A Q&A with John Nemeth
By Geoff Gehman
The 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible on the cover of John Nemeth’s “Memphis Grease” album is much more than a cool set of classic wheels. For the song-writing, harmonica-playing, Memphis-living singer, the sporty luxury car symbolizes the vintage early ’70s Blues City soul—sweaty, sweet, emotionally free-wheeling–that’s been stuck to his soul for a good quarter century. You can hear the echoes of his heroes—Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, O.V. Wright–in his vocals, which are greasy and creamy, righteous and right on, in the pocket and the eye of the storm. His cool heat is stoked by his snapping, crackling, popping band, the Bo-Keys, a Memphis-raised tribe whose collaborators range from Ike Turner to Isaac Hayes.
Released by Blue Corn Music in 2014, “Memphis Grease” is Nemeth’s cross-roads ode to the best-known idioms of his current city and his former city of Oakland, where he absorbed a Bay Area blend of bluesy Southern soul, Produced by Bo-Keys bassist Scott Bomar, who scored the film “Hustle & Flow,” the CD has 10 rubber band-snappy originals, including “Sooner or Later,” and three funky, fine-tuned covers, including Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” written by another one of Nemeth’s favorite singers.
On April 16 listeners at the Mauch Chunk Opera House will share the Jim Thorpe debut of Nemeth, a 2016 nominee for the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award from the Blues Foundation, which is based, naturally, in Memphis. Joined by a group of 20-something musicians who call themselves the Blue Dreamers, he’ll perform tracks from “Memphis Grease” and an unissued, unnamed album produced by Luther Dickinson, lead guitarist of the North Mississippi Allstars. Expect to hear the road-tested wisdom of a road warrior and a family man raised in Boise, Idaho by a church-organist mother who hired him to play ladies’ pinochle luncheons and a bridge-designer father who schooled him in gypsy tunes from his native Hungary.
In the conversation below, Nemeth discusses his debts to his parents, his vocal and harmonica role models and his wife Jaki, who seduced him with the hippest record collection in all of Idaho. He talked while driving a van through western Pennsylvania. “What can I say? I’m a talking, driving stud,” he said with a laugh. In fact, he used to practice harmonica while steering with his extremities, an experience that greases the “Memphis Grease” song “Elbows on the Wheel.”
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: I was about 10 when I heard Mario Lanza singing “Ave Maria.” Yeah man, that was pretty sweet. Then there was a song by Johnny Paycheck, “The Man from Bowling Green,” which I heard on one of my brother’s eight-tracks; he had quite an eight-track collection. Oh man, [Paycheck’s] vocal delivery was so in the groove, so amazing. There’s a line where he jumps an octave: [sings] “Now her life is twisty like some West Virginia backroads”–oh man, his voice just cuts through me. And then I heard “When a Man Loves a Woman” from Percy Sledge. That song really drove it right home.
Q: What was the first blues tune that made you think it might be alright to be a blues disciple?
A: Oh man, Junior Wells’ “Ships on the Ocean” from the “Hoodoo Man Blues” record [Wells’ 1965 recording debut]. Junior Wells, man, he’s a genius, one of the absolute greatest blues vocalists to ever do it in my mind, one of the baddest soulful guys out there. It’s just gorgeous singing.
Q: How about the first harmonica solo that got under your skin?
A: Little Walter’s “Mellow Down Easy.” And then I liked Junior Wells’ “Snatch It Back and Hold It.” Those are the two solos that got me hooked when I was 13 or 14. I didn’t learn to play them until I was probably 15. What I loved about them is the use of the full harmonica and the cascading lines. All that swooping down really reminded me of all the real cool violin solos. [Whistles] Oh man, I picked a couple of absolutely masterful doozies. I wore out so many tapes trying to learn them. It took me forever to figure them out.
Q: You had a sort of informal introduction to the blues through minor-key Hungarian gypsy tunes, which your Hungarian dad blasted from a 500-watt Marantz receiver while he practiced his Communist calisthenics. Why and how did that folk music make a dent, and a difference, with you?
