Cover photo © 2019 Bob Kieser
In This Issue
Don Wilcock has our feature interview with Mr. Sipp. We have 6 Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Michele Biondi, The Kentucky Headhunters, GB Blues Express, Andres Roots, Willie May and Chris O’Leary.
We have the latest in Blues society news. All this and MORE! SCROLL DOWN!!!
2019 Blues Blast Music Awards – Save The Date
The 2019 Blues Blast Music Award submissions have now ended. Nominees will be announced in June. Voting begins in July.
SAVE THE DATE – September 13, 2019 for the Blues Blast Music Awards at Tebala Event Center in Rockford, IL. More details of the 2019 BBMAs coming soon!
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6
Michele Biondi – Cotton & Moonshine
10 Songs, 32 Minutes
Blues singer and songwriter Michele “Matt” Biondi was born in the north of Italy, in Lucca, in the Tuscany region, not too far from Pisa. His initial exposure to music came early in his life, thanks to grandparents who were multi-instrumentalists. Biondi took up the guitar at the age of 14, learning mostly from friends and with lessons from guitarist Gorby Marraccini. At 16, his first exposure to blues music came from his friend, guitarist Vittorio Pecchia. At 19, he began his studies with American singer and songwriter Bruce Borrini.
By the age of 21, he’d begun playing guitar with the ‘Italian Euro Big Band,’ playing blues, swing, and rock ‘n’ roll throughout Italy, France and Portugal. Shortly thereafter, he started his own band, The Blues Basket, playing in and around Tuscany, eventually going on to play with a couple of other regional blues bands at regional festivals in both Italy and Switzerland. During a visit to Mississippi, he was introduced to the Texas-based blues singer Ray Cashman and harmonica player Stan Street, with whom he began a fruitful collaboration, often accompanying them on tours.
Cotton & Moonshine is his second release as a solo artist, and has received positive acclaim in both the E.U. and the U.S.A., with his very personal approach to some very traditional blues styles. Eight of the ten songs were penned by Biondi, with “Feeling No Pain” written by Ray Cashman, and “Country Blues,” an old Muddy Waters tune. Personnel for this album includes Biondi on guitar and vocals, Edoardo Vannozzi on drums and percussion, Federico Paoli on upright and electric bass, Alessandro Solenni on keys, and Elena Cosci on backing vocals. It was recorded at Red Room Studios in Pisa, Italy, and was produced by Biondi and S. Valentino.
The songs themselves – including Biondi’s original tunes – are spirited if fairly conventional interpretations of standard blues forms, albeit with Biondi’s tasteful, understated approach to the guitar. Biondi’s guitar playing is more than competent, and he’s got a good handle on traditional approaches to both acoustic and electric blues guitar, and an especially nice touch with the slide on a resonator guitar.
I found his countertenor vocals to be initially somewhat startling, as they are heavily accented and – given that English is not his native tongue – his phrasing can be a little awkward. Lyrically, some of the rhymes that he uses feel forced. I find myself wondering how these songs might sound sung in his native Italian? Interestingly enough, both Ray Cashman and Jeoffrey Collins White are credited on the album as Lyrics Supervisors, while Matt Cressey is credited as Vocal Coach. Just as different translators might approach translating a novel in different ways, I have to wonder how the lyrics might have been approached differently, with slightly different rhymes and word choices, to make them flow more naturally and less awkwardly. Still, the songs do hold together and are very sincere and engaging.
The intro to the lead-off track, “Cotton & Moonshine,” has a nice call-and-response between the vocal and Biondi’s slide guitar. Once the bass and drums kick-in, the slide mimics his vocal phrasing throughout the track. It’s a nice, imaginative approach that works well in the context of the minimal instrumentation in this track.
“Don’t Let Your Dreams Die” has a nice country blues feel that is evocative and feels like one of the more personal songs on this collection. The upright bass helps propel this song along at a comfortable, loping pace. It’s one of my favorites on this album.
“Another Shot” is a rollicking number along the lines of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” and features some very nice slide work.
“Tearing Me Apart” has come tasty electric slide, against a mysterious wash of Hammond organ in the background; it’s another of this album’s high points.
“Apple Pie” feels like a Sunday morning back porch picking session, with the upright bass and brushed drums maintaining a sweet country blues groove against Biondi’s acoustic slide licks.
Other standout tracks include “Hell on Earth” with its almost Gospel feel, and “Country Blues” which channels early Robert Johnson by way of Muddy Waters. The albums closer, “Give Me Back My Pride” is a slow, smoky electric blues that I can imagine being played during the last set at a dimly-lit bar.
