Old-school bluesman Bernie Pearl honors the masters

Blues guitarist Bernie Pearl with his vintage Martin guitar outside a recording studio.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

I be’s troubled I be all worried mind I can’t feel satisfied And I just can’t keep from


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.

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. —

Pearl frowned.

“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.

Hopkins was tall and lanky with his hat cocked at a Frank Sinatra angle. A gold front tooth gleamed when he smiled. Diamond rings flashed on both hands as he played guitar, whether rhythm or bass. Hopkins’ songs told stories that transcended sadness and misfortune with humor and wit.

“Don’t think cuz you’re pretty, woman, you got every man in town,” Hopkins sings in one song. “Cuz you ain’t doing nothing but tearing your own reputation down.”

“I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ ” Pearl recalled. “I decided to become a blues musician.”

Friends warned him not to do it. “You’re going down a dead-end road for a white guy,” he said they told him. But Pearl stuck with it and made an uneven career out of promoting blues in nightclub performances, classroom lessons and radio programs, even as the blues scene faded in the rural South and Chicago districts where it was born a century ago.

“Financially, it’s been tough,” Pearl said. “It’s meshugas! That’s the Yiddish pronunciation of a Hebrew word for craziness, or in my case, obsession.”

The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Boyle Heights just east of downtown Los Angeles. At 13, the already musically inclined Pearl moved west with his family. He graduated from Dorsey High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in Middle East studies at UCLA, where he formed his first blues band, King David and the Parables.

Pearl spent much of 1958 on a kibbutz in Israel, then moved back to Los Angeles to work at the Ash Grove, where he rubbed shoulders with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson and Howlin’ Wolf. Many of them were passing into old age and worried about what would become of traditional blues after they died. Tastes had changed in black communities; rock and R&B were more popular, which led to a drop in the bluesmen’s status and job offers.

Pearl was transformed by watching them play and shuttling them around town. He practiced their styles on the mahogany Martin he had bought in 1956; the same guitar he took to the studio.

In the process, Pearl made personal connections between Jewish and African American cultural experiences. “Mance Lipscomb talked to me about his music, and how his father was born in slavery,” Pearl said. “Jews were certainly an enslaved and oppressed people.

“It’s a cultural and, perhaps, psychological association,” he said, “that has led me deeper and deeper into blues music. Besides that, it’s got a great beat.”

In the studio, Pearl moved to the next work listed on his clipboard, “Berlin Rag.” It’s an original ragtime instrumental he composed for “The Berlin Blues,” a comedy about a German conglomerate trying to exploit a Native American tribe. It was performed last year at the Autry National Center’s Wells Fargo Theater.

Pearl’s finger-picking and syncopated rhythms would have made blues great Reverend Gary Davis, a master of traditional ragtime styles on guitar, proud. But he had a nagging sense that the recording sounded “unnatural.”

Nishida erased a few barely noticeable pauses in the track, then played it back.

“Naw,” Pearl said. “I want to rerecord it.” He picked up the Martin.

Thirty minutes later, Pearl and Nishida were hunched over in their chairs, clutching Styrofoam cups of coffee and listening to a fresh recording that sounded brisk and upbeat enough to back a lively beer commercial.

“A little too slow,” Pearl said.

Today, Pearl will perform at a UCLA blues bash in honor of the Ash Grove’s 50th anniversary. The concert, like the CD he labored over, is a summation of sorts.

In the late 1960s, Pearl became a disc jockey on the first all-blues FM program in Southern California, “Nothin’ but the Blues,” then on KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena. In 1980, he helped produce the first annual Long Beach Blues Festival with an artists budget of about $3,000, funded by KLON-FM, which is now KKJZ-FM (88.1).

(By then the Ash Grove, which fostered folk and rock as well as blues, had been closed six years. The business was unable to recuperate financially in the aftermath of two suspicious fires. In addition, as Ed Pearl readily admits, he had a better sense for music than for business.)

Now, Bernie Pearl gives lessons and performs at various Southland venues. In August, he will play solo at a blues festival in Navasota, Texas, dedicated to the memory of his greatest mentor and teacher, Lipscomb.

Pearl’s previous CDs include three with Harvey “Harmonica Fats” Blackston and one with violinist Papa John Creach.

Two CDs recorded live at Boulevard Music in Culver City received favorable reviews from aficionados including Karen Nugent, vice president of the Boston Blues Society.

“He plays with a haunting East Texas-Delta style, and he’s so good it sounds like two guitars going at once,” Nugent said. “His vocals are his weak point.”

“I’m working on my vocals,” Pearl acknowledged. “But I’m really happy with the way they turned out on these sessions.”

The “Berlin Rag,” like “I Be’s Troubled,” was set aside. Pearl needed to think about that one a little more. He and Nishida turned to Pearl’s rendition of McDowell’s gutsy slide guitar tune “Shake ‘Em on Down.” The song is laden with sexual metaphors that originated with railroad gangs.

Both men closed their eyes and listened to a playback. Then they smiled. “That one is good to go,” Pearl said, tapping his foot to the beat.

At 2 p.m., he packed up his guitar, reserved another session and handed Nishida a check for services rendered. “Don’t cash it until Monday,” Pearl said.

“No problem,” Nishida said. “See ya next time, Bernie.”

Over the next few weeks, Pearl and Nishida added tracks to the collection, new numbers with bass, drums and piano. Pearl took the CD home to his wife and “put it to the dance test.”

He hit the play button. Soon Pearl and his wife were sliding and swaying barefoot on the kitchen floor.