By CHRISTA MORLETTI MCINTYRE // Part II of an exclusive and in-depth interview with Blues legend, drummer Tony Coleman, who was the spine of BB King's band for 29 years and has played with the best Soul and Blues legends.
This is part II of an exclusive interview with Tony "TC" Coleman. Read part I here.
Tony “TC” Coleman has been playing drums his whole life. He's been a professional drummer since the 1970's, playing gigs around the world in 98 countries, backing Blues and Soul legends. He's played with Otis Clay, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King, Tyrone Davis, Irma Thomas, Etta James and Ike Turner. Tony Coleman was Blues guitarist BB King's main beats man for 29 years.
Tony Coleman's style is well rounded, charged and precise. He was born in the deep South, Kissimee, Florida, which today is still a small town. After serving in the military, he moved to Chicago and through the Windy City's deep culture of Blues music, entered into and became one of the world's great roots Blues drummers. He's always on the go: touring with his band, recording in Nashville, partner in a Portland based production studio called 12 Media Music and being the music director of BB King's Blues Clubs and Cruises. Tony Coleman will play Portland next at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Fest this July 1st backing Christone "Kingfish" Ingram.
Tony Coleman spent 5 hours talking to me about his life, music and how he became the best roots Blues drummer today. Over his decades long career he's granted many interviews and most begin about how Tony Coleman has a lot to say, a story and history about the Blues to share full of his own perceptions and opinions about the times and music. While, interviewers acknowledged Tony Coleman's place in Blues history and willingness to speak, they never gave him the room to speak freely, to be himself. In a 2 part exclusive interview, Tony shared his life as and with the Blues, uncensored and direct. His voice is deep and on point, but he breaks out into a sunny laughter often. He loves to sing and some of the time, he illustrates his feelings with a song: one he just wrote on the spot or a classic we dig when it comes on the radio.
Tony Coleman's opinions about the Blues are rooted deep not just in Black culture, but a universal truth in art making: You cannot break the rules, until you have mastered them. Sit down, take some time and here's more than an interview, but an honest reflection on American culture.
A long time ago I was traveling through South Carolina. My nickname when I was a teenager was Patches. We drove by this old barn and there was an A-board sign out front and it said: Tonight: Clarence Carter $5. My god, I was crying tears, I just couldn't believe it was happening. People don't realize the Chitlin' Circuit is still around, it's still alive.
People are playing real and hard and they're putting out compilations. Does that circuit influence bigger name acts like you? Do you guys have a kind of dialogue between each other?
In what way?
These guys are putting out phenomenal music and they're making music for the people. But, its not on the radar for popular media. You're a big name act. Do you guys have a correspondence, do you talk to each other, do you influence each other?
I'm inspired and influenced by everything I hear. Anybody, it doesn't matter what class you're in. Whether you're an A class, B class or C class. Everybody's in the same class, as far as music goes. People make decisions on whether you're acceptable or not. I've had to live my life not being treated with respect and with the same attitude as others. So I know how it feels and BB had it worse than me. I guess I was stupid enough or crazy enough to not give a shit and not accept it. Whereas BB felt like he had to, 'cause he would've got murdered. He would've got burned alive, he would've got hung. My attitude conveys some of my spirit. My spirit, your spirit is what makes you, it's your core.
My spirit says: “Fuck it. Kill me? I ain't taking that shit. I ain't gonna take it and I'm not scared. Maybe you want to treat me like that, you got the wrong one. You better get to killing me, 'cause I'm not going to tolerate it.” You know that “Yes, sir, bossman” and all that bullshit. I'm equal to every man. I don't care who you are, I'm equal to you and you're equal to me. But, it's how you treat people and the way you expect people to be treated, is what makes you the person you are.
I can't sit back and allow somebody to piss on me and you tell me it's raining, I'm not going to do that. When I see cats who play music, whether they're riding around in million-dollar tour buses or they're riding around in cars and vans. If they're playing music, I respect you, but you know everybody doesn't feel that way. Some people like to feel like: “I'm important. I'm better than you are.” Generally, musicians don't do that. Not real musicians, only the asshole musicians.
I read a number of interviews were you took down Eric Clapton and you came up with the idea of Ponytail Blues.
Here's why I say, what I said. I can't make you like something you don't like. If you don't like spinach, I can't make you eat it. I can say what I said, because you have the right to like or dislike me. I don't care, just respect me. I don't have to like you, to respect you. In Eric Clapton's case, for me personally, I personally don't like Eric Clapton and that's my personal right. It doesn't matter to him whether I like him or not, he's still a hundredmilliondollaraire. For me to say I don't like Eric Clapton, ain't shit to Eric Clapton. He don't need Tony Coleman and Tony Coleman don't need him.
