Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
A gentleman and a scholar with an extraordinary background, this bandleader, songwriter and harp player is not your typical blues artist. After four decades of playing the blues, Lacocque is living his dream with Mississippi Heat
By Tim Holek
Pierre Lacocque remembers the day in 1969 that his life changed forever. He was 17-years-old, had just recently immigrated to Chicago with his family from Belgium, and he heard Big Walter Horton play amplified blues harmonica. Lacocque immediately went out and purchased a harmonica and began performing in bands. However, he was equally attracted to the pursuit of happiness via a higher education. He achieved several University degrees and eventually received a doctorate from Northwestern University. Even that couldn’t fill a void. In 1991, the highly-educated Lacocque formed Mississippi Heat. His objective was to put together a group of the best Chicago blues veterans to play original music in the tradition of ’50s Chicago blues.
When the band’s focus isn’t on Inetta Visor’s natural larynx-busting vocals or one of many captivating guitarists like Carl Weathersby, it is on Lacocque’s incredible and magical smooth harp, which is a cross between Sugar Blue and the Sonny Boys. Undoubtedly, Lacocque is one of the best harp players on today’s scene. You can hear his ’50s influences, yet Lacocque uniquely stands out among today’s harp wailers. He is capable of inconspicuously providing fills until it’s his turn to solo. Then, his harp-playing builds in intensity until it explodes.
To date, Mississippi Heat has released nine CDs and the three most recent are on Chicago’s world famous Delmark Records. Their latest CD is Let’s Live It Up! and in October 2010, it won Best Traditional Blues CD of the Year at the annual Blues Blast Music Awards in Chicago. I called Pierre at his Chicago area home just before he and the band were about to embark on another European tour. I found him to be a very positive and approachable individual who gets joy from composing and performing music. He speaks with some broken English but given how many languages the man knows, that was understandable and overall admirable. More information is available at www.mississippiheat.net
Tim Holek for Chicago Blues Guide: The band Mississippi Heat has been described as underrated by Delmark publicist Kevin Johnson. I agree with him. Do you agree and if so why do you think the band has not received the recognition it deserves?
Pierre Lacocque: Well first, I don’t really know. I do what I love [record and perform blues] and I do the best I can. I think that being on the Delmark label has definitely helped to launch the band more internationally. It has been hard. We have been on a European label, CrossCut Records, for quite a few years. That was good for Europe for many ways and has still been good to us but I think that it is the visibility and how much marketing you do. I am not too sure what the answer is to that. We are just working so hard, but you know at this point the band has been around a long, long time so we have a lot of connections and quite a few agencies are working for us now. All of that helps. To me, we have a nice momentum but I can’t explain it [the band being underrated] otherwise. (Laughs)
CBG: Let’s discuss how you ended up learning to play harmonica. I know Big Walter Horton was one of your first influences, but did anyone give you lessons, Pierre? How did you come about to be such a maestro on harp?
PL: Well thank you. No, I did not have lessons at all. When I came to Chicago from Belgium in 1969 that is when I first heard amplified blues harmonica with Big Walter Horton – who I had never heard of and I had never heard amplified harmonica sounds really in my life. It was really a revelation and a life changing moment [that was] instilled in me [when I first heard amplified blues harp]. The sound that the harmonica can make when it is amplified is what attracted me. The mouth organ connection to the harmonica is really what turned me on. I simply asked questions about playing the harmonica and that’s how I began to learn how to play it. I would ask questions of anyone who dabbled with harmonica or played it well. There was a Tony Glover book – which was an introduction to blues harmonica – which was helpful too. By the way, he is one of the authors of the Little Walter biography [Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story]. His book I studied and then again, I would go and watch the harmonica players live and listen to every blues record I could find that had a harmonica on it. I learned by ear.
CBG: Do you prefer chromatic harmonica or diatonic harmonica?
I am definitely leaning strongly toward diatonic.
The chromatic harmonica is awesome and is definitely helpful on
certain things because it is like a piano. All the piano notes, you have
them on the chromatic, but I am a diatonic player for sure. On
Let’s Live It Up! I have
two songs on the chromatic. It [the chromatic] is beautiful sounding as
well, but it’s a beast.
Very few players play the chromatic well in the blues world. So I try
not to over-do it because it know it’s a
CBG: Speaking of the new album, you once again have quite a few guests like the Chicago Horns. I know they have recorded with the band before but I don’t know whether John Primer has ever recorded or performed with the band. I am wondering how it came about to have Primer on the new CD?
