An Interview with Sidney Warner
By David Dann

Sid Warner, dressed as a character from the
Old West in a promotional headshot.
Photo by unknown
 

Editor's note: Sidney Warner played bass in Michael Bloomfield's band, The Group, in the early '60s in Chicago. He was the senior member of the band, joining them at the ripe old age of 30. He'd been a professional musician for 15 years prior to that, having worked with numerous black bands in Los Angeles, and had played a pivotal role in breaking the race barrier in the late '40s and early '50s in West Coast blues and R&B. His enthusiasm for the blues and for blues players paralleled Bloomfield's own, and the two were kindred spirits in their involvement with and dedication to some of the great black artists of the day.

Sidney also had his own band in the mid-'50s and recorded under the name "Porky Harris" – a nickname given him by tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely. In 1959, Sid met producer/song writer Wayne Shanklin and through him played on sessions with Toni Fisher and Jerry Wallace that resulted in a number of hit singles, including "The Big Hurt" and "Primrose Lane." Shanklin also wrote lyrics to one of Sidney's compositions, "Downstairs," which was scheduled to be released as an album on Warner Bros. under Sidney's name but was cancelled at the last minute due to a change in management at the company. To learn more about Sidney Warner's early days in music, visit http://bebopwinorip.blogspot.com/2008/11/jimmy-wright-let-go-crazy-crazy-baby_3405.html.

Now 77, Sidney Warner is still playing and resides in Pikesville, MD. This interview came about with the kind help of author Jan Mark Wolkin and was assembled from several phone conversations with Sid that took place in August and September 2010. The following video of Sidney was recently posted at YouTube. He performs a blues and a snippet of "Autumn in New York."

Addendum: It's with great sadness that we report that Josh of Guitars of Pikesville in Pikesville, MD, sends word that Sid Warner, also known as Sydney Warner, passed away on June 13, 2011. A memorial service was held on June 16; Sidney is survived by two daughters and a son, two sisters and a brother, and two grandchildren. As can be readily seen in the above video, and in the interview that follows, Sidney was a man of genuine warmth, humor and talent. He will be missed.
– David Dann 

Tell me a little about yourself, Sid.

I'm really a guitar player, a blues guitar player. I never played bass before I met Mike, and really haven't played it since. I'm a musician, but I've also been an actor. I was in a bunch of films, mostly Westerns, including "Young Guns 2." I played the grizzled mule wrangler. I've got a beard and long hair, and I really looked the part! And back in the '50s, my band was in a movie with Jayne Mansfield – the one called "The Girl Can't Help It."

I was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 22, 1933, but was raised in Lynwood and Hollywood, California, from about age two. My mom was a tailor and my dad made ice cream – he made specialty items, anything you could think of with all sorts of novelty molds.

As a musician, I've worked with just about everybody. Have you ever heard of Big Jay McNeely? I was his guitarist for three years. And Joe Houston's, too. I worked for a while with the Platters – you've heard of them. Buck Ram was their manager and he was mine, too.

That must have been pretty unusual - a white kid playing with black jazz and blues musicians
back in the early '50s.

Oh, yeah, it was. I started with Big Jay when I was just 15 – that must have been 1948 of '49. Those were different times then – blues wasn't accepted by whites. They called it "devil's music," you know, things like that. My dad wasn't too happy about me playing with blacks, but my mom really liked the music. The neighbors kind of discriminated against me. They knew I was playing with Big Jay because they would see his big black limousine stop in front of my house when he came to pick me up.

Have you ever heard of the book called something like "South Central LA"? They have a big write-up in there about me. I was playing with black blues and jazz guys because I just loved the blues. It didn't matter to me that I was a white guy playing with blacks. I guess I sound a bit like B.B. King. But everybody sounds like B.B. – that's the blues guitar sound. My inspiration early on was T-Bone Walker.

There was one time – I'll never forget it. Nat "King" Cole was playing in San Bernardino and his guitarist couldn't make it. So he hired me for three nights. So I got to play with the great Nat Cole. This must have been in 1958-59.

