Where do you think your vocal style come from?
From the same place I come from, I guess. It’s not anything I have studied to attain, it’s just a matter of doing it, listening to people you like and trying to sing the best you can. I heard a lot of country blues as a kid, in Mississippi; Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie. Then Lightning Hopkins, Charles Brown, Percy Mayfield, Muddy Waters, all of ’em, you know. Louis Jordan and Nat Cole were big influences.
There’s a deadpan, gently cynical attitude in your songs that’s instantly recognisable.
That’s partly my upbringing in the depression years I guess. There was a lot of stoicism. Understatement, exaggeration and saying exactly what you don’t mean were all local techniques of expression.
Your music seems to be more or less what it always was. Have there been later influences?
Not really, I was pretty well settled in when I did Back Country Suite in 1957 and the rest is just trying to get better by doing it. Phrasing in a way that’s natural to you, singing in tune, the fundamentals. I think I’m better now than 30 years ago. Actually my biggest influence recently has been Robert Merrill, the opera star. I heard him talking about “the mask”, not grimacing, keeping your sinus cavities loose, more resonance. It didn’t change my sound, it just made me feel better about singing.
What did you mean when you once said “the blues is like a religion”?
Well, what is religion? A survival technique. So is the blues.
What is your reaction to these guys using your style?
Everything helps, it’s an indirect aid, it gets my name around. I’ve known and respected these guys for 30 years, they’re good musicians. I always liked Van, good singer. He’s got the pace and the phrasing and everything down. Anyway, there’s been guys that have ‘done’ me more than they have. I’m not naming names but there was a guy here in the States who had big hits doing exactly my thing.
What did you make of The Who’s version of ‘Young Man Blues’?
I have no quibbles with anything anyone wants to do with my material. Pete Townshend has been a great supporter, gives me plugs all over the place, helps me to work. I liked what they did, a completely different thing and I’ve always tried to do different things with other people’s material.
© Chris Ingham, MOJO, September 1996