Cover photo © 2021 Laura Carbone
In a world where many blues artists are continuing a family tradition after being born into the music and continuing a family tradition or they’ve taken a vow of poverty and taken up the profession early in adulthood, Chris “BadNews” Barnes stands out from the crowd in a completely different way.
A unique talent who’s burst on the scene in the past decade and revived the centuries-old styling known as hokum blues, he may be new to this corner of the entertainment industry, but he’s a highly motivated, highly successful multi-tasker who’s been entertaining you on stage and off for the better part of the past 35 years with a jaw-dropping resume despite flying under the radar.
Chris’ path to the music came to fruition after a long, complex journey that literally began immediately after graduating from high school in his native Scranton, Pa., and when he moved to New York to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian.
And – no joke! – he’s been delivering big laughs all along the way.
But as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, as humorous as his travels have been, he’s all business when it comes to performing. And it’s the lessons he learned as a comic that serve him well on an entirely different stage today.
Born in 1959, Barnes grew up in a complex of 41 four-unit buildings operated by the local housing authority. “In the basement,” he says, “was a vacant cellar where they used to shoot the coal down to the furnaces. But when they went to electric, that’s where you had your Christmas and graduation parties – or band practice.”
At age five, Chris was already developing skills as a drummer — and it was in that basement where he and his buddies worked on their chops.
“We played at St. Clare’s School in second grade,” he remembers. “Sister Casmire allowed us to come in. John Newman was playin’ his sister’s 12-string Spanish guitar that was bigger than him, Mark McMullen was playin’ his sister’s ukulele, and I was playin’ drums. Our setlist was the theme from Batman – which we crushed, Herman’s Hermits’ ‘There’s a Kind of Hush’ and ‘Twist & Shout’ – a great set now that I think about it! (laughs)”
He was taking drum lessons downtown when he was in fourth grade when he and his friends decided to form a real group and his teacher asked: “Do you guys have a band name?”
“We go: ‘No, Mr. Calucci,’” Barnes recalls. “So he says: ‘I got the name for ya…’ But the downside is whatever he says, we’ve gotta go with.
“‘You’re a rock band, right?’
“I’m already gettin’ nervous…yeah…
“’Granite! Got it?’
“Yeah, I got it…as soon as it came outta your mouth! He immediately went to the hardware store and got the (reflective) letters that you’d use in your front yard and pasted ‘em on my bass drum. Great. So we were Granite (chuckles).”
By the time Chris was in sixth grade, he was already playing professionally for the cocktail-hour crowd at the local Hilton Inn in a group that included fellow Scrantonian and high school wrestling teammate classmate Clarence Spady, now a two-time Blues Music Award nominee in his own right. Lifelong friends and still an occasional playing partner, they first met when attending music lessons from teachers whose studios were located around the corner from each other downtown.
Always the class clown, Chris longed to be a comedian despite his early musical success. He’s been a fixture on TV and in movies since 1989, when he made his debut as a petty thief in the Ben Stiller short, Elvis Stories with an extensive list of credits that include Who’s The Boss, Seinfeld, According to Jim, Homeland, Bull, 30 Rock, Ray Donovan, multiple episodes of The Carol Burnett Show – where he also served as a writer, a recurring role on Hunt’s sitcom Life with Bonnie, Curb Your Enthusiasm and, most recently, an appearance on Kevin Can F**k Himself.
It all began at age 17 in June 1977, when he graduated from high school in the morning and climbed aboard a Martz Trailways bus for New York City that afternoon to stay with his sister and follow his dream.
“She was a (Radio City Music Hall) Rockette,” he says. “I had three sisters — two of them were Rockettes. The other was a nun (laughs).”
Barnes had made frequent visits, and when he did, she took him to Catch a Rising Star, the comedy club that served as the springboard to success for Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and dozens of others. Back then, emcees included Richard Belzer and Bill Maher and Rodney Dangerfield, Robin Williams and David Brenner often headlined the shows – and John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd came through there, too.
