Paul Lamb, one of the world’s leading blues harmonica players, talks to us ahead of playing this year's festival with his band The King Snakes
What’s the one song you wish you’d written? Hoochie Coochie Man. It’s a blues standard, written by Willie Dixon but made famous by Muddy Waters in 1954. It’s a classic of Chicago blues…a man boasting about his prowess with women as aided by a hoodoo. I could also say Baby Please Don’t Go, an old folk tune which has Deep South roots. It was covered by Van Morrison and Them.
What gave you a love of the blues? My family is from Blyth in Northumberland and my grandad played the harmonica. At some point in my formative years I heard John Mayall's solo album, The Blues Alone, and then Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry’s Sing. When I heard the latter, I was hooked. I had to play that record all the time, just playing it over and over. I just lived Sonny Terry, lived and breathed him, and that was it.
Who are your best friends in music? There’s quite a few. Paul Jones, the blues singer from Manfred Man, who had The Blues Show on Radio 2. I’m in touch with a lot of my American counterparts. That’s Chicago blues players like Kim Wilson from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, or Jerry Portnoy, who has toured with Eric Clapton. I worked with Mark Knopfler for a while when he did The Notting Hillbillies. Being from the North East I know lots of musicians from my part of the world - done things with Sting and Jimmy Nail.
Are you a fussy eater or can you just live off Festival food? It depends on how the festival is set up. If it’s just burger and chips then that’s what it is. We’re not like prima donnas where we want midget gems with all the black ones taken out. Some festivals are big budget, and you’ve got a hospitality lounge with champagne. But then you’ve got the smaller festivals and the budget is lower. You just go with it. It doesn’t make any difference to me. Once I’m on stage everywhere is the same.
What’s your funniest festival memory?
A good few years ago in Belgium we headlined at a Harley Davidson blues festival. During our set these naked girls got up on the stage, followed by some bikers. The band kept playing while there was something close to an orgy going on. I was still a young lad, it was quite an eye opener.
Are you all about Chicago blues? All different types of blues. I’ve been working in the business for about 40-odd years, travelling everywhere. Most of the material we play live is our own. There’s a few members of The King Snakes who have individual preferences. A little bit of blues rock, some are more soulful. Some more Delta blues, just the two of us doing something.
Can you give us an idea of what the audience can expect at the North Wales Blues and Soul? We’re all over the place this year, touring in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. I’ll feel the audience when I get there. We’re entertainers. You can dance, you can sit there and enjoy it. It’s the crowd’s reaction that we’re after, a good spirit.
Do you take a harmonica with you everywhere? Just about. I travel a lot with music – and travel light. I’ve just got my suit bag, some CD’s, a bag of harmonicas. That’s it, I’m ready. We always dress up for the stage and put on a show. For my holidays I go to Barbados every year. I take harmonics with me. Last time I was there I was invited to play with John Lodge from the Moody Blues, along with different artists from around the world. We all just got up and jammed together.
Who are your harmonica heroes?
I knew Larry Adler very well, who was a fabulous player who helped put the harmonica on the map. He had a really big career and worked with people like Kate Bush and Elton John. One of the songs he played, Rhapsody In Blue is a very special piece of music. In the 1990s I did some music seminars with Larry. He was in a wheelchair at that point, I used to push him around. He did the classical harmonica seminar and I did the blues. It was a sad loss to the world when he went.
What are your favourite venues? It’s the small places that have really stood out. The Royal Philharmonic in Liverpool is not the biggest but was brilliant for us, a great audience. There’s a jazz club I like in Hong Kong. We did five nights in there - fantastic.
What’s the strangest gig you’ve had? Pete Townsend from The Who got me to work on the rock opera Tommy, teaching members of the cast the harmonica. A great week.
How much notice do you take of what people write about you? Somebody said that Paul Lamb and King Snakes are ‘lazily cocksure’. Is that a compliment? That was written a while ago about Marlin Brando, so someone just took that and applied it to us. We’ve had awards over the years. I was put up in a blues Hall of Fame with the likes of Peter Green. The house is just covered in awards from Europe, from here and there. It’s nice to get recognition. I came from a working class background, a mining village. I didn’t want to go down the mines like my father and my uncles and grandfather. I escaped into music, the blues. It’s taken me around the world. That’s an achievement on its own. You get people who doubt you a little bit, but you’ve just got to bite the bullet and go in for it and believe in what you do.