The Houston Oral History Project is a repository for the stories, accounts, and memories of those who have chosen to share their experiences. The viewpoints expressed in the Houston Oral History Project do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the City of Houston, the Houston Public Library or any of its officers, agents, employees, or volunteers. The City of Houston and the Houston Public Library make no warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the interviews and expressly disclaim any liability therefore.
The Houston Oral History Project provides unedited versions of all interviews. Some parents may find material objectionable for minors. Parents are encouraged to interact with their children as they use the Houston Oral History Project Web site to complete research and homework activities.
The Houston Public Library retains the literary and publishing rights of its oral histories. No part of the interviews or transcripts may be published without the written permission of the Houston Oral History Project.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to:
The Houston Oral History Project.
Houston Public Library
Houston, Texas 77002
The Houston Oral History Project reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to decline to post any account received herein and specifically disclaims any liability for the failure to post an account or for errors or omissions that may occur in posting accounts to the Virtual Archive.
For more information email the Houston Oral History Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interview with: James Bolden
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: June 11, 1990
Archive Number: OH 460
LM: This is an interview with James Bolden. Louis Marchiafava is the interviewer.
CS: This is Charles Stevenson, testing one, two, three, four, five.
JB: Hi, this is Mr. Blues, the interviewee.
LM: I’d like to begin the interview by getting some background information on you. The best place to start there is to your place of birth and your date of birth.
JB: Okay, well, I was born here in Houston at Riverside High School, believe it or not, in 1945. I was reared here and went to primary school here, middle school, and high school here.
LM: Tell me—we’re going to talk about your educational background in a little more detail as with regard to your music, but tell me a bit about your family background. You had brothers and sisters?
JB: Yeah, I have two sisters and unfortunately part of my family is deceased during the process of us growing up and everything. However, they did decease from terminal diseases.
LM: Are you talking about your brother?
JB: (01:41) No, my sister.
LM: Your sister?
LM: You’re the only one now?
JB: No, I’m the only boy, male. Okay, I’m the only male and I have two sisters that are still living. I come from a family of six kids, so now there’s only three, yeah. My upbringing—I think that you could consider it as being one of the best ethnic upbringings in the city, because my father worked for the railroad and my mom taught school.
LM: Where did she teach?
JB: She taught at Rose Leeston. In other words, I think I had a pretty well-rounded upbringing. I had a religious type upbringing which made me very attune to my surroundings and attune to the Bible. Of course, of where the Bible comes from—I study the Bible, and I think that I applied the things that I studied from the Bible to life out here too.
LM: What is your mother’s name and your father’s name?
JB: My father’s name is Maceio Bolden. My mom’s name is Bessie Bolden. They came here from Louisiana when they were young, and they made Houston their home.
LM: What part of Louisiana did they come from?
JB: They came from north Louisiana and around Logansport, Louisiana and Mansfield. Then I think my brother, my first brother, which was the first to decease, okay, they had him at an early age, young age. They came to Houston when they were about 19 and maybe 17, something like that. My dad came here when he was 16, and then later he went back home and married my mom and came down, and she came then. In other words, they had a good union, and I think they had a lot of more characters about themselves too, because in order for you to raise your kids—and haven’t any of us been in any trouble—just the normal stuff.
LM: What railroad did your dad work for?
JB: (04:39) He worked for Southern Pacific here in Houston. Well, he wasn’t—like they had the brakemen running back and forth, but he worked here in the yard, I suppose is what they called it at that time, at the shop, that’s what it was. He retired there, so like, in other words, they did their best to raise us.
LM: You had three other sisters, three sisters who died, huh?
JB: No, I had one sister die, and my mom and dad’s first boy, and then my brother. My brother, he attended Prairie View A&M College. He was a football player over there, and—
LM: He died at an early age. That’s very unusual.
JB: Well, actually, he died when he was 28.
LM: That’s still young.
JB: Yeah, it was very young. Like my sister, she also taught school, and she was a teacher at Rossellini school. She died when she was 34. Then my, which would’ve been my oldest brother, he died at the age of 5 from blood poisoning. He stuck a splinter in his feet, and it set up blood poisoning, and he got Lockjaw. That’s what he passed from. Back then during that time, I really don’t think people was that attune to—I got to hurry up and get him to the hospital and get him a tetanus shot or something. They just tried to treat it, put Mercurochrome on it and get the splinter out, and put a gauze or something on it, and it would get well, but his didn’t. By the time they did get him to the hospital, it had already set in.
LM: That’s tragic. That’s really tragic.
JB: (06:51) Tell me about it. (laughs) I just said tell me about it, but it’s kind of—I lost both of my brothers and my sister. Although I did not know my first brother. He was born way before I was, but I knew my other brother and my sister kind of raised us too.
CS: Did your mother work?
JB: My mother was a teacher.
LM: I mean in the early period?
CS: He said that.
LM: Okay, let’s get the chronology straight. When did she become a teacher, when she moved here?
JB: Yeah, after she came from Logansport, or wherever. She stayed there and got her education. Then she moved over to Houston, yeah.
LM: You mentioned your religious background, your religious training. What church do you belong to?
JB: I belong to a holiness church, and at that church, that’s where I feel my rhythmic soul came from, because as I recall as a very young man—I suppose I must’ve been around 7 years old or 8 years old, there was a guitar player came here from Alexander, Louisiana, and they had a revival at my mom’s church. That guitar player, he was a guitar player for—that was the music, so he inspired me.
Then there was also an old lady at the church. I guess she was young back then. To me, she was old, and it still seems that way to me because this is all I can remember, that lady. She seemed to be an elderly type lady. Maybe she was a mature lady back then, but still to an 8-year-old that was an old lady, so I remember she had this guitar. She told me that she would let me use that guitar to learn how to play it if I wanted to play it. I told her, I said, “Yeah, I’d like to use it to learn how to play on it.” After I got the final approval from my mom, then she gave me that guitar, but I always kept in mind the music that I had heard coming from that other guy’s guitar that came here from Louisiana. I always kept in mind that music.
