Cover photo © 2022 Marlys Maciona
In This Issue
Mike Stephenson has our feature interview with Mighty Ms. Erica. We have four Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Harrison Kennedy, David Owen, Chris Henderson and Steve Howell And The Mighty Men. Scroll down and check it out!
Featured Interview – Mighty Ms. Erica
My name is Erica Johnson. I go by the name of Mighty Ms. Erica and I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I come from a family of musicians and people that sing and that is what drew my interest in music. I don’t know when it started but it was very early on. When I was younger, I used to earn my money singing in the parks and they had talent shows for first, second and third place, so I always knew that I had to come in one of those places so that I could earn my summer money. I would do that in the summer and also there was a show that used to come on, which was called ‘A Star In Mind’, a TV show, and I used to do that on Saturday mornings. I was maybe twelve or thirteen then; it was around the time that Whitney Houston got really popular, so I used to do that and I also used to sing in the church choir and do a lot of weddings and events.
Going back some, I was in the angel choir when I was about two or three, as the family and my aunt used to spend a lot of time in church and they would let me lead songs. My memory does not go that far back as to when I started singing. I can think of times when I was growing up that we did a little event in Wisconsin, when we opened up for the Staple Singers and that was so long ago that I can’t remember the details. Whenever I was anywhere, I always sang the blues because I grew up on that, and on Saturdays was the blues day and Sunday was the gospel day. On Saturdays the blues gets to playing around the house as we were cleaning up the house and, if we had any gatherings in the house, it was straight blues that was played by records and stuff and we did that for many years.
So later on as I got older, people would start reaching out to me, like I used to work with my good friend, and her dad was really big in the music industry, he was the singer and songwriter and producer Harvey Scales. I used to go to their house and Harvey would ask me what I was going to do with my talent, and we used to sing at the table and we wrote a couple of songs together. At that time you are living your life and being a teenager and you started getting into other things, so I decided I really didn’t want to do this. At that time it seemed it was like it was starting to be a take off because that’s what people wanted, like reaching out and can you do some background vocals, and they would like to get someone to sing a duet with me and I would brush it off. I think I was trying to get away from it all. Even when rap started coming up and people said they heard I can sing and wanted me to lay some tracks and I would agree, but I would find every reason to get out of it and so I gave it up for a while.
It was some years that I stopped singing, during the time that I had the kids and everything, so I put singing on the side. I had a cousin that asked me to meet him out at Gene’s Supper Club and that night there was a band playing and me and my cousin talked for a long time and he told me that God had given me a gift and that I should use it and he said he thought I would be a lot further than what I was now, and he asked what I was doing. I told him I wasn’t singing any more and he talked me into singing and that he had a ready made band for me and he wanted me to get back into singing.
The band was called Stage Two, so I agreed to give them a try and asked him what days they practice but again trying to get out of it. One way or another I gave it a try and they said I was a fit and I did some blues with them, but mostly like a lot of r&b and at that time Alicia Keys was pretty hot. This was about twenty years ago and from there the band did a lot of practicing. It went from once a week to two and three times a week and that was fine, as it started making me realize that I could do this singing stuff again. We just weren’t doing gigs though and there was a turn over of musicians, so finally everything worked out fine with them.
There was a guy who played excellent keyboards who was in the band and he started working with a guy, Darnell Kimble, who was called The Bedroom Doctor and he was pretty big for a while and he needed an opening act, a singer, and he asked me to audition. I asked what type of music and he said it was all blues, so I went and I was told by the keyboard player that Darnell would get me there and he would lay out the song and give me the lyrics and then ask me what I could do with it. I remember he gave me the song ‘Sleep With One Eye Open’ by Shirley Brown and another by Bettye Swan, ‘Make Me Yours’, and ‘Clean Up Woman’ by Betty Wright.
So the whole band was set up in a studio place and I don’t know how I remembered the words to those songs and Darnell told me I’m the girl. So we would do a lot of shows and I would open for him. We opened up for the 1290 when it was a blues station. Darnell was a really good singer and he would have you practice a song over and over and you would be hoarse when it was time to do the show. We had a full horn section and he would pick the best musicians for the band. We did a lot of outside events and events all over the city.
A group called The Misfits had lost their female vocalist and I was aware the position was open, so I had to make a decision, as we were starting to open shows for people like Denise LaSalle and he was big down South. But I cut out quick, as I guess I wanted to move into something that was regular, so I moved into the Misfits because that was an every Thursday guaranteed gig and that was at Gene’s Supper Club, which is a blues club, so we were the house band every Thursday. So I did that for three and a half years and after the first year we got such a big crowd that when Gene’s opened up his other place, Gene’s Lane And Lounge, we would do that club on a Saturday.
