Tim Parsons, tparsons@tahoedailytribune.com

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August 16, 2012
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Too strong to be blue Kenny Neal is a survivor with penchant for hit songs

OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Kenny Neal did not like being in the company of Slim Harpo and now the two are forever linked.Natives of Baton Rouge, La., Harpo, Neal and his father, Raful Neal, were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2011.All 10 of Raful’s children learned to play multiple instruments and grew up to become professional musicians like the ones who frequented the Neal home, including Harpo.Harpo was a favorite of the Rolling Stones, who famously covered his song “Shake Your Hips” on the record “Exile on Main Street.” But the city’s well-known harmonica player was hardly a favorite of a 6-year-old Kenny Neal.“That was the one man I hated to see come to my house,” Neal recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t like your friend, Daddy.’ ”Harpo fell out of favor with the boy after he played a trick on him.“He told me to go into the trailer he was pulling,” Neal said. “It was pitch black. He was just playing around with me and when he closed the doors I started yelling and screaming and he didn’t know what to do. To quiet me down he went into his car to get a harmonica he gave me to quiet me up. ... He would have to apologize every time he came to my house.”Neal spoke by cell phone to Lake Tahoe Action near an airport in Maine. He performs Saturday in Oregon and then Tuesday, Aug. 21, at Squaw Valley’s Bluesdays, giving him a couple days to relax in the Tahoe area with his band mates, brothers Darnell and Frederick and nephew Tyree Neal and Bryan Morris.Neal also plays Sept.14 at the Crystal Bay Casino as part of Mark Hummel’s Harp Blowout.Neal’s father’s musical network and associations helped start Kenny’s career.Raful Neal was the bandleader of a Baton Rouge group that included Buddy and Phillip Guy, who both moved to Chicago to start their own bands. “Buddy and my dad were very close and Buddy told him he needed a bass player,” Neal said. So in 1976, at the age of 19, Neal joined Guy’s band for a gig at Antone’s in Austin, Texas. Neal decided to move to Chicago, where he played with Guy for a few years. “I went to Chicago and it did change me in having a look at different artists who were playing guitar and singing, and all of them had their contracts in their back pockets telling me, ‘Hey I’m going to Europe next week,’ ” Neal said. “I’m going, ‘Damn, these guys are not that good and they’re taking off to Europe with their own band. I think I need to get me a band.’ That opened my eyes up to a much broader music business. We were just playing weekends in the South at the regular local scene. So when I went to Chicago, I just saw everything just open up for me. Yeah, man, I can make a living at this and travel all over the world.” As a bandleader and lead guitarist, Neal landed a deal with Chicago’s Alligator Records. Neal’s first hit song with Alligator, “Outside Looking In,” was released in 1988, around the time he met guitarist Albert Collins.“He was always my idol, so when I made my first record, I was nervous about going up and introducing myself to him,” Neal said. “He was on his bus. I knocked on the bus door and walked in and he goes, ‘Wow, man, you’re that little dude from Baton Rouge.’ He said, ‘Check this out,’ and he turned the volume up. He was listening to ‘Outside Looking In.’ ” Shortly after releasing his third record on Alligator, Neal received a singular offer. The 1930 play, “Mule Bone,” written by the African-American poet Langston Hughes and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, was being put together for Broadway. Taj Mahal wrote the music and a 27-member cast was assembled. But producers struggled to find a lead actor to play the role of a young bluesman. None of the actors who auditioned were authentic enough to land the part. So instead, a real bluesman was taught to become an actor. Neal received intensive training. “They just drilled me, man,” Neal said. “Broadway don’t believe in mistakes and they don’t believe in being slouchy about anything. You need to be on the button, on time and you can’t ad-lib. They really drill you in rehearsal and that made me much more disciplined when I came back to the blues stage.” “Mule Bone” played for more than a year and won a Theater World Award for Most Outstanding New Talent On and Off Broadway. But as Neal sings on his latest album, “Hooked on Your Love,” life isn’t always a bed of roses.Neal’s father, Raful, a sister, a brother and one of his best friends died in an 11-month period, at the end of which Neal was diagnosed with hepatitis C and stage 4 liver disease. Stage 5 is death. “I was knocking at the door, man,” Neal said. Neal’s Stanford doctor told him he needed to stop playing music for a year or two. He objected. “She said, ‘If you want to live, you have to follow my orders,’ ” Neal said. “I said, ‘You’ve got my attention.’ ”Neal was too ill to get out of bed when he penned “Let Life Flow.” “Life is so unpredictable; that’s the way it is. Gets a little hard to bear sometimes; things out of nowhere blow your mind. One thing I know for sure; You got to let life flow.” “I was seven months into my treatment,” he said. “That’s when your body really breaks down because they had to kill off 80 percent of my white cells for the medicine to work. ... A lot of people can’t take it. A lot of people’s bodies reject it and a lot get so sick they just can’t take it. I got real bad there, but I didn’t let it get me down. But a lot of people just can’t take that bad feeling. That nausea. It’s just crazy.” Neal’s indefatigable zest for life and his personal relationships kept him going.“My family was right there with me so it made it much easier for me to get through because I was well taken care of and well loved every day,” he said. “You get with the family and when you get to laughing and talking, you forget about the treatments.” “So that’s how I got through that. And the fans played a big part. I would get hundreds of get-well cards and notes.”During his 58 weeks of treatment, Neal used his theater experience to start an entertainment talk show on a public access station. During an interview with E.C. Scott, Neal mentioned he had put together material for an album but hadn’t yet looked for a label. San Francisco’s Blind Pig Records President Edward Chmelewski saw the program, and he made an offer to Neal. It was a fortuitous development for everybody. “We put that record out and it took off like wildfire,” Neal said. The 2009 Blues Music Awards named “Let Life Flow” song of the year. The album was voted the year’s best by Blueswax, Blues Critics Awards and the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame. Neal also won the Monterey Bay Blues Artist of the Year Award. In addition, Neal was nominated for a Grammy Award in four categories. “Hooked on Your Love” in 2011 also was highly acclaimed. It received that year’s Critic’s Poll Living Blues Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, and the title track was the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation’s Contemporary/Traditional Blues Song of the Year.”When he is not on a tour, Neal splits his time living in Palo Alto and Baton Rouge, where last year he started the Kenny Neal andamp; Friends Heritage Blues Fest. He had a similar event eight years earlier before he fell ill and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita displaced many Louisianans. Last year’s festival was such a success, it will be an annual event, Neal said.“I had fans from all around the country show up and I was really blown away by that,” Neal said. “I didn’t expect to see people from New York, Florida and California come out.“I get a lot of the traditional and the new generation of music, and I really don’t have to go that far to find them. I am going to keep it (in Baton Rouge) so when you come down there you get a traditional taste of the music in Louisiana and the food as well.”While a lot of residents were permanently displaced, the disasters inspired a great amount of music.“A lot of good things come from bad,” Neal said. “Even though we had the tragedy, it also brought a lot of people together. ... The good thing was we got a lot of songs straight from the heart. This was real and most people from the deep South are like that anyway with their soul. It just poured out of everybody.”


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Aug 16, 2012 03:54PM Published Aug 16, 2012 03:52PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.