BluesWax Sittin' In With Steve Freund

Freund's Road to Deeper Blues

Part One

By Bob Margolin

In 1985, I played at a birthday party for Albert King at Rockefeller's in Houston. Appearing later that night was Elvin Bishop, whom I had admired for twenty years, but never met. After my set, Elvin introduced himself by telling me where every guitar lick I'd played came from, and he was 100% correct. He knew me well even before he spoke to me, because he could hear my influences in my playing. He recognized them because as a Blues guitar player himself, he'd listened to many of the same players.

I've found that playing deep Blues on a guitar - raw soul with dark emotion - gives a player membership in an informal, unspoken "club." Deep Blues guitar players know other ones when they hear them. I felt that way when I met Steve Freund in the seventies. As soon as I heard him play I thought, "There's one..." and we've been friends ever since. The Blues we both love has been the foundation of that, but we rarely talk about it - it's just basic and "always there" like the air around us.

Listening to Steve's 2001 Delmark CD, I'll Be Your Mule, I'm impressed with his musical maturity. I can hear back to Steve's influences and inspirations through the "sieve" (Steve's word) of Steve's singing, guitar playing, songwriting, and producing. Long ago, Steve had grown enough as a player to have incorporated them into his own style. He carries on the tradition even as he expresses his own Blues. I recommend this CD to you both to enjoy Steve's performances and as a gateway to the man himself - if you love Blues too, you may want to walk along Steve's path with him.

Speaking to BluesWax, I certainly asked him about his influences and inspirations, but I've never had anyone respond with so much detail, so many names, as Steve is eager to provide. For you Blues fans and musicians who enjoy following leads from each other to musical treasures, I think you'll find that Steve's tips could literally fill the rest of your long life. Listening to Steve's music and getting to know him further through his words here would certainly show you why he was able to hang with and work with and be respected by so many of the players he mentions.

Bob Margolin for BluesWax: Let's dive into the deep stuff: you had the opportunity to play with many of the legends of Chicago Blues who are no longer physically with us. I can hear that you learned from them musically in your playing and singing and how you work on a bandstand. What were some of the social lessons you earned being around them?

Steve Freund: I came from New York City, where the gigs were few and far between, and those who had a gig held onto it with a death grip. That means other musicians hardly ever sat in on their shows, and if they did it invariably became an out-and-out head-cutting contest.

The first thing I saw in Chicago was a true musical brotherhood between these legendary figures. On any given night you might see Sunnyland Slim letting Walter Horton or Willie Dixon jam with him, or see Homesick James let Otis Rush play a few numbers. Even if they were feuding, they usually tried to make the other sound good for the sake of the music. Of course, there were times when they would sabotage each other, but the vast majority of my experience was seeing great musicians treat each other with respect.

I went, overnight, from playing on the street, to sitting in with Hubert Sumlin, Sunnyland, Eddie Shaw, and Floyd Jones. The first guy to let me sit in at a club was Homesick James, my very first night in Chicago. I will be playing a set with him at the upcoming Chicago Blues Festival.

I try to carry on the tradition of showing hospitality to my colleagues, depending of course upon the venue. I enjoy jamming with or giving my guitar to fellow musicians at the smaller club gigs, in town or on the road. This is the way I was brought up by my teachers. I also learned not to let a drunk guy play my guitar.

I also pay respect to the song, meaning I don't like to play just "a slow Blues," or just "a shuffle." I believe that good tunes, and I try to pick the good ones, have their own personality. That's why they have endured. They have a "hook." If someone calls a tune I don't know, I ask them to quickly describe it so that I can do it justice. I would rather not do a song than do one I don't know and butcher it. The souls of the authors live on in these tunes.

One of the things I would occasionally see is the leader berate one of his sidemen if there was a train wreck on one of the tunes. It really doesn't do any good to show the audience an ugly image. If someone screws up, I will wait until the break and talk to them in private, or sometimes I will whisper to them while onstage to not do that again, but I won't make a scene on the bandstand. Hell, I mess up as much as anyone!

A big social lesson I learned in Chicago was that of self-sufficiency. My teachers were mostly "country," raised in the Deep South in rural surroundings. They did everything for themselves. Somehow that do-it-yourself ethic rubbed off on me.

