Friday, July 25, 2014

Guitar Slinger - Johnny Winter's Alligator Recordings

If you keep up with the blues at all, you're probably aware that Johnny Winter passed away last week at the age of 70.  I can remember the first time I saw Johnny Winter.  He was on a poster in a record store that I used to visit when I was in high school.  Although I wasn't familiar with him at the time, the picture was a promo poster for one of his releases on Columbia Records from the early 70's.  Didn't really think much about him at the time because I'd never heard him.  I did figure out that he and Edgar Winter (whose hit, "Free Ride," I was familiar with) were brothers.  Yes, I'm quite the detective.  If you're familiar at all with 70's FM radio, at least the kind that they played in my neck of the woods, you can imagine that I never got to hear a Johnny Winter tune.

I finally got to hear Johnny Winter a few years later, around 1982 or '83.  Back in HBO's early days, they would sometimes run a segment called "Video Jukebox," which featured what was then a fairly new concept for videos.  As a teenager, I was pretty taken with this new format and I tried to watch them whenever I could.  During one broadcast, they showed an old grainy video of Winter performing "Johnny B. Goode," and I was really blown away by not only the guitar, but Winter's gritty vocals, and the psychedelic effects of the video, of course.  It was a pretty mesmerizing performance for a wide-eyed teenager, but at the time, it really wasn't my musical bag.

A few years later, when I started listening to the blues, I was thumbing through the albums in the blues section at a record store near where I went to college.  As I've mentioned before, most of the blues records that I saw during this time, mid 80's, were the few blues records from Columbia, MCA, Warner Brothers, etc...., along with Malaco, which was local to us, being based in Mississippi, Hightone, and Alligator.  Many of my early blues album purchases were from Alligator, so I always paid attention to whatever I found from their label.  I had done pretty well by then with Alligator recordings from Albert Collins, Lonnie Mack, Son Seals, and Lonnie Brooks.

While thumbing through the albums this time, I happened upon an Alligator recording from none other than Johnny Winter.  It turned out to be his debut for the label, called Guitar Slinger, released a couple of years earlier.  The image of Winter on the cover was a lot different from the posters I'd seen in previous years......sort of menacing with that serious dragon-head tattoo on his chest, a cigarette hanging from his lip, and that futuristic-looking, yeah, I was curious.  I ended up walking out of the store with the cassette version of Guitar Slinger.

It was after I picked up this recording that I started finding out about Johnny Winter's earlier he started as a teenage phenom in Texas, playing guitar, particularly slide guitar, at breakneck speed and with reckless abandon, joining his younger brother, Edgar, who played keyboards and saxophone.  They were soon playing professionally, recording for several local labels. When the brothers began to enjoy some success a few years later, many of these earlier recordings were released without either of the Winters' approval, which irritated both brothers greatly....not just because they didn't receive royalties, but also because to the brothers, these recordings were inferior to what they were currently doing.

He soon decided to focus his talents more toward the rock side of blues, enlisting a trio that consisted of future Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner, eventually signing with Columbia (a subsidiary label of CBS Records) in a huge deal rumored to be near a million dollars in value, playing at Woodstock, and seeing several of his albums chart as he was considered by many to be the next in a long line of great rock guitarists, following in the mold of Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, and Page.

In the late 70's, he moved to another CBS subsidiary created for him, Blue Sky, which led to a live album with his brother, and later he recognized a lifelong dream by serving as producer for Muddy Waters' comeback album, Hard Again.  Winter played guitar behind Waters on all of his Blue Sky releases and you can hear him cheering on the legendary blues man on their classic remake of "Mannish Boy."  Winter won two Grammys for his work on a couple of Waters' Blue Sky releases, but his own recordings, which sort of moved between blues, rock & roll, and blues-rock, weren't selling as well, so he ended up leaving CBS in 1980.

From CBS, he signed with Alligator, and released Guitar Slinger in 1984.  The emphasis was strictly on the blues and Winter played and sang like a man rejuvenated.  Alligator head man Bruce Iglauer and Dick Shurman (who co-produced with Winter) surrounded the guitarist with a regular All-Star team of Chicago musicians.....harmonica player Billy Branch, keyboardist Ken Saydak, bassist Johnny B. Gayden, and drummer Casey Jones, plus a fantastic horn section that included the great Gene Barge.

The result was an absolutely relentless CD, with Winter's blazing fretwork front and center on 10 great cover tunes that spanned old school soul ("It's My Life, Baby," "I Smell Trouble," "My Soul," "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye") and Chicago-styled blues (Lonnie Brooks' "Don't Take Advantage of Me," Muddy Waters' "Iodine in My Coffee," "Boot Hill").  Winter sounds like he's having a blast on tunes like Earl King's "Trickk Bag," Dr. John's "Lights Out," and "Mad Dog," where he howls to the top of his lungs.  If you're a blues fan, you can't help but be taken in by his boundless enthusiasm.

Along this same time period, Winter appeared on another Alligator release, backing harmonica legend Sonny Terry on Whoopin', which also featured Willie Dixon playing bass, Styve Homnick on drums, and Winter even joining in on piano.  This was one of the label's looser and rawer sessions and was a lot of fun.

The next year, Winter released Serious Business, which was in a similar vein as its predecessor, with the focus on old blues and soul standards (though Winter did contribute two originals this time around....."Serious As A Heart Attack" and "Good Time Woman.").  He's rejoined by Gayden and Jones, with Saydak playing on several tracks, along with Jon Paris on harmonica, and he is on top of his game with tracks like the menacing "Murdering Blues," the frenetic "Sound The Bell," the soulful "My Time After Awhile," and the hard-driving "Master Mechanic."  After years of wavering between rock and the blues, Winter was putting his whole focus on the blues, and having the time of his life doing it, as evidenced by his performances.  Serious Business, like Guitar Slinger before it, was nominated for a Grammy.

