July 12, 2024

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Don Wilcock: It isn’t just a job. At this point in my life, it’s connecting on a primal level: Video, Photos

Don Wilcock, now into his second half-century as a music journalist, has recently been inducted into the sixth class of the Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Hall of Fame.

His past awards include a Blues Foundation Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Journalism. As a publisher, editor and/or columnist, he has conducted over 7,000 interviews ranging from Eric Clapton to Patti Smith. He’s the guy who wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the authorized, definitive biography on Buddy Guy. Published in 1993, it helped set the stage for his crossover from Chicago blues club act to internationally renowned pop music icon.

“I once asked David Fricke why he gave up being an editor at Rolling Stone,” Don shared with me. “He said it was so he could write more. One of the primary reasons I founded and edited publications was to make sure my ideas made it into print. I’m a native of Schenectady, New York. I love my home, and last night I was treated with a level of respect I never thought I’d get, at least not while I was still alive to enjoy it. It was an out of body experience.”

A foot in two worlds, he does about 70 percent of his work outside of the 518 area code, with a hearty amount of that being. He doesn’t just put a spotlight on the Capital Region music scene, or any other scene for that matter. Like Alfred Hitchcock inserting light into Cary Grant’s glass of milk to convey visceral emotion and to ensure undivided attention, Don lights subjects from the inside so that they glow. His trick? Make people forget they are being interviewed. He’ll get at least one thing out of that artist that they’ve never told any other journalist.

At 80 years old, why does he continue to interview more than 100 artists a year? “Prolific is the word,” Bill Nowlin, co-founder of Rounder Records once said about Don Wilcock. The same word was used to describe him by The CEO of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, where Don does an annual symposium and films interviews for The University of Arkansas. When you think about the history he’s witnessed, both in the world of music and on the frontlines, the whys and wherefores become pretty straightforward. As he states in his acceptance speech:

Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered on a Thursday in 1968. By the next day, violence had erupted in 130 cities across America. In Washington D.C. rioters came within two blocks of the White House. The occupation of Washington by our soldiers that day was the largest of any American city since the Civil War.

James Brown had been hired to play the Boston Garden that Friday. It was decided to broadcast the show on WGBH, the public broadcasting channel, in hopes of keeping potential rioters in front of their TVs at home and off the streets.

At the time, I was stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia as an activated Army Reservist and had made what had become a weekly ritual of driving home to Schenectady, that Saturday afternoon. We all knew we were headed for Vietnam, and those few hours home with our families were gold. We’d drive back all night Sunday arriving back at the barracks just before reveille Monday morning. We’d tough out the day Monday, collapsing at 5 p.m.

The death toll in DC by Monday morning was 13, almost 2000 injured, and 7,600 arrested. That afternoon we were ordered to suit up in full gear to be on call for riot control in D.C. I was spent. Not a drop of energy left.

Then, at the last moment they called off our riot duty.

James Brown’s message to that Boston crowd to take a step back resonated throughout the country.

In 2002 I was able to thank him for possibly saving me life in an interview advancing his show at Proctor’s Theatre. I asked him what he was thinking at that moment when he began talking those kids down and telling them that the world was watching and would judge them on how they behaved.

“Well, what was on my mind, first, was to stop. I want you to know America has allowed me to do these things. I thank God. I thank my mother and dad, and I thank those people that made it happen. There are a lot of good people I thank.”

I got to thank James Brown personally that day for saving my life. We bonded in that brief few minutes on the phone. “You must come from a beautiful family that thinks that way,” he said. “I held my temper (that night) realizing tempers won’t do it. Often, it’s kindness and a smile. And I played myself down and let ’em know how bad it was for me. And if I could play James Brown down and not be the star I’d become, then they would listen to me.”

The city had quieted. Martin Luther King was dead, but James Brown had become the new voice of reason in a country gone mad and I was able to personally thank him.

That’s why I do what I do.

