James Montgomery got the blues at a very young age.
And he’s happy he did.
From learning at the feet of his musical heroes while growing up in metro Detroit, Montgomery fashioned a long career fronting his own group, spending four years as part of Johnny Winter’s band, hosting a blues radio show for five years and sitting in, on stage and on record, with John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Gregg Allman, Peter Wolf, Mick Jagger and Kid Rock.
And he’s not close to being done, with a new album and a poetry book coming for 2012 and work continuing on a documentary about one of his idols, James Cotton.
“That’s what I love about blues musicians — they just keep going,” says Montgomery, 62, who’s been a New England resident since 1970 and now lives in Newport, R.I. “There’s no such thing as retirement — unless something happens that you can’t get up on stage anymore. It’s just something you love doing.”
And, Montgomery adds, whenever he plays the blues there’s a lot of Detroit in it, even if he hasn’t called the Motor City home for more than four decades.
“I’ve always stuck close to my Detroit roots,” explains Montgomery, who grew up in Grosse Pointe. “The original James Montgomery Band out here in Boston was almost all Detroit musicians. I had (the Detroit Wheels’) Jim McCarty as my guitar player, and I had an opportunity to record with Uncle Kracker and Kid Rock. They introduce me on stage every night as being from Detroit.
“I really feel my roots are Detroit, big-time. I once described Detroit blues as greasier; it’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s not as slick as certainly West Coast blues or East Coast blues. It’s closer to Chicago style ... but a little bit more soulful, I think.”
Montgomery caught the blues bug as a teenager, after seeing a jug band — featuring Crispin Cioe, now with the Uptown Horns — play at the Grosse Pointe High School talent show during the mid-’60s.
“I’ll remember that moment forever,” he says. “I saw a guy playing blues harmonica, and I felt like, ‘Wow, that is so cool. I really want to do that.’ “ Montgomery took advantage of a thriving Detroit blues scenes, catching touring musicians at clubs such as the Chessmate, Duke’s Playhouse and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.
“There were probably eight, 10 really active blues clubs back then,” he remembers. “It wasn’t unusual in those days for John Lee Hooker to be playing one place, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells playing another and Little Sonny playing a third place — no slouches. It was a pretty good time to be growing up there.
“I always told my father I was going to high school basketball games so he’d let me use the car, and we’d drive to Detroit and get back as soon as we could. It was a little daring; this was a couple of years before the riots, but there were still some nights when my buddy and I were the only white kids there.”
After graduating in 1970, Montgomery majored in English at Boston University but got his real degree as a musician, forming his own band and playing a scene that included fellow up-and-comers such as the J. Geils Band and Aerosmith. He signed a deal with Capricorn Records and released “First Time Out” in 1973, the first of four 70s releases. The albums have come sparingly since — “The Oven is On” in 1991 and “Bring It On Home” in 2001 — but Montgomery’s reputation has remained sterling, while his band has been an early career stop for the likes of Billy Squier, Jeff Golub (Rod Stewart), Tom Gambel (Aerosmith) and others, as well as McCarty and a post-MC5 Wayne Kramer.
Recently Montgomery worked on the Morgan Freeman-produced blues documentary “Delta Rising,” while he’s “fairly certainly we’ll be able to get funding” for the “Cotton” film once he and the other filmmakers put together a trailer to show potential investors. He’s also “revisiting” inquiries he’s had in the past to publish a book of his poetry.
But Montgomery’s “main objective” now is to put out “Detroit To the Delta” — or, as he refers to it, “this darned record.” The album has been finished for a while and features guest appearances by Winter, Cotton, Brad Whitford and Joey Kramer of Aerosmith, the Uptown Horns and a rapper he’s currently “hammering out” a deal with. “We’re just hammering out really minute details,” says Montgomery, who’s looking forward to placing another album in his discography.
“It’s kind of a reverse journey,” he says. “Everyone knows Delta blues came up the river ... to Chicago and Detroit and the other industrial cities. So some of the song are pure, straightahead Delta blues songs, and on the other end of the spectrum are songs I wrote inspired by Detroit’s R&B and blues scene. And everything in the middle kind of shows how those two forms came together.”
And, given his vaunted, veteran status, Montgomery figures he’s just the guy to do that.
“For some reason — and I suppose it’s a little illogical — the older you get the more credibility you have with this music,” he says with a laugh. “I guess when they finally wheel you off, then you’re REALLY selling tickets.”
The 18th Anti-Freeze Blues Festival takes place Friday and Saturday, Jan. 5-6, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. James Montgomery with Jim McCarty & Friends, Laith Al-Saadi, Mark Pazman’s Super Session and the Difficulties play on Friday. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Thornetta Davis, Johnnie Bassett and the Rattlesnake Shake perform Saturday. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets are $20 both nights. Call 248-544-3030 or visit www.themagicbag.com.
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