Although life has not been easy for Charlie Sayles he has come through the traumas. They started during childhood when he was shifted from his broken home to foster homes. He ended up joining the army in the late 60’s and was promptly shipped to South Vietnam. His tour of duty ended in 1971 and he moved back to Massachusetts. Sayles pick up blues harp while he was in Vietnam and made a slow adjustment back to society after three and a half years in the infantry. He discovered the music of Sonny Boy Williamson and learned from the recordings. Sayles began making trips to NYC, Atlanta, St. Louis, and other cities playing on the streets for tips. He worked when he needed money as a day laborer. He hasn’t had a real job since then. He’s survived by playing in clubs, street corners, and festivals. His approach as a solo artist was to get a full band sound. Sayles is unlike other harmonica players as his playing is full of extended phrasing and register changes. He uses his harmonica as a melodic device while coaxing sharp almost percussive sounds as well.
Sayles began to develop his songwriting voice in the mid 70’s and his debut for the JSP label is far from a straight ahead blues album. On his second JSP release, Sayles artfully blends funky, gritty, urban blues sounds with original down to earth lyrics. He successfully avoids blues clichés. His first big break was being discovered by Ralph Rinzler, an organizer for the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. Rinzler paired him up with Pete Seeger.
Sayles first record, Raw Harmonica Blues, was issued in 1976 long before blues became fashionable on the Dusty Road label. Sayles didn’t record for fifteen years when he was picked up by JSP label. Sayles will be the first to tell you that he’s not a straight ahead Chicago blues player. He takes a more mongrelized approach mixing New Orleans, Chicago blues, and Rock & Roll in his playing. He now finds himself associated with a trusted group of people: Tony Fazio and the team at Fetal Records.
How did you get into blues and who are your blues heroes?
I got into blues during my second year of Vietnam. My first year I was with a hundred-man company called 101st Airborne. We would go out for thirty days come back and rest up for three days. I did that for a year. I joined the Long-Range Recon. It was a six man team. We went out for four days and then came in for three. I did that for a year. One day when we were in the rear this one guy was playing harmonica. To tell you the truth I had never heard a harmonica before other than the Harmonicats. It was different. He told me he was playing the blues. It intrigued me. A few days later I was in a restaurant in the rear where you can buy your own grub and they had music playing. It was BB King. I had never heard that. I am from Salem, MA. It intrigued me.
When I got out of Vietnam, I had six months to go and they sent me to Germany. That is where they make Hohner harmonicas. I decided to buy some harmonicas and I started fiddling with them. Nothing big happened.
When I got out of the service, I got a room with my cousin who had a piano. I started buying blues records and I got hooked. I was super anti-social. I had no friends and did not want any. Music was the perfect thing for me. I started playing every day. I had just left Atlanta, Georgia. I started playing on the streets in NYC. After about a year of this I ran into this cat named Ralph Rinzler. He invited me to play at a festival. I was living in a hotel room in New York. I caught a train and suddenly, I am playing on the stage. Pete Seeger was on the bill. I was playing and suddenly there was this banjo music behind me on the last song. It was Pete Seeger. I started getting some gigs from Ralph. He invited me to the Bicentennial Smithsonian Folklife Festival in D.C. It was 1976. Ralph invited me to play at that festival. I stayed at his place and did the gig every day. After that was over, I went back to New York and began playing on the street. This was all solo. I didn’t get into the band thing until the early 80’s. Ralph helped me with that. In 1979 I got a band together and started practicing every day. He got us gigs for a few years. I went my way and he went his. It was the life of a musician. Every once in a while I had nice gigs but most of them were regular ones.
Your harp playing is so unique. How would you describe your style?
When I got into the music, I would memorize a song note for note. I could not play “Juke” when I first started so I made up my own tunes and I made it sound like “Juke.” You must memorize it. Little Walter memorized every note. I made up my own songs that sounded like “Juke” or any big band. I made up a song called “Woody” that has the rhythmic Woody Woodpecker theme in it. I did not know how to use the tongue method which is what Little Walter used. I was pursing my lips and blowing. I memorized the notes I wanted. I heard notes in my head and I would find them. Sometimes I go for a big band sound. I went over and over and learned the songs and after a while I had a repertoire of songs.
I struggled with Little Walter’s slow blues. I could not do the sounds of Little Walter. Little Walter’s “Blue Midnight” is a slow blues and sometimes he played the chromatic which I call the big axe and he would play “Lights Out.” If you first pick up a chromatic or any harmonica and try and hit the first note you are not going to do it. I started making up my own tunes because it was easier. I made up a song called “Chromatic Blues”. I purse my lips and hear it in my head. When you make your own tune say it takes you five hours to complete the project. If you do someone else’s tune it will take you five months because it’s so intricate. I ended up making my own tunes because it was easier; especially when it comes to singing because I am not a singer. I did not know anything about singing. It is a lot easier for me to play my own songs and hear the words in my head as opposed to doing somebody else’s song. With Little Walter’s “I’m a Businessman”, I couldn’t sing it or play the notes at the time. I made up my own similar song called “I Like What I Like.” That might have taken me a couple of days to do. It took me years to learn “I’m a Businessman” and “Juke.” I ended up making my own repertoire. Since I was solo, I added things in between because I figured I needed to sound like a full band in between. Eventually, I started working with a band. It was totally different. It was another learning process.
Sonny Boy Williamson cemented harmonica playing for me. I bought his album. I heard “Bye Bye Bird.” I had never heard rhythmic playing like that before. I was born in 1948 and liked Lawrence Welk. I knew big band music. I had never heard those kind of grooves. I started going over and over it to play along with Sonny. I started buying more albums and kept at it.
I was really anti-social. I don’t think you can really imagine how bad it was with me. I am talking about if you looked at me wrong, I wanted to fight you. I am talking about PTSD. I was a sick human being for a couple of years. A year out of the army I was homeless running around with another dude. We would go into a restaurant, order a meal with dessert coffee and cigarettes, and then we would run out the door. We never paid for anything. I did that for about a half a year with this dude. I was not good at shoplifting, but he was. We would sleep in the park at night. I had just spent two years sleeping in the jungle where there were snakes bigger than me in Vietnam. Sleeping out and being homeless was not that different to me. Also, I had never been out in real life. I was always in foster homes. The Army isn’t real life because they take care of you and you don’t have to pay for anything. All of a sudden, I have to do this thing called work to make money. Me being homeless was cool and I was trying to play the harmonica. These are the reasons why I play harmonica. If it weren’t for Vietnam, I would have never thought about it. Also, I stayed an extra year in Vietnam and that cemented my mental problem. It’s not like I was out there killing people every day but my job everyday was to kill people. You would set up an ambush and wait for somebody to walk by and shoot them up and run. For me not paying for food and running outside the door was nothing. I am getting a little upset thinking about it now. That is also why I couldn’t hold a job. So you can see how music fit me like a glove.
I still have an anger problem to tell you the truth. I busted my arm about six months ago from fighting this one dude. I have an anger problem. I am not fighting every day, but I still get that angry sometimes. I have to watch it. That’s why I can play music real hard. My songs aren’t love songs. They are talking about I don’t want to die but I am getting tired of living or baby you done wreck my life or I am mad at you because you won’t’ do what you are supposed to do. These are my songs. This is what’s in me man. When I play sometimes, I want to blow the harmonica to pieces. If you don’t have friends, you can be who you are and you don’t have to act. That is why I couldn’t hold a job. If you are going to act who you are you are never going to hold a job. My songs are a release.
Who are you currently playing with and where do you gig?
I am collecting money each month for my military service, so I am not really playing out. My landlord is also my guitar player of twenty-five years. His name is Tony Fazio. I basically just practice music. I am not gigging at all.
What did you learn about performing by playing the streets and subway stations?
