Jim Pugh, who many of our readers know as the longtime keyboard player in the Robert Cray Band, has recently embarked on a very exciting and interesting endeavor called the Little Village Foundation. I sat down with Jim recently and we talked about this project, his life in music and his own road to the Little Village.
David Mac (DM): Jim, I am going to go back to journalism 101 for this interview and start off with the “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why” and the all important “how”… not necessarily in that order. When did you decide to start the Little Village Foundation?
Jim Pugh (JP): It came to me after I stopped playing with Cray. I quickly developed the framework of the thing. On June 30, 2015, we put out our first four CDs.
DM: Who are the musicians that you decided to record?
JP: I recorded a cowboy out of Bakersfield by the name of Dave Ellis. His album iscalled With Any Luck But Bad. He sings and plays guitar in the western tradition of people like the Sons of the Pioneers. He is singing from the American western songbook. It is not country-western, but the music that is connected to that small niche tradition of cowboy culture. Dave Ellis has been a real working cowboy since he was a kid and is a master horseman. He is a real cowboy and he sings real cowboy music.
I recorded some indigenous people from the Mixtec tribe who live near Santa Maria. Their album Los Tres Amigos–Snuviko translates to, “the
three friends from where the clouds descend.” They don’t speak English or Spanish. So this CD is their way of communicating to the outside world. It is truly profound music on many different levels.
Then there are the two artists with whom you are already familiar and that have been featured here in BLUES JUNCTION, bluesman Ron Thompson and the soul/blues singer Wee Willie Walker.
DM: What if anything, do these artists have in common?
JP: They are the musicians on the outside looking in. These are all artists that for different reasons have been marginalized by our society. There is no way that any of these musicians were going to get a record deal. Yet it is music that I feel should be heard. It is the music of America. It is all very emotionally charged music. It all strikes the same type of emotional chord in me.
DM: I know the answer to this question, but I would rather have you explain to our readers why these artists would never get a record deal.
JP: Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records told me about month ago that, “My artists are my record stores. They sell my records.” He asked me, “When was the last time you even saw a record store?” He said, “They have to be out there 150 days a year playing gigs at least and selling records off the stage or I’m not interested.” He told me that he loved the Wee Willie Walker record and acknowledged that it is a great album. He went on to say, “The music I love and the music that is great has nothing to do with what I sign.”
Think about that for a minute Dave. Look at the amount of people who are automatically removed from the equation. They are not even considered even by an indy blues label regardless of what their music has to offer the listener.
DM: Jim, this is simply the reality of the commercial marketplace today. I suppose one might applaud Mr. Iglauer for at least being up front and acknowledging this. Let’s face it; the days of moving significant units on a Hound Dog Taylor album are sadly long gone.
After all these years as a highly accomplished musician, why did you decide to shift gears and take on this project?
JP: What I like is music, diversity and service. I have found that when I can do these three things in the right proportion that I can function at my highest level. It is when I am the happiest. Little Village is a way to combine these three things together.
DM: This all sounds wonderful, but I must be right up front about this when I say, I am a skeptic when I hear the words “foundation” or “non-profit.” This, in and of itself does not impress me. In fact, I automatically raise a red flag. These various endeavors often start with good intentions, but you know what they say about good intentions. Let’s get into the specifics of The Little Village Foundation. How are you making this work?
JP: As a foundation we are looking to connect like minded people. I am trying to drive down the cost of making records. Three of the four albums have absolutely no overdubs. They were all recorded in an afternoon. They are just down and dirty recordings. I am capturing real people making real organic music. These are not like Tommy Castro albums where it might take two weeks just to do the over dubs.
DM: I get all that, but let’s talk about the hard numbers and the nuts and bolts of it.
JP: This is how it works; what we do is pay all the cost of recording. Then we give the musicians a sizable honorarium.
DM: What is sizable?
JP: Right now we give the artist a thousand dollars and a thousand CDs. The artists own their art. They have the inventory. They own their own product. The Little Village Foundation has no inventory.
DM: This all sounds great, but what is the sustainability of this model?
JP: Good question. After they sell their first thousand CDs from which they keep 100% of the profit, they can buy the next thousand for $800.00.
DM: I know you are very early into the program but how is it working out so far?
JP: Los Tres Amigos–Snuviko have sold their first thousand just within their owncommunity. Wee Willie Walker, who after years of working as a machinist is now getting bookings all over, has sold his first thousand.
DM: Do you draw a salary from this foundation?
JP: Not presently, but I hope someday to be in a position to do that. If the Little Village is able to raise significant funds to help these people get their music out there then yes, some kind of salary would be appropriate. I think of myself as a barroom piano player who got lucky and has been able to raise a family as a working musician.
DM: So now you are out there searching for donations. I am guessing that you have to go outside the rather isolated and insulated so called blues community. The ‘nothin’ but the blues’ crowd revels in their lack of diversity so that might not be the place to look.
JP: You are right. I think the blues crowd might not be the market for this. You have to go outside and find what I call the “Prairie Home Companion” market. The “NPR” market, the people who read the New Yorker.
