Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page

From CZ's Website:


CADILLAC ZACKI want to thank God for giving me the desire, determination and inspiration to sing and play blues guitar. However, the Divine One, can not take any credit for imparting any musical gifts on me. I had to learn this stuff from scratch, constantly struggling and wanting to give up, often on a daily basis.

It all started when I was in Junior High School. I found myself driving around with my mother in Massachusetts one Sunday afternoon with the radio tuned to a classic rock station. Probably WBCN. For some reason, the DJ played two blues songs back to back. First, was Janis Joplin's version of "Ball and Chain" and then B.B. King's version of "The Thrill Is Gone." By the time that song ended, I had already quietly flipped out and vowed to someday learn more about this music called "blues", and from that point on the unique name, "B.B. King", was burned into my memory.

About a year later, I happened to be watching a syndicated episode of "Sanford and Son" on a UHF channel. To my surprise, B.B. had a guest role on it in which his band played at a night club. I was amazed by this man again. It's also important to note that, over the next few years, I would occasionally stumble onto the final minutes of televised Jazz Festival concerts featuring B.B.. Each time this happened I would get so frustrated, having nearly missed the entire program! I was dying to see or hear this guy play at length. Alas, this was in the days before video stores, so I had to wait and wait to encounter him again.

One day, at the age of fourteen, I couldn't take it anymore. I needed to hear more. So, I grabbed my bicycle and drove 15 miles round-trip to Strawberries, a New England music store. There, I found a B.B. King LP called "Live at the Cook County Jail." I remember driving home on that dangerous, windy, twisty road with the LP knocking against my handle bars... almost killing me! Anyway, I got it home, put it on the turntable and was absolutely floored by the singing, guitar playing and super tight rhythm section. In an instant, B.B. King became my God! I really felt at this time that there were no other kids in my high school listening to this stuff called "blues" and that made it even more special to me. Everyone else was listening to whatever was on the radio (Devo, The Police, Cindy Lauper, etc.).

Up to this point, I had wanted to be a filmmaker my entire life, and I had been concentrating on animation and a few other hobbies with which I was equally obsessed. I always had a lot of confidence in visual arts and writing, because my mother is an artist and my father a professional comedian. So my increased passion for music was a little confusing to me. How would this fit into my life? No one in my family was musical. I figured I would just be a fan.

It's fair to say that around this time (1984), I had also become enthralled with Jimi Hendrix, but listening to him was so intimidating. I could never imagine playing that well. However, after hearing B.B., I was convinced that I HAD to buy a guitar. So I did. I went down to the local music shop and signed a "rent-to-own" agreement for a red Yamaha SE 200 electric.

The second I brought the guitar home my mother asked me if I would be able to return it if it didn't work out. That's not what I wanted to hear, but in her defense, we were broke and she obviously had no idea how much I really wanted to play.

I began by taking lessons from the only instructor in town. He was nice, but far more concerned with promoting his Fleetwood Mac tribute band than teaching blues. The closest he came to demonstrating anything close to B.B. King was showing me the intro to "Johnny B. Goode." I'm still disappointed that, even after six lessons, the guy never explained basic music theory to me. This really stunted my growth. Instead, he just jumped in the middle and started showing me licks. This is not the way to teach, but I knew no better, because a student looks at their first music teacher as all-knowing.

I tried and tried to play on my own, for the next few years, mainly by struggling to pick out random licks while listening to "Live At The Cook County Jail" and a Lowell Fulson double LP of Chess hits. But I really had no idea what the hell I was doing. Plus, every time I cued up a record I would get yelled at by my mother or our troubled, alcoholic next door neighbor. Discouraged, I finally gave up and just figured I wasn't cut out for music.

I never would have played again, but time after time something would not let me give up. Instead, whatever omniscient force runs this crazy little universe kept throwing me inspiration at just the right moments. Or, maybe it was just pure luck. Like the time I went to the public library to rent Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thief" on VHS only to come home with a scratchy "live" Muddy Waters record from their music bins. The band's opening rhythm and Muddy's vocal to "Mannish Boy" instantly blowing my mind!

And how about the time I went to the record store searching for my second blues purchase, finding that they only had one blues LP left... Albert King's "Live Wire/Blues Power". When I got home and cranked it up Albert's nearly inhuman, muscular, crying, "missile-lobbing" lead playing, as well as commanding rap on the title tune, making a profound impression on me. I now believe had the same reaction to Albert King that Eric Clapton had upon hearing Robert Johnson for the first time... that it was so "powerful" he couldn't even stand to listen to it for many years.

Of course trying to pick out Albert King notes was a lesson in further frustration. No one was round to tell me he was tuned to a different chord and played upside down! So I wallowed in my continuous confusion about blues throughout my high school years. I listened to Mae Kramer's weekend blues show on NPR and I concentrated on making movies.

Fast forward to 1988. Still knowing nothing about music, not aware that the system for understanding it is actually quite simple, I took my guitar to college with me, with the hope that having it there would inspire me to pursue it.

