Thursday, September 30, 2010

Clarence Carter

Clarence Carter sees himself as proof that people will give you a chance if you have something to offer.
Despite being blind since birth, Carter has carved a mark on American music as one of the pioneer performers of rhythm and blues. Now 74 years old, he can still control an audience with his powerful stage presence, deep baritone voice and playful, good-natured but sometimes bawdy banter with female fans.
Born in Montgomery Alabama in 1936, he was six when he started school at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega. During his high school years, he split time between the School for the Blind and Westside High School in Talladega. In 1960, he graduated from Alabama State College in Montgomery with a B.S. degree in music.
He started his performing career with a school friend, Calvin Scott. The duo, sometimes referred to as the CC Boys, had two releases under Duke Records: “You Stole My Heart” and “Money and Women.” Neither did well: Carter and Scott’s first royalty check was for 25 cents.
His association with Scott ended in 1966 and he signed a contract with Fame Records. It was under Fame that he had some of his biggest hits: “Slip Away” in 1968, “Too Weak to Fight” in 1969 and “Patches” in 1970.
In 1974 he signed with ABC Records. He released three albums under the deal, the most memorable being “Loneliness and Temptation.” Disco hurt Carter in the 1970’s, but he made a comeback in the 80’s and 90’s, especially with the risqué song “Strokin’.” During that time, hip-hop performers paid attention to Carter, particularly Run DMC, who sampled his song “Backdoor Santa” for their Christmas Song “Christmas in Hollis.”
We saw him in action as he headlined the 18th Annual Bluebird Blues Festival, held this Sunday at Prince George’s Community College. Our interview began with him describing how he started to learn guitar at the age of 11:
Carter: I didn’t even know how a guitar was made, let alone…..see like, there’s a lot of things that a lot of people take for granted. Like you see a guitar, you know what it’s supposed to look like. But unless I feel it, I ain’t going to know. And I had never felt a guitar in my life. My mama put that guitar in my lap, and she told me, she said, “you know who Santa Claus is?” And I said “no ma’am.” She said “I’m Santa” (laughs).
BBP: Did you ever have problems playing it, because of not being able to see?
Carter: Not because of not being able to see. I had trouble learning what to do with it, but not because I couldn’t see.
BBP: Tell me a little bit about the CC Boys? I understand that’s where you got your start.
Carter: I think that was about the first time a lot of people got to know us. Me and a guy in school, his name was Calvin and my name is Clarence, so we did the CC boys.
BBP: Tell me how that got started...tell me a little bit about that time in your life.
Carter: I didn’t quite hear you.
BBP: Tell me about that time in your life with the CL Boys.
Carter: Oh, you don’t want to know about that. You need to read the bio to get that.
BBP: Well, I thought I was going to try and get it from you…
Carter: Go on the internet. It’s on there.
BBP: Well tell me how Patches came around, I understand that…
Carter: That’s on the Internet too.
BBP: I know, but I was trying to get your words…
Carter: Oh, but I don’t want to go there, now. What I want to do is do something that we haven’t put on the internet, or in my bio.
BBP: Okay.
The interview stopped for a minute after someone asked Carter for his autograph.
BBP: The first time I remember you is “Patches”
Carter: You were late (laughs).
BBP: Oh, I’m not that old…(laughs).
Carter: I had “Slip Away,” “Too Weak to Fight.” But a lot of people got to know me when I put out “Patches,” really. A lot of people…it was a song that was kind of like a family-oriented song. It was kind of a thing like…a lot of people lived that. A lot of people had to grow up and help take care of the family. And I think that’s where it struck a nerve, really. It struck a nerve with those people, and ever since then they just…did you know “Patches” was a million seller in three days?
BBP: Yeah, I heard that…
Carter: In three days! (Someone from ) Atlantic Records called me and he told me. He said “Clarence, you know you have a million seller in three days?” I thought he was talking about somebody else. Cause you can go a lifetime and never get a gold record, you know, so I was quite appreciative that I was able to do that.
BBP: So what was your reaction when you found out it was a gold record in three days?
Carter: I had gotten a gold record before, because I had gotten one with “Slip Away.” I had one with “Too Weak to Fight,” but to get one that quick. I thought that was quite unusual. But it worked out well, and you know, it enhanced my career. That kind of song, I got to even play for a different kind of audience.

BBP: How would you characterize that audience? How was it different?
Carter: The audience that I got then or the audience today?
BBP: The audience you had then.
Carter: Well, it was different because it was white people, mostly white audience. See down south, most of the time when you played, you played to nothing but black people. But when I did “Patches,” then the white audience turned onto my music and then they went back and would read up on what you’ve done before this, you know. So it was what we used to call in the record business, you “cross over.” You cross over from a one-dimensional audience to a multi-audience, you know. And uh, I thought it was a great thing for me.
BBP: Who are some of the people you’ve liked and who are some of the musicians who have kind of inspired you to do what you are doing now?
Carter: Well, you know like Ray (Charles) was one of my first because he—I knew he was blind when I was in school. I got quite a thrill of seeing him be successful. Because then I realized that the world didn’t care whether you could see or whether you could not. If you had something to offer then they were willing to give you an opportunity. Even President Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. Even the president of the United States. So if you got what you need you can get what you want.
Carter then said he needed to stop the interview to get out of his performance clothes. He then agreed to one more question.
BBP: How has the music business changed from the time you started back in the sixties to the way it is now?
Carter: Oh Lord, there’s just no comparison. People take stuff now and they do what they call sample it, and all that kind of thing. We didn’t sample anything. We didn’t have the keyboards to make all of the sounds. See, I can sit down now and I can record a whole album by myself, just me on keyboard. But back then you had to have all of the musicians in there, and everybody had to play at the same time and if the trumpet player say, made a mistake, everybody had to record it over.
BBP: Do you miss those old days?
Carter: Well, if you came up among those days, you kind of miss them, but me myself, I move forward with the times. Whatever comes out new, I’m always trying to get it. I think I get my wife to take me to the music store at least, once every two weeks (laughs). I want to go see, what they got new.
BBP: Who do you like that’s out now?
Carter: Nowadays I don’t hardly know any of them, like mostly the rap artists, I really don’t know them. I really don’t. My kind of music they don’t hardly like to put it on the radio much anymore.
BBP: Okay. I understand that when rap came out a lot of the musicians were following you, rap musicians were sampling your music and so forth.
Carter: Yeah, they would do it. Luckily for us, some of the music organizations started finding ways to be able to allow them to sample it alright, but then they have to pay you royalties for it. Well, the one thing, you can’t stop technology. It’s going to go on, you know, and you just have to learn to adapt to it.
BBP: Are you coming out with anything in the near future?
Carter: Well, my newest album now is called On Your Feet. It’s already out. I’ll probably put out another—I’m thinking about having another one ready for maybe about March of next year.
BBP: All new original material?
Carter: All new original material. I don’t hardly go and re-record because you—if I go try and record “Patches” again it’s not going to sound the same way. I’m not going to have the same feel, you know what I’m saying? It’s like a one-time thing, you can try it, you know. I’ve tried re-recording some of my older stuff, but it never comes off to my satisfaction.
BBP: And some of the themes you’re going to explore with this new album, can you talk about them?
Carter: Don’t want to do that. Might give somebody an idea. You know how people are these days. They’ll get your idea and you’ll hear it on the radio and you won’t realize how it got there.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Delta Blues Juke Joint and Diner: Living Up to the "Juke Joint" in its Name

