Doug MacLeod first picked up a guitar in 1960 or ’61.
“I wish I could say it was a great artistic vision, but I wanted to get girls,” he said.
Since then he has written over 300 songs, recorded 39 albums, and won seven Blues Music Awards, including best acoustic artist and album: the highest honors given to blues artists. He doesn’t sing anyone else’s music, but plenty of others record and win awards with his songs, from James Armstrong and Eva Cassidy to Tabby Thomas and Joe Louis Walker.
The Longbranch Improvement Club will host the bluesman Oct. 4 when he plays the Key Peninsula for an LIC fundraiser.
Don Swensen, owner of the former Blend Wine Shop in Key Center, invited MacLeod to play after an absence of some years. Swenson first met MacLeod at the Gig Harbor Folk Festival 20 years ago.
“When I took over Blend, I invited him to come do a show,” Swensen said. “He agreed, and we had him there at least three or four times. When I was thinking of trying to bring world-class music back to the KP, my first thought was Doug.”
“I remember playing the first time at Blend and how nice those people were, how nice the audience was, and I just so enjoyed being there,” MacLeod said. “Don and I kept in touch all these years.”
MacLeod was born in New York City in 1946 but his family moved around until they wound up in St. Louis, Missouri, where he played bass in a very good high school band.
“We actually backed up Chuck Berry one night,” he said. “It was a real successful show, and this pretty, pretty girl in this mini skirt — and you know back in those days, that’s what’s goin’ on — high heels, high hair, she comes up to me and says, ‘Are you in the band?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’m the bass player,’ and then she goes down to the guitar player, and he already has five or six gals with him, and this fool is the ugliest guy on the planet. So I became a guitar player.”
It was also in St. Louis where he first heard the blues.
“My dear friend Stevie took me, I think we listened to Eugene Neal, and I felt right away that I could belong there,” he said. “Here I was in a rough part of town with people that didn’t have the same advantages that I had, and I felt their joy of living and the laughter. It was so important to me, the band was laughing, the people were laughing and drinking and dancing. I just said to myself, ‘Maybe this is how you get through life.’ ”
MacLeod was about 16 then, he said. As a young boy, he had been sexually abused by a woman and a man for years. “I came up with a chip on my shoulder, a hurt, anger,” he said. “I blacked out the first eight years of my life. When you’re a kid, you’re able to forget things that are terrible. But I had that feeling inside. I couldn’t exactly understand why.”
He also had a crippling stutter. “I couldn’t speak two or three words, it was so bad,” he said. “I became very, very quiet.”
But that didn’t keep him away from music. Instead, it pushed him toward it.
After high school, MacLeod joined the Navy, but he never got a ship. “I spent four years fixing radars in Norfolk, Virginia,” he said. That gave him a chance to learn new music by playing with local bands.
“I thought I could play the blues because I’d heard it,” he said. “I could play Robert Johnson songs, Blind Blake songs, Charlie Paton songs. There was a big folk scene then, and I thought ‘The coffee house hippies are going to think I’m cool.’ ”
MacLeod got good enough that one day he decided to try singing.
“I sang and this voice came out, and this voice doesn’t stutter. Playing the guitar helped me get my voice where I could speak.”
One night MacLeod played a show that included a one-eyed blues singer named Ernest Banks.
“He didn’t think I was cool at all,” MacLeod said. “He knew I had some talent, and he knew I was coming from an honest place, but he made sure that I knew blues was about being honest. He said, ‘Never play a note you don’t believe and never sing about what you don’t know about. You got to write, sing, play and entertain, and then maybe I’ll call you a bluesman.’ ”
He kept working, he kept playing, and he hung out with blues players on their turf.
“I was nervous, I was scared,” he said. “I realized that if one white guy didn’t come out of those Virginia woods, nobody would miss him. There was an eeriness to it. But you know what made it happen is I was just being honest about the music, and I think they picked up on that, and the audience did too. They were all Black people, but they saw me as a young man who identifies with this music and wants to learn.
“I was so fortunate. These bluesmen that I hung out with, they accepted me. It was a different culture, a different time. It was not like it is today.”
It was a very important time in his life.
“I remember one night, I got done playing with George Harmonica Smith, he came up to me and he said, ‘Dub’ — that’s what he called me — ‘Dub, you sure sound like B.B. King.’ I said, ‘Well, thank you, George,’ and he said, ‘That’s not a compliment. Let’s put Dub out there and see what happens with Dub.’ ”
MacLeod drilled down, writing, playing and singing, and examining his own life, his own character, where he had come from, and what he had survived.
“There is something about blues, the simplicity of it, that draws you to it, and then all of a sudden you realize it’s a deceptively simple music,” he said. “Maybe it’s three chords, four, on the outside five, and sometimes it’s just one chord, but there’s a message being sent that I think goes somewhere inside that’s beyond language. It’s deeper than song lyrics. I think it reaches you on some level that we don’t really understand.”
One night in the late 1960s or early ’70s, he went to see George Benson play at a small club in Boston.
“I started talking with him and I noticed that he had a Solidbody Guild guitar, like a rock n’ roll guy, and he usually played a big body like a Gibson 400, and he was getting the same sound out of that Solidbody guitar. I said to him, ‘How did you do that?’ And he said the guitar is just the instrument, the sound is inside your head, and you will go after your sound on any instrument that you got.”
That goes for singing and writing too, MacLeod said.
He’s working on a new album now, teaching when he can, and spending time with his wife, Patty Joy. “The first advice I give my students is get a partner with health insurance,” he said. “We’ve been married 44 years and for a musician that ain’t bad.”
He also spends time with his son Jesse, 32, who survived a bout of melanoma on his face that cost him his voice for years, and nearly cost him his life. “He’s now in Nashville, and he is singing and writing,” MacLeod said. “He beat that cancer, and maybe that’s the greatest thing about my family: that he’s alive and well and starting to make his life as a musician.”
MacLeod said he’d been as tough on his son as his mentors were on him.
“I’d say, ‘You ain’t got it yet, you ain’t got it yet.’ And then a couple years ago he played, and I said, ‘You got it now, you just go ahead and play.’ ”
He motivates his students in the same way.
“The thing of it is, as a musician, as an artist, you have to be true to what you have, to the gift that you were given, and that takes a long time, that takes a long, long time to take a hold of that and say, ‘This is me.’ ”
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS