He has worked alongside some of the greatest blues musicians of all time. Amongst his fans are the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Luther Allison. He supported B.B. King on tour and recorded three studio albums with leading blues producer Mike Vernon. But despite guitarist and singer Mick Pini’s long and impressive career, he is far from a celebrity.
Except, maybe, in the eyes of his greatest fans.
Not one to be aggressive in business, Mick, now 67 with unruly grey hair, admits that he doesn’t like to put himself out there. Engaging the audience with a bit of stage banter is usually left up to the other members of his band. The attention, he says, tends to embarrass him more than anything.
At the Iron Road pub in Evesham, the Mick Pini Band are waiting to perform to a small crowd of some of his lifelong fans and some regular Saturday night drinkers. I ask Mick if he has any regrets about not pushing for a bigger record deal during his 40 years of writing, recording and performing. His answer is firm, and humble as ever.
“No. I did exactly what I wanted to do. I paid my dues, and that’s what the blues is all about,” he said.
Before Mick can finish his trail of thought, a man with a thick Birmingham accent interrupts us: “Do you remember me, Mick? It’s been 22 years since I’ve seen you.”
Mick studies the man – he is in his 40s, with a thin face and his hair pushed back into a ponytail. Slight confusion soon turns to glee as a smile spreads across Mick’s face: “Gibbo!”
Gibbo is one of the many fans who has eagerly anticipated Mick’s return to the UK. Having escaped to Germany 10 years ago, Mick’s rare appearances back on his home turf are not only a chance for him to play with old friends, but for him to reconnect with some of those fans he’s made a lasting impression on.
Apparently, this happens in every town he visits.
“My kids used to do the housework listening to your CD. I’ve still got it! You signed a copy for me and my ex-partner Jo, you spelt her name with an E,” Gibbo laughs.
As Mick and Gibbo reminisce, as old friends do, it becomes clear that Mick Pini makes music that really matters to people. And those people have the same admiration for him now as they did 20 years ago. A timeless genre, for Mick, the blues comes from deep inside.
“When this guy plays, I either smile or cry,” Gibbo says.
“He’s something else. To me, he’s my little secret.”
As he walks away, he turns back around to Mick: “You ain’t changed a scrap, not one little bit”.
Mick first picked up a guitar as a nine-year-old boy living in Leicester: “I saw this strange instrument in the music shop, it was a guitar but I didn’t know that at the time, I just said to my mother ‘can I have that?’”
“Eventually I managed to save up some money from doing a paper round.
“She didn’t like it at all! But I got it and I just kept on playing.”
On the rare occasion that Mick and his friends picked up a radio service, they would listen to Uncle Mac’s request show. It was here, during the late 50s, that Mick had his first introduction to the blues.
“Some guy came on called John Lee Hooker and I didn’t like him at first.
“But as I listened to it, really listened to it, it grew on me – It had a message. And I decided that that was what I liked. Music with a message.”
Mick’s views on music have remained constant throughout his career. He believes that even some of the most fantastic guitarists can be missing one crucial element – the mistakes. To Mick, blues is as much about those notes you don’t play as the ones you do.
He keeps things simple. Rock and roll rebellion was never part of the appeal for Mick.
“People will do anything to be famous, but that’s not what music is about to me.
“You work really hard, you don’t upset anybody, if someone upsets you, you sort it out calmly – and you play your music.”
Mick recalls an exchange with Clapton’s manager that led to him being offered the role of Eric’s chauffeur - but he was put off the idea quickly enough.
“He said I wouldn’t like it. He said all they talk about is Porsches, women and what rings they’ve got. I said, I’ll stay where I am!”
After leaving home, Mick played as much as possible. He spent his time travelling around the country in search of work and music. By 1973, he was ready to pack it in.
After missing the chance to attend art school in London and deciding he wasn’t very good after all, an encounter with Texan guitarist Freddie King changed Mick’s outlook entirely.
“He just knocked my socks off. I had a chat with him after his show and that’s what encouraged me to carry on.
“Seeing Freddie changed my life.”
In 1989, Mick was spotted by producer Mike Vernon, known for working with Bowie, Clapton and Fleetwood Mac amongst others, someone he’d always wanted to be recorded by. It’s his “analogue thinking” that appeals to Mick, who admits he’s not a digital man himself.
His big break got him gigs across Europe and like a “domino effect”, things started to take off. Mick released three albums under the Blue Horizon label before Vernon retired.
But, back home in Leicester, things weren’t looking so bright for Mick. Finding himself the victim of robberies and vandalism at his own front door, he decided to relocate to Germany with his wife.
