Featured Interview – John Németh

Despite his own admission that he’s ‘the first to throw in the towel if something’s not going right,’ harmonica ace and soul singer deluxe John Anthony Németh is by no means a quitter.

Check this out for requisite proof of that:

On his move from Oakland, California to Memphis, Tennessee two years ago, Németh’s rental truck broke down in Flagstaff, Arizona in the middle of the desert night. Instead of saying, ‘Heck with it,’ and making Flagstaff their new home, Németh and his wife Jaki loaded all their belongings from the incapacitated truck onto a new one – right on the side of the road – and continued their 2,000-mile quest to Memphis.

But there’s more than just that to Németh’s intestinal fortitude to not wave the white flag when things are not going his way. Take for example an incident that happened in his hometown of Boise, Idaho when he was a young man; a setback that for adults would most likely be no big deal, but for a budding young musician, it was something that had the potential to derail a promising career before it ever got off the ground.

It all started when Németh discovered a couple of tunes he was bound and determined to learn on the harp.

“Yeah, I was like, man, I really want to play “Snatch it Back and Hold it” (Junior Wells) and “Mellow Down Easy” by Little Walter. So I made the trip to the music store and I got me a harmonica and I got home and turned on the record player … but I had bought the wrong harp,” Németh recently said. “I didn’t have the right harp for either of those songs. Man, you talk about disappointment. I spent six bucks on that harp and couldn’t play it on either of those songs. When I was on my way home from the music store, I was really getting pumped up about playing those songs and then …”

Thankfully for lovers of authentic soul and blues music, instead of saying, ‘Heck with it,’ Németh just shifted things into reverse.

“Well, I went back to the music store and wound up having to get like six harmonicas,” he laughed. “I decided; well, if this is the way it’s going to be … I’m the first to throw in the towel if something’s not going right for me. If I don’t feel it and don’t get hooked on it, nothing’s going to happen.”

Ever since Németh hooked up with the right harp, it’s been a match made in heaven and he’s long since traveled the globe playing his brand of soulful blues.

“Everything’s going great; I’m just so lucky and fortunate that I get to perform my music – stuff that I write – and go out on the road and around the world,” he said. “This year’s been fantastic – we’ve been working a lot. We did a northeastern tour in February – that was a brilliant idea (because of the record-breaking snowfall in the area this year), but it was a lot of fun. And then last month, we did a big tour in Spain and Switzerland and France, and this month we’re down in the south; Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Then next month, we truck on out to my old stomping grounds on the west coast; California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. And then this summer – for the first time – I’ll be performing at the great Chicago Blues Festival, the king of them all. I’m really excited about that.”

With almost clockwork precision the past few years, Németh’s name has regularly appeared in multiple categories of the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards. This year is no exception, with Németh nominated in an impressive six categories (Album of the Year; B.B. King Entertainer of the Year; Band of the Year; Song of the Year; Soul Blues Album of the Year; Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year). Németh is currently the reigning Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year.

Like they say, when you’re hot, you’re hot.

“What all that (BMA accolades) means to me, is that someone out there appreciates my art – which is my music – in a fashion that is considered to be high-caliber. That means a lot to me. I spend a lot of time writing this music for my sheer enjoyment of it … I mean, it’s not like this music makes any money on the radio or the royalties are piling in,” he said. “This music is a labor of love, so to find the time and inspiration to write music that’s probably not going to go anywhere – other than to be loved by your fans and friends – that’s huge for me to have it loved by the folks at the Blues Foundation that votes for the BMAs. That means I’m accepted as an artist. That really feels great.”

His latest release – Memphis Grease (Blue Corn Music) – is one of the main reasons Németh is creating such a huge buzz this year. The album is up for two awards, while “Bad Luck is my Name” is the tune off that record that garnered a Song of the Year nod. Even Németh himself is a bit surprised at all the attention that Memphis Grease has received to date.

“I’m always surprised, because on all my records I take chances mixing genres and ideas. There’s so much original thought going on there, that until it’s tested in the marketplace, you don’t really know if it’s any good or not,” he said. “I have a personal attachment to it, so I love the music, but I never know who’s going to like it. My previous studio release before Memphis Grease came out in 2010, so that was material that was probably written in 2009. So it had been quite a few years – I cut Memphis Grease in 2013 – since I had complied original music for a record, so I had spent quite a bit of time with the material, more time than I had with some of the material for my other records. I think the song-writing is better; I’ve learned quite a bit from writers that have passed on some information to me about editing songs and making the message really clear in them. I used a lot of that wisdom on the Memphis Grease record and I think that’s what made it better than some of my other ones. And that’s probably why that record is still sticking. It seems to be picking up steam in Europe and some other places right now.”

