BLUES FOR BRUNO
by Evan Ginzburg
Jeff (Red) Alperin is a blues guitarist who also, along with guitarist Jimmy Vivino of the Conan O'Brien Show, produced legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin's latest CD, Wake Up Call on Blues Planet Records. He is also a member of the New York based Little Brother and the Signifiers who are currently touring the college circuit. An avid wrestling fan and historian, he recently showed me a rare photo of Bobo Brazil with the late blues giant Howlin' Wolf circa early 60s. It got us to thinking about the many parallels between the wrestling life and that of many blues musicians.
EVAN GINZBURG: Tell me about your connection with Jimmy Vivino and how you got together to produce this record.
JEFF ALPERIN: I met Jimmy through a local blues musician, Danny Draher, who in his own right is a fantastic guitar player. Danny has been backing Hubert up on and off for many years and was scheduled to play a show with him in New York City a few years back. At the last second, his mom got sick in Chicago, and he told me to call up Jimmy. He had a band all ready to go. I didn't realize it was the band that plays on TV. And when I called Jimmy, all he said was, "Where? When?" . . . He just wanted to do it. He was a big fan of Hubert's. And that's how the relationship began. Hubert just loves those guys, and he seems to play his best when he's around them. I'll tell you something funny. Jimmy Vivino hired the legendary former Blues Project, Blood, Sweat and Tears founder Al Kooper to play organ on the show. Al's a real strange guy if you don't know him. Very to himself but as far as his personal history, I don't know the reasons for this. Just not real approachable. Some people give off this vibe. But you know me, Evan; I was armed with the knowledge that Al some years earlier had put out an album--no bullshit--called "Championship Wrestling." Well, it was time we had a bit of a conversation, if you know what I mean. So after the show was over, we were all outside the club saying our good-byes when I approached him and asked him about said album. Suddenly it was like a breakthrough with an autistic child. Al began to rant off a veritable who's who of golden age wrestlers--Buddy Rogers, Rocca, Killer Kowalski, and then Jimmy Vivino chimed in. And his brother Jerry chimed in. And before we knew it, people not in the know were going, "What are you talking about?" But just like you say Evan, it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll. Anyway, one night after another engagement playing with Hubert, I said, "Hey Jimmy, what about you guys making a record with Hubert?" Again, Jimmy's response was, "When can we do it?" No talk of money. Nothing. There it is, priorities in the right place. Right there. Jimmy is a great person. As well as a great musician. And with Max Weinberg currently on tour with Springsteen, well that whole band nightly on Conan's show is the same band on the album with Hubert. It is by far Hubert's best solo album to date and has garnered the best reviews of his career.
EG: I remember watching Jimmy's brother, Uncle Floyd, during my college days. I even interviewed him for the school paper.
JA: And from what I understand, he's still Uncle Floyd when the money's right. And his brothers still play with him when he dons the Uncle Floyd tights.
EG: What about your musical background. . . .
JA: I started playing at 19, which is very late. But in my case, I think it was right on time. I knew I wanted to play blues. That's all I wanted to play, I just didn't think I had it in me. Meeting Hubert Sumlin at 25 years old is what put me on the path that I am on today. Hubert was the lead guitarist in the great Howlin' Wolf's band for a span of 23 years. To break it down in wrestling terms, Hubert is like the Killer Kowalski of electric guitar. He's relentless, vicious, with strong iron hands. But also like Walter Kowalski, he's the sweetest, gentlest person you could hope to meet. Couple that with his encouragement also like Walter Kowalski, and you have a friend and a teacher.
EG: But, like wrestling, it can be a very tough business, or life, for that matter. . . .
JA: Well, I'll give you an example. There was another great guitar player in Chicago who passed away by the name of Louis Myers. He was in a seminal band known as The Aces out of Chicago. They played from the early 50s into the 70s. Louis' contributions to blues are really incalculable. History more than likely will never be able to bring his accomplishments into the true light he deserved. Through Hubert I met Louis and used to stay with him in Chicago. One morning he woke me up and said, "Come with me, I have to do something." Now here you have one of the greatest musicians in this country, but what he was doing this morning was collecting cans and bottles for deposit. And that hurt me. It really hurt me. Right then and there, I knew that nothing was promised to anyone. For all his talent, if you could have equated it into what he deserved, he would never have had to worry again. But this was the blues. He was living it every day. Right up to the end.
