Mighty Sam McClain
" BluesWax Sittin' In With Mighty Sam McClain
By Bob Putignano
Mighty Sam McClain is a Grammy-nominated blues and soul vocalist and songwriter. But believe it or not Mighty Sam McClain didn't record his first studio album under his own name until he was forty-seven, two for Orleans Records (one was Live in Japan with Wayne Bennett) and two for JVC's high-end XRCD series. Sam found some firm footing with the California-based Audioquest label (also somewhat of an audiophile company) where he made two new discs, plus Audioquest reissued both JVC recordings for McClain. He moved on to doing one for Ruf and two for Telarc before launching his own Mighty Music label in 2003.
McClain has also performed on albums by Hubert Sumlin, Ronnie Earl, Jean-Jacques Milteau, and Bruce Katz. His latest (2010 and 2011) offerings are with European guitarist Knut Reiersrud, and in 2010 with Mahsa Vahdat distributed in the USA by Valley Entertainment. Just as One Drop Is Plenty was released was when I had the opportunity to catch up with the always evolving Mr. McClain.
Robert Putignano for BluesWax: What's up, Sam?
Mighty Sam McClain: I'm doing good, real good.
BW: Great to hear that all's well with you. Nice job on the new One Drop is Plenty CD.
MSM: Thank you sir. I'm pleased and very excited about this new record. Knut [pronounced Ka-nute] Reiersrud has been into my music for years. I did not know that until the Mahsa Vahdat Scent of Reunion: Love Duets Across Civilizations project came about last year. I was so happy Knut wanted to do this project. I'm very pleased to be a part of it. We did a few concerts in Europe. It was great. It was so cool to work with him. He's a great guy. You know Mahsa is from Iran. Our recording is so powerful as it crosses many boundaries. The songs we sing are old poems. This is some serious music. You know when they first sent me these tunes, I did not get it, they seemed so far out of my comfort zone, but after listening to it for a few weeks, I got it. Mahsa's voice grabbed me by my throat. Checkout some of our youTube videos.
BW: Frank-John Hadley of Downbeat told me that you all performed together recently.
MSM: Yes, we brought Mahsa here. It was the first time we performed together in the United States, and it looks like I'll be heading to Iran to do some more shows with them.
BW: Be careful, Sam!
MSM: Yeah, I know, but the way I sometimes feel about being here in the USA, it's about the same thing. I'm used to being careful. I'm from Louisiana.
BW: Speaking of Louisiana, Big Luther Kent says to say, "Hi!"
MSM: Tell Luther I say hi back to him, he knew me back in my dark days in New Orleans, but always invited me to sit in with his great big band.
BW: I will say hi to Luther for you. Now you recorded this new album One Drop Is Plenty in Norway, right?
BW: You and Knut first met at Norway's Notodden Blues Fest, correct?
MSM: That's right, and then we went onto recording here in New Hampshire with Mahsa. It went so smooth. We booked six days of studio time and only needed three. Mahsa is only about thirty-seven years old, but where she lives [Iran] they live like slaves over there. She's not allowed to sing by herself, it's that bad.
When we recorded that CD, the record label brought us some CDs to promote the album, something like fifty discs each. But Mahsa was afraid to take them back to Iran, plus Mahsa's a freedom fighter marching, so they watch her closely. She has to check in with everything she does there. She's under scrutiny all the time, and the more popularity she gets, the more scrutiny she gets. But she's strong. It's the young people rising up over there and, believe it or not, the young people over there are buying our record. The music means so much to those people, almost like an anthem to them. So all of this has turned out to be bigger than I ever thought it would, which makes me more proud to be a part of this project, as it's a chance to open up people's eyes to what's going on over there.
BW: You should be proud, Sam! Lets get back to One Drop is Plenty.
MSM: I'm proud of it, it was fun to do, and it was very easy. We did this session in just three days in Oslo.
BW: Tell me about this Jeff Waserman, who co-wrote many of the tunes with Knut.
MSM: I don't know him. I actually thought that the tunes we used (other than my own) were all Knut's songs. On the Reverend James Cleveland's "I Don't Feel Noways Tired" I wrote the lyrics to that little talking part at the beginning of that song, because the original [recorded by so many] has one verse to it, so I also added another verse to it. I only met one other songwriter from the album, the guy who wrote "Proceed," B. Hofseth.
BW: That's the tune that starts real slow and simmers to a strong ending?
