september 2011

(Photo courtesy Jeff Golub website. Dave Sokol, Peter Bohl, photographers)

‘I Will Do Whatever It Takes’

Shortly after completing one of his finest albums, ace guitarist Jeff Golub lost his eyesight. Pressing on with his touring schedule, he is embracing the advice he offered his children--‘prepare for the worst, hope for the best’--as he holds out hope doctors can reverse his condition.


Fund established to help defray medical expenses

By David McGee

It came on gradually, without warning and with no particular urgency. It played out some five months later with devastating results. No sooner had the gifted jazz/blues guitarist Jeff Golub completed one of his finest albums than did he find himself legally blind.

On February 14 Golub began working on his new album, The Three Kings, a tribute to Freddie, Albert and B.B. King, with his stellar band (Andy Hess on bass, Josh Dion on drums) supplemented by the addition of the outstanding New Orleans piano man Henry Butler and, on two separate tracks, hot-shot guitarist Robben Ford and slide guitar master Sonny Landreth, along with a potent horn section and the tasty B3 work of long-time Golub compadre Chris Palmaro. Golub remembers the exact day of the sessions’ start for two reasons: it was Valentine’s Day and he noticed something awry in his right eye.

“Oh, I remember it was Valentine’s Day because I was in deep trouble with my wife,” Golub says with a laugh, amazingly good humored about his plight while speaking over the phone a few days before restarting his tour, “but I was doing the best I could. That was the day everybody was available to start. That day I had a little spot in one of my eyes. I didn’t take it that seriously. It continued to get worse as the week went on. I worked with Henry Butler, who has been a wonderful source of knowledge about my new predicament. At the time I’m thinking, I have to walk him from room to room. Why am I complaining about a little spot in my eye? Not that big a deal.

On July 17, shortly after losing the sight in both his eyes, Jeff Golub sat in with Jazz Attack (Gerald Albright, Peter White and Rick Braun) at JazzFest West on ‘Georgia On My Mind.’

“I had had a blood vessel in my retina—I’m trying to think how you describe a blood vessel blowing up—there’s gotta be a better way to phrase that. But when I was working with Rod Stewart I had something very similar to this. I figured it was the same thing, from stress, that a blood vessel just popped. That would be the word to use. I didn’t think much of it. It cleared itself up and I figured this was the same thing. I had a day off and went to see an optometrist in Manhattan that I liked. He said, ‘You know, you’re probably right, but let’s have somebody take a look at your retina, just in case.’ So I went around the corner to a retina specialist who said, ‘This isn’t your retina. Your retina’s fine.’ He made an appointment to have my optic nerve looked at, which does appear to be the problem. My right eye, within another week or two, was kinda gone. I didn’t tell that many people about it, because a lot of people get along without one eye. I figured I could function. But then when the other eye started to go I thought, I’m gonna be walking around banging into stuff, I might as well start telling people. With the other one, I know June 23 was the first date I noticed it going. And by the second week of July it was pretty much gone.”

With only slight peripheral vision left, Golub can tell if someone is standing in front of him but can’t make out facial expressions “or even who they are. If I look straight at something I don’t see it. I have two sons, eight and ten years old, and I can tell the difference between them as long as they let me know they’re in the room, and my wife. But anybody can hide from me if they just don’t move around and are quiet! (laughs) I’m sure that’s going to keep happening.”

Free of any trace of self-pity, Golub speaks of his plight with the serenity of a man who has taken to heart the advice he imparted to his children: “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” At the time of this interview, on September 6, he had finished the last of what he calls the “traditional” tests in search of treatments for collapsed optic nerves and was investigating alternative therapies.

“There are some things that aren’t FDA approved that I want to look into, if necessary. I know there’s a guy in Minnesota who’s had some luck with this condition, and from what I understand they’ve had luck with hamsters. Humans are new territory. The first time I went the doctor talked to me about an experimental drug for my first eye, but I really didn’t expect this condition to lead to where it is; I thought it would get better, so I wasn’t going to let them inject anything into my eye. Now, I will do whatever it takes.”

New Orleans-born, Manhattan-based pianist Henry Butler, blind since the age of three months, is featured on The Three Kings and has provided invaluable support to Jeff Golub in navigating a sightless world. ‘It’s good to just talk to somebody who has his excellent attitude about this stuff,’ Golub says of Butler.

A purely accidental bonus, if that’s the right word, for Golub has been Henry Butler’s arrival as a musical compatriot on The Three Kings. Blind since the age of three months, the New Orleans-born Butler now makes his post-Katrina home in Manhattan, as does Golub, and has been a godsend for the guitarist.