For Winter's third Alligator release, 1986's 3rd Degree, he varied the formula somewhat.  For starters, several tracks featured his former bandmates Tommy Shannon and Uncle John Turner, along with Dr. John, who played keyboards on a couple of tracks.  Gayden, Saydak, and Jones were still on hand and sounding great, but the tracks with Winter, Shannon, and Turner ("Shake Your Moneymaker," "Broke and Lonely," and "See See") really fire up the old synapses with Winter and it's like he goes back in time to their formative years.  Fueled by Dr. John's keyboard accompaniment, "Love, Life, and Money" is probably one of my favorite Johnny Winter tunes and one of his most inspired performances.  His roaring take on J.B. Lenoir's "Mojo Boogie" ain't far behind either.  As an added bonus on this album, Winter plays National Steel guitar on two great tracks, "Evil On My Mind" and "Bad Girl Blues."  I think of the three Alligator Johnny Winter releases, 3rd Degree may be my favorite because it features Winter in a variety of settings.

After 3rd Degree, Winter left Alligator and signed with MCA Records to their Voyager label, where he released back toward a more blues-rock sound, which wasn't as successful as his previous releases.  In the early 90's, Winter signed with Point Blank/Charisma Records and reunited with Dick Shurman, who produced several of his releases for the label, steering him back to his blues roots for some of his better recordings.  The focus on blues is one he pretty much kept until his death last week.  His final studio effort, Step Back, will be coming out in September and looks to be a completely blues-oriented album, based on the track list.  In other words.....Johnny Winter at his best.

Years ago, not long after I started using the internet, I met a fellow blues fan from Houston who grew up in the late 50's/early 60's.  He was a few years older than the Winter brothers and sometimes he would help them not only get gigs, but he also made sure that they got paid for their efforts.  According to him, both of the Winters were young, pretty frail and had vision problems (due to their albinism), so they were easy for some club owners to take advantage of.  He once told me that Johnny told him that neither he nor his brother were expected to live out of their twenties due to their health issues.  In the 70's, Winter battled a serious drug addition which, combined with the rugged life of a traveling musician, doubtlessly compounded his health problems.  Considering what my friend told me about Winter's early life expectancy, I think blues fans were very lucky to have him as long as we did.

All of Johnny Winter's work is worth hearing, but I recommend that blues fans should start with his Alligator recordings and move out from there to hear his other fine work.  The cool thing is that all three albums (and the Sonny Terry collaboration) are still available, plus Alligator also compiled a "Best Of" CD (Deluxe Edition) back in 2001 that sums up his tenure with the label pretty well, too.

Friday, July 18, 2014

New Blues For You - Summer, 2014 Edition (Part 2)

It's time for Round Two of FBF's look at some of the summer's best new and upcoming releases.  This week, we will look at ten albums that should be required listening for blues fans.  We are still only scratching the surface, however......we'll be back in a few weeks to check out even more new releases.  This is a great summer to be a blues fan.

Jarekus Singleton - Refuse To Lose (Alligator Records):  I first heard of Jarekus Singleton not as a musician, but as a basketball player, and a mighty fine one at of the best in Mississippi during his high school years at Clinton High School, then a nice career at the University of Southern Mississippi, until his career was cut short by an ankle injury.  Even during his years as a hoops star, he was a musician as well, playing guitar in his grandfather's church beginning at age 9, and later taking in the blues, along with hip-hop, rap (even performing as a rapper), and country music during his teenage years.

He's built a big following in Mississippi as a blues artist, competing in the I.B.C. during the last four years.  Alligator chief Bruce Iglauer signed Singleton to the label in 2013 and this is his debut with the label, second album overall.  He combines his musical interests together on this album.  His lyrics are similar to rap lyrics in content and approach, call it modern urban blues if you want, while sticking to the roots of traditional blues.  He has a pretty effective way of expressing himself, and is really good on the couple of autobiographical tracks that he includes.  He's a pretty impressive guitarist as well and these songs have a diverse approach, mixing rock and jazz on various tracks, but they're still all about the blues.  

Dave Keller - Soul Changes (Tastee-Tone Records):  Keller's previous release, Where I'm Coming From, was one of my favorite recordings of 2011. For this excellent follow-up, Keller split time between Memphis, backed by the legendary Hi Rhythm Section (including the late Teenie Hodges), and Brooklyn, with he's backed by the Revelations.  Honestly, you can't tell where one session ends and the other begins.  Both bands are that good.

This time around, Keller mixes a few impressive originals with some choice soul covers.  As on his last release, the covers will probably not be familiar to most listeners, but it just shows how the best old songs don't always become hits, even though they probably should.  Keller does a fantastic job on all of the tracks, but his originals really stand out, notably the autobiographical "17 Years," co-written by Keller and Darryl Carter (who co-wrote several of Bobby Womack's hits) which outlines the end of Keller's marriage.  Folks, this is some mighty fine soul music and is well worth tracking down if you have any interest in soul music at all.

Mannish Boys - Wrapped Up and Ready (Delta Groove Records):  You pretty much know what you're getting with any Mannish Boys release.....a rock solid set of blues featuring some of the West Coast's finest musicians.  Randy Chortkoff, Kirk "Eli" Fletcher, Franck "Paris Slim" Goldwasser, Willie J. Campbell, and Jimi Bott are back again, and joined by guest musicians Kim Wilson, Candye Kane, Bob Corritore, Steve Freund, Kid Ramos, Laura Chavez, and Monster Mike Welch.

