The end of November marked the end of Blogcritics' Blues Bash extravaganza as far as the calendar was concerned, but I'm pleased to say it appears that the Blues just don't know when to quit and are playing on well after closing time. I've been doing my share to keep the party going and will continue to do so as long as they let me.
In the past week or so I've been focusing on one record label in particular, Ruf Records from Germany. I've given you an overview of their history and reviewed their twelfth year anthology disc. So it seems to me only fitting that we hear from the founder of the label Thomas Ruf to conclude this mini-feature on Ruf Records.
Needless to say Thomas is a very busy man. When I emailed him the series of questions at the end of November, he was actually in the United States overseeing a recording session for their forthcoming Blues Caravan release. (This year's is a Blues Women starring Sue Foley, Deborah Coleman, and Canadian newcomer Roxanne Potvin.) So it took him longer than he expected to send back his answers, but it's all worked out for the best.
Today will be the first half of the interview and you'll be able to read the final bits tomorrow at this same web log channel. Oh one final word; needless to say English isn't Thomas' first language, and he's asked us to correct any errors we think are too glaring. Aside from those few minor fixes, probably far less then editors have to do on my articles on far too many occasions, his answers are reprinted here verbatim. Enjoy.
Could you tell us a little about yourself, where you are from and your background?
I grew up in the Black Forest on a wine farm. I guess I learned about labour at a very early age as kids are a needed work force during harvest time on a family run farm – a model that still existed back in the 60’s & early 70’s before agriculture changed into a global speculation business at the mercy of the world’s stock markets.
I worked with a youth group of the church community when I was about 18 years old and started to promote concerts with the teenagers in my group. We rented the local town hall and booked blues artists. That kept the teenagers busy and off the street at least during the time of our projects. I left the farm with a new career plan after I promoted a concert of Luther Allison and personally got to meet him.
I started promoting more of his shows in other towns and ended up as his German booking agent during my time at university. My time at university ended when I made my side business, (as Luther’s promoter) that was financing my stay at university, a full time job. The label was a later baby down the road…
What about music? Was your family musical or did you just develop an interest in it on your own? Did you ever want to be a musician?
I am not a frustrated musician, sorry. I used to play the piano as a teenager a bit and have an idea about notes and scales. But I was always rather undisciplined and never really practiced. My family were simple country people with little sense of art.
The only radio in the house was broken. The first music I heard was Johan Sebastian Bach chorals in church. I first heard the blues at age 14 when I saw the movie Chicago Blues. Those old blues guys (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, etc) fitted my social consciousness – they were underdogs that made it through their music.
The fact that they seemed so real and authentic left a huge impression on me. I guess that planted the seed… the first blues concert I ever attended (and the first blues man I ever promoted a show of) was Louisiana Red, who lived (and still does) in Germany.
Do you remember the first time you heard the Blues? Was it love at first "listen" or was it an acquired taste?
See above. I bought a turntable at age 14 and started buying albums of the featured artists in a Chicago blues film I saw. I also listened to stuff like Janis Joplin, The Animals, and other artists of the 60’s era whose intensity could meet the intensity of those blues guys.
Most children don't have the ambition to grow-up and own their own record label, or even to be a record producer. When did you first decide that this is what you wanted to do? What was the path you took to becoming Ruf Records – were you already involved in music in some way or another?
Like I said I was a promoter, then a booking agent. Then the publisher for Luther Allison’s music – only because somebody I met said that was the thing to do – start your publishing company. I did it without actually knowing WHAT I did. It felt right and appealing and I learned to follow my instincts, and spontaneous gut feelings. It was all learning by doing.
I think it’s a privilege to actually get a chance to pay for your own mistakes and actually learn the ropes not through a teaching business class but through trying it out yourself and seeing what happens. Because it’s your passion you can actually manage to overcome all the obstacles.
Luther and his common law wife Rocky, who used to manage him and traveled with him all the time, were real teachers. We created a tight work team based on personal trust and friendship. We all believed in what we were doing and promoting. He was a man on a mission and we organized what needed to be done. Promoting concerts, booking tours, publishing and protecting the music, publicity, travel logistics, and in the end, produced and manufactured and distributed records around the globe.
The whole organization grew step by step and we learned something new every day as we tried to figure out what was the next step for us to go about… it really is essential to keep an open mind and never loose the feeling that you actually are a student in your job. I still feel like this today. I learn something new every day… it never stops.
Did you have a definite purpose in mind for Ruf – was it always going to be a Blues label – or has this just happened.
It really just happened. I had the thought of branching out and starting sub-divisions for other music genres. I learned early on that you need to focus on one thing and grow with it. That's the only way you get recognition. If you do too many things, you water down the quality of your core business. It’s best to stay true to your roots and core business, even if the routine becomes boring at times…
Who was the first act that you signed from the States, and how did you convince them that an American Blues musician would be better served by signing with a relatively unknown German label?
Luther Allison. He already lived in exile in Paris when I first met him. In the beginning it was strictly a European career building effort. But as we became more successful across Europe, Rocky and I started discussing the potential of a US comeback.
Which lead us to actually record 1994's Bad Love album (aka: Soul Fixin’ Man – the US version on Alligator Records) back in the states (with producer Jim Gaines in Memphis, TN) His prior albums were European recordings, using European producers and musicians. It’s been word of mouth ever since.
After Luther, Joanna Conner was my next artist signed. Now it’s the artists that talk about and recommend each other. Aynsley Lister and Ian Parker were recommended to me through Walter Trout. Ana Popovic came through Bernard Allison, who of course was introduced to me through Luther. Walter Trout came to me on the recommendation of Jim Gaines.
It’s been an ongoing snowball ever since we started to have a real presence on the US markets and became the only real world wide career development oriented blues label originating out of Europe. There are hundreds of local and national labels around the world but only a handful actually operating globally.
Have you ever questioned your sanity for getting into the business?
Many times. I used to work with “Screaming” Jay Hawkins, who had sort of a brain injury that originated from the Korean War in which he served and got shot in the head. He took strong morphine EVERY DAY of his life. He was just as amazing on stage as he was crazy off stage.
He loved to threaten promoters demanding more cash beyond the agreed amount about five minutes before show time, when there’s a hall full of people screaming for the show to start. He didn’t care. He would have left a sold out venue for the hotel any time he wanted to. Certain times into the cycle of his medication’s side effects you could not even talk to him, he was too spaced out.
One day I had to come out on tour when his tour manager in charge quit in the middle of the night. Screaming Jay had pulled out a gun and held it against his head from behind on the tour bus; giving the guy the scare of his life. (The gun was not loaded. This was Screaming Jay style joke – he used to light magician style, flash pyrotechnic fires in restaurants for example, only to scare waiters and have a ball.)
I quit working with Screaming Jay because it got too unpredictable. You never knew if he was going to go on stage or potentially cause a riot by not going on. He LOVED to see me and the local promoter sweat blood every night.
I used to come and complain about him with Luther and Rocky. “This guy is insane, he is out of control”. They would only laugh at me and tell me: compared to the logic of this business, Screaming Jay is SANE. This is a running joke between Rocky and I today still: whenever I visit her I keep telling her: you were right. I learned. Compared to what we do here every day, Screaming Jay seems pretty sane to me!
Well, that seems a pretty good place to end part one of the interview, don't you think? And you thought running a record label would be all numbers and business didn't you? Tune in tomorrow for the rest of my conversation with Thomas Ruf.