Block 1993 interview with Lester Butler after Pinkpop festival (annotated)

This week, we bring you an interview with Lester Butler from the July/August/September 1993 issue of Block magazine (#87).

There is a lot to take in from this interview, conducted May 31, 1993, after the band had already played its seminal morning set opening the 1993 Pinkpop Festival, and a gig that night in Doornroosje, Nijmegen, Holland. Basically, this interview was their last official activity at the end of an important month for the band, which kicked off May 1 with the legendary performance at the Moulin Blues Festival in Ospel.

The story, originally in Dutch, has been translated by (well, Google Translate, with some contextual edits by us), and appears in its entirety below.

In addition, we offer annotations throughout the story: What’s right, what’s wrong, more context and history. Look for the notes just under some paragraphs.

A band foaming at the mouth: The Red Devils

By Marion Wisse

The Red Devils started in 1988 as a jam session band at the King King club, a former Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles. The first time only nine skateboarders came to watch, but due to word of mouth, the number of visitors grew quickly. Among them: Peter Wolf, Lenny Kravitz and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Also always present was Rick Rubin, producer for the Def American label. But it wasn’t until they had seen his face about 60 times that Lester Butler (vocals/harmonica) and his mates knew what that man does in the business.

Much of this is detailed in the band’s official press kit biography.

The debut CD “King King” has been out for less than a year and resulted in a studio session with Mick Jagger. In addition, The Red Devils were allowed to close Moulin Blues and open Pinkpop. In the evening, after Pinkpop, they performed in Doornroosje in Nijmegen. There we spoke to the band.

When the band arrives at Doornroosje a little later than planned due to a minor collision, their Pinkpop performance of that morning has just been broadcast. Great is the hilarity among the band members when Bram van Splunteren does not seem to know who Little Walter was. And when the cameraman of the NOS then switches bass guitarist Jonny Ray Bartel and guitarist Paul Size during the announcement, the boys are really laughing. Immediately afterward we talk with Lester Butler, Paul Size (or was that Lester Butler?), and drummer Bill Bateman.

To be fair, The Red Devils are likely the only band on the 1993 Pinkpop festival that brought bullet mics and Little Walter licks. Here is that interview with Bram van Splunteren.

NOS is Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, part of the Netherlands Public Broadcasting system.

Nieuwe Revu (nr. 21 – May 19-26) states that it was never the intention of The Red Devils to show their skills in, for example, London, Amsterdam, Hanover, Brussels and Geleen. “If you choose to play that music — Chicago blues — you don’t choose the stadiums, the big pop festivals and the international tours. Then you opt for small, smoky nightclubs and dark pubs,” says NR writer Gerrit Lijffijt.

The Nieuwe Revu is a weekly general interest magazine from the Netherlands. “In the 1970s the magazine was explicitly left-winged and focused on sport, sex, sensation and socialism,” according to Wikipedia. Journalist Gerrit Lijffijt died in 2014 at age 56

When Butler looks back when asked, he thinks — if the current success had happened to him 10 years ago — he would have succumbed to the rich supply of booze and drugs. But now that he is older (33), has a girlfriend … he thinks a little more nuanced about life.

The original story says, “Maar nu hij war ouder is (33), een vriendin en een dochter heeft, denkt hij iets meer genuanceerd over het leven.” In English, roughly, “But now that he is older (33), has a girlfriend and a daughter, he thinks a little more nuanced about life.” We have left that part out of the story above; we have heard no evidence that Lester Butler had any children. There might have been some confusion on the part of the reporter, as the only two mentions we can find of a child both come from Block magazine.

Although he still loves very sweet liquors like Grand Marnier (“The baby stuff”), he keeps it under control.

Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge is 40% alcohol (70 proof in UK, 80 proof in US), per Wikipedia.

Mick Jagger, “a nice man” according to The Red Devils, also manages to keep his celebrity under control, given that he was in the crowd during a performance by The Red Devils at the King King club. At the time, Jagger was recording for his latest, Stone-less CD “Wandering Spirit.” The producer was — yes — Rick Rubin. Both Rubin and Jagger thought that there should be a few blues songs on that CD. The duo Mick and Rick did not know which ones, so Rick contacted Lester Butler, who in turn sent a tape with blues songs from his collection.

Jagger would have sat in with the band at the King King on May 18, 1992, and brought them into the studio one month later, on June 18, 1992.

A new wrinkle on an old tale. The story has always gone that Jagger brought the band into the studio with recordings of some of his favorite blues songs. Bill Batemen in “The Greatest Music Never Sold”: “I sat down with him at the board, and we wrote the lyrics out. ‘Cause he couldn’t understand a Muddy Waters song, he couldn’t understand a Slim Harpo song. He’d say, ‘What’s he saying there, Bill?'”

