Interview: Sam ‘the Man’ Kuusisto

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I was sent a Sam Kuusisto demo some time ago and my eyebrows almost flew off my forehead. I’d looked at the list of songs and saw “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Domino,” and “It’s Your Thing.” What in the world, I wondered, was this white cat doing taking on material by James Brown, Van Morrison, and the Isley Brothers? So I put it on the box—and promptly got my mind blown. White, black or green with polka-dot stripes, this boy was bad as he wanna be! I’ve been a raving, raging fan of Sam the Man ever since.

Fairly recently, he sent me another demo, one of jazz ballads. I wondered, again, if he wasn’t over-reaching, but, sure enough, I played the thing and he is just as on-time at being smooth and sophisticated as he is when letting the funk fly.

He’s kind of a tough interview, though—he pours it all into his music, letting that speak for itself and, when it comes to talking, indeed is a man of few words. So when he shows up at the Times Café this Saturday, don’t expect a whole lot of playful banter. You can, however, look forward to some of the most soulful singing you’ve ever heard.

Times Café, 2nd Street N.E. and E. Hennepin Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis. 612-617-8098

Your range is extraordinary. What music did you first listen to?
The first tune I remember hearing is “Boyish Man” by Muddy Waters. I listened to Blues, 70s rock, and artists such as Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye. My appreciation of music was greatly influenced by my uncle—who was very hip to R&B and thought of Stevie Wonder as a God—and my father.

It takes stones to cover James Brown, Van Morrison and The Isley Brothers. Did you have any trepidation?
Honestly, I didn’t think about it at all. It’s the music I love, I wanted to do it, so I just did it. When I sing I don’t think about it, I just do it. I think that’s what gives me the ability to do what I do.

What prompted your jazz ballad demo?
A lifelong love of jazz, as well as admiration of Nat King Cole and Ray Charles.

And you have originals. What bag are they in?
I tend to lean towards a modern R&B sound.

You’re booked playing gigs basically around the clock, while a lot of cats are lucky to land work at all. How’s it feel?
Fortunate! Really, I do feel fortunate. I think that it has a lot to do with the large community of talented musicians I work with and enjoy playing with. When you like the people you work with, it shows.

When will we see a release for the CD-buying public?
I’m in the studio now making some progress. It looks like it’s going to be a late summer release.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He is a regular contributor to the TC Daily Planet.

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