THE LUCKY LOSERS INTERVIEW
Could you Tell us the brief history of your band?
Cathy Lemons: Phil Berkowitz and I were on a pleasure road trip back in January of 2014. We had both recently been “divorced.” We were singing along to some rather obscure Willie Dixon “Big Three Trio” songs. Our voices sounded unusually good for a male and female blend—same ranges—nice tones. As we were moving along through the mountains of Sedona, Arizona in the black of night we decided there and then to combine our talents.
I had already made three records, my last two on Vizztone (“Lemonace” and “Black Crow”) and with some success. Phil had also made, coincidentally, 3 records. His last two (“Louis Blues” and “All Night Party”) were also lauded by critics. Phil had already travelled all over the United States and worked with Ben Rice (IBC Winner for “Best Guitar), Sean Carney (IBC winner 2004), he even recorded with Duke Robillard, etc. And I too had a long history starting in the late 1980’s back in Texas where I first recorded with Anson Funderburgh, then from a Bay Area base I toured as John Lee Hooker’s send off singer, worked briefly with Mark Hummel, Paris Slim (of the “Mannish Boys”), Steve Freund, Anthony Paule, Kid Andersen, Ron Thompson, Tommy Castro, and many more.
But NOW it was time for something different. We wanted to expand into more of a roots thing—and use that tension between male and female to come up with something really cool.
We started out by entering a regional International Blues Competition (IBC) in July of 2014 in San Jose, CA. We won, fittingly “The Wild Card” and made it to the finals. We did not make it to Memphis--but remember we are “The Lucky Losers!” We win by losing! And that is precisely our philosophy. If you don’t lose you ain’t trying.
Well Phil and I are on a journey to remain challenged. We want the best of everything!
By May of 2015 we had completed our new album “A Winning Hand” with Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios. Steve Freund and Kid himself along with Ben Rice and some other top notch players are on the CD. Drawing on a wide range of influences including Chicago and Texas blues, Stax/Volt-styled soul, blues rock, jazz, and New Orleans funk—plus our own originals—we think we have a winner as it’s charting #6 on the Roots Music Report and has also made The Living Blues Charts.
What was the first song that you ever played for public? How did it make you feel?
Cathy: “Stormy Monday!” I was terrified! I was 23 years old and trying out for a blues band as the lead singer and my hands were shaking so hard I could not hold the glass of wine. But I managed to get up there and I wailed through it and the place was in shock. I got hired on the spot!
Phil: “Come Back Baby I Wish You Would” by Billy Boy Arnold. I remember playing it at my first gig in 1997 and it felt great! I remember thinking, "Well, here we go…this could be the definitive start to a life-long endeavor!" I also remember hearing that song for the first time (several years before I took up harmonica) and it totally floored me…those jungle rhythms, dissonant over-driven tones…that opening line from Bo Diddley's guitar…what more can you say!
What made you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in music?
Cathy: At the age of 8 singing on my roof in Entebbe Uganda. I used to look out at Lake Victoria and see a theatre of listeners. And I would bow after singing “Somewhere Over the rainbow.”
Phil: I was socially shy as a kid (still am to this day), but I had a real penchant for dramatically entertaining people. I used to perform in a drama class at summer camp (even won an award for it). When I started buying rock / pop records, I would look at myself in the mirror and sing along to every song I played on my turntable, 8-track, cassette…you name it! I grew up in a pretty conservative family, so a career in music was never considered a viable option, let alone something my folks could nurture. I did not even take up an instrument until my late 20's. I guess you could say I was a late-bloomer. When I was 30, (half-heartedly) pursuing a teaching credential, I saw an ad in the local free-press that said "Looking to hire a blues band..pay low, but not invisible." Something almost instantly clicked in my brain and told me that I should try and do this for the rest of my life…and I have ever since.
Do you have your own favorite music and is it any different from the music you are playing?