Bottom line? Cotton & Moonshine is a nice collection of listener-friendly, blues-influenced Americana with Biondi’s very personal stamp on them. The arrangements and performances of his original songs are crisp, and the result is very a very satisfying album of sincere, low-key country blues.
Reviewer Dave Orban is a technology marketer by day, musician/artist/educator by night. Since 1998, Orban has fronted The Mojo Gypsies, based in the greater Philadelphia area. http://www.mojogypsies.com
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6
The Kentucky Headhunters – Live At The Ramblin’ Man Fair
Alligator Records – ALCD 4988
12 songs – 54 minutes
Despite playing music professionally for decades, Grammy-winning roots rockers The Kentucky Headhunters had never toured outside North America before venturing to the UK and Sweden in 2016, kicking off with a concert date in London before recording this live set in front of an enthusiastic audience in Maidenstone, Kent, a few days later.
That might come as quite a surprise for fans considering that the core group – guitarist Richard Young and drummer brother Fred and lead guitarist/cousin Greg Martin first started playing together as Itchy Brother in Edmonton, Ky., in 1968. Taking their name from a character on the King Leonardo And His Short Subjects cartoon series, they began as Southern rockers and Nashville songwriters, but turned toward the blues in 1970 after playing Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” during a TV performance.
The trio became Music City studio musicians and songwriters at famed Acuff/Rose Publishing in the ‘70s during the heyday of disco, but reformed as the Headhunters in 1986, adding Doug Phelps on bass. The name was borrowed from Muddy Waters’ early ensemble because of their prowess “cutting heads” when facing off with other outfits in battle-of-the-band competitions.
Playing a mix of blues, honkytonk and rock with country crossover appeal, the Headhunters quickly built a career that included stops at Mercury, Nonesuch/Elektra and other labels, garnering a 1991 Grammy for their debut release, Pickin’ On Nashville. This album is their second on the Alligator imprint, a follow-up to Meet Me In Bluesland, a collection of previously unreleased recordings with keyboard player Johnnie Johnson, best known for his legendary career alongside Chuck Berry.
This disc also includes three more Johnson tracks, which features Itchy Brother founder/cousin Anthony Kenney on bass. Backing vocals on one of the live cuts are provided by the band Black Stone Cherry, and that unit’s drummer, John Fred Young – Richard’s son, sits in on percussion.
After a brief intro, the Headhunters roar out of the gate with a take on “Big Boss Man,” turning the Jimmy Reed standard into a full-force blues rocker, before the rock-steady “Ragtop” sings praise of driving a convertible and “Stumblin’” offers up an invitation to a lady to join the singer on the dance floor while he’ll be “shakin’ like a chicken instead.”
The pace slows slightly, but the intensity continues with the Southern rocker, “Shufflin’ Back To Memphis,” before the band launches into an updated, six-minute version of Freddie King’s ballad, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” putting Martin’s fiery guitar skills on display and proving beyond question that the Headhunters have a solid understanding of straight-ahead blues.
The rocker, “Wishin’ Well,” penned for a proposed but unrealized European tour in 1978, precedes the slide-guitar driven “Walking With The Wolf” – not a tribute to Chester Burnett, but the description of a lady walking in the woods. “My Daddy Was A Milkman,” first heard on the Headhunters’ debut album, follows before a cover of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Don’t Let Me Down” – aided by Black Stone Cherry – brings the live action to a close.
Blues purists will be pleased with the three Johnson studio recordings, which were captured in 2003, when the Headhunters were recording the album Soul. Two covers — Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “Rock Me Baby” and Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” – bookend the original, “Rock ‘n’ Roller.”
Available from most major retailers, Live At The Ramblin’ Fair – like the band itself – has great crossover appeal. If you’re a rocker at heart or have country leanings, there’s plenty here for you to enjoy. And if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool blues purist, there’s plenty here for you, too. Rock solid, and a lot of fun.
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6
GB Blues Express – Southside
Blues Express Records
Coming at you all the way from Norway, the GB Blues Express is back with their third release, a studio project following their Live At The Shack Up Inn album, from 2015. The band is fronted by Geir “Milkman” Bertheussen, who possesses a voice that takes listeners to a roadhouse bar on a Saturday night, while displaying a basic grasp of the art of playing harmonica. The ten originals were composed by guitarist Kai “Sugar Kay” Fjellberg, with an assist from the leader on one tune. The rhythmic foundation is left in the capable hands of Trond “Boogieman” Hansen on bass and Kare “Lefty” Amundsen on drums. Additional help comes from Dave Fields on guitar and backing vocals, Jan Tore Lauritsen and Rune Karlsen on organ, and Morten Larsen on piano.
