By Mike Zielinski
It’s the bloodline. No doubt about it. It’s his bloodline that spawned and sustains the long and remarkable career of the preternaturally gifted Kenny Neal. The man doesn’t bleed red. He was born and bred to bleed the blues.
Little wonder that his 2016 release Bloodline was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and also won two Blues Music Awards — one for Best Contemporary Blues Album and the other for Best Contemporary Male Blues Artist.
Neal started playing music at such a young age he can’t even remember when it was. It likely was before he even learned to walk. Funny thing about walking. It takes a bit for kids to learn how to walk. But once learned, they pretty much have it mastered.
It was like that with music for young Kenny. He was a child prodigy, a simple matter of predestination. He learned the basics from his father, singer and blues harmonica master Raful Neal.
Young Kenny had some big shoes to fill. But he’s been more than up to the task. He’s a modern swamp-blues multi-instrumentalist – guitar, bass, harmonica, vocals – blending his swampy roots with soul and R&B to put his own contemporary spin on the blues.
Indeed, Kenny Neal is the real deal and delivers the blues like no one else can.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge, Neal was playing in his father’s band at 13 and was playing bass for the legendary Buddy Guy at 18. Not too much later he was playing with another blues god in Muddy Waters.
How many young men can hold their own with divinity? Imagine a young man co-authoring with Homer, Shakespeare and Hemmingway. Talking transcendent talent.
Of course, bloodline isn’t the sole reason why Kenny Neal has flourished for decades. His Louisiana roots are a major reason why he is bringing The Neal Family Revue to the 30th Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council on Saturday, March 28, at 1:30 p.m. at The Inn at Reading.
If he and his kin were raised in Idaho or Utah, they likely would be in the audience, not on the stage, at Berks Jazz Fest.
Baton Rouge is known as the swamp blues capital of Louisiana.
“You hear Chicago-style blues or West Coast, but down here we got so many different cultures that blend in together,” Neal says from his Baton Rouge home. “I guess that’s where we get that gumbo from. Cajun, New Orleans, rag time — it was rag time before it was jazz — all that makes up what we call swamp blues.
“Baton Rouge to New Orleans north to Delta, Mississippi. So many different types of music combined. We got that bluesy feel from the Delta, that jump, zydeco, Cajun from Baton Rouge, and the funk jazz music from New Orleans. That’s what I like about the music I play.”
And when Kenny is playing the harp on stage, his dad is pouring out of that harmonica.
“The harp is a very big part of my show,” he says. “I love the harmonica. A lot of times when I play it, I hear my dad coming out of me. I play his licks and at those moments sometimes I’ll say, ‘Wow, thanks for giving me this,’ and I’ll reminisce with my dad for a bit.
“I play the harp upside down like my dad. He played backwards. Instead of the lower end on the left side, we play it with low end on the right side. Slim Harpo did it. Whispering Smith did it. The guys from here all played upside down. I can bend the notes real good like that.”
Raful Neal had great friends, great connections in Baton Rouge.
“Buddy Guy and his brothers Phil and Sam — Sam still lives in Baton Rouge — they’ve been family for years,” Kenny explains. “Buddy was my dad’s guitar player in 1956 and 1957. Then Buddy and my dad got an offer from Muddy Waters in 1958 to join him in Chicago. Buddy went but my dad had just started his family here. I’m the eldest of 10. My father stayed in Baton Rouge because he wanted to make some babies.
“Buddy would always come back to visit his brothers and sisters and always come to my dad’s house and go out to my gigs when I was growing up. A few years passed by and Buddy needed a bass player. Buddy wanted me. I was 18. Chicago was a whole different world for me. Got to meet Muddy Waters. I was so excited to meet him. I got to play with Muddy, and I couldn’t wait to get off stage so I could call my father and tell him I played with Muddy.
“I stayed with Buddy for about a year and a half. One thing that interested me was that a lot of guys around Chicago who were mediocre players and singers were getting contracts in Europe. Bells started going off in my head. I started writing my own music and bought myself a guitar. I started shedding on the guitar. I wasn’t interested in playing the bass with Buddy Guy anymore. I moved to Toronto for a while and I worked on my own stuff.”
And the rest is blues history. Now at the age of 62, Neal even takes a break now and then.
“This is my first time I’m enjoying my house even though I bought it 37 years ago,” he says. “Man, I never knew how nice the place was until now because I was always on the road. The road is part of my genes. I’m in it forever. I probably do 100 dates a year. I used to do 250, 260. But I’m enjoying being home now. This year is my first time ever going on vacation.”