Smokey Smothers was another great one. He made classic blues recordings for King Records--the same record label as James Brown and Hank Ballard. This was around 1960. Sid Nathan was the President--the impresario. During those recordings, he was backed by Freddie King and band. Ironically, on the same day Smokey recorded with them, Freddie and his band afterwards cut the classic Hideway, as well as other blues standards which every blues band worth their salt knows. Smokey himself sang in a real lazy Jimmy Reed style, and he wrote great songs, and one song that particularly rings true today for me is I Can't Judge Nobody. The song goes, "I'm no prosecutor, and I'm no judge, I can't condemn you for what I heard, I can't judge nobody because I may be wrong." Well, I asked Louis if he knew Smokey and he said, "Sure, I'll take you to see him." So I met Smokey through Louis. He took me to a boarding house on the south side of Chicago and he lived in one room with the typical bathroom down the hall. When we knocked on his door, he saw Louis and me, and it didn't particularly matter that I was a stranger to him. He invited us in, sat us down and proceeded to be the greatest host one could hope for. I was curious and asked him if he had any of his music to play for me. He did, but he played it on the only audio equipment he had, a beat-up old answering machine. He then took out an old photo album and graciously handed it to me and told me to take a look. I saw pictures of blues greats, but what was more interesting to me was that the last page under the plastic that covered the pictures, had letters he had written to God. He had asked for forgiveness, help, how to be a better person. It was just a humbling experience to be around a guy who I had admired so long, and to be around someone like that was a real blessing. The next time I saw Smokey, I saw him riding a bike on the North side of Chicago. His guitar was slung over his back; he was going to one of his gigs on his damn bike. So if the true creators don't make any money doing what they do, what can I expect? But through their example, I know that I am on the right road. It's a road of feeling and devotion.
Another example is the story of the great Eddie Taylor. For those of you who don't know, Eddie was the driving force behind the music of Jimmy Reed of Bright Lights, Big City fame and Baby, What You Want Me To Do as well as so many popular blues recordings of the fifties and sixties. Eddie Taylor, quite simply, put the music to the words of Jimmy Reed. When they started, it was Eddie on guitar, Earl Phillips on drums, and Jimmy Reed on guitar and harmonica. That's it on the recordings. So you had two guitars and a drum, no bass. Eddie Taylor was the beat of the music, setting down the guitar patterns, which is commonly referred to in blues circles as, "The Lump." He had an impeccable sense of timing, exquisite taste, and really made those songs. Like Louis Myers, his career basically was in helping others sound good, taking the back seat in name recognition and obviously not sharing in any of the profits that accumulate when records such as these were so popular. Many of them crossed over to the pop charts, which was almost an unheard of thing back in the days when there were R&B and Pop charts. Well anyway, Eddie was also a great solo artist in his own right, and in the early eighties, he and Louis went on a tour of Europe. One night after a show, as they were making their way back to the hotel, a young man approached Eddie in the street and asked if he would be kind enough to sign some of the albums that he had. Eddie invited him up to their hotel room, and Louis said he looked at every album and signed each one. Six albums or so. The young man thanked him, told him how much his music meant to him, and told him he hoped to see him again. They said their good-byes. As soon as the door shut, Louis said that Eddie Taylor broke down and cried like a baby. Apparently he had signed albums of his that he had no idea even existed. They had bootlegged live concerts from his previous tours of Europe and put out these albums. It got me to thinking about the proliferation of video tapes these days and how so many wrestlers are not compensated since the advent of all this tape trading and selling. I guess until it happens to you and you're on the end of total exploitation, you just can't relate to something like this.
EG: These stories remind me of Johnny Valiant, who headlined Madison Square Garden as well as many other arenas. He's living in a boarding house in New Jersey in a similar situation. I know years back another legend, Johnny Valentine, was having a hard time financially as well. He went down in a plane crash on the way to a match, broke his back, and the wrestling business basically turned their back on him. So since we have some sort of parity between wrestling and the blues, what can you tell us about this photo with Bobo and Howlin' Wolf's band?
JA: Well, it was published in Living Blues Magazine. I had this issue for a good couple of years before I really took a gander at the picture. I was wondering about the photo myself. Anytime you have Howlin' Wolf and Bobo Brazil together in a picture, it's got to be cause to raise one's hand and ask the teacher, but there is no teacher to ask, until it occurred to me that it was in an article about Howlin' Wolf's drummer, Sam Lay. A couple of summers back, the old Howlin' Wolf band got together for a tribute to their late boss up in Maine. I accompanied Hubert and as soon as I saw Sam, I asked him about the picture. He told me that picture to this day is up on his mantle at home. Bobo was a big, big star to these men. A hero. And you can well imagine why. But Bobo, on the night this particular picture was taken, was obviously paying respect to the blues heavyweight champion at 6'4, 285 pounds, in Howlin' Wolf. Seeing the two flanking each other in this photo to me is an amazing document, even though Bobo's name is not listed. He's an unknown in the picture. It's so obviously him. I grew up with wrestling and worshipped him as a youngster. From the look of the picture, you can see that they all know who he is. It's a posed shot and the respect that he commanded is really apparent. Sam Lay touching both his shoulders seems to say that.
