From the prairies of Saskatchewan to the stages of the world, sharing his talent with some of the greatest and most influential musicians of all time, Colin James is one of Canada’s
greatest musicians. The bluesman headlines the 2018 edition of Bluesfest Windsor on Friday, July 13.
He released his first album “Colin James” in 1988 featuring the hits Voodoo Thing, Why’d you lie? and Five Long Years.
After his initial success, he followed with albums “Sudden Stop”(1990), “Colin James and the Little Big Band”(1993), and “Bad Habits”(1995). “Sudden Stop” earned Colin two Juno awards for Single of the Year (Just Came Back’ and Male Vocalist of the Year. In 1998, he received another win for best Blues Album (“National Steel”(1997)), which was his fifth win at the Juno awards.
His latest album Blue Highways pays tribute to some of his longtime blues idols including Howlin’ Wolf, Freddie King, Jr. Wells & Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson and William Bell to
name a few.
Colin sat down for a few moments with YQG Rocks and 519 Magazine to look back at his career and a little of what lies ahead, including his next album “Miles To Go”.
Has it really been 30 years since your debut album?
Well it was in ‘88 and my first single came out, I think before that, which was “Five Long Years” which was extended EP. So I think yeah, it has been.
Are you going to do anything special to celebrate?
No not really, I’ll just be out there working.
What do you remember from that recording of that first album?
Well there are two different things that happened. The extended EP that I did, that was with Bob Rock. So that was the first time I really got in with a serious producer. You know of course Bob ended up doing all records for Bon Jovi and everybody, so I remember us being young and eager. I was 20 – I think I was around 20 – and it was kind of a big deal working with him, even though I hadn’t been signed to a major label yet. We started getting some airplay in Seattle and Vancouver just by hand delivering the EP’s to other people and then it wasn’t all that long after that that I got signed to my first American record deal.
Do you feel you’ve changed since all that?
Oh my god, so much. But you know back then, I think you know when you’re starting out you, you emulate other singers that you love and you could probably emulate too much and you don’t just be comfortable in your own voice and I think I hear those early records and I sound so hot my voice is so high. I just think I grew in to be a better singer over the years. I think you know in the initial days I was kind of a guitar player. And then as time went by singing became much more important to me.
When you do some of those early songs these days, does it still bring up emotions when you play them?
Well, sure. You know, you’re always, through your whole career you’re always like… ahhh. There’s been times when I won’t play some of the old stuff – some times in my life where I wasn’t enthused and I’m not playing it anymore. You know I think I went through a few years where I would refuse. When I was doing the Little Big Band Records of course I didn’t have to do it because we were doing a whole other thing. Lately, at the end of the day you realize at how lucky you are to connect with a song in a big way with people. I think, as time goes on you realize how lucky you were to get songs like, “Just Came Back” or “Voodoo Thing” or “Keep On Loving Me Baby”, that really connected with people so you know you end up being kind of less weird about it as time goes by. You kind of think… ahhh, why not and you do it and you try to enjoy it.
You’re going to be here in Windsor for the BluesFest in July. Is that set going to be a little bit more rock or is it going to be more blues focused.
It’ll probably be more blues focused, being that I’ve just done two blues records in a row. But, I’ve always had one foot in the blues all my life. Right now, you know, we’re starting to do a few more of those blues cruises in America and some of those big boats that go out of Fort Lauderdale and down into Puerto Rico and back. We always try to mix it up though. In fact, there is a new record is coming out in the fall. In September we have a new blues record coming out and kind of like kind of like Blue Highway. It will be along that same lines. I have three original three on the record but again it’s a pretty traditional blues record. And it’s kind of been fun, you know through all these years of knowing that I love the blues myself but still having to perform on rock radio and get song on the radio there was always a bit of a fight there between the blues and the rock thing. For someone like me now there’s really there is no more rock radio. As you know, classic rock has really shut down and they just play recurrent songs – including me. They play my old songs but they won’t play my new songs. You know what I mean – it kind of shows. So for me I’ll do a bit of everything. This is my 20th record coming out in the fall. So we always given a nod to all the records over the years because a lot of them had enough Blues in them and I could do it. The nice thing about having that many records under your belt is you can call a song that you haven’t played for five shows in a row and call it out of the blue and that’s fun. It keeps everyone on their toes.
You’ve recorded a lot of the covers like Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson early your career. How did you choose which blues classics to play.
