Saturday, February 26, 2011

My story on The Story

My unlikely tale of Chinese blues stardom. a good story on APR's The Story:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Big in China Excerpt 1 - Through the Looking Glass

With the release of Big in China now just one week away, I will be presenting some short excerpts. First up is Through the Looking Glass, taken from Chapter 3, Across the Great Divide. As always, feedback is welcome. Happy reading.

Through the Looking Glass

Alone every morning, as Rebecca immersed herself in a demanding, intimidating new position and the kids headed to school, I realized quickly that I needed to stay on the move. With my new mountain bike, I started making exploratory rides around the area, often ending up at a nearby Starbucks, which I turned into my office, checking email and writing blog posts. I embraced my new anonymity, feeling that it represented a profound opportunity to hit the reboot button on my life.

It felt like we had stepped through a looking glass, fallen through a rabbit hole and emerged in a parallel universe on the other side of the world. With my wife and kids occupied and everybody else I knew 6,800 miles away, I was free to explore. It felt like I was winking at life and getting away with something. I was energized by the raw thrill of being enmeshed in two new worlds: Beijing and Expat Land.

I met an eight-year-old girl whose mother was Indian and father Dutch but who had never lived anywhere but Beijing. Eli became good friends with a five-year-old British girl with a perfect English accent who was born and raised in Hong Kong. At one school assembly, the principal asked how many kids spoke four languages and 20 percent raised their hands. All of this would soon seem normal but it amazed me in those early days. Back home, I was a pretty worldly guy; now I felt like I had just fallen off the turnip truck. It took me most of the year to quit assuming that every five-year-old with a proper British accent knew more than me.

I also quickly learned that in Expat Land, I was a “trailing spouse,” a term I found demeaning for anyone and downright emasculating for a man. This wasn’t all new to me. I had not set foot in an office for a decade, and as our kids’ primary caregiver I was used to being the only adult male in a room, having chaperoned field trips, helped kindergarteners cut and paste and been surrounded by mothers at countless midday assemblies.

But the dividing line was much sharper in Expat Land. We had uprooted our family and moved to the other side of the world for someone’s job, and it was not mine. I also had a certain cool cache back home, as the guy who wrote about music and basketball and didn’t have to shave. Now I was just the dad without a job.

This story is excerpted from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China (Harper Collins). Available March 1 in all formats at all retailers. Copyright 2011 by Alan Paul. For more information, please visit


Excerpt coming soon.

My Big In China excerpt has been delayed due to technical difficulties. It will be up tonight. Thank you for your patience.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Expat Youth Scholarship contest

I am proud to say that I am judge for Clements International Youth Scholarship contest. Press release follows.

Clements International, a global insurance provider serving the expatriate community, recently launched their 3rd Annual Expat Youth Scholarship. This unique contest exclusively for expat students who spend their childhoods moving between different countries and cultures. In fall 2011, the company will award a total of $10,000 to six students from around the world. This year’s theme asks participants to create a video explaining their favorite thing about their host country and its culture. The 2011 Expat Youth Scholarship is open to students ages 12-18 of any nationality who have resided in a foreign country for at least two consecutive years are eligible to apply. The entry deadline is Friday, May 13, 2011.

Visit for more information and to check out the handsome panel of judges.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

1203 Posts later, how this blog helped me get a book deal

I sat at my dining room table in Maplewood, New Jersey with my wife Rebecca and our dear friends Craig Winkelman and Jane Beck. It was July, 2005, and they were there for a goodbye dinner; in a few weeks my family of five would be moving to Beijing.

Craig and Jane are the creative forces behind rayogram, brilliant web design and consulting firm. I have known them for 20 years and they have always far ahead of the curve regarding anything technical. So I paid attention when Craig said, “You should start a blog to report from China.”

It was a new phenomenon but I quickly saw the advantages of having a site to upload my thoughts and pictures, freeing me from the responsibility of sending out mass emails. One email to everyone I cared about giving them the address would be sufficient; anyone who was interested could check in as frequently as they wanted. Craig took my laptop and together we went to and registered The blog you are reading now, 1,203 posts later.

And the rest is history, at least for me; I never would have written my upcoming book Big In China (Harper Collins, March 1), if I had not started the blog.

Before moving to China, I had spent 10 years I juggling assignments for Slam and Guitar World with domestic responsibilities, as the stay-at-home dad for my three children. Now, liberated from deadlines and with no need to hustle for work, I poured myself into my new blog. I initially viewed it as merely a means of keeping in touch with friends and family, but I quickly realized that keeping this public journal was transforming me, reigniting my passion for writing.

I began to treat the blog as a job, compelled to make daily postings. Writing so much for no money represented the economic emancipation that expat living offered, thanks to highly subsidized housing in a place where everything else cost radically less. Back in the U.S., it felt like we were on a treadmill, struggling to bring in as much as we spent, even as our salaries rose. Now I was free to follow my muse, writing thousands of words a day just to tell the story I wanted to tell. Just before graduating college, I self-published a book collecting satirical columns I wrote for the Michigan Daily under the pseudonym Fat Al. In a short introduction, I wrote, “If you can’t do it with passion, don’t do it.” I had tried to continue living by that creed, but it had become an ever-harder standard to maintain. Now, it seemed attainable again.

Some people reading my blog back home noticed the changes.

“Something is happening to you, Alan,” my aunt Carrie Wells emailed from Maplewood. “I can feel it pulsing through your writing and it’s exciting.”

I knew what she meant but I didn’t pause to examine it, consciously pushing analysis away and pledging to live in the moment. After almost 20 years as a journalist talking to others, synthesizing their experiences and doing my best to tell their stories with honesty and integrity, I was now telling my own tale and the very process of doing so pushed me to keep seeking adventures.

