       Tommy, you attended the National Guitar Institute in London, when you were 18. Tell me a little about those times.

Tommy:    Yes, that was at the same time when I joined Marcus.

Alan:       And then you decided to jack that in and go on the road?

Tommy:   Yeah, basically.  I went there but it wasn't for me in the sense that I played naturally.  I know they are there to teach you to read music but it was more fitting into a schedule and they explained things which didn't make sense like BB King would bend this note to a flattened third and I didn't think they would have done that.  So for me, I got the grant money because I was from a single parent family and I got awarded the grant, which is wrong, maybe, but with that money I bought myself a Fender twin and joined a band and then didn't go back to school. 

Alan:        So what's your favourite guitar?

Tommy:    The only guitar I've ever had, my Fender Stratocaster.

Alan:        Who are your favourite blues artists?

Johnny:     Yeah, the classics really, Little Walter, Sonny Boy II, Big Walter Horton, they're the greatest along with Sonny Terry.  Modern players are Kim Wilson, Bill Clarke, William Clarke, those guys.  Probably the greatest player now is Dennis Gruenling.  And really the West Coast players like Rod Piazza, and the guitarists Alex Schulz, Junior Watson, always loved that style.  Fred Below the drummer, Muddy Waters as a singer, just the real blues.

Tommy:    Living?  BB King, and not just because of his playing but everything he does, him as a person, the way he is.  I love his playing, his songs, the choices he's made over the years with his music.  But I also like Dell McClinton and John Hiatt.  I like Free, I like lots of people.  And now that I'm doing more acousticy things I like William Clarke (that I'd never heard of till I met Johnny) and I'm more into Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson but I preferred Little Walter before I met Johnny.  But now I do understand Sonny Boy Williamson more, and I do appreciate him more.  And of the old guys I like Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Blind Blake.  Blind Blake is one of my favourite old time players.  There's loads but always for me there's BB King, and Ray Charles, I like Ray Charles as well.

Alan:        Where did the two of you first meet up?

Tommy:    Johnny says I jammed with him at Pete Evan's Club with Smokehouse, but I don't really remember that!  I don't have a great memory.   So my first memory of Johnny is when he came and saw Mojo Buford; you came to watch him play didn't you and I think you played a bit as well.  But before then Johnny says I got up at Pete's Club and played guitar. 

Johnny:     Yeah. when I was playing with Smokehouse Pete Evans gave us a good break really, he's always been good to us and to me in particular.  He invited us down to play in the Festival and as you know you have to go through the ranks, you play the little stage first, then gradually we got to the main stage.  In that second year I remember Tom coming along and getting up with the band, and as the years went by I think the work for me went quiet (I've always  worked full time) and Tom was having a break from what he was doing and Pete put us both together really. 

© Copyright 2013 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Tommy:    Well, I moved up to Shropshire about 5 years ago and we've been together for about 4 and a half years.  I didn't know any musicians, any drummers or bass players to carry on with my Trafficker band.  So Pete introduced me, and talked about the duo thing.  And we downsized!

Johnny:    Yeah we downsized, so we've got our drummer now ...

Tommy:    Me

Johnny:    And our own snare player ...

Tommy:    Me

Johnny:    Guitarist, singer ...

Tommy:    Me

Johnny:    I just turn up and blow a bit of harp ...

Tommy:    And stamp his feet!

Alan:        Tommy, tell me about members of the Tommy Allen Band apart from yourselves, Chris Lomas on bass and Micky Barker on drums, is the band still going?

Tommy:    It does still go, yeah, but with times the way they are, the band lives in Birmingham and I'm living in Shropshire and because of the issues with my son [see below] and looking after him during the week, I'm tied up a lot at the moment so it's hard to do new things or get to them to do new songs.  So I feel a bit stunted or uncreative with that.  It still runs and we still do gigs but we are doing the kind of things we were doing a while back.  There's no pushing it forward yet because of the way things are.  That's not to say that I'm not going to.  With the Duo it's more passionate because it's a lot more involved and more cutback and it is more fun.  No disrespect to the other two but they've got other projects too so at the moment we really just meet for gigs and then go away again, there's no real connection in between that.  With Johnny, we are friends, we travel together, we enjoy what we do, we talk about blues and spiritual stuff and other things and it's a lot more in-depth, so it comes from a different place.  Plus we seem to be getting more work, maybe because that shows in the way we perform. 

Johnny:    It feels like a good path.

Tommy:    So the band is something I definitely want to do but I want to do it in the right way, the best way I can.  I've got plenty of songs, I just don't have the time or the money or the things to get to Birmingham to go through things with those guys.

© Copyright 2013 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

Alan:        How about Trafficker?

Tommy:    We still do gigs with me and Craig Bacon on drums.  So basically the Tommy Allen Band is more blues and rock and roll, but Trafficker is more blues rock, not 12 bar sort of songs.  But basically the change of name was because I'd just come more north, I might just drop the Trafficker name and just use the Tommy Allen Band, I don't know,

Johnny:     It differentiates between the two styles though, doesn't it.  If people come to see the Tommy Allen Band they know they aren't going to get Trafficker stuff.

Tommy:    But I still do a few gigs a year with Craig Bacon as Trafficker, I still do a few gigs a year around Essex.

