Producer Dick Shurman
" BluesWax Sittin' The Alligator Years
By Bob Putignano
Dick Shurman's career as Blues writer and producer spans more than a quarter century, much of it for Alligator Records. His past work as a producer includes artists like Roy Buchanan, Albert Collins, Magic Slim, Charlie Musselwhite, Little Smokey Smothers, Cal Green, Lee Shot Williams, and Johnny Winter. Amongst Shurman's Grammy nominations stands the winner; Showdown! with Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray for Alligator. Recently, Dick was instrumental in the resurgence of Jody Williams' career, producing both of Jody_s Evidence albums. In 2004, he also produced the latest Johnny Winter recording, and in 2009 Dick recorded Eddie C. Campbell for Delmark Records.
Bob Putignano for BluesWax: Good morning, Dick.
Dick Shurman: How you doing, Bob?
BW: Mighty fine. We are here to talk about your days at Alligator Records, with the major focus on four recordings and artists; Showdown, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan, and Johnny Winter. Let's start with Buchanan.
DS: I enjoyed working with Roy, and always loved "The Messiah Will Come Again," the instrumental "Mrs. Pressure" kind of had that vibe which is from the 1985 album When A Guitar Plays the Blues.
BW: What was it like working with Roy?
DS: He was a really warm guy. We really enjoyed working together. The hardest thing with Roy was getting him to tell us what he wanted. He was always eager to go with our program, and we wanted to get from him what he wanted. Technically, he was amazing and probably the greatest guitarist I ever worked with. He used just one effect, a delay pedal. The rest was all in his hands and in his head. Plus, he had a broad definition of the Blues, so not everything he did was limited in the twelve-bar range. One of things that's interesting is that the first recording had nine tracks, and the second one had thirteen which made for the second album being a more focused effort. I will always have fond memories of Roy. He was a great player, and a really pleasant guy to deal with.
BP: Thinking about what eventually happened to Roy and also reading his biographicy, I would have thought he would have been a bit complex to work with.
DS: He was complex and was definitely wired a little different than the rest of us, but he never caused problems. He would say things like, "Would you move from your farm if there was a banshee on it?" Yet he also played some of the prettiest music ever.
BP: "Mrs. Pressure" is a perfect example of that.
DS: There's another on the third recording we did with Roy called "Matthew" named for his little grandson. Come to think of it, Roy lived in a townhouse with a lot of kids and a grandbaby. So, he'd have to go into the basement to work on songs, and when we'd get together he would have a hefty bag filled with cassettes to review. So, we would do pre-production over at my place and sift through all what Roy would bring.
BW: Interesting, this all took place starting around '85.
DS: Yes, one record a year; '85, '86, and '87.
BW: Was there a fourth recording planned?
DS: Yes, but unfortunately Roy passed in '88. Bruce was thinking about an all-instrumental album, plus Roy called me wanting to record with Les Paul. Needless to say, that never happened.
DS: We also wanted to pair Roy with Jeff Beck, of course they did songs about each other, Beck dedicated '"Cause We've Ended as Lovers" to Roy, and Roy cut a song "My Friend Jeff," as a thank you to Jeff. We tried to get them together to record, but it was just one of those things that wasn't meant to be.
BW: At least they both acknowledged each other. A couple of more thoughts on Roy's recordings at Alligator, there are nice sideman on this recording. For starters, Morris Jennings on drums.
DS: Yeah, great drummer who also played on "Cold Snap" by Albert Collins. He also had a different kind of a shuffle than most Chicago drummers and had that soul side, too.
BW: I know him from some of his work with Ramsey Lewis.
DS: Correct, plus he was one of the session guys at Chess during their R&B phase. Morris was a great guy, whose main gig was working with a society band.
BW: A society band?
DS: Doing weddings, and country club gigs.
BW: Interesting, and you brought in Otis Clay to do vocals, too.
DS: We were concerned that the vocalists on Roy's earlier albums weren't as good as we wanted, though I always liked Billy Price as a friend and a musician. So wanting to get strong vocalists for Roy, we felt Otis was certainly one of the guys we wanted to use. Otis did a great version of "A Nickel And A Nail," where we felt complimented as he started using our arrangement of it on his gigs.
BW: And there's a kind of obscure sax player by the name of Sonny Seals, who passed a year or so ago, whose work I know with Ben Sidran.
