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In Big Bill Broonzy's Blues, Brothers Find A Way To Sing Together

Dave and Phil Alvin have made their first full album together in nearly 30 years, a tribute to one of their early influences. "His persona was so big to me," Phil Alvin tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.



June 11, 2014

Guests: Dave and Phil Alvin

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests, brothers Dave and Phil Alvin, have made their first full album together in nearly 30 years. Back in 1979, they cofounded the roots rock band, The Blasters. Phil, the older brother by two years, sang lead and played guitar. Dave played lead guitar and wrote many of the band's songs including their most famous ones, "Marie Marie" and "American Music." Dave left the band in 1986. He became the lead guitarist of the band X, and went on to a solo career. Phil has continued performing with the blasters. When Dave and Phil were growing up in the 1960s, they were obsessed with blues and R&B. Their new album, "Common Ground," is a tribute to one of their early influences, bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. It includes 12 of his songs including his most famous, "Key To The Highway." That's one of the songs Dave and Phil will perform for us a little later. They brought their guitars to the studio. Let's start with the opening track from their new album. This is Big Bill Broonzy's song, "All By Myself."


P. ALVIN: (Singing) On my way just around the world. When I get back I'm going to have diamonds and pearls. All by myself.

D. ALVIN: (Singing) All by myself.

P. ALVIN: (Singing) All by myself.

D. ALVIN: (Singing) All by myself.

P. ALVIN: (Singing) I didn't have no one to help me, had to do it all by myself.

D. ALVIN: (Singing) Locked up in jail, it was no hanging crime. But now I'm on the farm boys, and I'm doing time all by myself.

P. ALVIN: (Singing) All by myself

D. ALVIN: (Singing) All by myself.

P. ALVIN: (Singing) All by myself

D. ALVIN: (Singing) I didn't have no one to help me I had to do it all by myself.

GROSS: Dave Alvin, Phil Alvin, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. Congratulations on the new album.

P. ALVIN: Thank you for having us.

D. ALVIN: Thank you very much.

GROSS: This is your first album together in about 30 years. Why is it the music of Big Bill Broonzy that you decided to do after getting back together?

D. ALVIN: We wouldn't fight. We wouldn't disagree. We wouldn't argue about Big Bill Broonzy. And Phil and I have both, in the past few years, lost our closest friends and kind of realized that we're not immortal. And so I decided we've never really made a record, just the two of us. You know, we were always, quote, unquote, "in The Blasters." So I thought, let's go to square one - some place where we agree, and I won't have to write 10, 12 songs and then us fight about the lyrics or this, that and the other. Let's just go do a record for the Alvin brothers. So that was it.

GROSS: Okay so what I'm hearing you saying if...

P. ALVIN: Yeah.

GROSS: If you did - Dave, if you wrote original songs, you'd be fighting about the lyrics.

D. ALVIN: Well, there maybe...

GROSS: (Laughing) What would the fight be about?

D. ALVIN: Well, who knows? You know, that's the thing. You know, it's - you know, when you're writing songs for someone else to sing, you have to write songs that you and that person agree with or feel the same way. And that's - 9 out of 10 times that's - my brother and I are in total accord on that, but there's always that possibility of the tenth time. And the other thing was it just felt right. My brother and I - when we were little kids, we were little record collector guys, and we had all sorts of Huckleberry Finn-ish misadventures and - you know, collecting old 78's. And we never really made a record for those two little kids and that was what I wanted to do.

GROSS: Phil, let me ask you, what's the importance of Big Bill Broonzy in your musical life?

P. ALVIN: Well, when I first discovered Big Bill Broonzy, you know, his voice and his songwriting, his humor, his guitar playing, his persona was so big to me. You know, I became a little Bill Broonzy guy started singing the songs that I had heard on the first album that I got almost immediately. And I've always had him in the back of my mind, you know, whenever I would sing and play.