Another key factor – in addition to Németh and the songs – that makes Memphis Grease so special is the presence of the legendary Bo-Keys on it. Those cats have probably forgotten more about real-deal Memphis grooves that most people will ever know.

“Talk about a group of guys that Memphis soul is their religion and you’re talking about the Bo-Keys. Especially that really heavy soul attitude from Memphis in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; that Willie Mitchell-influenced stuff. I think Willie Mitchell is one of the greatest producers, ever,” Németh said. “So working with those guys is just a ball. To have Percy Wiggins go out on the road touring and singing harmonies with the guys – he sings all the beautiful, high falsetto stuff – is dynamite. The background vocals are a big piece of the music and having him there is fantastic. But everybody in the band is just top-notch. They’re great studio musicians and have cut a lot of records. They know how to bring the special moments to the songs; to make them very memorable.”

The Bluff City of Memphis has long been heralded as the epi-center of the kind of music that Németh has been creating for over two decades now. But as it turns out, the musical climate in Memphis is just a small portion of the reason that led John and Jaki to call it home after deciding to split from Oakland.

“Honestly, two of the major factors in moving to Memphis was that it was centrally-located in the U.S. and I could tour out of there a lot easier than having to come all the way over from California to tour the central United States and the east,” Németh said. “And also, my daughter was just born and the bills started stacking up – we were living in Oakland and the price of living there was going up really high – and we just couldn’t afford it. Well, Memphis is really an affordable place to live. Then of course, the third factor is that Memphis has always been a city where musicians can go – especially if they like real roots music – and maybe find a twist in something that they do that will make them real successful. There have been a lot of people that have moved to Memphis and cut records in some of the great studios there and have found real success. So I thought, ‘Shoot, for my kind of music, that’s the place that I should be living and maybe something positive will come out of it, other than the fact that I’ll be able to pay the rent.’”

There’s still more reasons for pulling up stakes from the west coast and heading to the town on the edge of the Mississippi River:

“The icing on the cake is that you have the Blues Foundation and the IBCs there, and then on the outskirts of Memphis, you’ve got Clarksdale and Oxford (Mississippi), so there’s a lot of energy and a lot of cool things happening around Memphis,” said Németh. “Industry-wise, Memphis is kind of ground-zero for the blues. Plus, man, I’m an eater and Memphis is just a great eating town. My wife and I were a little worried that we wouldn’t get some of the other specialties that we could get in California – like the Mexican food and stuff like that – but boy, were we wrong. Memphis has got some fantastic Mexican restaurants, along with Tai and Vietnamese and everything else. I think they just love to eat in Memphis, which suits me fine. Other than the summer weather (heat and humidity), Memphis is a slam-dunk for John Németh.”

Another ‘slam dunk’ for Németh has to be the resurgence that soul music has enjoyed the past several years. From the blues side of things, all the way to the top of the mainstream pop charts, soul sure seems to be the industry’s new darling.

“I think pop music always has to go back to find something to reinvigorate itself. Throughout the decades since the ‘60s, it seems like pop music goes back to soul every three or four years. Just right now, what they’ve got is some of these groups that are really trying to copy the old sound, rather than just using influences. Now, they’re going and making dedicated soul records and that’s really interesting to me,” he said. “Soul music is really modern pop music – it’s just everywhere. They’re really going back to test the waters and there’s some really good stuff out there and some bands are making really nice music. The ones that are really dedicated to the sport seem to be doing really well, like St. Paul & The Broken Bones (Al Gamble, the keyboard player on Memphis Grease, also plays with St. Paul & The Broken Bones). It’s really amazing the amount of money that’s being invested in some of these groups. If you want to be known, it costs money. So somebody’s tossing money at some of these guys and I think that’s really neat. I don’t know if it’s profitable, but the names are getting out there and the music sounds really good. But that movement all kind of started with Amy Winehouse and then Sharon Jones capitalized on it. Who knows, we’re either just getting going on this (new soul resurgence) or it’s about to fade away; I don’t know. I hope it sticks around.”

Németh is a central part of this latest soul movement, but while it certainly does influence his music, the sounds of Stax, Hi Records and Motown are just part of his creative inspiration. His refusal to be a paint-by-numbers mimicking of that music starts at square one with the way that he composes the material that makes up his albums.

