by Michelle Wilson
Chicago bluesman Barry Goldberg may not be a name you recognize immediately, but his prodigious contributions to music, film and television as a keyboardist, songwriter and producer have spanned six decades. His songs have been recorded by a myriad of artists in multiple genres including Bobby “Blue” Bland, Steve Miller and Gladys Knight, to name but a few. He also co-produced multiple Percy Sledge albums and collaborated on records by such varied artists as Leonard Cohen, The Ramones and The Flying Burrito Brothers, in addition to participating on Super Session featuring his close friend, the late, great Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills. Goldberg also famously sat in on keys with Butterfield Blues Band as they backed Bob Dylan during his first live electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and in 1967, Bloomfield, Goldberg and drummer Buddy Miles, along with several other musicians, formed The Electric Flag. In 1969, Goldberg headed to Muscle Shoals to record Two Jews Blues, which featured an uncredited Bloomfield (referred to as “Great” in the credits due to licensing conflicts) and some of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (affectionately known as “The Swampers”) including David Hood. Eddie Hinton also appeared on the record as did an up and coming session player trying to break into the business named Duane Allman – more on that later.
Fast forward to the present, and at 75 years old Goldberg is busier than ever. As a founding member and one third of the The Rides, a blues rock group comprised of Goldberg, Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the multi-talented septuagenarian shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, he is about to release an instrumental record, In The Groove, containing a mix of new originals and reworked classics. He and Shepherd also have been writing together for a possible KWS release or a new one from The Rides. I caught up with Goldberg at his home in California and we chatted by phone about his fascinating career, his session work with Allman, his time with The Rides, his forthcoming record, and of all things, St. Augustine bourbon.
As a young man growing up steeped in Chicago blues, Goldberg would “cross the lines” to the west side of town and sit in with iconic players such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush. “I went from listening to them as a little kid starting out and then got to play with them. I got to play with all of them, my musical heros. Dylan, Hendrix, Neil Young. You feel the magic, always. Listen to Eric (Clapton), then put on a Freddie King record. You know immediately and instinctively that they are in another category, like no one else. You immediately know. A little bit of that rubs off on you and you carry that around forever.”
During the aforementioned Muscle Shoals sessions for Two Jews Blues with The Swampers, there was a guy hangin’ around the studio, a really nice kid. One of Goldberg’s friends introduced him to the young guitar player, who was the sweetest, nicest guy. Allman was just there hoping for a chance to play with anyone, and Goldberg asked him to add a little slide to “Twice A Man.” It was just what the track needed, and Goldberg was blown away by how talented he was, regarding him as one of the top players of all time. It was the only time Goldberg ever jammed with Allman.
Following the session, Allman took Goldberg to Wilson Pickett’s hotel room. Allman recently had added his killer slide licks to Pickett’s now iconic cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” (McCartney), which Pickett covered at Allman’s suggestion. Pickett was so excited over what Duane had done on his track, and they played the record for Goldberg as they jumped up and down on the hotel bed like two giddy school kids. “They were both so excellent,” Goldberg recalls. During that first listen, Allman was on fire with a unique, burning style of slide. “He played like a man already and was only so young. He was completely into his playing and instinctively played the right notes. He was willing to learn to play and would play on anyone’s record. What a nice boy he was – so sensitive and open to things – so sad that that happened to him and my friend, Mike Bloomfield.” (Bloomfield died of a drug overdose at the age of 37 in 1981.)
As a side note, I asked Goldberg if he had ever played with Gregg Allman, and interestingly, the two shared two sides of an organ during a Muddy Waters tribute years ago.
It was Goldberg’s old friend and music industry mogul, Elliot Roberts, who sparked the creation of The Rides. Goldberg and Roberts would often play poker together, and after spying a photo of Bloomfield and Kooper from the Super Session days, the seed was planted to arrange a collaboration between Goldberg and Stills. Roberts’ keen instinct was spot on – the two hit it off musically immediately. It was their goal to create a soulful blues/rock ‘n’ roll jam record. As they began writing together, the two decided that they needed a great young guitar player. Kenny Wayne Shepherd just happened to live in nearby Malibu, and he was the perfect fit. Everyone just clicked. They came up with several songs and it was pure magic, so they continued and cut a record with vocals. Stills was blown away by Shepherd’s chops, taking him under his wing like a little brother. As Goldberg put it, “It’s harder for the keyboard player. It’s all about the guitarist.” The two would play off each other, and Goldberg would just sit back and watch in the presence of something truly special. “The collaboration was not a forced thing at all – it developed organically.” They all liked each other and played off each other. They knew what they had to do, automatically. He confessed that he never had that with a band before. I had the privilege of covering The Rides show in St. Augustine, Florida last year at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, and Goldberg confided that he truly loves Florida and that it is his favorite place. For him, it has an “Ernest Hemingway vibe.” When he laid on the white, sandy beach, he said to himself, “I’m home.” He is also a big fan of the St. Augustine Distillery, which, for him, boasts the best bourbon in the world.
Returning to his roots, Goldberg decided about a year ago that he wanted to record an album of some of his favorites who influenced him to play rock ‘n’ roll and blues. As a young teen at 12 or 13, he listened to R&B stations where the Hammond B3 was featured rather than the pianos and keyboards in rock ‘n’ roll radio songs. In The Groove features twelve tracks with five originals, all instrumental, except for one original with vocals from legendary jazz icon, Les McCann. “The five originals are based on older things. I had a lot of fun doing it.” The record is set for a June 15 release. Look for my Ink 19 review in the weeks to follow. In the meantime, check out one of the new cuts, “The Mighty Mezz,” dedicated to the very colorful Mezz Mezzrow, a Chicago jazz clarinetist and saxophonist who became notorious for his drug dealing.
Barry Goldberg feels truly fortunate at this stage in his career to have the ability to travel and play in upscale venues. As a younger man, he stayed at home and opted to work in film and television to spend more time with his son, Aram and his wife, Gail. He is monumentally grateful that he made this choice long ago.
For a more in-depth interview from “Bloomfield Notes” with Goldberg from Fall 1996 (Jan Mark Wolkin/Neal McGarity), click here: bluespower.com/arbn06.htm