The aroma of freshly-cut October grass hangs in the air of a quiet neighborhood in Baton Rouge, but the mid-week tranquility is about to receive a friendly jolt. After running some morning errands and shaking off the residue of a 22-hour flight from Argentina two nights ago, one of the state capital’s local heroes is getting ready to enjoy a day off.
Kenny Neal is standing in the driveway of his unassuming beige home, circling one of his prized possessions: a 1947 two-tone royal blue and cream-turquoise Buick 8. Off to the side sits a (currently immobile) 1966 red Cadillac Fleetwood. Neal’s eyes flicker mischievously as he gazes at the Caddy. He recounts a late-night incident that involved being pulled over by the police due to a friend’s burning cigarette that didn’t make it out the window, igniting the back seat. He shakes his head, laughing. “Yeah, I’m glad this car doesn’t have a mouth,” he says.
It’s alright that the one-time smoke mobile sits silent, because the 37-year-old bluesman can tell plenty of stories on his own. The eldest of a family of ten, Kenny Neal’s entire life has been surrounded and shaped by music. And since 1987, when his first independent album was picked up by Chicago-based Alligator Records, the lustre on Neal’s rising star burns brighter each year. The release of his new CD, Hoodoo Moon, coincides with this current visit home. The sun and his Buick beckon, and Neal is primed to have a good time.
With his younger brother Darnell (who plays bass in Neal’s band) accompanying us, we slide into the classic roadster, and Kenny pilots the car in a search for a late lunch. It’s quickly apparent, however, that our stomachs will have to wait—the sight of the Buick and its driver is eliciting honking horns and shouts of “Hey! Kenny!” from all directions. And as long as the exact source of the greeting can be located, Neal stops. At the gas station, local harmonica player Big Lucius Brown asks him to play guitar on his new single, and Neal immediately agrees; the elderly fruit stand proprietors offer an update on mutual friends; a mechanic offers the solution to a strong gasoline smell coming from under the hood.
Each visit, Neal displays the magnetic charisma and quiet charm that serve him so well on the stage, and his respectful demeanor seems to repel hustlers who so often materialize around artists of his caliber. It’s a rare quality, allowing Neal to be equally at home at the greasy po-boy joint we eventually find, or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a civic representative overseeing operations at a new casino boat later that day (It should be noted that admirable personal traits mean nothing to a slot machine, however—all wallets were thinner after an hour-long gaming attempt).
When twilight approaches after the afternoon’s socializing, Darnell heads back to his home and Kenny stops to pick up etouffee, jambalaya and boiled crabs for dinner. We retire to his living room, where an organ dating from the 1800s rests in the corner, and the shelves are lined with hand-carved gods from his trips abroad. His high school sweetheart and current companion of nine years, Jocelyn, tend to their children in the kitchen. As a videotape of a past “Austin City Limits” performance plays in the background, Kenny settles in with some strawberry wine and weaves his way back to the beginnings of a diverse, acclaimed, and often humorous life in the blues.
What the Marsalises are to jazz and the Nevilles are to funk, the Neal family is to Louisiana blues. Kenny’s father Raful Neal was born in 1936, and picked up on the new electrified sound of post-war urban blues as a teenager. He became a mainstay on the Baton Rouge club circuit, where his keen harmonica playing earned him the tag “Little Walter of Louisiana.” He started recording in 1958 for Peacock Records, and formed lasting musical friendships with luminaries such as Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester. Kenny Neal’s first musical memory is the day an upright piano got delivered to the house.
“My dad always had harmonicas around, but when I saw that thing comin’ in, that was something we could bang on and make music with,” he remembers. “My first song was ‘What’d I Say’ by Ray Charles.” He never had any formal lessons, but that didn’t deter him and his siblings from producing sounds of their own. “We was out in the country. You’d just have to play what you could play. Me and my brothers used to make guitars. Plus we’d get out on the porch, use foot tubs (No. 3 for bass drum, he notes), and take a stick or two-by-four, and nail it to the porch. Get a couple hubcaps from a car and nail it in the center, and those were our cymbals. We had our band years before we had any equipment,” he says, laughing.
