Holly Lives The Blues - The Importance and Relevance of Holly Harris

By A.J. Wachtel
March 2011

Her dedication, focus and good nature are legendary from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. The countless number of artists she has befriended, nurtured and associated with is mythical in all circles everywhere. And the many memories and stories she's experienced and now shares tell a unique tale of her perseverance and passion in the music industry that reminds everybody just how special she really is. Read on and see how Holly lives the blues.

Boston Blues Society: The entertainment industry is a male-dominated one in many areas. What difficulties have you encountered over the years?

Holly Harris: While it is true that the entertainment industry may be male-dominated, I personally have not felt encumbered by those boundaries . When I first started out in radio I attended a conference that was, shall we say, homogenous, that did surprise me, but I didn't let that experience limit or discourage me. I truly believe that if you are good at what you do, have confidence in your abilities and approach the right people at the right time, you have as good a shot at attaining your goal as anyone. The biz does appear to pay males more the majority of the time, but for me its always been about the passion rather than any bitterness. That's why I've stayed in. The labor of love has fed my creativity, which is always a good thing.

BBS: Is there a special friendship or particular bond between all the women connected by the local music scene?

HH: I like your question about the all-female sub-set within our blues scene. Yes, of course there is a special bond between most of us. We can become “girlfriends” too and get to know each other on a personal level based on shared experiences. That goes for nationally known women as well. Small moments on the road, in a club, in a ladies room or backstage are bonding moments. I became friendly with Jacki Cotton, James' wife, from having the honor to introduce him so many times. We tend to keep in touch and check in.

BBS: Do you miss Mai Cramer? Tell me what her loss means to you personally and to the blues community.

HH: I do miss Mai Cramer very much and think about her often. She was one of my best friends and my child's godmother. I used to listen to her show “Blues After Hours” in the car on those late Friday and Saturday nights like many of us did; sitting in a car or in between clubs. I was in a band called the Street Lips Blues Band and I played percussion. After practice we'd listen to Mai. Then, in an odd twist of fate, I was on jury duty with her and we became friends shortly afterward. She loved the blues and blues musicians and even married one, Peter “Hi-Fi” Ward. Mudcat was her brother-in-law. Her show was pivotal to the scene here and I was thrilled each and every time I filled in. She was also a talented filmmaker. Do you know she was editing up to the day she died? I often wonder what would have been next for her? She was the smartest woman I have ever known. It was a terrible loss for the community.

BBS: Are you a musician also?

HH: Well, lets see: I did a summer session at Berklee the same time I was going to grad. school at Suffolk for Psychology and waitressing. It became apparent to me that I was not going to be a performance artist. I was more interested in the musicians and what made them tick rather than playing the music. I loved it, but honestly I wasn't that good. I wasn't that focused and didn't practice enough. I wanted to be at the Speakeasy or Jacks listening to blues music and musicians. I played piano and tried flute and clarinet as a kid. I still play around with the bass and percussion from time to time and now I do sing a little more. I was in my first band in junior high and then played with Alabama Frank, Gail Nixhe and Fred Griffiths before Blue Heaven. We played at the opening night of Redbones and even played Nightstage. I think it's important for one to find their voice and and I'm still working on that one. I think if I had been more adventurous or aware I may have found the percussive world early on but my real passion is movement and dance. I was and am still dancing in front of the band. I do have a secret fantasy to be a background vocalist, though.

BBS: What are you up to today?

HH: Today, I’m busy working on becoming a successful voice-actor. I’m a few months away from my new demo and I’m having fun with it. I'd love to be back on the radio at some point but I have a wonderful day gig and am raising my teenage daughter so my plate is full. I also emcee often, and write some liner notes.

BBS: You were a founder of The Boston Blues Society. How do you think it’s doing right now?

HH: Yes, I helped co-found the BBS with Karen Leipziger, Ricky “King” Russell, and Watermelon Slim (aka Bill Homans). We're all still very active in different aspects of the music business and in different parts of the country. I am thrilled it is still going strong under the direction of Karen Nugent and her crew, having had it passed down from the dynamic, Heather McGibben of HeatherFest fame. I think they are doing a a great job and are active at all events, signing up new members, selling t-shirts and even filming the shows. The online-newsletter is chock full of articles and music listings. I think the community has changed but it goes in waves. I think if there were more venues there'd be more activity.

