BLURTING WITH… The Soul of John Black

No, sir. Thank YOU! John Bigham returns with another
immaculately-crafted platter of eclectic soul goodness. 

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

John Bigham remembers where he was the first time he heard
all of his favorite songs. That’s how you know music really made an impact on
you, when the events of the day, no matter how insignificant, get burned into
indelible memories by a great song. The first time BLURT heard “Scandalous (No.
9)”, the lead track on The Soul of John Black’s eponymous 2002 debut (No Mayo
Records), I was driving to Subway. I ordered a footlong steak and cheese on
wheat and ate it in the car while the rest of the record played.

 

Man, that was a good sandwich. But what was really worth
savoring was the album. As it rolled by, it revealed as many ingredients as on
the sub: folk, blues, rock, hip-hop, even a touch of twang – with soul music as
the meat. And these weren’t just piled on top of each other; they were arranged
in such a way that they complemented each other and made each song a
masterfully crafted experience.

 

Since then, the former Fishbone guitarist, who has also
played with one Mr. Miles Davis, has put out three other albums: The Good Girl Blues (Cadabra/Yellow Dog, 2007), Black John (Eclecto Groove, 2009) and
the newly minted Good Thang (Yellow
Dog). Each as good as the last, they stand as highly satisfying start-to-finish
listens, filling like a big ol’ sandwich, but gratifying like the book you
can’t put down, or the film you didn’t expect to like but held you riveted for
its duration.

 

Good Thang, in
that sense, lives up to its name. It gobbles up 40 minutes in no time, as you
feast upon joy, pain and bitterness – and all the aforementioned musical
flavors – as well as Bigham’s vivid storytelling and expressive guitar work. In
simplest terms, John Bigham is one hell of a sandwich artist.

 

***

 

BLURT: Guitar sounds
so good in soul music, but few people do it right anymore. You’re a guitar
player, so naturally you see its importance.

JOHN BIGHAM: All the great soul music from the past that I
ever heard probably had a Telecaster through a Fender amp. You know what I
mean? The guitar is an integral part of the band. It’s like, on all those old
soul records, you get that little soul ‘chink’? 
You know (mimics the sound). That’s like, a third of the song, you know?
[laughs] That’s what was makin’ me love that song. I just always think about
that when I’m writing a song. When I’m writing, I’m not even thinking about the
guitar. But when I’m producing the song, I’m like, ‘Okay. Now it’s time to add
the guitar.’ Because, for me, it wouldn’t be complete. I could turn the guitar
down, have it really low in the mix, but I think it needs to be there because
it’s the driving force.

 

Who are your favorite
soul guitarists?

I like Cornell Dupree. He’s one of my favorites. And I like
Dennis Coffey, Steve Cropper, yeah. In modern times, what I was digging was
Paul Jackson Jr. He put a whole ‘nother twist on guitar in soul music, you
know, with his single note thing. It’s just all those different things that the
guitar does. It really helps paint the picture.

 

You played jazz with
Miles Davis – but what I wanna know is if you knew Betty Davis?

Was I acquainted with her? Or did I know about her? Noooo…His relationship with her was back
in the ‘60s. You know what man? To be absolutely honest, since the record (TSOJB’s
Black John, which has the track
“Betty Jean”) has come and gone… I
mean, I love Betty Davis’s music.
It’s just ridiculous. There’s never been anything like it before or after. Naming
that song after her was kind of an afterthought – it wasn’t even a thought,
really, man. To be honest, I had Betty Jean in my imagination. And the funny
thing is I looked over and I saw that album cover ‘cause I’d been listening to
it. But it’s a damn good question, though.

 

Which album cover was
it?

[laughs] Nasty Gal.
It was just sittin’ right there, all the time. The answer to my question,
“Who’s this song about?”

 

You’re so good at storytelling,
setting a tone and conveying emotion in your songs. For example, “Scandalous
(No. 9)” from The Soul of John Black and “Oh That Feeling” from Good Thang, have a really nasty, threatening sound and
great characterization.

