Michael Charles: Chicago Blues Fall of Famer
by Paul Whyte
While many of you might have the blues fever with the Blues Festival at the Bayfront this weekend, we took the time to talk with Michael Charles, an inductee to the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame who will be playing next weekend on Friday, August 18.
This eight time Grammy elected native of Melbourne, Australia will be playing as a trio at the Blind Pig very soon. Charles has worked the whole Chicago blues circuit performing with Mr. Buddy Guy, Phil Guy, James Cotton, Eddy Clearwater, Junior Wells, George Baze, as well as touring with blues legend, Jimmy Dawkins. We had the chance to chat with him about his career and the upcoming show.
Reader: How does one start out becoming a blues guitarist in Australia?
MC: In my case I was five or six years old when I picked up a guitar, since my dad used to play. I don’t really remember not playing. He loved country music so my first basic chords were country based. When I got older and started listening to the radio, back then you had Beatles on the radio, Elvis Presley, Clapton, Carlos Santana. They were all influenced by blues guys, so I had no choice but to learn the blues because that was during the 60s and 70s when blues was huge. Eventually I started listening to BB King and Buddy Guy, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, the list goes on and on. To make a long story really short, it’s basically what you’ve been hearing throughout your life. When I was a young boy and young man, that’s what you’d hear on the radio, so I’ll blame the radio for becoming a blues guy.
Reader: To my understanding you’ve even performed with Buddy Guy before.
MC: Yes I have. Buddy Guy and his management were actually the guys who brought me out originally from Australia.
Reader: So how does one get noticed by a blues great like that?
MC: My management in Australia got a phone call one morning. I’d been invited to play out in the U.S. in Chicago at his Club of Legends. There were very few question I had to ask, the main thing was, “when are we going?”
Reader: So was that your breakthrough to the United States?
MC: I’d always wanted to go to the United States and one thing about coming the to States is that it’s all about timing. I had a fairly good career in Australia, I was doing my thing. Coming to the States or any part of the world was always put off because of schedules. When I got that invitation, I said, “well, that’s fate, the timing is right.” I dropped everything and that was the start of a whole new phase of my career.
Reader: It certainly seems like it. So once you came over, how much time did you spend in the states? Did you bounce back and forth? How did that work out?
MC: When I came out it was just for two weeks, it was all great, I got the red carpet. I got off the airplane in Chicago and was taken to the club, it was fantastic. I was in the middle of all these great musicians that I’ve only saw on album covers. I’m shaking hands with them and talking to them, jamming with them. Those two weeks went by, and then I went back to Australia.
I was at home about a week and then I was just sitting there by myself and thought, “I really need to go back to finish business.” Two weeks wasn’t enough. I decided to buy myself a ticket and go back, but this time it was a different animal because when I got to Chicago this time, there was no red carpet. The first thing I did was go to Buddy Guy’s Legends and then it all kicked up from there. I had a visa to stay for six months and once that was up, I got another visa for six months. Before I knew it, it was two years, three years, thirty years, now the United States is home. There’s no regrets, it just changed everything, there wasn’t a plan, I just went with the flow.
Reader: About what year was that when you first came over?
MC: Around 1990. There’s been so much activity and so much that happened in those first years. If I were to tell you it all, we’d be sitting here for the next 10 hours.
Reader: That’s ok. *laughs*
MC: For me it was a big turn around. I just took advantage of it. Everything turned out the way it should, there’s no regrets, and I’m still on that roll of the experience of coming over. It’s been a hell of a ride.
Reader: So where are you right now?
MC: I’m sitting in my studio working on my new project.
Reader: I was looking at a few of your videos and you don’t stick to just one style of what people would consider blues music. Sometimes it’s more Delta Blues, and others there’s some more of the rock lead work.
Reader: Describe to me your approach to the guitar.
MC: My approach is basically the same as when I was a kid. I was always into the creative mode. I loved experimenting and coming up with different and new ways of playing and I still do that. I’m not into copying even the people that have influenced me. I’ve got traditional songs, I sometimes pick up my acoustic guitar and it goes off somewhere else, sometimes I get a little more into the rock vein. As a songwriter, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t all sound the same. You do use your imagination and create and go on a different direction sometimes.
Michael Charles will be playing with his band at Blind Pig on Friday, August 18 at the Blind Pig in Duluth on his “All I Really Know Tour.” The show will start at 10 pm and has a $5 cover.