“ S.E.Willis Pass the Hat Mr. Suchensuch – MS-005 Steven Evans (S.E.) Willis’ Pass the Hat name-checks his dollar-scraping days playing in the bars along Route 66/Interstate 40 in Arizona as a younger musician. Willis’ tempered barrelhouse piano style, often compared to Big Maceo Merriweather, is displayed prominently on the record. Willis’ soulful lumbering contains echoes of Maceo’s best mid-tempo cuts like 1945’s Big Road Blues, but he distances himself from comparisons by adding gospel-tinged melody, restless southern heat, and a rocked-up gumbo with a pinch of Allen Toussaint’s Louisiana. Willis has been a member of Elvin Bishop’s band for the past decade, contributing not only piano but also accordion to Bishop’s exposive live ensemble. Bishop’s band figures prominently on the record, with sidemen Bobby Cochran (drums), Ruth Davies (bass), Bob Welsh (guitar), and Ed Earley (trombone) contributing. Bishop himself turns up on three tracks, including the roadhouse soul of I Called Your Name, where his trademark barbed-wire slide deflects the misdirected blame for a relationship gone wrong. Willis’ voice bends with the clenched-heart overtones of Little Milton on tracks like Mother Blues and retreats into a spiritual glow on a retelling of Son House’s John the Revelator, here titled John the Regulator. The poignant, lump- in-throat Black Hills Gold recalls early, Atlantic-era Ray Charles with its rainy- night piano accompaniment and Willis joyfully bearing witness “laying in my baby’s arms forever more.” A 1950’s Chicago-leaning instrumental cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, dubbed Ring of Fire Boogie highlights Willis’ playfully creative musical personality—truly never a dull moment throughout 50 minutes of music. Willis offers vintage piano-bar R&B, with a soul-shout straight from the mouth of Sam Moore. A sharp songwriter, steeped in the most classic of blues lore, he cuts to the song quickly and stays there for the duration. --Mark Uricheck ” - Mark Uricheck
— Living Blues
“S.E. Willis Turtle Dove Bounce/Live at the Poor House Mr. Suchensuch MS14007 This came as a bit of an oddity and, to be honest, I am not quite sure how to handle the review. This package contains two recordings, each bearing a different name and done in different styles altogether. With nearly 50 year in the business, this master of the piano has added his talents to the works of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Albert King, Roy Gaines, Jimmy Rogers and, since 2000, he has worked with Elvin Bishop, where his work on accordion is featured prominently. The first part of Willis’ newest release is titled Turtle Dove Bounce, and features Willis on piano, vocals and harmonica. With the exception of four of the tunes on this disc, it is all well-chosen covers, most of which are known and loved dearly by fans of old-school piano. Among the masters covered are Cow Cow Davenport, Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Big Maceo Merriweather, Jimmy Yancey and Pinetop Smith. This disc is a rollercoaster ride of hard-driving piano in the styles of many of the best performers in the business and he not only does the old Masters justice, he does it beautifully and with power, passion and flair. Were this to be a tribute album, it would rate high among those albums in that genre. Listeners are taken for a ride through some of the finest piano styles that blues has to offer. Anyone with a love for blues piano or who would like to learn the styles might find this a valuable tool. Disc1 is well worth the price of the disc, and were it to be offered separately, I would recommend it highly. Now we progress to Disc 2…the full-blown band treatment, titled Live at the Poor House. Recorded live at the Poor House Bistro in San Jose, CA on January 21, 2011, this disc features Willis on Piano, vocals & harmonica, Elvin Bishop on guitars (Tracks 10, 12, 13 and 14, plus lead vocals on track 13), Bobby Cochran on drums and vocals (Tracks 8 & 10), Ruth Davies on bass, Ed Earley on trombone and vocals(Tracks 3-14), Bob Welsh on guitar, Nancy Wright on sax & background vocals and