Featured Interview – Mike Ledbetter

Mike Ledbetter photo 1Even though Mike Ledbetter is barely into his 30s and only enjoyed true stardom for little more than two years alongside Monster Mike Welch as one half of Welch Ledbetter Connection, he’s already proven himself as one of the best vocalists in the blues. And if you think that’s come about simply by chance, you’re sorely mistaken.

It has far more to do than simply serving a seven-year apprenticeship/partnership with Nick Moss. And it has virtually nothing to do with the fact that he shares the family surname with Hudie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, a distant cousin several generations removed and a blues superstar in the 1930s and ‘40s, the self-proclaimed King Of The 12-String Guitar who penned “Rock Island Line,” “Goodnight Irene” and many other blues classics.

Born, raised and still residing in Elgin, Ill., about an hour short to the northwest of Chicago, Ledbetter grew up in a home steeped in many rich musical traditions, and his entry into the blues came about in a different fashion than you might imagine.

“I always loved singing,” he recalls. “And I had a lot of different paths leading to all of the things I like, something that still carries out ‘til this day.

“I have a sister who’s 10 years older than me. When I was really, really young – in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was hearing all of the pop and R&B that was on the radio at the time – everything from Michael Jackson to Prince and New Edition. Even all the boy bands like New Kids On The Block, all that stuff. To this day, I still know the lyrics to all of their songs from hanging out with my sister.”

Simultaneously, Ledbetter’s parents were playing the music of their youth: Motown, Stax and more. “My house was really rich in all genres,” he says. “And there was gospel, too. I used to go to church with my grandmother, and used to listen to her sing.”

Mike’s father’s love for the blues put him on the path he walks today. “He was always a huge B.B. King fan,” Ledbetter says. “We used to listen to a lot of B.B. when I was riding around with him in the car growing up. I didn’t know a lot of blues songs back then, but I could sing B.B.’s Live At Cook County Jail album front to back.”

When attending Elgin High, Mike chose the choir as an elective. “It’s not math or science…I needed to get away from that,” he jokes. “Where else could I sing for 45 minutes out of the day and do the thing I like to do.”

It was there that Ledbetter would eventually launch a career in opera. A young man with an exceptionally rich tenor voice, it didn’t take his choral director, Catherine Burkhardt, long before realizing Mike possessed talent far beyond that of the average student.

“As the year was going on, she started asking me if I wanted to take voice lessons,” he says. “At the time, I was very much against it. I was a hard-headed 15-year-old freshman, and I thought: ‘What I have now, that’s good enough. I don’t need some guy messin’ with what’s good enough.’ I was very close-minded.”

Ledbetter’s attitude began to change the following year, when he graduated to the school’s top choir. He quickly realized he was surrounded by other male students whose talents he admired, all of whom had taken the teacher’s advice and were developing their skills with outside help.

“That kinda opened my mind,” he says. “It was a situation where you had to hear one of your peers, one of your friends, do something and then you go: ‘Okay. Maybe that’s all right.’

“I started taking lessons from a gentleman named Scott Clauson. He used to come to school and give hour-long lessons throughout the day. He asked me what kind of music I’d like to do, and I told him nothing in a foreign language.

“Opera, I told him, I don’t like that stuff. It’s a bunch of fat people on stage yellin’ and screamin’ in languages I don’t understand. I was still very close-minded,” he laughs.

Mike Ledbetter photo 2Clausen steered him to material from musical theater and jazz– everything from Rogers and Hammerstein to Cole Porter. At the end of that school year, however, Mike got a chance to see Clauson at his own operatic recital. “I saw him singing in a foreign language, and I had no idea what he was saying, but I felt it,” he remembers. “That’s what started opening my mind to doing something like that.

“I wanted to do that to people. I wanted them to feel the story I was telling even though they didn’t necessarily understand the words.

Before he knew what was happening, Ledbetter was deeply involved, soon realizing: “That’s what I wanted to do for a living. From the age of 16, I wanted to be an opera singer.”

Throughout his teen years and for the better part of a decade, he worked with The Elgin O.P.E.R.A., Chicago Opera Theater and other smaller organizations in the area, handling both lead and supporting roles. To this day, his favorite remains Giuseppi Verdi’s La Traviata. “I’ve done so many productions of that one, it never gets old,” he says.

Blues fans now break out in goosebumps when they see him perform. If you ever get a chance to hear him break out into an aria from that romantic tragedy, you’ll quickly understand why opera fans got that feeling, too. Ledbetter probably would have made it onto the stage of the Windy City’s famed Lyric Opera House, too, if he hadn’t chosen the blues as a second calling.