PL: There are different reasons for having John on the album. One, we’ve known each other for quite a long, long time and lately we have travelled together. He has travelled to Europe with us and did some concerts with us recently. My wish for this album was to bring more of a Chicago blues ambiance, a Chicago blues feel, and I felt John would definitely add a lot to what I was trying to accomplish. There were two things that I asked him. I said you know John, I would love for you to do the album but would you be interested in doing a Mississippi Heat project? That would mean doing some travelling together and being a part of the family kind of a thing. He said, yes absolutely yes. He has his own band, we know that, he has travelled under his own name of course; however, when he is free and available, the answer is yes he would go with us.
CBG: Did he just do guitar parts on certain tracks or did he also contribute with any of the arrangements or the song writing?
PL: He sung three songs and he played guitar on quite a few tracks. One of the three songs that he did sing was written by him. The other two were written by me. He basically took the active part of whenever he was involved in the song. You hear him clearly on the album.
CBG: When you use a large number of guests – like you did on the new CD – and they are of such a high calibre, are you ever concerned that you won’t be able to accurately reproduce the songs when you perform them live with your core band?
PL: The answer is absolutely not. These songs are mine. The arrangements, the feel, the mood, and the whole influence on all these recorded tunes are really my imprints. If I have a Carl Weathersby with me, Carl brings more of an Albert King approach with his guitar playing and of course John Primer is more of a Muddy Waters, Sammy Lawhorn player. So truly, it has an edge that changes the mood and the singing. It is a different feel at times but it doesn’t change, whatsoever, the song itself. There are melodies in every song that I do, really one way or another and that remains in the songs that we present.
CBG: Let’s go back in time a bit. You mentioned that you came to Chicago in 1969. What was the reason that your family moved to Chicago?
PL: My father, who is retired now, was an Old Testament scholar and professor in Belgium. He had been invited to Chicago a few times in the ’60s to teach a course here and a course there. Then, he was invited to come to Chicago full time. So my parents came over with my sister [Elisabeth] for a one year trial in 1967. My brother [Michel] and I stayed in Belgium. Then, they came back to Belgium in 1968. Then, my father got a ten year offer to come back here to Chicago full time. That is when the five of us – my brother, sister, parents and I – moved in 1969 to Chicago.
CBG: And then it wasn’t too long after that that you saw a live performance by Big Walter Horton, correct?
PL: As a matter of fact, it was within a month or two. One day, I was bored. We were living in Hyde Park on the University of Chicago Campus. It was maybe twilight or something. It wasn’t that late, maybe six, seven, or eight o’clock. I think it was late summer. I decided to go for a stroll and about two blocks away as I approached the main campus of the University of Chicago, I heard the band play but it was sounds that I have never heard. One was certainly the sound of a harmonica which I didn’t know it was a harmonica at first, but it was like a fantastic smell that you’ve got to follow to its origin. I was in a trance. I was actually in a state of awe. So, I followed the sounds and eventually I went to a place called Ida Noyes [Hall], which is a building on the University of Chicago Campus. There was a concert going on there for students coming back for their fall quarter. It was a welcoming evening. It was a Saturday and it was free. I got in and I was listening to the quartet. The harmonica player, [compared] to me, was much older. He was probably in his ’50s. He looked like an older man playing and I couldn’t believe he was using an amplifier to play harp. The notes he played were so deep. I had never heard notes like that and it changed my life. The next day was a Sunday. I went to the store to buy a harmonica because I couldn’t contain myself but of course the stores were closed [on Sundays in those days]. So, I had to wait until Monday. So, then I went to buy a Hohner harmonica and spent hours and hours a day – I mean hours every single day trying to re-create that sound.
CBG: Do you remember any one particular song from that first time you heard Big Walter?
PL: Yes, absolutely it was La Cucaracha and I couldn’t believe it. You know, I found out over the years that Big Walter is very famous for that song and has recorded different versions of it over time. One was with Buddy Guy. It actually was one of his masterpieces to include La Cucaracha within the blues genre. I love melodies. That’s one thing about the harmonica I like. It’s a statement and not just jamming around to show you can do a nice note here and there. For me, I wanted to make a statement. I don’t like to repeat myself and when I record, for example, I always try to view a different angle. So anyway listening to him, I couldn’t believe the melody - the melody of La Cucaracha. I was floored!
CBG: A little while later you ended up leaving Chicago to do some academic studying in Montréal. And when you returned to Chicago from Montréal, I understand you weren’t involved with music. I am wondering what kinds of things you were doing prior to getting smitten with the blues again?
