From The Allmans to Gov't Mule,
Johnny Neel Rocks The Blues with Style
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware and stayed there until age of 30. I shot down to Nashville in 1984.
Everybody is always asking if you were born blind?
No, I was an incubator baby and was put in the oxygen and this burned out my retina. This was back in 1954. They didn't know that much about it then.
Sounds like my friend Ricky Godfrey. (Ed. Note: Formerly of Garfeel Ruff) Do you know Ricky and Ronnie Godfrey?
Yes, that happened to both of them too. I do know both of them and we are very good friends. I just used a keyboard of his. He plays in a club near my studio.
How did you first become fascinated with music? Were you really young when you got the bug?
Yes, when I was about six or seven years old- I always had a musical environment. I stared playing with the bongos, then when I went to blind school, everybody was playing the piano, so I had to do the same. Then when I got to be about 12 I made a couple of records on the Richey label up in Delaware and they did pretty well regionally and I made about nine singles in a band called the Shapes of Soul. I got interested because it sucked me in.
Who are some of your earlier influences?
I think some of my early influences were jazz in the early days and then the Beatles and Motown. Stevie Wonder's album from when he was 12-years-old got me rocking, "Fingertips." Then I started liking the Stones but when I started looking at piano I did the obvious- Elton John, Billy Joel, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea. I play jazz pretty good and I have a couple of cuts on Warren Haynes new album that are pretty jazzy. On this new album he is doing on twelve bass players and buddy this album is going to be rockin.'.
A lot of people do not know you have written lots of good songs, tell us about that?
The biggest one was with the Allman Brothers-"Good Clean Fun", and I wrote 4-5 songs on the "Seven Turns" album. Then there was the Dickey Betts album "Pattern Disruptive"-I wrote about six songs on that. Travis Tritt cut a song of mine. I went from The Forrester Sisters, Oak Ridge Boys, John Mayall- to Dorothy Moore and Malaco artists did some of my r&b stuff. I have just been busy and the last two cuts I did was with Warren Haynes. My new album is out now also.
How did you first hook up with Dickey Betts? That "Pattern Disruptive" album is really great. How did you get in with him?
I had been playing at the Bluebird Cafe, it is now pretty prominent, but before it was a little joint you know, I did a benefit for him with an organization that he was involved with at the time but then he heard me play a slide synthesizer. I was playing through a Marshall with a wheel on the slide lick. That is how I got involved with him. I worked with him for about two years and then I quit and then he called me to write the album with him. Then I hooked up with Gregg Allman and wrote a song called "Island" with Gregg on "Before the Bullets Fly" and then I got involved in the Allman Brothers Reunion Tour. Then I did "Seven Turns" and then we separated and I went to work for Huey Lewis' people. I enjoyed working with the Allmans.
Why did you leave?
It was just a feeling and I got kind of bored doing the same stuff, nothing to do with them. I wasn't singing enough and I wanted to and it was just time. Sometimes you do not know why things happen the way they do. I like to sing and wanted to do more of it. We are all still good friends and I just saw them up in New York after Allen died.
You are a good singer and you should do as much of that as you can. I have seen you play with Gov't. Mule and my wife and I are big fans and I just wanted to know what that was like?
If you look at it in the historical sense, it was like it was just one guy. I played with Matt Abts in Dickey Betts Band and and with Warren in Allmans, and Woody with the Allmans. I fit in pretty good, l ike a glove thing, you know. It was just magical, to get with Warren, he is so cool and Woody and Matt, they just had such a good trio going and all I had to do was play a couple of chords. I am fortunate to know that whole family of people and I love them all.
Obviously, we were all knocked for a loop with Allen Woody's untimely death and I wondered if you had any memory of him you would want to share?
I remember that he could make me laugh to the point of tears. He talked about seeing someone walking down the street and make me cry laughing. He was very sensitive and spiritually aware. He was confused about parts of his life as we all are but overall he was a good hearted soul. He and Warren and Matt were such a thing, in Gov't. Mule, I just loved it. That is the kind of magic he was about, and it (Allen's passing) kind of messed me up. We all kind of sat back on that one.
I certainly understand. What about Blue Floyd?
That goes back to Woody again, and I think I was the last minute "good God we don't have a keyboard guy" thing. (Laughs) I think that Eddie Hearsh was supposed to do it but that was some kind of mix up and then I got the gig, but man that was a blast. Playing with Matt and Marc Ford and Berry Oakley, Jr. and me, just the four of us now. We did five weeks in January through February and I do not know where it stands now and what the future of that band is now. If we do anything we may go to Europe. It sort of stopped for the time being. Now I need to push my album.
Tell us about The Last Word, who is in it?
It started out with a bunch of friends of mine, I met Jack Pearson and he was in it. Tim Lofton, and Dale Armstrong and me, and then we went through some changes and now a bunch of stuff happened, and now it is a life long friend of mine Don Smith on drums and this new fellow just came to town a bass player, Andre, and Chris Anderson who used to play with the Outlaws. He is with me. It is just the four of us. We get out there and whip ass. It is a lot funkier than Blue Floyd.
The album "Late Night Breakfast" is just awesome and tell me about it.
The album was something I started on and was a process over a couple of years. I was working on it and then this record company got involved and this producer that got involved I thought I wanted to work with - and then by the time I figured out I didn't want to work with him, it had slowed me down about eight months. Then we went into the Blue Floyd thing and I managed to have enough money to finish it. I don't have a big record deal with it. I sell them on the website and I'm thinking about doing some website distribution and doing some travel to Europe and make some quick headway, and then parlaying back this way. That's what I am thinking. I'm still trying to put together gigs and keep the band tight. I'm not traveling too far. I have people working in the office and I have a studio that we had people in recording a big band album last week. We have done more jazz, blues and funk than anything so far.
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