Disillusioned with UK politics, he’s in no rush to move back: “Europe’s not perfect, but its where I’ve got peace of mind. I’m 67, that’s what I need right now.”
To friends and fans, both Mick’s music and integrity has granted him legendary status. But, in his own head, he makes a considered effort not to bolster his ego: “I like to say, you keep your light down low. That’s what I’ve always believed”.
Mick Pini may not have had his name in lights, but to those fans like Gibbo, who have been following his movements for the last couple of decades, that makes him all the more special.
A secret kept, Mick Pini has not only stayed true to his morals, but he’s created a timeless and poignant catalogue of blues that has made an impression on his hometown fans and musical greats alike.
UK bluesman Mick Pini talks about Mojo Buford, Peter Green, Mike Vernon, Luther Allison, BB King and his artwork
"Great blues songs inspire great interpretations (the blues ‘tradition’ again)"
Mick Pini: Painting The Truth of Blues
If you’re lucky enough to catch veteran British bluesman Mick Pini live you are guaranteed the real deal; no pedals, no effects, just a (rare) 54 Strat (stroked) played by a bluesmeister. Oh - and how he makes it plead, bleed, sing, scream, cry – and smoke! With a life time in music you’ll hear echoes and influences from the whole tradition of the blues in Mick’s playing. His uncompromising adherence to a genuine belief in his music has never been deflected. Those distinctive raw, attacking riffs and phrases, often reminiscent of such legendary names as Freddie King, Albert Collins or T-Bone Walker hit you with aggression not unlike a ton of bricks, then in a moment, he’ll melt your heart with a sweeping phrase of pure beauty.
These are the hallmarks of Mick Pini: to encounter him live is a joy not to be missed - it’s a blues master class! Mick started playing guitar as a young boy back in 1960. Since then he’s paid his dues in pubs, clubs, festivals, concert halls - hell, even busking on the streets. Over a lifetime he’s worked with all sorts: Doctor Ross, Professor Longhair, Rich Grech, Mojo Buford, Louisana Red, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Chris Farlowe, Mike Vernon, BB King, Luther Allison – and more than a few others. Currently based in Germany, Mick has worked with Roy Estrada (Little Feat) and Jimmy Carl Black (Frank Zappa). Mick's most recent album called 'Happy With The Blues' (2015).
Photos Courtesy of Mick Pini Archive / All Rights Reserved
When was your first desire to become involved in the blues and who were your first idols?
Around the end of the 1950s when I was twelve or thirteen I guess. In those days you rarely heard blues. It was radio rather than TV then and what you heard was pop songs and ballads. You’d hear Elvis, but the sweetened sanitised stuff; the blues’ roots that so much of it was based on were far from advertised. Just occasionally they’d throw in something else and I remember hearing ‘Boom Boom’ by John Lee Hooker and something just switched on. The raw energy, relentlessly powerful rhythm – just mesmerising. I also heard Muddy too and that certainly made an impression.
What was the first gig you ever went to and what were the first songs you learned?
Hardly surprisingly the first song I learned was Hooker’s ‘Dimples’. The first “big” band I remember seeing was The Rolling Stones playing a concert in Leicester (were I grew up) in 1963. Before then you wouldn’t get many blues acts playing places like Leicester. I recall seeing John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton and I learned “Telephone Blues” soon after.
Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you and what are some of your favorite?
Hundreds! The playing of Freddie King, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan have in different ways intrigued and inspired me but then so have John Martyn, Taj Mahal… Skip James, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, I don’t really have favourites; it doesn’t work like that for me. Blues is a tradition really, tunes are passed down. People borrow, build on, and steal even what they hear. It’s a bit like a bank; you build up your account with all that you hear, then consciously or unconsciously you call on this account in your playing.
Poverty. No Money. It’s difficult trying to make a living; the economics of it don’t work and that can all get very frustrating. It sometimes feels like one of your ancients, Sisyphus; using up a lot of energy for very little return.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
Humility, Perseverance, Practice, Satisfaction and Frustration.
(Photo by Franz)
What were the reasons that made the UK in the 60s to be the center of social, cultural and artistic researches?
