Photo: Mike Stephenson
My family come from a musical background. My mother sings and her whole family sings and I got cousins that sing in spiritual groups in Mississippi, and my father tried to play the saxophone, and for the most part as I remember as a child I always enjoyed music.
And as a kid I would always get records that I could listen to but I never picked up on an instrument which is one of my biggest regrets to this day. However I would get my allowance at the end of the week and I would go and buy 45s. I had a big collection of 45s. I grew up on the West side of Chicago and I could not leave from the front of the house because it was so bad. I was born in Chicago at Cook County hospital and I grew up on the West side, right off Pulaski Road and I have two older brothers and two younger sisters. We could not leave from our immediate surroundings, we were very confined, so all I could do was spend my time listening to music and I would spend my time trying to emulate all the songs that I bought.
My mother and father used to go to parties with the Hi Fives and the family would come over for parties and it was always the blues they partied to. My mother would buy those blues records and that’s where I cut my teeth listening to blues. My father used to run around and he was very close to Magic Sam. Magic Sam was a cousin of ours and back in the day he was married into the family, and if you were married into the family back in the day you were considered as being a cousin, so that’s how we always looked at Magic Sam. We all grew up in a big courtway building so Magic Sam and his family they lived in the rear and we lived in the front, but we were always interactive with each other. The family was very, very close back then, we had barbecues and things.
I used to run errands for Magic Sam when he came off the road and I would sit down and talk to him and tell him I wanted to be a singer when I grew up and he told me that I had to work hard on it. He always had time for me, regardless of how busy he was. I was about ten or eleven back then. He used to have barbecues all the time when he was at home off the road, and people like Tyrone Davis would come by and Otis Clay would come by and hang around and he would be on the back porch. Magic Sam was such a humble guy, his head wasn’t in the air, and when he cut that ‘West Side Soul’ and ‘Black Magic’ albums, he brought them home and they played the grooves off of those records and you just knew he was going to make it. But of course he passed away at the age of thirty two and that devastated the whole family and knocked the wind out of everybody. That was the first funeral I attended and my mother didn’t want me to go because she thought I would not understand death but I told her I wanted to go to this funeral.
I sang in high school and did a lot of talent shows and played with some funk bands, I was with a band called Wrecking Crew and we had a couple of records out. One was called ‘Pixie Dust’ and it was a gentleman from Indiana named Jim Porter who produced the CD, but it didn’t go very far. Back then in the day, us being young, we didn’t have management and we didn’t have direction and there was a lot of jealousy in the band. We did r&b and funk. We had a song out called ‘Find The Groove’ which was a local hit. The experience was real good and we got the opportunity to go on tour with Evelyn Champagne King and Chocolate Milk and we played with, and opened up for, some funk bands so we did make a little noise, and they played our song on American Bandstand, but it all soon died. Then I started doing jingles. I did ‘Shout’ for Shout detergent for TV when the market was strong, but that market has now gone. In the nineties I got a chance to go on tour with Mavis Staples and she allowed me to sing background for her, and I opened up for her and I closed the show for her, and we were overseas for about a month with her. Our band used to play behind the Staple Singers when Pops Staples was alive. After that I took a little hiatus and I didn’t do a lot of things.
So that’s how I cut my teeth, but I always wanted to do what I do now and that is soul music. I can’t relate to a lot of this new stuff that’s going on; it doesn’t have enough feeling and conviction for me, so that’s why I reach back and I try and write in that vein, that soul type of music. Then I ran into Larry Skoller and we got talking and I did some background vocals on his brother, Matthew Skoller’s CD, this was maybe four or five years ago. I have sung background on Lurrie Bell’s spiritual CD ‘The Devil Ain’t Got No Music’. I have been trying to get back into music and I have been touring over in France and been getting a good response and that was through Larry Skoller. Both he and his brother try to keep the blues alive and they have great ideas. What we are trying to do is get my thing off the ground, Mike Avery And West Side Soul as much as possible. Tim Gant, the keyboard player with West Side Soul, has played with Ramsey Lewis, and Keith Henderson was the musical director for the Emotions, and Bill Dickens has played with Stevie Wonder, so they make my job easy. West Side Soul came together when Larry came up with the idea of bringing a super band of guys from around here together to come over to France and to try it and see what happens. So that opened the door and that’s how my debut with West Side Soul came about. We have been over in France four times in 2012 and we played a few festivals. We recorded a CD, ‘Mike Avery And West Side Soul Live In France’, that CD did not have our original drummer, Chris Miskel, on it as he was in San Francisco with Brian Culbertson the jazz musician.
