New Orleans rhythm and blues is in danger of dying in its hometown. When the British Invasion wiped out the genre’s commercial viability in the early 60s, at least fans could count on the likes of Eddie Bo, Tommy Ridgley, Deacon John and Ernie K-Doe to keep the flame burning on stages in the Crescent City. With the 21st century around the corner, the legacy of one of New Orleans’ greatest art forms is a question mark. Lee Dorsey, Jessie Hill, and Lee Allen are no longer with us. Fats Domino rarely comes out of seclusion to perform, and Dr. John graces local bandstands with diminishing regularity. How long can the mighty shoulders of masters such as Snooks Eaglin, Johnny Adams, and Walter “Wolfman” Washington carry the load?
Unlike the brass band tradition, where groups such as the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, New Birth, Soul Rebels and Coolbone are breathing new life into the genre, New Orleans rhythm and blues and its primary voice – the piano – needs a young champion. The current New Orleans musical landscape is filled with a host of excellent piano players, but very few of them are consistently leading bands that use the wellspring of Louisiana rhythm and blues as a focal point; Davell Crawford and Henry Butler, for example, spend as much time in the gospel and jazz realms as they do in R&B. ‘
Ironically, it’s an Englishman with the soul of a New Orleanian that is poised to re-introduce piano-driven New Orleans rhythm and blues to the world. Thirty-five-year old Jon Cleary is working on his major-label debut for Virgin/Pointblank Records, playing piano in Taj Mahal’s band, writing songs that are attracting the interest of peers and fans such as Bonnie Rain, and amassing an impressive roster of session work that includes work on B.B. King’s new album Deuces Wild.
Yet while 1997 has been his most productive year yet, Cleary has been largely out of sight in New Orleans. Aside from some recent gigs at Snug Harbor and the occasional night at the Maple Leaf, Cleary has been holed most of the summer and fall in a private studio, painstakingly crafting his new record. Having turned down other record deals in the past, there is a sense of urgency accompanying this project, and balancing that pressure with other commitments has Cleary burning the midnight oil.
“I’ve got ‘loopitis’,” jokes Cleary, taking a break for an interview after listening to hours of recorded drum loops one recent morning at his Bywater apartment. Looking at his surroundings, you expect the walls to start making music: dozens of multicolored soul and blues playbills are tacked up everywhere; empty bottles, books and cassettes perch on an old standup piano with its hammers exposed; and a battered dusty jukebox: lies silent near the stairwell. As Cleary walks by the jukebox, he shakes his head. “I’ve got to clean this thing out,” he says, reaching in the guts of the machine and randomly pulling up a treasure trove of 45’s, including original singles by Jean Knight, and The Impressions.
The sounds of New Orleans and soul music have surrounded Cleary for as long as he can remember. He grew up in the sleepy rural county of Kent, England, but had the benefit of a family with exquisite musical taste: his mother loved New Orleans jazz, his aunt brought him funk and soul albums from artists like Donny Hathaway and the Meters, and his uncle lived for a spell in New Orleans, writing his young nephew and regaling him with tales of Professor Longhair and Clifton Chenier.
Cleary started playing guitar at the age of five, and his talent blossomed quickly. He began playing in the orchestra pit for theater productions when he was eleven years old, and at fifteen he assembled his first band, taking a crack at Freddie King and Eric Clapton covers. Twelve-bar blues alone couldn’t sustain him; the lure of New Orleans was strong, and after he left art school he saved enough money for a plane flight to take him across the Atlantic to Mardi Gras.
“It was even better than I imagined,” Cleary remembers, sipping a cup of tea. “I’d grown up hearing so many stories about New Orleans that it didn’t feel strange, and it felt a bit like coming home the first time I arrived. It seemed very, very relaxed and easy. In the early 80s in England the country was in a terrible depression and things were very grim. [New Orleans] seemed like coming from black and white to color, especially that time of year. I was just in heaven. I’d open up the paper and read that Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry was playing somewhere. For me, these were just names on record labels.
“I remember the first night I arrived Huey Smith was playing at Jimmy’s, and I was literally on my way to The Maple Leaf from the airport, and I couldn’t stop because I didn’t know where I was, and couldn’t stop the taxi with all my suitcases and stuff. So the taxi pulled up to the Maple Leaf, and Earl King was playing. That was my first night in New Orleans.”
