The Soul of John Black Brings Songs of Truth

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Editor’s Note: This featured artist interview is brought to you through our partnership with ReverbNation.

John Bigham is The Soul of John Black, the singer/songwriter/prodcuer’s alter-ego band — though the performer never really envisioned himself actually leading a band, or doing his own thing. Bigham was a member of the band Fishbone, and has worked with the likes of El DeBarge, Everlast, Betty Carter, and jazz legend Miles Davis. Since 2007, Bigham has been recording alone, and using the The Soul of John Black as his stage and band name. Good Thang, released in 2011, was an exciting mix of blues tinged, soul and funk influenced joy. Released in 2013, his latest album, Sunshine State of Mind is full of mostly uptempo songs that are breezy, spacious, and reminiscent of the great mid-70′s Detroit soul, with echoes of underlying blues. American Blues Scene recently spoke with John about his music, family, and career.

ABS:  You never intended to be a performer?

Yes, that’s true.

So you just fell into it?

Well, you gotta get out there and promote your own music. So, I just got out here to promote my own music. I was already playing in a bunch of bands. I mean, I intended on being a musician, I just didn’t intend on having my own band. So, it was about kind of making that transition to being the front man.

That wasn’t difficult for you though.

Just a little working on singing and playing at the same time. Just working on my writing, you know, trying to get better and better.

You were a percussionist for Miles Davis, and in the past you’ve said that he had an interesting sense of humor.

Yeah. He was a funny guy.

He’s been described as everything from a prince to a bastard. You described him as a little off-putting at first, but once he got to know you, it was cool.

Yes, but I think every musician is like that though. Even Enrique Iglesias is a little introverted until you get to know him. I mean, it’s because he is who he is. They don’t know what you want from them. Are you just cool, or are you coming to get something.

What did you learn musically with Miles?

I used to talk to him about going to New York. I dreamed of the days when Herbie and Miles, you know, everybody, went to New York. I was chasing that dream. I just wanted to be one of those guys who went to New York, studied jazz, and played jazz. He told me to forget about that. He said I was in a good place, LA was a good place, and just learn as much as you can, and be yourself. That’s pretty much what I learned from him; to just be who you are, and bring what you have to offer to the table – because it’s going to be unique. You can’t see what people see in you, and you can’t determine how to present it; you can only determine how you want to be presenting yourself. That’s what I learned from him was just to bring it. You gotta bring what you’ve got, and see how it works out.

You’ve said that your earliest musical memories are of the Isley Brothers, especially “Twist & Shout.” You can hear some of Ernie Isley in your playing, here and there.

That’s kind of funny because I wasn’t so much listening to Ernie play so much as I was listening to Rudolph, and the rest of the guys. I got into the Isley brothers really young. You’ve got twist and Shout, and then “Pop That Thing,”  Ernie didn’t come into the picture until the mid-1970’s. That was probably the third resurgence of the Isley Brothers. They came out first in the ’50s, then in the ’60s, and then in the ’70s. When you heard Ernie Isley, that was definitely a game changer. I was kind of more into the vocals, on songs like I Got Work To Do.” That voice was amazing. Then there’s songs like “Four Dead In Ohio.” There’s a live version of that, and Ernie takes a crazy solo. There’s the Carole King songs; that’s the stuff that I really dug about the Isley Brothers. As far as Ernie goes,  I’ve always stayed away from what was the most popular thing. Whatever was the most popular thing, I did the opposite. When everybody was in love with Ernie, I just kind of stayed with Hendrix, ’cause I knew where he got it from. I didn’t dig his tone as much. He really wasn’t my guy, but I appreciate what he was doing.

Your first major gig was with El DeBarge?

Yeah, that was it. There’s a bunch of talented people in their family. hanging out with El DeBarge was kind of amazing because he can play guitar, drums, piano; he can do it all. His whole vibe was kind of like Marvin Gaye. We end up rehearsing in Marvin Gaye’s old studio in Hollywood. I watched El sit down at the piano, and just go off! It was amazing to watch, and it was amazing to watch him play and sing. He’s just an awesome performer, you know?

We’ve reviewed the Good Thang album, and then later, Sunshine State of Mind, which seemed more focused and tighter all the way through.

You could be right… I don’t know. What happens is that these songs just come to me. I work on them, maybe for a few years. There’s probably 20 to 25 songs, and it ends up being ten songs. So, I think what happened is, I just picked a good ten. I didn’t come up with the name of the album until half way through the process. I kind of let the music dictate to me what it wants to be. I just put it out, and put it down and I look back to it and see where it came from.

The Good Thang album was probably a set up for this because it was saying that I was happy with my family, loving my family, and I got a good thing. That came about because my wife was saying, ‘Why don’t you write some happy music.’ So, Sunshine State of Mind is a continuation of that. It probably got a little better because I started writing that right after I finished Good Thang. Literally. As soon as I put the pen down on Good Thang, I picked it up for Sunshine State of Mind.

In our review of the Good Thang album, we wrote, “‘New York to LA’ is what blues would sound like if Cameo and Funkadelic met up with The Crusaders in a New York alley and played some blues; just so smooth.”

