Artist Spotlight

James Armstrong

-Michael Wolf Ingmire

In a year filled with many changes for this writer, there remains one constant:  The Blues.  No matter how daunting or joyful that this world can be; the Blues always provides the most profound soundtrack for the variables of this life.Therefore, I was truly excited to find out that the Charlotte Blues Society was bringing in one of my favorite contemporary Bluesmen in for the August 5th Blues Sunday at The Rabbit Hole namely,  James Armstrong.  I first heard James Armstrong  in January 2000 when I purchased his 1998 CD, “Dark Night.”I was coming out of a rather noir period in the aftermath of my brother’s 1996 suicide.  Armstrong’s Dark Night CD became the soundtrack of my own healing.  The refrain in the title track became a litany for me in those early days of 2000:“It’s a dark night, it’s a dark night, but I can still see the light…..”Blues, at it’s best, is a music of truth and healing.  James Armstrong embodies those principles in his story, his warm singing voice and succinct guitar playing.  On June 28th, I had the privilege of doing a phone interview with James Armstrong for the Charlotte Blues Society’s BlueSletter.Rather than do a standard Q&A interview I decided to have a conversation about James’ background, his early career and the redemptive power of the Blues and love.  First of all, I had to thank James for the “Dark Night” album and told him the story previously referenced above.  James expressed his thanks and in the course of the interview I discovered James to be a warm, humble and considerate human being. James Armstrong was born in Los Angeles on April 22, 1957.  James was raised by his Father, also named James Armstrong, who was a skilled Jazz guitarist.  Being a single parent James Armstrong Sr. had to seek work outside of music and demonstrated unconditional love to his son.  By the time he was five James was playing drums aptly and he would play duets with his Father.  He soon gravitated towards playing the saxophone and took lessons, learning basic theory.  His saxophone teacher would have him play in the corner to get his “sound.”  On his Father’s record player were artists such as Lionel Hampton and Nat King Cole, who James’ father knew quite well.While still quite young James one day picked up one of his Father’s guitars and played a musical passage.  It made sense.  He played another passage that made further sense.  The path was set.  Soon James had his own, sort of off brand guitar.  Eventually, that progressed to a 1964 Fender Stratocaster.  His Father gave his son music theory every day after school. Because of Father’s connections to the musical community, James met guitarists such as Kenny Burrell and Irving Ashby, who played guitar with Nat King Cole.  I encourage my younger readers to consider listening to Burrell and Ashby.  A musical education is forever.James developed a strong passion for deep Blues and for the great Jimi Hendrix and became a very skilled guitarist and singer.  By the time he was 17, James was on the road with an Elvis Presley interpreter.  In his early 20’s he was the youngest member of Bluesman Smokey Wilson’s band.  In the 1980’s James was one of the founding members of the Blues-Rock band, Mama Roo.  Mama Roo got a record deal with Crescendo records and their album was produced by Stevie Wonder Producer, Robert Margouleff.  Eventually, Mama Roo and it’s members went their separate ways.   In the 1990’s, James Armstrong was heard by HighTone Records Owner/Producer, Bruce Bromberg.   Bromberg had produced other artists such as Robert Cray & Joe Louis Walker.  Bromberg was impressed by James’ guitar work and vocals, but advised him to lose the “Jimi Hendrix” influence.  Their partnership lead to the first James Armstrong release on HighTone, “Sleeping with a Stranger, in October 1995.  In April 1997, as James was preparing to tour, he and his son, James, were victims of a home invasion.  His left arm and hand were stabbed to the point that it was thought he would not play again. Through the support of friends and the Blues World, James started to heal.  James slowly recovered his dexterity, in part, by playing slide guitar.James released his second HighTone album, “Dark Night,” in 1998.  Two of his friends, Doug Macleod and Joe Louis Walker, assisted on guitars.  One of the album tracks, “Bank of Love,” was featured in the soundtracks for the films, “Hear No Evil and The Florentine.”James Armstrong is a truly deep and real life-spiritual Bluesman.  He has continued to recover, tour and record.  In 2001, James received two  W.C Handy Award nominations.  One was for Contemporary Blues Guitarist and one for the song, “Pennies and Picks,” from the 2000 album, “Got it Goin’ On.”  Another song from that album, “2 Sides,” was featured in the soundtrack for the film, “Speechless.”James had a break from recording from 2000 to 2011, coming out with stunning, “Blues at the Border.”That was released on the Johnny Rawls label, Catfood Records.   That release was followed by 2014’s “Guitar Angels.”   In 2016, James formed his own Guitar Angels records label and released the self-produced work, “Mary-Jo Curry.”Aided by his partner and supporter, Alice Goodrich, James Armstrong now lives in Illinois.  His most recent release was 2017’s Catfood records release, “Blues Been Good To Me.”  James told me that he would like to do an album of all traditional Blues.  I urge my readers to check out James at his website, and on YouTube.   You will hear and see at these sites, and at his August 5th performance at Charlotte’s The Rabbit Hole,  one of America’s most dynamic and deepest Bluesmen.  A true survivor who can still see the light. 

Learn More

Charlotte Blues Society 

Blues Sunday

August 5, 2018

The Rabbit Hole

Doors: 7pm

Blues Jam: 7:15-8:30pm

James Armstrong  8:45-10:15pm

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