DM: People who can read anything…
JP: (laughs) True! For instance, when it comes to promoting this project called Little Village, I have people who tell me not to even bother with little once a week college blues radio shows. There just aren’t enough people who listen to any one of those programs. So I am going for the Wall Street Journal and other national media outlets. The sustainability for the foundation you asked about earlier will come in the form of donations.
It is in a way like the public radio model. It is like having listener sponsored CDs. If you like the idea and the concept of what we are doing then you are welcome to make a donation. For instance, you may not get up at three in the morning to turn on a public radio station to listen to Chinese gong music, but you like the fact that it is there and that option is available to you, so you give them a few dollars.
As part of my stock power point presentation speech I give at the Rotary Clubs I point out that people can do this themselves. You can go across the street and find music. You don’t have to spend $2,000 and go see the Rolling Stones at a sports stadium. You can go find music that that is brand new to you and record that. So in a sense, I am really promoting the idea of the Little Village Foundation by finding these artists, recording them and then promoting them.
DM: There are several reoccurring themes here we can explore, but the concept of diversity is one that runs through your musical development and your career. Within this context, Little Village then makes perfect sense and seems like a very natural fit for Jim Pugh. With that in mind let’s back up a bit and talk about your journey to this Little Village. Where are you from Jim?
JP: I am from suburban Chicago; the North Shore town of Winnetka.
DM: What were some of your early exposures to music?
JP: I came from one of those mid-west families where everyone played the piano and everyone played the piano for each other. I started playing at a relatively young age. I started listening to records and trying to play along with the music.
Even as early as junior high school I began to realize there was all this music available right there in Chicago. While still in high school I was exposed to some of the music taking place right in the city. So early on I was listening to Paul Butterfield and then eventually Muddy Waters. We would try to sneak into clubs and were soon old enough to get in.
I was fortunate enough to see Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf perform live. I saw B.B. King live a few times. It was really the typical kind of thing where you just follow your taste with no idea that it was slightly historical in some ways. I didn’t think about any of that, but I was developing a kind of blues pedigree. That was the beginning. I tried to play like Otis Spann. I still try and play like Otis Spann when I play the piano.
DM: Do you remember how you became interested in the Hammond B3 organ?
JM: I was interested in the B3 long before I started playing it. I used to go to the Jazz Record Mart on West Grand in Chicago. I got into Gene Ammons at a very early age, Sonny Stitt and others. I would listen to their accompanying organ players like Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith. I listened to that stuff a lot.
As far as playing the organ I really started when I came to California and met these guys who played Mexican music. We were playing in a dance band that did Rancheras and Cumbias and stuff like that. The keyboard that was used was always an organ. I really liked Chester Thompson who was the organ player with Tower of Power. It was a combination of all those things that inspired me to get a beat up B3. So that’s when I started lugging that around.
This becomes kind of a tricky thing to talk about, but the piano is a much more structured thing to learn to play. With the B3 you kind of have to learn on your own. There isn’t the kind of structured learning that you have with piano. As a result there are different styles that are more identifiable that develop around the B3.
DM: I never thought about those little organs that you heard in the kind of music that Mexican families might be playing on the radio at picnics in the park. I don’t think it even occurred to me that it was a California thing or a Mexican thing, it was just a cool thing.
JP: Dave, then you totally get what I’m talking about. It is where Mexican music and soul music met. That all came together right where you grew up in Southern California. We would play a dance and do a song by Little Joe e Familia and follow that up with something by James Brown and then do a song by War. I really love the way these different cultures merge.
DM: I know this is also kind of a tough thing to talk about, but as a general observation, it seems to me that white culture was fairly slow to embrace the B3 as a serious instrument.
JP: That is a fairly keen observation because many people think of the B3 as something that is only useful for playing, Take Me Out to the Ballgame or something played at a roller rink. What it is for black people is church music. The way I look at it is, one man’s, Take Me Out to the Ballgame is another man’s Mighty Clouds of Joy. I have played the same kind of thing just a few hours apart. One minute I’m playing the B3 in San Francisco with Chris Issac and in a few hours I’m playing in a Baptist Church in East Oakland. In a Baptist Church the organ player is like a rock guitar God.
Back in the day if tenor (sax) player Gene Ammons was working at a white nightclub in Chicago he would use a piano player, bass and drums. If he was playing on the Southside at a black club he would be backed a by a B3 player and a drummer. The B3 had always been embraced by the black community, from Jimmy Smith forward.
DM: We could spend the rest of the day talking about the complexities, the nuance and the greasy soul of the B3. Heck, if we went down the Jimmy Smith wormhole, it might take days before we are heard from again. With that in mind let me steer this back to you and your early career. At some point you moved up the coast to San Francisco.
JP: That’s right. One of my first gigs was with Joe Louis Walker at an organ bar that was kind of in the lower Haight/Hayes Valley part of town. I worked with Fillmore Slim. When I was twenty two I auditioned for a group that was kind of a merger of members of Sly and the Family Stone and Cold Blood. I played in that band for about 4-5 years. Then I got a gig with Etta James who I played with steady for about six years and off and on for about ten years. I recorded in Nashville with her with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. I did a West Coast tour with Otis Rush. I played with Albert Collins, Lowell Fulson…and on and on.
