Earl Klugh’s playing shows influence of legends

Published on April 2nd, 2021

By Jim Dail

For The Californian

Most musicians have a particular moment when someone influenced them. That influence may come from one of the legendary performers, or it could be a guy down the street just doing something that planted a bug in the aspiring musician’s ear.

Many jazz artists cite Jimi Hendrix as a major influence, no matter the instrument.

However, for Earl Klugh, who has been playing and been a part of the music scene for more than three decades, it was guitar legend Chet Atkins.

“My first instrument was a piano,” he said. “I was a little kid and my mom bought a piano and I took lessons. But I was very interested in the guitar and had a nylon-stringed guitar so I could play folk music, which is what was in at the time.”

Then he watched, of all things, the “Perry Como Show” one night when he was 13.

“When I first saw Chet on TV in the ‘60s, he was playing guitar and not singing,” he said. “I’d never seen anyone play it as an instrument like that. At the time, everything was folk music, but he was playing all the parts on the guitar. It was a revelation and it had a big influence on me.”

It shaped the style of music as well.

“He was playing a classical guitar, and becoming more familiar with Chet’s music helped define where I wanted to go,” he said.

As it turned out, the piano playing helped Klugh a great deal.

“I saw so many similarities to the piano as I watched him play and see the way he approached the instrument,” he said. “I was able to progress by working with my piano and then the guitar.”

He saw advantages to the guitar.

“I started going to school and bring my guitar and play in the lunch room,” he said. “I started to look at girls and they looked at me. I think the first song I learned like Chet was ‘Freight Train.’ I was able to play at that young age.”

And the acoustic guitar stuck with him.

“I started playing acoustic because of the folk music craze, and I just wasn’t someone who could play electric and classical guitar,” he said. “And I couldn’t sing so I knew I was going to be an instrumentalist, especially once my voice changed and I had no range. So, I knew I had to be good at playing guitar.”

Sometimes people get a little luck to go along with talent and a lot of hard work.

“I was just definitely in the right place at the right time when it came to my first session,” he said.  “First time I played professionally was at a club in Detroit. I got to meet a lot of great people like Bill Evans, Chet Baker, all the great jazz players.”

He credits the owner of the club with a great deal of his early success.

“I came in one day with some of my friends from school and the club owner would let us sit at the bar and he would be the chaperone,” he said. “We would come in on the weekend and see the first set and go on back home. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of thing you don’t see as much now. We were very serious musician types and he took control of us and really gave us a chance to see real musicians.”

Of note, one of his friends at the time was Ray Parker Jr. of “Ghostbusters” fame.

“William Wooten was my other friend and he was a fantastic keyboard player,” he said. “We had out renegade band. We were part of the high school stage band.”

George Benson provided the next spark.

“When I was 19 I went on tour with George Benson for about six months traveling everywhere, just George and me and a bass player and drummer,” he said. “It was a lot of hard work keeping up with George. I learned a lot of things. It was the old days, not like now. It was pretty much like the movie ‘Ray,’ complete with all the scenarios.”

Eventually, he also got to pick with Atkins.

“Burt Black was my manager and he was also Kris Kristofferson’s manager,” he said. “I told him I would love to meet Chet, and we went down to Nashville to work on a record that I was doing and he came over and hung out with me in town. And after that, from time to time, we did a few variety shows and some benefits and became good friends. He really was a quiet person but such a presence.”

When it comes to the music, don’t ask Klugh if he’d rather be in the studio or playing live.

“I don’t really know,” he said. “At this point in time, I really enjoy playing live. I really do. I do a lot of it. That’s a lot of fun to me, but I like the record process and making CDs and writing songs.”

And he enjoys the camaraderie.

“I try to get together with a lot of players and exchange ideas,” he said. “It’s nice keeping up with the various musicians you run into. Finding common ground is always great.”

That’s kind of his advice for guys just getting started.

“I toured with guys like Bill Withers who was a great guy,” he said. “He had good advice and I treated it like gospel. That’s probably because they were right most of the time.”

Chet Atkins once said that Klugh could, “Wail with the best, but prefers to touch people emotionally.” Well, whether talking about Klugh’s recordings or live performances, Atkins has certainly got it right. Then again, Klugh would probably expect nothing less.


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