By Michael Casper
Jim Liban has had the blues for a very long time. Raised in Milwaukee, he first took an interest in the drums before discovering the sweet, sometimes sad, but always mellifluous sounds created when a harmonica is breathed into, and massaged ‘just so.’ Liban and his blues band Short Stuff are being inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry hall of fame.
Michael: You began on drums?
Jim: I did. Through grade school, into high school. I was in some early 60’s rock bands as a drummer. But, it was around the time the British rock bands started making an impact on the United States that my attention was diverted toward the harmonica. Many of those bands, the Stones being the most notable, featured the harmonica. I became captivated by the sound, and started messing around with it while still playing drums. Eventually I became good enough to step out from behind the drum kit and play two or three songs a night on harmonica.
Michael: This was when you were still in high school?
Jim: Yeah, and then when I finished school, I kinda’ dove into the harmonica full time, giving up on the drums.
Michael: It’s how you made a living?
Jim: I somehow managed to eke out a living, yes. I did get into a few bands that were blues-based. Back then I didn’t need much, I was eighteen, nineteen years old, my needs were very minimal. I just needed a place to sleep, some food, and a little money to pay the rent. Early on a bunch of us would rent a flat, so it wasn’t a great hardship.
Michael: So one thing led to another…
Jim: And I was playing in a blues band full time, in fact it was called the New Blues Band. One day our keyboard player, Jim Peterman got a call from Steve Miller who was in San Francisco and putting a band together, Steve of course had lived in Milwaukee, and had gone to school in Madison. Steve knew a lot of Wisconsin musicians, and had already recruited two other guys to play in his first band, I think the only guy who wasn’t from Wisconsin was the bass player, when he recorded his first album, which put him on the map.
Michael: So, you had lost your keyboard player to The Steve Miller Band, now what?
Jim: We thought maybe we should move to the west coast too. This was about 1968, and San Francisco was the center of the music world with places like the Avalon, and the Fillmore, all the iconic bands that came out of that era were all playing in San Francisco, so we thought, ‘what the hell, let’s pack up and go.’ We hopped in a van and went. And actually Steve Miller put us up for a while until we found a place of our own.
Michael: By the time you were twenty years old, you were playing in a legitimate blues band.
Jim: Yeah, and we’d found a new keyboard player, changed our name from the New Blues to the A.B. SKHY Blues Band, and we were taken under the wing of an organization called ‘the Family Dog,’ who were the people who ran the Avalon Ballroom, and as a result we ended up playing on a lot of bills at the Avalon. They usually had three bands on any given weekend, and we played with many of them who went on to become household names. We played up and down the coast, all the way to L.A. at the Whiskey a Go Go on a semi-regular gig.
Michael: Was it there that you met Jimi Hendrix?
Jim: It’s kind of an interesting story, we had a two-night stand opening up for Three Dog Night…they had just recorded an album and were debuting their material, we were the opening act, then after they played we’d close the night. The first night we did that, Jimi walked in. I’m not sure who he was checking out, if it was Three Dog Night, or us or both. He came in unannounced, sat in the back of the club, and after our set he left. And that was it. We thought, ‘wow that was cool, Jimi Hendrix listened to us.’ The next night when we were closing the show again, Jimi walked in again, and this time he had a guitar, and he approached us and asked if he could sit in with us. Of course we said ‘yes’ (laugh). He played a few songs with us, and then disappeared on into the night.
Michael: And that was the end of it?
Jim: Well, a couple months later there was an interview with Jimi in Billboard Magazine, which was the bible of the music business back then. And the interviewer asked him if he thought there were any new bands on the horizon that we should be on the look-out for, and he rattled off half a dozen names, and we were one of them. On the heels of that interview, we got signed by MGM Records. It was a fortuitous moment in our career.
Michael: And you recorded two albums.
Jim: I was only on the first album. I left because they were straying away from the blues, and becoming more psychedelic. I was more a blues purist, and left after the first record.
Michael: Back to Milwaukee?
Jim: Exactly. I had gone to San Francisco with my girlfriend who became my wife while we were there. She got pregnant, and there I was, jobless with a wife and a baby on the way, and I felt that I stood a better chance of making a living back home in Milwaukee, and that I needed the support of family and friends. Four or five months later in 1969, I got together with a friend, Kenny Berdoll and we formed Short Stuff.
