By Erin McCallum. Photo Credit: Drew Monrad.
Each edition of Behind The Curtain is presented with the same purpose: to bring readers something more than the regular press release or bio provides about the artists at the core of the Canadian Blues Collective. Through studying and understanding an artist’s career in-depth, the foundation is laid to investigate any curiosities that remain. Looking within the biography and uncovering something enterprising - directly from the source - is what provides readers the deepest insight. For the newly initiated reader, it’s important to note that it is always encouraged to seek more information about the artist via other resources; artists featured in Behind The Curtain have extensive bios that cannot be covered within the confines of this column. This month’s investigation serves as an endorsement of the formula that provides readers with something exclusive to learn about a lifelong Blues artist: singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Al Lerman.
To provide readers with enough information to justify an objective investigation, it makes sense to share some notable and identifying things about Lerman’s career. For over fifty years, Al Lerman has been dedicated to a career as a professional Blues artist, and is best known for his harmonica playing, singing, guitar and saxophone offerings, and as an avid songwriter. Throughout the course of his career, he’s toured internationally, and can be identified by his work in a variety of projects such as: Fathead (in addition to his on-stage contributions, he was a founding member of, and served as bandleader for the project, which also garnered two JUNO Awards during its tenure), the Maple Blues Band, and his acoustic solo act, which places his name on the marquee. Lerman has received twenty-six Maple Blues Awards nominations in a variety of categories, has four solo albums to his credit, and has played on and/or produced a substantial number of recordings throughout his professional career. He remains active as a professional musician, focusing much of his efforts today on his work as a solo artist, showcasing his original work while singing, playing guitar and playing harmonica. As stated previously, the aforementioned is enough information to justify this particular investigation; Lerman’s biography is more extensive than what is listed, and it is always encouraged that readers seek more information outside of this forum. In examining Al Lerman’s career, the remaining question that warrants this investigation is in knowing what the common thread is in a career that is both long and diverse.
Knowing that Lerman’s professional history has placed him in a variety of band environments (from bandleader to supporting musician, solo artist to a 10-piece ensemble), it’s appropriate to inquire about what the major differences are between being a bandleader, being part of a larger ensemble, and front-lining his work as a solo artist:
“There’s a lot more pressure when you’ve got a band that you’re the band leader for. When you’re on your own, people don’t need to know ‘where are we going, what are we doing, how much is it’. It’s never been a dictatorship though – it’s just that the more people you have to deal with, the more things can go wrong. By that, I mean that when you’re leading a project, there are more factors at play. There is a lot more to do; when I was leading Fathead, there were times when I was working an eight hour day before even getting on stage. Outside of the aspect of being a band leader, when you’re a musician in a big band, you’re serving as a cog in the engine as part of the overall sound – putting your part in, the best you can, to contribute to that bigger sound. When you’re playing as a solo artist, you’re contributing all of the parts, so it’s a different approach. When you’re part of a band, you’re listening to, and relying on, each other to find that common space where the song sounds its best; when you’re playing as a solo artist, you’re relying on yourself for everything – the groove, connecting with the audience, and the overall pace of the show - and that’s a different responsibility.”
Without indicating any preference in his last answer, Lerman leaves room to assume that there likely isn’t one. There is merit in learning about his introduction to the Blues, looking to uncover what is at the core of the philosophy that it’s just the approach – not the preference – that changes with the wide variety of roles Lerman has assumed throughout his professional career. When asked about his early Blues experience, Lerman offers:
“Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee were the first Blues I was introduced to; I saw them for the first time when I was 11 years old, and I just thought they were great. I’ve seen them live many times – close to forty times – and their music was a big influence on me. After that, I was introduced to acts like Paul Butterfield, and in between them, that gives a pretty full spectrum of the Blues landscape. As far as being a musician goes, I had a guitar first, then I got a harmonica, and when I was about sixteen, I would play it all day long, and that’s when I made the decision to be a professional musician. I didn’t start playing the sax until the late 70’s, but it was something I was interested in diving into. I’ve always thought of myself as a harmonica player as a “strong suit” – one who also plays guitar and sings and plays sax. I’ve always been interested in continuing to learn; no matter how long I’ve been playing an instrument, that interest in learning never stops – I’m always learning.”
Based on Lerman’s offerings, evidence is starting to show that the versatility in his career is, perhaps, foreshadowed by the versatility in his early introductions to the Blues. Using that knowledge as a foundation, asking Lerman about what advice he would offer aspiring artists sets the stage to discover more about him; knowing his recommendations will help readers understand more about what intangible “thing” has been a key element to his success and longevity. When asked, Lerman offers:
“I practice a lot – not necessarily scales, but I play for two hours a day, at least. I also think it’s important to surround yourself with people who are at least as good – hopefully better – than you are too; that can really help you improve, expand your skillset, and give you ideas that you wouldn’t come up with simply practising on your own. Another thing I would tell people is this: I think it’s important to know your strengths and be happy with what you have to offer; what you do is unique, and having the confidence that what you’re presenting is worthy of an audience is important. Also, there’s a lot to be said about going out there and embarrassing yourself – that’s a really good teacher. (laughs).”
Lerman continues to offer words of advice to those who are looking to follow the same path as a professional musician:
“I think, if you want to be a professional musician, you have to be professional about it – work with people who show up with the same vision, and who treat it professionally too – it’s crucial. Of course, musicianship has to be there too; I’ve been a musician for over fifty years, and I’m still working on it and always looking to improve. Another thing that I think is really important in growing as an artist is this: when you stand next to anyone who is doing what you do on the bandstand, you’re going to learn something.”
As the conversation neared its conclusion, the common thread that was present when examining the parts of Lerman’s career in this investigation is: experience. The longevity of a half century career, his words of wisdom for others, the projects he’s been involved with, and his ability to work in a diverse variety of ensembles and settings are all founded in - and compounded by - experience.
As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires further investigation. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates these conversations. In Al Lerman’s case, there is a direct connection to his diverse career and experience. This article is a regular monthly contribution, published exclusively in the Sound Café magazine with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.
Photo Credit: Bill Griffin.
Photo Credit: Prashant Rawate
Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.
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