Behind The Blues

The Stories Behind The Scenes

Welcome Backstage

Amy Sassenberg

This site is for you, the Blues lover. You love the music, the tradition, the clubs, the people who paved the way. You go to the shows, buy the music, listen to the radio. You sing, dance, help out, set up, tear down, and take your RV to festivals near and far. You have great times and some not so great. You get married, have babies and then your babies have babies. You get together. You break up. You get sick. You get well. You get down and you get back up again. You're part of a community that understands BLUES IS LIFE. It's how we mourn, mate, survive and celebrate. So this is for you. A backstage pass to learn more about artists you love and the folks who support this wonderful world-wide family. Contribute, comment or congratulate. All are welcome here.

Shake it for Spring at April Blues Bash

Randy Nicely & Randy Norris by Amy Larimer

Randy Nicely and Randy Norris Photo by Amy Larimer

Tuesday, April 10, at Collector’s Choice in Snohomish, will feature some well-known, respected and beloved northwest musicians on the Blues Bash stage this month. Norris & Nicely will start out a super soulful night capped by the fun and funky Red House. Put on your dancin’ shoes!

Blending soul, rock, New Orleans rhythm and Delta blues, Randy Norris and Jeff Nicely have played music together for nearly two decades. Performing as an acoustic duo for the last 10 years, Norris and Nicely represented the Washington Blues Society at the 2012 and 2013 International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis and last year were awarded the 2017 WBS Best of the Blues Award for Solo/Duo Blues Act after six consecutive nominations in that category. Together, they also fronted the band Blues Therapy, and released two well-received recordings, Doctor’s Orders! and Second Opinion.

Norris’s warm charismatic vocals and high-energy guitar work have carried him through several years with the Randy Oxford Band, where he also earned high marks in Memphis as an IBC finalist, as a member of Jack Mack and the Heart Attack and a stint with The Boxtops doing session and sideman work.

Nicely brings his solid soulful harmonica to this project and to the locally popular Blues Playground. He’s also been inducted into the hall of fame with his brothers in their Ohio hometown where they host a benefit concert every year. In addition he is a well-respected producer, most recently with the Arlington Legends of the Blues.  More at

Photo of Red House courtesy of the band.

Powerhouse Blues, Soul, Funk R&B supermen, Red House will be in OUR house! From high-energy booty-shakin’ beats to smooth soulful ballads, you can hear the collective experience and decades of playing together that these seasoned musicians bring to the stage. Described as the band other bands come to see, Red House is one of those bands that works hard and makes it look easy.

Each of the four close-knit members sings and writes, building on a variety of influences. Bassist Tim Scott has toured with Tower of Power, Robben Ford, Dave Mason, Etta James, The Bone Shakers, El Chicano and Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. He’s also performed with legends like Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Dr. John, Billy Preston, Edgar Winter, Chaka Kahn, Buddy Miles, Albert Collins, Big Joe Turner, John Mayall, Herbie Hancock, Steve Vai and Al Dimeola.

Scott played with Red House keyboardist and Hammond Organist Jimmie Holden in an earlier California incarnation, The Reputations. Holden, from a well-known musical family, also played with international legends, including Albert Collins, Ray Charles, The Temptations, Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Folsom, Billy Preston, Aaron Neville and Etta James.

Drummer Robin Crane and Guitarist Mark Noftsger started playing music back in high school, when they asked Tim Scott to help form the band, Glory. After careers as session players and making their musical marks up and down the West Coast, the two found themselves back in the Northwest, rejoining their old friends to form what is now Red House. You can learn more at and look for current band dates on the blues calendar at (You can read a similar article in the April 2018 WBS Bluesletter, available at newsstands and venues throughout the state or by becoming a WBS Member at

Lots of Blues at Collector’s Choice in Snohomish

International music legend Lee Oskar joins guitarist Dean Reichert and The Usual Suspects and special guests at CCR.

Snohomish, WA is well known for it’s postcard-like vision of colorful hot air balloons floating over a farm-speckled scenic landscape,  it’s many antique stores and little shops dotting the sidewalks that follow the winding river through town. Tucked nearby, partially hidden by the Rite-Aid, is a little gem of a place where locals mingle with Seattle city dwellers and tourists on their way back from the tulip fields or further north.

The new expanded bar and lounge area at Collector’s Choice Restaurant, otherwise known as CCR,  is also the new home for the Washington Blues Society’s monthly Blues Bash. Owner Barry Galen generously offered to host the WBS starting in 2018. This spring, on second Tuesdays, the blues society will feature the fabulous Randy Oxford Band with Linda Carroll, The McPage-Powell Full Band, the ever-funky Red House, acoustic duo Randy Norris & Jeff Nicely, rockin’ blues band The Eric Rice Trio with

Owner Barry Galen celebrates a birthday with The Usual Suspects, Jeffrey Morgan in background.

some special guests, and Tacoma acoustic blues artist SB Slim and his old-time blues band. (Check for the current month’s artists and their calendar for other blues shows.)

Collector’s Choice is a great fit because it already boasts a popular blues jam on Wednesday nights hosted by Jeffrey Morgan & the Usual Suspects. In it’s original configuration, the former, much-smaller bar got so packed on jam night, it may have helped Galen make the decision to expand.

What makes this blues scene even more special is the combination of warmth and excitement that thrives in this well-loved venue. Galen took over the space next door to the restaurant last year and finished the complete build-out last March. Everything is brand-spankin-new with custom built details like the beautiful hand-hewn bar made from full Douglas Fir logs and a bank of 40 beer taps, including a handful of their own unique brews.

