Jazz guitarist Earl Klugh

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The renowned guitarist reflects on his music career and closes the show with the classic track, “Alfie.”

A much-in-demand artist, Grammy-winning guitar icon Earl Klugh has a career that spans 30-plus years and as many albums, including five that made it to #1 on Billboard's top-10 list of jazz albums. He began his pro career at age 15, teaching guitar in a small music store in his Detroit hometown. He was discovered there by jazz great Yusef Lateef, leading to his first appearance on an album. Klugh is also a songwriter and composer, whose work can be heard in several films. His latest CD, "HandPicked," which features a combination of his signature style of solo guitar mastery, as well as duets, earned him his 13th—and third consecutive—Grammy nomination.


Tavis: Coming up, a conversation and performance from guitarist Earl Klugh – stay with us.

Earl Klugh started recording at the age of 15. Since then his guitar artistry has resulted in some 13 Grammy nominations, including one this year, in fact, for his latest CD, “HandPicked.”

Before we close this show tonight, Earl’s going to demonstrate his exceptional musicianship with a performance of the classic Burt Bacharach song “Alfie,” so I can’t wait for that. But Earl, I am always honored, sir, to have you on this program.

Earl Klugh: Oh, well thank you so much. It’s a joy to be here.

Tavis: I’m glad you come, especially when you bring your guitar with you, so I’m looking forward to that performance. Fifteen – did you have any other choice? Was there anything else you wanted to do in Detroit?

Klugh: Actually, no. I started on piano, and my mom just wanted me and my brother to take up some form of music. It stuck with me, and that’s the story.

Tavis: Why was it so important that music be integral into the lives of you and your brother?

Klugh: It was just – my dad died early, when I was 15, and he had cancer, lung cancer. So I decided, my mom was a registered nurse, and I just figured well, I got to find something to do to help this thing along.

So I started playing in the clubs in Detroit, and that was a very musical time. I grew up with, like, Ray Parker Jr. and all of the Detroit kids, and pretty much almost all of us got lucky enough to have careers in music.

So we’ve stuck together over all the years and everything, so it was a special time. We really treated it like a profession. We were very – we were good kids.

Tavis: The instrument that you play, but more importantly, the sound that you get out of it, one would not immediately match to Motown.

Klugh: Right.

Tavis: And I mean that as no disrespect to you or to Motown.

Klugh: I understand.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) the two sounds, you hear Stevie Wonder, you think Motown.

Klugh: Right.

Tavis: You hear Earl Klugh, you think great artist, but you don’t think Motown, even though you’re both coming out of Detroit.

Klugh: Right.

Tavis: How did you end up perfecting the kind of song stylings of one Earl Klugh?

Klugh: Now that’s a very interesting question. When I was 15, 16, I was thinking well, I’ve got to create my own voice on my instrument, and at the time there was a lot of Wes Montgomery, who was really popular.

But I kind of gravitated to the nylon string guitar, and a couple of the guys, Ray and a couple of my other friends, said, “Earl, you got to plug in somewhere, man.” I’m like, “No, I think I’m going to keep going.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Klugh: Yeah, I think this is going to be covered just right over some time.

Tavis: By “plug in,” they meant electric.

Klugh: Yes.

Tavis: Yeah.

Klugh: Early on I met George Benson –

Tavis: Ooh.

Klugh: – and he came into town and he would play at the club, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, and he would come in and play, like, four nights and then he’d go to another city.

But this was like the early George Benson. It was you got all your instruments in the back and you’re going from city to city. But George was really a really great mentor and taught me a lot of things, and really, really was a true mentor to me.

Because there were things that were happening in my life. I’d call him, “What do you think?” So he was like the daddy that I didn’t have at that time, and I’m forever grateful for that. Because he had kids too, so it worked out really great.

Tavis: That’s great that George – George is a great guy.

Klugh: Yeah.

Tavis: But it’s just great that he spent so much time nurturing you, because you didn’t have a father at that time.

Klugh: Right.

Tavis: Artistically as well, not just in terms of, you know.

Klugh: Right, mm-hmm.

Tavis: Tell me about this new project, “HandPicked.” What is this one?

Klugh: (Laughs) Well this one is, believe it or not it’s almost all solo. But I have some interesting friends with me on the album, and it kind of goes out of genre because Vince Gill is on one, and Jake Shimabukuro, I don’t know if you know.

He’s a Japanese ukulele player. He’s the one that did this thing in Central Park, and he had over 10 million hits. He’s very interesting. I just called up whoever was available, and I was trying to get a lock on it, and I was just so happy because we were able to get everybody that we needed.

Tavis: As you mentioned, you got some good collaborations on this, but a good part of this is solo.

Klugh: Yes.

Tavis: What’s the joy for you, not to in any way demonize your friends who hang out with you from time to time –

Klugh: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: But what is at this age, at this age – you’re not 15 anymore – what is the joy for you in doing the solo thing?

Klugh: It’s liberating to me. I really enjoy making the music and plotting out my improvisations. It takes me all the way back to my beginning. Whenever I do the solo thing it really takes me back.

I’ve done a couple of albums that were solo, and I just figured, well, I’m going to maybe step out and do something a little bit different, put a couple of other people on it. So it worked out very well.

Tavis: Yeah?

Klugh: Yeah.

Tavis: What do you make all these years later, starting out as that 15-year-old kid in Detroit, what do you make of how good this guitar has been to you, how good this instrument has been to you over the years?

Klugh: Oh, it’s been like a friend. Truly. I’m always with my instrument. When I go on vacation, whenever, it’s carried me through. Yeah.

Tavis: You still practice?

Klugh: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Tavis: After all these years.

Klugh: Oh, yeah, yeah. I play three, four hours a day anyway.

Tavis: Wow.

Klugh: Yeah. Along with that, what I like to do a lot of times with my instrument, I was a fair piano player, so I started getting the idea, well, maybe – there’s only six strings here but maybe I can emulate the sound of a piano.

Tavis: Right.

Klugh: So I could play the clusters and everything, so I would just, I said well, I can probably do this on a guitar too, in some way. That’s how my jazz style came alone.

Tavis: Easier for you – just curious right quick – easier for you personally to write on the guitar or the piano?

Klugh: They’re both equal.

Tavis: Wow.

Klugh: Yeah, for me they’re both equal, yeah.

Tavis: That’s because you’re Earl Klugh. (Laughter) So what a dumb question. “I’m Earl Klugh, Negro, I can do either one.” (Laughter) On piano or guitar, he is a bad man, and his new project is called “HandPicked.”

I love the artistic genius of Earl Klugh, and the sound that he gets out of this acoustic is amazing to my ear.

Indeed, after all these years, anything he does, I want to add it to my collection, and this one, “HandPicked,” is a good one. In a moment, Earl is going to perform “Alfie,” which is, of course, a great Burt Bacharach classic.

But when you hear it done by Earl Klugh, you might have a greater and a renewed appreciation for it. So don’t go away, Earl Klugh is back in just a moment.

Let me now say good night, thank you for watching, and as always, keep the faith – but don’t go nowhere, because Earl Klugh’s going to play for you in just a second.

[Live musical performance]


“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: June 5, 2014 at 1:41 pm