Visit Memphis and you’ll be standing at the launching pad where the blues was rocketed into space for all the world to hear. But the Bluff City is far more than that.
It’s Ground Zero, too – the place where B.B. King, Junior Parker, Rosco Gordon and Johnny Ace – then known collectively as The Beale Streeters – took the music out of the country, incorporated elements of big bands, jump and swing, infused it with intense big-city emotion and reinvented it into what we now know as soul-blues.
B.B. brought the music into the 21st Century along with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Otis Clay and Solomon Burke before passing the baton to contemporaries William Bell, Johnny Rawls, Don Bryant, Wee Willie Walker and others. But there’s no better standard bearer today for future generations than John Németh.
Possessing one of the most melismic, sweetest voices ever recorded, Németh has already proven himself worthy. At age 45 and still a teenager in blues terms, his resume is impressive. Since bursting on the scene in 2003 with the release of his first album, he’s garnered 20 Blues Music Award nominations and collected trophies for soul-blues artist and album of the year.
An inventive songwriter, his knowledge about the history of the music runs deep and his powerful sets often include forgotten tunes from past masters that have been gathering dust and unheard for decades. One of the most stylish singers in the blues today – he’s been compared vocally to both Memphis legend O.V. Wright and Godfather of Soul James Brown, John’s known for songs that are both groove- and melody-driven.
His tenor voice rings like a bell as he delivers lyrics like Muhammad Ali threw a punch. They float like a butterfly and sometimes sting like a bee as they deal with contemporary themes drawn from the life around him and laced with nuanced humor – everything from deep social issues like gun violence and class values to the simple hedonism achieved through dancing, sex or smoking marijuana.
Based in Memphis since 2013, Németh was born to sing the blues. And from the sounds he produces, you’d swear he was a product of the Deep South. But you’d be wrong. He’s a native of Boise, Idaho, in the southwest part of the state, and grew up not far from the Snake River, not the mighty Mississippi.
John was at home with wife Jaki and their young son and daughter, enjoying a warm spring day, when Blues Blast caught up with him recently. The birds were chirping, and he was clearly enjoying his family, his surroundings and the fact that, for the first time since last fall, he was finally free of the gnawing pain in a knee that made climbing stairs a challenge for months.
As anyone who’d seen him in concert during that time can tell you, he was walking with a noticeable limp, using a cane and performing from a chair instead of aggressively strutting across stage like they were accustomed to seeing.
“I’m walkin’ upstairs now, and nothin’ hurts,” he said with a smile in his voice. Doctors had initially misdiagnosed him as suffering from gout, but further tests revealed a serious infection and subsequent treatment finally brought relief. “The good thing is that I stepped on my dog’s toy a couple of days ago and it kinda unlocked everything that was locked up in my knee (laughs).”
Despite growing up in an out-of-the-way corner of the Pacific Northwest, Németh started developing an interest in music as a toddler because of his parents, who had distinctly diverse interests.
“My dad was definitely a character,” he says. A native of Hungary who grew up in an era of Communist oppression and Soviet dominance, he was mathematics wizard who’d studied to be an architect and became skilled in construction using concrete during Nazi occupation. After immigrating to America, he became an engineer who built bridges.
“He was like a smart farmer kinda guy – a hayseed genius kinda dude. He had his own sense of style. He’d wear his pants between his chest and his belly button, and he wore suspenders, too. And he could make one pair of shoes last 50 years, polishin’ them every day, gettin’ ‘em resoled and puttin’ saddle soap on ‘em, too!”
The senior Németh’s father loved classical music – his countrymen included Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók – as well as Hungarian folk music, which was heavily rooted in the tradition of Gypsies who’d migrated from India – what John likes to refer to today as “European blues” because of it includes standard chord progressions and a great deal of improvisation.
“Talk about the ultimate jam band – those guys could really slow a song down or speed it up,” John says. “That music has been built upon for thousands of years and slightly modified from region to region. My dad put that music on every mornin’ and do the calisthenics that the Communists had driven into him. But he was a bad comrade – that’s how he got to the U.S.
