BluesWax Sittin' In With Hiram Bullock
By Bob Putignano

Hiram Bullock plays all kinds of music from the Blues to Jazz to Metal and ignites his shows with his friendly, bombastic virtuosity and genuine enthusiasm. Throughout his diverse career, from the Seventies on Bullock has recorded and played with The Brecker Brothers to his various stints with Gil Evans, plus a who's who list of outstanding artists, including Eric Clapton, Al Green, Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Hank Crawford, Steely Dan, Sting, Michael Franks, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Pete Townsend, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Will Lee, Billy Joel, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Chaka Kahn, Edgar Winter, and James Brown. Bullock has earned the respect of his peers and critics, additionally he is always developing his craft as a sensitive singer-songwriter, explosive guitarist, and an outstanding live performer.

Bullock was born in Osaka, Japan. He learned to play the saxophone at age eleven and began playing the bass as a teenager. He switched to guitar at age sixteen "to meet more girls." Bullock attended the University of Miami music school (and studied with Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius) where he met many of the musicians that he would play with throughout his professional career, specifically with the singer Phyllis Hyman, who had a hand in bringing him to New York.

Bullock found new fans as the barefoot guitar player on Late Night with David Letterman from inception till 1984, when he was a part of the World's Most Dangerous Band led by Paul Shaffer. Bullock was also a member of the Saturday Night Live band and was the musical director of David Sanborn's critically acclaimed Night Music show. Bullock's solo recording period started in 1983 and he has produced all of his twelve albums, which include many of his original songs. His albums span many different genres of music: the contemporary Jazz of From All Sides; the Rock of World of Collision; the Latin-influenced Carrasco; and the organ-trio Jazz of Late Night Talk. At this time of writing Bullock's live performances are mostly like his group-oriented funky Rock albums Color Me, Try Livin' It, and his current release Too Funky 2 Ignore.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Bullock in between his jaunts to Europe just prior to eve of his performance in New York City.

Bob Putignano for BluesWax: Hi, Hiram, good to see you back home. Last time you were here was when Too Funky 2 Ignore came out. You've been a busy guy.

Hiram Bullock: Yeah, I just did Berlin, a bunch of Italy, then Romania, and I actually went through Transylvania, which was really, really nice.

BW: You've always surrounded yourself with great musicians; who is playing with you tomorrow night in New York City?

HB: The infamous Will Lee [David Letterman] will be on bass; Katreese Barnes, who is the musical director of Saturday Night Live; and, the illustrious Jeremy Gaddi, who you will love, from Houston, Texas. Gaddi's dad was a preacher, so he grew up in the church and he has that religious fervor.

BW: How did you and Gaddi hook-up?

HB: He left the church path and found me. [Laughs.]

BW: You have quite a few records out now...

HB: Twelve! Starting in 1983 with First Class Vagabond, which was named because I worked all the time and had gone on the road with Chaka Khan and when I came back I had an identity crisis. I sold my house and cars and I lived in a limo. So all I had was a driver, a limo, and a bag of money, so I rode around as a first class vagabond! You're lucky I did not end up on your couch! But you would have made a quick c-note.

BW: Oh my! But seriously now, you've worked with Jaco Pastorius and there is a CD with the two of you on it right?

HB: It's sort of like a bootleg, but not, as the guy who recorded it didn't tell us, but after Jaco's death he wanted to help Jaco's family. So he came to me and asked if it was ethical to release the recording and I said as you long as you pay everyone it will be fine. And he did everything he was supposed to and paid for the publishing and paid the Pastorius family their appropriate money, so everyone did very well with that.

BW: What was Jaco like?

HB: I knew Jaco from before he became famous in 1973. He was my bass teacher at the University of Miami.

BW: You played bass?

HB: Yes I did, but he was not the greatest teacher, as my lessons consisted of Jaco being really frustrated, because if you are the bass teacher at the University of Miami you are the one bass player to teach everyone, so if your grandmother wanted to learn bass, Jaco would have to teach her. So you could imagine his frustrations. So he was at the end of his rope having to work with beginners and non-players who just wanted to try out the bass. So my lessons with him were watching him rip it up and I would kind of tag along. That was my lesson, as he never really said anything. He was really freaking out and mostly hated his job.

BW: Then you two connected later on?

HB: In 1985, Jaco; drummer Kenwood Dennard, who is now the head of the drum department at Berkeley College; and, I formed a trio and I have to say that I thought at the time it was going to be like the new Cream. It was fusion and Rock with lots of energy, but unfortunately Jaco went the way he went, so I pulled the plug on it, because I felt something was going to happen, either to Jaco or to somebody else and I did not want it to happen on my watch. So I called the agent and cancelled all of our gigs, which was too bad because we were doing very well. And come to think of it, back then I used play in America. As tomorrow is my first gig in the U.S.A. in years, I hardly ever play in America.