On my very fist look-see visit to Beijing I hatched the idea of writing a column about my life in China. After a couple of months in China, I pitched the idea to Bill Grueskin, the editor of, who was only marginally interested. When I offered to write three on spec, he said, “I’d be a fool to say not to that.” I doubt I ever would have made the offer if I had not been pouring myself into my posts.

I edited three of my favorite posts filled with excitement and fascination about my new life and submitted them, quickly receiving an enthusiastic e-mail letter of acceptance. The sense of possibility and reinvention I felt from my earliest days writing blog posts about my arrival in China was paying off.

Just a few weeks later The Expat Life debuted and it became a defining element of my time in China, as well as the basis for Big In China. But when I needed deeper, more incisive details while writing the book, I always knew where to turn: right back to my source material, my blog.

This story is adapted from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China (Harper Collins). Available March 1 in all formats at all retailers. Copyright 2011 by Alan Paul. For more information, please visit

Thursday, February 17, 2011

And if you enjoy that albert interview, you'll need to watch these to see what I was talking about

From the archives: Albert King

Time to take another look at this old story, one of the highlights of my years at Guitar World. I wrote the intro a few years ago when the piece was rerun in Hittin' the Note magazine.

Just days after I became the Guitar World Managing Editor in February, 1991, I sat at my desk listening two of my colleagues (at the time, “bosses” would have been the word I used) discussing an upcoming interview with Albert King, scheduled for the following week in Cleveland. It seemed they couldn’t think of anyone up to the task of interviewing the great and ornery bluesman. I shifted my weight, cleared my throat and waited for them to ask if I was interested. When the offer didn’t come, I piped up that King was my favorite guitarist and I would be honored to take the assignment. After a bit of back and forth, the job was mine.

As the day grew near, I became increasingly nervous. I desperately wanted to do a great job and he had a reputation as a tough, mean old man. I once saw him fire a sax player on the bandstandæsurely he’d cancel an interview without a second thought. I called his manager just before I left for the airport to verify our arrangements. “I told Albert about it,” he said. “Hopefully he’ll rememberæand feel like doing it.”

I spent the day at my cousin’s house in Cleveland, preparing for the interview and growing increasingly edgy. Some time in the evening it started to snow. Then it started to really snow, and I drove to the theater through a driving blizzard. Albert was opening for Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King on a spinning theater in the round, and I fidgeted throughout his set. Following his performance, I arrived backstage at my appointed hour, praying that I would be granted an audience with the King.

I was brought to a small dressing room, crowded with band members and their lady friends. King shook my hand and pointed to a seat next to him. As we began to talk, he turned to the others and shouted, “Shut up! I’m doing an interview.” Silence fell over the room and all eyes and ears turned to me. I have never felt younger, whiter, shorter, or more insignificant in my life. Albert leaned forward and extended his long arm directly over my shoulder to get at some popcorn. Leaning close, he smiled, flashing two gold front teeth, and told me to commence my questioning.

For 45 minutes, Albert answered everything I threw at him (as the interview below indicates), though when he considered something foolish or misguided, he shot me a look that could have frozen a volcano. He was patient, professionalæand every bit as intimidating as I could have imagined, which somehow made me happy. His personality fit his music to a teeæno one has ever played the guitar with more authority or focused intent.

King, who died of a heart attack at age 69 on December 21, 1992, was a vastly influential guitarist for many reasons: He played with a raw ferocity that appealed equally to fellow bluesman and younger rockers. He was one of the first black electric bluesmen to cross over to white audiences, and one of the first to adapt his playing to Sixties funk and soul backings, on classics like “Born Under a Bad Sign.” But perhaps King’s ultimate legacy is that he embodied two of guitardom’s most sacred tenetsæwhat you don’t play counts as much as what you do, and speed can be learned, but feeling must come from within. The left-handed guitarist played “Lucy,” his upside-down flying V, with absolute conviction and economy. He could slice through a listener’s soul with a single screaming note, and play a gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring 10-minute solo without venturing above the 12th fret.

I last saw King perform about eight months before his death, at Tramp’s, a mid-sized Manhattan club. Arriving after midnight, I imagined his final set would be brief, even perfunctory, and was dismayed when he came onstage and sat downæhis towering, 6’-5” hulk was always such a large part of his stage presence. Was he feeling infirm? I was further shaken up when he began noodling leads around the band’s funky vampæin the wrong key. I began to wonder if my hero had lost it, but even before the thought could fully form, he found his footing, caught the grooveæand began to soar.

King delivered a stirring, two-and-half hour performance, seeming to gain strength as the night wore on, closing the show at 3:00 AM with a coolly passionate version of “The Sky Is Crying” that will remain forever etched in my mind. I left the club with a renewed conviction that music is not about showing off, or impressing fellow musicians, or anything else other than creating sounds that forge a mystical bond with listeners. It’s something that Albert King did with unsurpassed skill.

Blues legend has it that Mike Bloomfield, lead guitarist of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and for a time the Sixties guitar hero, once engaged Jimi Hendrix in a cutting contest before thousands of screaming fans. Hendrix drew first and unleashed a soaring, cosmic blues attack. As Bloomfield stood transfixed in awe, struggling to plot a response to Hendrix’s brilliant fury, one thought ran like a mantra through his mindæ“I wish I were Albert King... I wish I were Albert King....”

Two decades have passed, and both Bloomfield and Hendrix are gone. But King and his music remain hale and heartyæeven on a blustery Cleveland night some months ago, when brutal winds and two feet of swirling snow made the city inhospitable to man and blues alike. Inside a suburban club, however, a force of nature even more powerful than a blizzard held sway as Albert Kingæall six-feet-five inches of himæstood puffing a pipe, his upside down Flying V looking like a toy guitar in his massive hands. As clouds of smoke billowed from his snarling mouth, the left-handed King ripped off scorching, jagged blues lines.

