Back in November, Henry’s Blueshouse hosted a memorable performance by the New York City-based Hitman Blues Band, the Rockingest, Rollingest, Jumping and Jiving blues big band we have seen in this city for many a year.
The nine piece band, complete with three piece horn section, two backing singers and fronted by guitarist and singer Russell Hitman Alexander had the same impact, to those of us that remember, as the first time we heard Chicago Transit Authority, later to become known across this planet as Chicago.
The good news is that The Hitman Blues Band will return to Birmingham this July to feature in the 38th Birmingham, Sandwell & Westside Jazz Festival – dates July 15 to 24.
The Hitman Blues Band will playing a Henry’s Extra gig – at The Velvet Music Rooms on Friday 22nd July at 8:30pm and, of course, admission is free.
In the meantime, with the kind permission of The Jazz Rag magazine, from the current edition, here is an interview with Russell Hitman Alexander – conducted by Ron Simpson
Scheduled for several appearances at the Birmingham, Sandwell and Westside Jazz Festival this year as part of a UK tour are The Hitman Blues Band from New York. RON SIMPSON put the questions to their leader, RUSSELL ‘HITMAN’ ALEXANDER.
It was a father and son thing, really. Russell Alexander was especially delighted to play Henry’s Blueshouse on his UK tour late last year because his father, vibraphonist Ray Alexander, had been for some years a regular in the Birmingham Jazz Festival. So I plunged in at the deep end with the question, ‘Why isn’t Ray Alexander famous?’ It was not an original question, having been asked initially by Scott Yanow:
‘Dad used to refer to it – somewhat tongue in cheek – as “the Alexander curse”. But it’s the nature of the business. I’m just finishing reading Jim Simpson’s book, Don’t Worry ’bout the Bear, and one of the many things it drives home is that talent, drive, dedication and even luck just aren’t enough. It takes a whole machine to get well known and sometimes even then it doesn’t work out. I wish Dad had known how respected he really was. Even now I get messages from people who studied with him or were fans and recall him with great appreciation and fondness. He wasn’t a bitter man, but he did express disappointment at times that it seemed he was always fighting to just get a gig. To me he was a great inspiration.
‘I set up a Wikipedia page about him a few years ago, which has a bunch of information. Dad started off as a drummer when he was teenager, after forming a harmonica band with neighborhood kids. One of them went on to become famous as an actor – Brian Keith, who got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I guess the harmonica didn’t work out, but the drums sure did. He played with Claude Thornhill, Bobby Byrne, the Dorsey Brothers, Stan Getz, Joe Venuti, Mel Torme, Johnny Smith, Chubby Jackson and many others. He had a natural sense of rhythm, and word got around about him. But he loved hearing other players, too. He told me about seeing Buddy Rich at the Paramount at one point, where Rich played with one hand (he had broken the other and couldn’t use it), and marvelled that he could play better with one hand than most drummers could with both. That was the thing about Dad – he was always appreciative of other musicians, and never stingy in his praise. He didn’t give in to jealousy or pride. He told me, ‘There will always be someone better than you, and someone not as good. You’re only in competition with yourself.’ Plus, he showed me that I could learn from everyone, even someone who might not be as technically proficient.
‘He played on a lot of recordings, but often the side musicians weren’t credited. He didn’t even get album credit for Beauty and the Beat until much later. He played percussion on Martin Denny’s Quiet Village, but it’s hard to find out what else he was on. I wish I had asked him more about that.
‘I founded Nerus records and publishing, but in his name. I kept bugging him to record an album under his own name, and one night in 1983, my friend Doug Tow told me the engineer at the studio he was working at, David Barnes, had gotten one of the new-fangled DAT recorders. Would I be interested in them coming to one of Dad’s gigs and recording it live? HELL, YES! So they showed up at Eddie Condon’s and that became the first release, Cloud Patterns. It featured Dad, the incredible Albert Daley who passed at only 45 years old, renowned bari saxist Pepper Adams, Harvie Swartz (who played with just about anyone you can name), and Ray Mosca on drums, whose discography is a who’s who of jazz. No rehearsals, just jazz pros captured in a wonderful performance. Dad released Rain In June in 1992, and then it wasn’t until 2000 that I released my first album under my own name, titled Blooztown and featuring two cuts with Dad on it. Little did I know that only two years later, he would be gone. I’m grateful that I got him on that album, even if only for two songs.’
When Russell started out, for some years he worked with all kinds of bands. I asked him about these, not expecting to have heard of any of them. It came as something of a surprise to come across Lester Lanin!
‘At around 16, I started doing “club dates”. At first I worked with regular wedding bands, then started freelancing with “society” bands – Lester Lanin, Peter Duchin, the Harrington Brothers, Roger Stanley, and many others. There were never any rehearsals, you just showed up and were expected to know every song ever written between 1910 and whatever year it was. A good deal of the time, the bandleaders wouldn’t even call out the names of the songs, never mind the keys. It was great training for me, although I got my ass kicked (musically) pretty badly at times. Plus, I was expected to play bass and guitar because these expensive society bands didn’t want to hire both – and, they wouldn’t pay for a PA, so I had to sing through my amp (yes, the same amp I was playing through). We’re talking about gigs for the top 1% at that time, super-secret private clubs, quadrilles, cotillions, coming out parties, royal balls (yup, in New York City), etc. I also played with Hassidic bands, I was with a Greek band for over a year, a salsa band for over a year, a five piece authentic swing band, a Portuguese band, and more that I can’t remember right now. And through all of that, I was fronting my own progressive rock band (and then a new wave band), plus working as a sideman for rock bands, blues bands, funk bands, jazz groups, etc.. Just a whole lot of stuff, and it was great training. A lot of that world doesn’t exist anymore.