I learned how to repair and maintain my cars by talking to guys like Johnny Littlejohn, Pinetop Perkins,and Willie Buck; fix stuff around the house by working odd jobs with my pal Joe Charles, who is also a contractor; and, gardening by seeing all the homegrown vegetable gardens on the south and west sides of town, especially Eddie Taylor's.

As soon as I hit California I started growing my own food. To the old guys, it was all about the "hustle." You have to bring the money in somehow, preferably through your music. But the bills continue to arrive, and a penny saved is a penny earned. Sunnyland was a prime example of frugality. He always had money to get the bills paid and keep his car running, and food on the table. As I like to say, it's not how much you make but how much you keep.

BW: From Brooklyn to Chicago to the Bay Area is quite a long way - did living in those places influence your music as well? I'm asking about the cities themselves, because you obviously developed in each place...

SF: I grew up during the Doo-Wop era, in Doo-Wop and Rock 'n' Roll country. I remember the older guys singing harmony around a bonfire in the garbage can. I also distinctly remember the sounds of Pop music on the radio. It was the beginning of the Rock 'n' Roll era, and Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, et al, were on all the time.

We lived in an apartment building on East Thirteenth Street in Brooklyn, and we had a janitor living in the basement by the name of Paul. I never did get his last name. He was from Mississippi and he was just the coolest guy. I think I was around six or seven when I started hanging around with him. He kept live chickens in his apartment and he explained how he would wring their necks and cook them up, just like he did back on the farm. Of course my mother didn't like me sneaking off to his apartment, and she would go looking for me whenever my baby brother wasn't taking the center of her attention. He also had an old Victrola, and when I think back and try to remember what he played I only come up with what must have been Bessie Smith-era Blues with possibly some Jelly Roll Morton and other piano-based music. I didn't know what that was at the time, but I was hanging out with a Bluesman back then. We remained friends all the way through the sixties and maybe until 1972, then he just stopped being there anymore.

Anyway, I got into Soul music via James Brown, and also Motown, right around 1962. All through the early sixties I mainly played sports, listened to Soul, and went fishing. Then around 1968 I got into Blues somehow, during the psychedelic Hendrix/Clapton experience, like so many other kids at that time.

I have always been one to trace the roots of whatever I get into, and it was easy for me to see the direct link between James Brown and Ike and Tina and the Delta Blues.

So began my Blues experience in New York City. There wasn't much of a local scene there. I went as often as I could to the Fillmore East, Village Gate, and Bottom Line.

I saw some killer shows, most notably a triple-header of T-Bone Walker, Bobby Bland, and B.B. King. I was at the live recording Albert King did at the Fillmore. I saw the original Canned Heat, Big Brother with Janis, Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny and Brownie, and so many others.

My "life-changing" event was seeing Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars in 1969 at the Electric Circus. He had himself on bass, Sunnyland on piano, Big Walter on harp, Johnny Shines on guitar, and Clifton James on drums. What a band! To top it off, Otis Spann and S.P. Leary opened the show as a duo. Unreal. The great thing was that they kept the backstage door open and actually encouraged us to pop in. That is when I met Sunnyland and he left an indelible imprint on me. I was just seventeen and he gave me his card and told me to look him up when I got to Chicago, which I did seven years later.

I started playing in late 1968 and I was originally going to be a bass player. I had my eye on a $20 bass at my local music store, and got a job as a busboy to pay for it. When I had the cash in hand some days later, the bass had been sold, but in its place was a guitar of the same brand, only it had six skinny strings instead of four fat ones. Well, I bought it thinking I would learn the bass lines and get a bass later, but I just stuck with it.

My friends Ira Lew and Tommy Steinberg showed me my first chords and the "lump," or Jimmy Reed bottom part that is at the core of so many tunes, and I was off. I started picking out licks by B.B., Freddy [King], and Albert [King] as well as Lightnin', Eric, and Peter Green and tried to make sense of it all.

Ira was in, and still is in, a band called Small Time Leroy. The lead guitarist, Larry Corsa, used to blow my mind with his renditions of Fleetwood Mac and B.B. King guitar stylings. They used to rehearse in drummer Bruce Gold's basement, and while I was not good enough to actually play with them, they would let me sit and watch. Those rehearsals had a powerful impact on my drive to become a Blues guitarist. They still are active in the New York City area to this day.

