Theodis Ealey - Blues with soul
We have read time and time again about African American traditional blues artists complaining about the lack of recognition among blacks in the USA and the appreciation among the white blues enthusiasts in Europe. We have also experienced blues artists who have adjusted themselves to the conservative market of the white blues enthusiasts and their urge for traditional blues playing covers of blues standards as they didn’t manage to keep up a career on the black market. This has been going on ever since the 60’s really.
We have almost never heard of the trip of African American blues artists in the other direction, returning successfully to their traditional audience after leaving the white market. When Theodis Ealey recorded the pivotal hit, Stand Up In It, in 2004, it was an achievement in many ways. He broke into the black market in a very big way becoming one of its major artists. The sexually explicit blues song got an appreciation bringing it to the top of the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop Singles Sales charts for many weeks, and finally, the impact of the song influenced the soul blues market up till this day becoming one of the most important songs of the genre. Its only comparable competitor is the over 20 years old classic Candy Licker by Marvin Sease, although it never hit any charts being too explicit at that time.
Theodis Ealey has been in the music his whole life. He started recording for Ichiban Records in 1992 with Headed Back to Hurtsville as his first release. Before Ichiban folded in the early 2000’s, he had released three more albums for the label. In 2002 he started his own record label, IFGAM (I Feel Good About Myself), so far releasing 5 albums.
It’s a great honor for Jefferson to present one of the biggest stars of the soul blues scene of today, a great entertainer, songwriter, guitar player and singer.
Have you ever been to Scandinavia?
No, I have never been to Scandinavia. I have been to Switzerland and France, but never Scandinavia. I’d love to go there.
I met your friend Travis Haddix and label mate at Ichiban and he told me about your tours in Europe
Travis is a very good friend of mine, an excellent musician. A very nice person.
About you, when you were a kid what kind of music did you like
I listened to blues and country & western. I liked rock’ n’ roll, too. Chuck Berry was my favorite. I liked Chuck Berry, I liked John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Hank Williams, B.B. King….
How did you become a musician
I had four older brothers, three older brothers who played music, actually. The oldest who played music, David, who we called Bubba, was the first guitar player of the family. He taught my brother, “Y” “Z”. Another brother, Melwin, and “Y” “Z” had a band together. Bubba was more of a traditional blues player like Lightning Hopkins. I’m the baby boy from 11 children.
What kind of music did they play
They played blues.
When you started recording for Ichiban Records in the early 90’s, what were you listening to at that time?
I had learned to play all types of music. I was basically doing soul music, blues and funk. I was like a hired hand. I was a guitar player. I would play for most of the bands. I learned just about all of the top 40 songs in that were being played on the radio in the United States. I was pretty much listening to blues, soul, jazz and funk. But, blues has always been my staple. That’s what I always excel at.
When you started recording at Ichiban, was your main audience the African Americans or the white blues enthusiasts?
The white blues enthusiasts, mostly
When did you decide to go back to the chittlin’ circuit?
I didn’t decide. I did a song called Stand up In It. That’s when the black community embraced me. It has been a wonderful ride ever since.
But Travis told me you decided you wanted to go back to the original audience. That’s why you recorded that song because it could hit among the African Americans, but not among the white blues enthusiasts.
There was a longing. I had a burning desire to be known by my people. I would go to Europe and the people would know me there. I would play in the white clubs. They knew who I was. But black people did not embrace me for what I did. Stand Up In It enabled me to start being at the same shows with people such as The Manhattans and Bobby Womack, being on the same concerts as Little Milton.
I’ve been on the same circuit as Latimore, Millie Jackson, Denise Lasalle, people like that and Mr. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, of course. I got to work with all of my heroes. It has been a great feeling. I still love my traditional blues. I play traditional blues when I play for black audience. My show is a mixture of songs like Stand Up In It, but I still play my guitar and I play the blues and they love it. They love traditional blues.
Were you surprised that Stand Up In It hit so hard, became such a success?