PL: Well that’s interesting. I came [to America] at age 16 or 16 and a half. I was born in October of 1952. I basically went to high school for a year in 1969 at the University of Chicago. Then, I went to Montréal for six years to study in French. I wanted to finish my European Baccalaureate. I stayed in Montréal until 1976 and I studied Psychology. I was playing all along – playing in bands in Montréal as often as I could. We would work on weekends for $15 or something like this. I was very much into playing and I was in the Bachelors of Psychology program at the time. Later, I also went for a Masters in Counselling at McGill University of Montréal. I did two degrees over there and then I hit bottom. I had unfinished issues from my childhood. I was not much of a verbal guy and I had a lot of emotion that came with playing music. It was a lot of emotion that I had not yet mastered or understood first of all. So I was what 18, 19, or 20, and I had an identify crisis. We were a Christian family. We went to a Jewish school. It’s a long, long story in my childhood. We travelled a lot. There was a lot of existential stuff that was overwhelming to me and the more I played, the worse I felt. I couldn’t believe it because I thought I had found my task. My father and grandfather were both highly intellectual and well educated.
PL: I was raised that way too. I just couldn’t believe that the more I played, the worse I got. Then I experienced depression, sadness, and I hit bottom. Then I made a decision. I said you know what, I need to get my head together and I got to stop playing music. It was like a necessity that I had to stop because it was just sucking me into a void – which is interesting because now it’s exactly the opposite – but at the time, I had to stop. So I went the psychology route and started reading like a maniac. I read about philosophy, psychoanalysis, theology, existentialism, Judaism, and so forth which were all extremely appealing to me.
PL: I continued to have an attraction to the harp but I didn’t have a passion for it for many years. So I kept going with my studies. I went all the way to receiving a Doctorate in Psychology and I became a Psychologist. I was writing a lot and was being published a lot. I thought that maybe that was my path – a family tradition, you know? Then, maybe 14 years later, I hit another bottom. It was another essential void where I felt I was getting old too fast with studying and the publishing. I was married and I had two kids yet something was missing. That was in the ’80s. I think it was the harmonica that called me back to music. I don’t know what happened. It was like a divine gift. Ever since then, it has been an uplifting and powerful journey. I have played in different bands until I formed my own in early 1991 when I founded Mississippi Heat. My brother helped me with that and the rest is history.
CBG: When you found the harp again for the second time as you are describing now, was there a song that you heard that just drew you back to the harmonica again?
PL: I think it was more of the cry of the harmonica that was very appealing to me and it was for some reason healing and therapeutic. I had to catch up because I had lost track of all the masters for over 14 years. One of them was Kim Wilson who I had never heard of. It was an internal call really. It is very hard to explain. I started meeting some harmonica players in Chicago and start jamming around and one thing lead to another, but it was not one particular player that led me back to the harp.
CBG: With your background in psychology and your experience performing music, have you ever thought about combining that into some form of music therapy?
PL: Well that is interesting. The two fields are very much compatible. I do have somebody who usually wants to have lessons from me and to ask questions and so forth but I don’t have too much time for that. You know I travel a lot and I perform a lot and record fairly regularly. I still work part-time as a psychologist to make ends meet.
CBG: What’s different about the new CD, which is called Let’s Live it Up! as compared to previous Mississippi Heat CDs?
PL: There are definitely similarities in terms of passion and drive. I tried hard to get a Chicago feel this time. There are shuffles and a 1940 big band swing, which I am very excited about. The previous CD Hattiesburg [Blues] had more of a Latin feel. On this one I wanted to go back to a Chicago sound. My master is Little Walter – as much as Big Walter has influenced me – my master is Little Walter so I wanted to go back to something closer to the Chicago style. I didn’t do as many minor key tunes, but I do have a few. There is funky blues, old school blues, and some slow Chicago blues. That swing I was telling you about it’s called Jumping In Chitown and I have melodies going on with the horn that do the same line as I do. I really like those kinds of arrangements as opposed to one, two, and three you know? So there is variety but we try to stay within the Chicago sound.
CBG: We’ve talked about John Primer and Carl Weathersby a bit. Lurrie Bell is another guitarist who has been in the band. One of your main guitarists right now is Giles Corey. All of these artists are well established, fantastic Chicago blues guitarists. Has anyone ever considered you to be a modern day John Mayall because your band is a real breeding ground for guitar players?
PL: That’s interesting. I should tell you first of all that one of our early mentors was John Mayall. I learned my early harp from John Mayall. I could pick up some of the basic notes from Mayall and I have always liked him because he writes his own material. As much as he occasionally does some covers, he is a highly creative guy. He writes his own tunes, his own arrangement, so I actually I like this guy. I would say I probably have his whole collection of records. I always look for fresh and original and he is one of them.
PL: Now, let me also say the blues world is difficult to survive in financially. If you don’t work all the time, or travel all the time, it’s hard to keep full time musicians in the band. I do have full time musicians like my singer who has been with me for ten years and my drummer Kenny [Smith] who’s been with me for 13 years. But you know sometimes they can’t always make a gig. I have a very small pool of musicians who know my material very well. And that is how I survive. I think what also has saved the band is our original songs. Carl Weathersby, despite having his own band, has been playing with us for over ten years as well. So I have a small family so to speak.