The instrumental “Cakewalk” showcases Fjellberg right from the start, and he doesn’t disappoint, firing off fluid lines over the organ-drenched backing that highlight his understanding of the Texas and Chicago styles of playing. The next track, “Born On The Southside,” Bertheussen uses his gruff voice to tell the tale of his journey to the blues, punctuated by blasts from his harp. The band cranks up the energy level on “Supergirl,” as Fjellberg cuts loose with another tightly drawn solo, urged on by Larsen’s pumping piano work, elevating the track despite the simplistic lyrical content.
One of the standout tracks is “World Is Shakin’” a dark, heavy rumination on our troubled times. “Steppin’ Stone” cruises along with a soulful strut, the leader’s expressive singing backed by blasts from the Red Hot Horns, comprised of Magnus Malmedal Dragen and Pal Gunnar Fiksdal on trumpet, Runar Fiksdal on trombone, and Lars Petter Bjerkeset on saxophone. Fjellberg continues to impress in his two solo segments, giving listeners his take on B.B. King’s style. The guitarist is also featured on the slow blues, “How We Roll,” taking his time in crafting a response to the leader’s pleading vocal. “Too Much Of Nothing” is a humorous number that rolls right along, with Bertheussen doing some extended blowing. He uses his harp to add tonal coloration on the hard-driving “King Of My Castle” while Fjellberg switches to slide guitar on the rowdy “Hard Times”. The closer, “Lone Wolf,” is a moody piece that brings to mind some of Peter Green’s work. Bertheussen goes for a different sound on the chromatic harp and Fjellberg offers up one more sample of his nuanced fretboard skills.
With all of the discs out in the marketplace, it is always refreshing to run across one by a band that understands the blues, and wants to play the music with minimal rock influences. The GB Blues Express lives up to the promise of their name, delivering a solid batch of songs with a variety of approaches, and played with feeling. You can’t ask for much more than that…….
Reviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 6
Andres Roots – Breakfast in September
Roots Art Records
Andres Roots is an Estonian guitar player who has produced 11 new tracks and one cover that are performed solo except for “Tango Walk” where he is joined by Halvo Liivamagi on guitar. Roots uses a vintage AMG-2 Tricone resophonic guitar on the acoustic tracks, a Tokai Love Rock on two cuts and Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster with pickups hand wound by his cohort Liivamagi on three other cuts and a Walden t550 acoustic with another custom handwound pickup on “One For Mezz.” This is a guitar lovers dream album as Roots lets us see his mettle. His prowess on the guitar is quite evident- there is some really cool and interesting picking on these cuts.
Referred to as “The King of Estonian Blues,” Roots is a major league slide guitarist, songwriter and bandleader. He works out of Tartu, Estonia, he is known as the country’s ‘internationally best-known player of pure blues.’ He seamlessly mixes old style, pre-war blues, swing, and ’60’s rock into a beautiful mélange of guitar sounds. He is quite the impressive guitar wizard.
Roots begins with his Resophonic on “The Sheik of Hawaii, Pt 1,” a song that sounds more like it has Indian influences than Hawaiian. Roots fingers blaze over the frets as he picks frantically yet artistically. “Tango Walk” is a beautiful duo with Halvo plays a handcrafted Blues Machine guitar while Roots is on his Jazzmaster. The interplay us lively and enjoyable- the two are quite familiar and in sync as they wind through the instrumental. “4 AM Hot Dog” is a rollicking and fun cut on the Resonator. “Leif’s Guitar Blues” takes us to the Tokai Love Rock, a Japanese adaptation of the famous Les Paul guitar. Played with a very cool distortion through a ZT Amplifiers Lunchbox amp, it’s very dirty and old school sounding. Roots cleans up nicely with “No Iguanas,” another spectacular cut on the Resonator. “Waltzin’ Blue” completes the first half of the CD. Roots is back on the Jazzmaster and plays a lighter sounding tune for us as he gracefully slides up and down to the listener’s delight.