I have played with BB King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, Etta James and the list and goes on and on and on. These people are the roots of Blues music in my lifetime. What would make you think I put Eric Clapton on the same level as those people? But me, personally, I don't like his guitar playing. He don't impress me. Now some people would try and say I'm being reverse racist, which is a bunch of bullshit, because I have tons of White guitar players I like to listen to. I know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad. I can tell you some of the White guitar players I listen to and I feel what they're doing. Because the Blues is supposed to be played with a sense of purpose and not played on the surface. For instance, Jimmy Vaughn grew up in Texas, playing with Freddie King. He grew up around those Black folks and his guitar playing had soul in it, it doesn't haven't bullshit. His little brother Stevie listened to him. He would could plug that amp up to his guitar and he could play the shit out of the Blues.
Bonnie Rait is serious, that's who she is, she's not trying to look sexy, half her boobs hanging out, her dress half above her butt cheeks. She's a classy, soulful lady. She understands it and plays it for real, because that's who she is. She's not a pretender. Janis Joplin. I was like whooo, boy. She sounded like a white girl in a Black church sanctified by the Holy Ghost. She doesn't have to pretend, she was doing what came natural to her. Delbert McClinton, when I hear him singing, he's not pretending, he's got the Blues within him. The list goes on and go. Rick Estrin is a cool Blues cat, he grew up around it, he represents the cool Blues cats, he's a natural with it. You can tell the difference. I've got tons of White friends who can play the Blues because they feel it, they understand it and they take the time to do it right. I just hate phoney people who only feel comfortable around a Black person when he's shining their shoes or bringing them something to eat.
It's one thing to say it, but it's another thing to go down to Missiissppi or any Juke Joint and feel comfortable around the people, where it came from and get some barbeque sauce on your hands. I only respect people who walk the walk, not just talk the talk. And they know who they are.
This has been controversial since the '60's, where people like Eric Clapton have cut out roots artists like you and made a huge profit.
My attitude is this: I challenge anybody to change my mind about Eric Clapton. Whatever we say on this interview is going to be here forever. People can google it. I'm not afraid of telling the truth, the way I feel and what I've experienced. It's based on me, it ain't based on you. Here's my point, when BB King and all those guys and Little Richard... these people are doing Black music. Eric Clapton was doing White Rock music, which I love some of it. I like Layla, I like White Room.
I like Eric Clapton playing what he was playing. Eric Clapton got tired of White Rock music and he's inspired by Albert King. He started listening to BB King. Now Eric Clapton liked that and he thought you know what? I'm going to start playing the Blues. Now all of the sudden, Eric Clapton is richer and more famous than BB King, Albert King, Elmore James, anybody who played the Blues. You've got to teach people to play the ingredients. He's playing from the surface. He ain't playing deep from the pain from what those people went through to play like that. But, he's considered one of the top Blues people? That's bullshit. He's flying around. He's successful. He's made hundreds of millions of dollars. BB King was running around in airport shuttle vans and he was BB King. He wasn't making that kind of money. I don't appreciate the fact that someone can imitate and emulate someone and become more successful than them doing their craft.
Why do you think that is? Why is someone like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eric Clapton making an enormous amount of money, when it's not the real deal?
Stevie Ray Vaughn was the real deal. There's a difference. Stevie Ray had it in his soul for real. He started out doing it because it was in his soul. Him and Jimmy Vaughn, 'cause he liked the Blues and that's what he heard. I heard Stevie Ray Vaughn say to Albert King: “Everything I learned about the Blues, this man taught me.” Then Albert King grabbed the mic and said: “I taught you everything you know about the Blues, but I didn't teach you everything I know about the Blues.” Stevie Ray Vaughn was hangin' out with Black people, eating barbeques and poor Blacks with their teeth falling out. When Stevie Ray Vaughn was around, everybody was comfortable. Clapton ain't ever done no shit like that, go down to Mississippi and hang out with a bunch of old Black folks. He flies around in his jet and lives in the best hotels in the world and got police escorts to the gig and shit. Then he talk about how he's tired as a Blues man. Blues people ain't never got tired. I'm playing Country music right now with Jamey Johnson.
Who do you like in Country music?
I like everybody in Country music, I like their music. I don't like somebody singing The South Will Rise Again and celebrating hating Black people and shit. I like the music, but just I just don't want to hear Black people killing White folks. I like music, but not the attitude of negativity. I like positive shit, I don't like negative people, period. I don't like assholes. I like people who stand up for what's right. Music is the one common denominator that the world can relate to. I've been to 98 countries with BB King. Everywhere we went, people loved the music. I like Country music, I'm playing in a Country band, I've played in a Reggae band. When you play other types of music, you have to get inside of the people, the people who play the music and you have to feel what they feel. You have to convey what they're trying to convey. You have to play it, the way they play it. You have to learn, you have to be taught. You have to pay attention, you have to acknowledge. I'm not a Country drummer, but I can play Country.
That was a question I had for you, there's this idea if you're good enough you can play with anyone. But, that may not convey it all. Going from one kind of music to another kind of music, how did that energy transpire, how did you get into the groove of playing with such diverse musicians?
I listen to them, explain to me and tell me how it's supposed to be done. It's like Bruce Lee got pissed off because his ancestors didn't want him teaching that to other people. If you weren't in their culture, they didn't want nobody else to be in the Martial Arts. Bruce Lee said that's bullshit. I'm going to teach it to everybody. I could never consider myself an expert in Country, but I can play it. I will play it the best I can, but I didn't grow up playing Country like I did other music. If you want to play the new stuff, you have to learn how to play the old stuff first. Before you can transform anything, you've got to know where it came from and how to do that. Then you can move on and be creative and do it your way. People are touchy-feely when you start to talk about the actual racial aspect of music. Blues music came from Black folks, White man's Blues is Country. Willie Nelson told me there's two songs, the Star-spangled Banner and the Blues.
It's interesting that they're the same side of the coin and like we talked about before, there's this hatred and hypocrisy. I'm not sure how they blended, how that happened.
How that happened is some Black people grew up Country. There's Black Hillbillies in them thar hills. If you were raised up around a bunch of cows and shit on the farm, just 'cause your Black, don't mean you ain't Country. You just happened to be a Country Black person. If you want to play the Blues, you've got to know the roots all the way up to the fruits. Don't come up on the surface and just consider yourself a Blues or a Country person or a Rock person. If you weren't grown up around or raised around it, you can't be that, until someone who is that, says you are it.
You should correct me, if I'm wrong, but there's the wrong perception that the Blues is just about sorrow. It's about struggle, it's about becoming a person through struggle and triumphing over that struggle. The Blues is about being a character that says what you're saying; I'm going to be what I'm going to be, fuck you, despite what you're serving me.
I agree. The Blues is real. I'm simply saying you've got Jazz Blues, you got Gospel Blues, you have Folk Blues, you have Funk Blues, Rock Blues, you have Blues Blues, acoustic Blues. You've all these types of Blues: sad Blues, mad Blues, you got happy Blues. Blues ain't one thing. It don't mean I feel like shit and I'm gonna die. Blues mean I'm gonna have a good time, I'm gonna chase pretty women, I'm gonna get drunk and I'm gonna have a good time. There's all these experts on the Blues that read the book, but don't know what the fuck they're talking about. I ain't read it, I lived it. I experience it every day.
If you were going to write a Blues song about modern life, what would you write about?
I could turn on CNN or MSNBC and listen to these jack-asses on television talking about the shit that's going on in the world today and it ain't nothing but the Blues. Ain't nothing on the news that's happy. Blues means one thing to me, Blues is the truth. I can write about anything, I make the Blues out of anything. I think about here's a woman who's being told by a man what to do with her body, whether she wants to have an abortion or be a man, I could write some heavy shit out of that Blues. All the different problems people have with it. All the different people's religions that piss people off. My whole thing is this, as long as you don't disrespect me, I don't care, you could be totally different than me, I don't care, you can say you hate me. In this country you have the right to say: “I hate your Black ass.” Well guess what, that's on you. Take all the hate you got and just hate, but just don't fuck with me. I can write about anything that's the truth. I hate fake people and fake shit.
I'm part of Generation X and it's surprising to me to see this big backlash against Millennials. When I've gone to Jazz clubs, there's a lot of 20 something year olds who appreciate the music. What kind of people do you see at your Blues gigs?
All kinds of people. I've been to 98 countries and there's all kinds of people that love Blues music and Blues based music. The Blues is the truth.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your life?
My biggest challenge I face in my life is people judging me when they look at me. You can't judge a book by it's cover. Bo Diddley had a song about that. I never judge nobody. You never know somebody, until they talk to you, communicate to you, show you how they think, how they act. Then you judge me. Don't look at me and judge me. I don't like that. You can't tell what I'm thinking by looking at me. You can't assume anything. All you can do is take some time to get to know me, before you start judging me.
Is that because you're Black?
In some cases that's part of it, but it depends on who the people are. I don't like it when people assume who I am based upon what they think I look like. I wear my hat backwards and you think I'm an old drive by shooter 'cause I'm an old Black cat. I'm not going to be disrespectful to myself and wear my pants hangin' off my ass.Somethings just speak for themselves.