The Maple Leaf became Cleary’s second home. He was staying down the block on Oak Street, and had friends who worked at the bar. Maple Leaf owner Carl Brown offered him a job painting the bar’s exterior, in exchange for free beer and admission to the club. Cleary worked at a snail’s pace, gradually becoming a sideshow attraction for the end-of-the-workday patrons, who’d hurl good-natured insults at the young Brit half-heartedly wielding the paintbrush.
It was a perfect arrangement: leisurely employment, and nights free to soak in the music scene. Plus, Cleary used the time to explore a new instrument. “When I arrived in New Orleans, I didn’t bring a guitar with me. The house I moved into had a piano, so it was great. I had all the time in the world. In New Orleans, I was hearing mostly piano music; that’s the stuff that really interested me. I always loved Dr. John. You couldn’t really get Professor Longhair records [in England], but my uncle had all the 45’s he brought back. So staying with him, I’d hear Fess, and all these obscure Louisiana artists like Jivin’ Gene and the Jokers, that would have all these great piano solos. So that kind of tickled me. I spent hours and hours and hours and hours sitting at home doodling away, playing the piano and starting to write songs. I’d always been messing around making up songs, but I felt so inspired here. Every street corner seemed like a photograph, and the expressions people used all seemed so rich, that I was overflowing with ideas, really. It still is like that; I’ve never lost that sense in New Orleans.”
When Cleary returned to England after his Crescent City baptism, the piano was his new love, and he moved to London. He assembled a six-piece band with two tenor saxophones, and began playing “old New Orleans rhythm and blues tunes” on the pub circuit. When a solo Dr. John arrived in town for a gig, Cleaty’s six-string chops earned him the call to back up Rebennack. “When I was playing guitar with him on those few gigs, and hanging out with him at a friend’s house, I couldn’t believe it,” Cleary gushes. “I think he dug my guitar playing because I was playing from a piano player’s point of view-I wanted to get out of the way of the piano player. The piano is such an all-encompassing instrument and covers so many bases, if you’re playing the guitar, it’s not sympathetic to that kind of situation, where you have to leave out a lot of stuff. Having been in that situation myself, I suspect he kind of dug that I didn’t get in the way too much. I’d be playing next to him, looking over his shoulder to see how he played ‘Tipitina’.”
Cleary’s steady gigging and devotion to the piano – he still often practices for hours a day – was evident when he decided to come back to New Orleans. He began to get bookings, and his talent and gentlemanly demeanor secured the finest sidemen. ”I’d always use the best musicians, and I think I got a reputation as someone who would always have a good band if I was playing,” Cleary says. “People would never know who the rhythm section was, but they would turn up and hear Smokey Johnson and Irving Charles, or Bunchy Johnson or Johnny Vidacovich and James Singleton, or George Porter and Herman Ernest.”
One person who turned up to see a show was Walter “Wolfman” Washington, who was impressed enough to ask Cleary to join his band. The collaboration lasted for two years, and had a profound effect on Cleary’s piano playing. “With Walter, I was basically introduced to a whole area of soul and blues that was much more sophisticated than I’d heard from the old 12-bar, three-chord blues. There were a lot of hip changes and arrangements, and it was very sophisticated. He’d call-out songs in different keys that I wasn’t used to working in, and I really had to buckle down. That was a real challenge, and it was a direction I was leaning in anyway. Walter turned me on to a whole lot of stuff.
“It was a real education for me, as far as the Little Milton, Bobby Bland, Tyrone Davis aspects of playing the blues, which is musically more substantial. It’s even tied in with older stuff like Little Willie John. Walter’s got such a wide frame of reference, from Sly Stone to Bobby Womack to Nat Cole. That was great, and I was a very willing recipient of that influence. I’m very grateful to Walter for that.”
Following his tenure with Washington, a Houston, Texas club owner offered Cleary, the opportunity to put together his dream band for a week-long gig. Cleary was so pleased with the resulting shows he decided to do a recording with the band. Using a horn section behind him and the bass-drums combination of George Porter Jr. and Bunchy Johnson, Cleary recorded Alligator Lips and Dirty Rice, a strong representation of his affinity for New Orleans. Versions of Earl King’s “Big Chief” and King Floyd’s “Groove Me” are standouts, as well as Cleary’s blaring boogie-woogie instrumental “Burnt Mouth, Boogie.” More importantly, it was the first glimpse of Cleary’s songwriting talents, with the originals “C’Mon Second Line,” – later covered by Maria Muldaur -” “Long Distance Lover,” and “Go Ahead Baby” making, their debut. Cleary put the record out himself, and it was picked up in 1990 by England’s Ate Records.