CS: Do you remember his name?
JB: (09:54) I really don’t. I wish I did, but I really don’t. I think he’s probably dead now. I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him since then, but I remember that playing, even though it’s been all these years.
CS: After you got the guitar, how did you proceed to learn how to play it?
JB: Well, through trial and error. (laughs) I just banged on it until I get some kind of music out of it.
CS: Did the lady teach you how to tune it?
JB: No, she didn’t. I’ll tell you what, I had a brother-in-law at that time, which was my oldest sister’s husband. He knew a little bit about a guitar. He did not play music like I do now, but he used to play around his house or whatever. He learned it somewhere, and he tuned that guitar for me. When he tuned that guitar for me, then I used to just bang on it until I learned how to make some kind of music, some kind of note I wanted to hear. Then from that one, I went to another note I wanted to hear.
The first song I actually learned partially how to play—and I think all black blues guitar players back during that time—I think the first song they learned how to play was Honky Tonk by Bill Doggett. That’s the song that I learned, and it’s the do-en-do-do-do-do-do. There’s two strings, and you just mash one, and I think that from there, from Honky Tonk, I went to something else, but that’s where I started.
CS: You were really only using two strings?
JB: That’s all for Honky Tonk.
CS: A single note at a time?
JB: (12:09) Yeah, that’s just Honky Tonk, dah-do-dah-do, and that’s it. That’s the open string which is E, and then you mash your—what’s the next string over from E? A—you mash your A in your B position, and dah-do—that’s how you get that. That’s all I knew how to play for about 6 months. Then I started learning. As I went, I started learning more and more. I took this flavor with me from what I had learned at church, the type of flavor they gave it. I took that flavor with me up until today. If a person really listened to my music today, they’ll see that the Christian background that that music carry. It’s like a hum. My music is like a hum.
Several people asked me, “Hey man, how you get that sound?” As a matter of fact, a good friend of mine is fixing to record an album right now, called me last week, and told me he liked the sound of my new record. That’s You Say You Want to Be Free. He asked me, “How did you get that sound?” Well, it’s not really my guitar. It’s just me. It’s in my fingers. That’s what rush up in my blood when I hear the note, that sound. It’s not really—you know—my guitar is more like—the way I play is more like a humming. It’s not really like—a lot of guitar players you hear, they’re playing like ding, dah, ding, ding, stuff like that.
CS: Sing the notes.
JB: But mine would come out, ying, ying, ying, like I’m humming them. That’s because I think I’m kind of smothering it a little bit, but it comes out like a hum. Then I was very unaware for a lot of years, the power that I had in my guitar, in my soul. I was very unaware. I used to go to different clubs to play. I used to play in different towns with other groups. I never did have my own group when I was a youngster coming up. I always played with somebody else. For some reason or another, everybody would just fall out and everything when I started playing. By me playing with someone else, I never knew the power that I had within myself to be able to move you. I did not learn this power until years later.
LM: Let me go back a bit and trace the development of your playing.
LM: From what you’re saying, the church was the important part?
JB: (15:49) Yeah, it was my background.
LM: How did you get your first instrument?
JB: My first instrument? Well, outside of the one that I had borrowed from the lady at church. I remember her name. Her name was Sister Allen. That was her name. After she let me keep that guitar about—I guess—about 2 years, then—let me see—I think I kept that guitar longer than 2 years. I think I kept that guitar about 3 or 4 years, because after that guitar, I went to Papa’s Music Company.
LM: And you—
JB: —bought my first Fender Strat.
LM: How old were you when you first began playing?
JB: I was 14.
LM: Then you had your own then about when you were 18 or so? You had your own instrument then by the time you were 18?
JB: Huh-uh, I had my own instrument when I was 14.
LM: That was the one?
JB: No, I had given hers back, but I bought my first Fender Stratocaster when I was about 14.
LM: You must’ve been younger than 14 when you actually started playing then?
JB: I was. I started playing like—I guess—when I was about—well, I mean, I started tinkering with the guitar, like with her guitar, trying to learn how to play. It took me about 2 or 3 years to really be able to say that, “Well, hey, I play a guitar.” I tried on several occasions when I was—I guess I was about—oh, let me see—about 12, 13, something like that—I tried on several occasions to play with some of the people that was playing here in Houston. I recall one guy I wanted to play with—I used to go to school, back and forth down Lyons Avenue. I lived in Fifth Ward. That’s where I was raised at, and I used to go to hear E. O. Smith, and E. O. Smith was on Lyons and Graves.
(18:11) I’d have to walk back down to my house, back down Lyons, and there was a club sitting on the right-hand side of the street, right there on the corner of Bringhurst and Lyons. It’s torn down now, but there was a club back at that time, and Big Walter Price—I think that’s his name. Well, we called him Big Walter, but his name I think is Big Walter Price. At that time, those were the only people—that kind of person—you know—Big Walter and another guy was here named Joe Bale, which they called him Little T-bone Walker. They had a few guitar players running around in Houston. Big Walter, although he was a piano player, but he used to come to that club right there on the corner of Bringhurst and Lyons Avenue.
I was just a little boy trying to play my guitar. That’s all I was trying to do. I seen them taking the drums and stuff into the club one evening when I was coming home. I guess they were going to rehearse in there or something. I saw them taking the drums inside, and I said, “William, I think I’m stop by and ask him can I play with him.” I had my little books in my arm and everything, and I went in there and asked the guy who I seen with the sticks, “Hey, you work with this band. You all want a guitar player?” I didn’t know how to talk the musician talk at that time, the words, “Where is the G?” (laughs) You know what I mean?
I ask him, so he said, “Well, you’re going to have to talk to that guy right over there.” I say, “Okay, then I’ll talk to him.” He went and told him. He said, “Well, this is Big Walter, and Big Walter, this is—what’s your name there?” I said, “I’m James Bolden.” I say, “I’m a guitar player. Do you need a guitar player? Would you be interested in a guitar player?” He told me, “Yeah.” He said, “Bring your guitar down here tomorrow. I’m going to meet you, and we’ll see what you can do, young man.” I said, “Well, okay. Tomorrow is Saturday.” I think that was the Friday when I met him. That Saturday I said I’d be back.
