Multiple Blues Music Award winner and three-time Grammy nominated Kenny Neal feels grateful that he has been blessed in many ways, which is why he finds numerous methods for giving back to others. Blues Blast Magazine learned about some of those projects during a recent trip to Baton Rouge.
“Come on by the house—we’re just lazing around today,” he claimed, although it soon became apparent that this man is not likely to ever spend a day doing nothing.
With what seemed to be limitless energy, he first showed the land he was clearing to make it more accessible for holding the Kenny Neal’s Family & Friends Blues & Southern Soul Festival. This festival, which Neal has brought to the community every year since 2011, often offers opportunities for local musicians to play to a larger audience. Children are likely to especially appreciate the festival being moved to his land because they will have the opportunity to meet his majestic horses “Apollo” and “Brandy”, his mule “Arky”, and his plucky, adorable miniature horse “Charlie”, (who appears to have no insight that he is one-third the height of the others and often tries to challenge them like a Chihuahua who thinks he is a wolf). All are friendly and love attention from humans.
Neal is also nearly ready to open a new club in South Baton Rouge, close to the Mississippi River. His previous club, Neal’s Juke Joint Showcase Room, was started mainly to showcase undiscovered local talent, but only remained open for one year, until he decided he wanted a different location. The highly polished new bar, upstairs seating, and back-room poker machines in the new venue all looked nearly ready for customers. However, Neal shared that he also has plans to add an extension to the building with stadium-type seats to provide an opportunity to feature well-known bands that might require seating for hundreds of fans. Although currently unnamed, he is considering naming the club Kenny Neal’s Legends, in remembrance of the years he played bass with the Buddy Guy Band.
The next stop on the Baton Rouge tour was one of the houses that Neal has been gutting and remodeling for resale. While he completes much of the remodeling himself, (skills he learned “from jobs people gave us as kids”), he also noted that these projects provide opportunities to hire local friends who own small businesses.
“I totally demolished it and am just starting to put it back. I grew up with everybody in this area and always stayed in touch with my friends, so when I came home, I was not a stranger. I don’t feel like I ever really left, totally. All my buddies are still here. If they have a plumbing company, I will hire them to do that. If they have a carpentry company, I hire them to do that. I’m keeping everyone employed.”
Neal was also a key figure in the restoration of a decades-old Boy Scout Hut which was repurposed and turned into a permanent juke joint exhibit at the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen. With extensive blues memorabilia on the walls, this exhibit hosts live music events which provide education to schoolchildren and tourists regarding the history of the blues. Many are aware that Neal is also known to perform at fundraisers for Kids Rock the Nation, a non-profit organization that promotes self-esteem by recognizing musical potential in children and provides musical instruments to students and schools.
Another of Neal’s talents includes the ability to restore antique automobiles. Vehicles he has salvaged are scattered on his properties, including cars from the 1950s and 1960s, and an old school bus. He explained that the bus was the only bus in Erwinvile (where he grew up) to bus the Black children to school for many years, and his mother rode that bus when she was attending school.
“That’s why I’m so proud to receive it and take it to the museum…I think it will be a great conversation starter.”
In his garage is the project that has been his passion for the past five years–a 1948 Buick. Into this special car, he has lovingly and painstakingly added air conditioning and power steering. Kenny noted that he was the eldest of ten children, so his family did not have much money when he was young.
“You never forget what it’s like to be poor. I guess that’s why I see something that looks like junk and I want to keep it and try to turn it into something nice.” he explained.
However, the projects that Neal seems most excited about are his studio, Brookstown Recording Studio, and his new record label, Booga Music, (which he has opened in partnership with Vizztone Records and Bratgirl Media). The studio is located in the first home Neal ever bought, but includes nearby properties as well, to provide apartments in which bands can reside while they are recording their albums. On the walls of the studio are numerous photos of Neal with blues superstars, such as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and BB King. He noted how grateful he was that his father, Raful Neal, used to hold band practice at the house, so he met many great artists at an early age and later had the opportunity to play with all the blues giants that he admired. (Raful Neal, a legend in the Louisiana blues scene, started his first band at age 17, which included first “Lazy Lester” Johnson on guitar, and then a very young Buddy Guy. Buddy Guy later recruited Kenny Neal to play in his band.)
In Brookstown Studio, there are also paintings of Neal that have been given to him, including a particularly inspiring one painted by a boy who was paralyzed from the neck down, who completed the painting by holding the brush in his mouth. On the walls are also many interesting guitars, such as the alligator-shaped guitar made for him by James “Super Chickan” Johnson, and the bass that used to belong to Junior Wells which has a painting of Neal’s face on the back of it.
“When I was young and still learning, Junior went into the basement and brought out a jazz bass. I played it and it felt like silk to me. I had never felt anything so slick and smooth. I asked if I could use it on the road and I kept it for about a year. I got my friend to paint my picture on the back of the bass even though Junior hadn’t really given it to me yet. I used to pop the bass and play it with my teeth and I pulled it up and Junior saw my picture on the back of it and said ‘I’ll be Goddamned—who told you to put your damn picture on my bass?’ right into the mic. He was cracking up…That’s the kind of person Junior was—we got close like that. He would call me up when I first got to Chicago and say, ‘hey, those little knit pants you got aren’t going to work. Let me take you out and help you get some clothes.’ Junebug, I called him that, was just so down-to-earth. He was like a big brother to me” he recalled.
Neal noted that he hoped to use Brookstown Studio to provide opportunities for musicians to record their music who might not be able to afford a bigger production, with an emphasis on younger, local musicians.
