The following interview appears courtesy of CanadianBlues.ca
CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL PICKETT
Think of Michael Pickett and one word immediately jumps to mind.
The Toronto-based harmonica wizard, a fixture on the Canadian blues scene for over 30 years, commands respect... not only for his presence on the stage but his charisma off it. We're not talking about outlandish over-the-top charisma. Just a polished, professional charisma that stems from his honest approach to the craft. It's evident when he speaks and it shines through when he plays.
This charisma, combined with enthusiasm and a lifetime of experience adds up to the aforementioned integrity.
"It's important to take all music seriously," says Pickett between sets at a recent southwestern Ontario gig. "Music is really serious shit, man. Really serious shit. For me it's not, 'Oh we have a gig, let's go to the gig and have a good time.' I need to be in a space."
More often than not, it's this kind of approach that separates the men from the boys. It's what allows some to forge a career in the industry while other would-be virtuosos languish as weekend warriors.
And quite a career it has become. Pickett was the lead vocalist and harmonica player for Whiskey Howl and Wooden Teeth in the 1970s and '80s. He formed the Michael Pickett Band in 1981 and over time has shared the stage with everyone from Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and Koko Taylor to Colin Linden, Jeff Healey and the Downchild Blues Band.
Yet surprisingly, Pickett admits he had wavered more than once when it came making a full-time commitment to the business. He was frustrated and had actually given up on it for one reason or another. He held a "straight" job as late as 1987.
"But I woke up at the bright old age of 37 and realized I was a musician," he says.
The cheering crowds, the critical acclaim, the awards and testimonials, Pickett has pretty well seen everything. He'll tell you about the Toronto blues scene when he first got involved, how there were really only three bands of note, the Downchild Blues Band, Mainline, and his own unit, Whiskey Howl. The climate has changed dramatically since those groundbreaking days.
"I only knew about four guitar players then," he says. "Now I've got a list of guitar players that has about 100 names. It's not an easy thing to do but everyone and their brother is a guitar player. Your postman is a guitar player. The guy who installs the gas at your house is a guitar player. There's a million guys. Everybody is a guitar player."
Yet through it all, there is still a powerful fascination with the blues but that doesn't mean Pickett can't conquer new musical frontiers.
"At this stage in my life, I'm definitely not going to do anything else," he concedes. "What I am doing right now is I'm kind of taking a right turn from what I have been doing which is playing in a band and playing tunes from both CDs and I'm playing guitar all the time. I'm probably playing guitar eight, nine hours a day. Acoustic guitar. Not electric guitar. I do not want to play electric guitar.
"And I'm playing more and more solo dates. So I'm playing six and 12-string guitar, and I'm playing rack harmonica and doing some field hollers and it surprises me because I've got a song list of about 60 tunes, half of which nobody has ever heard. I'm not kidding you, nobody has ever heard of them. And that's what I'm working on and I'm going to put out a solo record and like I said, I'm touring more and more solo."
For Pickett, it's the next stop on a musical journey that began as a youngster. That journey's origins can be traced back to a birthday present and a television special. On the surface, both seemed trivial yet each had a profound influence on his life because they effectively introduced the blues into his life.
"As far back as I can remember, I've always loved music and when I was 12 or 13 years old, my mother bought me a harmonica for my birthday. It probably cost a buck, seventy-five. And I've told this story a hundred times if I've told it once. I was playing "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and the pop songs of the day. Then I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on television. I believe it was from a concert at the O'Keefe Centre down at Front and Yonge St (in Toronto).
"I went out the next day, this was about 1964, myself and two friends of mine, we went out and bought a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee record which I still have. And further to that, I just opened the door to this whole culture I knew nothing about. They were singing about things, in a dialect which I could barely understand. It was barely intelligible to me."
Yet Pickett was totally drawn to it. Music works in mysterious ways. It grabs hold of you when you least expect it and for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint for some.
"It was great music, period," says Pickett trying to explain how he caught the bug. "It was sung with truth and honesty and passion. From there I played tic, tac, toe like people do when they get into music. If you discover the Rolling Stones, you're going to discover some artist today. You're going to go forward and backwards."
As the years went by, Pickett did just that. Eventually he discovered a performer who served as a more-than-capable role model, an individual who inspired with his technique as well as his philosophy and approach to working on stage.
"It's James Cotton," he admits. "I haven't seen him in years but he just loves to play and that was contagious. There was an excitement when Cotton walked into a club. The band was great and they were having fun and they put on a show. But in the context of that show, they were genuinely having fun. They were having fun with the music.
"The music was underneath it all. The music generated it all. It wasn't about walking up on stage and OK, now I'm smiling and gee, aren't we having fun now. That's not the deal. That's what I learned from Cotton. That's not what it's all about. It's very serious. The music is very serious and when the music is cooking, that's when you start falling down on the stage and laughing and having a great time. But you have to do that first. You don't do that second. You have to put the music together first."
To illustrate a little further, we have to go back to the early 1970s. At that time, top-notch blues acts often came into Toronto and played for a week at a time. James Cotton and his band had settled in at an establishment called the Colonial and Pickett was there to watch him every single night. He even went back for the Saturday afternoon matinee before making a phone call to his own band, Whiskey Howl, to make arrangements to travel to London, Ontario for an appearance that night. Only problem is the band had already left without him. "It's the only time I've ever missed a gig in my life," says Pickett.
