Exclusive Twist Turner interview by Leo Tien
Drummer, songwriter, producer Twist Turner has been a fixture on the Chicago music scene for over 35 years, working with nearly 40 grammy winners and nominees yet with such and impressive resume his talents have seemed to have been overlooked by the blues world today. His Bio show's that he’s worked with a literal who’s who in the Chicago Blues world in addition to having played on nearly 60 records, and having had his songs recorded by numerous blues artists world wide.
With such and impressive resume how is it that you’ve flown under the radar for so long?
(Laughs) Well….. First of all I’m a drummer, nobody pays attention to the drummer or the bass player, so it’s just the nature of the beast, the front man always gets all the attention and all the chicks (laughs). The drums and bass are the foundation of the music, without a solid foundation a house or song can’t stand. The thing is when you go look at a really nice house nobody says “Oh what a nice foundation this house has” (laughs). They always want to see the kitchen or the bathroom, you know, the eye candy. It’s the same thing with music. I'm not a flashy drummer, I just play solid and in the pocket. So much of what I do is behind the scenes like engineering, record production, or song writing and I’m really comfortable doing that.
You are primarily known as a blues player, are there any other kinds of music you play or are interested in?
I’ve always listened to and played R&B, which kind of eased into me liking Southern Soul and Soul Blues which is primarily what I listen too now. Pretty much what you hear the black DJ’s spinning in the blues clubs is what I listen too, some blues, some R&B, some southern soul, a little gospel, and a little Hammond organ blues/jazz.
You know something funny is that I really don’t have any rock influence in me at all. Most white people come into blues though rock music. I was listening to blues in the 50’s and 60’s, I just didn’t know what it was called or that it had a name. I started playing blues pretty much exclusively in 1969. So in 1969 I just turned the radio off. I don’t have any idea what was played on the radio as far as pop/rock until just recently I have heard some of what I missed. I did turn the radio back on in 1975 when I moved to Chicago, but I only listened to Big Bill Collins, Big Bill Hill, Jimmy Mitchell, Herb Kent, Purvis Spann, E. Rodney Jones, and guys like that, you know “grown folks music”
How long have you been playing drums now?
Well I started lessons in 1964, and I only started that late because it took me 3 years of begging to get my parents to believe that this is what I wanted to do. I knew I was a drummer as long as I can remember. I didn’t decide to be a musician I feel I was born one.
Do you play any other instruments as well?
Yeah, not real well, but I’ve played guitar since 1969 or 70. I also can play some bass and more recently some keyboards. I took a few lessons from Erwin Helfer in the mid 80’s. I have a Hammond organ in the studio. I’d really like to find the time to learn how to play it better. Occasionally I’ll lay down a guitar part or organ part on a track in the studio, and very few people know that I am really good at writing, arranging, and playing horn parts and string parts on the keyboard.
I understand you were raised on the west coast. How is it that you came to be interested in blues and R&B music?
I’ve been listening to blues as long as I can remember; I just didn’t know it was blues and R&B I heard on the radio. My dad had some old 78’s when I was a kid. I can remember when I was maybe 3 or 4 my 2 favorite records were Pinetop Smiths “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” and Pinetop Smiths “I’m sober now”. Later when I was in my early teens I’d take a little turntable up into the attic and play the 78’s for hours. The ones that were my favorites all turned out to be blues. Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, Pinetop Smith, Meade Lux Lewis, artists like that.
In 1969 a neighbor of a friend of mine who I had been in a band with, Jack Cook knocked on my door. I had met him very briefly before, and he once had given me a ride home from a band practice. He said he was interested in having me play drums with his new band and that they would be doing all blues. Even though I really wasn’t sure what blues was I agreed to be in the band. A few days later I went to his house and he played me some Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and other artists and I liked it very much. Several weeks later he found out that Albert Collins was playing an all city high school dance at his high school. He played me some Albert Collins records and I liked it but nothing could have prepared me for what hit us like an atomic bomb that night! Holy Shit!!! Albert tore the roof off the place. These high school kids had no idea what had hit them! I had no idea what hit me! And thanks to that night I’ve been hooked ever since. And thanks to Isaac Scott I became good friends with Albert in later years and up until his death. At one time when I was 19 yrs. old Albert tried to hire me to play some gigs with him in Canada, unfortunately I was under 21 and not able to take the gig.