DS: His son Hank Ford still plays tenor on a lot of Blues records in Chicago. He's part of the Chicago Fire Horns, and Willie Henderson uses him, too. Of course with Sonny's name being what it was, it always confused people with Son Seals.
BW: Sonny was a powerful player.
DS: I always liked Sonny. He plays a nice short solo on Roy's "Short Fuse."
BW: Let's switch gears to Johnny Winter, where you also brought in guys like Dr. John, Ken Saydak, Johnny B. Gayden, Casey Jones, and reunited Johnny with Tommy Shannon and Uncle John Turner.
DS: On "I'm Good" we had the Chicago guys. Uncle John was in the studio campaigning to play on it, but when it was done, Turner said, "Damn, why would you want me on it? You got the best guys to play on it!" "I'm Good" was a local single by Bonnie Lee, and when Johnny came to town, he'd love to listen to the late night radio here in Chicago, and would stay up all night listening to DJs like Mr. A, and Big Bill Collins. That's where Johnny heard and loved that tune. So recording "I'm Good" reflects the love for Johnny listening to funky Blues radio shows from Chicago, which was one of the biggest parts of his enjoyment when he came to town.
BW: Neat story, Dick. You are still working with Johnny, right?
DS: Well, yes and no, but once he gets another recording deal, that's the plan. He wants me to do the next one.
BW: You produced Winter's last one.
DS: Yes, 2004/2005. By the way, Johnny's doing fantastic. He's really in good shape personally and musically. He's basically reformulated his guitar solos in the past few months. So he's much better now, and the band is really cooking, too
BW: Having Paul Nelson around Johnny has been helpful, I'm sure.
DS: Oh yeah, it's wonderful to see this happening for Johnny, and for Paul, too.
BW: Somebody just contacted me about a new Johnny Winter book.
DS: Mary Lou Sullivan, she's been working on Johnny's biography.
BW: That's the lady, and she told me that it should be out on Backbeat Books in the spring. Moving on to the Iceman; Albert Collins.
DS: What a guy Albert was, Albert is one of top people who enriched my life more than anybody. At the time he was parttime working with the Robert Cray band, and using pickup bands, but we wanted to build a Chicago band around Albert.
BW: All I have to do his mention his name to Coco Montoya, and the stories flow. The energy Albert had!
DS: Coco and I are both Albert's kids. When we built the band that we did around Albert, wow, the energy just flowed! Albert was a killer.
BW: Whose idea was it to put Jimmy McGriff with Albert?
DS: Albert asked for McGriff. They knew each other from the mid '60s. In fact, Albert cut and used to always play Jimmy's "All About My Girl" that he first called "Leftovers" the first time he recorded it. It was one of his staples. Albert also asked for anyone who can play like McGriff, so he was a real fan. No problem with me as McGriff is one of my heroes. In fact I had him sign my copy of "I've Got a Woman" in the studio. It was a real treat having McGriff aboard.
BW: Plus Mel Brown the on guitar.
DS: Albert and Mel knew each other from Antone's. As you are probably aware, Mel was a great session player from back in the day, and solo artist who recently passed.
BW: And Johnny B. Gayden on bass.
DS: Johnny's still my favorite bass player.
BW: Last but not least; Showdown! which had a couple of guys from Cold Snap.
DS: Fairly similar. We had Casey Jones on drums for that one, Alan Batts on organ who was on parts of Cold Snap, as was Johnny B. Gayden on bass. So, for the most part Showdown was basically Albert's band with no horns.
BW: Why don't labels don't craft albums like this anymore?
DS: (Laughing) You got the money? There's a couple of reasons why. CDs and now downloads don't sell as much as they used to. So, if you are not getting money back, you cannot put as much into it. Simple as that. Any current artists or current labels will tell you that their recording budgets have met the meat axe. Plus, people are making albums with Pro-Tools in their bedrooms. The good part is that's its a lot cheaper and more accessible. The bad news is sometimes the way it gets done is less than desirable.
BW: I've always felt that there needs to be a good producer working the album, other than the rare times artists and/or labels hit a double or a triple, you need to have someone driving the project, as well as selecting the sidemen, and choosing songs. Guys like yourself exemplify why certain records standout. I feel that even though the CD buying public isn't as strong as it used to be, (partly) has to be due to the fact that records aren't that well- rounded or appealing.