Also present is singer Sugaray Rayford, who shared vocal duties with Finis Tasby on the group's previous CD.  Tasby suffered a debilitating stroke in late 2012, so Rayford takes the majority of vocals this time around, along with guest vocals from Kane, Goldwasser, Chortkoff, and Freund.  The set list is a mix of originals and covers of songs from Ike Turner, Robert Ward, Roy Brown, and Magic Sam.  Wrapped Up and Ready is sixteen tracks of blues heaven that no blues lover should be without.

The Nighthawks - 444 (EllerSoul Records):  The Nighthawks are now in their FIFTH decade of performing and recording.  This is their debut release for EllerSoul Records, a blues, soul, and roots label that is building an impressive catalog.  As always, the Nighthawks mix good old rock & roll in with their brand of blues, covering a pair of old Elvis Presley movie tunes, putting their own personal spin on each, an Everly Brothers classic, and even a standout rocking doo-wop track from the Du-Droppers ("Walk That Talk").

What would a Nighthawks release be without at least one Muddy Waters song?  This time, it's a fantastic acoustic take on "Louisiana Blues."  Founding member and front man Mark Wenner is still going strong at well over forty years, and the band (guitarist Paul Bell, bassist Johnny Castle, drummer Mark Stutso) are a well-oiled machine in support.  It's always a pleasure to hear a new release from the Nighthawks.....they're always taking the blues in new and different directions, continuing to blaze new trails.  444 will thrill longtime fans and send new fans backtracking to hear what they missed.

Dave Specter - Message In Blue (Delmark Records):  Guitarist Specter has been a part of the Chicago blues scene since the 80's and this is his tenth release, ninth for Delmark.  Over the years, Specter has always worked with some of the genre's best singers, and his new disc is no exception.  Soul/blues legend Otis Clay joins Specter on three tunes, including a wonderful take on Wilson Picket's "I Found A Love," and keyboard player Brother John Kattke also contributes vocals on several tracks.

However, the real star vocalist on this disc is Specter's guitar.  Over the years, he has branched out into jazz, funk, and even Latin rhythms, and this release finds him at the height of his powers on the six-string.  Specter is more than capable of carrying an entire disc himself with just his guitar.  However, listeners get the best of both worlds with this release with great guitar and vocals.

The Christopher Dean Band - Call Me Later (Lost World Music):  Christopher Dean mixes traditional Chicago-styled blues with Southern soul/blues.....something that's not done a lot these days.  It's pretty cool to hear songs from Mel Waiters and Johnny Rawls on the same disc as songs from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.  Dean handles all of them with ease.  He's an excellent guitarist, a silky smooth vocalist, and is developing into a fine songwriter as well, contributing four songs of his own to the disc.

In addition, Dean mixes four acoustic tracks from artists like Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Blake, plus a reworking of the Bobby Bland classic, "Share Your Love."  Dean worked in the late 90's with Big Jack Johnson, appearing on a few of the Oil Man's recordings on M.C. Records, before taking off on his own.  I really like the way he mixes the blues with soul, mainly because this is the same way I started listening to the blues, but also because he's so darn good at it.  You may not be familiar with his work, but once you do hear it you'll want to hear more.

Michael Packer - I Am The Blues - My Story Volume 1 & 2 (Iris Music Group):  Packer released Volume 1 of his life story in 2013.  It was a frank (sometimes brutally) account of his years in the music world, detailing his lengthy battles with drugs and alcohol which led to a prison term and homelessness.  Volume 1 hinted at his comeback from such dire situations, but Volume 2 gives more detail about how Packer fought back to become a mainstay of the NYC music scene.  As on the previous volume, Packer mixes his recollections with songs from his past with his blues band and his band, Free Beer.

There's also a fond tribute to Honeyboy Edwards (including a duet the two did), and a pair of new inspirational songs describing his spiritual rebirth, a nice cover of "The Thrill Is Gone," and reminiscences of the events of 9/11.  As Packer relates his story, you get the sense that he realizes just how fortunate he is to have gotten this second chance, and that he's going to make the most of that opportunity.  Packer's story is now collected in a two-disc set, so you can get the whole story at one time, and it's one worth hearing for all blues fans.

Colleen Rennison - See The Sky About To Rain (Black Hen Music):  Music fans may be familiar with the lovely Ms. Rennison as the lead singer for the Canadian rock band No Sinner (and if you're not, you need to check them out), which is renowned for their frenetic live shows and her wild, untamed vocals.  Whether you're familiar or not, her debut solo effort will be a breath of fresh air.  Working with producer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson, Rennison shows herself to be an amazing vocalist more than capable of transcending genres.

Rennison moves effortlessly from Stax-flavored soul to bluegrass to country to blues, recreating songs from Robbie Robertson, Leonard Cohen, Bobbie Gentry, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Russell, and Joni Mitchell.  Dawson provides wonderful backing, playing nearly every stringed instrument of record and using that same vintage recording equipment that made his recent release so compelling, and it never hurts to have the McCrary sisters providing backing vocals.  Honestly though, I think I could sit and listen to Rennison sing a lawn mower repair manual.  Fortunately, I won't have to, thanks to this exquisite release.  Trust me, she's the real deal, folks.

Thorbjorn Risager and the Black Tornado - Too Many Roads (Ruf Records):  Based on the cover, Thorbjorn Risager looks like Sinatra, but he sings like Howlin' Wolf.  He may bring to mind a few other great singers as well, like Ray Charles and Joe Cocker, but he's very much his own man on these twelve stunning tracks that explore the blues via blues-rock, soul, country, traditional, and urban blues.  Risager, who also plays guitar and wrote most of the tunes, is backed by The Black Tornado, a seven-piece unit that sounds like they've been playing this type of music all of their lives.

