Jim Pugh grew up surrounded by pianos and music. As an aspiring performer in the 1970s, Jim landed on the West Coast and found himself behind a B3, touring and recording with artists like Joe Louis Walker, Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Etta James, and more. He was a student of the blues, but he also loved Mexican Norteno music and gospel. For over 40 years, Jim Pugh traveled the world with a variety of outfits while enjoying his most prolific stretch as a member of the Robert Cray Band. Today, Jim still takes his comfort behind the keys, but he’s taken on a much larger role in the musical stories of others. In 2014, Jim founded the Little Village Foundation, a non-profit record label that showcases a variety of non-traditional artists. From Oaxacan folk music to Hindi blues, Tulsa-groove rock n’ roll to harmony-driven, high energy gospel, LVF brings musicians and cultures together and shares them with an ever-expanding community. The opportunity to reach wider audiences is amazing, but LVF does more than just provide a platform– it also puts all the power, profits, and creative control in the hands of the artists. Sound like revolution? To Jim Pugh, a man who’s spent his life and raised a family as a professional musician, it just makes sense.
AI- We’ve been playin’ a lot of music here at our station from the Little Village Foundation– Casey Van Beek, Mike Duke, and recently the Sons of the Soul Revivers. I can’t be the first person to ask you this question. You basically started a record label that gives all the money and all the power to the artists. Are you insane? (Laughs)
JP- Define record company? I mean, it’s not in the traditional sense of a record company. There’s some things that we don’t do that traditional record companies do. Are you a musician? I bet you are.
Once upon a time. I was. Yeah.
Which you can understand the circumstance. I’m 65. I’ve been making records since I was in my early twenties and I’ve had a lot of experience. I’ve learned the hard way in perpetuity. I’ve given away a lot of my, what would be intellectual property, my creativity. And so in doing this by giving everything to the artists? That’s what I tell people. Little Village has never actually sold one CD because we don’t own any of the CDs. I give them– and downloads in any format– it’s all owned by the artists. It’s not by the record label. I don’t pay them. They get it first. I’ve never seen a check for a sale of a CD. It makes sense. In a way, I try to find likeminded people who are in a position to, rather than giving to the symphony or the opera, they’d like to give it to Mike Duke or the Sons of the Soul Revivers and help them. A relatively small amount of money goes a long way in improving the quality. I’m not out to make rockstars. I don’t know how to do that. I never have known how to do that. But helping people a little bit? This does that. So it’s not quite that insane (laughs)! It really isn’t!
It’s a beautiful thing and something that you’ve said recently, three words: music, diversity, and service. I think that sums up the whole idea of the Little Village Foundation.
What was the aha moment for you when you decided that this was what you needed to do? You talked about your career. You had been a touring and studio musician your entire adult life and I believe at the time, you’d just finished up– what, 25 years with the Robert Cray Band?
Yeah. It was 24 years, 8 months, and 6 weeks… I can’t remember (laughs)! I used to know what it was! I forgot! There was a time when I became kind of cynical playing music. There was a time when I was playing at Madison Square Garden with a bunch of people– and that sounds like a rock mutt story, but this really happened– and there was somebody walking by selling beer and I went, “You know what? That guy selling beer’s makin’ more money than me!” And I was on stage playing! And I went, “You gotta find somethin’ else to do!”
Shortly after that, after I stopped working with Cray, I got a volunteer job– this sounds corny as hell, but it’s true– at a botanical garden. I shoveled mulch every day for four or five hours for about three or four months, and I came up with this idea of how I wanted things to be. I had some friends help me put a framework around it and it became the non-profit record label. We raise money and there’s a board of directors. There’s a whole lot of things I’ve had to learn. I’m not a businessman, so I’ve had to learn some basic things about that. That hasn’t been exactly fun… But the rest of it really, as a practical thing, we all play lots of different kinds of music– and so why not put it all together?
And that’s what you’ve done [with] the kind of artists that you have with the Little Village Foundation. Of course, you have a lot of cats, in the case of Casey Van Beek and Mike Duke, who have been around and in the music business from one degree or another, but have rarely stepped out in front on their own, but then you have what I would call left field but also extremely compelling artists like Aki Kumar. Right beside a classic cowboy singer like Dave Ellis. How do you decide who comes on board with the Little Village Foundation? Who do you go out huntin’ for?
