James Clem: Persevering

by Greg Johnson


The Thursday night before Christmas. The weather is rather brisk with occasional bursts of  heavy drops of very cold rain. The seasonal dampness does not hinder the groups of people strolling through the streets for Hollywood At Night, the fairly new monthly neighborhood open house for local businesses to draw attention to their area, offering trivia contests, sales and live music.
You wouldn't really think of the Hollywood Burger Bar as a musical venue. The interior does not offer much space other than a few tables beside the window and the counter space wrapped around the large service area. But, tonight the counters are full as the sounds of acoustic guitar blends nicely with the grilling burgers the restaurant is renowned for. There really isn't much room for a performer to set up, but James Clem has made the most of his space on a small riser, surrounded by two National Steel guitars, a Gibson acoustic, and a brand-new National ukulele he claims he waited several months to receive through special order.
James Clem does not want to be predictable. Therefore, his set combines a variety of alternating styles, pulling from familiar Rock and Folk numbers to Christmas songs sung especially for the holidays. But, they all lead back to the Blues. After all, it is the source of his inspiration, with Muddy Waters holding by far the heaviest influence on this guitarist.
"A friend of mine and I were really into British bands of the time,"  Clem tells the audience. "We were reading and listening to anything we could get our hands on from acts like The Animals and The Stones. And, as we read, we kept finding names like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley being mentioned. So, we pooled our money together and bought "The Best of Muddy Waters" for $2.99. We wore the grooves off of that album studying the guitar parts. One night I would play the Muddy lines and he would work the Jimmy Rogers parts, and then the next night we would trade off. We were quite primitive guitarists at the time, but we persevered. There were no videos or music books at that time to learn from. You had to start by ear."
Though the Blues became his choice of music, it was not what had originally caught Clem's attention to the guitar. That happened when his father took him to a car show. He was 15 at the time, and the musical performances at the show were none other than Dick Dale, who was riding high on the success of his recently released "Surfer's Choice", and also The Champs, of "Tequila" fame. Hearing these guys play, how could you not get hooked on the sound of the guitar? A few months later, he watched The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and his mind was made up. He wanted to be a guitarist.
Taking a job as a box boy at a grocery store, James took his first paycheck and purchased an electric guitar for $35. He also began buying records that led to his discovery of the Blues. He endlessly practiced at trying to work out the chords he was hearing. This eventually led to a series of small bands that he played with throughout the Los Angeles area, playing Surf music and cover tunes from popular Rock bands of the time.
While in his second band, he went over to the drummer's house one day for rehearsal. Setting up in the garage, James noticed one of the most beautiful sights he'd ever seen, sitting in the corner. It was a 1930's era National Style-O Steel guitar. He had seen photos of such guitars being played by old Blues musicians, but never thought he'd see one up close. At the next band practice, the drummer came up to him and said, "Hey, I have something for you in the car." Opening the trunk, there was that National Guitar. "My dad says you can have this."
That guitar was quite inspiring, giving him the desire to play slide guitar. Taking it home, he cut off a piece of piop. The first song he tried to play? Of course, it was Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied". He didn't even know what tuning the guitar was in, but he worked at it and persevered, becoming fairly decent slide player, which in itself was quite a rarity amongst bands in Los Angeles at the time.

James' third band was his first Blues outfit. The only one of its type in that part of LA (Covina, Pasadena). They competed in multiple battles of the bands events, playing against the Surf and Rock bands, as well as Soul groups from East LA. James would consistently win best guitarist. It was because of that "thing he wore on his finger" he was told. Amongst the people he ran into at these competitions were Cesar Rosas and David Hildago, who would later form the band, Los Lobos.


Blues may have been scarce living in James' neighborhood, but there were certainly Blues musicians in the city. Los Angeles is such a large place. George "Harmonica" Smith had relocated to LA by that time and had started working around town. There was also a pair of young guitarists playing out towards the beach, Ry Cooder and Hollywood Fats.


And then, James discovered The Ash Grove. An all ages club, no alcohol served, with a $3 cover to get in the door. The treasure trove he found here was beyond his belief. The venue was regularly booking performances by many of the greatest Blues artists James had only read about. Begging rides cross town because the city had a poor transportation system, James witnessed first-hand blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Mance Lipscomb, Bukka White and Johnny Shines.


These guys were so cool, James recounts. "They loved the fact that somebody was so interested in their music and wanted to play it. It took all of my nerve one night to walk up to Johnny Shines, and I asked him, "Johnny, I notice that you tune your guitar when you play the slide. What are you doing?"  And he wrote down from on a piece of paper the G tuning. I wish I still had that piece of paper."