“Jook Jones” is another nice Resonator tune showcasing Roots’ abilities on this steel guitar. “One For Mezz” is the lone cut on the Walden and is played through the Lunchbox amp. Here the sound is not overdriven as Roots effortlessly picks and glides through this cool cut. “When The Saints GO Marching In” is the lone cover and Roots showcases the Resonator as he plays with fervor. The Tokai returns for “7th Heaven” and we get another intensely cool sounding piece to savor. Things begin slowly put then Roots lets loose and romps and blazes as he plays another cool-y distorted and interesting piece. “Stumbleweed” contrasts as a clean sounding song once again on the Resonator. The pace is swift as Roots begins and then slows things down in the middle for an interesting change of pace before shifting back into high gear to close things out. The album concludes with “The Sheik of Hawaii, Pt 2” where he plays the Jazzmaster through the Lunchbox amp. The sound is intense and sweet. The sound is completely different from the opener and offers a nice contrast stylistically to finish things off. We still have that thread of Indian influence but the sound is completely different on this guitar and amp. Well done!
Roots offers this all-instrumental guitar album and I think he hit a home run. The sounds are varied and interesting. The fingering of notes, chords and bass line is exceptional. One can see why he won the first ever Estonian Blues Challenge and Best Guitar Prize in October 2017 and went on to represent his country in the European Blues Challenge in Norway in March 2018. If you like the Resonator and well done instrumental guitar work then look no further. Andres Roots will give you a ride to remember as you play this CD over and over again. I really enjoyed this one!
Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6
Willie May – Blues Like That
CD: 10 Songs, 37:31 Minutes
Styles: Contemporary Electric Blues Rock, Swamp Blues, All Original Songs
When it comes to the blues rock/swamp blues scene, Willie May is like Stephen King. Fans can rely upon three things from him and his band: 1) rock-solid entertainment; 2) at least one album per year, and 3) a postprandial feeling akin to the one after a good fast-food meal. Willie may not be the world’s best vocalist or lyricist, but he knows what he’s doing on guitar for darn sure. He proves it on Blues Like That, his newest and twentieth (!) release. It features ten original tracks that run the gamut from moody swamp blues (“Don’t You Cry”) to ‘50s-style jump blues (“Ferris Wheel”) to funk/punk (“The Party’s Over”). May brings several co-performers along for this loping ride through the blues wilderness, and the overall effect is invigorating.
When you’re this prolific of a musician, your credentials pile up, whether live or in the studio. As for Willie, he’s taken his original blend of music to the blues clubs from The LaFayette Tap Room in Buffalo to Antones in Austin, TX, The Black Swan in Toronto, The Penny Arcade in Rochester, The Dinosaur BBQ in Syracuse, Hard Rock Cafe Niagara Falls, The Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis, Fat Fish Blue in Cleveland, Bflo Blues in Pittsburgh, and to countless other venues on thousands of occasions. ‘Tis no typo – May has participated in that many events.
Accompanying him are Evan Laedke on organ; Jeremy Keyes on harmonica; Jim Wozniak on organ; Joe Skinner on bass; Ken Parker on saxophone; Larry Cheeley on saxophone; Mark Garcia on congas and drums; Mark Panfil on slide guitar and piano; Mike Silver on harmonica; Owen Eichensehr on drums, piano and guitar; Randy Corsi on drums; Robert Freightrain Parker on bass; Ron Sugarman Kain on guitar; Tom Corsi on bass, and Willie Haddith on slide guitar.
Sometimes the best blues are the ones that get our feet jumping and our hearts pumping:
Track 03: “Ferris Wheel” – “You don’t know the way that it makes me feel, going round and round and round like a Ferris wheel. Here we go again…” The repetitive twist groove of this catchy tune puts one in mind of the carnival contraption. Unlike a Ferris wheel, however, relationship ruts are no fun. Dig Larry Cheeley and Ken Parker on saxophone here, combined with May’s red-hot shredder.
Willie May has put forward another commendable effort with electric Blues Like That!
Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 39 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.
Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6
Chris O’Leary – 7 Minutes Late
Chris O’Leary gives us a dozen new songs of what he calls hope and despair with his new CD. Chris has been fronting his own band now for almost ten years after a half dozen years fronting The Barnburners for Levon Helm and serving in the United States Marine Corps prior to that. O’Leary has also appeared with the likes of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stones sideman Bobby Keys, Jimmy Vivino, Jeff Healy, Albert Lee, Dave Maxwell, Michael McDonald, Warren Haynes, Steely Dan, Ivan and Cyril Neville, and James Cotton and recorded with Hubert Sumlin and Bill Perry. Not too shabby a resume!