You might be wondering where Risager has been all this time.  Obviously, based on his moniker, he's not a local Mississippi guy singing the blues.  In fact, he's from Denmark and has taken Europe by storm over the past few years, releasing his previous seven albums as The Thorbjorn Risager Band.  This is his first recording for Ruf Records, which hopefully will enable him to get some well-deserved attention internationally.  A voice like his deserves to be heard.

Vaneese Thomas - Blues For My Father (Segue Records):  Thomas has the musical street cred.  Her father is Memphis music legend Rufus Thomas.  Her sister is singer Carla Thomas, who charted multiple hits for Stax Records in the 60's, and her brother is keyboardist Marvell Thomas, who played on numerous Stax recordings and is still in high demand today.  The younger Ms. Thomas left Memphis for NYC and became a session vocalist/producer/arranger/songwriter of a variety of musical stars, even releasing several albums of her own since the late 80's.

Her new release pays tribute to the music of her youth, a direct result of her time spent over the past few years teaching music studies at CCNY and her previous album, which was an homage to many of soul music's most prominent female singers.  She covers a lot of ground with her versatile vocals, moving from country blues to R&B to southern soul to urban blues.  She even delivers a swampy take on John Fogerty's "The Old Man Down The Road" that almost outdoes the original, and sings a duet with sister Carla, but the real highlight is a "duet" featuring Thomas with her late father, a la Nat and Natalie Cole, which borrows the vocal from a 1962 Rufus Thomas track.  I think Mr. Thomas would be proud of his daughter's latest release.  It's a great slice of Memphis soul and blues.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Ten Questions With.......Tweed Funk's J.D. Optekar

Tweed Funk (L to R):  J.D. Optekar, Nick Lang, Eric Madunic, Joseph "Smokey" Holman, Kevin Klemme, Jon Lovas
Sometimes when you hear a band for the first time, you really know that they're going to be someth
ing special.  That's the feeling that your humble correspondent had when he heard Tweed Funk for the first time.  They come at you from so many different ways, with a powerhouse blues attack that adds equal parts of soul and funk to the mix.  You get the feeling while listening that these guys would play for free if they had to.  The passion and energy comes through loud and clear, even on disc.  Their second release, Love Is, was one of my favorite discs of 2012, and one I still play quite a bit two years later.

With their third and latest release, First Name Lucky (on Tweed Tone Records), Tweed Funk set out to capture their live shows as closely as possible.  The band was inspired by a recent trip to Memphis and the songs reflect the influence of the Bluff City.  To me, it's as good or even better than their previous release.  Lead singer Smokey Holman sings like his life depends on it and the band does a masterful job, whether playing down and dirty blues, sweaty funk, or silky soul.

Tweed Funk founder, songwriter, and guitarist J.D. Optekar graciously agreed to sit down and answer a few, around ten, questions as part of FBF's Ten Questions With....., and we thank him for taking time away from his family vacation to participate.  I think this band has a bright future and if you give a couple of these tunes and videos a listen, I'm positive that you will agree.  So sit back and take in Ten Questions (and then some) with J.D. Optekar.  When you're done, please be sure to check out their music at their Reverbnation page.

The stylish J.D. Optekar

Friday Blues Fix:  Can you tell us about the first time you ever got the blues?

J.D. Optekar:  I traced my way back to the blues (knowingly) in the early 90s listening to Pearl Jam, then to Zeppelin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  From SRV I dug deeper to Albert King and all the way back to Robert Johnson.  One of the earliest bands I “experienced” was a local band the Pacific Northwest, Cross-Eyed Cat.  They played a lot of the SRV/Hendrix style stuff with their own twist.  When I saw them perform, it moved me – I bought their EP on tape and wore that thing out.

FBF:  What was the first blues album you heard?

J.O.:  I am not sure if I can pinpoint the first blues album that I heard since it all kind of flows together for me.  It was back when CD stores were still around and I could go in and buy 5 to 8 blues CDs at once – probably the album that sticks out the most was Albert King – King of the Blues Guitar.  I was really digging SRV and learned that Albert King was a big influence for Stevie.  When I heard those powerful bends, phrasing, and space in Albert King’s music it was fantastic.

FBF:  What types of music did you start out listening to?

J.O.:  I grew up for the most part on a farm in Utah and Washington State.  The first album I purchased was John Denver’s greatest hits when I was 5.  My dad was into old country music and I used to listen to his old Willie Nelson (RedHeaded Stranger) and Johnny Cash albums.  I started collecting and listening to lots of country music – 8 albums for 1 penny record clubs and stuff.  In about 6th grade I started to rebel against “my father’s music” and bought a Journey album and then right to AC/DC.  During my college years it was a lot of college radio, Grateful Dead, The Band, REM, and even back to country music.  Listening to blues didn’t come until a year or two after college.

J.D. and Smokey Holman

FBF:  When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?

J.O.:  Other than the requisite piano lessons as a kid for a few years, I never thought of being a musician.  I really enjoyed listening to music and enjoyed creative writing, but never thought much more about playing music.  Freshmen year of college I went to our weekly Monday night track team party, Warhorse, and a couple of seniors and a sophomore on the team were strumming acoustic guitars and singing.  I was instantly inspired and had my dad send out his acoustic guitar to me.  I spent a little time practicing but never made much progress.  My last year in college, I woke up in a foggy morning haze of the night before and I walked into a guitar store and purchased an electric guitar and amp.  I made a decision I was going to learn to play.  Progress was slow for awhile and then after college I met a guy who was a really good guitar player.  We got together and he showed me stuff, got me going, and pretty soon we were putting jams together.  I met up with some other players during the first 4 years of my playing (around 1994) and we did weekly jams, some backyard BBQs, and fun free shows.  I was also playing bass in church (and sometimes guitar) at that point I think I decided that I was going keep doing this for the rest of my life in some capacity.  In 1998 I moved from eastern Washington over to Seattle.  I was really focused on my career, getting married, etc.  I never really connected with any players and let my guitar sit dormant for about 4 years until 2002.  Then we moved to Houston for a couple of years and I met some guys that liked to play, we did the whole weekly jam/backyard blues BBQ thing again while I lived in Houston.  When we moved to Milwaukee in 2004 (shortly after having our first kid) I made a decision to not let my playing go dormant again.  So within 6/7 months I started jamming with friends and about 1 year later I put together my first band, Hounds Tooth, which was getting paid to play out.  I think at that point I became an official musician.

