Thomas Ruf: The Blues against the blues
"Work hard and be honest all the time. Speak the truth. Make the best quality possible your goal in everything you do."
Thomas Ruf has come a long way. Rewind to the ’70s, and his roots on a wine farm in Germany’s remote Black Forest were a world away from such blues epicentres as Mississippi, Chicago, New York and London. And yet, even then, Tom’s entrepreneurial flair and passion for music suggested a man who would one day shape the scene. As a teenager, he began booking blues bands to play the local town hall, and in 1985, the epiphany of a meeting with the great Chicago bandleader Luther Allison changed his trajectory. “Luther quickly became,” remembers Tom, “a friend, a mentor and a teacher”.
Inspired, Tom left the farm in the late-’80s to take his first steps into the music industry, first by promoting Allison’s shows, then juggling a university degree with his role as the guitarist’s German booking agent. “I followed the man,” he remembers, “learning the ropes of travelling and communication.”
When Luther hit a dead-end in 1994, fizzing with great new material but unable to find a label or music publisher to release it, Ruf Records was born. “I founded the label as a home for him,” explains Tom. “Luther’s name will always be connected with our history, marking our birth and growth.”
Back then, Tom could hardly have dreamt that in 2014, Ruf would be toasting its 20th anniversary and reflecting on a catalogue of incredible music showcased on this year’s two-disc compilation. The statistics alone make your head spin. Since 1994, Ruf has put out 220 releases, sold over three million albums, received two Grammy nominations and numerous Blues Music Awards. The roster takes your breath away, meanwhile, with Ruf’s integrity attracting stone-cold icons including Walter Trout, Royal Southern Brotherhood, The Spin Doctors, Jeff Healey, Savoy Brown, Louisiana Red, Eric Bibb and Canned Heat.
Ruf isn’t just about the established heavyweights. In 2014, the Classic Rock Blues Magazine wrote that this label “shaped the modern scene”, and the cap fits, with Tom coaxing breakthrough releases from young artists like Joanne Shaw Taylor, Laurence Jones, Oli Brown, Sam Fish and Dana Fuchs. With the annual Blues Caravan tour also giving up-and-comers a platform since 2005, it’s no wonder that Ruf Records won the 2007 ‘Keeping The Blues Alive Award’ from the Blues Foundation, that it’s a founding member of the European Blues Union, and on the Blues Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Since the start, the Ruf Records motto was always ‘Where The Blues Crosses Over’, and there’s no doubt this label can take much of the credit for the post-millennial boom of the international blues scene. A less passionate label boss might allow himself a pat on the back and a well-earned rest. But then, as Tom tells us, there’s still plenty of work left to do…
What first attracted you to the blues, and what does the blues mean to you?
It was the people, above all. The blues people, y’know? Not every blues person has to be a musician. It’s more of an attitude. Blues people are down-to-earth, friendly and they know how to share. Maybe that’s why jamming is such a big thing in blues, whereas it doesn’t really exist in pop. Luther Allison was the first major bluesman that I met, and I was overwhelmed by the power of his music and ability to communicate across language barriers. When it’s played from the heart, blues is a truly universal language, and that’s something that can only be a positive force in the world.
How would you explain the philosophy of Ruf Records?
It’s right there in our motto: ‘Where The Blues Crosses Over’. We want to produce the blues of tomorrow, not just re-record the blues of yesterday, and that’s why we work with some of the bravest and most visionary artists around. People often ask me why Ruf has such a devoted following, but really it’s our artists – the Ruf Records family – who create that. Our role is to help them. To succeed in this business, it’s about working hard and being honest all the time. Speak the truth. Strive for quality in everything you do.
How has the business changed since you first started in music?
The biggest shift has been from physical to digital. Financially, you could argue it’s made the industry poorer, but in some ways that’s a good thing, because the people who were in it for the wrong reasons – money, power, fame – had to leave when the money dried up. So now, the people left in this business are truly dedicated to the music. They do it because they have to do it, regardless of fame and success, or the lack of it.
What’s been the best moment in Ruf’s history – and what was the worst?
The best was the very first time I met Luther Allison. I went to a local restaurant with him, after-hours, and he started to jam with some old German Black Forest musicians, playing blues guitar over waltz rhythms. It was just incredible. And the worst? Getting an attorney letter from the Hendrix estate that made me pull my Hendrix blues tribute album off the market. You just can’t compete with that sort of money and power.