That’s a really good question and I don’t have a great answer to it other than I really follow my gut. As I told somebody the other day, I said, “If I was just looking to reward people that are exceptional at their ability to play music, I would just stand in the lobby at Juilliard.” You know, I mean? I’m not looking for the brightest and the best. I’m looking for things that are compelling. Sometimes they’re both. In the case of Mike Duke, it’s really compelling. His story is amazing and his musical prowess is amazing. Living in California, I’m a big fan of mariachi. I found this youth mariachi out in the Central Valley in California, and I’ve made records with them and it’s really been just a wonderful experience.
There’s the very old– like if you looked at Betty Reid Soskin, she’s 98 years old. She’s spoken word. And there’s the very young, there’s the 9-year-old Rio Chavez who sings and plays violin with the mariachi. And everybody in between! I think that a lot, and you probably know this from your own formatting at a radio station, but a lot of times, we’re only hearing what we’re being shown. We’re only seeing what’s being shown to us and there’s a lot more out there if we’ve just dig around. You can find great music across the street. I live about 80 miles from Los Angeles, and I know these people that paid to sit in the last row at Staple Center… They paid 500 bucks to go to hear some English lady sing! I said, “Listen, if you want to hear a British lady sing, just go to the little Episcopal church across the street. There’s this woman who sings in there, who’s a British ex-pat and she sounds just like Adele! It’s unbelievable! You’ll lose your mind! It’s just across the street!”
It’s a hard thing to fathom to a degree that in this day and age with digital distribution, streaming services, affordable home studios, social media, the internet, no one considers the fact that they’re still missing something. That there’s still music being made, played, or needing to be made and played that isn’t. Do you feel like you’re chronicling these artists in a similar way that maybe the Lomaxs were once upon a time? Decades and decades ago, going into the field to pick up recordings and preserve songs?
Aaron, I get asked that a lot, and somehow I resent it, but I don’t know why, except that I’m a lifelong musician. I’m not a custodian (laughs) or an archivist! I might look like an ethnomusicologist geek, but I’m not! I’m drawn more to the emotion of things and I’m not really chronicling it as much as this is really the life of a musician. You run into musicians, you find music just naturally. I don’t really spend that much time searching it. I don’t make a value judgment of, “I like this, and I don’t like this.” It’s what occurs to me as I’m going along. I’ve made 250 or 300 or however many records I’ve made, most of ’em are either blues or rhythm & blues or soul music or gospel music. So there are more of those, but I also have some experience playing other styles of music. It encompasses everything from a real practical musical point of view for me. I dropped out of college and lived in the Fillmore district in San Francisco and basically took any gig that I could get. And I mean, any gig– African dance classes playing piano… Try playing piano for African dance classes! Mexican weddings, polkas, bar mitzvahs, anything! And that’s what you do as a life, as a musician. I’m not particularly talented. I’m not a virtuoso. I basically played the same kind of Otis Spann lick, whether I’m playing at a salsa palace, or if I’m playing in the window at Macy’s (laughs)! I don’t change– the environment does. But I have an appreciation for all those different circumstances.
Well, let’s dive into that career a little bit because you say, “I’m not a virtuoso,” but at the same time, I had a lot of fun diggin’ into your discography and all of the people that you have played with and toured with. We’re talkin’ about Etta James, we’re talkin’ about Chris Isaak, we’re talking about Robert Cray, who we mentioned earlier, who you were with for so long. So you must’ve been doing something right! What got you into playin’ blues music, to begin with? I know you grew up in or outside of Chicago, which is a Mecca, of course for blues. Was that what started it?
Yeah, it was. I grew up in suburban Chicago, although me and my friends, we all had older brothers and sisters that were more involved in the collegiate blues scare of the ’60s. We sort of just latched onto that at a pretty young age. We realized early on– really early, like 12-years-old in the early sixties– that a lot of the records that were being made by English rock bands were actually covers of songs that were done by people who lived a few miles away comparatively. And it grew out of playing relative forms of certainly black music. You talk about Etta James? Some of the records I made with her were done with people from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. I worked for years with Elvin Bishop. I still do every once in a while. He had done a fair amount of stuff in Macon…
In fact, he did! That early education in blues music and discovering it from the contemporary artists of the time, and then from playing all the music that you could with anybody that you could when you first got out to California… Do you think that’s what’s allowed you to have a unique perspective on helping these artists do something now? I recently spoke to an artist who started up her own label simply to be able to own her own music. She just wanted to do that this time around– but at the same time, that really is for her. Whereas what you are doing is directly contributing to the artist’s life. Do you think that your experience thus far has made you uniquely suited to do this?
