BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — Legendary blues musician James Montgomery is a Boston University alum whose successful musical career took off in the late 1960s, around the same time as jazz guitarist J. Geils and rock icons Aerosmith were coming up in Boston.
Ahead of his Sunday night performance in Newburyport, and several other upcoming local shows, Montgomery spoke to WBZ NewsRadio about the early days of his career in Boston, touring with Steven Tyler and Gregg Allman, and his advice for the next generation of musicians.
Montgomery grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where he was in a couple of high school bands. He said he chose to study at BU largely because of Boston's thriving music scene. Over his first few years Montgomery had gotten a name for himself playing across the city, and by his junior year at BU he was hired to play harmonica and tour with Janis Joplin.
He formed The James Montgomery Band in 1970, and was soon signed to Capricorn Records. Montgomery graduated from BU with a degree in English literature, and a reputation as one of the top new musical talents on the east coast. He turned down a $15,000 a year job at his Alma mater, and instead accepted a $250,000 deal to go on tour with the Allman Brothers Band.
"Jon Landau, who eventually became Bruce Springsteen's manager, was then writing for the [Boston] Phoenix.... he did say at the time there were three bands in Boston... John 'J.' Geils, Aerosmith, and me," Montgomery said. "They said we were ruling the roost!"
Montgomery said time spent with those musicians, hanging out at each other's band-houses in Cambridge and Boston early in his career, was a "tremendous amount of fun."
Steven Tyler (Getty Images)
Mongomery said when he first met some of the world's future rock legends, he could tell there was something special about them. "Bruce Springsteen sold 75 tickets the night I saw him for the first time. He was playing a 150 seater and he didn't sell it out. With guys like Peter [Wolf], Steven [Tyler] and Bruce [Springsteen], you could tell right from the beginning that they had great careers in front of them."
He also recalled hanging out at E.U. Wurlitzer, a major Boston music store which closed in 1999 and was eventually demolished and rebuilt as Berklee College student dormitories. That's where Aerosmith front-man Steven Tyler first asked if his new group could open for The James Montgomery Band.
"Tyler said; 'Wow, James Montgomery! Can we open some shows for you?! And I said, 'I don't know, what's the name of your band?' And he said 'Aerosmith.' And I said 'You know, I've heard of you guys, you're supposed to be really good.' So I put them on a couple of shows as my opening act." He said the first show in which Aerosmith opened for The James Montgomery Band was a concert at BU.
Montgomery went on to perform with Aerosmith again later in his career when they went on their "Dream On" tour. He even played harmonica during a 2011 special surprise appearance at a rainy festival in Scituate, Mass.
When they were first coming up, Montgomery said the musicians were having the time of their lives living in Boston, just jamming at each others' houses.
J. Geils (Getty Images)
"We all had band houses in town. I had a band house in Cambridge, Aeorsmith had a band house on Comm Ave. The J. Geils Band had a band house on Kempton Street off Huntington Avenue... We all visited each other, we all hung out.... It was a lot of fun. People just show up at each other's house. There was no cell phones or anything, you just knock on the door and if they were rehearsing they'd let you in and we'd have some fun."
Montgomery says it wasn't until 1968 when Peter Wolf joined the J. Geils Band that they were catapulted to international fame. "Wolf, one of the most important figures in the history of Boston music, when he joined the J. Geils band it really made a huge difference."
After performing with a long list of heavyweights like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, James Brown, Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker, and James Cotton, Montgomery said it's not easy to pick a favorite.
"I'd have to say touring with the Allman Brothers was really - I think the best band to tour with. And Aerosmith of course, but that's because we're personal friends." Montgomery said he eventually became a very good friend of Gregg Allman's, hanging out in each others' dressing rooms whenever the other was playing a show.
Gregg Allman (Getty Images)
However, Montgomery said, in those days, new bands would often get sabotaged by headliners.
"We were seeing about 100,000 people a night with the Allman Brothers. And a lot of the English bands in those days would try to sabotage the opening band by pulling plugs and not letting you use lights. That happened a lot back then. But with the Allman Brothers they called you partner, pal, if you didn't like the food in your dressing room you could go and eat with them. They were just a great band to tour with."
His advice to the young bands out there? "First of all find out what it is about your band and what it is about you that is original. Find out what it is that you do personally that you can develop... I see a lot of young bands who start out and feel like they have to get a whole cover set together before they can start playing out.... Get out and start playing as soon as you can."
James Montgomery is back in New England for several shows over the upcoming weeks.
On Sunday February 23, he'll be performing with Parker Wheeler at The Grog in Newburyport, MA.
On February 27 Montgomery and his Band will be playing at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, MA. He says the audience "can expect some of the finest delta blues they've ever heard." The lineup includes Paul Rischell, Annie Raines, and Grace Kelly, who he calls "the most amazing young talent on the planet. When we bring her up be prepared to see a 23 or 24 year old petite saxophone player just blow the roof off the place."
On Friday March 6, you can catch Montgomery playing with Chuck Farrell and Chris Vitarello from The Butch Trucks Band at The Stone Church in Newmarket, NH. He'll be playing in Lanconia, NH on Saturday, March 7, and Lowell, MA on Saturday March 14.
Hear the full interview with WBZ NewsRadio's Drew Moholland (@DrewWBZ) and James Montgomery: