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Johnny Neel: Mr. Soul

Johnny Neel: Mr. Soul

by James Calemine

“Smokestack Lightning
Shining just like Gold.”

Howlin’ Wolf

You can’t teach soul. Johnny Neel ranks as one of the country’s most soulful, and versatile, players. Neel’s amalgamation of blues, funk, R & B, jazz, gospel, country, and reggae fuse into one indelible personal sound, rendering him a much sought after pro. Although he’s a gifted pianist, B-3 organist, and harp player, Neel’s best known for his songwriting.

Born June 11, 1954, in Wilmington, Delaware, Neel was the youngest of four siblings. Blind from birth, Neel’s handicap influenced his musical inclination. Writing his first song with his father, Neel’s aptitude became apparent early. He’s more prolific than most keyboard players who can see and read music. Neel cut a single at twelve with his brothers as Johnny Neel and the Shapes of Soul.

Neel revealed to Mystery and Manners his early musical influences: “Motown. Soul music, pretty much back then. There were a lot of black influences down at the blind school. I went to the Maryland School of the Blind in Baltimore. Everyone there either played piano or tuned one.

“Around the Shapes of Soul era the Stevie Wonder Fingertips album hit me because we were exactly the same age——12. Since I got older, I leaned more towards Ray Charles tunes. I got stuck on Leon Russell there for a while too. Then I slipped into psychedelic and the rock thing. Then came the jazz——when I heard Oscar Petersen…wow, he fucked me up——I was like holy moly! It was like the first time I heard Weather Report and John McGlaughlin. Then I started doing original stuff…”

In 1983, Neel released two independent albums, One Hot Night and You Should’ve Been There. The next year, Neel moved to Nashville where he became a sought after session player and songwriter. Early on Neel earned a publishing deal. “They pay you to write songs for them. You get the songwriter’s part, but they get the publishing part. They pay you, say $300 a week——you do demos and they pay for that. If you get a cut you gotta’ pay em back. If not, they just write it off or fire you within a couple of years. I stayed with that company five years.”

Neel played blues at the Bluebird Café before it became a stuffy songwriter’s showcase. “People like Stevie Winwood and Dave Mason came through and played with us.” It was the Bluebird Café where Dickey Betts saw Neel perform. “I was playing a slide solo on a synthesizer through a twin amp and hired me right there. I got that gig and I worked with him for a while. Back when I first met Dickey he was getting out of the hospital, or rehab, I can’t remember, and we played a benefit. Dickey was always very cool to me. We’re still pretty tight. Then after a while I quit, and went back doing what I was doing. Then I went back and cut Pattern Disruptive with him and that’s how Dickey and me got back together. That’s a powerful record. I wrote 6 or 7 tunes on there with him. I got Warren into his groove. Me and Kim Morrison introduced Warren to Dickey.”

Pattern Disruptive included the Betts/Neel Top 10 AOR hit, “Rock Bottom”. Soon Gregg Allman hired Neel to go out on the road with Allman’s solo band. “So then I hooked up with Gregg. Danny Toler, him, and me wrote a song on his record. Then I went with the Allman Brothers on the reunion tour.”

Neel joined the Allman Brothers Band in 1990. Soon, The Brothers released Seven Turns, an album that featured the Betts/Neel composition “Good Clean Fun” which earned the group their highest chart position since “Ramblin’ Man”.

Neel explained his precarious position in the Allman Brothers, “What was weird to me about ‘em was in Dickey’s band I was one thing. In Gregg’s band, I had horn parts and by the time I got into the Allman Brothers, which was a span of about a year and a half, it was hard for me to settle in. I don’t think some of ‘em wanted me to be there. I think they just wanted it to be like the original band with just an organ. But Gregg wanted me to come so they put me in there. I see what they were going after now. I always felt like I was walking on eggshells. Even though they were re-unionized, they were working through some issues they had. I had to find my own identity. So I had to deal with a whole different concept than what I thought it was. But, it was beautiful because you know it’s playing in front of twenty thousand people. It was like riding a big stallion. I loved that and I really enjoyed it. It was one of my dreams to play in a band like that. I played “Statesboro Blues” when I was young. I got crazy and had a good time, and that’s what I was supposed to do (laughs). As far as some people know, that’s the highlight of my career. Then it changed and I left. I think I might have been a little bit overboard on the jazz and that’s why they told me to leave——and I was ready to go. But the Seven Turns stuff was great.”

