Cover photo © Bob Kieser
Any musician raised in the South knows that he’ll be himself on a tightrope if he wants to play both gospel and the blues. But no one in the modern era has achieved the feat as smoothly as Castro Coleman, aka Mr. Sipp, The Mississippi Blues Child.
Since rocketing to fame at the 2014 International Blues Challenge, only a handful of blues lovers today realize the status he’d achieved as a guitarist and vocalist in spiritual music during the previous two decades – or that he still maintains high standing on that sacred ground today.
When you think about it, it’s almost inconceivable. Even though both art-forms are rooted deeply in the South, it’s no secret that, with few exceptions – most notably Solomon Burke and Otis Clay, there’s a long history of churchgoers instantaneously turning their backs on anyone who’s chosen to play what they perceive as the Devil’s music instead of their own.
But Castro is a major exception to the rule earning top honors in both fields – something that Blues Blast learned firsthand when we caught up with him while he was catching his breath after a whirlwind tour.
A pleasant, forthright, humble and intensely focused man, he’d just returned from setting the Flagstaff (Ariz.) and Chicago Blues Festivals ablaze and was back home in his hometown, Magnolia, Miss.
The son of gospel singers Johnelle and Vera Coleman, who were members of The Star Lights, he was born Aug. 25, 1976, in Magnolia, four miles south of McComb, a community that contributed Bo Diddley, Squirrel Lester of The Chi-Lites, Omar Kent Dykes, King Solomon Hill, gospel greats Willie and Brandy Norwood and, yes, sisters Britney and Jamie Lynn Spears to the world. It was truly a family organization.
“The Star Lights were actually my aunt Grace, my mom, my dad, my aunt Tee and my other aunt Tee…they had different last names,” Castro remembers fondly. “My dad was the guitar player.” They released only one LP in their career, The Light of the World in 1979, but enjoyed a strong following in the region.
Johnelle didn’t want any of his kids to be musicians, but Castro’s calling came early. He’d heard B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen,” “The Thrill Is Gone” and other songs on the radio, but after seeing him working his magic on guitar as part of Coca-Cola’s “Have a Coke and a smile” TV ad campaign, he was hooked.
“I’ll never forget it,” he says. “He played on the commercial and, I told my daddy: ‘That’s what I wanna do!’ He was stunned because he was a guitar player…and I didn’t wanna be like him. I wanted to be like B.B.! (chuckles)
“The Star Lights used to rehearse at the house, and my dad’s musical equipment was stored in the living room. I’d sneak in there, man, every chance I’d get and get on his guitar. I had a little plastic guitar, too, and I was tunin’ that thing by ear — but you couldn’t really hear it. I guess that’s what created the perfect pitch I have now.”
Castro’s path in life was set in stone at age six when he was at aunt’s home one day and she was getting ready to rehearsal her other group, Grace King & the Mellonettes. He grabbed up his uncle Edward’s six-string and began strumming.
“He’d let me play around with it,” Coleman remembers. “I caught my Aunt Grace’s attention, and she brought me right back home, set my mom and dad down and told them to listen. I was so small that nobody ever gave me any attention.”
They watched on in amazement as the youngster broke into “Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” a gospel hit from the ‘60s penned by the Rev. Oris Mays. “I was into the blue zone when I first started, and that was one of my favorite tunes! It sounded bluesy to me!”
It was the starting point of developing a playing style that incorporates funk, R&B and gospel elements – something he did all on his own. “I never took a lesson in my life,” he insists, “which probably explains why my all of my techniques today aren’t close to being textbook or standardly right.
“I’ve based my whole career on what sounds good, what feels good. It’s just straight off of what and how I feel. If I learned the right technique, I think it would mess up my mojo!
“The guys that I look up to and who are doin’ authentic stuff, none of ‘em are in the textbooks. I think about Albert King. When he bends, he overbends. There’s nothin’ textbook about that. B.B. under-bends…not quite up to the note. And all that stuff just made magic, and I get it!”
Other influences include Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King and Albert Collins.