Michael: Who made up the members?
Jim: The original band was Kenny who played bass, and he knew a drummer, Kenny Arnold, and I knew a guitar player, Eric Epstein. We worked as a quartet for about six months, and then added Junior Brantley who played keyboard and sang. That was the line up for maybe the next five or six years. Over the course of fifteen years we went through several rhythm section personnel changes, at least three or four.
Michael: Was that due to personalities? Or did some players get sick of the road?
Jim: Those are interesting questions, without easy answers. In the music business people come and go for various reasons. Junior and I were the only two constants of Short Stuff. Some guys did get tired of the road, some had different ideas of what they wanted to do musically and wanted to express those ideas, sometimes there were personality conflicts, but we always managed to maintain a very high standard of musicians within.
Michael: By the way, where did the name Short Stuff come from?
Jim: Back then it was not uncommon for bands, especially British bands, to take the names from American blues artists or records, and call themselves something based on that, and I’ll refer to the Rolling Stones again as they got there name from a Muddy Waters tune. I happened to be going through the blues bin of a record store one day and happened across this really obscure blues man who called himself Mr. Short Stuff. I thought it was cool. I proposed the name to the band, we voted on it, and that was it.
Michael: Did you buy the Mr. Short Stuff album?
Jim: No I didn’t (laugh).
Michael: Short Stuff had a pretty good run, and cut a couple albums.
Jim: Two albums, and a handful of 45’s, and we appeared on a few anthologies.
Michael: When did Short Stuff call it a career?
Jim: June of 1984. We just felt like we had run our course. The musical climate was changing, somehow we survived the disco era, and punk was starting to take center stage. That was something we felt we just couldn’t overcome. The blues scene in Milwaukee and the region was fading, and the audience had moved on. It just seemed like the right time to bow out. I was pretty burned out by that time as well having done the same thing for fifteen years.
Michael: You mentioned you had a child.
Jim: My son. He’s a drummer in a very successful cover band in Milwaukee called The Five Card Studs.
Michael: Musically, the blues…I can’t get my head around how all the notes get written. What is the process? Can you possibly take pen to paper and write out in long hand all the dotted half notes, sharps, and fermata’s et cetera?
Jim: Well in addition to being a drummer, I had started noodling around on the guitar in my teens, and taught myself guitar primarily as a writing tool. I’ve written hundreds of songs over the years. Some have been recorded by other people, and it became sort of a sideline. I didn’t write to become a songwriter to make money, I wrote to express myself, and some of the songs became part of Short Stuff’s repertoire, and some made the rounds and I had some modest success, which I had never really intended. Johnny Winter recorded one of my songs, John Mayall did one, Lonnie Brooks, The Legendary Blues Band, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and dozens of others.
Michael: Does Johnny Winter call you one day and ask permission to record one of your songs?
Jim: His bass player at the time was a friend of mine, John Paris…and they were going into the studio and Johnny needed material. John said, ‘I know this one song a friend of mine wrote called Talk is Cheap.’ He played it for Johnny, Johnny liked it and it wound up on the album. In fact we named Short Stuff’s second album after that song.
Michael: I have to ask, then how does a John Mayall find your music, and want to record one of your songs?
Jim: After Short Stuff broke up, I had moved to Nashville and did a lot of things, not necessarily to focus on any particular genre of music, I just needed to get away from Milwaukee for a while. I toured with a national act, I did recording sessions. And at one point I’d put together a 4-piece blues band. A producer heard us, and produced a song/album demo for us which never really got any traction, but he, while I was still in Nashville, was called in to produce a John Mayall album. The producer took some of my material into the session, and John picked one of the songs called Without Her.
Michael: You spent two years in Nashville, then came home again in 1988.
Jim: Yes, and got married to my second wife, and put together the Jim Liban Blues Combo intending to just stay regional. My philosophy became, ‘I’m not going to play anywhere that I can’t drive back home from after the gig.’ After two years my guitar player decided to move to Chicago to pursue other things, so I was looking for a new guitar player. That’s when I auditioned a bunch of players, and this young kid named Joel Paterson, who was out of Madison, shone above all the rest.