DS: Part of what's going on is money is tight. The challenges of their being significant money in the budget (including for guys like me) has pretty much gone by the wayside. I'm not embarrassed to tell you that I had to adjust to reality in what I charge for projects.
BW: Sad, but true. You see that with guys on the road, too, smaller bands, and the like.
DS: Yeah, Rod Piazza had to drop their bass player.
BW: Which brings us back to better days when you won the Grammy for Showdown.
DS: One of the highlights of my career was when we recorded Showdown! over Labor Day weekend, 1985.
BW: Give me the backdrop to Robert Cray at that time.
DS: The original concept for Showdown! started at the '84 Chicago Blues Festival, with Albert, Johnny Copeland, Gatemouth Brown, and Brother Jack McDuff.
BW: Wow, Gatemouth plus McDuff!
DS: It was a great set. The idea mainly came from Johnny Copeland's people. Gatemouth was a friend and wonderful artist, but it became quickly apparent that if Gate would become part of the project, it was to done his way, his studio, and all of his guys. Gate would have been the king, and everyone would have had to bow to him. So it became obvious that Gate wasn't going to work out for this project, we went and got Robert Cray who was an Albert Collins disciple. With Robert in the band everything started to flow, and it became more of teamwork outing. Cray is an introverted guy and very deferential, so the chemistry became a lot different in a positive way. We benefited a lot from Robert. He was just starting to take off career wise. I really think the reason we won the Grammy was because of Robert Cray.
BW: Was his landmark Strong Persuader record already out?
DS: He was in the middle of doing Strong Persuader which as you mentioned was his breakthrough recording, so we kind of road his rooster tail. I know Bruce is proud to say that Showdown! is Alligator's best selling album, but at the time we were working with Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Albert Collins, Lonnie Brooks (who I did not work with,) so these were all great artists, and are a lot of my favorites too. But Bruce was taking a lot of heat about how he gets these white boys to make some money with, so I felt really good that Showdown! was a black record that outsold all of those other white artist's records.
BW: Were you there to accept the Grammy?
DS: No, and it was just as well that I wasn't. Bruce offered for me to go, but my feeling was that it was a 'pre' award, and I knew it would not make it on TV, so if they did not respect it enough to give it airtime, then why not stay home? Coincidentally, my father in-law died of a heart attack that night, so had I'd been out in L.A. accepting the Grammy with Bruce, I would have been going nuts trying to figure out how to get back home. So, for many reasons, this turned out to be best.
BW: Was there any chatter about Cray signing on to Alligator at that time?
DS: Not at that time. But early on, the first record Robert did for Hightone, (which was a very nice album,) the one that had "Phone Booth" on it, Cray's people were trying to get Bruce to pick that one up, but Bruce didn't think that Robert was "houserocking" enough.
DS: So by the time we did Showdown!, it was pretty obvious wasn't going to be an Alligator artist, as Robert had already been posed, yet everyone had a lot of respect for each other. Actually working with Bruce Bromberg, Robert's longtime producer and one of my longtime blues friends, was one of the coolest things about Showdown! for me.
BW: I bet, and it was a great idea crafting the concept of putting Robert, with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. Great stuff, Dick, in fact masterful!
DS: There was one point during the Showdown! sessions where Robert, Albert and I remembered our Northwest backgrounds, as I was living in Seattle which is when I saw Albert, and Robert was living in Tacoma and saw Albert at his senior prom in high school. So, we went to the corner of the studio and had a toast to the Pacific Northwest. And in the end it really was all about teamwork, as Johnny Copeland wanted the record to work so much, but he got so sick during the sessions, he did take a break, but when it was his turn to sing on "T-Bone Shuffle," and "Black Cat Bone," he would sit up, do his part and literally collapse, the poor guy. I felt so bad for him.
BW: I would have never guessed that.
DS: No, Johnny had great energy, too, plus Johnny and Albert go way back and had heard Albert play harmonica. So, Johnny came up with the idea to coax Albert into playing harp on "Bring Your Fine Self Home." I would have never thought of that, and felt Albert did a great job playing harmonica on that track. In fact, Shemekia still does this song.
BW: Great behind the scenes stories, Dick. Thanks for sharing your time with us. Lord knows we can go on and on, but we all have other duties to perform.
DS: Thank you, Bob. It's all my pleasure.
Bob Putignano is a contributing editor at BluesWax. You may contact Bob at: firstname.lastname@example.org web site: www.SoundsofBlue.com
Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com