Bernie Pearl bent over his vintage Martin guitar at a Westside recording studio, listening to the playback of his interpretation of the Muddy Waters classic "I Be's Troubled."
It's a powerful don't-mess-with-me Mississippi Delta blues song with a slashing slide guitar riff that underlines a sense of rootlessness, bravado, jealousy and threat of violence conveyed in the lyrics.
FOR THE RECORD:
An April 19 front-page profile of Bernie Pearl, a Long Beach musician who has been a longtime presence in the Southern California blues scene and is coming out with his first CD, noted that the bluesman performs and promotes musicians and teaches guitar. The reporter took some lessons from Pearl several years ago, and that fact should have been noted in the article. —
"I hear glitches," he groaned, "like my fingers got tangled in the strings."
Sound engineer Glenn Nishida tweaked some knobs, then replayed the song. No dice. They fiddled some more. "We've messed with it so much that it sounds technically great -- but lost its raw qualities," said Pearl, shaking his head. "It's got to be right, or it's no go."
Playing it right for Bernie Pearl means replicating the sounds produced decades earlier by blues musicians he calls "my rabbis" -- Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
The silver-haired Pearl is pushing 69, older than those now-deceased blues legends were when he met them in the early 1960s. Pearl studied their recordings and, in some instances, performed with them.
He never attained their kind of fame, but he's made a living as a musician and has been a longtime presence in the Southern California blues scene that developed during World War II when the region was a military center.
After the war, many black servicemen from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana returned and set down roots in Los Angeles, transforming the city -- and Central Avenue in particular -- into a hub of blues and rhythm-and-blues recording and performing opportunities.
Now, the Long Beach bluesman is looking to get a CD under his belt with the kind of musical moans and growls that stoked his creative flames when he was a young man. He really didn't have the $7,500 to record the CD. But it's something he just had to do. He wants to call the disc “Old School Blues.”
"It's a summation of where I stand after nearly 50 years of playing the music," he said.
In the studio, Pearl's mood stayed dour. The studio is so different from a live gig. Pearl had performed the night before with bass man Michael Barry at Iva Lee's, a San Clemente restaurant. Under a framed photograph of Hopkins accompanied by a much younger Pearl, he played with his typical abandon. In front of an audience, "He plays this music the way it's supposed to be played," said Eric Wagoner, the restaurant owner.
But in the studio, Pearl walked a fine line; he wanted to sound clear and precise, yet raw and emotional. It's the dilemma of any musician. With earphones on, Pearl felt that every flubbed note stood out in painful relief. He and Nishida continued remixing.
An hour had already passed -- Pearl paid for four -- and he had six songs to mix. Though not satisfied, he set "I Be's Troubled" aside.
His musical journey began in 1960 the first time he cast eyes on Hopkins at his brother Ed Pearl's storied nightclub, the Ash Grove, on Melrose Avenue near Crescent Heights Boulevard in L.A.