In a classic musical example of poacher turned gamekeeper,
Buddy Whittington is the latest Bluesbreakers guitarist to make
his name with John Mayall before stepping out with his own band.
Buddy's ascent from being a local hero as a respected member of
the Texas club outfit band The Sidemen to international
recognition with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and his well
received 2007 self titled debut CD was a leap of faith that has
started to repay dividends.
He followed up his impressive solo debut with an interim '
in the studio' CD called '
A Bag Full of Blues', which featured
his British tour band.
But it is with his best yet '
Six String Svengali' solo album
that Buddy has developed as a confident song writer and an
expressive singer. It also reconfirms his classy guitar playing,
the very reason John Mayall hired him for 15 years.
Pete Feenstra caught up with Buddy just before his Bedford
Blues Festival date in support of his brand new Manhaton records
It's been a while since your debut album in 2007 and the new
Six String Svengali'. Was it the case of finding the time to
record it or waiting for the right deal?
Well I really had to try and find the time to do what was
necessary. What with working so much and having to find that
space to sit down and write some songs that were good enough.
top of that I also had to go home and spend time with my family,
so when you put all that together there's not a lot of time left
to work on something new. We did put out a kind of intermediary
album with Roger Cotton and my tour band called '
Bag Full of
Blues'. But that was really for the people who come and support
the band, it was really a bonus for the fans.
For the new album I got together with the same guys I used on my
debut album and I guess we worked from mid February until the
middle of the first week of April, though there was at least a
week when we didn't do anything as we had to work round our
individual schedules and Mike who was producing was either
working in his studio or on the road, and so was I.
You've got the same rhythm section as on your debut CD, with
Wayne Six on bass and Mike Gage (producer) on drums. Does that
mean you had to make adjustments to the songs, some of which
presumably you have been playing live with your Brit tour band?
Well there's not too much of a change involved as the guys in my
Brit band band, Roger Cotton, Pete Stroud and Darby Todd can
change things on the fly, they just go along with things and
they have the ability to just make it happen.
There's a song on the new album for example, called '
Champ' which goes from swing and unison playing to slide and
some nights if I didn't have my slide with me Roger would cover
that part on keyboards , so they are a great band to work with
and a lot of the stuff we play is intuitive.
Does that approach extend to the recording in the studio at
I suppose so, I mean on '
Six String Svengali' we did use multi
tracks but I dropped the solos in after, but we still record the
basic rhythms track - or as I call it '
the bare bones'- as a
trio and my main impetus in all this is to see if the songs
stand up or not. I write the songs first and maybe leave a space
for the solo, rather than the other way round.
You had a lengthy gap between your debut recording with Ray
Sharpe's Texas Boogie Blues back in 1980 and Mayall's 1995
Spinning Coin', any reason for that?
Well I wasn't the most in demand session player at the time but
I did do a lot of stuff with other people's projects that you
may not know about. Its one of those things that when you're
busy working you take the opportunities that come along and
mostly that was time spent gigging.
The strength of '
Six String Svengali' lies in its strong song
narratives and the broad musical variety. Unlike so many other
guitar based albums, this CD perfectly reflects who you are? Do
you think that is the case?
Yes most of my songs are about life experiences. Not all the
songs are particularly about me but I did grow up at a certain
time and in a certain place (Texas) and that's what I feel
happiest writing about. And I'd rather try and write a good song
about something like that than merely putting something down as
a vehicle for a guitar part.
Songs like the opening track '
Back When The Beano Was Boss'
Fender Champ' seem to reflect that approach?
Yeah, I was around John Mayall for 15 years as well as growing
up with influences like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Peter Green,
Johnny Winter and Billy Gibbons.
And I thought I'd write a song about how the British Blues
invasion and artists like that opened the door for blues and the
original guys. I mean a lot of kids near me didn't even know
Freddy King was from East Texas for example. I did 'cos I saw
him. So yeah songs like that tell a story about what happened at
a matter of fact I took my kids to see ZZ Top when they were
making that '
Live From Texas' DVD. I'd seen Billy Gibbons myself
when I was 16 in 1972.
Now I know my kids might not be hip to what they are about, but
I think they thought it was pretty cool. It was my way of trying
to show them how I felt when I saw ZZ Top at their age.
On the track '
Texas Trios' you name check Buddy Holly, Johnny
Winter, ZZ Top etc. Were you always aware of a significant Texas
music heritage or did you have to come to Europe to realise how
much that music is revered?
Well it was really a case of a lot of different music being
around in Texas at the time and I was busy absorbing it all.
Y'know I was only 3 or so when Buddy Holly died, but he was
always on TV.
Then my parents - and my sister in particular - were responsible
for me hearing a wide variety of stuff, everything from Country
music TV shows to blues and western swing.
always loved guitar led stuff and all sorts of music in general.
There was also a vibrant local music scene too with people like
Bugs Henderson and Johnny Nitzinger who had a local hit with
Louisiana Cockfight'. So there was a lot going on all around
Photo: Andrew Lock/GRTR!
So were there were enough clubs to keep the bands working
Well a lot of the local bands would travel to work in Dallas,
Houston and Fort Worth. It also gave them the opportunity to
play and experience places where you could do your own thing,
maybe drink late into the night, and be a little weird if you
wanted to, which wasn't a thing you could regularly do in Texas
Strangely enough Texas was the one place where you could still
drink and drive along those long straight roads, not that I'm
Going back to the album there's plenty of variety and
different styles, but all the songs have that unmistakeable
Buddy Whittington stamp?