EG: You mentioned to me the many similarities between blues and wrestling. . . .
JA: There's the obvious monikers that blues men acquire as stage names like Muddy Waters, Guitar Slim, Howlin' Wolf, and Magic Sam. Same as wrestlers do. Even though they are unrelated, a blues artist will call himself Junior, just like a wrestler will take a classic name like Graham, Zybysko, etc. This helps them create a persona for themselves. But there's a deeper connection than this. There's the hard road. The traveling . . . the hotels . . . the bad food . . . the long trips between engagements . . . and of course let's not forget in most cases the shitty pay. But there seems to me that just like in wrestling terms, there are hookers in blues music, too, guys that can cripple your mind as opposed to your body. In other words, a guy like Howlin' Wolf could literally hypnotize you with his personality and through his music. Same as Muddy Waters. Otis Rush. And to me, real blues music like wrestling is dead. I have a feeling that the dedication that it takes, the wealth of feeling you must acquire for your passion, is lost today, and it reflects in both blues and professional wrestling. With so many distractions in this world that we live in, between the cell phones, the computers, and everything, where does society make the time for us to truly master a craft that isn't technological? And my two passions in life, being blues and wrestling, in my opinion these are two things that you need to truly love to be a part of. Number one, in blues in particular you're not going to become rich doing it. The images MTV heaps upon us is pick up a guitar, make a video, and you'll become famous. It's not what someone whose love for blues music has any use for. It's a very fringe type of devotion. But the language of the blues is so beautiful to me, fills me up with such a wonderful feeling, that I thank God every day that he gave me enough sense to find my place in it. I know there are countless wrestlers out there as well who never make it but do it out of love.
EG: I've noticed that a lot of blues artists like Robert Cray have taken a more commercial approach. Wrestling today is also much slicker. Any observations on "selling out"?
JA: Well, in the case of Robert Cray, I don't think he's sold out at all. I don't think he's particularly a blues man; what he does, he does well. My theory about it all is simply this: They've taken the soul out of the music. They've taken the soul out of our wrestling. Does anyone really care about the latest one-hit wonder on MTV? They'll be forgotten by next year. I've done a lot of thinking about today's blues scene. I can't tell you the reasons it's turned out this way. If a musician plays too many notes, it's superfluous. It's just notes for the sake of notes. It's technical wizardry where the feeling is forsaken. The same as today's wrestling. With the special effects and outlandish angles, it's overkill. It doesn't mean anything. It's devoid of soul. There's no feeling in what the big time wrestlers of today do. And it reflects in the fact that you don't care about these wrestlers either. You feel nothing for them as opposed to the wrestlers from yesteryear. They're cartoon characters. The soul of the crowd is corrupt. Vince McMahon has more than his share of blame for this. What has he turned wrestling into? A circus. Whatever shred of believability once was, is gone.
EG: What about the issue of respect for musicians and wrestlers?
JA: Well, in the case of the bluesmen, it's like, sit on this moth-eaten couch until it's time to play your set. And I know there are former Madison Square Garden main-eventers wrestling in high school gyms for a hundred bucks.
EG: Why is it that great artists or athletes don't get the respect they deserve?
JA: Well, I couldn't answer that, and neither can you, because we both scratch our heads in amazement at this whole issue.
EG: Tell us about your interest in wrestling. . . .
JA: I can tell you exactly where it began. I must have been about five years old, and my father woke me up one night and said, "Shhhh . . . wake up." Next thing I know, I was in front of a TV shot watching Johnny Valentine refuse to tag in to a pleading Antonio Pugliese. I was hooked. Valentine stood on the ring apron, argued with the fans, and the next thing you know, running down the aisle in suit and tie was Bruno. His "cousin" was being taken apart in the ring. He made the save. I was mesmerized. And for some reason, my mind also retains visions of George "Crybaby" Cannon bawling in one of the ring corners after another loss. God knows why I retain these memories.
EG: So, like the blues legends, these guys were larger than life, wouldn't you say?
JA: Well, at the time they were certainly larger! And I think the appeal that it held for me was that everything was so cut and dried. There were parameters of good and bad. There were lessons. You watched your cousin's back. You came to your friend's aid. There was so much morality going on in the midst of all that chicanery, that I can honestly say I learned more about right and wrong from watching wrestling than from any other resource.
EG: Share some more of your wrestling memories. . . .
JA: Well, I was a complete Pedro [Morales] mark. In fact, I used to go to the Garden when I was 11. Evan, since I've gotten to know you, you said you stayed away from the Garden because you adhered to the 14-and-under law. I saw Pedro against the likes of Blackjack Mulligan, King Curtis, Blassie, Ray Stevens, and on and on. And of course, just like you Evan, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Olympic Auditorium on Channel 41. Seeing Victor Rivera get stitched up by the great Dr. Bernhardt Schwartz after being attacked by John Tolos is something a 39 year old should not be replaying in his mind over and over again.