For a short period Neel wrote for Huey Lewis’ publishing company, Babaloo, along with Bonnie Riatt, Bruce Hornsby, and Delbert McClinton. In 1993, Neel released a solo effort titled Johnny Neel & The Last Word. This formidable collection highlighted Neel’s songwriting talent. Neel said of that release, “Every time I hear that record I think of Jack Pearson.” Pearson provided mighty fine guitar licks on The Last Word.

Some of Neel’s musical associations over the years include, Carl Perkins, Cyril Lance, David Allen Coe, Joe Diffy, Keith Whitley, Suze Boggins, Michael McDonald, Smoky Greenwell, Ann Peebles, John Mayall, Gov’t Mule, Deep Fried, W.I.N.D, Ricky Ray Rector, Doug Crider, and new country sensation Keith Urban.

Buy Johnny Neel's Late Night Breakfast at AMAZON.COM

In 2000 Neel’s label, Breakin’ Records, released Late Night Breakfast, a great blues infested album. This fine collection includes accomplished musicians such as Shane Theriot (The Neville Brothers), Wayne Jackson (The Memphis Horns), Rick Vito (Fleetwood Mac), and the Charlie Daniels Band drummer Pat McDonald. McDonald recently told this writer: “I do a fair amount of work over at Johnny’s studio (Straight Up Sound) and actually that’s how I got the CDB gig. Johnny’s an amazing player. I love that guy.”

Neel played on Gov’t Mule’s Life Before Insanity. During this period Neel performed with Blue Floyd, a fabulous band that included the late, great Allen Woody (Gov’t Mule), Matt Abts (Gov’t Mule), Marc Ford (Black Crowes), and Berry Oakley (OKB Band). Blue Floyd played blues variations on Pink Floyd’s music.

Neel spoke of this great band that was the brainchild of Allen Woody. Neel explained he wasn’t the first choice in the band. “They were supposed to use Eddie Harsh from the Black Crowes, but something happened. I stayed out of the politics…and I’ve stayed out of the politics the older I’ve gotten. Woody called me up. That was fun, but I didn’t know a lot of Pink Floyd music, so it was hard for me to learn it. I was into illicit substances like they were, but I didn’t play that stuff——I was doin’ it, but I wasn’t playin’ it. The blues part made it fun for me otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it. It was fun. We did some good stuff. And Marc Ford, he’s an actual genius. He has the best guitar sound I’ve ever heard. He’s very kind and gracious. Me and him had some good times.”

In 2002 X2, an experimental collection of songs——featuring only Neel and Matt Abts——hit the streets. X2 demonstrates Neel’s versatile musicianship. “The X2 thing we couldn’t get off the ground because people didn’t believe we could pull it off,” Neel said.

The same year, Neel appeared on Gov’t Mule’s The Deep End Vol. 2. In 2003, The Allman Brothers recent CD, Hittin’ The Note, included a Warren Haynes/Johnny Neel tune “Maydell” that was originally released on Neel’s The Last Word album.

Last year, Neel released live shows with a smoking band called Grease Factor including old friends Shane Theriot, Jeff Sipe, Derek Jones, and Count M’Butu. Grease Factor’s Live CD culled from various 2004 shows, Off The Cuff, comes highly recommended.
Also last year, Neel recorded an album he didn’t intend to release titled, Gun Metal Blue. Neel explained why the album almost didn’t see the light of day, “They were just a bunch of songs that were already recorded. It wasn’t like I sat down to make an album. These were songs I wrote to pitch around to other songwriters. We decided to get an album together, and I didn’t realize how many songs I had in the can. Gun Metal Blue is a compilation of songs written in different times, different places over a year or so. I thought it came together pretty good.” Gun Metal Blue epitomizes the spirit of Johnny Neel.

Recently Travis Tritt, Montgomery Gentry, and Delbert McClinton recorded Neel’s songs. Montgomery Gentry’s platinum record My Town contains Neel’s work. Neel toured with Blue Floyd this spring in the States and at Press Time summer dates are booked. Grease Factor and Deep Fried will play intermittent shows throughout the rest of 2005.

Johnny Neel keeps many irons in the fire. He’s a musician’s musician operating in the shadow of mega-stardom. When this writer asked Neel what’s been the hardest thing to learn in the music business, Neel replied, “It’s how you pay attention to what other people tell you what and what not to do. A lot of people try and put you someplace you don’t want to be. You always got someone who wants to put you in a box. Then you try it and it doesn’t sound right when you shoulda’ known that in the first place. Follow your instincts, cause that’s all you got in this business…”

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