Later on we started doing other local places like Catfish Lounge and we opened up for Otis Clay and Bobby Rush. We always had something going down at the Museums so The Misfits got really hot too for a while. I was with The Misfits from 2009 to 2011 or 2012.
Finally I went on in my life and I ended up getting married and my music became a bit of a conflict, like do I want to keep doing this every Thursday and Saturday? So we got someone to substitute for me in the group as I wanted to work on the marriage and I think that was enough, and they say I broke up The Misfits because after I left The Misfits retired out.
After that I got away for a little bit and I then thought that I had to get back in there again and that’s when I put me an ad up, like “Is anyone looking for a female vocalist?” I got all types of people, some band saying they were blues but when I got there it was more rock like. Finally the Brew City Rhythm And Blues Band. They restyled and I jumped straight in and they gave me a book of lyrics of all the songs that they did, but that didn’t work well with me, like stand up there and sing off of a music chart. So I went to the practices with them and it came time for the first show and I stood up there and I memorized the lyrics, the whole booklet, and the show went over well and we were booked every weekend, there was no ego stuff and they let me lead the band. We did that for about four years and finally we got another guitarist in and he got close to the bass player and he decided to form his own band and we grabbed in other people, but it didn’t work out.
This is when the Blues Disciples came about and me getting with them was about 2017 and I played with them a while, but I felt like I was in a pocket and nowhere to move. I thought that I would like to open up my own band and show, but in order for me to do that I would need to step out on faith. Now I think I am at that place and things are opening up now and I want my band to give me exactly what I want. So I’m trying to make this work for me. This is show time, with people seeing me for what I do, it isn’t a jam session and I want to bring my sound to where I want it to be.
So I’ve stepped out with my own band Mighty Ms. Erica And The Sound Production. This happened right before the pandemic, at the end of 2019. I’m still trying to figure this industry out and be a bandleader. So I’m doing my own thing now and we do a lot of gigs here in Milwaukee and we have done Summer Fest and we do Mamie’s Bar & Grill regularly and the Three Lions pub. We are also at the Chicago Blues Festival this year, at Rosa’s stage.
I’ve done some recordings over the years, some with the Blues Disciples and I wrote two numbers on their ‘Gravy Train’ album, ‘That Feeling’ and ‘Trying To Stay In Love’, and I also work with Big Al Dorn and did a song on his CD, ‘They Call Me Big Al’ that was called ‘Classy Not Trashy’. Now I’ve been working on three tunes in the studio that are nearly done and after that I will be working on other tunes that will make a seven track CD out by the end of this year.
I still sit in with other musicians like the Blues Disciples and I have people call me and ask me to be part of a band. I’m playing with Billy Flynn soon, as a special guest for Billy and Jimmy Schwarz on a blues night.
I have a day job as a cosmetologist and an instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College. So it’s about the hair industry and I also own my own salon and I’ve been a business owner for seventeen years here in Milwaukee and it’s called London Healthy Hair and it is for ladies and men. For a future goal, what I would like to do is travel and travel overseas with my music.
I like to touch people in a way when I perform and I always find myself meeting somebody in these settings that is going through something and I have touched them, and they say when you were singing I felt I went to church a little, they say there is something about me that is spiritual and that’s what I try to do. Everybody has their own space and their own beliefs at the end of the day, everybody has the right to do what they do. I try to touch soul. It’s bigger than music and if you look into a story of a song you can help them out. Music touches people differently. When I think about music, it takes me back to a time in my life as to what was going on, like if you play that Howlin’ Wolf ‘Spoonful’ I think about hanging out at my dad’s house and doing yard work with him, it takes me right back to that. Every song has a story for people, so it’s not just about singing and becoming a performer, if you are not doing the right thing for the right reason.
To find out more about Mighty Ms. Erica go to: www.mightymserica.com For bookings contact Jim Feeney at All-American Talent 708 867 5991 firstname.lastname@example.org
Interviewer Mike Stephenson is a UK based blues journalist and photographer who has been a blues fan all his life. He has written articles on and interviewed blues artists and reviewed blues events in Europe and the US primarily for Blues & Rhythm but also for other blues publications.
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 4
Harrison Kennedy – Thanks for Tomorrow
Electro-Fi Records 3462
12 songs – 40 minutes
Born and raised in Hamilton, Ont., but with family roots in Tennessee and New Orleans, Harrison Kennedy has been at the forefront of the blues since returning from self-imposed “retirement,” capturing seven BMA nominations for acoustic artist of the year. And at age 80, he’s at the absolute top of his game on this album, which features guest appearances from Ruthie Foster and Canadian powerhouse Colin Linden.
