Bound Bites on The Blues Burners

by Danny Coleman

Initially published on Rock On! This Week’s Sound Bites…7/6/23

When the people at Mad Hands Records undertook the release of “American Masters Sing The Blues” nearly 20 years ago, it was done so with the intent to expose the masses to many of the talents, who for so long flew under the radar of mainstream radio and media. 

Their passion for the artists who laid the foundation of what would become Rock ‘n’ Roll and Soul music was and still is the force that drives them personally as well as musically and as they prepare to re-release the classic album to celebrate its twentieth anniversary; they’ve made some adjustments. 

The Blues Burners

One such adjustment is the inclusion of the Smiley Lewis classic, “I Hear You Knocking” with vocals by the late Charlie Thomas of The Drifters and up and coming Blues artist Eric B. Turner. Recently, Turner and producer David Backer talked about the project, their experiences, The Jam Room in Howell, NJ where it was put together and what it means to partake in this effort. 

“The room is amazing, it has all cedar and high ceilings; it was built in the ’70s when you got a lot of your sounds out of the room. You didn’t have all the plug-ins and all of these things that came along later that we are able to use now in small studios and different places and he gets a great drum sound in there,” began Backer. “Arnie and I are celebrating 50 years of working together; we actually met in high school. Back then it was not called a jam but I was 15 and he was 16 and I sort of auditioned for a band he was putting together; I wasn’t the best guy in the room but we hit it off great and 50 years later we’re still putting out records and we had a career of original music in the ’80s, then we had cover bands and then we started backing all of these groups and that’s how the “American Masters Sing The Blues” project really started just by meeting all of these great iconic players that we heard growing up. Do you remember Del Shannon? We got to tour and back him a bunch of times; what a great guy whose life unfortunately ended early. We backed Chuck Berry and some of the original Temptations; we’d do Great Adventure shows where we’d back Sam Moore or The Teenagers; we’d do like seven or eight acts which is how we got friendly with these people.”

“Some of the early songs we played were with Otis Rush; we toured as Otis Rush’s band for a couple of years back in the ’80s and so, when you hear the full collection; we already have “American Masters Sing The Blues: Volume 1” and now we’re going to be putting out another volume as either a Twentieth Anniversary but the songs just keep coming in; like the Doc Pomus song that I found unreleased through a friend’s father in-law. All of the people on these records were either friends or fellow musicians. So, it was kind of like a community effort, every one of these songs; we just wanted to do something with these great, great artists and recordings. Mike Cullens who is known as “Mad Mike” at his label, Mad Hands Records which this is on, he was the first person to come to me and say. “I want to put this album together” and we accomplished that. Arnie came up and played on it all and helped us mix and then when we wanted to do more; we approached Charlie. Arnie was really into helping me produce it and letting us use his studio and the Blues Burners band was basically the back-up band for around 70 or 80 different acts and we really found a fit and a groove between the four of us and we’re all pretty much on every track of the album. We tried to make some sense out of playing with all of these artists because the music they brought to the world meant so much to us. Even though we were listening to the music of the day and playing this stuff, when you got back to the room; we were hanging out with people like Lee Andrews. His song was “Long Lonely Nights” on Chess Records in 1957; anyway, we’re sitting in Roseland in a basement and he’s telling us these stories of how he would have to perform to a white audience on one side and a black audience on the other side and going into the place through the back and we were  like; this doesn’t seem like his life but it was his life. How do you try and give something back to these artists who really paid their dues? There are a lot of books and plays about this but when you grow up in the suburbs and now you really meet the artists and hear these things out of their mouths; it made us very fond of them. So, that’s how the project came about and that’s how we put the musicians together and they were so excited to do this and when we wanted to continue we knew Charlie was out there and Mike had done some stuff with Charlie over the years and Ray Powers has done some production and he did the cover of “:I Hear You Knocking” and he’s been a big part of this.”

“I believe the entire album comes out within the next few months and it really is a phenomenal but eclectic collection of blues legends that are coming together with some unfamiliar and familiar songs with voices from the past that if you are a blues lover that just really honors the genre of the blues while honoring their legacy as well as giving newbies on the scene like me the opportunity to be presented to the world,” echoed Turner who is no stranger to the Blues, Backer and the great Charlie Thomas. 

