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I've Got A Mind To Ramble
Those of you who are members of the Kentuckiana Blues Society and receive the newsletter, Blues News, would have noticed harpman Mark Hoekstra pictured on the cover of both the August and September issues. Mark was performing with Little T & A on the August cover. They were the winners of the 2011 KBS band competition on June 26 at Stevie Ray's. Michael Murphy, who normally blows sax with the band, was recovering from shingles, so Mark stood in for him on the Mississippi saxophone. The photo was a great action shot, by William Peeples, of Mark wailing, Amy Johnson beating the tambourine, plus guitarists Monk Mackey and Tony Tkac on either side and Jeff McAllister keeping the beat in the middle. Mark appeared again on the September cover in a promo shot of the Stella Vees. The band's line up besides Mark included Jason Lockwood or guitar, Steve Parrish on drums and bassist Tim Dennison. They will open the Big Rock Jazz and Blues Fest in Cherokee Park on October 2 at 2:00 PM. This gig will be the first time they have played in Louisville since the 2010 Garvin Gate Blues Festival nearly a year ago.
I first noticed Mark when he was performing at the Waterside Blues Festival in 1991 and we have kept in touch since then. An interview was long overdue.
Mark's parents immigrated from the Netherlands to Buffalo where he was born. When he was nine they moved to Cincinnati and later to the Chicago suburbs. While a teenager, Mark dreamed of hearing J. Geils Band play, "Whammer Jammer" where Magic Dick played harmonica. Mark immediately bought a harp and started practicing by finding the notes to get the melody. Because Duane Allman's slide guitar sounded so much like a harp, Mark tried to duplicate his licks on his harmonica. Mark first met the blues when he saw Willie Dixon and Billy Branch performing in Carey, Illinois.
When Mark turned twenty-one, he started going to the blues clubs on Chicago's North Side. He bought musicians whiskey, drove them home and made a nuisance of himself at the bars. A friend at work put Mark on to an old Chess LP of Little Walter, where he realized how the harmonic was supposed to be played.
Big Walter Horton was Mark's biggest influence, because every Sunday he would go to BLUES on Halsted to learn from the master. Once Floyd Jones' wife told Mark, "Big likes you for he never talks to anyone else." Mark felt Big Walter had the best tone. Gradually Mark began to sit in with the bands on off nights.
In 1984 the guitar frontman for West Side Heat, Steve Arvey, was looking for someone to replace his harp player. Mark was hired and was with the band until 1991 when they temporarily broke up. During that time, they traveled from Colorado to a forty-five day tour of the air bases in Korea. In 1990 West Side Heat performed at the Crossroads Stage at the Chicago Blues Festival. They were the second all-white band to play the Festival. (Do you know who was the first?) They would often back Homesick James.
When Mark moved to Louisville, he formed The Killer Tornadoes and arranged a gig at the Cherokee Blues Club for Homesick. He had to drive to Nashville to pick him up and found that even though Homesick was receiving royalties in five figures, he was living in a Section 8 apartment. Mark remembers him as a mischievous guy who drank his liquor straight out of the bottle. Homesick and Elmore were cousins and had been living and playing together in Chicago when Elmore suddenly died of a heart attack in 1963.
While recovering from a knee injury, Mark had his foot propped up on the couch watching the movie "Crossroads." At the time, he wasn't playing in any band, so during the movie when Willie Brown was ready to sell his soul to the devil, Mark yelled out, "I'll make a deal." Later that night when Mark returned home from the Cherokee Blues Club, there was a message on his answering machine from Willie Smith asking if he was available to tour with the Legendary Blues Band. This was during the waning days of that band with Willie as the last of the original members, playing drums. Mark did three tours with Willie Phillips on guitar and Nick Moss on bass. During a slow night in Vancouver, they switched instruments and Mark was "underwhelmed" with Nick's guitar playing. Three years later when Nick was backing Jimmy Rogers at the Air Devil's Inn, he had become a guitarist virtuoso. Feeling frustrated following the last tour, Mark put his harmonica down for two years.
When Mark first heard Ricky Mason's guitar licks coming from inside a club, he thought "What is Ronnie Earl doing playing in Louisville"? Ricky, who had played with The Stray Cats and Lamont Gillispie's Homewreckers, wanted to start a new band and asked Mark to join him.