He quickly landed a job seating people and doing odd jobs at Catch a Rising Star. Belzer took the young comic under his wing, and Barnes took full advantage of his position, which enabled him to land an early spot on the regular blue-Monday sign-up list to display his talents on stage.
From 1977 through 1984, Chris’ life in the Big Apple was a whir with one inconceivable creative experience after another just waiting to happen. It began when he was also working as a bartender next door at JP’s – a popular showbiz watering hole — and going to a fly-by-night announcing school on Times Square to pursue a career as a radio deejay, too. It was there that a chance meeting led to a job at WPIX-FM, the first station in the U.S. to play punk and new wave.
“Our motto was ‘From Elvis (Presley) to Elvis (Costello),’” Chris remembers. “We were the first ones to play The Clash, Devo, Buzzcocks, Talking Heads…
“New York’s on fire back then. I’m 17 years old, making like $800 cash a week from bartending, and I’m in the hippest clubs with all of these talented comedians and musicians. It was wild. I had money, I had talent, no fear — and an enormous amount of ambition. I was in the eye of the hurricane all the way!”
Borrowing a line from Charlie Musselwhite: And Chris ain’t lyin’!
He quickly became the producer of WPIX’s live radio concerts, which featured Debbie Harry, The Police, The B-52s and others. And he was juggling standup work at Tramps – which was a go-to club for the blues at the time – as well as other hotspots.
“At Tramps, I’d do standup, but get a little trio behind me to do these funny songs,” Barnes says. “I’d improvise, and the audience would give me suggestions. As I was improvising with a harmonica, the trio would drop out and the real band for the night would come up behind me, sit down and start tuning up so there’d be no dead air.
“As soon as I stopped, the drummer would go: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together…from the South Side of Chicago, the Queen of the Blues…Koko Taylor!’
“I got to hang out with all these blues cats there and at Dan Lynch’s (in Greenwich Village), too. That’s where Will Lee (the founding bassist of David Letterman’s studio band), Hiram Bullock and Steve Jordan were working as the 24th Street Band.”
He also went to work for Rolling Stone editor Terry McDonell, alongside John Murray – Bill’s older brother – to develop pilot shows for the magazine’s recently launched a radio division – a position he also held at National Lampoon for a while, too, when the writers included John Belushi and Bill Murray from Second City comedy troupe in Chicago as well as Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner, too.
Barnes’ life was a whirlwind of creativity. Before long, he became the first writer at MTV before anyone really understood what it would become. Hired by Judy McGrath, the eventual CEO of MTV Networks and – for years, — the most powerful women in the world of entertainment. Adding words to stock footage, Chris was the genius who came up with such legendary taglines as “this is your brain on acid,” “I want my MTV” and dozens of others.
Chris also became a frequent visitor to the Belushi home, where John hired him to edit out commercials from his tapes of National Lampoon Comedy Hour for his own benefit because he loved the show so much. And Jim Belushi has credited Barnes on multiple occasions for saving his career, too.
A new member of the Saturday Night Live cast, Jim feared he was about to be fired, Chris says, because he was competing for airtime with Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo and others and the show’s writer team weren’t producing anything for him. When Belushi asked Barnes to help him, Chris penned the “Rappin’ Jimmy B.” routine that included the now-famous tagline: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”
That skit boosted Belushi’s star rating overnight and also served as the starting point for Barnes to becoming what he terms a “glorified extra” on SNL, too. But as much as Chris enjoyed stand-up, he quickly discovered an even greater love for sketch comedy and improvisation, which gave him the freedom to set up other people and react to the characters they created.
“The ensemble person and the stand-up are just two different people,” he insists, “and I’m a group guy who likes rehearsal. My sister used to say to me: ‘Chris, you’re so funny. If only there was a school…’
“Then someone comes into JP’s and hands me a story about what was going on at Second City in Chicago. I went: ‘Oh! This is what my sister was talking about!’