“For me, it’s this; I come up with the vocal hook for the song, which is the title. The title is the first and foremost part of the song and when you have a good title, then you need to come up with a great melody for it. The title will dictate the mood of the melody, whether it’s major or minor,” he said. “I try to come up with a free-thought melody and not something from another record. Once I’ve got the right free-thought melody for the title, that’s the first step in the creative process for the song. Now I’ve got an original melody with an original title and now I’m going to tell the story within that. Usually when you have an original melody for the title, coming up with an original melody for all the parts is not that hard for me. But the first part is the tricky part.”

It may seem hard to believe now, but at one time in his younger days, country-and-western music was a formulative influence on young John Németh, specifically the outlaw side of the country tracks.

“There was a song off the Waylon & Willie album – “It’s Not Supposed to be That Way” – that really got me. My brother had that record on 8-track and I’d sing along with that tune. I thought it was unusual how the song picked up on the seven chord – on the one – and that’s very bluesy That’s a real bluesy song, but I didn’t know that then. Another 8-track that my brother had that was very influential for me was by Johnny Paycheck (Take This Job & Shove It). The song was “The Fool Strikes Again,”” he said. “Johnny Paycheck taught me how to sing on the top. He was one of those guys that had this smooth transition from a husky baritone all the way up to a tenor. I learned to move all the way up to the top by listening and mimicking Johnny Paycheck … he was just so effortless. He knew how to take the weight out of his voice to move up the registers. When it came time for me to sing the blues, that’s exactly the technique you need to sing the blues like the way B.B. King or Percy Sledge – who just passed away – could do. All those old blues singers just had such amazing technique. I really don’t think people nowadays really understand what a singer was back in the day.”

However, Németh’s ears were not totally filled with Waylon, Willie and Johnny.

“A couple of years later, I heard that great song “Going Down” by Freddie King and man, that one really got me, too. I always thought, ‘Man, how cool would it be to do that song with a band?’ I’d copy all these signers and sing along with their songs. Then I was fortunate enough to get with some guys and play in a band.”

He was singing long before he began blowing harp, but when Németh did decide it was time to give an instrument a whirl, one basic factor led him to the harmonica.

“Affordability; it was cheaper than a piano or any other instrument. So I got a harp and got into that Junior Wells stuff early on. His groove playing the harmonica is just so devastating,” Németh said. “Snatch it Back and Hold it” was another of those songs that really got to me. As a harmonica player, that song affected me more than anything else that I ever learned. The song is in ‘B,’ but you use an ‘A’ harmonica to play it. It’s in the third position and what I love about the third position is it’s much easier to use the whole harmonica on those cascading melodies. The harmonica is just such a cool instrument, it really is. I treat it much like I treat my vocals and song-writing. I really try to play a lot of stuff that’s really true to myself; my own ideas.”

It has to be like uncovering a chest full of buried treasure when a young harp player is turned on to legends like Junior Wells and Little Walter, and that was most definitely the case for Németh.

“I just got really lucky early in life and got to listen to some really cool music and was lucky to have a knack for it. I was also fortunate that the club scene back in the day was really vibrant and there was still a lot of respect and deeper understanding of the music, too,” he said. “I could work a lot and it was a real job right from the beginning. Man, the stars were just aligned, I guess.”

If it seems like it’s a long way from Boise, Idaho to Memphis, Tennessee, that’s because it is. And even though he may not have known some 25-plus years ago that he would go from playing in the Boise club scene to living in Memphis and playing clubs and festivals the world over, Németh still had a deep-rooted feeling that he was headed toward becoming a successful blues musician.

“Honestly, I thought (back then) I’d be playing Carnegie Hall by now. But you know, when you’re a kid and starting out, you think the music you’re playing is really cool and you think everybody should just love your music if you think it’s cool,” he said. “And then after you get your band started, you think within six months or a year, you’re going to have a major record contract and things are going to be rolling. The first band that I was in, the guys were thinking like that and I really didn’t know what was going on, but it didn’t take long before I was thinking like that, too. Hell, I grew up in the MTV generation and everybody wanted to be on MTV.”

“But so far, through it all, it’s been a really neat experience because there’s just so much power to the artists in this music. And if it’s really good, then you can go out there and you and your band can make a real living playing this kind of music. It’s really special that this music ever came around. I think it’s the most important musical contribution of the last 200 years. It’s changed so many things and made so many new styles of music. For me, it’s just a very special situation to be a part of it.”

Visit John’s website at johnnemeth.com.

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015

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