Bluesman Kenny Neal's voicemail message is straight-forward: "This is American bluesman Kenny Neal. Please leave a message." He says it with the same casualness one might announce you've reached a dentist or a contractor.
But for Neal, the son of bluesman Raful Neal, the blues is a passion but also a business. A family business. One that kicked off when Raful's bass player wouldn't show up to gigs on time. "So one night I told my dad, I [said], 'Well, we don't have to wait on him," Neal recalls. "I know your songs; I can play the bass guitar.' And my dad said, 'Really? You can do the show?' I said, 'Yeah, I can.'"
Of course, Neal had a long apprenticeship into the blues and his dad's band. The oldest of 10 children, Raful, who died in 2004, began taking Neal to weekend matinee gigs when he was as young as six, a time when Neal's friends were playing baseball and going swimming. Neal sat in the car outside of clubs, going in to play three songs, and then returning to the car, because he wasn't old enough to be in a club. By 15, he was his dad's official bassist.
Family was important to Raful. It kept him in Baton Rogue even after Muddy Waters invited Raful and his guitarist, Buddy Guy, to come to Chicago in the late 50s. Guy jumped on the offer, while Neal opted to stay where he had started a family. But Guy would come home to visit his own family and when Guy needed a bass player, Neal, then 19, took the job. "That's where it started: from my dad just coaching me from a kid on up," Neal says. "And when I left home to play with Buddy Guy, I was so proud of myself, to be able to join Buddy Guy and Junior Wells' band at that time."
Neal has deep connections to blues history, but he's also a vital, contemporary artist, performing and producing. He recorded Straight from the Heart, his latest, in Baton Rogue, and showcases his blues mastery, honed playing with artists like his father, Guy, and Wells. But it also has swamp pop and zydeco moments, delivered with a blues flavor.
In this interview, Neal talks about his father's legacy and his decision to go solo. Neal is self-deprecating about his journey, but he can't hide his songwriting genius, crafting songs that are personal but also broad. There's a line between himself and the audience, but it's a thin one. Neal also discusses his producing process, having produced himself, Guy, and artists like Hanna PK.
And as for Raful's previous bass player? Neal still sees him around Baton Rogue. "I always shake his hand and thank him," Neal says. "I say, 'Thank you, man. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be where I'm at today. Thanks a lot for being late, God damn it.' He just laughs. We're all friends."
Photo by Rob Korhonen
Straight from Neal's heart
Working Mojo: What was your writing process like for Straight From the Heart?
Kenny Neal: I'm a country boy and I stay busy all the time down here in Louisiana because I moved back from California. And then Tito Jackson had called me to help him out with a blues album that he was recording. And I've been thinking in my head over the last five years that I really wanted to do a Louisiana [album], straight from the heart, and soul, and in my own hometown.
I've been thinking about that, but the pandemic was happening, so I wasn't really doing anything, so when Tito [called] me, I open up my studio, start tracking his stuff, and I got into the groove of the music again; the pandemic had slowed us up. And then after I started recording his stuff, and I felt good about it, when I finished, I had the momentum going, and I just decided, 'Hey, let me keep on and just go ahead and do my Straight From the Heart album.' Because I had a couple of songs I had written already.
So I tracked them and then it just starts flowing from there, the music just started coming out and reminiscing about my dad, Raful Neal, Fats Domino down here in New Orleans, Ernie K-Doe, all the guys I grew up with. I wanted to try to capture the memories that I had as a kid growing up around them.
WM: I loved the zydeco songs. Were those already written or did they come after you decided to anchor the album in Louisiana?
Neal: I had zip, zap, nothing [laughs] I've been friends with Buckwheat Zydeco. I don't know if you familiar with him.
WM: Oh, yeah. He's a legend.