“John Murray – who’s sitting beside me — goes: ‘Yeah, that’s where and Billy and everybody’s from!’ And I’m sitting right next to Bill and Brian Doyle Murray – and I had no clue! (laughs)”
After witnessing the group’s touring company perform during a residency at the Bottom Line in New York City, Chris knew he had to move to the Windy City. “My brain exploded,” he says. “And there was music in it, too! I’m going: ‘This is where I belong.’”
After an introduction from Jim Belushi to Joyce Sloane, Second City’s beloved executive director and mother figure, Barnes quickly packed his bags and moved West. And the lessons he learned there play a major role in his performance as a blues artist today – and benefit any working musician no matter what style he plays.
Like other newcomers, Barnes began at the bottom — cleaning toilets, painting the place and more – in order to attend free workshops for a year before being allowed to audition for the touring company. Always a multi-tasker, he was also studying at ImprovOlympic, another important sketch comedy training center across town, and performing as part of its Baron’s Barracudas ensemble.
“It was the best of both worlds,” Chris says. “I was watching everything and gleaning everything I could and then performing at night in this new form that – at the time — was cutting edge.”
A year later, he successfully made the jump to Second City’s road company in a lineup that included future headliner Bonnie Hunt and several Barracudas. They crisscrossed the country for a few years before Sloane relocated Barnes and Hunt to Los Angeles to launch what would become Second City West.
“If I could do the touring company again today, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” Chris claims. “You were given all the old sketches going back to Ed Asner and Alan Arkin, all of which still work today. And you were playing to 3,000 or 4,000 people – not a couple of hundred like you did in Chicago.
“You learned what worked and what didn’t, and you learned timing. It’s very similar to what you learn in music. When it comes to solos, you’ve got to watch the audience and know when to cut ‘em off.
“It’s funny today because I’ll see blues acts that I love and watch them lose the audience between the first and second songs — lose the audience – and never get them back! And it has nothing to do with their music.
“My first three songs…I don’t want a second of dead air between them. I’ve gotta earn the audience’s respect before I open my mouth. It’s a Second City rule. The first scene is a musical number that introduces every character in the show you’re about to see…the big, dorky guy, the ingénue, the handsome male, the doctor-lawyer, the overweight slob… This goes back to Moliere and Greek theater. It’s like the theme song from Gilligan’s Island with ‘Gilligan, the Skipper, too, the millionaire and his wife, the movie star and Mary Ann, too’ — that’s not some stupid opening.
“Carol Burnett used to say: ‘Chris, if the audience doesn’t know what the scene’s about, you’re gonna lose ‘em.’ Second City was about that, too. There are laws to all this, and you can’t break the laws until you can abide by them.
“Everybody in the audience is saying: ‘You better justify this 50 bucks I just put out.’ It’s a Friday night show and a guy’s with his woman – or his man, and worked his ass off all week. They hadda drive to this place, find a parking spot. And either his partner’s been buggin’ his ass to come see this show or he’s goin’ ‘What did I go through all this b.s. for?’ He’d rather be back at home havin’ a cocktail in his bathrobe.
“With the blues, in the opening song, you let the guitar player do his solos so the audience goes: ‘Ohhh! So that’s what we’re gonna be listening to tonight…that level of proficiency.’ Right away, we just got ten people on our side for the rest of the night, maybe a hundred. Here’s the piano player…’Well that motherfucker can…’ All right!”
Everything falls apart instantaneously, Barnes says, when the performer tells a single joke or plays a single song to open and then asks “Can I get a glass of water up here?” or complains “What the…this amp isn’t working!”
“There are many folks who don’t understand the job or the responsibilities,” he insists. And that’s especially true when you have folks in the crowd who might not have wanted to be there in the first place and are still wondering if the price of admission was really worth it.
“If you’re one of those people at one of my shows,” Chris says, “I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna take all those questions out of your mind right now with the first three songs.”