D. ALVIN: You know, I think that one of the reasons why he, Big Bill Broonzy, had such a long career - well, you know, 30 years from the late '20s to the late '50s - was, his personality just jumped off the records, you know. And it was a big gregarious voice, and he managed to sell a lot of records and become the equivalent of a star in the blues world because of that warmth and just the largeness of his personality. So that, yeah, he became Big Bill, I think, to a lot of people - not Big Bill Broonzy but just Big Bill, like your uncle or your cousin - that kind of character, you know.

GROSS: And Dave did his guitar playing influence you?

D. ALVIN: Yeah, to a point. His guitar playing can be intimidating because Bill Bill was capable of doing, you know, not only finger picking stuff, but also single string stuff - flat picking. So he could play something that sounded like, you know, a ragtime, four-finger, right-hand picker like Blind Blake, or he could turn around and play something that was, you know, a melodic single string line, like later became popularized by BB King or T-Bone Walker. So yeah, certainly his guitar playing influenced me to one extent or another, you know, but still, it's intimidating. There's not a lot of guitarists that can really sound like Big Bill when they play, you know, which is one of the reasons why on this record we didn't try to duplicate the sound of Big Bill.

GROSS: But could you just for our purposes show us on your guitar the kind of playing that you learned from him?

D. ALVIN: Oh, sure. This is kind of like a standard Big Bill kind of guitar figure for playing blues.


D. ALVIN: So that always - that - things like that always influenced me and have popped up on a couple different records of mine here and there.

GROSS: Since you've both brought your guitars with you and you're willing to sing a little for us, can I ask you to do what is probably the best-known Big Bill Broonzy song, which is "Key To The Highway?" And you do it on the new album, but if you could do it for us in the studio that would be fantastic.

D. ALVIN: Sure.

P. ALVIN: Sure.

GROSS: And tell us who's going to be doing what.

P. ALVIN: I'm going to be messing up on guitar.


GROSS: That's Phil speaking, yeah.

D. ALVIN: I'm playing the resonator guitar, and Phil's playing the standard Martin. You know, I - when we made the record I wanted to delineate between the two guitars, you know, 'cause if we were both playing, you know, Martin's, it would sound pretty cluttered, so - Big Bill never played with a resonator so that's - we're already breaking rule number one, so...

GROSS: Is the resonator the one just played?

D. ALVIN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Okay, alright.

D. ALVIN: 1, 2, 3, 4...


P. ALVIN: (Singing) I've got the key to the highway. Billed up and bound to go. I'm going to leave here running 'cause walking is most too slow. I'm going back to the border, girl, where I'm better known 'cause you never done nothing but drove a good man away from home. Now when I leave this time baby, girl, I won't be back no more. I'm going to roam this highway till the break of day.


GROSS: That was Dave and Phil Alvin performing the Big Bill Broonzy song, "Key To The Highway." And they're performing in the studio, but that song is also on their new album, "Common Ground: Dave Alvin And Phil Alvin Play And Sing The Songs Of Big Bill Broonzy." So earlier when I asked you why, after 30 years, you decided to do an album together - Dave and Phil performed together in The Blasters - you said, among other things, that you both had close friends who died and you realized that you're not immortal. And Phil, you'd been very sick, in fact, and must have realized for sure that you're not immortal. What actually happened?

P. ALVIN: Well, I went to Spain with The Blasters, and on the way over there an abscessed tooth went off while I was up in the plane, and it apparently got into my blood system. So we played a gig in Valencia. During the last song of the show, the right side of my throat swoll up instantly like a balloon. So they took me to a emergency hospital, and when I got there I was told that I flatlined. And a wonderful, angel doctor - Doctor Mariella Anaya Sefuentes (ph) - said that she clubbed me back into existence.

GROSS: (Laughing).

P. ALVIN: And I woke up two days later with a hole in my throat 'cause then they perform a tracheostomy. And I stayed in the hospital for two weeks, and then I came home with a hole in my throat which eventually healed over.

D. ALVIN: That Doctor got to do what I always wanted to do...

GROSS: (Laughing).

D. ALVIN: ...Club my brother. Lucky.

GROSS: So you flat-lined twice. Do you have any sense that that actually happened? I mean, could you sense that?