Around 1971 I got turned onto Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang, as well as Django Rheinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. I was discovering the link between what is known as Jazz and Blues. At one time they were one and the same, but the branches of the music tree are many and I was soaking it all up. It became a weekly thing to stay out all night in the Village, and go to either the Fillmore East or one of the few clubs that had a Blues act. Any time not spent actually listening to live music was spent at the gramophone, a record store, and home of Yazoo Records. I must have spent hundreds of hours reading liner notes, climbing up the tree of Blues.

Around that time, early seventies, our reigning Blues royalty was Victoria Spivey, affectionately known as "Queenie." She surrounded herself with all the young Blues players and encouraged each and every one of us. Even though I only knew her for a short time, and before I was even good, she must have sensed that I was dedicated to the Blues, and she told her husband, Len Kunstadt, that she wanted to record me for her Spivey record label. Sadly, she passed away before she could make that happen, but I did record, with my piano buddy Professor Paul, one hot afternoon in the Brooklyn apartment they shared. To enhance the vocals, Lenny stuck a mic inside an empty facial tissue box, thereby adding some sort of reverb. That was my first time in a studio.

Around 1974 I discovered two guys in a Bleeker Street bar, the Mills Tavern; playing on the pool table, atop a sheet of plywood, were Bill Dicey and Robert Ross. I had seen Bill some years before playing harp with John Hammond. He and guitarist Robert Ross had a steady weekend gig there and that became my new hang. In fact, these guys were the first to actually ever let me play in a band situation, and I think they even gave me a few bucks after awhile. I learned a lot from the guys, and Robert and I eventually became good friends and buskers, playing on the streets of Greenwich Village. On the next block you might see Sugar Blue and Paul Cooper doing the same thing. I also played on the street with my harp playin' buddies Elliot Cohen and Spencer Jarrett. Spencer found his way to the Bay Area a few years ago and leads a band of his own and also works with the Gospel Travelers. Without this experience I would not have had a chance when I hit Chicago in 1976.

Chicago was wide open and had over forty Blues clubs, several staying open until 4 a.m. and 5 on Saturdays, seven nights a week. It was definitely where I wanted to be. My musical style changed dramatically in a very short time. When my friend Paul Cooper and I first drove out there in June of 1976, all I could really do was take decent solos in the modern string-bending style, and, as I'll talk about later, I had to learn how to backup harp players, horn players, and pianists.

Hanging out with Sunnyland at his gigs, his table was usually filled with luminaries such as Fred Below, Floyd Jones, Little Brother [Montgomery], Willie Dixon ...

We used to see Robert Lockwood, Jr. when he would come through town, and he and Louis Myers really brought a unique blend of Jazz and Blues to the bandstand. A big moment came for me when I finally went after that style, learning "Hold It," "Honky Tonk," "Red Top," "One O'Clock Jump," "Song For My Father," and stuff like that. When Below heard me play "Red Top," he told me in private that, "Now your musical life will change forever, for the better."

So I have tried to carry on in the tradition of the artists who could slide between a Delta Blues and a fifties R&B style and a slashing bending solo all in one tune, blending all the roots into a hybrid so to speak. This serves me well to this day.

After almost 19 years in Chicago, I found myself semi-homeless for a while in Southern California, playing gigs with Jon Lawton and Robert Thomas down in Santa Barbara. Beautiful area, but not a Blues haven by any means. I eventually worked my way up to the Oakland-San Francisco Bay area where a bunch of people actually had heard of me, and where my old pal Harry Duncan lived. Harry had promoted many Sunnyland Slim shows in the seventies and worked for Bill Graham; Boz Scaggs, as well. I felt more at home here. Among the other musicians I hooked up with was bassist Johnny Ace, who I had seen play in New York City in the old days, and Walter Shufflesworth, who led a Soul band called The Dynatones. I had met him back in 1979 and we would run into each other in various places. Well, Walter offered me the guitar chair in the Dynatones before I even had a place to live, but I took it and started a new chapter in my life. I stayed with them for one-and-a-half years, and I had to leave because playing that music just wasn't satisfying me enough. I had to play some raw Blues.

