Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Randy Chortkoff Interview (2009)

 I heard the sad news today that blues musician, producer, promoter, and label executive Randy Chortkoff had passed away from liver disease at 65 years old. Chortkoff had been a mover and shaker in the blues world for decades, first as musician playing with his friends, later as promoter putting on shows in Los Angeles with some of the most underrated artists in the blues.

Randy was the founder of the Delta Groove Music family of labels, and over the past nine years he released an amazing number of critically-acclaimed albums by artists as diverse as Elvin Bishop, Rod Piazza, Bob Corritore, Candye Kane, Mitch Kashmar, Sean Costello, Ana Popovic, Mike Zito, Tracy Nelson, and many more.

As a musician, Chortkoff was the driving force behind the Mannish Boys, an all-star blues supergroup that recorded a half-dozen live and studio albums between 2004 and 2014 that featured talents like singers Finis Tasby and Sugaray Rayford and guitarists Kirk Fletcher and Frank “Paris Slim” Goldwasser, as well as guest stars like Kid Ramos and Junior Watson.

I had the opportunity to interview Randy by phone during the summer of 2009, and although the conversation was frequently interrupted, he had some great stories to tell. To say that Chortkoff will be missed by the blues world is an understatement, and this previously-unpublished interview displays his unwavering passion for the blues…  


What got you interested in music in the first place?

I was interested music because in the junior high school that I went to and even prior, when I was in elementary school, I gravitated towards the soul music of the day. A lot of the kids would be listening to pop hits, so they’d be listening to whatever was popular – Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley – and I’d hear a James Brown song like “Please, Please, Please” and I just fell in love with it and wanted to go out and buy the 45 and play it over and over.

So I was always drawn to that and then later, when rock ‘n’ roll came into play and me and all my friends are listening to groups like the Rolling Stones…I wasn’t a huge fan of the Beatles…but listening to groups like the Yardbirds, early Fleetwood Mac, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, I always gravitated towards the blues-orientated music. So I was bitten by the soul, blues, and R&B bug early even though I was a big fan of rock ‘n’ roll.

When did you decide to start playing music?

The British Invasion really affected me – some of the Rolling Stones’ records and the Yardbirds’ records, and a lot of the music that was coming out of England – Eric Burdon and stuff like that, and harmonica was being played so I got myself a harmonica.

Was the harmonica your primary instrument? Did you ever decide to play guitar or some other instrument or did you stick with the harp?

I pretty much stuck with the harp…to be really honest with you, I just never had the patience to sit down and learn how to play guitar or learn an instrument. As a matter of fact, even with the harmonica, I’m not like a lot of these guys around, the Cary Bells of the world. I’ve never been able to sit down and actually listen to and retain, and have the patience to learn songs from notes. So a lot of times, my harmonica playing is not as good as these other guys, it’s just basically my own style with a little bit of influences from what I’ve been listening to over the years.

I know you worked with harp players like Billy Boy Arnold and Cary Bell. What, if anything, have you taken away from working with those guys?

Being a harmonica player and being a huge blues fan, I realized after I got much older that my father had a big influence on me. He was a carpet layer, but he and his friend Abe used to go to all the jazz clubs on Central Avenue in Los Angeles and they were big jazz fans. They’d see people like Joe Riggs and the Honeydrippers, they were big fans of Louis Trema and Keely Smith, but the silver of them all was Louis Armstrong.

Somehow they got to know Louis Armstrong on a personal basis, and my dad became friends with Louis. So whenever Louis would come to town, and I was about 6 or 7 years old at the time, they’d come to our house and he’d bring his wife and he’d bring a couple band members and they’d have a big spread of food and then they’d put me to bed early and they’d do their reefer smokin’ or whatever. Listening to that music, and just having the influence of Louis Armstrong being in my life, it’s really that kind of cool thing. 

How did you get into production?

I’ve always had a band…even as lousy a harmonica player as I was, and still am pretty much, I always had the desire to play. So I put a few people together, a friend of mine who played guitar, somebody played drums, this and that, and we started jamming together. I’d promote these shows, usually on my birthday, at different bars and venues in Los Angeles and I formed my own band and I was lucky enough to have…he was a bass player at the time, Alex Schultz, and I was lucky enough to have Debbie Davies in the band, and then Alex switched his guitar and turned out to be a fabulous guitar player. So we played all the little local clubs in Los Angeles and the name of the band was Dirt Cheap. But I’ve been more of a promoter than an actual player. 

How did you come to producing the Billy Boy Arnold album (1993’s Back Where I Belong)?