It is the blues lover’s ultimate fantasy: an evening of great food and music not at a downtown nightclub, but at a “juke joint” in a remote area on the outskirts of the city.
Located in Waldorf, the Delta Blues Juke Joint & Diner may be the closest thing that Washington and Baltimore area blues lovers can find to that fantasy.
With weekend performances by Lady Rose, Stacy Brooks, the Big Boy Little Band and other popular bands, Delta Blues Juke Joint & Diner works hard to live up to the “juke joint” in its name.
But co-owners Eugene Cook and Michelle Collins are also pushing the “diner” side. Visit the establishment in the morning and you can treat yourself to traditional Southern breakfast delicacies such as fish and grits; sausage, biscuits and gravy and chicken and waffles, not to mention eggs made over easy, over hard, scrambled or into western or Georgia omelets.
For dinner, Delta Blues offers catfish, whiting, ribs and smoked chicken. “The catfish is definitely going, because that gives us a little Mississippi/Alabama taste, a little southern cuisine” said Cook, who is originally from Martinsville, Virginia. “The pork chops are really kicking butt. The smoked chicken, the ribs, always the whiting...”
For dessert, there is bread pudding and peach crisp. There is also “dump” cake, made by “dumping” cherries, pineapples, nuts and anything else but the kitchen sink together for baking. “You dump it in, you bake it up and it’s nice and fresh,” Cook said.
First opened last November, the diner, at 2796 Old Washington Road, marks a new direction for Cook and Collins, former bartenders who met while working in Washington and who are now engaged to be married.
The couple met in the mid-1990s while working at Republic Gardens, a popular Washington nightclub.
About 2002 Cook moved to another well-known city club, Dream (the club later changed its name to Love). He stayed there until about three years ago, when he decided “I kind of wanted to do my own thing.”
He set up a truck stand in Waldorf, where he was living at the time. The operation, which sold catfish, whiting, smoked chicken and ribs, did not go over well with the Charles County government, which basically saw it as “a carry-out on wheels,” he recalled. “Because of that, it just basically caused a headache for the other business owners who actually had a business, and stuff like that,” he said.
Feeling a need for more of a restaurant setting, Cook opened a carryout on Route 301. But even that had its limitations, he discovered.
“I had my carry-out, and I had this gentleman come to my place,” Cook recalled. “He loved the catfish, but he kept offering me to come to a bigger place and what happened was, I didn’t want to leave where I was at. But I didn’t like the fact that it wasn’t a sit-down restaurant, I needed something a little bigger, needed something with alcohol because people want beverages with their dinner.”
Though Cook found the building on Old Washington Road, it was Collins who saw the potential for a juke joint theme. “When I walked into the place the ambiance brought me back to an era in my time,” Collins said. “I grew up in Indiana, I’m from the Midwest, but a lot of the influence of my family was from the Delta Mississippi area. So when I saw the panel and I saw the layout of the spot and in the back of my mind what I grew up on was Chicago and Mississippi blues. So with the combination of this spot with his ideas of the smoked ribs and chicken and the Southern cuisine, it was almost like we took each of our idea and combined the concept.”
The couple hopes the restaurant—which in August served as the site of a jam/concert hosted by the D.C. Blues Society—will help promote the blues as an art form. In addition to hearing live shows, patrons can also watch the restaurant's large flat-screen television for recorded performances from Muddy Waters and other legendary musicians.
“The thing is when you listen to blues it’s a little more about the soul of what we started back in the day and we’re keeping it current today, and that’s what I love about the blues,” Cook said. “To hear a harmonica player talk what some people feel, it goes down to the soul.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

