When gospel star Castro Coleman decided to make the conversion to Mr. Sipp the bluesman, it wasn’t a simple decision. His grandfather was the one who was most open to it.
“He was in the church all his life,” explains Mr. Sipp, “but he’s a lover of music. Period! All his life! He was the one (who said) there’s only seven notes to music. So, when you play C in church, it’s the same C you play in the blues. When you play C in the blues, it’s the same C you play in rock and roll. You know? So, he was the easy one for me because he didn’t want my career to just be one dimension.
Dad was a little more pragmatic.
“He wanted to make sure that after 26 years of my gospel training base that I wasn’t taking a chance on blowing it away. He said, ‘Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? Are you sure this is what you want to do? You’ve got 23 years of gospel. You’ve got a great record out there. You’ve got a great name. You’ve got a great relationship with (those) in radio. Are you sure you want to go into that field?’”
For more than a quarter century Mr. Sipp as Castro Coleman had written, produced, performed and recorded under his own name and with The Legendary Williams Brothers, The Canton Spirituals, and The True Believers. As Castro Coleman and Highly Favored he’d made TV appearances on Bobby Jones Gospel and had national recognition with their CD Time Out. He appears on recordings by The Pilgrim Jubilees, Spencer Taylor and the Highway QC’s, Rev. Rance Allen, The Texas Boys, Brian Courtney Willison, The Jackson Southernaires, and The Canton Spirituals.
So, Castro knew that going secular would make some waves.
“I knew the people were gonna have something to say. But I’ve always gone against the grain anyway even when I was in gospel. I was the guy that wear a suit and tie singing gospel. I wore tennis shoes, jerseys, jeans. Whatever you couldn’t wear, I wore and made it work.
“I was known for going against the grain with everything that was in my area and making it work. So, I carried that same confidence over into the blues, and I do understand marketing. I do understand engineering. I do understand music. I do know (something) about the music industry throughout genres. So, I do know how a band makes it. I do know how to market myself. I know how to construct and get a decent record deal. I know how to convince a label. I know how to write songs.”
In 2012 he made his first step into blues. From the top of the ladder in gospel, he went to the first rung in blues. He paid the $25 fee to the Vicksburg Blues Society to put himself in the running to be their entry into the International Blues Challenge.
“I didn’t have a band. I had no songs. All I knew was that I wanted to play the blues. So, I convinced Shirley Waring to let me sign up for the challenge and immediately called my cousin who played in my gospel band. Did they want to play some blues and go into the competition? And they said, ‘Sure! When?’ I was like Saturday. We’ll figure out later the three songs.
“The next morning we started a band. At that time Mississippi Kin Folk was the name of the band. We went into the competition that Saturday. Two months after that we were competing with musicians from all over the world. I only had three songs. Made it into the competition, and I needed another song.
“That night when we found out we made it, I wrote the song “Hey, Hey, Hey” and it brought us through. We didn’t actually win that year. We made it into the finals and competed against Selwyn Birchwood who was a phenomenal blues man. Him winning gave my heart joy because I never figured going past the first round to be honest. To get to the finals gave my heart joy because I knew I was coming back.”
Under the name Mr. Sipp, Castro competed in the regional competition in the fall of 2012 and won. He then went to compete in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in January 2013 where made it to the finals.
He later again entered the regional competition in the fall of 2013, which he won and went back to Memphis in 2014 where he won in the International Blues Challenge band category and also took the Albert King Gibson Guitar award. In 2014 he won the Jus’ Blues Foundation’s Bobby Rush Entertainer’s Award and the 2015 Jackson Music Awards Blues Artist of the Year.
Malaco Records which had released some of Castro’s gospel albums was not happy when he came to them wanting to do a blues album.
“They were totally against it. Didn’t understand where I was going or why I wanted to do it. They really didn’t want to do it, (but) that’s what I wanted to do when I went to do it, and if that disappointed them that’s what I was going to do. They weren’t going to stop me from doing it. No one dictates my life. That was just what I was going to do. (They said) it wasn’t going to work. Nobody listens to that kind of music. So, I cut the record, and it turned out to be one of the biggest records I’ve ever released in my life. I was a new kid on the block (and it) made a great story.”