Anyway, I brought my guitar back down there, and the guitar had—you know—I had banged on it for so long and everything. I guess about a couple of years, long enough for me to know how to play Honky Tonk. I thought that is what he was going to play when I went there. I had, okay, like one of the keys on the guitar was broke, and I had to turn that key with a pair of pliers. Like there’s three on that side, so like the one on I think the right over there, I had to turn them with the pliers. I did not know that you had to tune to the piano to play with him. He said, “Well, let’s tune up.” I said, “Well, okay. I’m ready.” He started, do-do-do, hitting that C or that E or whatever, and then I went to hit mine, and say, “Wait a minute. I can’t tune that string, man.” I said, “I ain’t got no pliers with me.” (laughs) He said, “I think I might be able to find you some pliers. We’ll find some.” I said, “All right, if you can find the pliers or something to turn it.” I said, “Well, then, hey, then I can tune it.”
(21:48) He went somewhere and found some pliers or got somebody’s car somewhere, and I tuned that guitar. When I tuned, he had me—he said, “Well, what do you know how to play?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. I can play Honky Tonk.” He said, “Well, let’s try that. That’s a good one.” I kicked out Honky Tonk, and then they came on in on it, but we never did get it together. He told me, “Well, son, wait a few years and come back and see me later.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” I was embarrassed because I wanted to play a tune. Okay, so he said, “Wait a few years,” and I waited a few years. Well, I waited so long until, like I say, finally I got to my guitar, the one I bought. Then, when I bought my guitar, I was already ready to jump out there and start playing.
When I jumped out there and started playing, I didn’t have to worry about playing with nobody, because everybody was coming to me, even him. He was calling me, and I worked some jobs with him, but then I found out that with the guitar, the type of guitar I played, the type of music I was playing, it surpassed his blues. He did stuff like Sur-i-gee and stuff like that, dum-da-do-de-de-dum-da-do-de, ah, like that, but like the kind of stuff like I was doing was more in a more modern hipper vain than what he was doing. Still, I respected everybody, and I tried my best to play what he wanted me to play for him.
Right until today, even though I haven’t played—I never played over maybe four or five or six jobs with him. A lot of time has passed since back then, but even right today, he admires me and respects me because he knew how much I was playing even back then. I played with him because that’s what he wanted to do, and that’s all right with me. There are several guys that I worked with one-nighters and stuff like that. I worked some shows here with T-bone. I also worked some shows with B. B. here, and I worked shows with—let me see—Big Joe Turner. I worked on shows with Freddie King. Let’s me see who else—John Lee Hooker. There was just so many players here. It was a very famous place when I was a teenager. The name of that place was—it was right on the tip end of my tongue—but it was on Shanaveri (??) Street, and they called it some hall. Do you remember that place?
JB: (25:08) It’s on Shanaveri, and they had a bunch of famous blues acts to go there. At that time, I think I was in my late teens. I had got up to about 19 or 18 back then, and I used to go there. A lot of times, like Freddie King or John Lee Hooker, or some of the blues greats that are out today. Of course, Freddie, he’s deceased. He passed a few years back, but I had the opportunity and the pleasure to play Freddie’s guitar. I also played B. B.’s guitar, because a lot of times with him, I didn’t have my guitar with me. He said, “I got my guitar, man. You know how to play it.” I said, “All right. Is it all right if I play?” “Yeah, man, sure.”
Then a lot of times it’s just singers just calling me up. After they got through doing what they were doing, they would call me up and tell me to go ahead and play. They’d take the guitar off their neck and give it to me. That’s how I got a chance to play Freddie’s guitar. Then I played B’s guitar a couple of times. I was at a place called The Playman, and I didn’t have my guitar with me.
CS: Was that here in Houston?
JB: Yeah, that was here in Houston. B. B. told me that, “Hey, man, you want to play a couple of them?” I told him, “Yeah, but I don’t have my guitar with me.” B took his guitar up out of its case, helped me put it on my neck. Told me to go on out there and get it, so I went out there on the stage. I played. Let me see—T-bone Walker—I used to play T-bone’s guitar when T-bone would come over here, I’d play on his guitar. Of course, now I played some shows with T-bone. Sometimes Bone would come here, and I wouldn’t be playing behind him, but—you know—if I wanted to go up and do a song, then I could go up and I’d use Bone’s guitar if I didn’t have mine with me. I’ve played with a lot of greats, blues entertainers. I’ve played with a lot of local entertainers that should’ve been greats. There’s a few still trying to be, and even at the age of 70-some, 60-some, still trying to be.
LM: Let me go back and ask you a few questions about your schooling. Did you participate in the band or any kind of musical activities in school?
JB: (28:05) I used to hate the band in school. (laughs) I didn’t really hate the band in school, but see—okay, you say like in junior high school, they didn’t have guitar players and stuff like that in junior high school. They had woodwind instruments, and they had like piano. Well, the band director, he knew that I wanted to learn music. I told him I wanted to learn how to read music. He said, “Well.” I say, “Well, I play guitar.” He said, “Well, son, we don’t have no guitar in the band.” He said, “But now—what they call that other kind of band?
CS: Do you mean the orchestra?
JB; Not the orchestra, because back then they didn’t have orchestras. They had—okay, they had the marching band for their football games.
CS: The concert band?
JB: They didn’t even have concert bands.
CS: They just had primarily the marching band.
JB: Yeah, they had the marching band. That’s all they had. Then they was going to put together—maybe they had already put it together, for all I knew, because I was just getting in the band there. He told me that once I learned how to play an E-flat horn and learned how to read music—do you know what an E-flat is? One of those—
CS: Its like the French horn, for example.