“I just always had that vision because of my friend, Bob Greenlee, who gave me my first break. He did the same thing. He was wealthy, but didn’t give a crap about money and would show up barefoot. He had a big heart and opened up a studio and brought me in as one of the first artists—he really believed in me. Bob paid for everything. Then he got pancreatic cancer and died, but he will always be in my heart. Now I want to help younger guys coming up and give people the chance and an opportunity. That’s what they need when they can’t afford it—just an opportunity. I’m just giving back. I think it’s time for that because I appreciate what people have done for myself.”
In addition to providing opportunities to young, aspiring musicians, Neal has also been approached by some veterans. He noted that Tito Jackson has asked him to produce his upcoming blues album.
“He sent me demos and I will take it and bring in all the artists I think can handle his style. I can make it come alive. When they hear it and they say, ‘Wow—I didn’t know it could sound like this,’ that’s the fun part for me.”
The Booga Music label was named “after what I used to call my son, Kenny Jr, when he was little. He hated it when he got bigger, but now it’s my company’s name, so he doesn’t mind it.”
Booga Music has released its flagship album, Brody Buster’s Damn, I Spilled the Blues. Buster, a child prodigy who was called the best harmonica player of our time by BB King when he was only ten years of age, caught Neal’s attention when he returned to the blues after a long absence and competed in the International Blues Challenge as a one-man-band while Neal was one of the judges.
“I thought he was amazing…I said, ‘this kid is badass.’ Then he won and I saw him a couple of years later and asked him what kind of record deal he was given, and he said none, so I said, ‘you’ve got something now.’ I told him he needed to come to Baton Rouge and that’s what he did. That’s the kind of thing I enjoy—if I can just help somebody. Every little bit helps.”
When asked what the experience of working with Neal was like, Buster replied, “Working with Kenny Neal was like hanging out with the Badass Grandpa I always wanted. I had the songs ready to rock. Kenny and the crew were perfect for me to bounce ideas off of—true professionals! It was a true honor to have Kenny guide me. It was easy—supernatural, like we had been doing this together for years. In my opinion, he is the true King of the Blues, and the nicest man you would ever meet. I’m just counting down the days until I get to work with him on my next album, or any projects Kenny would throw my way.”
An album featuring a promising artist from Israel, Andy Watts, (and featuring guest artist Joe Louis Walker), was also recently released on Booga Music, and seems likely to become extremely popular with fans. Other artists on the label include Patti Parks, Harvey Knox, The Lighthouse Gospel Singers, two cousins who are both named Terrell Griffin and sing gospel, and Neal’s back-up drummer, Michael Harris, who has his own funk fusion band. Neal is determined to introduce others to their talents, possibly through a compilation album featuring numerous “Booga Music” artists. Neal is also about to release an album he recorded with Lucky Peterson, shortly before his death.
“He flew here and stayed here for a week or so. It will just be the two of us on this album, with a more traditional sound. It was his last session. He played on every album I ever recorded, and I didn’t realize this would be our last. I will feel lost without him.”
In addition, Neal has nearly completed a very special album including the entire Neal Family. He has a long history of touring with family members, and when he moved up to Toronto, he brought his brothers with him to play as the Neal Brothers Band. They often played behind such great artists as Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker. However, his brothers soon decided that the cold winters of Toronto were not for them. Neal has continued to tour frequently with members of his family and the album that is soon to be released will include all three generations of the Neal Family.
“I always wanted to do something with the entire Neal family—but I didn’t realize we would lose four members. Even though my sister, Dad and two brothers are deceased, I’m still going to add them onto the album. I have some recordings of them” he noted.
Neal discussed teaching himself about the business part of music.
“It’s about 50% of the music. You can have all the talent you want, but if you don’t understand the business part of it, you won’t be successful.”
He described developing a strong habit of discipline from his time acting on Broadway in the play Mule Bone, for which he received the Theatre World Award for Outstanding New Talent on Broadway. He did not want to read for the part, but he was strongly encouraged to do so by his manager. Although he initially did not believe the audition went well, he realized later that “they probably wanted me because they knew I really knew the blues.”
“It’s probably easier for them to teach a young blues artist who knows how to play the old stuff how to act than it is to take an actor and teach him to play.”
Neal described undergoing intensive coaching lessons in which he had to read the entire script every day.
“She coach made me sing every line of it. Then every morning we had the workout class, doing what we thought were exercise routines, but what she was doing, she was tricking me. She taught me to dance without me even knowing it.”
“Broadway was good for me. When I came back to the stage, I brought that attitude of discipline with me—no drinking, no smoking, no nothing on stage. I couldn’t tolerate unnecessary stuff on the stage. It cleaned my stage up. So, I learned a lot from Broadway, even though I initially didn’t want to do it.”
When asked how he seemed so energetic and motivated while many other musicians have reported finding no inspiration to even write a single song during the bleakness of the COVID-19 pandemic, Neal responded that when a person has been through some of the things he has endured, it becomes relatively easy to take the pandemic in stride.
“I buried my daddy, my brother and my sister within eleven months, back-to-back, and my sister was murdered. For somebody to just cold-blooded take her life, that was the biggest hit. If I got through that time in my life, I can handle the rest of it. This is a piece of cake. It’s just what we’ve got to deal with. The music is embedded in me – it’s not going to go anywhere” he explained.
However, even when speaking of these past tragedies, Neal quickly turned to the subject of his gratitude toward his wife for her support throughout the difficult period which occurred during their first years of marriage.
Yes, Kenny Neal is grateful for his many blessings. . We can expect to continue to see great things from his new club, recording studio and record label, and will eagerly await the release of the Neal Family album.
You can check out Neal’s music at www.KennyNeal.net. Also, artists wishing to go to Baton Rouge to record under Neal’s production can send him demos to the studio’s address: 5224 Byron Street, Baton Rouge LA 70805, or email him at Kennynealnews@gmail.com.