You worked with Seattle blues icon the late Isaac Scott for a number of years, how did you meet Isaac?
I met Isaac though Jr. Earl. I guess Isaac had been living in the bay area and had just moved to Seattle. This would have been 1973 or early 74. Isaac showed up at at a Tom McFarland gig at the Bolder which was a really sleazy strip club on 1st and Pike, he asked to sit in and Jr. heard him and decided to put a band together with him. Jr. switched from harp to bass for the gig, I played drums and “The Isaac Scott Trio” was born. We played every sleazy ass low life bar downtown Seattle had to offer until I decided to move to Chicago in 1975.
You’ve been living in Chicago a long time now, how did the move to Chicago come about?
Yeah I’ve been here off and on for 36 yrs now. In Seattle I was playing underage in the clubs. The laws are really strict there, and although legally you can play if you are 18+ you have to have special papers filled out which of coarse I never did, so I kept getting busted! The catch 22 was if you needed to fill out the papers the club wouldn’t hire you, so I ducked it. I got tired of going to court for trying to make a living! All my musical idols at that point were from Chicago, I wanted to see them, meet them and learn from them, and the drinking age in Chicago was only 19 at the time so I was legal as well. In 1975 my mother told me that she and my dad were going to be getting a divorce, I just a said well that’s ok, I’m moving to Chicago anyway. I packed my bags and off I went.
Did you find it hard getting work when you first moved to Chicago?
It was hard but not as hard as it was in Seattle. I quickly made friends with bassist Ernest Johnson who helped me more than I could ever repay him for. It was very easy to get access to all my idols, they were all hanging at the clubs just like I was and everyone was very friendly and approachable. It was also very easy to sit it. In the black clubs all you have to do is walk in the door and you’ll be on stage before you now it!
The first year was somewhat slow but I still managed to work with Byther Smith, the Jimmy Walker Band with Billy Branch on harp, Hip Lankchan(later Linkchain), Mary Lane, Taildragger(with Hubert Sumlin on guitar), Big Red, Wild Child Butler and many more. Unfortunately I had no work skills to make a few extra dollars in the day time. I didn’t even have any idea how to get a job, so I ran out of money after being here for a year. I desperately tried to get on welfare, but I would have starved to death before the process was complete so I ended up moving back to Seattle for about 6 or 7 months, I got a job at the Goodwill store and went back to playing with the Isaac Scott Band. I saved my money like crazy. I bought a nice gold colored 1967 Cadillac Coupe Deville and returned to Chicago ridin’ in style. From then on things went really smoothly. I began working nearly every night of the week; of coarse it didn’t hurt that there were about 200 clubs that featured blues in the Chicago area at that time. I was turning down more gigs than I was working, there were some weeks I’d turn down 5 weekend gigs because I was already booked.
You are one of a handful of white guys who made his living playing primarily in the black clubs of the South and West side of Chicago, do you feel you were accepted?
Yeah, without a doubt, everybody just took me in. I became like one of the family. The only problems with race I’ve ever had were on the north side with the white club owners, record label owners, promoters and so-called blues scholars.
So I guess that explains why you never worked in the North side clubs that much.
Yeah, it does. I worked them a little bit but not to the extent I did the ghetto clubs. The white club owners here don’t want white faces on their bandstands. The other thing at least in the mid 70’s was that most white clubs only paid pass the hat or for the door. The black clubs always paid a guarantee, I needed to survive, I went with the guaranteed money, providing the promoter didn’t walk with it before you gig was over! (Laughs)
I see in the biography on your website that you have worked with some really big names in blues, and not just a few, almost everyone. How did that come about?
Well, at that time it was just like one big happy family. Everybody knew each other, and we were all just one huge pool of musicians to get hired from. It seems like when you are out there working as much as I was everybody wants to hire you. In down times when you’re not working, it seems like you can’t buy a gig.
I understand you worked quite a bit with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix’s idol Hubert Sumlin.
Yeah lots between 1975 and 1984. I had the house drummer gig for the Monday jam at the 1815 Club with Howlin’ Wolfs band minus Wolf every Monday afternoon from noon to 6pm. That is where I first started working with Hubert. I stayed on that gig until I found out that for some unknown reason Eddie Shaw wasn’t paying me and that Hubert was giving me his $7 pay. I couldn’t do that to Hubert so I quit!