FBF:  Did you start out playing the blues or did you gravitate to it?

J.O.:  Early on I was trying to learn Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, and Doors tunes and then I was introduced to the blues.  At that point that was all I really wanted to learn on guitar was blues.

FBF:  Who are some of your influences on guitar?

J.O.:  I really enjoy Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, and Freddie King.

Tweed Funk in action

FBF:  How did Tweed Funk come together?

J.O.:  I was hosting a weekly jam at The Painted Parrot in West Allis, WI with Donnie Mac (bass/keys/vox) and Larry the Legend (drums).  During that time I was playing in a band called Hounds Tooth and we were having a pretty nice run of shows/festivals in the Midwest.  Donnie Mac invited Smokey (Joseph Holman) down to sing one night at our jam at The Painted Parrot and I was blown away.  I thought if I ever put together another band I have got to do something with Smokey.  Larry the Legend had gotten ill and Marcus Gibbons started filling in for Larry on drums.  When I left Hounds Tooth in early September of 2010 I still had a few private events under contract to play.  Smokey, Donnie Mac, Marcus, and myself put together Tweed Funk. We went and shot some video at a jam, put up a website, and we were off and running  playing private events in the fall of 2010.  In early 2011 we started public gigs and releasing our first CD, Bringin' It, in March of that year.

FBF:  Tweed Funk really mixes it up with their sound, playing several different styles of blues, soul, and funk…..what is your favorite brand of blues?

J.O.:  I enjoy all styles of blues – with the horns on-board full time for the last 2 years I really dig jump blues.  Got to meet a couple of guys from Roomful of Blues at the IBC a couple of years ago and just love their stuff.  John Nemeth’s stuff is also amazing – met him at the Marquette Blues Festival last year.

FBF:  Can you tell us about your songwriting process?  How do you come up with song ideas?

This (First Name Lucky) is the first album where the whole group has worked collaboratively in the songwriting process.  Everyone had a hand in the arrangement, the horns wrote their own parts, and each person contributed to the creative process.  This is the most personal album for me as I drew upon my own experiences for certain tunes "Hoodoo Power," "Divided," and "Sippin Misery."  In other songs like the "Deed is Done" I listened to a story that Smokey told me about his son or I took inspiration from Smokey's life story "Blues In My Soul" to write a tune.  Another technique I utilized was to grab inspiration from a Smokeyism (if you can get it up, you can get it on) and incorporate those sayings into a song.  Sometimes I can write a song in a single 2 hour sitting or other times I will take an idea that I had sketched out or worked on 6 months or 1 year in the past bring it back out and finish writing it.  

Once I have a basic structure of the song, chord progression, lyrics, and possibly a hook then I bring it to the group.  Smokey will then come up with a melody and tweak the phrasing; Nick and Eric will come up with a groove for the tune; Jon and Kevin will put together horn parts.  Additionally, the structure of the song along with intros and endings will be tweaked by the band to come up with a final version.  I was really pleased with the process as I think we achieved a synergistic effect in our songwriting and have put together the best group of original songs in my short-lived career as a songwriter.

FBF:  What are some of the blues albums that are mainstays of your collection?

J.O.:  Luther Allison – Live in Chicago; Muddy & The Wolf; Albert King – King of theBlues Guitar; Freddie King – Live at the Electric Ballroom; Buddy Guy and Junior Wells – Alone and Acoustic
FBF:  You manage to juggle being a family man with being a musician?  How has being a parent changed your life and the way you approach your music and career?

J.O.:  Well, we already had our first kid by the time I started playing professionally.   At that point we had already made the decision that I was going to step out of my career in the software industry and stay home with the kids.  So for me - being a parent and taking care of the household (as my wife reminds me) is my first priority.  Now with 3 kids (10, 7, and 6) we are really busy.  The kids are involved in music, sports, and other activities – so I have to balance gigs and any travel with my family commitments.  I am also coaching my son’s soccer team so I have to make sure my assistant coach can handle the team if we are going to be away for a weekend of gigs.   Additionally, with my wife’s career and the cost of childcare if the band does some limited traveling we have to make sure we have a great anchor gig so that I am not losing money when I travel.  Since we can’t tour as some bands are able to with my commitments (other guys in the band have good day jobs) we are trying to grow ourselves nationally by releasing and promoting our records.  The guys in the band joke that soon we will either be backing my daughter and her music career or the band van will turn into a soccer van.

FBF:  If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would be doing?

J.O.:  I think I would really get back into my marathon running and would be even more involved in the PTO at school and volunteering in the community.  I might even look at starting up a new business if the right opportunity came along.

FBF:  What’s your next project?  Are there some things you would like to try in the future?

J.O.:  Our focus is to really build off the success of our new album, First Name Lucky, and push it as far as it will take us.  We would love to play more blues festivals throughout the US and possibly traveling internationally.  Additionally, I am hoping to make one more music video for our current album.  I would love to see more blues artists release music videos as I think it might help us connect with a younger generation of music fans.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Ten Questions With......J.J. Thames

Singer J.J. Thames is only in her early 30's, but she has been performing since she was 9 and has performed all over the world as a backing vocalist for blues/R&B stars like Marvin Sease, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Peggy Scott Adams, Willie Clayton, and Denise LaSalle. 