Harrison grew up singing in church choirs as a youth, traveling frequently to the U.S. before relocating to Detroit in 1970, where he became a founding member of the soul supergroup Chairmen of the Board, a skintight aggregation assembled by tunesmiths Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland to found their own label after leaving Motown. Their debut release, “Give Me a Little More Time,” rocketed to the top of the charts and made them key players in the R&B scene as performers and songwriters, too.
Kennedy left the group to launch a solo career in 1974 before a stint in the Canadian Army’s Royal Hamilton Light Infantry then played blues, funk, gospel, soul and funk on a parttime basis while working for Allied Chemical Corporation. He finally returned to the stage fulltime after a 30-year break with the self-produced CD, Sweet Taste, in 2003, which established him as a force to be reckoned with in the acoustic blues world.
A Juno Award – Canada’s Grammy – winner for blues album of the year in 2016 for This Is from Here, Harrison co-produced this one with multi-instrumentalist Jesse O’Brien. It was recorded at Jukasa Studios in Oshweken, Ont., with Kennedy delivering both vocals and harmonica and guitar on one cut. The lineup includes Linden and Chris Caddell on six-string and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings rhythm section Gary Craig on drums and John Dymond on bass. Terry Wilkins and Paul Intson both guest on bass, and Jimmy Bowskill adds lead guitar and mandolin to two tracks. A former member of the Levon Helm Band, O’Brien handles keyboards throughout.
An all-original set of contemporary blues, “All I Need Is You” will put a smile on your face to open. It’s a rich shuffle that features Kennedy and Ruthie trading verses and professing their love for each other before joining forces on the reprise. Linden’s fretwork swings from the hip throughout, and Harrison’s rich voice belies his age – something that comes to the fore in “Easiest Thing to Do,” a tune with country blues appeal that delivers complains about bad knees and an inability to dance but that he can “slip and slide…the ladies know what I mean!”
The funky “Thanks for Tomorrow” shows gratitude in advance for a continued future with a gal who’s helped the singer out of a past rut before the stop-time “On Call Man” urges another lady to pick up the phone any time she needs a pickup. The cautionary “Women” follows with Caddell fingerpicking the strings as Kennedy warns men that, if your relationship is in trouble, the lady’s as good as gone as soon as she sees what she wants.
The heat’s on again for the barrelhouse rocker “Checkin’ You Out” before the flavor of the country returns for “Crazy Love,” a ballad in which Harrison can hear her heartbeat from 1,000 miles away and heaven opens each time she smiles. The pace picks up slightly and O’Brien shines on the keys for the soulful tribute to Bluff City in “Memphis Trippin’” and picks up steam for “Cranky Woman,” which sings her praises instead of delivering a complaint, before “Doomed,” a tune with cowboy appeal, “You Lost Me,” the announcement that a relationship has come to an end, and the uptempo rocker “Just Wanna Play” bring the disc to a pleasant close.
Harrison Kennedy may have snow on his roof but there’s a strong fire burning in his heart and it comes through loud and clear through his tunes. Strongly recommended for anyone with a love from traditional blues.
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 – 2 of 4
David Owen – Oh Suzana Blues
Owensound Recordings – 2022
11 tracks; 41 minutes
Canadian David Owen released his debut album in 2003 but, sadly, he lost his wife in a tragic accident and took a lengthy break from music to raise his family, returning in 2015 with Lovin’ Life. For his latest album he travelled from his Ottowa home to Nashville to record with Colin Linden at his Pinhead Studio.
In an intimate setting David sings eleven of his own songs, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, solo on a couple of tracks but also accompanied by combinations of Colin Linden (acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin), Fats Kaplin (violin and accordion) and Dominic Davis (upright bass). David has a deep, slightly cracked voice which can, at times, be an acquired taste, the songs with greater instrumentation coming across better, in this reviewer’s opinion, than the solo efforts.
The album opens with “Soul Of A Sullen Man” in which David confesses that he is a “Johnny-come-lately to these happy days” and that he takes a generally downbeat approach to life, the violin and harp adding to the pathos of the song. Colin plays some jaunty acoustic guitar behind David’s harp and vocals on “Sweet Sugar Mama” which shows the fun side of David’s music. David gently makes fun of himself as the “21st Century Retro Man” who spends time in record stores and weekend dances and then recognizes that “All Folk Get The Blues”, a lively piece of Piedmont blues.
“Bankruptcy Blues” is a solo cut with David playing well on acoustic guitar and harp though his vocals are rather weak, despite some echo added by the producer, a technique that is also used on “Master Of Disguise”, a song which has a dark feel, reinforced by the harp and some ringing chords from Colin’s electric guitar.
Two songs follow that deal with religion. “Fr. John’s Blues” is a strange little song that recounts the tale of a man who is no longer welcome in his home town, despite the fact that he found God. That is followed by “No God But God” which sounds like a condemnation of those who claim to follow religion but do not do so consistently.