When Wolf died Hubert worked with Taildragger for about 10 years. I would work with Dragger on my off days. He had a steady Thursday at David and Thelma’s on Lake Street and Sunday afternoons at Bowtie’s(The Golden Slipper). Hubert and or Willie James Lyons were the guitarists and Big Leon played harmonica. Hubert and I also used to work together with Little Wolf’s (Lee Solomon) band as well. I’ve probably done a couple hundred gigs with him. I’m glad to see he’s still alive and kickin’!
At one time in the late 70’s you had the most prestigious blues gig in Chicago, you were the house drummer at the legendary Theresa’s Lounge playing drums with the Jr. Wells band. How did you come to get that job?
Theresa’s was one of my favorite hangouts. If I had a night off that’s where I’d be, listening and learning. Nate Applewhite helped me a whole lot with my drumming and as I said earlier Ernest Johnson was one of my best friends and he was working there as well. At some point Nate got a gig on the road for a month or so. They needed a replacement drummer and Nate asked if I’d be interested in filling in for him. I’d have been a fool to turn down the gig with Jr. Wells!! Naturally I said yes but I wasn’t sure what Jr. was gonna say about it. Even though we were friends I thought he’d say no. Nate took me over to talk with Jr., he said Jr. I’m gonna be gone for a month and I’d like Twist to fill in for me. I was scared to death he’d say no, but Jr. just smiled, held out his hand to shake mine and said welcome aboard. From that point on I began filling in quite frequently for Nate, finally Nate left possibly to go with Magic Slims band and I took over on a permanent basis. It was a great gig because it was a steady 5 nights a week. Thursday through Monday, and for a short time myself, Ernest Johnson, Sammy Lawhorn and Louis Myers began working on Tue & Wed making it a 7 might a week gig! The only problem was the money was really low. Everybody else in the band was on welfare or disability so this was extra cash for them. After buying gas for the Caddy, replacing broken drum sticks and buying one beer a night I figured I was clearing about $3 per week! At one point I asked Jr. for a raise. I said Jr. I’m only clearing $3 a week, and he smiled and said “yeah but look who your playing with”!!! So from time to time I’d have to quit, work a day gig and come back when I had saved some money. I stayed working at Theresa’s for the better part of 2 years in 1977 and 78.
Who else was in the house band at Theresa’s at that time?
Ahhh, Sammy Lawhorn and John Primer on guitars, although originally when I joined it was John Watkins on guitar not John Primer. Ernest Johnson on bass and myself on drums. Then we’d have special guests open the show, which usually comprised of Muddy Waters Jr., Harmonica Hinds, Foree the SuperStar Montgomery and occasionally Mary Lane or Mojo Buford.
You also worked with Buddy Guy as well?
Yeah, but only for about a month 1978.
I understand you had the house gig at the Checkerboard.
Yeah, around ‘82 or ‘83 I was working with the 43rd st. Blues Band which was comprised of myself on drums, Murphy D. on bass and Sam Goode on guitar. We had a rotating cast of front men, which included Johnny Dollar, Pete Allen, Phil Guy and George Baze. We had a really fun gig at a place called “The Inn of the Rainbow” on 63rd St. owned by a pimp by the name of “John Shaft”. He used to put his girls out to work the streets right in front of the club!!!
How did you end up working with Jimmy Reed?
Well I only did one paid gig with him and he was just the special guest. Billy Branch and I had been hanging out with John Brim Jr. a lot, so we were hanging at John Brim Sr’s place all the time. John Brim Sr became a very good friend of mine. At the time John Brim and Floyd Jones were trying to get booked with Jimmy Reed as a front man. It actually was John Brim’s gig, which featured Jimmy Reed. This was very shortly before Jimmy died.
I see you worked with Little Milton as well.
