Where did your musical odysey begin?
Saturday evening JOHN LEE SANDERS and his rhythm orchestra take the stage at the Pacific Inn in the Rhumba Room for a hip shaking New Orleans Deep Fried Funk dance party. Between rehearsals this week JOHN LEE spent the afternoon answering our probing questions. There are the pressing matters - of his name JOHN LEE and that picture of him with Elvis Presley's father.
John Lee welcome to the electronic pages of the White Rock Sun. Let's go back to the very beginning. Where did your musical odysey begin?
My family and I moved to the deep south, to Jackson Mississippi, in 1953, I was 2 years old, and I absorbed any and every music I heard, whether it was Mozart, black acoustic delta blues that had come out of the cotton fields of our landscape, Jazz from nearby New Orleans, Black Gospel from the church, Country and Western, and my Mother’s favorite Broadway show tune soundtracks. I’ve known I wanted create music since I could reach the keys on my Grandparents out of tune upright piano. In those days, it seemed most people had a piano in the living room, and it seemed to me the most natural form of expression, and having 2 older brothers that could sing and harmonize, I learned that vocal expression was as normal as speaking. Whoever laid out those black and white keys in that configuration was a genius, the harmonic structure of music seemed mapped out in some mathematical formula on those keys, and I was determined to decode the process, luckily there were many who had come before me.
My brother Chip, who was 6 years older, had started classical piano, had a great ear, and was already learning the piano styles of Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis, who was born a few miles from our Louisiana home town, Monroe. I watched every note Chip played, the boogie bass lines, and every chord in his right hand. He could pick out almost any song that he heard. He could read music pretty well but could play by ear even better, and had perfect pitch, as I realized I did later. My Grandmother was a pianist in the silent movies of Memphis, and lived 4 blocks away from the childhood home of Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul, and walking distance from Stax Records, and Royal Recorders, where Al Green cut most of his hits. I was always drawn to African American culture, by proximity and osmosis. The authenticity of the music, and going back to my roots helped me find my own musical voice. I became pretty well known in the Juke Joints of East Texas in my early music career, where most of my friends wouldn’t dare set foot, but musically I felt accepted, and never felt afraid, except the night when two guys pulled guns on each other on the dance floor, fighting over a woman. The Rhythms of New Orlean so predominant in my music may seem complex to some of our listeners, but to those of us who have grown up around that culture, it’s so embedded into our culture, not just on a musical level, but as a part of everyday life, parades, funerals, etc. I try to bring that feeling to the audience no matter where they are, they can feel that joyous spirit in what I do.
There has to be an interestng story behind the picture of you and Elvis' father
I remember the day my father brought home a 45 rpm record that changed our lives, and the world for that matter. It had a yellow Sun Records logo, just a paper sleeve, and no picture. My dad’s State Farm Insurance office was upstairs from the local record store, and the store owner would give him copies of new releases we might like. The owner of the record story told my dad, “I think this kid might go somewhere” The song was called “That’s Alright Mama”, with a B side of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” the first release from an unknown singer named Elvis Presley, and in small letters, Scotty and Bill. I later learned that “Bill” was Bill Black, who my 2nd Cousin Arthur had been playing with around Memphis for years.
We loved his voice and that rockabilly groove, it was raw, and had an energy that I grabbed hold of. I didn’t like kid’s music, I liked the real raw energy of R&B,
We didn’t know if Elvis was black or white, especially since the white and black stations were playing it.
We wore that record out, and to this day, it’s the holy relic of Rock and Roll, in a frame at my brother Chip’s house in Jackson.
Three years later, Elvis signed a major record deal with RCA, and bought he and his parents a home a few doors down from my Aunt and Uncle, Ben and Eleanor Hannah. We were so excited to hear the news, for that year Elvis had risen to the level of fame equal to Michael Jackson and the Beatles. I spent many a day, in Elvis’ front yard, as did many of the rest of the kids, hoping to say hello or get an autograph.
Well as my luck would have it, I had to use the bathroom on a hot Summer day, August 1957. Elvis was on the road most of these days, but his dad, Vernon Presley was out front watering the rose garden.
I mustered up the courage to speak to him, “Mr. Presley, can I use your bathroom, my aunt’s house is too far to run back to, and I really have to go pee”. Vernon said “come on up in her son, the bathroom’s down the hall to the left”. I finished, and had a peek around the house, and said “can I see Elvis’s room”, “Well I don’t think he’d mind” said Vernon.