Coleman was just seven or eight when Grace insisted that he join the Mellonettes, accompanying them at revivals and other church functions across the region.
“I was just playin’ licks, rhythm lines…all the feel-good stuff,” he remembers. “I didn’t learn any chords (laughs) until I was 20…and I still don’t like to play a lot of ‘em even though I know all of ‘em. For me, that’s what the keyboard player’s for — and the guitar and saxophone are the spice.”
At age 16, he formed his first group, Vibe, with other members of the Mellonettes, often opening shows for them and starting to put into practice the skilled he’d learned by watching Grace operate as a bandleader. Vibe eventually signed with Blackberry Records and laid down an LP but quickly disbanded after two members got married and moved away and another was drafted into the military in the midst of Operation Desert Storm.
Two years later, after working in a few local groups, Coleman enrolled in Southwest Mississippi Community College. From then on, he worked on and off with the Mellonettes until they disbanded in the early 2000s. But he really started making a name for himself just prior to his 19th birthday, when he founded The True Believers, the gospel group he still works with today.
“I got the same record deal I had with Vibe,” he says proudly. “That started my national career. Blackberry was owned by The Williams Brothers, who brought so much life and to the gospel music industry.”
The family’s beginning trace back to the Jackson Southernaires, which included older brothers Frank and Huey. That ensemble revolutionized sacred music by introducing keyboards, syncopated sounds and movements. Their children, working as The Williams Brothers, added creativity through intros and outros.
“They were being a little edgy, taking the chance to try somethin’ that was different,” Castro says. “They were also the first to do concept music videos – the first artists ever, not just in gospel.”
It’s their attitude, he notes, that instilled in him the idea that you try anything on stage and make work if you do it properly, adding: “People are driven by comfort. And if you’re comfortable with doin’ somethin’, people will follow. I play ‘bad’ notes on stage every night (laughs). But that’s somethin’ that made me because I embrace ‘em and keep on goin’. I drive ‘em home and make ‘em work ‘cause if they’re comfortable to you, the audience will follow.”
Through the Williams’ influence, Coleman and The True Believers became trendsetters, too.
Now lost in the shuffle, their debut album, Steppin’ Out on Faith, featured Castro’s original tunes and was released prior to the group signing a multi-record deal with Blackberry that produced Don’t Count Me Out and then Live at Home with Family and Friends.
“They saw in us a younger version of themselves,” he says, “’cause I was very edgy at the time. I wanted to go against the grain on everything. We had on double-breasted suits with Air Force One Nike tennis shoes on the front cover of one of our albums and New York hockey jerseys and Brooklyn Express jeans on the back – in gospel!
“But it worked tremendously. Folks totally took to it and started changin’ the dress code.”
Coleman credits B.B. with instilling in him an understanding that bands need to be flexible in their appearance on stage, wearing more distinctive, formal attire when playing concert settings but dressing down for festivals and other casual events.
The True Believers’ first Blackberry offering featured was produced by Melvin and Doug Williams and Coleman’s original compositions with backing from several major gospel musicians. On the second one, however, Castro stepped out of the shadows as only the guitarist to take on the role of lead singer – something that was both against his own judgment and something he’d never done before.
“I sang two or three songs on Steppin’ Out that I really didn’t want to sing and just a verse or two on Don’t Count Me Out,” he says. “But I wrote all the songs for Live at Home for my cousins (the vocalists). We rehearsed for six or seven months – but they wouldn’t come to rehearsals.
“I was singin’ the songs (at practice) so the band would know where they were goin’. Then Melvin and Doug came to rehearsal one night and asked where the lead singers was. I told ‘em, and they told me: ‘We’ll be honest…you should be singin’.’
“I went: ‘Na-a-a-a-a-aw!’ I thought playin’ piano and singin’ was for girls (laughs)! But we were gettin’ down to the last two months for the recording. I was like… ‘this was a lot of money and a lot of time to put in, so I’m gonna have to do what I have to do.’
“That’s what brought the light onto me as a lead singer…somethin’ I didn’t wanna do, but just happened.”
