The legendary Blues harp player James Montgomery was born on May 12, 1949 in Detroit, Michigan.
While attending Boston University, where he earned a degree in English literature, Mr. Montgomery started the James Montgomery Band. During his junior year, he was hired by the Colwell-Winfield Blues Band to play harmonica and tour with Janis Joplin. By the time he graduated college his band was on the cover of the Boston Phoenix, heralded along with the late J. Geils and Aerosmith as the city's great contributions to the music world. Though he said he loved the academic life, when offered a $15,000 teaching job at Boston University, Mr. Montgomery decided to take a $250,000 offer to record records and tour with the Allman Brothers instead, and never looked back." by Pamela Marean, Standard-Times correspondent, September 6, 2007.
In 1970 Montgomery formed The James Montgomery Band. His harmonica playing, singing and energetic stage show led to his band gaining a reputation as one of the hottest bands on the New England music scene. James Montgomery was signed by Capricorn Records to a multi-album deal and released his first vinyl LP album titled The James Montgomery Band – First Time Out in 1973. The original LP recordings were remastered and released as a CD in October 20, 1998 by Capricorn / Umgd. Track 9 off his first album tilted "Train" was a fan favorite and became the Number 1 song on WBCN, The Rock of Boston. They played it every day at noon-time for over a year. In 2011, Montgomery brought "Train" back as a surprise encore at shows.
To say that James Montgomery has toured with many artists in an understatement! Some of the artists he has shared the stage with include: Aerosmith, The J. Geils Band, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, The Allman Brothers, The Steve Miller Band, The Johnny Winter Band, The Blues Brothers with (Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd). Other artist include: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Bonnie Raitt, Steven Tyler (Aerosmith , Brad Whitford (Aerosmith guitarist), Charlie Daniels, the late Gregg Allman, LaVern Baker, Patti LaBelle, Jonathan Edwards, Peter Wolf, Magic Dick, Danny Klein (The J. Geils Band), Huey Lewis (Huey Lewis and the News), Kim Wilson (The Fabulous Thunderbirds), Elliot Easton (The Cars), Rick Derringer, Ricky Byrd (formerly with Joan Jett and the Black Hearts), Barry Goudreau (former guitarist for Boston), Fran Sheehan (former bassist for Boston), Sib Hashian , Chad Smith (The Red Hot Chili Peppers) and former band mate,Billy Squier.
Montgomery recalls the night he played with Muddy Waters at Paul's Mall in Boston, Massachusetts. "I couldn't believe it. Here I was on stage with Muddy Waters," Montgomery recalls with a smile. "It was such a great feeling."
James had his own syndicated radio show for five years called "Backstage With the Blues" on these stations: WJZS Swing 99.3 FM Block Island, Rhode Island, WADK 1540 AM Newport, Rhode Island and Fall River, Massachusetts WFNX 92.1 FM Portland, Maine and Portsmouth, New Hampshire and KUSH 1600, Cushing, Oklahoma.
The show combined great Blues songs along with the stories behind the music, told by the musicians themselves, it provided a bridge between the listeners and the artists as they reminisced about the history of their music. Some of his special guests were John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown, Otis Clay, Son Seals, Duke Robillard, Rod Piazza, and many more.
G-Note Entertainment Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with James Montgomery between shows in the New England area to see what projects he has been working on.
G-Note: Thank you for your time today Mr. Montgomery, in full disclosure, I have been a fan for a long time.
JM- “Well thank you, that last quality you have is very admirable! So, tell me, what’s going on in Kalamazoo Mi.? I haven't been there in a long time, I played Grand Rapids with Johnny Winter years ago but maybe I need to come back to Kalamazoo.”
G-Note: Absolutely! We would love to have you performing a show or two in the area. If you don't mind me asking, why did you leave Detroit for New England?
JM- "Yeah, I grew up in Detroit and it was a fantastic time it was very active musically. There were 5 or 6 blues clubs that were always jumpin'. I would see acts like Johnny Basset, Little Sonny and a bunch more and Chicago was only a few hours away so all of those Chicago acts would play Detroit and vice versa. “
“I was under age, so of course I had to sneak in to some of these places to see these blues legends playing on any given night so you had to make up your mind on who you wanted to see, do I want to see Muddy Waters tonight or Johnny Lee Hooker or Paul Butterfield? There were some great clubs back then and in those days, places like the Chessmate, Blues Unlimited, Mr. Kelly's where B.B King played, back then you could just knock on the dressing room door and meet Johnny Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, you know there wasn't security back then. I go back to when I was 16, 17 years old where I met Junior Wells and James Cotton and we became friends and mentors of mine to the point where James Cotton called me son and I called him dad. When I would call, I would talk to James Cotton's wife because he had a hard time talking but she would always say hang on your father wants to talk to you.”