Yeah, that was just a one-gig thing although he did try to hire me as his full time drummer. He was very vague on the pay, kinda like don’t worry I’ll take care of you but wouldn’t commit to anything definite. I was already totally broke because I’d just come off of one year on the road with Luther Guitar Jr. Johnson and Willie Kent, I just barely had a car. I think I had paid $100 for a broke down Chevy Nova and needed to know I was gonna make some cash, so I turned down the regular gig. We did do a really nice set together at Chicago Fest in 1981. Now I regret not taking the gig full time, but at that time I needed to survive so I did what I had to do.
You used to hang out at Florence’s on 55th and Sheilds a lot as well?
Yeah, I loved that place! It was really rough though, the first time I went in there they had a shooting. One of those places where you don’t get out of your car unless you knew someone on the street, and this was an afternoon thing! Always a crap game or two out front, and I’ll never for get the bathroom!! You’d go to take a piss and there’d be and inch of piss on the floor, 3 people pissin’ in the same toilet at the same time and 2 pissin’ in the sink!!! I saw some of the rawest best blues I’ve heard in Chicago in there. This club was the closest thing to a Mississippi Juke Joint Chicago ever had! Magic Slim, Joe Carter, Houndog Taylor, Baby Duck, LV Banks, Lefty Dizz, Ike Jordan, Johnny Guitar Embry, Louis Myers, just so many greats. One night at Florence’s was like the best blues festival in the world over an over again every Sunday afternoon! I still miss that place, which is now just an empty lot.
Did you ever go to the old Maxwell Street?
Did I ever go? How does every Sunday morning sound? Even in the winter I went. They’d be burning wood in 55-gallon drums to keep warm, but people would be out sellin’ stuff. I liked the summers much better though. That’s when they had music on almost every corner. I used to sit in with the bands down there when I first moved to Chicago. And you never knew who you’d run into down there.
Who were some of the artists you saw playing on Maxwell Street, do you remember?
Yeah, I hope so. Walter Horton, Arvella Gray, LV Banks, John Henry Davis, Pat Rushing, Little Arthur King, Riler Robinson, Willie Monroe, PorkChops, Blind Jim Brewer, Maxwell St. Jimmy, The Muck Muck Man and so many more.
Most musicians seemed to stick to working either on the Southside or the West side. You worked equally as much on both sides. What do you think are the differences between working on the Southside as opposed to the Westside?
It’s like two different worlds, which rarely ever co-mingle. First of all, the west side is a lot rougher in general although there are really bad pockets on the Southside as well. Even though it is rougher, once you are in a club and off the street you’ll find it’s usually friendlier. The musicians on the West Side are generally not as refined players, so the music has a little rawer edge to it. On the Southside the musicians are a little more sophisticated, they can play more than just a strait 1-4-5, and I think as a whole the South Siders are better educated and not quite as poor as the West Siders.
At some point you decided to leave Chicago, when and why did that come about, and were did you go?
Yeah, that was in 1984. I’d been working my ass off in Chicago but wanted to get some recognition on my own. I cut an Lp, you know those big antique 12” vinyl things your parents used to listen too!(Laughs) for Blues King Records were I was not only drumming but singing as well. I was doing material that I had written (except for one cover tune). I was having a hard time finding anyone that would even let me even sing one song, so with a new Lp out I decided it was time to make a change and see if I could do something on my own.
A friend of mine from Seattle had moved to New Orleans and he suggested that it would be a good place for me to move too, so I packed my truck and headed to Louisiana. I’d never even been there before, I only knew him and no one else and had no idea that everyone down there is given drumsticks at birth and is a bad MOFO on drums. That turned out to be not so good of a move. The musicians there were definitely not as friendly as in Chicago, and it was a really hard scene to break into. I only did one gig as a sideman with a band called Paula and the Pontiacs.
I was able to round up 2 world-class musicians who would do gigs with me if I could get any. I had secured Wayne Bennett who had been Bobby Bland’s longtime guitarist, and George Porter of the Meters on bass. Unfortunately I could not get one single club to book me and within 4 or 5 months I had run out of money. At this point not wanting to return to Chicago, I decided to drive out to Seattle and stay in my dads basement, work some gigs and figure out what to do from there once I got some money together.
I arrived back in Seattle just before Christmas in 1984, my truck was on its last legs but I made it. I decided to try my hand at fronting my own band there. This worked out pretty good, I was able to work 2 or 3 nights a week, and hone my front man skills…….but Seattle is a wet, dreary depressing place on a good day. I had to get outta there before the weather drove me nuts and I sunk deep into depression. In the fall of 1986 I packed my bags, hopped in the maroon 1969 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham I had just purchased and headed to Oakland, CA.
