Grady Champion certainly lives up to his last name. He fights fiercely to keep alive the tradition of the blues that musicians such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, and Buddy Guy passed along, while at the same time championing younger artists, such as J.J. Thames, who are contributing their own unique style to the blues. Champion loves the blues deeply and wants above all to keep it going, in spite of the challenges he thinks the music faces these days, and the best way, he thinks, to keep the music from losing its soul lies in preserving tradition and holding onto it as the foundation from which innovation in the blues arises.
You don’t have to listen to more than one song on any of Champion’s albums to know that he’s having a good time—bringing the blues party—honoring his roots while still growing beyond them. On his two most recent albums, 2014’s Bootleg Whiskey and last year’s One of a Kind, both released by Malaco, Champion demonstrates his canny ability not only to write songs that challenge the status quo but also to reach out with powerful rhythm and blues riffs that reach back to the field shouts of Mississippi blues shouters and to the blues jazz tones of the best of Stax and Muscle Shoals. Bootleg Whiskey contains two songs that illustrate Champion’s no-holds-barred approach to his music.
The haunting “Who Dat” asks a simple question—“is it failure or is it fame?”—that cuts many ways in Champion’s funky, down-to-the-bone delivery: the song clearly could be a protest of police brutality, an indictment of the history of facelessness that plantation masters handed to their slaves, a questioning of his own identity as an artist, an indictment of a society that allows covert police actions to arrest and jail innocent blacks. The soulful “South Side,” with its Don Covey-style riffs, celebrates the place in every city where everything is a little rougher (“crime light be a little higher”) but much more joyous: “on the south side, there’s a party on every block/on the south side, they party around the clock/on the south side, you get the very best food in town.” It’s a party song, pure and simple, and “my music is party music,” Champion laughs.
The party continues on Champion’s most recent album, One of a Kind. “House Party” opens with Champion’s wailing harmonica, which punctuates the entire song with it palpable, punching raw blues bends. Champion and his band invite us to a good time in this song; it rockets you out of your seats at the first note of Champion’s harmonica, and he delivers a simple message in the lyrics: “you’ll hear some blues/a little soul, too/rock and roll/it’s a house party y’all.” The title track of the album recalls a fervent tune like Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Members Only,” which it resembles sonically. The beauty of this song lies in its mastery of the soul tune that ably weaves in a blues structure and leaves you aching, sad, and wistful by the time the song’s over.
Champion closes the album with “GC Boogie,” a straight-ahead harmonica blues funk instrumental that won’t let us sit still, no matter how hard we try. Champion lives up to his name and his hopes on this album, too, enlisting young drummer Sam Scott and young bassist Ken Smith, as well as blues veterans Elvin Bishop on slide guitar and Eddie Cotton on guitar; Champion shares writing credits on all songs except “Life Support” and GC Boogie,” which he penned himself. Although he’s a little disturbed that the Blues Foundation snubbed One of a Kind, he remains focused on his music: “God has blessed me to be able to do this every day and has given me this talent, and I’m gonna keep using it,” he declares.
Champion might have come late to the blues, but music has always been in him and a part of his life. He grew up in Canton, Mississippi, where he was born the youngest of his father’s 28 children, and grew up working hard on the farm. When he was eight, he discovered his passion for music when he started singing in the gospel choir at church. Gospel influences still weave through his music even now, with the Crowns of Joy providing background vocals on Bootleg Whiskey, and heavenly harmonies lifting almost every song on all his albums. Yet, as strong as that influence might be, he quickly admits that he was born and raised around country, soul, and blues as much as gospel.
When he was 15, his life changed when his mother moved the family to Miami, Florida; he was there only one year before he returned to Mississippi to finish high school, but it was long enough for him to discover the musical strains of hip hop. When he graduated he returned to Florida, and though music was still in his soul, he tried a few other occupations, like boxing, before returning to his passion, taking a job as a DJ. He spent some time promoting music for the rap label Sun Town Records, which helped him learn about the business side of music, and he carries the lessons he learned there into his work today. “Even in the blues world,” he says, “I promote differently. I hit the street, and I take my own money and put it behind my own records. I still believe in the idea of street teams. I might not have people in different cities working as my teams, like the old days, but I get in touch with fans in areas where I’m performing and ask them to use social media to promote my shows in that area.”
Although Champion still incorporates hip hop styles into some of his songs, he lost interest in rap when it got too violent. “I was looking for a more mature music,” he says. He started listening to a public radio station in Miami and heard Sonny Boy Williamson for the first time. “It touched my soul,” Champion comments, “and a couple of years later I picked up the harmonica. I eventually started playing blues clubs around Miami, and in my 30s I got serious about playing the guitar.”
It wasn’t too long before Champion self-released his first record, Goin’ Back Home (1998), and he eventually went back home and settled in Mississippi, where Shanachie Records, who had watched his rise, signed him for Payin’ for My Sins (1999) and 2 Days Short of a Week (2001). On every one of those early albums, Champion emerged as a musician who shot straight to the heart of social issues, such as racial injustice and rise of urban violence, in his blues, thus embracing the heart of the traditional blues which have endured because of their fearlessness to call out injustice while at the same time mournfully grieving over the personal and social consequences of unjust acts.