The title track is a solo piece, well played on guitar but something of a stretch vocally for David who does sound genuinely moved by the recollections of this lady. Bass and violin return to give a more upbeat feel to “Stella Marie”, David playing some high-pitched harp before Colin accompanies David on dobro on another sombre tune with a title that says it all, “So Lonesome Without You”. It’s a long track, running to six minutes, and has some good lyrical touches but David’s vocals on the chorus are problematic.
Overall this is quite a sombre record but the band plays well and the songs are interesting, so fans of acoustic music should find something to their taste here.
Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 4
Chris Henderson – That’s the Way of the World
Independently Released – 2021
Seven tracks; 33 minutes
Chris Henderson was born and raised in Chicago and was exposed from an early age to both the blues and gospel legends. He reportedly has been singing since the age of three. Henderson’s debut release is independently released, although produced and engineered by Jerry Parker and Slavic Livins. Michael Damni and Roy Hightower played guitar for this release, and Jimmy Tilman contributed drums. The release reflects Henderson’s varied influences and begins with a socially-relevant number entitled “It Don’t Make No Sense,” which questions such things as “why people are walking around with nothing to eat—someone tell me what we’re doing wrong.”
The title track is featured next, captures the great atmosphere of a live recording, and has a warm gospel feel to it. Next are two R&B tracks that appear influenced by Anthony Hamilton’s style, including one song about a very positive relationship, which notes, “you tell me that I’m worthy, you make me feel like a man.” The syncopation in that song is very intriguing, although not bluesy.
Henderson next pays homage to Billie Holiday with “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”. Although many artists have covered this song, Henderson has found a way to make it new and interesting. Like all good blues albums, this one contains a song about a relationship gone bad, with the bluntly named “You Ain’t No Good.” In that song he describes a man finding out his girlfriend is cheating on him. “I found out later it was my friend. It took some time for me to comprehend my love for you. I’m not gonna do it—now I’m gone.”
The record ends with one of the best tracks, a soothing slow blues entitled “I Got the Blues” and confirms that Henderson has the blues “down to my bones”.
Overall, “That’s the Way of the World” is an enjoyable debut which should earn Henderson many additional fans although the recording has significantly varying recording levels between the tracks. And, like any album with varied influences, blues purists are likely to wonder about the inclusion of the two R&B tracks.
However, Henderson’s powerful and emotional delivery of the vocals is consistent throughout the album, and listeners are likely to find it to be quite captivating.
Writer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 4
Steve Howell And The Mighty Men – Been Here And Gone
Out Of The Past Music
12 songs time – 50:51
Texan Steve Howell And The Mighty Men offer up vocal and instrumental cover songs ranging from early blues to the fifties and sixties. Mainly a guitar band with Steve providing his warm and inviting vocals along with his guitar skills. Chris Michaels is on guitar as well. Dave Hoffpauir is on drums, while Jason Weinheimer plays bass and occasional organ. The approach here is pretty straight forward guitar band minus the flash. Just good solid “everyman” music. Being there five instrumental tunes, the specter of The Ventures raises its’ head. Think of a grittier Ventures sound. The guys have come up with a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience.
They lead off with an instrumental take on the Dobie Gray-Ramsey Lewis Trio chestnut, “The “In” Crowd”. Right from the get-go their jangly guitar sound just draws you in. Next up is a vocal on “Bad Boy”, written by Louis Armstrong’s second wife Lil and a fifties hit for The Jive Bombers. A really nice throw-back song. Real nice guitar as on the remainder of the album. Shades of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s pleasantly goofy vocal delivery and matter-of-fact guitar Reverend Gary Davis’s “Candyman”. The country-ish guitar is a nice touch.
Ray Charles’ “I Believe To My Soul” benefits from aggressive guitar. Myself I’m more with Van Morrison’s live version. “Such A Night” from The Drifter’s in the 50’s and Elvis in the 60s is a nice revisit of mellow 50’s songs. The Delphonics’ “La La Means I Love You”, Gerry And The Pacemakers’ “Ferry Cross The Mersey”, Spanish band Los Bravos’ “Black Is Black” and the immortal “Walk Don’t Run” all get the instrumental treatment. Of course the band stretches out aand adds their own touches to the songs.
They take on a few obscure things like William “Cast Iron” Carridine’s “Jimmy Bell”, a blues from 1957. Also they do the traditional Appalachian song “Wild Bill Jones” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Willie Mae”. The band shines on any genre they attempt.
Guitar aficionados as well as lovers of feel good music are in for a easy rolling treat with this recording. Steve and company do it up just right. Aside from the guitars, Steve’s vocals go down just right. Well done music, nothing fancy.
Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.
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