CCR has an upscale but friendly sports-bar feel with several big screens, electronic dart boards and pool tables, with the gaming on one side and the stage, main bar and open kitchen on the other. Outfitted with a new music lounge area and dance floor with state of-the-art staging and equipment, it is audience and band friendly. Galen is well-known as one of the most musician-friendly owners in the local blues scene, and installed a permanent ramp to the stage so musicians can more easily move heavy equipment. The restaurant and food is an added bonus, with large portions of delicious comfort food and great service. A hallway between the restaurant and lounge, with double doors on either side, helps keep the live music separate from the dining area, but the bar has a dedicated kitchen that cooks up amazing appetizers. Plenty of close parking surrounds the place as well, so it’s easily accessible. If you like blues, brews, dancing to live music and superb cuisine in a friendly atmosphere, a drive to this country outpost in Snohomish County is a must.

A great capture of 3 local legends by Jeannie "Whoopiekitty" Baker. L-R, World Champion Harmonica Honoree Jim McLaughlin, Jam-Host & B-3 artist Jeffrey Morgan, and harmonica guru Jeff Nicely settle in at a recent Blues Bash.

A great capture of 3 local legends by Jeannie “Whoopiekitty” Baker. L-R, World Champion Harmonica Honoree Jim McLaughlin, Jam-Host & B-3 Artist Jeffrey Morgan, and harmonica guru Jeff Nicely settle in at a recent Blues Bash.

Alice Stuart Honored at FAR-West Folk Conference

Washington native and music legend Alice Stuart was honored as Best Performer at the prestigious Best of the West Awards Luncheon. The awards, held every year at the Annual Folk Alliance Regional-West Conference (FAR-West) wrapped up this past fall in Bellevue, WA, after four days of showcases, workshops, storytellers and singalongs.

Alice Stuart, Best of the West Award, 2017

Performers and industry representatives from across the Western US and Canada gathered at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency, which hosted the conference in 2016 and 2017. Other honorees were Peter Langston and Janet Peterson for the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, founded in 1974, receiving the Ambassador Award, and Sisters Folk Festival for the Organizational Achievement Award. All three honorees were toasted by their peers and gave a short performance.

Conference Organizer and Seattle multi-instrumentalist Joel Tepp gave a warm introduction and summary of Stuart’s many musical and cultural accomplishments, and placed them in history next to some of the legends she played with, including Doc Watson, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, John Prine, Albert King and Frank Zappa. She’s appeared in Guitar Player Magazine and Rolling Stone, received The Washington Blues Society’s Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement Awards, and toured with Mississippi John Hurt.

Tepp chose these words to describe her music: “Reflection, humor, joy, irony and much more, all conveyed with pure conviction.” Before joining her on guitar and harmonica, Tepp mentioned her surviving a significant stroke four years ago to bring us, perhaps her best music ever, with “…new levels of depth, meaning, gratitude and lean expression…” Stuart proved his point as she heralded the huge crowd with a catchy original tribute to Memphis Minnie, a fun ditty about marrying a string of “jerks,” and a heartfelt ballad called, “I’ve Got Something for You,” in which she engaged the audience to sing along about coming of age and loving oneself. By the smiles and singing and laughter, it was evident to the entire room we were witnessing a powerful and sweet moment by one of the best artists of our time. For generations to come, we will surely be namedropping Alice Stuart on any list of legends we had the good fortune to witness or know.

Opening Doors with Songs & Stories

The 14th Annual FAR-West 2017 Music Conference Offers Professional Panels, Networking, Showcases & Jams, October 5-8, 2017 at Hyatt Regency Bellevue

PB&J perform at a “Guerilla SHowcase” in one of the hotel rooms at Hyatt Regency Bellevue

The FAR-West Music Conference is Far-Out! Okay, maybe I’m dating myself, but this 3-day gathering of musicians, storytellers and industry professionals is really something: cozy and intimate, affordable and approachable, FAR-West welcomes artists of many styles, musicians of any level and is attended by industry pros who give classes and mingle with performers. Even if you’re not currently booking gigs, but maybe want to learn more about opportunities, marketing, fundraising or recording gear, there is a place for you. Attend workshops during the day in subjects like music publishing, radio airplay, international touring and songwriting craft. Then check out the big showcase of talent from Alberta to Arizona, and get ready for the party upstairs, playing or visiting two floors of hotel room “Guerilla Showcases” until all hours of the night. A salon in the best sense of the word, a couple hundred musicians and support people roam the halls where ideas and songs and harmonies are discovered and shared. Jams and sing-alongs have been known to go into the early morning hours. The pre-sale tickets are past, but a non-member entry is available for $210-$235 for 3 long days of music performances, panels, classes, storytelling, networking and just plain fun.

You don’t need to be a member to attend and you don’t need to attend the conference to experience a crop of diverse musicians and bands from across the western US & Canada. A nightly showcase is open to the public for $15/night to see up to six acts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in one of the ballrooms. Seating is limited so save the dates (Oct. 8/9/10) and check out the archives and other info at  where you can also see the lineup, artist websites and get tickets as the event approaches.

