THE JOURNEYMAN’S BLUES Bernie Pearl

He’s played with
everyone from Lightnin’ Hopkins
to Big Mama Thornton. He ain’t too shabby as a solo artist, either.

 

BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

You’ve probably never heard of bluesman Bernie Pearl, but
you should have. The talented guitarist has played behind a veritable
“who’s who” of blues legends. After decades spent performing behind
other artists, Pearl
has recently taken steps to advance his own identity as a solo bluesman.

 

In 2008, Pearl
released his first studio album as a solo performer, a two-CD set titled Old School Blues Acoustic/Electric.
“One disc is acoustic and the other one is electric,” says Pearl. The expansion of
what was originally a single disc occurred by accident. “I went in, not
with that in mind,” he says, “but I went in to record a range of
things that I do and that I’ve been doing. We ended up with too much material
for one disc….”

 

Pearl’s
sound is a curious mix of Delta and Piedmont-styled country blues and modern
electric blues. “My approach has a lot of the blues tradition in it,”
he says. “The material is largely traditional material, but I think that I
have lived it long enough, and I feel confident enough to have reinterpreted
pretty much everything. I don’t do anything exactly like the original, I don’t
copy anybody’s playing. If I do a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune, I’m going to be doing some
Lightnin’ style riffs, but I’m going to put my own thing in there.”

 

Pearl
originally became exposed to folk and blues music through his siblings, whose records
he heard. “The thing that really pushed me completely off the precipice,”
he says, “was the live encounters with the blues musicians. Brownie McGhee
gave an in-house concert at my sister’s house in the late-50s. This was while I
was still in high school. I was very impressed with that…in those days, if you
knew three chords, you were three times as knowledgeable as anybody else
playing. It was more about songs and social activism.”

 

Still Pearl
wasn’t planning on a career in music at the time. “After high school, I
left for Israel for about a
year,” says Pearl,
“and by the time I came, back my brother [Ed] had opened a club called the
Ash Grove. The first show I recall, or at least the first that I remember in a
blues context…I forget who the headliner was, but the opening act was a one-man
band from Oakland
named Jesse Fuller.”

 

“He played a twelve-string guitar, amplified,”
says Pearl of Fuller, “he played a harmonica and a kazoo on a rack that
had a little microphone on it, so he sang through that. So he played the guitar
– very well – and he made up a little foot/bass set, where you hit the notes
with your toe, and a little rhythm instrument on the side of the bass,” he
remembers.

 

“I remember absolutely losing it…when he started
playing, I was pounding the table, I was screaming, jumping up and down, and I
was completely overtaken by it. I looked around, and the rest of the audience
was talking to each other. I went ‘oh oh, there’s something different here,’
and I started marching to a different drummer.” From that point, it was
the blues or nothing for Pearl.

 

Pearl would receive guitar
lessons from Brownie McGhee, but another legendary artist would provide Pearl with an advanced
education in the blues. “Shortly after that, Lightnin’ Hopkins
came out and he and I became very close,” says Pearl. “I began not only studying with
him, but I’d hang out with him, drive him around, talk to him. So when I was,
maybe 20, 21 years old, I was playing with Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins. I don’t know how good I was, but he
tolerated me, and I loved the music. Before you knew it,” says Pearl, “I had stopped
trying to do folk music.”

 

When Dylan went electric during the mid-60s, Pearl was sitting in the
right place for the change. “I had bought an electric guitar in the early-60s
and had been messing around with it,” he recalls. Pearl’s skills on the electric guitar
provided further opportunities. “Big Mama Thornton came to town, and her
guitar player quit on her opening night in 1966. She hired me…I went and
auditioned for her in the dressing room, and she said ‘fine’.”

 

“From that point on, for three or four years, I
provided the house band for all of the electric players that came through who
did not bring a band. So that included a lot of the guys from Chicago like Johnny Shines, Big Walter
Horton, and J.B. Hutto…so I got a lot of my electric experience at the club as
well. So for about ten years, I got to play with all of these people.”

 

When the Ash Grove closed around 1973, Pearl mostly performed solo throughout the
rest of the decade. In the early-80s, he formed the Bernie Pearl Band. “We
really started in ’84,” says Pearl,
“and within two years I had found the guys that I currently work
with.” The band made its living by backing other artists. “We got a
lot of work with Harmonica Fats, and we backed up Big Joe Turner and Eddie
‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Lowell
Fulsom…we were a utility band that played with everybody.”

 

Recently, online music archive Wolfgang’s Vault made a deal
with Pearl’s brother to acquire recordings that
we made at the Ash Grove, including several featuring Pearl
playing alongside many blues legends. “I think that it’s great, absolutely
wonderful,” says Pearl
of the rediscovered music. “I knew that my brother had all of these
recordings for years and years,” he says, “and I was wondering how
they were going to get out. These are one-of-a-kind recordings.”

 

These days, Pearl is busy
booking gigs for his band, providing guitar lessons to a select clientele, and revisiting
his past by hosting a weekly blues radio program at Cerritos College.
Pearl’s
“My Kind Of Blues” is broadcast every Saturday between 3:00 PM and
5:00 PM, and is streamed live on the internet through the college’s radio
station at www.wpmd.org.

 

[Photo Credit: E.K. Waller]

 

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