Interview: James Gang drummer Jim Fox talks 'Blues Crusade'
Smog Veil

Paying your dues is a key part of success for upcoming bands.  Talent is tantamount, too: Chops can increase musical vocabulary, while practice enhances one’s accuracy and prolongs on-stage stamina.

But the naiveté and inexperience of youth does have benefits.  When you’re not sure what you’re doing, you forget to set limits – since you haven’t quite learned where those boundaries lie for others.  And when you don’t know the rules, you remain blissfully unaware when you break them.

Even more so for artists, who already tend toward thinking outside the box and pushing the proverbial envelope.

Case in point: Cleveland’s Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade, circa 1967.

Comprised of members of the then-nascent James Gang (Glenn Schwartz, Jim Fox) and Mr. Stress Blues Band (Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller), the Crusade convened one Sunday morning in a small recording studio overlooking Lake Erie to record a couple hours of no-frills blues standards by Sonny Boy Williamson II (“Ninety Nine,” “Dissatisfied”), Muddy Waters (“Long Distance Call”), Elmore James (“Dust My Broom”), Willie Dixon (“Evil”) and others.

Once thought lost forever, tapes of that spring session were recently unearthed by Smog Veil Records honcho Frank Mauceri, who then arranged for the jams – now entitled The Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade: Sunday Morning Revival – to be dusted off and released November 18 as part of his label’s Northeast Ohio-centric Platters Du Cuyahoga archive series.

We spoke with drummer Jim Fox  (timekeeper for such hits as “Funk #49,” “Walk Away,” and “The Bomber”) by phone this week to tweak his memories of that half-century old session and discuss how the de-fossilized recording now stands not only as part of the James Gang history, but as part of the Cleveland music mythos.  Sunday Morning Revival is also a testament to the power of teenage musicianship, a splendid souvenir of some soon-to-be-stars rocking out – sans expectations – just for the sheer joy of it.     

AXS: Hi, Jim!  Can you tell us a bit about the circumstances that led up to recording Sunday Morning Revival?  How’d you get everyone involved? 

JIM FOX: Well, please understand that it is almost fifty years!  That, and failing memory in general, you’ve got to take into account!  I was in the process of forming a band of my own, and we called it The James Gang.  We were maybe three or four months into it, still finding ourselves, you know?  By that time we had found Glenn Schwartz, and he found his way into the band.  That fact alone was leading us into more blues than we were accustomed to previously.  There were probably two sources of blues coming at the band:  One was Glenn’s firsthand personal experience with American blues – which he was an early lover of – and the other thing was the British blues invasion going on in the U.S. from the British musicians who’d picked up on the same American blues influences we had.  So we were getting it from both sides.  We were listening to The Yardbirds, The Who and The Animals – all kinds of people like that.  But we also knew something about American blues firsthand.  We knew about B.B. King, and Albert and Freddy King, some of those names that came to fame a little sooner than others, like Lazy Lester.  Names you’d have to be an aficionado to know!  So we were getting a lot of blues.  But that was only one aspect of the Gang; we were certainly a rock and roll band from day one.  So we were immersed in the blues, and I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to get some of this on tape?”  So I talked to Glenn and to James Gang bass player Tom Kriss, and asked if they’d be interested in doing a little recording.  They said sure.  And then I figured, Mr. Stress was just getting some exposure in the city.  He [harmonica ace Bill Miller] was a dyed-in-the-wool blues guy.  He had a keyboard player named Mike Sands; I didn’t know Mike until that session.  And Tom’s older brother Rich was a guitarist.  He was one of the earliest people to turn me on to blues.  We used to congregate…he had this third floor upstairs bedroom at his parents’ house in Garfield Heights, and after gigs we’d stay up there until three in the morning just listening to stuff.  Richie turned us onto people like Albert Collins.  That type of thing.  So that comprised the six guys.  Six guys who’d never played together before, and some who never even met before!

AXS: You were all a bunch of young guys, too.  Who was youngest? 

JF: I guess the youngest of us was Tom, who was about fifteen.  Maybe sixteen.  And Glenn was a little older.  In 1966 he would’ve been maybe twenty-five years old.

AXS: Did the James Gang boys or Stress guys have gigs on the Saturday night before the session?

JF: To the best of our recollection we all did, because as Richie Kriss told the story, we all showed up that Sunday pretty hung over.  The reason we chose a Sunday morning was because studio time was very inexpensive.  It was a Sunday…so who’s awake [laughs]?  So I approached the local studio engineer and asked, “Would you be in a position to sell us some studio time really, really inexpensively?”  And he agreed.  The details are lost to the ages – I know it wasn’t a lot of money.  But we had to show up that Sunday at about nine in the morning.  And we were dragging, because probably all six of us had been out playing somewhere until one or two the previous night!

AXS: Was there any talk beforehand about what songs would be recorded, or did you go in cold?

JF: It was 100% spontaneous. We didn’t even have one single song going in that we knew we were going to be recording. 

AXS: Given Glenn and Richie’s knowledge of blues, did they have any more of a say-so?

JF: Oh, I think Stress was in the mix, too.  By then we were all into it, you know?  We were all listening to that kind of music.  And keep in mind, the Gang had a repertoire and Stress had a repertoire.  So there was blues on both sides.  Songs like “Dust My Broom,” my gosh – we were hearing that everywhere.  The Yardbirds had their own version.  That kind of thing.  So whoever was in the room, we’d all nod, and someone would just count it off, and there we went.  There wasn’t a lot of learning going on.  We all knew enough of every song to be able to spit it out. 

AXS: This was reel-to-reel tape? 

JF: Oh, yeah.  There was no interest in technology beyond two-track tape.  I’m wondering in my own mind now if three-track was ever a thing.  Regardless, the music was simple enough where it would’ve been two-track, left and right.