James next band, another Blues outfit called Despair, came about in 1970. Something of a cross between The Yardbirds and The Allman Brothers, the band was known for their twin guitar approach with a great rhythm section and a very good singer. James' slide playing was developing immensely. They played original music, but were also highly regarded for their note-for-note covers of songs like "Statesboro Blues". They were highly popular, opening shows for many of LA's favorite acts, but the group had no ambition to record. They just loved to play.


After a couple of years with DespairJames and the band's drummer were asked to join a local Soul outfit. The Spruell Brothers, led by brothers Freddie and Gary Spruell booked places that James never knew existed in Los Angeles, up on Central and Western Avenues. They'd play these clubs until 2:00 am, then pack up and head over to to after-hours spots, usually jamming until around 6:00am. The band picked up gigs all over L.A., and wherever they played, they were always asked to return.


The Spruell Brothers decided to take their show on the road, landing steady work in Michigan. James did not know it at the time, but  the trip would keep him away from home for the next two years. The band worked endlessly, four-hour shows at night and practice during the day. It was a good experience, and made the band true musicians.


While based out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, The Spruell Bothers were approached by soul singer Chick Willis, who was looking for a backing band. Riding the crest of Willis' hit single, ,"Stoop Down Baby", the group played a series of one-nighters for the next few months through the Midwest. They didn't mind the excruciating grind, as Chick was easy to work with and a good entertainer who knew how to work a crowd.


Being related to Chuck WillisChick's act covered a lot of his cousin's material. Songs like, "What Am I Living For" and "Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes" were always part of the show, and many people actually thought they were paying to see Chuck Willis. The band drew audiences quite well, including large performances in Detroit and Chicago. James recalls one such show near Chess Records in a ballroom on Michigan Avenue in Chicago that had at least 1000 people in attendance.


James isn't certain why the venture with Chuck Willis came to an end, butThe Spruell Brothers continued to work night after night, with many shows in Chicago starting at 10:00 at night lasting until 4:00 in the morning. It was a grind, but they persevered. And, occasional time off allowed James the chance to go over and see Buddy Guy perform at his Checkerboard Lounge, or Junior Wells playing in the basement at Theresa's


Deep down, James and the drummer still wanted to play the Blues and were growing tired of the Soul music every night. Not to mention the ribbing the other guys would give them about the Blues. "Why do you want to listen to that old music for?" So, when they started talking about driving from Michigan to Alaska for a series of shows, they felt the time had come to call it quits. The guys in the band were upset, having spent the past two years together they had become like a family. But, James and the drummer were just burned out and decided to return to California.


With The Spruell BrothersJames had grown used to working six or seven nights a week. So, it was somewhat of a letdown to return to L.A. and basically start all over again. He passed through a series of Rock bands, including a stint with a Country-Rock group based in Topanga Canyon. 

One of his band mates actually lived in a house next door to Don Felder ofThe Eagles, so it was not unusual for Felder to stop by to jam with the guys. Sometimes he'd even allow the band to borrow equipment and instruments from The Eagles for their gigs. It was a lot of "funky, hippie type gigs" all over L.A. but they only worked a couple nights a week andJames had to take a day job to survive.


But, he still loved the Blues and after all, that was why he left a steady gig with The Spruell Brothers to return home. During his time off, Jamesbegan listening to more and more Blues, particularly acoustic musicians likeBlind Willie McTell. That old National was still around the house, so picking it up again, he found inspiration to play in this style.


James managed to find the income to travel in the mid-1980's and made a handful of trips to England. He met many musicians who allowed him to sit in during their gigs, and the people of England enjoyed hearing him play the Blues. After all, he was an American, so he had to be the real deal. One day back home in L.A., he received a phone call from an acquaintance in England who said his band needed a guitarist and asked if he would like to join them. James immediately quit his day job and flew back to England.


The band was called Real Rock Drive, playing a Louis Jordan-styled Jump Blues and Rhythm & Blues. They worked extensively, mostly around London, and like his first outings with The Spruell BrothersJames found the venues they were playing in just as unique. Many of them were pubs that had been existence since the 16th century. He was having fun with this group, but unfortunately they split up when their saxophone player was given an offer by a band in Germany. James had also been in the country for a year by this time and now found himself being told that he had to leave. He didn't have a visa that allowed him to stay as long as he had, so once again he found himself heading home to LA.


Hooking up with a harmonica player, Red Grant, and  recruiting a stand-up bass player, James formed a trio they called the Delta Drifters. It was all Acoustic Blues, they were working in LA's coffee houses, which were becoming quite popular at the time.