I suppose? I don’t feel that way. Somebody pointed out to me, that if you really do what your passion is, it’s not that hard to do. This whole process is very natural to me. Again, I’m not being humble. I really want to say this, but it makes all the sense in the world to me. It’s very obvious and it’s not necessarily unique. What is unique, I suppose, really more than anything, I think Little Village is a matter of connectivity. You’re absolutely right when you said everybody’s got a recording studio in their house. Everybody has the internet. And to a degree, the playing field has been leveled compared to what it was like 40 years ago.
Now you really can! You have an opportunity if you’ve got something to say, and you know how to manipulate social media and other places to have it be heard. But what Little Village really provides is connectivity. A lot of blues labels, if you record 10 guitar players that sound like BB King, people are going to get lost in the shuffle. That might be a provocative thing to say, but if you record a wide swath of music… I’ve got people now who have never heard quartet music before in their lives. Now they’re listening to quartet music! People who listen to Aki Kumar? They’re listening to quartet music! People who listen to mariachi music! I’ve got a little video of these teenage mariachi kids singing in Hindi along with Aki Kumar! And conversely, if you’re a blues fan, I suggested to the mariachi that they learned to play “Two Steps from the Blues” by Bobby Bland! Curtis Salgado, who’s a well known West coast blues singer, sang a version of it at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, and the mariachi– in their uniforms and all of the violins and 22 of them– they all played. And what does that really mean? It means that there’s 22 kids walking around Bakersfield with Bobby Bland on their phone! Because that’s how they learn things, right (laughs)? That kind of thing? That means a lot. It’s just cool. I’d like to make a lot of money, but short of making money, that’s about the coolest thing in the world. What’s cooler than that?
Well, I’ll tell you what’s cooler than that! I’m glad that you asked! Something you said, I don’t know if it was something you said recently, but it was in the context of how music can be the awkward conversation that people don’t want to have, that music can fill that void. I think right now in 2020, we’ve kind of hit the end all be all of awkward conversations. The Little Village Foundation is huge at bringing all these cultures together, as you have just illustrated. And I bring up the Raise Your Voice project because, with that, you were able to chronicle and respond to the Parkland school shooting. I guess in a way, gun violence could also be considered a pandemic in this country, but what about now? What project or projects are happening to respond to COVID-19? Because I think it was an extremely cool thing to be where the Little Village Foundation was with those kids and that music.
That Raise Your Voice project, I believe it was 11 songs written by 11 students including a couple of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that were victims of that whole thing. It was a very emotional experience. Actually, the parents called and told me that when they were rehearsing to do this song at school, they had to have two police cars outside because of death threats these kids were receiving for songs that they had written. It was just a remarkable thing. But it’s funny you should mention it, ’cause I’m working on a compilation now. Given the pandemic, the restrictions that really exist for getting together and making music are really limited and everybody’s kind of making up their own rules as to what is okay and what’s not. But to take, 20 or 5 or 6 people and put them in a room, socially distanced with masks… Is that really enough? Some people think so, some people don’t. The last thing that I would want to do is record a gospel quartet and have one of them get sick! It would not be a good look (laughs)! Plus it would break my heart if one of them got sick!
We’re doing a compendium… A compendium? That’s an Elvin Bishop word (laughs)! A compilation of singer-songwriters, original songs from a wide range of Little Village artists and also artists that we feel that we’re interested in or that we feel are likeminded. In this day and age with content being given away and nobody has to buy anything if they don’t want to, the difference between having a record deal and not having one is becoming less and less noticeable. That is to say that we’re going around and just finding people that we like and having them send us an iPhone video of them singing and playing a song, and we’re gonna make a compilation. Are familiar with Arhoolie Records?
Only through what I’ve read recently.
Right. Well, Clifton Chenier and a lot of the Cajun music that we listen to now and also a lot of Flaco Jimenez and a lot of the Norteno music out of Texas and California and even going back into the ’50s with blues, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, and people like that, it all came out of and was the brainchild of Chris Strachwitz, who started Arhoolie Records. He’s gonna be 90, I believe. We have done a collaboration with them. To give you an idea, their catalog was 1,250 records and somebody purchased it and gave it to the Smithsonian. It’s become part of the Folkways compilation.
I saw that. I didn’t realize that someone had just bought it and given it to them.