James Armstrong: Rebirth

Born to a mother who was a blues singer and a father who played jazz guitar, James Armstrong initially went through the type of childhood rebellion that makes kids do anything but what their parents do. Armstrong tried several instruments and styles before he realized where the rockers he was listening to got their music.
Since then he has accumulated extensive experience as a bluesman, sharing the stage with “Big” Joe Turner, Albert Collins, Coco Montoya and Joe Louis Walker, among others. His approach to the art has been one of respecting its traditions while expanding its boundaries by writing original material rather than just regurgitating covers.
He enjoys the respect of the music and blues community, many of whom stepped up to help him overcome an experience that almost cost him his career, not to mention his life and that of his son: a home-invasion assault that left his arm so badly injured he thought he would never play again.
Beldon’s Blues Point caught up with him Friday, Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C., where he performed before a packed band room at Madam’s Organ in the city’s Adams-Morgan section. He looked like anything but somebody still suffering lingering problems from the assault when, during a guitar solo, he jumped onto the bar,dropped back to the floor, then went outside along busy 18th Street, all without missing a note.
During a break, he talked much about his life:
BBP: I understand that your mother was a jazz singer and your father was a guitarist?
Armstrong: Definitely. They met in Philadelphia. My dad played guitar and my mom sang and that’s how they met and I started playing with my dad, playing drums when I was five years old.
BBP: That was your first musical experience, playing drums?
Armstrong: I didn’t want to play guitar because when you’re a kid, at least I was the type of kid who didn’t want to do what my parents did. My dad always played and my mom always sang so I just thought I’d just beat these drums and then I didn’t have to (laughs) play guitar.
BBP: When did you finally decide to pick up a guitar?
Armstrong: I think I went to saxophone after that, I think I was about 11 or 12. Cause I’d always picked it up, they were laying all around the house so I used to just pick it up and strum and lay it down. But one day, I can almost remember, I just picked it up, I was watching TV and I did a couple of things on it. It started to make sense. It started to work. So then I just kept playing from there and I think…I’m going to say (I was about) 13.
BBP: So when did you feel that you wanted to play blues as opposed to rock and roll.
Armstrong: Well that’s interesting because I grew up in California. And like hearing the blues and the jazz all of my life, I just kind of wanted to rebel. So I was really heavy into rock and actually my first touring band was a country band at 17. And I really didn’t care for the blues. I heard it all and my dad did it in a lot of places but what finally happened, I came sort of in through the back door because I heard some of the rock bands like Clapton, who I think is an incredible bluesman and the Allman Brothers. And they had another energy, they put another energy to the blues that I didn’t know about. But then what that did for me, that made me go back to the greats: Howlin Wolf, Freddy King, B.B. King, Albert Collins, and go back to all of those guys and go ‘oh that’s where everybody’s got it from.’ So I kind of call it going through the back door and then I finally came home.
BBP: Now I understand you used to play for Albert Collins and also that you played with Coco Montoya?
Armstrong: I met Coco Montoya when I was 17 in Santa Monica California, and I was just playing with him and he said “I’m going to bring this guy down” I was probably in my early 20’s then. And he goes Albert Collins, and he (Collins) was going to come to one of our shows, and I didn’t know who he was (laughs). And then he came in and he just picked up this Telecaster and I’m standing next to him and I was…I was blown away. I just never heard anything like that, and got the opportunity to play with him there quite a few times, and just hung out with him. Just incredible, incredible man.
BBP: Who else have you played with over the years?
Armstrong: You know, I…
BBP: Big Daddy…
Armstrong: You might be thinking of Big Daddy Kinsey? I played with the Kinsey Report a lot. I never worked with Big Daddy. I worked with….
BBP: Wait a minute, you played with the Kinsey Report? That’s one of my favorite bands! Tell me about that. Please!
Armstrong: The Kinsey Report, let me tell you, I knew about them and I heard their stuff, and then I had a friend who wanted me to help them get some lodging in Santa Cruz. So I met them and the first time I sat in with them was in Santa Cruz. And then we played different places around the world, whenever there was a festival or something that we could meet. I was actually able to use Kenny Kinsey in my band for maybe about a year, which was incredible.
BBP: Their bass player.
Armstrong: Bass player, yeah. And (Kinsey Report lead guitarist) Donald Kinsey is to me just phenomenal. He’s just the nicest guy and just an incredible player.
BBP: You’ve had a lot of influences. You’ve played in a country band, you’ve played rock. Is that filtering into what you are doing now?
Armstrong: Well, you know it’s interesting because I try to infuse—I don’t guess I try, it just happens. You hear things, and I grew up with the country, I grew up with rock, I did a little folk. And obviously I did the R and B thing. That, and blues. So when I sit down and write, I just try to infuse all of it together somehow. I don’t say “well this is a blues song” or “this is a rock feel” or “this is a soul feel.” I just try to throw it together and if it makes sense to me, that’s kind of all that matters. Maybe nobody else likes it but (laughs)
BBP: We love it. We love it. Tell me about Chaka Khan. You played with her?
Armstrong: Yeah, well Chaka—it was in Hollywood. So we’re at Billy Dee Williams’ club and she actually came in and she was sitting in the back and someone mentioned her name and the crowd started screaming and I didn’t know what to do. I was kind of young and I said, “Would you like to come up?” and she literally came on stage with me and uh—I used to do a lot of Hendrix, and she actually loved the Hendrix I was doing. So we did a couple of Hendrix songs, and she went and played drums! I didn’t know she played drums. She was incredible and we just hung out all night and just had a great time.
BBP: I understand that Hendrix is one of your influences, but more from a vocal point of view than a guitar point of view. Is that true?
Armstrong: Yeah, definitely. I got into him really young and I tried to play like him but I wasn’t capable and I don’t think too many people ever were or will be. But I listened to him so much that I think I started to sing like him and do his phrasing. One of the biggest thrills of my life—you were talking about playing with people—I got a chance to play with Mitch Mitchell, his drummer, for two shows with Coco Montoya. I was 22 and that was like the thrill of my life to be able to play with one of the Experience.
BBP: So tell me about that a little bit. What happened that night?
Armstrong: It was just incredible. I didn’t know about it until about a week before it happened. I had met him earlier, and that was it for me—just meeting him I thought I had reached my plateau. But then I got a call from Coco saying “Mitch is going to sit in with us for these couple of shows” and just the feel that he had, just the presence.
BBP: I want to ask you about a very tragic part of your life. I understand that you were victimized by a robber at some point? And that it may have affected your ability to play?
Armstrong: Yeah, in 1998 I was home playing with my two-year-old son and my nine-month-old son and we lived in an incredibly safe area in Sunnyvale, California and we had just left the doors open, it was that kind of family neighborhood. Anyway, we were on the second story and the door opened and somebody walked in. So I got up off of the floor and I go “What are you doing in my house?” And he put his hand up to his mouth to like be quiet and walked into the kitchen, was looking in drawers and I went out to the other room to make a phone call. I was calling 911, and when I turned around he had already had the knife cocked back and he stabbed. The first stab wound was in my upper chest. And then I got repeatedly stabbed. I was trying to get outside and he grabbed my two-year-old, he grabbed my two-year-old son and threw him over a balcony. And today James Junior, James Junior is 17. He’s fine, he’ll be okay. He was okay. He was in a coma for four weeks but he’s okay now. For me, I lost use of my left arm and hand for about two years and I only have two fingers that work on my left fingering hand. My hand looks okay, but I only have two fingers that are kind of weak so I’m just really blessed that God just gave me a chance. I never thought I’d play again or even hold a guitar. But over the years I’ve tried and I’ve had a lot of support from friends like Coco and Joe Louis Walker, Doug Macleod.The blues world has just really helped me out, so, so much to come back and I’m, I’m…….
BBP: Yep. You’re back. I heard you play. You sound great. How did you get your arm back to play like you do now?
Armstrong: Well you know it took a long, long, long, long time and still, I used to have all my fingers and I think I used to be pretty good, but God has an interesting way of working. I couldn’t play for a long time because my brain said “Well you can do this” but my hand, I literally couldn’t move my fingers. But I always wanted to sound a certain way, like the older guys. Like Albert and B.B. and Freddy and—I wanted to have that feeling, that slowness. And literally God gave it to me in a different way. I literally can’t play fast because of my left hand. So I had to start bending notes and slowing down because I literally couldn’t do it. I sound like I wanted to a long time ago when my hand worked. So it’s literally interesting for me, that’s the way I look at it. It took a very long, long time to realize that I just can’t play fast and there’s no need to play fast. Play with feeling, less is more.
BBP: Let me ask you what you have cooking in the hopper right now in terms of albums and projects, and different things.
Armstrong: We have a brand new CD that’s done and it’s being mastered right now. And hopefully in—it’s hard to say, I’m going to say months—a few months it should be out. And the word is “should.” I hope it is. I think it will be. It’s been a while since I put one out, because I was on HighTone records for a long time. And we’re really happy with it, it’s got—it’s basically all originals. It’s got some new feels, new grooves. Maybe you heard some of them tonight. We’re real excited about it.
BBP: What’s it called?
Armstrong: That’s how excited we are, we don’t even know yet (laughs)! That’s how new it is.
BBP: Let me just ask you one more question. How would you advise a young guitar player coming along to prove himself, to be able to play like you do?
Armstrong: Well, it’s interesting because I get asked that a lot. You used the word “tragedy” and I guess it was. But I kind of call it a gift. What the gift taught me was, when that happened to my son and myself, I injured my hand. It’s like, you have to play for yourself, you have to play from your soul. We all can listen to Freddy King, Albert and Hendrix and Clapton, who I love. But you have to get to a point where it’s yourself. So when you sit down and practice, don’t try to—you got to sound like somebody else for a little bit. But after that you have to find yourself—because that separates the men from the boys—and just practice. And have fun. That’s what it’s about. If it’s not, if you’re not having fun, don’t do it.
We ended the interview here, but then Armstrong had something to say about guitarist Joe Louis Walker and how he had helped him after the assault.
Armstrong: This is about Joe Louis Walker. When I lived in Santa Cruz and I couldn’t play anymore—I just wanted to stop playing and I tried to start playing a little bit—I went to see Joe.
BBP: This is after your accident?
Armstrong: After my accident. And I was sitting in the audience, and he knew I was there. And he told the audience James Armstrong was here and he said “James come up” and I kept saying “no, I can’t play.” I literally had one finger that barely moved. And he insisted that I get up on stage and play with him. And I was so embarrassed and, I’ll never forget this, and I thanked Joe so much. Because I got up there and I sounded horrible, but he kept saying “You just got to keep doing it. You just got to play and play and play.” And from that day on, I really kept trying. You know, it sounded horrible, I only had one finger. But I’ll never forget that night. I thank Joe every time I see him from the bottom of my heart, to really help me get back on track.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Deanna Bogart: The Mom with the Horn

Saxophonist and pianist Deanna Bogart began to make a name for herself in the early 1980’s singing and playing for Cowboy Jazz, a Maryland-based group specializing in western swing-style music. Before starting her own band in 1988, she played rhythm and blues with Root Boy Slim, a Washington, D.C.-based artist.
Bogart is one musician not afraid to hit the road, having traveled to Iraq and Kuwait with Bluzapalooza, a tour organized two years ago by Blues promoter Steven Simon to entertain U.S. servicemen abroad. Still, she spends a lot of time in the D.C.-Maryland area, where she lives. Currently, she has gigs scheduled for the Birchmere in Alexandria on Oct. 15, for the Weinberg Center in Frederick, Maryland on November 26 and a New Year’s Eve engagement at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.
It was at the Rams Head Tavern that Beldon’s Blues Point caught up with her last Sunday, where she had just sat in on a concert given by Joe Louis Walker and Murali Coryell:
BBP: You’re on the new Joe Louis Walker album, Live on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. How did that come together?
Bogart: It was amazing, I mean the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise is amazing anyway. It’s kind of indescribable. But they’re so many musicians on there and so much fixing and sharing and cross-pollinating going on that all kinds of things just happen and Joe had mentioned that he was going to be recording and he said can you come by this particular night and it was of course an honor and a treat and I would have done it anywhere at any time, anyway. I’ve been a fan of Joe’s for a really really long time, so just to be on stage with him and then to be on the record was real nice.
BBP: So what are you doing these days, what are you up to?
Bogart: I don’t know. Just trying to keep the gigs working and keep the thing rolling and so far, so good, you know; writing, producing, arranging for some folks I like and playing gigs and being a mom and cleaning up the house, you know (laughs). The most recent album of ours is called 11th Hour and that’s been out not quite a year, still in the “sort-of-new” column.
BBP: You’re in the process of writing songs and perhaps doing material for something else coming out?
Bogart: You know I don’t write necessarily for that reason, but it might feel like it’s time to record because a lot of things are starting to come through and there’s a lot of things I’m starting to hear and want to write. So if I can keep myself disciplined and motivated I can get them down on paper before I forget them.
BBP: Who else are you working with? You said you are producing for other people and doing things for other people. Who are you working with?
Bogart: I produced two records for Matt Wigler, amazing young piano player, organ player. One called Epiphony, one called Thirteen. And I recorded a holiday record, Home Run Holiday with Rick Dempsey, the Orioles MVP catcher. That’s not even a year old, so I’m real proud of that. It’s a good record, I like it a lot.
BBP: You’re talking about a baseball player? And he’s a musician too?
Bogart: He’s a singer.
BBP: A singer. Wow.
Bogart: So we decided to do a holiday record and my only criteria was, it’s got to somehow sound fresh because they’re so many holiday records.
BBP: This is Christmas, you mean.
Bogart: Well, we made it holiday, but yeah….It’s called Home Run Holiday, it’s on Vista Records and it’s a good record. It’s got Scott Ambush (bass), Mike Aubin (drums), Dan Leonard (guitar), Eric Scott (vocals), Matt Wigler(piano, keyboards)…it’s a very cool record.
BBP: Who’s your favorite saxophone player and who were some of your influences coming along?
Bogart: Wow, I don’t know how many I’m allowed to say here but Ben Webster might be my all-time favorite. Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, Maceo Parker, Stanley Turrentine, and musicians in general too, musicians of every instrument that have been inspiring and life-changing at different times.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Murali Coryell: In the Room with Jimi

When guitarist Murali Coryell was three months old, he was picked up by Jimi Hendrix. The contact may have given a push to a musical destiny that already had strong roots: Coryell’s father is guitarist and jazz/rock fusion pioneer Larry Coryell. Diverting somewhat from his father and brother, guitarist Julian Coryell, Murali has gravitated more towards the blues. For the last six months, he has been performing with bluesman Joe Louis Walker. The two on Sunday played the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, where Murali talked about his association with Walker, his family, his solo projects and a curious song he wrote about that fateful encounter with Hendrix:
BBP: How long have you been playing with Joe?
Murali: How long have I been playing? Well I’ve known Joe for over twenty years, and I’ve been playing with him officially in his band for six months.
BBP: How did that come about?
Murali: Well, Joe is originally from San Francisco, California and he moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, which is near where I live. I live in Woodstock, N.Y., and so we started hanging out and being closer together geographically and then when it came time for me to do my album I hired Joe to be on my album and before that Joe had recorded one of my songs on his album, so we’re fans of each other’s music. And since he was, you know, close by to me, and he just wanted to hook up, he wanted me to play with him and who am I to say “no?”
BBP: How have you mixed your styles?
Murali: The thing is is that Joe and I, we both love all kinds of music. We love the straight-ahead, traditional blues but we love the other sides of the blues. The soul side, the rock side, the funk side, the African side, so you know to both of us, to me and to Joe also, we see the blues as a very wide umbrella under which many, many styles co-exist. So that’s how we do it. We both love the diversity and we love the blues. We love it all.
BBP: What is it like growing up in a family where your father is one of the top guitar-players in the country?
Murali: Well, I’ll tell you what. There was…I felt there were a lot of expectations and pressure, personal pressure to try to live up to be as great as my dad, or be as good as him, which is kind of an impossibility. And fortunately what happened for me was I discovered that the blues was something that came, you know, very naturally to me and that became my foundation for my style of music. And so when I found that, that was really the key, finding my own style. Because I still can’t do a lot of the things that my father and my brother, Julian Coryell is an incredible guitarist, they’re both incredibly talented and gifted. And so it’s a matter of, I kind of had to find my own thing that I was good at so I could hang on the level with those guys.
BBP: So your style is more towards the blues end and theirs is more towards the jazz end, is that what you are saying?
Murali: I would definitely say in a general description, yes. That’s what I would say. I’m definitely really influenced by the blues and the vocal thing is very important as well. And being into soul music, soul music, funk, blues, rock, all of it. It’s all great music. So I let myself be influenced by all of those things and try to create something and make my own contribution to this great American music.
BBP: Is any of your father’s influence in what you do?
Murali: Oh yeah, there’s no doubt about that. Yeah I mean there’s cert—you know there’s just certain things. Because although he’s known as a jazz player, he taught me Hendrix riffs and blues riffs, Freddy King things and so, you know, he’s influenced me in a lot of ways. Not just musically, but life also. And Joe Louis Walker’s the same way. He’s influenced me, he taught me music. Also taught me about life experience, and you know in the business that we’re in they’re both valuable.
BBP: Wanted to ask you about that song you did about Hendrix. It sounded like you were telling your own life story.
Murali: Yeah, you know it’s a true story. The song is called “I was in the Room with Jimi” and it’s a true story about how when I was an infant, about three months old, Jimi Hendrix came to see my dad playing at a gig and apparently Jimi Hendrix picked me up when I was in a basinet back stage, or on the side of the stage. And so I heard that story and I just thought it was really cool and it was inspiring to write a song about that. So yeah, true story, cool thing.
BBP: Do you think it influenced you in any way? (laughs)
Murali: You know what? I’d like to think it has. I mean my father even says who knows, you know. Maybe in some way Jimi and Murali exchanged something at that point. Who knows? But it certainly doesn’t hurt. It certainly can’t hurt you.
BBP: You’re obviously very involved with this band, but you also have things going on, on your own. Tell me about some of them.
Murali: Well, before I joined up with Joe, I was doing my own albums, touring for the last fifteen years. And um, the important thing is to continue writing. You know it’s about writing songs, making more records and playing gigs. And so, when I’m with Joe, the music’s great, the crowd’s great and so I hope that on my own gigs they’re going to be on the same level. I have a gig coming up where we’re going to be opening up for B.B. King in Buffalo, NY in November. And we’re all looking forward to that.
BBP: Your band?
Murali: Yeah, that was a gig that I had before I was with Joe. And Joe heard about that gig and he said I want to be on that gig of yours. So, this is how we help each other. As musicians and artists we all want to be playing our music in front of the right audience and surrounded by people who inspire us, you know, bring out the best in us. So that’s what we try to do.
BBP: Do you have an album coming out?
Murali: My current CD is called Sugar Lips and it features Larry Coryell, my father, as well as Joe Louis Walker on it. And that’s the current album. It was produced by Tom Hambridge who is Buddy Guy’s producer who maybe will be doing Joe’s next record, from what I hear. It was recorded in Nashville, twelve original songs, and so that’s my latest one and I’m touring, supporting that as well as my 2008 release The Same Damn Thing, which has the song “In the Room with Jimi” on it. And I’ve got five other albums out, but those are the two most recent ones. Hopefully I’ll write some more new songs and make some more albums, be adding those to the set list and to the repertoire.
BBP: As a guitar player, what advice would you give to a young guitar player?
Murali: Find a good teacher. Find a teacher that you like the way they play and maybe go learn from them. Go out and play with people. Play as much as you can. Just keep going for it.
BBP: Can I ask you what your favorite guitar is?
Murali: My favorite guitar? I’m kind of a Strat guy, you know. I have a Les Paul, I have a couple of Strats so I use those and I’m still looking for an acoustic guitar that I love, you know. So, you know what, they’re all different. So it’s kind of like when you play a good guitar, you know it, you can feel it. And the person who sets it up, that makes a big deal, a big difference. A good set-up guy could take a cheap guitar and make it sound like an expensive guitar, make it sound good. So um—well I’m kind of a Strat guy but Joe has also gotten me into using the Les Paul and I’m getting into that. I love that sound as well. So it’s like having a different tool for a different job or a different flavor depending up what colors you’re trying to produce.