JB: Yeah, something like that. He said once I learned how to play that, then they would put me in this other band that they had or it was forming. Then I could play my guitar over there if I wanted to after I learned how to do this other. I told him, “Well, okay, Mr. McGruter.” That was his name. I played that E-flat horn—well, I didn’t ever play it. I held that E-flat horn for about 2 weeks until I say, “Hey, I’m a guitar player,” and so I didn’t play in the band. I got out of the band.
LM: In talking about the band, are we talking here about only junior high school, or are we talking about senior high school as well?
JB: Through senior high school. I never played in a band at school. I never saw the necessity for it. Like the guys who were in school in music, that’s the way they had to learn how to play. Personally, I knew another way to go. I learned myself how to play. Then, not only did I do that. I learned how to read by myself too.
CS: How did you learn how to read by yourself?
JB: I went and got me a music book that had the notes in it, and like it had the lines and spaces. It had the notes and what note that was, and what chord this is and stuff, so I learned how to do it like that.
CS: Did you have a book that taught you chord structures?
JB: Yeah, I had a book that teach chord structures and also notes, where the notes are played on the staff, below the staff, on the line. I bought my books to show me that. Okay, the reason for that was because when I got ready to do some road shows behind other artists, not myself, then I had to be able—like if they threw some of their music in the front of me, well, they’re not going to throw like—ah, let me see—the only thing that they would give me is the guitar chords, and so I had to be able to read those guitar chords if I wanted to play with this particular artist, play behind him. I had to learn how to read chords and form those chords in order for me to be able to play behind whichever artist I played behind. Thank God, they were R&B artists at that time.
CS: You also had to learn the terminology of major and minor and the 7th chords.
JB: That’s right, 16, 8 notes, yeah. This is true. This is where diminish run and stuff like that. That is what I had to learn, and I learned all that stuff by myself.
CS: Out of a book.
JB: (02:54) Out of a book. All that I did not learn out of a book, then whoever else that was with me, was just as bad as me or badder—you know—and then they told me what I was doing. I just went from the book and from experience, first-hand experience and stuff like that. That brought me to the point where I could go and play behind Otis Redding for 24 days. I could go play behind Wilson Pickett 14 days. I could go play behind Sam and Dave, Slave Dave, and whoever else.
CS: Would these be traveling?
JB: Yeah, show bands, rolling bands, and I would go do my show. See, I was okay, like when I was about 21—well, between the age of 19 and I’ll say 28—I was what you could say, like a troubleshooter guitar player. The reason I say that is because anytime that they wanted a bad guitar player to go on the road with them to kick some other guitar player’s butt, then they would say, “Hey, let’s get James Bolden, because we know with him what we got going.” They would call me, “Hey, man, wonder can you work 14 days behind me?” I said, “Yeah, I can do it. When is it?” Like if I wasn’t committed to another show at that time, then I’d go and go with them. When I’d get through out on the road, I left it smoking.
It’s a funny thing, man, but I’ll say at the age of 24 or 25, it was some guys over here from New York. They were playing behind an artist named Joe Tex. They were at a place called—I think it was the Monarch bowling alley. They had turned it into a big Monarch club, so I just happened to go over there that night. I was off and went over there, and I wanted to see Joe Tex’s show, because I had heard about it, but I hadn’t seen his show. I went over there to Joe’s show, and when the guys went on their intermission, then I went back in the dressing room, and I started introducing myself to the guys in the dressing room. They’re, “Man, are you James Bolden? You the James Bolden?” I say, “What you mean, the James Bolden?” They said, “Man, you’re the guitar player from here in Houston that we’ve been hearing about, man.”
(06:09) I did not know where my talent carried that far over to New York, because some of these guys were from New York that were playing behind Joe Tex at that time. I did not know that they were talking about me all over New York and my playing over here. That’s why I say I underestimated myself when I was coming up. Otis out of Tennessee, the musicians from out of Tennessee knew me, and I didn’t find out that they knew me until I started working shows behind O. V. Wright, and he is from Memphis, Tennessee. Then, some of the musicians from Memphis was coming over here with him. Then when I called my name, they already knew me or knew of me or they knew my music from somebody’s record I had played on over here.
You know—like I say, I really underestimated what I could do, because it was just like picking up a drink of water, to me it was. But to other people, it was a task for them to be able to play like that. I had a type of soul projection like that, but to me, it was just like picking up a glass water, drinking it, and putting it back down. It wasn’t nothing. Still, like I say, I wasn’t aware of my talent or what it could do until years later.
CS: You really didn’t have any guidelines to go by then, for years and years.
JB: I really didn’t. I was more or less, “Hey, man, if you can work this show, then let’s go.” I’d tell them how much I wanted to go work the show, and that was it. I really didn’t have any guidance. I mean—honestly, I never had any guidance.
CS: Is there anyone that you could’ve asked for, as you think back, for help?
JB: What kind of help? Like what?
CS: To help you with the guitar.
JB: Oh, I didn’t need any help with my guitar. Huh-uh, because what I was playing, I was in a class all my own, and I didn’t need anybody. It’s just like today, I’m playing now, and I’m in a class all my own. I got a sound all my own today. The only thing that I see that actually really happened was time caught up with me, because I was ahead of my time back then and it just caught up to me today. Because on the R&B side, what they’re playing today, is what I played 20 years ago or 15 years ago, so actually, time caught up with me today. That’s why I’m in a modern band today.
But okay, although I didn’t get off into the disco. I didn’t get off into that. I hate disco. I hate rap. I mean—it’s not really music to me. Talking is not music. Lyrics is music. Singing is music, not talking. Okay, now, as far as my music is concerned, I didn’t play disco, and I didn’t play rap. I don’t play rap music, but my music is modern to the point whereas I can take Freddie King’s music or I can take B. B. King’s music—of course, B. B. could take his own music and make it up-to-date sounding—but I could take Freddie King’s music or T-bone Walker’s music or any other musician’s music from way back, and I could revolutionize their music on record, on my guitar, however I want to do it. I can revolutionize their music.
