“I was living in Taos at the time and I was really excited about moving to New Orleans and hooking up with the legendary blues scene here. I packed up all my stuff and moved here only to discover that the legendary scene was just an illusion and that there really was no blues scene in New Orleans. There were obviously many great blues musicians in New Orleans, but no collective sense of any blues community or ongoing scene where players got together to jam and learn their craft. The scene here was so diverse with the same musicians playing jazz, R&B, funk and blues all mixed together, but without much devotion to any particular style. I realized that the only way a blues scene in New Orleans could be a reality was if I made it one.”
Five years later John Carey is indeed the center of the New Orleans blues universe with his regular Tuesday night “John Carey Blues Summit” at the Mid-City Lanes Café and the burgeoning Wednesday night “John Carey Blues Party” at the Hard Rock Café. John Carey has more or less single-handedly created the kind of blues scene he expected to find in New Orleans upon his arrival a half decade ago.
A native of New England, Carey’s story is a familiar one. As a kid he spent hours in his basement listening to B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy records, eventually picking up the harmonica and patiently learning the repertoire.
“It took a lot of perseverance for me to learn this music. I literally spent night after night holed up in my basement with the music of these great artists. More than one time I got so frustrated with my progress that a session would end with my harmonica shattering against my basement wall.”
Carey progressed to the point where he became a regular feature of the New England Blues scene where he first gained prominence in the ’70s with the Eleventh Hour Band. He later joined the Movers who provided him with some added visibility after winning a national blues band competition. While his earlier years did provide him some greater exposure among hardcore blues fans, more importantly it gave Carey the first opportunity to meet and play with some of the grand masters of the genre who had first thrilled him as a struggling neophyte.
“It still amazes me how I have been able to hook up with and/or play with my heroes like Junior Wells, B.B. King and Bo Diddley. I consider Junior Wells to have been one of the great masters of the blues harmonica and he was just so incredibly supportive and helpful to me. He liked me so much that he eventually took it upon himself to try to get me a record deal. I can’t say that it panned out at the time, but I was amazed that a true star of the blues world would be so interested in seeing me succeed.”
Upon arriving in New Orleans, Carey got over his disappointment of finding the blues scene lacking and went immediately to work.
“I played anywhere I could find someone willing to play with me. Working at Margaritaville I hooked up with a few cats who had a bit of a blues jam going. I played with everyone who was willing and began picking up on the New Orleans sound which is not rooted so much in the Chicago blues mold, but has that funky rhythmic feel to it.”
As word spread that there was a hot blues harmonica player and vocalist who had moved to town Carey found it easier and easier to get work and collaborate with some of New Orleans’ finest musicians. He began to think about making a record as a leader and as he played more gigs with some of New Orleans finest, he put a working band together to record Hot for Louisiana, his debut recording on his own Humanhood Records.
Having gained a sterling reputation among in-the-know blues players all around the country, Carey now found himself recording with George Porter, Jr., Joe Krown and the Memphis Horns on his own project. Although it took a couple of years to complete, Hot for Louisiana was released in 1998 to uniformly good reviews.
While steadily gigging in New Orleans and throughout the country, Carey found himself still obsessed with the idea of organizing and nurturing a true local blues scene where a community of players could get together on a regular basis to jam and provide a regular forum for true blues fans to congregate each week and see the best that the city had to offer.
Wit’s Inn was the first location of what was to become the “John Carey Blues Summit,” followed by a tenure at the Ugly Dog Saloon. After a year or so in this Warehouse District club the summit found a new home at Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl Café. The “Blues Summit” developed its own format where Carey and his band play an opening set of his own impressive original tunes followed by a series of jams organized and led by Carey featuring most of the best blues performers in town not otherwise busy on a Tuesday night. This past summer Snooks Eaglin, Ernie K-Doe, Kipori Woods, Jumping Johnny Sansone are just some of the more notable players who have come to sit in and jam.
“The Blues Summit is not just about big names showing up to jam, it’s about providing a home for all of this city’s blues musicians to come hang out and check out what everybody is up to. Word has seemed to spread as we now get guys from Mississippi to come down as well as international visitors. I have had guys from Japan, and Eastern Europe who have heard about the Blue Summit show up with their axes ready to play.”
To complement the Tuesday night “Blues Summit,” Carey has also started a weekly “Blues Party” at the Hard Rock Café where a single guest star is featured each week with Carey and his band. During its first month Snooks Eaglin, Chris Thomas King, Wallace Johnson and Sista Teedy appeared and Joe Krown, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, King Lloyd and Brother Tyrone are all scheduled in November.
With most of his energy focused on establishing a thriving blues scene in New Orleans in recent years, Carey found himself looking inward to fulfill a dream of his that he has held for over ten years. Over the past year John has been working with his sons Brendon, 24, and Sean, 21, accomplished musicians in their own right on a new recording titled, New Orleans Blues Reunion, set for release this Christmas season.
“I have been playing with my sons since before they were teenagers and we are finally recorded a whole album of original tunes that we have been playing together for years. I remember the look in my son’s eyes when he was nine years old and I was on stage with Bo Diddley and now 15 years later he has shared a stage with Bo Diddley himself and it’s all coming full circle.
“I have even bigger plans to expand into other cities with a ‘Blues Exchange’ where musicians from other blues areas like Chicago, Memphis or Austin would come to New Orleans for a month and our guys would go to their cities and exchange gigs and sample what each city has to offer and giving those local fans a new flavor of blues to sample. I am constantly out there hustling, trying to make things happen and I have to say that with a little determination it all seems to have paid off.”