One of the local conference organizers and contributors, multi-instrumentalist Joel Tepp, describes attendees and artists as representing a diverse kaleidoscope of musical styles under the broad banner of “Folk.” Indeed, it seems a good fit for acoustic blues, roots, folk and Americana artists. Last year, in addition to some traditional folk, bluegrass and lyrical artists, the evenings featured northwest artists that blues society members might be familiar with, including  Orville Johnson, Tepp, Steve Peterson with PB&J, and Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons, fresh from their Memphis IBC win.

Nathan & Jessie surprise and delight attendees stopping in the the hotel room “Guerilla Showcases” at the FAR-West Conference in Bellevue.

Some of the Washington artists in the evening showcases this year are Larry Murante and Nathaniel Talbot on Friday and Reggie Garrett on Saturday. There’s also a dinner for Lifetime Achievement Awards and this year the Alliance is honoring Seattle’s own trail-blazing songwriter and performer, Alice Stewart, with the Best of the West Performer Award, which they give for demonstrated excellence in the craft and to those who have endured through the years and throughout their region. Yay Alice!

The Hyatt Regency Bellevue lobby gets quiet toward the end of opening day registration, as attendees and the public attend showcases in the ballrooms.

I’m writing about this conference two years in a row because it was a great experience in 2016 and seems to be a well-kept secret. The theme this year is Opening Doors with Songs & Stories. This is our last chance to open this particular door for a while, to catch FAR-West in the Puget Sound area before it moves back to California. As part of the Folk Alliance International family, this regional conference rotates between the western states and Canadian territories, usually spending two consecutive years in each spot. It’s great for folks who live in the area, because you don’t need a hotel room. But if you want to stay, the Hyatt Regency Bellevue gives a special rate for FAR-West attendees. You can find more information at

Orville Johnson was a highlight of the 2016 FAR-West Conference


Have Blues, Will Travel

Jj Thames at 2017 Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland courtesy of Photographer Dave Corry

Jj Thames at 2017 Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland courtesy of Photographer Dave Corry

Jj Thames is Travelin’ Behind the Blues

(This originally appeared in the August 2017 Bluesletter –

“Have Blues, Will Travel,” might be the first major US tour for soul-blues belter Jj Thames, but she has been on this road since she was 17-years-old, and singing from the age of nine. A classically-trained musician with years of jazz under her belt, Thames (pronounced Timms) on the cusp of turning 35, is a veteran performer of many genres and styles, having shared the stage with everyone from Bobby Blue Bland and Marvin Sease on the Chitlin’ Circuit to Reggae’s Outlaw Nation and Fishbone. It’s a pretty impressive resume for someone who was told time and again that she wasn’t a very good or very soulful singer. Thames is philosophical. “I think you have a choice,” she says. “You can take that and use it as motivation or you can allow it to dash your dreams.” The choice she made is pretty clear.

A radiantly beautiful woman with a quick smile and sometimes deep purple hair, the “Mississippi Blues Diva” from Detroit, as she has been called, started her journey in the same city as Motown, and was a seasoned chanteuse at 17. Asked about early blues influences or singing in the church, Thames says neither initially drew her interest.  Hearing her powerful instrument, recalling the passion of Koko or Etta, it’s hard to believe. Both her debut recording, Tell You What I Know, and her second album, Raw Sugar, recently nominated for a 2017 Blues Blast Music Award for Best Soul-Blues Album, open with soulful gospel-inspired tunes. The latter, Oh Lord, is an original (as they all are on Raw Sugar,) an old-timey-sounding, sparse composition with guitar, mandolin and vocals artfully added by Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons, the WBS-sponsored winners of the 2016 International Blues Competition in Memphis.

The song pleads for divine assistance on the bumpy journey we all take while we’re here. Thames is no stranger to struggle, and you can feel this from the beginning of the record. She has no qualms about putting her life in her songs, proclaiming, “All my music is personal.” Indeed, in the span of two albums you will hear the full spectrum of life’s ups and downs, tragic events and intimate moments. Raw Sugar includes a song about a woman in a questionable relationship considering an abortion; not a topic you hear in song too often. Lyrics on both albums are direct and surprising, vocals nuanced and wrenching, as she lets you behind the curtain where many of us hide our most personal lives.

She recently shared on social media pictures from the photo shoot for the album cover she shot a year and a half ago. At the time, she was struggling to just get out of bed and not cry her makeup off. Deeply depressed and dealing with anxiety and PTSD after a recent separation, she audaciously wore the white silk wedding gown she had worn full of hope less than a year before, to an abandoned warehouse with the photographer. She explained the range of emotions she was dealing with and wanted the CD to reflect. She says as she tromped through the filthy location, the dress began to resemble the marriage, and she was able to throw it away, and with that, start a new, more empowered chapter.

Her writing and her music seem to be a similar catharsis for her, and for her listeners. “You listen to my records, you know me personally,” she says, explaining that people come up to her at events and tell her all the time how they connect with her music and feel like they know her. They share how something they heard got them through a tough time: homelessness, a divorce or even the death of a child. They identify with her, and she with them, because the music is autobiographical, and all these things have come to pass.

A mother at 17, it was not always easy to make ends meet. Her second son, Zion Paul, was diagnosed with lymphoma and died just days from his second birthday. Thames mother, a psychiatrist, also passed from cancer at age 44. With each tragedy, Thames has diagramed her pain and her process and worked through to the other side. It is exorcised again and again in the songs and the performances. Not coincidentally, she says her lowest times brought her some of the most growth. She has always had the same dream, but because of circumstances, it periodically took a back seat to business school or the ministry, to survive or revive.