P. ALVIN: No, I sensed nothing. And when I came back into existence, it was out of nothing - I mean out of real nothingness. I didn't even see black for the first instant when I felt consciousness again. And I knew that I was coming from a very peaceful place - nothingness. And it was, for a first instance, a little perturbing, but then I started thinking about all the people I loved and everything like that. And then all the responsibility fell back down on me and I was - open my eyes, and I saw John Bazz, the bass player for The Blasters, and I saw this beautiful doctor talking to another female doctor, and she was pointing to all my vital signs and said, everything's good. And that was my experience. The doctor said, you're the strongest man I have ever met. (Laughing) Which was flattering, but nonetheless, having your mortality flash in front of you like that is a pretty good slap in the face.

GROSS: Dave, how did you find out that Phil was sick?

D. ALVIN: I got a phone call in the middle of the night, you know, and - sounding kind of dark here, you know, I - the first phone call was, your brother's dead. And so then my immediate response is okay I have to - you know, I called my sister and - you know, gee, what do we do to get the body? I guess we have to fly over there and pick up the body and maybe, you know, blah, blah, blah - that kind of stuff, you know. And then an hour later you get a phone call saying, he's not dead. He's brain-dead. And then about half an hour after that you get a call saying, no, he's fine. He's OK, you know, he's breathing. It was really unnerving, you know, to say the least.

GROSS: How soon were you able to get the?

D. ALVIN: Oh, I didn't go. I had gigs.


D. ALVIN: No, we sent our cousin. There was - after one day we knew that he was okay, he was alive, and everything was more or less fine. But it was just an - it was an insane period and, you know, I'm glad he's okay.

GROSS: So Phil, when you woke up with a hole in your throat did you think, well, great. I'm alive but I'll probably, like, never sing again?

P. ALVIN: I thought that a little bit. I immediately tried to start talking and, you know, you can't really until you put your finger over the hole of the tube that's sticking out of the tracheostomy. But I was pretty much singing a couple of days later when Doctor Mariella came in. I told her - I said, well, I'm a singer, you know, and I started singing. So I could tell that my vocal chords were okay. And I even yodelled a little bit but yeah, it was pretty close to the moneymaker, and that was a very scary thing, you know. And I think I've recovered but I'm still recovering - or relearning who I am as a singer. Your confidence has a great deal to do with what you do, and my confidence was certainly shaken.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Phil Alvin and Dave Alvin. Years ago they performed together in The Blasters, and they just made a new album called "Common Ground," featuring them performing the songs of Big Bill Broonzy. And this is the album that brought them together again musically after 30 years. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us my guests are guitarists and singers, Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin. And Dave Alvin is always as famous as a songwriter. They have a new album called, "Common Ground," featuring the songs of Big Bill Broonzy, the great blues man. And this is their first album together in about 30 years. They used to play together in the band, The Blasters. We were just talking about how, you know, Phil nearly died a couple of years ago in Spain after an infection. His throat swelled up and then he needed a tracheotomy but he was - had flatlined twice. And Phil in talking about flatlining, you had said that, you know, you realized you're not immortal. So how did that, like, make it easier for you to start performing together? I mean, you talked earlier about how, you know, there were times where you would fight over, like, lyrics and music and stuff - Big Bill Broonzy you both agree on, no argument there. But did knowing that, you know, realizing in a way that you maybe never realized before that you are mortal make you want to perform with each other?

P. ALVIN: Well, I think that affected David more than it affected me. I never disliked performing with my brother.

D. ALVIN: (Laughing).

GROSS: I think the finger's getting pointed at you, Dave.

D. ALVIN: I'm just enjoying a nice afternoon. Don't mind me.

P. ALVIN: And, you know, we had done a couple of things recently. We did a thing on David's "Eleven Eleven" album called, "What's Up With Your Brother?" And we did this rather strange radio play that was recorded by Stephen King at...

D. ALVIN: Songs by John Mellencamp in "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County"...

P. ALVIN: Yeah.

D. ALVIN: ...And that's when, you know, we didn't sing growing up together. We weren't The Everly Brothers, you know. My brother was, you know, came out of the womb shouting like Big Joe Turner. You know, and I came out of the womb with this voice. And so, you know, I've always said that if Bob Dylan had my brother as a brother, there'd be no Bob Dylan, you know, 'cause my brother's a magnificent singer. So there was never any question growing up who the singer in the house was. It really wasn't until I wrote the song, "What's Up With Your Brother?" and it just kind of dawned on me, well, Phil and I never sung together. And so I called him up and said, hey I wrote a song for us. Do you want to come down and record it? And he said, yeah. And the idea was, well, our voices are pretty different but what we're coming from the same place. So they kind of melt together nicely, in a weird way.

GROSS: So why don't we hear "What's Up With Your Brother?" which you just mentioned. This is Dave Alvin's song and Dave and Phil perform on this. And this is from Dave Alvin's recent album, "Eleven Eleven."

D. ALVIN: (Singing) I've been fighting this guitar over 30 long years till there's blood on my hands and ringing in my ears. Sing my songs around the world, one end to the other. But all anyone asks is what's up with your brother?

P. ALVIN: (Singing) I catch rattlesnakes with my bare hands. Sang jazz with Sun Ra, played in T-Bone Walker's band. I'll debate time and space and the theory of numbers. But all anyone asks is what's up with your brother?

D. ALVIN: (Singing) You can run, you can hide but you'll soon discover.

P. ALVIN: (Singing) No matter where you run blood is thicker than water.

DAVE AND PHIL ALVIN: (Singing) No one asks about our father, sister or mother. All they ever ask is what's up with your brother?

GROSS: That's Dave Alvin's song, "What's Up With Your Brother?" on Dave's album, "Eleven Eleven," and Phil Alvin is featured on that too. They have a new album called, "Common Ground", featuring them performing songs by the great blues man, Big Bill Broonzy. So Dave, what do you mean by what's up with your brother? Like, why does everybody ask you that?

D. ALVIN: Well, they ask Phil that too. You know, it's kind of a running joke that - the song I wrote in Madison, Wisconsin. Because I was playing a great club there - I won't mention the name - but the drawback to play in that club is they don't have a bathroom backstage. So right before I went on, I went up through the crowd, into the bathroom, and I'm standing there doing my business and the guy comes stands next to me and looks over and says hey, what's up with your brother?

GROSS: (Laughing).

D. ALVIN: And that's true. And then I went up on stage, played the show, waited about a half-hour 'til I figured everybody was gone and then I went up to the bathroom - you know, this is two and a half, three hours later - and I'm standing there and another guy comes up and says, so what's your brother doing these days? And I'm just like, OK that's it, I got a song. Went back and wrote the chorus and wrote - sort of outlined the verses. You know...

GROSS: If only everybody could get such good ideas by going to the bathroom that would - the world would be a better place.

D. ALVIN: I know. Well, next time I'm in Madison I'm certainly going to that bathroom. But, it's okay, you know. But on the other hand, it can be a little maddening at times, you know.

GROSS: Dave and Phil Alvin will be back in the second half of the show. Their new album, "Common Ground," features them performing songs by blues man Big Bill Broonzy. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with brothers Dave and Phil Alvin. They cofounded the roots rock band The Blasters in 1979. Phil sang lead and played the guitar. Dave played lead guitar and wrote many of the band's songs. Dave left the band in 1986. Dave and Phil Alvin have just released their first full album together in nearly 30 years. It's called "Common Ground," and it features songs by bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, whose music they've loved since childhood.

I would love it if you would each play an excerpt of a song that deeply influenced you during your formative years when you were first introduced to the blues and trying to learn blues styles as singers or guitarists.

P. ALVIN: Yeah.


GROSS: So this is Phil Alvin.

P. ALVIN: Yeah.

D. ALVIN: Yeah.

P. ALVIN: This is Phil Alvin. I'm trying to think. Well, here's a song called "Santa Fe" by Lightnin' Hopkins who was a guy that really - I used to go see all the time and influenced me a great deal. And I'll see if I can play it.