What was the blues scene like in the Bay Area at that time?
It was a pretty strong scene, and there were lots of places to play. Oakland had a really nice little blues scene going that reminded me of Chicago just smaller, then there was a whole other thing in San Francisco, Marin County, San Jose, Sacramento, and lots of clubs to play in all the little former gold mining towns. I really like the weather out there, very summer like 9 months out of the year, and very mild winters rarely if ever does it reach freezing there.
I only left the Bay Area because I felt so isolated from what was going on musically in the rest of the country. I thought they had quit making southern soul records! I couldn’t hear the music I liked anywhere out there. Thankfully the Internet has changed all that now and I’d really like to move back there again in the next few years.
Who are some of the artists you worked with in Calif?
Like in Chicago I worked with so many. Luther Tucker, Freddie Roulette, Deacon Jones, Jimmy McCracklin, Birdlegg and Country Pete McGill, Sonny Rhodes, Johnny Nitro, Guitar Gable, Andrew Jefferies and so many more. I also fronted my own band during the 5 + years that I lived there.
When did you move back to Chicago again?
Did you find the scene had changed and that people remembered you after being gone for 7 years?
Yes, everybody remembered me that was still around, but the scene had changed dramatically. A lot of the guys I used to work with just disappeared. I don’t know where they are even today. There were a lot of new guys on the scene as well.
I was fortunate to get my gig back with Little Arthur Duncan pretty much right away. I had worked with him off and on in the 70’s and 80’s. I stayed working with Arthur until he died in 2008. I worked with him off and on for over 31 years! Other than that work was very slow, there’s not nearly as many clubs as there once were and there are more people fighting over the same 2 or 3 gigs now.
Since you’ve returned to Chicago you’ve done a lot of recording work.
Yeah, some of that comes from things I learned in California. I went out there and had worked with every damn body but I had no proof. I only had 1 or 2 pictures showing me working with anyone, and only a couple records. I learned it was really important to get on the records, get photos you know? So I got hired on a lot of sessions. You can play a million gigs in these little clubs and without some kind of record of it, in 5 or 6 years no one will know or care.
I see you’ve recorded with the legendary producer/R&B artist Andre’ Williams along with former Rolling Stones member Dick Taylor on guitar. How did that come about?
Yeah, those sessions were a lot of fun. George Paulas who I had been working for as a session drummer set that up. In addition to writing “Shake a Tailfeather” which was featured in the Blues Brothers movie, Andre has produced so many great records and artists over the years, everyone from Bobby Bland, Ike and Tina Turner, Ted Taylor the Temptations and so many more. I’ve seriously never seen anyone produce as well in the studio. It was just amazing to watch him get what he wanted out of everyone.
What about Dick Taylor how did he get involved?
Dick was an original member of the Rolling Stones, he was in the band when it was just him and Mick. Unfortunately for him he decided to go to art school and left the band just before they got signed to a major label contract and the rest is history.
After leaving the Stones he joined the Pretty Things and he still works with them today. Producer George Paulas got in touch with Dick and flew him in from England to do the sessions with us. He also joined us in Utrecht, Holland to play guitar with Andre and the Eldorado’s at the Blues Estafette.
So if you are not working as much what do you do to keep yourself busy?
I’m still really busy behind the scenes. Every once in a while I do an occasional trip to Europe playing. I play on several CD’s per year. I also have a recording studio and spend most of my time in there working on writing and producing. I’ve had songs recorded by Lee Shot Williams, Shirley Johnson, Maurice John Vaughn, ZZ Hill Jr. and others. Otis Clay recently recorded one as well and I hope it is issued soon.
I also have been getting songs licensed and placed in TV shows and commercials, so I spend the majority of my time working on that. I can make as much money with one song as I can producing a whole CD for a label! And the money comes in like clockwork!
I am also currently playing drums with my long time friend Sammy Fender.
I have also recently gotten interested in Photography again and have been going out to clubs photographing different artists.
If anyone is interested in getting in contact with you how can they do it?
Just go to http://www.twistturner.com you can email me from there.