Nominated in 2011 for a Blues Blast Award for Best New Artist Debut CD for “Mr. Used to Be” and Best New Artist Debut for the 2011 American Blues Music Awards, O’Leary has once again shown us his unique songwriting skills and great performing abilities with this new effort. Strong vocal work and poignant and stinging harp work grace this CD. He is joined by Andrei Korbanics on drums/percussion, Matt Raymond on bass, Peter Hopkinson on guitar, Greg Gumpel on guitar, mandolin, and backing vocals, Jeremy Baum on organ/piano, Andy Stahl on tenor sax and backing vocals, and Chris Difrancesco on baritone, tenor and alto saxes, clarinet and backing vocals.
“What the Devil Made Me Do” starts the set. Things begin with a kicking beat and deep bass groove as O’Leary tells us what the devil made him do. His vocals are emotional, the sax is blazing and the guitar work is hot. Next is “Your Day Will Come,” a slow and more than slightly dark and cut about today’s political situation. The guitar and vocals are hauntingly cool. “One More Chance at Love” is next and things pick up a bit. This soulful number is midtempo and O’Leary howls out the lead. The keys are nice, the guitar is solid, there’s a good solo and we finally have Chris break out the harp for some dirty and sweet sounds. Guitar and harp spar to take us out in a high energy call and response. The following song is “Second Time Around,” a nice little bluesy rocker with O’Leary emoting on vocals, a stinging guitar solo and a pretty harp solo.
“She Ain’t Coming Back” is a slow, lazy Delta sort of blues. Chris moans out the lead, the acoustic guitar plays along with the harp and het mandolin flutters in and out. Things start softly but building to a powerful sound as O’Leary testifies about his woman what the title simply says. “Circus Just Left Town” begins with a driving drum beat. Things sound a little swampy and cool as O’Leary and the slide guitar both have some fun. Next up is the title track where things turn down and dark again into a somber cut with mean, mean harp and just an overall stellar piece. The song is about a marriage gone bad due to separations. The wife leaves, the husband follows with a gun, ostensibly to her to bring her home but it turns into a two toe tag affair with a lethal injection as a reward. No winners here, and it’s based on a true story. In the real world we have a multi-tour Afghanistan vets who gets revenge and then killed himself at the scene. “Unbelievable” is a slow and funky soul tune with guitar and organ setting the tone. The song just grabs you and pulls you along for a ride.
The distorted vocals in “Bones,” another dark and deep piece. The slide gives us a nice ride, the harp is sp greasy and it’s another overall fine cut. Superb harmonica work here! “Heartbreak Waiting to Happen” gets things going again tempo wise, but things don’t really get happier as Chris sings to us about a chick who’s ready disappoint. “Driving Me Crazy” is a jazzy NOLA sort of cut with some cool clarinet and horn work and more fine vocals. The CD concludes with “Daddy’s Here,” a simple ballad with vocals and acoustic guitar to start. The electric guitar is added as the emotion rises to add feeling. Chris sings a somber tune about finally being home for his child, a touching and well-done performance.
This is a darker and different Chris O’Leary than we’ve been accustomed to. The songs are edgy and often range from somber to downright depressing. He’s done a great job and shows us a new side to his songwriting and performing. It’s not an album you’ll dance to a lot, but there are cuts to make you listen and take notice. I really enjoyed his take on the doom and gloom in life; the stuff grows on you with each listen. The vocals are superb, the backing musicians are spot on and together. Here we have another fine effort by a real up and coming star!
Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.
Featured Interview – Mr. Sipp
When gospel star Castro Coleman decided to make the conversion to Mr. Sipp the bluesman, it wasn’t a simple decision. His grandfather was the one who was most open to it.
“He was in the church all his life,” explains Mr. Sipp, “but he’s a lover of music. Period! All his life! He was the one (who said) there’s only seven notes to music. So, when you play C in church, it’s the same C you play in the blues. When you play C in the blues, it’s the same C you play in rock and roll. You know? So, he was the easy one for me because he didn’t want my career to just be one dimension.
Dad was a little more pragmatic.
“He wanted to make sure that after 26 years of my gospel training base that I wasn’t taking a chance on blowing it away. He said, ‘Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? Are you sure this is what you want to do? You’ve got 23 years of gospel. You’ve got a great record out there. You’ve got a great name. You’ve got a great relationship with (those) in radio. Are you sure you want to go into that field?’”
For more than a quarter century Mr. Sipp as Castro Coleman had written, produced, performed and recorded under his own name and with The Legendary Williams Brothers, The Canton Spirituals, and The True Believers. As Castro Coleman and Highly Favored he’d made TV appearances on Bobby Jones Gospel and had national recognition with their CD Time Out. He appears on recordings by The Pilgrim Jubilees, Spencer Taylor and the Highway QC’s, Rev. Rance Allen, The Texas Boys, Brian Courtney Willison, The Jackson Southernaires, and The Canton Spirituals.