Joe Louis Walker: The Frisco Kid

Blues guitarist and vocalist Joe Louis Walker is a living, breathing, walking, strumming piece of recent American musical history.
A product of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury District, he was already living in the predominately African-American neighborhood to greet the hippies who made it their Mecca during the 1960’s. His junior high school was only a block away from the famed Fillmore West auditorium, where as a youth he played in “Battles of the Bands.” As a young man, he lived with Mike Bloomfield, famous for his guitar playing on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and his work with the Paul Butterfield Blues band. Their house became a site where musicians such as John Mayall, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and Country Joe McDonald would show up to jam.
Walker even traded jokes with Jimi Hendrix.
He has since spent his life in the company of notable musicians—both onstage and off. He sought musical tips from Earl Hooker, Fred McDowell and Howlin’ Wolf and developed close friendships with Buddy Miles and Stevie Ray, among others. He opened for Thelonious Monk at the age of 18 and over the years has played with Huey Lewis, Boz Scaggs, John Lee Hooker and all three Kings of the Blues: Albert, B.B. and Freddy. B.B. tapped Walker to play on two albums.
About six months ago, Walker joined forces with Murali Coryell, son of guitarist and fusion pioneer Larry Coryell.
On Sunday, the two played the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, where they were joined for a few songs by another blues notable, saxophonist and keyboardist Deanna Bogart.
Beldon’s Blues Point had a chance to talk to Walker then about his life, his collaboration with Murali Coryell, and his latest album, Live on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, recorded live on a boat cruise with Bogart, Johnny Winter, Curtis Salgado, Watermelon Slim, Tommy Castro and others.
His new album and his work with Murali were obviously the news. But I just had to know about those meals with Muddy, shared in Toronto, a city not known for its soul food:
BBP: There’s a story about you and Muddy Waters, that he actually cooked for you one time.
JLW: When we were in Toronto I opened up for Muddy for two weeks and we tried eating soul food there but wasn’t none… Muddy wanted the shit made right, you know. He wanted it made right. So, so I ate with Muddy.
BBP: How did you get together with Murali? That’s a great combination.
JLW: Well, I’ve know Murali 20 years...Murali, Shemekia Copeland, Bernard Allison, Joe Bonamassa, all those guys I’ve seen them all…Susan Tedeschi, they’ve been playing for 20 years I knew them all when they were kids, literally and it does my heart good to see them all…all of them are good. Little Truck, I knew Little Derek when he was in the studio, from the beginning times, you know in the studio with us and they all were just..Chris Thomas, whose Chris Thomas King now? I mean they were all youngsters then, you know, all of them. And all of them had been playing a couple of years then. All the Neals. All of them. So, I mean, I’ve known them all, but me and Murali have always had a very very close relationship. I know his father, I did some things in England with his father Larry. People had told me about him and in fact my wife told me about Murali before we were married and I went down to see him and I was just knocked out. I mean he could sing like Al Green and play like Freddy King, you know. And write. He’s like a triple threat. Really quadruple because he plays all instruments: keyboards, drums, organ, bass. And he plays jazz, he can play blues, I mean he is the whole package.
BBP: He adds sort of a jazz—sort of undercurrent—to your music. Would you agree with that?
JLW: Yeah, well I play a lot of jazz, I play with everybody from Herbie Hancock to John Patitucci, I opened up for Thelonius Monk. I played a lot of rock with Huey Lewis, Boz Scaggs, you know. To me there ain’t but two types of music, good and bad. I play a lot of blues—Earl Hooker, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, B.B. King, Albert King—I played with them all.
BBP: Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s death. I understand that you knew him?
JLW: Yeah, I knew Jimi, I knew Jimi through Buddy Miles. I knew Buddy when he first came to the West Coast to play in the Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield because I was living with Bloomfield at the time. So through Buddy I got to know Jimi Hendrix, you know.
BBP: Did you guys ever play together or jam together?
JLW: No, I never played…sitting in a room joking around. I never went on stage with him. But he came to a couple of my gigs. Came to one gig I did and of course I went to several gigs he did. He became a big star. But I’d seen him years ago in a different situation when he wasn’t a big star, you know, so it’s a small world.
BBP: What situation was that?
JLW: Well, I’d seen a show. Sort of a soul gospel show and I found out later, in fact, somebody had taken a picture. They said “you were at that show, Joe?” And I said, “Yeah, I went there.” They said “you know the guitar player was Jimi Hendrix.” But he wasn’t Jimi Hendrix then. I think he was Jimmy James or somebody like that.
BBP: And one thing I was wondering was, your slide style. I guess you got a lot of that from Fred McDowell? Who were some of the people who influenced you the most as a guitar player?
JLW: Well I was fortunate enough to learn slide guitar from—I played with Earl Hooker, Mike Bloomfield and Fred, and then of course Muddy showed me a few things. I’d watch him and ask him questions. But I got into very various different styles of music. I played the gospel ten years, so I listen to people like Bobby Womack and people like that. I listen to a lot of soul, guys like Jimmy Johnson, the one from Muscle Shoals. There’s another blues guy Jimmy Johnson. Albert King, Buddy. I like rock guitar players, certain guys I like. I listen to Jeff Beck. I like Jeff when he does his thing. There’s a lot—so many great musicians, you know what I’m saying? A lot of jazz players, Kevin Eubanks, George Benson, people like that. Murali Coryell and his dad.
BBP: You played with a gospel group for several years in the eighties. How did that influence what you are doing now?
JLW: Well I played gospel from 1975 to 1985 and it’s good training ground for musicians. Teaching discipline, how to sing, how to sing in harmony. You travel and it’s a good training ground for musicians.
BBP: Tell me a little bit about the new album. You have several musicians playing with you. How did you get all of that together?
JLW: Well a lot of my friends on the boat were on the cruise with me performing. Like Johnny Winter and Curtis Salgado, Tommy Castro, Duke Robillard and people like that, so I just asked them all, told them all I was making a live record, you know, and—I like live records. I’ve had a lot of success musically with live records. So it was really good in that context and everybody played great.
BBP: Do you plan to do a live record with Murali?
JLW: Actually, we played the North Sea Jazz Festival with a bunch of acts. Stevie Wonder, Damian Marley and we got a live record out of that. We might release it someday.
BBP: One thing that I was curious about. Duke Robillard, you have a long relationship with him. He produced one of your albums. He did several songs…
JLW: Couple of my albums. He produced Witness to the Blues and he produced the one—along with me—the one that just won the blues music award Between a Rock and the Blues. Well I’ve known Duke a long time and we’re sort of kindred souls. He plays a lot of different styles and I play a lot of different styles so when I went to look for a producer I went to look for somebody that I had that sort of type understanding that, I wasn’t just going to play just one style of this or one style—I’ve never been known for that. And so with Duke I never did have to explain what I’m doing or “well it’s sort of this and sort of that.” It was either that it was good or it wasn’t that good.