The Beatles, the Radio and the power of the TV and the Pill, a more liberal Society a lot of changes in the UK culture from 1961- 1967 to 1970 London, Clubs were opening, Jazz Folk Clubs, it was all new and exciting time, to meet people, hear some great music and have a great night out. It was new, from Folk to Jazz and Blues. Revolution in the air, a feeling changes are about to happen. Rebel protest marches against the bomb tired of war we didn’t want war no more. American music 1964 was coming over by 1965-66 was taking over these American acts could be seen on TV, you have to remember we didn’t have TV before the 60s as I said it was only Radio in the UK then by 1964 -66 Pirate Radio you could see these artists and hear about them it was new you could also buy their records see them live society was changing. I had dropped out. As a beatnik for the beat life there was a lot of music coming through. By 1967 the blues was coming through like a wave, nobody had heard this music, and now you could go to most clubs by 1965 -66 in the UK, which started opening, and see these artists playing live. Free festivals were happening 1967- 69 it was an exciting era. We thought things would change, books magazines, records and the drug culture. And again the folk electric blues influence was turning into a psychedelic feel in the music, bands such as Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd, even the Beatles and Stones were messing around with the strange sounds coming from Psychedelic LSD and other drugs influencing the music from American bands Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service in San Francisco 67-69, Grateful Dead, the music was moving and changing.
After the Second World War, it was time for these changes. The old order of knowing your place and authorities going along with the same rigid attitudes, but it would take place sooner than later, and the American influences where starting to come through music, books, records, word and mouth. I can only see this from my perspective as I felt much a loner and doing many manual jobs to work and buy my first real electric guitar and amplifier, after having a Spanish acoustic to learn on for a number of years and having, like a lot of people from my generation, not a lot of money. It felt like you could do anything, it was a very optimistic time. A sort of revolution, we did not know where it was leading us to, with the cold war hanging in the balance, and the civil rights of black people with the famous speech from Martin Luther King. There needed to be a fight for freedom, a belief we believed we could protest against. The last many many years of world wars, it had to stop. It was an optimistic time for change.
"Blues is a tradition really, tunes are passed down. People borrow, build on, and steal even what they hear. It’s a bit like a bank; you build up your account with all that you hear, then consciously or unconsciously you call on this account in your playing." (Photo: Mick Pini on stage)
What do you learned about yourself and what is the lesson of life where you received from the road with the Blues?
Chaos, to me I just stuck to the Blues it never went away. I just could not put the dam guitar down, Freddie King was calling, 1973 The Marquee Wardour St. London I saw a poster with Freddie King, and I had heard about his name, but not his music, and again, this goes back to the word and mouth thing I was talking about. Earlier in the 60s. There was information, but not reliable, getting information second or third hand, you had to see it, to believe it and be there, and I was. This gave me firsthand information because I could see it, feel it and it was special. That night. I was living it, because I was there. I will never forget it, it changed my life, regarding the Blues and playing it. I was brought up from the Rolling Stones to Howlin Wolf and John Lee Hooker.
Bob Dylan was another artist, who was so profound in my life, he had a message with stories, which would capture your imagination with great words of wisdom, yet a great poet of his time. Yeah I did a lot of buskin in London 1967 -68 so I could get some food to eat and live, it was all I knew and I just know on the Streets it was another life, exciting, yet dangerous, one had to, I couldn’t get a job because of my very long hair. With a few shillings to get you through the day. It was always hard but I came through it. In fact one night in Marble Arch I was buskin in the tube tunnel, a strange small figure walked by slowly, went to the top of the tunnel, and came back and handed me 5 pounds in my hand, that was a lot of money, it later turned out to be Alec Guinness a very small man, yet on Screen he looks quite tall. I`ve had a few of these kind of things happen, other personalities from TV or radio. It was a hard life I learned on the buskin circuit, but it still equally hard breaking through and playing your music, you have to stay with what you know, not what you think or want it to be, the blues never went away.
Why do you play GUITAR & what were your favorite guitars back then?
I love it! – Or was it because I was hopeless at anything else! I remember the first guitar I had was a £5 acoustic nylon. I saved up half (from a paper round) and persuaded my mother to pay the other half – I’d have been around 16 at the time. The next, I think, was a Hofner. I went through a number of guitars; you couldn’t afford to have more than one but you tried to trade up. Like a lot of players I spent time with other players, trying different guitars. My first ‘serious’ guitar was a cherry red Les Paul SG junior, one pick up job. I worked through a number of Gibsons; I recall a couple of TV model Specials, first a red then a yellow one because the red one kept going out of tune before I realised it didn’t have an extra bridge! In those days I used an AC 30 Vox amp. Later I bought a marshal 50 watt combo, indeed I had several marshals. These days I’ve got three guitars; a lovely Guild acoustic, a cherry red Gibson 345 stereo –a la Freddie King and a Fender Stratocaster. I bought it in the Seventies from a guy who didn’t play but collected guitars; he’d hit hard times and had to sell. Only later did I realise that I’d bought a classic 1954 Strat! As you can see I’ve had a number of Gibsons and they are gorgeous, especially for that wonderful thick sound, but the Strat is just so versatile- if I only take one guitar gigging it’s the Strat.
