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.


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