The lovely singer has also backed reggae-rockers Outlaw Nation, Fishbone, Bad Brains, 311, and Slightly Stoopid. She owns a stunning voice comfortable singing deep Southern soul or traditional blues, and you can hear just how great she is on her wonderful debut recording, Tell You What I Know, on Grady Champion's brand new label, DeChamp Records.  The disc contains 11 tracks, ten originals written by Thames, producers Champion and Sam Brady, Eddie Cotton (who also plays guitar on several tracks), Frederick Knight, Jon and Sally Tiven, and Jim McCormick

I think you are going to be hearing a lot more from this talented vocalist over the next few years.  She's definitely on the fast track for greater things.  Ms. Thames graciously agreed to sit down with Friday Blues Fix for Ten Questions, so now's your chance to learn more about this up-and-coming artist.  We at FBF thank Ms. Thames for participating:

Ten Questions With......J.J. Thames 

Friday Blues Fix:  What singers have influenced your style?  Certainly there have to be some blues and soul singers in there, but are there any singers from other genres that you learned from?   

J.J. Thames:  Being classically, and Jazz trained...My early influences came from those genres...They include
Billie Holiday, Rachelle Ferrell, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson. A classical voice that I emulated for a long time (and still do) is lyric and coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle. I used her songs to work on my range and improvemy tone, as hers is very pure.

When it comes to blues and soul, there’s Phyllis Hyman, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Esther
Phillips, Angela Bofill, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner (During her Ike and Tina years), Whitney
Houston, Gladys Knight, Ann Peebles, Marvin Gaye, John Lee Hooker, Otis Redding, James
Brown, Ben E. King, and Al Green.

In my preteen/teenaged years, I was submerged in Rock, Reggae, PunkRock, Grunge and
Alternative Rock Music. I even had a garage band by the name of “Psychedelic Freedom”, we
played covers and originals with the sounds of all the above. I now realize that many of the bands
that I listened to had blues foundations and had covered many blues songs. Those bands included: Nirvana, The Police, U2, Coldplay, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Rolling Stones, Bad Brains, Green Day, The Ramones, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Silverchair, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Yabby You, The Israel Vibrations, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, and Aerosmith..

In my late teens and early twenties, I was a rapper, and spoken word artist. I listened to a lot of old school hip-hop, and copied their rhythms...everything from, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC, Camp Lo, Pharcyde, Guru, Queen Latifah, Outkast, Most Def, Common, Lauryn Hill and the Fugees.

On the other side of the coin, I listened to and am still influenced by a lot of sounds from trip hop.
Nuances from artists like Portishead and Moorcheba can be found in my music...especially my live shows, where my band and I blend all the aforementioned genres together. At a Live JJ Thames show, you never know what you’re going to get...I’d like to think that it’s magical. The thing that remains constant is the blues foundation underlying all of the music.

I just love music overall, I listen to EVERYTHING, I learn from EVERYTHING. Even sounds in nature...I find myself trying to mimic all kinds of sounds with my voice, ranging from muted trumpets. and a wahwah muted trombone, to a train whistle or birds chirping...they all are beautiful sounds and can be used in voicing a song.

FBF:  You started performing at a very young age…..did you ever want to do anything besides being a singer?

JJT:  I know that most people have the story of wanting to be a singer or musician all of their lives. I,
unfortunately, as cool as it would sound, would be pontificating if I said that was the case. I really
didn't have any direction growing up, or one particular dream or destination. My father just used to tell me I could do anything that I set my mind to. So, I went from wanting to be a novel writer, to a plastic surgeon, to a bio-medical engineer, to a restaurateur, to a psychiatrist, to a financial adviser...I don’t think that I really embraced being a professional singer until I was maybe 13 or 14.  I was competing classically, and I felt that I had found something that I was naturally pretty okay at. I enjoyed the applause and the accolades. I had always sung myself to sleep every night since I was itty bitty, and would make up songs all the time...but, for the longest time I just thought that my voice was mediocre, and I didn't see what all the big fuss was about. There were just as many of people around to affirm my “lack of talent” as those who were “blown away” by my voice, and convinced that I was the next big Icon. So it took me awhile to find my way, and develop my own confidence in my gift.

Interestingly enough, since the age of 14, I have had over 50 jobs (No exaggeration), and I did go to college for psychology premed (although I figured out halfway, much to my mother’s chagrin, that it was NOT what I wanted to do with my life). I did work, and was quite successful as a financial advisor for about 3 years. I have had numerous poems and short stories to be published, and am currently working on a novel now; and I still have plans to be a restaurateur.  Now that I am the recording artist that I am, I realized that every job that I have ever had prepared me for my career as a singer and business woman. I am a firm believer in the saying, NOTHING happens by accident, EVERYTHING happens for a reason, just keep livin’.

FBF:  You’ve backed a wide variety of musicians over the years.  How did you find your way into the blues?

JJT:  The last band that I did backup vocals for was reggae rockers, Outlaw Nation. I learned SO much from those guys. I realized that I was aging out of the genre. (not by being forced out, but just when I would come to the show and look out at the crowd, I started to feel old, no woman wants that) So, I went on a journey to find my niche. The way that I decided to go about this was in the studio. I started writing and recording Pop, R&B, Reggae, Alternative Rock, Singer/Songwriter, Gospel, Neo­Soul, Traditional Soul and Blues. You can hear samples of that journey at

Once I listened back to everything, I determined that the music that moved me the most was the Reggae, Traditional Soul and Blues. So I focused more on those genres. I did my research, I listened extensively to as much music as I could get my hands on. I went into the studio and recorded cover versions of blues standards. During this process, the “blues diva” was born.