A: The Hungarian gypsy players are brought up into the music as children. Only the virtuosos go on to be somebody. You’re born a musician: if music is not your skill, that’s not what you’re going to do. What really got me was their delivery, their timing. Timing is everything, you know. If you want a song to stick, you’ve got to tell the story like you know the story, you own your story, it’s your story. If you can’t keep time in a story, you have no business doing it. And then there’s the passion: Hungarian gypsy music is very emotional, very spot on.
I definitely still use all of that—the passion, the delivery, the timing–in my singing and my harmonica playing. I think that’s what I dug about all those old blues and soul singers back in the day. If you were going to make it back in the day, you had to be a natural.
Q: Are you thinking about folks like O.V. Wright, who worked with Willie Mitchell, Al Green’s producer, on “Ace of Spades,” “Nickel and a Nail” and other early ’70s hits?
A: Oh, of course. I have complete reverence for O.V. Wright. That’s one person very tuned into what it’s like to be a human being. Actually, when you called, I was listening to Luther Ingram, another one of those natural, spot-on singers from way back when. He had hits with “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right,” “I’ll Be Your Shelter [In Time of Storm],” “Ain’t That Lovin’ You [For More Reasons Than One].” He was a great vocalist, in a sort of Jimmy Cliff/Jimmy Hughes bag. Talk about delivery. Ummmm–just fantastic.
Q: The members of the Bo-Keys, your band on “Memphis Grease,” have been around many major musical blocks. Drummer Howard Grimes recorded with Al Green, guitarist Skip Pitts led Isaac Hayes’ band, Ben Cauley played trumpet behind Otis Redding and survived the plane crash that killed Redding and his band mates. What tips did you pick up from them? How did they help grease your wheels?
A: Well, if you listen to a whole lot of Memphis music your whole life and then you have the opportunity to play with a real Memphis band and if you have the talent, you immediately figure out what’s going on. We cut that whole record in probably four days; we just fit like a glove. The Bo-Keys are great studio musicians: when they analyze a tune, first of all they analyze the melody and the story and they immediately think of ways to capture that feeling. I like guys who work from scratch; I don’t like guys with premeditated ideas.
The first thing that Howard [Grimes] told me was that he had been catching up on my music and my sound and what I do. When he said “I got you,” I felt very confident. Howard is one of the greatest, most distinctive drummers around. He always watches the singer and he keeps time like a clock: tick tock, tick tock. He’s got that signature sound: he’s going to play a heavy backbeat; he’s going to drive the big tom to the floor. He calls it “getting up in the rocking chair,” which means you rock up fast, then rock back slow.
Q; The story goes that you were partly attracted to Jaki, your future wife, because you really, really dug her record collection. How did you two meet and how did her records seduce you?
A: I went over to her house in 1999 to give a harmonica lesson to her roommate, who I think was more into me than the harmonica. I walk into the house–the roommate wasn’t there that day–and Jaki is listening to Aretha Franklin “Live at the Fillmore.” I mean, how much better can you get than Aretha at the Fillmore? So I check out Jaki’s collection and there are all these cool cats: John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis and Bob Marley and Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls.” She had, like, all my favorite records. I said to myself: “Oh man, sweet. What 19-year-old girl in Boise, Idaho listens to this kind of stuff? Man, I need to get to know this girl better.”
Q: You worked your ass off playing live in Idaho before and after you met Jaki. Tell me what you got from all those gigs at the Grubb Steak House in Horseshoe Bend, where the owner said you could play blues as long as you played classic rock and outlaw country for all those loggers.
A: We played up there from 1991 through 1993 and it was great, man. Playing Creedence [Clearwater Revival] tunes was fantastic; I loved using that Wilson Pickett-style cornbread vocalization technique. I loved playing Chuck Berry’s songs; his vocals are just so conversational and the rhythm he sings is just masterful. And it was great singing the songs of Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson} and Johnny Paycheck and all those guys from the ’76-’80 outlaw era. All those folks who went to the bar wanted to hear the tunes they loved as kids. They still love them now they’ve got kids of their own, they’re working at the mill, and they’re pissed off at their bosses and in-laws.