I have made many friends here in the Bay Area, and I have worked with a myriad of artists. I have a nice little quartet and we play all around California and I also make trips and use local pickup bands. I have had pretty good luck so far in that respect. I also work with the Cathy Lemons/Johhny Ace Band, and my steady Tuesday night gig that I have been doing for the past year is at The Ivy Room, Solano and San Pablo Avenues, in Albany, California.

I did some killer high-profile gigs with Boz Scaggs in the late ninties and hope to do some more in the future. He puts together great bands. I also reacquainted myself with Mark Hummel, whom I had met back in Chicago. I did a tour with his band, and some really nice Harmonica Blowouts that he produces every year. I also produced his Tone-Cool CD, Heart Of Chicago.

I feel that California. has been good for me vocally. It has given me the chance to get my singing together without the pressure I felt in Chicago. I am more relaxed here I guess. I'd like to invite BluesWax'sreaders to keep up with me through my website.

BW: It's one of the best artists websites I've ever seen - very easy to find what you're looking for without a lot of cutesy distractions. I know you spent many years playing with and being close to one of the most legendary and central figures of Chicago Blues, Sunnyland Slim. Got some good stories?

SF: Any Sunnyland story is a good story! Let's see...there was the time he sent me and a buddy to California, driving his car while he was going to fly out and meet us. He had four different-size tires on the car, and even the spare was a different size! Keeping that car in a straight line was like holding a buffalo on a leash. We had a blowout right at Bonneville Salt Flats at 4 a.m., and basically limped the rest of the way into San Francisco. I will say in his defense, once I told him about it he immediately took us to Sears and bought a new set of tires.

He had many original sayings that he would use to fit certain occasions. One of my favorites is "you can't tell what a monkey eat until he shits." There was also the now famous "gimme some brown whiskey in a dirty glass."

BW: I wrote a song called "Brown Liquor In A Dirty Glass" in the early ninties having heard Sunnyland use that phrase, or perhaps you or Ben Sandmel [drummer/writer who used to work with Sunnyland in Chicago, now lives in New Orleans] told me that Sunnyland had said it. I know the expression wasn't mine, but I wrote an original song around it. I've heard that expression used on television a couple of times too, strangely - perhaps it's an "old days" way of saying "I need to drink something strong, and I don't care what or how" that wasn't originally Sunnyland's either - we'd have to ask someone much older than us. The shitting monkey must be all Sunnyland, though...

SF: When Sunnyland wanted to describe his dislike for something, he might say, "What I think about that is what a pig thinks about Christmas. Someone is gonna eat him anyway."

One time we went down to visit him and he had a few of his friends down there all playing poker. Slim had on his underpants, a sleeveless white undershirt and a plastic brim around his head, and he was selling them beers out of a mini-fridge he kept by his side. What a scene!

As far as I am concerned, he was psychic. He could tell what I was thinking sometimes. We spent many hours together. One night after a gig, as I was driving him home, I remember thinking about Big Bill Broonzy to myself. As we passed North Pond, a small lake in Lincoln Park, he turned to me and said "Big Bill and me used to fish in this pond."

Another time, at our steady Sunday night gig at B.L.U.E.S on Halsted, I remember him turning to me while he was taking a solo and he said, "Brother [Little Brother Montgomery] is coming down tonight." I swear it wasn't ten seconds later that Brother and his wife come shuffling in the front door!

Sometime in the eighties, he fell down and broke his hip. They put a pin in his leg, but his days of walking through airports were over. I used to wheel him around with him holding my guitar lengthwise between his legs. We went all over the place like that. Once he hit the bandstand he was the same old Sunnyland, right up until the ninties, when his health started going downhill. He also had a stroke during that time, and his right hand wouldn't work too good. He still sang like a bird, though. There were a few times when I had to help him unzip to go to the bathroom. For a man with as much pride as Slim, I know that was difficult, but he dealt with it and continued to live his life. I have to give it up to Sam Burckhardt and Bob Stroger who really doted on Slim and helped him a lot.

The thing I remember most about playing with Sunnyland and all the other old guys is being on the bandstand and thinking, "someday this will all end," and then turning my attention back to the song at hand so I could live inside the music we were playing and cherishing every minute of my time with these artists.

To be continued...

Bob Margolin is a contributing editor at BluesWax. Bob may be contacted at

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