It didn't. I wound up becoming an avid jazz listener because the school had a prestigious jazz music program. However, that genre seemed even more complicated and mysterious, than blues. By this time I was convinced I simply "wasn't a musician." That is, until one day in 1989.

It happened on spring break of college sophomore year. I found myself in New Orleans with my friend Jonathan, an art student who was also equally interested in jazz. He had just started taking saxophone lessons a few months prior and was getting pretty good. Having taken piano lessons as a kid, he was able to read music and advance rapidly. Meanwhile, in the corner of my dorm room, in it's case, sat the untouched, red Yamaha guitar.

To our dismay, Jonathan and I discovered, on Bourbon Street that February day, that all of the music was very touristy. Neither of us were into Dixieland and that's all there seemed to be. Then suddenly, we both heard the most amazing, hard, electric blues sounds coming out of a place called the Old Absynthe Bar. We went in.

The next three hours changed my life.

For the rest of the night we watched an all black rhythm section, lead by a blind, middle-aged, white singer/guitarist named Bryan Lee. Let me tell you, this guy could sing and play his ass off. He was playing songs note-for-note from one of my then favorite LPs "Great Moment's With B.B. King"! I felt like I was finally getting to see B.B. King perform for more than one song! Only, it wasn't B.B., it was Bryan! Either way, it proved to me that a person, especially a white guy) COULD make these sounds after all. I decided that very moment to try and take lessons the right way when I got back to college.

As I said before, my long-standing passion had always been filmmaking; having devoted thousands of hours to animation since the age of eight, after I bought myself a super-8 camera with stop frame. That's where most of my previous time and energy had always gone... writing and directing films and videos with friends. But for some reason though, I still couldn't get the B.B. King guitar sounds out of my head. It had haunted me.

When I got back to college, I looked up the only guitar teacher affiliated with the university. His named was Joe Belmont and luckily, he was a real blues fan. In fact, he told me he had lived in Chicago many years ago and actually knew Michael Bloomfield! Joe could play some great B.B. King. So he began by showing me the intro to "Sweet Little Angel". For the next six lessons, we concentrated on that and the rhythm guitar line from "So Excited" and a few other things I can't presently recall. Once again though, he never mentioned basic music theory.

I enjoyed the lessons, even though I was still confused about why I was playing certain notes and how they all fit in. At $12 per half hour, the lessons reinforced just how broke a college student I was. I mean, I could barely afford to eat at this point so I was forced to put it all on hold. However, I continued to practice that which Joe showed me for a long time.

By my junior year, Robert Cray had become famous and I was really fond of his clean, intense playing and singing. But he too was so advanced that it was really impossible try to cop his licks on my own, especially without any musical theory. The other thing that intimidated me from learning was that I lived in a hyper-artsy, hippy dorm, where everyone was either already an amazing dancer, poet, musician or fine artist. I remember they put on many talent shows in our lobby. It frustrated me that I was never able to participate. So, the only music I ever performed was done sitting alone in my room playing along to records.

In this dorm, I did get some informal help from a civil engineering student down the hall named Chris Moran, who played like Jerry Garcia. After I asked him for some help he showed me the printed out a diagram of the minor pentatonic scale in E all the way up the guitar neck. This was huge and really started to help!

Also, while I was home on summer vacation from college, my mother's friend, Jack often came by to hang out during his lunch hour. He couldn't help but notice that I was obsessing over B.B. and Jimi Hendrix and mentioned that he was wild about a bluesman named Magic Sam, whom Jack could actually sing and play a lot like! Jack used to tell me to forget about Jimi Hendrix for now and to try to just play like Magic Sam and another great named Otis Rush. I took his advice and started listening to their records. When I found Magic Sam's Delmark double LP, "Live at the Alex Club", it absolutely destroyed me. A few months later I found Otis Rush and the affect was the same.

In May of 1991, I graduated college and was ready to become a filmmaker, but had no specific plan. By chance, I got a job working as Steve Martin's assistant on a film called "Housesitter" for the few weeks that they shot on location in New England. When that was over I was confused about what to do next. I liked Boston but had lived there my whole life and was ready for a change.

Serendipitously, my friend Dave came over and mentioned that he was planning to move to Chicago, to be near his girlfriend who lived with her parents in the Illinois suburbs. I thought about this for about three seconds, put two and two together ("Chicago = blues") and, without really thinking it through, told him I'd be willing to move there too and share an apartment. He agreed and we made instant plans.

Why did I automatically think of "blues" when I heard the word "Chicago"? Well, serendipitously again, only a few weeks prior to Dave coming over, I had been taking a shower and listening to National Public Radio. Just so happens it was the second week of June and they were broadcasting the Chicago Blues Festival live! I remember hearing some of the most incredible blues guitar and vocals ever. It was Nappy Brown with Wayne Bennett. (Only, I thought the announcer had said "Matthew" Brown, so persistent searches for his music came up perpetually empty!)

Anyway, five months later, in December 1991, I was living in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago!

In Chicago I slowly broke into the film business, but there was so little in the way of feature film activity (John Hughes had stopped making movies) that money was tight. I wound up working for a theater company and then a night club, and eventually made my way into industrials, commercials and one tv show, while still picking on my guitar, slowly getting better and better, but still generally confused and struggling with The Whole process.