That didn’t satiate their curiosity about playing the real things, but accessing band instruments was a slightly trickier proposition. “My dad would come in late, and he’d tell me and my brothers not to mess with the guys’ equipment, because if we break it, he’d have to pay for it. Well, sure enough, while he’s sleepin’ late in the morning, I used to sneak out to the station wagon.” Kenny vividly recalls the scent of the smoke from the club and the instruments floating through the car, and those strange intoxicating smells fueled his desire to practice even more.
He continued to play in semi-hiding, biding his time. Then one night his father was getting ready to go out to a gig, and Kenny surprised him. “He had a bass player that was always late, and didn’t show up on time. My dad didn’t know I was practicing and gettin’ all his stuff together. I told him, ‘I could play this gig for you.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You sure you can cut it?’ I didn’t know all of it, but just wanted to do it.”
Neal howls with laughter at the result. “Man, I made that gig, that bass player never played with my dad again. It was just a fluke.”
So the 13-year-old Kenny became a baby-faced regular in the clubs, helping run the band and backing his father. As he started to listen to records to educate himself further on the bass, he discovered other possibilities. “I started getting Stanley Clarke, and I’m goin’, ‘Whoa, a bass can do all this!’ So now, the blues got boring. I’m in the house, and I want to be a funk player. I want to play fusion.”
So Kenny informed Raful of his wishes. Raful told his son to go give it a shot, even though he still needed him in his own band.
Kenny gets a sheepish look on his face as he continues the story. “So my dad’s workin’ four, five nights a week back then. So every night for about three months, I was goin’ to rehearsal, and my dad would say [Neal imitates a gentle, pitying tone], ‘Where you goin? Well, have a nice rehearsal, son, I’m goin’ to work.'”
Kenny grimaces as he recalls learning the economics of funk. “I got a 1960 Ford van, carpet, bed, mag wheels, nice clothes, I’m 16 years old. And I’m missin’ the funds, I got no money! Needless to say I can’t take my girlfriend out. And [Raful’s] sayin’, ‘When’s your first gig?’ and I’m goin, ‘Uhhh, we have one next month on a Friday.’ God, it was awful.”
Kenny asked Raful for his old job back, and both gladly welcomed his return. Kenny’s talents were becoming so formidable that he was drawing support from even the most unlikely sources. In high school, Neal would sometimes hear his name called over the intercom, and proceed down to the office, fearing the worst. As it turned out, “The principal was cool. He’d say, ‘Go in the back and take a nap.’ He was at the gig (the night before), and he’d say, ‘I know how you feel—I feel the same way.’ He played bass. After he’d close the door he’d say, ‘I just bought this Fender bass. Can you show me some licks on it?'”
Kenny’s first road experience outside of Baton Rouge came courtesy of a surprise call from one of Raful’s former band mates. “I was playin’ with a guy here…and Buddy Guy’s brother Sam, who lives here, just walked up on stage and put a note in my pocket. And I’m playin’ and he said, ‘Call when you take your break.’ I had no idea [the note would say], ‘Buddy Guy says phone him at home in Chicago.’ So I call him, collect [laughs]. It was a Friday night, and he asks me, could I meet him in Austin Monday or Tuesday?”
Neal admits he was petrified. “I’m scared of leavin’ home. I’d never been anywhere, but I’m gettin’ this offer. Oh, man. I’d just bought me a Mustang, too! I’d only had that thing for a few months—didn’t want to leave that car behind. [Buddy] said, ‘You talk to your father, and I’ll call him as well, and pack your suitcase.'”
A couple of days later, Neal was on a bus headed for Antone’s, Austin’s famed blues mecca, questioning himself. “I’m goin, ‘Aw, man, I know I can’t cut this gig. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells?’ So I go to rehearsal, and they go, ‘Do you know “Honest I Do” by Jimmy Reed?'” Neal flashes a you-gotta-be-kidding smile. “I’d been doin’ that for years with my dad. They say, ‘Do you know “Big Boss Man?” “Sweet Home Chicago?”‘ There were a few things I didn’t know, but they gave me the groove and I went right to it. I was hired. And our next gig was in Baton Rouge! So I left as nobody, and in one week I was a star, playin’ the biggest club that I’d never played, called the KingFish.”
The subsequent tenure as Guy’s bass player was a maturation period for Neal, but not so much musically as personally. “I had been taught real well by my dad. [Guy and Wells] was even doin’ songs from Baton Rouge, like ‘Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu’ [a Slim Harpo hit]. What it did was educate me to a much broader music across the world. I knew I could take my music and go further than across the river. I’m all over Europe and Germany [with Guy] and it’s like, ‘That’s what I want to do—get my own thing together.'”