So, Castro knew that going secular would make some waves.
“I knew the people were gonna have something to say. But I’ve always gone against the grain anyway even when I was in gospel. I was the guy that wear a suit and tie singing gospel. I wore tennis shoes, jerseys, jeans. Whatever you couldn’t wear, I wore and made it work.
“I was known for going against the grain with everything that was in my area and making it work. So, I carried that same confidence over into the blues, and I do understand marketing. I do understand engineering. I do understand music. I do know (something) about the music industry throughout genres. So, I do know how a band makes it. I do know how to market myself. I know how to construct and get a decent record deal. I know how to convince a label. I know how to write songs.”
In 2012 he made his first step into blues. From the top of the ladder in gospel, he went to the first rung in blues. He paid the $25 fee to the Vicksburg Blues Society to put himself in the running to be their entry into the International Blues Challenge.
“I didn’t have a band. I had no songs. All I knew was that I wanted to play the blues. So, I convinced Shirley Waring to let me sign up for the challenge and immediately called my cousin who played in my gospel band. Did they want to play some blues and go into the competition? And they said, ‘Sure! When?’ I was like Saturday. We’ll figure out later the three songs.
“The next morning we started a band. At that time Mississippi Kin Folk was the name of the band. We went into the competition that Saturday. Two months after that we were competing with musicians from all over the world. I only had three songs. Made it into the competition, and I needed another song.
“That night when we found out we made it, I wrote the song “Hey, Hey, Hey” and it brought us through. We didn’t actually win that year. We made it into the finals and competed against Selwyn Birchwood who was a phenomenal blues man. Him winning gave my heart joy because I never figured going past the first round to be honest. To get to the finals gave my heart joy because I knew I was coming back.”
Under the name Mr. Sipp, Castro competed in the regional competition in the fall of 2012 and won. He then went to compete in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in January 2013 where made it to the finals.
He later again entered the regional competition in the fall of 2013, which he won and went back to Memphis in 2014 where he won in the International Blues Challenge band category and also took the Albert King Gibson Guitar award. In 2014 he won the Jus’ Blues Foundation’s Bobby Rush Entertainer’s Award and the 2015 Jackson Music Awards Blues Artist of the Year.
Malaco Records which had released some of Castro’s gospel albums was not happy when he came to them wanting to do a blues album.
“They were totally against it. Didn’t understand where I was going or why I wanted to do it. They really didn’t want to do it, (but) that’s what I wanted to do when I went to do it, and if that disappointed them that’s what I was going to do. They weren’t going to stop me from doing it. No one dictates my life. That was just what I was going to do. (They said) it wasn’t going to work. Nobody listens to that kind of music. So, I cut the record, and it turned out to be one of the biggest records I’ve ever released in my life. I was a new kid on the block (and it) made a great story.”
So, Mr. Sipp released It’s My Guitar on his own in 2013. He went around his live band and played all the instruments.
“My first blues album all of us coming from the church didn’t make us blues musicians. Because I’m a session musician, I’m able to (play) different styles. My cousins have played church all their life. I’ve played for church, but I’ve done sessions with blues, R&B, neo-soul. I’ve done all kinds of music on the production side. So, what I wanted to introduce myself into the music realm with the mixture that I had an album that sounded bluesy enough to be considered as a blues guy, not a blues guy that comes out of the church.”
He was back with Malaco in 2015 with The Mississippi Blues Child.
“All my life I’ve had to prove (myself) to management of the record companies. So, at this point over 30 years in, I’m used to proving myself. That’s like second nature. If I say it, and I believe it, I already believe it could happen.”
The Mississippi Blues Child debuted at No. 6 on the Living Blues Radio Chart. The magazine praised Sipp’s music saying, “No matter the style, though, Mr. Sipp is up to the task, again proving himself worthy as singer, guitarist and songwriter.”
His agency, Intrepid Artists, describes the release: “Mr. Sipp once again handles all of the vocals and plays numerous instruments, however this time around he is joined by other reputable Malaco Mississippi “Hitmen.” All songs with the exception of one are originals, and his diverse style of music separates this record from many of the other recent “cookie cutter” Delta Blues recordings.”
Mr. Sipps’ live shows define him better than his recordings. His guitar has a tone and “voice” that’s nearly as distinctive as B. B. King’s. And his Jack in the Box energy is palpable.
