Cover Story

Straight Outta Siberia: Charles Burton and the Road Less Traveled

Charles Burton. Photo by Steve Covault.

Charles Burton is by far one of the most versatile blues guitarists in Southern California. His talents reach well beyond the traditional 12 bars. From his earliest memories he was educated in the works of Bach and Beethoven, but it was the Beatles that struck a chord. With forays into Cajun, country, and roots rock, Burton to this day continues to explore music of all genres. A search that has contributed greatly to his appreciation and admiration of the musicians that came before.

It hasn’t been an overnight success, however. Charles has been playing clubs, venues, and garages near you since his teens. The mantra was always “let’s set up to play, it’ll probably take the cops an hour to get here…,” he smiles. “We played loud!” Dynamics aside, Burton has proven himself musically with a burgeoning catalogue of six albums and decades of live appearances at Patrick’s in the Gaslamp; Tio Leo’s, the San Diego House of Blues, and the Kraken in Solana Beach, to mention but a few.

As with most things in life, lucky breaks seem to come from hard work and occur when you least expect it. A vacationing Swedish blues musician sat in on Burton’s Monday Night Blues Jam at the aforementioned Kraken and it would have a profound effect on Charles’ musical direction. That chance meeting would turn into a friendship and that friendship would open doors to music festivals, bar, and club tours crisscrossing Scandinavia, most of Eastern Europe, and eventually, Russia.

Charles Burton has travelled a road unlike any other, from a Southern California kid to fleet sailor and shellback in the United States Navy to present-day International Blues Ambassador. So, when we sat down to talk we started our conversation from Day One. “I was born in Los Angeles at Santa Monica General.” Charles says. “And both of my parents were born in California, which I guess is a little bit rare. A second generation Californian, my dad was from Bakersfield, mom was from Long Beach and after he got out of the Navy they eloped and got married and had me. Living in L.A…I don’t remember the first years, but I remember moving to Fullerton. There’s a music town for ya.” (Leo Fender 1909-1991)

You’ve had music in your family from way back? “My grandmother was a music teacher, by profession. When I arrived, I came with piano lessons. From as early as I can remember I was getting piano lessons from my grandmother…a lot of Bach! Bach and Beethoven and then five minutes of what do you want to play? It was always Beatles. She’d have me on Bach and Beethoven and then I’d get to play Beatles music. [laughing] So, I remember that a lot!

My dad played a little piano and my mom was into the folk revival a little bit. She had an acoustic guitar and sang Woody Guthrie songs, Cisco Houston, and maybe a little Leadbelly! Being from and Irish-Catholic family, she was also into the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Irish music for Americans, so I grew up listening to a lot of that! Mom was born on St. Patrick’s Day and she always said that was her mom’s greatest achievement.”

Charles with the Bayou Brothers.

Let’s talk a little about musical influences outside the family tree. “I was born in 1958, so about the time I was five, the Beatles ruled the airwaves. If anyone ever ruled the airwaves, it was the Beatles, and certainly in Fullerton at that time. All the kids had portable radios and if you turned it on you were going to hear some Beatles, you turn to the next station another Beatles song…they were that popular. So, I asked my mom, what is that sound? And she said, ‘Well, they’re singing.’ I said, ‘No, in-between the singing.’ She said, ‘That is the sound of an electric guitar.’ She probably rued the day she said that because from that day forward I was obsessed with the electric guitar. The Beatles were a big influence and, later, I got into the Allman Brothers and all the rock players like Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Clapton and Cream, Richie Blackmore and Deep Purple. One of my first 45s was Leslie West and Mountain’s ‘Mississippi Queen.’

“I used to go to the library on my ten-speed and check out Guitar Player magazine a year at a time. I read every article and every interview with Jimmy Page or Clapton and Hendrix because I wanted to know how they were influenced. And guess who those influences were? It was T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Albert and Freddie King, Albert Collins…those names. All those rock players were influenced by the blues, especially the Brits because of the blues boom in the ’50s and early ’60s. And that’s how I got really, really interested in the blues.”

Did you play in a lot of garage bands, growing up? “I certainly played in garage bands in Orange County…all right, let’s set up to play. It’ll probably take the cops an hour to get here! [laughing] Invariably, it was too loud for the neighbors.”

What were some of the names of your bands? “Monotorque was one, and then there was one called Fever. That was my first experience with a semi-professional band. We had Marshall stacks on both sides and there was money in equipment. My first summer of having a job I bought a Les Paul, my second summer job I got a Marshall stack. We played loud!”