I was truly surprised. I thought it would be only played in night clubs but radio started playing it. Actually, I was happily surprised.
Thinking about the lyrics, they are quite straight forward. It’s hard to find a record
It’s only talking about things we all do.
It’s hard for a record to be that popular at the radio
I have a poem that I wrote before Stand Up In It. I still say that.
Rhythms in my mind are growing
Like the sweet smell of blossoms on a warm spring day.
Like the river, my ideas, they flow
But are being blocked from the mouth of the open sea by the dams of society.
So like you say, there are a lot of great songs but the powers that be won’t let them be heard. Does that make sense to you?
I got your live recording where you to do a song by Jimmy Reed
That’s one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life. In a studio I don’t think I get the feeling that I ought to, but on a live recording I got to show the different sides of me. I forgot to tell you that Jimmy Reed was definitely one of the people I grew up listening to, yes indeed. I forgot about Mr. Reed. He was definitely one of my favorites. People like Jimmy Reed and Jimmy McCracklin… there were so many of them in those days.
But you grew up with the old blues artists and did a song by Jimmy Reed today, do you thing the songs of Jimmy Reed are still valid today? Comparing to Muddy Waters, there are few artists covering him, but Jimmy Reed instead
In the overall black community, I think Jimmy Reed’s songs are embraced. It’s just me saying that. I don’t know for sure. But I believe Jimmy Reed was embraced more than any of the other first traditional blues guys. You can play a Jimmy Reed song in any audience. But I don’t think…Muddy Waters was a great artist, too. I don’t know what it is, why people tend to copy Jimmy Reed to be honest with you. He was great. He is one of the greats… I think I’ll do a Muddy Waters song on my next album. I didn’t know people didn’t copy his songs. Are you saying people don’t cover Muddy Waters’ songs?
Not African American artists, white artists do.
I’m gonna make sure I do a Muddy Waters song on my next album.
How was it to record the duet with Latimore (the studio version of the Jimmy Reed Song Baby What You Want Me To Do)
Oh, man that was a great experience. Latimore is one of those people who is also one of my heroes. That was one of the greatest experiences I ever had. The producer of the tour we do over here, “The Blues Is Alright Tour”, takes it around to, you would say, the chittlin’ circuit, all the major arenas in all the cities in the south. We have people like Latimore, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Shirley Brown, Bobby Rush, sometimes Millie Jackson, young artists like Mel Waiters and Sir Charles Jones. We do that tour with a predominantly black audience, the chittlin’ circuit you referred to. The gentleman, Julius Lewis of Heritage Entertainment, is a young black promoter. He is the only young black promoter that does it on that level. He made a movie that is coming out; it’s called N-Secure, The Movie. There’s a juke joint scene there. I was doing that song on “The Blues Is Alright” tour on my show. The producer wanted to put that in the movie, so, he decided to pair me with Latimore where I did the guitar playing and Latimore did the singing in the movie. While we were recording, I also sang with Latimore and we ended up on my album together.
You have experience of the white scene and the black scene as you are one of the few who has bridged the gap, what do you think about these two scenes and why are they so different.
Actually, of the difference I can see, both of them are great, great audiences. The white promoters tend to hire nothing but so-called traditional blues artists. On the so called chittlin’ circuit they tend to hire so called soul blues artists. I find that I play both of them, the same as Bobby Rush. I find that the white audience loves Stand Up In It and I find that the black audience also loves Jimmy Reed and B.B. King, you know. So, the only difference is as I told you before are the people who make the decision on who to hire. Does that make sense to you? I play for both of them and both enjoy each type of music, equally.
If you listen to southern soul records, there is quite a lot of blues in them.
I don’t consider myself a southern soul artist. I don’t believe there is such a thing as southern soul. I think it’s just a name. I think it’s just soul music, good music. It’s a name like rock ‘n’ roll. They named it rock ‘n’ roll but it’s still good music. Does it make sense to you?