“My energy is so high on stage because I look at the performance side of it as recess back in school. You work all day in school and have a 10-minute break recess. In my life I’m always working or studying music, studying the business. When I get that hour or that hour and 30 minutes to perform, that’s the recess of my day. That’s the recess of my week. If you notice at recess they run and play as hard as they can. They enjoy what they can ’cause when it’s over, it’s back to work. The music gives me joy. It gives me energy. Even when I’m burned out from working, you put the guitar in my hand and a mike in front of me, it’s like a new burst of joy, and energy comes from somewhere. I don’t know where. So, I love it. That joy comes through me.”
Mr. Sipp has elevated the comingling of gospel and blues another notch in a long and often painful marriage hampered by the 19th and early 20th century perception that blues is all about things evil and gospel is all about goodness. Artists like Son House and the Rev. Gary Davis were men of God who also sang the blues in the first half of the 20th century followed a generation later by The Staple Singers and the Holmes Brothers who were more commercially successful examples of a healthy relationship between the genres. Mr. Sipp is further eroding the chasm between the two and dispelling the myths and false perceptions about each. His strong family orientation is pivotal and powerful in its effect on his muse. Like many in blues, he’s a type A personality determined to do it his way. And like most gospel singers, he puts God front and center by maintaining strong bonds with his wife and four daughters.
The story behind the nerdy glasses he wears with tape at the bridge of his nose is an example of how a love for his daughter translated into a device that changed her life and paid for her college education.
“When my oldest daughter was in third grade, she got her eyes checked. She had to wear glasses. I don’t know why my wife went and bought her these frames like this for a third grader. She went to school, and she was excited about her glasses, but she came home crying. She said, ‘Daddy, they laughed at me.’ ‘Ok,’ I said. ‘That was a case of bullying.’
“At that point I was in a position of working on my ninth gospel album, and we were at the point to where I was doing the photo shoot. So, I said, ‘I’ll tell ya what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna buy some frames just like yours. I’m gonna pop the lenses out, and I’m gonna put tape in the middle of it and make it cool (for the photo).’
“That album did well for me in the gospel industry which I did a lot of national television, so it became real hip from then. Every time I made it (she) was able to go to school with her black frames, have her chest stick out and her head held up because with her daddy being on that album cover on national television made it cool for all the kinds who went to put tape on their glasses. But I did that to reverse a case of bullying with my kid, and it actually worked, and we just carried it over from the gospel to the blues. It’s fascinating.”
His daughter is now a senior at Jackson State College.
“She’s very strong minded, confident. She’s going back and doing motivational speaking and she has stories about how I stepped in as a parent to build her confidence. They called it a gimmick. It’s not a gimmick. I made what worked for my career at the same time. It paid for two of my daughters’ colleges and four more other kids’ college careers off the money we made selling those glasses. It changed their lives and it (made) opportunities for their lives, and that’s all that matters for me no matter how anybody else sees it.”
Her degree is in science education. She plays, sings and writes music but does not plan to follow in her father’s footsteps. “I thought she might go into music. I’m kinda glad she didn’t now. Her mind is very focused – not to get tied up in the dark side of what goes on out there. I’m grateful I didn’t get caught up in the dark side of it.”
Mr. Sipp rejoins his gospel group The True Believers for their latest release Back to The Roots and is touring on this release. Coleman organized the True Believers, a gospel quartet that released its first disc, Don’t Count Me Out, for Blackberry Records in 2000. The album featured songs written by Coleman as well as compositions by Paul Porter of the Christianaires, Bishop Hezekiah Walker and Melvin Williams of the Williams Brothers.
“The True Believers was my first gospel band that I stepped out and started doing my own thing in 1995. Before then, I was traveling with a lot of different groups. In 1995 I started my own band, started singing my own songs and True Believers at that particular time was my own family.
“They’re my age and we cut our first album with Blackberry Records. The record went national. We became a national recording act with a national song “Ooh, Wee; Another Blessing.” Now, I’m 45 years old and when I sing that song it’s still still present relevant. Everybody in the building stands up and sings it.
“Once I left I still owned the name of the group. I own the brand. I own everything. Gospel has always been a part of my act. I never want to leave. Now was the perfect time to do a Back to the Roots. I have six years, six strong years, in the blues industry, so the gospel singing followed me over to Mr. Sipp. So, I said in this season what I’ll do is I’ll do a gospel album, and then Back to The Roots is back to my roots and show them my roots. The music is more traditional then I’ve ever done in my gospel career.’