I opened the door to find two small twin beds. Apparently Elvis was afraid to sleep alone, and sometimes would have his cousin Billy Smith to stay with him. There was
Floral wallpaper, satin bedspreads, and dozens of teddy bears sent by girls from everywhere. Elvis had just had a hit record with “Teddy Bear” and we loved the song.
I came back out of the house with Vernon, to find my two brothers, Chip and Steve, and my dad with his camera. He took a picture of all of us with Vernon Presley, in the driveway, and I remember this day like it was yesterday, one of those pivotal events that change your life forever.
We saw Elvis come and go a few times after that day in a new Harley, or a pink Cadillac convertible full of pretty girls , but the scene was so chaotic, it was hard to get close to him. He had become larger than life, and so famous, that it wasn’t safe for his family to live in a small suburban house, with a constant flow of traffic down Audubon Drive, and an ever increasing mob of gawkers in his front yard hoping to get a glimpse. I sensed a bit of snobbery with the neighbors to the Presley family, as they had come from the welfare projects, and were perceived as “White Trash” by some. Elvis had paid cash for the house, and his Nouveau riche status for performing music that some considered Negro Rhythm and Blues, was too much for some of these older southern racist white folks, but to us young folks, we sensed there was a revolution in our culture, and Elvis was at the center of it all. Those days were the last time Elvis could live a somewhat normal life, in a regular neighborhood without a gate with a 24 hour security guard, to monitor who comes and goes. Such a phenomenon seeing someone with that much power and charisma, so close to home. It must have been similar to what Michael Jackson and the Beatles experienced.
Elvis opened so many doors in those days, and it’s hard for some of us who were born many years later, to see this revolution in music, and culture. As we look at the Vegas Elvis, and the crooner of ballads, it’s important to note that he "rocked the world", and broke down many barriers. A few weeks after meeting Elvis and his Mom and Dad, I practiced Hound Dog in front of the mirror, and performed at Sunday School Show and Tell, the little girls screamed, and I thought to myself, I should have a job like Elvis.
How did you end up coming to the Vancouver area?
Long John and The Mod Rod
In May of 1986, during the week of the Chernobyl meltdown in Russia, 26 years ago as I write this, I got a call from Long John Baldry in Vancouver. We had been on the same record label in 1981, “Riva Records” Founded by Rod Stewart and Manager “Billy Gaff”. I stayed in Vancouver for a week, during Expo 86, and recorded Baldry’s “Silent Treatment” LP, doing all of the sax parts. I visited Vancouver off and on for 20 years before moving here. I became friends with so many people and great musicians. There seemed to be such a wonderful zeitgeist during Expo, that they were on the verge of being one of the great cities of the world, that I was caught up in the spirit, I believe it still exists.
I met a beautiful woman named Judy on one of my many tours through BC, and we were married in 2006, and I applied for landed resident status. I couldn’t work for a year, but bought a house in White Rock, built a studio, and during the 18 months waiting for my permanent residence card, I learned to play guitar. Sadly Judy and I recently parted ways, but I decided to stay in this beautiful City.
Your bio of artists you have played with or recorded with is a who's who of popular music. I am interested particularly how you ended up playing with the great JOHN LEE HOOKER.
I had the house gig with my band at JJs Blues Lounge, in Downtown San Jose, California, during the 80s and 90s, every Sunday and Monday night, and most every week, when he wasn’t on the road, through the dark smoky room, I could pick out a white blues fedora, at the end of the bar, nodding in time with a groove, usually quiet and by himself, it was the king of the Boogie, John Lee Hooker, He must have been a fan, because he kept coming back around. He was pretty shy, and I didn’t get to know him very well. I loved John Lee Hooker, his vocal style reminded me of the old black men I saw every day in my childhood in Mississippi, in the 1950s,
My old buddy, Deacon Jones, who I had known as the Hammond Organist from the Freddie King band, back in my days in Dallas Texas, was producing a John Lee Hooker LP, for a small indy label called Pausa records, and hired me on spec, which is, if the record label goes for the 4 or 5 song demo, the band gets paid, and they put up the money for the rest of the LP. I only played on one track, which was good enough for me, to be on a record from my namesake, I joked around with blues fans saying my mama named me after a famous Mississippi bluesman. When I started touring with Long John Baldry, there were 3 johns in the band (and no waiting) and it got confusing, Long John, Papa John King, and me, so they all agreed I should put the “Lee” in, I mean it’s on my birth certificate. My mother called me Johnny, and only called me “John lee” at my baptism and when she was mad at me.