On that wintry Ohio night it was easy to understand Bloomfield’s desperate invocation of the massive bluesman in his hour of need. And it was equally clear that King has lost little of the of the devastating blues power that has made his playing the standard of excellence for guitarists from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore.

Several nights after the Cleveland show King, resplendent in an open-collared tuxedo, stepped from a limousine in midtown Manhattan. His pipe was still gripped tightly between his teeth, but the on stage snarl was gone. King was all smiles as he headed into a posh nightclub to receive a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

“I never really considered myself r&b,” King said. “I’m a bluesman. But there’s nothing like being honored by your peers. There’s also nothing like this.” His gold teeth sparkled in a broad smile as he held up a check for $15,000, his bounty for a lifetime of groundbreaking work.

While King is inarguably a bluesman, his earliest recordings for Bobbin Records (recently re-released on CD by Modern Blues as Let’s Have a Natural Ball) featured hard-swinging big band arrangements. Later, he would record his most influential workæincluding “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Crosscut Saw”æfor Stax, backed by Booker T and the MGs, the r&b label’s famed house band.

But whatever the musical setting, King’s lead playing has always been characterized by stinging, river deep tone and a totally identifiable style, developed as a result of his unorthodox technique. The left-handed King plays with his guitar held upside down, treble strings up, which, among other things, causes him to bend his strings down.
“I learned that style myself,” King said. “And no one can duplicate it, though many have tried.”

AP: You’ve recorded a very wide variety of material, much of which has departed from the standard blues formats. How did you arrive at the appropriate approach for any given song?

King: I did that in the studio. We would come up with different styles to go behind songsæthen I’d do whatever fit. I might try three or four rhythms behind a song, find the one that feels just right and record it. I can hear real good and I never saw the point of limiting what I listened toælots of times I heard new things that surprised me. The guys at Stax [guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson and organist Booker T. Jones, plus the Memphis Horns] were real good for playing with different grooves and helping me find the right one. I liked playing with them because they were good idea peopleæthey’d twist things around into different grooves. It worked real good.

AP: Your guitar style changed noticeably from your early recordings with the Bobbin label to your work with Stax. You didn’t use a much vibrato originally, for instance.

King: No, I didn’t. I never made a decision to change my style. Some of it I forgot and some of it just automatically changed. Nothing can stay the same forever. I do all of the vibrato with my hand. I don’t use no gadgets or anything. I used to only use Acoustic amps, but I went to a Roland 120 because it’s easier to handle and it puts out for me.

AP: There has always been so much swing to your music. Have you listened to a lot of jazz?

King: Yes. I’ve always been a lover of jazz -- especially big band jazz. On the Bobbin stuff, I used a lot of orchestration and big band arrangements to mix the jazz with the blues. I went for the swinging jazz arrangements and the pure blues guitar.

AP: Your lead guitar has always been very lyrical. Do you think of the guitar as a second voice?

King: Yes, I do. I play the singing guitar, that’s what I’ve always called it. I also sing along with my notesæit’s how I think about where I’m going.

AP: You don’t play a lot of chords.

King: No, I play single-note. I can play chords but I don’t like ’emæI don’t have time for them. I’m paying enough people around me to play chords. [Laughs.]

AP: You’re also noted for your tendency to bend two strings at one time.

King: Yeah. Lots of times I don’t intend to do that but I’m reaching for a bend and bring another one along. My fingers get mixed up, because I don’t practice. When I get through with a concert, I don’t even want to see my guitar for a while.

AP: Have you always felt that way?

King: No, no. Just lately --in the last four or five years. Since I’ve been really feeling like I want to retire.

AP: You are one the only guitarists I’ve ever heard who will start a song with a bent noteæon “Angel of Mercy,” for instance.

King: Again, I didn’t plan that out. It’s just what I felt and the way I recorded it. The bent note is my thing, man, and I’ll put one anywhere it feels right. There are no rules.

AP: I’ve heard stories of people who tried to copy your sound but didn’t know that you were playing upside down.

King: [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ve heard that, too. And people who try to restring their guitars to get my sound, and everything else you can imagine. Jimi Hendrix used to take pictures of my fingers to try and see what I was doing. He never quite figured it out, but Jimi was a hell of guitar player, the fastest dude aroundæat the time. There’s some kids who are coming around now...Whew! Forget about it. They burn up the fretboard.

AP: Obviously, Hendrix was a great guitarist. But what do you think of him as a blues player?

King: Well, to me, he was overplaying to play the blues. He’d hit two or three good licks here and there and then speed them up and hit them over and over until he’d drown out all the good ones. The kids loved it and I liked his playing, tooæthat was his style. But don’t call him a great bluesman. I think he was going more in that direction, but we’ll never know. He didn’t take care of himself.

AP: Your tone is so tough. How do you make it so heavy?

King: For one thing, I usually keep my treble all the way up, unless I want to play real soft. Then I zip it down.

AP: You really do utilize dynamics effectively. Do you think that’s something a lot of
younger players miss the point of?

King: Definitely. Because they like to play loud and high all the time. And when you get ready to play chords, you got nothing to go to. I like to mix volumes, treble and bass. There’s a high, there’s a mid-range and there’s a bottom. If you don’t ever mix that stuff up, you’re not a complete player.

AP: What is the single most common mistake young players make with the blues?

King: Overplaying. They play too loud, scream too high, and run too fast. See, when you overplay, you get too loud and people are gonna mistake what you’re doing for a hole in the air. [Laughs.]

AP: You recently appeared on Gary Moore’s Still Got the Blues album. What did you think of Moore’s guitar work?

King: Gary’s a good player. To me, Gary and Stevie Ray Vaughan were two of our best young players. I was sure hurt when we lost Stevie. I really wanted to see him and Gary hook up together. I wanted to see that concert. I don’t care where it wasæI would have caught a plane. No doubt about it, both those guys had what it takes to really do it.