Surprising as it might seem, he’s not the first Chicagoan to go down that road. He was still in grammar school when Windy City diva Valerie Wellington, a graduate of the American Conservatory Of Music, took her talents from the opera house to the smoky clubs on the North Side. Her album, Million Dollar Baby, was an instant hit and featured Sunnyland Slim, Billy Branch and Magic Slim in the lineup. Her star was on the ascendant at age 33 after a whirlwind tour of Japan. Sadly, however, she suffered a brain aneurism when deplaning at O’Hare Airport on New Year’s Day 1993 and died a day later.

As for Mike, he was singing at night and still working a day job when he began having second thoughts about an opera career, which would involve extensive travel. “I said: ‘You know what? I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this for a living. I started to look around for other ways to be a singer.

“Even though I sang nothing but opera for ten years, I sang everything. I wanted to see if I could sing blues, too, and started making my way to jams in the city. This all started from me trying to get my face out there.”

Ledbetter’s entry into the blues world came through the help of a former high school classmate, a blues lover who was working as a caretaker for legendary guitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards in the final stages of his 96-year life.

“How it really all happened for me was that the Kilborn Alley Blues Band had a show in Elgin that I attended. I was so taken aback by the whole group, but especially their lead singer,” Mike recalls.

The vocalist, Andy Duncanson, remains one of the most underappreciated, golden-throated soul-blues singers in the world today. “He’s my absolute favorite,” Ledbetter says. “I went up to him during their set break, told him that he was absolutely amazing and that I was a vocalist myself. I told him that I just wanted to let him know that I really appreciate what you do.

“As soon as he went back on stage, he says: ‘Ya know, I met a real nice guy in the audience, and he says he’s a singer, too. Hey, Mike, why don’t you come up here and do a couple of songs with us.’

“I was like…whoa! I didn’t expect it. That wasn’t my intention. But I went up and sang two songs.”

It was truly a fortuitous occurrence. He didn’t know it at the time, but sitting in the crowd that night was the beautiful Kate Moss, Nick’s wife and an outstanding guitarist in her own right. “As I was leaving, she came up to me and goes: ‘Hey, do you know who Nick Moss is?’

“At that time, I was a big fan of Nick. I said: ‘Yeah. I’m goin’ to his show at Rosa’s (Lounge in Chicago) tomorrow night. She says: ‘Well, if you’re really gonna be there, I’ll get you on stage with him.’

“I said: ‘Well, all right! I’m definitely gonna be there now!’”

Mike Ledbetter photo 3Mike owned most of Nick’s musical catalog, but it was the first time that he’d ever seen him play live even though they lived only a few miles apart. The two songs he performed that night and the conversation they had afterward led to an instant friendship, mentorship and a true sense of family that continues to this day.

As perfect as Ledbetter’s vocal timing is, so, too, was his timing in life.

The last true guitar student of Jimmy Rogers and other architects of what we now know as classic Chicago blues, Nick had been enjoying a long run fronting The Flip Tops, which included Piano Willie Oshawny, drummer Bob Carter and guitarist/bassist/harmonica player Gerry Hundt, a veteran lineup in which all the other performers were older than himself.

But that chapter of his life was about to change. The Flip Tops were coming to the end of their road, and he was about to create the Nick Moss Band with a much younger lineup, an ensemble that would remain true to the root but occasionally push the boundaries of the blues.

Moss invited Ledbetter into the studio to sing backup on the tune “It’ll Turn Around” on the Here I Am album and hired him as a vocalist and rhythm guitarist shortly thereafter, a move that unquestionably must have given Ledbetter second thoughts when it occurred.

As Mike says today, Nick surrounded himself with a “bunch of young dudes who didn’t know their way around,” putting himself into the position of being the blues torch-bearer for a change. The initial lineup included Nick Skilnick followed soon after by Matthew Wilson on bass, current band member Patrick Seals on drums and Travis Reed on keyboards.

Moss unknowingly had his hands full. “I didn’t start playing guitar until Nick asked me to be in the band,” Mike laughs. “He said: ‘You play guitar, right?’ And I go: ‘Not…really.’ I knew a couple of open chords, man, but I really didn’t know how to play.

“He said: ‘That’s all right. You’ll learn.’

“I was kinda thrown into the lion’s den in every way. We were students, and Nick opened up his entire record collection so we could do our homework when we weren’t rehearsing or gigging.”

The first time Ledbetter took a guitar on stage, he says, “scared as hell” would definitely be the term. Especially back then, Nick was old-school in every way. If you messed up on stage, you were gonna get that look. Before I was able to play confidently enough on the guitar, I was playing to just not get that look.”

But Moss didn’t drop a beat as he and his neophyte bandmates quickly hit the highways and byways of America and traveled overseas, including a week on the 2012 Legendary Rhythm And Blues Cruise with guitar legend Jimmy Johnson in tow.

