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FEATURES -- Inside the Blues with Liz Mandeville

Interview with:

Guitarist Mark Wydra:

Living Under a Lucky Star"

Part 1

 mark-wydra1

By Liz Mandeville

The measure of success is different for each person. One man’s poverty is another’s wealth; it’s all a matter of perspective.  I read an interview with Sting who was talking about his success in the music business. According to his assessment,  most of the people I know and work with are terrible failures, including me!  I’ve never had a million-selling album, never performed before the Queen of England, never had a video on MTV, but somehow I can’t share Sting’s viewpoint. In my opinion I am blessed, lucky, and a terribly successful person. I earn my living doing the thing I love the most. I’ve traveled the world, met people and experienced cultures I never dreamed possible. I’ve played and recorded with amazingly creative, talented, high quality human beings. I’m still doing that; nobody has told me I’m too old, too outside the mainstream, too last year. All that they’ve asked is only that I be myself and that’s the beauty of being Inside the Blues.  My feelings are shared by others in my field, including the subject of this column, Chicago-based guitarist, Mark Wydra.

Back in 1983, I went with my guitarist boyfriend down to Summit IL. to play a gig in a little club right outside the gates of the Argo Cornstarch factory. I knew about three songs and was nervous as hell. We were playing with an unknown white blues group called Blues by Five.  It was there I first met guitarist Mark Wydra, who has since played countless gigs with me and been featured on two of my Earwig CDs. Most often associated with Eddy Clearwater, Mark has been a first-call side man for band leaders in-the-know for over 30 years. His taste, talent, timing, versatility and professionalism, along with his ability to lead a band and harmonize vocally have kept his calendar filled to this day and allows him to choose his commitments. Mark is also my guitar teacher and the father of 24-year-old guitarist, J.R. Wydra, who also has recently played in my band.  The following conversation occurred recently in the Downers Grove music studio where Mark still actively passes the torch to his more than 50 students. 

Liz Mandeville for Chicago Blues Guide:

So Mark, how did you end up in the blues?

Mark Wydra: I live under a lucky star, I may not be rich and famous, but all through my life I’ve been in the right place at the right time. The drinking age turned 19 when I turned 19. I could go out in Chicago and see and hear the masters, guys like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers and Albert King. I’ve gotten to meet most of my heroes and play with a lot of them too. Charlie Watts, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Albert Collins, to name a few.

How did you get started as a guitarist?

 I started out at 15 playing with a rock band that covered lots of Stones songs. One day I looked at the back of an album and I noticed the songwriter credit was C. Berry and it led me to investigate. Ah, Chuck Berry!

My teacher helped out with that, I had a hard time getting with the Muddy Waters stuff. It sounded too ‘out there’ to me, too thin with the slide. My teacher turned me on to Jimmy Reed. That basic stuff I could hear right away. The first blues band I saw, at 15, was Eddy Clearwater; nobody could’ve told me that six years later I’d be playing with the guy, but that’s what happened!  I went to see Chuck Berry never knowing that seven years later I’d be playing with him!

 I played with Junior  Wells and Buddy Guy when they were still just regular guys. Albert Collins, Bo Diddley, Sam Lay and Carey Bell, I’ve played with everybody and met most everybody I admire. A greaser friend even got tickets and dragged me to see Elvis. When I see a group, I want to be entertained; I want them to dress up and do more than just play. I hate Elvis impersonators, but you got to give them credit that they get up in the suits. When you go see the Stones, they still make it show-time, it’s still “Hey man, I’m Mick Jagger” and it’s a show!  I hate it when artists don’t look any different from their audience. These guys that wear the backward baseball caps and baggy pants, they look just like the crowd. It’s nothing special. 

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Let me start out by asking you about your sound. What guitars and amps do you like and what effects do you use to get your big round tone?

When I started out, back in the dark ages, there wasn’t effects period! A lot of the guys I heard had really crappy instruments, some guys had Gibsons, but the majority had these cheap instruments. They played with no effects, no distortion, it all came from their hands. I listened to a lot of guys and I’ve had a lot of influences, but I never wanted to sound like anybody else.

Watching is very important. Most of the black players were down-picking, using their thumb. It’s like the drummers, back in the day, they played with that marching band grip. Now everybody plays with match grip because they all play so loud they have to beat the drums, there’s no finesse. The young Turks today, they don’t even know who S.P. Leary or Freddy Below was!