Where did you pick up your guitar style? In which songs can someone hear the best of your guitar work?
That’s hard to say. All sorts of players. We are back to ‘hundreds’ from a previous answer. CD sales suggest people think “Blues Survivor”. A lot of my friends say a live gig is where they hear my best work and there might be something in that.
What characterizes the sound of Mick Pini? Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?
No idea; it’s for others to say. Blues with a feeling, I will let my fans be the judge of that. It comes from the heart and soul.
Are there any memories from local pubs and busking time, which you’d like to share with us?
Ah, busking. I sometimes think there are two kind of gigs (and neither of them pay well!) There’s those you enjoy because the audience come to hear you and that’s always a treat;
it’s flattering when someone wants to hear your work. Then there’s the gigs where you are little more than wallpaper, filling the time between the bingo. Oh the glamorous life of the musician,
eh? Buskin’ is always hard. I was living in London in the late 60s, trying to get contacts, going to auditions and buskin’ simply to get by. There’s dog eat dog there too; if you’re
on somebody’s pitch you’ better look out. When it was cold you busk in the underground. One time this guy walks by, then stops, listens and then walked back and gave me £5. It sticks in the mind
for two reasons. Firstly £5 –wow! You could busk for a couple of days and not make that. The other reason I recall it was because the guy was the actor Alec Guinness.
So much for progress, a decade later I was buskin’ in Canada; Vancouver to Toronto – oh the joys of the hobo life! Still I met some interesting people there and it’s a big beautiful country, wide open spaces but not a great place to busk; you could go along time without seeing anyone. I was playing a battered old Yamaha I’d picked up cheaply there. You can imagine after more than 50 years in this game I’ve played in a lot of places and in a variety of bands. The Il Rondo Ballroom, now gone, was a lovely small place and often hosted blues act when they passed through. The Charlotte, Phoenix and The Polytechnic and these days The Musician –all in Leicester. Other places too: a nightclub in a cellar under Nottingham castle (originally part of a network of tunnels allowing sneaky escape in days of yore), was a regular late night gig with a great atmosphere. There was also The Hope and Anchor (inevitably and affectionately known as The Hopeless Wanker) in Coventry. Another regular is a lovely Sunday afternoon gig in Lincolnshire, where the bonus is a lovely Sunday roast. I also lived in Salisbury for a couple of years at the start of the 70’s and played in a band called Marble Orchard. We supported T-Rex one time, The Who another –the things a jobbing musician has to do,eh? I also formed another band in the late 60’s called Ned Ludd and others; Capt. Video, Desperate Dan –where do these daft names come from; I ask you, Marble Orchard!
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The best: working with Mike Vernon; the worst: not getting enough gigs.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your work with Mike Vernon?
Yes there were. First morning recording the ‘Wildmouse’ Album. To see Mike Vernon turn up and unpack the whole of his recording gear /studio from the boot of a VW Golf. And at the end of the day packed it all back into the boot of his VW and beetle off home.
"Poverty. No Money. It’s difficult trying to make a living; the economics of it don’t work and that can all get very frustrating. It sometimes feels like one of your ancients, Sisyphus; using up a lot of energy for very little return." (Photo: Mick Pini and his smokin' guitar, c.1990)
What do you miss most nowadays from Mojo Buford and Luther Allison?
Luther Allison. Understated player, lovely man Quietly spoken, modest man - another underrated player.
Oh yes, supporting and playing with Mojo Buford; scary adventure. We got this tape of his set and worked on it – after all he’s one of the legends of Chicago blues and you want to do the job well. He turns up, no time to rehearse and tells us he’s not doing this set but other stuff. It was chaos. He had strange ideas about keys even so he made it work but after years plying your trade in Chicago experience pays off and you know what you want and how to get it. He wrenched the rhythm round to what he wanted and we soon got it. Friends who were there recall it as a cracking gig. I’m not sure it was what I was thinking up there behind him wondering where he was going next with the number. It was an education working with Mojo.
Which memory from Doctor Ross & Professor Longhair makes you smile?
I can’t recall Professor Longhair, but Dr Ross I do. At the time I was playing with a fabulous slide player Al Sansome, and Dr Ross said to me after the gig: “Man I ought to take you back to Chicago, you sound just like Steve Miller.”
