BluesWax Sittin' In With Sugar Blue
By Bob Putignano

One of the foremost Blues harpists, Sugar Blue, whose real name is James Whiting, was born in New York City in 1950. By his mid-teens Blue had already performed with Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Sugar Blue relocated to Paris in 1976, where he was introduced to the Rolling Stones; he went on to play on Some Girls, Emotional Rescue, and Tattoo You, and played on the Stones' smash hit "Miss You." He also played on Jazz dates for Paul Horn and Stan Getz. Upon returning to the U.S. in the mid-1980s, Sugar Blue moved to Chicago. Then he signed a distribution deal with Alligator and, as Sugar Blue is proud to say, he produced his own recordings. With his own band he received the 1985 Grammy Award for his work on the Atlantic album Blues Explosion, which was recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He also sat in with Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lee Lewis on the Cinemax special Fats Domino and Friends and has appeared on screen and in the musical score of Alan Parker's acclaimed 1987 thriller Angel Heart, with Robert DeNiro, as well as Johnny Handsome and An Unmarried Woman. While visiting Italy I caught up with Sugar Blue one night after he jumped onstage and jammed with Big Luther Kent and the Robi Zonca Band in Bergamo, Italy.

Bob Putignano for BluesWax: How do you do, Sugar Blue? Sugar Blue: Hanging in there.

BW: How long have you been hanging out in Italy?

SB: I have been here on and off for a year and a half or so. I like it here, the people are nice, the climate is great, and the food is sensational! But I was here in the Eighties and also hung out in Zurich and Paris for a while, too, then back and forth to Chicago. So I would say my home is under my hat!

BW: It's great to see that you have a new recording, Code Blue.

SB: It's great to be back and recording again under my own name. It's been twelve years since the last one and I was getting antsy to do it. It was good to put on my thinking cap and collaborate with some great players.

BW: It is a great band - Rico McFarland is always one of my favorites.

SB: It's hard not to make a good recording with this band! Plus Lurrie Bell is a guest, as is Barrelhouse Chuck, who is a great old-school keyboard player. We cut most of the tracks in Chicago and then I cut some tracks here in Italy with Ilaria Lantieri on bass, Domiano Della Torre - who is an amazing piano player - Marco "more than perfect" Guarnerio on guitar. I really thought the recording really worked out well.

BW: You put out some strong political statements on this record, too.

SB: I think the Blues is all about what is relevant and going on around us, you know- what it is, how it is, for the people that are important to you. I find it difficult to make music that has no political relevance, especially now that everything is so political. As the world becomes smaller and smaller we must pay attention or if we don't we will pay otherwise, possibly in blood as we have been.

BW: Some history about yourself...

SB: I am originally from New York City and miss it, I was there about six months ago just passing through Harlem to say hi to my brother, but I have not lived in New York City since 1975. From there I moved to Chicago to listen to Big Walter, Fred Below, the Myers Brothers, and lived in Honeyboy Edwards' house for about a year. You know those old timers just opened the doors for this kid from New York. Honeyboy told me, "You play good harmonica, but that ain't the Blues." Those old-school cats passed on so much to me, sometimes more personally than musically. It was a great education.

BW: And Willie Dixon, too?

SB: There was a lady named Victoria Spivey who lived in New York City who knew me when I was playing on the streets in Greenwich Village, who introduced me to Willie Dixon when Willie was playing at the Bottom Line, and Bob Dylan showed up, which later allowed me to play on Dylan's record Desire. But the tracks never made it to the record, but eventually showed up on The Basement Sessions. And, you know, Dylan can do more with that harmonica than you hear him do on record, he really has great control and a natural ability to play the Blues - really.

BW: Tell me more about Chicago?

SB: I got to carry Big Walter's case, buy him drinks, and get personally admonished by the man himself. He was a tough teacher, he would play something and tell me, "Tomorrow I want you do play it back to me," and I'd say "What?" Walter had the biggest and most impressive tone of any harmonica player I knew...all of them. But one thing about Walter was that if you played something that he liked, he would let you know it and if he didn't...yikes. A lot of those old timers attitude was to practice at home, then go out and play good music on the stage.

Sugar Blue's CD Code Blue

BW: From being in Chicago you got hooked up with Alligator and Bruce Iglauer?

SB: Actually I never got involved with Iglauer, the only thing I did with Bruce was that I had the privilege to record and play with Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, and the daughter of the great Texas guitar man Johnny Copeland, Shemekia. So that was the only business dealings I had with Iglauer. The records that I did for Alligator were produced by me, myself, and I. The only involvement Alligator had was to do the distribution in the U.S.A. Bruce and I, we were never involved in recording, not on any of my stuff.

BW: I loved all the horns you used on some of those tracks from those Nineties recordings.

SB: Yeah, man, I used the Chicago Fire Horns on the first recording. I've always loved horn players, people like Illinois Jacquet, Lester Young, and Dexter Gordon really inspired me, in fact Dexter was a good friend of my father's and used to hang out at the crib in New York City. He was something. And I actually met him again when I was living in Paris.

BW: Was that when they made that great movie Round Midnight?

SB: Yep, and man was that an excellent movie and with someone like Dexter's amazing ability - he made it look so easy, he had such charisma and all he had to do is be himself, as the camera couldn't get enough of him. Plus it was a true story for many people, maybe not for him, I'm not sure.

BW: Is it true that Keith Richards heard you playing on the streets in Paris and that is how you got the gig with the Stones?

SB: That's the legendary story, but...let's just leave it as such. But I have to say that I thought I re-awoke the Stones, as they were not in vogue and I always felt that I was a part of their rise back to selling a lot of records again.

BW: I remember some memorable nights when you played at Chicago Blues in New York City with the Vivino's, is there anything else you would like to add, or say back to the folks in the U.S.A.?

SB: I miss those nights at Chicago Blues, a big hello to my friend Jimmy Vivino, and we can't forget my redheaded bad boy Conan O'Brien. I hope to see you all soon, especially to New York City as it's been a long time since I said hi to Lady Liberty, too long, it would be like Kool and the Gang. [laughs]

Bob Putignano, turning to you: As we were chatting afterwards I asked Sugar Blue to do an I.D. for my radio show on WFDU and he whipped out his harmonica to do the spot. I said, "Great, you brought your harmonica." Sugar Blue went on to tell me that the only time he did not have his instrument with him was when he went to see the great Count Basie with Ella Fitzgerald. He was asked to jam with Basie's band on "One O'Clock Jump," which he knew inside out. One of the band members told him, "Son, do you know what a musician is without his instrument? An asshole!" Then went on to tell Blue that many years from now you will be sorry that you did not bring your harp. To which Sugar said, "He was right!"

It certainly was a trip and a lot of fun hanging with Sugar Blue, best wishes to him with his new recording, Code Blue.

Bob Putignano is a contributing editor at BluesWax. You may contact Bob at:

Bob Putignano

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