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BluesWax Sittin’ In With

Eddie Turner

By Stacy Jeffress

Eddie “Devil Boy” Turner has a lengthy and varied resume that reflects his musical range, from a stint with Mother Earth’s Tracy Nelson to the psychedelic Zephyr in the 1970s; from country and western to Otis Taylor. Now the reluctant frontman for his own group, Turner leads us through his musical evolution and explains how close he came to walking away from the music business entirely. His 2010 recording Miracles and Demons on NorthernBlues Records, is currently nominated for a Blues Blast Award for Contemporary Blues Recording

Stacy Jeffress for BluesWax: I was reading reviews of your various recordings, and I saw one critic had described your music as “otherworldly.” Do you think you are otherworldly, and what does that mean to you?

Eddie Turner: No, I’m not otherworldly. Otherworldly means you’re from another planet.

BW: Are you from another planet, Eddie?

ET: Not today.

BW: I didn’t think so. I thought that was an interesting way to describe it.

ET: I never understand why people say things the way they do. They’re looking for something that’s cute. I never would argue with anybody, so it’s whatever they think.

BW: Who do you think decides what genre a music belongs to – the listener, the performer, or somebody else?

ET: I’d probably say somebody else. The performer is just doing what he does. The listener is enjoying it or hating it, one of the two, so they don’t really care, so I guess it’s somebody else.

BW: Who is that somebody else?

ET: Oh, you want me to tell you who that somebody else is.

BW: I wondered because I’m not sure if you consider yourself a blues artist or a combination of things. I’ve seen some commenters say, “That’s not really blues,” or “That is blues.” How do you know?

ET: I personally don’t know. I’m definitely not John Lee Hooker, and I’m definitely not Albert Collins. I’m definitely not Buddy Whittington, because those people are who they are. I guess it’s the record labels. They need to put a label on something so they can market it.

BW: I know of one artist who was on a blues label and he left the blues label. It was a strategic move simply so he could get out of the blues bin and get in the pop bin or the rock ‘n’ roll bin.

ET: Yeah, there are plenty of bins out there. I’ve been to record stores and there’s a bin for everything. But there’s not a bin for good music, which is surprising.

BW: You get recognized by organizations such as the Blues Music Awards or the Blues Blast Awards, where you’re currently nominated, so somebody must think you’re blues. Do you think you’re blues?

ET: I’m a musician. I’m very heavily influenced by blues, there’s no question about it. Am I what some people believe a blues musician is? I don’t know what people think. I do know there are many elements of blues in what I do. But I’m not John Lee Hooker. In my opinion, John Lee Hooker would be a true blues musician. What that means, I am not quite sure. In my mind, John Lee is a caretaker of an emotional place in my heart. You could call him rock, I don’t care what you call him, I know what he is to me.

BW: Let me ask you some basic demographic stuff if you don’t mind. How old are you?

ET: Not applicable.

BW: Fair answer. I read that you were born in Cuba. I’m interested in that; I’m wondering what the circumstances were for your family leaving Cuba. Was that a Castro reaction?

ET: No, my father’s an American, my mother’s a Cuban. My father went to Cuba all the time. He met my mother and they got married, and I was born in Cuba. It’s the typical American love story except it took place in Cuba. Then they came back to the States when I was a couple of years old.

BW: Was it direct to Chicago?

ET: Oh yeah. I grew up in Evanston, Illinois. My father was a professor at Northwestern.

BW: Do you remember at what point music became important to you?

ET: Oh, yeah. My aunt used to take me to parties when I was a little kid. Cubans would get together and have parties in Chicago, and they’d dance. It was great. Listen to the radio. My mother used to sing and so music came on very early in my life. I had piano and trombone lessons. I’d say pre-10 years old.

BW: Was there anybody else in the family who exhibited musical abilities?

ET: No they were all atonal. My mother was the only one who could really sing. She sang opera when she was in her teens and up until she came to the United States. She was a beautiful singer.

BW: You started guitar at age 12, is that right?

ET: Right around there.

BW: What was it that lead you from piano and trombone to guitar?

ET: It was cool. It was early into the world of pop music, and guitar was the default instrument in America.

BW: Did you have vision of yourself making that a career or was it just a way to meet people?

ET: It was a great way to meet people. Folk music was big. It was a lot easier to carry than a piano.

BW: Did you take formal lessons?

ET: I taught myself. I got a Mel Bay book and learned the chords. You could buy sheet music and learn the chords to play Beatles songs or you could learn to play songs by The Weavers.

