Nominated for a 2021 Blues Blast Music Award and a Blues Music Award, both in the Soul Blues Album category, the album Found! One Soul Singer served as the coming out party for the veteran singer Robert “Sonny” Green. Despite decades in the business, playing clubs and opening for some of the biggest stars in the blues world, Green’s discography was limited to a few rare 45 rpm records from more than 45 years ago.
Recorded at the increasingly famous Greaseland Studios, the magical lair of Kid Andersen, who plays guitar throughout, the backing band includes other well-known players including Jim Pugh on the Hammond B3 organ, Chris Burns on piano & clavinet, Derrick “D’Mar” Martin on drums plus Terry Hanck and Sax Gordon making guest appearances on saxophone. The set-list ranges from tracks recorded by Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Milton, Syl Johnson, Willie Nelson, several by Rick Estrin, and finishing with a stirring rendition of the Ted Taylor classic, “Be Ever Wonderful.”
Green was born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1942. Like many of his generation he learned to sing in the church.
“I started off singing gospel when I was about six years old. Then I met this guy, (Mighty) Sam McClain, in school. He was a great singer. We were together for years. He was my right hand man. We got started together, since we were both from Monroe.”
When Green left Louisiana, McClain took over his spot as the lead vocalist for the Melvin Underwood band. At that time, Green was touring with saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, who had a major hit in 1959 with the song “There’s Something On Your Mind.” The singer on the record was Sonny Warner, who had left McNeely to start his own career. Green did his best to recreate the excitement of the record.
“I met Jay in LA. A promoter wanted to put me on a show with him. A lot of people thought I was the one singing on the record. That’s why Jay started calling me “Sonny”. I worked with him for three or four years. I would do tours and shows with Jay, otherwise I was working in the clubs steady six nights a week. Then I was doing after-hours clubs too. I did that for about 20 years. I have been doing three or four nights a week lately. All along, I just sang with backing by the house band at each club.”
Listening to Green sing, you will definitely pick up on stylistic nods to two of his primary influences, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Johnnie Taylor. The opening track on his latest album, “I’m So Tired,” is a lesser-known Bland recording that finds Green elevating the level of passion over a modern, funky arrangement complete with horn accompaniment.
“I was with Bobby for a long time. We had known each other from my time in Louisiana. We got to be friends, then I was opening up for him for awhile. After that, I got with Tyrone Davis, then Johnnie Taylor, and finally I worked with Little Milton. Bobby would just stand up there with the microphone and sing his heart out. He didn’t worry too much about showmanship. I would be singing with Bobby’s band, which was something else.
“The band that Noel put together for my album, they have that Bobby Bland band sound with the brass – trombone, tenor and baritone saxophones, and trumpet. That’s a fat sound! You don’t hear that kind of sound much these days, you really don’t. A lot of the stuff these days is synthesized. I like the fact that the band backing me now, we all travel together.”
Looking for more action, Green settled in Amarillo,Texas for a long spell, playing dates all over the state. In 1964, he cut his first record, a 45 rpm on the Whip Records label, that featured his original “People Talking ‘Bout Me,” backed by the Famous Shades, who recorded an instrumental for the flip side.
“I wasn’t really doing anything in Louisiana, it was so dead, so I just left. There was nothing going on in Amarillo, so I put a three piece band together. We toured around and were a top drawing act in the state of Texas. I was there for 18 years. And I laid some blues on them!”
Hearing that there might be more opportunities for him in Los Angeles, Green decided to make the move out West, which immediately paid off as he quickly found work in a number of clubs hosting live music. Eventually he connected with Matt Hill, who became the singer’s manager. Hill released several more records under Green’s name on his Hill Records label, which also had releases by singer Z.Z. Hill of “Down Home Blues” fame, Matt Hill’s brother.
“When I first got out here, I was at this club, and they called me up to sing. When I finished, the owner told me I had a job, a lifetime job. It was the same at every club I went to. So I was thinking that this is really all right. When I met Matt, he told me that I was bad, and that he wanted to record me.