P. ALVIN: (Singing) I hid up on a mountain, stowed away home to Santa Fe. I hid up on a mountain, stowed away home to Santa Fe. See how I'm leaving my baby, going to my old time, used to be. It's a shame. It's a shame. Do me like you do. It's a shame. It's a shame the way you do me like you do. Yeah, but someday, baby, it's all coming home to you.

GROSS: That was great. Thank you. That was Phil Alvin playing and singing a Lightnin' Hopkins song. And Lightnin' Hopkins had a really, like, deep voice, and, you know, later in his career, he was kind of, like, talking his way through songs. And I feel like I heard you deepen your voice for that.

P. ALVIN: Yes. Well, yeah, you have to deepen your voice to sound like Lightnin'. Yeah, he was such a great performer, and I would go and see him every time that he would come to town. My mother would drive me down until I could drive. And he was just a magnificent performer and storyteller. What a fantastic musician and also had a very long career.

D. ALVIN: Lightnin' Hopkins was like a shaman, you know. He was one of those kind of characters. He was from another time and another place. He could certainly take you there.

GROSS: Dave, I had asked Phil to perform a song that was very influential for him when he was going through his formative years. Can you do one for us that deeply influenced you when you were young...

D. ALVIN: Sure.

GROSS: ...And introducing yourself to the blues?

D. ALVIN: Yeah. Well, I'll do a song that's kind of a combination of Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker. I remember the very first time I ever saw both those guys, it was the same bill. It was my brother had a carload of guys, and they allowed me to jump in to go see the Johnny Otis Orchestra at the Ashgrove. And it was a, you know, full horn section, Johnny Otis playing vibes and piano, you know. And it was like a review, you know. And part of the review was - the headliners were Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, the great urban, jump blues singer and then T-Bone Walker, you know, the brilliant guitarist and then Big Joe Turner.

And they were all still close enough to their prime that it was just a stunning, stunning evening, you know - life-changing. You know, that was it. You know, I'd left the club that night, I think, both my brother and I, and it was kind of no doubt what we'd wind up doing. And we followed Big Joe and T-Bone around, you know, kind of like Deadheads. We were, you know, Boneheads or Joeheads...

GROSS: (Laughing).

D. ALVIN: ...Whatever we called it. And so I'll do a thing that's sort of a combination of T-Bone guitar and a Joe Turner song called "Chains Of Love." Now, I can't sing it like Joe Turner, but my brother can. So maybe he'll come over and punch me and take over here.

P. ALVIN: Yeah.

D. ALVIN: But anyway, yeah, here's "Chains Of Love."


D. ALVIN: (Singing) Chains of love, I cried my eyes out over you. Chains of love, leaving me alone and so blue. And now I am your prisoner. Tell me, what are you going to do? Are you going to love me? Are you going to make me cry? Are you going to leave me? Are you going to say bye-bye? These chains of love are going to haunt me, mama, 'till the day I die.

GROSS: Nice. That was Dave Alvin playing a song by Big Joe Turner?

D. ALVIN: Yeah.

P. ALVIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Who was most famous for "Shake, Rattle And Roll."

D. ALVIN: Yeah, and "Chains Of Love" was his first big hit - R&B hit when he signed with Atlantic. But, you know, Big Joe Turner was kind of like Big Bill Broonzy in that they were survivors, you know. And I think one of the things that both my brother and I learned from those guys, you know, wasn't necessarily the musical part of it. It's the survival skills.

GROSS: So when you started going to clubs and meeting people like Big Joe Turner, how old were you?

P. ALVIN: Well, I was about 13 or 14 when I started to - having my mother - in fact, I think I was 12 when I had my mother drive me to see Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. But I met Joe Turner when I was 15, about six months before I could drive. And so by the time I was 16, you know, I was playing in bands with Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.

GROSS: And, Dave, you were two years younger, so were you going to clubs when you were 11?

D. ALVIN: Twelve - 12-ish. Yeah, our mom was very understanding. She had been a contortionist and a small-time vaudeville dancer in the '30s. Very small-time...