The church is in Thames’ blood, and most certainly in her voice. Her father retired from General Motors and became an ordained minister as Thames was reaching adulthood. She too, became fully ordained and licensed and worked in the church for two years, leaving music behind. Then one day, the minister that had guided her, brought her into his office for a heart-to-heart.  “He told me, hey, I think you need to go back to the music industry. And I was like, wait, what?” She says he told her that he really felt like that’s where she was supposed to be. “That’s your pulpit. That’s where you’ll make the biggest impact and the biggest difference. “ She knew he was right and tried to make another go. “I said, You don’t have to tell me twice.”

But success only came in spurts, and in between, more heartache and trying times. Just when it looked like the very worst thing had happened and her dream might die right along with those closest to her, she found the strength to scratch her way up again.

She said she’s had people chastise her for her single-mindedness and honesty in this.  She explains that the loss of her son was the worst thing that ever happened to her, but it was also, simultaneously, a positive force for change. “It was the thing that shook me,” she says. “It made me look at life and say, you know what, you’ve just got to go for it. Life’s too short.”

She dropped everything, including an engagement. She moved back to Detroit again to pursue her dreams and then to New York. As she describes her drive, you can see her resolve. “It was a trying time but it was also a time where I was writing so honestly. And I became this transparent individual where, you know, I have no secrets. And I feel like my story is supposed to be told. I feel like everything that I’ve gone through is just motivation for other people, so I don’t regret it.”

She felt like she was on the right path but there were still a few detours. The brief “very bad marriage” may have set her into a dark place, but it also gave her a lot of writing material. ”I get to sing songs about it and people understand. I honestly think that had a lot to do with the healing process. Writing that record and getting it off my chest.  It put me in a position to where I was open to love again,” she says. And she is in love again, with her best friend, again. A longtime companion, member of the band and a strong guiding force who helps keep her affairs in order, is never far from her side. “We’re very different,” she says. “I’m a free spirit and he is not.” She smiles a beatific smile. “We balance each other out. He loves me well.”

Thames seems to exhibit an openness and a rare self-confidence and ease with herself that is unusual for someone her age, or for anyone, really. She seems incapable of having a shallow exchange; direct and forthcoming, curious and observant. Her experience and upbringing explain some of this, and growing up on the stage. But there is something else.

“Actually I have Asperger’s. I’m an “Aspi” and proud of it. I was diagnosed as an adult,” she says about learning she carried aspects of the syndrome classified as a mild form on the autism spectrum marked by social anxiety. “It explains my superpowers,” she says. She smiles and shows me the Wonder Woman tattoo on her arm. “I got the Wonder Woman tattoo when I was diagnosed.” For her, it explained a lot and she could finally own those parts of herself that were special and different.

“When I sing, I actually see notes,” she explains. “I smell colors. I hear colors. You know, the color pink has a smell: it smells like…sunshine.” She says a lot of people call these “auras.” She just knows that when she meets people, she sees certain colors with them. She says she didn’t always understand that most people don’t experience the world like that. “I can walk into a room and I can feel the heaviness or the happiness or discord,” she says. “I’ve made a lot of people uncomfortable over the years. I’ve learned not to stare. I’ve learned how to make eye contact.” She now accepts and acknowledges her sensitivities and celebrates them. She says she just tells people if she does something quirky or weird, that she has Asperger’s, which seems to make things less awkward.

“I’m unapologetically me and I’m OK with that,” she says. This attitude makes her a perfect match for United by Music North America, the non-profit that supports professional growth and performances by and for musicians with physical and intellectual challenges and barriers to the music industry. UBMNA pairs their members with professional working musician mentors. Thames spent a week as a mentor in Portland last month, performing with the group at the Hotel Rose as part of the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival. “I’m just honored to be a part of it,” she says. “Watching all of these artists use their super powers. They’re absolutely amazing.”

Thames has definitely traveled with the blues and come through them, not looking back except maybe to reflect on lessons learned and to write those cut-straight-to-the-bone lyrics. She says she continues to make peace with the past and practices forgiveness. She seems to have shed her skin, looking all bright and shiny and stepping out into the light. “That’s what I preach,” she says. “Follow your dreams. Follow your heart. Live authentically. You know, live out loud.  Even when you get it wrong, get it wrong loud,” she laughs. “It’s okay. Nobody has it all figured out.”  And of course, with the ease and grace with which she utters these wise words, she does indeed sound like she’s figured out quite a bit. You want to travel along and see where the road takes her. At this point, she says she’s staying present, appreciating every minute and has no regrets.
“Someone asked me, what would I tell her if I could go back and talk to my 17-year-old self,” she offers. “I sat there and thought about it, and I said, You know what? You’re right. All of your dreams are right. It turns out good in the end.”

Before heading off to Europe, Jj Thames & The Violet Revolt finish up their US tour performing at Seattle’s Highway 99 Blues Club on Wed, August 30.

Dana Fuchs – Beautiful Screamer

Dana Fuchs is a rock warrior goddess.


She’s been described as sultry and incendiary. She howls, she moans, she whispers. She kicks her legs like she could kick your ass and whips her hair around like it could power turbines. She can sing as subtle and sweet as a songbird and she can roar like a lion. Her entire being becomes her instrument on stage. Make your way to see her in person any way you can. Not only will you ache from shaking your ass all night, but your life will be touched and you will be better for it.

