My name is Big Al Dorn and I am a blues harmonica player and guitar player from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I was born March 13th 1996 and raised here and music has always been around the house ever since I was a little one. We always had a great platter of all types of music around and a lot of blues and a lot of Jimi Hendrix, as my older brother was into that, and he would have that blaring on his stereo in his bedroom all day and all night and keep me up at night. One day I was sifting through our record collection and I found this album laying in the corner, this older gentleman with a knife hat and a pipe in his mouth and a beat up guitar and it was ‘The Very Best Of John Lee Hooker’. I thought he must be a cool guy to have a name like that and I put the record on and I was floored, and that’s how I got my start, was listening to John Lee Hooker and I wanted to find every record that I possibly could.
I was about three at that time, so at an early age I had a feeling of I knew what I wanted to do and then two years down the road my father was invited to a party that a friend of his was putting on and it was some kinda big shindig. The place was packed and I saw this gentleman blowing some of the fiercest harmonica I had ever heard and he was very drunk and he was doing his legendary bar walk that he used to do at clubs like the Murray Tap and The Up And Under and I found out that it was Jim Liban, and watching him work the crowd into a lather and driving them crazy with his bar walk and that was it, it is officially cemented I wanted to be a professional musician.
I just went down the road in school, playing several different instruments and several different genres of music but it was always the blues that had my undivided attention. I tried upright bass for a little bit and I wasn’t very good at it and they forced upon us how to play piano and I wasn’t good at that either, but I wanted to be a drummer though and the kids kept taking the drum kit away from me and finally one day in grade school I pushed the kid off the stool and told him that I was drumming, but I wasn’t very good at that either, but that guitar and harmonica always stayed very prevalent all the time.
What drew me to the harmonica more than other instruments is that it is the most expressive instrument I had ever heard and, when I heard Jim Liban or Madison Slim play it, it sounded like someone crying and expressing themselves in a way I had never heard before, so I thought it was some cool stuff. When I started meeting and talking with Jim Liban, he told me not to bother listening to him and that there were guys I needed to listen to and he meant Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, James Cotton, Sonny Boy Williamson two and Junior Wells, all the big named Chicago guys. He told me to go to any record store in town and they will have an LP or CD and that these are the guys I should be listening to, and that’s what I did for a long time. I scoured many record stores, in as many different neighborhoods as I could, and found every blues harmonica record that I could and I just kept learning and learning by pressing the playback or pressing the track button to go back and listen to everything. I’m self taught on harmonica and guitar.
I was in junior high school at the time and I had been in the woodshed for quite a number of years and finally the old man said that if I was going to take this thing seriously I needed to get out there and play, and go find an open mic or an open jam to play at, so that’s what I did and this was pre social media and pre Facebook, pre Twitter. I would go down mostly to Brady Street, on the east side of Milwaukee, because everyone would post where they were playing by going to the telephone pole and nailing their posters there, and one of them said open mic night at the Pabst Brewery and I went and tried it. I felt a little uncomfortable because I was the only person playing blues, everyone else was doing jingle jangle acoustic music or it was loud hard rock. So I kinda felt like an outsider in a closed circle. I guess I must have been thirteen at the time.
It felt good but at the same time doing jams and going to open mic nights wasn’t for me, so I would take a beat up old guitar that I had and a couple of cheap Hohner blues band harmonicas and go down on Brady Street, and just sit outside of Walgreen’s there and just play. Every summer I would sit out there and play and play and play for whatever tips I could get thrown into this sand bucket I had, quarters, nickles and stuff and eventually I guess I started getting noticed by the big names in town. From there I had a chance encounter with one of our local musicians called Reverend Raven and he found out about me and invited me to a show and he took a real interest in me and took me under his wing and taught me the dos and dont’s, and he would get me up to play for exposure and that’s when word got around like, who is this kid? So that’s what started happening, hanging around with Rev and through Rev I got to know all these different people like Steve Cohen of Leroy Airmaster, Jimmy Schwarz from the Blues Disciples and Mr. Stokes and especially Milwaukee Slim, real name Silas McClatcher, so that was all fun.
There was one time when the Rev Raven was playing up north somewhere and his harmonica player at the time was my older brother, Benny Rickun, who is also a harmonica player in my band. He ended up getting really sick and then Rev called the day of the gig and told me that Benny can’t make it and that I’m playing. I told Rev that I’m not as good as Benny and Rev told me I’m playing, so that was it. Previously Rev would always get me up at the end of the night, which was ok, but it didn’t equal the rush when you are up there, when you are the full time guy. People reacted very well to that gig and I’ve been going strong ever since. When I first started off with Reverend Raven And The Chain Smoking Altar Boys I was selling their CDs and T-shirts at their gigs. Rev started taking me on the road with him to different gigs other than just being in the Milwaukee area. I was still under age at the time and I didn’t have my own car and I wasn’t old enough to go into the places he was playing unless the folks came along with me and Rev got to know my parents very well and offered them a deal, which was he wanted me to go with him as a roadie and I would be an employee of the band so they would not have to worry about me being thrown out in the twenty one and older clubs, so he told them I am safe with him and the band. They were not hard drinkers or anything like that and they were not bad influences. That was the best part, just going on the road and meeting different people and playing all these different clubs and it was always great with Rev, as he would draw really big crowds. For me at that time he would only take me on the road as far as like Wausau, up in that area, which is a good three hour drive from here but never out of state, not then, until I learnt how to be a better player and learnt how to pack the van up with my eyes closed, where everything was supposed to go and things like that.
