Christone Ingram’s mom Princess loves the lessons her son has learned in the Delta Blues Museum Arts and Education Program in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but she’s not quite sure she likes the way bluesman and instructor Bill Howl – N – Madd Perry called him out at the guitar classes.
“He gave every child in the program a nickname because they had to play Ground Zero quite a bit. So, they had stage names. That’s how he came up with “Kingfish.” He would just stop in the middle of the program and say, ‘Let me say something. Now, while the rest of y’all are gonna be here playing basketball, listening to rap or whatever, Kingfish is gonna be all over the world.’ And then the kids would kinda get mad at Kingfish afterwards, but he did that. He said that.”
Kingfish was a character on “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” an African American situation comedy that was the most popular radio show in United States in the late ’20s and early ’30s and later became a favorite on television in the early ’50s. Amos was naïve and hard-working. Andy was a gullible dreamer with overinflated self-confidence. George “Kingfish” Stevens was the leader of their Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge who always had a get-rich-quick scheme that inevitably involved getting Amos and Andy into some kind of trouble.
“I’ve never watched it before, and I wanted to see his character,” says Christone’s mom. “I wanted to see how this character was on the show and you can’t find it.”
Christone doesn’t quite fit the moniker Perry has given him. At age 19, this Clarksdale, Mississippi native’s advanced guitar playing is far more than a get rich scheme. In fact, he’s poised to become the biggest act to break out of the Delta into international acclaim in decades. He has finished his debut album with producer Tom Hambridge of Buddy Guy and George Thorogood fame. Hambridge also plays drums. “There’s a bass player and two guitar players on the album,” says Christone.
The young firebrand is playing major festivals from Florida to New Hampshire including upcoming dates at the Chicago Blues Festival, Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, Beale St. Blues Festival, and Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco. And a musician of no less renown than Bob Margolin has called him a force of nature proclaiming, “I truly believe that Muddy Waters and the other blues ghosts who haunt the Mississippi Delta where Kingfish lives are proud that he carries on the spirit of the blues music they pioneered. Kingfish conquers time — past, present, and future.”
I asked Christone what he thought Margolin means by conquering time past, present and future. He took a long pause and then said, “Well, it means I have a traditional sound, but I can carry it on the next generation and come on to it and move it forward but not forgetting the past.
“With my culture, I really need to know this (blues) history. I’m not only in it for the love of playing, but I’m in it learning about the history. We really need to know it, especially my generation. I’m grateful to have this history here.”
His co-manager, Ric Whitney, is charged with seeing that Christone’s first album does just what Margolin hears in him: “When people hear this album, they’re going to think that it comes from his heart and his soul. There’s something about him, where he came from, who he is, and his upbringing that allows him to convey music in the way that it does, and the hope is consumers will hear it and it will resonate. It can only be good.
“I do think that at the minimum it will help people understand that there’s a plight that every musician has, and that plight can be presented in a way that is very authentic regardless of what genre it comes from. There’s a beauty in Christone’s history of his coming from the Mississippi Delta and being raised in the way he was raised. Him being able to speak, there may be other pop musicians who have their own thing. His own history definitely allows him to speak their genre of music.”
For a 19-year-old, Christone’s interest in traditional electric blues is just that, traditional. He reels off his influences: “Oh, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin Hopkins, Son House, Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines. Do I need to go on? Albert Collins, Albert King, Freddie King. Albert King was my favorite, though.”
He did get to meet B. B. King. “We got a chance to open his homecoming festival, and we hooked up meeting him about five minutes before he got to go on stage, and we all shook his hand and got a picture with him. He was concerned about practice, practice, practice.”
Christone says B.B. King’s drummer, Tony T. C. Coleman, saw one of his YouTube videos that went viral and connected him up with Hambridge. Coleman has toured with Otis Clay, Bobby Blue Bland, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Albert Collins, Etta James, James Cotton, Katie Webster, Z.Z. Hill, O.V. Wright and Buddy Guy.
“We played a gig together in Portland, and that’s how we became acquainted. I’d say we (Hambridge and I) wrote about six songs in the first day, and with each one I was telling him the story, and he brought more out of it and added to it. And that’s how that goes. In a way (it shocked me) because very few people have succeeded bringing more out of me ’cause I can disappear and be isolated so that I won’t come out with my ideas.”
One of the songs that’s been recorded is called “Outside This Town.” “One day I was in my room, and I wrote a song about growing.”
The album tentatively titled Been Here Before is due out later this year pending a label deal. It’s all original with classic blues flavor but reflecting Christone’s gospel roots and disparate influences his website claims include Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, Albert King, Big Jack Johnson, Albert Collins, Freddie King, Lefty Dizz, Lucky Peterson, Little Jimmy King, Buddy Guy, Lance Lopez, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Gales, Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Allman Brothers, Jonny Lang, Steve Marriot, Prince, and Michael Burks. Whew!
He was born into music. “I’m a Pride,” says his mother. “Charlie Pride is our first cousin. It was country music and gospel in my dad’s side of the family, and there’s gospel on my mother’s side of the family. I got the opportunity to meet Charlie Pride when I was younger. I thought it was neat being his cousin, you know.”
As an African American country singer, Charlie Pride had a tough row to hoe. “Absolutely. He did. There were racist people that he just ignored and became what he was.”
His mom reflects on how her son’s musical interests started very early. “He had an interest in playing the drums at first. After he got there for a while, he started playing the bass really well, and I thought maybe the bass would be the instrument that he would really play. That wasn’t the case. So, around 11, we bought him a guitar, and we put him in the program. He’s still in the program, but we started learning cords and all that from Bill Howl – N – Mad Perry, and he took an interest in it.”
Christone picks up the story. “I was around music a lot when I was a toddler, and that was the music I was seeing around because there was a blues band that stayed right next to me, so I was liking it. When I got older, I found out what it was, and I was (more attached) to that than young kids and rap and that. I started learning about rap when I was 10 or something, but everything then was like Johnny Taylor, stuff like that.
“From age eight, my parents enrolled me into the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, the arts and education program. What they do is they pretty much teach kids in how to play blues and everything, and it gives the kids something to do after school, and I’ve been with them since I was eight, and I was under the (tutelage) of Richard “Daddy Rich” Crisman and Howl – N – Madd Perry.
“My parents at first thought it wasn’t going to last. Some of my family members actually thought I was going to grow out of it. They thought I wasn’t going to take it seriously. They didn’t think it was going to be like it is now, but my inspiration was actually looking at my mom’s side of the family because that’s where I get the whole music from because of all my uncles can sing. Gospel music was also an influence. “I was never in the choir, but I played in my school choir and I played for my church.”
One YouTube video shows Christone jamming with Samantha Fish on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic hit “I Put A Spell on You.” He knocks the song out of the ballpark on his solo guitar run. “I was familiar with the song, but that was my first time ever playing it on stage. I was a real Screamin’ Jay Hawkins fan. So, I already knew how to play it, but that was just my first time playing it on stage.”
He says he’s on the road about 95% of the time now that he’s graduated from high school. “We’re on the road a lot. Mostly, before the album comes out, it’s like little towns in Mississippi all across the southern region. We just got back from Florida. We played the Bonita Blues Festival, in Bonita Springs, Florida. It was a 14-hour drive for us. That’s not the longest one, though. The longest one was 24 hours. That’s when we went to New Hampshire.”
Christone has an answer for anyone who still thinks blues is for old people who are the only ones who have “paid their dues to play the blues.” “Those were the songs that got us through the hard times. When those guys sang those old songs, that was getting them through the hard times, and more on to a (better) time. (Young people) should be happy to learn about that.”
Who’s his favorite person he’s ever jammed with?
“Wow! I would have to say (pause) I would say Eric Gales. Or Robert Randolph because he’s from the south, and Eric’s in a town just like an hour and a half away from me. His whole style of approaching blues is very different when I found him. I also played on his record as well. Oh, that was cool. He called while I was in school (chuckle). He called me in school to tell me he wanted me to play on it. I just recorded the solo on weekends. I just recorded like on a Saturday.”
After the interview with Christone was over and I was winding up with his mom, she mentioned that his early interest in blues was a symptom of something else.
“He started learning things on his own. He started listening to the different songs, and he could play the songs, just listening to them. That’s when we realized it was something different with Christone. we later found out he has Asperger’s Syndrome. Anything he hears in music is in his head all the time. It’s music all the time, It’s like his comfort zone. Music is his escape where he can go and hide and be himself because sometimes he’s been in that position where some people don’t like him and that’s his (right) to go into that zone and be himself and escape.”
Asperger’s Syndrome is defined as a mild form of autism that according to one New York Times article “causes people to be socially awkward and often physically clumsy, but many are verbal prodigies, speaking in complex sentences at early ages, reading newspapers fluently by age 5 or 6 and acquiring expertise in some preferred topic that will astonish adults and bore their playmates to tears.”
Princess feels that her son’s Asperger’s by and large is a plus, especially as it relates to his musical ability. “There are somethings he doesn’t like to do. Believe it or not, he doesn’t like crowds, and I think Asperger’s has really been an advantage. Apserger’s makes him great, makes him unique. Yeah, so it’s an advantage and disadvantage, but I try to look at it as being more positive than negative. I’m very comfortable talking about it. We travel and I have parents come up to me crying and saying, ‘I have a child like that. What do I do?’ I don’t mind sharing. I don’t mind. I love to talk about it.”
Ric Whitney: “People say they always (need) something to bring the blues back. I believe and his mother believes it’s a matter of getting people to hear it and understand it and have that history of what it is and what it means for modern music. Christone has grown up with it. Being from Clarksdale, being around his mother, there is music in their blood, and I think there is something about the way he stretches himself out musically that ties so well to the idea of blues is still a very, very strong thread. It’s just a matter of being able to present that in a way that people hear it.”
“I’m real blessed, real blessed,” says Christone. “The old ones went through some really hard times for us. and I didn’t see what any man would want to live like that. So, I’m blessed that my generation (doesn’t have to).”
Where does he think he’ll be 50 years from now? “Oh, wow. Man! In a nice house doing music, man. Hopefully, I’ve got things situated Yeah, man.”
Visit Christone’s website at: www.christonekingfishingram.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.