The song I recorded with JOHN LEE was “We’ll meet again” a soulful ballad with a Ray Charles Gospel piano in 12/8 time. “Here’s the deal” , says Deacon, “If Hook likes the track, we go in and cut it with him live in the studio”, well a week went by, Deacon calls and says, “Hook loves the track, but he don’t wanna pay to bring no band back in, he just gon’ take my scratch vocal off, and put his on tape” I said, “that’s cool, long as I get paid”, well that’s another story, and I did get paid, years later after Richard Branson picked up the track for Virgin Records. Anyway, John Lee Hooker comes in Dragon Studio in Redwood City CA, about a 40 minute drive from his Beautiful Los Altos Hills home. Bruce, the engineer asked if he needed anything to warm up, John Lee Hooker replied in his smoky deep bluesy voice that could have been a line from the next song, “Go gimme a Barbeque samich and a cold beer” he chased the food with the beer, and did 2 or 3 takes and he was gone. I went to one of JL’s last concerts, before he passed away, in San Francisco. I surprised my girlfriend Judy, and told her to keep her eyes closed when walking up to the marquee. We met him after the show, and he invited us to his home. He said “John Lee, you can play my piano, while me and Judy takes a walk in the garden”, at 81 he was still frisky with the ladies.
Many people in the Lower Mainland will remember you from LONG JOHN BALDRY'S band. How did you come to play with the legendary LONG JOHN?
Long John Baldry
Baldry and I hit it off like old friends. I didn’t see as much of him during the overdubs of the “Silent Treatment” sessions in 1986, since during those days, he would come to the studio when it was time to overdub his vocals. He would joke in those days and say “Wake me when it’s a hit”, but I believe he became more involved in the hands on process later in his life.
Long John and I were both signed to the same record Label, “Riva Records” owned by Rod Stewart, and his manager, Billy Gaff. I knew of him through the discovery of Elton John in the Rock History books. I saw a genealogy family tree poster of British Rock history that put Long John Baldry at the Root of it. . The Producer of my first LP, back in 1981, , Jimmy Horowitz had booked me on the session, and I was so excited to meet Baldry and experience Canada for the first time. Jimmy had produced many of the great Dusty Springfield Records, and had helped produce the “It Aint Easy” LP with Rod Stewart and Elton John, Baldry’s biggest selling LP, into the millions.
I toured and recorded with Long John Baldry off and on until his death in 2005. I became his piano player and Music director for many of tour tours of Europe, Australia, and Canada. So many great musical memories onstage and off. Baldry was at times a proper English Gentleman with great stage presence and at times he had a temper and would storm off the stage in a rage, leaving me or Kathi McDonald to finish the show. Those tours with Baldry were some of the most exciting times of my life as a performer, and as a world traveler. There was never enough time to explore the wonders of Europe, but often there would be a week to 10 days off in the middle, where I would travel to Paris, the south of France, Lourdes, London, and other places I had only dreamed of visiting.
Baldry Featured me as a lead vocalist on every show, and encouraged me get back to my Southern blues roots, after many years pursuing fame in the record business and the pop music world. We played some of the largest blues and Jazz festivals in the world. I would stay at Long John’s Penthouse in Vancouver while rehearsing or having time off, where when you picked up the phone, you never knew if it might be Elton John, Rod Stewart or Eric Clapton calling to say hello. On one gig in Vancouver, we had a surprise jam session onstage with Jimmy Page From Led Zeppelin. It was rock and roll Royalty at the Baldry house at times. One interesting day, I had just woken up around 10 AM, and was expecting a call from our drummer, the phone rang, and before I could pick it up in the living room, it went to the answering machine, one of the older ones, that still used tape. I immediately recognized the English accent coming through on the other end, from so many concerts and interviews, since I often did a pretty good impersonation of this man.
The Rocket Man
It was the man that had influenced me greatly, as a songwriter, vocalist and piano player, Sir Elton John. To Baldry it was his old band mate, Reg Dwight, who he had discovered playing in a Casino in England back around 1966, but to me it was Rock Royalty on the other end. Baldry was still sleeping, should I wake him up, and pick up the line? Baldry had instructed us not to pick up the phone, because it was also his fax line, and every day there were tour itineraries, requests for interviews, contracts, and correspondence from throughout Europe and North America, so I just listened to the voice on the other end, “Hey John, it’s Elton, you old Queen, I’m flying up from Atlanta to New York for a gig... Elton and Long John hadn’t spoken in 10 or 20 years, until this call out of the blue. I inadvertently had a peek at Long John’s address book lying open by the phone one day, it was a who’s who of Rock and Roll, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, and on and on. He not only knew these people as friends, but had a major influence on each one, as one who created an English Blues and Rock and Roll culture since the mid 50s.