AP: Did you give Gary any pointers?

King: Yeah. I learned a few things from him, he learned a few things from me. I told him to slow it down, double up on his licksæplay every other oneæso that you could feel what he’s doing. If you play too fast or too loud, you cancel yourself out. But Gary plays a whole lot of notes and still sounds good. Every now and then you’re bound to put them in place if you play enough. [Laughs.]

AP: A lot of blues players hit the right note and play the right changes. Yet, something’s missing. What is that something?

King: I’m going to ask youæYou’re the listener. What do you hear or not hear?

AP: It’s hard to describe. It’s more of a feeling.

King: That’s it. That’s it, man. Stop right there. Don’t overthink this. I just told you: Once you lose the feeling, you ain’t got nothin’ but a show going. It’s not deep.

AP: So can you learn how to play the blues from a book or reading music?

King: No way, man. First, you got to get in your mind what you want to play. If you hear a good lic -- even if you’re just rehearsing to yoursel -- and you feel it, then hit another one and another one and another one. The next thing you know you got 15 or 20 different licks you can hit and they all feel good. But if you rush right through, hitting them all, you’re not even going to know what you did. You’ve got to take your time and learn your bag one lick at a time. And take your time in your delivery.

AP: Your first appearance at the Fillmore [1968] opened up a whole new audience for you. Were you surprised that those people were waiting to hear your music?

King: Yes, I was very surprise -- and very glad. They made me welcome, treated me nice. Bill Graham opened up a young, white crowd for me by putting me in there.

AP: Robert Cray has remarked that he had one of the biggest thrills of his life when you recorded his song, “Phone Booth.” [“I’m in a Phone Booth, Baby,” Fantasy, 1984]

King: Yeah, I did one of his songs because the groove fit and that’s what I look for. Robert is a good player and a very nice person, but I haven’t seen him in a while and I hope that success hasn’t gotten to his head. I’ve seen that happen to many, many people, and it’s one of the saddest things you’ll ever see. It matters who you are and what you’re made of. Anytime you think you’re greater than the people that buy your records, that’s when you lose it.

AP: You have such a commanding stage presence. Is there anyone who would intimidate you if they walked on stage?

King: No. If it’s my show, it’s my stage, and I won’t let anyone mess with me. Believe me.

AP: When did you start using the Flying V?

King: Oh, man. Way back around 1958. Just about every one I’ve ever had has been custom-made.

AP: Why did you name your guitar “Lucy?”

King: Lucille Ball. I loved her.

AP: It didn’t have anything to do with B.B.’s Lucille?

King: You’d have to ask B.B.-- mine was named Lucy first.
AP: Have you and B.B. always gotten along, or has there been any tension between youæfor instance over the fact that B.B. is always called “The King of the Blues?”

King: Oh God, no. Me and B.B. and Bobby [Bland] always got along great. We go all over the country and sell out every theater we go to. No misunderstandings, no arguments. I’ll open the show for anybody as long as I get paid off. I’ll be asleep in my hotel while B.B.’s still playing and that’s fine with me. B.B.’s a night owl. He closes the show because he stays up most of the night talking, anyhow. [Laughs.]

AP: Has the fact that you once played drums affected your guitar style much?

King: Not really, except that I can tell immediately if a tempo is off. Being left-handed affected my style more than anything. I started playing drums just because I got a gig with Jimmy Reed and needed the money.

AP: Why haven’t you ever used a pick?

King: I couldn’t hold one- my fingers were too big. I kept trying and the thing would fly across the house. I just always had a real hard time gripping it, so I learned to play without one.

AP: What type of music did your first band, the In the Groove Boys play?

King: We only knew three songs and we’d play them fast, medium and slowæthat made nine songs. Somehow that got over all night long.

AP: Did you play strictly by yourself when you started?

King: I rehearsed to myself for five years before I played with another soul. That may account for some of my style. I knew that playing the blues was a life I chose to lead. And when I started there were three things I decided to doæplay the blues, play ’em right, and make all the gigs. And I have.
I’ve never drank liquor in my life or used dope, and I don’t allow it around me. That has a lot to do with why I’m still doing what I’m doing, still feeling good and still in good health. It makes me sick to see the things that people do to themselves when they get all messed up.

AP: Every 10 or 15 years there seems to be a blues renaissance, and people say there’s one happening now. Is it real?

King: The blues “come back” whenever people realize that they can make money booking it. You didn’t hear about young bluesman for a while until Stevie Ray and Robert hit, but they were always around. It’s just a matter of exposure.
This interview originally appeared in Guitar World, July ’91 and was reprinted in Guitar Legends: Blues Power.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From the Archives: Tiny Archibald

This is one of my favorites. I feel very blessed to have been able to do the things I have in life. But many of the highlights are not the big-ticket items, the meetings with famous people or celebrities that others often ask about. It's the interaction with some really remarkable regular people, or great artists who are past their glory days and looking back, often in thoughtful, reflective modes. Tiny Archibald is a little bit of all of both, one of the greatest basketball players ever - I would argue the game's greatest little man ever - and a truly humble, smart, thoughtful dude. Standing on a Harlem elementary school playground rapping with him ranks way up there in my life's experiences.

The story is close to a decade old. He has long since earned his PhD. Congrats, Dr. Archibald.