“If Junior (Wells) was in town and had a night off and I was playing, he would come in and pull a seat right up front of the stage and would either nod his head for a good job or shake his head and say “you got something to learn buddy. Again, growing up in Detroit was a wonderful experience at a wonderful time.”
G-Note: I heard a story about you working with Buddy Guy when you were a teenager, did you really perform with Buddy Guy when you were 17?
JM- “Oh yeah, I met Buddy Guy when I was 17, when he would come out to Boston for a long period of time he wouldn't bring his band because of costs, why spend the money on airfare, hotels and such.
So, he would have us back him up on stage and play. When Buddy and Junior played Boston they would have 2 or 3 guys stay at my apartment.”
“I did a couple of dates with Buddy a couple of years ago and I was instructed to call him Mr. Guy. I said there is no way I'm calling him Mr. Guy, I known him before you were born!”
G-Note: Being from Detroit what led you play the harp (harmonica) instead of a guitar or drums?
JM- "Every musician has a 'moment' where you have to decide, I love rock and roll so do I play the guitar or play the drums or whatever. Same for Blues musicians, the very first time I heard the blues, I mean real blues I said 'wow' it struck like a lightning bolt, it hit a chord deep inside of me, you know? You have to decide when you play the blues what your 'moment' is.”
James continued on to say "I was about 15 when I saw a jug band play in Detroit and I was thinking that man, this stuff is cool the band was playing ragtime music then when I heard the blues, live blues with Cris Cioe (Uptown Horns) playing the harmonica and that's when I knew. That was what I wanted to do, play blues harmonica.”
“The second reason is I wanted to be on stage playing! I figured if I played guitar it would take a couple of years to be good enough to play in a band, same with piano and the drums who knows, I don't think I have enough rhythm. So, if I learned how to play harmonica I could be playing on stage in 4 or 5 months! (laughing) and 5 months later I was the lead singer and harp player for that jug band!”
G-Note: This may seem like a silly question, but have you had lessons or are you self-taught?
JM-” Nah, I don't know of any player that has had a lesson, everyone I know was self-taught. We just torture people when we play for a few months while we are learning. But you don't have to plug it in or carry it in a case. We just keep it in the pocket and pull it out when we are ready to play.”
“My new CD is dedicated to Paul Butterfield, so I'm also in the process of doing a documentary but he learned to play the harmonica in 6 months and I've been playing for 50 years and I still can't play some of the stuff he did back then, it was unbelievable. It really is amazing little instrument and you always learn something, you never really master it.”
G-Note: It seems to me that the harmonica is really the most personal instrument that you can play, agree?
JM- “It really is the most personal instrument you can play, Paul Butterfield called it a 'horn from the heart' the thing that makes it really personal if you play it correctly you are taking your vocal chords and turning it into a reed to make the sound and the way you shape your mouth is exactly how you would play the note as if you were speaking them. You also move your body the same way as if you were going to speak that note which to me, make it literally an extension of you.”
G-Note: What do you think of guys like Kim Wilson, Jason Ricci, Billy Branch, John Popper, etc.
JM- "Well you just named off a bunch of great ones. At this point of my life, without bragging I think I'm a pretty good harmonica player, with that said these guys you mentioned are such better players than me, I'm understanding that they can do stuff that I can’t. There is a ton of great players out there now and I think it would be fair to say that Little Walter is their home base, my style is pretty straight forward, not busy or complicated.”
G-Note: If I could, I would like to go back a bit and ask you why you left the Detroit blues scene for New England?
JM- "It wasn't what I would call natural, my high school band was pretty successfulI went to the east side of Detroit to find the best guitar player, the best bass player and drummer was because I joined that jug band when I was 15 or 16 , the other members went off to collegeand I got bit by the bug, I wanted to have a band and of course, we turned electric after we saw Paul Butterfield not totally but we were plugged in. So I go to the east side of the city to find the best players and I asked them to leave their current band. They were playing “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, and the Beach Boys and stuff like that.
I played a Muddy Waters album and they said no, not leaving for that, then I played a Paul Butterfield album and they all said yep, I'll play that.”
“I had a great band almost overnight. We did pretty good, it was called the Montgomery-Miller blues band. Later that year, I took a hit and the next day re-named it the “Great Cosmic Expanding” the very next day and got a review in the 5th Estate, which was an underground paper in Detroit where they compared us to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. So, I was deep into music and I knew of all of these places and clubs and because of the college wanted to hear something different than Top 40.
“That was the beginning of my time there, we started playing in and around Boston. I was slated to take a teaching position at BU but we got a call from the Allman Brothers record label (Capricorn) we were asked to 2 two albums for a bunch of money and tour with the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Marshall Tucker so.... it really wasn't much of a decision.”
“For a while there people were saying there were only 3 bands in Boston, James Montgomery, J.Geils Band and Aerosmith, in the 70's we were the biggest band from Boston and New England.”
“Here what I can say, every-time I get on stage, give me the ball and I'll will always go over and give it all I got!”