You play the guitar, but most of the soul records are based mainly on synthesizers and drum machines
Well, that’s a matter of economics. I guess once the music industry got to be where the people normally not having the funds to go into a studio and hire an engineer and real musicians, they tend to start doing things on their own on a computer and it’s just caught on. I personally like real musicians, I don’t like drum machines and all that stuff. I guess it’s a good question. I guess the music industry…. I know what I prefer. It’s the way it is now. That’s what the industry is accepting. It’s a good thing for people and a way for an artist not playing instruments to express themselves. That makes it good. Everyone is not fortunate enough to be a musician, but everyone has a song in their head they want to express. Synthesizers and drum machines offer an opportunity for a person to express their feeling musically even though they can’t play an instrument. I think it’s over done, but I think it’s a good thing that young artists can do that even if they cannot play instruments.
The artists on the chittlin’ circuit are at least over 30 years old most of them over 40. Why doesn’t the music attract younger artists in their 20’s?
Oh, it does, really. We have a lot of young artists. It’s just like in any other form of music; they haven’t made a name for themselves, yet. Lebrado is on my record label, he’s a young artist. We have the so called king of Southern soul, a young artist by the name Sir Charles Jones. He’s one of the hottest southern soul artists there is. Then again, young people tend to do what is happening at the time. Hip hop and rap is really what is going on with the young people. They want do what they think is going to appeal to other young people. You get that in your country, too. You liked what you like when you were young and your mom and dad liked what they liked. You don’t want to do what the old people do. On all of my albums I try to mix it up to where young and old can enjoy it. I like all music.
Your next album, when will we have that
My next album will be a Christmas album, that’s what I’m working on now. It will be out this year. I’m gonna have soul and traditional blues as Christmas songs. As a matter of fact on my album, I’m The Man You Need, at the end of it, it has a Christmas song called The Reason For The Season. It’s the last song on the album. I’m gonna put that on my Christmas album.
When you write your lyrics, where do you get your stories from?
Some stories I write about are from personal experience. On Stand Up In It, I have a song If You Leave Me I’m Going Wit’Cha. That’s about my wife. I was writing that for my wife. I got a song, Looking Up At The Bottom, that I wrote one time when I was feeling really lonely. I missed my wife. I was so low I was looking up at the bottom. That’s pretty low, isn’t it? And then about some situations, I might write a song about my conversation with you. I had this really nice gentleman doing an interview with me. “What a great time it was, oh boy, oh boy”
Sometimes I see situations, I might see wonderful situations. I might see lovers walking down the street holding hands. Couples, people having problems in their marriage and their life, I write about that. Sometimes I just create things. I make up stories like I wish it could be. Some of it is fantasy, some of it is real. I try to keep my music more happy and write about things that make people smile. Sometimes I have to go off a bit and write about things like the word sex. A lot of people don’t like to talk about that, but we all have it.
After eating sex must be the most popular habit
That’s just what I’m saying.
A final question, your cowriter of Stand Up In It is El Willie, who is El Willie?
El Willie is my keyboard player. He’s the guy that does all the synthesizer horns in my band. He is actually a saxophone player. He was the band leader for the Drifters at one time. He was the band leader and saxophone player for the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. They did a song Treat Her Like A Lady (here Theodis starts singing the song) . That’s his history, he toured with them all through the70’s and 80’s. He’s a great song writer.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I’m really thankful there are people in the world who like my music and hopefully doing the interview with you I said one thing that will make people like me as a person. I would rather be remembered in life as a good person instead of a great musician. If I had the choice, that’s what I would rather be. People would see I’m a decent human being, that’s my goal in life.
"I'm The Man You Need" (IFGAM 2006)
"Stand Up In It" (IFGAM 2004) (voted Best Soul/Blues CD 2004)
"American Roots: Blues" (Ichiban 2002)
"It's A Real Good Thang" (IFGAM 2002)
"Raw" (Ichiban 1998)
"Stuck Between Rhythm & Blues" (Ichiban 1996)
"If You Leave I'm Going Wit'Cha" (Ichiban 1994)
"Headed Back To Hurtsville" (Ichiban 1992)