In June 1993 fate intervened. On a trip to Mexico with my girlfriend, I suffered a head trauma that would plague me with multiple medical ailments over the next ten years. The next entire decade saw me having a hard time focusing on writing. So I started turning myself toward guitar, mostly as a distraction to my recurring, debilitating symptoms. Blues guitar became my therapy. Thank God, I was in Chicago, where the world's best were playing on a nightly basis.

For the next five years, I literally learned at the feet of some of the world's greatest blues masters of all time.

Most influential was witnessing Magic Slim and the Teardrops featuring John Primer at B.L.U.E.S. etc. on Belmont Ave. Every Tuesday night for the next three years I would sit there in front of the stage on a foam couch. Primer would warm up the set with half a dozen deep Muddy Waters-styled tunes. The guy was incredible. I would try to memorize his finger positions. His set was my favorite part of the show. Then Slim would come up and blast his black Jazz master through his early 1970's Silver faced Fender Super Reverb amp and tear my head off with his intensity and volume.

To this day, those guys put on the most amazing shows I have ever seen, even though most of the time there were only five or six regular patrons in the entire bar! It was like a private concert just for me. It's impossible to describe how good these guys were with their four-part vocal harmonies. To this day, I've still haven't seen a band that gutbucket and yet that tight! It is that exact vibe that I now try to recreate, in a small way, every time I get on a stage.

In early 1992 I had the good fortune of attempting to take guitar lessons from Billy Flynn, after seeing him play with Pinetop Perkins at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. I was blown away by how much he could play like B.B.. So I looked him up in a periodical found at Tower Records on Clark St. called "The Musician's Directory". The problem was I incorrectly remembered Flynn's last name as Freund and wound up calling Steve Freund for lessons.

Taking a lesson from Steve was cool. This was during the time that he was playing every Sunday with Sunnyland Slim, Sam Burkhart, Robert Covington and Bob Stroger. Steve lived like a real musician, in a dank little apartment, littered with tons of black guitar cases. I credit him with teaching me T-Bone Walker 9th Chords and showing me the 12-bar blues form. I had been playing for 5 years and no one had ever showed me that basic stuff!!

A few weeks later, I also met a skinny little guy, with dark, curly hair named Chris Thompson whom I had always noticed watching the bands from a nook behind the stage at B.L.U.E.S..

One night, at closing time, Jamie, the cute 23 year-old female bartender, introduced me to Chris and once we figured out that we were both taking lessons from Freund we became friends. Within weeks, Chris made a few trips over to my pad to demonstrate a few signature Robert Jr. Lockwood and Eddie Taylor licks. I felt like I was actually really learning the blues technique, not just watching.

At this point, mid-1992, I had developed a very good feel, but knew absolutely nothing about music theory and thus was totally handicapped for learning. The truth is, as you can tell, I was too undisciplined to sit down with a book and figure it out. If I had, I really would have progressed much more rapidly. Plus, I was so broke I really couldn't afford lessons. But the desire to learn was still immense so I continued going to the clubs hoping that just watching the bands would help me.

I was literally out in a blues club every night of the week from 1991 through 1997. In that time, I saw probably over 300 different blues acts. My favorites were Otis Rush, Byther Smith, Jimmy Johnson, Roosevelt Booby Barnes, Big Jack Johnson, Dave Specter, Sunnyland Slim, Carlos Johnson, Buster Benton, Johnny B. Moore, Son Seals, Willie Kent, James Wheeler, Vance Kelley, Little Smokey Smothers, Rockin' Johnny Burgin, Jimmy Burns, Lurrie Bell, Eddie C. Campbell, Eddie Clearwater, Johnny Dollar, Little Arthur Duncan, Billy Flynn, Sammy Fender, Phil Guy, and too many others to mention.

One thing that depresses me to this day, is that I didn't ever go see Johnny Littlejohn, Buddy Scott or Lefty Dizz, even though they were listed on marquees as playing all the time!!! I simply didn't know who they were then. But now their recorded work is some of my favorites.

Around 1992, Chris invited me to come see him play on Monday nights at B.L.U.E.S. etc. with a great singer named Barkin' Bill Smith. It was here, that I got the nerve to get on stage for the first time with a guitar. I remember being so nervous that my hands were sweating. So I kept chalking them up on pool cue chalk just to dry them. Funny thing is, there wasn't one single person in the club!

By far, the best part of that band, which I later named "Barkin' Bill and The Money Makers" was Smith's vocals and stage presence. The guy was hysterical. About 6' 6" tall, and as skinny as a rail, Bill was beloved by all musicians. He was like a politician. Only he was also reportedly a pimp and a drug dealer.

Always admiring authentic blues singers more than anything, I became very friendly with Bill and wound up spending 1994 through 1996 just hanging out with him, picking him up at his old folks home on 54th Street and then driving him around to all the clubs in the evenings so that he could sit in. I could write a book on all the misadventures we had! I guess I became Bill's low-level manager, as I did get him a few decent paying gigs etc.

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