GROSS: Wow. Really, a contortionist?

D. ALVIN: Yeah. Yeah.

P. ALVIN: And she was fantastic. Yeah.

D. ALVIN: Yeah. We never - well, I never knew that until I was in my late teens and these photos from the - 1933 appeared of my mother in these just, you know, intense contortionist poses with her head behind her - if you knew my mother, you would be shocked that she could do that. But, yeah, she had a rotten first husband who kind of squashed her dreams of being, you know, a performer. And so she kind of - she wasn't a stage mother in any way, shape or form. But she was - our mother encouraged passion in a certain way. So she would drive me and my brother to shows. You know, my mother drove me to see Jimi Hendrix and she - you know, when I was 12 or 11. And she took my friend and I, Joe Sincak (ph), and she just said, don't eat anything, don't drink anything.

GROSS: (Laughing).

D. ALVIN: You know, and she'd sit and wait in the car. So, you know, she kind of encouraged that in us. She wasn't always happy that we were sneaking into bars or going to shows, but she understood. And so, yeah.

GROSS: How did they let you in if you were so young?

P. ALVIN: Well, the - there was a - when I was going to the bars in South Central, I looked a little older for my age. But nobody ever asked me ever for any ID, ever.

GROSS: What was it like for you both to start meeting people who were your musical idols, and, you know, men who were African-American from another era, from an era of segregation? Some of them were from the South - from the Deep South, like Lightnin' Hopkins. Well, he was from Texas, right?

D. ALVIN: Yeah.

P. ALVIN: Yes.

GROSS: But, you know, the culture that they were from was really different from the culture that you were from - the era they were from is really different from the era you were from. But you shared, you know - you certainly shared a love of music.

P. ALVIN: They were very forthcoming and happy to pass down the...

D. ALVIN: Yeah.

P. ALVIN: ...Songs and the styles and the culture that they had. When I first - I'd seen Joe Turner, but when I first met him was at a place called the York club in downtown LA - or not downtown LA but South LA. And we had met a woman who was going to turn out being our manager. And she says, well, come down to this show, and Joe Turner's going to be playing. And that's the day that we met Lee Allen, the great saxophone player who played in The Blasters, and - you know, with Fats Domino and Little Richard. And we went down there, and - five guys in a '32 Plymouth - and went in to see Joe Turner. And I had the audacity to sing "Wee Baby Blues," one of his songs, in front of him. And he got a thrill out of that.

But two weeks later, my band had a gig opening up for Black Oak Arkansas, and about an hour before we went on stage, a Cadillac pulled up with Lightnin' Hopkins' cousin Hoppy Hopkins driving. And Joe Turner got out, and Lee Allen got out. And they came up on stage, and played with us and, you know - out of nowhere. And we started playing pretty regularly with them right around then. And they were happy to pass that stuff down.

D. ALVIN: Yeah, I think that the guys that did that kind of blues were not that popular in the late '60s because, the late '60s - the sort of blues that was revived wasn't the urban jump blues of Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker and all that. It was, you know, sort of the Chicago/Texas guitar-based blues. So everybody - or it was the folk blues - was popular. So a lot of these guys - you know, your Joe Turner, Roy Milton, Roy Brown, people like that - they didn't have a lot of attention. And they knew that - in a way that they were getting near the end of the run. And they had to pass it off to somebody, you know, and that if there were these oddball kids that were interested in them and interested in their life and interested in, you know, who played drums on some record they made in 1941, you know. And I think that they were extremely touched. I think - I know Big Joe Turner was extremely touched that Phil imitated his voice - could imitate him and could sing like him and had, you know, roughly the same sort of power that Big Joe had. And, you know - anyway.

P. ALVIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Well...

D. ALVIN: Yeah.

P. ALVIN: Joe Turner did give me the advice, though, when I was 18 - it was pretty shocking, but Joe Turner said, why don't you quit embarrassing me and yourself and sing in your own voice?