Original Old School: The Professor SLAM 37: Nate “Tiny” Archibald is willing to tell today’s players what it takes to win.
by Alan Paul
Nathaniel Archibald stands on the searing blacktop playground of Harlem’s PS 175. School kids on their lunch break fill the air with the sound of play, running all around him as he stands with his hands in the pockets of his sweats, eyes hidden behind dark shades, body trim in a dark polo shirt. At first glance, Archibald could be any gym teacher in America. That is, until he starts talking about playground moves and shifting his weight from one leg to another, rolling his shoulders and flipping his hands with a grace that’s anything but average. A grace which made Tiny Archibald one of the greatest point guards ever to play the game.
The 6-1, 160-pound Archibald is the only player to lead the league in assists and scoring the same year. He did it in ’73, his third NBA season, when he scored 34 ppg and dished out 11.4 apg. He also averaged 46 minutes that season, typical of the full-tilt effort he gave through six seasons with the Cincinnati/Omaha/Kansas City Kings [Don't ask.--Ed.], over which he averaged 25 ppg and did it all. He missed the entire ’77-78 season with a torn Achilles tendon, then moved on to the Celtics, where his numbers went down but his efficiency went up. In ’81 he led the team to their first Bird-era title. He retired in ’84 and was a no-brainer selection to the Hall of Fame (’90) and to the 50-Greatest team selected in ’96.
But Archibald’s stellar NBA career is only the tip of his very deep iceberg. He was a New York playground legend before he entered the league, and even more of one after, returning to his hometown to play summer ball every year. Even at the height of his pro career, Tiny dazzled the fans at the Rucker tournament, often bringing with him NBA teammates like Dave Cowens. “I’ll never forget watching Tiny go off up there,” recalls Dr. J. “He was incredible to watch, scoring at will.”
Whether the venue was a slab of asphalt or the Boston Garden, Archibald’s game was marked by lightning quickness and a fearless ability to penetrate, taking it right at the heart of the opponent’s defense, where he could finish or dish with equal aplomb. His moves were legendary and he played with extreme flavor, even though he never dunked in the NBA—proving that there’s more than one way to keep it real.
Since the end of his playing days, Archibald’s star has only shone brighter, even if many fewer can see it. After serving as an assistant coach for three years, two at his alma mater, the University of Texas El Paso, where he worked with Tim Hardaway, Archibald returned home to the Bronx. He got a master’s degree from Fordham University and is currently working on his doctorate. He has continued to work with the community, running boys and girls clubs, serving as recreation director for a homeless shelter and for the past several years teaching at PS 175, which is where you must go to find him. Tiny Archibald does not seek the spotlight, so the spotlight must seek him.
“Tiny is the best,” says New York Post and NBC commentator Peter Vecsey. “He is very dedicated to the kids and the community, and he asks nothing from nobody, expects no privileges. He has never changed one iota from the moment I’ve met him. He’s just a great human being, and as straight and real as anyone you’ll ever meet.”
SLAM: You grew up in New York in the midst of many, many great players. Who did you pattern your game after?
ARCHIBALD: My idols were Lenny Wilkens and Bob Cousy, but the greatest ballhandler I ever saw did not play professional ball. His name was Ed “Czar” Simmons, and he was a guy from Brooklyn who played on the Brooklyn USA team with Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown—two ABA players—and Jackie Jackson. He was a chubby guy who always wore a hat. Back then, when you played ball, you didn’t wear jewelry or watches or anything other than a uniform. But here was this grown man with a cap on, taking command of a fabulous team—passing the ball anywhere, telling guys what to do. I loved watching him play in the Rucker, but there were so many great players. Earl Manigault, Helicopter, Pablo Robertson—a great ballhandler and assist man.
Two really great ones, who were more or less my contemporaries, were Pee Wee Kirkland and Joe Hammond. They both could have been pros, especially Pee Wee. His potential was unlimited, and he could adapt to a structured game. He wasn’t some all-flash guy. He went to Norfolk State, was the CIAA MVP and All American, [got] drafted by the Chicago Bulls, and he walked out on them. There are lots of stories about what he did—the bags full of money and the drugs. Well, I only knew Pee Wee when it came to basketball, and he could play. Joe Hammond was maybe not on the same level, but he was also a great player. He got drafted by the Lakers but never went to camp.
SLAM: What about big guys?
ARCHIBALD: No secrets there. Kareem was awesome from the first time I ever saw him play, when we were kids. I played with Wilt and I saw him play against the Brooklyn Pros, when he was in the Baker league [from Philadelphia]. Of course, Wilt was great and so were others, but Kareem was so fluid in motion and did so many things. I never saw another big guy who could move like him. I’ll never forget watching him in Morningside Park, scrimmaging against pros when he was a high school kid. He went to Power and I went to Dewitt Clinton and we played each other, but I didn’t get to play too much. He was ahead of me, and I was a bench player until my senior year. But just sitting and watching him was a beautiful thing. He just dominated in college—they had to change the rules and outlaw the dunk when he got to college, and when he left, they put it back. It’s just amazing to me that I came through the same [Rucker] program as that guy.
SLAM: You played in the Rucker growing up and kept playing after you were an NBA star. What did you like about it so much?
ARCHIBALD: Everything—the competition, the fans, the crowd. A lot of guys don’t play at all in the offseason. After their season is over they go around and talk highlights: “I did this, I did that.” Us guys didn’t have to talk about it. We just said, “You did what? Fine. Get on the court, and show me again.” I loved that. You take the competitiveness of a professional league and bring that flavor outdoors, and suddenly you’ve got a whole new game. You’ve got the music booming, you’ve got the crazy fans screaming and betting. I think that type of atmosphere is great. I loved the Rucker, and when I wasn’t playing in it, after my playing days were over, I was coaching.
SLAM: Once you were established as an NBA star, did other guys really come after you?
ARCHIBALD: Sure. They’re not impressed. Guys that did not play in the NBA lived and died for the summer to play against established guys. You was on the most wanted list, because you made it to the NBA and they didn’t. They didn’t care if you were an all-star, an all-pro, whatever—they were out to get you. And I knew where they were coming from; when I was coming up, I lived and died for the summer so I could come in and play against established guys like Connie Hawkins and them on Brooklyn USA. Oh, just to step on the court and say, “Yeah, I played against the Hawk!” And he was tremendous up there. Just unreal, as good as anything you’ve ever heard. He could do it all, and his whole team was phenomenal.
SLAM: Did you feel like it was important for you to just come back and be a presence in the community?
ARCHIBALD: I’ve always come back to New York, whether I was playing or coaching or running programs in the South Bronx. Probably one of my biggest downfalls is that I can’t seem to get out of here. It’s like a wall is around me. But I’ve been fortunate, and New York has been good to me in a lot of ways, in life and in basketball—I got to play with and against so many great players coming up.
SLAM: Are you still working on your Ph.D.?
ARCHIBALD:Yeah. It’s been good, but it’s not as big a deal as people make it out to be. After my basketball playing days were over, I was kind of in a gray area, and I wanted to go back to school to pursue my education. Because I really wanted to do something with my life. I coached for three years—as an assistant at Georgia, then for two years at UTEP—but I felt something was missing. I came back to New York and enrolled at Fordham and got my masters in adult education supervision and administration. Then I got my professional degree, and now I’m just trying to do another degree. That’s all a Ph.D. is—the next degree.
SLAM: Did you have any particular role models in life rather than basketball?
ARCHIBALD: Sure, I had a lot of good mentors and role models. There was Floyd Lane, Hilton White, my high school coaches Hank Jacobson and Bob Buckner, who all taught me how to behave as well as how to play ball. But if I wanted to model myself after anyone, it was probably my dad. He was quiet, tough, determined, and he got things done. No, he never played basketball, but that’s the way he was, and that’s the way I am. And I like to help pass that on. That’s one of the reasons I want to be involved in the school system; you have to give these youngsters an opportunity to learn life skills as well get an education.
SLAM: Do the kids here know who you are?
ARCHIBALD: Most of them do, but I don’t make a big thing out of it. A couple of them are always bugging me to play them one-on-one, but I’ll tell you what: watching the moves these kids have, I don’t know how I ever got by doing the things I did. I think it was largely because of determination and sheer will. And, as I was saying, I had good mentors. That continued when I got to college and learned so much from Don Haskins. He was the Bear, and he was tough and intimidating, but he was a great, great teacher. The ultimate. He didn’t care nothin’ about the scoring. All he wanted to do was win and beat you at the chess game of basketball. And I learned a lot about defense from him, playing matchup zones, although he insisted we only play man to man.
He had me playing the post at times. I said, “I’m no post-up player.” And he said, “Do this for me: Catch the ball, turn around, and if no one’s in your way, take it to the basket.” So I started working on that, and I realized it was easier to go 10 feet to the basket than 90 feet.
SLAM: Then you got to the NBA, and your first coach was Bob Cousy, one of the greatest guards of all time.
ARCHIBALD: Cooz was like an extension of my dad, and I was lucky to be on that team. He sat me down and talked to me about being the ultimate point guard. He knew I had the quickness and determination, and he gave me a chance when a lot of people didn’t think I could make it. I just tried to make the best of that chance.
He was an elite point guard, and he always had the ball in his day. That’s how it was played in the ’60s: you get the ball off the boards, you give it to the point guard. Not like today when everyone tends to be more flexible. We had Sam Lacey and Jimmy Walker on that team, bigger guys who could handle the ball, but Cooz wanted the point guard to handle the ball 80 percent of the time, because that was an extension of him. It was difficult to be thrown right into the fire as a rookie, but the game was a lot easier when you controlled the basketball and controlled the flow. So that really worked to my advantage.
Don Haskins was more or less the same way, and not only did I benefit from that, but so did Timmy Hardaway. Haskins wanted him to have the ball all the time, and his ballhandling improved dramatically as a result. His game got a lot better. He was a great penetrator and he had the crossover dribble when he got there, but he learned well and that’s why he has a complete game today. He always had a lot of heart and determination, and he got the great coaching to bring that out.
SLAM: It must have felt good when you finally got to the Celtics and were on a really good team for the first time, where you didn’t have to do all the work.
ARCHIBALD: It was great. And Cooz knew something like that would happen for me. A couple of times, he said to me, “You’re dong a lot of work, playing a lot of minutes. You’re beat up and battered. But one of these days you won’t have to do all the scoring,and you will be able to let it all come to you instead of always having to bring it.” A lot of guys are statistics crazy—they need to be scoring or rebounding or dishing a ton in order to be one of the men. I wasn’t like that, and Cooz knew it. He was saying, “One day you are going to get a chance to be a quarterback on a great team They’re going to need your experience and knowledge, and you will be the ultimate winner.” And it came.
I led the Celtics in assists, but it wasn’t a whole lot [7.7 apg], and I didn’t score all that much [13.8 ppg]. I had great players around me, and it was a lot of fun. It made the game a lot easier. It’s really a pleasure to play with guys that have the same determination that you have and will do anything to win. I was finally in a position to play a normal point guard style. Which I loved. I didn’t have to worry about just playing that penetration game, and when I did it, it was a lot easier. I just got a chance to play with the best front line in basketball history, which made my job a lot easier. And after I left, that front line was still in place, and they just had a changing of the guards. As long as you have Larry, Kevin, Chief and Maxwell in place, you just change the guards. And that’s all they did. When I left, they brought in Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge and just kept rolling. Because no one was gonna stop McHale, Bird and the Chief.
SLAM: Did you ever feel intimidated taking the ball to the hole against bigger guys?
ARCHIBALD: I did, but you just keep your head up and make things happen. I mean, Wilt was a dominating force, for instance, but if you had the angle, you could take him, or anyone. When you go to the hoop, there are only four things that can happen to you: You can get your shot blocked, you can get fouled, you can get it off, or you can pass it down for an easy shot. Three of those things are good. I knew guys who were bigger and stronger than me, but I always thought I was quicker. If I could get to that basket, get to that slot, before they committed to get there, then I could score.

