“I am not writing this blog because I think I am a spiritual guru or because I believe I have special insight into the recovery programs that might save your life – I am writing this blog to save mine“.
Mike Zito pulls no punches in the introduction to his online blog ‘A Bluesman in Recovery’. It’s his description of a successful battle against drug and alcohol abuse. It’s a bold, honest statement; and it’s also typical of Zito’s sincerity as I discovered when he took the time for a short interview before his recent appearance at Bonn Harmonie. Along the way I also discovered why he felt it was time to quit a Supergroup and why the future of the Blues is a healthy one…
Thanks for taking the time for my questions Mike. First of all, You’re a Bluesman but whose Blues inspired you to become one?
I heard a lot of music over the years. I grew up with older parents who listened to big band music. I got turned on to rock n roll in the mid to late 70’s at 8 or 9 years old. Hearing all this big band music and then I heard guitar and got really excited. Listening to Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and Frank Sinatra all at once (laughs). I really got into the Blues thing in High School hearing Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray. You know, I got really into guitar then.
Your guitar hero era was the Robert Cray period then?
The 80’s yeah. I was a teenager in High School and Stevie Ray and Johnny Winter were kings. So that’s where it all started as I got more and more into Blues music and also Country Music, and I started then to go musically back and found Muddy Waters and Freddie and Albert King. And I was a big BB King fan too so I kinda worked my way back to them.
The youngsters today have to work back even further, starting often as not with Joe Bonamassa and going back to Clapton…
…And guys like Derek Trucks…
Until they get back to where you were, starting with Johnny Winter who sadly passed away recently. I hear you are doing a show with his band soon? How did that come about?
Well, I got to be pretty good friends with Johnny Winter. He was a big hero of mine, and where I live now in Texas is where he originally came from. We kinda hit it off so I played a lot of shows with him and his band. I was at his 70th birthday party this year in New York and played onstage many times with him so when he passed they decided to take the band and do this remembrance tribute show. It will be myself with Ronnie Baker Brooks and Johnny’s band.
Will you be onstage together?
Can you fly me over for the show?
Yeah sure! (laughs)
Johnny played here at the Harmonie several times and Scott Spray (Johnny’s bass player) told me that doing the shows was keeping Johnny busy and away from bad habits. That leads me nicely on to your blogpage online that you started after your own battles with drink and drugs. “A lifelong journey” is how you describe that battle. How do you avoid the temptations and stay clean when you’re playing every evening in a pub or a club?
Well, I’ve had a lot of help and done a lot of work over the years through a recovery programme. That helped me deal with everything spiritually. That certainly helped in a big way. Then I found that although I sing Blues music a lot of it is actually positive stuff. So I just stay involved in my recovery programme. I had a… not sure what you’d call it, an awakening maybe, a few years ago.
Now, instead of being here for the party, I’m here for the music! I’m in it for the job and to work.
And you’ve been clean how long now?
It’s been eleven years. I’m heavily involved in a great recovery programme. I can’t name it but it deals with alcohol and drugs and it’s wonderful. A lot of friends are in that programme. Icome across fans who’ve been in the same or similar programme so its good, and like you said, maybe there’s still people drinking and that in this business but it’s not quite as fashionable anymore – the drugs and alcohol. Especially in music you see, you can’t really get anywhere with it.
You say on your blog that you used to think players must be on something when they were at their best. Eric Clapton I remember states that he used to think he was better when he was on something…
… and he certainly wasn’t.
Let’s talk about the more recent past now, and your decision to leave what many called a supergroup. I’m talking of course about Royal Southern Brotherhood with Cyril Neville and Devon Allman, Yonrico Scott and Charlie Wooton.
Well it’s a great group and I’ve really enjoyed working with them, but it was never my plan to stay in the group forever or even for too long. I mean, this is what I do, I’m in the middle of my career, playing my music and my songs. It was meant to be a side project but then it really took off – and it was wonderful, but… I did three albums and I did three and a half years. It was a good experience but it was a good time to leave – because this, what I’m doing here, this is what I’ve done all my life and this is what I want to continue to do all my life. My dream was never to be in a band on the side, being an extra playing guitar. My dream is that I write songs and sing, and I play the guitar, stand up front…
Which is what you will be doing this very evening with Samantha Fish. How did the dual headlining tour come about?
Well, I produced three albums with Sam and we’ve been friends since right out of High School. I’ve known her, her Father and her whole family. Having done those three records we really enjoyed playing together, and we like a lot of the same stuff. As much as I loved RSB there wasn’t always as much Blues as I like to have. I like more Blues and so does Sam which makes it a great tour. She can do her show. I do my show. We play together, we play some Blues, and we have a lot of fun. It’s just more my style.
I wish the RSB guys well. I know they will do well, but it was a good time to kinda take a bow you know.
Bart Walker is stepping into your shoes of course.
That’s right, and he’s very, very good. A great guy.
I suspect you’re not entirely out of touch with RSB though?
Cyril and I are writing songs right now, we’re a good writing team.
You’re also a good producer – with Sam and also with others, including more recently Laurence Jones. So my final question to you is – are you planning to become a top producer who used to be a top musician?
(Laughs) Na!, that would be great wouldn’t it? I don’t think I’d get enough work. It’s really enjoyable to produce though and I hope to do more now that I have a little more control of my schedule. But I don’t know if there’s enough work for me to be a full-time producer and I don’t know if I’m that good (laughs again)
I like your production on Laurence Jones’ new disc.
I really enjoyed doing it too, but I also like to sing and play and do my own thing. I like to do a little bit of both but my first love is to play guitar and play the Blues.
And what does the Blues in 2014 look like in your eyes?
Wow man! What goes around comes around again. You know, it never goes away. There are a lot of great acts coming around. I’m starting to see some young people getting involved. I think there’s a good time coming for the Blues again.
… and they’re not all American either. Europe has a burgeoning Blues scene…
That’s right. I think it’s wonderful. It’s already happened before when the Stones played all those Muddy Waters songs to Americans who didn’t even know who Muddy was. It’s great, because it’s a feeling that everyone can relate to you know, the Blues. And America is doing okay too with Tedeschi Trucks and Gary Clarke. They’re doing something that’s kinda new and kinda old at the same time. It’s pretty neat!
It’s been pretty neat talking to you too Mike. Thanks for your time.