Now Playing: "Invisible Man" by Cleveland Fats (1.8 MB sample)
Also visit: The Official Cleveland Fats Website.
Though Cleveland Fats wasn’t entirely surprised to find that the lone record store in his hometown of Ravenna, Ohio didn’t have a single B.B. King record, he wasn’t entirely disappointed when he took home an Albert King album instead. The eleven-year old budding guitarist had just been bitten by the blues in the form of a national television appearance by B.B., and he couldn’t get the joy and excitement he felt out of his system. A life-long love affair had begun, one that continues with the Honeybee Entertainment release of Fats’ fourth record, The Way Things Go. “Seeing B.B. on TV changed my life completely,” he recalls. “After that I jumped into the blues feet first.” Fats bought records by Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Muddy Waters and dozens of others, and he taught himself to play by listening relentlessly to the masters who inspired him.
Though Northeast Ohio was anything but a hotbed for the blues when Fats (aka Mark Hahn) was growing up, his insatiable thirst for the music constantly propelled him to seek it out. He unsuccessfully auditioned for Lee Eddie Clark’s family band as a thirteen year old, but after a year of diligent application and practicing to the records of B.B., Albert, and Freddie King, as well as Magic Sam, Earl Hooker and T-Bone Walker, he returned and not only got the gig, he became a house party fixture in the rural corridor between Ravenna and Kent. Clark’s cousin, Otis Trotter, hailed from the Memphis area and Fats played regularly with him on Thursday and Saturday nights at the Royal Peacock near Kent State University.
Fats was a fan of DJ Chuck Ruby and he invited Ruby to come down to the club and hear his work with Trotter. Ruby was so impressed that he taped one the band’s performances and played it on his show. Ruby appreciated Fats’ reverence for traditional blues guitar and its roots, as well as his individual flair for the instrument and made a connection for the young musician that would alter his life—he introduced him to Robert Lockwood, Jr. Lockwood occupies an almost mythic place in blues history. His mother had a romantic relationship with Robert Johnson and young Robert grew up with Johnson as his musical role model and friend. Johnson taught Lockwood his style and technique and the unassuming teenager learned its every nuance, later becoming arguably the first bluesman to play electric guitar before he eventually moved from Helena, Arkansas to Chicago after Johnson died tragically in 1938.
Fats fondly recalls his first exposure to the man who would become his mentor and best friend. “Robert had been living in the Cleveland area for some time before I first met him in the early 70s. He and Sonny Boy Williamson had played at Gleason’s, a place that’s been closed for decades, but I went to see him at this funky little club near the bus station. He was playing electric 6 and 12 string guitars. I had the same reaction watching Robert play as I did seeing B.B. on TV—I was knocked on my ass. It was magic. I had my guitar with me the night Chuck Ruby introduced me to Robert. He let me sit in and afterward, during a break he said, ’You play pretty damn good.’ Well I went back every week to see him play. He had moved to the area to settle down and raise a family and gradually we got to know each other.” Lockwood invited Fats to his home one night and taught him some priceless lessons. By 1974 Cleveland Fats was a working member of the Robert Lockwood, Jr. Band.
The nearly eighteen years Fats spent playing with and touring with Lockwood provided him with considerable notoriety, and helped instill in him an unflagging self-confidence. The experience of sharing the stage with his mentor, as well as with the likes of Albert and Freddie King, Jimmy Rogers, and James Cotton, was a dream come true. Lockwood often told Fats, “You’re a natural band leader,” and so, in 1992, Fats left the nest and began a solo career. Like his heroes, Fats has spent a good portion of his life on the road, taking his music to an ever-growing number of fans who share his passion for the blues. Whether playing in England, or right in his own back yard, he employs the blues as a common denominator bonding him to his audiences. Fats has come full circle with the release of The Way Things Go--an uncompromising album that reunites Fats with the ageless Lockwood. It pays respect to the roots and tradition of the blues, but infuses it with a contemporary spark evident in its wry sense of humor as well as its seamless musical presentation.
WITR’s Jeff Harris, who co-hosts the colorful Bad Dog Blues show for the station observes, “While Lockwood’s influence looms large (on the record), Fats’ style bears the strong mark of several early idols, notably the three kings—B.B., Albert and Freddie…Like all great bluesmen, Fats combines the best of those giants into a distinctive sound all his own. Fats’ guitar prowess speaks for itself, but, like his idols, he’s a well-rounded blues musician (and) an equally talented songwriter and vocalist.”
It’s not surprising that Fats has chosen to surround himself with some extraordinary musicians on The Way Things Go. Lockwood, now a spry 91, contributes his signature 12 string guitar on four tracks, including his own “Dead or Alive” which Fats first recorded with him in 1990, singing lead. Versatile veteran harmonica virtuoso, Billy Branch, one of the most prolific Chicago bluesman ever, adds his formidable presence to a group that also includes bassist Aron Burton (charter member of Albert Collins’ Ice Breakers), pianists Aaron Moore (40 years backing greats like Little Walter, Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters) and Ariyo (a member of Branch’s Sons of Blues), drummer Dave Jefferson (Albert King alumnus), saxophonist Doc Thomas (who’s appeared on Fats’ last two records) and organist Vince Willis (Big Jack Johnson, Bonnie Lee). Michael Frank produced The Way Things Go for Honeybee Entertainment.
Cleveland Fats makes no apologies for his straight-ahead, uncompromising approach to the music he loves. Though he puts his unmistakable stamp on it, the blues is still a sacred vessel that he treats like the Holy Grail.
Tickets for the Riverside Bluesfest will go on sale in March 2007.
"As [Robert] Lockwood is an extension of [Robert] Johnson, so is [Fats] an extension of Lockwood." - Tim Schuller, The Met (Dallas, TX)
"Cleveland Fats has truly studied at the feet of a master... no more sterling pedigree exists in blues." - Marc Bristol, Blues Suede News (Duvall, WA)
"Fats' music is straight ahead blues with a '50s sound... as a guitarist he really distinguishes himself." - Rolf Stenstetten, Rock Magazine (Skogsvag, Norway)
"Cleveland Fats is a great guitar player... He has a traditional sound that is all too uncommon today." - Michalis Liminios, Blues programming 94.1 (Athens, Greece)
"Simply stated, he is a splendid singer, guitarist, and songwriter..." - Ron Weinstock, Jazz and Blues Report (Cleveland, OH)
Also visit: 1998 Cleveland Fats interview.