(10:59) Okay, I found that blues is not just hay, bang, playing, playing, playing. You have to have a technique to play blues. Okay, also, with the modern, electronic devices we have today, I can take a record made 50 years ago and play it with the same changes that they had, that they did it, years ago. But today, it would be a totally different flavor if I played it. It would be accepted on a modern side.
Okay, now the first record I recorded, which was Tin Pan Alley, that record was written about 32 years—no, it wasn’t that long—that record was written about—I think about maybe 19, 20 years ago, Tin Pan Alley. Like I still was going to high school, junior high school, when this guy wrote this record. As a matter of fact, I walked by him the day that he was sitting up under a shade tree on Lyons Avenue, right there at that same club where I told you where Big Walter was. He was sitting up under that shade tree with his guitar on the sidewalk right there by that club, right on the sidewalk, there on the front on the side of that club. He was writing that song called Tin Pan Alley, and to date, about 3 ½ years ago, I recorded it and my Tin Pan Alley, also his Tin Pan Alley, and it was written—his was written, like I said, about 19 or 20 years ago. I have to say this, you can take music from way back and do it—of course, everybody knows that you could do it today, and it would sound better than it sounded back then, but you could play it with your flavor, which I play with my flavor, and make it come out right.
CS: The music of that time used basic chords, whereas today, the chords are more complicated, using the 7ths, the 9ths, and 11ths, and the 13ths.
JB: This is true. This is true. They used to call those chords 5, 4, 1. Okay, so like now, you add a minor. You could end it with a 6 or whatever, but the way I do, I try to keep it as basic as I can keep it. Now, simplicity, to me, is beauty, so I try to keep it more in the vain of the way they were playing it. I just try to put more meaning into that and try to cultivate that 5,4,1. If I want to drop a minor into it, maybe, if I’m in C, I drop an A minor in it. I come back to the basics. Yeah, you can add as many colors as you want to add to it. It’s up to you how you want that music to go. Simplicity, to me, is beauty.
CS: It sounds like you have assimilated all of the scales and their related minors.
JB: Well, okay, like I pretty much did. I know which way to go when I get ready to play, as you know, and I always do it on time.
CS: Do you think that stems from your knowledge and experience, or you do this by instinct?
JB: (15:17) Well, actually, you’ve got to have experience and knowledge to be able to do it, but also you have to have instincts to be able to play the soul, so I use a little bit of all of that to do what I want to do. My drummer tells me on several occasions, he said, “James, when these people come hear you play and there’s plenty here to entertain us here in Houston.” He said, “When these people come to hear you play,” he said, “Man, you’re just like a teacher.” You go out to hear a lot of people play, and you sit out there in the audience and you hear them play. You hear somebody playing almost basically the same thing. All of them sound the same, but he was telling me, he said, “Man, when they come to hear you play, it’s just like you teaching them a lesson. You’re teaching them. You’re a teacher,” so I accept that for whatever it is—from him.
I accept that, because on several occasions at different periods of my life, maybe you might be telling it like this year. Somebody else is telling you that 2 years from now, so I accept it. It’s just like I hear you and I understand what you’re saying, but to me, I could dig it, brother, and that’s the bottom line. I never take it any farther, but deep down inside, I know what I’m doing. I know, but I never let my drummer or my bass player or anyone else in this business—I always hear them, and I know what they’re talking about, but I just leave it. I hear you, and I’m through, but deep down inside, I know that I am—I guess you could say something like a musician’s musician, because you can come to where I’m playing, and I can shoot you some soul out there, brother, you ain’t never heard.
It’s unreal, and I know that. I have made grown men cry in their beer, and I have made women do some strangest things, yeah. It scares me some times too, to know that hey man, once you cultivate your talent—if you know what I mean—once you cultivate your talent and once your mind is clear on who you are and what you are out there for, again, you control whoever want to come hear you play. You control it, man, so I don’t have any problems playing my blues, and when I play it, I try to go as deep as I can. I mean, I go deep. I go to a core of the blues, but I do it my way. Do you know what I mean? I do it my way.
CS: You used “core of the blues.” Will you explain exactly what you mean by “core of the blues”?
JB: (19:06) Okay. I go all the way back, and I probe your soul. That’s what I do, but in order for you to be able to that, you have to know yourself. You got to know life situations, the situation of life. Although you might see me riding around out here in the streets in a brand new Continental or a brand new limo or a Rolls Royce or a Mercedes or a Dodge or a Buick or whatever, you see me riding in the streets in that, okay. But when I go home—you know what I mean—when I go home, I’m not riding around the streets in no class. Where I sit down, and this is where I start thinking about my bills, about my life, about what I want to do or what I have done. Do you know what I’m talking about? Okay, or what I want to do or what I’ve done, how many of my people have died, how many of them are living, how they are living—you know—how you’re existing, all kind of stuff, man.
I cover all of that, and when I hit the stage, all of it come out, but it comes out in a refined manner. But still, it comes out through my strings, and that’s why I can sit there and I can—I mean—I can stand there. I don’t sit down and play. I stand up. That’s why I can stand there and look at my audience, because when that audience come to that club or wherever you’re working, when that audience come there, they come there to hear some blues. They know what you’re playing, so what I do is I read my audience first. First, I read them, and then when I read them, I search their souls. When I start searching their souls, I’m probing with my guitar. Do you know what I mean? I probe with my guitar.
I play this song, and I look at the reaction of them, and I play this one, and I check them out. I play this one, and when I see my music is really cutting to where—okay, they just forget everything at home. They can forget everything. When they close the door in the front of that club, when they close their car door to walk in that club, they can forget everything else out here, because inside, I’m going to put you in a mood. I’m going to probe your soul, and that’s how I’m going to entertain you the rest of the night. If I’m unable to do that, then some of them will get up and leave, but the ones that I capture, they’ll stay there all night, and I’ll mesmerize them if they do, and that’s a fact. Now, you have to talk to my drummer about that sometime, about mesmerize. I make people do strange things for me, really.
LM: Like what?