EG: So are you still a wrestling fan?
JA: I read a great quote, "I have nostalgia for the future," meaning I hope one day it can turn around and go back to the way it was.
EG: What about the blues?
JA: Just like wrestling, the blues will never die. It seems to be more relevant today than years ago, considering the condition that the world's in now. Now if people would just get back to playing the real blues-heartfelt music, and start choking behind the referee's back, then we're back on the right track.
EG: So like many of the wrestling sheet readers, you would consider yourself a purist. . . .
JA: Absolutely, I'm a purist. But with reason. The reason is since I'm a little kid, wrestling captured my imagination. That's what all of us who harken back too much have in common. We come from a better place. Same as blues music. If you think a guy like Johnny Lang on the Levi Commercials is saying more with his guitar than Otis Rush is, you're nuts. The same with a Hulk Hogan as opposed to a Ray Stevens or Fred Blassie. To say that he does it better because time somehow improves great art, just ain't the case. One thing I've learned hanging around with some of these golden age blues legends that I'm talking about, there was always one theme that is always revisited over and over again, whether it's Louis Myers or Hubert Sumlin. They'll tell you, you can't change the structure of the blues. You can't deviate from it, or else it's not blues. It becomes something wholly other. Same as wrestling. The formula is very basic, and it only asks that the participant bring some soul and serious intention to it. Wrestling is supposed to have that same minimalism as the blues. Too many notes, and it's not the blues. Too many notes, and it's not wrestling.
EG: I can equate the indys in wrestling with the true blues artists. . . .
JA: First of all, we know they're not getting rich. They're doing it because they love it. Because it's in them to do. And because it's a dream. And that equals, to quote a great wrestling manager (who never bladed!), intestinal fortitude.
EG: So where do you see both wrestling and blues heading in the millennium?
JA: Can wrestling get any more ridiculous than it is now?
EG: Well, Vince still hasn't touched on bestiality, incest or necrophilia. . . .
JA: Don't give him any ideas!
EG: I think I just did.
JA: Until Vince McMahon has a wrestler's pension and emergency fund to help some of these men who helped make him a multi-millionaire, I'd rather not even ruminate on just how much damage he's done to the sport that kept me warm as a kid. I mean, even Hollywood has a home for old actors and entertainers. What's the difference between them and wrestlers? They're actors, entertainers, and athletes all rolled into one. They should be thought of after the spotlight dims. They gave people thrills and chills and a lifetime of memories and that deserves a decent, respectful, scenario for life after the ring.
EG: Considering pro wrestling used to be called the King of Sports, it's a crime that these guys end up living like paupers.
JA: And in my opinion, blues is the epitome of music.
EG: But can it get back to the glory days, or is it also commercialized beyond repair?
JA: I think that there will always be people who study the real blues and will be able to replicate it to some extent. But will there ever be another Kowalski? A Buddy Rogers? A Lou Thesz? A Bruno? I just don't see it. Speaking of Bruno, I'm just saddened he doesn't work for anybody. And it's because of the way he feels about what's become of wrestling.
EG: Bruno represents all that was pure about wrestling. The classic face overcoming the villainous heel. A guy who gave it 110%. A guy who was just as good outside the ring as inside. He's like a lost breed. Today, you see the fans cheer loudest for the most sadistic guys like Steve Austin. And he's the face!
JA: Poor Bruno can't rationalize this.
EG: Is there the equivalent of the wrestling sheets in the blues industry? Purist type zines that really get inside the business?
JA: Sure, there's blues magazines, but not nearly as extensive as wrestling coverage.
EG: Would they, for example, "expose the business"? Call the latest white hope a cheap derivative of one of the legends? Or expose a club owner as dishonest?
JA: No. It's common knowledge. I think the blues rip-offs are more common knowledge than the wrestling rip-offs. Particularly in the record industry. These guys got screwed so bad, it's a wonder that they can even cope with their exploitation and all the money that they've lost.
EG: Not much different than some of our wrestling heroes working for chump change and selling 8x10s and posing for snapshots to pay the rent. . . .
JA: True. . . .
EG: So what are your plans in music?
JA: My plans are as follows. To keep playing until I can't play anymore. And to keep the blues alive in any way I can.
EG: And can I coax you into catching an indy show?
JA: Consider me coaxed. . . .
EG: Thanks for the interview.
JA: I want to thank you, Evan, for not just talking to me, but for doing everything you can to keep our wrestling memories alive. Your newsletter is a labor of love. Thanks for all your efforts.
EG: Thank you.