Michael: He played with you for a couple years before also leaving you for the Chicago music scene?
Jim: I then enlisted Perry Weber to play guitar, until the combo sort of petered out about two years ago. But then, I’d connected with a good friend of mine, Kurt Koenig here in Milwaukee, a bass player, and we put together the core of a band the two of us, and my son Matt on drums. In addition to the three of us, we’d bring in a guest once in a while.
Michael: And that’s when Joel Paterson reappeared?
Jim: I had played with him a couple times in Chicago, and then invited him to be our guest player at one point. Based on that gig and the few I’d done with him in Chicago, the wheels started turning. He has his own label, and something clicked, and he approached my about producing an album.
Michael: You suggested some songs for the “I Say What I Mean” album?
Jim: He basically said, ‘Just give me as much material as you want.’ And I started digging through all by demos, CD’s, files and cassettes, and literally gave him a grocery bag full of stuff. He waded through all of it, and came back to me with about thirty songs he thought would be fun to mess around with. We eventually whittled it down to 16 songs, and 14 of my original tunes ended up on the album. We also co-wrote three instrumentals that are also on the album.
Michael: Then you had some personal life setbacks, and needed some time off.
Jim: I was pretty much knocked out of the box. I decided to step back and regroup. This all happened about a year and a half ago that I decided to take a year off to think about what I wanted to be when I grew up (laugh). I needed to decide what part music would play in my life, if any. What I arrived at was that I’m not pursuing music as a career an longer. I’ve always had a strong distaste for the ‘business’ side of the music business, and I just don’t want to subject myself to that any longer, but because music is such a part of me I wanted to continue to play, but on my terms.
Michael: And that’s what you do.
Jim: Sporadically. And I cherry pick my gigs. I will continue to play with the group I mentioned with Kurt Koenig, and my son…we’re called the 3rd Coast Blues Collective which is a once-a-month gig in Bayview at a place called the Tonic Tavern.
In addition to Jim Liban and Short Stuff the 2017 WAMI Hall of Fame honorees are R&B performer Eric Benét, and blues guitarist/singer, Bryan Lee.
ERIC BENÉT is a Milwaukee native and four-time Grammy Award nominee Eric Benét began his early days singing lead for the pop group Gerard in the late 80s and later with the band Benét. Signed to Warner Bros as a solo artist in 1994, Benét released his debut album in 1994, but it was his sophomore release in 1999 that garnered him his first No. 1 R&B single, “Spend My Life With You,” featuring Tamia. Benét continues to record and tour, and to date, has released 8 studio albums. He has also garnered recognition as an actor in television and film.
BRYAN LEE was born in 1943 in Two Rivers. Also a Grammy nominee ,Bryan Lee, also known as “Braille Blues Daddy,” lost his eyesight as a young boy and was legally blind at the age of eight. By the age of 15, Bryan was playing guitar and singing for audiences across the Midwest. In the late 1950s he opened for Bill Haley & The Comets. From the 1960s thru the 1970s, Lee’s music interest became heavily influenced by the sound of the Chicago Blues. Based out of New Orleans since 1982, Lee has been a fixture in the French Quarter and also tours around the country regularly. He has 15 albums to his credit.
The winners, nominees and Hall of Fame inductees of the 37th annual Wisconsin Area Music Industry (WAMI) Awards will be honored as the annual WAMI Awards Show returns to Milwaukee’s historic Turner Hall on Sunday, April 23.
Tickets are available at the Turner Hall/Pabst Theater/Riverside Theater Box Office, or at pabsttheater.org – ticket prices are $15 student, $25 general admission, $49.99 VIP single and $94.99 VIP couple, plus fees.
In addition to presenting more than 35 awards to Wisconsin’s finest in the music industry, the show will feature live music performances, as well as the induction of this year’s WAMI Hall of Fame honorees.
The Wisconsin Area Music Industry is a volunteer organization whose purpose is to educate and recognize the achievements and accomplishments of individuals in the Wisconsin music industry. The group also provides opportunities for youth to perform in an annual Youth Music Showcase, while encouraging students and emerging artists by awarding scholarship monies to assist with their music education.