Yes, yes, she’s all kinds of beautiful, as is befitting a goddess. Nearly a decade ago, millions fell in love with her as Sexy Sadie in the Beatles lyrics-inspired film, Across the Universe. Cascading corkscrew curls frame a brilliant smile and eyes so intense Cleopatra would covet them. But that is just the door to the palace.

She looks like an angel, sings like the devil and swears like a trucker. Just that combination is enough to wreck you. But she’s also genuine and human and deep. Damn is she deep.

Inevitable comparisons are made to Janis Joplin, in part because Fuchs played her quite well on stage near the beginning of her career. And upon hearing for the first time that rocky-roughness in her voice, you may recall the summer of love. She definitely has that kind of charisma. She definitely has that smoky sadness simmering near the surface. She also wears her heart on her sleeve, and makes no secret about the pain and loss she’s experienced. In fact, she shares it on stage and off. She writes incredibly impactful songs about battles won and lost, friends and family gone too soon, and love lost just before it was realized.

Last year she lost yet another member of her family, a brother to whom she was very close. When she took the stage it had been only a few weeks and the wound was still fresh. She talked to the audience like a trusted friend and then had them in tears with the music that followed. But like the blues that run through her genre-defying tunes, she explored the sadness and then lifted you from it.

Unlike those giants felled by the weight of their own pain, she has not allowed tragedy to define her. Instead, it seems, she sits with it, searches it for secrets, and hones it into something she can use, slicing through silence and reaching into the guts of the matter at hand.

Minutes later she’s contorted into this impossible back-bend, beautifully screaming Helter Skelter. Then she’s rocking to a sizzling Led Zeppelin cover, her voice growling and hissing, fists in fighting stance, mic stand askew, hip huggers pushed to their limits. Dana Fuchs is next generation queen to Robert Plant’s king.

What’s more is that despite her success and rock-star status, you never feel at arm’s length. She is often there after a show, to shake your hand and look you in the eye and see you, as you’ve seen her, acknowledging that everyone has crap to overcome and if you’re here, you’ve done that.

Her power is inextricably linked to her vulnerability. And somehow, in opening herself, she opens hearts all around her. You may leave the show both devastated and elated. Her voice and her lyrics will take perfect aim and she will pierce your armor. Prepare to surrender.FullSizeRender(52)

What’s Left Behind; A Remembrance of Larry Williams

fullsizerender44At a blues jam at Dawson’s Bar & Grill in Tacoma on a recent warm July night, the pub is full of people, bass thumping, harmonica blowing, the whole place alive with movement, sound and light. Looking across the bar to where one could often count on seeing Larry Williams sitting back with his camera, the space is empty. In fact the rest of the bar is full, but that particular space is vacant. And then it really hits home.

If you were lucky enough to know him, you probably heard the morning of July 4, 2016, that our friend, Photographer Larry Williams, had passed the day before. He was at home, with his girlfriend and caregiver, Theresa Southwick, who was trying to keep him comfortable as long as possible. He had come back days before from another stay at the VA hospital. While he had lived with medical issues for years, a viral infection last February exacerbated those conditions, and he died from complications of congestive heart failure. He was 74.

Many had little idea there was anything wrong until an impromptu gathering arranged with the help of Ed Maloney at Seattle’s Highway 99, in late spring, when many artists and others in the blues community came together to honor him. Larry showed up with Theresa and a tank of oxygen, and clapped and smiled and cried at the outpouring of love. He kept shaking his head and covering his face with his hand. Theresa says he wept even at the memory of that night.

An intensely private and humble man, Larry didn’t often talk about himself. He had spent 22 years in the service: in the Navy and then the Coast Guard, and served in Vietnam during that war. But Theresa said he didn’t talk much about it, except that he served the country he loved, and was admired by his fellow countrymen, including many he had served under. Instead he would approach friends with open arms and enthusiasm, asking about how they were. Down to a person, everyone who was asked for their thoughts about Larry used the words, kind, gentle or sweet. He left an imprint of kindness, warmth and generosity that is not easily matched in today’s world.

Tom Jones of the Stacy Jones Band offered this: “Larry Williams was a great man and a true gentleman! He was a friend to the entire Jones family. Every time I saw him he would ask, “How’s Momma?” My son Jon-Paul Jones, in San Antonio, shared many conversations with him about photography. Larry was a big fan of my daughter Stacy Jones and me, and appreciated that we got to play music together. He had the same appreciation for fellow musicians Cody Rentas and his father Lee Rentas. He asked a favor of me one time: He explained how much he enjoyed the two family acts and asked if I could arrange for the four of us to perform together. I was able to make it happen and it was very special. But the best part was seeing the smile on Larry’s face. I will miss that smile! I love you my friend! Rest in Peace and I pray you are one of the ones there to greet me when I come!”

To someone who spent much of his life alone, family was very important to Larry. Indeed, he took care of his friends as if they were family. Born in the heart of where blues and jazz were also conceived, Larry did not live with his birth parents in New Orleans for more than the first few years of his life. He went to stay with relatives in Texas before landing in Monterey, CA where he was raised by his aunt and uncle. Theresa says she believes he found stability and acceptance there, as they were conservative religious people who did not drink or smoke, and hence, Larry never developed a taste for either. She says it made him uncomfortable, and the only time he ever had anything less than kind to say was when he thought someone was hurting themselves with behaviors like that. He would actively try to help them, drive them home, or offer other assistance. But he would be firm. “He would say, ‘You got to stop doing that,’” Theresa remembers. Because he so often frequented eating and drinking establishments in order to be around the music and people he loved, he probably had ample opportunity to observe folks at their best and at their worst. “He did everything modestly,” she says.

