“156 years ago,” Gene joked about his childhood in Russia, “Lots of boys sang. They wanted to impress the girls, their classmates. You know I came from the other side.” Today Gene Bulaev, known by his stage name Gene Big G, is a guitarist and songwriter who has played around the world. But back then, he was a boy who fell in love with music.
After hearing The Beatles's "Come Together," he grew obsessed with artists like George Harrison and those sleek, expensive guitars. In ninth grade, he convinced a classmate to teach him three simple chords. "I was completely crazy for it," Gene said, "and I'm still crazy about guitars." He continued playing and only a year later he was writing songs. “From the very first step I didn't want to be like the same 100 bands that covered the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” he remembered. “I wanted my piece of the pie that belonged just to me.”
In his college years, he was influenced by Stevie Wonder, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Grant Green, Robben Ford, and countless others. “My real teacher, but he doesn't know he's my teacher, is Paul McCartney,” Gene said. About 30 years ago, he happened across an interview with McCartney in the magazine Bass Player. In the interview, McCartney described how he wrote two or three songs at once. One song was the verse, another song the chorus, and the third the bridge. "That's why his melodies are so unpredictable,” Gene explained. “It stuck in my mind, like oh shit. Let me try to write music like that. And you know it happened. I write music in exactly the same way."
"I played rock and roll, everyone did," Gene said of his early days as a musician, "but even in school, my heart and soul belong to blues and jazz—to songwriting." The blues still spoke to him after he came to America. He soon settled in New York City with a job for a moving company. They were driving back from Georgia on a job when late at night they stopped at a truck stop with a diner in West Virginia. "I heard some music from someplace," Gene remembered, "It was blues, real blues." He asked the waiter about the mysterious music and learned the diner was connected to a bar. So they went to the bar after finishing dinner. "I saw a stage and I saw an old African American man playing," he explained. "He played this old guitar. I remember his guitar was a Harmony and he used a Gibson amplifier. The microphone and guitar were so old, probably never fixed once, but what energy and music! It was traditional blues. In two seconds caught me; I couldn't even turn my face away. I was looking at him like he was a magician."
When he took a break, Gene bought the guitar player a shot of whiskey and introduced himself. He told the man his story, coming from Russia, how he was a fellow bluesman. But the man only drank his whiskey and walked away. "I couldn't understand what was going on," Gene said. "He didn't say anything, not a word, no thank you." After ten steps, the guitar player turned his head and said to Gene, "Hey son, blues is an ocean, please don't be drawn. Don't be drawn into this ocean. "But I had already been drawn in this ocean," Gene said, "and I don't want to go back to land. I am a fish in the blues."
To be continued in Part 2 next week…