Which States From The South Originated Soul And R&B Music Birth of the Blues Guitar: Keb Mo’

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Birth of the Blues Guitar: Keb Mo’

It seems almost inconceivable that one of the most authentic players preserving the true sound of the Delta acoustic blues guitar would come from a man hailing from Compton, California, a place that has a reputation musically for being more of a bubbling cauldron of hip-hop and hardcore West Coast rap than anything else. But that’s precisely where Kevin Moore, better known as Keb Mo’, started out his blues guitar career.

Moore was born October 3, 1951 was born in Compton to parents of deep Southern heritage. As a young man, Moore’s parents kept him steeped in their own musical taste, spinning plenty of their own gospel, R&B and blues records that they kept at their home. He has also acknowledged that local radio and the music he heard at the local Baptist church served as tutors for his musical interests as well.

At the age of ten, Moore joined his school band, trying the trumpet first. In an interview with the LA Times, Moore said “I remember the first time playing with the band, playing whole notes – it just felt so good”. From the trumpet, Moore went onto play steel drums and other percussion instruments as well as the french horn before deciding to learn blues guitar.

According to Moore, he began to learn guitar with his uncle’s invitation. “When I picked up the guitar for the first time, I knew that was it”. Within two weeks, Moore had 5 chords down and was already experimenting with finger picking as well. After high school, Moore joined several local cover bands, playing small local venues and was met with a lackluster acceptance, at least until one of his band mates suggested that his music lacked ‘something’ and introduced him to a wider musical experience in Caribbean and African sounds. Moore took the instruction to heart and began to experiment with wider range of rhythms.

In the early 70’s, Moore began to catch work as a backup musician and sideman in and around Los Angeles while still gigging occasionally with a few local Top 40 bands. He landed his first major professional gig with former Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach. Creach hired Moore when Moore was barely 21 years old. Once while the band was rehearsing in a space they had rented in LA, Creach and his producer walked by. “He wandered in, liked what he heard, and hired us on the spot – true story!” He stayed with Creach through 4 albums and a steady touring schedule.

In an interview, Moore credited his time with Creach as having opened up his eyes and ears to a wide range of influences. Until he had joined up with the veteran violinist, Moore had been primarily playing for nightclub audiences in South Central Los Angeles. “This was really different for me, and it influenced my playing, helped me to experiment with different kinds of sounds and styles.” This exposure also had a positive effect on his song-writing and blues guitar playing skills as well, serving as a guitar lesson of a certain kind.

After leaving Creach’s employ he began to work as a contractor and arranger for Alamo-Irving music and began to secure fairly steady work in LA; all the while trying to promote himself as a solo artist, and blues guitar player. He released his first solo album Rainmaker in 1980 on the Casablanca label which quickly folded shortly after its release. The album scored little interest but his reputation amongst blues guitar players and other musicians was growing. He was self taught with no formal guitar lessons, which is inspiring for others trying to learn guitar.

After meeting and working with Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland producer Monk Higgins and a long run in the Whodunit Band (the house band at Marla’s Memory Lane), Moore turned his talents back towards the blues. Moore cites his work with Higgins as a seminal moment in his transformation into a real bluesman. Occasional gigs with blues guitar player Albert Collins and Big Joe Turner completed the process and Kevin Moore settled in on the sweet sounds of blues guitar as his preferred musical genre. Moore has often said that his time with Higgins was the most vital in his education as a blues player.

Yet fame eluded him throughout the 80’s until he caught what he considers his biggest break. In 1990 The Los Angles Theatre Company called on Moore – they were looking for an African American male to learn blues guitar in the Delta blues style, to do a play entitled Rabbit Foot. According to Moore, there was only one guy in LA that could do deliver the goods, Chuck Streetman, and he was unavailable due to scheduling. Moore was offered the chance to learn guitar music parts, and audition. To prepare for the role, Moore dug out his old Delta records, from blues guitar players and others like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Big Bill Broonzy. “Big Bill just blew my mind, a really good songwriter with an amazing voice, amazing guitar technique…”

His performance in Rabbit Foot impressed the theatre promoters that when another part came up for a blues player in a play called Spunk Moore was considered. But this time Chuck Streetman was available and was given the part. But Moore was signed on as Streetman’s understudy. His work in the theatre is what turned Moore into a modern day purveyor of the Delta blues tradition.

“Circumstances led me to play the blues. I was gonna be in a play and they wanted me to play the Delta blues. And it was work, an opportunity to work, so I started playing Delta blues and fell in love with the stuff. After the project was over, I just kept doing it – playing Delta blues – playin’ it sometimes in a club gig if I was playing some other kind of music and there was an opportunity to pull out my guitar and try it. People would respond really favorably to it”.

So when did Kevin Moore become Keb Mo’? Often times Moore would go to see jazz drummer Quentin Denard during some local gigs and on occasion would take his guitar and sit in with the band. Denard would peer over his riser and see Moore and shout “Keb’ Mo’!” when Moore would play blues. From that point on, Moore simply started calling himself Keb’ Mo’ and the name stuck.

It was a chance meeting with Taj Mahal and his agent John Porter that truly launched his solo blues guitar career. Moore gave Porter one of his demo tapes and the pair hit it off. Porter knew that he had found something truly unique and he kept after Moore to provide more material. In June 1994 when Epic Records decided to revive the famed O’Keh label, Porter swung a deal for Moore and the result was Moore’s self-titled debut album. The critics loved his unique blues guitar sound, and Moore was soon opening for large national acts like legendary blues guitar players Buddy Guy, Joe Cocker and Jeff Beck, the album ended up earning Moore a Grammy and launched him into the blues spotlight.

In 1995 Mo’ played the Newport Folk Festival and stunned audiences with his stinging slide guitar style and his soulful vocals. He had arrived. Shortly after his Newport appearance he was off on his first European tour, practically giving audiences a guitar lesson in the blues.

Industry heavy-weights like Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt took notice. A friend gave Bonnie a copy of the tape while she was riding in his car. After they listened to the tape, Bonnie turned on the cars radio and Mo’ was being interviewed at that very moment. Moore recalled later “She called me at the station from her car phone. She came to a gig, hung out, and then I opened for her on a few dates. She said ‘I’d like to do something with you – and I am not jerking your chain.’ And When Bonnie says she’s going to do something, she always shows up.”

Another friend introduced Moore to Jackson Browne when they were both playing at a festival in Seattle. In the end, both Raitt and Jackson ended up providing backup vocals to the title track of Moore’s second album, Just Like You.

The album went on to earn Moore the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues album in 1996. As Moore included a few Robert Johnson tracks on his releases, he began to be associated with Johnson. This association led Moore to play Johnson in the 1997 documentary Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl?

Keb’ Mo still garners accolades, Grammy’s and a multitude of other awards with his albums (that showcase his ability to spin a down home feel to his own work and the reworking of blues, folk, jazz and rock classics), his occasional acting roles and his heart-felt song writing.

Moore continues on, walking the blues highway, introducing some new fans to the Delta blues, reaffirming the soul of the country blues to the diehard and proving that the blues are not about location or background nor is just about the music. The blues is about the weight of the passion that lies in your soul.

Like has been said many, many times, it’s impossible to know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.

Keb’ Mo’ knows.

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