“He didn’t read music, but played the old folk melodies by ear. He had a violin and clarinet, and we had a Wurlitzer organ and a piano. And my godmother – my mom’s best friend – went to Sherwood Community Music School in Chicago (now part of Columbia College), and she could sit down out of nowhere at the piano and throw down some Chopin.
“My dad loved that – probably the only reason he was so cool bein’ around her every day (laughs).”
Németh’s mother, meanwhile, grew up about an hour to the southeast in Glenns Ferry, a small town, but an important cog in the national railway system. The daughter of a Union Pacific engineer, she loved big bands, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, all of whom played in Boise occasionally.
“She worked downtown at a café, and would meet all the people passin’ through,” John recalls. “She spoke like somebody hip from the ‘50s. She had all the jive lingo down – somethin’ she got from listenin’ to all the big-band music.
“There was a lotta music happenin’ in the house. It was really cool growin’ up listenin’ to all this jazz and Gypsy jazz – and I had all this ‘70s rock, Outlaw country, disco and funk that my brother and sister were listenin’ to ‘cause they were in high school. And I’d go to church, man, and the church music was great, too!”
Németh began taking piano lessons at age five at his mother’s insistence. “I’m playin’ all this classical music and what-not,” he says, “and I asked my piano teacher: ‘Would you teach me some chords…some way I could make my own music?’ I was five or six. She showed me three chords on the piano and says: ‘Okay, get outta here and have some fun.’
Now an accomplished harmonica player, John adds: “All of that made for a really interesting bag for me as a vocalist. It helped me be a blues singer because you can hear all the roots in all of those styles.”
He discovered the flatted third and seventh notes of the blues scale – the tones that truly make the music “blue” – because of his brother’s love for Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and their song, “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way.” The flatted seventh is prominent in that one throughout.
And he taught himself how to shift octaves vocally after hearing country superstar Johnny Paycheck do it in the tune “The Fool Strikes Again” – something he discovered at a later date that B.B. and Percy Sledge did regularly, too.
His love affair with the blues began at age 14 when a friend, Tom Moore, turned him on to Junior Wells’ breakthrough album, Hoodoo Man Blues. A 1965 release on Delmark that featured Buddy Guy billed as “Friendly Chap” because he was signed to another label, it’s considered by many experts as the first great blues album of the modern era.
“Tom was a supercool dude, man,” John says. “And he had some really hip guitar teachers. One of his instructors gave him the record, and he immediately gave it to me after making a copy ‘cause he knew I digged that kinda stuff. And he made me the ultimate mix tape for a blues beginner…Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B.B. and Albert King, Bobby Rush’s ‘Chicken Heads.’
“The way these guys would sing would cut right through whatever was surrounding me and — boom! –right into my ear. I remember the vibratos.
“Every one of these guys had a way different vibrato. They had been singin’ in places without probably amplification and projectin’ loud like a gospel singer would be singin’ in a church or somebody hollerin’ three or four acres away. They had the volume of an opera singer and the resonance of somebody who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and drink whisky every night.
“There was a drive in these vocalists that I didn’t hear out of others, an urgency in their voice. They had the blues!”
It’s been 30 years since Németh heard that tape for the first time. But even today, it still resonates strongly with him because of the way those artists got lost in their songs and the seemingly surrealistic way they’d fashion their vocals. For John, who grew up in a rural community, all of the lyrical references to “bees, roosters, the whole damn barnyard, the rivers, the woods, the big lakes” had a major impact, too.
“It hooked me right away, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since,” he says.
Two years later, Németh and Moore formed their first band, Fat John & the 3 Slims. “We decided to all get together and play music at this kid Scott Handley’s garage,” he recalls. “He had a drum set and a bass, and he was on ‘house arrest’ and couldn’t go anywhere. So it was perfect (laughs)!
“We worked up these songs, man. It took a long time to get ‘em down – ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer’ by John Lee Hooker, ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ by Muddy, ‘Tush’ by ZZ Top and ‘If You Don’t Start Drinking (I’m Gonna Leave)’ by George Thorogood — the songs Tom learned on the guitar. Whatever he learned, we were gonna play.
“Besides, they’re all great tunes, and my mom loved drinkin’ songs – ‘Tiny Bubbles’ and tunes like that, and I do, too!”