Neal: Yeah, he was my dear friend, man, and all of his band members, they're just west of Baton Rouge, over in Lafayette. And so I said, 'You know what, man, these guys are not gigging as well.' And we've been friends a long time, I called them up and said, 'Hey, man, why don't you come by, over to Baton Rouge, and let's record a song.' I didn't have a clue what we was gonna do.
So they all drove over, man, we got [to] hanging out and cooking food and decided to go in, and we laid about four tracks down. I only have two tracks on my album, but I did about four or five tracks with them. And I brought his rhythm section in. And then I got the Dopsie family, who's been around for generations as well: Rockin' Dopsie and Dwayne. We're like family, so they came over and we sat around, and started playing around with these different zydeco grooves, and after they left, I decided to listen back to it and write my lyrics.
Because I feed off of the music. I don't sit down and write a song. I write lyrics. I have to go in and do my music and then listen to it and then that gives me the idea of what the song should be.
WM: Do you always work that way, with the music first?
Neal: My whole career. I don't know how it happened. It's like magic, man. I don't know where it comes from. But just to sit down and write a song...I can't do it. I need the music. I need that music.
What I do, I sit down with my guitar and I play around with a few little riffs, and then I go 'Oh, I like this riff' and then I'll play it for a minute and then I'll find a bridge or change to go to, and it becomes a song for me. And I guess I'm so used to writing my music where I know I can end this song within four minutes or so. It's just my routine of writing music. It's probably ass backwards but that's the way I roll. It's probably my dyslexia.
Producing the blues
WM: Is it hard producing yourself?
Neal: No, because I separate. When I was making this record I wasn't thinking of Kenny Neal. I was thinking of each song that I was putting together, I wanted to be that song and deliver this song, and make sure it was well put together. And that's the way I look at it when I'm writing. I'm not thinking about myself at all. I'm focusing on just a song, and then I know when I finish, if I like it, and I [say], 'Okay, this is cool.' I figure I got something when I give my own approval [laughs]. Sometimes I don't approve all the time, now.
WM: Do you mean if something isn't working?
Neal: Yeah. It's like, 'Naw. This don't work. Take this out.' Maybe I'll do it and then I'll go back and listen to it and go, 'Man, I shouldn't have did that. I need to change this thing here. I got to change this. This is not working.' You know, stuff like that. And I go back and tweak it. But I really focus on the song. So each one of them songs that I have on the album, I gave them my approval. I probably had maybe 16 songs, all together. And they're all good, so what I did, I just put them back into the can for the next turn around.
WM: It's funny to hear you talk about how you weren't thinking about Kenny Neal, because I spoke to Hanna PK a couple of months ago, and one of the things she said that she enjoyed about working with you is that you told her to keep her sound simple so that people could hear her as an artist, rather than the songs. Dooes it feel different producing yourself versus producing other people?
Neal: No, I treat myself the same way. The music needs to be heard, the music needs to be clean. Especially when I'm doing the type of music that I do. A lot of people think 'Well, what type of equipment you use?' It don't really make me no different. My studio is Studio One. I didn't buy Studio One because I love Studio One. I bought Studio One because the company is in Baton Rouge, and I know if I break down, I can go over there and get the part right away [laughs].
People saying 'Oh, he's buying Studio One. He must like that sound.' Man, I don't know anything about no sound. [The] only thing I wanted to do is to sound good [laughs]. So I think GarageBand or any other kind of recording system that's able to record me, I can get the same sound out of any studio, because I know what sound that I'm looking for. Which is a nice clean sound where everything can be heard.
WM: Do you demo your songs?
Neal: Not really. I figure demo is a waste of time. I don't need to demo. When I'm making them, that is the demo. That is the record.
WM: Is it hard being a producer of color?
Neal: It's not an issue for me because, shoot, I produced myself as a black guy. I produce anybody. Don't make me no different [laughs]. You could be Chinese Japanese, black, green, yellow, come on in and let's make some music. And it [doesn't] phase me because I love what I'm doing.