Cathy: This is such a great question! I have listened to blues and soul for 30 years—every kind. My favorite singer is Johnny Taylor from the album “Raw Blues.” But my secret favorite music right now is Bluegrass. Why? Because there are some great songwriters in that genre out there working with new music that I dig like Gillian Welsh and Diana Jones. Wonderful stories. Most inventive. Those writers are saying a great deal in such a subtle way--like Robert Johnson once did with blues. The layers are there in those songs.
Phil: Well…in the last 20 years or so, I really have come to enjoy and appreciate all types of music: blues, country, r&b, rock, jazz, funk etc. In the early 2000's, I tried to listen to as much late 40's and early 50's r&b as I could. I loved most of it, particularly Louis Jordan. It was during this period that I largely ignored, if not rejected, a lot of the rock music I listened to in my teens and early 20's. But in recent years, I've gone back to a lot of the best stuff I used to listen to all the time such as Bob Dylan, The Who, Grateful Dead, Cream, Traffic, just to name a few. I also got particularly into the music of The Band…one of my all-time favorite groups. Lately, I've become more familiar with soul and gospel music, which I hope to eventually infuse a bit more into my performances. Oh, yes, and some of the old-time country music (which could be classified as the white version of soul music) like Charlie Rich, Hank Williams, George Jones & Johnny Cash.
What is the best place to write a song?
Cathy: I write when I am walking. For awhile I was walking about 20 miles a week all over San Francisco and the songs were flooding in. My phone has a recording device and if I get an idea I sing the idea as I walk. I have also written songs in the back of my favorite bar where I have played steadily for 28 years, The Saloon which is in San Francisco. I wrote “Black Crow” in the back there in that tiny little office, between sets, with the jukebox blasting, people talking, glasses crashing.
Phil: Normally when I'm just hanging around the house by myself with nothing better to do than entertain myself with creative thought. Sometimes while I'm driving in my car…but it's little harder to write stuff down or record it while I'm doing that. I also get creative inspiration while hiking in wilderness areas (which there are still plenty of within 90 minutes of San Francisco). You just need to remember a pen & a pad, because you never know when something good may pop into your brain!
What was the most bizarre/weird moment on stage ? And how did you react?
Cathy: Well just 2 nights ago my bass player and drummer were covered in water from a leaking roof at The Saloon which was built in the 1860’s. BAD PLUMBING! Water was falling all over the bassist and the drummer-- and their equipment. My reaction was to save them from electrocution! I jumped over to the bar and grabbed a bunch of bar towels and ran over to my bass player and proceeded to wipe this huge bass cabinet down, meanwhile my drummer dared to unplug the equipment. I then ran down to the strange trap door-like stairs to the basement where the owner was playing pool and yelled! “Myron the ceiling is flooding!” He says causally, “Well I told them not to use the sink! There is a sign saying it!” Then he goes back to his pool game. So I go back to the stage and we move our drummer and bassist away from the leaking part of the ceiling and start up the set again. What else can you do? NOTHING THROWS ME ANYMORE! NOTHING! You can’t let it. When you are on stage you are in your calling. You do the best job you can no matter what happens. If the PA breaks you bring the band down and walk the bar or walk around singing something cool to the audience. If the band members get in a fight, you get in between them and calmly say, “This is not the time and place” which I have done numerous times. You just keep going and improvise through it. Make it a part of the act.
Phil: Well, the most recent incident was with that leaking water as described by Cathy—that was just two days ago! But here’s mine! When I played in my first band, The High Rollers, we played a gig in Alameda (just across the way from Oakland). The venue used to be owned by someone named Krull who also owned the pizza place next door. Evidently, the current owner had just purchased the bar property from the former owner (and named it The Whole Shebang)…but the pizza place, Krull's Pizza, was still in business next door. One night, we were playing a Ray Charles song (an early Atlantic side entitled "It Should've Been Me) which was a regular staple in our set list. There's a verse in it that says: "I ate a bowl of chili and I felt O.K. At least until I passed this fine cafe. I seen a guy eating a great big steak…while the waitress stood by feeding him ice cream and cake…It should've been me!" I would usually ad-lib this verse and insert a reference either to the venue (if they served food) or someplace nearby as a way of personalizing it more for the audience. So when I got to the verse, I said: "…at least until I passed Krull's Pizza Cafe." No less than two seconds later, the owner rushed the stage ranting and screaming at us while we were playing: "You guys just signed your walking papers…you screwed up, buddy boy…It's The Whole Shebang, The Whole Shebang…not Krull's! Better get your information straight! “ As this was happening, our drummer stood up from his drum seat (while continuing to play) and started yelling back at the owner: "Listen, man…you don't talk to us like that…you got some nerve…either you treat us with respect or we can take it outside!!" We finished our set and I think cooler heads prevailed. But needless to say, we didn't feel the need to play there again!