BW: You and Will Lee have been together for a long time.

HB: Yeah, I met Will in 1974 right after I met Jaco. Will was already up here in New York City and Will was famous to us and was already playing with Bette Midler and recording jingles. At that time I was playing with Phyllis Hyman in Miami Beach at the Eden Roc Hotel and one night in walks Will Lee. I'm freaking out saying, "Oh, it's Will Lee!" and asked him if he wanted to sit in. Will says yes and I asked him what he wanted to play and he says, "'Squib Cakes' by Tower of Power." Now, "Squib Cakes" for a musician is a tricky little ditty, it's funky, but it's an odd choice, but Will played every note wrong, but somehow it was great, I couldn't believe it. Will was so groovin' it was definitely an educational experience for me. And speaking of Tower of Power, I hear they are looking for a guitar player, too, I'm tempted to signup, but it's like joining the army, as they are such road warriors. They are so classic, so it could be cool.

BW: I saw TOP the last time they were here and wow, they are still very hot!

HB: I know, I saw them in Germany in a room that was like fifty by seventy feet, the place was packed and TOP were the funkiest thing I have ever seen. Outrageous!

BW: Well good luck if you sign on with TOP.

HB: You never know. I hear they are looking for more of a trench player, so I don't know if I would be offered the gig, plus I don't know if I would actually take the job. But the idea intrigues me, as it would be like joining a Funky Monastery and wouldn't that be hip? What a thing to do. I have to say it's an interesting concept.

BW: So what else is going on in your life?

HB: I make my life up as I go along! [Laughs.] You know I started out to be a lawyer thirty years ago, but I checked out the lawyer scene and it didn't look like they enjoyed music and I loved music! So if that is what is going to happen to me I didn't want to be a lawyer, as music is fun. I was a pretty smart guy with a 3.9 in college and felt how hard could it be? Then I came up to New York City and everything blossomed and here I am hanging out with you! [More laughs.]

BW: You'll be hanging out with a good crowd tomorrow night.

HB: I will, with Will Lee, and my band!

BW: I remember those nights you and Will Lee did at Manny's Car Wash and Chicago Blues here in New York City.

HB: Manny's was a cool place that had a license to print money, as no matter who played there it was always packed. Plus it was a great place to meet girls. That's why I first went. And now they are both closed.

BW: Those were the days, but everything is so different now.

HB: The place where live music fits in people's lives is so changed. Live music used to be the center of our social life, it was our movement, it was how we knew who we were. We were so focused about who was coming to town and who was going to get tickets and check out a band like say, Led Zeppelin. The music was the center of our group, but it's no longer like that, it's more about the clothes you are wearing. The identity is a media thing, plus there are many more media choices now, too. I know kids that have never bought a CD and they don't go to see live music, they go to clubs, but they say, "Why would we want to go see a band?"

BW: I just read an article saying that not only are CD sales down twenty percent this year, but downloads are also down, too.

HB: Music is definitely in a different place. That being said, I think we should not lament on the fact, that as we get older to not get caught up on this fact and accept the fact that things change. I have a good time, I have a good life, I love to travel, and I could probably take another television gig or session work like joining the Funky Monastery of Tower of Power, but I love what I do even though we don't have the market share of what we used to have. That's just the way it is. I accept this fact. Besides, we are still here.

BW: And you never know, as historically speaking the pendulum always swings back.

HB: Yeah and literally what I do as a musician, a guy that actually plays an instrument and sings a song for real, is like a dinosaur, as current musicians don't do that anymore. Today's world has musicians, but they don't do what we do, they construct music via technology. So I guess I'm considered as being old or even older school now. It's a very different musical world and scene.

BW: Got a song that ties these ideologies all together?

HB: I had an album titled World of Collision. [Laughs.] But that could be interesting to make a song about this changing music world we live in now, so guess I will make up something on the fly.

BW: You do write a lot of beautiful songs and I am always impressed with the warm sensitive side of your words and tunes.

HB: Thanks! I come from a working class family and when I was a kid my dad felt that writing music was not work, because at that time I did not make any money from it. He never understood when I used to drive to a jam session and came home with no money, but I would tell him, "Dad, I had fun." So writing a song to him was like a jerk-off. But I had to write songs to get it out of me. I never thought anyone would hear them. I never dreamed I would have publishing and all the things that come with it. You know, all the stuff I love and enjoy that support my extravagant life style. [Laughs.]

BW: Not back in the limo with a bag of money?

HB: I'm not going back to the limo that's for sure. I traded in the limo for bills. community.

Bob Putignano

Bob Putignano
Radio Host WFDU's "Sounds of Blue"
President of the NY Blues and Jazz Society