creative:impact - Recognizing creative distinction: Peter "Madcat" Ruth
Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.
ABOUT PETER "MADCAT" RUTH:
Madcat's music has been evolving for over 60 years. It started in the Chicago area in the early 1960s, with Madcat playing folk/blues on guitar and harmonica. By the late 1960s he had immersed himself in the Chicago Blues and was studying harmonica with Big Walter Horton. In the early 1970s, Madcat moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where he was a key presence in two of Ann Arbor's finest progressive rock bands: New Heavenly Blue and Sky King. By the mid 1970s Madcat was touring the world with jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. In the 1980s, Madcat went solo infusing the folk/blues tradition with elements of rock and jazz. In 1990, Madcat teamed up with guitarist/singer Shari Kane to form the duo Madcat & Kane. For twenty-four years, they toured nationally and internationally.
Currently, Madcat tours with Peter Madcat Ruth's C.A.R.Ma. Quartet, The Schrock Brothers, and Chris Brubeck's Triple Play, as well as doing solo performances.
Performance Magazine refers to him as "A harmonica virtuoso who is rapidly approaching legend status."
Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your creative:impact host. Thanks for tuning in to hear our conversations about the impact and reach of Washtenaw County's arts and creative industries and the artists and creatives who choose to live here while adding to our local quality of life, place, and economy. So, we are celebrating creative distinction. Creative Washtenaw's signature event, THE pARTy, celebrates remarkable talent in our community, and it returns on February 27th at Washtenaw Community College. We've been showcasing some of those to be honored as recipients of Creative Washtenaw's Medal for the Arts and Sciences and Humanities here on creative:impact. And I would like to say one word: Madcat, Peter Madcat Ruth and his harmonica have delighted WEMU listeners and area music fans for decades. His reach, though, goes well beyond and really across the world. We are honoring Madcat and his outstanding career with a lifetime achievement medal. Peter Madcat, It's a thrill to have you on creative:impact.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Well, I'm delighted to be here today. Thanks.
Deb Polich: So, seriously. Madcat. Say it. And everyone knows that we're talking about you, right? Not too many people are instantly recognized by a single name. So, how did how did that how did Madcat become your moniker?
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Well, back in high school, I was playing harmonica and loving the blues. I lived right outside of Chicago, right in Park Ridge, Illinois, right on the northwest side. And I was just crazy about blues music. And most of the people at my school were not interested at all. They were listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, you know? But I was just loving this blues music. And I found a few other friends that were also interested in blues. And all our blues heroes had these great names. Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam. They all have these cool names. So, amongst the five of us or so, we made up a little what we call blues names. It's just a joke. So, amongst friends, I was Madcat.
Deb Polich: And it stuck.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: And, well, it didn't stick at all.
Deb Polich: Oh.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: It was amongst a few friends in the Chicago suburbs. But when I joined the band, New Heavenly Blue, and moved to Ann Arbor, that's when it stuck because there was already someone in the band named Peter. The drummer was named Peter. So, they said, "Well, do you have any nicknames or anything?" And I said, "Well, you know, you could call me Madcat." And then bam! From then on, that was 1970, or actually '69. From then on, I was Madcat. This is Madcat. He just moved here from Chicago. No one who knew me except the band. So, this is Madcat. He just moved here. This is Madcat. And so, I changed cities and change names at the same time.
Deb Polich: And there it goes.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Yeah.
Deb Polich: So, you mentioned that, you know, not everybody was listening to the blues when you were growing up. And kind of in the same way, harmonicas weren't usually much of an option offered in music classes. How did you find the harmonica? Or maybe it found you.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Well, it was 1964. I was 15 years old, and I was listening to the radio. And I heard--on the radio--I heard a recording by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, this harmonica guitar duo. And I'd already been playing some guitar and interested in music. But when I heard that Sonny Terry play harmonica, it's just like, "Oh my God, I have to do that! I have to learn how to do that!" And you're right. There weren't any music teachers around at all.
Deb Polich: But you found one in in Big Walter Horton, correct?
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Well, that was a few years later. At first, I just got a Sonny Cherry record, and my father had one harmonica. And the one harmonica was in the key of B-flat. And I had this record that was a collection of songs, but they had two songs by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. And then one of the songs, he was playing a B-flat harmonica. So, when I tried to play along with the record, one of the songs sounded terrible because he was playing it a different key.
