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But it took years before Clapton felt comfortable broaching the subject with Johnson's friend Muddy Waters. Clapton knew that many blues pioneers consider it an insult to be continually asked about their peers. After all, Johnson's traveling companion Johnny Shines was dogged throughout his career by so many questions about Johnson that his own considerable talents were largely overlooked.
That's why it's remarkable to hear Louisiana Red talk about his half-century as a working blues musician. The Alabama-born Red, who's lived in Germany since 1983, can barely contain his enthusiasm when he talks about his encounters over the years with other legendary blues artists. Ask him about his own career, and he'll find a way to steer the conversation back to the bluesmen who inspired him, sounding more like an awestruck fan than the legitimately important musical figure that he is.
Recalling his first meeting with B.B. King, Red unabashedly gushes, "I couldn't believe that I had met such a great man." Remembering his first encounter with Lightnin' Hopkins, Red proudly recounts Hopkins saying, "I know who you are, you're the kid who plays just like me."
Red's willingness to place the emphasis on his influences, rather than on himself, is a defining characteristic of his music. He prided himself on closely studying the techniques of people such as King, Hopkins, Waters and Lowell Fulson, and when people told him he played guitar like one of them, he wore the comparisons like a badge of honor.
While the world is filled with journeymen musicians who delude themselves by thinking they're something more, Red is an artist who could claim more for himself (Rod Stewart, for one, has said that Red and Woody Guthrie were his two biggest early inspirations), but he happily accepts the journeyman role.
Consider the song "Red's Vision." In the middle of a slow, harmonica-driven track that recalls Waters' "Mannish Boy," Red tips his hat to his heroes: "Then I saw Muddy Waters/And Lightnin' too/And they told me/Keep on playin' the blues." Another Red classic, "The Day I Met B.B. King," not only expresses his joy at meeting one of his idols, but also delivers an eloquently stinging guitar solo that can be interpreted only as a King homage.
But for all his attempts to place himself in the shadows of the blues pantheon, Red has gradually emerged as a major figure, simply because he's one of the rare living bluesmen who has the kind of authentic command that comes only from watching the masters and trading licks with them -- a deep understanding of the music that can't be obtained from merely listening to records.
As Red comes to the phone to talk about his career, he admits to feeling exhausted. It's nearly 10 p.m. in Germany, and he and his wife Dora have just returned to their hometown of Hanover -- close to Hamburg -- after spending two weeks touring Greece. The Greek trek is an annual working vacation for Red, who uses the occasion to play some gigs and celebrate his birthday at the same time. This year, on March 23, he celebrated his 70th.
Red landed in Germany 19 years ago, when his friend Champion Jack Dupree suggested that he might have more luck playing the blues in Europe than in America. Like many blues veterans at the time, Red was struggling to make a living in the States.
"[Dupree] was the one who got me my first apartment over here, and I decided to stay on over and see if I could make a career for myself over here. And it worked out good," Red says in a Southern accent that's surprising coming from someone who hasn't lived in the South for nearly 60 years. "At first, it was kinda hard. I couldn't understand. I didn't even know where to catch my train for the jobs I had to go to. But I began to learn, and it worked out okay. And there's a very heavy audience for the blues over here."
Red's easy graciousness and warmth belie a tortured personal history that would sound like a monstrous caricature if someone turned it into a blues song. He was born Iverson Minter in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1932. His mother died shortly after he was born, and his father was killed by a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob when Iverson was only 5 years old.
"I'll never forget that," he says. "My grandmother got a telegram that my father was dead, that it was the Klan that did it. That grew up in me, and I hated white folks for years after that.
"My aunt put me in an orphanage home, and I grew up in the orphanage and started to get away from that [mentality]. I started to see that we're all like brothers. And I went into the Army, and we all were together, and I said, 'I shouldn't have this in me like this.' That's why when I see things on the news about the Palestinians and Israel, I think, 'They should be like brothers and not kill one another.' I just matured as I got older."
After Red got out of the orphanage, he lived with his grandmother in Pittsburgh. During this period, he says the husband of one of his aunts pummeled him constantly. Red attempted to run away, but the police quickly tracked him down. When he returned, he says his aunts would routinely instruct their boyfriends to beat him up. His only refuge was to go up on the roof with his guitar and play the blues.
Red learned from anyone who could show him a new technique or tuning, whether it was an obscure Pittsburgh street musician or a living legend such as Waters. The two men met after Red played a song over the phone for Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess. The record impresario sent him fare for a bus ticket to Chicago.
"When I got there, I asked Leonard Chess where I was staying, and they said Muddy would be by in 15 minutes, that I'd be staying at Muddy's house," Red recalls. "I couldn't believe it. He took me out to the Zanzibar, where he played, and I asked him all kinds of questions, like what did he use for a slide, and he showed me. He took me with him, and that's where I met Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter. It was something."
Recording for a variety of labels under pseudonyms such as Rocky Fuller, Crying Red and Playboy Fuller, he eventually settled on Louisiana Red, a nickname friends had given him because of his love of hot sauce. Aside from a million-selling topical 1962 side called "Red's Dream," which placed the Cuban Missile Crisis in 12-bar blues form (with Red unleashing his own brand of six-string diplomacy on Nikita Khrushchev: "Get that junk out of Cuba/Before you make me mad"), Red's records received little stateside attention over the years.
In a way, he's probably been handicapped by his greatest asset: his astonishing versatility. Because he can effortlessly leap from smooth B.B. King lyricism to raw slide-guitar rave-ups and acoustic Delta-blues showcases, he hasn't necessarily put the kind of unmistakable stylistic stamp on his work that many of his heroes have. After all, Red is so open to musical ideas that he's even picked up alternate guitar tunings from bandmates of Nigerian icon King Sunny Ade.
But since Red moved to Germany, appreciation for him has grown; his continued vitality makes him a touchstone for a brand of authenticity that's always in danger of extinction. In 2000 alone, he was nominated for four W.C. Handy Awards for his Millennium Blues album on the Earwig label.
One of Red's trademarks has been a willingness to adapt news events to the blues form, whether it's Kosovo, Ethiopian famine, or the Oklahoma City bombing. In the early '80s, he slammed America's swing to the right with songs like "Reagan Is for the Rich Man" and "Anti-Nuclear Blues." But when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred, he found himself lost for words.
"I didn't believe it was happening," he says. "I thought it was a movie. I called my wife and said, 'Honey, look at this film. They're blowing up the World Trade Center.' Then I looked down and saw, 'CNN News.' I said, 'My goodness, this is for real.' It shocked me, it hurt me really hard, all those people perishing for nothing. It was too sad, I couldn't write anything about it."
If the September 11 attacks were too tragic for him to convey in song, Red nonetheless sees himself as a kind of international missionary, singing about his own pain so that others can be relieved of theirs.
"Those people in Afghanistan, they're living the blues," he says. "Those people in Israel, they're living the blues. For me, it's about sharing my suffering with the world so they can feel it."