Grammy Award-winning harmonica virtuoso Sugar Blue is not your typical bluesman…
Born James Whiting - he was raised in Harlem, New York, where his mother was a singer and dancer at the fabled Apollo Theatre.
He spent his childhood among the musicians and show people who knew his mother, including the great Billie Holiday, and decided that he wanted to be a performer.
Blue received his first harmonica from his aunt, and proceeded to hone his chops by wailing along with Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder songs on the radio, he was soon to be influenced by the jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Lester Young.
Sugar Blue has used this background to his advantage, though, creating an ultra-modern blues style and sound that is instantly recognizable as his own.
Blue began his career as a street musician and made his first recordings in 1975 with legendary blues figures Brownie McGhee and Roosevelt Sykes. The following year, he contributed to recordings by Victoria Spivey and Johnny Shines before pulling up stakes and moving to Paris on the advice of pioneer blues pianist Memphis Slim.
While in France, Blue hooked up with members of the Rolling Stones, who instantly fell in love with his sound. The Stones invited Blue to join them in the studio. Besides his work on the Some Girls album, he can be heard on Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You. He appeared live with the group on numerous occasions and was offered the session spot indefinitely, but he turned it down, opting instead to return to the States and put his own band together rather than became a full-time sideman. Before returning to the U.S. in 1982, Blue cut a pair of albums, Crossroads and From Paris to Chicago.
Blue's decision to return home, despite his growing renown as a session player, was spurred by his desire to work with and learn from the masters of blues harmonica. Thus he came to Chicago and proceeded to sit in with the likes of Big Walter Horton, Carey Bell, James Cotton and Junior Wells. Blue went on to spend two years touring with his friend and mentor Willie Dixon as part of the Chicago Blues All Stars before putting his own band together in 1983.
With his own band, Blue's star continued to rise. He received the 1985 Grammy Award for his work on the Atlantic album, Blues Explosion, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
He recorded on Dixon's Grammy-winning Hidden Charms album in 1989, has performed on festival stages with classic artists like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Art Blakey and Lionel Hampton and has also set his sights on television and the big screen. He sat in with Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lee Lewis for the Cinemax special, Fats Domino and Friends, and has appeared on screen and in the musical score of Alan Parker's acclaimed 1987 thriller Angel Heart, starring Robert De Niro.
Blue has played and recorded with musicians ranging from Willie Dixon to Stan Getz to Frank Zappa to Johnny Shines to Bob Dylan, he is perhaps best known for his signature riff and solo on the Rolling Stones' hit Miss You from their Some Girls album. Blue performs his own version of the song on his 1993 Alligator debut BLUE BLAZES. With his second release IN YOUR EYES Sugar Blue emerges as a singular, profound songwriter as well as a harmonica wizard.
He has appeared across America, Europe and Africa at many prestigious festivals - Chicago, Zurich, Den Haag, Antibes, Nice, Cannes, Montreal, Pistoia, Bern, Rapperswil,… Blue continues to appear in clubs and festivals around the world.
In 2008 following the release of “Code Blue” Sugar Blue received two nominations as Best instrumentalist – Harmonica at the Blues Awards and as Outstanding Performer at the Junior Wells Harp Award in Memphis.
He is also featured in the Spike Lee film producion “The Perfect Age of Rock’n’Roll” along with Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin. The film is to be presented at the Sundance Film Festival and is starring Jason Ritter, Kevin Zegers, Ruby Dee and Peter Fonda.
Sugar Blue appeared in the tribute video “We Are One” that played before the massive all-star Inaugural Concert at the Lincoln Memorial, in front of the millions the came to witness the historical presidential inauguration on jan 20, 2009.
Sugar Blue incorporates what he has learned into his visionary and singular style, technically dazzling yet wholly soulful.
He bends, shakes, spills flurries of notes with simultaneous precision and abandon, combining dazzling technique with smoldering expressiveness and gives off enough energy to light up several city square blocks…
And sings too! His distinctive throat tends to be overlooked in the face of his instrumental virtuosity – he’s got a rich, sensual voice with a whisper of huskiness which by itself would be something out of the ordinary. But oh, there’s that harmonica again…