MSM: [Sam starts to sing the lyrics] "Son if you're ready, I have something on my mind." Yeah that's it. You are probably right about the ending, but I'm sixty-eight now, so you have to cut me some memory slack. [laughs]
BW: I understand Sam, misery loves company! Who picked the Jerry Ragavoy track "You Don't Know Nothing About Love?" I love this version.
MSM: Knut sent me the songs he wanted to record. Four of them are my own. They flew here in May of 2009, and at that time we got together to pick out songs and write some tunes together. At the same time I was doing my little movie thing, so things had to wait till I got that down. Knut recommended the Ragavoy song, and I knew I could do justice to that tune. The record label owner Erik [Hillestad] told us he was a little hesitant with cutting so many covers, but he was talking about my covers. I told him that my songs weren't heard by a lot of people. Let's face it, I haven't sold millions of records... Long story short, this was pretty much Knut's project.
BW: There's an Eric Mace at Valley Entertainment who's been very helpful with setting this interview up.
MSM: That's a different Eric, Eric that ends with a 'c." In Norway the label owner is spelled differently.
BW: Ah, I see. Your Web site is?
BW: We owe a shout out to Frank-John Hadley, who I know is a friend of yours, who originally hipped me to your new disc, telling me that I had to hear it.
MSM: He gave us four stars at Downbeat! He was at our show in Massachusetts with Mahsa, and has been a longtime supporter of my music. You have to see us perform together, it's so powerful! We're planning on bring her back, so I hope you get the opportunity to see us in concert. In fact we are already planning another new album; they brought some new tunes over in June. These new songs just blew my mind! Mahsa, Knut, and Erik came to my house, and Mahsa started singing, and Knut played his guitar, and my mouth fell to the floor. This is going to be the next record, and I am so excited!
BW: Are you ever going to record with American musicians again?
MSM: Yes as a matter of fact, I got some guys out of Boston called the Boston Baked Beans. They called me up and they want me to be on an album with them. I also just got an invitation to show my face on another movie, too.
BW: You also recently worked with Bon Jovi.
MSM: Yes, with a project called Give Us the Poor. Check it out at www.GiveUsthePoor.com. We're trying to save homeless people. How I got involved was because at one point I was homeless, and the guy involved in this project was looking for someone who was or had previously been homeless. He found out about me through a friend of mine that I helped [Weeping Willie] and I got the call. Bon Jovi and I are still friends. In fact we are doing a concert together in March of next year in New Orleans for the same organization. You know, at first I was supposed to do a song with Bonnie Raitt, but she was busy in Hawaii at the time. Plus we had a small window to get this recorded, so it couldn't happen with Bonnie. So Bon Jovi called me to ask me to do the song with him. I told him that I would rather do it with Bon Jovi! As you know, his platform is a little bigger. [laughs]
BW: I would think so, plus you reach a different audience with Bon Jovi.
MSM: You've got that right! So we cut the song together. You know that guy had so much respect for me too, and he knew my history. I actually wrote the song we used. It was great, a real highlight for me. There was a second song, too, with me and Natalie Merchant. It's a great CD.
BW: Alright, Sam. Life seems like life is getting good for you.
MSM: It's getting good, better than it was yesterday. [laughs] You know man, it's all a state of mind. You have to be aware of the other stuff that's going around outside your own fun. Some of that stuff will make you cry, especially if you are paying close attention.
BW: I know [Festival Promoter] Michael Cloeren is a soul guy, and I know you have played at his shows in Pennsylvania in the past. Did you send your latest disc to him?
MSM: No, we haven't spoken in a while. I think I played at his festival three times.
BW: Is the title of your new CD alcohol related?
MSM: It's good music, Bob, that's all. But one drop is definitely plenty!
BW: It's very good music, Sam, if I didn't read the liner notes I would have thought this was recorded in the USA, not Norway.
MSM: Oh man, they are very good musicians. Great musicians! They were saying how impressed they were with me, but I told them it's mutual. You know they are young guys. Knut and I are the grandfathers of the bunch, the others are youngsters, and they are very busy doing session work, too. Plus when I go over there we perform live with the same band that's on this new recording. But when I bring them here, we'll have Mahsa and Knut, but the other players will be from my band.
BW: Hey, Sam, I'm going to let you go.
MSM: Bob, it's been fun! Make sure you send me your address as I want to get you a copy of that previous recording, Scent of Reunion: Love Duets Across Civilizations.
BW: Will do, Sam, thank you again!
MSM: And thank you too for your continued support, Bob.
Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com