As Ledbetter told Blues Blast at the time, though, he definitely wasn’t along for the ride. While the singing came easy — he took the lead on a song or two every night from the beginning — guitar was another matter entirely. It took him about two years before finally feeling comfortable.

What made the difference?

“I finally learned the concept of staying out of the lead guitarist’s way,” Mike says. “In the beginning, I always asked Nick a lot: ‘What do you want me to play here?’

“Finally, one day he told me: ‘Look, man, I’m gonna tell you the same thing that Jimmy Rogers told me: ‘Keep your eyes up, and whatever I’m playing, play something else. If I’m on the high end, you be on the low end, and vice versa.’

Mike Ledbetter photo 4“It’s simple stuff to just keep your eyes and your ears open. You don’t have to be the flashiest player or know everything about it, but you do have to develop your own vocabulary to make it work.”

Ledbetter learned the lessons well, and his playing kept jumping levels as his years with Nick progressed – to the point where he can hold his own on lead when asked. “It went from something that I was doing to help the band to something that I really, really truly love,” he says. In so doing, he’s gained a second voice to express himself along the way.

Ledbetter assumed more and more responsibility as time went on, earning both praise and attention in the process. Three years ago, when non-singing guitar master Ronnie Earl recorded his Father’s Day album, he invited Mike to handle vocals, sharing duties with Boston-based Diane Blue, Earl’s regular vocalist. The CD soared to the top of the Billboard charts to universal critical acclaim.

But even bigger things – and a new partnership — were just over the horizon. Ledbetter had served his apprenticeship well, and in all musical relationships, change is bound to come after a while even when deep friendships are involved.

And like it had when Kate Moss showed up for the Kilborn Alley gig, Lady Luck appeared again to give Mike a helping hand, this time pairing him with Monster Mike Welch, the former child prodigy who’s wowed audiences for 25 years as guitarist for Sugar Ray And The Bluetones, of one of the most decorated bands in the blues.

And, once again, it came about virtually by accident.

“Mike and I met for the first time down in Memphis in 2012,” Ledbetter remembers. “It was the Wednesday night jam they have at the Rum Boogie Café that the Nick Moss Band was running.

“Nick called up Jimi Bott on drums, Mike Welch on guitar. Moss grabbed a bass with Travis on keyboards, and Curtis (Salgado) got up to sing. If there was ever a moment you didn’t want to miss as a listener that was it. It was so incredible. Curtis called out a Muddy Waters slow blues.

“I had heard the name Monster Mike Welch before, but I’d never heard him play. Once Curtis called the tune, Mike started doing his thing. I wanted to see how he was playing the slide…what kind of slide he had. But he wasn’t doing it with a slide at all. He was doing it with his fingers – and he did it perfectly! My mind was absolutely blown.

“I’d never seen anyone do that before. And I still haven’t heard anyone do it to the degree he does to this day. They got done with that set, and I had to meet this dude.”

Flash forward to 2016.

That’s when Blues Hall Of Fame producer, engineer and journalist Dick Shurman invited both men independently to participate in a tribute to Otis Rush that was to take place at the Chicago Blues Festival, a long overdue tribute to a true building block of the West Side sound that permeated the Windy City in the ‘50s and continues to this today.

A very quiet and private man, Otis — who left us a couple weeks ago at age 83 — had remained out of the limelight since suffering career-ending strokes in 2003. Despite his absence and his desire to remain out of the spotlight, he remained a beloved figure and shining star for both the Chicago blues community and the world in general.

Both Mikes were deeply steeped in Rush’s catalog and both were to be present for the show, but Shurman didn’t plan to pair them on the bill. “Dick wanted me to play with Ronnie, who was also going to be there, too,” Ledbetter recalls. One of Rush’s biggest admirers, Earl frequently covers Otis’ songs, and Ledbetter’s mellifluous tenor had delivered two or three of them on Father’s Day.

“It had been a year since I’d done the album,” Mike remembers, “and Ronnie and I hadn’t spoken that much afterward. I also saw that Ronnie was going to be there with his full band, meaning that Diane would be there, too. And I knew they were probably going to do Otis’ ‘Double Trouble,’ which they do a lot.

Mike Ledbetter photo 6“So I looked at the list of performers and noticed that Mike Welch was going to be there. I asked Dick: ‘Who’s on his set?’”

Shurman hadn’t worked out the specifics, but was receptive when Ledbetter suggested they appear together. “I couldn’t be happier,” Mike chuckles, “that I made that suggestion.”

Little did they realize at the time, but when Dick agreed, he was putting together a potential partnership for the ages.

It was a pleasant late-Spring evening when they hit the stage on June 11, 2016. “Otis had just come out in his wheelchair with his entire family with him to get his award, and the entire crowd – a quarter-million people – was going wild,” Mike recalls. “He grabbed the microphone and said: “Lemme hear you say ‘yeah.’ It was a little mumbled because of his strokes and everything.