“I have worked with David Backer for quite a few years in my own release of music and he was working with Charlie as Charlie was ailing and his voice wasn’t as strong, David had the great idea of combining us together; almost a passing of the torch if you will and placing my voice on with him to complete the song. I was so honored to do it because Charlie Thomas is a name I’ve known for many years and his music has been known long before me and my time and so I was honored to do it and so grateful for not only the opportunity but for how everything came out.”

“I think it’s a Apropo for me because I’m also in the theater world currently in a show called “Rock and Roll Man” I formerly played Fats Domino and for me to encounter this song again was just a treat and as I said, very apropo. The one thing that I have learned to do is creatively infuse myself into any creation. A lot of people may stress over that but that is an art that I’ve learned to do quite well. I know that whatever I go to sing is going to be different because my vocals are going to be different but I also studied the Fats Domino version prior to going to the studio because I wanted to give it some authenticity to what more people are used to hearing and his version, the simplicity of his voice with that southern drawl that he has from New Orleans; that’s the version I studied, I didn’t study the Dave Edmunds version prior to going in. I knew, as far as ad-libs and things like that; that just rolls off me anyway. So, I knew that wasn’t going to be a problem but it was really a lot of fun going through the creative process of putting this song together.” 

As previously mentioned, Turner is an up and coming Blues artist but according to him; it wasn’t always his first choice. 

“My preferred genre used to be soul in regards to my recorded music but it wasn’t until I released “Ain’t No Good” in 2021 where I really made the decision and it was when I was so graciously welcomed into the Blues community overall. I received such a warm welcome by releasing that song and that was when I really made the choice that I wanted to finish out my album with the Blues in mind. The thing about Blues music is that you really can’t receive critic’s reviews until the album is released and so for my single to have hit number one, it really changed the trajectory for me in several ways; not only in my artistry and the completion of my album but as I stated with this current show that I’m doing, which I’ve been a part of for nearly eight years now, I’ve always played Fats Domino to critical acclaim. When we released “Ain’t No Good” in 2021, the creative team thought they’d never heard that side of my voice and that they could switch me over to playing Bo Diddley. So, now I’m currently playing Bo Diddley to critical acclaim (laughs).” 

“Eric is on the rise and obviously Arnie’s guitar part is so featured in it,” added Backer. “The way we picked the songs was; we really picked songs that we liked a lot to put them with these older artists and Charlie, who we started with when he was 84 or 85 when we started; during the soundchecks we’d play the blues; he loved the Blues.We actually recorded four songs with Charlie before COVID. This was one of them and “Be My Rock” another and we have two others in the can and we’re trying to figure out how to finish them because Charlie had come up from DC where he lived with his wife Rita Thomas twice and she has been a great supporter since Charlie passed. Charlie started to ail after the COVID pandemic and he was performing right up until COVID and we saw him and he was fantastic and he was rocking. He and his wife were just fantastic friends and supporters of the project and since he has passed, we  are trying to get together with Rita and do a concert or something for Charlie; we’ll see how that works out.” 

“Be My Rock” which featured Dave Revels on vocals along with Thomas was released approximately a year or so ago and with the release of “I Hear You Knocking” in June of this year they are right on track as they head towards the next phase of re-releasing the album. So, as a collective group; are they satisfied with the way things are playing out? 

“We just loved these songs, Arnie especially loved the Dave Edmunds version of “I Hear You Knocking” and back when we did the press release, I learned about Smiley Lewis who wrote the song,” said a very enthusiastic Backer. “I had only heard the Fats Domino and Dave Edmunds versions and Edmunds has that rock part and there were big horns but after we did it with Eric’s and Charlie’s vocals we figured we didn’t need them and we’ve been fortunate to work with The Uptown Horns a lot. I give Arnie credit for bringing in suggestions because he loves and plays the blues and we always wanted to do this tune with Charlie and then bringing in Eric, who did a fantastic job; we just think it rocks and we love the track.”

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