While he picked up harmonica and guitar later, he started writing in his early 20s. “I was coming out of hip hop, so I was writing lyrics all the time,” he says. Although he doesn’t write every day now, he’s collecting materials every day. “A melody might hit me or a lyric might hit me,” he says, “and I’ll record in my phone.” When Champion takes songs he’s written into the studio, “we break them down so we can see what works and what doesn’t and the song grows that way.” Champion points out that these days he’s now gotten to the point in his songwriting where he has the time to explore songwriters like Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan to see how they build songs. “I’m always writing,” he laughs, “so even though I haven’t completed anything yet, I’m working on some stuff for the next album.”
His attention to writing has paid off, since Champion has been recognized for his writing and his music. Etta James recorded his 2003 co-write with Kevin Bowe, “Trust Yourself,” on her album Let It Roll, which won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album and a Blues Music Award as the Soul/Blues Album of the Year in 2004 from the Blues Foundation.
In 2010, Champion won the International Blues Challenge, giving him a chance to take his music to new venues and audiences in Europe and Canada. His 2011 song from Dreamin’, “Make That Monkey Jump” won a Blues Critics Award in the Best Down Home Blues Song category, and Dreamin’ was nominated for two Blues Music Awards in 2012: Best Soul Blues Album and for Song of the Year for “Thank You for Giving Me the Blues.” Dreamin’ was the number 1 album on Sirius XM’s Bluesville chart; Champion is very grateful for the support of Sirius XM radio: “the person who runs that station appreciates what we’re doing,” he says.
Champion admits that he’s made some mistakes in the business along the way. “Sometimes I put too much trust in music people and even in musicians,” he comments; “I grew up thinking that everybody has your best interests in mind—I was taught that—but I found out that everybody really has their own best interests in mind.” The lack of recognition by the Blues Foundation for his new album, One of a Kind, especially disturbs him. “We released the album in time for the awards, but we got no recognition; I think we have the gatekeepers in the blues field that try to block the originators of the music of some of our ancestors. In blues music you’ve got some petty-minded people that want to keep the blues bottled up. If you don’t want the blues to endure, it will stagnate,” Champion points out. He advocates mightily that the blues embrace innovation: the blues has really stagnated, Champion tells Blues Blast, because some people in the music are “not allowing young innovators to get out to put their two cents into the music.”
Champion’s not going to let the current state of the blues get him down, though. “We’re keeping it going,” he says. “I’ve always been able to take my time and put my heart in my music. If you believe in your heart that you gotta do it, you can’t let no one stop you; if the blues is in you, it’s in you. If your music gonna be good, it’s definitely gonna prove itself; listen, my name will be entered in history because of my music,” Champion says.
A few years ago, the bluesman built his own state-of-the art studio behind his house in Mississippi which he called Backyard Studio, where he records and release albums for his label DeChamp Records. While the industry might have its own agenda, Champion can support artists he believes are making a huge difference in blues music by recording and producing their albums on this label. The two artists who’ve released albums from DeChamp have scored big so far: Eddie Cotton’s Here I Come and J.J. Thames Tell You What I Know both occupied spots in the top 10 in Billboard’s blues album’s charts in February 2015, and Cotton won the 2015 International Blues Challenge. “Eddie is a genius with guitar and with songwriting,” says Champion, “and J.J. reminds me of a young Etta James.” Champion tells Blues Blast that the studio and the label give him a chance now to work with artists he’s been intrigued with.
Champion is looking forward to 2017; “looks like it’s going to be a great year,” he proclaims. “I’m going to focus on my band and keep these young guys on the road with me, both to teach them the blues and to help them learn about the industry.” Champion also has some other projects in mind, and he’ll keep gathering songs for the next album. “I want to start writing a book on my life, and it will have a lot to do with the blues, but I’m gonna do it while I can still remember,” he laughs.
With a big heart for young blues musicians and for the blues, Champion is keeping the blues alive by preserving its traditions and encouraging and fostering innovation in the blues. “Music is a beautiful thing,” he reiterates, “especially if it’s coming from an authentic artist who feels the music in his or her heart.”
Champion stands as that one-of-a-kind musician who takes young artists under his wings, teaching them not only about the intricacies and the beauty of the music but also about the pitfalls and the rewards of a music industry that can often be demoralizing for any artist. He keeps the party going in his music, always with an eye to the forces that might crash the party and bring it down, but never losing sight of why we’re partying in the first place. Champion might remind us constantly about the troubles of our world, but he refuses to let us get down, insisting that if we have music in our hearts, we can keep going.
Visit Grady’s website at: www.gradychampion.com
Interviewer Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. writes about music and music books for No Depression, American Songwriter, Country Standard Time, and Wide Open Country.