No matter what form of show it is — comedy, drama or music – they all are governed by the same rules, he believes. It’s something that became clear to him when he saw the Blues Brothers in action for the first time.
“I was like ‘oh-h-h FUCK! This is not musicians being funny…these are comics being musicians using the laws of parody!’” he says. As one critic pointed out at the time: They were actually working harder at their craft than a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool blues act because they were confined to the restrictions of the rules they were bound to.
As an example, there was nothing funny about their performance of “Hey Bartender,” Chris says. “But the audience was smiling and going: ‘Fuck yeah!’ And any deviation from the rule would have resulted in failure.
“I couldn’t wait ‘til the Blues Brothers started writing their own stuff, but they never got there – and it’s something that we’re all trained for.”
It’s a transition that Chris has had to make himself – and it’s something that didn’t come about until after a lot of soul searching.
His debut as a blues artist came under the name Bad News Barnes & the Brethren of Blues Band in 2015 and the release of the CD/DVD package, 90 Proof Truth. Backed by a lineup that included former Blues Brothers Tom “Bones” Malone and “Blue” Lou Marini on horns, it was a mostly original set that attempted to deliver a modern version of hokum blues.
A styling chockful of humor and sexual inuendo that originated in minstrel shows in the 1800s, hokum exploded in popularity in 1928 after the Dallas String Band’s recording of “Hokum Blues” sold well to white audiences and was a hit in the African-American race record market, too. It rose to popularity in the ‘30s and stayed hot until the early years of World War II thanks to releases by Tampa Red, Bo Carter, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and has surfaced occasionally in the decades since.
Full of both sarcasm and wit, 90 Proof Truth flew under the radar, but Barnes believed he’d truly established a niche for himself that he could mine going forward.
Little did he know it, however, but all that was about to change thanks to an encounter at the Blues Music Awards a year or so later when he went to dinner one night with Miki Mulvehill, his manager at the time, and a tableful of true luminaries, including the late Grammy winner Bob Porter, a world-class jazz and blues producer, radio host, contributor to Downbeat and Cashbox and author of hundreds of liner notes as well as Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community 1945-75, one of the most important texts in the field.
“I don’t know any of these people,” Chris admits. “Bob Porter goes: ‘So what do you do?’
“I don’t know this, but I’m talking to a fucking expert. And I’m a guy who’s already gotten in trouble in the past for giving unsolicited advice…this is a bad scenario. And I’d just done Brandon Santini’s Beale Street Mess Around at the Rum Boogie – singing ‘Hungry and Horny’ and ‘America Needs a Queen,’ – (two songs from 90 Proof Truth) and people were just starin’ at me goin’: ‘What the fuck is this?’
“So I tell Bob, and he goes: ‘Wel-l-l, that’s not really hokum.’
“As we used to say in Chicago, I could almost hear the bagpipes. Now I’m pissed. Smoke’s comin’ out of my ears. ‘Whatta ya mean, it’s not hokum?’ I told him it was ‘modern’ hokum…I knew I was improvising as I said the words.
“He goes: ‘Well, what you should do is go back to the past (to the real hokum artists) – not as a tribute album…but you should redo their songs.’
“At that point, I wasn’t hearin’ anything. I wanted to choke him. But I’ve been with me long enough to know that if I’m this pissed off about what the guy is sayin’ to me, it’s gotta be true!
“That night, I started goin’ online and listening to the stuff more and more, and I said to myself: ‘This motherfucker’s right!”
Chris did his homework for his next release. Entitled Hokum Blues and issued in 2017 on the VizzTone imprint, which is his home today, he put his own wink and nod on material culled from the catalogs of the Hokum Boys, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Georgia Tom.
Recorded in 48 hours at Carriage House in Connecticut, it featured backing from Conan O’Brien bandleader/guitarist Jimmy Vivino, bassist/producer Will Lee from the original Letterman band, SNL drummer Shawn Pelton, Bette Midler/Whitney Houston keyboard player Bette Sussman and harp player Steve Guyger, a longtime member of blues giant Jimmy Rogers’ band.