That opportunity presented itself in 1979, when gigs started becoming more sparse with Guy. And after standing next to Buddy on the bandstand each night, Neal was now fully aware of the powerful appeal of a guitar. He bought a six-string and started woodshedding. “I’d turn on Muddy Waters, put my amp right up next to the speaker, turn it up as loud as it’d go, and play like I was sittin’ on stage with him.”
To really learn the craft and prove themselves, most blues artists migrate to either Chicago or the Delta. But Neal soon met the woman who would become his wife (they are now divorced), and he moved with her to Toronto, Canada.
He recruited brothers Noel and Ray (who went on to play with James Cotton and Bobby “Blue” Bland, respectively), and used his business acumen—and esteemed friends—to land a contract as the house band for a new club. The owner of the establishment gave Neal an unheard-of agreement for $1200 a week for the band, plus one hundred percent of the door, and fees for the acts Neal brought in, such as John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton. The place was always jammed, and halfway through the contract the owner wanted to renegotiate. It was a short-lived venture, but gave Neal invaluable experience in playing guitar with a variety of performers and styles.
While in Canada, he continued to play with the Neal Brothers band and recorded his first tracks as a front man, but his brother Darnell sums up Kenny’s Canadian experience neatly: “He froze, and he was homesick.”
So Kenny returned to Louisiana again, determined to strike out on his own. He says, “I took two cuts off that reel [from Toronto] and put it on a 45. I sent one to a DJ friend in Tampa.” The songs caught the attention of Bob Greenlee, who was opening up the brand-new King Snake Studios. Greenlee flew in to meet the Neal family, and an agreement was reached for individual albums by both Raful and Kenny.
Kenny’s result was Bio from The Bayou, which initially met with little enthusiasm by prospective record labels. But Alligator Records—who had previously sent Neal a rejection letter, which he now proudly displays on a wall of his home—grabbed it and re-released it as Big News From Baton Rouge. It was a first glimpse of Neal’s trademarks: booming and husky baritone vocals, high-register Jimmy Reed-like harmonica work, and swampy guitar solos full of pyrotechnics or tasteful restraint.
And while he’s still rooted in country sensibilities, Neal has taken a modern approach on subsequent releases like Devil Child, often employing bold horn arrangements and prominent piano and Hammond B-3. Plus, he can now afford to be funky, and recruited James Brown brass legends Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley for his Walking On Fire album. “We were on the same bill together once, and when they were done with their set they’re sittin’ in back of the trailer playin’ cards, and Maceo says, ‘Kenny, let us know if you want us to play with you.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, right, he’s serious’—I mean, these guys were my idols growing up. But he gave me his home phone and I called him up, and they came and did it.”
It’s the type of scenario that consistently reappears throughout Neal’s stories: his humility blinds him to his talent, and he still doesn’t believe it when the latest invitation or accolade arrives. Yet he’s jammed with Albert Collins, Albert King, Little Milton, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name a few. Perhaps the greatest test of his resources came in 1991, however, when a New York director was looking for a lead actor in the 1930s Langston Hughes/Nora Zeale Houston-penned Broadway production “Mule Bone.” The part also required singing some acoustic blues numbers, and a friend of Kenny’s mentioned his name to the director.
A script was sent to Neal while he was out on the road, and music was still his number one priority. “I just tossed it on the dashboard, said I’ll see that shit later. I got three months before I got to do it.” See it later he did—as he flew up for the audition. “I’m lookin’ at it goin’, ‘Man, they want me to remember all this?'”
His frenzied preparation on the plane is probably still a storytelling favorite for the witnesses. “The story (‘Mule Bone’) is a love triangle,” Neal explains, “and my character Jim is a traveling musician. I have a dancing friend, we’re good friends until Daisy comes to town, and we fight over her. So I’m on the plane with Bob Greenlee, who has blond hair and used to be a Miami Dolphins linebacker, and he’s reading Daisy’s part and I’m readin’ Jim’s part. So he’s goin’ [Neal breaks into a high-pitched voice], ‘But Jim!’ and I’m goin’, ‘But Daisy, I don’t want you no more!'”