“I purposely did that because at this point what we brought to the gospel music industry was the energy. Brought the energy in 1995, and it continues to grow in 2010 when I left, So, it’s so much at the edge out there now.
“Everybody has forgotten about the roots, the basis of it, the simple version of it, the more direct version of it, So, I went back to the roots of gospel. This is a relevant field that can be marketable today, but it’s more traditional than I’ve been involved in, but God it works.
“It’s working. It’s in the top 25 of the American (SoundScan) charts. Syndicated radio stations have picked it up where there’s not many spots for traditional gospel on syndicated radio stations now, but fortunately we have secured one of the spots on all the syndicated gospel radio stations right now. It’s just a wonderful thing.”
Castro opened a club in Magnolia, Mississippi where he’s dispelling old myths about blues to patrons one at a time. “I tell them to take time and really listen to the blues. Get out and come to some of the blues festivals and blues concerts. Take time if you know a blues man or blues woman. Take the time to talk to them and hear what it really is. You can often go off from what you hear from somebody else and build that cliché, but that’s the first thing I hear. Blues is sad music. My thing is everybody has a good time from the first act to the last act.
“That’s the problem I had when I first opened here. ‘I don’t want to hear no blues.’ Well, come here and get the experience. It will change your mind. And that’s what’s been happening. It’s changing their minds. So, I encourage anybody that’s listening to me. Don’t go by what anybody else tells you. It is human to change (your mind). One of the greatest joys for me is when I perform at a festival or a venue somebody says, ‘I brought my Cousin Jeanne or my Uncle Bill or somebody who don’t ever like blues. I brought them out for the first time, and they said, “My God. I don’t even like blues, and I’m such a fan. I so love this.’”
“They get so many records, and it turned into this love of the blues. My heart just rejoices, and I say, ‘That’s what it’s about. It’s not about picking up the honorarium. It’s not about winning the BMA. It’s about winning another lover of the music so they can understand the joy of it.’
“Man, that’s gravy to me. I get chills talking about it.”
Visit Mr. Sipps’s website at: www.mrsipptmbc.net.
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.
Blues Society News
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The Sacremento Blues Society – Sacremento, CA
The Sacramento Blues Society proudly presents The Shane Dwight Blues Band on Saturday, April 27, 2019, from 3-6 pm at the Powerhouse Pub, 614 Sutter St., Folsom, California.
Tickets are $17 for SBS members, $20 to the public. Please go to www.sacblues.com for additional information.
Friends of the Blues – Kankakee, IL
Shows start at 7 pm, and are open to the public. Food and Beverages available at all Friends of the Blues shows. June 4 – Ben Levin (piano) w/ Aron Levin, Marty Binder, and Chris Bernhardt – Kankakee Valley Boat Club, July 30 – Frank Bang – Bradley Bourbonnais Sportsmens’ Club, August 3 – The Nouveaux Honkies – Inside Out – Gilman IL, August 15 – Albert Castiglia – The Longbranch – L’Erable IL. More Info at: http://www.facebook.com/friendsoftheblues.
The Charlotte Blues Society – Charlotte, NC
The Charlotte Blues Society is pleased to announce that our May Blues Bash will feature an acoustic evening with Australian singer/guitarist Geoff Achison. The show will be held Sunday, May 5th, at the Rabbit Hole, 1801 Commonwealth Ave., Charlotte, NC 28205. Admission is free for members with valid cards and $5 to everyone else. A limited number of reserved seats/tables will be available online through the website, for $10 each. Doors at 7:00; music at 8:00. It will be a great evening of music!
We continue to collect non-perishable food and household items for our charity partner, Loaves and Fishes. It’s our goal to collect one ton of donations this year to help stamp out hunger in Charlotte. Cash donations are also welcome. 1 Can? I Can!
Crossroads Blues Society – Rockford, IL
Monthly shows on the second Saturday of each month at Hope and Anchor English Pub on N 2nd St in Loves Park, IL. 5/11/19 Corey Dennison Band. All shows 8 PM to 11:30 PM.
The Illinois Central Blues Club – Springfield, IL
The Illinois Central Blues Club has announced the line-up of talent for Blue Monday live performances held every Monday night at the Alamo, 115 North Fifth, Springfield, IL from 7:00pm to 11:00pm. Additional information on any performer listed below is available upon request.
April 29 – Kilborn Alley Blues Band, May 6 – Orphan Jon and The Abandoned.
P.O. Box 721 Pekin, Illinois 61555 © 2018 Blues Blast Magazine (309) 267-4425