“He’s very aware of how to get around airports and such,” Golub explains. “It helps me to see how he does it. He’s also pointed me in the right direction on a few places to find help for handicapped people, which you can only get from somebody who’s been around and done this. He pointed me towards a place in Manhattan called The Lighthouse that was great. It was more inspiring for my wife than it was for me; for me it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that was the first time I realized I had to deal with this. This is real.’ They did point out a lot of cool stuff and connect me up with a lot of help. We just try to make the best of what we can. Henry has been a big help. It’s also good to just talk to somebody who has his excellent attitude about this stuff.’

After he lost sight in both eyes Golub had to cancel one concert date. He’s made all other scheduled appearances, and three days after this interview was hitting the road to continue a healthy schedule of live shows around the country in support of The Three Kings. Saying “there are new adventures every time,” he emphasizes that simply playing guitar now is not a problem, but taking it up to concert level has been an adjustment. “What ends up being a problem is that I play a song for the first time in front of people, which I should know not to do; I now know not to do that. I’ll reach for a C sharp and I’ll go, I just can’t find this out of nowhere. But if I play it once I realize I have to know where a B is so that I can set myself up for the next note.”

Asked if he has found his condition actually concentrating his focus more intensely, Golub says he feels he’s maintained his own high standard but adds that Henry Butler has noticed a telltale difference of late.

“I’ve always been pretty confident in knowing my way around. I’ve had the guitar in my hands so much that I feel pretty good about that. But Henry, who’s listening from a different point of view, feels there’s been a change for the positive. I don’t know. I know that I am listening as intensely as I ever have, and I guess probably a little more.”

Golub’s initial recognition as a premier guitarist came during his appearances on seven albums and three world tours with Billy Squier beginning in 1980, and his stature grew during seven years (1988-1995) of accompanying Rod Stewart on four albums and five world tours. Since beginning a solo career in 1988 with his Unspoken Words album, Golub has been recognized as one of the most distinctive players in the smooth jazz field; in 2009, though, he returned to his first love, hard-edged blues, with Blues For You, and stays on that path with The Three Kings, a long-simmering project finally realized. (An in-depth review of The Three Kings is in this month’s Beyond The Blue section.)

kings“I’d been wanting to do this record for just about as long as I’ve played guitar—as long as I’ve been serious about guitar, anyway,” Golub explains. “I’ve just been waiting to play with the right band, and I played with these guys last year—Henry, Josh, and Andy. And as soon as we played, I knew it was time to do this record. These are the guys. Josh and Henry were willing to sing a couple of songs, which made a big difference in the material we could choose. I do think, whether you hear it through Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton, you’ve heard the voices of Freddie, B.B. and Albert King. I didn’t really know who Freddie King was until I read an interview with Eric Clapton and he talked about Freddie King. So I went back and listened to Freddie King and he sounded great, and I could hear the influence then. If you delve into it you can hear how these guys have influenced people.”

Recorded in three days at Brooklyn Recording, The Three Kings features an admirable mix of both well known and under-recognized tunes from the three Kings of the blues. It’s one thing to do “The Thrill Is Gone”--realized in a beautiful instrumental (with a tasty string arrangement by Mitch Forman)--quite another to come up with B.B.’s “Help the Poor,” a song buried on the Blues Boy’s first ABC album, the out of print Mr. Blues. As per the latter, Golub had it on his iPod but had no idea of where it originated in B.B.’s history (“I’m glad I have a copy it, wherever it came from”); doing “The Thrill is Gone” as an instrumental was the brainchild of Golub’s friend, the respected jazz keyboard player Jeff Lorber. “He’s a much bigger blues fan than you would think from listening to him play,” Golub says of Lorber. “Within the group, not with Jeff, we talked about doing that song, and then Jeff suggested we do it as an instrumental to change it up. Yeah, why not?”

B.B. King’s ‘Help the Poor,’ vocal by Josh Dion, from the Jeff Golub Band’s The Three Kings album

(Robben Ford appears for an exciting bit of electric sparring with Golub on Freddie King’s signature instrumental “Side Tracked,” and Sonny Landreth’s exquisite, instantly identifiable slide turns up the energy of an original Golub instrumental, “In Plain Sight.” “With Robben and Sonny I thought, These guys are great. If we can get them involved, we should,” Golub says.)

The Three Kings tour (“The show is mostly this album”) rolls on through October. Tour dates are posted at Golub’s website. A fund has been established to defray Golub’s medical expenses, along with a September 14 all-star benefit concert in Newport Beach, CA. Donations can be made via PayPal, credit card or check at a dedicated page of Golub’s website.

Golub’s doctors are “looking into any kind of possible correlations, anything that can be done,” he says. “But it depends on what doctor you talk to as to what can be done. And no matter what it is, medical expenses are high. I have insurance that covers some of it, but most of it isn’t.”

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