BBS: How have you seen the blues scene change over the years?

HH: That leads me to your next question. Yes, the local blues scene has certainly changed. With mainstay clubs not being able to support live music and blues music in particular, both locally and nationally, it has had a profound effect on the scene. Thank goodness there are still clubs around and every once in a while new ones sprout up that also host jams to showcase what’s out there for the blues world. Johnny D's has been a mainstay and will continue to be so, which is great. A club I really enjoy going to is Smokin' Joe's in Brighton. Wendy and Joe are amazingly supportive of the scene. The larger venues do ok, as well, with bigger shows. Most of us plan to go out and attend. It's not a weekly, hang thing. The community is still very supportive of each other, and let's face it, it is a “mature” musical genre.

BBS: Who are some of your favorite local blues musicians?

HH: I have many favorites, but I'd like to pay homage to the veterans on the scene like Shor'tay Billups, Shirley Lewis, Toni Lynn Washington, Prof. Harp., Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, and of course, the Roomful of Blues guys, just to name a few. I also enjoy seeing musicians mix and match in each other's bands. It keeps it fresh and fluid. I will say I never get tired of hearing David Maxwell play the piano or Mighty Sam McClain sing anything! That's where the Boston Blues Society Challenge comes in. It's a wonderful showcase of all our current local talent and everyone can see and hear each other. Whenever I emcee the event, at some point I make a point of saying “We're all winners here.” There are just so many talented musicians in New England and the world is taking notice.

BBS:You are a very peaceful person. Care to share a story where you uncharacteristically lost your temper?

HH: I am very fortunate to have been born a happy person. Yeh, stuff gets me down. I'm a single parent, for one, and life has its frustrations, you know, the economy and all, but I wake up each day ready for the next adventure and hopefully most problems are surmountable. I do get the blues like everyone else, but listening to music, dancing and gardening when the weather's nice, helps put me back on track. As a School Social Worker, I see many people struggle with mood and depressive issues. It's very hard,whether it’s long-term, short-term or situational. It's just so important to know that one is not alone nor to suffer in silence. To answer your question, I don't often get cranky, but I recall getting agitated once trying to get backstage at a big Boston venue. I was supposed to do an interview with either Aretha or Buddy Guy so I was a bit nervous to begin with and I was having a crazy time getting past the gatekeeper. I finally did, but I had to call for backup from my connections backstage. It was a bit of a drag, but only those around me knew I was stressed about it. I’m pretty even-tempered unless I can't get warm for a while. I always say I can be tired, I can be hungry, but I can't be cold.

BBS: Name your favorite fantasy bill for a Boston Harbor Blues Cruise.

HH: I think there would be some great national artists for a cruise like Florida's Albert Castiglia or Jackie Payne from California. I would love to see Denise La Salle play here. I think Mitch Woods would be smokin' too. He'd rock the boat from side to side. Someday, I plan to go on the Rhythm & Blues Cruise with the wild crew that goes from here year to year.

BBS: You've worked at commercial and college radio stations. What are some of the differences between the two markets?

HH: The format differences between college radio and commercial are not as great as you would think because it was a “niche” show. The main difference is the commercials, of course. That's what pays for the show. The other difference is the groove you can get into with the music, the listeners, and the other team members working with you. I started on WMFO on Sunday mornings and it was just so freeing to play this great music for three hours. It's an active meditation for me. I've had the most amazing interns/volunteers over the years too. Sarah S., Jim Carty, Warren, Kris, John Guregian,just to name a few. All were so great. I also loved filling in for Mai on WGBH. I did that on and off for about 20 years. The volunteers there were Peter Cahill, Dick, Tom Hazelton and many other loyal behind the scenes people that were all part of the show. I'd leave there at 1 or 2 in the morning and feel elated every time. All the shows I hosted I also produced, which meant I selected the music and how the show came together. Towards the end of my last commercial gig, some folks who weren't as creative and didn't understand the show tried to change the format and it just didn't work. The internet show I hosted for the last year and a half was really a different trip altogether because it was pre-taped, it went all over the world, and it took a lot more planning and pre-production.