What was the furthest show from your home that you have done so far ?
Cathy: With Hooker we went all through Canada. I have never been to Europe. Maybe now I will get to come over there. You’re a star in Canada trash in Detroit.
Phil: I did play a festival down in San Felipe, Mexico in 2010. Wonderful time!
As an artist, is there anything special you hope to be able to accomplish?
Cathy: I want to write some great songs before I die. I’d like to see some great artists sing and record those songs also. That is my intention. I also want to blog again and get these unusual, true stories of my life out on the page. And I want to get more power in my voice—more range. I am taking lessons with a great voice teacher right now—Phil and I both are. There is a great deal to learn. A great deal to do. Phil and I spur each other on. And I would also like to perform in the best venues where the sound is wonderful and people are there for the music--where you are appreciated and treated like artists. I would also like to learn to do a handstand in Yoga. That too is art.
Phil: Well…as I stated in my last answer, I would like for Cathy and I to tour over in Europe. I believe our music would be well-received over there. I can say that being in this group with Cathy has inspired me to want to work harder at being the best vocalist / player / performer possible. To learn how to blend my vocals together with Cathy in a blues band is a great challenge as well as a great blessing!
What was the best gig you ever played? Why?
Cathy: For both of us I’ll answer—the Napa City Winery in June 2015 where we did a packaged show with the Frank Bey & Anthony Paule Band. We killed it. We did everything right that night Phil and I.
What did you do before you got into the music industry?
Cathy: I have been a waitress, worked in a book store, a record store, I was a maid for one week, worked in a law firm, a bank, an art gallery, a bond runner where I served papers to get people out of jail, and because I had a serious drug problem for many years I also have been a bank embezzler, a thief, an exotic dancer, a lady of the night, then upon recovery, a telemarketer, a temp working in offices, then for 6 years I worked for a nonprofit where I ended up as the manager—that place helped rehabilitate prostitutes—I really enjoyed that job. I taught struggling women how to use a computer among other things. And for awhile I owned my own housecleaning business for upscale homes. Right now I work at music and that’s it. It’s all I’m good at aside from writing. I may have to work again. I’m not afraid of hard work. There is something funny and beautiful about it.
Phil: Like Cathy, I graduated college later than most of my peers…thought I wanted to become a teacher,also like Cathy, but it was not for me. I worked a lot of dead-end jobs prior to that.
Just for the fun please fill in the blanks..........
Lucky losers is..............
Cathy: You have to learn to lose over and over again before you get to win.
Phil: A blessing in disguise. I am glad to have the opportunity to lose in a band like The Lucky Losers…it makes winning that much sweeter and more meaningful. And in the end the difference between winning & losing is usually just a little bit of luck!
Support music because..........
Cathy: Our world today with all the distractions and gadgets and the screens is so barren of feeling. Music is soul! Music awakens soul.
Phil: It not only sustains culture within a society, but democratic ways of living as well. It is also, more importantly, one of the best emotional & physical outlets you can find out there. Support LIVE music…good music is always better when it's played and experienced LIVE!
Please feel free to add anything you would love to add or i forgot to ask?
How about a “thanks” to the tireless efforts of Rudolf and others –people that work so hard to keep blues alive and thriving in a culture that is not always paying attention to great art forms! My hat goes off to you!