He had a great taste for Art and interior décor, with hundreds of historical Biographies, and history books.
Touring Europe with Baldry was like having a European History lesson that spanned 2000 years. He Spoke fluent German, and inspired me to learn, even though I still have a long way to go. We toured Europe every Spring from 1993 until around 1999. His favorite expression to the band, as we passed some gorgeous landscape of castles on the Danube was “Some people pay thousands for this, and you’re getting it all for free”, in his basso profundo proper British upper crust accent. He could do every British dialect there was, so I don’t know which was the real one.
We played small pubs, huge festivals, prime time TV shows, and the club in Hamburg where the Beatles, (who began as Baldry’s opening act) began their Career. Playing for the first time in Hamburg was an eye opening experience, for we were playing in the Reeperbahn, the red light district of Hamburg, which made the French Quarter in New Orleans look pretty tame. I can’t imagine the 20 year old Beatles playing there for 6 months, and what an experience it must have been for them. Our second time playing Hamburg was at the Fabrik Club, where Long John and the band recorded a live Cd, “On Stage Tonight” on of Baldry’s biggest selling CDs of the 90s.
We didn’t realize until we got to the gig, that it was a live radio broadcast, and by that time, the band was so tight, it was flawless, and was decided to release it to the world.
My wife, Judy, who had a natural and learned gift of healing, using Reiki, and Shiatsu, spent every day for months working on Long John at Vancouver General Hospital, in his final months. I visited him as much as my schedule would allow, but the super bug infection had become drug resistant, and his body had lost the battle. I owe much gratitude to Long John for encouraging me to be authentic in my music. He had lived the life of a pop star, and realized it was not the music of his soul, and gravitated back to the blues. He never received the riches and recognition of some of his superstar pals, but he was a great talent, a charismatic performer, and a dear friend.
Given you have played with so many musical luminaries and headlined so many concerts it may be difficult to pin point just a couple of concerts that you cherish in your memory bank.
Last October, on my 60th Birthday, I performed a special tribute concert to Hal David, the lyricist on all of the Burt Bacharach hit songs, he had turned 90 years old in 2011. I was playing keyboards and sax, and got to back up so many of my musical heroes, probably the most influential, Stevie Wonder. We didn’t know if he would make it until soundcheck the day of the show. He had just flown in from Washington DC, to dedicate the Memorial of Martin Luther King, whom he helped create a national holiday for. There were so many other great artists on the show, Smokey Robinson, Herb Alpert, Dionne Warwick and others
In 2003, I did a live DVD with songwriter Paul Williams, along with other special guests, including Willie Nelson. I’ve done a pretty convincing Willie impersonation since the 70s, and during a break, Paul asked me to pitch one of his recent songs to Willie, in my “Willie” voice. It was pretty strange, but Willie said in that downhome Texas drawl.. .. “Man you sound just like me!, When you do the demo, sing it in my voice so I’ll know how to phrase it”.
One one of Baldry’s Vancouver shows, at 86th Street, I got to the soundcheck, and there was a huge Marshall Amp stack on the stage, I asked around who was playing through it, and got no answer. Later to find out, that Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin came and did a surprise guest appearance for the encore of the show. I’ve seen fans mob the stage before at rock concerts, but never while I was playing on it. He’s a master of the guitar, and one of the most brilliant men of Rock and Roll. It was a thrill to work with him.
For the last 4 years I’ve been playing with some iconic songwriters from ASCAP, (American Society of Composers and Publishers) Grammy, Tony, Oscar, and multi-platinum hit makers in every genre, at the Library of Congress in Washington, It’s become one of the hottest tickets of the year in Washington, attended by many Senators and members of the House of Representatives. I’ve come to meet many of them over the last few years, including Madame Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who had such kind and flattering words on my performance. In 2010 I was asked by Bill Withers to sing the closing finale song, of his mega-hit, “Lean on Me”. I love history, politics and songwriting, and each concert was a very special night.
A few years ago you recorded a live CD and DVD at Blue Frog Studios in White Rock. From those session came a beautiful gospel song "When He Returns." You also have a full gospel CD and recently performed a gospel concert at the Pender Island Blues Festival. You will also be performing with gospel show with a choir in Fort Langley later this summer. What motivates you to do gospel music in addition to the blues?