Alan:        Johnny, how about Smokehouse?

Johnny:    We don't do anything with Smokehouse now.  Mainly because I work full time and everything musically that I want to do I'm quite content doing with Tom.  It fulfils everything for me and I try to keep a balance with my family and my work, so I can't take anything more on.  I wouldn't be putting everything in, and if it's not all there then it's not good enough.  Also it's difficult now, some of the lads have different jobs now, but I do love that band,.  We did a one-off gig recently with Tommy in Lymm and had a lovely night, it was a sell-out.

Tommy:    We might be doing it again in October because of the charity that I run [see below] so we're having a Boogie Blues night and we might do it with his Smokehouse and me.

Alan:        What inspired you to come together and create The Blues Duo?

Johnny:      Firstly, it was the fact that we both had our bands and if you are not playing them, then something else has to happen.  And that's basically what's happened, we downsized.  You only have to rely on each other.  These are the selfish reasons: the money goes further, not just in your pocket but in mileage, fuel; you can travel together, share digs, food, so you can survive better.  You feel better because you aren't struggling.  Also, because it's a new avenue for creation, because it comes down to a bit more simplicity where Tommy could be playing something really easy on his guitar and I could be playing some Sonny-style harp and you are still getting that band-sized volume but you've got so much more dynamics with the kick-drum and the snare, and just to capture that whole feel.  We could say, "Let's do this track tonight" and we've never done it, we don't have to rehearse it.  We just pick a key we can knock it out and if it works, we'll do it next time.  So it's nice and relaxed, we're enjoying it, it feels good.

Tommy:    For me, the instruments, really add.   The first British acoustic guys that I'd listened to, Eddie Martin, who had a one man band, The Producers (Harry Skinner and Dave) that played together, I liked the stuff they'd done, and Jim Crawford whose singing and songwriting I really like.  So when you put them together with the Eddie Martin thing, that's probably where I was heading before I met Johnny.  I was thinking of going down that line.  I didn't play harmonica but I was thinking of trying to do something with the drums, guitar and make it as big as I can, because I've not got the confidence to just stand there like Jim and just play guitar and sing, even though that's what I'm working towards.  So I always have to have something going on, because I come from playing 'big band' to playing just guitar, that's the only way I can feel that I can hide behind it.  But that obviously come from those three guys.  So I had that and Johnny had his harmonica so when we got together we put our own set together and that's how it grew. 

© Copyright 2013 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Johnny:    And we can share the vocals together, which is nice.

Alan:        Well, it's certainly working!

Tommy:    And the Maxwell Street vibe was because that's where our centre is for the thing.  I was working with Mojo Buford and I learnt quite a lot about Chicago Blues style of things, and Muddy Waters and the stories he used to say - him with Little Walter and Sonny Boy and other people up there.   There was nobody else doing that so we thought it was great to be able to keep that thing going, that raw Chicago.  Most people see "duo" and they just go out and strum their guitar, it's got no energy.  But the Duo does have the energy so we are hoping that we could maybe be one of the guys who are accepted on the big stage as a duo, not just playing small clubs.

Johnny:    We've played main stages and we've played little cafe bars, and it's so diverse.

Tommy:    But when we approach people, they suddenly slide you in at the moment because they see the word "Duo", they don't know that we are a big sound, we can have people dancing.  So we are hoping that we'll get accepted to play the bigger stages.  So, stick us on at a festival but don't always stick us on that acoustic stage and see that you can have a Chicago blues vibe on the main stage. 

Alan:        It happened at The Carlisle Festival last November.  You watch people on stage and when it's finished, you go back to the bar and there you were. And there were more people dancing to you than at any other time during the festival.  That was an amazing night.

Tommy:    We had that in Holland as well. They stuck us outside but we got three trips back just because of that one gig.  Obviously it was a good gig but we were shoved in a gazebo outside.  It just shows you that if they accept that, just because you are a duo, you can play the big stage.  That'll help us as well because sometimes we are freezing cold outside!

Johnny:    That Dutch lager helps!

Alan:        Tell me about the making of your first duo CD 'The Blues Duo: Live at Bronte Blues Club', how did you choose the combination of tracks, the blues standards and your own compositions? 

Tommy:    We knew we wanted to do an album, but because of the costs as we were only just starting out we didn't have the money to put into doing one.  This just worked itself out that the guy would record that gig for a low fee and it's just a gig so we didn't have to have a space, a studio, or anything.  So the recording worked out well and Johnny took it from there and has built it into what it is, which is great now . 

Johnny:    The songs that are on there weren't picked for choice, they were picked as the ones that came out the best. 

Tommy:    We had a few issues like the snare wasn't miked up .

Johnny:    We'd have another 3 or 4 tracks on there but the sound just wasn't good enough.

Alan:        It's a great album, I love it.

Tommy:    It's good, and it gives us somewhere to grow from.

Alan:        Tommy and Johnny, many thanks.

© Copyright 2013 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.


Tommy's son has a rare syndrome called Kabuki Syndrome and he has set up a charity and support for all UK families affected by Kabuki Syndrome. The charity is called Kabuki UK and you can visit the website here: Take a look around the website ... read the stories ... visit the shop ... browse the fundraising events  ... you can also donate through the website ...


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