5X 2013 BMA nominee John Németh brings his smoking hot brand of soul-blues
Boise, Idaho is hardly the place anyone would conjure up as a hotbed of soul-blues.
But for John Németh, it’s where his love for the genre began—and the starting point for a journey that’s taken him from his first gigs fronting a teenage blues band to five Blues Music Award nominations in 2013 alone.
In early 2013, Németh traded his life on the west coast to settle down in Memphis, Tennessee. He and Jaki, that girlfriend he followed to California, had married and started a family, and Memphis made sense for multiple reasons: It’s centrally located for touring, the cost of living is inexpensive, and the river town is the historical ground zero for blues, soul, and rock-and-roll.
Németh landed in the perfect place: Electraphonic Studio, home of producer and musician Scott Bomar, who composed the film scores for Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan and produced Cyndi Lauper’s Memphis Blues. Backed by the Bo-Keys, Bomar’s group of veteran Memphis performers who made their names playing with the likes of Al Green, O.V. Wright, Rufus Thomas, and the Bar-Kays. Németh quickly laid down thirteen tracks that, as he describes it, “live in the style like I live in the style.” The tapes from that session caught the ear of music industry veteran Charles Driebe, who took the album to Denby Auble of Blue Corn Music. The Americana/roots music label quickly signed Németh, adding him to a roster that boasts the likes of Ruthie Foster, Gurf Morlix, and Steve Forbert.
Memphis Grease embodies everything that sets this artist apart from the soul-blues revivalist pack: it’s innovative and unique while epitomizing the absolute best of the genre. It’s a deeply forged amalgamation of scorching harmonica-driven blues and sweet blue-eyed soul ala the Box Tops or Roy Head, delivered via two fistfuls of originals and a trio of carefully chosen covers: Otis Rush’s hard-driving “Three Times a Fool,” which opens the album; an electrifying take on Howard Tate’s Northern Soul favorite “Stop;” and Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” reinvented here as a slow-burning soul number that matches anything that came out of late-1960s Muscle Shoals.
The album title itself is evocative of Németh’s journey to Memphis. The soul-blues scene he fell into in the Bay Area is historically referred to as “Oakland Grease,” and two of Oakland’s “greasiest” artists, blues guitarist Lowell Fulson and jump blues pianist Jimmy McCracklin, journeyed south to record two of their best, if often overlooked albums: Fulson’s funky psych-blues In A Heavy Bag was cut at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studio in 1969, while McCracklin’s soulful 1971 album, High on the Blues, was recorded at Memphis’ Hi Records with none other than Howard Grimes (now with the BO-Keys) on drums. For Németh, Memphis Grease is a natural concept that marries the techniques he honed in the Bay Area with the intuitiveness that flows between him and the Bo-Keys.
Németh is right. While the arrangements of these songs might be based in the tradition of, say, B.B. King or Junior Wells, the delivery is wholly his own. You can really hear the confidence he has in the Bo-Keys, such a phenomenal set of musicians that he knew they could handle everything he threw at them during the sessions. With the inter-generational combination of drummer Howard Grimes, guitarist Joe Restivo, Al Gamble on keyboards, producer Scott Bomar on bass, venerable soul vocalist Percy Wiggins singing background, and a killer horn section featuring Marc Franklin, Kirk Smothers, and Art Edmaisten, it’s a collaboration that sounds completely effortless. Together, Németh and the Bo-Keys take soul-blues from a simmer to a full boil.