‘I started the Hitman Blues Band in about 1989, mainly as a cover band. It was just a trio or a quartet, with guitar, bass, drums and either a sax or keyboard – sometimes both, as a quintet. We played all over New York City, especially in Brooklyn in a strip of clubs by the Verazanno Bridge. Plus downtown in the Village, and I did a bunch of gigs at an illegal after hours club in Alphabet City, when it was so bad even the cops wouldn’t come out of their cars while driving through. That gig started at 2am and ended around 7 or 8 am. Eventually, I started throwing in more originals in our sets, and after we recorded the first couple of albums I went to mainly original sets lists. But it was still a quartet for the most part. It wasn’t until we recorded Miss Catherine on the album Pale Rider, where I needed to add horns to give it the right sounds, that I had one of those forehead smacking moments. I thought “You idiot. You’ve spent literally decades playing with bands with huge horn sections, 15 or 20 pieces. ADD SOME HORNS TO THE DAMN BAND!” So the next album, Blues Enough, featured horns and backup singers. Now, almost everything I write for the band has horns and backup vocals in mind. I can still go out and play almost everything as a quartet, or a trio, or for a good deal of the songs even as a duo or a solo, but in my head I hear the horns and backup vocals.
Anyone who has heard the Hitman Blues Band will recognise that it is not orthodox blues – songs like Not My Circus, Not My Monkey, for instance, are full of humour – so how does Russell define the music?
‘We call it Modern Blues (my daughter suggested “Alt Blues”). It’s a combination of every style I’ve played, but the basis is always blues. That can be limiting in a way – the blues is like a haiku. There are rules about chord structure, overall arrangements, melody jumps, etc. You have to work within those parameters as much as possible, but still keep it as original as possible. And, of course, you can’t always make that work! There’s going to be some stuff that will make you say “Oh, I’ve heard this before”. But you want the listener to be able to relate to the songs on both a lyrical and groove level. You want it to catch their ears, and that means a degree of familiarity. Pretty much everyone has developed their favourite song stash by the age of 18, which is why everyone thinks the music they grew up with was the best. They associate it with important life events, mainly as a teenager, when you’re at your most vulnerable and getting blasted from all sides with experiences and emotions. Most people aren’t open to new music as they get older, although there are notable exceptions. But even those exceptions don’t have the same emotional impact as the songs they grew up with. So I’m trying to bridge all of that, while keeping to the blues, and not constantly redoing what was done perfectly 20 or 30 or 50 years ago. I’m not often successful, but every once in a while I think it works, and I keep trying.’
Talking to Russell points to the many similarities between the American and the British scene – and a few differences. For instance, remarkably, despite their 30-plus years in the business and seven albums, the Hitman Blues Band can’t get a New York agent. How can that be?
‘It’s very hard to get an agent if you’re not a tribute band or, at the least, a cover band. I’m certainly not going back to playing weddings – I did enough of that. I’ll do private parties, but only with the understanding that it’s blues – not “classic rock”, not Top 20, not disco, not dance R&B, not rap, not hiphop, not trance or EDM or whatever. I have done a number of reggae and Caribbean gigs over the years, but I’ve cut out most of that unless it’s for some friend who needs me in the band for a gig. Getting gigs all comes back to what it’s always been: a venue is not a charity. It’s not a patron of the arts. It’s a business. The business is selling liquor and/or seats. Can we bring in enough people to make it worth their while to open the doors, turn on the lights, hire staff, etc.? If we can’t guarantee X number of people, we can’t work. In the old days, the venue itself brought in people, because the audience knew whoever they were seeing was going to be great and they would have a good time. But now, thanks to the pandemic, a lot of clubs have shut down permanently (which makes me wonder what happened to all the money they got to keep them going…) The ones that are left are super-cautious about who gets booked, and when. Even a great act with a following may not draw in a landlocked club in July, when everyone is going to the beaches or out of town. A band needs an agent who believes in them, is willing to go to bat for them and work their connections. There aren’t many agents like that anymore, at least not that we’ve found. It’s much easier to be booking a DJ, where they don’t even spin records anymore – just set up a set list and push “play” on a Mac. Or an EDM act, where it’s almost as planned out and automated. So blues acts can still draw to an extent, but lots of things have to line up. Joe Bonamassa can fill a 1500 seat theatre, and Derek Trucks can fill a 3000 seat theatre, but lesser known artists will have trouble filling a 300 seat room.
‘I tell my people to take as much work as they can get. I’m very lucky in that my people will give me first choice – if I have a gig, they’ll do it. However, if they have already booked the date with another band, I insist they honour that. My Dad taught me that once you book a gig, you never cancel unless you’re too sick to get there, even if another offer pays more. As a musician, all you have is your word. You’re talented? So what. There are hundreds of talented musicians in your area. If you can’t be counted on, what good is that? That’s why I’m going to be using some UK musicians on this tour – some of my people already have commitments for July.
‘We do better in the UK with gigs for one reason – my agent, Derek White. If I had someone like him in the US, we’d be playing everywhere. Derek is not only our agent, he and his wife Ali are great friends, more like family, and big supporters of the band. Plus, Derek is himself a talented bassist. People like that are hard to find. Plus we have wonderful friends here like Rod Ireland who sells our merch at shows, and Graham & Ali Richmond who provide a place to stay when we play in Scotland, plus all the amazing journalists and photographers – plus fans who drive great distances to see our shows. In a country where petrol is over $9 a gallon, that means the world to us.’