I really believe less is more, especially in Blues and R&B. Steve Cropper is a perfect example of the right note in the right place. When I started playing guitar I really had to struggle, my teacher didn’t know blues or jazz. He taught me reading and theory, but I had to show him blues!  A lot of it came from watching, ‘cause guitar is so visual.

It took me six months to realize that Albert King, Eddy Clearwater and Otis Rush took a right-handed guitar and turned it upside down!  That’s why Albert can get those bends, ‘cause he’s picking with his thumb and pulling at the string. They can get that sound, a lot of down-picking and they are pulling the string down toward the floor. I’d gone down to hear Eddy (who is left-handed) one more time and gone home to try to figure out why don’t I sound like that when I play? You have to strum it up, the chords and everything are turned upside down, you gotta strum it up to do it!

"The best thing that ever happened to rock is the blues and the worst thing that ever happened to blues was rock."

The best thing that ever happened to rock is the blues and the worst thing that ever happened to blues was rock. I know that’s controversial, but I just hear too much generic sounding crap passing itself off as blues. One of the problems today is: who do these young blues players aspire to? When I was coming up there were four tiers of players on the local scene. The top tier was Muddy, Howlin’  Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Jimmy Rogers. The next tier was Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins. The third tier was Hip Linkchain, a few others…

After that, the next tier was Lonnie Brooks, Eddy Clearwater;  these guys couldn’t get a gig back when Muddy was around!  That’s why if people ask me what I think about Johnny Lang, for example, I say: ‘I’ve been playing longer than he’s been alive! Yeah he’s a great guitar player, but come on!’ The young guys, when you want to learn, you go back to the beginning and study, but they’re not doing that and it shows. I’m not hearing any guitar player who sounds unique; there are the guys who are technical, but there’s no feel. When I go overseas people give me their discs and to tell you the truth I rarely listen to them. It’s either going to be too rocked out, over the top or such generic sounding stuff, I don’t want to hear that. You know, the guys who do exact covers of great players? If I want to hear T-Bone Walker I’ll put on one of his records!

 (The late) Chico Banks was probably my favorite of the current crop of local guys. Why? Because he went back to the masters, he listened and learned. But Chico was no more a blues player than I am.  He didn’t grow up on a plantation and that has so much to do with it, I hate to tell you. Black people have a hard time of it, but my grandmother had a cross burned on her front yard too for being Polish in Indiana, so don’t tell me it’s that.

If there’s one man responsible for bringing the blues to the North Side, it was Bob Riedy. He got the idea to bring these great blues players and back them up with young white guys. That’s really how I got my start in blues. That’s how I started playing with Eddy, through Bob Riedy.

Eddy Clearwater has been really good to me. He gave me a lot of breaks. I wouldn’t have seen half the world I’ve seen without him. He took me to Brazil several times, to Japan, France many times, Germany, all over Europe.  I’ve always made him sound real good. He is my buddy, we love each other, but it’s like a marriage.  It’s about more than the music. I’ve played with him four times in the past 30 years, usually for at least three years each time.

Did you record with Eddy?

Yeah, Eddy put me on his records. For many years he had his own label, Cleartone Records. He is a really well-rounded business man and no dummy. The most recent one I’m on is Mean Case of Blues. Billy Branch is on harp, Bobby Anderson, one of Chicago’s greatest bass players, Alan Batts is playing keys. One of the biggest blues records in England was a Chuck Berry thing that Eddy did called 2X9, Came Up The Hard Way. Eddy made lots of royalties for that record and I was playing guitar on that disc; it was all me. Merle Perkins, one of Chicago’s leading drummers, and me were sitting around listening to it and Merle was raving about the guitarist. He asked me ‘Who is that?’ I had to tell him ‘Hey, man it’s me!!’  He thought it was a brother!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Mark Wydra story, to run in March.

###

About the Author

Chicago Blues Guide is happy to have Chicago blues artist Liz Mandeville as our new columnist.  A true renaissance woman, Liz is a sultry singer, award-winning songwriter, guitarist, journalist, painter, educator and all around bon vivant. She has performed all over the world and has four CDs on the Earwig Music label to her credit.  With each column, Liz takes us behind the scenes of Chicago blues and beyond, to share unique insights from people who have dedicated their lives to the blues.

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Photo by: Eric Steiner

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