Takezo Takeda on guitar (Tracks 12-14). From the start it was obvious that these were all well-trained musicians with a true and deep love for the music. Like a well-oiled machine, these performers ran as a single unit with no grandstanding and no amateur competition going on. With the exception of tracks 3 & 11 (Written by Willis), all the tunes are well known and much loved covers. While there was nothing mind-blowingly special about the disc, it captures a night of great music by exceptional musicians, all of whom have been around the block more than once. This was one of those nights that was fun from start to finish and the people who recorded it and did the final mix managed to capture the excitement and power of the moment, something that is rarely done with such proficiency. This is so well recorded that all one has to do is close their eyes and they can be magically transported back to that night. The disc features a fair amount of music from New Orleans and more. This is the sort of thing that I could listen to all night. It just doesn’t get old. This, too, comes highly recommended. Add the two discs together at one low price and it’s a no brainer. This package has something for everybody. It is well worth the effort to track down and worth the money, at any price. Whether solo piano or a rip-roaring, full-blown boogie-woogie band, this piece has all the bases covered. In either case, Willis is one of the finest players in this style since the originators of the genre. Were the two discs to be offered separately I would buy both discs. – Bill Wilson” - Bill Wilson
“S.E. WILLIS TURTLE DOVE BOUNCE/LIVE AT THE POOR HOUSE BY RICHARD LUDMERE IN CD REVIEWS AMERICANA DEC 19TH, 2014 S.E. Willis Turtle Dove Bounce/Live at the Poor House Mr. Suchensuch Records S.E. Willis aka Steve is the veteran piano player in The Elvin Bishop Band. During a two year period when Willis was ill he worked in his home studio recording his versions of some classic piano blues. He also contributes four original compositions. Willis decided to combine his completed solo piano recording with a live set he recorded in January 2011, at The Poor House Bistro in San Jose, Ca. when he was backed by Bishop and the other members of the band. This two cd set is the result. On the first cd Willis’ opens with the “Cow Cow Blues”, which was written and recorded by Charles Davenport in 1928. Besides being a boogie-woogie piano player Davenport was also a vaudeville entertainer. “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” also called “The Original Boogie Woogie” is from Clarence “Pinetop” Smith who also first recorded it in 1928. Included also is Eurreal Wilford “Little Brother” Montgomery’s “The Vicksburg Blues” recorded in 1930. Willis states he got to meet Montgomery who was from the greater New Orleans area. Montgomery passed away in 1985. Chicagoan Jimmy Yancey wrote and recorded “The Fives” in 1939. This piano instrumental is a terrific show piece for Willis. It is just fabulous. “Good To Go Boogie” is an original in the traditional boogie-woogie style embraced by Willis and it is another fabulous instrumental. Willis is also a gifted vocalist and he sings on two songs written by Leroy Carr, “How Long” and “Baby Don’t You Leave Me No More”. Robert Lockwood Jr. once told Willis that the later was the model for “Sweet Home Chicago”. “Worried Life Blues” was written by Big Maceo Merriweather in 1941. It has been recorded by both Ray Charles and Eric Clapton among many others. Willis has also written three more songs on which he sings. “Hard Times Coming”, the “Drinking Blues” and the terrific title track “Turtle Dove Bounce” which starts off as an instrumental. Willis has also overdubbed himself on harp on these three tunes. As a bonus we have this equally wonderful live set. Elvin Bishop is a great bandleader and he attracts some great musicians. The band consists of Wills, vocals, piano and harmonica; Bob Welsh, guitar; Bobby Cochran, drums and vocals; Ruth Davies, bass; Ed Earley, trombone and vocal; Nancy Wright, sax and background vocals; and Takezo Takeda, second guitar. Bishops sits in on guitar on four tracks and sings on Fat Domino’s “Don’t Lie to Me”. Among the fourteen tracks are two more Willis originals, two New Orleans classics, and vocals by Cochran and Earley. As always this band “cooks”. This is a great new double album well deserving of your attention. Richard Ludmerer ” - Richard Ledmerer