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Phil and Dave Alvin. And they have a new album of Big Bill Broonzy songs called "Common Ground." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, who used to perform together in their band The Blasters. Now they perform together again on their new album, "Common Ground," which features songs by bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. Can I ask you to perform an excerpt of the most famous of The Blasters songs that you wrote, Dave - and that would be "Marie Marie?" And maybe you could tell us the story behind the song too?

D. ALVIN: Yeah. It was one of the earliest songs that I wrote. I don't think it was the first, but it was the third or fourth. And, yeah, I was laying in my bed, kind of excited about suddenly being in a band and being a guitar player. And so I have these songs rolling around in my head and the sort of melody and everything kind of came to me. And I thought, well, this would be a great Cajun Balfa Brothers kind of song, and then if you put it to a Chuck Berry beat, this might be pretty cool. But I couldn't think of any lyrics. And we had a rehearsal the next evening. And so all that day I was walking around humming this melody. And I was like, what's it about, what's it's about, you know, 'cause I had no idea how to write songs at that point. I still don't. But I really didn't have any idea then and I just - whatever I was doing that day, you know, I just - living inside my brain. And then - and the reality was about 30 minutes before we left to go to rehearsal, I sat down at our kitchen table and I just wrote the lyrics - just came to me. I was kind of - I remember being a little kid and we were driving down this road up near the Puente Hills. And there was an old Victorian farmhouse and there was a girl sitting on the porch with a guitar. And for whatever reason, that image stuck with me and so I just wrote that. So in like 20 minutes we had this...


P. ALVIN: Marie, Marie, playing guitar on the back porch. I sit in my car while you sing so sad, Marie, Marie. Marie, Marie, it's so lonely in these farmlands. Please come with me to the bright lights downtown, Marie, Marie. I said, hey, pretty girl, don't you understand? I just want to be your loving man. Marie, Marie, the sun is down in the cornfields. The evening is dark and you sing so sad. Marie, Marie.

GROSS: (Clapping) That was great. Thank you both for doing that. And that was Dave Alvin playing guitar, Phil Alvin singing. They have a new album together - they're performing in the studio, but they have a new album together called "Common Ground," which features the songs of the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. So how does it feel knowing that one of your early songs was so successful?

D. ALVIN: It's a little intimidating. You know, it was intimate at the time because an English singer named Shakin' Stevens heard it and heard it on an independent record we made. And he cut it and had an international hit with the song - everywhere but the United States. And this - we didn't even have a record deal yet, you know. And he's having a big huge record. And so he called me up and - Shakin' Stevens did - and wanted to know if I had more songs, you know. I was like, I don't know, I don't really write songs, you know. I was a little stumped. So it's intimidating to have like the third or fourth song you ever wrote suddenly become this international hit and you're getting these royalty checks that are, you know, really kind of like, huh? - you know.


D. ALVIN: And where did all this come from? You know, your old songs, every time you sit down to write songs, all your old songs come and visit and they kind of like hang around behind you, and they look over your shoulder or what you're working on and saying like, nope, that's not one of us, that's not good enough.


D. ALVIN: And it's really true. You know, songwriting is so weird and everybody does it differently, everybody got their own ways of doing it. And it's not something you teach like, you know - you teach - you can teach someone how to build a house, you know, you start with the foundation and work up. But in songwriting, you can start with the roof and work down, you know. There's no rules really. So I'm a self-taught songwriter so because I'm self-taught and because one of the earliest things was a hit, it doesn't make sense. To this day, it still doesn't make sense to me.

GROSS: So it sounds like the success of "Marie Marie" helped inspire you to keep writing songs.

D. ALVIN: Yeah. I liked writing songs, you know. But I never thought that I was a songwriter, you know, I just kind of stumbled into it, you know. It was like - you know, I wrote songs as a kid in my brain and sang them and drove my mom crazy as she drove around in her - drove me around in a '49 Studebaker when I was 5 years old. In fact we could even do one of the songs. One of them was sort of my attempt at Leiber and Stoller at 5 years old.

GROSS: Oh, I want to hear this.