BBP: And who would you like to collaborate with in the future who you haven’t done so with yet?
JLW: Well, I’ve done a lot of stuff with a lot of people. I got to get back to you on that one. (laughs). No, Herbie Hancock. Herbie Hancock and Youssou N’Dour.
BBP: Who was that last one?
JLW: Youssou N’Dour. African artist from Senegal.
BBP: I know you’re from San Francisco and you were kind of into that Haight Ashbury scene when you were very young. Tell me a little bit about that and what it was like.
JLW: Well I lived in Haight Ashbury before the hippies got there. I was in Haight Ashbury when it was like Harlem. It was totally African-American. Fillmore auditorium, I went to junior high school a block from there. We used to have our battle of the bands at the Fillmore auditorium and so I seen it change. And I played the Fillmore Auditorium for Bill Graham. And I played for the hippies and I seen it coming and I seen it go. And I seen a lot of people get affected by it in a positive and a negative way, you know. I think it was good, especially for people to sort of leave a lot of restraints and old different type of morays and be able to have new ways where they could express themselves and leave the old thing behind. But I think a lot of people just sort of—excess hurts anything.
BBP: How about musically? What was happening then?
JLW: Well it was great, you know. You had a bunch of young guys wanting to play all kinds of music and when Bill Graham got the Fillmore Auditorium and Chet Helms got the Family Dog and there were also all kinds of other shows. I mean there was also Sly (Stone) and his brother Freddie and everybody. Tower of Power, all of the homeboys. So there was a lot of different music going around. A lot of people were just learning to find themselves. Everybody from the Dead to Quicksilver Messenger Service to Sly Stone to Tower of Power to everybody, you know. And it was a great thing. I’ve never met anybody from the Bay Area who didn’t say that coming from there was a good thing for them. A lot of guys left places to come there. But the guys who were from there, you know, the guys who were from there knew by traveling around that a lot of places were so repressive and uptight. Shit, George Harrison came to San Francisco, you know, to see what it was about.
BBP: What musically do you remember most from that time in your life?
JLW: Uh, Opening up for Thelonious Monk. That was probably something that a lot of people can’t say they did that (laughs). You know, that was very interesting.
BBP: How old were you when you did that?
JLW: About eighteen.
BBP: What was that like? What happened?
JLW: You know Monk was—I know it was his first time playing the Fillmore and playing for that type of crowd, you know. So he’d play and he’d get up and then (tenor saxophonist) Charlie Rouse and the other guys would stay as he played his introduction and solos. He’d go stand behind the curtain and pull the curtain back a little bit and just sort of gaze at the hippies…he’d come back out, play his part, come stand behind the curtain —I just got the feeling that he was feeling it out. And I don’t blame him. Because he’d been used to playing in New York, you know, and stuff like that when they took his cabaret card. To go from that type of repression to come to that kind of freedom, I’ve seen so many cats just— just blossom. It just effects you. It’s got to. And it’s funny for me because I was used to that kind of freedom to play In different places, to play in Mississippi, Chicago in ’69, which was an eye-opener for me.
BBP: How did that change you as a musician?
JLW: It didn’t change my music it just made know that I was fortunate to be where I was from. And that I was definitely going back there (laughs). But a lot of these places are changing now. Chicago’s different from the ’68—the Democratic Convention of 68, you know. Mississippi’s a little bit different now.
BBP: So you’re saying there was more racism in Chicago at that time, then where you were from?
JLW: There was more repression under all circumstances. They didn’t like hippies, they didn’t like nothin.’ I mean it was the old guard. It was Mayor Daley. Not the young Mayor Daley but the old Mayor Daley. And Mississippi, well, you know—“Eyes on the Prize.” All you got to do is put the PBS special on, you’ll see it (laughs).
BBP: How would you advise a young guitar player coming along as to how to play better?
JLW: Well, you know I can’t really say other than what I did. And what I did, I was fortunate that every blues guy that came to town I literally went to them and asked them. I didn’t stay in the audience, I went to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. I mean I must have met every blues guy that came through the West Coast. Hell. Jesus Christ, man. I opened up for Fred McDowell for a week at a time. Lightning Hopkins kicked me off the stage when I was young and stupid. Earl Hooker. I mean everybody. If I could get to you, I’d a got to you. And some of them accepted me. But none of them really told me to stop. They just said well “you know, everywhere I go I see this kid.”And so I think, when you—if you want to learn opera you go to Italy. That’s where they teach opera. If you want to learn how to play the blues go to blues guys. It’s one thing to play along with a record. It’s another thing to have a conversation with somebody and ask them “how did you do that? How did you do like that,” you know? That’s what you got to do.
BBP: Which one of them told you something that stuck in your mind to this day?
JLW: Well, I can’t put that on here, man. There’s something Muddy told me about playing the slide guitar.
BBP: Yes, you can.
JLW: No I can’t (laughs). And I ain’t going to do it! Big Bill Morganfield (Muddy’s son) will kill me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cheryl Renee: Cincinnati Boogie-Woogie

The D.C. Blues Society’s Annual Festival has always had special meaning for me.
First of all, it’s obviously a blast to sit and listen to a full day of blues music for no money, save for what you spend on beer and hot dogs.
Second, I get nostalgic about the venue: the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in northwest D.C., where, as a child and teen-ager, I heard performances by Cannonball Adderly, Donny Hathaway, Earth, Wind and Fire, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, the Temptations, Return to Forever and others.
And third, it’s generally followed by a party where even more good music is played.
The 22nd Annual D.C. Blues Festival last Saturday was no different.
Warmed up by Big Boy Little Band of Zoo Bar fame, the festival was moved along by veteran singer/songwriter/guitarist Doug MacLeod and Houston blues and gospel singer Diunna Greenleaf to a blistering final act by blues-rock guitarist Bryan Lee and his Blues Power Band.
Along the way, the city of Cincinnati represented through the music of Keyboardist Cheryl Renee and her current compadres, the Them Bones band.
The group, which won third place in this year’s Memphis International Challenge, later showed up at the Silver Spring American Legion to headline the D.C. Blues Society after party. In between sets, BBP had a chance to talk to Cheryl Renee, during which she revealed a colorful history and outlook, musically and otherwise. See for yourself:
BBP: How do you like D.C.?
Renee: What? Say that again. Ask me again.
BBP: How do you like playing in D.C.?
Renee: I love D.C. I’ve never been to the Capitol before.
BBP: How would you characterize your music? If you could describe your music in five words or less, how would you describe it?
Renee: It-is-very-good-blues (laughs)
BBP: Now you’re from Cincinnati. They have their own thing going on out there.
Renee: Wherever you go, they’re all with their own thing.
BBP: But how would you characterize Cincinnati blues scene. What’s it like? What makes Cincinnati blues different from other blues?
Renee: It is very good blues (laughs).
BBP: How old were you when you started playing piano?
Renee: I was in the fourth grade.
BBP: Okay.
Renee: I took piano lessons when I was in the fourth grade.
BBP: Did you start off playing blues, or did you start off doing something else.
Renee: No, it took me a long time. I went on the road with show bands and R and B, top 40, funk, rock and roll, all that kind of stuff, classic rock. Until, in the 90’s about ten years ago, they kept telling me, you should play blues, you should play blues, I said ‘I don’t like blues…everybody’s all fat and stuff. I’m too pretty for that (laughs). They kept feeding me blues and blues and blues. I said, ‘hey wait a minute, this is good!’ (laughs). And I found out, yeah, I was made for that.
BBP: Do you see yourself playing anything else now? I mean are you pretty much solidly anchored in the blues?
Renee: I do other stuff because I like other stuff. (Sings) “I-know-what-boys-like” (laughs) (Sings again) “So just daaance!” I like everything. I really like everything.
BBP: Who do you like on piano? Who did you listen to growing up?
Renee: I listened to a lot of people. But now, I’m into McCoy Tyner, Marcia Ball, Ricky Nye in Cincinnati. He’s like international boogie-woogie, Cincinnati is a boogie-woogie piano-playing town mostly. And uh, Growing up with that using both hands, Look, ma, I’m using both hands! (laughs).
BBP: It’s not a guitar town like Chicago is…
Renee: No, No. It’s definitely a piano town. We have a blues festival there every year and there’s a boogie-woogie piano stage and people from all around the world come and play on that stage. They haven’t invited me yet but I’ve played the blues festival every year but just not on the piano stage. (laughs)
BBP asked her about her and Them Bones winning third place in the 2010 International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
Renee: It’s alright. You know there are a lot of people who don’t compete and I will never compete again I am so tired of being judged. (laughs) And there are a lot of people that you never heard of before
that are wonderful players and stuff. They just don’t feel like…and a lot of people don’t believe that music is for sport or competition. And I’m one of those people. I did it just because I could and I don’t think I’ll be doing that too soon again. I’m proud of myself that I made it to third place internationally but you know uuuuuuu(laughs). It’s all relative.

BBP: You beat out how many bands to do that?

Renee: Yeah but how many bands really care, even? Look at it, there was a hundred bands that competed, there’s a lot more bands out there that are just as good, or better. Competition (gives Bronx cheer)

BBP: What did you think of this blues festival?

Renee: I liked it. I had a good time. I met the other girl, Diunna Greenleaf, we met her 2005 we made the finals in the competition down there and I think she won that year….

BBP: Of all of the other people playing at this festival, which one did you like the most?

Renee: Oh I liked everybody the most. In fact that one guy, I don’t remember what his name was...he looked like a little ZZ Top dude? that boy rocked my world!

Later, she talked a little more about her background, starting with her time in the Boston area.