Now, I can’t take away from my mentors over the years planting seeds of the blues. They always encouraged me to listen to Etta James, Ruth Brown, Bessie Smith, Koko Taylor, and Big Mama Thornton. I would half­hearted listen, not really ready to commit to “just” singing the blues. However, looking back on it now, I didn’t realize that I was singing the blues all along, after all, it is the foundation to popular music as a whole.

FBF:  What kind of music do you listen to around the house?

JJT:  Everything...I listen according to my mood. One minute I could be headbanging to Metallica, and right after vibing to Enya or Sade……a few minutes later, bobbin’ my head to Young Jeezy or Kanye West, and then skanking to Bob Marley or Outlaw Nation. You never know what you’re gonna get when you get in the car with me. Only thing that is ever going to be consistent is that the music will be LOUD!

FBF:  What has been the hardest thing about your job?  What is the best thing about your job?

JJT:  The hardest thing, hands down, about being a recording artist is being away from my children. I have a 14 year old son, Elijah, who lives in Arizona with his father, and a 4 year old son, Israel, who lives with his godparents in Mississippi. I don’t get to be a full­time mom, my job requires me to travel non­stop. At certain points, I am over­seas for 4 to 5 months at a time. We skype and run up phone bills a lot, but it’s not the same. It took a long time for me to get over the guilt of leaving them,­ no matter how well taken care of they are. I used to cry all the time after hanging up the phone. People also feel very comfortable and entitled to judge me at times, questioning my parenting and career choices. I had to learn to be free from the opinions of others. I have a WONDERFUL support system, and am thankful that they all support my career, and are helping to raise my boys to be well-rounded, happy, functional, and complete men. I know that celebrities do it all the time, but I personally feel that constant life on the road is no place for a child. They need stability, and consistency; the road definitely does not offer that in any capacity. Yet, the road calls me incessantly, and I must go.

The best thing about my career is seeing the pride on my children’s faces, and listening to them brag to their friends about their mom. My youngest sings along whenever my song comes on the radio, and demands that everybody be quiet, because his mommy’s singing. He’s just the sweetest thing. My oldest constantly shows his friends my videos and Facebook page. He recently told me that having seen me go through all of the ups and downs, hurts and disappointments­ seeing me living out my dream, lets him know that he too can do anything that he sets his mind to. He believes now that dreams do come true. He is 14 years old, 6 feet 4 inches, 200 pounds, and has a size 17 shoe. He’s a basketball star and a 4.0 student. He already has scouts interested in him and paying attention to his growth. He’s well-rounded, down to earth, funny, sensitive to the needs of others, confident, and most importantly, happy. I am ecstatic and honored to be his proud mom. I know that his dreams are right within his reach and am dedicated to encouraging and helping him in any way possible.

The financial reward of being a recording artist also is really cool. It allows me to invest in my children’s future, and make sure that they have the best education, healthcare, and living conditions. I also have many plans to invest in the dreams of others, and set up companies and grants that assist the disadvantaged. I have been in a homeless shelter with my children while on the journey to here, I understand how hard and cruel life can be. I have a heart for women with children trying to form a stable life for their family, and want to set up programs to assist them to do just that. My job will allow me the finances and influence to see these desires of my heart to come to pass.

FBF:  You have a lot of original compositions on Tell You What I Know.  Do you mostly write from your own life experiences?  Can you describe your songwriting process?

JJT:  I do mostly write from my personal experiences, every once in a while I will take a look around me and see something else that may not have directly occurred in my life, but it will move me to write a song about it, however, I would say that 95% of what I write about, I have experienced in some shape or another.

Normally, I hear the drum and bass line of the song first, and start humming a melody while mimicking the beat with my mouth, or as some refer to it as beatboxing. This usually occurs in the shower, for some odd reason. Then the words just start to come, so I sing out whatever I hear……­even if it seems like gibberish. Many times, the words only have to be tweaked a little bit after I finish the composition in my head. I often sing the song, and dig deeper into the lyrics for days on end, free­styling, until I’m in love with it, and only then I will commit it to paper.

There are other times when I am smack dab in the middle of going through a circumstance, and start singing whatever comes to mind to make myself feel better. That’s actually how the single, “Tell You What I Know” came about. I had fallen on really tough times, and was living in a homeless shelter in Jackson, Mississippi with my children. While in the shower, I began singing “Tell you what I know, One day yeah, that’s right, my name up in lights...tell you what I know.” I sang the song every day for a month until we left the shelter, hiding the song in my heart for later, whenever I would get my recording contract that I just knew was coming. That contract came about 4 months later in the form of DeChamp Records. We built the music around the lyrics and melody that I came up with in the shower, during one of the lowest points of my life. A song that was created to make ME feel better now is being played all over the world, and encouraging people in their own journey towards their dreams. I’m still amazed by that every day.

FBF:  What are some of your favorite songs on Tell You What I Know, and can you tell us a little bit about each one?