Deb Polich: Right.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: But, one, I could inhale and exhale, and that was in the same key. And I said, "Oh, I can do this." And then it was at the Old Town School of Folk Music, there was a music store. And the guy behind the counter at the music store explained to me, "Oh, if you want to play in the key of E, get an A harmonica."
Deb Polich: So, you had not only learned the music, but you also had to learn that there were different kind of harmonicas. 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Madcat--Peter Madcat Ruth, that is--an acclaimed harmonica master and Grammy Award winner. So, we talked a tiny bit about Big Walter Horton. But you met Dave Brubeck's son, Chris. How did that chance meeting change your trajectory?
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Well, first, I just want to mention something about Walter.
Deb Polich: Oh, sure.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: I heard him about after I've been playing for about two years. I heard him play in a live situation in a church basement. And I heard him say to someone else, "Oh, yeah, I give harmonica lessons." And I could take a harmonica lesson from Walter Horton. And it took about half a year to get my nerve up to actually track him down. But I did. And I took three lessons over about a year-and-a-half time period. And it was right after that that I met Chris Brubeck just by a chance meeting. I was 19 years old, and he was 16 years old.
Deb Polich: Youngsters. Both of you.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Yeah. There's a whole jam session in Chicago suburbs. He said after the genesis, "Well, give me your name and address because in a year I'm going to graduate from high school and I'm going to form a band and we're going to make records." And I thought, "What a dreamer!" He's just 16. This kid is talking about making records. So, I gave my name and address. And sure enough, a year later, he contacts me and says, "Come join my band." So, I hitchhiked from Albuquerque, New Mexico, up to Chicago, and then up to Interlochen, where he was in school.
Deb Polich: And so, that's why you're connected to Michigan.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Yeah. And that's where I first met Chris Brubeck. And we made a demo recording. And sure enough, it turned out to get us to a record contract.
Deb Polich: So, you played with him, You played with the Brubecks--all the Brubecks--at some point or another, and you played with so many greats and groups and also had that long-term partnership with Sherry Kane. What kept you anchored here in Ann Arbor when you could have chosen any place to live?
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Well, after Chris Brubeck graduated from Interlochen, he became a student at U of M and also the bass player in the band, Chris Brown, became a student at U of M. The guitar player and drummer already lived in Ann Arbor, so we all moved to Ann Arbor. And after a few years, they all moved away. But I loved Ann Arbor. I thought, "This is a great town!"
Deb Polich: And here you still are.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: I still am here, and I still think it's a great place to live.
Deb Polich: So, do you carry your harmonica everywhere you go?
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Everywhere.
Deb Polich: Do you have it right now?
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Yeah, yeah.
Deb Polich: Can you hum a few bars, so to speak?
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Uh, yeah.
Deb Polich: Maybe 40 seconds?
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: It won't take that long to find one. They're all over the house, actually.
Deb Polich: So, he's moving around. I can tell that.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: (plays his harmonica)
Deb Polich: Oh, awesome. I'm just thrilled hearing that. So, when when you look back over your career, do you have anything that really stands out, something you remember the most?
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Well, at a very young age. I was still in my twenties, and I was touring the world with Dave Brubeck. And that's, like, mind-blowing.
Deb Polich: Right. Right.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: And in those days, I used to practice all the time because I didn't want to lose this gig. And they just assumed that I could play anything a saxophone could play. And a harmonica doesn't have all the notes. So, I had to learn how to stack harmonicas on top of each other to find the missing notes. But then I just, after that, I was in rock and roll bands. I was in blues bands. I was in jazz bands. Country music. And kind of my motto was anything to avoid real work. Although, it was really hard work to make a living playing music.
Deb Polich: But you did. And you've had a stellar career, and we really can't wait to celebrate you at THE pARTy. Thanks so much for spending a few minutes with us here this morning. And we'll look forward to seeing you very soon.
Peter "Madcat" Ruth: Well, I'm looking forward to that event, and I am very honored. I'm very pleased to be honored in this way. Thank you very much.
Deb Polich: Well, thank you. That's Madcat. Peter Madcat Ruth, Ann Arbor's own acclaimed harmonica master and Grammy Award winner. Find out more about Madcat and the celebration at THE pARTy at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.
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