I did a lot of traveling when I first started. I hung out in Atlanta Georgia, Knoxville, and I was in L.A. for a while. I had a big mental problem. My family broke up when I was two years old. I never really had a mother or father. I went from house to house. When I got out of the Army the last place I lived was called The Palmer Home for Boys. I lived there from eleven years old until I got out of high school. I went back for a couple of days. Other than that, there was no place to go. I had plenty of time to study music. I stayed at my grandfather’s house for five months. My father was living up there as he had a bad accident when I was a teenager. I was working in Lawrence and playing harmonica. I then left and started traveling and never really stopped.
The reason I can play music is because of Vietnam. When I got back, I didn’t want anybody around me. This went on year after year and I mean I didn’t want to be around anybody. All I did was practice. That was it. I would usually have one or two music friends. That is just the way it was. I traveled until I was married. That lasted for eight years. My wife was my bass player and manager. For eight years I had steady work. Things didn’t work out. Now, I get up everyday and I practice music. I am not really worried about gigs. I like my lifestyle now. It’s a job like any other job. I would much rather stay at home and listen to music than go out and work. That is what it is, it’s work. You have to be there on time and your clothes have to be just right. You have to have the band together. I would rather do this job than other jobs, but it is still work. That’s where I am right now.
What songs or albums of yours should we be listening to?
I have no idea. You got me. There is so much stuff on YouTube from the seventies that I was doing. I don’t know what people go for and I couldn’t tell you. All I know is one thing: Every five years you actually change who you are as a musician. Your style, your vocals, and everything change. You are working with different people and new traumatic things go on in your life. Imagine one second you have a full band with all of your equipment and the next moment you are divorced and have nothing. That’s the way it always is. Things happen fast.
As for what to listen to, I leave that up to God. I am Christian myself. When I play music and I hit notes I don’t just think of anything. I mentally hum Jesus Christ while I play. With us musicians we get onstage and if we see somebody that doesn’t like what we are doing it bothers us. So you aren’t thinking right. All I have to do is think the phrase Jesus Christ. I actually found this out after I was divorced. In my mind I am humming and saying Jesus so every note means something now. I had a big problem with that years ago. I played on the street and someone would walk by and say something negative and all of a sudden I wasn’t happy. Every note is important to me. Once I got divorced Jesus Christ hit me. It wasn’t me. No one is searching for anything. You just live your life. Anyway, that is how I play music. If I am singing words I try and picture the words in my mind as I am singing. Since God made everything, everything is important.
I am not a good singer. I found this helps me. When I sing, I try to picture the words as I am singing. When I picture the words, I sing better. I am not saying I am a great singer. That is how I go. I talk about it in my harmonica instructional DVD I put out a few years ago. I explain it and my method of playing. Stage fright is a problem for a lot of musicians. That’s why a lot of musicians have to get high or drunk before they go onstage. I would much rather stay at home and listen to music than have to jump onstage and entertain somebody. If I don’t make the club owner money at the end of the night, then I have to deal with him too. I had a dude’s hands shaking one time because he was so mad he had to give me money because he didn’t think I did the job I should have done. It’s funny now but these are the things that musicians have to face sometimes.
It’s work. I am a professional so every day I am going to get up and study my music. I am happy to stay right here and listen to music opposed to being at the saloon at night. I remember one club I played the guy wouldn’t pay until the end of everything. I have a lot of music on YouTube, iTunes, CD’s out, and all that kind of jazz. People can enjoy it. I am 72 and I have been doing this since 1971 when I got out of the Army. Again, I leave it all up to God.
What else do you want to accomplish?
I just practice every day and I let God take over. I never search for a gig it just happens. I want to just keep on playing. My main thing is I wish people well. Music is one way to do this. I have heard music played in my ear that has only lasted a couple of seconds and I can still get strength from it right now. It may just be that riff that Sonny Boy made or something. I really don’t care. Let it roll.
*Feature image Elvert Barnes Photograpy