Their first paying gig came at a pinochle luncheon thrown by the local branch of the Catholic Daughters of America. But their big break came later when they played a talent show.
“One of the students filmed it and played it for a club owner,” Németh remembers. “That guy, Jeff Goff, was great, man! We met with him at a diner. He was all business. ‘I saw your video, I loved your show, and I wanna book you full time at my club in Horseshoe Bend,’ he said.
“We’re thinkin’: ‘Horseshoe Bend (population 700)! This is awesome! We got a gig, man!’ Horseshoe Bend was a small logging town, and they struck gold there, too. We didn’t find any gold, but we did find 250 bucks a night – which is pretty good for 16-year-olds.”
That band worked five to seven nights a week in Boise and the surrounding area for a decade, during which John taught himself to play harmonica while working as a truck driver for a freight company. As he describes in the song “Keep Your Elbows on the Wheel,” he kept his hands cupped around his harp as he played along with recordings while driving down the road.
“That was interesting,” he says, “’cause I had C harmonica and wanted to play ‘Snatch It Back and Hold It’ (which was recorded in a different key). I’m havin’ issues. I can play in B, but I can’t get the flat five…the F#. None of the licks are linin’ up, so I got a little disgruntled and didn’t know what to do.
“We didn’t have the internet back then, and I don’t think anybody at the music store knew jack about how to play blues harmonica. So I just learned how to play blues with what (notes) was on the harmonica.
“It was drivin’ my guitar player crazy. In C, I couldn’t get any blue notes. In D, I couldn’t get any major notes. In G, I could only get one blue note. But it was good for me. I was stuck, but I was developing a bag of my own before I even knew how to play it.
“I had this idea that, if I believed it, I could achieve it. It was what was immediately on the harp and the soul I could put into it. I was imitating tongue blocking. But at the time, I didn’t know that that even existed. Everybody in my town were pucker players. To play this stuff on the gigs, I figured I could curl my tongue up like a straw and blow my air right through it. It was too much work to get my lips goin’ to play puckered.
“It was a great way to start playin’ the blues, ‘cause, when I discovered how to bend, man, everything started fallin’ into place.”
Németh discovered third position first – a technique that almost all beginners would find impossible to master. “I sat down at the piano,” he says, “and I’m like: ‘I got a C-major chord here…I’ve got a G-dominant chord here — boom! – I’ve got a D-minor key here. So I can work off of this.’ But I still didn’t know how to bend.’”
Already playing on gigs, he got by using the skills he’d already developed, frequently changing instruments to hit different notes, a technique that’s used by Charlie Musselwhite and others. John finally learned how to bend a reed from a substitute teacher who gave lessons at a local music store, but sent him on his way after only two sessions — probably realizing his student was already more advanced than he was.
Németh’s interest in deep-blues developed rapidly after he purchased a Percy Sledge release that contained the classic, “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
“’Man, I love that song,’ I said, ‘but it doesn’t look like the guy I saw on TV singin’ it (Michael Bolton).’ But I had a good feelin’ about the record. I bought lots of records like that. I took it home, and shit…when that song came up, it was amazing. Before, the closest I got to soul was listenin’ to Magic Sam because of my love for blues.
“I listened to the whole record and remembered all these songs…’Take Time to Know Her,’ ‘Out of Left Field,’ ‘It Tears Me Up.’ And I knew some of these players, and I knew the sound from somewhere. There was somethin’ connecting it to all those old Waylon and Willie records.
“Then I started listenin’ to (reggae great) Jimmy Cliff. Honestly, I didn’t know for ten years that those were some of the same players on all those (Sledge) records.”
Németh’s tastes soon expanded to include Otis Redding and James Carr, who’s best known for the song “Dark End of the Street” and is considered by some critics to be the best soul singer who ever lived despite a career that was waylaid by a bipolar psychiatric disorder and came to an end at age 58 because of lung cancer.