I hope so; I was really just trying to write some strong song
structures with some meaning that reflects who I am.
For Crystal Beach' is a mellow instrumental and is noticeably
different from the rest of the album, how did that evolve?
Well I've always tried to do one instrumental when I record. We
Greenwood' on the first album as a tribute to Peter Green
and I heard from a friend that he was very complementary about
that, which is great for me. But '
For Crystal Beach' is an idea
I had for sometime.
was recorded in A flat and I thought about calling it '
Tyre'. It's about a place I'd go to regularly with members of my
family in between tour dates with John Mayall. It's on the
Bolivar Peninsula in Southern Texas and was one of the places
that got flattened by a hurricane. But they are rebuilding the
area now, and it's the sort of place where the people don't give
up easily, not least to something like a hurricane.
My World Revolves Around You' is a showcase for your guitar
playing, was that the particular idea?
That came about while I was thinking of a 70's A&M radio piece,
you know maybe something a little commercial in a 45 single type
originally wrote it for my wife and had an idea of a funky feel
and horns and whatever, but I ended up liking the simple trio
version as it was, though we did expand the bridge a little with
effects. I'm usually a straight down the line kind of guy but we
experimented a little on that.
You close with the very poignant and moving '
Here', which sounds like your most personal song. Can you tell
us more about that?
It's about the fact that we've lost so many good friends lately
and for that matter great musicians. And I've also got another
friend who is in a hospice right now.
lot were way too young, in the middle of their prime and the
song is really about the fact that we all too infrequently catch
up with friends. We always say '
see you soon' but we don't see
them often enough, and when we finally do get round to it, its
often too late.
You've said in the past that you have been influenced by many
different aspects of music and particularly country, is that
where your story telling angle comes from?
Could well be, though I tend to talk too much anyway (laughs).
But the country influence came from the local TV country shows I
saw as kid, things like '
Cowtown Jamboree'. My main interest in
that show would be to see if the guitarist was playing a Strat
or a Tele and if it was through a Super Reverb or Fender Twin
You've also mentioned Western Swing as an influence. Did that
give you a feel for tone and dynamics?
That was more my parents who were into bands like Bob Wills &
The Texas Playboys, I could never play like some of those swing
guys but I tried to develop my own take on it, you know using
the twin harmony lines.
And years later I heard the basis of it in a new context via
Andy Powell and Laurie Wisefield in Wishbone Ash and Dicky Betts
and Duane Allman in The Allman Brothers who both took it in
different directions. It was the same idea of using harmony
lines – but a bit like idea of string band trying to play jazz
with horns (laughs).
You spent 15 years with John Mayall who called you 'probably
the greatest Bluesbreaker of them all', did that give you a big
I never heard John actually say that, though it would be nice if
he did of course. The great thing about being in his band was
that he gave everyone plenty of room.
That was especially so on his 70th birthday gig, when everyone
wanted to play and he insisted on using his own band. And I'm
eternally grateful to him for having played with people like
Clapton and Mick Taylor – he's a great player - and of course
mean it was because of Chris Barber that most of this blues
scene in the UK happened in the first place. He brought lots of
people over. I think John still has a contract of when the
Bluesbreakers played with John Lee Hooker and got paid £90.
You've been playing since you were about 8, but did being in
John Mayall's band give you the learning curve to allow you to
step out as a band leader?
Yes I guess so. We were in a comfort zone in that band. I mean
all I ever had to worry about was getting to the gig and having
a clean shirt, whereas as a band leader you are worrying about
everything from the hotels and travel arrangement to everything
I guess I learned how to assert myself a little and to take the
'executive” decisions and how to get along with everyone.
think I've got the idea, though we've had to settle for things
like a splitter bus rather than a tour bus and take a view on
some of the hotels.
There's a lot been said about how hard John was to work for, but
I think that must have been a long time ago, as his strength
when I was in the band was simply to give everyone enough
You are also known for your signature tone and a laid back
approach to playing, but also as a player who keeps plenty in
reserve when required?
Well I like to try and make each solo a conversation. I've heard
a lot of young metal players lately especially as my drummer
Darby is in his 30's and plays me a lot of stuff.
And technically speaking they are stunning, but my view is maybe
they could take a little bit of a break and stretch the energy a
little bit further. I guess that's where the variety of my
musical influences plays its part as I love well constructed
songs with enough room for a solo and a good chorus.
Going back to your influences, you mentioned Peter Green. How
did you get to hear him?
Well that came about through Dicky Ferguson another dear friend
who sadly died - someone else I was thinking about in that song
While We're Here'.
was maybe 13 or 14 and he had a few years on me. His real
interest at the time was in my friend's sister, but anyway he
heard Peter Green and told me '
man you've got to get hip to
Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac'.
I started listening to stuff like '
Stop Messin' Round', '
Well' and Green Manalishi' etc. But the thing is that I love the
way osmosis works in music, because back in the pre SRV days of
Texas I was listening to '
Just Got Back From Baby's' from ZZ
First Album' and it sounded just like Peter Green. So
there was I listening to Billy Gibbons being influenced by Peter
Green thousand of miles away on a different continent.
Thanks Buddy I really think '
Six String Svengali' is an
excellent album and hope it does well for you.
Well thanks Pete. Given the current economic crisis we're just
happy to still be able to go out there and play and have a great
time for a while.
'Six String Svengali' is released via Manhaton Records
Interview © August
2011 Pete Feenstra
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