It delivered a mix of New York City/Lincoln Center sophistication with a Windy City edge, and “how it didn’t get a BMA award…today, I don’t get it!” Barnes insists. “That album was flawless. “But they didn’t take me serious – and that’s part of my learning curve, too.
“But ‘It Hurts Me Too’ did get on Bluesville – and Bob fucking Porter was right!”
Sadly, Chris says, he never got to tell Porter himself.
That’s one downside, Chris says. Another was that — after the release of that CD – people were calling his act “that fiddle band” or “jug band” – even though he was neither — and pegging his work as being historical with little current relevance.
“No-o-o!” he still insists four years later. “I’m the funny guy who does the blues!”
Still, the album did get enough noise, that it caught the ear of Roger Naber, who wanted to book him on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, Barnes says. “But there was one problem: I didn’t have a band. I only had New York City session players.”
But that changed during a trip he made to the International Blues Challenge.
“I’m at Rum Boogie one night, and this cat begins to play,” Chris remembers. “It’s Gary Hoey, and this guy’s good! He’s got a little rock thing, but he can play the blues! I got called up at the same time, did ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’ — and were in the same groove, which is unusual because the energy to do my stuff – hokum – is different. It’s loud and fast and worry about the rest later.
“Like we said at Second City, you have to stay in front of the card trick. Once they see it, you’re fucked! If you give ‘em time to say ‘Hey, is there anywhere around here to get a bite to eat?’ you’ve lost ‘em. And if you do, you’re a bar band and they can go order fries between your songs.
“To me, that’s unacceptable.”
After the set, Barnes says, “Hoey comes down and says: ‘Dude! That was bitchin’! We gotta do somethin’, man!’ I’m like…okay! I never say ‘dude,’ but I think I said it three times that night.”
The wheels started spinning when Chris found out that Gary lived in New Hampshire only a few hours away in Connecticut and that the rest of his band were all New Englanders.
“I told him: ‘Dude, I got this gig on the blues cruise, I’ve got all my material — three sets…all different – ready to go, and I’ve got to show the world that I’m not a jug band, but I’m a rehearsal nut – not the kinda guy who’ll say ‘we’ll find it on stage!’”
Fortunately, Hoey’s percussionist, Matt Scurfield, runs a music school with three huge studios outfitted with backline, and things fell together quickly. With Hoey’s rhythm section in tow, they met twice a week for the next four months, but the charts called for a horn section. A little networking brought Mark Earley into the fold along with Doug Woolverton, too – both of whom are former members of Roomful of Blues, current bandmates in Victor Wainwright and the Train – and they were already sailing on the cruise.
Even better, Grammy winner Tony Braunagel (Taj Mahal/Phantom Blues Band) was also scheduled to be on board, and Chris had previously spoken with him about producing a new CD. Seizing the opportunity, they agreed to record an album on the ship and engineer it at the studio of Tony’s bandmate, guitarist Johnny Lee Schell, in Los Angeles.
“It was my opportunity to capture a live performance,” he says. “And I was ready. I’d already done my research to figure out where I fit in in the real blues community and what my style would be going forward – contemporary and cutting edge.
“The first show was in the B.B. King’s Blues Club on the boat right after it sailed. We got on the ship, checked in and immediately got on the stage, and it was one of the best shows I ever did in my life. The people were insane. And Vanessa Collier jumped up and played, and Gracie Curran comes up and sings backup.”
Unfortunately, however, because of an equipment issue, Braunagel didn’t record it. But Barnes’ other two shows were so strong that the resulting album — a smoking set of covers entitled Live — proved so strong that it hit the No. 8 spot on Billboard’s blues charts and scored nominations in the Independent Music Awards for best band and live album of the year.
‘That was great,” Chris says. “But I knew that’s it for the covers. It’s gotta be original from now on!”