You’ve played across a number of genres over the year. “I started off in more of the rock end of it. Then in my early twenties, I got into a country band and that was a good experience. The band was called J. Floyd Elliott; it was a pseudonym for a guy named Kirk Schumacher, a fantastic country singer. He had an electric 12-string and I’ll never forget the sound of that thing. I started learning about country guitar playing. Country music, especially from a guitar playing point of view, is a cousin of blues.”

How many instruments do you play? “I started on piano and in the fourth grade there was an opportunity to play a band instrument like saxophone or trumpet. My dad had a couple of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass records and I really liked the ‘whipped cream’ album! [laughing] So I ended up with the trumpet! [laughing] I took trumpet from like fourth grade through high school and eventually they moved me to French horn.”

When did you first pick up a guitar? “My mom had spent a year of college in Mexico and she picked up a folk guitar there. That was hanging on the wall from my earliest memories and high enough that I couldn’t reach it! But when I got to play it, I got to play it. That was fun, just messing around with a guitar before I knew anything. By the time I was seven, my mom knew I was really interested in the guitar and I got lessons. A lady in the neighborhood taught me ‘this is how you pick this Simon and Garfunkel song.’”

With the exception of about a year living in the Northeast near Acton, Massachusetts in the early ’70s, Charles spent the majority of his youth in Southern California. In his twenties, the world would present a few new challenges. “I had my guitar stolen out of my truck and I was at sort of a dead end.” He shakes his head. “My folks had moved to Northern California and in that transitional period I was thinking about working for a giant corporation that would pay for everything. They’ll let you into the military! You don’t get fired easily from that. I had ten cents in my pocket and took the Greyhound to the AAFES station and straight from there to boot camp in San Diego. That was my first time in San Diego, at least for eight weeks. I got shipped off to Memphis, Tennessee for Navy training followed by four more months of school in Jacksonville, Florida. After school my first duty station was Barber’s Point, Hawaii. Three years in Hawaii before I deployed to the Philippines. I deployed on the USS Midway for Desert Storm. Fast forward, three years in Hawaii, three years in the Philippines and three years in Japan essentially outside the U.S. for almost a decade and I played in bands the whole time. The Navy brought me back to San Diego and I’ve been here since ’96.”

You’re still in uniform but musically things start to happen for you in San Diego. “I got with a band called the Blues Brokers and the week they fired me from the Blues Brokers I got a call from Ken Schoppmeyer to join him in the Deacons. That’s when I found out what it’s like to play with top notch musicians.”

You retired from the Navy after 20 years. “I decided to stay in San Diego because I was already connected to the blues scene locally. I played with Michele Lundeen for a while and learned about Zydeco music.”

Lundeen, aka the Queen of Steam, has fronted her own band in the San Diego music scene for years. She remembers that time. “Charles was an integral part of my Blues Streak band, beginning at Patrick’s II in the early-mid 2000s,” Michele says. “He was more intense back then, and it might have taken him a minute to smile, but I could tell right off he was dedicated and a natural talent and he brought some really cool stuff to the table. I also knew I could count on his creativity when it came time to record three of the tracks on my CD. Charles is one talented and entertaining guitarist and I’m excited and happy how he and his own career have blossomed over the years. He’s clever and he’s funny, and I’m proud to call him a music brother.”

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Illustration by Jonathan Wenner.

Charles was playing a lot… “At one point I ended up running the Monday night blues jam at the Kraken in 2004-2005. For awhile I had the best band in San Diego; I had Scott Fronsoe on bass and Pete ‘The Beat’ Langhans on drums.

“It was at the Kraken one night, a Swedish guy who was on vacation sat in with the band. His name was Thomas Mikaelsson and it turns out he was the bass player from the Swedish band  Subluna. He said, ‘Maybe sometime you can come to play in Sweden.’ You hear stuff like that all the time, but you really don’t take it seriously. Long story short…that was 2005, the same year I met my beautiful better half, Lolie. And low and behold, later that year here comes an email; yes, they want you at the Östersund Blues Festival. The next thing you know, Oh my God! I’m in Sweden playing at a blues festival! This is great! I started making connections and that is the beginning of what I consider my music career.

