It’s been 12 years since the last Blue Largo album and that’s a reality not lost on guitarist Eric Lieberman and vocalist Alicia Aragon. So when they released their brand new CD in September, the obvious question was what took so long? Long story short—back in 2006 Lieberman was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition known as Focal Dystonia. Refusing to play the “victim” role and with wife Alicia by his side, Lieberman spent the last eight and a half years retraining muscle movements in his hand and wrist by practicing or playing an average of five hours a day. Determination and dedication paid off and the new CD, Sing Your Own Song is their collaborative result.
Seven of the 14 tracks are originals written by Lieberman, who says he never really thought of himself as a songwriter. He simply “wanted this record to sound like Alicia and me in 2015.” The project was further enhanced by more than a dozen of their friends who just happen to be some of the best musicians in Southern California. Lieberman is the first to admit that it made the entire production “more meaningful and personally rewarding than anything we could have imagined.”
Music came early for the guitarist. “I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964,” Lieberman says. “Guess I was eight years old. The day after the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan all of a sudden every teenage kid in America had to have an electric guitar and a rock band in their garage. I guess I was one of those kids.”
Who or what was your first blues experience?
When I was about 15 years old John Mayall was playing at the Monmouth College gym, near my house in New Jersey. That’s the same venue where I first saw Bruce Springsteen and his band at the time, Steel Mill. I went to see John Mayall, not because I thought he was a blues guy, but rather because they were playing him a lot on WNEW, the progressive underground rock radio station out of New York City. So we go to the show and I see all these old black guys in suits and ties, with trumpets and saxophones. It was B.B. King’s band, which was the opening act for Mayall. This was about the same time B.B. was first crossing over from the “chitlin circuit” to playing for college audiences… white audiences. It was right around the time that “The Thrill is Gone” came out, and B.B. was arguably at at one of his heights. And yet I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t get it!
I moved to San Diego in 1978 and I met a guy by the name of Bob Komaski, who was playing in a local bar band. Bob was an incredibly passionate guitarist and I loved the way he played, so I started talking to him. He told me to me how much his playing was based in blues, and he turned me onto B.B. King’s Live at the Regal Theater, Freddy King’s Hideaway, and Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits records. I started sitting in with Bobby’s band for a song or two, once or twice a week, and then one day he said to me, “Eric, if you really want to get good, you gotta start playing with other guys on a more regular basis.” So I took his advice and answered an ad in the classifieds for a “Guitar player skilled in 1950s Chicago blues and jazz to complete a trio.” I knew nothin’ about 1950s Chicago anything, and couldn’t even think of playing jazz, but I figured blues is only three chords and Bobby’s been hipping me to B.B. and Freddy, so I’d give it a try. Little did I know! When I called the phone number to answer the ad, I spoke to a harmonica player by the name of Mark Bukich, and he told me they were really into playing stuff by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Billy Boy Arnold. I’d never heard of any of these guys, but I’m thinking, “Man they sure got some crazy names.” After we got together to play, Mark explained to me how the guitar and harmonica interact seamlessly in Chicago blues, and the main examples of that would be Louis Myers playing with Little Walter or Robert Junior Lockwood playing with Sonny Boy Williamson. Mark, bass player Don “Draw” Levine, Don’s drummer girlfriend, Little Cindy Elder, and I ended up playing together for about a year, calling ourselves the Chicago Shakers.
“The only music that I’ve been so steeped in, so studied in, and so dedicated to learning how to play has been traditional blues.”
One rainy night somewhere around 1980 Mark picked me up in his 1970s blue Ford Econoline van to go see some girl he had a crush on. This was in the days of cassette players, right? And he says, “Hey Eric, have you ever heard T-Bone Walker?” He put on a T-Bone cassette of the double LP The Complete Imperial Recordings, and for the first time I didn’t just hear something, but I felt something that I hadn’t experienced with blues up until that point.”
What was your first breakthrough in Southern California?
Back in the ’70s and ’80s there weren’t 20 or 30 blues bands in San Diego like there are today. There were just a handful, and the premier blues band by far was the King Biscuit Blues Band, led by harmonica player Ken Schoppmeyer and his partner, a guitar player by the name of Paul Cowie, who I loved and love to this day. Paul is an amazing, soulful and passionate guitar player who can play B.B., Freddie, Albert King, and Mike Bloomfield better than anybody. I used to say, “Man, every chick wanted to be Paul’s girlfriend and every guy wanted to be Paul.” Anyway, Ken Schoppmeyer saw me playing with the Chicago Shakers and he asked me to join King Biscuit, which was a great thrill for me at that time. In fact, I had just graduated from law school and was going to move to L.A. to practice law. But when Ken asked me to join King Biscuit, I felt like I was being asked to join the Rolling Stones or something, so I stayed in San Diego for that and I played in King Biscuit for four and a half years, from 1981 to 1986. King Biscuit is where I think I really came into my own as a blues guitar player.”
What happened after you left King Biscuit?
