Catching the blues at an early age

Kenny Neal can’t remember a day when music wasn’t part of his life

Kenny Neal’s reasonably certain how he caught a lifetime case of the blues.

“It’s always been hard for me to pinpoint,” said Neal, who writes, sings and plays Louisiana swamp blues. “But I think it started in my mama’s belly.”

There’s ample evidence to support his self-diagnosis. Neal’s father was a leading Louisiana bluesman, and all 10 Neal siblings have benefited from genetics.

With: Leah Tysse, Sista Monica Parker, Gloria Scott

Where: Presentation Church, 6715 Leesburg place, Stockton

With: Chris Cain, Ron Thompson, Mike Hammar

Where: Lozano’s Pacific Avenue Grill, 6124 Pacific Ave., Stockton

Information: (209) 474-8474

“My dad used to put me up on the bar,” Neal said. “I’d dance and sing on the bar and make more money than my dad did.”

He’ll be the only Neal of Baton Rouge in Stockton when his trio performs Friday at Lozano’s Pacific Avenue Grill and during a Christmas show Sunday at Presentation Church.

Neal, having just completed a 40-day, 27-show tour of Turkey, sent his traveling family home for the holidays. He joins them after Sunday’s show.

“We don’t even remember starting music,” said Neal, 53, the eldest of Raful and Shirley Neal’s musical sons (seven) and daughters (three). “It was always around. we grew up in a household of music.”

Raful Neal, who died in 2004 at 68, was a harmonica player and band leader who jammed with Buddy Guy – once a guitarist in Raful Neal’s band – and Junior Wells. Raful Neal stayed home instead of heading north to Chicago as many Southern bluesmen of his era did.

Made sense. He became patriarch of his family band.

“He was our biggest influence,” said Kenny Neal, who has three grown children and four grandchildren. “It was always around. so I didn’t take it as something we were gonna learn. It was part of life. No big deal.”

It evolved into a 23-year recording career, enabling Neal and his siblings to perpetuate their dad’s blues legacy.

During Turkey’s 28th Efes Festival, Neal’s band played for crowds of up to 10,000. Why Turkey?

“Because everybody’s got the blues,” Neal said. “Also, the Europeans and folks in the Middle East read about the history of blues and where it came from. The slavery and that whole thing. they understand. all over the world, the blues has never died out. we probably sell more outside of this country.”

Neal, who plays guitar in his band, was born in new Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge. Music was his education. He entered his first talent show, singing and playing piano, at 6.

“I’ve been working since I was a kid,” said Neal, whose kindergarten was his dad’s bands. “I did my James Brown thing and whatever else was happening. I’ve gigged all my life.”

Blues pioneers Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins “were instilled in me. That got to be the blues. I didn’t know that then.”

He tours with brothers Fredrick, 41, on keyboards and Darnell, 42, on bass. Neal’s daughter Syreeta, 30, sings with his group.

He got started with four of his brothers (the Neal Brothers Band) in Toronto, backing up blues headliners and honing his sound.

Neal made his solo recorded debut in 1987 with the song “Bio on the Bayou” and has produced 11 CDs and DVDs.

He’s not sure how well “Hooked on Your Love,” released in September by San Francisco’s Blind Pig Records, is doing. He’s been too busy overseas to monitor its progress.

In 1991, Neal played the lead role in “Mule Bone,” a drama by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston for which Taj Mahal wrote the music.

“That was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Neal, who acted for a year at new York’s Barrymore Theatre. “I actually did well. I won an award (Theater World) and all that good stuff. It’s something I can say I did it, but I wasn’t too interested in that. I am qualified to do a stage play now, if I run across something I’m interested in.”

His major interest, though, is preserving and perpetuating authentic American blues music.

“I’m just carrying the torch over from those who have come and gone,” said Neal, who had to put it down in 2005 while recovering from an illness and mourning the deaths of his father and two siblings. “You know, I’ve had a chance to share the blues with the great, great Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Slim Harpo, Professor Longhair and Big Mama Thornton.”

Neal reignited his flame with 2008’s “Let Life Flow.” His journey will be documented in “American Blues Man,” a DVD due in 2011, and memoirs he began writing four years ago: “I’ve got a lot of stories to tell.”

He’s definitely a blues purist. all blues festivals aren’t equal, even in Turkey and the U.S.

“You know, we nearly lost the blues in the ’70s when disco came in,” said Neal, who splits time between homes in Baton Rouge and Palo Alto, where wife Josi works at Lockheed Martin. “There’s no stopping it now. That’s why I stick to the roots of the blues. I keep it there. I don’t wanna dilute it.”

Contact reporter Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or Visit his blog at

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Catching the blues at an early age

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