“It hit me that that was the first time I’d ever heard Otis Rush’s voice. Live. In front of me. Mike Welch was already out on stage with the entire band – him and Billy Flynn on guitars – and they were about to start the show with Otis’ ‘I Wonder Why.’ I see Mike start cryin’, and I start cryin’. It was such an emotional moment already.

“I see that they placed Otis at the side of the stage – not back stage. So he’s still out there. Buddy Guy is standing right next to him. Ever since I started really getting into singing blues, these are two of the people I’ve looked up to the most.

“After the band gets done with the instrumental, I’m the first guy to go out there and sing. If there was ever a don’t mess this up moment, that was it! There was so much adrenaline running through my body, so much excitement. I’ve been on some pretty amazing stages, but that’s still by far the heaviest thing I’ve ever done in music.”

It was a magic moment. Without any conscious effort, the two Mikes’ skills melded in a very special way, reproducing Rush’s songs in a manner that delivered the feel of the master in his heyday with Welch delivering smoldering, stinging, unhurried guitar riffs and Ledbetter’s tenor soaring about it all with unbelievably deep feel.

Otis beamed with approval as he watched and listened.

That show took place at what was probably going to be a turning point in Ledbetter’s career no matter what transpired that day, and for reasons that went far beyond the stage. An ardent weightlifter, he’d been experiencing shoulder problems for some time and was about to undergo corrective surgery that would make it impossible for him to play guitar. Sure, he could still sing, but the aggressive touring schedule with Moss would have to go on pause for an extended period during physical therapy and recovery.

“It was a very hard decision to leave Nick,” Ledbetter says. “But with everything that happened at the blues fest and with the surgery, the time was right.

“As soon as me and Mike got backstage, all the old-timers like Jimmy Johnson and, bless his soul, Eddy Clearwater were coming up to us and sayin’: ‘You guys have gotta record an album.’ Even Ronnie was telling us: ‘You have to do something together.’

“When you have all of this blues royalty telling you that you should do something, you better do something.”

Six months later, they were in the studio recording Right Place, Right Time. Produced by Welch with an a lineup that included fellow Bluetone Anthony Geraci on keyboards, Ronnie James Weber on bass and Marty Richards on drums and with guest appearances from Laura Chavez, Sax Gordon and Doug James.

As Sherman stated in the liner notes, the feelings expressed by the older masters was just as palpable for the two Mikes themselves. “The blues guitar tradition is about playing like a singer,” Welch said. “And from the first time I heard Mike, I knew he was exactly the kind of singer I’d always been trying to play like. His experience and (operatic) training gives him otherworldly precision. But the way he tells his story comes from someplace deep inside him.”

Mike Ledbetter photo 5Ledbetter added: “The way we played off each other was beautiful to me. When it comes to intensity, we are at the exact same speed as singer and player. In addition, my vocal lines, tone and vibrato are very similar to his guitar playing. Everything fit perfectly.”

Delivering a collection of tunes that ranged from old-school to and modern soul-blues, their album was an overnight success when released in 2017 on the Delta Groove imprint. It was a contender for both 2017 Blues Blast Music Awards contemporary album of the year and 2018 Blues Music Association album of the year. And both Ledbetter and Welch were among the 2018 BMA nominees for vocalist and guitarist of the year.

Since its release, Welch Ledbetter Connection has become a festival favorite around the globe, working in a supergroup format that currently includes longtime Tommy Castro Band bassist Scot Sutherland and Andrew “Blaise” Thomas, one of most in-demand percussionists in Chicago.

What’s next?

“Mike and I are thinking about getting back in the studio – November at the latest,” Ledbetter says. “The first album was basically just me and Mike getting together and sayin’: ‘Hey, man, what songs do you want to do?’ We didn’t have a band or anything like that to put a bunch of tunes together and get ‘em road tested before we went into the studio.

“The next album is going to be primarily originals. He as a guitar player and me as a singer, we just go at the same speed. His playing is incredibly intense, and he pushes me to sing harder and with more feeling. I’ve been writing like crazy for the past few months. It’s going to have the same West Side soul kinda feel to it, but a lot of different grooves and a lot of personal stories.

“I think that we have something to offer that’s very different in both the blues and the music world in general in the fact that it’s completely universal. There’s something for everyone. For all the guitar heads out there, you have Mike Welch, who is one of the finest guitar players of any kind, not just blues. When you see our show, you know that there’s no letting up. We’re at 200% all time.

“But for all old-school blues fans, there’s plenty of traditional music for them, too. And it’s a very soulful show for folks who go for that, too. All good music is soul music – it hits you in the soul, and we have something for everyone.”

And that could probably include an operatic aria if pressed, too!

Check out Welch Ledbetter Connection at www.welchledbetter.com.

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