Sidney Warner, playing his red Telecaster, walks down the aisle during a show with drummer Jimmy Wright's band in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s.  Photo by unknown

You must have gotten some rough treatment playing in a mixed band in those early days. Did you play in the South? How did that go?

I could tell you some stories! I remember playing somewhere in Kentucky one time with Big Jay. Jay dropped me off at this chicken shack with the singer in the band – a beautiful black girl … can't remember her name. We got some chicken, and these three cowboys walked in and started hassling us – me being white with a black woman. I got up to get some air outside and they followed me out, so I reached in my coat pocket like I was going for a little help – it was only a pack of Chesterfields, but they didn't know that. "Oh, so that's how it is," says one of them. "I'm gonna get my shotgun out of the truck." Just then Big Jay pulls up in the car and I hopped in, and the chick too, and we beat it the hell out of there. Man, there were lots of times when we were playing in the South that they wouldn't serve me in restaurants because I was with black people. But I didn't care – I was into the music.

I've read that you played with Roy Rogers, the cowboy movie star and singer. True?

Yes, that's true. I was Roy Rogers' guitarist from 1958-60. That was one gig my parents were proud of! I met Roy when I was in Las Vegas one time, and I was having car trouble. I had this 1957 Jaguar, and Roy gave me a lift over to this car agency he owned called Millard Sports Cars. One thing led to another, and I started playing with his outfit. There were times when Roy would have a 30-piece orchestra backing us up, and he'd let me do a few blues numbers. It was wild, I'm telling you!

What were you playing back then?

I had one of the first Telecasters ever made. It was like a prototype. It was made of red burl – I picked out the wood myself. Boy, I wish I had that guitar today! I would hang out over at Paul Bigsby's place – you know, the inventor and guitar maker? Bigsby helped make that Telecaster. I was riding a Harley '45 at the time, and Bigsby was into motorcycles big time, so we spent a lot of time together.

Have you ever heard of Von Dutch? He was another buddy of mine, and he was famous for inventing pin-striping on cars and motorcycles. His real name was Kenny Howard and, man, he could paint anything – he was amazing! We would hang out together, and he painted my red Telecaster – put sunglasses on it (with a broken lens) and his famous flying eyeball. Crazy!

I also lived for about 30 years in Denver where I got into a string of bad accidents – on my motorcycle and then in my car – and I wound up here in Maryland with my daughter. I've been in this rehab facility for a while, trying to get back into shape. They've been great to me here – they changed a hospital room all around so I could rehearse in it with a band. They must think I'm some sort of big star or something! That's been great. I've been getting my chops together and I hope to be playing again soon. You got a gig this evening? I'm ready, I'm there!

So how did you wind up in Chicago in the early '60s? How did you meet Michael Bloomfield?

Well, I was married and separated from my wife at that time – one of a number of wives I've had – and she moved to Chicago. So I followed her up there, we were trying to get back together again, and I got into the jewelry business. I had a shop in Old Town on the corner of North and Sedgwick.

Here's how I met Mike. One day I was walking down Wells St. and I heard this music. What caught my ear was the bass player – he was terrible! So I went looking for the band and I found Big John's – it was a big club on the ground floor. So I walked in and went right up to the bandstand and there's this guy with this wild, bushy hair up there. He leans over like he thinks I'm gonna request a tune, and I say to him, "Man, your bass player is no good!" So right then and there Mike – it was Mike with the big hair – stops the band cold and has me sit in. So I got up to play one tune and wound up staying with the band for a year!

I think this was in about 1963. We never did much rehearsing. The other guys in the band were really just starting out – I'd had much more experience playing than they did. It was Michael, [Mike] Gap Johnson, Memphis Charlie Musselwhite – he called himself "Memphis" then – and Norm Mayell. Norm looked just like Jesus. Mike had incredibly long hair, much longer than it was in the picture on the cover of that book about him ["If You Love These Blues"]. He was the first guy to have an Afro that I ever saw.