JB: (22:48) You don’t want me—you really don’t want me to tell you that. On the band, when I play, they do strange things, strange things. I make them get up and walk. I make them nervous. I make them cry. I make them faint, just different things, different things. I can even make them fight. That’s right, just dirty fights, but I try to keep my music cool enough, like I try to steer you in a direction of let’s have a good time. I try to steer you in that direction, but I do have the power to make them fight if I want to, with my guitar and my voice.
LM: Let’s talk about your vocalizing then. Did you have any formal training in singing or did that come from your church, your religious background?
JB: I never sung in church. I never had any training, as far as how to sing or anything like that. I remember the first time I tried to sing, this lady came. This lady, she used to own the place. She owned the place where I was playing at, and I was playing with someone else. It wasn’t my group. They didn’t have a vocalist, and it was just three of us, and one of us had to do the singing, and didn’t any one of us know how to sing. I had the guts. I say, “Hey, man, let me sing. I can play.” I got up there in front of the microphone. I forgot what song I tried to sing, but I tried to sing two songs, but I couldn’t sing a lick. I got up there anyways, and I sung, and then right after I sung those two, the guy that was over the band said, “Well, I guess we’ll take a break now, and we’ll be right back, seriously.” When we was on that break, the lady that owned the place came over to the table where we was, and she said, “Well, I’ll tell you all what. Don’t try to sing no more, just play,” so that’s how horrible it was. (laughs) That was the first time I’d ever tried to sing.
(25:19) Then the second time I tried to song was one Sunday evening. Something happened and one of the vocalists didn’t show up or something. I remember it very well. It was a Sunday evening when hurricane Carla was getting ready to come into Houston. Do you all remember that summer?
JB: It was that Sunday evening, and I was on the bandstand when that little misting rain and then that flood started coming in. Somebody said, “Well, we want to hear some singing,” so I said, “Well”—that’s how I remember what I did so well, because I heard that hurricane. It was coming at the—so I say, “Well, I guess I can always sing,” so I got up there to sing. I started out one song. They told me, “Don’t sing no more,” and I didn’t sing no more until years later.
CS: How long?
JB: Sheeze, I don’t know, man, let me see. I must’ve been about 15 at that time when the hurricane was coming around. I didn’t try to sing anymore until I was about 19. Then when I started singing when I was 19, it was an accident, about 19 or 20. I was on the road. I was with a rolling band, and for some reason or another, I felt like singing. I forgot what I sung right now. It was song by Wilson Pickett, though. I remember that. It was by Wilson Pickett. I got up there and I—well, I was already on the bandstand, but I got the mike and put it in front of me, and I did that song right there, and I went over. How I did it, I don’t know, but I went all the way over.
Kevin Spring, he sang—but that was the only song I knew, so it was what I sang. Anyways, from there I went to doing another two songs on the show. From there, I just kept on singing until finally, I learned how to control my voice. Then, after I learned how to control voice, then I learned how to accent my lyrics and stuff like that. Now, I know what to do about my singing. I’m not a great singer. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a great singer, but I can sing everything I try to sing, and it’s me, so that’s where the singing part came in at. I love singing. I love pretty singing too.
LM: When did you make your first recording and how did that come about?
JB: (28:43) I recorded—how did it come about? Okay, well, some guys had called me and asked me if I’d mind playing a show with them. They wanted a guitar player on that show, and so I told them, “Yeah, you know how to do it. I can do that.” It was right before—it was about 2 weeks before the Christmas holidays, and so I said, “I’ll go and make this quick money too.” I just went on, and I knew everybody there. I just went on and told them I’d play, so I went on that show with them that night at one of the local Catholic halls here in the city.
It sounded so good. We was playing the blues and it was the soul—like everybody up there just gelled. The music gelled. Everybody up there was experienced blues entertainers. Everybody up there knew what to do. When I got up on the bandstand and when we all started playing, the band and everything gelled, and it sounded real good to me. I hadn’t played in about—oh, I guess—about 5 years all alone because I had—and the reason I hadn’t played was because I had started producing music. That’s where Global International Records came from, from my productions, religious productions. By the way, I started Global as a religious label. Okay, so
LM: Continuing interview with Mr. James Bolden, side 3. We were talking about the label that you started, the Global.
JB: Yeah, Global International Records—I started that label as a religious label.
LM: What do you mean when you say “as a religious label”?
JB: Okay, well, I made the label. Well, as a matter of fact, the reason I created the label anyway, was so I could store it—record some gospel groups and sermons—you know—choirs and stuff like that, materials like that. That’s originally the reason for starting Global International Records. Also, at the same time, the religious groups in Houston that I know and also the choirs and the sermons, the ministers here, these people had a need to have a record label who would look out for their behalf, because actually, they don’t make any money. They never made any money. The record companies were the ones that made the money off the religious singers, so what I caught myself doing was creating a label that could help them make their money that they deserve, because those guys do have talents that’s unreal.
Now, you talk about singers—I have ran into more great singers in the religious field than I’ve ever ran into in the R&B field. Those people can sing. They have range. They have depth. They have—those people can sing. What I did was scouted for good religious groups. I produced their records for them. I also promoted their records and distributed their records. I say this to say what I tried to do, and it was difficult because I was working with new artists too. Some of them had never had any records out, so what I tried to do was record this materials and put them out there and push them. Then, not only did I try to push them, I distributed their work at the same time.
(03:43) I got so deep in the business until I bought radio shows. I had 16 radio shows playing religious music on Sunday mornings. Through those shows I tried to—you know—I’d fix it where they could order the people’s records. I would give the churches’ addresses or whatever, so they could order their records and tapes through my radio shows. It went on and on. It went from there until it had gotten to the point where I started having problems from other major record companies about my record—the productions that I was doing. It had gotten to the problem where I just couldn’t really deal with it truthfully anymore.
I had to back off, so what I did was I said, “Well, I got to cross over, because I know more about the other side than I actually did on the gospel side. I will be dealing with people who I know also strung on the R&B side too, and they could help me. That’s how—I said, “Well, I might as well start it myself, because I don’t know any other blues singers that I could just call and say, “Hey man, let me cut a record on you.” I started with myself, so that’s how I cut my first record, Ten Pan Alley and Deep Blue.