Even though that record sold well and Coleman’s beloved for his prowess at the mic today, it’s still something, he admits, that he’d rather not do.
Bigger things lay ahead.
In 2007, The True Believers signed with Jackson-based Malaco Records, the undisputed home for much of the best blues, gospel and soul produced in the South since the ‘70s with a roster that’s included the Williams family, the Rev. James Cleveland, the Jackson Southernaires as well as Dorothy Moore, Shirley Brown, Little Milton, Marvin Sease, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Denise LaSalle, Z.Z. Hill, Johnnie Taylor, Latimore and other blues giants.
They earned national airplay for the tune “(Ooh Wee) Another Blessing” on their first Malaco release, In This Place, and other cutting-edge numbers — including “Don’t Worry (Be Happy)” – that fans insist the Believers perform today. Their ascendancy continued with the well-received follow-up, Break Through, a year later.
“The Williams brothers were very proud of that,” Castro says proudly, “because they saw someone following in their footsteps – and our hometown was very proud of us, too.”
However, Coleman was tired of the road. He owned all rights to Believers, including their catalog, but gave them his blessing to continue on without him with the understanding that he was simply taking a break and would return to his rightful place when the time came.
For the next few years, he served as a fulltime session guitarist for the Williams family, during which he appeared on more than 50 albums, several of which received serious Grammy consideration, a list that includes two of the longest-running gospel groups ever: the Billboard chart topping Pilgrim Jubilees, who’ve been performing since 1934, and The Canton Spirituals, who were founded in 1943 and are now in the midst of what they’re terming a farewell tour.
His studio workload took a major hit when the Williamses — also road weary — returned home for an extended spell. Always industrious, Castro self-recorded, self-produced and self-released a solo album, Praise Party Part 1. Then he formed Castro Coleman & Highly Favored, whose lineup included younger cousins.
“Everybody in my family plays, sings or writes,” he insists, “and they do it on a major scale, and I’m the only one who’s been crazy enough to do this for a living. But I’ll say — on the record — that I’m the least talented person in my family!”
Highly Favored and Malaco teamed for two CDs, Against the Grain and Time Out, carving out a footprint that resulted in appearances on the nationally distributed Bobby Jones Gospel TV show. It was during that period that Castro – always a rebel at heart — grew 22-in. dreadlocks and started wearing basketball warmups with bow ties on stage, an appearance that quickly set him off from everyone else in the church while boosting his appeal to a younger crowd.
The father of four daughters, Coleman says he’s never had the patience to wait on anyone to put food on him table because he’s always being willing to get the job done himself when necessary.
Other, independently released albums followed. But Castro was ready for a new challenge – the blues.
“It was in me for a long time,” he says. “But I had so much respect for the church and my loyal fans and supporters. I did a lot of things when I did gospel…traveled overseas, television, videos, albums…but I felt like I was maxed out. But there was somethin’ inside me that needed to find peace and be happy.”
Fortunately for anyone reading these words, that “somethin’” was the blues!
He began making the switch in 2012 with encouragement from his grandfather, Louis, a self-made man who had owned and operated a logging company locally since the ‘50s – a rarity in a place where Jim Crow segregation was still the rule of law. It was he who instilled in his family the necessity of doing good business and being good human beings.
Bored at home after two years, Coleman did his research. Even though he loves R&B, he realized that, in his late ‘30s, he was too old to compete against rising R&B talent still in their teens. A fan of hip-hop, the back side of the business ran counter to his lifestyle. Neo-soul was hot then, too, and a personal favorite, but he believed – correctly — that it would be a quickly passing fad. And as a guitarist, he loved rock, but couldn’t picture himself in that world on a full-time basis, either.
“Blues made all the sense in the world,” Castro says — a viable possibility because, even in gospel, some artists insisted that he bring the bluesy sound of the Delta to their records…something that’s not surprising because the two art-forms share the note progressions even though the lyrics convey different messages.
“I noticed that not many black-skinned people were playin’ the blues, and couldn’t understand why. And I was the perfect age (36)…the perfect ’baby’…to be comin’ to the blues.”