SLAM: You were well known for your spectacular drives. Did you practice the actual moves, or were they all improvised?
ARCHIBALD: Of course I practiced them. You have to put in your time. People say today’s generation of players lack talent. Bullshit. They have the talent, but they put in less time than we did. First of all, we didn’t have videotapes that we watch over and over. So the videotape was in your head. You saw a move and then you had to do it over and over again until you think you got it right. That prompted us to just put in time, and practice hours are key.
SLAM: Everyone who knew you says that you played ball from sun-up to sundown. What sort of things would you practice when you were alone?
ARCHIBALD: Getting to the basket, getting around the invisible man. You do dribble drills, penetration moves, head fakes, practice going under the basket and making a right hand shot after coming in the left side. Work on perfecting your balance and body control. Basically, just doing a lot of unique stuff, so that when you get in the game you know what to do. Those moves don’t just happen.
Take Tim [Hardaway] and his crossover machine-gun dribble. I guarantee that he didn’t get that in the NBA. I saw him do that in high school and college. At UTEP, when practice was over, he was out there practicing his moves against the invisible person. Those are the things you get into. It’s a mental part of the game where you work things out so much that you condition your brain to think, “I don’t care who’s guarding me or how many people are in front of me. I’m going to score.” That’s how I learned, and that’s how we all played when I was coming up.
SLAM: Do you think that’s no longer the case?
ARCHIBALD: People gave us discipline and taught us respect. I see a lot of kids today who are great but don’t have the discipline and respect. It’s about your game fitting into the team concept. If you’re a guard, it’s not just about breaking people down, it’s about running your team. You put a guy in a park environment, and suddenly it’s about show. It’s not about winning, it’s about entertainment. And I know that people always say to me, “Yeah, B, it’s all about entertainment anyhow. It’s a game.” But no—it’s about winning, not about show.
If I do a great move, it’s to create a basket, not to look slick. It’s unfortunate that some of us were born with big ears, because we’ll do a great move and hear the cheers, and instead of continuing the move with the purpose that we had—scoring—we say, “Whoa, rewind. I wanna hear that again!” so back up and try it again, but then I never complete the move. Which means there’s no purpose to the move. All I want to hear is people saying “great move.” But the purpose is to score! The purpose is to pass. The purpose is to do something creative with the ball and be creative, not to just keep on doing the show game. If you can break someone down, go by them and score, don’t try to do it again. Don’t figure if one machine-gun crossover is good, six are better. I see that all the time. The game goes on; it doesn’t stop when you do that.
Whether or not someone can figure this all out, grasp this knowledge, is a key to whether they can make it from a playground environment to a more structured one, no matter how much talent they have. And college basketball is probably one of the biggest determining factors of whether or not a guy will make it. Guys always say, “Why I gotta go to college?” Because you’ve got a lot to learn.