In retrospect, Mick and Rick thought it better to bring the band to the studio, so that they could contribute to “Wandering Spirit.” None of the 14 blues songs that Jagger and the band recorded eventually made it to that CD. Speaking of wandering spirit: Mick’s mind is apparently as changeable as the wind, as the plan is now to release these songs as Jagger’s blues CD. And, as Lester hopes, as “Mick Jagger & The Red Devils,” but again that depends on the Stones singer. It will probably take a while, as the storm around “Wandering Spirit” has not yet fully abated.

“Wandering Spirit” peaked at No. 12 on the UK charts, and 11 in the U.S. Meanwhile, the Devils sessions finally saw the light of day in bootleg form. One cut, “Checkin’ Up On My Baby,” appeared on 2007’s “The Very Best of Mick Jagger.” While the song was applauded by critics and Stones fans who knew of the 1992 blues session, the compilation only reached 57 in the UK, and 77 on the U.S. charts.

Nevertheless, the band won quite a prize as a result. Especially in Europe, its reputation seems to surpass that of Rod Piazza and William Clarke. The latter is the man who introduced Butler to the 10-hole instrument.

While Butler and Clarke certainly knew each other, and played on various bills together, we have not heard of Clarke as the man who turned Lester on to the harmonica. Butler consistently said he started playing a toy harmonica at age 6. He also named two key influences, for better or worse: James Harman and Hollywood Fats.

It would not be surprising if Butler did pick up some tricks from Clarke – though we’d have to hear LB play chromatic to know for sure. We do know that, just a few years after Clarke’s death, Lester Butler’s live version of 13 included Clarke band alums Alex Schultz and Eddie Clark.

Butler has done a lot of jam sessions with those guys. And before Paul Size was lured from Austin, Texas, Dave Alvin played regularly with the band. Paul Size lured out of Austin? Yes, because with money this young guitarist could leave from the mecca of peers.

Dave Alvin, Bill Bateman and Jonny Ray Bartel started The Blue Shadows, the precursor to the later Red Devils, in 1988. Other guitarists of note in the rotating lineup: Smokey Hormel and Junior Watson.

We would have liked to ask the now 21-year-old guitarist if he ever regretted his trip to Los Angeles, but he was, according to Butler, too nervous about the performance to participate in the interview. So Lester, who claimed to know the boy from scratch, got into Paul’s skin. With the greatest of ease, Lester raised his voice one key and brewed an unadulterated and barely intelligible Texan accent. And guess what? “Paul Size” would prefer to go back to Austin tomorrow, to play in the clubs for $50. Magnificent! When asked why Paul stays with The Red Devils, Lester has no answer. Money is the most important reason, according to Lester.

When the harmonica man first saw Paul playing, Paul was playing bass guitar during a jam session. But soon Lester found out that this boy could play guitar really well. Paul’s most important influences are Otis Rush, B.B. King, Jimmie Vaughan, Albert Collins and Anson Funderburgh. Anson, his mentor, gave him the Fender Stratocaster he plays today.

A different take on the Paul Size origin story, as both Hook Herrera and the late Chuck Nevitt have given conflicting accounts at times for getting Size on The Red Devils’ radar.

The conversation turns to Austin and the blues scene there. Lester doesn’t like the legendary Antone’s Club. “Too much of a blues museum.” No then The Devils prefer to play in The Continental, a nice place where more kids come than in Antone’s and where there is also room for music other than blues, such as rockabilly, rock & roll and even punk. Antone’s still cherishes heroes like Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, said Lester. Austin is still the hothouse where blues bands thrive. The Devils singer is right when he says that the blues people in America are more spoiled than the European crowd, because across the pond you can find bands like The Devils.

“Blues is much more commonplace in America than here. Even though the original form, the black blues, continues to be forgotten. Young black people don’t like to identify with the poor, drinking, discriminated bluesman. The current black generation is going through life a bit more sophisticated.”

The fact that somewhat less spoiled in the blues area Europe was ready for a high-energy band like The Red Devils is evident from the rave reviews of “King King” and the many performances at renowned festivals. Lester is even astonished that they stood in front of about 10,000 men during the Queen’s Day in The Hague. However, I remind him that admission there was free. “Oh yes, that’s right,” he says with a broad grin on his face.

In Europe, a band like The Red Devils could explode in one month (see May 1993) with a series of smartly placed festival appearances, club dates and television appearances. In the States, this is much harder to do, as The Red Devils had to trek coast to coast as an opening act or playing in bars. In Europe, it feels as though a band like the Devils can launch, vs. the U.S. where a band had to build.

