Picture this Post (PTP) spoke with a number of artists performing at the 2017 Chicago Blues Festival, happening June 9-11 in Millennium Park. Here, Wallace Coleman (WC), a harmonica player and singer performing at 4:15 PM on Sunday, June 11 at the Front Porch Stage (Harris Theater Rooftop), shares his thoughts about the blues and more.
Coleman began his career in the 1980s performing with blues guitarist and Chess Records signee Robert Lockwood Jr. Recognized as one of the blues' best living harpists, Coleman has toured and recorded with his own group since 1997.
Picture this Post: When and why did you start playing blues music?
Wallace Coleman: Well, I got a late start. I got started in 1986. Before, I was a working man. I just accidentally started playing in ’86 at a local bar here. It was fun.
PTP: Was that when you decided to pursue music professionally?
WC: Oh, no. The local bar in which I was playing, it just happened to be one night that Robert Lockwood Jr. came in and heard me play. I told him I was working, but he said, ‘I like the way you play.’ And his reputation was that he didn’t care for harp players so I was very surprised when he said that. And he said, ‘when you retire, give me a call and I might let you start playing.’ And I did – I retired in ’87 and I called him and he gave me a shot. And that’s who I stayed with for ten years.
PTP: And then you went off to start your own group?
WC: Yeah, I did. In 1997. I went and started to do my own thing. It’s been fun, man. When you get my age, you gotta do something.
PTP: Why did you decide to take up the harmonica as opposed to other instruments?
WC: Well, actually, I’m from eastern Tennessee, where there is no blues. There was no blues in the hills, where I come from. As a little boy, you know, you’d play the train whistle and all that stuff. One day I was dialing the radio, and I accidentally dialed WLAC out of Nashville and they were playing some Little Walter. I had never heard the harmonica played like that and it just blew my mind.
PTP: So you’d consider Little Walter one of your biggest musical influences?
WC: He was the biggest. Him and Sonny Boy Williamson.
PTP: Besides blues music, do you look to any other genres of music for inspiration?
WC: I play a lot of smooth jazz. Earl Klugh is my favorite guitar player. I like Bob James’ music. I like stuff like that. But I've been listening to blues much longer than anything else. I got into Muddy Waters early in life and I’ve enjoyed that music since.
PTP: How have you seen the world of blues change in the years since you’ve been involved? And what do you expect for the future of the blues?
WC: Well, it has changed, as all music does. I think, today, you don’t see many African Americans playing blues. But I have been fortunate enough to go overseas a few times, and I’ve run into some real good players in Europe. And I’m getting ready to go to Brazil in a few weeks. But I was lucky enough to play with Big Bill Morganfield who’s playing at the festival. He and I played in Brazil for a while and I enjoyed that. His conversation about his father (Muddy Waters)… It was just fascinating to hear him talk about his father and what he's doing to carry on his father’s legacy.
PTP: So you said you are going to Brazil – what other projects are you currently working on?
WC: I’m going to Holland and I’m going back to Spain, sometime in October in November. Last year I played over there so they want me to come back to Holland and Spain in the fall. I don’t do much in Cleveland, and Cleveland is my home. I’ve been here most of life, but it’s not what you would really call a "blues town." It’s more of a sports city. But Robert Jr. was real popular here, and Sonny Boy Williamson – I knew him too – he was real popular here.