You know, Gap went crazy. Someone told me they saw him standing on the corner, wrapped in a white sheet. He'd given all his stuff away, his guitar, his clothes, everything. I don't know why he did that.

There was also a piano player in The Group - Brian Friedman was his name. Do you remember him? Mike also supposedly played piano a lot at Big John's.

I don't remember a piano player. Brian Friedman? Well, he could have been there, but I don't recall him. I also don't remember Michael ever playing piano on the gig. He might have done that once in a while, but I really just remember him playing guitar.

Did the band hang out together apart from the gig?

We would go down to Maxwell St., you know the open-air market on Roosevelt, just west of the Loop. Would go down there and jam, Mike, Charlie and me. I'd borrow a friend's Vespa because I didn't have a car and I'd meet them there. I think I remember that we played with Little Walter – he was always down there. And Charlie would have his wine – he was a big-time drinker.

I would hang out sometimes with Mike over at his place in Sandburg Village. Not in his apartment, but outside on the street. My shop was just a few blocks away, and I'd come over and we'd sit around seeing who could tell the biggest fib! Mike was impressed that I'd played with all the blues guys back in L.A.

Other times Mike would come over to my place after the gig. We'd stay up all night and paint pictures. Yes, paint! We did that a number of times.

What was it like for you working with the young guys in The Group?

Man, I loved playing with Mike and that band – it was a blast going to the gig! We started out playing two nights a week and eventually were doing as many as five nights. This was at Big John's. When I started with the band, they were getting $4 a night. I talked to Michael, I said, "Man, don't you see all these people here, having a good time? Don't you know why they're here? They could buy a bottle of booze and drink at home. They're here because of you guys!" The following night, everybody in the band got $25, and eventually we were making $50 a night. Charlie thought I was shorting them after a while, but I would never do a thing like that. I got him $50 – a damn sight better than $4!

So the crowds were big at Big John's?

The crowds at Big John's were huge! They were a real mixture of people – black, white, all ages. It was packed. One night I remember it took me 10 minutes to get across the room to the men's room!

We didn't have a lot of other players sit in. Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop and those guys would occasionally get up to jam – maybe once a month. We knew them, of course – they'd be playing around the South Side – and we were friendly with them. There was no rivalry or competitive stuff between us.

I remember we'd sometimes play Muddy's "Mojo" for half an hour. We could really get them going at Big John's – it was an incredible scene. I would sometimes play guitar with the band, and Mike said I "knew all the tricks." He liked that. And I showed him a few things, too.

Later on, we went to play at Magoo's, a much smaller place uptown near Bryn Mawr, kind of like a sports bar nowadays. It was a gangster hangout, owned by the McGovern brothers, a couple of guys who either were connected to the Mob or wanted to be. Their dad was Johnny McGovern. He'd owned a restaurant some years earlier in Chicago and Al Capone was one of his regulars. The brothers had hot merchandise going in and out of the back of Magoo's all the time. Mike hated playing there.

Yes, I've read that Mike wasn't happy there. So why did the band leave Big John's and go to Magoo's?

We went there because the money for the band was better. Much better! I got the guys that gig because I knew the McGovern brothers from before I joined Mike's band. Out the window of my jewelry shop I could see across the street a little Italian Café – it was called "Mama DeLucca's." I'd sit there working and I'd watch the café, and I could see the McGovern boys hanging out there and doing business. Stuff I shouldn't really talk about. I would eat my lunch over there and I got to know them. They were always asking me to do shady jewelry work for them – you know, melt stuff down, remove stones, but I never did anything like that. There was plenty of money in jewelry back then and I didn't need the extra cash. Or the trouble.

Mike Johnson told me that the McGoverns once took the band down state to go hunting after the show.

Right! I do remember that. They gave us guns and hunting jackets. When we finished hunting, I went to give them the gun and jacket back and they told me to keep them – they were for me! A gift.