Oh man, I played traditional blues seven nights a week from 1993 to 2001 in Boise. That’s where I picked up these basic skills; that’s where I got good. When that’s the music you listen to, when that’s the music you play, that’s when you get a feeling that’s deep and down to the bones.
Q: What tops your Bucket List?
A: I wish that our culture here in the United States would make education a bigger priority I think that it would help change the world if the biggest country on the planet was the smartest country on the planet. I don’t think we’d have the politicians fooling us so bad, like they always do.
That’s a sociological wish. A personal wish is I would just like to maybe not have to work so hard someday, that maybe my music would find a happy, recognized place in our culture, that I wouldn’t have to sweat it out so much. We’re on the road probably 200 days a year and it just gets tougher and tougher every year. Back in the day, when I was playing clubs, I got a lot of radio spots. Today, most of the venues just don’t have a way of getting real radio play. It’s hard to entice audiences to come to a show if can’t give them a little taste. That’s why we’re selling the new record only at the shows; it’s an extension of “Memphis Grease.”
I’m 40. I have a wife and two kids at home. Being a musician in this climate gives you a hell of a perspective. You think of a lot of wisdom along the way.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List?
A: Oh man, that’s a big long list. You know what tops my Fuck It List are musicians who make a name for themselves off somebody else’s work. Blues guitar players play other guys’ licks all day long; it’s just cut and paste. They make very good livings and nobody calls them out on the fact that they don’t understand the original conversation of the solos. It just drives me up the wall because I’ve heard those licks from the original guys, who were much more creative. Albert King, B.B. King–they really pushed the boundaries; they really got freaky with it. That’s what I like to do: live in a genre but do it my way. If you’re gonna do something, at least put your own twist on it. I think all genres would be cooler and happier if musicians laid down their own grooves.
Q: We talked about you absorbing the Hungarian gypsy tunes that streamed through your dad’s blood. What did he think about you playing blues and soul for a living?
A; He didn’t like the music. He thought his music was the best in the world and that everything that came from Hungary was the best. I tried to show him the many references to music by Hungarian composers—[Erno] Dohnanyi, Bela Bartok–in John Coltrane’s music, in Charlie Parker’s music. At the same time he would turn around and point out all the Communist melodies in pop music. You can hear the Hungarian gypsy influence in the bridge of “Autumn Leaves” and tunes like that.
I’d tell him: “See, your guys are responsible for some of this jazz. Hey, you listen to jazz every morning when you put that gypsy music on.” It just didn’t sink in with him.
You know, my mom still tries to get me to play other music in my shows. For some reason she likes that Lawrence Welk stuff: “Peg o’ My Heart,” “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” She gave me some of my first gigs, actually; she hired me and a buddy to play for the Catholic Daughters of America. We’d do these drinking songs for these old ladies playing cards: “Tiny Bubbles.” “Scotch & Soda.” “Beer Barrel Polka.” [Sings] “Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun.”
Getting back to my dad, he at least gave me a nod to the fact that I was at least successful enough to pay the bills and feed the family. And I think the one thing he would have been proud of me is that I’m finally playing the opera house [laughs].
John Nemeth: The Scoop
His other early influential songs include “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” recorded by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and Johnny Paycheck’s “The Fool Strikes Again.”
He was 16 when he began playing harmonica in shows, filling in for a guitarist who wanted to solo less during long sets.
He was the Blues Foundation’s 2014 Male Artist of the Year.
He debuted last year at the Chicago Blues Festival.
His original concept for the cover of his “Memphis Grease” album featured a lightning bolt striking the Memphis Pyramid arena, a twist on the “Welcome to Memphis” lightning-bolt sign along Highway 51.
The 1973 Cadillac Eldorado on the cover of “Memphis Grease” is owned by one of his buddies. Nemeth wouldn’t mind owning his own sporty Caddy. “Memphis is one of those easygoing cities where you can really enjoy an Eldorado,” says the former owner of a 1964 Mercury Comet and a 1959 Willys Jeep Overland pickup.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He first heard his first unforgettable song, the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” blasting from a 1965 Mustang convertible. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.