Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present this interview with blues musician, singer, songwriter Broadway star Kenny Neal
Kenny Neal is an award winning multi-instrumentalist probably best known as a modern swamp-blues master, His music is an eclectic mix of swamp-boogie, jazz, R&B, and straight ahead blues. He has won a plethora of awards including many Grammy nominations. Kenny was also a Broadway Star in the critically acclaimed Mule Bone.
Kenny took time out of his busy tour schedule to chat with Pillow Talking about his music, career and life.
PT: Kenny, thank you so much for granting us this interview. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
KN: I was born in New Orleans, raised up in Baton Rouge down in Louisiana. And I’m the eldest of ten.
KN: My dad – he started a band back in the fifties – 1956, 1957. I was born in ‘57. He put a guy in his band by the name of Buddy Guy. He was my dad’s guitar player. So I grew up in a household of music. I don’t even remember starting to play. It’s like, I’ve always been around instruments and playing music. If you asked me when I started, I can’t tell you when I started because I grew up with it always around. I was always tagging along with my dad playing music. You know how a lot of fathers and sons do basketball, go fishing and play baseball? Well, we were going to the little juke joints to play blues.
PT: That must have been pretty cool.
KN: Yeah. He would get me up on the bar and let me sing and play. That was my childhood growing up. I missed a lot of my childhood (that would have been) playing with my friends, games, and stuff like that.
PT: Do you regret it?
KN: No. It was great for me because I loved every minute of it. And I still love getting on stage today. So I have to give credit to my Dad Raful Neal and my mother for putting up with all that noise all those years (laughs).
KN: It’s no different than now. As we speak, we are getting ready to go to Omaha now and perform tomorrow night and Saturday at the festival and then we are flying to Redwood City to play the PAL Blues Festival in California. So I’m still big brother and the little brothers are tagging along with me. I still have my family with me after all of these years. So I consider myself blessed.
PT: What was the family make-up – how many brothers and sister?
KN: Seven boys and three girls and we all played [music].
PT: We know you also have children. Do they play, too?
KN: I have a daughter in the medical field. She didn’t take it on. But my other kids are great musicians. My son does music scores – Ken Jr. He’s in Toronto. He works on a lot of movies out of LA and Toronto. He sits there and puts the music behind the scenes. And my daughter, Syreeta Neal – you can look her up – she’s amazing. On her down time she gives vocal lessons at UCLA. She’ll be going on tour with me this summer to perform as well.
PT: Fantastic! That must be a truly great experience to carry on a musical tradition like that from one generation to the next.
KN: Yes. It was very important for my dad to have a close family. After he was born, his mother passed when he was two months old. He grew up with foster parents as did my mother. We’re like the very first family tree. So it was very important for us to stick together, get along with each other and love one another.
PT: Family is everything. We know. We have seven children between us.
So tell us, other than your dad and the musicians at the blues clubs you went to, who were your earliest influences?
KN: My dad used to buy records for us. My grandfather had a juke joint where my mother and father met. My grandfather kept up with all of the new records that were on the juke box when I was a kid. So I used to wait for the juke box man to come by and that’s when I would get my info on what was new out on the market. And my dad would always have Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker – all of these guys around the house playing on 78s or 45s. So that was the influence I had and some of the Chitlin [Circuit] guys.
PT: (Wayne) We have something in common. We’re about the same age (even though in my head I’m 29) and when I was a kid my grandfather had a luncheonette and he would give me all of the old records – the 45s –from the juke box when the juke box man brought the new ones in.
KN: (Laughs) Yeah, I would be waiting for the 45s!
PT: (Wayne) I wish I had them now. They probably would be worth a fortune.
KN: (Laughs) I’m lucky. I have a juke box that I bought years and years ago and all of the 45s are in good shape and they are on the juke box.
KN: It’s amazing some of the people I have on it. Over 200 and something 45s.
PT: (Wayne) I am so jealous. That’s great!
We interview many blues musicians. We always ask what it is about the blues that attracted them to it. What is it about the blues that attracted you?
KN: Well, the blues for me was a type of music – you know when you think of the blues you’re thinking – down and out. Well the blues for us was a way to get rid of our drowning in our own tears or having had a bad day. As you know, we would look forward to the end of the week for a Friday or Saturday to go to the juke joints and plug up our guitars and play. Those were the happy times in our lives. That was the moment where you forget about the hard times or that you had a bad week or bad days in the week. Once we got our guitars in our hands, all of that would go away. So [playing] the blues was more of a joyful moment to express your feelings and play the guitar. It was rewarding for us to have the blues and sing it and play it and get together as a reunion with all of the guys in the neighborhood. We get together and forget about everything else that was around us. You know?
PT: We do. We really do.
A lot of our readership is made up of artists of all kinds – musicians, singers, actors, etc. Everybody is interested in process. What is your process, if you have one, in approaching a particular project?