“S.E.Willis “Turtle Dove Bounce/Live at the Poor House” Mr. Suchensuch S.E.Willis has been a sideman supreme for forty-seven years, supporting artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, Albert King, Jimmy Rogers, Roy Gaines and Elvin Bishop on keyboards. Finally Willis has stepped to the forefront with this two CD set presenting two very different sides of this artist: “Turtle Dove Bounce” is a solo piano and harmonica project while disc two, “Live at the Poor House,” is recorded with a full band at San Jose’s Poor House Bistro. What better way to introduce S.E.Willis than jumping in solo, proving his tactile talents by burning up the piano on boogie classics like “Cow Cow Blues,” “Vicksburg Blues,” “Pinetop’s Boogie” and “The Fives.” He goes beyond his skill on the ivories by interspersing the instrumentals with rich soulful vocals covering “Worried Life,” “How Long Blues” and “Baby Don’t You Leave Me No More.” Willis’ command of these barrel house classics demonstrates he’s done his homework, but it’s his originals that prove he’s the total package, blowing some mellow harmonica on the title tune “Turtle Dove Bounce,” “Hard Times Coming,” and “Drinking Blues” and showing his expertise with his piano romp on the “Good to Go Boogie.” The flip side CD “Live at the Poor House” kicks out fourteen rip-roaring classics and originals with an eight-piece band. Joining Willis, the band is made up of past and present band mates from the Elvin Bishop Band, featuring Bob Welsh on guitar, Ruth Davies bass, Nancy Wright on sax, Ed Earley on trombone, Bobby Cochran beating out the rhythm on drums and taking lead vocals on a few while towards the end of the night guitarists Takezo Takeda and the old Red Dog himself sits in. Like any good band leader, Willis lets each musician step to the front to shine throughout the night. Swinging into “Rockhouse/Milk Cow Blues” they journey into some classic “Mystery Train” before heading down to New Orleans for “Tipitina,” “Hey Pocky A-Way” and really “Let the Good Times Roll.” Willis goes country on “Please Release Me” before plunging into “River’s Invitation” with Cochran on vocals and Elvin Bishop on slide guitar. As the night wraps up the crowd begs for more as the band has a chance to catch their breath before hitting stride again on “32 20 Boogie” for one of those nights music lovers strive for.— Roger and Margaret White firstname.lastname@example.org” - Roger and Margaret White
— Big City Rhythm and Blues
“S.E.WILLIS Turtle Dove Bounce/Live at the Poor House Mr.Suchensuch – MS 14007 Veteran San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area pianist and singer S.E.Willis, now in his 15th year as a member of Elvin Bishop’s band, showcases two sides of his considerable talents on this double-disc, fifth CD. One consists of solo performances of mostly classic blues, barrelhouse and boogie-woogie piano pieces, some with vocals and overdubbed harmonica, associated with Cow Cow Davenport, Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Big Maceo, Pinetop Smith and Jimmy Yancey, plus four original songs in the tradition. The other was recorded during a January 2011 gig at the Poor House Bistro in San Jose, California, in the company of Bishop bandmates Bobby Cochran on drums and a couple lead vocals, guitarist Bob Welsh, upright bassist Ruth Davies and trombonist Ed Earley, along with guests Nancy Wright on tenor saxaphone and guitarist Takezo Takeda. Bishop himself sits in on guitar on four of the fourteen tracks, one—Fats Domino’s Don’t Lie to Me (actually a variation on Tampa Red’s Don’t You Lie To Me, also known as I Get Evil)—featuring his distinctive craggy voice. Willis’ rhythmically riveting, two-handed piano prowess on the solo disc is quite striking, particularly on such highly syncopated numbers as Davenport’s