I began singing and playing in the church as a child, and have never strayed from my Christian roots. My musical gifts come from God, as do all gifts. Growing up in the deep south, I was drawn to the soul and spirit of the Black Christian Church, I have a university music degree, and love the music of the church all the way back to Gregorian chants, the masses of Bach, and Mozart, but the Holy Spirit speaks to my soul in the form of Black Gospel Music. Most of my favorite performers began singing in the church, and I know we all share this spiritual connection in common. When I hear Aretha, Whitney, Sam Cooke and Elvis, I hear the roots of the church in their music. The Blues is the secular side of Gospel music, it’s rhythms, harmonies, tonal structure share the same dna, but the two genres have always been intertwined in my daily struggle with spirit and the flesh. I have a song in progress called “When Ash Wednesday Comes Around”, the day after Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, when we enter the 40 days of lent leading to Easter.
In February 2011, right around carnival time, Mardi Gras/ Ash Wednesday, I was diagnosed with Throat Cancer, and didn’t know if I would survive or sing again. Being from Louisiana, This song is the story of those 2 important days of the year in our culture, and the two coexisting worlds of the Blues and Gospel. To most people Ash Wednesday means the party’s all over, but to some of us, it’s just the beginning of the journey.
When Ash Wednesday comes around.
On that day When flesh, and spirit worlds collide
Swing down chariot with the angels let me ride
for trinkets, beads and riches I have strived
Lay down My silver, gold and my pride
And for all that I have gained and I’ve lost
I lay my burden down At foot of the cross,
Mardi Gras of my memories, have new meaning
For On the everlasting Arms I am leaning
Cuz I know that Heaven’s where my treasure Lies
My higher ground when Levees start to rise
As I look back on the madness of my youth
Make me a warrior for the light and the truth.
When the sadness all around me is storming
for 40 days I shall long for Easter morning
dust to dust, as we rise to holy ground
on my knees, When Ash Wednesday comes around
Â© John Lee Sanders, 2012
This Saturday evening you will be headlining the White Rock Blues Society show at the Rhumba Room in the Pacific Inn in South Surrey. It is being billed as:
John Lee Sanders can sit in front of a piano and bring the smoke from a Texas BBQ, A New Orleans Street Parade, and the Soul of the Mississippi Delta, all in one set.
Not simply a sit down concert, this is going to be a full on boogie woogie dance party. Who will make up your band Saturday night?
Here’s the lineup
JLS, Guitar, Piano, Vocals
Chris Nordquist, Drums
Tim Porter, Guitar
“A-train” Alexander Boynton Jr. Bass
Steve Hilliam, Tenor Saxophone
Vince Mai, Trumpet
What new projects in addition to the upcoming gospel show in Fort Langley are you working on?
I’ll be performing with Bonnie Raitt, as her opening act on Aug 10, at the Queen Elizabeth Theater in Vancouver, and Aug. 13, in Calgary. I’ll be doing the 2nd annual Gospel Blues Christmas in White Rock on Dec 16, as well as a few other venues around BC.
I’m working on a few different CDs, one of my more adult contemporary music,
My music has such a broad fan base, pop, country, jazz gospel, blues, that sometimes I feel that sometimes genres can lock us into a particular box. I love blues artists, but I’m drawn more to artists who have taken the essence from those elements and crossed over and become mainstream without sacrificing their integrity as an artists, such as Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, and others.
I’m also doing a solo cd with my good friend, and co-writer, Chris Caswell, from LA,
He’s worked with everyone from , the Muppets, Jason Mraz, Daft Punk, Sarah Vaughn, Cannonball Aderley, to writing a Symphony debut at Carnagie Hall.
I’m also working on a CD, with a bit of country influence in the blues, Those 2 genres have so much in common, but the fan base seems a bit divided. I love songs that tell a story, and it seems that with so much dance music on the charts, the country writers seem much more evolved lyrically, so I would like to pursue that side of the tracks.
This week I’m working in the studio with Zigaboo Modeliste, king of the funky drums, the most sampled drummer in History, He’s from a famous New Orleans funk band called the Meters, who are innovators in the origins of Funk and Hip Hop. I’m working on a tour of Europe for 2013.
I’m constantly writing, not so much for a particular project, but just because I love the creative process. I’m writing an autobiography, a collection of stories, that are pretty interesting. Having survived cancer, and gaining my voice and life back, I feel that it might be an inspiration to someone out there. During my cancer treatment and recovery, it was a therapeutic process, since I didn’t feel much like making music, but I love the written word.
So that’s what’s going on in my world, Hope to see everyone Saturday night at The Rhumba Room in the Pacific Inn in South Surrey.