Cover photo © 2022 Laura Carbone
In the world of blues, some artists separate themselves from their peers through gimmicks and pyrotechnics – but not Keb’ Mo’. Since making his presence known in the early ‘90s, he’s established himself in a different manner entirely, writing and delivering his music in a way that’s forceful and emotive but puts a positive spin on even the darkest of themes imaginable.
A humble, soft-spoken, good-natured man with a quick sense of humor, Keb’s life could have turned out much differently – especially when you consider that he hails from Compton, Calif., the Los Angeles suburb that also produced Dr. Dre and Ice Cube of N.W.A., Coolio, Kendrick Lamar and other major stars in rap and hip-hop.
But as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, Keb’ has always marched to the beat of a different drummer.
Hailing from Louisiana and Texas, Keb’s parents moved west during what’s known as the Second Great Migration of people of color that transpired in the aftermath of World War II. They settled into what was then a rapidly growing, middle-class community – something far different than the crime-infested place it became around the time Keb’ was moving to L.A. after graduating high school in the late-‘60s.
Born Kevin Roosevelt Moore on Oct. 3, 1951, Keb’ grew up in a home filled with diverse musical influences, including the blues, gospel and country his parents grew up on as well as R&B, pop, jazz and more that were exploding onto the scene out of studios in nearby Hollywood.
Young Kevin picked up the six-string at age 12, he says, “after I goaded my father constantly for a guitar and he finally got it for me. It was a 1963 Silvertone acoustic from Sears & Roebuck and cost $25 – a significant amount of money back then.”
At the time, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richard and other British invaders were just beginning to make an inroad on American airwaves with Jimi Hendrix soon to follow, but Kevin never had a desire to play loud. The guitarists who interested him most were flying under the radar at the time but were also shaping popular music as session players.
“When I started out playin’, there was no guitar player I really resonated with,” he says. “And I liked music more than I liked the guitar.
“When I listened to records, I’d look and see who was playin’ and follow the links to Phil Upchurch (a frequent Jerry Butler collaborator and Chess Records guitarist in Chicago), David T. Walker (who’s still active in Japan today after backing with Marvin Gaye, Barry White and the Crusaders) and follow the musicians all the way through to see what they were doin’.”
But the three fret masters who influenced him the most were Wah Wah Watson, who was a member of The Funk Brothers, the Motown Records house band, and fellow Detroiter Ray Parker Jr., then pumping out hits for Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus/Hot Wax imprints prior to hitting the jackpot with the Ghostbusters theme in the ‘80s, and Los Angelino Paul Jackson Jr., whose work graced hits for Paul Anka, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, Natalie Cole and Michael Jackson’s Thriller before becoming a star in the world of smooth jazz.
All three played with a less-is-more approach that might not have escaped your attention at the downstroke, but they played with such passion that they rapidly drew you in with their seemingly effortless progressions.
“I found lots of it that was clever and wasn’t hard to do,” Kevin remembers. For him, “it was just gettin’ in there and findin’ a part that works – and play it well. I had no desire to go out and rip it – although I appreciate what folks like Marcus King do today.”
Moore’s entry into the blues came at age 17 thanks to his drafting teacher during his senior year at Compton High who insisted that he see Taj Mahal – then on the verge of releasing his first, eponymous LP – who was an assembly that afternoon in the school auditorium.
The performance planted the seeds for what would become a real life-changer. But it took another 18 months or so before a friend laid a copy of Taj’s second LP, The Natch’l Blues, on him and he was hooked for life. Not only did he wear it out during the next couple of years but he also played it constantly on cassette in his car, too, before doing the same with Taj’s next album, Giant Step, too.
It took another 15 years before he finally met his hero face-to-face – with no inkling whatsoever about the eventual success they’d enjoy in partnership on the big stage. Another decade and a half passed before the invitation presented itself.
“It was in about 2014 in Atlanta,” he told Blues Blast a few years ago, “when he suggested that we do something. He probably meant get together to write a song, but I took it all the way and we made a whole album” – the end product of which, Taj/Mo, eventually earned a 2018 Grammy as contemporary blues album of the year, one of five trophies and 12 nominations Keb’ has captured in his career.
Compton became an increasingly troubled community following the riots in neighboring Watts in 1965. With the Bloods and Crips taking control of the streets and crime on the rise, many of Kevin’s white neighbors fled to safer locales and he survived “because I was faster than everybody else,” he says. “But you can’t outrun a bullet.”
He moved into L.A. after receiving his high school diploma and delivered flowers for a while, and he started working in a calypso band – not on guitar but on steel drums, which helps color the music he writes and delivers today, putting him “in the realm of people who were listenin’ to jazz, Latin jazz, bossa nova, Trinidad and Caribbean music,” he says.
“All of a sudden, there was a Latin flavor that I really loved…those old Mongo Santamaria records…we were out there with our cans and drums, tryin’ to play like him.
