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Talking about Lovie Lee and Homesick James

XM Radio Interview by Bill Wax Vol. 3

BILL WAX: Lovie Lee from the Earwig Record label, from his record, Good Candy. We heard a cut all about that candy called, Stick Candy. And the man responsible for putting these together is here in the studio with me and B.B. King’s Bluesville, and that’s Michael Frank.

Michael, what about Lovie Lee? Another piano player, I think you told us earlier, and one of the earlier times. He was one of the last piano player in–

MICHAEL FRANK: The Muddy Waters band, yeah. Lovie is–[laughs]–this is sounding like a broken record, but this really is the truth. Lovie was a guy playing a few little gigs around Chicago, and I would see him, and I love piano players, and old time piano players.

And I ran into Lovie and just started getting friendly with him, and I found out that he had his own label. In fact, I probably bought one of his LPs that he had had pressed up, much like I had bought Sunnyland’s. And he had great musicians on it, and I liked his playing and his singing. To me, he reminded me of sort of like a Joe Turner type of a voice, but with sort of a blend between Sunnyland and Little Brother Montgomery type of a piano style. And so I thought that was kind of interesting.

And he had a sense of humor about him in his lyrics, and a sort of mischievous way of his presence, and a sort of regal way of presented bearing, himself.

So just in finding out that he had a label with really interesting sidemen on it, that were never really been properly distributed or presented, packaged, or anything, even mastered properly, I asked him about putting it out and licensed it from him. And I had to spend a lot of time in the studio to get the sound quality up. So another one of those lessons that I had.

BILL WAX: Recorded in their house?

MICHAEL FRANK: It was recorded in a studio, the studio was okay. But what I found out later was that the engineer was a guy who was busy like, multi-tasking, and he would like, put the tape on and then go do something else. So some of the recording was bad. And then he didn’t tell Lovie, or other people that did sessions with him, that they should keep the multi-track tape. So in order to save money, Lovie walked out with 2-track mixes and not the multi-tracks, okay?

BILL WAX: Now you’re really old school.

MICHAEL FRANK: And he didn’t have a decent piano in the studio, and there were problems with the electric piano. So I had to do a lot of tweaking.

This was before the days of Pro Tools. There were earlier versions of technology where you could fix things. But I had to do a lot of work to make the piano sound like a real piano, and to fix stuff, and send out some of his tapes to a special mastering engineer to make it really–.

But the recordings were exciting because he had Vance Kelly, Eddie Taylor, Lurrie Bell, and I think even Hubert Sumlin maybe, on some of these tracks. In the band he had Carey Bell and his son, Steve Bell, playing harmonica, I think he had Odie Payne maybe, on some of the drums. I mean, he had great musicians. So I was excited by that, just listening. And they were great performances.

And Lovie didn’t do cover tunes, either. His songs were derivative sometimes, like Vicksburg Blues, but they were his own stories with their own storyline. He was a pretty good storyteller and had a sense of humor. Some of them are kind of risqué. And I like to hear Lovie’s stories about problems with his band, why people were in and out of the band, and various people like that.

Oh, his son, Douglas Watson, was on some of those, too. Douglas is a bass player who’s now become a bandleader, moved to Canada early on, and is doing quite well in Canada, has his own records out. But he was, at that time, not even living in Chicago, but was on those records, too. I forgot about him.

BILL WAX: Amazing. So now let’s move. Piano player, Lovie Lee.

***

BILL WAX: One of my favorite guitar players, guy named Homesick James.

MICHAEL FRANK: [laughs]

BILL WAX: And the disc you did with him was going back in the times.

MICHAEL FRANK: Oh yeah.

BILL WAX: Well, what about Homesick James?

MICHAEL FRANK: One word that might describe Homesick would be “mercurial.”

BILL WAX: [laughs]

MICHAEL FRANK: And I don’t know what his birth sign is, but he definitely would fit that definition.

BILL WAX: So he could change moods at the drop of a hat?

MICHAEL FRANK: Oh, yeah. Yeah, and everybody who knew him would tell you that. You can go out–well, all those old guys now are mostly gone, Honeyboy and a few others, but they would all say that. So some of the things that went on in leading up to that record, I hadn’t experienced Homesick’s moods so much at that time. But I did during the making of the record. [laughs] I could laugh about it now, but at the time, I was furious.

BILL WAX: Anything you can tell us, or better left–?

MICHAEL FRANK: Sure, no, I love the record, and it’s one of those ones that didn’t sell much. It’s mostly a solo album of Homesick playing songs that he hadn’t recorded before. Really have a rural, early blues feel, and he’s a very fine guitar player, a great finger picker.

It was supposed to be half an album with a band, and half of him by himself. And we agreed on this. You know, I decided to do the record with Homesick one day when we were sitting at the bar at Rosa’s Lounge, and I’m sure I had a couple drinks. And Homesick was sitting there because he was married to Mama Rosa at one time, so he was living upstairs with her.

So we were sitting at the bar and I had recorded all these old timers, and I looked at Homesick, we were talking, and he maybe said you should record me, or something. And I said, you know, why haven’t I recorded you, you know, for whatever? And I said, yeah, I should. And it was just like that.

And at that time, I paid him more than I’d ever paid anybody. And you know, he was a tough negotiator like Henry Townsend and those guys. But I respected him so I just said, okay. And we then agreed to make this album.

Before we got to the album, he had moved out of the city and moved, I think, to California. And he came back to visit and make this album. So we had Bob Stroger on bass; Robert Covington, a great drummer, who was Sunnyland Slim’s drummer at the time; Lester Davenport on harmonica; and Sunnyland Slim on the piano. That was the band.

BILL WAX: Whew.