In 1993 The Little Dippers were born with a revolving rhythm section that included Mike Williams on bass and Gary Grizzle on drums most of the time. Shortly after the Little Dippers were formed, Mark was interviewed on "Back To The Blues." This series of twelve programs was aired on TKR cable. The shows were produced by the KBS with Perry Aberli serving as host and Rick O'Neil directing. Mark shared some of his memories in Chicago as well as his harmonica skills. One of Mark's quotes was, "The harmonica is like the blues. It starts out simple and with each person's interpretation something else comes out." They had a four-year run playing the Strassenfest plus steady gigs at local and Lexington bars.
Mark's wife, Linda, got a job transfer to Boston, so Mark spent a year there, where he befriended harpman Jerry Portnoy, who lived three blocks away. In 1995 Mark returned to Chicago to reunite with Steve Arvey, Michael Wagner on bass and Pete Kruze on drums for three more years of West Side Heat. During that second stint, they did a tour of England. A compilation of cuts from 1986 to 1998, issued in 1999 under the title, Best From The Vault, featured Mark on several songs. Their next release was a live CD in 2003, recorded at Blues on Grand in Des Moines, Iowa. Mark did some vocals, played slide guitar and blew some mighty harp on that recording. Mark has kept up with Steve, who lives in Sarasota, Florida and now performs acoustically.
Mark returned to Louisville for good in 2000 and was occasionally sitting in with Sue O'Neil's band, Blue Seville. In 2004 guitarist Johnny Roy Hedger of the Rub Tones contacted Mark about playing some gigs with the Patty Butcher Band. I attended their show at the Equus Run Vineyards in June and reviewed that BBQ, Blues & Blush concert in the 2004 July issue of LMN. Mark remembered that before he joined the Stella Vees, Steve Parrish came to hear him play with Patty's band; eventually he offered Mark the job. For Mark, it was everything he could hope for in a blues band. He said "It is like a custom made sports car for me." Two weeks before joining the band, Mark filled in for Steve 'Fuzzy" Kanopka at a gig in Knoxville. Mark said, "After eight bars, we looked at each other and said, yeah!"
The harmonica jam that was featured at the 2009 Garvin Gate Blues Festival included Lamont Gillispie, Joel Pinkerton and Mark. What made that set so memorable was they rehearsed it and worked out what each person was going to do. No one played an identical position and they were able to stay out of each other's way. Mark said, "That whole evening was perfect, just like paradise"
The Stella Vees have been the host band for the past eleven years at the annual Blues Jam at the historic W.C. Handy Hall on Beale Street during the International Blues Challenge. Mark said, "The tone in the room is incredible and why shouldn't it be because that's where the Memphis sound came from. You see all the top-notch, world-class talent signing up to get on stage to use your gear." Mark compared it to a trapper's rendezvous where you see the same people every year. The Stella Vees will be competing to get in the 2012 IBC this October in Knoxville that is sponsored by the Smokey Mountain Blues Society. Mark's philosophy is to show up and have fun.
The Stella Vees have been recording some new songs at Dana Roy's DMR Studio to get Mark and Tim on record. Mark will be playing some slide guitar as well as harp with the band. Mark uses Hoener Marine Band dichromatic harmonicas, because he can get a better tone using tongue blocking. He occasionally plays chromatic harp using his pitch bar to get the octave half-steps. Mark's original mentor, Big Walter Horton, always used Hoeners, referring to all the other instruments as "plastic crap."
The Stella Vees were recently seen on KET as a part of the Jubilee-Summertime Blues series that was taped at the 2010 W. C. Handy Blues & BBQ Festival in Henderson, Ky. KET has graciously made a DVD of that show available for the band to sell.
Mark had a fun road story. Recently on the way to the Arkansas Blues Festival, Mark realized he had left his garment bag at home. He didn't panic and told Jason "When we get to Memphis, I need to stop at Lansky's to get some stage shirts." Lansky's is a clothing store in the Peabody Hotel where Elvis would buy his clothes. Expect to see Mark wearing one of those blues shirts at Big Rock.
What does the future hold for the Stella Vees? Jason's job with Amazon limits the band's ability to do major touring, therefore they are optimizing their time to get better gigs like festivals and concerts. Mark is hoping the Stella Vees will have a good long run; it's his retirement plan.