“Then came my exposure to rhythm.”
Listen to Keb’ Mo’ live today and you’ll quickly discover that the tempo he sets at the start of a set beats steadily through the final notes of the closing number. It’s a technique, he says, that he learned in his early years after a bandmate suggested that he “dig a hole, climb in and don’t come out!”
For the next couple of decades, Kevin spent most of his time out of the spotlight as a guitarist, songwriter and arranger. As a session player, he recorded four albums with Papa John Creach, the violin player best known today for his work with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship but whose career also spanned jazz, pop, classical and R&B. In partnership with Papa John, he co-wrote the instrumental, “Git Fiddler,” an instrumental that debuted in 1975 on Starship’s chart-topping Red Octopus LP, which soared to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart and earned him his first gold record.
Influenced as a songwriter by Taj and James Taylor, he was cranking out songs at A&M Records and still using his birth name when he made his debut as a front man with the LP, Rainmaker, on the Chocolate City label but spent most of the decade playing in sax player/Bobby “Blue” Bland producer Monk Higgins’ Whodunnit Band, an aggregation led by Monk Higgins.
As the calendar turned to the ‘90s, however, Kevin found himself at a crossroads. He studied electronics for a year and was hired for an entry-level job with Roland Electronics, but never reported for work after having a long talk with himself and realizing that all of the signs that he’d received in life were pointing to a career on stage.
He subsequently spent three years as an actor in multiple productions of the musical, Spunk. Written by George C. Wolfe and based on short stories penned by Zora Neale Hurston, his character, Guitar Man, also performed the entire musical score, and the role has served as a building block for the Keb’ Mo’ persona that’s served him so well ever since.
Reinvigorated, he returned to the studio in 1994 for Keb’ Mo’, his debut release under a name pinned on him by Quentin Dennard, his band’s original drummer. Released on Okeh, it was described by a reviewer as “an edgy, ambitious collection of country blues.”
Mixing 11 originals with two Robert Johnson covers, it established him as a modern performer with a firm grasp of the blues tradition. His Delta-infused 1996 follow-up, Just Like You – which included guest appearances from Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, rocketed him into the upper echelon of the blues world while earning his first Grammy, a feat he repeated with Slow Down two years later.
Across the decades that have followed, Keb’s enjoyed one of the most successful — and diverse — careers in show business, capturing 17 Blues Music Awards, appearing on Sesame Street with The Muppets as well as The West Wing, collaborating with Martin Scorsese on a portion of his seven-episode The Blues documentary, performing at the White House and portraying both Robert Johnson — in the biopic Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? — and Howlin’ Wolf – in the CMT mini-series Sun Records.
As a tunesmith, Keb’s become a fixture on TV with his “I See Love” serving as the theme song for CBS’ Mike & Molly and B Positive, which currently airs on ABC. His scores have populated both shows along with the syndicated Martha Stewart Living, too. A man with a deep social conscience, he’s also donated his time — and music — to Vote for Change, No Nukes and other projects, always tempering his serious messages with a gentle feel that’s partially drawn from his early life in calypso music as well as observing TV sex therapist Dr. Ruth, who talked about even the most difficult subjects with a delicate, grandmotherly approach.
“It’s lighthearted,” he insists. “I’m not tryin’ to get down-and-dirty,” believing that the great majority of people prefer to hear the messages presented in a manner that’s not nasty manner or crammed down their throat.
As far as the blues goes, Keb’s writing style separates him from virtually all of his peers and all of the artists who’ve come before him.
Dark tones and minor keys have consistently served as tools for others to convey protests and complaints. Listen deep to Keb’s material, however, and you’ll eventually come to realize they’re not devices he uses to get his messages across. Even the most heartrending material in his catalog is delivered in a major key with a bright, upbeat feel.
And when the occasional minor chord does appear, it’s in there for a purpose — and it’s aurally different, too.
“I use it sometimes,” he admits, “like one on my new record, ‘All Dressed Up.’ When I use a minor, though, I’ll use a minor 11th (instead of a straight minor) because it’s not so jazzy. It’s kinda fun with a ‘suss’ with a C-add-two and A on the bass.”
In layman’s terms, it adds a little minor-key flavor to what ostensibly is a declaration written with major-key appeal.
Another example, he says, appears in “Oklahoma,” the angry title track of his 2019 album. Driven by a Latin beat, it deals with the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa, which destroyed the most successful business district in the country for people of color, left thousands homeless and as many as 300 dead – one of the darkest moments in American history — but does so in a manner that only alludes to the tragedy without mentioning it by name while delivering a message that encourages us to overcome our troubling past.
“There was lightness and darkness in that song,” Keb’ says. “I tried to say all things about Oklahoma – Jesus, religious stuff, cowboys, rodeos, Native Americans…that’s a dark story, too, filled with so much brutality — without focusing on the Black Wall Street issue (which only appears through a mention of the district’s three main streets in the closing verse).”
There’s a gentleness that runs like a torrent through all of his recordings, almost all of which have featured collaborations with artists no one would ever associate with the blues. Roseanne Cash, Colin Linden, Taj and Robert Randolph all joined forces with him on that one, and his latest effort, Good to Be…, includes a trio of tunes co-produced by country superstar Vince Gill and includes Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Darius Rucker, Old Crow Medicine Show and Kristin Chenoweth, too.
“I’m all over the map,” Keb’ chuckles. “You can’t make that stuff up. You can’t say I wanna do this with that one. Once you set your attention to it, the album just kinda makes itself. It tells you who will be on it.
“I cast a song like I cast a player. It’s like…I’m not gonna invite ‘em over to dinner and tell ‘em to bring the turkey (chuckles). I’m gonna tell ‘em to ‘bring a side dish…somethin’ you like.’ And you don’t ask your guest to stay and wash the dishes (laughs)!’”
Sometimes securing the right talent is just a matter of good timing.
“When I was doin’ Taj/Mo, I was at the house,” Keb’ remembers, “and someone called and said: ‘Joe Walsh is in town!’ So I just called and said: ‘Hey, Taj and I are cuttin’ some tracks. I thought you’d might wanna come over and hang out.’
“He said: ‘Sure, man, I’ll come over’…and he walks in with his guitar and his amp (chuckles). He wanted to play. I went: ‘All right, man! Let’s go!’ He played along with (harp player) Lee Oskar (of War/Lowriders fame). They were in town at the right time. So was (jazz singer) Lizz Wright.”
Keb’s latest CD, Good to Be…, dispenses a little love, joy and encouragement to a world wracked by disease and political strife. And landing Gill took no effort at all. After all, they’ve been friends for years and had been talking about recording a full album together but COVID disrupted their plans.
“But Kristin Chenoweth, that was the jewel!” he exclaims. “That was the cherry on top…havin’ somebody like her, which is totally out of left field…but not really.
“I did a duet with her on Happiness…Is Christmas, the last album she did. And while I was there, I asked her if she wanted to do somethin’ else…bein’ real careful because she’s such a busy lady. I struck up a friendship with her, and she’s lovely – and really, really cool.
“I was about to close out the new album but hadn’t mixed it yet, and she goes: ‘Am I gonna sing on that record?’ She was in! I sent her the (digital) files and she made an appearance on ‘Quiet Moments (the closing number, which honors intimacy and talking heart-to-heart in the dark).”
Another high point is the opening cut, “Good to Be Home,” which Keb’ penned with former Beastie Boys keyboard player Money Mark Ramos-Nishita shortly after repurchasing the dwelling in Compton that his family formerly owned. Despite “a whole lotta things ain’t what they used to be,” he sings, “who would’ve known that it would feel so good.”
“Mark was in East L.A., and I was in Compton, and we were talkin’ about the ‘hood, and we just cranked it out,” Keb’ says. “Every time I play it, it really hits people because there’s honesty in the words. I enjoy singin’ that song so-o-o much!”
As for the neighborhood itself, he notes, it’s gone through a lot of changes. The ethnic mix is now about 70-per cent Latino, many of whom moved in to take advantage of the affordable housing after things hit rock bottom. Things are on the upswing now, he says, the neighbors are nice, and everybody’s cool. It reminds me of the way it was when I was growing up.”
The old vibe, the same style of people – and a few old friends – remain, albeit colored by Latin flavor that includes house parties every weekend and the sounds of ranchero accordion music permeating the air.
Sure, Keb’ deals with COVID-19 on the new album, too, but it’s a major departure from all the doom and gloom other folks have recorded about the epidemic. Recorded with Old Crow Medicine Show, and entitled “The Medicine Man,” it focuses on the anticipated arrival of a good doc with the right Rx instead of focusing on the trouble. He envisioned the MD as “a guy in a white coat with a big, ol’ Indigenous medicine-man mask on his face,” he says.
Another upbeat message comes through loud and clear in the ballad “Marvelous to Me,” which references the Rev. Martin Luther King and looks forward to a better world in which all of our troubles are in the rear-view mirror and people of all colors and ethnicity are truly free.
“I think that’s my most proudest lyric in all the record,” Keb’ insists, noting: “It was written out of the George Floyd atmosphere. The whole world reacted to that together ‘cause it was such blatant racism and hate…but, hopefully, it’s changin’ things…that’s what the song’s all about.”
Since travel restrictions have been lifted, Keb’s been a busy, busy man. He was leaving for Europe the day after we spoke, returning home after playing Netherlands in early September for a couple of days of rest before heading to Chattanooga, Tenn., for the Moon River Festival and gigs in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico before the month runs out.
Check out his music and find out where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.kebmo.com