D. ALVIN: Oh, Yeah. Well, you know, you listen - I'd spin the car radio, you know, and that's what was on the radio. But yeah, I wrote a Leiber and Stoller song that - it's horrible, but it's the first thing I wrote, which was - let's see. (Singing) Well, I don't know. You don't care. Well, I don't know. You don't care. You don't care. What you mean you don't care? Well, I don't know. And you don't care. Yeah, I don't know. And you don't care. What you mean you don't know?

You know, that was - I would do that for hours - drive my mom nuts.

GROSS: That was very "Yakety Yak."

D. ALVIN: Yeah, that's what I'm saying. It's Leiber and Stoller. If The Coasters are making a record, I've got a song for them.


D. ALVIN: And, you know, so - yeah, it's intimidating to have a big hit record when you're still living in your bedroom at your parent's house.

GROSS: Oh, that's funny actually.

D. ALVIN: And you're working as a fry cook in a Middle Eastern joint, you know. Yeah.

GROSS: But it probably got you out of there, right?

D. ALVIN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, who first performed together in their band The Blasters. And now, 30 years later, they have a new album together of songs by bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. It's called "Common Ground." Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin who used to perform together in their band The Blasters. Now they perform together again on their new album "Common Ground," which features songs by bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. So we have time for one more song. And you did a video while on a train, I think in a blizzard...

D. ALVIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Of James Brown's 'Please, Please, Please." Like, you two performed it on the chain and it was so much fun. Can ask you to do a version of that for us now and tell us why you decided to do in the first place?

D. ALVIN: Well, actually the reason that I ever thought of doing "Please, Please, Please" was they have an Elvis Presley show here in Los Angeles every year, I guess its January 9 or January 8. And we would go and play and, you know, you're supposed to play Elvis Presley songs. And the year that James Brown died, which was right around Christmas, The Blasters went to play the show. And I was so broken up about James Brown. And I thought it was ridiculous that we didn't do something for him. So I just told the band lets do "Please, Please, Please," which I had rarely sung. And it came off pretty good. And so we started doing it in the show all the time. It's kind of rough to do acoustically. I'll try to do it sitting down.


P. ALVIN: All right.

D. ALVIN: Let me hear an E.


P. ALVIN: (Singing) Please, please, please, please. Please, please, please. Honey, please don't go. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, I love you so. Baby, you did me wrong. Oh, you done me wrong. Oh, you done, done me wrong. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Took my love and now you're gone.

GROSS: That's great. That's really fun. That's Dave and Phil Alvin, with Phil singer, Dave playing guitar. So listen, so now that you have this new album together, is this a new direction for you both? Like, what happens next?

D. ALVIN: Well, I've never had a career plan, as anyone can tell you. Phil's never had a career plan either. I'm sure I'm willing - I know I'm willing to do another album or two of something, I don't know what. But, you know, for me it was that I felt before we could go on and do anything, we had to do a record together because, you know, God knows what the future brings, you know.

P. ALVIN: Yeah. I'm open for anything.

GROSS: Well, I'm really glad that you did this Big Bill Broonzy album and that you're performing together again. It's really been so much fun to have you both on the show. Thank you for being so generous and performing for us.

D. ALVIN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: As well as joining us this conversation. It's been great. Thank you.

P. ALVIN: Thank you, Terry.

D. ALVIN: Thank you.

P. ALVIN: You're very gracious.

GROSS: Dave and Phil Alvin's new album, featuring them performing songs by bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, is called "Common Ground." Here they are dueting on Broonzy's song "Stuff They Call Money."


DAVE AND PHIL ALVIN: (Singing) 'Cause you must have the stuff they call money. Yeah, you must have - way down in your pocket. Yeah, you must have the stuff they call money or you can't ride in here.

D. ALVIN: (Singing) Now I asked a girl, let's go have some fun. And this is what she said...

P. ALVIN: (Singing) If you ain't got no money, man, you can't get in my bed.

DAVE AND PHIL ALVIN: (Singing) 'Cause you must have the stuff they call money. Yeah, you must have - way down in your pocket. Yeah, you must have the stuff they call money or you can't ride in here.

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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