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 BLUES MAN (Isaac Scott)

By Shannon Love

(As a prelude to this article, I would like to mention that it was a great honor to speak with and interview Isaac Scott. Much of the inspiration for this story was based upon my admiration for this living Blues legend. Recently, Isaac was diagnosed with diabetes and has encountered some complications with the disease. However, Isaac is rapidly recovering and will be back playing the Blues in the very near future.)

A Blues Man was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in the year 1945. His name, Isaac Scott. His life, the Blues. His story, extraordinary.

Isaac's family moved out from Arkansas to Portland, Oregon when Isaac was still a young boy. The lure of work in the railroad camps is what attracted the family out west. Isaac still recalls how his father and co-workers in the section gangs would sing songs while they were working. "You know, work songs -- you've seen those films -- everybody working and singing. It was real neat to see them guys do that at that time, because I remember when they replaced the section gangs with machines that laid the tracks and ties. They didn't need the guys anymore."

Isaac's mother was a strong church-going woman and was highly regarded in the Pentecostal church. Isaac smiles as he remembers his mother. "Everybody loved mama. She sang like an angel in the choir. I still can hear my mama singing 'Amazing Grace' in that little old church across the railroad tracks."

Isaac's mother used to take young Isaac out to big gospel shows whenever they would come to town. It was her encouragement that Isaac's love for gospel music flourished in the years to come.

Isaac's mother saved some money to buy him his first guitar. "An acoustic Hawaiian thing," Isaac recalls. "My mother bought it at some second hand store in 1954." A few years later his mother searched to find someone who could give his son lessons. "My parents found me a guitar teacher to take lessons at Portland Music -- a man named Bill Black. He wore a greasy Hawaiian shirt with shades and he was a chain smoker. He had slicked back hair and run over shoes. He played some sheet music out of a book, so I copied it by ear, and played It back with all these extra licks -- which I know he couldn't do." Isaac smiles.

Two weeks later Isaac's parents get a call from the teacher and he told them, "This is just worthless. He ain't reading music. I can't teach him anything, and he plays the well... he plays the music better than I do!"

Isaac's mother had an extensive record collection of gospel music. Isaac would sit and play those old 78's for hours, and play back what he learned by ear. Isaac recalls a lady friend of his mother's: "I grew up with her kids and she was like my mom pretty much. I recall going to her house to visit her kids and I would never go play outside because she had BB King and all kinds of blues records. She would always say to me, 'Isaac, don't you want to go out and play with the other kids? It's a nice day outside.' And I would say, 'Nope! I want to listen to the music.' And I would."

Isaac remembers one of his earliest jobs as a shoeshine boy. "I used to use these rags to shine and buff with; and you would be surprised on the sounds and rhythms you could achieve from snapping and popping those rags. That's how the term Rag Time Jazz started; using the rags to polish the shoes. It was cool."

Isaac loved music. It consumed him. That was all he could think about night and day. He would carry his guitar over his back everywhere he went. A friend of Isaac's father was over at the house one day, and asked Isaac, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Isaac shouted out, "A blues Man!"

When Isaac was sixteen years old his mother passed away. This affected Isaac deeply -- more than any one in his family ever realized. Up to that point in Isaac's life, the three of them, he, his mother and his father, had done everything together as a family. This was a very traumatic time for young Isaac. He became very isolated and found himself spending more time with his uncles and cousins than his father. Shortly thereafter his father remarried and eventually fathered four children. Isaac stood alone from this time on.

Isaac was quite the rebel in high school. He was in the school band and had the task of playing the trombone. But Isaac didn't like playing the trombone as much as the guitar. So with trombone in one hand, and guitar in the other hand, Isaac would arrive in class. His band teacher would just roll his eyes and say, "Isaac, you're just going to waste your life away on that guitar." After band class, Isaac would go into the practice rooms where he was supposed to be practicing the trombone. He and a bunch of the kids would gather around and he would play trombone riffs on his guitar. Isaac was cutting heads with the other band members. Isaac recalls, "The kids used to get a real kick out of it...the teacher didn't like it much." A fiendish grin comes over Isaac.

In 1962 Isaac met a young man named Norman Sylvester, which was the beginning of a long friendship that still exists even today. Norman recalls the first time he met Isaac, "I was in love with playing the guitar at that time, and my parents had just bought me a little bitty $11.95 guitar. They said, 'if you can learn three songs, we'll buy you an electric guitar.' I was awe struck when I first saw Isaac playing guitar at the Faith Tabernacle church for the choir. Isaac was playing an old silver-toned Sears and Roebuck guitar, and was playing in that open tuning style, with that Freddie King kind of sound. Isaac was great even back then. Isaac had a natural talent for the sound and natural touch. He had the whole church jumping up and down with excitement. It was a real sight to see."

After school Isaac and Norman would always head to downtown Portland to watch a TV show called High Times (similar to the show American Band Stand). Isaac would watch Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and all the great rock and rollers.