KN: I love to play music and I love melodies. I hear melodies in my head all the time. So if I pick up the guitar within this hour I would just sit down and play. And then the next hour I wouldn’t be able to come back and play that same thing because of all of the melodies blowing through my head. So what I do is to just record them. I grab my phone and put my ideas down as they happen because I know that I could never come back and do it again. That would give me the motivation for a song. I’d go back and play a thirty- or forty-second clip that I’d thought about – let me listen to this. And then I’d get an idea for a song, but I need the music first. I have to hear the music. I can’t sit down and just say I’m going to write a song today. It doesn’t work that way for me. I have to hear the music. And when I hear the music it all comes together.
PT: Some say lyrics come first; others, like you, say music. It’s interesting how the process varies from one artist to another. We also know you’ve done some acting.
KN: I was on Broadway for a long time. I had the lead in a play called Mule Bone written by Zora Neale [Hurston] and Langston Hughes. I had no experience in acting. I’d never dreamed of going to Broadway.
PT: How did you get that gig?
KN: Taj Mahal recommended me for the part. They sent me to school for intensive acting lessons. I went in and did it. I came out with the “Most Outstanding New Talent On and Off Broadway.” I’d never dreamed of that. But my music helped me deliver my lines. Acting on stage is still a rhythm – it’s a rhythm keeping that beat. My music really came in handy for that. I used to deliver a line every night in a different way. If I got bored with my line, I would throw it at my other actors with whom I was acting (laughs). Well sometimes I would throw them off because I delivered it differently. I did that just to have fun with it and not get bored. I had a great time doing that.
PT: You didn’t have any other training besides those acting lessons?
KN: I had nothing. I went from getting my career launched with Alligator Records – and I think I was on to my third CD when I got the offer to come to New York to Lincoln Center to audition. And I was really bumming out because I was so excited that I was just on my way with my career in music and that I’d been working so hard for it – and then I find myself at Lincoln Center acting on Broadway!
PT: But that’s so great! Really incredible!
KN: Yeah, it was great for my career but at the time I was a blues musician and wanted to play my guitar.
PT: (Laughs) (Stephanie) Damn that Broadway! So you never decided to move ahead anymore with that?
KN: I had many offers to continue, but I went back to music. If there was something I really wanted to do or a part that I would like, I would consider it again. I just moved back to Louisiana from California. My wife and I are all set up here now. We are in “Hollywood South” down here now. This is where all the movies are coming out of because producers are getting the good tax breaks. So I’m around movies all the time down here. So anything might happen.
PT: (Wayne) We understand. We almost had a film project that went and we were going to shoot most of it in Louisiana because of the tax breaks.
KN: Yeah. It’s really busy here. So I’m in the right place. If something comes up, I might consider it.
PT: We are heavily involved in both theatre and film. So when we saw you were on Broadway, it really intrigued us.
KN: Oh, Yeah, it was great. I had some great people in my play. I even had James Earl Jones’ father, Mr. Robert Earl Jones, in my play.
KN: It was so amazing. I found out where James Earl got his vocal cords from. They both sound alike. The only thing was Mr. Robert Earl was deeper than James Earl.
PT: That’s wild.
KN: It gave me a chance to meet all those people. It was great.
PT: You had a TV show too. Can you tell us about that?
KN: That was something that when I went through when I had my liver treatments in California. I got bored to death and had to take off from work for two years. I was really bored and watching TV a lot when I saw this ad about having your own TV show. I waited a few days, because I didn’t see that ad again. When they ran it again and I took down the information and then I called then and pitched my idea. I told them I wanted to host a show and call it Neal’s Place. Because I knew so many artists across the country and knew they would be coming through that area, I set it up like a juke joint and I would have guests come in when they were around and interview them. I’d talk to them about being on the road and then we’d play a song together. It was just something for me to do to keep my mind occupied (laughs). In my area it started taking off. I became a local celebrity – in the Walmart (laughs). I’d be in Walmart and somebody would say, “Yo, hey, I seen you on TV. I love your show!” I’m like, “Wow, people are really watching!” It was good. And they still re-run the shows there now.
PT: Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates is doing a similar thing with his Daryl’s House.
KN: Yeah. That’s exactly what I was doing back then. I’m planning on doing it again here in Baton Rouge.
PT: Sounds like a good show. We’ll look forward to it.
KN: Yeah, it’s fun. I know a lot of artists so when they come to do my show they’re not strangers. So they feel real comfortable to sit down and share stories with me.
PT: We know you did have some health problems as well as some rough patches. Can you tell us about them and how you came back?
KN: My dad had bone cancer. We were over in Europe – in France – playing together. And we were so happy that my career took off and I was able to take my dad with me, to return what he gave to me. It was great to show my appreciation. So when I traveled to Europe, I would always put my dad in the contract and get him over there with me. So we were in France and I noticed he was walking funny and I asked him about it. And he said his knees were bothering him. He’d had prostate cancer prior to that. I told him we need to go back and get him checked out. He told me the doctor gave him a shot in his knees before we came over – that it was just his old arthritis. So his doctor was treating him for arthritis. When we got back home and I took him in. They ran tests and he was at stage four with bone cancer. The doctor had been treating him for whole previous year or more for arthritis. You know how you really believe in your doctor? And they knew each other.