AXS: The Beatles had just gotten around to multi-tracking for Sgt. Pepper’s at that point, and they were forerunners of studio tech. 

JF: That’s right.  They’d just gotten into four-track stuff by that point.  So, of course, Cleveland was not that advanced.  And we probably didn’t feel we needed it.  That’s the other thing.  We were not studio vultures by any means.  In fact, I’m not sure such a thing existed in those days, you know?  The Beatles were doing it, but very few others. 

AXS: So this was essentially recorded live, with few – if any – overdubs.

JF: Very much so.  With us, that wasn’t done so much for expediency as because a) that was the way those things were most commonly done, and b) when it’s the blues, you love to have that eye-to-eye contact in the same room, so that the communication is direct.  Whatever little isolation we had was however far we could spread the instruments, given the parameters of the room.  To this day, when the Gang does stuff, we might put [bassist] Dale Peters’ amplifier someplace else, but we’re in direct eye contact.  And usually Joe Walsh is as well.  So the three of us are in a tight circle, even if the amplification is arranged differently.

AXS: Did someone dig up the masters for the session?  Did the master tapes even exist?

JF: Great question!  The masters were – and are – lost to the ages!  Nobody even had a copy.  When I was first approached by the record company, they asked, “Who has the masters?”  I said I hadn’t thought about it in fifty years.  They quickly established that all the normal channels to find it were gone.  The studio is long gone.  Nobody is quite certain what happened to the tapes.  I discovered to my horror that I didn’t even have a copy.  So the man who runs the record company, Frank – brilliant guy – he says, “Leave that to me.”  Twenty-four hours later he had a one-to-one copy that was transcribed onto the first digital audio tape machine to ever show up in Cleveland, which was – I’m guessing – the mid to late ‘80s.  It’s a long, complicated story, but someone who I gave a copy to allowed his copy to be copied, some twenty years after the fact, when he wasn’t worried so much about legalities!  And it’s a good thing he did, because that’s the copy Frank found! 

AXS: So this is a document of a one-off Cleveland supergroup that never played out live.

JF: That’s right.  We never played a performance together, never did a live show.  The Gang had a full schedule, Stress had a full schedule.  We were doing this – I think I’m speaking for all of us, even if it’s not possible to prove that any longer – but we were in it for the fun of it.  We weren’t thinking “career,” but what we hoped was to just get together and make some incredible blues music, you know?  And when it was all done, I doubt if it was four or five hours to the rough mix.  We never did a final mix.  What you hear is the rough mix, by default.  That was that!  We didn’t have enough money to go back, or enough faith in our own ability to handle the business of pursuing it to get a deal.  We just did what we did.  I have to agree with you, listening back now, there are things about it that are positive, and that I wouldn’t have considered at the time.  I’m glad it’s been preserved for that reason.  First of all, we were good players.  I was pleasantly surprised by the chops.  But again, almost anyone at the time, nobody was speaking in terms of business or anything common today – things like “units sold.”  I don’t think we even knew if Paul Butterfield was “successful” or not; we just knew he was meaningful to us!  I don’t think anyone was reading Billboard at that point!  We were a little insulated, you know?

AXS: Well, it sounds terrific.  The performances are great, and anyone not in-the-know wouldn’t be able to guess whether this was fifty years ago or fifty days ago.  It’s that clean. 

JF: I’m glad to hear you say so.  I’m not one to judge because I’m knee-deep in it.  I’m more interested in what other people say about it after all this time.  One observation I made is that the remastering was helpful.  It helped fill out the sound, because technology has improved.  We were able to improve – or enhance, shall we say – the bottom end.  It really helped that part of the recording.

AXS: How’d you come to be a drummer in the first place?

JF: I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to play drums.  I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t so naïve that I thought that that’s all I’ll do till I die!  It just never occurred to me that I would do anything else.  The goal in those days wasn’t to be a rock star.  I guess I probably figured I’d wind up conducting the marching band at the high school or something like that!  Drums were the thing.  I can’t tell you why drums.  But I remember fighting with my dad, because he’d suggested playing piano first.  But it’s always been there.  Frankly, it never wavered!

AXS: Do you still keep busy with music, and with the Gang?

JF: The Gang still works.  Joe Walsh has gone on to some well-known success, so the Gang’s schedule is tailored to when Joe has time.  And of course, with Glenn Frey passing this last year, that’s going to change things.  We’ve talked…we may be doing something.  It hasn’t been that long.  We did some recording three years ago, and a full-blown national tour ten years ago.  But we still hang, which is the best part, you know.

AXS: Right, you had that reunion concert at Playhouse Square.  I can’t remember if it was The Palace or The State….

JF: I think it was the Allen.  But yeah, that was wonderful to do that stuff.  Great fun for all of us.

AXS: Any reflections on coming-of-age as a musician in the late ‘60s?

JF: Again, I’m a little prejudiced because it’s my time.  But I think it was the best time.  Make no mistake, there is a BB and an AB – Before Beatles and After Beatles!  Before The Beatles, I wanted to be a drummer.  After The Beatles, I wanted to be in a band.  It’s a subtle difference, but very important!  At that time there wasn’t a young male who didn’t entertain some thoughts of learning an instrument.  It was that simple!  Everybody played!  Music was the most important thing in many, many peoples’ lives.  I don’t see that today, and I miss it!  So I look back, and I suspect that whatever music is remembered from the 20th century, some of the most-remembered is going to be the music from the late ‘50s into the ‘60s, through The Beatles period.  Those were the days!  I hate to sound like an old fart, but those were the days! 

Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade available now on  Amazon or Smog Veil