Granted, there are vacations and then there are vacations. And his first one is a dandy, not something experienced by 99.9 percent of the world’s population.
“I’m going to Mick Jagger’s house on Mustique (a pristine and private West Indies island), spending two-and-a-half weeks with Mick on his estate,” Neal explains. “He invited some more musicians and we’ll be doing some jamming on the beach. I’ve been all over the world but never took the time to take a vacation. I met the Stones way back in the 1970s when I was with Buddy Guy. They love swamp blues.”
Still, it’s difficult to picture Mick Jagger wrestling a Louisiana alligator.
“(Stones bass guitarist) Bill Wyman and I have stayed friends ever since then,” Neal says. “He was always amazed at my bass playing. I still play the bass at times in my shows. I do all my fancy popping and pulling the strings like I used to do.”
The blues indeed are transformative. There have been a number of fantastic British blues singers and not one of them sings with a British accent.
Of course, when Neal isn’t taking one-of-a-kind vacations, he’s not just sitting on the front porch or grouting the bathtub when he’s home.
“I have my studio here now at the house and it’s just a place for musicians to come and record and live and get some good food,” he says. “I opened up my own record label last year and it’s been great. Booga Music. I used to call my son Booga when he was a little baby.”
Neal hasn’t released an album since Bloodline.
“I’m not the type of person who feels I have to put a record out every year and write a song just to have an album,” he says. “It’s got to come from my heart. I have to feel it. It’s got to be real. You take pride in what you do. Like they say, serve no wine before its time.
“But I do have a real nice acoustic CD I’m releasing in a couple months called Feed Your Soul. You come here to Louisiana and feed your soul with the food, the culture and all the stuff we do right here in Louisiana. I’m also working on one for Kenny Neal Live with the Band. But I just can’t rush it.”
Speaking of his band, a number of siblings have played with him over the years. Two still do.
“I have my two youngest brothers with me now,” he says. “The two baby brothers who have been with me for over 25 years. Frederick is the keyboard player and Darnell plays the bass. (Longtime friend Bryan Morris has been playing drums for Kenny since 2005).”
Broke, brokenhearted or betrayed? There’s a blues song for every hardship in life. The old adage that a shared sorrow is half a sorrow may explain why singing or hearing the blues is so good for us.
The wondrous thing about the blues is its deeply profound effect on mood. If you’re listening to great blues, you can do anything without irritation …. even such mind-numbing, grit-your-teeth endeavors such as memorizing the dictionary or alphabetizing your canned goods. Heck, you can even eat beets with a smile on your face while drenched with the blues.
Being the consummate bluesman, Kenny Neal knew all that intellectually. Now he owns it emotionally.
Fate lifted the gate just a crack on his life, just enough to waft in an ample chunk of torment.
“I lost my brother Noel, who played with James Cotton, two years ago from a heart attack,” he explains. “I lost another brother from liver cancer. I’ve been through the ringer, man. I lost my baby sister. Her boyfriend murdered her.
“At one point I lost three family members in 11 months. My daughter died, my father died four months later and then my sister got murdered. After I buried my sister, I found out in 2004 that I was dealing with Hepatitis C. I was at Stage IV. Thank God I was at Palo Alto at Stanford University. The professors and doctors saved my life.
“I took the treatments in 2004 and 2005. I went through 58 weeks of treatments. I took interferon. I had to inject myself every Monday. I was taking 37 pills a week. Now they have a pill you can take for a couple weeks or something and it’ll knock it right out.
“After that happened to me, I was talking to myself about how life is so unpredictable, but the one thing I know for sure I’ve got to let life flow. I wrote it down. After I started to feel better from my treatments, I checked my notes and I wrote a song behind that.”
A song hatched from such a crucible can be a creative therapeutic.
“It touched so many people,” Neal explains. “I write about real things in life that people can relate to with everyday life. It brings joy to me to be able to do that. It’s like therapy to my fans.
“The blues changed for me after my illness. I stopped writing a lot about my baby gone and left me and I’m drowning in my own tears. I started writing about real life when I wrote the song ‘Let Life Flow’ (the title track on his 2008 album Let Life Flow).
“Blues wasn’t made to make you feel sad. Blues was made to make you feel better after you express yourself. You vent. When you’re singing the blues, you’re getting rid of the negative inside and what you’re going through in the hard times. Once you do that, you feel better. That’s what the blues is about. Getting it off your chest.”
When toxic times ooze into your life, listen to some Kenny Neal swamp blues for some Southern comfort.