Bluesman James Armstrong hails from Santa Monica California. Born into a family of music in 1957, it seemed his destiny to follow in the family footsteps. “My father was a jazz guitar player and my mom was a blues singer. When I was five years old dad and I had a duet in which I played drums and he played guitar,” James shared with me recently. By the time he was seven years old though, he had a guitar in his hands.
“Around 13 years old I was really into Jimi Hendrix’s album, Experience,” James said. “It was the first album my father bought for me. So I would listen to Hendrix and try to duplicate what I was hearing on the guitar and try to sing like him. So I put together an original band. We did only originals, no covers. At 17 I went on my first road tour; with a local country band,” he mused.
By his 20s, James started making waves on the local California blues circuit, becoming the youngest member of Smokey Wilson’s band. In the 1980s, he was a founding member of the band Mama Roo and received his first recording contract for Crescendo Records.
By the early 90s things were looking promising for James as he had gotten plenty of exposure from his musical influences, including Albert Collins, and Sam Taylor. Soon after, he was discovered and signed by HighTone Records to his next record deal.
In 1997 though, James’ career would get derailed, almost for good. “I was living in Sunnyvale California at the time,” he recalled. Just as he was about to tour with his critically acclaimed first album, Sleeping with a Stranger, tragedy struck. “On April 28 there was a home invasion at my house. An unknown intruder walked in the door and went into the kitchen and grabbed a knife out of the kitchen drawer. He started stabbing me repeatedly. My two and a half year-old son James Jr. and my nine month old son John were both in the home at the time. The first stab wound was in my upper left shoulder, followed by numerous others. He then grabbed my son James Jr. and threw him over a second-story balcony outside. My son James Jr. is 22 years old today and has minor brain disorder. I lost total use of my left arm and hand for about a year.”
After the attack, James could barely hold a guitar, let alone play it. “For years I only had one nerve damaged finger that I could use to play. I didn’t want to play guitar anymore so I tried to stop. I felt embarrassed because I could not play like I used to, or like other guitar players.”
Because of his friends, fans and the record company who never gave up on him. James kept trying. “I’ve played guitar since I was seven years old,” he said. “So I guess that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Hightone Records kept pushing me to go on tour so I decided to go, just to shut them up, and I figured they would realize how bad it was and then leave me alone. My band at the time made a table to lay my guitar on because I could not put a strap on my shoulder or use my fingers. That’s when I started playing slide guitar.”
“I remember talking to my friend mine, Doug MacLeod, about a year after the incident. We were talking about writing songs. I told him I only had one finger at that time that worked. So he sent me a song called “Too Many Misses For Me,” and I rewrote that song using one finger, that’s what got me into writing music again.”
Armstrong released his second album two years after the incident, Dark Night. What he lost in the tragedy he gained in, “a whole new respect for the music itself, the power in slow blues, how the silences between the notes are as important as the notes.” James turned his efforts to perfecting his songwriting, vocal and slide guitar skills, all the while developing his gift for turning hardship into song. The results were a third album, Got It Goin’ On. That CD earned two Blues Music Award nominations for “best blues guitarist” and for “best song of the year” with “Pennies and Picks.”
“It has been 20 years since the incident. I still struggle with the pain and the nerve damage,” he said. But it hasn’t stopped him. Catfood Records announced the release of James Armstrong’s latest CD, Blues Been Good To Me, on October 20th 2017.
He’s had songs placed in three major motion pictures. “Bank of Love” was used in Hear No Evil, with Martin Sheen and Marlee Matlin. “Two Sides to Every Story” was featured in Speechless with Michael Keaton and Geena Davis, and also in The Florentine with Jeremy Davies and Luke Perry.
He has performed in many countries throughout North America, Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East, and shared the stage with many artists like ‘Keb Mo’, Chaka Kahn, Shemekia Copeland, Charlie Musselwhite, Ricky Lee Jones, and many more.
Last year James performed at over 140 shows in the US, spent two weeks in Spain also a month in Europe. “This year I just got off of the road after 14,000 miles in seven weeks,” he said.
“I’m extremely happy with my new CD. I’m usually very picky when it comes to recording my music in the studio. But on this project I did not have much time to prepare because I was so busy on the road. So I just went in with the idea whatever happens, happens. So what came out for me was more of a raw sound not so produced.”
“For years I was so embarrassed when I was around other guitar players because I could not play like I used to or like I think other players sound. Lately though, I’ve been getting compliments from accomplished guitar players. Once again I’ve realized that less is more, it’s the silence between the notes that matter.”