Diunna Greenleaf & Phil Alvin: Trunks, Roots, and a Greenleaf

Diunna Greenleaf & Phil Alvin: Trunks, Roots, and a GreenleafPhil Alvin hates the label of roots music even though his band, The Blasters, is credited with helping revive American roots music with their debut album American Music in 1981. “I like to call it trunk music because you can cut the leaves off of a tree and still have the trunk,” he says. Originally, The Blasters were on Slash Records, an L.A.-based subsidiary of Warner Brothers best known for punk rock, and brother Dave Alvin left The Blasters to join X, heroes of the west coast punk scene. The Blasters’ current album “4-11-44” includes “Window Up Above” by country icon George Jones and “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” by Elvis Presley songwriter Otis Blackwell. The title cut is an original that refers to the number that washerwomen always played in the lottery during the ’30s. With influences ranging from rockabilly to Latino and R&B, The Blasters mix the sincerity of the best in blues with the thrust of hard rock.

Diunna Greenleaf and her band Blue Mercy were the 2005 winners of the Blues Foundation’s 21st Annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis. The former president of the Houston Blues Society, Greenleaf has played several highprofile gigs with The Legendary Muddy Waters Blues Band, including the 2005 Chicago Blues Festival and the W. C. Handy Awards, where Koko Taylor danced on stage with her. Blue Mercy’s 2004 CD Crazy But Live in Houston includes covers of Willie Dixon’s “Built for Comfort” and Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign.”

Elmore: What are you listening to now?

Alvin: Hot jazz between the late 1920s and middle 1930s: Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Mills Blues Rhythm Band, Jimmy Lundsford, Baron Lee. A lot of late ’30s blues guys that were contemporaries of Robert Johnson: Tommy McClennon, Kokomo Arnold, Petey Wheatstraw—the devil’s son-in-law, the high sheriff of hell.

Greenleaf: Eric Bibb, Ruthie Foster, Koko Taylor and Nina Simone.

What’s the first record you ever bought?

Alvin: The Blues Box– Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Joe Williams. The first record I ever had was Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” that was given to me by my cousin Donna.

Greenleaf: Joe Tex would bring his stuff (to the house), and I know I bought early Aretha stuff , Curtis Mayfield.

What’s the first instrument you ever played?

Alvin: It was two. I played piano. Then, they made me play accordion.

Greenleaf: I don’t play any instruments. I carry my instrument (my voice) with me.

Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?

Alvin: George Jones.

Greenleaf: Eric Bibb.

What brought you to the instrument that you now play?

Alvin: I wanted to play guitar, and they made me play accordion. My father later told me, “The reason I wanted you to play accordion was because your sister was taking accordion, and they thought they could sell an accordion to us.” They were more expensive than guitars. I had a guitar and was playing it by fourth or fifth grade.

Who would you like in your rock & roll heaven band?

Alvin: I would have Big Sid Kaplan from the Mills Blue Rhythm Band on drums, Jimi Hendrix on guitar. On bass I would have Dave Myers from The Aces, Little Walter’s band, Lee Allen on saxophone. On piano if it’s a rock’n’roll band I would have Pete Johnson from Big Joe Turner’s band. I would have Ephram on trumpet from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I can’t think of his last name. Louis Jordan would be the alto sax player and Red Tyler the baritone sax player. I would play rhythm guitar with Jimi on lead.

Greenleaf: I’d love to do some singing and harmonizing with Rosetta Tharpe and have her guitar player on it. I’d love to have done some actual blues songs with Luther Vandross and a couple of country blues with Randy Travis. I’d like to take a particular song I’ve written and do it with Koko Taylor.

What’s your favorite album of all time?

Alvin: I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s Elmore James’ Blues After Hours.

Greenleaf: Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace.

Elmore: Where do you buy your music?

Alvin: Mostly at the swap meet. CDs I get at Tower or whatever.

Greenleaf: I usually buy my music in out of the way places. When I go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, I go to Cats Head and the Delta Blues Museum.

What was the song that made you realize you wanted to be in music?

Alvin: I used to imitate Joe Turner singing “Shake, Rattle and Roll” for my cousins, and they used to love that.

Greenleaf: “It Hurts Me Too.” At the time I heard it, it was done by Hound Dog Taylor, but Elmore James did it. It relates to me because of something my daddy said to me. “I want you all to take care of each other. You should have the love for each other that flows from heart to heart and breast to breast. If something hurts one of you, it ought to hurt all of you. If something makes one of you happy, it ought to make all of you happy.”

What musicians influenced you most?

Alvin: Big Joe Turner and Big Bill Broonzy.

Greenleaf: Koko Taylor, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Rosetta Tharpe, Nina Simone, Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton.

What’s your desert island CD?

Alvin: The Best of Mills Blue Rhythm Band. I don’t know if there is such a CD. There should be.

Greenleaf: It would have to be a compilation with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin playing on it, Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin.

Got something to say?