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Interview: Ron Michaels (of Blue Plate Special): Can You Dig It! September 9, 2010

Posted by David W. King in Interview.
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This interview was originally given to me in 2009. One of twenty four interviews with different Blues artists, this was to be part of an eBook. When my hard-drive froze, the ebooks that I had written (all seventeen of them) were irretrievably lost (or so I thought. ALWAYS back up your work). This was as devastating as losing original manuscripts to a fire or a flood.

Just recently these interviews were discovered saved on my ISP. Although they do not have the photos intended for the book, the interviews were all here; all complete and in their entirety.

They will now be offered in their entirety as given to me in the weeks to come.

What a record! With a history that stretches back to a day when the band opened for Howlin’ Wolf, Blue Plate Special has had 24 songs chart #1 on Blues radio stations throughout the world–not because of some big-moneyed corporate push, but because their listeners liked them.

Formed in 1969 by blues singer/songwriter R. P. Michaels, Blue Plate Special was there at The Cellar in Arlington Heights, Illinois in ’69-’72 opening for Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues Allstars, Zephyr w/Tommy Bolin on guitar and The Bob Seger System.

They were among the artists that played at the Otis Spann Memorial Benefit where Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy introduced the Blues community to Koko Taylor singing Wang Dang Doodle. They have been the house band at John Belushi and Dan Akroyd’s Blues Brothers Bar on Wells Street; and they have entertained at the Chicago Bears Fan Convention and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Convention, as well as other big corporately sponsored events.

Over the years, Blue Plate Special has shared the concert stage with Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Siegal-Schwall Blues Band, Heartsfield, Leon Russell, Edgar Winter, Lonnie Brooks, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Mitch Ryder, The Kinsey Report, Larry McCray and Wayne Baker Brooks.
Ron Michaels, the founder of the band,  gave us this interview and gave us the low down on Blue Plate Special. This band has brought a lot to the table, and will likely be there long after the dishes have been cleared away.

As a band, you have had 24 songs hit #1 chart position on Blues radio stations throughout the world in the last two years. Which songs of yours have charted, on what stations and where?

Ron: Blue Plate Special’s “Can You Dig It!” album first hit the radio in Feb. 06 on “Midnight Special Blues Radio”, an internet indie blues station out of France. Paul Bondarovski, who runs MSBR, picked 4 songs for his playlist. The next day, “Workin’ On Love”, “Yer Bad Behind”, and “Luck Runs Out” were in the Top 5 on his daily charts, which are determined by votes from his listeners !

At ElectricBlues Radio, another internet station (non-indie) out of Florida, USA, Herm picks one song off your album to play all month. We debuted in April 06 with “I Like It Like That” at #1 with a 9.0 share, an extraordinarily high listener rating ! We hit #1 again the next month with “Hard Enuff” followed thru the summer by “Don’t Lose The Spirit” and “Right Now.”

Our music was spreading throughout America, Europe, Canada and Australia due to stations around the world requesting copies and reacting to what they’d seen happen at MSBR and EB. Soon every song on “Dig It” hit #1 and stations asked for more, so we sent them our previous albums “the Blues Ain’t Pretty” and “No Place To Fade”. Once again the listeners reacted and welcomed the new “older material”.

This all resulted in us being named “Artist of The Year” at MSBR as well as three songs of the year.

Another person who helped at this time was Murph at “Murphy’s Saloon” podcast, all this resulted in some great music sales and downloads at CDbaby and iTunes and Rhapsody.

What has your reaction been to this accomplishment?

Ron: What excited us the most was that Blues listeners gave us the #1 hits, not some record company push! We felt like Sally Fields at the Oscars “They like us…They really like us.”

The word “stoked” comes to mind. Satisfied is another great word. We connected with the Blues Music listeners/fans around the world. It was all like lighting a stick of dynamite with a shorter than expected fuse. This was all pretty amazing to us. The purpose of making original music is to satisfy your own self expression and hope the people hearing it can enjoy your grooves and take something of what you’ve written into their hearts.

Willie Dixon told me back in early 70’s, to keep at it and don’t give up – the blues needs new expression as well as remembering the old. He told me he liked my “angle” on the positive message in my writing, and that was big comin’ from a man as prolific as Willie.

The purpose of making original music is to satisfy your own self expression and hope the people hearing it can enjoy your grooves and take something of what you’ve written into their hearts.

This should really not come as a surprise. You guys have been together since the days of Howlin’ Wolf. In fact, you played The Cellar in Arlington Heights, Illinois from  ’69-’72 opening for Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues Allstars, Zephyr withTommy Bolin on guitar and The Bob Seger System. How did you guys come together?

Ron: Paul Samson was the owner of the Cellar, and a real mover and shaker in the early Chicagoland music scene. His club was responsible for The Shadows of Knight and many other young bands getting noticed. He also had a strong desire to expose us all to the Blues that had influenced Rock so much. All those you mentioned and Albert King and Otis Rush played there quite often it seemed. We took our chances at grabbing opening slots and luck prevailed. It was kind of a “Fathers and Sons” thing looking back at it now. Scared and shaking inside, hoping to do well, we learned a lot about performance.