So, Mr. Sipp released It’s My Guitar on his own in 2013. He went around his live band and played all the instruments.
“My first blues album all of us coming from the church didn’t make us blues musicians. Because I’m a session musician, I’m able to (play) different styles. My cousins have played church all their life. I’ve played for church, but I’ve done sessions with blues, R&B, neo-soul. I’ve done all kinds of music on the production side. So, what I wanted to introduce myself into the music realm with the mixture that I had an album that sounded bluesy enough to be considered as a blues guy, not a blues guy that comes out of the church.”
He was back with Malaco in 2015 with The Mississippi Blues Child.
“All my life I’ve had to prove (myself) to management of the record companies. So, at this point over 30 years in, I’m used to proving myself. That’s like second nature. If I say it, and I believe it, I already believe it could happen.”
The Mississippi Blues Child debuted at No. 6 on the Living Blues Radio Chart. The magazine praised Sipp’s music saying, “No matter the style, though, Mr. Sipp is up to the task, again proving himself worthy as singer, guitarist and songwriter.”
His agency, Intrepid Artists, describes the release: “Mr. Sipp once again handles all of the vocals and plays numerous instruments, however this time around he is joined by other reputable Malaco Mississippi “Hitmen.” All songs with the exception of one are originals, and his diverse style of music separates this record from many of the other recent “cookie cutter” Delta Blues recordings.”
Mr. Sipps’ live shows define him better than his recordings. His guitar has a tone and “voice” that’s nearly as distinctive as B. B. King’s. And his Jack in the Box energy is palpable.
“My energy is so high on stage because I look at the performance side of it as recess back in school. You work all day in school and have a 10-minute break recess. In my life I’m always working or studying music, studying the business. When I get that hour or that hour and 30 minutes to perform, that’s the recess of my day. That’s the recess of my week. If you notice at recess they run and play as hard as they can. They enjoy what they can ’cause when it’s over, it’s back to work. The music gives me joy. It gives me energy. Even when I’m burned out from working, you put the guitar in my hand and a mike in front of me, it’s like a new burst of joy, and energy comes from somewhere. I don’t know where. So, I love it. That joy comes through me.”
Mr. Sipp has elevated the comingling of gospel and blues another notch in a long and often painful marriage hampered by the 19th and early 20th century perception that blues is all about things evil and gospel is all about goodness. Artists like Son House and the Rev. Gary Davis were men of God who also sang the blues in the first half of the 20th century followed a generation later by The Staple Singers and the Holmes Brothers who were more commercially successful examples of a healthy relationship between the genres. Mr. Sipp is further eroding the chasm between the two and dispelling the myths and false perceptions about each. His strong family orientation is pivotal and powerful in its effect on his muse. Like many in blues, he’s a type A personality determined to do it his way. And like most gospel singers, he puts God front and center by maintaining strong bonds with his wife and four daughters.
The story behind the nerdy glasses he wears with tape at the bridge of his nose is an example of how a love for his daughter translated into a device that changed her life and paid for her college education.
“When my oldest daughter was in third grade, she got her eyes checked. She had to wear glasses. I don’t know why my wife went and bought her these frames like this for a third grader. She went to school, and she was excited about her glasses, but she came home crying. She said, ‘Daddy, they laughed at me.’ ‘Ok,’ I said. ‘That was a case of bullying.’
“At that point I was in a position of working on my ninth gospel album, and we were at the point to where I was doing the photo shoot. So, I said, ‘I’ll tell ya what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna buy some frames just like yours. I’m gonna pop the lenses out, and I’m gonna put tape in the middle of it and make it cool (for the photo).’
“That album did well for me in the gospel industry which I did a lot of national television, so it became real hip from then. Every time I made it (she) was able to go to school with her black frames, have her chest stick out and her head held up because with her daddy being on that album cover on national television made it cool for all the kinds who went to put tape on their glasses. But I did that to reverse a case of bullying with my kid, and it actually worked, and we just carried it over from the gospel to the blues. It’s fascinating.”