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he locked himself into his home office, studied self-help books to aid in his creative process and then penned new songs certain to show everyone what he’s all about. “I wrote one complete album – and I tore it up,” he confesses. “I knew I had to dig deeper. I think I probably tore up another six songs before I got on track. Then they just started comin’ ad infinitum.”
Mixing whimsy and intimate personal memories that share both the highs and lows of his career, the end product is his latest CD, 2021’s BadNews Rising. It was produced in Nashville by Grammy winner Tom Hambridge and includes backing from Delbert McClinton keyboard player Kevin McKendree, Johnny Winter bassist Tommy MacDonald and Cameo/Hall & Oates guitarist Pat Buchanan. And Barnes penned all of the material – albeit with a helping hand from Hambridge, John Murray and Terry Abrahamson, who created some of Muddy Waters’ biggest hits.
“Working with Tom during the pandemic was great,” he says. “We set up a Zoom to talk about it, and I’m from television world – where you pitch an idea: ‘Wel-l-l, it’s like Seinfeld meets CSI or Curb Your Enthusiasm meets The Cosbys. I start sending him lyrics ‘cause he’s a musician and telling him: ‘It’s kinda like Chicago slow blues meets Dead Man Walking! (laughs) And Hambridge is like: ‘Got it!’
“That’s how we started working…’This one is like Parchman Farm three o’clock in the afternoon, sweatin’ down your back, pitchfork, hearin’ the hooves marching meets a shuffle in E.’
“We were about to go into the studio, but lost time because his mother died, which was tragic. When we finally did it, though, we were eight bars in to the first song when I say to myself: ‘Oh! These guys know what doesn’t work!’ It was amazing! Then I heard a solo and said: ‘That’s how long a solo should be!’”
The highlights include “When Koko Came to Town,” which revisits his time at Tramps, the intimate “I Slow Danced With Joni Mitchell” and “My Baby Be Cray Cray,” which delivers marital advice to a nephew before modern-era hokum kicks in with “Chicks Dig Me,” “The Creamy Caramel Café,” “Texas Weiner” and “I Love Cleavage.”
“I remember Koko singing ‘Spoonful,’” Chris says. “I was so close to her that she was sweating on me. I never saw anybody go so deep in their soul before. You could see the deal…see the spoon and the fire under it. Watching her onstage brought so much more passion to my work – no matter what it was.
“To this day, I’ve never seen anybody – Broadway actors, comedians or whatever – be in the moment of the reality of the scene more than she was. She was mesmerizing. Sonically, she was not a great singer. But again, Second City told us that you’re an entertainer and your ability to convey the spirit of the song will negate all the singing.
“And blues has ‘blues callers’ – (aka shouters). There’s some of us who can get away without being good singers. And there are other people like Danielle Nicole whose voice is so strong that she may be working in a trio, but there’s a quartet on stage because her voice is her own instrument and takes up its own space. It’s like…wow!”
The album, Chris says, has been a real eye-opener for him because it’s allowed him to take all of his crazy stories, education, failures and more into what’s unquestionably BadNews Barnes because it mixes the laws he learned about performing and the knowledge he’s acquired as a writer into one cohesive package.
“The attention it’s getting is beyond my wildest dreams,” he adds, noting that he’s finally living in the world he wants to live in — somewhere between Bull Moose Jackson’s original hokum blues, “Big Ten Inch” — which debuted on King Records in 1952 — and the cover by Aerosmith that most rock fans now believe to be their own creation.
“All I want to do now is write, write, write – and get back into the studio with Tom again. But like I said before: The tempo has to stay ahead. If the tempo’s too slow, you’ll see the card trick!”
Until that day comes, catch Chris in action. He’s booked at showrooms across New England and the Northeast this winter, and he appears occasionally at Terra Blues and Iridium in New York City, too. Catch him later in the year and he’ll have just might have a special treat for you, too, because guitar god Anson Funderburgh will also be joining him as a special guest on tour.
Check out his music and find out where he’ll be appearing next by visiting his website: www.chrisbarnesnyc.com