Then, another friend, Paul Morgan, loaned John a record collection so large that its boxes occupied the entire floor of Németh’s garage. It was full of vinyl treasures. “I stumbled across one and thought: ‘This looks pretty interesting,’” he says. “It was a pretty clean-cut guy. He was wearin’ a grey suit, had a short haircut and was wearing Buddy Holly kinda glasses. At first, I thought it was a gospel record.”
The artist turned out to be O.V. Wright, and the record was a life-altering discovery that turned John on to a long list of soul-blues classics Wright composed and recorded – Southern soul standards that include “A Nickel and a Nail,” “I Can’t Take It” and “(I’d Rather Be) Blind, Crippled & Crazy.” Other life-changers soon followed in the grooves laid down by Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Spencer Wiggins and others.
“Singin’ blues really came super natural to me,” Németh says. “But singin’ soul music was a little different. It took some work. I loved the country in it. That’s what was selling it to me. If that wasn’t there, it would have sounded just like gospel.”
As his musical boundaries expanded, Németh was filling clubs nightly across the region. But – much like the world we live in today — that came to a crashing halt after 9-11.
“The audiences went from 250 to 300 a night to 20 to 40, and the money started goin’ down,” he remembers. “I’m thinkin’: ‘Holy shit! What am I gonna do?’
“And (President) Bush didn’t help. He got people there super, super scared. Everybody in super-conservative Idaho was gettin’ ready for a Taliban invasion. People just lost their minds when he started blamin’ everything on Iraq. All the neighbors were coverin’ their windows with plastic and duct tape and puttin’ up supplies, gettin’ set for the end of the world.
“There’s a reason they call it ‘My Private Idaho (laughs).”
John had been sharing a house with three friends who worked on the Snake River. “They were great,” he says. “They were gone five or six months, but always paid their rent on time.”
As the recession set in, he decided to relocate to San Francisco – not only to further his career but to follow his future wife, a lady who owned the best record collection of anyone close to his age and who was trying to establish herself as a Bay Area clothing designer.
It was a great decision on both levels.
“At that time, I’d already done a few tours with gitarist Junior Watson,” Németh recalls. “He was big news down there, and most of the blues community there already knew who I was.
“I got a lot of cool gig opportunities from different guitar players…Mighty Mike Schermer, Kenny ‘Blue’ Ray, Kid Andersen, David Bernstein. And the big guy in guitar out there, Elvin Bishop, he hired me, too. I did four albums with Elvin, so it worked out great!”
After serving as his opening act, Elvin quickly became a mentor, and John’s tasty voice and harp runs are a featured element on four of Bishop’s albums, including the Grammy-nominated The Blues Rolls On.
Németh recorded his first album, The Jack of Harps, in 2002 backed by his regular band, The Jacks. It’s now a hard-to-find, out-of-print treasure. He and his future bride lived in an apartment with walls so thin that he composed songs in the parking lot while seated behind the wheel of his Toyota pickup. A second self-produced CD, Come and Get It, followed in 2004 – about the same time he joined Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets for what turned into a two-year run after harp player/vocalist Sam Myers was sidelined with the illness that eventually claimed his life.
Funderburgh served as the producer when John was signed to make his first CD for Blind Pig Records. Entitled Magic Touch, it featured a heavyweight lineup — Junior, The Texas Horns, bassist Ronnie James Webber and drummer Wes Starr — and earned Németh a BMA nomination in 2009 for best new artist debut release.
The honor that year went to vocalist/SiriusXM announcer Big Llou Johnson, but Németh has been in the blues spotlight ever since, fronting his band, The Blue Dreamers, and performing a tasty mix of dusty, old-school covers and modern masterpieces – all of which come across are delivered with a no-nonsense approach that includes every fiber of his being in every note.
Faced with the steep cost of living in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive locales in the U.S., the Némeths lived across the bay in Oakland for a while, but finally decided to pull up stakes, drove halfway across the country and settled in the Midtown neighborhood in Memphis in 2013.
Considering John’s musical influences and the fact that he captured five BMA nominations including B.B. King entertainer of the year honors in the city that spring, it was almost a coming home for John even though he’d never lived there before.