His daughter is now a senior at Jackson State College.
“She’s very strong minded, confident. She’s going back and doing motivational speaking and she has stories about how I stepped in as a parent to build her confidence. They called it a gimmick. It’s not a gimmick. I made what worked for my career at the same time. It paid for two of my daughters’ colleges and four more other kids’ college careers off the money we made selling those glasses. It changed their lives and it (made) opportunities for their lives, and that’s all that matters for me no matter how anybody else sees it.”
Her degree is in science education. She plays, sings and writes music but does not plan to follow in her father’s footsteps. “I thought she might go into music. I’m kinda glad she didn’t now. Her mind is very focused – not to get tied up in the dark side of what goes on out there. I’m grateful I didn’t get caught up in the dark side of it.”
Mr. Sipp rejoins his gospel group The True Believers for their latest release Back to The Roots and is touring on this release. Coleman organized the True Believers, a gospel quartet that released its first disc, Don’t Count Me Out, for Blackberry Records in 2000. The album featured songs written by Coleman as well as compositions by Paul Porter of the Christianaires, Bishop Hezekiah Walker and Melvin Williams of the Williams Brothers.
“The True Believers was my first gospel band that I stepped out and started doing my own thing in 1995. Before then, I was traveling with a lot of different groups. In 1995 I started my own band, started singing my own songs and True Believers at that particular time was my own family.
“They’re my age and we cut our first album with Blackberry Records. The record went national. We became a national recording act with a national song “Ooh, Wee; Another Blessing.” Now, I’m 45 years old and when I sing that song it’s still still present relevant. Everybody in the building stands up and sings it.
“Once I left I still owned the name of the group. I own the brand. I own everything. Gospel has always been a part of my act. I never want to leave. Now was the perfect time to do a Back to the Roots. I have six years, six strong years, in the blues industry, so the gospel singing followed me over to Mr. Sipp. So, I said in this season what I’ll do is I’ll do a gospel album, and then Back to The Roots is back to my roots and show them my roots. The music is more traditional then I’ve ever done in my gospel career.’
“I purposely did that because at this point what we brought to the gospel music industry was the energy. Brought the energy in 1995, and it continues to grow in 2010 when I left, So, it’s so much at the edge out there now.
“Everybody has forgotten about the roots, the basis of it, the simple version of it, the more direct version of it, So, I went back to the roots of gospel. This is a relevant field that can be marketable today, but it’s more traditional than I’ve been involved in, but God it works.
“It’s working. It’s in the top 25 of the American (SoundScan) charts. Syndicated radio stations have picked it up where there’s not many spots for traditional gospel on syndicated radio stations now, but fortunately we have secured one of the spots on all the syndicated gospel radio stations right now. It’s just a wonderful thing.”
Castro opened a club in Magnolia, Mississippi where he’s dispelling old myths about blues to patrons one at a time. “I tell them to take time and really listen to the blues. Get out and come to some of the blues festivals and blues concerts. Take time if you know a blues man or blues woman. Take the time to talk to them and hear what it really is. You can often go off from what you hear from somebody else and build that cliché, but that’s the first thing I hear. Blues is sad music. My thing is everybody has a good time from the first act to the last act.
“That’s the problem I had when I first opened here. ‘I don’t want to hear no blues.’ Well, come here and get the experience. It will change your mind. And that’s what’s been happening. It’s changing their minds. So, I encourage anybody that’s listening to me. Don’t go by what anybody else tells you. It is human to change (your mind). One of the greatest joys for me is when I perform at a festival or a venue somebody says, ‘I brought my Cousin Jeanne or my Uncle Bill or somebody who don’t ever like blues. I brought them out for the first time, and they said, “My God. I don’t even like blues, and I’m such a fan. I so love this.’”
“They get so many records, and it turned into this love of the blues. My heart just rejoices, and I say, ‘That’s what it’s about. It’s not about picking up the honorarium. It’s not about winning the BMA. It’s about winning another lover of the music so they can understand the joy of it.’
“Man, that’s gravy to me. I get chills talking about it.”
Visit Mr. Sipps’s website at: www.mrsipptmbc.net.