Another place Isaac frequented during that time was the Cotton Club, also in downtown Portland. A lot of major acts would come through town, and you could always find Isaac by the back door looking in through the smoky room. He was under age, but was still able to meet such major artists as BB King, James Cotton, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Bobby Blue Bland and many others. This had proved to be a considerable inspiration for Isaac.

Isaac and Norman would spend a lot of time together following high school. Isaac had begun lessons with Norman back in school and taught him a lot about the blues. Eventually the lessons had run their course and the two would just hang out and play together. Norman remembers some of the best times they had were after high school -- just playing on his mother's front porch.

Norman mentions, "Isaac always had a couple of electric guitars so we could always sit out there and play. All our friends would drive by and pull over to the curb. And we'd be sitting out there playing the blues real loud. They could hear us ten blocks away. Our friends would say, 'Man, we heard the music and knew it had to be you guys.' The Portland police got to know the boys real well, with their front porch concerts. They would pull up and come over to the porch and say, "Guys, it sounds real good, but you are going to have to turn it down a notch or two." Yes, the Portland Police had fond memories of Norman and Isaac's front porch afternoon concerts.

Isaac played in a band with Norman called the Ark Angels, a gospel group that performed in all the local churches. Isaac's base church was in the North Portland area, and they had a big B-3 organ there. That's when Isaac began to dabble with playing the B-3 organ and actually wound up pretty good on it.

Isaac and Norman played music together a lot back then but they also were still human. Yes, they both worked day jobs. Isaac, Norman and a guy named Tommy Thompson had all worked at the Rapid Car Wash, washing cars. The three were best friends. Isaac and Tommy were wrestling in the waiting room area one morning. In their frolic, they accidentally kicked out a plate glass window -- much to the dissatisfaction of the owner. Needless to say, Isaac and Tommy didn't make any money for a long time after that. Their next job was the Monomer Hotel and that's where Isaac and Norman played their first blues gig together. They had played lots of gospel music together in the past, but this was their first paying Blues gig.

After several years of knocking around town doing various jobs, Isaac was ready to move on with his musical endeavors. In 1965 Isaac was approached by his long time friend and Evangelist, Charles Johnson, who invited Isaac to tour with him as his personal guitar player. Isaac was used as a soloist and would accompany Johnson as the evangelist would intermingle his enchantment out upon the large crowds that were housed inside the tents. Isaac recalls those as great days. "All the town folk would turn out. These people were great. They took us into their homes; they fed us and put us up for the night. It was really an incredible time." After a year on the road Isaac came home to Portland. Johnson's mother-in-law passed away while they were on the road and Johnson had to leave the show and fly to Texas for a week. During that time Isaac met someone, and had married. When Johnson returned from Texas, Isaac informed Johnson that he was moving back to Portland with his new wife.

It wasn't long after Isaac was back in town that he was invited to join The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. It seemed they needed a replacement guitar player for the band. The Blind Boys were very impressed with Isaac's unique style of playing. Isaac had created quite a reputation for himself around town as an accomplished guitar player. Isaac was a perfect fit for the Blind Boys. Isaac would travel across the country in the next year, playing all the large venues that he had dreamed of since his childhood. The Blind Boys were booked with various headlining performers, providing Isaac with a chance to finally meet and perform with many of his childhood heroes. All the Blind Boys were highly educated in the works of classical and jazz music. This was a very important and enlightening time for Isaac.

After performing on the road with the Blind Boys for almost a year, Isaac would once again come home to Portland. Isaac devoted much of his time to his family while staying close to home, just hanging out, and playing guitar in a gospel group called the Golden Eagles. In 1973 Isaac moved to San Francisco for a short period of time to visit Charles Johnson and his wife. Isaac had developed a real kinship with the Johnson's over the years, and it was important to Isaac to maintain his friendship. It was then, while in San Francisco, that Isaac decided to move his Family up to Seattle. Shortly after arriving in Seattle, Isaac's wife left him. Norman recalls, "That changed him. He went deeper into his music, and that boy... next time I heard him play... I just shook my head and said, 'Damn, Man, he's doing stuff and making moves on that guitar that I've never ever seen'."

Isaac resumed his career as a blues man in Seattle with a vengeance. At that time, there were not a lot of venues in Seattle that featured the blues. One such group that had some success was the Tom McFarland Band. Isaac's uncle lived in town and was quite excited about Tom's band, and about Isaac being in town -- so much that he wanted to get the two together. Isaac's uncle got Tom on the phone so Isaac could audition. Tom liked what he heard and invited him to come down and sit in at a club called, The Bolder Lounge in the Pike Street market. (At that time the main Blues scene revolved around the Pike Street market area, before it was remodeled, as we know it today.) Isaac sat in with Tom's band, using Tom's guitar. Isaac was asked to join the band as their new piano player and later would switch over to guitar. The Tom McFarland Band, with Isaac, was the first band to play the Central Saloon in Pioneer Square. Bob Foster had purchased a piano for the club, so Isaac could play it in the band.