Over the years I have sung with, and for, Tom Joiner. He is a disc jockey and he got married in Jamaica and he flew us down there and we sang at his wedding. I’ve done a duet with Gladys Knight; and how that came about was, she came with the song and I knew it and she asked me if I would like to sing the song with her, so I told her to count me in on it. It has been on You Tube. Bootsy Collins was there and this was about 2009. I have done some background vocals on about three songs of R Kelly’s recordings on the ‘U Saved Me /The Happy People’ album. I have been on a show with Tyrone Davis and Willie Clayton, who is a friend of mine, and I opened the show for them. I was with Tyrone a month before he passed and he came to my house and we talked about music and life and he was always looking for songs and I was writing songs then. Paul Richmond who wrote a lot of songs for Tyrone and was his producer, he said that Tyrone loved me. I did some stuff on Tyrone’s last CD. I had a song called ‘Who’s Loving You Now’ that was on the ‘The Legendary Hall Of Fame’ release and Tyrone wanted to cut the song and he did cut it and it was on his last CD and I sang background on it. I do write some numbers right up to the present. I have to be in the state of mind, I can’t force creativity.
There is a whole lot more I should be doing and would like to be doing. I don’t have a manager and if I did I would be getting a lot more hits out there. I do get a bone tossed at me every now and then, and I take advantage of it. Right now I am trying to put my thoughts together with Mike Avery And West Side Soul, and I do want to cut a soulful CD with some rhythm and some blues. I did cut a CD; I cut it with a couple of friends of mine. It was kinda low budget but I’m proud of it and it’s called ‘Destination Love’, out on Avery Park Music, that was in 2005. It has a Marvin Gaye type influence to it.
Some of my influences when I first started out was Stevie Wonder, but these days it’s like going back to my roots. Bobby Bland is one of the greatest blues singers ever and Johnnie Taylor and Bobby Womack and the guys that have that deep down soul. Magic Sam, his voice is heaven sent. I love people who sing from the heart. I used to try and keep up with the trends but I got absolutely nowhere with that, so I started doing what I want to do. I have a repertoire of songs I use, like I do a James Taylor song, and if I record something by someone, I want to strip it down and bring out the essence of it, and with a good song with good lyrics, you can’t lose.
At present we are trying to get some gigs around the clubs in Chicago, but a lot of times in this market they don’t want to pay musicians. They want to work you all night but don’t want to hand over nothing to you and that is a crime, in Chicago not taking care of the musicians. We, as musicians and singers, don’t have enough unity to put the hammer down. I would like to play around Chicago a lot more and get some more hits like the Chicago Blues Festival, as we did this year, and that happened because of Matt Skoller.
I work with an orchestra as well, with the Ken Arlen Orchestra. It’s like a society band. We play a lot of big corporate events, a lot of big weddings at major hotels in downtown Chicago almost every weekend, and this time of year we may do up to three nights a week. It is so amazing how much money you get for playing top forty stuff. The band can go as big as twenty one pieces, fourteen pieces, whatever the client wants and that’s the band and singers. We have four singers, which is me, another guy and two females, and we do all generation music, whatever the client wants. For the most part I do mainly the old school soul stuff, so that’s what I’m there for. I will do some new stuff as well, as that’s my job. I’m not a trained singer, I have a natural voice. I sometimes did sing in the church back in the day. I practised on my own when I was a kid and even do up to today.
One thing I have been proud of is, I played with a band called Lake Effect and we did an EP of six songs from John Oates from Hall and Oates, called ‘Back To Philly’. We met a lady who owns this big company that sells products for workplaces and stuff like that, boxes and whatever you need. She has just bought the Genesis Theatre in Waukegan and she is close friends with Hall and Oates, and she heard us on the radio as Lake Effect as we had cut a CD, and I did the vocals. What happened was, on a Sunday the radio would play all Chicago artists and they played Lake Effect, and this lady called the radio station and asked who we were and how she could get in touch with us. So we set up a meeting with her and she wanted us to do one song of John Oates, so we did the one song and we arranged it and put a soul twist to it. John Oates heard it and he got in touch with the guitar player and we ended up doing an EP of six of his songs.
My goal is to find some representation and to cut a CD with real musicians; I’m old school. Getting a CD is down to funding of course. I work part time during the day in a hospital in the business office dealing with insurance and it’s low key. They know I am a musician and if I need to do something in music they support me.
Interview of this Chicago based soul/ blues singer by Mike Stephenson took place in Chicago in June 2013. Many thanks go to Jim Feeney for arranging the interview.