A native of Mississippi, he wanted to follow in the path of his forebears who’ve achieved acclaim around the world. His father, Johnelle, was supportive but wondered if his son was doing the right thing because of the negative effect it could have on the positive image and relationships he’d built for himself for decades.
Surprisingly, however, in a society that has a deep history of fiercely demanding that its members choose the church and shun “the devil’s music,” Coleman experienced nothing but love and understanding. “It was the strangest thing,” he remembers. “I didn’t get any blowback…none at all!”
Castro traveled the circuit and consulted with church elders about his desire to “do something different,” receiving pretty much universal approval from several congregations, several of which calling him in in order to pray over him and his family to assure continuing success in the secular world while serving as “the light in dark places.”
Just about everyone, he says, knew that, even as a kid, he was destined to be some kind of showman. After all, even back then, he was always dancing in church and unable to sit down.
His first step was to team with a couple of gospel-playing cousins as Mississippi Kin Folk. They entered the Vicksburg (Miss.) Blues Society’s regional competition for the IBCs on a wing and a prayer – and without a single blues tune in their repertoire.
Quickly working up three songs – “Can I Ride,” “Mrs. Jones” and “Loving You as Crazy,” they won the local event and made it in Memphis, where Castro branded himself Mr. Sipp, the Mississippi Blues Child, for the first time. He penned “Hey, Hey, Hey” at one or two a.m. prior to the finals because he needed another tune to fill the time slot and finishing the night as the runner-up to another future star, Selwyn Birchwood.
But the best was yet to come.
Following the same route through Vicksburg a year later, Sipp and his band won the entire competition with Castro taking home the Albert King Gibson Guitar Award, which is presented annually to the best fret master in the 200-plus act field. Using a trick that set him apart in gospel, he outfitted the band in $5 Walmart Superman T-shirts and matching jeans. Like TV’s Urkel, they also donned and lens-free, black-framed glasses with tape on the bridge, a device he enlisted to help one of his daughters recover from being bullied for wearing specs for the first time at school.
Soon after, he self-produced the all-original CD, It’s My Guitar, playing all the instruments to circumvent potential problems for his cousins because of their church connections. He offered it to Malaco but eventually self-released it. Not only did the owner, Tommy Crouch Jr., balk at the idea of adding a straight-ahead blues album to his mix of contemporary Southern soul, but he knew Coleman still owed him another gospel CD under his old contract, too.
“It just wasn’t what Tommy wanted,” Sipp says. “But Tommy knew from experience that if I was gonna do somethin’, I was gonna put my all into it! And I’m glad it happened that way because it allowed me to show the world my versatility as a musician.”
“Man, that blew my mind,” Sipp exclaims. “I started seein’ right off the bat when — I came out as Mr. Sipp — the things that could happen. Here I am, only knowin’ a few songs, and the little clip they played on TV in Chicago that year was me on stage with Bobby!
“That was all the spark that I needed.
“When Uncle Bobby first saw me, I’d just won the local competition and was gettin’ ready to go to Memphis. I was playin’ at the Ameristar Casino in Vicksburg and he came to critique what he saw. I was readin’ off the papers (notes) back then, tryin’ to get things together.
“He said: ‘Sipp, I see so much greatness and potential in you. But what I’m gonna need you to do is create a show. When people put their clothes on and come see you, they wanna see a show. They don’t wanna see you tryin’ to put it together or figure it out.’
“That was ringin’ in my ear all night and I was tellin’ it to the guys in rehearsal,” Sipp says, “and it still rings in my ear today. Everything now is ‘we gotta have a show!’ That’s what made the difference.
“I threw all those papers away and made up my mind to learn all these songs, all these lyrics and findin’ a way to make them flow into each other to do what Bobby said…let those songs tell your story and take your audience on a musical journey…create an experience.
“Now, I can see it from the first song. Once we get ‘em in the vehicle, we can take ‘em anywhere we wanna go. I’m so thankful to Bobby Rush for even sayin’ somethin’ to me. I was still kinda the new kid on the block, and he changed everything!”
More success followed quickly, Sipp captured the 2014 Jus’ Blues Foundation award for entertainer of the year, which is named in Bobby’s honor, and national, international and entertainer of the year honors in the 2015 Jackson Music Awards, where he consistently takes home trophies for his gospel efforts, too.
Smart businessmen, the folks at Malaco knew a good thing when they saw it and quickly opened up to the idea of releasing a blues CD for him, too, and Sipp made good on his contract obligations with The Mississippi Blues Child, an instant winner that debut in the No. 6 slot on the Living Blues Radio Charts and eventually earned him Blues Music Award honors as new artist of the year.
Ever since, Coleman’s been bridging the chasm between gospel and blues. He reformed The True Believers in 2018 after the original group had been dormant for eight years. “I always said I’d never let my gospel down,” he notes. “I brought the idea up to Malaco, and they thought it was a great idea.”
Now teaming with his son, a first cousin and the son of one of the original members, the two CDs they’ve released — Back To The Roots in 2019 and The Sounds We Grew Up On last year – have been so well received that Castro’s now a double threat every time awards season comes around, filling his trophy case with awards for those albums and the blues sides that have followed: Knock a Hole in It, Sippnotized and his recent Soul Side of Sipp, too. He now devotes about 20 per cent of his time to The True Believers and the rest to the blues.
“Everything’s come full circle,” he says, noting that it’s a blessing that there have been several instances where he’s appeared at festivals with both groups. And as this story was being written, he was looking forward to the Jackson Music Awards where he was in the running for top honors in both gospel and blues after being awarded both trophies last year.
But wait! There’s more!
Let’s not overlook his work as an actor, something that began in 2014. He appeared on the big screen as Les Buie, James Brown’s first guitar player, in Get on Up, the biopic starring Chadwick Bozeman as the Godfather of Soul. Originally cast to play Jimmy Nolen, whose familiar chicken-scratch guitar licks graced JB’s work from the mid-‘60s to the early ‘80s, he had to turn down the larger role after rehearsing for it because the shooting schedule conflicted with the IBC finals.
More recently, he’s played a young B.B. King in the CMT series, Sun Records, which was a quick study because of his love the late star. Castro was only one of two actors in the flick that played and sang his own parts without overdubs.
He also appeared as himself in the IBCs documentary Blues on Beale, and had a role in the locally produced 2021 western, Texas Red, as a blues singer. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, that film stars Grammy winner Cedric Burnside, and is the true story of a man being hunted down in the dead of winter in 1940s Mississippi. He used his grandfather’s guitar while playing three tunes from his Sippnotized CD. Making things even better, his brother sat in on drums.
To the casual listener, it might appear that Castro’s cutting new ground with latest album, Soul Side of Sipp. But that’s not the case, he insists. “Since the first (Mr. Sipp) album, It’s My Guitar, the songs ‘If Loving You Is Crazy’ and ‘If You Got a Good Woman’ were both soul songs to me. I started creatin’ a trail on the soul side back then. And there’s some kind of a soul song — or two or three — on every album.
“What that did for me is that a lot of people in the soul market know those songs but don’t have a clue who Mr. Sipp is. With this album, they’re gonna be able to put the face to the name. Having eight or nine songs like that makes my life easier when I play for them.
Don’t be surprised if he releases a stripped-down, acoustic CD next or an Americana album either, both of which are in his future plans. “But I’ll always be the bluesman that I am,” Sipp insists. “I’ll just touch on other veins.”
Meanwhile, he remains grateful for the blessings he’s received through all of his blues fans. “The last nine years have been phenomenal,” he says, “and it’s because of all the support you’ve given me. I hope you stick with my no matter what I decide to do. Keep lovin’ me and supportin’ me. I love ya, and hope to see you out there. I switch around a lot because there’s so much in me, but I hold to my roots – you can count on that!”
Check out Castro Coleman’s music and find out where he’ll be appearing next by visiting his website: www.mrsipp.net.