Cow Cow Blues and Montgomery’s Vicksburg Blues. The original Turtle Dove Bounce features wonderfully intricate interplay between piano and harmonica. Willis’ vocals are rather soulful and are marked by distinctively breathy tones and a pronounced vibrato at the end of many end-of-phrase sustains. The band is far more stylistically diverse, ranging from such blues tunes as C.C. Rider, River’s Invitation, Louis Jordan’s Let the Good Times Roll and Little Walter’s Last Night, the New Orleans classics Tipitina and Hey Pocky A-Way, the country standard Release Me and a rather vocally overwrought rockabilly rendition of Mystery Train. Willis affords plenty of instrumental solo space to Wright, Earley, Welsh and, of course, his own piano, but in the end, Bishop steals the show with his one vocal and his commanding guitar work, of which his slide solo on Last Night is especially bone-chilling. --Lee Hildebrand ” - Lee Hildebrand
— Living Blues
“TURTLE DOVE BOUNCEHet is niet omdat men tijdelijk een ziektefase moet doorworstelen dat men daarom minder productief zou zijn. Pianovirtuoos Steve Willis bewijst in elk geval dat hij die periode goed kon gebruiken om desondanks creatief aan de slag te gaan. Hij herwerkt songs van de bluespioniers uit de jaren 1920-’40 en componeert er enkele in dezelfde lijn. Zijn album ‘Turtle Dove Bounce’ is dan ook een soloproject met piano en harmonica waarbij hij klassiekers van de ‘originals’ versmelt met de zijne. Daarbij zijn Leroy Carr en Little Brother Montgomery duidelijk inspiratiebronnen. Deze laatste heeft hij trouwens in levende lijve ontmoet. Ook in de band van Elvin Bishop was hij jarenlang actief. Als kind zat hij al te oefenen aan het pianoklavier en die vertrouwdheid met de ivoren toetsen hoor je in zijn driftige boogie-woogie composities, zowel in ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ als in ‘The Fives’ van Jimmy Yancey. Zijn eigen energieke ‘Turtle Dove Bounce’ zit in diezelfde groove. In enkele songs zingt hij over eigen ervaringen zoals in ‘Worried Life Blues’, ‘Hard Times Coming’ en ‘Drinking Blues’ een probleem dat niet alleen in 1941 het menselijk gestel teisterde. Ook nu nog kampen blueszangers blijkbaar met de verlokkingen van de drankduivel om het eigen leed te smoren. Maar Steve Willis heeft zijn piano als uitlaatklep om zijn demonen te bekampen. Daarbij herinnert hij aan Professor Longhair al komt hij dan niet uit Louisiana maar uit West-Virginia. Zoals hij zich uitleeft op de pianotoetsen in zijn ‘Good To Go Boogie’ zo is alleen de groten gegund. Soms komt daar nog zijn harmonica bij, want Willis voelt zich ook uitstekend thuis in het genre country, rockabilly, rock-’n-roll en zelfs gospel. Die komen in zijn soloproject minder aan bod maar wel in de live concerten. De CD ‘LIVE AT THE POOR HOUSE’ is een Live opname van het meer dan één uur durend concert dat plaats vond in een bistro in San José, Californië, in januari 2011 waarbij halverwege alle bandleden door Willis zelf worden voorgesteld. Dat zijn Bob Welsh op gitaar, Bobby Cochran op drums en Ruth Davies op bas. Koperblazers zijn Nancy Wright op sax en Ed Earley op trombone. Ook gitarist Elvin Bishop doet mee. Bandleider Steve Willis houdt uiteraard alles bijeen met zijn pianospel of harmonica. De muzikanten kunnen regelmatig soleren waarop het publiek telkens met animo reageert. Het concertverloop zorgt voor een ware feeststemming waarbij alleen in het countrynummer ‘Please Release Me’ wat ‘retro’ sentiment sluipt. ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ van The Meters lijkt op een vreugde-uitbarsting en het rootsy ‘River’s Invitation’ met Elvin Bishop op slidegitaar genereert een Hawaiaanse feeling. In alle opzichten heeft dit concert veel weg van een muzikaal manifest met als motto ‘Let the Good Times Roll’. Marcie ” - Marci