Don at the Associated Press Wire machine in 1969

Don started writing about music more than a half century ago when he was a soldier in Vietnam. “Being able to inform ‘grunts’ in the field about our music back in ‘the world’ was a miracle for me in one way,” “because it gave me a forum in the largest official Army newspaper in the world, The Army Reporter, and it was a miracle for guys in the rice paddies that gave them something to hang on for, the miracle of Woodstock and Haight Ashbury that promised salvation if they could make it through 365 days in hell.” He edited The World News Roundup for the 35,000 U.S. Army Headquarters personnel who ran the war effort. Upon his return home in 1970, Don founded Kite, his area’s first arts weekly magazine.

“It’s never ceased to be exciting to me,” Don says in the Eddies Hall of Fame interview below. “Every day to me is exciting. But the fun part was writing about famous people. In 1977 I was supposed to interview Jerry Garcia. He didn’t call in time, and I had to go to a show. He called later that evening and said to my wife, ‘Well, I’ll call back tomorrow.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Jerry Garcia is going to call Don Wilcock tomorrow. Yeah, in your dreams,’” he laughs.

In addition to writing, he’s a contributing editor at Blues Music Magazine, and his byline has been seen in Troy RecordNippertownThe Daily GazetteThe SaratogianMetroland, and Blues Matters. As the founder and president of the Northeast Blues Society, he helped turn local artists Albert Cummings and Tas Cru into worldwide touring acts. His WXLE and WSPN radio shows brought entire local bands into the studio to perform live.  Currently, he is one of the producers of Turning Pages II, a documentary now in production about the lives of 1962 Niskayuna High School graduates six decades later. He’s also writing copy for a coffee table book of watercolor paintings of iconic blues artists.

ABS writer Bill Graham adds, “Don’s impact goes beyond just those he writes about. He has helped more than a few writers get their start, myself included. As editor of the online music magazines Blues Wax and Folk Wax he gave me an opportunity to write about the music I loved and interview artists ranging from Sugar Blue to Valerie June. ‘We are making a difference,’ he said. By writing about the various artists and their music, we were not only giving them recognition but also letting them know someone was interested, that their music was worthwhile and meaningful.”

Bill continues, “The list of artists Don has interviewed over the years is truly impressive. They include Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, Richie Havens, Dion, Mitch Ryder, John McEuen, Rambling Jack Elliot, and others too numerous to include. You might understand if he decided to rest on his laurels now that he is in his 8th decade in this world. But that is not in his DNA. He has said to me on more than one occasion, ‘I believe my purpose on earth is to talk to as many people as I can and make their stories known, and I don’t want to be someone who is stuck in the past and can’t appreciate what is happening now. I want to stay current and explore the music that is out there now.’ Thank you, Don, for all you have given the music world over the past five and a half decades.”

The perspective he brings to the genre is essential to any voracious blues digester, but of equal import is what he brings to those of us who exist outside of rigid definitional boundaries. Because he lives there, too. It’s in features like Marty Stuart: Blues By Any Other Name is the Same. It’s when I ask if he will cover something “out of the wheelhouse,” expecting a hesitant response. “You have a knack for picking great people for me to interview. Paula Cole was amazingly revelatory this morning.”

By the way, Jerry Garcia did call him back.

A word from Don himself:

Lauren begged me not to say nice things about her. This is how I respond to threats. If you’ve read any of the above, you know that is not my first rodeo. What it is is one of my most fun rodeos. There are no boundaries here. ABS brazenly ignores any of the old guard rules of journalism that existed when I graduated from Tufts University in 1966.

Lauren Leadingham edits with her Soul with a capital S. Blues may be in the title, but it doesn’t begin to cover the waterfront. It is common for people my age to say they don’t make music like they did when I began listening. They’re right. Today’s music is better, more eclectic, more fun, and that goes for all of it. Lauren colors outside the lines, and she lets those of us who write for her to do that same thing. She knows more about music, all music from every era of recorded song, than any editor I’ve ever written for.

It’s a thrill to absorb her enthusiasm when I land an interview with someone we both love. And when I take that person into places they go with no other journalist, I’ve done my job. It isn’t just a job. At this point in my life, it’s connecting on a primal level.

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