Music has been a full time thing for me since I was fifteen years old. I went down the road with Rev, and Benny had left the band and joined up with this fella from Chicago that lives near the Madison area named Paul Filipowicz and he’s a real deal, old school, hard driving Chicago blues man. One day Benny couldn’t make the gigs and he recommended me to Paul and Paul called me up and told me he was in need of another harmonica player and to meet up with him and that’s what I did. We had never met and by this time I was old enough to have my own car and I drove out to his house and it was like being in the Mississippi Delta, as that is what it looked like, as he lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere with a whole bunch of beat up old junk cars in the driveway. He came walking out of the house in a nice three piece pink suit and a fedora hat and introduced himself and we packed his van up there and then and took off for three weeks.
More recently I’ve been leading my own band The Blues Howlers and we have been working steady pretty good and this has been since 2015. We have been working harder than ever before lately, because we had been under the radar for several years, because we didn’t have a record, we didn’t have an agent or anything like that. We were getting gigs wherever we could and quite frankly some were in small roadhouse places that didn’t pay that well, but in the last few years things have started picking up for us and we have just got back from Minnesota where we opened for Rev Raven in St. Paul. That has helped us get our foot in the door there and this year in June we will be debuting at the Chicago Blues Festival. My band is a traditional four piece band.
I have two albums out, the first one called ‘They Call Me Big Al’ which we released in May 2017, a year before my twenty first birthday, and our latest recording is called ‘Get It While It’s Hot’, which features my old mentor Jim Liban on two tracks, and I am currently working on a third album which we plan to record live in October of this year, 2022. The albums are available as CDs or downloads on Apple Music or ITunes. Everything with me is all original material on the albums. The albums are available at any one of our shows and you can get them by emailing me at: [email protected] or our website at www.bigaldorn.com
I’ve been active with other artists too. It started earlier this year with a rock group called Bourbon House out of Wausau, asked me to play harmonica on two of their tracks, and two months ago another young up and coming blues musician, Stephen Hull, who is a good friend of mine, asked me to play on his record as well. So it’s been happening pretty regularly recently with young people looking for harmonica on their records and surprisingly I’m the guy they call.
I play guitar as well and that is the other half of my show but I’m mostly a harmonica player and then, when my lips start to get a little sore, I switch over to the guitar. My older brother Benny Rickun also plays harmonica and guitar, so when we start our shows Benny is on guitar and I am on harmonica and they switch, and at some point we do a double harmonica thing too and that has been our trademark for several years. I started playing guitar when I was about three after hearing John Lee Hooker and as I got more and more into it people started giving me old video tapes of John Lee Hooker and some in England with The Groundhogs on the Ready Steady Go show and they had some close up shots of him, and I saw he didn’t use a pick but used his fingers and that’s how I was able to play, because I can’t really hold a pick at all, so that’s how I learnt how to play. To me, John Lee sounded like a one man band when he played, and just using his thumb and index finger, he was hitting all the strings and that was some of the most unique stuff for me. I also like R.L. Burnside, whose style is somewhat similar to John Lee, and I like some of the Chicago guys like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers and I’ve always loved the west coast guys like Hollywood Fats and Rick Holmstrom and, a new friend of mine, Kirk Fletcher who is a big influence too.
For harmonica, in addition to the Chicago guys, my influences include the west coast guys and the big one is William Clarke and the other ones are Rod Piazza, Mark Hummel and, of course, their mentor George Harmonica Smith. You don’t hear a lot of guys doing George Harmonica Smith, so I try and bring that to the forefront as much as I can. I find the reasoning behind doing west coast swing is the more you play that, the more people will dance, and the more they dance the more they go up to the bar to order beer, and the more money the bar makes and the more money we make and they will have me back.
My parents are very supportive of me and my music and my father was born and raised in Portage, Wisconsin, and he was always a music nut and music was always around his house too and he recalls serving Muddy Waters champagne at a gig after he had searched for it at various liquor stores. My father was a big blues nut as well. My mother is French and born and raised in France and she left home when sixteen and moved to England and that is where she met my father, who was on his way to Kenya to photograph a safari. They met in a lobby of a hotel and he proposed to her after three weeks of meeting her, and they got married three years later and been going strong ever since. She is a dancer.
Interviewer Mike Stephenson is a UK based blues journalist and photographer who has been a blues fan all his life. He has written articles on and interviewed blues artists and reviewed blues events in Europe and the US primarily for Blues & Rhythm but also for other blues publications.