Renee: That’s where I learned how to play blues. I stayed up there for 14 years and then I moved to Tennessee, I lived there for five years, I was helping out my dad. He was getting old. I was on the road eleven years with different bands, living in New England for 14 years, I got married. I had a good job with the IRS, for ten years, I was married for five, and my husband, I married this white guy who could play guitar really good and sing blues. I admired him so much, so I married him, but it didn’t work out because he was like weird (laughs). But he loved playing and after we got divorced we were still playing together and he liked doing (sings) “I lived five long years with one woman” and he does those songs so well...and he liked doing that since we were married five years. We made a pact when we got married. Ok, we’ll stay married five years, If it doesn’t work out, fuck you, okay? (laughs) We both agreed, and it didn’t work out so…But then I left town after 14 years, got divorced, left the IRS….then I moved to Tennessee and helped take care of my dad, but then he left me. He came back and moved back to Cincinnati, so I stayed in Tennessee for five years and I was really down on my luck. Somebody stole my van all my equipment...all that stuff happened at the same time. So I moved back I took thirty years to come back to town.

BBP: How did you get your current band together?

Renee: Oh, they were already together. When I first moved back to town, I had to find my own place to play. I had my own band in Tennessee, I had my own band in New England, you know, yeah, I was pretty well-renowned, but I didn’t have nothing going on when I came to Cincinnati. These guys have been playing for a long time, so I hooked up with them. 2004 I moved back to town.

BBP: Did you know any of them before you hooked up with them?

Renee: I met them through some other guy I knew that was playing keyboard for them. But he said he was going to move or something or be unavailable. He said “you want to play with them?” I said, “Sure!” (laughs) So that’s how I got the job through my friend, uh what’s his name? (laughs). They call him Jock. He’s real crazy but he plays keyboard good. And he gave me this job. He said, “I don’t feel like playing with them anymore. You play with them”

BBP: …And it’s worked out ever since.

Renee: Wellllll…I don’t know what you call working out but at least I’m living. I also play solo and have my own bands and stuff. But it’s so much play with someone who already has gigs and was established in town.

BBP: And also you seem to steer towards the risqué at times?

Renee: Blues is known for the double entendre

BBP: They can be as nasty as rap songs, but they just don’t use the profanity.

Renee: They don’t use the double entendre they just come right out and say it. (laughs). Yeah, blues is a little bit more undercover.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Alabama Mike: His Voice is His Instrument

After one day's performances at this year's Pocono Blues Festival, I headed to a nearby restaurant hosting an after-party featuring singer Johnny Rawls. Straining with one ear not to miss a drop of the good music coming from inside, I stepped out to see if there was anything I should make note of for this blog.
As I walked out the door the band launched into Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” The high-energy song, later covered successfully by Bill Haley and the Comets, has always been one of my favorite oldies. But something about the way this singer, a sit-in, belted it out stopped me in my tracks. As good as the band was, Michael Benjamin, commonly known as Alabama Mike, almost did not need it. There was a smoothness and power to his voice that makes you think of great singers.
I later found out that Benjamin was born 46 years ago in Talladega, Alabama, where he grew up singing in the church. His first album, Day to Day, is one of five competing for the title of “Best New Artist Debut Release” in the 2010 Blues Blast Music Awards (Marquise Knox, interviewed earlier in this blog, is competing in the same category.) He is now coming out with a sophomore outing, Tailor Made Blues. Both CD’s contain original material written by Benjamin.
Alabama Mike tells us more about himself in this BBP interview:
BBP: Tell me a little about yourself, where did you learn to sing like that?
Benjamin: Where’d I learn, well you know the music, I grew up singing it man. I’m from Alabama and my dad’s a quartet singer. My dad’s a quartet singer and while I was growing up, I was exposed to singing all my life. Then to that I just developed a style for the blues that’s all. But I always loved singing.
BBP: So you’re going to sing tomorrow.
Benjamin: Oh yes, most definitely man. Yeah, that’s what I came here for. They brought me out here to sing the blues. No question, I got to do my job, man.
BBP: Did you grow up in the church? Did you sing in the church?
Benjamin: Yeah, I sung in the church choir. And my family and my siblings, there were six of us at that time, we would…my mother would have us sing as a group in the church. We didn’t have the harmonies down, wasn’t that great. But we’re in the church, people in the church they always appreciated it, they don’t care whether you’re off-key or whatever. They just enjoy kids doing something positive. So we had a little group there, we would sing in church.
BBP: Did the group have a name?
Benjamin: Not really, other than the Benjamins.
BBP: The family group that…
Benjamin: Yeah. Kids.
BBP: So when did you decide to sing professionally?
Benjamin: It just happened and it wasn’t no big ol decision or nothing like that. Just started making music and people enjoyed it. The music kind of did it’s own thing. So it did what it’s been known to do forever. Make people get people excited about it and they support it, man. They support real music. I was just lucky to be able to get with some good people and put out some good music. It kind of took off on it’s own.
BBP: Have you been touring a lot.
Benjamin: Not really. Just here mainly I’ve been able to do more festivals than ever. Actually this is my first national, major festival. This one here. Normally, guys starting out, they don’t get to play the Pocono festival. You know this is a pretty big deal.
BBP. How do you feel about playing it?
Benjamin: Oh man I’m ready. Do you think I’d come all the way from California and not be ready? (laughs) I’m ready to play this joint, man, I’m ready to rock it.

BBP: You’re living in California, you said.
Benjamin: Yeah, I live in California.
BBP: Where in Alabama were you born.
Benjamin: Oh, Talladega. Talladega, Alabama, that’s where I’m from.
BBP: And where in California do you live now.
Benjamin: I live out in the San Francisco Bay Area.
BBP: So who are some of your influences as a singer?
Benjamin: Oh I like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James, Magic Sam, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, all these big heavy weight guys, man. I like their story, I like the way they express it, you know I like the way they play I like it all. I like all the legends, man, really. Muddy Waters, Pinetop, B.B. King. Them guys man, they were grounded in the blues the way it’s supposed to be played. And uh, you know, so, I try to stick to that and stay within the framework.
BBP: Do you like popular music?
Benjamin: I like all music. Because all musicians are artists. And I’m an artist too. So that way, if they can claim music and being an artist, I’m a party to that. That’s me. I mean you’re talking about that especially the blues. I mean when you said pushing something out in the name of the blues then I’m a party to it. Some of it might not be favorable (laughs) but you know, you support the art. And somewhere along the line it’s going to carry someone else to get involved with the blues. You always want that.
BBP: Do you play an instrument?
Benjamin: Well I understand the rudiments of guitar and harmonica but I wouldn’t say that…I’m an amateur.
BBP: You’re instrument is your voice.
Benjamin: Definitely. Now I’m very well trained in my voice, yeah.
BBP: You took professional lessons at some point?
Benjamin: I never really got trained in that.
BBP: Just the training you got in the church.
Benjamin: Yeah, basically, the training I got in the church. I was just taking after my dad and trying to learn his style.
BBP: How did you come to Pocono?
Benjamin: It wasn’t me. It was friends of friends of friends that know people and then on top of that the music was good, everybody likes the album. The album is getting wide acclaim and good reviews everywhere. Every major blues magazine in Europe. Everywhere they’re talking about the blues…so the album is a good album, I wouldn’t be here if…trust me if people didn’t. So that’s how it is. That’s how I got here. The album that I put out “Living Day to Day” Day to Day, that was the first one. Living Day to Day. You know anything about that? Oh, your giving the interview, I’m sorry.
BBP: (laughing) No, I do.
Benjamin: Live day to day, huh? Hand to mouth, check to check. All that kind of stuff.
BBP: So what do you want to do in the future in terms of music?
Benjamin: Go along with it, I want it to take off….and I’m getting prepared to get out there with it, man. Support whatever the music is doing and stand behind it and if people want to see me, if they like the music then they got to see me. That’s my job, to get out there and be seen. I’m a real stickler about preserving the blues too, I’m a stickler for that. You know I’m really into that. I really think that enough is not being done by young black people, it’s a major part of our heritage. It happens in the home. If you don’t introduce your children to playing instruments and the history of music and our culture and the part that music played in the development of it, and the major part that it played in our lives and that comes from slavery. If you don’t teach that in the home then you can’t blame the kids for not knowing about it. I mean if it’s not taught in the home, where are they going to learn it at?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Kenny Neal: "I'm just trying to carry that legacy"