"We really liked the coffee houses," states James. "You started at a normal hour, finished at 10 pm, and they were non-smoking. Working acoustically, it makes you work harder, too. You're not just in a bar making a lot of noise to be heard over the crowd."


The trio had been together for about two years when Red Grant couldn't make it to a scheduled show one night. James recruited another harp player to sit in, but it was only afterward that he realized Red sang most of their material and he would have to fill the role that night. He discovered that he enjoyed singing and decided to form a new band. Joining up with harp player Jeff Masters, the outfit called themselves Tobacco Road. Not strictly playing acoustically, they worked a lot of the Swing-Blues style made popular in the area by folks like Hollywood Fats and Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers, whose guitarist at the time was Alex Schultz. They also played Delta Blues electrified. On nights that bassist Rick Reed was on hand, the Muddy Waters numbers came alive. Tobacco Road did quite well and found themselves opening for well-known acts like James HarmanRod Piazza and The Blasters.


James also worked in a Rockabilly band called Rock House. The band played numbers made famous by Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, and artists from the Sun label, as well as some very obscure tunes from the 1950's.


After living in Los Angeles for almost his entire life, James and his wife began to grow tired of the city. She was from England, and had met James when he was playing there.


"My wife didn't like LA," James elaborated. "It is such a car culture. She liked living in London where you could just get on 'The Tube' and go around town. You didn't need a car. The myth about LA is that it is a super hip place to live. It's a cutting edge town. The reality, however, is that you get into the suburbs, it's like being in Kansas. Strip malls, shopping centers, and cookie-cutter houses. Anywhere, USA.


The band would play anywhere from San Diego up to Santa Barbara. You could easily drive 125 miles to a gig. And the traffic? You'd have to leave two to two-and-a-half hours beforehand. And, they pay would end up covering just enough for gas money."


A friend told James that he should take a look at Portland, Oregon. He told him, "You'd love it in Portland. They have public transportation, it's green, really laid back, and there are all these mom-&-pop restaurants."


So, they made a trip to Portland to take a look around. Arriving at the airport they took the light rail downtown. They had made arrangements in advance for a realtor to show them around, and as they drove through the city, they liked it right off the bat. Compared to LA, the city was compact and they were impressed with the architecture of the the vintage homes they were shown. Another thing that James noted in glancing at "The Oregonian", and also a copy of the "BluesNotes", he came across, is that Portland had a lot of Blues venues. It was also part of the reason why he chose to relocate to the city, because he felt he would no longer have to drive great distances to perform. After being in Portland only four days, they bought a house.


The one thing that James had not counted on, was how hard it is for a musician to break in the city. There are so many talented musicians, all vying for the same venues. Many club owners are more comfortable booking the established acts in town, as they know they will draw crowds. Many others prefer to take on bands rather than a solo acoustic musician. Though it has been slow for him, the venues that James has played, he is consistently asked to return to. He is willing to play anyplace to allow people to hear him.


James comments, "I'll play anywhere. I'm not picky. I always feel the in the long run it's going to work out. I'm confident. Every time I play a club, I'm in there forever. I get such good reactions from the audiences, that the owners will usually tell me, "Man, you can play here anytime you want!"


He has met a number of other musicians in Portland, and has done some work with a handful, which he has enjoyed. But, for now, he wants to perform solo. He sees it more as a challenge, and finds it so much more rewarding.


"You're able to move people just playing solo," notes James. "I remember back to the days of Johnny Shines or Bukka White, just one guy with a guitar. Shines would sing something like, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues",and I would think, "Man, I wish I could do that: just play and sing like that. Just grab the people."


Recently, James put together a self-released CD titled "Black Cat Bone", that he has been selling at his shows. It covers many of the artists he found influential from throughout his years of playing guitar, including Muddy WatersRobert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell. It also offers two tracks recorded live at Holman's on Brad Lee Brenner's weekly radio broadcast from the club. James thanks Brenner, and the Cascade Blues Association for helping him break into the local scene.


Eventually, James' biggest desire is to obtain a label to take him on, where he would not have to bother with self-produced  recordings. Somebody who can push his material with wider distribution. But, in the meantime, he'll continue to play the venues he is offered to allow his name to become better known in Portland.


"If you hang in there, and you're good enough, you'll get your due," he states. "It's hard to stand out. It takes time. I just keep the variety going and think back to my inspiration from Johnny Shines and Bukka White. Just do what they did. Keep the music going."

And, with James Clem's determination, there is no doubt, he will persevere.