I started my own band called the Rhumboogies, named after the famous Chicago blues club and record label, which T-Bone Walker had recorded a few sides for. Little Cindy Elder from the Chicago Shakers was our original drummer and we had an upright bass player by the name of Dan Vasquez. Dan looked like Tyrone Power; he looked like a movie star from the ’40s, right? And he drove a 1950s Oldsmobile Rocket 88! I remember one day we were having a conversation about drugs, and Dan said, “If somebody could prove that Louis Jordan did cocaine, then I would do it.” It seemed like he judged everything in his life by guys like Louis Jordan or Wynonie Harris. [laughing] Dan Vasquez was a great guy and he sang really cool, too. And then I got Jonny Viau, whom I met in King Biscuit, to play saxophone with us. We had a singer by the name of Charlene Grant, and after a while we went through a couple of different rhythm sections. This was about ’87 or ’88. I might not have played in a band for about a year after King Biscuit; I might have just jammed around a little. I know both Jonny Viau and I were playing as part-time sidemen with a guy who called himself Blonde Bruce. Bruce used to play every Sunday afternoon at this biker bar in Pacific Beach called Jose Murphy’s. There’d be about 50 vintage Harleys lined up outside, with the beautiful two-tone paint jobs. I used to like playing the gig just to look at the vintage bikes. It was during this period that Earl Thomas, who had just moved to San Diego from Humboldt, saw me playing with Blonde Bruce at Jose Murphy’s, and I’m not sure if he approached me that day or not, but somehow he knew that I had my own little group called the Rhumboogies. We were playing an off night at the Mandolin Wind in Hillcrest, where King Biscuit had its residency gig, and that is the first time I remember meeting Earl. He sat in with us, and he told me he was looking to join a blues band. I said, “Your timing’s pretty great because we’re looking for a singer right now.” I invited Earl to come down to our weekly Tuesday night gig at Winston’s in Ocean Beach, and both Earl and Candye Kane auditioned for the gig on the same night! They both became a lot more famous than me!!!” [laughing] Something is not right here! [laughing]
“I’d known Candye for a while because she was married to Tom Yearsley from the Paladins, and I was close friends with Paladins’ guitar man, Dave Gonzales. Candye was great, but at that time she was into singing country, and she also had a look that didn’t really fit with what the Rhumboogies were doing. You gotta remember that this was 1988 or ’89, and Candye’s style was a little like Madonna’s, with the big cross and all that. Meanwhile, Earl comes in and he’s wearing this 1960s Rat Pack-era suit, and after he sang with us I remember Thomas Yearsley, Candye’s own husband, saying to me, “Eric, it’s a no-brainer. Hiring Earl is like having Sam Cooke in your band.” So Earl joined the Rhumboogies, and the band got really tight and good after that. It was the King Biscuit Blues Band where I think I came into my own as a guitar player, but as a bandleader; for sure it was the Rhumboogies.”
Your struggle with Focal Dystonia really took a toll on you. In your liner notes for the new album, Sing Your Own Song, you talk about your fight with the disease and actually said it was “good for you.” Can you please clarify that just a little?
My whole life I was insecure about the way I played, and I always wished I sounded like Anson Funderburgh or Kid Ramos, or even guys that were younger than me like Nathan James or Robbie Eason. When I saw some old Rhumboogies video tapes after dealing with dystonia for the past seven years, I thought, “Wow, I wish I could just play like me again.” In that respect my dystonia was a gift because it made me appreciate the gift of just being able to play, even if I don’t sound like this guy or that guy, because I didn’t even have that for the past seven or eight years.”
Let’s talk about the creation of Blue Largo…
The derivation of our name Blue Largo has nothing to do with Key Largo or Blue Lagoon, or any of that. It comes from an obscure Bill Doggett song called “Blue Largo,” as I am a big fan of both Bill Doggett and Billy Butler, the guitar player on most of Doggett’s classic 1950s recordings. On our first Blue Largo CD, What a Day, Jonny Viau and I recorded “Honky Tonk,” which is probably Bill Doggett’s biggest hit and has one of the most classic rhythm and blues guitar solos of all time by Billy Butler.
Was it easier to find a vocalist this time around?
Alicia had been my girlfriend since 1982, and I always knew she could sing. Ever since I’ve known her she would learn these songs from Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, or Billie Holiday records, all these standards. And they’re not easy… they’re hard for me to play, man. And she would sing them a capella with so much emotion. So whenever I needed a singer for whichever band I had at the time, I’d try to get her to do it, but she always turned me down. She always told me she was just happy to be a shower singer…
Alicia suddenly appears; her ears must have been burning… “Believe it or not, I’m extremely shy,” she smiles. “My parents always sang and I would sing with them, but I was always extremely shy. I used to dream about being a back-up singer, because I grew up in the Motown era and I visualized myself as being a great back-up singer. But Eric asked me many times to play, and I still have stage fright but I wanted to accept the challenge and not have the regret of not doing it. It’s been a wonderful experience. Up until that time… I love to garden and that’s where I would do all my… performances. [laughing] I’d sing to the flowers. So that’s how I started and of course, Eric has always tried to encourage me. It’s been good for us as a married couple and a lot of joy. I still have some of that little girl in me that isn’t quite sure…” Eric jumps in, “And what do I tell you to do?” Alicia says, “You always tell me to take it down in the alley.” They both laugh and simultaneously say, “Way down in the alley.”