I just hope that I can make a difference and get more guys that will believe in themselves to produce and don't think they have to run somewhere else to get a producer to produce their music. I don't think anybody can produce my music better than I can because I know what I want to do. I don't think somebody can come in and say, 'Okay, I'm gonna make a good record.' I couldn't stand to have producers in my studio when I was making my records in the past. A lot of guys got credit for producing some of my stuff, but they really didn't produce it. I did.
Buddy Guy pie
WM: What did you learn playing with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells?
Neal: I learned that I should buy me a guitar and write my own songs and become my own self [laughs]. Because what they [were] doing, I thought that I could do it just as good. And I go 'You know what? I'm going to buy me a guitar. I don't want to play bass no more. And I'm gonna write me some songs and see can I get me a record deal.'
Because everybody in Chicago at that time, when I was playing with Buddy Guy, I would take a break and we would go outside, and hang outside the club. It was a club called Checkerboard Lounge that Buddy Guy had before Legends. Everybody knows about Legends, but a few people know about Checkerboard Lounge, which was Buddy Guy's first club. And we [were] the house band there, and I would go outside during break, and everybody under the sun would have a contract saying, 'Hey, man, I'm going to Europe with my band next week, and I'm going to Germany. I'm going to France.' And I go 'Damn, man. I need to get a piece of this pie.'
And so that's what I learned with with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells: that I can do it just as good. And I started. My mom thought I was crazy. She said, 'You're traveling all over the world playing bass guitar and you want to quit? You don't know how to play lead guitar. You need to continue on with your bass and you're doing good.' I said 'No, ma, I want to play guitar.' I had to go in the room and start woodshedding again.
I moved up to Canada and when I was in Canada, I bought me a Telecaster which is the same Telecaster that I play today. I've been playing it for 40-some years. I would sit in the house and put on Albert Collins and Albert King and B.B. King records, and I'll crank it up in my house and I'll put the amplifier around the same level as the music, and I was playing then just like if I was playing with their band, and that's how I developed my guitar style.
WM: What did your dad think about you leaving Buddy Guy's band?
Neal: Well, I don't know. My dad never did doubt me too much. He knew, because when I was a kid, I was always creative. When my little brothers [were] playing in the front yard, I was in the backyard trying to put an engine in a car, rebuild an engine or something. I was always trying to be creative. So I don't think he was doubting me at all. He was there with me actually. More than my mom, because my mom just thought 'You should stay where you're at, son. You're doing good.' She didn't want me to fail with it. My dad never [said] much.
But I know when I finally started writing songs and searching for record deals, I finally got a record deal down in Florida. And this guy heard a 45 record that I released on my own, independently. It was one of my dad's songs, "Change My Way of Livin'" and something else I did, "Shoo-Be-Doo Blues" or something like that. Side A and side B, and I printed maybe 500 copies. And I sent most of them to the radio station, which didn't get much airplay, but this guy Bob Shire, down in Tampa, Florida was playing my 45 record. And a guy by the name of Bob Greenlee who started Kingsnake Records, heard this 45 that I recorded, he called the station and wanted to know who was this guy. And he told him Kenny Neal down in Baton Rouge, and so this guy caught a flight and came down to look for me.
And at that time, I was just moving back from Canada. I was wild and crazy then. It took that guy three days to get in touch with me. My mom kept telling me 'Hey, it's the guy down here from Florida. He's very interested in talking to you.' I go 'Well, I'll catch up with him sometime.' So finally, the third day, I went over to my mom's house, and he was there sitting in the living room waiting on me. He said that he was interested in making an album with me; would I be interested? And he laid it out, what he wanted to do, and so when we finished talking, I [said] 'Well under one condition: if you record my dad first, and we produce my father, I'll give you a record deal with me.'