“Matt said he was going to call me the next day. You know that you hear stuff like that all the time. But he called the next day, saying he had a deal for me. I got on that right away. I had done a couple of releases on the Fuller label. Then Matt got me on United Artists, getting me a big check. Then I got on Matt’s label and I ain’t looked back since. We did “If You Want Me To Keep On Loving You,” “Jody’s On The Run,” “Don’t Write a Check With Your Mouth (That Your Body Can’t Cash). All of that stuff was rolling! As far as getting a whole album recorded under my name, I guess it was just never my time until now. I’m 78 years old, and I am hoping to make 88, and then 98 years old.
“Noel got the project started . We have known each other for awhile. He heard me at show that Cadillac Zack did in Tarzana, a suburb of Los Angeles. He handled all of the details, including selecting the songs for the project. I think Noel did a beautiful job. I love the record, everybody loves it! I have been getting calls and compliments from all over. He has taken me to another level. It has been a blessing.”
The Executive Producer on the project, Noel Hayes, is a long-time blues fan, getting hooked on the music in the late 1970s. He was the host of a three hour afternoon blues program on KPOO FM for several decades and attended countless blues shows.
“It started out just as fun thing with the music that I loved. I would bring in local artists that people didn’t know about or different artists that were coming to town. At the same time, I was traveling across the country, meeting blues bands and musicians that I would then bring out to the West coast to do shows. I love sharing the music with anyone that I possibly could.
“I have always loved music. I grew up in a broken family, so I have been on my own when I was 14 years old. The apartment I was living in was in a predominantly black neighborhood. They were playing a lot of blues, but I didn’t get it at the time. I was more into rock music. In 1977, I saw Led Zeppelin, one of the worst shows I ever saw. A few nights later, I heard Charlie Musselwhite at a club. I had a chance to talk with him, and learned that Charlie was playing regularly on the weekends in San Francisco. Charlie was the one that pushed me to go head-over-heels in love with blues. I moved to San Francisco because of that.”
“Later on, in the last 20 years, I have tried to find people whose career was not where it should have been, so I tried to help them out by getting them recorded. The first one that I helped was the late singer Frank Bey. I brought Frank out here, set him up with guitarist Deacon JonAnthony Paule and his band, even helped pick out songs for him to do. More recently I was involved with Sonny, and Tia Carroll’s disc, which is also on Jim Pugh’s Little Village Foundation label. My upcoming project is a recording with another under-recorded vocalist, Diunna Greenleaf, from Texas.
“All of these people, I have been to their houses, and they have been to mine. I like to have them over, have them sing a lot of songs, and try to figure out what will work for them. And try to find songs that other people would enjoy as well.”
Hayes met Green at a club in the Bay are circa early 1980s, when Green was singing with Deacon Jones, a noted organist and former trumpet player who was a founding member of Baby Huey & the Babysitters. Many years passed before Hayes has a chance to hear Green again, this time in a Los Angeles club.
“That got me to start researching Sonny’s music, it was around 2000 or so. At the time, all I could find were his 45 RPM records. To me, those records are just badass. So I got in touch with Sonny, we started hanging out, and when it felt comfortable, I said let’s make a real, whole record. I told him that I would pick out the musicians, the songs, so that all Sonny had to do was sing the songs. He loved the idea.
“Sonny is such a really cool, sweet guy. He is fun and upbeat, reminding me of a 14 year old kid. He runs 100 mph with loads of energy, and when he gets tired, he will literally fall asleep right in front of you. He has that Johnnie Taylor style. Sonny is in that same grain as a singer. He is certainly enjoying the attention and notoriety that the album has generated, since he was pretty well unknown prior to that.
He has received a lot of great publicity, which is great to see for such a sweet, genuine guy.”
Despite all the time he spent opening for several of the greatest blues singers, Green would categorize himself as a soul singer. And Hayes would probably agree. He based the title for Green’s project, Found! One Soul Singer, on a 1967 release by Johnnie Taylor on Stax Records entitled Wanted: One Soul Singer.
Green offers this summation on the essence of his style. “I have worked with some other people, with Bobby Rush being one of them. I love his style but he is not really a blues man. Bobby is good. If you come to hear me sing, you are going to get a soul singer with some blues. I am working that stage, and I come down off of it to get on the floor. They call me Rev. Green. I won’t be playing with the audience, I’ll be preaching to them! People come out to feel good, so that is what you’ve got to do, make them feel good. I can’t come out there stressing about all of my worries. I have to feel good so that I can make the audience feel good.”