Not knowing what else to do, he decided to stay and watch James Cotton do one more show on Saturday night.
"I knew everything Cotton was doing," he recalls. " I knew it all. I had seen him before and I saw him every night that week. And they got up on stage that night and do you know what they did? They did nothing that I had ever seen them do. They weren't drunk. They were just having a good time. Somebody in the band would know a tune and somebody else would say, no, I don't know it. They would just count it off and do it. Boom. Live. Improvise it."
Cotton was the teacher and Pickett the student. And the lesson taught that evening was powerful and effective. The successful artist stays sharp and is always on his toes. It also helps if he is original and inspired. That commands Pickett's respect.
"(I like) songwriters. Anybody that's playing real music. My criteria is, is it honest? I love to hear Willie Nelson sing. I love to hear Willie Nelson sing anything and everybody does because Willie Nelson loves to sing. That's what gets me. The guy loves doing what he's doing. You've got to have some kind of talent or some kind of gift.
"But with this music, there are a whole lot of bands that are weekend warriors. They just go through the motions and they play Stevie Ray Vaughan songs. I won't go near a Stevie Ray Vaughan tune. I would do it solo but I wouldn't do it with a band."
Not all the musicians Pickett admires are the aging icons. Remember the theory of going forward as well as backward when exploring your craft. Every generation has something to offer and Pickett continues to do his research. One younger artist in particular has grabbed his attention.
"Michael Jerome Browne, that's the main one," says Pickett referring to the Montreal-based acoustic blues artist. "He's done a lot of homework. He knows what this music is about. He knows who did what, where, where it came from, and who influenced what. He plays a multitude of instruments and he does it well. There's no shtick about it. He sings in his own voice."
Doing your homework. Knowing what the music is about. That grabs Pickett's attention. But how about if we put the shoe on the other foot. What does he expect from his audience? You would think more than three decades of experience would entitle him to play the role of mentor to his audience, to broaden their musical horizons. Some listeners are astute while others..., well let's just say they are less than astute.
"People come up to me in a club and tell me they want to hear something by Alicia Keyes," says Pickett in wonderment. "I'm not kidding, having just seen a great set of original material, and then they can't understand why I don't do it, or they ask me if I know who Alicia Keyes is. Or they'll say will you do something by Eric Clapton.
"You don't want to offend people but I've got no power over that shit. It's not my job to go out there and play a tune by T-Bone Walker and here's a tune by BB King and here's a tune by Little Walter and here's a tune by Sonny Boy, that's not what I do. I go after the music. I let the music lead me. I'm not there to educate anybody."
Maybe not but Pickett certainly leads by example. Sit in on one of shows and prepare to not only be entertained but enlightened. See how he carries himself and how he works with other musicians. Listen to the material. Breathe it in.
Pickett admits his first CD release back in 1998 has also been pivotal, not only for his admirers and the blues audience in general, but also for himself.
"It was really important because people had been asking me for years, 'Have you got a record or a tape? Can I buy a CD?, and I didn't want to do it because I didn't want to put out a bunch of cover tunes.
"By the time I had enough original material together, I tried to sell my songs. I didn't get anywhere with that. It's a tough business. It's tough to sell somebody a song, even if it's a great song. So I put out my own CD (Blues Money) and don't you know I get a Juno nomination."
Not bad for an initial effort but let's not forget that Pickett had been in the business a long time. Nevertheless, some people would be inclined to say that first CD included all his best material, the culmination of being in the business for years.
"Yeah, and then I put out another one (Conversation With the Blues) and I get another Juno nomination."
Two CDs. Two Juno nominations. How can you top that? Well there is the minor matter of actually winning that coveted Juno. When you come so close, not once but twice, then actually winning one can become a priority.
"No, those are not my goals," he explains. "Like Harry Manx said, you put the music first and the rest of the shit follows.
"I'm not looking to make a million dollars. I'm not looking to get on MTV. I'm not even looking to become a household name. Somebody in the band here asked me if I'm touring a lot and I said, 'No, not as much as I'd like to.' If I could be out there 200 dates a year, I'd do them. It's important."
Touring. Playing guitar. Working on a new solo project. These are some of the things that are keeping Pickett busy right now. That and walking his dog. Then there's yoga and even camping.
"I love to do yoga," he says. "I've done yoga for more than two years now. If I can do that twice a week, I'm a happy camper. And if I can't, and it's hard to find the time to do it, I like canoeing and camping but there's a small window for me to do that in this country because I don't want to go in June and July because it's too
So for now the bugs can wait. While he's pursuing his interest in acoustic guitar, even the harmonica may have to wait for a while. Such is the case, not only when you are a musician but a performer of integrity. Convention must occasionally be set aside for the sake of the craft. Hard-core harmonica fans won't have to worry though.
"I love playing harmonica," says Pickett. "I could play harmonica all night long. I'm 51 years old and my health is better than it's been my whole life. I've got tons of energy and stamina and I've stopped smoking so I'm singing better. I just want to play."
The rest of us just want to listen.
Feature and photos by Baron Bedesky
© Copyright 2002
© 2006 Michael Pickett