CS: Did you have your own recording studio?
JB: No, I didn’t. I tried to—like I wanted to get my studio, but I had never had a studio. Okay, like a found a couple of buildings and I had problems with them, the people who I was trying to talk to—the lease and to the man, stuff like that. I had problems with them, but I still had access to the best recording facilities at that time in the state of Texas.
CS: Which was where?
JB: ACA Recording Studio. People like Lester Roloff used to come here and record at his studio and just numerous singers used to go to there, R&B and religious singers. I had access to that studio, and I just went on and did my productions there.
CS: Where was that studio?
JB: (06:50) At that time, that studio was located at—let me see—8208 West Park at that time. However, since then they’ve I think have—if I’m not mistaken—the Asians have bought it, and it’s an Asian television production studio and also video concern there now. I haven’t found another studio in Houston where I was more comfortable working in then there. I was very comfortable in that studio. After my record, which was released about 2 weeks ago, I had did it at another studio out on Richmond. I can’t think of the name of it. That’s how irrelevant it was. It was on Richmond, and I went in there and I recorded that record, and it’s been out 2 weeks now, and it’s on the Top 40 chart now. ACA was my studio. That was my pick.
LM: Do you still own the label?
JB: Oh, yes, I own the label. I also own Global Home Videos. It’s where I cut my first video. I can also produce a video on anyone else too, if they would like. I own Susack (??) Publishing. I publish my own music. Also, I have another secret label called Tan, T-a-n, Tan Records. I use it very indiscreetly.
CS: What kind of music do you produce on Tan?
JB: On Tan I’ll do gospel or—
LM: You still do gospel then?
JB: Yeah, well, really what’s happening is I’m not as deep off into the gospel now as I was when I first started with Global Records, but now however, like the other day, I ran into this guy that has this group here in the city, and he told me they were getting ready to do an album.
LM: Has what? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.
JB: I said I ran into this guy here in the city, here in Houston, at the supermarket. He told me they were getting ready to do an album, so he asked me if I would mind helping them out, produce it or help them distribute it, get it distributed or whatever. I told him, “Yeah, more than likely I either come out on, if I wanted to, it can either come out on Tan or Global.” I haven’t called him back yet, because I’m still pondering on the idea.
(10:03) Really, I’m not as interested in actually producing gospel records as I used to be, because gospel records is very entailed and it’s way deeper than the average person thinks it is. It entails a lot, and then you get involved with so much when you start really dealing in gospel all the way. It’s more than a notion. I will do one record every 2 or 3 years, a year or 2, if I feel like. It presents itself, then I might do it. It’s like this one, the guy who I met the other day, okay, well, he wants me to work with them on that record, and more than likely, I might do it. I’m thinking about it.
CS: How do you distribute the records once they are produced?
JB: Okay, that’s a long process. Distribution is, for Houston now—I don’t know about other cities, but here in Houston, you don’t have any distributors here. Here in Houston it’s hard. I mean—when I say hard, I mean literally hard to get anything done here in this city. On the local entertainment side, when they cut a record, it’s hard. Okay, because, number one, after they cut the record—see, cutting the record is not all of it. It ain’t half of it. Okay, when these guys or when myself, when we cut a record, the first thing we have to do is get it pressed. The second thing you have to do after you get it pressed, you have to get it placed.
CS: What do you mean by placed?
JB: You have to have outlets who will carry your materials. Not only do you have to have that, you’ve got to have somebody to push it so the public will know it’s there too, okay. In order for the public to know that it’s there, then you have to have radio stations—you have to get the radio stations to play it for you. Sometimes that can be virtually impossible, believe me, okay. In the event that you do get the radio stations to play it for you, you have to get a distributor that will take it. If the distributor takes it, then you don’t have to worry about your record being placed on the market because like the record shops buy it, whatever. Or if you have to run them a little bit, then you run them some.
(13:23) Most of all, it’s got to be good enough for all of this. Everybody record a record that ain’t good enough and unfortunately, and also money is not the answer to a good record in Houston. You could spend $25,000 or $30,000 on an album, but if you don’t have the talent to put on that wax, which the talent is worth more than the money that you spent for that album, then it don’t make no difference how much you spend on your album, if you don’t have the talent, it’s still not going to do anything.
See now, you take like my first record Ten Pan Alley. You know how much that record cost me? That record cost me exactly $370 some dollars—I guess. I sold 17,000 copies in 3 ½ weeks. For $370 some—that ain’t bad, but for that same 45 records someone else, they might spend—I mean--$800 or $900, but they might not sell but 500, so this business is a funny business. I mean—you got to know how to read the meter. All the time it ain’t the money. Some of the time, it’s the money.
CS: It’s being at the right place at the right time?
JB: It’s really knowing what to do when the time comes to do it. That’s the main thing. Okay, now I recorded after my first record, about 3 ½ years ago. I had good success with my first record. I’m not going to lie. I had good success, and I did not know that I was going to have it. When I had it, I was really doing that record for my children, so one day after I’m gone, my kids can say, “Hey, well, this is my daddy singing on this here record. This is my daddy playing on this record.” I didn’t know that record was going to sell. Like you saw, I didn’t know. Like I said, I did it for them. I did the whole album, and I pulled this one off the album and just put it out on a 45, but I did not know that the record was going to do what it did.
Okay, so I says, “Well, there’s a lot.” Okay, so I didn’t have any distributors anywhere. I had a distributor here, one good distributor here that was in my corner. I felt like they were in my corner. They sold my music. Okay, like now, with this new one that’s been out about 2 weeks, I’ve got four distributors out of the state of Texas now, which I had to call all over everywhere to find them, but I got them. Then I have this one distributor here which has—I’m on the Top 40 selling list, and they have sold, out of all of the records I took them 2 ½ weeks ago, 2 weeks ago. They sold out of every record.
CS: How many records did you make?