“S.E.Willis Rockin’ Roots Roller Multitalented keyboardist, accordionist, singer/songwriter and harmonica player. The reason that I love the Blues is that there is something at the heart of it that is absolutely transcendent. It’s a connection to another reality. Music itself is another reality. The more that I play and the longer that I play it’s like going somewhere. And that place you hear it most is in Blues music. I can also reach that place in old Country Music. You cannot get it from a drum machine or autotune—those just kill the music. If we can keep it going and it’s available to be heard the people will continue to come to it. When I grew up I didn’t hear that stuff—West Virginia, Arizona—we didn’t hear Blues Music on the radio. Hearing the Animals playing “House of the Rising Sun” on the radio and “Hit the Road Jack” really influenced me. I also loved listening to the English groups like Them and the Spencer Davis Group as they were playing the Blues. BCRB: What did Allen Toussaint mean to you? S.E.Willis: I got within one degree of separation but I never did get to meet the man. As far as the New Orleans piano players are concerned, he was a huge influence on me. He was a great songwriter and an excellent piano player. If you are looking for the exemplars of the New Orleans piano style, he was definitely there, but also along with Professor Longhair, in particular, Dr. John and James Booker. BCRB: Why did you pick the piano? S.E.Willis: We moved into a house in West Virginia when I was five that had an old upright piano. We never got it tuned but they got me some lessons for a couple of years so I kept noodling around on it but then we moved and there was no piano and as the ‘60s rolled around I had to be in a Rock ’N Roll band so I started playing electric organ. My first organ was a Gem but it was a piece of crap! Then I got a Vox Continental and ended up with a small Hammond organ—the L Model. Then I got tired of playing in a Rock “N Roll band and wanted to play Blues. I particularly liked Delta Blues so I took up the slide guitar for awhile but never felt quite at home on it. And then I decided that I could do whatever I wanted on the piano. The organ didn’t work for me for the kind of Blues that I wanted to play. I got a 1953 Wurlitzer Studio upright piano and I hauled that thing in the back of a Chevy Truck for years. BCRB: Did you have a mentor or a hero of the piano? S.E.Willis: When I lived in Flagstaff, Arizona there were just no piano players but there was one guy just a bit older than me named Rick Rush who taught me a lot but he was killed coming home from a gig in 1970. I’d like him to be remembered. My two greatest influences were Otis Spann and Jerry Lee Lewis. After those two I like Little Brother Montgomery, Big Maceo, Little Johnny Jones, Amos Milburn, Leroy Carr and Professor Longhair. BCRB: When I’ve reviewed musical groups in the past, I’ve always felt that the keyboard player was the best musician in the band. S.E.Willis: Yeah, I been kind of cursed in that way because I didn’t come up with a huge background in classical music and everybody expects that piano player to actually know this stuff. And of course you have to learn to play in F#. I barely read music. I do read music but slowly and fitfully. I can read bass clef with equal difficulty! BCRB: What musical event changed your life? S.E.Willis: I don’t know if I could really pinpoint an event unless it was managing to get into the best local Rock “N Roll band in high school. However, when I was in my early 20s I was going around and around in what I was going to do. I wanted to be a musician and draw comic books. But I wanted to hike to Canada with a friend but we ended up hitchhiking and ended up in Vancouver and on my 23rd birthday there was a big show that weekend and it was Muddy Waters, Mighty Joe Young, Albert Collins and Taj Mahal. I had spent weeks hitchhiking and slepping in a sleeping bag and it was like a revelation for as soon as I heard the music I thought, “well, that’s it—I’m just gonna play music from now on and gonna have to give the other stuff up.” I knew I always wanted to play Blues Music, I remember the first time that I ever heard Blues Music I thought, “well, there’s the stuff!” BCRB: What other instruments do you play? S.E.Willis: I play accordion and harmonica. On stage I play a La Melodiosa Italian accordion. There are like three towns in Italy that make all of the accordions. I