Kenny Neal is a classic bluesman out of New Orleans. His father Raful, was a major player in the blues scene, so Kenny was exposed to a lot of great blues at a very young age. When he saw the many talented guitarist's that his dad associated with, he decided that's what he wanted to do also. He took up the guitar and the harmonica and set out to keep the family's blues tradition alive. Kenny turned out to be a major blues artist himself, sharing the stage with blues greats such as: Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Albert Collins, Albert King and so many more. In 2006, Kenny had an idea to put out a Christmas album. After having a few health issues, Kenny was able to persevere through them, and now in 2015 the album is complete and ready to be released. I recently caught up with Kenny.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on the upcoming release of your new Christmas Album. What was the process of deciding which songs to use when there are so many great ones?
K.N. - The songs that I choose for the CD are songs from my memories as a kid growing up, they was always being played at my home during Christmas time. And I wanted to share with my fans the music that I grew up listening to at Christmas.
R.V.B. - When did you start working on this project?
K.N. - 2006
R.V.B. - I know these things take a little time. Did people give you weird looks when you were working on these out of season? LOL
K.N. - It was a little strange for the Engineers but it was more personal for me. It was around 2006 when I decided to put this CD together. I was having health problems and didn't know what the future may bring and the one thing I had not done in my career was a Christmas CD. And if for some reason I wouldn't have survived and passed on, I would have left a Christmas CD to share with everyone.
R.V.B. - Are there any songs on the album that are your personal favorites? I did see that there are 2 versions of "Merry Christmas Baby" the classic blues song.
K.N. - Merry Christmas Baby is a song that makes my Christmas complete every year, because this is the one song that made me feel like it was really Christmas. That's why I have 2 versions of it, Otis Redding style and Charles Brown.
R.V.B. - Who were some of the people that helped you on this record?
K.N. - All of the people on this Christmas CD are my family, my brothers Frederick Neal on Keyboards and Darnell Neal on Bass, my son Kenny Neal Jr. on Drums and my daughter Syreeta Neal on Vocals. And my drummer that tours with me, Bryan Morris on Drums, he is the only one that is not a relative. It was nice having the family to help me.
R.V.B. - What originally led you to playing music and the guitar?
K.N. - I think it's because it was one of the instruments around my home and my dad, Raful Neal, had a Blues Band when I was growing up and I always admired the guitar players as a kid. My dad also had a guitar player named Buddy Guy, does that name sound familiar? And I also learned to play the harmonica because my dad was a harmonica player.
R.V.B. - With New Orleans being known mostly as a jazz town... what led you to the blues?
N.N. - My dad led me to the Blues.
R.V.B. - What songs did you tackle first when you were learning your craft?
K.N. - The first song I learned how to play was Jimmy Reed style. I must of been about 6 or 7 years old.
R.V.B. - Who were your influences?
K.N. - My biggest influence of all was my dad, Raful Neal. And he introduced me to the Blues World and would play songs for me by Muddy Waters, Little Walter which was his favorite, Howlin Wolf, Elmore James, so that's where it all started.
R.V.B. - What would you consider factors and influences that make the swamp music sound?
K.N. - A little mixture of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, all three of these cities are different styles of music that make the swamp 'blues' music sound.
R.V.B. - Is there any performances in your career that really stick out in your mind?
K.N. - I have many that stick in my mind because I have shared the stage with BB King, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Albert Collins, Albert King, Johnny Copeland, Johnny Winters, Steve Miller, Koko Taylor, Lazy Lester, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Carey Bell, Luther Allison and I can go on and the memories still linger which is very pleasant to me.
R.V.B. - Do you think that your playing has matured through the years. Do you sound different to yourself today as opposed to the stuff you did in the 80's?
K.N. - Very much so. Back then I was playing trying to impress my audience. Now I play and trust the moment and feel real confidence in myself, it's second nature to me now.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy performing in the folk musical "Mule Bone"?
K.N. - At the beginning I wasn't too happy about accepting the "Mule Bone" musical. I had no experience with theatrical work, I was a bit nervous about it. But I took it anyway because I knew it would be good for my career at that time. After I got into it I started to really enjoy it.
R.V.B. - Was there any difference in performance approach in that setting, as per playing live in a club somewhere?
K.N. - The only thing about Broadway is you have to be really precise. But I learn quick and once I got the feel of it, I took the ball and ran with it and scored because at the end of the Broadway Show I won the "Theatre World Award" for the most outstanding new coming actor.
R.V.B. - You've been rewarded with some very prestigious awards such as: Blues Song of the Year, Monterey Bay Blues Artist of the Year, and have been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. How do you feel about these achievements?
K.N. - I feel great about them because a lot of our older Blues Artists didn't get rewarded until after their life. And it makes me feel proud to glance at them every once in a while.
R.V.B. - Did Hurricane Katrina effect you in any way?
K.N. - Yes it did effect me. My dad had a sister who we could not find after Katrina, she was devastated and went into shock. We thought she had perished, we didn't find her till 4 months later in Texas. And all the other folks around that had to up root and go to other States, it was very disturbing.
R.V.B. - Are you going to play a Christmas set anywhere?
K.N. - Every year my brothers and I get together and we perform somewhere in Baton Rouge, LA during the Holidays and play these Christmas songs. So it would be somewhere around Baton Rouge.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Kenny Neal visit his website www.kennyneal.net
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