When I started at a local Junior College (College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.) I began meeting all types of musicians through an afternoon jam session someone started and I slowly filtered through to find Gary Maier on drums and Tony Tetrow on guitar. They, together with my old friend Carson Landis on Guitar, were the initial core. When Tony left, Gary brought in Harry Binford.

What kind of changes has the band experienced in personnel since then? And how do you explain for the longevity of the band?

Ron: Well it pretty much settled into a trio format for most of the years since. Gary, Harry and I
have kept pressing on, developing and occasionally adding another voice. Studebaker John Grimaldi on Harp for a few years–man can he cook on that harp. Paul Coscino on keyboards–then he went on to play with Pete Special and Lyn Jordan. The reason we stayed together so long, up until 2003, was genuine friendship and a sense of fun as well as a deep love for the Blues. We also had a unique ability to play off each other, like ESP going down. I’ve stuck with this requirement in my selection of new members as it has become necessary. Gary retired from performing before “Can You Dig It” due to health reasons but is doing fine again now. Kevin Johnston, previously with Buddy Guy, was recruited for a couple years and the “Dig It” album.

Currently on drums–since 2007–is a man who has played with almost every true blues artist in town– Robert Pasenko (www.pasenko.com). Strong and Driving, I like to call him a freight train of the blues. Robert is also a great photographer as people can see at his website. He did Willie Smith’s album cover shots.

Share with us what it was like being the house band at John Belushi and Dan Akroyd’s Blues Brothers Bar on Wells Street?

Ron: Great times were had there. We met tons of folks from Second City after performances, various comedians from nearby comedy houses. Jim Belushi would drop by on light weeks at SNL and sit in. We helped develop some of his musical ideas for SNL. New musicians in town would come by and sit in, like Melvin Taylor. Gary Maier was a high school buddy of John Belushi’s back when they both played drums in local Wheaton bands. I knew John from my first years at College of DuPage, in the student center I played the piano and he’d mimic Joe Cocker! When he passed on I wrote about how I felt in the song “Bad Drugs and Alcohol” which found it’s way onto our second album.

You have also played some really big corporate functions. You entertained at the Chicago Bears Fan Convention and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Convention and Sears Corporate shows. Is there any difference between playing these larger events, and playing the other venues where you have entertained? Which do you prefer?

Ron: We love playing anywhere folks want to have a good time and dig the blues. The corporate functions are like live advertisement in that they are attended by people from around the world. Many times they lead to gigs, CD sales and any time more people are introduced to Blue Plate Special’s music the better. I’ve met folks from Europe who have heard us on their radio back home. The more informal clubs are the lifeblood of our music, more open to experimentation, new material and closer contact.

Having accomplished all of this, charting #1 on Blues stations worldwide, playing as a house band for a major venue and entertaining at corporate events, where do you guys see yourself in the next five years?

Ron: “Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” I see Blue Plate Special continuing with great performances and recordings. Hopefully you’ll see us on many festival stages and hear us on the blues radio. When people pay attention to what Blue Plate Special’s puttin’ down they see the value in it! We host an open Pro Blues Jam on Chicago’s near south side every Thursday and all traveling blues musicians passing thru Chicago are invited to come by and play with many of Chicago’s best blues men and women (Catchers Inn, 901 W. 35th St.-7 blocks west of Sox Park). We get bands from Europe dropping by, as well as folks like Magic Slim’s Band, Koko Taylor’s Band, Felix Reyes and others listed at http://www.bpsblues .com (our website).

Also there is an ever changing group of photos from the jam by Robert Pasenko at http://www.pasenko.com

Naturally I’d be ecstatic if we became a household word but if all we do is teach that you can be an Original in this world of imitations, I’ll be satisfied.

Do you have another release in the works? Tell us about this.

Ron: Oh Yeah! We have some new, really strong material, ready for recording this year. People will hear our newest member Marty Macmillan’s awesome, ground-breaking guitar playing. He uses many unusual tunings on straight and slide guitar. He has really given us a new burst of creative energy and depth.

The newest releases will be by download as opposed to physical album sales as the digital age has pumped a few shotgun holes in the album process.

In general folks seem to like the iPod, but as most studios will tell you – you’re only getting about one third of the sound quality of the recording. Our new (PRIME Entertainment) website http://www.bpsblues.com will be the source for these downloads in the coming year. So please join our mailing list there to be on the announcement list for the latest in Blue Plate Special recordings.

The songs will be released to worldwide Blues Radio in pairs just like back in the 45rpm single days and we’ll take it from there! Meanwhile you can get a BPS fix with some new videos at

If you’re looking to book Blue Plate Special in the U.S.A. or abroad you can start the process at:

If you’re looking for more Press and reviews go to: http://www.sonicbids.com/blueplatespecial

And all our current Albums at: www.CDbaby.com/all/bluesist


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