Names can be deceiving. Witness guitar ace Mike Locke and his Repeat Offenders – a Dayton, Ohio based blues powerhouse with a rotating cast of players which has been tearing it up, to put it mildly, on the underground American blues scene for over a decade. In a career that has spanned several presidential administrations, Mike Locke has hardly ever repeated himself.
Photo: Mike Locke, Da'Rosa Richardson, James Higgins, Stephen Keith
In the beginning, Mike Locke’s dream was to make it as guitar-for-hire studio gunslinger ala the legendary Tommy Tedesco –whom Locke garnered praise from as a young man, along with dire warnings from Tedesco of the declining fortunes of many LA studio players in the early 1980s. Back then Locke commenced studies at the University of Miami’s notorious School of Music; an academic “institution” wherein a young Jaco Pastorius taught aspiring bassists to avoid the root note, and jazz icon Art Blakey advised students to “get a real education after you leave college!” After leaving UM, Locke essentially adhered to Blakey’s missive, and made his bones the old fashioned way: on stage and under the tutelage of the greats. “Thanks to a (1950s rock nostalgia) gig with Ted Vernon, I wound up as a first call guitarist for that genre of music. I had the opportunity work alongside Del Shannon, Chuck Berry, The Drifters…they would fly in from New York without a band – I read their charts, played hundreds of shows, and absorbed as much as I could. I didn’t even know who most of those people were at first, aside from Chuck. I did the tuxedo thing… whatever it took to make a living.”
An unexpected call from saxophonist Stan Waldman, a UM classmate and close friend , brought Locke into the blues life. “I didn’t know anything about blues at the time” recalls Locke. In Miami, Locke and Waldman gigged with The Hurricanes, and later helmed the popular Night Stalkers blues band for seven years. “I did nothing but listen and transcribe blues records for six months beforehand. What I came to realize was that a lot of the local blues players could do really cool things, but they did not have the musical knowledge and curiosity that I did. They assumed a ‘blues Nazi’ attitude! I knew if I was going to compete with them – I had to understand what I was playing and why I was playing it!”
Locke cites Jimmy Johnson’s The Barroom Preacher as one of his touchstone blues moments. He consequently learned every solo on Freddie King’s Let’s Dance and Hideaway. “Those albums were a big revelation to me.” Rather than mimic blues players who were popular at the time, Locke gravitated towards the genre’s influencers including Hubert Sumlin, Albert King, BB King, and T-Bone Walker to name a few.
After near misses with record deals and the Night Stalkers unwillingness to travel too far from home, Locke relocated to Los Angeles - he was familiar with the environs as he’d lived with Johnny Depp before “Tonto” found fame and fortune. When LA once again proved too much for the man, Locke migrated to San Francisco where he impressed local blues stalwart Johnny Nitro. At a jam session on his first night in town Locke “shared” the stage with Bay Area blues hero Harvey Mandel – after Locke’s incendiary performance, a stunned Nitro proclaimed “welcome to the family!” In addition to Nitro, Mike also forged a strong working relationship with Tommy Castro, yet another San Francisco blues legend. In San Francisco, Locke found his identity as a guitarist and eventually struck out on his own with highly acclaimed albums You Done Did It, Get Offended Live!, and The Lost Files – all of which feature Waldman, Nitro, and Castro among other Offenders too numerous to mention.
Locke’s latest version of his Repeat Offenders, as represented on his most recent release Pleasure King, is decidedly steeped in gospel and funk thanks to the addition of keyboard whiz Da’Rosa Richardson and drummer extraordinaire Stephen Keith – two self-taught multi-instrumentalists whose roots run deep, deeper, and deepest in church music. According to legend, when Locke’s then regular keyboardist first heard Richardson at a jam session with Mike, he offered to surrender his gig to drive the tour bus. Jokes Locke “I was thinking the same thing!”
Thus was born the new Offenders. “Da’Rosa and Stephen are not big on traditional ‘blues chops’ exclaims Locke, “they’re not even sure what that term means…which is great! Blues guys have listened to this record and said ‘that’s not right!’ Perfect! I didn’t want this record to be what everybody else was doing. Pleasure King is a different, unique twist on the blues.” Veteran bassist James Higgins, a founding father of the Dayton blues scene in the 1960s which included stints with a guitar protégé named Richard Zeheringer, later to emerge as Rick Derringer, deftly anchors the Offenders with bass-lines that “bring it all back home” as the bandleader is quick to emphasize.
The irony is that Pleasure King the record should have never happened in the first place. Locke gave a recent graduate, Shawn Pitcombe, permission to tape his shows, never expecting the exercise to be anything more than practice for the budding recording engineer. Impressed with musical results from a planned “event” to record the band at The Oregon Express club – Locke rushed the tapes to Tom Rastikis at Lulabelle Studios and the rest is history. “Live’ is really the best way to capture this type of music. A lot of classic blues albums that seem to endure forever are live records.”
Mike Locke has intriguing plans for his current edition of the Offenders. “I have real strange images of what is going to happen next.” A new studio release is in the works which Locke can only reveal at this time as “a Quentin Tarrentino blues record!”
For all things Mike Locke & The Repeat Offenders, be offended at www.michaellocke.net