Neal practically falls out of the chair laughing. “People were thinkin’, ‘What’s wrong with these guys?'”
At the audition, Neal read for ten minutes, sang the songs, and returned home harboring no expectations whatsoever. Three days later, Greenlee came rushing over, congratulating Neal for landing the role. Kenny was shocked. “I’m goin’, ‘Oh, no. I don’t have it. Please don’t tell me I got the part.’ Honest to God, that’s how I felt. ‘Cause I knew I had to face a lot. That was the best thing that could have happened to me, though, goin’ to Broadway. Because it gave me a lot of discipline—onstage and offstage.”
An intensive crash course in acting was immediately lined up for Neal. He read lines for up to ten hours a day, and was drilled relentlessly on blocking (exact stage movements while speaking). After months of rehearsals, the show opened to positive reviews. Neal astonished his fellow cast members by assembling a ten-piece band and gigging at least three nights a week in New York City during the play’s run. Even with his moonlighting, Kenny’s portrayal of Jim earned him The Theater World Award for “Most Outstanding New Talent On and Off Broadway” in 1991.
Another mountain climbed, Neal returned to the studio for 1992’s Bayou Blood, a rough, stripped-down record featuring just a rhythm section. When asked about the recording process, Neal reveals his secret for capturing the best possible performance from himself and the band on tape; it’s a mindset that sometimes unnerves Alligator president Bruce Iglauer. “We’d do a cut, get ready to listen back to see if the track is nice, and I’ll get the whole crew and the band, and we’ll go out in the back. They got a private pond behind the studio, and we’ll be out there seeing who can catch a bass. [Iglauer] would come out and say, ‘I thought we was making a record!’ I’ll say, ‘Be cool. We lay back down here in the South—this ain’t Chicago.'”
With Neal’s playing experience absorbing so many facets of the American contribution to the blues canon, it’s understandable that in 1993 he was chosen over 200 other performers to be an official goodwill ambassador by the United States Information Agency. He toured Africa, giving seminars and workshops as well as concerts. For Neal, it was a chance to experience his heritage first-hand. “I see where it all comes from,” he says. “That cleaned up my picture about the blues. You know what they say—the cotton fields, the Delta, and stuff like that? Well, I went [to Africa] and this guy comes out with a little one-string instrument. I don’t know the lyrics he was singing, but he was like [Neal hums a progression] ‘mmm-hmmm-mmm-hmmm,” and that was the same thing I was brought up on in the Baptist church here. So I got up and went [he hums the same progression], and they just went crazy. This guy, we just connected, and he looked at me like, ‘Where you get this from?’
“I’d just tell ’em that I wasn’t bringin’ ’em nothing new, I was just brlngin’ back what was sent here. You go in these little villages, and it may not be a 12-bar form, but if they ain’t singin’ the blues I’m givin’ it up.”
At his current rate, it appears that there’s no chance of Neal stopping his mission to carry the tradition of the elder generation of bluesmen that preceded him. Hoodoo Moon is his strongest effort yet, and chock full of nods to his mentors and heroes: there’s the fuzzy Slim Harpo guitar on the title track, the Guitar Slim sting of “I’m A Blues Man,” and the B.B. King-like full band arrangement on the down-and-out “If Heartaches Were Nickels.” Throughout, the piercing harmonica work is a loving tribute to his father’s influence.
But the most satisfying aspect of Hoodoo Moon is how clearly Neal’s personal vision shines through. The biting wit of “Bad Memory,” the uplifting personal message of “Believe In Yourself” and the assured enticement of “Just One Step” are the work of a fully-developed artist. The most telling line of the album comes on “Money Don’t Make The Man” when Neal sings, “You can’t put a price on pride.” He credits his parents with a lion’s share of his outlook on life.
“They taught me respect. Treat people like you want to be treated. I don’t pass anybody up. In a family of ten, we didn’t have a lot, and we had to share. That’s what I think we all should do.”
Which is why he traditionally ends his live show with his harmonica-driven cover of the Elmore James classic “It Hurts Me Too,” and chose it as the closing track to Hoodoo Moon. “It’s a real touching song to me. When I do it live, people are thinkin’ about the times they went through that period. But everyone comes up after, goin’, ‘Thanks, Kenny,’ and they’re hummin’ the song. I see ’em goin’ home, and they’re happy.”