He would also share anything he had. He enjoyed good food, but never ate a lot. He would often share what was on his plate or offer to buy someone a meal. Or a ticket to a show. Or whatever struck him that he thought might bring someone happiness. Many of his friends mentioned unexpected gifts from Larry. Fellow photographers Michelle & Tim Burge shared this:

Photographers Paul Brown & Larry Williams at Safeway Waterfront Blues 2015

Photographers Paul Brown & Larry Williams at Safeway Waterfront Blues 2015

“At the Mineral Blues Festival, we sat with Larry at breakfast. He was eating an off-the-menu item; ham steak. Michelle commented that ham steak is Tim’s favorite. Larry then disappeared for a minute, and moments later, I too, have a ham steak. Larry disappears again, this time to pay for our breakfast.”

The couple describe him as the kindest and sweetest man they’ve ever known. “Many years ago, when Larry heard I was looking for a used transmission for our car, he immediately sprang into action. He began the search via his network and resources. While he wasn’t able to find a transmission, the point to my story is, he saw we were in need and didn’t hesitate to help,” says Tim Burge.

Writer and teacher Jane Henderson has spent years organizing for and supporting the blues community. She interviewed Larry about his photography for an issue of the WBS Bluesletter a few years ago. Now she remembers the man and friend to so many: “Somehow this quiet, unassuming man managed to impact the lives of so many people in the blues community in the relatively short time we knew him. Larry was a generous soul and happily donated his time, ideas and considerable talents to help wherever he saw a need. He helped a struggling mother finance a car, introduced musicians to other musicians, and taught me how to adjust my car’s side-view mirrors.”

Often, he was a shoulder to cry on or a buddy to laugh with. Writer and photographer Suzanne Swanson often travels down from BC to attend festivals, judge contests and support events. She says Larry Williams will be fondly remembered as a gentle man. “He sensed when I was stressed when someone had treated me shabbily. He provided a calming, sincere friendship. We shared support for one another and much laughter,” she says. “We are all suffering a great loss with his death.”

Another friend from across the border, photographer, promoter and founder of the Sunshine Coast Blues Society, David Mathews, contributed this: “True friends are hard to find but every so often you meet someone who is a truly good soul. Larry Williams was a good soul. One of the most giving, caring, kindest people I have ever had the honor to know and to call a friend. He will be sorely missed by many, I am certain.”

Perhaps his capacity for giving and his generous spirit was born of something deep within, because he was familiar with lack and loss. Besides losing touch with his birth parents, he had been in a war, witnessed devastation and lost friends. He had been married and divorced, helped raise three daughters, step-children and sometimes even their children. He had two back surgeries and upon discharge, nursed himself while recovering, not wanting to ask for help.

Larry was stoic and positive to the end. His friend Jeff Hayes, a Seattle-based drummer and promoter, says he visited him before he passed and that he expressed frustration that the doctors weren’t still trying to make him better. “He never gave up,” Jeff says. “He had a joy for life and living that never waned, even when death was just a few days away. I hope I can live my life the same way.”

A talented diesel mechanic who liked working with his hands, Larry gutted and built at least three motorhomes from the frame up. He also lived in one, on the streets, for several years, when, his girlfriend reports, the military mistakenly cut his retirement benefits because they thought he had been overpaid. He worked as a night watchman in wrecking yards to make ends meet before the mistake was discovered and he received back pay retroactively. He was tough, gentle, self-sufficient, proud, unassuming. He would very likely be embarrassed by the sentiments between these pages. Theresa says, “I don’t think he had a clue how much people cared about him.” He didn’t want anyone to make a fuss. He was much more comfortable being a giver.

Theresa says when he learned she had an interest in photography, he gifted her with a camera. And for the last three years, they went everywhere together, shooting events and nature and weddings, with Larry sharing his years of expertise with her. She says he truly loved photographing weddings and it gave him a lot of joy, she thinks, just to share the occasion with them. Dani Shew knew him because she worked at Dawson’s, a regular music haunt for Larry. She says he was the photographer for her wedding to bandleader Billy Shew. She volunteered that Larry shot a lot of photography for Dawson’s owner, Kenny Bender, and that Larry’s work lined the walls of his office.

Billy Shew shared this: “I considered Larry to be my brother. He is a part of my music family. I met Larry while playing music at Dawson’s. It was always so nice to see Larry amongst the people taking pictures and smiling. Even now, as he has gone to the heavens, I still expect to look out and see him enjoying the music. He was a caring soul and a beautiful human being. I will miss him.” Theresa said many musicians appreciated his presence at their shows. “Son Jack, Jr. said a gig wasn’t a good gig until Larry walked in.”

One of the things heard over and over, was that Larry was well-known for observing his friends, taking great shots and then gifting them with the finished product. It was one of his favorite things to do.

Jewelry Artist Nancy Kinney (from Desert Night Designs) has this treasured memory: “I had watched him watching others from afar at many festivals. Knowing I was going to see him at Untapped, I brought him a guitar pick pendant with a camera on it. At the next festival he gifted me with a photo of myself, nicely done and framed to boot.”

