“I’m going to Louisiana and get me a mojo hand!” Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins
Caswell County is home to plenty of blue grass, country and gospel musicians and singers. But did you know that it is also home to one of the nation’s premier blues guitarist, Max Drake? Not many do but the 60’ish guitar maestro lives out in the county with his wife, Theresa, and their female cattle dog, Etta.
His name isn’t exactly synonymous with BB King, T-Bone Walker or Muddy Waters but his playing and his “chops” should be. He can sound just like any of them, too. His musical talent and name frequently come up in any serious discussion of the country’s finest blues guitar players.
“Usually when I take a lead solo, I try and feature some of the players’ styles that have influenced me like Guitar Slim, T-Bone Walker and Magic Sam. It’s also what Buddy Guy does in his shows if you are able to recognize what he’s doing!” said Drake leaning back from the open rear-hatch of a Toyota van last week.
“I really didn’t like blues, the slow-stride blues, and I was young, real young and I didn’t relate to it. A little while later (1971) and a couple of girlfriends later, I was running around with a couple of buddies in Statesville and one of them had this record album by BB King and it had a guitar on the front made from a watermelon and it was called Indianola Mississippi Seeds. And he liked blues and he would say, “Man, this is good” and we’d listen to it, and I’d go, “H***, yeah, that is good!”
“Now, I was a big fan of Jeff Beck (British blues guitarist) and I started reading about Howlin’ Wolf on the back of his first solo record. He did a couple of blues on there that were in typical Jeff Beck fashion and by no means were any kind of wussy garbage. He was doing some real adventurous stuff and was real nasty-sounding. He had Rod Stewart and that was back when Rod was a blues singer.”
“I realized later that the American blues stuff played by white people was terrible. So, I started finding out these English people were listening to black records and I said, ‘Well, let me try some of that’. To this day I’m a fan of rock and roll, especially from the 50’s: the louder and rowdier the better.”
That was how it started for Drake some 50 years ago.
“There are so many different styles of playing with tone, choice of guitar, amplifier, string gauge and pedal effects that can get you the sound that you’re looking for. Some guitar players like Otis Rush (famous Chicago blues player) took a left-handed Fender Stratocaster and played it right-handed so the guitar had better string-bending capabilities for getting the blue notes out”, explained Drake.
There are huge volumes to know about playing the guitar and what it’s capable of. In the hands of Max Drake, the guitar he’s using is a tool he continues to master and educate himself as a player. If he hears a lick from a classic song of Lightnin’ Hopkins that he likes, he will practice it for as long as it takes to get it down, which sometimes can take days.
But he will learn it.
I first had my first exposure to Drake in 1997 at the Carolina Lite Blues Festival held at Castle McCullough in Jamestown, NC. The headliner that year was The Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring their blues and west coast swing. Marcia Ball provided some boogie-woogie piano, Austin-Texas style and Luther “Snake” Johnson brought in some real, stinging Chicago blues.
But what caught my attention was the first band that opened, Johnnie Whitlock and the Blues Caucus. They kicked off with a wild Texas shuffle and the lead guitar man was smokin’ low and dirty while Whitlock was singing moreover in a big city night club style a la’ Big Joe Williams. The band’s sound was pure grit contrasting with the clean, uptown vocals of Whitlock. It didn’t matter.
I had to meet that guitar player and pushed my way through the hangers-on and introduced myself after the set was over. I didn’t know there were players like this in North Carolina. This guy Max Drake could play with just about anybody I’d heard. I felt fortunate to have encountered him.
A month later I caught the same band at a big pool hall in Greensboro and did an extensive photo shoot and got to spend some time with Johnnie and Max. I had been involved with the west coast blues scene for years and it was different to be around the east coast guys. It was still cool. I told them that they were just as good and exciting as any west coast band I’d ever heard. They took it as a huge compliment.
According to the local Greensboro paper, Johnny Whitlock would die about six months later of a heart attack and a band that really was beginning to fit musically had abruptly lost its leader and front man.
Between gigs, many guitar players supplement their income by giving guitar lessons. Drake was a well-known teacher in the Statesville, NC and taught for many years in Cary. If you were serious about playing blues guitar, you went to see Max Drake.
He left his mark and a legacy. Two of his guitar students, Matt Hill and Robert Nesbit, have gone on to music careers in the blues industry and play with the authentic fire and attack that Drake is known for.
Hill teamed up and married the lead singer of their husband/wife group, The Nikki Hill Band, that is a classic rhythm and blues band much in the style of the Ike and Tina Turner Review from way back. Hill’s onstage guitar burns Max Drake octane and keeps pace with his wife, Nikki’s feral vocals.
Nesbit, in fact, was hired on to be the rhythm guitarist for the Nikki Hill Band and toured and gigged extensively. Some of their work is available on YouTube, googling the Nikki Hill Band.