What are some of the most memorable stories you've had with Dick Hecktall Smith & Rick Grech?
I never actually played with Dick Heckstall Smith, but we were on the same bill one night he told me he loved my playing, and we’ve been friends ever since. Rick Grech – another Leicester lad –I played with at numerous times over the years; he could drive you up the wall. I decked him one time. We were in a band with Claire Hamill and spent a couple years touring Ireland. I can’t recall what caused the row but I hit him over the head with a chair - talented musician, a fabulous fiddle player as well as bass. But sadly another who was a casualty of his demons.
Any comments about your experiences with Jimmy Carl Black & Roy Estrada?
Roy Estrada...I didn’t get to know Roy well enough, Though we had played together on the Hamburger Midnight cd. Jimmy Carl Black...Jimmy was a true and close friend. Jimmy was special, I mean special, a brother I would say. A real honour to have played with him in different bands. A gentle, graceful and intelligent human being; a great loss.
"I really dont know, its important to encourage the younger blues players, to pick up and learn as much as they can have faith and belief, it aint easy, but thats the blues." (Photo: Mick Pini with Jimmy Carl Black and Roy Estrada, after a funny jam session at Mick's house)
Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best friend?
Jimmy Carl Black. ‘The only injun’ in the band’, as he was fond of telling us. Sometimes difficult to say exactly what it is - a quiet gentle understanding and wisdom in Jimmy’s case.
How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?
Dissatisfaction; blues don’t play happy (in the main). Mentors – hell, the list could be endless; Muddy Waters, Freddie King, J.B Lenoir, T-Bone Walker. The simplicity of the songs; T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday for instance; simple but powerful. T-Bone tells his story in the metaphor of a week. Simple, powerful suggestive stuff. Some of the lines; “If you see my baby wont you please send her on home to me”, carries the song’s theme, another universal blues theme. It’s poetry as well as a great blues. Great blues songs inspire great interpretations (the blues ‘tradition’ again). Freddie King for instance does a stunning imaginative interpretation, then you think of The Allman Bros version, which builds on a Bobby Bland version too, the result is breathtakingly awesome.
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
If pressed. Freddie King (probably Eric Clapton, Peter Green too) but it’s a massive oversimplification. Like I was saying earlier blues is a tradition and you’re absorbing stuff all the time.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
Couldn’t you ask me an easy Question! Part of it is in the universal appeal of the stories. They tell you about experiences we all had and so provide the comfort that we are not alone. The other part lies in the powerful rhythmic quality! We all have rhythm, like a pulse. There is something in the rhythms of the blues that is primitive, deep within us you hear it in the African rhythms where the blues comes from. (Photo by Erwin Walter)
Are there any memories of all GREAT BLUESMEN you met which you’d like to share with us?
I remember when I was 17 I went to see Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac in Leicester at a wonderful old venue called the Il Rondo
long since vanished but during the British Blues boom in the mid sixties Friday night was blues night and a lot of good bands played there. Anyway, I never had much money I was outside the
gig trying to get in without a ticket and I told the doorman I was the roadie for the band. Well, the doorman did not believe me and would not let me in. I had met Peter several times before this
incident, and he knew me as Mick. As I was being thrown out Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie saw me outside in a little distress and Peter asked me what the matter was. I told him I
couldn’t get in because I’d told the doorman I was the roadie. Peter immediately said come in with me The doorman didn’t even know that it was Peter Green and stopped Peter also. Peter told him
he was playing in the Club that night and that he should let us in. The doorman refused and Peter promptly said if he didn’t let me in then he wasn’t going to play. Well, That was it; we both
went in. I even asked Peter earlier -when he was with John Mayall- could he show me how to play “Supernatural” from the “Hard Road” Album. They were about to do a rehearsal and John Mayall was
real annoyed that I was there which is understandable. But Peter did show me how to play the number and create that spooky sound he got on ‘Supernatural’.
Another special memory was meeting B.B. King in Zurich in 1990 It was a wonderful experience, talking to the man. My band was the support act. It was a privilege, a real thrill. He said he liked the band. Now I reckon he might well have said that to all the bands given the kind of man he was –but, as you can imagine, I was made up! Meeting Luther Allison was also wonderful. A quietly spoken modest man who always had time for you. A wonderfully understated man – just like his playing.
Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?How do you see the future of blues music? Give one wish for the BLUES
John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters ... again hundreds ...and hundreds...
I really dont know, its important to encourage the younger blues players, to pick up and learn as much as they can have faith and belief, it aint easy, but thats the blues.