Because I think my dad deserved that more than I did. He was the one that taught me and instilled it all, the blues, in me. So the guy went for it. And so we recorded Raful Neal's Louisiana Legend album. And then I did the Kenny Neal, Big News from Baton Rouge. Actually, it was called Bio on the Bayou, but it was doing so well when we put it out, Alligator Records, I guess he didn't want much competition, so we got in contact with him and he picked the album up and put the same album out, but he did a different cover. He repackaged it. And he named it Big News from Baton Rouge. But I have the original copy of Bio on the Bayou. And we took maybe a couple of songs off of the first album.
WM: Why did you decide to woodshed up in Canada?
Neal: Well, I met an Italian girl and we fell in love and decided to get married and have two beautiful kids, Syreeta and Kenny Jr. He still lives in Canada and I have two beautiful grandkids there, in Toronto. And my daughter just left yesterday. She teaches at UCLA, vocal lessons. And she has one boy. And that's what brought me to Canada.
WM: So are any of your children musicians? I would guess your daughter.
Neal: Yeah, my daughter sings with me, she tours with me sometimes. My son Kenny, Jr., he played with James Cotton for 10 years, on drums. He produced my album, Let Life Flow, we produced that record together. That won Song of the Year for the Blues Music Awards. My son is a great producer.
WM: What was it like doing your dad's "It's Been So Long on Straight from the Heart. Did it bring up any memories or feelings?
Neal: That's why I did that song, because I was a little kid then. I think he might have recorded that thing in '66, '67, I think. But "It Been So Long" was on the B side of the one that was popular, [which] was called "Getting Late in the Evenin'." And then the flipside was, "It's Been So Long," so I decided to pick that one.
WM: How did you pick it? Is it a song you like or a song you listen to?
Neal: No. I picked it because I'm running out of my dad's songs! Over the years I've recorded most of them. I think for for me, for good luck, I put one of my dad's songs on all of my albums [laughs]. I was running out. And I like all of his stuff, so it's not hard to pick.
WM: You dedicated the album to Lucky Peterson and I was wondering if that informed the songwriting or if it came after.
Neal: No. Why I dedicated it to Lucky because every CD that I ever recorded in my career, Lucky Peterson is on it. Every, every album I ever recorded from day one. That's how Lucky got his record deal, because I called him in to play on my first album, and once the guy heard how much of a genius he was, they immediately wanted to do an album with Lucky. But he's been [on] all of my albums I recorded throughout my career. And he died just when the pandemic started. And we [were] going to be doing this album together. And, man, we lost him.
I was talking to him right on up to the day that he died. I was just there for him. So when I did this album, I had to do that. That first song is for Lucky: "Blues Keep Chasing Me." And it's his style and everything. All the music is, when I think of Lucky, that's what I came up with. That's Lucky Peterson through; that's his style. And I wanted to capture that, and I wrote the song.
Because throughout his life, it was always like he really had the blues. Everywhere he went, it looked like [he'd] get the blues somewhere. And so I wrote that song called "Blues Keep Chasing Me." 'Damn, go away.' You know? If anybody ever had it he had the blues. So that's where that came from.
WM: You say it like it was a bad thing that he had the blues.
Neal: It was bad. It was bad because he was such a sweet person. Man, if you know this guy, bro, you would love him forever. He'd give you the shirt off his back. If he had a sandwich, he would break it off and give me half. We did that many times. He'll go, 'Here God damn it. I know you want some of it.' And he'll break his sandwich off and give me half. We [were] just brothers man.
He just was a genius. He was on Johnny Carson when he was six years old. "The Tonight Show," when he was a little kid playing the Hammond B3. Couldn't nobody pop this guy. Even Jimmy Smith, who raised him, admired him, because Jimmy Smith always would say, 'Yeah, that little sucker, he just took it farther than I did.' And this is Jimmy Smith talking.
But Lucky always looked like he just couldn't really get a grip on it. He was always having problems. I bailed him out and he would have more problems. But he just was the nicest guy you want to meet. We just remained close, close friends throughout our life, throughout his life. So I had to dedicate that to Lucky.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.