DM: Thanks for indulging me. You just glossed over an impressive resume which included several types of music, from East Bay funk to various blues players and their disparate styles. You have Etta James and all that encompasses. We talked about your experiences playing the diverse music of the Norteño soul culture of Southern California, to Chris Issac and playing in Baptist churches in Oakland.
JP: As a blues guy I suppose your track record at some point becomes obnoxious. It is pretty cool to recite your credits when you are young but by the time you get to 60, your resume just becomes obnoxious. (laughs)
DM: I appreciate your modesty, but my point was that this idea of musical diversity is not just an abstract concept to you. I think it is fair to say that your resume is in fact the path to the Little Village, yet you are probably most recognized by your quarter century
association with one of the most high profile blues artists to come down the pike. When did you start playing with the Robert Cray Band?
JP: I started playing with Robert Cray as sort of a hired gun in 1989. The first record I was on was his Midnight Stroll album. At the peak of everything we were playing 26 weeks a year, spread out throughout the year.
DM: Since I know you aren’t going to bring it up, this is when your resume gets really obnoxious as being a member of the RCB you backed up John Lee Hooker on his records where he is playing with…well everybody including the stuff he did with Van Morrison. You also played on B.B. King’s Blues Summit album. Hooker and Morrison had that weird spontaneity to their playing. Those sessions had to be fairly interesting.
JP: (laughing) Interesting…let me see…how do I put this? Let’s just say they spoke a language that only the two of them understood.
I would like to take a moment, if I may, and say something about Robert. I think to a lot of fans he is perceived as being standoffish. He is just very shy. I can say this now that I’m not working for him anymore, but he is very dedicated to blues music and to blues musicians. He has done a lot of things for a lot of musicians anonymously and has never stepped forward to take credit for anything. I think if more people knew this their perception of him would be quite different. He gets a bad rap sometimes, but he is just painfully shy. He is a great guy and a fabulous musician.
DM: After all this time and experience you are now 60 years young and wearing several hats in the Little Village. What is the hardest part of the gig?
JP: Finding musicians who don’t want to be found is pretty difficult. The hardest part is gaining their trust. They look at me at me and think I’m Carl Rove or the police. Going into housing projects in Oakland to try and find Gospel quartets to record is pretty tough. I used to take this personally, but you have to realize that people are naturally suspicions.
DM: … and why not. These are people who have, as you pointed out earlier, been marginalized their whole lives. That is all they know.
JP: Many find it hard to believe that someone cares about their music. Many can’t believe that somebody wants to help them. They can’t believe that I would do this for free, that this must be some kind of con or that somehow I am going to rip them off. It becomes an exercise in relationship building, gaining their trust and then delivering on that trust. That takes time and is the hardest part of the gig.
DM: Let’s talk about how you came to record Wee Willie Walker.
JP: I got a call from Kid (Andersen). He wanted me to come down to his studios and cut a record on this singer. So I did. When I got there, there were all kinds of musicians and that’s when I met Walker for the first time. Rick (Estrin) and Kid flew him out from his home in Minnesota to cut this record.
DM: There is a great back story as I understand it that goes along with this.
JP: That’s right. Walker was a paying passenger on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. He was hanging around one night at one of those late night pro jams. He wanted to sit in and they wouldn’t let him. They didn’t recognize him and these musicians had never even heard of Willie Walker. Rick and Kid met him and said, “Aren’t you the singer, Willie Walker? We’ve got to get together and record something.”
DM: … and the rest is history as they say. We should, at this point, discuss Kid Andersen. He is really on a roll up there at his Greaseland studios.
JP: I have a huge admiration for Kid. I am an enormous fan. I have never seen a better combination of heart and mind. He has talent and he really is able to bring the best out of the musicians he works with. He really has the knowledge and the soul to make great records.
DM: What are you working on now?
JP: I would like to record various forms of Mexican music. I love Gospel quartet music and I think there is a desperate need to record this music as it is a dying art form. I am trying to find gypsy musicians to record. There are other older rhythm & blues musicians like Willie Walker who I would like to record as well. I don’t want to mention any names yet, but that is something else I am looking forward to.
DM: We have touched on so many aspects of this project that you have to deal with from the accounting to the accountability, to a board of directors and so on. So even though this is a huge undertaking, it must also be very rewarding as well.
JP: It is. All of us have a story to tell. For these artists in particular their music is the only way for them to tell their stories. There is this lawless mayhem that takes place in the music of Ron Thompson when he really gets going. He can’t tell his story any other way. I am already seeing people who can look across the aisle at one another. The cowboy singer Dave Ellis kind of digs the Wee Willie Walker album and Walker is digging the cowboy music. I think this cross pollination of diverse music is compelling. It is about empathy really.It boils down to developing a better way of understanding people. Music is a way of developing empathy.
DM: I don’t think it is possible to overstate just how important that concept is in our society. I truly wish you and The Little Village Foundation all the good fortune and luck this world has to offer.
JP: Thanks Dave. I appreciate you reaching out to me for this interview. Let’s stay in touch.