In America the band picks up a festival every now and then, usually plays in halls with no more than 500 seats. It is also only the local radio and TV stations that pick up their music. That is why the band members were so happy that afternoon with the fact that Dutch television broadcast no fewer than four songs from their Pinkpop performance.

Coincidentally, exactly 11 years and a week earlier The Blasters were in the Netherlands to provide the support act for Bo Diddley in Paradiso. Block’s Stan Govaard then chatted with brothers Dave and Phil Alvin, guitarist and singer/guitarist/harmonica player respectively, in that band. For the loyal Block readers: see issue 43, July / Aug / Sept ’82!

When Lester has told his story, we have a chat with Bill Bateman, drummer for both The Blasters and The Red Devils. The 41-year-old Bateman reports that he read in the newspaper that The Blasters are going to record a new CD in ’94 with all the original band members. Including him. He knows that The Blasters want a drummer who beats the drums as if possessed by a (red) devil. And Bill likes nothing better than to let off steam on his drum kit.

All told, there was no “original Blasters” album in 1994. In fact, the next Blasters album came in 2002, the live reunion record “Trouble Bound.”

The Blasters in the mid-’90s included guitarist James Intveld and, eventually, current guitarist Keith Wyatt. Jerry Angel joined on drums in 1994, staying with the band for the next 14 years.

The original Blasters reunited for several tours and recordings in the early 2000s, and Bateman eventually rejoined the band full-time in 2008.

In short, the ideal Blasters drummer. But how all this should be … After all, he is also the ideal drummer for The Red Devils. “A band foaming at the mouth,” I thought after the performance in Ospel. In no time I was splashed from top to bottom in mud by other Devils enthusiasts, dancing to their angry young men Chicago blues. In Doornroosje it was the same thing, only without mud. When you see Butler there with his chapped, red slimy mouth blowing his lungs out, you think, “What a band!”

When this Block hits the doormat, our five heroes are back in Los Angeles. Where, again under the direction of producer Rick Rubin, they will be in the studio for a new CD, which will be released on Def American again.

The distribution of their own work and covers will be approximately 50-50. When asked, Butler mentions some of the covers that will be on the new CD: “I’m Leaving You (Commit A Crime)” by Howlin’ Wolf, Hollywood Fats’ “She’s Dynamite” and “Backstroke” by Albert Collins. Then the CD of Mick Jagger and The Red Devils will be released. For the time being, there is enough in the barrel.

Based on setlists and other interviews, we’d expect that second album to have included cuts such as “Backstreet Crawler/Your Time To Cry,” “The Hook,” “Blackwater Roll,” “Shake ‘Em On Down/Blues in the Morning,” etc.

The only things that I find a bit scary is the fact that guitarist Paul Size can only be glued to The Red Devils with money and that Bill Bateman is still also the drummer for The Blasters. I smell danger in it, I can’t help it.

Of course a band like The Devils can continue with another guitarist and/or drummer. But even in blues-infested America, such skilled workers are not so easy to find.

The Devils might have been able to continue with a different guitarist, but there was a real alchemy between Butler and Size as the primary soloists. The rhythm guitar spot held by Dave Lee Bartel was taken over by Mike Flanigin on tour in 1992, and it was a nice full-circle moment that he was chosen to take Dave Lee’s spot again on the 2017 reunion tour.

I believe that it is impossible for the band to replace the rhythm section of Jonny Ray Bartel and Bill Bateman. That’s the heart and muscle of the band, and a true secret ingredient. Could others play those licks? Yes. Could they swing and pound and drive the way Bartel/Bateman do? Not on your life.

The 2017 reunion lineup with Big Pete on harp is about as definitive a lineup the Devils can have, the maximum amount of “replacement” players and still that band.

In addition, The Red Devils are doing well in Europe, but in their own country they still have to get solid ground under their feet. But hey, who knows, they might be on the cover of Living Blues in 10 years’ time.

When this issue of Block came out, Living Blues magazine was on issue 110. Today, Block is no more, and The Red Devils are in hibernation, and Living Blues’ new issue is #271.

Living Blues is more academic journal than “music mag,” and as such has always promoted the African-American artform of the blues. There have been few if any instances of white artists on the cover, and stories about whites are only featured within the context of the Black blues experience.

The Red Devils were never reviewed (to our knowledge) in the Living Blues album reviews section. Today, as the blues community has grown, and links to the past have become tenuous, it would not be surprising if the band’s “new CD” was reviewed in LB 271, with their picture in advertisements from record labels and blues cruises.

The Red Devils were only about 30 years too early.

Note: Special thank you to Frank Verstappe for help with translations and research, and to Feelgood for providing the pages of the Block issue.

Published by J.J.

Drums and barbecue ribs. Blues music.

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