To kind of change subjects, I'm one of the earth's biggest fans of Irma Thomas and Jean Knight. Do you have any memories of working with them?
Irma Thomas worked with us on the Blues Summit record with BB. I've always seen her perform and she's very soulful. She's a really nice kind person, from what I've experienced from her.
She's gorgeous and she has such a deep well.
I respect all Blues people, but I don't like all Blues people. I don't have respect for people who think Blues is one thing all the time. People call them Blues Nazis, because they want to hear the same old shit all the time. I don't call them Blues Nazis, I call them Blues Zombies. Blues is serious heartfelt life experiences done in that flavor. If you sing about a feeling that touches your soul, make a tear come in your eye or make you angry, or make you smile, those are feelings. That's Blues.
Nobody has written a Blues song that says my teenage son was murdered by the police. This is the truth. The Civil Rights Movement is still yet to be finished. Someone needs to write a song about Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown.
Well once again, the world gets angry when the person being affected by some bullshit is talking about it and protesting it. They get mad at you, like the victim. They're mad at the victim for saying it. Now I just said that, I grew up with that problem. I'm the victim and I'm pissed off, now you mad at me, 'cause I'm pissed off about it. Now you're mad because you got fucked over. Unfortunately, the way the world acts today you need somebody outside of you to bitch for you. If police shoot me in my ass, because I argued with him about he's not doing me right, now I'm gonna get my ass shot and be dead. Now everybody gonna say, “Well, he was a big mouth, he deserved it.” That's what Peter Tosh called the Shitstem. It's a bunch of bullshit. If the ducks get fucked over, they'd rather hear the chickens talk about it.
I still haven't heard a Blues song about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, the Ferguson Riots or Sandra Bland. It hasn't been on my radar. This is the truth, Black people are still being treated like...
Treated like shit. Because the people in control over the Blues, they don't want to hear that. They want to hear: you got a fine ass and I want to touch it. They don't want to hear I'm pissed off about all these Black people getting murdered. They don't want any of that shit, they want to hear some bullshit.
It's this vicious cycle: you're going to be an athlete or you're going to perform for us. Like you were saying earlier about BB King. That doesn't work anymore. We're all interconnected and the fact remains Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll is the biggest thing that set a precedent for being American culture and it's Black people that made it.
That's right, but see you're a white person saying it stronger than a Black person. See I explained that to you, if I write about it, I'm fucked up. But, if you say it, I pay attention to you.
I understand that I have White privilege.
This is what I believe and you could take it or leave it. Once again, a Black person bitching about being fucked over because they're Black, don't mean shit, until a White person get pissed off.
That's absolutely true in this country.
Anybody want to debate about it with me, bring it. I can bitch about the same thing a White dude bitch about in a public place, a White guy could come in and bitch about the same shit I bitch about and what they say is that's a crazy Black motherfucker over there. Get the police, 'cause his Black ass is going off. A White person can do the same shit and a White person come over and say “Sir, let me calm you down. Let's figure it out.”
In most cases that's how it is, because that's the perception. What we need to do in America is we have to realize we need to respect people. You're either wrong or you're right. It's just that fucking simple. There's a saying: A simple lie is easier to believe than a complex truth. Musically speaking, music is supposed to have a message to bring people peace, to bring awareness to shit, make things be better, not to make them be worse.
I've researched over the past couple days interviews with drummers and most of the questions are character questions, which we've kind of gone over. What do you wish a journalist would ask you, what kind of technical questions?
I wish you you would ask, what does the drummer think about being in the band and watching the person in the front getting all the glory?
Okay, what do you think about being the drummer in the back, the man up front getting all the glory, when you're the spine of the band?
I think that's total bullshit! (Laughing) The drummer is the only motherfucker in the band that can't stop playing if the band is going to work.
Unless the song started out that way or there's a section in it, but I'm talking about if you're playing a song together that was recorded where everybody plays and the drummers in there... now I'm playing the beat...and the bass player, the rhythm player and the keyboards playing, then the horns are playing, ok everybody got their part? That's the song. Ok, get on stage and play. The horns can stop. Guitar player can stop and tune his amp up a little. The bass player can do the same. The fucking keyboard player can say, wait a minute, let me turn this up a little. Now let me stop and try and change a cymbal and see what happens.
Oh my God what happened?! The drummer stopped playing! What the fuck?! So, that shows you who's the most important member of the band. The drummer is the heartbeat of the music, he's the foundation. That's everything. When the drums stop, the whole bottom falls out. So now you tell me, who's the most important man on stage? Everybody's supposed to have a heartbeat, if you don't you're dead.