With new material flowing out of him, Cleary decided to assemble his own, band and branch out from his encyclopedic knowledge of R&B. “Fortunately, there’s a large repertoire of obscure R&B tunes that most old-school local musicians can play and enjoy playing, so I could always put on a good show without the need for rehearsals,” Cleary says. “But it’s like someone telling you the best joke in the world-if they tell it to you for five or six years, you know what the punchline is. It’s still a good joke, and in this case those songs are still great songs, but I found in order for me not to get sick of them, I’d have to do something else.”
Cleary found the nucleus of his new band in the gospel group The Friendly Travelers. Bassist Cornell Williams and guitarist Derwin “Big D” Perkins opened the doors for multi-layered vocals in the mix, and drummer Jeffrey “JellyBean” Alexander is one of the funkiest drummers to recently emerge on the scene. (Alexander currently also drums with George Porter Jr. and the Runnin’ Pardners}. Cleary dubbed the band “The Absolute Monster Gentlemen,” and turned it into a high-octane unit capable of in-the-pocket funk. Contemporary urban grooves, and simmering ballads, all driven by Cleary’s piano and deep-soul vocals.
With the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Cleary also showed a flair for bringing his passion for Cuban music into the fold. The percussive qualities of Cuban piano playing share a kinship with the rhythmic syncopated piano elements in New Orleans R&B, ,and Cleary is a devoted fan of esteemed Cuban tres player Arsenio Rodriguez. Montuno right-hand patterns creep in and out of Cleary’s playing, and he’s incorporated them into a show-stopping cross-cultural version of “Tipitina.”
The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, made their debut at JazzFest ’94, but immediately afterwards Cleary had to leave the country. Due to a youthful misunderstanding with Immigration and Naturalization Services, he’s had to return to England on a number of occasions, and wait for paperwork to clear. It was especially hard to swallow this time after starting The Absolute Monster Gentlemen. (Since that ’94 gig, Perkins, Williams and Alexander have become highly sought – after session men in their own right; with all four players in demand, it’s turned their infrequent gigs together into joyous occasions.) ,
While Cleary was languishing back home in England, he received the phone call that kicked his career into high gear. Producer and fellow Englishman John Porter, who Cleary had met at a barbecue at Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ house, rang him up and asked him if he’d like to play on the new Taj Mahal album. Cleary still bustles with enthusiasm remembering the conversation. “I’ve been a huge fan of Taj’s since I was a little kid and heard the Recycling The Blues album,” says Cleary. “The first time I ever took my mom anywhere, I was about fourteen and I took her out to London to see a Taj Mahal gig. I’d saved up all my pocket money to pity for the tickets. So I was over the moon when I was asked to go to Los Angeles to do the record with him.”
It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. Taj Mahal also recruited Cleary for his touring band, and took an interest in Cleary’s songwriting, recording four of Cleary’s compositions on his last two records, Phantom Blues and Senor Blues. Mahal commented recently, “Cleary’s real consistent the whole way through. It was obvious that he respected the tradition the music came out of. and respected that you’re supposed to put your stamp on the space that was handed to you.”
Other top-flight musicians share that sentiment. Cleary’s piano prowess has graced albums by Jr. Wells, The Holmes Brothers. John Mooney, and Louisiana Red. On the new B.B. King album, Cleary appears on tracks with Bonnie Raitt, D’Angelo and Heavy D. One of his most intriguing recent projects was a session with Eric Clapton; the two Englishmen replaced out-of-tune piano and guitar parts on an old Albert King master. (Cleary has no idea if the project will be released).
While Cleary admits it’s initially overwhelming sometimes to find himself in the same company of his boyhood heroes, the experiences have all been warm and positive. “Sometimes when you’ve been listening to people’s music for many, many years, you feel that you can’t get to know them. There’s a certain intimacy you get listening to music. And there’s always a suspicion there in the back of your mind that the reality might not live up to what you’ve conjured up in your imagination. But Taj is as nice a bloke as you could imagine, and B.B. was the same way. That was like being in a room with a great band with a fantastic lead guitarist. And he was such a gentleman, and so humble.”