Actually, before I produced the Billy Boy Arnold album, I had a band and I had some really great people that played with me, people like Rick Holmstrom, people like Cal David and, as I said, Debbie Davies and Al Schultz. We all lived in the same neighborhood and one night somebody brought this black fellow to one of the clubs we were playing and introduced him and he said his name was King Ernest and that he worked at the Los Angeles County Jail. He wasn’t a cop, he wasn’t a sheriff, he was just a worker. But he said that he was a singer and loved to sing, he sings in church every weekend, and he even made a few 45s back in the ‘60s and he was a big time soul singer in the mid-1960s in Chicago. 

So he sat in that night with the band and from that moment on, we became inseparable. I managed him for four years and I booked dates for us, I was kind of the bandleader and he was the first artist that I brought into the studio, the Pacific Studios in Culver City. I recorded a twelve-song demo on King Ernest, went out and shopped it and sold it to Jerry Gordon at Evidence Records and he put it out. My first recording and the first person I managed and toured with, and brought to Europe was King Ernest, which was in 1991 or ’92.

I was putting on festivals once a year in Los Angeles along with other smaller shows that I was doing just for fun – never for profit, because there was never any profit involved. I started putting on shows on my birthday and that would be the excuse for me to get all my friends together…Rod Piazza, Mitch Kashmar, Al Schultz…all the guys and girls that I knew from the Los Angeles area and they would come and play really cheap because I hardly had any money at the time. I decided to call it “A Tribute to Little Walter Hall of Fame” show, and I made up these plaques with 45s that I would have very inexpensively made and sprayed in gold and put on the plaques, and every year for ten years, I’d have anybody that ever played with Little Walter, was influenced by Little Walter, had recorded with Little Walter, anybody that I liked that I brought to Los Angeles for the show I would do annually. 

The first show I did on a big scale like that, I was introduced to Dave Myers, the bass player out of Chicago. I asked him if he could find Billy Boy and Dave said, “yeah, I know where he’s living, he’s driving a bus,” and he put me in touch with Billy Boy. I told him about these Little Walter tributes I was doing and I invited him to come to Los Angeles to participate in one of my first Little Walter Tribute Hall of Fame shows. In the middle of the show, I would have a break and I would give out these Blues Hall of Fame awards – they really weren’t anything, and they cost me only $20 to make, but to people like Jimmy Rodgers, Luther Tucker, Cary Bell, Lester “Mad Dog” Davenport, Gordon Leary, Matt Simmons, Junior Wells, James Cotton, etc, it was really a huge honor for them. It was the first time they had ever actually received something that they could put on their wall at home and be proud of. 

After Billy Boy came out and did the Little Walter show, we did three of them together, and he was great man…not only did he do all of his hits, but he performed Little Walter tunes for probably 70% of the show. I brought Billy out for that show and then I put together a tour with King Ernest and Billy Boy Arnold; we did the Waterfront Blues Festival with about 30,000 people, we did festivals in Canada, and we played three or four high profile clubs in the northwest and a club in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. It was really a fun tour and as soon as I got back I said, “Billy Boy, why don’t we make a record,” and he said “sure.”

He went back home to Chicago and then he came out again and we rehearsed with my band in my living room, and that was the second CD I ever produced. I went into Pacific Studios again and with my band – which was basically King Ernest’s band – which we called the Tail Draggers at the time. I recorded the first Billy Boy Arnold album that he had done in about 10 to 15 years and when it was done, it was a masterpiece. Not only did it turn out just really good and spontaneous, I got some incredibly great players to back him up, and I sat there with the engineer as he mixed the record so the harmonica tones were big and fat. On one song I had Lester Butler from the Red Devils sit in and play harp, and I had (guitarist) Rick Holmstrom, Rob Rio on piano, just a bunch of great people. I talked to Bruce Iglauer and he put out Back Where I Belong on Alligator Records. 

What motivated you to start a blues label?

Frustration really…I’d been producing these CDs, I produced Billy Boy Arnold, I produced King Ernest, I produced a great CD on Finis Tasby called Jump Children! I couldn’t believe how well that one turned out, probably because I used some of the best blues players in Los Angeles, and I sold it to Evidence, and I really enjoyed producing.
Then I produced two more CDs…one on Kirk Fletcher, an incredible CD. It has Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds), it has Jennifer Magnus, Finis Tasby, and a whole array of great musicians. I also produced a record on Frank Goldwasser, who they refer to as “Paris Slim,” and spent a lot of money on that one, it was a great album there, but when I went out to try and sell them, nobody was buying, everybody passed on them. So I thought, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Fortunately, I have a day job making motion pictures, independent motion pictures, and so I started the Delta Groove record label. I put out those two albums that nobody would buy...that was almost five years ago.

What did you want to do with the label once you got those two records out, where did you want to go from there?

I really didn’t have any plans on having a label; I just wanted an avenue to get these records out to the public so they could be heard and so I started searching for a distributor. So I really didn’t plan on it snowballing – I just planned on putting out those two records, having a distributor and getting them into record stores so people could hear them…

The Mannish Boys, 2014

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