What’s been the most interesting period in your life and why?
It’s still interesting, every day. I learn something new all the time, and learning and improving is what keeps me interested. Getting to work with talented artists and watch them create has to be the best job in the world.
What are your favourite memories of the great bluesmen you’ve worked with?
There are so many. I always loved it when we met Pinetop Perkins at the Blues Music Awards, and this old man in a sharp suit – barely able to walk – would charm the women. Everybody loved him. Or maybe watching the great Louisiana Red in his living room, playing blues for me and some of the younger members of the Girls With Guitars gang. I’ll always remember his wife Dora sitting on the sofa in her pyjamas shaking her head – priceless!
Do you have any funny stories from Ruf recording sessions?
We’re always laughing in the studio. The best sessions are the ones where you’re having fun. I remember, one time, the producer Jim Gaines almost scared Coco Montoya to death. We were recording in this spooky old studio on Beale Street, behind the Hard Rock Café. It’s closed now. Everyone could feel there was a spirit living in this place. At one point, Coco was doing a vocal take, and the studio was all dark, just candlelight. So Coco was alone in this dark recording hall and Jim spoke back to him over the microphone: ‘Coco, who’s that standing next to you…?’ Coco ran out of there screaming!
Another memorable one was our first recording session with the British underground legend, Kevin Coyne. We got to the studio and Kevin said he was going to warm up his voice and plug in the guitar. I went to the restroom to take a piss. When I got back, Kevin already had two songs finished and in the can. He was that quick! He improvised all his songs on the spot, never wrote anything down…
When you look back, who have you learnt the most about music from?
Luther Allison, Jim Gaines, Mike Zito… they’re all people’s people. It’s the people and the chemistry that creates the music, not the technique. Most of the artists I’ve worked with ended up as friends. Walter Trout, Erja Lyytinen, Dana Fuchs, even people I knew less well, like Jeff Healey. I admire them all for something. They all gave or taught me something special.
Do you have any favourite memories of Luther Allison or Louisiana Red?
The strongest memory of Luther is just his happiness. He had the world’s greatest smile. And Red was just so passionate when he improvised. He was completely spontaneous and pure in the moment of his expression. Nothing was manufactured or planned. It was all spontaneous emotion.
What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had in the studio – and has anyone ever been difficult to work with?
Maybe Shakura S’Aida and the breathing inhalator she had to help her sing. But I don’t want to compare gifts or talk about difficulties too much. I guess all artists have their strengths and weaknesses, as musicians and as people.
What advice would you give to a young artist who aspires to a career in music?
Work harder than anyone else. Under-promise and over-deliver!
How did you come up with the idea of the Blues Caravan?
It was more of a necessity than an idea. In the early millennium, we realised that we needed to create a way to let unknown artists tour when they couldn’t do it under their own name. The Blues Caravan has gone from strength to strength since 2005. We’ve showcased everyone from Ana Popovic and Oli Brown to Joanne Shaw Taylor and Dani Wilde, and there’s always enough fresh talent to keep the show on the road.
How have you found your experiences with The Blues Foundation and the European Blues Union?
For me, it’s a great chance to meet and work with different people from different countries, who all share a passion for this music. That’s another example of the blues breaking down barriers of language and culture. It gives you a little hope that there can be a little understanding between people and nations. As for Ruf, we support great artists regardless of their origins, but I’d love to see more European musicians being recognised for their talent. Traditionally, everyone looks to America or the UK for the next big thing – but we have so many great artists right here in Europe.
If it was 1994 and you could start Ruf again, would you do anything differently?
Getting this label up and running in the ’90s was certainly a sharp learning curve. I wish I could have learned to say
‘no’ earlier on. But I’ve always just done the things that needed to be done as we rolled along. I just follow my nose. I can’t shape the world or the record industry. I can only adjust to it, and work with it, while trying to improve myself at the same time. The harder you work on yourself, the better things seem to turn out.
Finally, which rock ‘n’ roll legend would you most like to meet or record with?
I can honestly say there’s nobody. I’m always looking to the future and hoping to find the artists who are yet to be recorded. That’s the Ruf Records philosophy…