From Hilo to Hawi, you’re more than likely to catch the popular music duo known as Long Tall Deb and Colin John. Colin John spent his youth in Memphis, Tennessee, where he played trumpet, electric bass, and then switched to guitar while soaking up classic Chicago blues and Memphis soul. After graduating from college, Colin turned pro. Answering an ad in The Village Voice, he landed the guitar spot with the NYC-based Little Mike and The Tornadoes. While he had to share the spotlight with guest heavyweights such as Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin and Ronnie Earl, Colin represented himself well in solo spots.
In 2009, Colin reconnected with his friend, Deb Landolt [aka Long Tall Deb], a powerhouse soul and roots singer from El Paso, Texas. Colin and Deb have been performing worldwide to enthusiastic audiences in the USA, Canada, France, England, India, and Nepal. They are currently signed to the roots label Vizztone Label Group, where they have released three records, including their latest, Dragonfly.
You’ve had a full career playing with many of the blues icons around the world. How would you describe the blues scene here on the Big Island?
[Colin] I only know a few of the blues players here like Tomi Isobi and Larry Dupio. People love the blues here, but I don’t think it’s a breeding ground for blues. I found audiences like danceable blues, like a shuffle, the Jimmy Reed type of thing. If you play a shuffle you can’t go wrong. You’ll move people from many cultures when you play a shuffle. Blues is honest music and I think it connects with people universally.
Who are some of the local musicians you like to collaborate with?
[Colin] Dagan Bernstein. I met Dagen oh about 10 to 12 years. I was playing the Big Island Brew House… sort of vintage Hawaiian music and a lot of old blues. I think Dagan got a kick out of it. He’s quite a student and historian of Hawaiian music. We made a record together called Braddahs Ho’analu and the “analu” is Hawaiian and means “to look forward,” or evolve. Dagan’s very much into Paniolo cowboy music, I brought my blues and Hawaiian influences.
Deb, how did you begin your music relationship with Colin?
I came from Texas and ended up in Columbus, Ohio. Colin was hosting a back-porch blues jam, and he called me on stage to collaborate a bit. I was recording a solo record and asked him to play on a couple of tunes and then he asked if I needed a guitar player. So, we started writing and touring together. We became a couple about 10 years later.
What are some of the challenges of being a Big Island musician? I hear a lot of people say it’s the distances between, or becoming background dinner music at some resort.
[Colin] I’ll be honest with you, I don’t mind it because I can put aside my ego or artistic sensibility. I understand what people say about that. Now, a lot of times, you’re kind of a “potted plant” at a gig. [Laughs] I know that you’re not there to be the star attraction that night… You’re just there to complement someone’s seared ahi and chardonnay. But the way I look at it, I’m in Hawaii, I’m playing music… if you’d asked me this question 10 years ago, I’d have a bitch list this long, but it all depends on who you ask.
Your latest album is Dragonfly. What new projects are you working on?
[Deb] We’re going to sit on the record for a while because it’s very organic how we work. It’s not like we’re churning out songs. We only just released that this past year and I think the songs just come in as they come. Our next strategy will be to maybe actually release a song a month… maybe not full albums this time. I’d like to get to my roots old school soul music. I grew up in a Pentecostal church, that’s where I got my voice. I didn’t keep the religion, but I kept the music.
[Colin] Like Deb says, “It’s all a work in progress.”
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby