interview by insane wayne chinsang
illustration by debbie


wayne: What did you do before you became the frontman for the Mighty Blue Kings?

Ross: I was playing in the blues circuit around Chicago and I recorded with Willie Smith. He was the drummer for Muddy Waters. I played harmonica with him for a number of years. He was the frontman, but I would MC at times. Then I toured around Chicago with Dave Specter. Unfortunately, I wasnít able to sustain myself monetarily doing just that, and I didnít want a ďrealĒ job, so I did odd jobs. I valet parked cars and painted homes-- anything I didnít have to be too committed to.

w: You and Jimmy Sutton (former MBK bass player) formed the band in 1995. How did you and Jimmy hook up?

R: Through touring with other artists, I realized that it was a great way to make an income. So I came up with the name The Blue Kings. I was the frontman, but I knew players in town. So I would call them up and we would play local area gigs. Right around that time, I met Jimmy Sutton. We shared some opinions on bands and music, so we brought our efforts together and the band started. Since then itís been an evolution process; growing, bringing in new players, and incorporating new sounds. Iíve been allowing myself to evolve and grow into a better musician and a stronger singer.

w: Whatís Jimmy up to these days?

R: I heard heís playing bass with Andrew Birdís Bowl of Fire. And then heís got a band called The Four Charms which plays every Tuesday at The Green Mill.

w: Younger people who hadnít been exposed to the likes of Basie and Mingus before are now checking them out because of your music. Although this is an extremely positive thing, does it ever get disheartening when a fan comes up to you and thinks you wrote ďRag MopĒ?

R: No, because I was that person at one time. For example, I thought Led Zepplin was totally original. And they are, donít get me wrong. But it all comes from somewhere else. The same goes for Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones. When I learned about who they listened to, I stepped away from those bands I love and just pursued things on my own. I go back and listen to them now and hear them with a very different ear. Iím not judging them or saying they are good or bad. I just think itís wonderful that they took their influences and evolved into what they are. And thatís what I look for in myself. I look at myself as a pipeline. Not a lot of people are out there playing or promoting this music that I think is the core of American heritage. Thereís something about the music of this country and how it came to be. You can take Count Basie back to Fats Waller and so on. Everybody got it from somewhere, and nobody claims it as their own.

w: Preferred drink after a show?

R: Water. (laughs)

w: Do you have any opinion about the current situation going on with the race for the presidency?

R: I think it puts a bit of a blemish on this country. A change has to happen, because there is obviously something wrong with the system that is in place. After this, hopefully everything will get straightened out. Weíve had this problem before with prior elections, but it just never went this distance.

w: Who is the most inspirational person youíve met so far?

R: Years ago, when I was just starting out, I saw and met B.B. King. I was just floored by him and how he was. He seemed like a really down-to-earth person. I saw him play in Chicago and I literally, became one of those crazy fans. And Iím not like that typically, but I got these great seats and, before I knew it, I was hooked. I was hysterical. And then, years later, we did a festival in Madison, Wisconsin and we shared a bill with him. I got a chance to meet him that night. We did a show with Ray Charles and Tony Bennett, too. I mean, these guys are so historical and huge and then theyíre right in front of you! I see these guys and theyíre just people. Theyíve got flaws and uniqueness just like everyone else. But you never see that on their record. There was an artist, a harmonica player, who I listened to every day. I loved this person. But I met them and I didnít really like the way they were. Now, I donít listen to the music anymore. Itíll come on and Iíll think that itís a good song, but I donít really pursue that person the way I used to. Now I listen to it and hear an underlying tone. Thatís why I was afraid to meet Ray Charles and B.B. King: For fear that they might be assholes.

w: Itís obvious that you love absorbing jazz and rhythm and blues greats, but what contemporary music do you dig?

R: Well, I got the new Merle Haggard, and Beckís Midnight Vultures. Itís a great album. As far as new stuff is concerned, there hasnít been a lot that has interested me. I really enjoy Latin music lately, like the Buena Vista Social Club. Itís just great music. Itís the equivalent of having T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Witherspoon and all these other greats get together on a stage again. Thereís something good about it; a certain groove that hooks you. Thereíre no changes or anything that takes you some place. Itís more of a primal groove. When I listen to music, I listen to everything. As a musician, my ear is much more critical of music. With the music that is out there, a lot of people accept and enjoy it. But for me, I listen to it and then I need something new. Iím a bit jaded.

w: Kind of along the same line, the swing ďsceneĒ came and went fast. You once stated that the whole scene was just ďsurface,Ē that it was nothing more than ďattitude and clothes.Ē You also drew a parallel between it and breakdancers. What do you think is currently going on in the music scene that will be as short-lived?