JB: (17:11) Okay, on my first record Tin Pan Alley, I think the first initial order was 700 records. That was their first order. It took them about 3 days to sell out of those. Then they ordered 500 more I think, and it took them about a week, maybe less, to sell out of those. All right, but I wasn’t as into that side of the business at that time as I am today. This was 3 years ago, on my first blues record 3 years ago. I ran my own record too, and record shops was buying my records like 100 at a time. They was selling out of them in like a week or 2 at a time. They’d sell 100 of my records a week, or every 2 weeks. On this record, my new record, You Say You Want to Be Free, I took them 300. They sold out 300 records in 2 weeks. I never put it on the radio. (laughs) I never put it on the radio.
CS: It was never on the radio?
JB: Not until last Monday night. That was the first time they played it on the radio. The record sold—they sold 300. I sold out of every record I took them. Last Monday night was the first night that it had played on the radio. It wasn’t on but one station then.
CS: How long does it take to get an order filled of the records?
JB: As fast as you can pay the money. (laughs) If you want 500, 1,000 records, you can get them in 2 or 3 days. As a matter of fact, now that you mention it, I’m supposed to have—I should be in a meeting with them today, the distributors. They’re fixing to reorder again today. Then I have another distributor over in another state that’s ordering both of those records, Tin Pan Alley and the new one. I have my hands full with what I’m trying to do, and I’m not going lie. I can use help, because I am doing everything. This is the way I have to do it until a change comes. I mean—I love what I’m doing.
LM: Now, you don’t have an agent, as we’ve already discussed before this interview.
JB: No, I do not have an agent. I don’t even think they have real agents in Houston. They have people with tags on their front doors saying they’re agents, but I don’t really think they have—if they have, I haven’t seen them. I put it like that. If they got them, I don’t know anything about them, because everybody who I know that ever did anything out of Houston, they have to go somewhere else anyway. If Houston had agents, then somebody here would’ve did something. They wouldn’t have to leave and go to Hollywood or New York or Kalamazoo. They can go anywhere except for Houston.
(21:09) You can go to Thailand and get an agent quicker than you can in this major city over here. Like, I never found any, and I’ve played in a lot of places here too. I know if anybody was an agent, they would’ve seen me. I guess they would. I played in some dives, and I played in some big places. I’ll play the blues anywhere, to tell you the truth about it, as long as they don’t start shooting, I’ll play the blues anywhere.
LM: Speaking of places that you play here in Houston, can you run off a few names of places where you usually show up?
JB: Yeah, okay, like, well, the place where I did my video live. That’s a place called the Last Concert. I don’t have the address, but it’s on Nash, right out of downtown Houston. It used to be a Mexican restaurant years ago, and now another nice lady has it, and she kept the tradition, but she’s not Mexican, but she do have authentic Mexican cooks, real—people from across the border. All of them had their papers. They cook real Mexican food, and it’s good. On the outside, on the patio, is where we do our shows and everything. I cut my video over there last summer, and it was cool over there.
Then I work at another place called—well, it’s got two names. Let’s see—the first name is called Dirty Dishes, and connected to Dirty Dishes—you just walk through a little hallway and you walk into Sweet Meats, like meat that you eat, bar-b-q. Dirty Dishes is not what it sounds like. It’s real nice. They have drinks across the bar, and they have a high bandstand in there. You can go in there and play the blues. It’s sort of like a showcase bandstand. I work at that place, and also I’m in the process at this time—I don’t know whether or not I should say it now—but I will be doing some shows at the Marriott here, because we’re negotiating on my dates and trying to get all that straight, so I’ll probably be working some shows at the Marriott in the near future.
LM: Which Marriott is it?
JB: I think there’s a Marriott in Wood Hollow or something like that. It’s a Marriott way out somewhere, in the Houston city limits.
LM: Well, to kind of wrap this up—it’s going on 2:00.
JB: Yeah, time has really passed.
LM: We may have to have a second session somewhere later, but for this time, why don’t we conclude with this question. In which direction do you see your career in blues taking you at this time?
JB: (24:43) That’s a good question. Right now, and to be totally honest with you, right now I’m afraid of my future in the blues entertainment field, for the simple reason—I’m going to tell you why—now that I know who I am, I know what I’m about. I know my qualifications, and I know my limitations, I’m afraid that I could be thrown into a position that I might not be able to handle by myself, because at this time, I have new records, my new record and tape, and I got some tapes of my other record. I have that stuff over in Japan. I have other materials over in Italy now. I got my new record over in Switzerland. I mean—I’m scattered all over the world—you know—literally more or less speaking, so like what I’m really afraid of is I will be thrown in a position where I will not be able to handle my business like I can do it like right now where I’m just dealing with like one or two distributors like over in the different states and here in Houston.
CS: You may have to rely upon someone else to help you.
JB: Yeah, and I’m not used to that. I’m used to knowing firsthand what everything is. At this particular time, I do think that things—it’s a possibility. To me, it’s a strong possibility that things could happen, and I might not be quite ready for it like that. Knowing myself like I know me, I’m the type of person that flow with tides. I know that I’m not qualified to be able to handle everything that could happen to me. That’s what I feel my future is holding for me, because I can see the reality of my works every day. I can feel the vibes coming. I can see it more or less. Whoever thought that I’d have another record in the Top 40 selling chart here? I never thought the first one would be there, but it got there, and this is my second one, and it’s there. Who knows, every time I open my mouth and sing and play a note on my guitar, somebody is going to like it, and I guess somebody is going to buy it.
LM: On that positive note, it’s a good place to conclude at least this segment of the interview. We’d like to leave the door open for some future interviews with you.
JB: I’d love to.
LM: —as you continue with your career, we’d like to follow up on you.
JB: I’d love to.
LM: Of course, we want to add to your collection, which is now a part of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center.
JB: (28:25) Hey, that’s far out.
LM: We look forward to seeing that grow.
JB: Hey, and I hope it does, and you have the option for whatever I do, whatever I accomplish in the business, then you have the first option.
LM: I appreciate that very much. Thank you.
LM: Thank you, Charles.
[Tape ends] (28:57)