“It was at that festival in Östersund that I met Maury ‘Hooter’ Saslaff. He recruited me to tour with him in Scandinavia for three months, specifically Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. Hooter is a great American blues bassist and music heavyweight. He not only booked, but also played with Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers and was living in Oslo and bringing over American blues singer/guitarists. He brought over Travis Haddix, Carlos Guitarlos, Dave Herrero, Buddy Reed, and other great players.

Justin Newman, Charles, Andrew Crane at CD release.

“I ended up touring twice—2007 for three months and 2008 for four months and that was gigging every day, sometimes two or three shows on Fridays and Saturdays. Well over 200 gigs…and I met club owners and music people all over Scandinavia. The second tour, in 2008, a little later in the year Hooter quit and moved to Phoenix. Hooter had used Scandinavian drummers including the great Tom ‘Dysa’ Stølan from Norway. I remember, Dysa used to drive the van and Hooter was in the backseat calling venue after venue to book shows. We had many amazing discussions as we crisscrossed the beautiful Scandinavian countryside. Another fantastic drummer I met playing with Hooter was Asmus Jensen from Copenhagen, Denmark.

“When Hooter quit, he had been booking and playing shows in Scandinavia for nine years, I decided to do my own tours in Scandinavia. I bought a house in Sweden and it became my base of operations for touring in Europe. I bought a 1993 VW diesel T4 van, bought Hooter’s old PA system, and started contacting venues all over Scandinavia about booking myself with Scandinavian drummers and bass players I’d met.”

Your contacts page must be maxed out! Charles nods. “Another great player, Kris Bodzon, who played bass in Ken Schoppmeyer’s Deacons with me in San Diego, had moved back to his hometown of Krakow, Poland. Kris, Asmus, and I have played three tours in Poland that Kris arranged.”

You have a favorite venue in Poland? “One festival was in the Wieliczka salt mine, this gigantic underground salt mine that’s been converted into a concert hall, with restaurants, bars, everything…and the walls, floors and ceilings are all salt.”

As Burton reflects on his journey, the names of friends and fellow musicians just come tumbling out. “Another guy who helped me a lot was Magnus Ejnermark. He is a great blues musician based in Karlstad, Sweden. He has a great band called Blue Wheel. We did quite a few gigs together and he introduced me to Bert Deivert, a great American bluesman who lives in Sweden. Bert very kindly and selflessly turned me on to a number of his music contacts, including Eugene, who has become my Russian booking agent.”

You started really branching out? “Latvia and Lithuania…Russia. Russia was the best of the best. Through a friend in Sweden I was given a number of music contacts. One was a Russian booking agent. After communicating for several years over the internet we finally met face to face while on a tourist visit in Moscow…off the grid. I gave him a couple of live CD’s I’d made and he hired me on the spot. I got a three-year visa to play in Russia and did a couple of tours there, the Republic of Georgia and St. Petersburg.”

How were you received by the fans there? Fantastic, it couldn’t have been better. And I was in good company, that booking agent also brought Chris Cain and Guy King, some amazing blues talent. And the audiences are very appreciative. I have lots of amazing stories from all this touring. Like the time Eugene and I got drunk with Putin’s plumber on the train to Kirov, Russia.

Pandemic aside, you’ve been going back frequently? From 2009 to 2019 I went to Europe twice a year and toured, fronting my own three-piece band. I toured Russia twice in 2018 and 2019. I also played at the St. Petersburg Blues Festival in 2018 as well as the Blues Festival in Lagodekhi, Republic of Georgia. Unfortunately, Covid shut down all the tours I had lined up for 2020, including Sweden, Denmark, France, Poland, and Russia.

You went back this past summer? I managed to do a brief tour in July and August of 2021. Asmus, Kris, and I played at the Østersø Jazz Festival on Bornholm, Denmark, and at the Krakow Summer Jazz Festival in Poland.

I’m still thinking about Putin’s plumber…but ask how many CDs now? Six. My first release, The Charles Burton Blues Band, was all blues standards and we finished it in 2004. My second and third albums were all original material. I Wouldn’t Lie to You came out in 2006 and Everybody’s Talkin’ was released in 2008. Favorites came out in 2012 and I recorded it in Copenhagen with Asmus Jensen on drums, a great, great drummer and Arnold Ludvig on bass. When I met Asmus, he said what part of San Diego are you from? And I thought, “This Danish guy knows San Diego?” Yeah, he had played with Earl Thomas, along with Missy and Heine Andersen.