In the late 70's Isaac was playing Hibble and Hydes in Pioneer Square. Back then they were running music until 4:00 AM. This would become a musician's haven. Stars and rising stars alike would attend these late night sessions. Robert Cray and Michael Powers were known to hang out and wait for a chance to jam with the two guitar masters on stage, Isaac Scott and Albert Collins. Collins would drive up from LA whenever he had an open weekend so he could attend these late night sessions with Isaac. The two of them would give guitar clinics nightly. Those who were fortunate enough to attend those late night sessions recall electricity in the air, and knew something special was happening. Isaac recalls those days with Albert: "Yeah we used to love to play, Albert was kind of a big brother to me, he showed me a lot about technique. We would just sit and talk with our guitars in our laps and talk about playing... he was a real good friend."

Dick Powell, harmonica and piano player, recalls something about Isaac that he thinks no one realizes. "Isaac could, and probably would, be one of the top B-3 organ players in Seattle if he wanted to be. He's really that good." Dick played in the First Isaac Scott Band for several years, and played on Isaac's album BIG TIME BLUES MAN. Later Dick formed his own band, The Dick Powell Blues Band.

Patrick Lynch who used to book the Blues club on Lake City Way called the Jolly Roger Road House, credits Isaac with establishing blues in the club. They started out with country western music, but found it wasn't drawing the people. Isaac approached the owners about doing blues on Sunday nights, and it proved to be quite successful, with Isaac's band attracting large crowds. The owners agreed to a full Blues format. Isaac suggested Lynch handle all the booking for the club. Jolly Rogers' success with blues moved to inspire other clubs into bringing in blues.

Isaac has accomplished so much over the years and has inspired so many. After hearing Isaac play in the 1978 San Francisco Blues Festival, promoter Jim Hamilton was inspired to write a fictional book about the blues in the Northwest, using Northwest musician's as the backdrop from which the story would unfold. Isaac's photo was featured on the front cover of this novel.

Over all the years that Isaac has played to his many adoring fans, one aspect always comes to light. Isaac leaves them wanting more. Isaac performances at Seattle's Bumbershoot has enlighten countless young guitarists over the years. "At Bumbershoot I would play out to crowds of 10,000 people, and right up front there would be all these long hair alternative grunge type kids, just staring. I would see these same kids show after show. Later when they were of age, I would see them come into the Bohemian Cafe in Pioneer Square. They would come in with note pads and take notes on what I was doing. It was wild man," Isaac recalls. Norman Sylvester recalls Isaac at the Bohemian Cafe on the effect he had on the younger audience. "Man, I watched them kids just standing in the middle of the dance floor, like they were in a trance watching his fingers."

It's a question that Isaac is always asked, so I went ahead and asked the question: "Isaac, that sound -- that unique style that you have -- what is it?" Isaac smiles and flips his thumb up in the air like "The Fonz", and says with a big grin, "It's all in the thumb. I don't play with a pick. I play with my fingers and thumb and the back of my thumbnail. It took me about ten years to develop this technique, but there are a lot more tone sounds with a thumb. Besides, I can't hold onto a pick very well and a slide is real awkward for me."

Isaac's style is the Natural Style in what Isaac calls the "Killing Sounds". Isaac always used to say, "You ain't playing no guitar unless you can get those, Killing Sounds. And that's the right on the killing floor Blues." Isaac plays his guitar just like those old masters did, playing the finger, the thumb, using the first finger and fourth finger. They would "slap" the strings for effect. Isaac plays the sides of his nail and plays up and down with the fat part of his thumb down. And when he comes up, he does so with the back of his thumb nail. And that's what gets those Killing Sounds that Isaac is so famous for.

Some people try to get that sound by holding the pick real short, and as they hit the string, they come off the string and hit the fat part of the thumb -- getting that same ring off the fret. But Isaac's secret is the hardness of his picking action, and playing as close to the fret as he can play.

Isaac never uses picks, floor distortion pedals -- just a straight cord into the amp -- no special sound effects. You've got to respect the man for that; what you get with Isaac is pure Isaac.

In retrospect, with Isaac's last recording in 1982, Big Time Blues Man, Isaac has not had any of his recent music released. This, in itself, is a shame. Since that time, the man has grown immensely. If Isaac were to record and release some of his current works and writings, the results would undoubtedly be phenomenal. Norman Sylvester states: "Isaac is the best living blues guitarist today of the purest form." Many of the local Seattle Blues musicians also echo this sentiment.

Thank you Norman for your compassion for this Blues legend, and for your insights and intuitiveness. Thank you Isaac for telling your story and for gracing our Pacific Northwest with your talent and presence.

ęCopyright 1996 -- 2008 Jet City Blues Review

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