If you could, describe Blue Largo’s music.
“Its vintage blues, jump blues, swing, and jazz. I feel like words never do music justice, so I’ll reference certain artists such as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, T-Bone Walker, and Louis Jordan. Sometimes people ask me, “Eric, what do you like better, blues or jazz?” I say the better question is what do I like better… music before 1965 or music after 1965? Back in the ’40s and ’50s there wasn’t as much separation between jazz and blues as there seems to be today. It was more of a melting pot. You might have Billie Holiday playing a club one week and then Muddy Waters would come in and play that same club the next week, with very much the same audience. Back then pretty much all African-American blues and jazz was lumped into the broad category of rhythm and blues. When you’d go into a soul food joint in Louisiana or in Chicago in the 1940s and ’50s, you’d find Miles Davis, the Nat King Cole Trio, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson all on the juke box. So for me it’s that palette of pre-1965 black American rhythm and blues! On our first two records I wouldn’t play anything by Magic Sam or Buddy Guy, as much as I love those guys, and I wouldn’t play a solid body guitar, because I wanted to keep it all pre-1955 sounding. I think an album should have a cohesive theme and concept that runs throughout. I believe an album shouldn’t just be a collection of random songs, but like a book, each song is a chapter, and one chapter has to relate to the other. As for our new record Sing Your Own Song, I like to describe it as “original vintage rhythm and blues.” I like the fact that original and vintage are antonyms, opposites. People might think, “Well, how can it be both vintage and original? Doesn’t original mean it’s new?” But I want the seven original songs on the record to sound like they came straight out of me, a kid from suburban, middle-class, Jewish-Italian New Jersey, who grew up in the 1970s. I want the lyrics to reflect the way I feel, the way I think, and my own life experiences. I want them to sound like they were written in 2015, which they were. And at the same time, the only music that I’ve been so steeped in, so studied in and so dedicated to learning how to play has been traditional blues. And I think that after 35 years of it, it’s so inside of me that writing these new original songs still came out with an old school, vintage, rhythm and blues sound and vibe.”
For the first time in my life I have enough confidence in myself that I’m not worried about people saying, “Oh man, Blue Largo’s new record sounds too modern; that guy’s not a real blues player.” I didn’t try to make these songs sound like they were written by somebody in an era, or time and place that I didn’t grow up in. Hammond organ is also fairly prominent on this record, and the whole organ-piano thing I got from the E Street Band, which is the best organ-piano band I’ve ever heard, and it is also what I grew up with. I sent the song “Tears of Joy” to a friend of mine who grew up next door to me in New Jersey and first turned me on to Springsteen and Steel Mill in 1970. He said, “Eric, the organ sounds eerily like Danny Federici,” which is what I was thinking! I hope my blues friends don’t disown me after such a stark admission! Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Jamaican music in general, has also been a huge influence on me, and people tell me they hear some of that on the new record. Up until recently, I would have been embarrassed… “Oh no, man! The guy’s putting reggae in his blues; that’s not pure, that’s not authentic… that’s not genuine.” Now I take that as a compliment.
For the first time in Blue Largo I’m playing a Stratocaster on as many songs as I’m playing an arch top guitar, and there are covers from both Magic Sam and Otis Rush. Nathan James, Alicia, and I recorded “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” which is a 1930s country blues tune by the Mississippi Sheiks, and as much as I love that stuff, I wouldn’t have done that on our first two records because I didn’t think it fit with the more urban jump blues and swing I was so obsessed with at the time of those recordings.”
The CD was recorded at Sacred Cat Studios with Nathan James and he also plays on the record…
Nathan was unbelievable man. His patience and his attention to detail is mind-blowing. The things that he hears is a gift he was born with. And one last thing, our band—Jonny Viau, Dave Castel De Oro, Art Kraatz, Joey Jazdzewski, Taryn Donath, Rafael Salmon, Marcus Bashore, and Ron Felton—has done an amazing job playing on this record. We pretty much recorded these songs after playing them just a few times. And I think it has to do with the fact that we’ve all been playing together for almost 30 years. There’s an intuitive feel about that, something which is irreplaceable and priceless.
Alicia smiles and adds, “Telling the stories… and the connection we feel in sharing our stories…”
Eric nods, “For me, the most important line on the whole record is in the title track. It says ‘there’s no denyin’ you saw me cryin,’ but in my darkest hour of despair, there’s a light just around the bend.’ That’s my philosophy about life in general and I think its Alicia’s too.”