I’ve had favorites that I’ve always carried with me over the years. I’ve already done three Little Big Band records, done maybe three full scale blues records now and a lot of the songs that I loved I’ve done. So it becomes a rarer commodity to find songs – now I have to dig a little On this new one which is going to be called “Miles To Go” no one knows that yet, so you get a scoop on this new one. Basically, we recorded a lot of material on this last one. So on Blue Highways, I think we recorded 30 songs and we narrowed it down to 12. On this new one we did the same thing – recorded about 25 and then narrowed it down because sometimes you might love a song, but it might not fit your voice. But occasionally you get that sweet spot where a song works with your voice, your thing, and then you always know what that is.
So my personal favorite stuff that you’ve done is that the big band tunes. Is there something about that style of music that works for you? How did you first stumble into that?
You know I really have to thank other people for pointing me in the right direction, when I was about 17 or 18. I lived in Winnipeg and there was somebody that said, “You got to come to my house and listen to this record”. And they sat me down and they made me listen to Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Roy Brown and Jackie Wilson. Well Jackie, I may have discovered on my own, but Rosco Gordan was a huge part of my Little Big Band records because I kind of fell in love with his delivery. I‘d really have to thank other people for pointing me because they weren’t that obvious to me. They weren’t the guys like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but these guys like Rosco Gordon were kind of under the radar and I really needed people to show me. In 1993 when the first Little Big Band came out, it was a chance for me to show that I really had a connection with that music without worrying about the commercialism of it. And ironically, it did almost better than any other record I’ve ever done. Often when you’re not looking for the obvious and you’re really just trying to reaffirm your love of something, that’s when the magic happens.
My husband (519 Magazine Editor Dan Savoie) saw the first Big Band tour and still talks about how you announced on stage that if you’re here for Five Long Years or Just Came Back, you’re at the wrong show. That was pretty ballsy to do, especially that early in your career. He absolutely loved that that tour.
Well, I had to on that tour because I had all these American horn players that were really prestigious. They were maybe the finest swing/horn section in the world, you know. I had Chuck Leavell, from the Stones on keys and it was a real chance for me to dive right in. And I’m still proud; I’ll still play the blues thing with a smile on my face. I love “Keep on Loving you Baby”, that song, that’s a Willie Dixon song. I mean I’ll never have a problem playing that song. But I think it was a chance for me to say this is not going to be the same old thing. It’s going to be me trying to stretch out a little bit.
Saskatchewan’s a huge part of my life I grew up there. Is it still a big part of your life?
Not in a day to day way because I left there pretty early. I left when I was 16. I moved to Winnipeg. I never really lived in Regina again and I ended up in Montreal for a while. That’s when I came back, and then I moved to Vancouver in 1984. When I go there, you know there’s a certain amount of sentimentality because you know some people, but the thing about Regina and what it did for me was, I was about the only one or two that played blues in the city when I was 16 years old. And I firmly believe that if had I been somewhere else I might not have had those opportunities open up for John Lee Hooker when I was 16. There was something about being the only one of two blues bands in Regina, Saskatchewan that gave me a sense of individuality. That I kind of carried with me, so I carry that with me, but I ‘m a Vancouverite now and I’ve lived there a long time.
I’ve been to Vancouver and it’s beautiful, but I have to say that you never lived until you’ve spent a winter in Saskatchewan or Manitoba.
Yeah that’s for sure. You know I had an amazing experience growing up in Regina. I remember some of those mornings on the prairies at 5:00 in the morning when you haven’t gone to bed yet and you look at the birds or you’re out in the prairies. I mean it’s gorgeous – it’s got to be. I know I was lucky enough to go across the Prairies on the food bank tour on the train and I got to see Saskatchewan by train and it’s gorgeous.
You were also on the set of Corner Gas, that must been really cool.
That was cool. You know Janet Wright, who played Brent Butt’s mom on the show, directed me in theatre. I did a bit of theatre when I was about 20. I did about a year of live theatre and she was my director on her show back then. So, that was cool to see her again. That was great.
So this summer it looks like you’re doing, Festivals. Is it a bit of a break for you?
Well you know we tour every two years, we go across the country and elsewhere. The new record is coming out September and I think we’ll tour the new record in the New Year. Summer is a great time to be on the road. Like last summer, I played two or three shows with Buddy Guy. Beautiful outdoor places, and it’s a great vibe. It’s nice to be outside and play in some of those beautiful summer festivals like Bluesfest in Windsor.