It's a big world out there...

.. and in case you doubt it, check out the worldometer. This will twist your mind around in knots in ways both good and bad.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

R.I.P. Chuck Tanner

Chuck Tanner, former Pirates manager, has died at 82. A little piece of my child hood died with him. He helped bring a lot of joy to me, the city of Pittsburgh and the game of baseball. He always seemed like a great guy and by all accounts was beloved.

Money quote from Pittsburgh Post Gazette obituary: "I played for a lot of managers in my time, and I never knew anyone who treated people like Chuck," former reliever Grant Jackson said.

And this, from current Pirate Neil Walker: "He was the leader of a big family and, in his own way, he was still continuing to manage by guiding all the young ballplayers who would sit and talk to him. In spring training, he'd come into a room, and he would command attention just by his presence. What I remember his message being most was to believe in yourself. He also said that you had to have a pride in what you did, in how you carried yourself and played the game.

Read more:

No matter what you do, how you are remembered will come down to how you treat people. Read more here.

Beijing Blues title track video

It's been too long since I watched this original photo montage video I made for the "Beijing Blues" studio track. Watching it now makes me ferociously miss both the band and Beijing. I love street life there and man I loved all these gigs. It's also bittersweet because of all the destruction of hutongs and other great old neighborhoods in Beijing; that is what is depicted in the bombed-out looking pictures in this video. These are not, as some have asked, pictures from sichuan post-earthquake. this is just normal day-to-day stuff in Beijing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Woodie Alan Poster - the one that got us started

My friend Keary Liu took this picture at our very first gig with our real lineup, featuring Zhang Yong and Lu Wei and then I asked her to make this poster. It was the first, important step towards promoting the band outside of our little expat village.

A guest blog

I guest blogged today at Jo Parfitt's website. Jo is a well-known expat author and entrepreneur. The post is about how starting and keeping a blog (the one you are reading) helped fan my writing fires and eventually lead me to Big In China.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

From the Archives: Gary Moore

RIP Gary Moore, 1952-2011.

News of guitarist Gary Moore's death at age 59 shocked me. I pulled this 2004 Guitar World interview out of my arhcives. I did several pieces on Gary, who was a UK and Euro legend, but rarely made it to the US. I saw one of his few US solo shows, at the Beacon Theatre when he was promoting his second blues album. The great Albert Collins opened.

Gary was a kind and easy interview, the kind of guitar guy whom I could have easily spent hours just shooting it with. And he was not, frankly, one of the guys I expected to hear this kind of news about.

Gary Moore’s embracing of his musical roots on 1990’s Still Got The Blues was downright revelatory. The Irish axe slinger had struggled to find his musical home for over two decades of traversing the worlds of hard rock and fusion, even while establishing himself as one the instrument’s most accomplished and expressive players. His niche turned out to be waiting for him back in the music of his youth.

