Shawn Holt Remembers The Past, Forges New Path

I don't care if everyone changes and starts playing jazz and R&B, I'm gonna play Chicago blues. I'm gonna play traditional blues, and I'm gonna pay homage to the man that gave me the first guitar, which was my dad.
Shawn Holt and the Teardrops at the Chicago Blues Festival
Shawn Holt and the Teardrops at the Chicago Blues Festival

On February 21st, 2013, the blues world lost a gentle giant. Magic Slim, (Morris Holt), passed away after battling several health issues that worsened over the course of his last tour. His son, Shawn Holt (“Little Slim”) is now leading The Teardrops out on tour, and the group has released Daddy Told Me on Blind Pig Records.

American Blues Scene was fortunate to catch up with Shawn Holt recently, and we discussed Magic Slim’s career and legacy, as well as the new album, Daddy Told Me.

Originally, your father left Chicago because he was told he wasn’t good enough to play there yet. So he went home and worked on things for a while. What did he do to improve? Did he do a lot of ‘wood-shedding?’

No, I think he honed his skills. He went back home, and figured out a lot of guitar work, and practiced. He got better at what he wanted to do. He was really persistent. He said he didn’t just want to quit because people told him he wasn’t good enough. So he went back home, and got better, came back and showed them ‘This is me now.’

Later on, Magic Slim and The Teardrops became the house band at the night club, Florence’s.

He started playing with Hound Dog Taylor. Yeah, after a while, Hound Dog Taylor give him a night at Florence’s. That’s pretty much how it started. That was pretty much paying some dues. You know, being seen by the normal crowd. That was being on the scene, having a normal gig, paying dues. After a while people started hearing him, and they started giving him more shows. You know what comes with more shows; more people. More exposure.

That was actually 1965, 1966. He didn’t actually record his first album until 1977.

That sounds about right.

So after that it was more touring, and making more albums?

Yes, that’s pretty much how it went.

How did the touring help with the sound?

The more you play with a certain group, the better you become as a unit. Him playing all those nights at little juke joints really paid off. He started playing bigger and better shows, bigger and better venues. He went overseas, to other countries, and played bigger venues. The more you play, the better you are. I can be 99 years old, and playing guitar for 89 years, and you can always learn something; you can always get better.

In 1982, John Primer joined the Teardrops and stayed on, playing with them for 13 years. How did that change the sound of the band?

It gave it a more modern blues sound. When Primer joined the band, he gave my dad and the band a more modern Chicago sound. I mean, Primer played with Muddy Waters. So he must know what he’s doing. He played with Muddy Waters! I mean, Muddy Waters! And to have John in the band with my dad, just made him sound better. John had a huge impact on The Teardrop’s sound. You can’t think of The Teardrops, and talk about their sound, without saying John primer’s name.

In 2003, your dad and the band won the W.C. Handy Award as ‘Blues Band of The Year’ for the sixth time. How did he feel about that?

My father was really happy. He was really proud of himself and the band for winning those Handys. Just to be nominated is huge. Coming from what he came from, coming from where he came from, how much he had to struggle to get to where he was, when he passed, every award he won made him feel good. He was so humbled. It made him think, ‘I could’ve gave all this up, and I fought for it.’ That right there, that he fought for it, made him feel better that he fought and made it happen.

Everyone that has gone that route, that had to fight hard, and persist to get where they wanted to be, have turned out to be better players.

Yep. Better people and better players.

Yeah. When we met your father, he was totally humble, approachable, and grateful. There was no attitude, no snootiness at all.

No. Not at all!

Seeing you and the Teardrops live is always a treat. The crowd eats it up. You guys always deliver a high intensity show.

Any fan can love a song. When you perform live, you put an impact on people. You smile, you make eye contact. They remember that more so than the song you’re playing. They remember that you smiled at them. They remember that you gestured toward them, that you talked to them. They remember the feeling they had; they felt like part of the show. My father was the king of that! He would walk in a room, and everyone would light up. That’s because he walked in and he’s smiling, and the center of attention, and everyone feels like he’s their best friend. He does that onstage also. He walks up on stage, and everyone is all eyes on him. He doesn’t even have to play a note. He could stand there, look at the crowd and gesture towards them, and crowds remember that. People remember being a part of that. It’s not the song, or how fast he played, or how many notes. It’s how they felt when he did it.

So, what is the plan for the band going forward now?