switched to Seydel German harmonicas last year because that was what James Cotton was playing. I did some shows with him and I said, “well, what are these?” I play the harp in a rack while I’m playing piano and the Seydels are nice and loud and they stay in tune. I usually play in the third position which is the Blues position. BCRB: The only person that also plays a harmonica rack with the piano that comes to mind is Bob Dylan. S.E.Willis: What can I say? I don’t know anyone else who does it but I’ve played harmonica before I played piano and it just makes sense to me. BCRB: Do you have a favorite venue or festival? S.E.Willis: I like the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruises as they are a lot of fun. There’s nothing like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. BCRB: Do you have a favorite Blues Highway? S.E.Willis: As I spend time between California and Arizona, I’ve got to go with Route 66. BCRB: What is your favorite Blues City? S.E.Willis: Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans. You can’t really put one over the other. BCRB: What living musicians who you’ve not played with would you like to? S.E.Willis: I would like to play with Dylan as I love the guy. I’ve recorded with Charlie Musselwhite but I never really got a chance to play with him. He plays so good and he seems to play better all the time. I love Dr. John but we play the same instrument so it’s not likely he’s gonna have me playing with him. I’d play with any of the Neville Brothers. The trouble is that many of my heroes are dead. BCRB: Which musicians who are no longer with us would you have loved to play with? S.E.Willis: Top of the list has gotta be Muddy Waters. I’ve always wanted to play with Muddy Waters. I did get to play with Jimmie Rodgers and Pinetop Perkins so I’ve kinda come close but I never got to play with Muddy Waters. I gotta say that I’ve always wanted to play with the Stones but they’re not dead so I guess it’s still possible. My two favorite guys in American Music are Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. When I was traveling with Elvin Bishop I was working on my CD “Taproot” which was the music of Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. We ran into Robert Jr. Lockwood (the “Jr.” being that he lived with Robert Johnson for a time) and said that we were working on a CD of Robert Johnson songs but I’m playing them all on the piano. He said, “Well, you know what? Robert Johnson’s favorite music was Leroy Carr on the piano.” That’s the reason why I like Robert Johnson’s guitar playing as he doesn’t really play like a guitar player—he plays like a piano player. You know, the first recordings that Hank Williams did had the Willis Brothers as his backup band. I don’t think they were any relation, however. BCRB: What gear do you use? S.E.Willis: For shows I use a Roland piano and amplifier because they are so reliable. BCRB: When you arrive at the Pearly Gates, what song would you play to get in? S.E.Willis: A song I wrote called “Luckiest Man Alive.” BCRB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? S.E.Willis: I do have a day job—I rebuild pianos—mostly Steinways. As a result of that I have several pianos at home of my own: a 7’4” Kawai Grand on which I recorded a solo piano record called “Turtle Dove Bounce” and my daughter did the artwork. A also have a 1938 7’ Baldwin Grand. I also have a 1959 Tweed Fender Vibrolux amplifier that I use for accordion. I modified my harmonica rack by attaching a metal rack behind it that holds a lavalier mic and I run it into a wireless AudioTechnica system and I don’t have to jam the rack up against the microphone. You know the Blues piano style hasn’t changed that much since the ‘20s. S.E. (Steve Evans) Willis has a pleasant voice and it was apleasure to interview him. He said the best place to obtain his recordings are at CDBaby.com. I’ve already placed my order! ” - Peter Laudenslager
— Big City Rhythm and Blues
Check out the interview with S.E.
Peter Laudenslager interviewed S.E. for the February/March issue of Big City Rhythm and Blues magazine. Take a look on the Press page!