We were supposed to do a rotation thing for the McGoverns. They owned a number of other places around Chicago and we were gonna play for a while in Magoo's and then move on to another of their clubs and play there, and then move to the next, and so on. But we weren't there long enough to do that.

I found the band another gig for even more money after we'd been at Magoo's for a short while. I can't remember the name of the place, but it was for a really good amount of money. So I went to the McGoverns and told them we'd found another job for a lot more pay, and they looked at me and said, "It's not a good idea for you to quit." I'd heard stories about those guys, and the way they said that meant only one thing. So I left Chicago that very week and went back to California. Just like that.


Sid Warner, left, with Mike Bloomfield, Bloomfield's manager Joel Harlib and guitarist Mike "Gap" Johnson (behind Harlib) at the December 7, 1964 recording session produced by John Hammond Sr. for Columbia Records in Chicago.  Photo by Mike Shea, courtesy of Peggy McVickar

 

That must have been after the recording session you guys did for John Hammond. Was that the end of The Group?

I don't really know what happened to the band after that. I'm sure I told Michael why I was leaving, but the rest of the guys had no clue. Of course, Mike went with Butterfield not long after that, and you know the rest.

So, yeah, that must have happened a short time after our recording session for John Hammond Sr.

Tell me about that session.

Well, I've done so many recording sessions it's hard to recall what happened at that one. But here's what I remember.

I think Hammond saw us play at Big John's – or it may have been Magoo's. Yes, I think it must have been Magoo's. That was before we went into the studio. I'd been a member of the union out in L.A., but I had to join Local 10 in Chicago before we could record. It cost about $100 and I was going to pay for it, but Hammond said he'd pay the fee. That was OK with me! I think he may have paid for everybody in the band. We were probably pretty excited about recording for Hammond – I don't really remember, it's been so long. But I'm sure Mike thought it was going to be his big break.

Norm Mayell told author Jan Wolkin he remembered The Group doing another recording session, one at Chess's studios on S. Michigan. Can you recall anything about that?

No, I don't remember doing any recording at Chess Studios specifically, but I believe we did do some other recording sessions – I remember that. Not sure where, though.

What about drugs?

There was drug use in the band, but that's all I'll say. We musicians have a code – we don't talk about that sort of stuff, you know.

What were your impressions of Michael?

What did I think about Michael personally? I was crazy about him! He was very, very brilliant. If you were gonna keep up with him, you'd better be in top shape and pack a lunch! And funny. He was really hyper, too. I'd find myself saying "What?" to him a lot – not because I couldn't hear him but because he'd get talking so fast you couldn't understand him.

Now, I'll tell you something interesting. Mike had influence with the cops. One time we were pulled over by these two Chicago policeman and they were looking at Mike's license with a flashlight. "What's your name? Michelle?" says one cop, poking fun at Mike's long hair. "Fuck you," says Mike. Uh-oh, I think, we're going to the station for sure! But then the other cop is looking at the license and says, "Forget it – let's go." And they gave the license back and split. Somehow, Mike had an in with the cops. Maybe it was because of his father?

I met his dad once. I don't want to talk bad about him, but I'd heard he was not a pleasant guy. Of course, you know that when you turn over a sugar dispenser in a diner, it says "Bloomfield Industries" on the bottom. He was rich, even then. And Mike had a monthly check. We could never figure out how he could live in Sandburg Village, but just today I was thinking that maybe his dad owned the building!

Did you ever run into Michael after you left Chicago?

You know, I saw Michael shortly before he died. I'd heard he was playing somewhere in Marin and I was living about an hour south of there. So I went to see him, and as I came in the door he was there on the bandstand playing and he looks up and says, "Sid, is that you?!" Amazing that he picked me out across the room after all those years! Then I heard he died a few weeks later.

I heard stories about his death. Not good. I heard that they found him in his car and he'd fallen forward, his head leaning on the wheel and the horn blaring. They said he'd died of a valium overdose. Or cocaine, but I knew that wasn't right. Mike hated cocaine.

But he was a wonderful guy, and I loved playing with him.
 

© 2010 David Dann