Still, the ever-restless guitarist couldn’t stay in one place for long; after one more successful foray into the blues, 1992’s After Hours, Moore moved on, collaborating with Cream’s Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce and recording two experimental albums dabbling in electronica and dance rhythms. Now he has come full circle with Back to the Blues (CMC), the title of which speaks for itself.

“I just follow the music wherever it takes me,” Moore explains. “I enjoyed making the last two albums, but both were very drawn-out affairs, with laborious hours spent in the studio programming and sequencing. Because of that, I had a strong urge to play live with a band and just let ‘er rip. And that’s exactly what I did.”

GW: You often make huge stylistic leaps from one project to the next. Do you have to alter your mindset to play such different genres?
MOORE: Not really, because I only play one way. The context changes, but it’s always basically the same guitar playing. I was still playing blues phrases on A Different Beat (Castle, 1999), which was an attempt at marrying my guitar to contemporary dance rhythms. You can refine your playing and adapt to your setting, but you never abandon your favorite licks or basic feel.
GW: Are you a significantly different or better player than when you started out?
MOORE: God, I hope so. I think my playing has changed a lot even since Still Got The Blues. That was my interpretation of the blues at the time, but it was a very overblown version, as some of my friends in the media were quick to point out. [laughs] I was pissed off about that criticism, but now I think they had a point. I thought I was playing the blues as it should be played, but I was actually playing too much and the whole thing was overdone. It’s taken me 10 years to play what needs to be played and hopefully not too much more.
GW: You’ve always had a beautiful, very vocal vibrato, which is typical of great blues players, but made you stand out in the hard rock world.
MOORE: Yes. Your identity as a player is judged by your vibrato. I got turned onto that whole thing by Eric Clapton, when he did the Bluesbreakers album [Deram, 1966]. I was 14 or 15 when that came out and it set me on this course.
And I still work on my vibrato, because you can always get it a bit sweeter or a bit more aggressive. That’s the type of thing I focus on now instead of technique or scales. I practice my phrasing and timing and try to make my playing swing more, which I think is finally starting to happen. I feel like my timing really improved after working with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in BBM. Like a lot of guitar players, I tended to rush a lot, and they showed me how to play to a different rhythm, for which I am very grateful.
GW: Another of your trademarks is never-ending sustain. What is your secret?
MOORE: When you put a Les Paul on the bass pickup and run a ton of gain through a Tube Screamer, you’re going to get a lot of sustain. The key is controlling it and to do that, you have to understand how your guitar and amp interact. I have so much gain that no one else can control my guitar on stage. I’m constantly adjusting the volume control to stay on top of it. And to really make a note sing, you also have to stand in the exact right place on stage. All of that becomes second nature eventually.
The electric guitar is a very responsive, expressive instrument and it takes years of playing and tinkering to learn how to get the most out of it. Understanding that is just as important as what notes you choose or how good your technique is.
GW: You mentioned Eric Clapton’s influence, but wasn’t Peter Green, who replaced him in the Bluesbreakers, your real idol? To me, Peter was more of a genuine blues player.
MOORE: I know what you mean. He had a more classic blues sound, with a real B.B. King style sweetness, and because of that his contributions have aged better in some respects. But Eric revolutionized the guitar world over night with Bluesbreakers.  That album lit me on fire, but Clapton never came to Ireland with John Mayall and Peter did.
Seeing him live was just unbelievable. The whole room was vibrating and he looked so relaxed, with his fingers just walking across the strings making the cleanest, most ridiculously beautiful sounds. It was a new experience to feel a guitar instead of just hearing it.  And later he became a very important mentor to me, getting his manager to bring us to England. Eventually, when Peter decided to leave Fleetwood Mac, he gave me his Les Paul for just the ridiculously low sum I fetched for my own guitar and, of course, I treasure it to this day.
GW: Did you play it on this album?
MOORE: Just on one tune. I also used my ’59 Paul a bit, but I mostly played my 1960 Gibson 355. For the straight blues sounds, I played that straight into an early 70s Fender Dual Showman. I also used a Marshall DSL 100-watt, which was the prototype. In fact, they keep asking for it back, but they can’t have it. In a few places, I used a Marshall Guv’nor pedal, a Line 6 distortion, a CryBaby wah and an Ibanez chorus pedal, but mostly it was very straight-forward tones.
GW: You were a big influence on Eighties metal players like George Lynch and Randy Rhoads. Were you aware of them at the time?
MOORE: I got to know Randy pretty well when he came to England to join Ozzy’s band. In fact, I remember him asking me if I thought it was a worthwhile gig [laughs]. I told him to give it a few years and see what happened. He was so sweet and he was a great little player. He was so fucking fiery and really took the instrument seriously. I was incredibly sad when I heard what happened to him, because it was just such a dumb thing. It never should have happened. They called me the next day trying to get me to finish the tour, but I was too upset. It’s tragic to think of what Randy would have done. Same thing with Stevie Ray. The two of them should be the kings of guitar right now. Unfortunately, I didn’t really listen to Stevie a lot when he was around, but I sure do now. He pulled an incredible feat, developing his own voice in a familiar idiom and making his music swing so damn much.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

More readings added

...And the beat goes on.

Seattle, Coral Gables, Berkeley.

Please check in and check them out.

Facebook listings Click here. Click here.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Andy Aledort and the Groove Kings

My man Andy Aledort, who will be playing both launch parties for Big In China - in Tribeca March 1 and Maplewood March 4. Jamming with these guys again may have been a good enough reason to write the book.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Tour continues...

Big In China tour continues. Appearance page updated, with Seattle, Ann Arbor others: .

Please check in. come to a reading if I am coming your way. Send the info to someone else in the area if not. 

Happy New Year


 Have a happy and prosperous Year of the Rabbit!