Yeah, I have to give a lot of the credit to my writing partner on that, Christopher Thomas. He’s a jazz bassist, and he sent me that idea. It was based on an Ellington song, “The Mooch.” He gave me that song and I had it for about a year. I woke up one morning, I’d had a dream,  and I did that song, and “Lil’ Mama’s in the Kitchen,” back-to-back. I did the chords and the lyrics were “New York To LA,” and I already had the music for “Lil’ Mama’s in the Kitchen,” and I wrote the lyrics and sang both of those songs back-to-back one morning, out of nowhere. I had the music for a long Time, and I didn’t know what to do with it, and then it came to me.

Your wife is a big part in whether your music sits well with you, and you’ve called her your “most honest critic.”

Yes, for sure. I think she has a great ear fro music and her music collection is pretty good. So, I take her advice. She’s pretty on point because she’s coming as a listener. Totally as a listener. How does it make me feel? Does it make me feel good, bad, what? Then she just blurts it out. I mean are you pulling a fast one, or are you being honest about what you’re doing? I want to be honest about what I am doing. I love performing this music and I feel comfortable with every word that come out of my mouth from these songs. I didn’t always feel that way, so it was hard to write songs for me. I could write for other people. For me though, I need to feel really comfortable about what I’m saying, and how I’m saying it, and she helped me get there.

Even though some of the stuff in the early days was about how much she was getting on my nerves, it was honest, you know? As our relationship developed, the songs kind of developed with it. One of my early songs was called “Super Killer,” and the first lyric was ‘I don’t need your drama mama, get it to go. “You’re a runaway child, running wild, and I ain’t dealing with it no more.’ That was the FIRST song I ever wrote about her. So, we came from that, all the way to ‘I got a good thang when I come home at night.’

So what’s happening with touring?

We actually did a little run in March, and since then I’ve been working on the next batch of songs, and I been working on it since last year, so I’ve got the demos now. I’ve just been at home, taking care of my daughter, and working on the new music. I’m playing the Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival July 18th and 19th.

Trying to work that life/work balance?

Wherever I am, I just try to work it out where I can accommodate my family, and get something creative out of it too. You know, so we can all be happy.

Yes, it’s hard to strike that balance sometimes.

Yeah, I worry about that. I spent ten good years on the road. It was good, but the road is the road man. I mean you’re there mostly working for three out of twenty four hours, so there’s a lot of time that’s wasted, more or less.

For sure, you are literally on the road, traveling.

I mean, your daughter wants to give you a hug, so you’re trying to FaceTime and it gets to be hard being on the road all the time, on your family. I want to put my family first.

This new material you are working on; is it leaning in any direction? More blues, instrumental, or just whatever comes to you?

Nope. This one is blues. It’s definitely my take on the blues, but there’s a lot of familiar ideas in the music. There’s a lot of traditional blues ideas, that I put in there purposely. Right now I can tell you that the working title is Early In The Moaning, which is a song that I have on the record too. It’s heavier on the blues. It’s focused, like you say; yeah focused is the key word.

I’m from Chicago, and I’ve heard the stories from my mother and father. I’ve listened to so much blues, it’s ridiculous. I don’t just want to outright repeat anything to show that I know the blues, you know, recreate what’s already been done. I just want to show that I know it by my take, and referencing some of the greats. I actually have a new song called “Chicago Blues” and it’s sort of abstract. It’s not about Chicago, but it’s about some of the things going there. You know you hear about gangs and killings and like old New York, and the gangs and killings, and that shit died. Now it’s back again. The shootings and killings, and it’s a shame, so I just wanted to reference that just a little bit, but not be too preachy about it.

I mean when you’re kids, you do things, you know, but hey man, I never got into no gang fights. I knew everybody in the gangs. They were like ‘You wanna go with us?’ and I was like ‘No I don’t.’ They respect that because they see you doing something else than their life, and they start to say ‘Look man, I don’t want you to do what I do. I want you to go out and be somebody. Don’t be me. Go out and do something.’ These are gangsters who said these things to me, because they know if you have an opportunity to get out of it, and be something better, at a young age, then it will change your whole mindset. You see that what you’re doing, I mean you’re really just digging your own grave.

When is the new record due out? Any idea?

There’s no target date on the new album. I don’t know if I’m gonna put it out myself or it’s gonna come out on a label. That’s kind of up in the air right now. The thing is that I’ve been on a deadline from every record up to this point, so I’m really happy to just take some time and see what’s going to work for me. I’m still working on it. I’m just shopping around and seeing what’s gonna be the best thing for it.

Would you share with our readers a little bit about your gear? What guitars and amps do you use.?

My main guitar is a ’62 reissue Fender Telecaster. If I run across something really good, I tend to hang on to it. I use a Fender Tele, and I have a backup Tele. It looks like a Tele, but it has Tom Anderson parts in it. So it looks like a Tele, but it can go from zero to a hundred! It has what they call Fat Single Coil.

As for my acoustics, I have an old Gibson that I got randomly, a Gibson CL-120, and it’s one of the Montana Series Gibsons, made in the late ’90s. I also have a nylon string, it’s a Brazilian called the Di Giorgio. It’s a 1981 Di Giorgio. I got it out of the pawn shop and fixed it up, and it sounds amazing!

How about your amps?

These days I’m using the Fender DeLuxe Reverb ’65 Reissue and my other amp is a 1999 Vox AC30. It’s a workhorse, but it’s SO heavy. I had to go to the DeLux to get around with it, you know, playing around town.

Thanks for taking time with us today.

Thank you. I appreciate it. Take care.