With so many musical genres being chopped, changed, computerized and monetized in 2023, it’s sometimes hard to pull back the curtain and find the inner workings, the original intention or the story being told. Punk became pop-punk, rock morphed into post-rock and metal flirted with the idea of nu-metal. Go back to the roots of any of those sub-genres and you might get accused of being nostalgic, but there is one melodic persuasion that is neither changed by time nor influenced by trends: the blues.
One of its longest stalwarts, Sugar Blue has been on another China tour this past November as he continues to build on a five-decade career that has seen him perform and record with some of the greatest. At 73, he’s seen more change in the world than he has in his trade.
“I don’t think the music has changed so much as the creative aspects of the artists’ concepts and their perceptions of how and what they feel colors their compositions,” he tells That’s.
“The Blues has progressed with the attitudes and ideas that each artist has brought into their personal lives and relationships with the people, places and current events that affect them and the world around them. The root of the Blues is and always will be in the heart and soul of the human experience. It is the pleasure, pain, losses and gains that are the greatest motivations of life in the past, present and future.”
Born James Whiting, the Harlem native first played in China in 2017 at Beijing’s Blue Note club. After another stint in 2019, he’s been back with his Color of Blues tour and loved the chance to get back in front of Chinese audiences to explore the themes of his new performance.
“The colors of the Blues are the sights and sounds of the light of the days, and the shadows of night that encompass the passing of time as we move through our lives from hour to hour, from birth to the inevitable moment when we transition to its finality. The Colors of Blues describes and defines the journey.”
“The Chinese people are amazing and among the most appreciative audiences I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet and play for. Living and playing in China is and has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
To enthusiasts, Whiting is a household name; to others, he’s a man who has been an unsung hero but an integral layer on some of the world’s most famous tracks. The Rolling Stones’ Miss You features Sugar’s distinctive harmonica which compliments the music of the biggest-ever blues band, and his contribution to the 1985 complication album ‘Blues Explosion’ helped it win a Grammy.
“The music has given me opportunities that I never thought I’d have,” he says.
“I am grateful for the people who made it possible to realize the dreams I had as a child when I was listening to the progenitors; Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, Buddy Tate, Victoria Spivey, Larry Johnson Louisiana Red and many other great artists who inspired and influenced me. I love making music, meeting new friends and old, getting to perform before audiences from Chicago to China and around the world. It never fails to give me great pleasure sharing the music with people wherever it may take me.”
Sugar’s journey has almost mirrored the trajectory of blues music. He’s come from a humble background, ventured into songwriting shaped by his own youthful experiences, and gone on to share it with a global audience who can resonate. And that’s the power and the beauty of the genre. While the Blues might be rooted in hardship, its offshoots, such as country, rock and roll and ragtime, inspire feelings of love and happiness.
Now, the entire industry’s core is affected by external factors - artificial intelligence and social media to name but a couple. However, this musician doesn’t believe those aspects are to be feared. As he beautifully sums up, it is our innovation that takes us forward in music and life.
“Inspiration comes from the wonderful minds of the musicians I work and create with. Music, movies, theatre, poetry and many other forms of artistic expression, even social media and AI, are innovations made from ideas created [from human] minds. Without the inception and flow of thought that gives life to the creative process, none of those things would exist. We [can only] define the universe and understand how we can affect it through [our] mind’s eye. I’ll continue to make music if the muse is with me and the journey calls. I hope that the road winds far into the future!”
Despite appearing on countless records and touring for the past 50 years, Sugar Blue does not look like slowing down. As well as his varied vocal approach, the harmonicist continues to display huge creativity from the smallest of components. And he does it with the backing of a talented band, which includes his wife on bass. It’s a hardworking and rewarding existence he has created for himself, and one that won’t willingly be given up.