Producer Porter – who’s also worked with Bryan Ferry, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Keb’ Mo’ – has been instrumental in opening the door to some of these sessions, and has become one of Cleary’s biggest champions. Before Porter rapped Cleary for the Taj Mahal job, he had also helped him escape a brief unfruitful spell in New York City. Cleary remembers, “I was broke and had been left stranded by this production deal that went bad. John got me this gig in California, and it was a real life-saver.”
Porter had been knocked out upon seeing the Monster Gentlemen at the Maple Leaf during a New Orleans vacation, and secured Cleary a gig at The Hollywood Athletic Club in Los Angeles. He then took it upon himself to get Cleary a record deal.
“For three years I tried to get him a deal, and I couldn’t believe how difficult it was,” Porter said during a recent Crescent City visit. Qualifying that statement, he noted, “Well, I know what record companies can be like.” Virgin/Pointblank Records finally signed Cleary this spring, and Porter is thrilled. “I love Jon’s piano playing, I love his guitar playing, I love his songwriting, the whole thing,” Porter said.
Cleary and Porter are now working together on the album, tentatively slated for a spring ’98 release. Cleary is going to great lengths to ensure the album will be worth the wait. Rather than have the Absolute Monster Gentlemen go in the studio and cut the record live, Cleary has been building the record from the ground up. Jeffrey “JellyBean” Alexander went into the Boiler Room.studio and recorded hours of funky drum patterns; Cleary has been recording the guitar and bass parts himself and weaving them around Alexander’s grooves.
“There’s a great deal of equipment available nowadays that gives you more colors to paint with,” says Cleary. “All of the classic records that came out of New Orleans, a lot of times those records were born out of a situation where a producer is working all the time in a studio with a set number of musicians. There’s no mistake that Red Tyler and Earl Palmer and all those fellows made great records because they were doing it every day and it’s not the same as going out and blowing on a gig. Which is why Dave Barrholomew made such great records, and Allen Toussaint made such great records with the Meters. We were listening last night to Desitively Bonnaroo, the Dr. John album, last night, and the parts are incredible. That’s no band just going into the studio and blowing over a tune. All that stuff is planned our. It’s great, intelligent, New Orleans funk.”
Cleary gets up from his tea to play a cassette of eight rough mixes he’s working on, and it’s immediately.apparent he’s taken the cue from his idols. Brief flourishes – a descending bass line there, an elastic guitar lick there, recurring piano motifs – flesh out a program of powerful Cleary compositions. The impact of the music is undeniable; the swear and toil of the late nights are palpable through the speakers.
The biggest challenge Cleary will face is introducing himself as a bandleader to the world outside of New Orleans. It’s a hurdle he acknowledges, and one Virgin/Pointblank will have to address. “You’re up against this thing: how do you market somebody?” Cleary says. “What do you call them? And that’s always been something that’s a problem with my stuff, because I do a lot of different things. But times have changed recently. I think in the last few years it seems that there’s been a change and doors have opened for areas of music that weren’t considered marketable or fashionable. And you can actually now market music with diversity as being a plus rather than a problem. And I think New Orleans funk has been put into the arena. When I started doing stuff in England, and I would go back and talk to my friends about Professor Longhair and the Meters, and they were names nobody knew anything about. That’s changed now. Everybody knows who the Meters are. New Orleans funk is on the map. And I like
New Orleans rhythm and blues because it encompasses so many styles, and I like the phrase New Orleans rhythm and blues, because it covers a multitude of sins,” he laughs.
Even with today’s studio technology at his disposal, ultimately it’s the qualities in the records he loved growing up-and still does today-that Cleary comes back too He says, “When I sit down, I naturally play New Orleans funk, and it’s syncopated and harmonically sophisticated, but it’s got the raw ingredients you hear when you stick a Leadbelly record on.”
The pot of tea is now empty, and the clock is inching towards noon. Monster gentleman that he is, Cleary would indulge a visitor all day if asked. However there is a larger matter to be finished, and after his interviewer is excused and the door closes to Cleary’s apartment, the sounds of JellyBean’s drum loops spill out into the streets of Bywater.
Jon Cleary’s November Dates: Sat., Nov. 8: The Howlin’ Wolf w/ The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, opening for George Porter Jr. and the Runnin’ Pardners; Thurs., Nov. 13: Mermaid Lounge w/ The Absolute Monster Gentlemen; Sat., Nov 15: Snug Harbor w/ Red Tyler, Irving Charles and Bunchy Johnson; Sat., Nov. 22: Maple Leaf; Thurs., Nov. 27: House of Blues