BW: At some point you went to school at the University of Colorado. What was it about that school that attracted you?

ET: I’d been coming to Colorado when I was in high school. For some bizarre reason a lot of the people who graduated from my high school ended up going to the University of Colorado. It was a good, highly accredited school. Colorado was a very nice place to be.

BW: Did you have a particular course of study in mind?

ET: I was a fine arts major.

BW: What medium?

ET: Printmaking.

BW: Were you playing music on the side?

ET: I was always kind of okay. It did help supplement the cash coming in.

BW: I read you were in The Immortal Nightflames with Tracy Nelson?

ET: There’s a comma between those two. I ended up playing with a country and western band, I played both kinds – country and western. We went to Texas; I was down there for a year having a great time playing music. I came back to Boulder and was playing at a party and this really drunk guy came up to me and said, “You’re really great. You have to come to Nashville.” I went, “Yeah, yeah.” A year later, I get a phone call from this guy [who turned out to be Travis Rivers, Nelson’s manager at the time]: “Here’s a ticket, I want you to fly to Nashville.” He said, “You’ll be playing with Tracy Nelson,” whom I adored. Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth was a big band in my life. I went down there and auditioned. I moved down there for 4 months. Then Travis came to me and said, “You know, Eddie, it’s just not working. You’re fired.” That was my entire experience with Tracy Nelson, but it doesn’t really matter because it was a great experience for me. I got to find out what it’s like being in a real band.

BW: What was it like?

ET: It was wonderful. We rehearsed every day with people. You get to work on your craft. At that point in time I just didn’t measure up.

BW: Was this before you finished your degree?

ET: Uh huh.

BW: Were your folks supportive of your adventure?

ET: Absolutely not. They wanted nothing to do with that. Your mind tells you this is what you should be doing and you do everything you can not to do it, but it always come back to you.

BW: So you go back to college, and then what happens? Are you playing in other bands?

ET: Yeah, that was the start of The Immortal Nightflames, which was a punk rock band based on James Brown.

BW: What an interesting combination.

ET: It was based on James Brown’s back-up band, The Flames. We did punked-out versions of James Brown tunes.

BW: I like how inventive you are. You’re always putting a new twist on something.

ET: Well, you might as well ‘cause otherwise you’re just copying somebody else and that’s really boring, at least for me anyway. I just like to do things that make me happy.

BW: Where do you find the self confidence to venture out and get on the fringe of things?

ET: There’s no confidence there, it’s the only place I can go. It’s because I get shunned in other parts of the world, so you end up being on the fringe all the time.

BW: It took some guts to up and move to Nashville and perform for someone like Tracy Nelson.

ET: I was scared shitless, but I had no choice. I had to do it. [barking in background] That’s my dog.

BW: I figured that out. At some point my Lab. may join in. He barks uncontrollably when it suits him.

ET: Yeah, dogs do that. That’s why we have them.

BW: How long did The Immortal Nightflames go on?

ET: I think it went on for 3 or 4 years. That lead me to a songwriting deal with Planet Records, which didn’t last long, but it was another good opportunity. Planet Records was the label for the Pointer Sisters. There was a song I had written that the guy wanted the Pointer Sisters to record. They never recorded it, but I got to move to L.A. for six months and hang out and meet people and be a songwriter.

BW: Here again you are disrupting your life and taking on this adventure.

ET: I was young and dumb and stupid. I could do anything. When you’re dumb, you can do whatever you want.

BW: Then what happened?

ET: Then I went back and finished college.

BW: Were your parents breathing a sigh of relief, or how did they feel about the fine arts course of study?

ET: They actually didn’t want me to be in fine arts, but they realized it was a losing cause.

BW: Were they like, “Please go to dental school”?

ET: They wanted me to be a doctor.

BW: Where does Zephyr fit in?

ET: Zephyr was a band I liked in high school, because I loved Tommy Bolin’s playing, and I wanted to be in that band. That was another reason I went to the University of Colorado. I thought maybe I’ll be lucky and be able to find my way into that band. And it ended up happening. When I came to Boulder I was able to play with all kinds of people. I sat in with Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys, with Delbert McClinton one night. I was the only black guy in town basically. There were like four of us that lived in Colorado. I was able to sit in with all these bands that came through town. I got to see a lot of different people play a lot of different styles which pretty much corrupted me. I can’t play any one particular style; I play a whole lot of them relatively well. If you wanted to play at all, you had to be kind of good in a lot of different styles as opposed to being really great in one.