Yeah, it’s an amazing story. And at the same time, an even more incredible story is that at UCLA, there is what’s called the Strachwitz [Frontera Collection] archive of Mexican and Mexican American music. I’ve heard it’s hundreds of thousands of recordings of both Mexican and Mexican American music and California. I think it’s kinda California-centric. But that was actually funded by Los Tigres Del Norte, which is the number one all-time conjunto, Norteno band– an actual Norteno band that’s from San Jose. They do border corridos. I used to do gigs with them when I was in high school! But there’s this whole kind of collaboration we’ve done with [Arhoolie], which is called Working From Home. If you look on YouTube, you can see there’s 10 different episodes, and that’s a wide swath similar to Little Village.
There’s no doubt that Alan Lomax and Arhoolie and Folkways, all of those influenced some of the ideas of Little Village. In what could be perceived as being sort of a limited fashion, we are continuing forth– but there’s no gigs, right? I’ve actually raised money to record this youth Latino, Latinx symphonic orchestra in Northern California. I paid for an arranger to arrange music for both the orchestra and a youth mariachi– and it’s like 40 or 50 pieces! Well, I can’t get ’em together! So given that I can’t do these kinds of things, what can I do? I can do solo recordings on iPhones. And that’s what we’ve been pursuing.
I dug up an old interview— I think from 2014– where someone asked you, if you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be? And I’m sure that some of this answer was tongue in cheek, but it was that you would do away with digital music and digital recording and stick to analog only. Obviously in the case of the Little Village Foundation, digital is a much more cost-effective means of production, but where do you stand on the possibility of doing vinyl releases for some of the Little Village artists?
Oh, it’s something I’m continuously exploring and it’s in the future. It opens up a whole can of worms because they’re four times larger, at least, an LP, and then you have to stock it… One of the things that’s great about Little Village and people are very kind in complimenting me about doing this for people, but I go, “You give a hundred percent of the proceeds to the artists– because I don’t want to track it!” People that I know that own record companies, they either owe people money or they’re owed money! And I’ve sidestepped all of that. I just go, “Here, this is all yours. I don’t want anything to do with it!”
Ideally, at the end of the year, I should have no CDs left. And that’s become kind of actually a problem over the years. There’s all these recordings that I’ve done, but I’ve given away all the CDs– so the evidence is only online. There [are] no more physical CDs. So vinyl? Absolutely! That’s the shit. I mean, I don’t know that it’s going to replace somebody listening to music on their phone. What do you think?
Right now with the way things are, you can’t get out, you can’t go out… I can’t speak for everybody, but I know that at my house, we basically have family music time. In the mornings, we get up and we put on a legitimate record and we listen to it. And it’s educational for my 3-year-old, but she has her favorites. And then at dinner time, we pick out a record and that’s what we listen to. What I want to believe is that we’re all together more than we were, and it’s given us an opportunity to appreciate music in a way that I think has been lost for generations. Where once upon a time, people did gather around the radio, whether they were listening to the news or the fireside chat from President Roosevelt or the Grand Ole Opry or The Big D Jamboree or whatever it was. Maybe I’m romanticizing it, but that’s what I like to think is potentially happening right now.
My ancestors were farmers in Indiana and before there was a radio, there was a piano or a guitar. When I was growing up, my family, everybody played the piano. Everybody did! In fact, everybody I think I knew played! ‘Cause it was the thing that you did before there was the radio. So it generationally kinda got to that point. Aaron, you’re gonna have to be careful because the way you’re raising your kids, you might be raising a family of musicians! (Laughs) ‘Cause that’s what ends up happening! That’s how I was raised! What you’re talking about? It’s very similar!
Yeah… I’ve had that fear! What do people need to do to support the Little Village Foundation? What is it that keeps the ball spinning and the world goin’ round for the artists and for you and your team to continue?
What we say is that we raise the profile and the awareness of the artists. We promote the artists and the artist promotes what they’re selling and in doing so it promotes the idea of Little Village. So it is a two-pronged thing. To support the artists, you should buy their content. And to support Little Village Foundation, you can easily go to the website, littlevillagefoundation.com, and push the donate button and you’ll be directed to a page that you can make a donation. Your donation– we break it down, it’s public record– it goes to creating more of this kind of content and supporting more musicians. There’s a bunch of stories I can tell you about how artists have benefited from having done a recording for Little Village Foundation.
It has done everything from Aki Kumar coming to grips as to who he is an American that’s from India. It’s done that for all different kinds of people. There’s Aireene Espiritu. She’s kind of come, through her Little Village recording, to an understanding of what it is to be a Filipino American and this hybrid kind of music of embracing both the music of her childhood and the music of where she lives now in Oakland. So things like that. If you want to support that kind of thinking then give to Little Village. And if you like the music, find an artist that you like and buy 10 copies!