Yeah, I think about that but it’s a little bit more – I
don’t have a definition for it because I’m doin’ it instinctively, you know? That’s
just what I do. I think about some of the older songs – and actually, “No. 9”
was influenced by “Ode to Billie Joe.” It’s this story of a guy that jumped off
a bridge because he did something that was really embarrassing. I think he was
gay or somethin’ like that. Well, in the TV movie, he was gay. But I don’t know
what he really did in the story. But then there was “The Night the Lights Went
Out in Georgia.”
It’s like, “I can feel the police cars pullin’ up to his house and stuff.” I
visually see it and know that feeling.

 

Many of your songs could
have come straight out of 1970s blaxploitation-era films. Are you a fan? What
are your favorites?

It’s kind of a different thing for me, thinkin’ of these as
like, exploitation movies. Like, Superfly – it was the one black movie that was out, and [at the time] I was a young
black guy. Everything after that is exploitation. [Gordon Parks,
Jr.] was just tryin’ to make a movie at the time. Then Hollywood is like, ‘Hey we can make money off
of these! Let’s make a bunch of crazy movies about pimps and whores and cool
cars.’ But anyway, what I’m gettin’ at is my favorites are the Dolemite movies
‘cause they’re funny. But it has nothin’ to do with the music, really.

            I kinda
grew up in that era so that type of music was everywhere. It wasn’t so much the
movies; I just heard that music all the time. And by the time I saw that stuff,
it was kinda boring to me. So it was really like a lot of the bands that I
heard, that did that kind of thing.

            You know
what? Isaac Hayes’ album – my mother had his Hot Buttered Soul album, and I came home one day after bein’ out
with my friends all day long and she had this album playin’. I was like, ‘What
the hell is that? It’s ridiculous!’ It was like the best thing
I had ever heard in my life. So it was just music, music, music. I never really
went to the movies or watched much TV.

We had a lot of music goin’ on in
our house. Isaac Hayes, man, and Johnnie Taylor – all the stuff that my family
listened to, especially my mother and my father. My mother listened to all the
soul music, and my father listened to all the jazz. And then my brother listened
to all the rock. I got Led Zeppelin from my brother, Jimi Hendrix from my
brother. I got Sam Cooke and Ray Charles from my mother. I got Miles Davis and
Paul Desmond from my father and stuff like that. I just heard all that music.

            It’s really
about that music that was in my world. I know where I was when I heard all my
favorite songs for the first time. I know where I was, what was goin’ on. The
whole scene.

 

You mentioned Isaac
Hayes. It seems to me that you picked up a thing or two from him about rappin’
to women. Especially on “I Got Work.”

Oh, man. Yeah.
That’s that old school – they still do it now. You know, it’s not always so
cool now – it’s a little hard. But yeah, man. Isaac Hayes, sure. Him and those
other people that were on Stax, they had that rappin’ to women talent. I love
that whole thing, just describin’ how ‘I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do that
and you’re not gonna believe, and… jump down and around…”

 

When you play that
song, how do the ladies in the crowd react?

Oh, man. They love that song. They love that song. They love it, man. [laughs]

 

Have you ever been
approached about scoring a film?

 

I’ve actually done a few films, just super small budget
movies. I don’t know if you know this guy Jan Michael Vincent? He was in an old
TV show called Airwolf. I did this
movie with a friend of mine, just this terrible sci-fi movie. We scored the
music for it. And I did this blues thing for a 20-minute short called A Single Rose. I wrote four original
songs and then I did the score – it’s pretty much all slide guitar. I’d love to
do more. I love that stuff. I may need to learn a lot more.

            I really
like the guy that does all the Tim Burton movies, Danny Elfman. He went from
bein’ a musician – I think he took some time off, went and studied, and came
back to become the best film composer ever.

 

What would you say to
a mash-up of your new song “Strawberry Lady” and The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry
Letter #23”?

I’d love to hear
that. You mind if I pass that idea on?

 

Yes, please. I’d love
to hear it, myself.

Well, alright! My buddy and I were just discussin’ remixes
and cover tunes to do and that’s a good idea, man. Really. Thank you.

 

[Photo Credit: Pep Williams]

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