“It’s a great city,” he says. “There’s a lot of blues venues here – and not just on Beale Street. There’s a real cool one here in my neighborhood, Wild Bill’s. There’s a guy that sings over there quite a bit named Booker Brown. He’s fabulous, man. He’s like Howlin’ Wolf and James Carr and Marvin Sease rolled into one, and he can hit some super-high notes like Johnny Adams.
“It’s interesting for musicians because Memphis is a town where you can make a livin’ playin’ music on Beale, and there’s lots of other places to play. But you gotta be somebody that gets around town and builds a fan base – ‘cause this town has been around a long time and had a lot of legendary talent roll through here.
“They’re great fans who still love blues and soul, rap and rock-‘n’-roll, and they’re still cuttin’ hit records outta here all the time. It’s an impressive city. I love it! It’s a town that has a feel, a sound, all of its own.”
That sound extends to the wildlife, too, Németh insists, pointing out that there’s a bird that shows up annually and warbles the turn-around to O.V. Wright’s “Don’t Let My Baby Ride,” something he proved after this interview by emailing an audio clip he’d captured a short while after our talk. Coincidentally, Wright’s home was in the same neighborhood and only a few blocks away.
And another bird whistles the hook to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” he says.
The city’s certainly worked its magic for John.
The first album he recorded in the city, the analog release Memphis Grease, was produced by Scott Bomar and featured his classic soul band, the Bo-Keys. It climbed to the No. 4 spot on Billboard’s blues charts and took home a 2015 BMA for soul blues album of the year.
Feelin’ Freaky was a stellar follow-up produced by Luther Dickinson, and The Love Light Orchestra Featuring John Nemeth proved to be a pleasant change of pace, successfully uniting him with guitarist Joe Restivo’s 10-piece ensemble to deliver a gritty, sophisticated mix of uptown blues and deep soul covers. The end result would have had Bobby “Blue” Bland beaming – both because of the band’s delivery and the fact that their name was taken from his tune, “Turn on Your Love Light.”
Now that COVID-19 has John home for the duration, he spends his time keeping his youngsters busy and listens to the birds as he takes walks along the path of a former railroad trunk line that once transported workers and goods back and forth to a Sears factory a short distance away.
He’s also pretty far along in writing new material for two upcoming releases – one with the Blue Dreamers and the other with Love Light. “I got really lucky,” he says. “I started in March last year before we got busy on the road, and picked it up again in the fall, which is always good for me for some reason. A lot of songs start happenin’ for me that time of the year, and I was incorporating a lot of stuff that I knew the band was going to bring to it.
“I decided: Let’s cut this stuff while it’s hot. I booked the studio where I cut Memphis Grease — Scott’s Electraphonic Recording — ‘cause I wanted to cut an all-analog record again. It’s a warmer sound, and I like his gear. It’s funky gear, and he’d just gotten done doin’ the soundtrack for (the Rudy Ray Moore biopic) Dolomite Is My Name.
“I really love the new songs. And my rhythm section had just come off tour playin’ a lot of ‘em, and they’d just been doin’ some studio work for (alt rocker) John Paul Keith. I just thought: ‘Let’s strike when the iron’s hot, man.’ After all, the band’s already set up and ready to go.”
Three days later, Németh and his crew had an album in the can, all captured in two or three takes thanks to all the run-throughs they’d had on the road.
If all goes well, John’s going to be extremely busy in the fall. That yet-to-be-titled CD should hit the street in September along with a planned reissue of Memphis Grease – and a new Love Light album is already in the works, too.
“I’ve been a busy boy,” John says, noting that the shutdown couldn’t have come at a better time in his life, all things considered. “I’ve done a lot of different gigs in a lot of different places and a lot of different continents. And all this has been happenin’ since the kids have been home for spring break.
“It’s been a lot of fun hangin’ out with the family, playin’ Lego and figurin’ out how my website works. I never in a million years would ever thought I’d be doin’ that (laughs)!”
Meanwhile, he’s itching to get back in action. And he wants his fans and friends around the globe to know that he’s thinking of them often and hoping they’re all safe, healthy and doing well. “In this time of isolation,” he says, “remember: Music is food. You can eat as much as you want!”
Check out his tunes and where – hopefully – he’ll be playing next by visiting www.johnnemeth.com