James Montgomery From the collection of James Farrell

Back in the early 1970s, Detroit-born blues harmonica player/singer/songwriter James Montgomery kicked off his career in Boston and quickly became one of the premiere blues singer/harpists in the country, performing with the likes of Aerosmith, The J. Geils Band, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, The Johnny Winter Band and the Allman Brothers, just to name a very few. When in Detroit, he learned his craft from two incredible musicians in James Cotton and Jr. Wells, both of whom influenced his sound, style and work ethic. He’s released nine albums (his first was aptly titled “First Time Out” and came out in 1973) and has been a force to be dealt with in the world of blues music, so when I discovered that he was making his way up to Central Maine for a gig at Madison’s Somerset Abbey, I just had to get a chance to talk with him about his career and the music he makes. I recently called him at home in Newport, Rhode Island, and began by asking him about his previous shows in our fair state.

Montgomery: I’ve played Maine regularly, I’ve been doing Ogunquit and Portland on a very regular basis.

James Montgomery From the collection of Chuck Farrell

Q: This time around you’ll be coming up to Central Maine’s Somerset Abbey on May 28.
Montgomery:  Yeah, exactly. I don’t think I’ve been there but everyone says it’s beautiful. I’m really looking forward to playing up there, and I’m playing up there with two guys from the Once An Outlaw band: Chuck Farrell on guitar and AJ Vallee on drums.

Q: I also understand that Derek Dyer from The Tina Turner Band will be on sax and Tim Archibald from the Peter Wolf Band will be on bass. That sounds like a great band, for sure. I like to support Stacy O’Brian at the Abbey by doing all the interviews I can to let people know about the shows she puts on.
Montgomery: You know, in the music business we need all the help we can get, so thank you. And also, I’ve heard nothing but great things about not only the venue itself but the people who run it and work there, and I’ve also heard that the crowd that comes there is just fantastic, so I’m really looking forward to playing there.

Q: Now, have you been doing anything in the recording end of things lately that you want to talk about?
Montgomery: Ah, yeah, I did that album that came out a couple of years ago, a tribute to Paul Butterfield, which was great for me. Him and James Cotton and Jr. Wells were arguably the three biggest influences on me. Paul Butterfield and Jr. Wells more in terms of how my harmonica playing style worked out, and James Cotton and Paul Butterfield more of how my approach to the kind of band and the kind of energy that I wanted to be able to display on stage. So I put out the record dedicated to Paul, and we had a ball putting it together, and knowing what an innovator Paul Butterfield was we decided that on most of the songs we would change the arrangements drastically, taking it that that’s what Paul would like, although (chuckle) he’s probably turning over in his grave saying, “Look what they did to my song, ma!”

Q: (Laughter)
Montgomery: (Chuckle) And since then I recorded a record with this other blues guy named Jay Willie called “Cadillac Walk,” and that was basically his record and I came down to do a session and I did two songs. They called me back to do another two songs, and pretty soon I was on every track (chuckle) and having a vocal on one, too.

Q: Have there been any other musical experiences lately?
Montgomery: Well, in the words of Sonny Boy Williamson: “Don’t get me started, I’ll tell everything I know!” But about recordings, I got this call from Cleopatra Records and they had found these tracks of Jr. Wells with just the vocal, bass and drums. It was just before the pandemic and they wanted to get a bunch of players to do harmonica and a bunch of players to do guitar, but then COVID hit so I ended up recording eight harmonica tracks. That was just about a year ago, now that I think about it, and so I ended up recording with Jr. Wells, my boyhood idol and my teacher. I finally made a record with him. So I was able to record during COVID.

Q: And your other teacher and I had an interview when Mr. Cotton came up to the Maine Center for the Arts in Orono a number of years ago; he was a man of few words but it was an honor and a privilege just to be there with him.
Montgomery: Yeah, I’m making a documentary on him now. I raised $70,000 and the group that’s producing it raised another $20,000 or so. We’re still in the fundraising process for that, although we do have a rough cut, but a lot of the money for documentaries comes for post-production, especially licensing in a music film. But by the end of his life, the last five or 10 years of his life, he referred to me as “son” and I called him “Dad,” so I was very close with James.

Q: He was a class act, that’s for sure, no question.
Montgomery: Yeah.

Q: Back to your experiences performing in Maine. What was your first show up here?
Montgomery: The first time I was there I was with Bill Chinnock, who is still in my daily prayers. I loved Bill and my first time up there, his band opened for me at some place called The Red Barn up near Bangor or somewhere, but I’ve always loved playing up in Maine, even if I have to go as far north as Skowhegan (chuckle). and actually, one time we played Presque Isle. I’ve got a lot of great Maine stories, too.

Q: Just out of curiosity, what can folks expect from your show at the Somerset Abbey?
Montgomery: Well, I’ve always modeled my shows after James Cotton and Paul Butterfield. What I stole from them was the idea of always doing a really high-energy show, so what they can expect is a high-energy interpretation of the blues with some Chicago covers, but also a lot of original material that I wrote using James Cotton and Paul Butterfield as springboards. It’s a show that really gets the audience involved with a really high level of musicianship, except for the harmonica player (laughter).

Q: Is there anything, sir, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Montgomery: Just that Maine has always been a really favorite place of mine to play, I’ve just always loved the people there. jamesmontgomerybluesband.com

Lucky Clark has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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