STEVE JAMES: THE POWER OF MUSIC
Nearly 77 years ago, musical history was made in a room on the fourth floor of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. Robert Johnson’s recordings on Nov. 23, 1936, were a defining moment that continue to influence musicians around the world.
On Saturday, Nov. 9, one of the many artists who has been inspired by Johnson will take the stage at Sam’s Burger Joint and Music Hall. Steve James headlines the Robert Johnson SA Sessions, an annual homage to the groundbreaking performer, sponsored by the San Antonio Blues Society.
James is a talented instrumentalist, composer and performer who has been playing guitar since he was a young teen-ager. Now 63, he also performed at the first Robert Johnson Sessions in 2001. If you’ve seen him perform before, you can expect more of the same … only better.
“I’m playing the same way I did when I was 15 years old. I just do it better. Life is kind of a path, so I’m still on the same path,” James recently said in a phone interview.
“Things change on an organic level so I haven’t consciously made any changes as far as musicality goes. I just try to get better at it and … put myself in the way of new experiences.”
James’ fascination with American roots music started early on. As a fledgling guitar player, he said he heard some incredible music and same some amazing people that inspired him.
“I think about these things that I have experienced and realize there was a privilege and a power there. The first music I ever remember hearing besides my grandmother singing, ‘Yes, we have no bananas,’ was Lead Belly and Josh White and swing jazz. That’s the kind of music we had around the house. I was raised on it.”
That music influences him to this day.
“When I was a kid, the first person I ever heard play the guitar where I said, ‘That’s it, I want to sound like that,’ was Mississippi John Hurt. And all these many years later, and it’s been over 50 years since I started playing guitar, I still put on those records and it still has that same kind of power; it’s like the first time I ever heard it.”
When James speaks of Johnson, you can hear the reverence in his voice.
“When you think of Robert Johnson in a contemporary sense it’s hard not to think about Eric Clapton. He has so much to do with making people aware of Johnson that might not have otherwise known of him, or others that weren’t mainstream like he was. His career has been multifaceted and he’s been around a long time but I read an interview with him and he said, ‘This stuff is like a battery for me. I go back to it to get recharged.’”
James said the first time he heard Johnson was in the early 1960s, not long after “King of the Delta Blues Singers” came out on Columbia. He had played the album earlier in the day before the interview.
“When I dropped the needle on it today there it was – that same experience and that same power. When it comes to this time of year I often think of him because like a lot of people who have visited San Antonio or live there, it’s possible to walk where he walked and see some of the things he saw when he came here in November 1936 to make that first recording session. I like to imagine what Nov. 23 was like for him.
“And you can hear it in the wax,” James continued. “Don Law, who produced those sessions, he said he was impressed by how well-prepared the guy was. That obviously, he knew what he wanted to do and he had rehearsed his material. You can see by the astounding amount of stuff he cut just the first day. They did a couple of takes on some of the stuff but the signature tunes, he did them once. You can hear that kind of authority in what he’s doing. Too bad his life was too short.”
James said he had recently played a blues festival in Greenwood, Miss., an area where Johnson had spent a lot of time during the ‘30s. He died near there as well.
“I was imagining him coming here from Greenwood, which is the cotton capital of Mississippi and they still have the sign there that says that. It’s not a big town the way San Antonio was in 1936,” James said.
“The city was all decorated for Christmas, you know, Commerce Street, and seeing all the neon signs and everything and then walking over from St. Paul Square where he was staying.
“There was actually a car dealership downtown that Robert Johnson would have walked by on his way from the east side to his recording session at the Gunter,” James explained. “And the week he was there the display in the window was a deluxe Hudson Terraplane. I saw the ad in the San Antonio paper. I read the newspapers from that week and there’s a big giant ad. You can just imagine Robert walking by there with his guitar going like, ‘Yeah, some day…’”
James said he doesn’t ordinarily perform Johnson's music because he considers it to be a bit of a Pandora’s Box.
“People’s orientation with that material is, in a lot of ways, well, they just learn about it from pop music. So if you play a Robert Johnson song, the next thing they’ll do is ask you to play ‘Layla.’ But on Nov. 9 when I play at Sam’s, I’ll perform at least a couple from Robert Johnson. He was a great musician and certainly had no shortage of good songs.”
Music has taken James all over the world and afforded him opportunities as an arts envoy and musical ambassador.
“I have worked with the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria, Finland and Guatemala. I keep my hand in there and really enjoy that kind of work. It’s been quite a privilege for me to play in schools and do workshops at colleges. I never even went to college and there I was, teaching music at colleges. And then playing concerts all over the place. That’s life on the road. You never know what’s going to come up.”
James said he feels fortunate to be able to be part of what is often considered America’s most revered and valuable export – its music.
“It’s kind of fashionable right now to bash Americans but when I strap on my guitar all bets are off. I’ve had a lot of good experiences that way and my guitar’s been my ticket.”
James likes to keep his life as uncomplicated as possible.
“I have a chalkboard in my house and one side says ‘Call’ and the other one says ‘Do.’ I just write stuff up there in chalk. On the ‘Do’ list the very first thing stays there. It’s a reminder – ‘Practice first.’ So I try to remind myself when I get up in the morning before I get on the computer or answer the phone or go to the post office, I remember to pick up the mandolin or the guitar and play for a while. That’s my little bucket list here at the house.
“But as far as places I want to go and things I want to do, I have a couple of projects that I’m working on right now. I’m working on a film soundtrack that sort of came my way. I try not to make my own list because I found that actually life makes it for me anyway. There’s no need for me to make a list of what I want to do. They just show up.”
The San Antonio Blues Society presents the Robert Johnson SA Sessions on Saturday, Nov. 9, at Sam’s Burger Joint and Music Hall. Doors open at 7. Steve James headlines the show, with opening acts the SABS Blue Yutes and The Texas Terraplanes. You can buy tickets in advance for $12 or $15 at the door.