CBG: Your brother Michel thinks the new record is the most successful recorded performance the band has done. That is quite a compliment because he has been very much a part of all nine Mississippi recordings. Do you think this is the most successful performance as well?
PL: Yeah, I would say hands down. I mean I am very proud of all my children [records] so it’s hard to pick one over the others. I am very happy with most of the recordings that we have done. But for this one, I can say from a performance point of view, and from my own point of view, I think it’s the best we have done. I think there is no weakness to this album. I think that Carl has done amazing work, Primer did great work, Giles Corey did amazing rhythm and lead, so to me everyone has been stellar on this album. The sound of the mixing is vibrant and I think there is something about the sound, the way it was recorded. We hired Michael Freeman, who is from England but has been here in the U.S. for a long time. He has been a part of a couple Grammy nominated albums [Pinetop Perkins & Friends and Bo Diddley's Fortieth Anniversary Album A Man Amongst Men]. He worked for Blind Pig for years and he has worked on my albums in the past as well such as Footprints On The Ceiling. He did the mixing of this one which I wanted to have a vibrant approach. I would have to say I am very proud of this combination of sound and performance.
CBG: We have talked about some of the songs already. I am wondering whether there are some songs that make a strong social statement about society like Heartless Fool from Glad You’re Mine.
PL: There is a song called “Peace Train”. It is a political song. “Peace Train” is a song that I wrote for President Obama. It is a gospel feel and there is a choir on it. It’s like – oh my goodness – it’s like being in church. I am very excited about that. And that one, the lyrics are about I’m glad to be on that train, so it’s about peace. Peace in the world and Mr. President please show us the way. And the rest of the songs are love stories about broken hearts and stuff like that.
CBG: When you mention President Obama, I have to ask you what you think of him?
PL: Let me put it this way, I am an Obama man. I am completely. I’ve trusted my faith in this man and I feel that he can do what other previous presidents have not. I know he cares about the poor and I know he cares about people who are in need. I don’t mind deliberating him at all and I say go man. Go go go. I trust his agenda. I trust his philosophy. The vibe is people have hope.
CBG: I want to talk a little bit more about your immediate family and your upbringing. We have talked about the fact that your father was a minister and was very educated in Old Testament studies. I am wondering whether you had an internal struggle between the sacred and the secular like so many other blues, gospel, and soul artists like Sam Cooke?
PL: Well it’s a fact that I do. I definitely was raised within a highly religious family. My mother’s family built a temple in their town. Her father and grandfather were involved in building that church. So the roots of the family, both sides of the family, are highly religious. We are Protestant. But for some reasons my paternal grandfather – who was also a minister and in the Holocaust and WWII – had a huge shift in our thinking towards Judaism. We were very heavily involved in the resistance during the war. I am proud to say that both sides of the families hid Jewish families and took care of them and kept in touch even after the war. Our name is on a tribute wall in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. They misspelled our name [Lecocq] but we are on that wall as a thank you. [Editor’s Note: In doing research for this interview, Tim came across Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel, which has a virtual wall of honour for “The Righteous Among the Nations”. Under Belgium, there's a listing for Lecocq on that wall too].
PL: My grandfather made a decision for my father who was an obedient son. He put us in a Jewish orthodox school from kindergarten all the way up which was a controversial move. It was in Belgium, in Brussels, and it was my grandfather who went to talk to the Grand Rabbi of Belgium and convinced him that the Judaism should be open to Christians if they are interested in Judaism. And for some reason he convinced the Grand Rabbi to allow us to go to that school. So we were educated – my sister, brother, and I – in a Jewish school [Maimonides School in Brussels] even though we weren’t Jewish. We were literally raised in the Jewish environment. There has never ever been any Gentiles in that school and never was ever after us. So, it was from my up bringing I would say that I definitely trusted and had faith in my parents view of what is right. The Judeo-Christian view was deepened very early and that has always been with me even in my struggles.
CBG: And I am assuming that when you first wanted to get into music and become a musician, there may have been resistance from your father. Was he supportive, Pierre, or was he not too impressed with what you wanted to do?
PL: Well I would say there were two phases of my father. One is the childhood father and one is the one when I was in my 20s or late teens. My childhood father was extremely severe and rigid. He did not view playing soccer or any games or stuff like that as being positive per se. He was very much into serious studying. For him, what mattered was knowledge, not having fun. As a kid, I loved the radio. I loved listening to it and I loved soccer. To this day, I’m a big soccer fan and that was not tolerated per se.
CBG: When you listened to the radio, did you have to do it in secret?
PL: Yes, absolutely. My father was very oppressive at the time. He had a total change around when we came to this country.
CBG: Did he become more free-spirited and open towards music?
PL: Yes, yes, over the years he did. Now he’s my number one fan.