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Blues Fest 2006: The Devil and "American Idol" -- Popa Chubby, Friday, 7 p.m., Bandshell PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 27 June 2006 22:48

(Listen to this interview here.) 

Popa Chubby It started innocently enough. I asked the blues-rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter Popa Chubby about his recorded output, by his count 15 or so proper albums in the past 15 years.

"I got more than that," he said, alluding to Europe-only releases. "I'm a busy man."

Why so prolific?

"Most people are lazy SOBs, aren't they?" he said. "The way I look at it is you've got X amount of time on this planet, and you might as well make your mark. Whoever put me here didn't put me here to sit on my butt and watch American Idol, now did they?"

I should have run for cover.

"I hate American Idol. ... Tell all your readers not to watch it because it's bad.

"It spoon-feeds this fantasy of what - first of all, it's insulting to every real artist who's ever existed, because what it tells people is: You don't have to work for this, really. All you gotta do is have a vibe and go on TV, and three people who don't know nothing about music will - oh, and Randy Jackson. Shame on Randy Jackson. I mean, I can see those other two. Paula Abdul, what was she gonna do? She's too old to be a prostitute now. And then you got Simon, the gay guy from England. But Randy Jackson was once a good bass player. Now what's he doing? He's pimping himself out on TV. ...

"I'll tell you what. Here's a good story. I'll tell you Popa Chubby American Idol, okay? When I was 16, I got a gig at a club in Manhattan, but I lived in Queens. And I didn't have an amplifier, but I had a guitar, and I didn't have a car. So what I did was I borrowed my friend's Marshall half-stack, and I walked that amp 20 blocks to the train station.

"But it was a head and a bottom. So I'd have to take the head, walk it two blocks, then go back and take the bottom and walk it two blocks. Then I got it on the subway, I brought it down to the subway, I took the amp into Manhattan. I played the gig, which I didn't get paid anything for, and I felt like a star. And I took that amp back home, and I was happy to do it.

"I was willing to do anything in order to play music."

I'm certain the journey was uphill both ways, too.

He was born Ted Horowitz, and his parents owned a candy store in the Bronx. The jukebox played Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Motown. "I just connected to that Memphis soul sound, and that Detroit pounding rhythm," Popa Chubby said.

He saw Chuck Berry when he was eight years old. "It just kind of rearranged my chromosomes," he said. "I just wanted to play music."

He started with the drums before taking up the guitar. Growing up, he liked the blues rock of the late '60s and early '70s, and got curious about a name that kept cropping up on songwriting credits for the Stones, Foghat, Zeppelin. "Who's this Willie Dixon cat?" he wondered.

And a blues artist was born. Think Santana stripped of some of his Latin affectations and performed by a bald, burly, tattooed white guy with a soulful but rough-edged voice and a soft touch with a tune.

Chubby worked New York - including playing with punk pioneer Richard Hell for three years in the early 1980s -until he caught a break in the early 1990s, when he won a national blues talent-search contest in which somebody else entered him.

"I'm not a contest kind of guy," he said. But the win "was important in the sense that I really got that people liked me. ... I didn't have a lot of self-confidence."

Confidence isn't a problem any longer, though. "Once you're driving 17 hours, and you're playing 180 shows a year, you don't have time to think about whether you're good or not. You start living on your instinct. And that's where the music happens. That's where rock and roll happens. That's where the blues lives. It comes from pure instinct."

A Sony subsidiary signed him and in 1995 released Booty & the Beast, which spawned the hit "Sweet Goddess of Love & Beer." The label dropped him after that record, though, and in the States he's been with Blind Pig since 2001.

His latest CD, Stealing the Devil's Guitar, is a wide-ranging blues-rock workout, with everything from acoustic blues in the style of the old masters ("In This World") to what sounds like a sitar matched with a Santana lead ("Smugglers Game").

About the title, he touches again on the subject of paying one's dues, and the power of the blues: "Robert Johnson didn't sell shit to nobody. Robert Johnson busted his butt. He played every juke joint, every little honky tonk in the South, man. And he played his guitar endlessly. That's how he got that way. That's what this is really about. That's the devil's guitar. That's the devil's music. That's why they call it that. Why did they call the blues the devil's music, man? Because it had the power to make people feel good. That's a powerful thing, man. That's going to threaten a lot of people. If you go out there and you make people feel good with music and you actually change their lives with the positive force of music, ooooo man, then you can't do it with fear ... ."

Chubby's music is unusually melodic for a blues guitarist; he's less interested in showing off his chops than creating a strong, direct melody. "Melody's always been important to me, because songs have always been important to me, and simple melody has always been important to me," he said.

But he added that shredding is cool, too. He said he likes Pantera. He said he likes everything.

Except, I said, American Idol.

"Not a big American Idol fan, I have to tell you," he said. "Did we talk about that? Because I have some thoughts on that I could share with you."


To listen to the River Cities' Reader interview with Popa Chubby, click here.

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