MICHAEL FRANK: Well, the rehearsal was at my house, which was, you know, half a mile or less from the motel that I had him staying at. I got to the motel, he wouldn’t come to the rehearsal. So I knew this was, you know, and I was just–everybody was at my house except for Sunnyland, all the other guys were at the house.

BILL WAX: Except for Homesick.

MICHAEL FRANK: Yeah, and I went to pick him up, and he wouldn’t come out of the room. So I had to go back to my house and tell these guys that we weren’t going to have a rehearsal. So that was already the first trouble.

So we get in the studio and I did this one at Bob Koester’s River North Studios. And we get in the studio the next day, and start laying down some stuff. And Homesick was making mistakes and not playing that well. And what ensued was an argument between him and the other guys in the band. And he was accusing them of not playing right. And they were saying, he’s not playing right.

BILL WAX: This is where a producer burns some money. [laughs]

MICHAEL FRANK: Right, that’s right. And I was recording 24-track 2-inch tape.

BILL WAX: Whew!

MICHAEL FRANK: Which at that time was about 175 bucks a roll, okay? So I had all this tape in there. So we get in there and maybe 4 tracks, and there’s this argument. And Homesick can be very insulting to people, so he started insulting Robert Covington and Bob Stroger, who are generally pretty mellow guys.

They weren’t going to take that from Homesick, they didn’t care who he was. And they knew Homesick, and they knew that he could be like that. But he pushed them a little bit too hard and they started verbally giving it back to them, okay? So Lester, who had saved me from this event in ’84 on tour, which we haven’t talked about. Lester was a peacemaker. So he ended up getting the argument over with.

But I stopped, I did five songs and they were all messed up, and so I didn’t use any of them on the record. And of course, I’d paid for the tape, and I’d paid all these guys. They were there, they came to rehearsal, they made the record, and I paid them, and I pay people reasonably well.

So we go back to the motel and, of course, I’m driving Homesick back to the motel. And I’m just, I’m hurt, I’m upset, I’m thinking about all the money, because I paid him more than I paid any other guy and I had these great players there. So we go back to the motel. So we’re sitting there and I’m having it out with him. I mean, I’m really mad and hurt, all these emotions going through me. And he’s sitting there.

And I still believe to this day that he was messing with my mind, deliberately. He started sitting there playing these Lonnie Johnson licks on his guitar.

BILL WAX: Perfect.

MICHAEL FRANK: Playing this amazing stuff, and I’m sitting there, we’re having this discussion, argument, whatever, and he’s playing this stuff. And so I said, “Damn it, you know, you got to play that tomorrow! You gotta play like that tomorrow!” [laughs] Because we did this session which I can’t use and, you know. So he agreed and I left. And the next day he played that stuff that’s on the record.

BILL WAX: But it was solo.

MICHAEL FRANK: It was solo, and it was beautiful.

BILL WAX: And it may have been that he didn’t really want to have guys on his record at all, he wanted to do it solo.

MICHAEL FRANK: I don’t know, but he really, I mean, I’m still upset when I think about it.

BILL WAX: [laughs]

MICHAEL FRANK: But I can laugh about it.

BILL WAX: Makes a great story now, though.

MICHAEL FRANK: And I booked one of the last gigs Homesick played in 2006, in Maryport, England. And I asked him about that session, which was in ’93 or ’94, whatever. And he said, no, those guys were playing wrong. He maintained that. Well, you know, I believed those guys more than I believed Homesick because I knew that he would do that sometimes, deliberately mess up. I’d seen him do that before, before I had him in the studio.

But I love the record I got, and I think it’s one of the rare records by Homesick like that. And Honeyboy does a cameo on it, and Homesick was very emotional when Honeyboy was in there and talking about him and Snooky Pryor on the record. And it’s a really fine record.

But I think about–[laughs] I was really upset with him and, you know. Now that we’ve got Pro Tools, one of these days I’m going to take those multi-tracks out, and go in a studio and listen to them, and see if there’s anything that I can patch together and put it out. [laughs]

BILL WAX: Let me ask you, so you recorded everything in the studio. Do you have the guys going back and forth insulting each other?

MICHAEL FRANK: You know, I haven’t listened to it since then, so I probably have some of that on there. Because I usually like to keep the tape rolling, or have a backup tape, so it may be on the DAT.

BILL WAX: Boy, I’d sure be fascinated to hear some of that stuff! I’m not sure if the general public should hear it, but.

MICHAEL FRANK: But oh, man, I remember, you know.

BILL WAX: I sure as heck, that would be great to hear some of stuff!

MICHAEL FRANK: And I still have, I think, a whole roll of 24-track tape that was not used for that session that’s, what is that, 15 years old, that was pristine that I never used from that session!

BILL WAX: That’s too bad because no one’s using it anymore, although some people have gone back.

MICHAEL FRANK: [laughs] Anybody want some 24-track tape, call me up. I got it.

BILL WAX: So what do we want to play from this record?

MICHAEL FRANK: They Call Me Hot Foot Homesick is good. Homesick was a guy who was prone to disappearing on you. So that was one of his nicknames. He moved from Chicago, then he moved to California, nobody knew where he was for awhile. Then he moved to Nashville, and then he moved somewhere else.

BILL WAX: He’s a rolling stone.

MICHAEL FRANK: I mean, he would just get tired of being somewhere, and he’d go, and he wouldn’t tell you until he got there. And he ended up in Springfield, Missouri and died in Springfield, Missouri.

BILL WAX: So let’s play, They Call Me Hot Foot Homesick, from Homesick James.

MICHAEL FRANK: That was where he got the nickname, from disappearing on you.

BILL WAX: Fabulous, let’s do that one.

Transcribed by Willitte Herman, WH Transcription

Listen to the interview HERE