Theresa vividly remembers the same incident. She said Larry was so touched by that act of thoughtfulness that he watched Nancy all day, took some photos, printed and framed one, and wrapped it and presented it to her. Theresa also remembers he handed over his camera and asked Theresa to capture a few photographs of them together so he could have a record of the moment. She said she would often help him wrap one of these and that he put a lot of effort into it. She says he was excited and happy to do this for people he cared about, and on that particular occasion, “He had a grin on his face the rest of the day.”

Even then, he always gave credit to his subjects and friends. He would say, “I only take pictures of what you give me.” Theresa said he wasn’t so much proud of being a photographer as when people liked the photographs he shot and gave. “That’s what really made him happy,” she said. He’d get that look on his face; that smile.”

His smile was infectious and genuine. Those on the receiving end felt adored and honored. Fellow photographer Stig Johannessen mentioned how much he will miss his wonderful smile and heart, and posted a photo of a smiling Larry in a fireworks shirt from an Independence Day celebration a few years back. “One of the kindest men I knew,” he says. Dave Mathews says he too will miss that ever present smile. “I’m sure you are lighting up the room wherever you may be.”

It was somehow graceful that Larry passed on the weekend he normally would have been photographing all the blues acts at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, surrounded by friends and the music he loved. There was an air of sadness this year around the nation’s birthday, and his absence was already palpable, even before the announcement. His presence was so expected that several of his friends mentioned they thought they caught a glimpse of him. And it was at that same festival three years ago that he met Theresa. She says they just clicked and within a few hours of spending time together, he fell asleep listening to the music, with his head resting on her hip.

The two were fond of traveling and adventuring together. Theresa shared that they had planned to tour and photograph the region’s waterfalls, but when Larry broke his leg this past year, they had to put that on hold. They would often travel by night to reach a new destination in time to photograph the sunrise. That is how they began the year, the first of January, up before the sun, cameras in hand.

Photographing nature was dear to Larry’s heart, and was his first photographic subject. He first picked up a camera in the late 60’s, either at the PX or a pawn shop (accounts differ slightly) and got a book to teach himself. Theresa says he took pictures while in Vietnam to keep himself sane. “He would take pictures of nature, of animals: goats, dogs, chickens,” she says, “to balance out the harshness of life there.” In Jane Henderson’s story, she says he never took photographs of the people there, out of respect.

Theresa says he loved going to the Winthrop Blues Festival because the river was right there and he could be there and hear the music. She said he loved to walk down there early in the morning before anyone else was awake, as he enjoyed open spaces and the quiet. He enjoyed his solitude as much as the crowds he photographed and found himself in. She says, “I’ve heard dozens of stories from people who tell me, ‘When I was down, Larry was there for me.’ We’d be at an event and he would tell me, ‘Just a minute; I have to go talk to someone. I have to say hello.’”

Cora Price, president and founder of the Fraser Valley Blues Society, says, “I loved Larry’s ability to make everyone feel like he was their best friend. He put you at ease and made you feel like you had a special place in this world.”

He was a deep thinker and felt things deeply as well. Men would describe him as a good friend and a man’s man, and many women felt adored, because he was quick with a compliment, and would shake his head and seem to marvel at some beauty that might be lost to the lady he was talking to. He really seemed to love women. Theresa says yes, both of those are true. “He loved people,” she says. “He really liked to see people happy. He liked to make people happy. That was maybe his favorite thing.” As much as Larry Williams loved photography and music and nature and travel, his first passion was people. He had an overwhelming capacity for love and friendship.

In her announcement on July 4, Theresa wrote these words:

“He touched everyone he came in contact with. He had a dignity and quietness about him that was misleading, because the man underneath questioned everything in life, had a passion that ran so deep that it was a wonder to sit back and behold in his captured images. He loved largely in every way and felt it was his duty to be the best to all things around him.”

Three years ago, in the June 2013 Bluesletter Jane Henderson wrote about northwest photographers in a series called “Behind the Lens.” Larry Williams was featured in a piece titled, “Looking For What Isn’t There.” It’s a short, powerful read, and you can find it online at “Scribd” at if you want to know more. In it, Larry says he waits for what isn’t necessarily apparent to the casual observer. He says he watches for the expression that reveals the truth of the moment, the emotional power of things. He tells her a story about photographing a snail, and upon developing the photograph in the darkroom, discovers the iridescent trail that was not visible before, but only after the fact.

That perhaps is Larry’s last gift to us. Larry may no longer be here. But if we can remain patient and kind, even during the dark times; if we look for what isn’t there, we may just find some of that sparkle; the proof of the journey, the treasure that is the trail.       ###

Theresa Southwick, Neal Fallen, Amy Sassenberg & Larry Williams

Theresa Southwick, Neal Fallen, Amy Sassenberg & Larry Williams

The International Blues Challenge in Memphis is like a week-long weekend, where everyone gets to enjoy a smorgasbord of great music, friends, food, booze and networking. All this fun is dropped in the middle of historic neon-lit Beale Street and surrounded by warm Southern culture and hospitality. My favorite part was the sense of wonder and discovery I felt every day when I heard a new artist, savored a new flavor, met a new friend.

My first stop on Beale wFullSizeRender(18)as Club 152 for the Pacific Northwest Showcase. It sounded like home as I came around the corner and heard the sweet soulful sound of Sammy Eubanks. I walked in and was greeted by a bunch of my favorite faces from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and B.C. Later I met several new friends, including Rockin’ Johnny from Chicago, Bob-O from Wisconsin, and first-timers Connie and Steve, some stylish jammers from Kansas City. We owe many thanks to our South Sound, Cascade, and Washington Blues Societies for a stellar lineup.

