The travelled guitar spellcaster talks blues, magic and the Stones.
Asking an interviewee how they are is, for the most part, simple journalistic politeness. With Harvey Mandel, it’s more pressing. The 71-year-old Michigan-born guitar god has just completed his penultimate prolonged treatment in a three-year battle with nasal cancer. “I’m doing better,” says Mandel, simultaneously tough and tired. “I’m hoping I’ll need only one more operation and be back in business.” That means touring Snake Pit, his first full studio album since 1974. Recorded at Creedence’s Fantasy Studios with Ryley Walker’s Chicago band, Snake Pit is a storming return to the sinuous, supercharged, heavy sustain guitar jazz-blues-rock-funk gumbo old heads and young crate diggers revere him for, a sound that draws on 50 years of playing with Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Canned Heat, and John Mayall, plus a very brief period in The Rolling Stones. “I didn’t really get giant recognition from that,” says Mandel.
The new album sounds like you haven’t been away, which of course you have. How did it come about?
My manager in Chicago got approached by [fan and Tompkins Square label proprietor] Josh Rosenthal. We set it up together and Josh brought in these young Chicago musicians. They were all Grade A guys. What you’re hearing is live cuts, set up in the studio. I’d vocally run down my ideas and we did it in one or two takes. It worked out great.
You’ve been seriously ill. Were you able to keep playing in that time?
Nowhere near like what I normally would, but I’m at that point in my life where I don’t play for two or three months, pick it up for one day and I’m ready for action. It’s automatic. You didn’t even start playing guitar until you were 16…
Almost 16, I was playing bongos with this guy in Chicago who was doing the beatnik folk business, just having fun. One day at his house I said, “Hey, show me a chord on that guitar.” He showed me an E chord, I played it and I was hypnotised. From that day on I went crazy. For the next few years I devoted 23 out of 24 hours, learning, working with records, practising guitar.
Soon you’re playing Chicago blues mecca Twist City with Buddy Guy.
I was a little white guy, in the heart of the ghetto, but nobody ever messed with me. I started as a beginner but after a few months I was playing better than most guys. I jammed with all the major blues guys. Buddy was king of the hill, but B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam… I hung out there for a year and a half. I was a night person. I finished at 4am, slept, had dinner and was off again. Dinner was breakfast.
When did you recognise that you had your own distinctive style?
It was always in my mind but it took a little while to come out. I had to experiment with different amplifiers, different toys. In my head I had that sound, like a violin, steel guitar and harmonica sounds, that gave me the idea of the sustain and I kept working on it until I could emulate those sounds with my equipment.
Your 1971 LP, Baby Batter credits Harry Nilsson as “Wine Consultant and Bearer”, and you called your mid-’70s outfit Pure Food And Drug Act. Wild times?
On occasion, on occasion. We had a lot of different magic people that would come by. PF&DA was put together after I’d played with Canned Heat and John Mayall. We would jam all the time. Unfortunately, the “drug” element was Sugarcane Harris. There was no one on the planet who could play better violin on rock and blues but he was a total heroin addict. Dealing with him, and the drug thing, was a real nightmare. We lost a couple of giant record deals because of that.
Is it around this time that you developed your famous fingertapping technique of playing?
I picked it up from Randy Resnick but took it to a whole ’nother Harvey Mandel world. I first did it with the Shangrenade record in 1973. Not long after that I was playing at the Whisky and Eddie Van Halen came in, saw me doing this tapping stuff. Next thing he’s playing on Michael Jackson’s Beat It. I wouldn’t say I was annoyed but I wouldn’t mind if I got better recognition for doing that first. Unfortunately, Van Halen made all the money.
How did you end up working with The Rolling Stones?
At home one night about three or four in the morning I got a call from Mick Jagger. He said, “We’re in Munich, Germany, we want you to come play on a couple of songs. Leave tomorrow.” The idea was I’d be a replacement for Mick Taylor, playing the slick guitar. But there was a whole argument in the studio. Keith wanted Ron Wood because he wanted to keep it all English. Mick was leaning towards me because he wasn’t looking for another guitar player on-stage, leaping around doing crazy stuff. Unfortunately, I lost out. I played on Hot Stuff and Memory Motel from Black And Blue.
Tell us something you’ve never told an interviewer before.
Well, when I got the call to do Black And Blue I was taken to the fancy hotel, getting ready to sleep, and, all of a sudden, tap-tap-tap on my door, there’s Mick Jagger in his bathrobe. For a split second I thought, “How far will I go to become a Rolling Stone?” Anyway, that’s my funny Rolling Stones story.
Still rolling: in the mid-’70s, Harvey Mandel sustains that long note.