BBS: What are some of the best shows you've ever seen locally?

HH: I've seen and experienced some amazing shows here in New England. I had the good fortune to help emcee the 1st Blues show at the former Great Woods. Fred Taylor put that show on with help from publicist Sue Auclair and I think we did a couple of them. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Roy Buchanan, Koko Taylor, and John Lee Hooker. The Neville Brothers and a young Bernard Allison, were some of the amazing artists showcased. I used to frequent the famed Speakeasy on Norfolk St. in Cambridge and was mesmerized by Luther “Georgia Boy” Johnson. I always regret missing Freddie King, but I still vividly recall seeing both Muddy Waters and B.B. King at Paul's Mall and The Jazz Workshop in the late '70's. I saw Albert King at Nightstage, Koko Taylor, Irma Thomas and Shemeika Copeland at the Winter Island Blues Fest. Some of my favorites at Ed Burke's Club were Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, Sonny Rhodes and Tommy Ridgley. I also have seen B.B. King almost every time he's come through town. He's truly my favorite. Seeing the band in Newport is always great. I can’t forget about Taj Mahal and James Cotton, whom I adore. And two amazing Buddy Guy shows worth mentioning: the first at Jonathan Swift's blew my mind. Jr. Wells was talking about how the blues could be happy and the many themes it encompassed. Then Buddy walked outside with his guitar and either got on a bus going by or stopped the bus. It was pretty crazy. Also in 1993 I was hosting a Buddy Guy show at The Roxy. I just felt people were hugging me and squeezing me unusually tight that evening. I was in the ladies room and again Buddy was roaming with his axe and he came right in. At that moment, I realized I was pregnant. I put down my drink, hugged Buddy, and then he went back out and onstage. My daughter was born 9 months later.

BBS:You've connected with and established close relationships with many blues artists. Name some of the more influential artists you've met.

HH: That leads me to the next question about influential people I’ve met here. I'll start with musicians. These are some I've spent time with. Each is special in their own way: B.B. King, Lavern Baker, James Cotton, Luther Allison and my mentor, Norman Hyatt.

BBS: Give me your Top 5 Local and National Favorite Blues songs.

HH : Local: 1) “You Got What It Takes” (Sugar Ray and Michelle “Evil Gal” Wilson; 2) “Chillin' Out” (Ron Levy and Albert Collins); 3) “Backseat Blues” from Roomful of Blues' “There Goes The Neighborhood”; 4) “Got To Fly” (Paul Rishell & Annie Raines from “Moving To The Country”); 5) “Handyman” (David Maxwell from “Max Attack”); 6) “Knee Quaking” (Shirley Lewis from “Live at the E House”, and her rendition of “Built for Comfort,” of course); 7) “Fever” ( Weepin' Willie Robinson's rendition from “At Last On Time”). National: 1) “Trouble in Mind;” 2) “Frankie and Johnny;” 3) “Sittin' On Top Of The World;” 4) “Since I Met You Baby;” and 5) “Bring It On Home To Me.” I melt when I hear these songs.

BBS: What will the recent opening of The House of Blues mean to the local scene?

HH: I'm very glad The HOB opened near Fenway, but it isn't strictly a blues club per se anymore. It can’t be and survive these days. It is a corporation, but The Foundation Room is very supportive of local blues. I'd like them to be more DJ-friendly, like Sculler's,and guest lists are important. Rosy Rosenblatt, Bill Smith, Dave Herwaldt, I and others were called in as consultants on the original HOB. Rosy and I did an audio training on the history of blues for employees. It's hard to say what the future will bring for Bostonblues. It is true “the blues will never die,” but it goes in waves. I think blues radio should make a resurgence and it will help support a healthier scene.

BBS: Any advice to musicians with the blues?

HH: Keep practicing but always have a back-up; a Plan B or even C. You have to live. Have some sense of your goals and your own direction; maybe find a teacher or mentor. It should primarily be about the music, but learn a bit about the business side of the profession, either through courses or books, and don't be afraid to market yourself. Do it in a positive way. Stay as focused as possible and keep practicing. Make an effort to go out and play with others and above all, have fun!

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