Playing Detroit in 2013, Joe Bonamassa had a special treat in store for the crowd. “The best, most badass guitar legend that ever came out of this town,” he declared. “He’s the pride of Detroit. I give you the legend that is Jim McCarty.”
Although he has largely flown under the guitar-hero radar, the lanky McCarty (not to be confused with the Yardbirds drummer of the same name) is the definition of a journeyman picker. From his tenure with Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels onto Buddy Miles, Cactus, the Rockets, and leading the band Mystery Train, he has more than held his own with the best blues men and hard-rockers.
“I played drums for 15 years before I ever picked up a guitar,” he recounts. “My dad was a drummer back in the big-band days. I started teaching myself guitar when I was about 15.”
Circa 1963, McCarty, drummer Johnny Bee (Badanjek), and bassist Earl Elliott became the house band at The Village, backing various black acts. “One night this white guy sat in, Billy Levise, and there was an immediate chemistry. We got together and he brought Joe Kubert in to play rhythm guitar, and that was the birth of Billy Lee & the Rivieras.”
Producer Bob Crewe changed the name to Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. Of his choice of guitar, the 77-year-old laughs, “I saw this band called the Beatles, and George Harrison had a Gretsch Country Gentleman. I saw all those switches and said, ‘Man, I gotta get me one of those.’ That was the guitar on ‘Jenny Take a Ride.’ I played it through a Vox Super Beatle. Then I switched to a Gibson Byrdland jazz guitar for the rest of the Mitch Ryder stuff.”
That “stuff” consisted of a three-album run that included “Devil With The Blue Dress On” and “Sock It To Me, Baby” – a higher-energy version of blue-eyed soul than the Righteous Brothers or Young Rascals.
“I’ve always been into the blues,” McCarty says of his influences. “That Paul Butterfield Blues Band album was something, boy. Michael Bloomfield was a tremendous guitar player. Charlie Musselwhite’s first album, Stand Back!, also killed me. What a tone Harvey Mandel had on that album. And Peter Green? Who isn’t a fan? He was probably the deepest English blues guy.”
Contrary to some accounts, Mike Bloomfield did not play on any Detroit Wheels records. McCarty confirms, “Every lead guitar part was me.”
In ’68, he joined Buddy Miles, his goldtop with humbuckers featured on two albums.
“There were a lot of great guitar players back then,” he points out. “You had Beck, Clapton, Jimmy Page, Michael Bloomfield; they were all good guitar players. And then there was Jimi Hendrix, who took the electric guitar and made it an electronic instrument, and did it with soul. It’s similar to what Louis Armstrong did in the ’20s with the Hot Five and improvisational music, or John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, or Miles Davis. They were not only great at what they did, they changed the parameters of what the rest of us were doing. They changed the landscape.”
Of his “Jimi/Jimmy Jam” appearance on the posthumous Nine To The Universe, McCarty says, “It was people trying to make a buck off this dead guy. The year or so I was with Buddy, Jimi was coming around, and we’d go to the Record Plant and play until the sun came up. But that stuff was never intended to be released, and should not have been.”
Next came the hard-rock Cactus in 1969 (see this month’s “Check This Action” for more on that period), with McCarty splitting in ’72, forming the Rockets with Badanjek. “I wanted to get back to a Rolling Stones kind of thing. I left the Rockets after 10 years because I wanted to play blues. I went back into the bars in Detroit. Now, being a good rock guitarist doesn’t mean you can play blues. After years of playing in the bars, I learned to understand what playing blues is.”
That understanding is evident in two live volumes of Jim McCarty & Friends, where he’s joined by Duke Robillard, Coco Montoya, Tommy Castro, Joe Louis Walker, Johnny A, and Jimmy Thackery,
For the past 25 years, he has played with the Detroit Blues Band and Mystery Train with son Dylan on drums. Main axes are a black ’94 Les Paul Standard and a ’95 Custom through a Pro Reverb, Tube Screamer, and Tube Works Tube Driver. “A Les Paul into a vintage Fender amp, and I’m home,” he nods.
The 2018 album Talking To Myself is an excellent collection of original instrumentals with him playing guitar, drums, and bass, and the Acoustic Ideas departure is McCarty alone with his Gibson Dove.
These days, he stays within about 100 miles of Detroit.
“I have trouble sleeping when I’m on the road,” he explains. “So I’m tired onstage, and that’s nor fair to me or the audience. But I’m healthy, still playing my ass off.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.