KN: He was just taking [the doctor’s] word thinking that it was arthritis and all the time it was bone cancer. And it was a little too late to do anything. We had to deal with that. In meantime, while I was handling that, my brother had liver problems. He died of liver issues. He had been getting treated but it wasn’t [supposed to be] like a death thing. So it was kind of unexpected when he died.
PT: We are so sorry.
KN: And then four months later my dad passed away. We had to go through that. We accepted that because it was an illness — a sickness – we could deal with that as a family. But then another four months later there was another tragedy. My sister wanted to break up with a guy she was dating and he couldn’t take no for an answer. At the time her CD hadn’t even been out a week. She had a bus outside the beauty salon getting ready to go to Mobile, Alabama that night for a show. He went into the beauty salon and shot her in the chest with a 45.
PT: OH, MY GOD!
KN: So I lost three family members in eleven months.
PT: We are so very, very sorry—
KN: That was awful with my baby sister. That was the worst. We had to deal with that. After three or four months later, we found out that I had a liver disease. I was dealing with Hepatitis C. So I had to go in and take interferon for 58 weeks and Ribavirin. I am happy to say that I’ve been clean for about eight years now.
PT: That’s great.
KN: No trace of anything. So I lucked out on that. But it was a rough time. But it was good and bad. I met my wife and we got married right after my sister was killed. And then I found out about my liver, but we immediately corrected it and I got help. I was just so lucky. I had so many of my musician friends that were going through the same treatment that I was having for my liver. Some of them passed, you know? And I survived. So it was a very rough time in my life.
PT: Thank God you are okay.
KN: Yes. I’m back at my music. I have a brand new CD coming out. I haven’t recorded in five years. So I did a CD called Bloodline. I have a new video that will be coming out on it. You can go to my website and see the video.
PT: We will be reviewing the CD and the video separately from the interview and we can’t wait.
KN: Good, good. That will be great.
PT: Was it tough getting back into everything? Many of the people we interview are like phoenixes – always reinventing themselves.
KN: At the time that I was going through all that I was real sick. The medication made me sick. I wasn’t ill when I found out about my condition. But I knew the medication would make me sick. So I had to get my body into shape, I did my walks, ate the right food and built my body up to be able to take the medicine. Six months into the treatments I got real down. One day I couldn’t get up. I said to myself, Just when you think you got it all figured out, here comes something you never dreamed of. Life is so unpredictable. One thing I know is that you have to let life flow. I wrote it down because I thought it would make a good hook. So I got a song out of it. I recorded the song and I wrote about eight or nine more songs with it. And I put it out and that song went number one. I won “CD of the Year.” I got a couple of Grammy nominations for it and “Song of the Year.” And it was something that came out of all of my trials and tribulations. I tell you, it was a plus, because people still love that song. They still sing it. They still play it at weddings. They play it at funerals. I hear it all the time.
PT: That’s so awesome – that something good came out of all that tragedy.
KN: It was a message I had to deliver. It was a message that came to me that I had to get out, I think. It was something positive that came out and it helps a lot of people as well.
PT: That was “Let Life Flow”?
KN: Yes. That’s also the name of the CD.
PT: We’re looking forward to seeing you perform in New London at Sailfest. We are going to take our kids. We have seven between us.
KN: (Laughs) Good. Bring them all! I’m a big brother to nine more. I love kids.
PT: Can you tell us what’s on your future agenda?
KN: I don’t have anything planned. I am living in the moment. One of the things that I got from my theatrical coaches was to trust the moment. So that’s what I do. I trust the moment. I live in the moment. I’m doing what I wanted to do because I planned it a long time ago – to work with the kids and to pass the music on. I go to the Baton Rouge music school and play with the kids and talk to them. Just passing it on to the next generation. That’s very important to me – to keep this going. I think my dad worked real hard to pass it on. I want to do the same.
PT: What advice to you give to young people starting out in the business?
KN: My advice is that you can be talented and you can be great but you have to understand the business. If you don’t, you’re going to get left behind. You see a lot of great musicians that say, “Wow, I can play better than that guy and yet he’s up on stage.” Well, that’s probably because that guy did his homework. It’s important to understand the business end of it.
PT: (Stephanie) A lot of people tell us it’s all about putting it all out there, networking, and connecting. You can write a great song, but it’s nothing if no one hears it. You have to keep pushing.
KN: Yes. When I started out I used to go buy albums just to get the address off the back of the album jackets so I could send my tape into the company (laughs). Alligator Records got so tired of me they probably gave me a deal. I wouldn’t give up. I wanted a record deal. I bothered that guy for a long time – knocking on the doors and calling the office. One time I called the poor guy at his home. He didn’t understand how I got his home number (laughs). He said, “This is not my office. This is my home number. Why are you calling here?” But I did well for his company, so he gave me a pass (laughs).
PT: Funny story! Sounds like something we would do!
We have a signature question that we like to ask at the end of all of our interviews. If you were to sum up your life to date in one word what would it be?
PT: Well, that does sound like the perfect word to sum up your experiences! Thanks, Kenny, for a GREAT interview!