In 2013, I released Sweet Potato Pie and my latest is entitled Live from Mojo’s. It was captured live in 2016 with Kris on bass, Asmus on drums; it is the now the third CD that I’ve recorded in Copenhagen. The Mojo Blues Bar is a dive bar that’s the epicenter for blues in Copenhagen and they recorded our show. I got the tracks on tape and brought them back to San Diego to get it mixed. I wanted to get a CD out with the right kind of production for a live roots music vibe. And that’s when I got with Thomas Yearsley at the Thunderbird Analog Recording Studio’s in Oceanside.

Thomas Yearsley is a name most San Diegan’s know through his work at Thunderbird Analog Recording Studios and his performance history as bassist with the Paladins. Thomas Yearsley has also become a great friend, and we have played many, many shows together in Oceanside and Carlsbad. That brings up a whole ‘nother chapter: the Reagan “Guitar” Williams Band. Through Thomas Yearsley, I met Kevin Williams, who built a trailer/stage in order to do shows throughout the pandemic with his son Reagan. I have been playing with them since June 2020. I also play country guitar in Kevin’s band, The Small Town Heroes.

You produce an incredible amount of original material, what is your writing process like? Basically, I tend to write the music first and the lyrics come later. I have a backlog, plenty of odds and ends, and little musical bits that I’ve come up with over the…decades! [laughing] Hey, that could be a great song; I just need to put some words with it.

Do you write with your guitar? I can read and write music, but on the guitar the best way to remember it is to just play it over and over and over again. It becomes muscle memory and it’ll be there the next time you want it. I have ideas for the songs musically then I do this thing that some bands do, I play the recorded musical track and shout out syllables…think of the vibe, what is the song saying, or who would say this? And under what circumstances and what would be their story? Or, is it me? Or, what could have been? That’s my process. And the lyrics tend to come at the very last minute! The lyrics don’t show up until there’s a deadline! [laughing]

Our conversation returned to the wealth of musical talent that is embedded in the military. I mention a friend of mine, guitarist Dennis Jones. Charles nods. Super-talented guy and I’ve been on shows with him! You know the military is packed with musicians. Why is that, you think? They want to eat, they want a steady paycheck, and they want their kid’s dental work taken care of… so I had no shortage of guys to play with while I was in the Navy.

Can you describe Charles Burton’s blues? Well, I feel it’s evolving. Having said that, you can learn about this guitar player or learn about this style; you can try to add some jazz or country, some of this, some of that, and it’s really all still going to be you. I’m always trying to improve and incorporate more real blues into my show and into my playing and singing. I’ve been a student of blues guitar, now that I teach guitar out of Mark’s Guitar Exchange in Point Loma, and I can tell you all day the difference between Freddie, B.B., and Albert King but ultimately you have to try to become yourself. You’re going to be, anyway…so you might as well get with the program.

Another part about learning music for me was, before seriously getting involved with the blues, I was into all the flashy shredding and the fusion players, John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, and Eddie Van Halen, and at some point I realized you can get better and better and more technically proficient, but wait a minute—it’s got to be fun! It’s got to have joy in it, otherwise why would anybody want to listen to it? Not only that, but it should really mean something. So, to answer your question, Charles Burton’s blues are FUN! A moving, touching, deep emotion that would probably take years to express in words…music is instant! Audiences let you know if it felt good!

The thing about blues, when you’re feeling bad or feeling blue, having experienced something dreadful in your life perhaps, as musicians we’re gonna’ take that bad feeling and turn it into something good. And guess what, if it feels good to us it’s going to feel good to others who experience it. That’s an essential thing about blues. And that’s something I want to stay with. From the early masters like Robert Johnson to a contemporary Albert Collins, blues is a big category. Just like Jazz, a thousand different people mean a thousand different things by it. Even a real deal Chicago blues player can have jazz influences.

What does the future hold for Charles Burton? Well, I’m 62 and it’s not over yet, fortunately. [smiling] You can age in blues. I want to keep touring in Europe. There are countries that I haven’t broken into yet. I want to play in Belgium, Amsterdam, and Germany. I’ve played in France, but there are a few more [countries] I want to get into and I want to go back to Russia. (Author’s note: At the time of this writing, Charles just found out that he’s got a Russian tour coming at the end of November…followed by some shows in Le Havre, France.) I also want to make another CD that’s even more of the real Charles Burton, produced in the real roots music vein.

 

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