During the week I heard SO MANY great artists: Alabama’s Jamell Richardson from the Gulf Coast Blues Society played some killer R&B at B.B. Kings. Zack Day & Full Throttle from Indiana held court at Rum Boogie and Phil Bee’s Freedom from The Dutch Blues Society was impressing at the 152. I was originally introduced to T.C. Carr by Jim McLaughlin at his Freedom Fest on Ebey Island, and was happy to hear this extraordinary harmonica man in Memphis. I also thoroughly enjoyed Guitarist Ori Naftaly’s new line-up, Southern Avenue, who represented the Memphis Blues Society. Lead singer, Tierinii Jackson recalled the best of a young Tina Turner, climbing the octaves with her powerful pipes and shimmering sexiness. T his is a band to watch!

The National Women in Blues (WiB) Showcase hosted by Michele Seidman is a must-see feature of the IBC and this year they moved from the smaller Center for Southern Culture (which I personally adore) to a more visible venue on Beale Street, Alfred’s. It’s going to be even more visible soon since The Smithsonian was there to document the event and interview all the female artists in the room.

The WiB showcase had a standing-room only crowd for the 4-hour event, opening strong with Queen Delphine, a blues belter from Indianapolis. It was a real treat to see Divas on Fire, a compilation of nine women (and one man) most of whom front their own bands. What a hotbed of talent. My experience would not have been complete without witnessing the power and the glory that is Crystal Tucker, AKA Redd Velvet, preaching the blues and giving her one-woman history lesson on why we have the blues. The room was silent as she brought the human heartbreak of slavery into the present, and reminded us the blues was the antidepressant and antipsychotic that kept her people from losing their minds. She eventually brought it around to thank everyone who is keeping the blues alive. I personally want to thank Crystal for keeping the history of the blues alive.

Of course, many of us were in town to support all our NW competitors and pals, including the James Howard Band, Sisters of Mercy, King Kom Beaux, Brian Feist & Doug Scoog, and Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons. Y’all know I saw something special in HuFullSizeRender(19)nter & Seamons, who also help keep our blues history alive and well. I can’t express how my heart was filled to bursting when the Blues Foundation called their names as the solo-duo winners at the final show on Saturday. I caught every performance of theirs that week, and the show at the Orpheum was heartfelt and flawless. The thing about Ben and Joe is, they were just enjoying themselves. They didn’t appear too concerned or competitive, but seemed to really love meeting new people and hearing new music, as did so many of us. With their unique spin and fresh take on traditional folk blues, they seemed to embody the best of what this event has to offer, and I believe many agreed with that assessment.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Delgado Brothers, who swept the Awards for Best Band and Most Promising Guitar Player. I’m originally from Southern California and the Delgados have been an L.A.-based band for about 40 years, so it was a very emotional day for this writer. Many Northwest folks have gotten to know and love them in the past few years as they’ve played local festivals and gigs around Seattle and Tacoma. Catch them at the Sunbanks FullSizeRender(20)Music Festival this May in Electric City!

Every night was ended in celebration by dancing at one of the crowded local jams, most especially at Purple Haze hosted by those kooky Canadians, Marshall Lawrence and David Mathews, and at that smoky and smokin’ Jerry Lee’s with Tacoma’s own Billy Barner and Joe Hendershot.

This trip was made even sweeter by meeting the many folks who make Memphis hum, from the sugary baristas at the Memphis airport Starbuck’s, to the trolley driver who introduced us to a well-known local chef, to our uber-fun Uber Driver, Amy, who gave us a private tour of the Stax Museum her family founded. This experience of extreme friendliness was repeated over and over again wherever we went. People were incredibly welcoming and helpful, and truly, besides the opportunity to hear multiple bands play magnificent music, the people are what made this an indelible experience. Can’t wait for next time.

(Thank you Washington Blues Society for sharing publication in the March 2016 Bluesletter.)

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Joe Seamons and Ben Hunter - Washington Blues

Takin’ Time with Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons

Joe Seamons and Ben Hunter - Washington BluesAs Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons launched into their first song, I felt an odd sensation, a buzzing or tingling, like the air contained electricity. It wasn’t just the composition, haunting as it was, but that the very sound seemed to emanate from beyond, like I’d been transported back in time. The song was an obvious antique and yet here it was breathing and beating right in front of me.

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James Howard Band

James Howard Band: A Mystic Path To Memphis

James Howard Band

“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” This quote by Beethoven lives on James Howard’s Facebook wall and provides a solid introduction to the man and his band. Watching the seasoned Seattle foursome at a recent showcase, James Howard straddled that chasm like a pro: feet planted wide apart, hips thrust forward, his guitar rising up to meet his hands, neck arched back, and face to the heavens in a grimace of ecstasy.

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Welcome Backstage

This site is for you, the Blues lover. You love the music, the tradition, the clubs, the people who paved the way. You go to the shows, buy the music, listen to radio, support the artists. You sing, dance, help out, set up, tear down, and take your RV to festivals near and far. You have great times and some not so great. You get married, have babies and then your babies have babies. You succeed and maybe screw up. You break up. You get sick, you get well. You get down and you get back up again. You’re part of a community that understands Blues Is Life. It’s how we mourn, mate, survive and celebrate. This is for you. A backstage pass to learn more about the artists you love and the folks that support this wonderful world-wide family. Contribute, comment or congratulate. All are welcome here.


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