In his own words, Nesbit describes his relationship with Drake in a Caswell Messenger interview: Max has such a distinct intensity to his guitar playing. I remember noticing that intensity, and being blown away by it, when I first heard him play in a music store in Statesville, NC when I was 13. And that wasn’t even a gig - it was just him playing around on a guitar, showing me some Hendrix licks I’d asked about. I found out he taught guitar lessons and spent most of my teenage years studying with him. He was an inspiring teacher and could come down hard when you got the important stuff wrong. But again, that was just his passion and intensity for his craft - you couldn’t separate that from him whether teaching or performing. In our lessons together, I probably spent so much time just listening and trying to mimic his guitar playing. More than theory or any certain technique, I just wanted to learn his sound and the sound of the people that inspired him. He also made me aware of all the great blues guitar players: Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis, Robert Nighthawk and Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Earl Hooker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elizabeth Cotton. And this list could go on, page after page. The gigs he would take me to - sneaking me in by lying to the doorman saying I was his son - are still some of the most exciting times of my life. The fire from his playing could light up a room of ten people of 1,000 people. It’s bittersweet to consider how high of a standard he set with his guitar playing in so many dive bars in NC and the Southeast. But luckily, he got to take his playing around the world a few times. And nearly everyone who heard him was blown away. I never captured all the nuances of his rhythm and playing, but I got pretty good at imitating him. People who knew him would comment on how well I coped his style. And people who didn’t know him would tell me that I had an authenticity to my guitar playing. But I always know the truth, I was just copying my favorite guitar player on the planet: Max Drake.
Subsequently, Drake joined forces with another talented band leader, Skeeter Brandon, who was a blind keyboard player, songwriter and vocalist from Goldsboro, NC. Brandon’s band, HI Way 61, was a huge draw in bigger east coast cities, blues festivals and on up into upstate New York. Drake’s knowledge of classic rhythm and blues from the 60’s and 70’s, say for instance Clarence Carter (“Slip Away”) and Sam and Dave’s, (“Hold On, I’m Coming”) were a tight fit with Brandon’s vocals and Memphis-style arrangements. Brandon wisely provided generous space on stage for Drake’s blazing guitar work, and it gave the shows a wider radius of music for fans to enjoy and dance to.
Providence NC resident, Danny Vaden, was attracted to any venue Drake was performing in. Vaden, who put together the first blues festival in Danville, VA, in 1995, says, “Max was who we went to see because of his lead guitar work. If we could catch him at a small club and really get the full effect of his playing, with no distractions, that was always ideal for us”.
Skeeter Brandon passed away in 2008 and the sudden void affected Drake personally and professionally. Just when things were starting to take shape with the band, meaning steady bookings and a tighter sound, the personable and well-respected Brandon died in Chapel Hill at the age of 59.
The next band that Drake joined was The Big Bill Morganfield Band out of Atlanta. Morganfield was the son of the legendary Chicago blues icon, Muddy Waters (aka McKinley Morganfield) and the music was right in Drake’s wheelhouse.
Drake would open the shows with a wild instrumental and then a slow blues and work the crowd and set the stage for Big Bill’s entrance. The sets contained some of Muddy’s tunes, some originals and Morganfield’s lead guitar chops were “in the pocket” with the muscular rhythm guitar Drake provided.
Big Bill and the band put on some legendary performances at the now defunct Double Door Inn in Charlotte. I saw three of them.
Drake explains that Big Bill had most of his daddy’s licks down and he, Max, was expected to provide the intricate rhythm backing. The Bill Morganfield’s version of “Got My Mojo Working” could certainly stand up to the Muddy Water’s original classic thanks to Bill doing his homework. The band would go on a nation-wide tour via a large transportation van or fly to Europe to play for the always appreciative and knowledgeable blues fans. The Europeans knew who Muddy Waters was and how important his contributions were to electric blues from his work on Chess Records. British blues bands like the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and early Fleetwood Mac were all playing to packed clubs in the 60’s and 70’s doing Muddy Water’s songs.
If the son of Muddy Water was playing in, let’s say, Barcelona, Spain, the house would be packed every night. And the people knew what and where the origins of Big Bill’s musicians were playing.
“We were done with one of our sets in Spain and two guys walked up to me and introduced themselves. They said they had heard a lot of familiar notes and the style of Hollywood Fats (California guitar legend) in some of my playing and note progressions. That rarely ever happened in the states, but these people knew their blues. I had been listening to Fats and what he was doing onstage from an old obscure tape from the 80’s,” laughed Drake.
After the multiple year run ended with Morganfield, Drake stayed closer to his home and family in Caswell County “I had just moved up to Caswell County and I was putting together my new band and I found out, Max, was living only 15 minutes from my house. Of all the guitar players scattered all over the state, I have one of the premier blues guitarists right in my back yard,” commented Melton from his home, last Sunday.
“I can describe what it has been like playing with Max in one word: Relentless. Some musicians show up to play and you don’t know what kind of attitude they’re bringing but with Max, he brings in the “top of his game” every time. People always ask me, ‘Where did you get this guy?’ and I laugh because it was just a fluke. He is such a fantastic player!”
Drake could still play blues guitar, but he’d have to learn some of Mel’s complex zydeco tunes that people loved to dance to at Mel’s award-winning nightclub, Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse in Durham. The band was known as Mel Melton and the Wicked Mojo’s and the steady gig lasted more than six years. Once again, Max Drake provided the rhythm and the fuel while Melton handled the vocals and blew some wicked harmonica. Some of those wild times were captured on YouTube videos and are worth a look.
The open road, playing out and going on tour doesn’t seem to be in Max Drake’s immediate future but local gigs such as those at the Blue Note Grill in Durham are. It’s a wonderful neighborhood bar with a roomy dance floor and a dynamite menu of huge cheeseburgers and baby-back ribs plus great service and generous drinks.
Drake is a huge favorite there and Mel Melton and the rest of the Wicked Mojos light it up every time they perform on stage.
A June show might be in the works at the Blue Note. Check their schedule online.
If you like blues and zydeco, it’s worth the ride down just to see our local home boy, Max Drake “bring his top game” on his thundering electric guitar.