JJT:  Honestly, I love every song on the record for different reasons. But the one’s that I listen to most often and have the deepest connection to are:

“Souled Out”­ “Souled Out” is another autobiographical track. I originally recorded it for another project that I self-­released in 2008. I went in the studio, told my producer at the time that I wanted to build a song from nothing. We began by stomping on a trunk that he kept vinyl records in for the beat. Then, we both clapped into the mic. I then layered harmonized humming in a Negro spiritual fashion. Once all of that was complete, I stood at the microphone, closed my eyes, and began to sing whatever came to mind, and that was my story at the time. I had moved from house to house, couch to couch, and state to state for years……one time moving 24 times in a year and a half. My 2 year old son had died in late 2006 from a rare form of lymphoma. I had a broken wedding engagement and deep heartbreak shortly after that in 2007. I was sleeping on a futon in my producer and his wife’s house in Detroit Michigan. All I had was my life and my music. I was sold out to my dream, and my soul, and my heart was on my sleeve…….thus the play on words. This song was another example of me singing to make myself feel better. We re­-recorded it for “Tell You What I Know”, because I felt that I could sing it with even more conviction “tell my story one ‘mo' 'gin.”

“My Kinda Man” is one of my favorite songs, because it was written about the man that I am in love with. The chorus and melody was Grady Champion, Sam Brady, and Eddie Cotton’s creation. Grady presented it to me as a hit song, as we were driving to Indianola Mississippi to perform at the BB King Homecoming Festival in 2013. I wrote and completed the lyrics on the hour and a half drive from Jackson to Indianola. While writing I just described my man and how much I really don’t care what other people think about him. He’s my man, not theirs. I love that other people feel the same way about their own relationships, and can identify with the song.

“No Turning Back” was originally the brain­child of my producer, Sam Brady. He had written the melody and a verse. When I came into the writing session, I thought about my past relationships, and how I wouldn’t go back to them if someone paid me. I then started singing “No Turning Back” and envisioned myself driving away from the bad relationships. I often envision a “movie” in my mind as I’m writing songs. The song just kinda flowed easily after that. The last part of the song, where the chorus is chanted, in a gospel tinged call-and-response manner, was suggested by none other than the juke joint king himself, Eddie Cotton. I love the song because it feels good. It feels empowering.

“I Believe” is a Ray Charles cover song. I had been performing it live for years, and said to myself that whenever my chance came to record the song correctly, and try to do it justice, I would. I was very nervous about recording this song. I am a big fan of Ray Charles and his ingenious body of work, and wanted to make sure that I paid honor to it. I am amazed at every review of the record that I read (and I read them all).  Everyone states that Mr. Charles is smiling down from heaven, or would be pleased with our rendition. One review even said it was one of the top renditions that the reviewer has ever heard. I’m proud of that song. I’m a firm believer that if you can’t do a cover song justice, leave it alone, it was perfect the first time.

Of course, “Tell You What I Know” hits home for me, considering it is my story. My motivation now, and what I hold dear in my mind’s eye, is performing it from the Grammy or the Blues Music Award stages. That is what will make that song and story complete.

FBF:  Your release is one of the first on Grady Champion’s new label, DeChamp Records…….what attracted you to the label and what do you like most about working with them?

JJT:  I met Grady while performing at the Central Mississippi Blues Society’s Blue Monday in Jackson, Mississippi. The day we met, he invited me to do a set with him at Underground 119 the following weekend. I came, performed, and the wheels began to move very fast after that. Grady shared his vision of DeChamp Records with me at that time, and quickly signed me on as his second artist. 

What attracted me to DeChamp was its small size, which allows the focus to be more on my career right now, than sharing time, energy, and resources with a full roster of artists. I was also impressed by what Grady had already accomplished for himself with his own career. Grady’s excitement, integrity and tenacity were also very instrumental in my decision to sign. DeChamp has become my family, and they have worked very hard and diligently to help my career to reach the heights that it has thus far. The amazing thing is that they continue to push.  They won’t give up until they make J.J Thames a household name. They listened to my goals, and dreams, they embraced my story, style and personality…..never asking me to change. They “get” me, and they are perfectly ecstatic with me just being J.J. I like scratch that...I LOVE that.

FBF:  When you are not performing or recording, what do you like to do in your spare time?

JJT:  I love performing, and am usually on stage almost every day of the week. However, on the rare occasion that I'm not...I like to read books mostly autobiographies of musicians and singers. I love spending quality time with my loved ones. Although I don't necessarily LIKE to work out, I try to everyday. I watch movies, typically period pieces, action thrillers and romantic comedies. I spend a lot of time listening to different genres of music, cooking new recipes, and entertaining close friends.

FBF:  What does the future hold for J.J. Thames?  Where do you see your career in ten years?

JJT:  I'm no psychic, but I am a dreamer. American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist Gloria Steinem said, "Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning." I plan in the next 10 years to open a blues supper club kind of in the likes of the historical Cotton Club in New York City, and intend to franchise it in key places all over the world.

I also plan to reopen my music school, Eagle Eye Music Academy, which focuses on artist development, and identifying the dreams and goals of up and coming musicians, singers, producers, and tour support individuals, giving them instruction, resources and mentorship to be successful in the music industry. The motto of the school is "Seeing and Believing in YOUR dreams."

Socially, I have a heart for the homeless, in particular women and children, and plan to implement programs to help identify dreams and provide financial, life skill, and physical resources to individuals in order to help them get on their feet and fulfill their life goals and dreams.

In essence, I feel that my purpose in life is to finance the dreams of others...I completely intend to do just that. Eventually, I want to finish the three books that I am writing, publish those, and break into the film/television industry, and also to become a motivational speaker. I feel that my music career is only the beginning, and it will open up doors and provide the necessary resources to fulfill my life's goals. Tell You What I know...God ain't done with me yet.

Upcoming Shows for J.J. Thames

  • July 11th - Underground 119, 9:00 PM (119 S. President St., Jackson, MS)
  • July 28th - The 35th Annual Jackson Music Awards, 7:00 PM (nominated for Best Female Vocalist, 200 E. Amite St., Jackson, MS)
  • August 15th - Duling Hall, 8:00 PM (622 Duling Avenue, Jackson, MS)