R: Well, youíve got the whole Latin Pop thing going on. The Latin population is always going to like it, but now theyíve bridged it over into the American population. Itís new and exciting, but itís going to come and go. And something else will come in its place. Someday weíll go back to breakdancing. Thatís just the way the cycle goes. Itís funny because within all that stuff you find something good. I go back and listen to Run DMC or Beastie Boys, and even early LL Cool J, and I think that stuff is still pretty cool. There is great in everything; it just depends on what youíre into. We did this show in Grand Rapids and I was talking to this kid there. He came up to me and had a pierced tongue and a few tattoos. He thought we were just great. He was going on and on about how he didnít listen to our type of music and was more into metal. But I could tell by talking to him that he was just as much into his music as I am into mine. I actually walked away learning something about him and the style of music he was into. Sabbath is about as far as I ever got into metal, but he was telling me about all these other artists and what theyíre doing now. And now Iím going to have to check that out.

w: Finish this sentence: If I wasnít making music Iíd probably be,..

R: ...deciding why Iím working here.

w: The Mighty Blue Kings have covered everything from Jimi Hendrixís ďManic DepressionĒ to Louis Jordanís ďGreen Grass GrowsĒ. Are there any songs that you are considering covering in the near future?

R: Weíve covered some Blood, Sweat and Tears. As far as covering things goes, Iíve been trying to get back into the roots of things. I took a song from Joe Williams; we were playing it and I decided to bring it up to speed. I sing a bass line and we take it to a place where it still has the same character, but it is more of a rejuvenated sound. I almost hate saying that, because the original is in no way dated or old; but what I like to do is reach into that pot and take something and make it belong to us. Itís very easy to imitate, but itís difficult to be the one that is doing it differently.

w: Fondest childhood memory?

R: Wow. (pauses) When I was about three-years-old I went to Perth, Australia to visit my grandparents. My grandfather was a fisherman, and weíd get up in the morning and take a little dingy out to his boat. Weíd get in the boat and heíd throw these big nets into the ocean. Heíd pull in mackerel and octopus; all sorts of stuff.

w: That sounds pretty memorable. My fondest childhood memory took place in South Milwaukee.

R: (laughs) Yeah, mine was pretty memorable.

w: In your amateur opinion, do dogs have lips?

R: Yeah, absolutely. When theyíre a puppy and they donít really have teeth yet, they have to have lips.

w: Yeah, and they have to have something to cover their teeth. Thatís their lips.

R: Right. Exactly.

w: Favorite movie of 2000?

R: Hold on, I need help with this one. (Asks the question to his girlfriend in the room.) Oh yeah, Erin Brockovich was a good movie. I canít say it was my favorite, but it was a really good one. I normally donít like whatís-her-name, but I thought she did a really good job in it. Gladiator was a great movie. I donít like gladiator films, but it was a great movie.

w: Any guilty pleasures?

R: I canít tell you that.

w: Any resolutions for the new year?

R: Well, that actually kind of goes with my guilty pleasures. My guilty pleasure is, according to my girlfriend, my obsessive compulsiveness. If she buys a box of cookies, I have to eat the whole thing. So my rule is, donít bring cookies into the house. My resolution is to be more aware of my body. Iím not talking about going to the gym or lifting weights. I just want to be more conscientious about my health, as well as my familyís health. I have a son now, so itís important to instill these sort of things. I was brought up in a family where we never went out to eat and every meal was cooked at home. There is something that is very valuable about that. Itís something I want to practice and maintain: a healthy lifestyle. You asked me what my drink of choice was after a show and honestly itís a bottle of water. Itís the first thing I go for.

w: Whatís next for MBK?

R: Our fans are really anxious to get to the next thing. And I think thatís a great thing. Itís really motivating for me. But I look at this as a lifetime project. Not necessarily The Mighty Blue Kings, but anything that I do. I feel that, in the past, the things that weíve done were under a sort of gun. With time restraints and deadlines. Unfortunately, when youíre under the kind of budget that we are you have to plan for things accordingly. But really what I want to do is take time to work material and develop it. To make the music as good as it can be. I want to make something that I am proud of, but I want everyone else to enjoy it also.