BW: It sounds like a strength to have that flexibility.

ET: It is a strength unless you get people who say, you’ve got to play one way. It goes back to your labels thing, you’ve got to fit in a box. The thing about Boulder – at that time, there were no boxes.

BW: No boxes in Boulder.

ET: No boxes in Boulder. Well, country rock was a box that most people played, so you had to learn that one.

BW: Did you replace Tommy Bolin in Zephyr?

ET: No, there was a guitar player who was one of my few guitar teachers who replaced Tommy – Jock Bartley – who was and still is an incredible guitar player. He went on to found the band Firefall [“Just Remember I Love You,” “Strange Way”]. I replaced Jock. I had a lot of competition, but they picked me for some obscure reason. I knew Tommy and had jammed with him a few times.

BW: He did so much before he died so young.

ET: He was a great guitar player. He was with James Gang. Joe Walsh got him into James Gang after Joe left. I used to sell Joe punk rock records because he really wanted to know about it. He’d say, “What’s good, Eddie?” And I’d say, “This is really cool.” Some of the stuff I’d sell him, if loves this, he’s really a nut case. He’s a musician, so he’d come back and say, “That was a piece of shit.” That’s how I met Kenny Passarelli, whom I still play with and who produces my records, ‘cause he played with Joe.

BW: How long were you with Zephyr?

ET: I was with Zephyr until Candy [Givens] died, so I guess that would have been four or five years. That was a great band. Another great guitar teacher I had was the bass player of that band, David Givens, whom nobody gives any credit to.

BW: He’s on your first record.

ET: He’s on my first two records. He gave me the best advice which I still use today: sing the song when you play the lead. If you can’t sing the song, what good are you?

BW: At what point did you encounter Otis Taylor?

ET: I’ve known Otis since I was 13 years old. This is a twisted story. My babysitter from when I was a kid moved to Colorado. We were always really close. She got married and moved to Colorado. She and her husband asked me to come out there for a summer and hang out. My mother was very glad to get rid of me; I was staying at their house. Otis was 18, 20, and he came to the door. I looked at him, and went, “Hmmm.” He was the second or third black person I met in Colorado. He just keeps popping into my life.

BW: Was it inevitable that you’d end up playing together?

ET: No, it just happened. When I played with Zephyr, he knew Candy and David. He would show up and jam a bit. What are you gonna do? It’s Boulder, not a big population, so you’re going to run across any musician in town repeatedly. It was Kenny that got us together, ‘cause Otis called Kenny, then Kenny called me. They were looking for a guitar player that could play with Otis, and I was basically the only one that understood what he did ‘cause I’d done it before with him.

BW: Was it hard to understand what he was trying to accomplish with his music?

ET: Not at all, it was really simple.

BW: And how would you describe what he was doing?

ET: Not applicable.

BW: When I met you in Memphis, I asked you what records of Otis’s you’d played on. Do you remember what you said to me?

ET: Probably “the ones that count.” Blues Revue did a review of the top 25 must-have blues CDs. The one that you guys picked was White African. I would have picked Respect the Dead. But it doesn’t really matter, because that band was Kenny Passarelli, Otis Taylor, and me. Overall a really unique, great record, never to be repeated. It was a bizarre concept. Sheer luck, there was no plan, it was kind of like, “Hey you want to play?” “Sure. Why not?”

BW: I interviewed Otis a couple of years ago. He seemed like a fairly strong personality. How did the balance of power work in the band?

ET: It was pretty equally divided. Everybody was completely different. Everyone had their own viewpoint of things that should be done, and they were done that way.

BW: How long were you with Otis’s group?

ET: From the very first minute until Truth is Not Fiction [2003].

BW: Did you go from there into becoming a frontman with your own band?

ET: No, I wasn’t going to bother playing music again.

BW: Really, what made you have that feeling?

ET: I just really didn’t care. Past experience had taught me that what I want to do no one really cares about. It took Fred [Litwin, NorthernBlues Music] and Kenny to change my mind. They said, “You know, Eddie, you’ve got to do it anyway, because even if nobody cares – we believe people will – you’ve got to do it.” Okay, let’s do it. I never wanted to be a frontman, I hate being a frontman. There are people out there who are really great being the front person. I just kind of backed into it. What I do is different and not by choice; I am different. I’m really normal; it’s the other people that are different. I said, “Kenny, as long as you’re there with me, I’ll give it a whack.” Fred and Kenny told me to be myself. Everything I recorded is all about being Eddie.

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