That’s a conversation in and of itself. We are really happy to be in this position. My father pretty much left it all to me. The band is touring, and we are managed by Piedmont Booking, Piedmont Talent. We have a cool management, and a cool manager. Blind Pig signed us, and we continue playing. We’re playing, and continue doing what we do. We’re trying to keep it pure as possible. We want people to remember the music, and remember the songs. We’re gonna play. We came to play.

Tell us about this new album, Daddy Told Me.

It’s me and the band paying homage. My father obviously taught me a lot. I’ve been playing with him off and on, since I was 17 years old. Daddy Told Me is an album of things that I experienced with him throughout the years. Through those years, certain songs, like the title track, “Daddy Told Me,” was written by him while we were sittin’ in the garage, joking around. My father had that gift. He would make a statement, or a little saying, just talking ‘stuff’. Then he would put music with it, and he would make a song! He would tell me ‘If you love some girl for a while, she’s gonna love you for a while, she dogs you out, and then all of a sudden, she comes back to you, something ain’t right. Either she wants something,  or she has a plan, or she’s scheming.’ Throughout the years I thought about all the stuff me and my father talked about, and I made songs about it. So, I mean, it makes sense, you know? Why not make songs from the heart?

John Primer plays on two of these songs also.

Yeah, he plays a couple of them. Very happy to have John on the CD. It means a lot to me.

As you say, you have been doing this a long time. Do you think there is a “blues revival” going on? Do you think the blues is getting the respect it deserves, or do you think the blues is in decline?

Yeah. You hit the nail on the head. Blues music is on a decline. A lot of people don’t appreciate (the) music as much as they did back in the day. I think really, most young people don’t really understand it. They struggle. Everyone walks around with their iPhones and their iPads. These guys made the American art form through struggle. Blues is a good man feeling down. It could be about any situation. As far as my job, I am here to take it as far as I possibly can. Again, I try to keep it as pure as possible. I try to keep the music pure; I try not to dilute it as much. I’m gonna keep it going. I don’t care if everyone changes and starts playing jazz and R&B, I’m gonna play Chicago blues. I’m gonna play traditional blues, and I’m gonna pay homage to the man that gave me the first guitar, which was my dad.

Is it frustrating that the music isn’t more appreciated here in this country as opposed to overseas, where they love blues, and know the history?

Yeah. It gets frustrating sometimes. You’ve got to do what you do, have fun doing it, and you’ve got to love what you do.

What advice would you offer to young blues players out there as to how to be successful, and/or take blues in a new direction?

Who am I to say what to do? Hmm … I’ve been around the block a few times. Young guys coming up, they need to listen. Listen more than they are trying to teach. Of course, you can play. You have a lot of licks, and that’s great. Can you listen to this, and play this? Can you play it like Son House? Can you get that bend like Magic Slim? You know, how did he do that? How did he get that vibrato? How did Albert King get that bend? It’s about listening now. I think if the youth listened to the traditional blues more, they’ll learn to appreciate it. They’ll get it; they’ll get how to play it! You can’t start out listening to, no offense, Eric Clapton, without knowing where did Eric Clapton get his stuff from. You have to look beyond the book. The book is in your face. Go to the first page. That’s what I did. Like I said; who am I? I’m nobody. I went to the source. I wanted to know. ‘How did Albert King do this? Who did this before Albert King? Who was using a slide before Muddy Waters?’ I went to the source.

Also, for those young players coming up: How important would you say the mix is to an album? How critical is it to put out the best product you can, instead of rushing to get it out there?

Well, if you’re not satisfied with what you put down, and it ain’t sounding right to you, then it’s a lost cause. I’m not saying you have to sit in the studio for days and days, and do every little thing until it’s picture perfect, but you’ve got to be happy with the product to feel good about the next one. You have to be happy about this product to feel good about making the next one. You can use what you didn’t do on the first product, and make it better on the second one. It’s a process.

So, obviously, you are not a fan of rushing an album out the door?

No! Hell no! No. My father always told me ‘Always take your time, in whatever you do. Picking a woman, ordering food; take your time. What’s the rush? You’ve got all the time in the world.’

Thanks for taking time to visit with us today, and thanks for what you guys do. It really means a lot to a lot of people out there.

Thank you, and thanks for the interest in us.

Shawn Holt and The Teardrops on Facebook

Shawn Holt and The Teardrops


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