Guitarist/harmonicist Kenny Neal has the beginnings most musicians only dream about.
He was born and raised in Louisiana, the cradle of American blues and jazz. His father Raful—a well-known harmonica player and singer in his own right—kept regular and casual company with some of the most influential blues musicians in history. As a toddler, Neal received his first harmonica from harmonica legend Slim Harpo, who reportedly gave it to him as a pacifier. As a teen-ager, Neal played bass for another blues icon, Buddy Guy.
Now 52, Neal has spring boarded himself from those beginnings to make his mark on the music world. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s most influential musicians, among them B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Muddy Waters, Aaron Neville and John Lee Hooker.
Neal began forging his identity while working as a young musician out of Toronto, where he and brothers Raful, Jr., Noel, Larry and Ronnie formed the Neal Brothers Band to back up touring blues stars. He returned to Baton Rouge and in 1988 began releasing albums through Alligator Records. Those recordings, which showcased the Louisiana sound he had grown up with, drew praise from critics.
In 1991 Neal appeared on stage in another medium: acting. He took the lead role in “Mule Bone,” a 1930's play written by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Neal’s run featured music written by Taj Mahal, and he himself would later set two Hughes poems to music.
Neal then began releasing albums through Telarc Records, collaborating with fellow harmonicist Billy Branch in 2004 to record “Double Take,” which won the W.C. Handy award the following year.
He relocated to California in 2004, where he launched “Neal’s Place,” a cable television program that features him jamming with national and local musicians.
Troubles he endured afterwards, including the loss of his father, brother and sister and his treatment for Hepatitis C, inspired one of his most critically-acclaimed albums, 2008’s “Let Life Flow.”
Neal discussed his life last week while in the Washington, D.C. area to play a benefit concert for the D.C. Blues Society. There, he had a chance to jam with two prominent D.C. area blues musicians, guitarist Memphis Gold (pictured with Neal above) and singer Stacy Brooks.
We started the conversation by asking Neal about his upcoming album, “Hooked on Your Love:”
Kenny Neal: Well the new album is called “Hooked on Your Love” and it will be out officially September 14.
Neal: Yeah, so I’m very excited about it. You know my last CD was “Let Life Flow,” so I got a couple of years out of that and now I’m back again with a new one.
BBP: Is there something about this CD that’s taking you in a different direction?
Neal: Well this CD here, I just wanted to keep in mind some of the guys that I come up with that a lot of the folks don’t know about. I wrote, you know, seven or eight songs on the CD, but also, people like O.B. Wright, Bobby Bland, Little Milton. I wanted to hit a little bit of that blues style as well, because on my circuit you don’t hear it that often. And I grew up with it. So I just want to share that with my fans. And I’m really happy about the way it turned out.
BBP: I heard a rumor that when you were three years old Slim Harpo put a harmonica in your mouth to keep you quiet.
Neal: I was a little older than three (laughing). But uh, he and my dad Raful Neal, Slim Harpo from Baton Rouge, they were all friends. And he was coming over to the house one day and they was unloading the trailer and he told me—pickin’ on a little kid—to go inside the trailer and see if any instruments was left. I went in and he closed the doors on me and I freaked out. I got a phobia. And it freaked him out so bad, to cheer me up he went out and got a harmonica and gave to me and said “son, I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to..but that’s how that happened.” But I never thought I’d end up playing that thing.
BBP: At that time you didn’t pick it up and start to play a tune?
Neal: Oh I’m sure I played it around because that was like my new toy, you know because I was always brought up around music. It was like giving a kid a baseball or a bat or something, you know. That harmonica was exciting.
BBP: What were some of the lessons you learned from your dad? What were some of the most important things you learned from him?
Neal: To make sure I get all of my residuals (laughs), like he didn’t get. No, but I learned from my dad to enjoy the music and I don’t know, just treat everybody the way you want to be treated and that’s one of the main things I really carry with myself because he used to tell me that everybody is somebody and with the music, he gave that to me before I even understood anything. It was there already, so, it was natural for me I think for me to want to carry that on.
BBP: So how does it feel to be in a family that has a musical tradition? I mean that’s something that the average person can’t really understand.
Neal: Well the music just makes us closer, ‘cause normally you have to have a meeting and reunions to get the family together. But all I do is get a gig (laughs), call everybody up, and that’s all the time, you know what I mean? So that music keeps us together and keeps us under control and keeps the love in the family as well. Because we’re always together doing something that we love.
BBP: Buddy Guy, what was it like to play bass for him?
Neal: You know Buddy is from Baton Rouge and his brother Phil and Sam Guy and all of them and his sister down south, she still lives in Baton Rouge, so they’ve always been family to me. It was a pleasure to play for a guy who used to play for my dad, because Buddy was my dad’s guitar player back in the fifties before he left home. So it was like, wow, man, I’m part of the crew now. So it was all good.
BBP: What would you consider to be the watershed CD in your life?
Neal: “Let Life Flow.”
BBP: The one that came out before (the current one)
Neal: Yeah. Let Life Flow. Probably be my favorite of all time for me.
BBP: What about it makes it your most favorite?
Neal: Well because during that time, I had gone through some tragedy in my family. My brother and my dad passed away and then my sister got murdered, my baby sister, and then I had to go through 58 weeks of treatment for my hepatitis C. So it was like all that happened within eleven months. So I had to take off from the road for a while. Now I’m a hundred percent better. I’m clear of the Hep C—thank God I don’t have it anymore—so right after all of this was over with, man, I had a lot to share. So that CD is very touching I did songs like “Hurt Before You Heal,” “Let Life Flow,” and stuff like that. So it’s a special CD.
BBP: Can I ask you a question about New Orleans? Is the city on the mend?
Neal: Oh, man. We’re trying to get there but we got a long ways to go. Plus, you know, we just had the BP oil spill. So we got another slap in the face again. So it’s going to be a while for us to come back around, but we’re strong, you know, and we love our area and it’s going to take a while for us to get back but we’re starting to get folks coming back into the city again. But it’s not where it should be, even after five years now.
BBP: What about the music down there?
Neal: Oh the music never did leave anywhere. I mean the music is always there, man. You know, because, people who don’t go out there and do it for a living know how to play music and that’s what keeps us going.
BBP: I was curious, on a lighter note, that show “Treme” on HBO, what do you think of that?
Neal: I haven’t seen that show. I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t checked it out yet. Everybody’s telling me that it’s something I should look into, the New Orleans folks and stuff but I haven’t seen it.
BBP: Who are some of your influences, and I know you play like several instruments. The trumpet and the piano, and uh, bass I believe and the guitar. Who are some of your favorite musicians of all time?
Neal: Well, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Son House. Man, they was all the folks I come up listening to and then I had a chance to play with Muddy Waters and had a chance to know John Lee Hooker and all of these guys that my dad used to talk about. I end up being close friends with them. I just did a documentary called “American Blues Man” on growing up in Louisiana and my life’s story. So you know, it’s like that. So I’m happy to share that but I just grew up with a lot of the folks and all of my great guys are gone. So I’m just trying to carry that legacy.
BBP: You have a TV show and I’m wondering how that’s going?
Neal: It’s going well. We’re on the west coast and also webcast if your listeners go over to you can find me like the Neal’s Place TV show and I’m still on five nights a week out on the west coast and I do it every time I come off the road, I try to shoot another segment.
BPP: Who will we likely see on the TV in the near future?
Neal: I know most everybody in the blues field so when they come through California I invite them out.
BBP: I’m sure they come running.
Neal: Yeah, it’s all good man.
BBP: Well… more thing I wanted to ask you. Who new on the horizon now are you watching and who do you expect great things from and….
Neal: I’m just watching my little nieces and nephews now. They’re all starting to play. So, you know. But I haven’t been really…when I’m off from playing music, I’m always…..
(At this point Neal turns to say goodbye to a friend who has attended the concert. BBP then gives him a card detailing how he can access the website)
BBP: I’m sorry I interrupted you..well I guess my question was, who are you looking at now…who would you like to play with whom you haven’t played with yet?
Neal: They’re all dead.