sorrent ussery. Photo: Mike Stephenson

Ussery, Sorrento #176 [English]

sorrent ussery. Photo: Mike Stephenson

Interview conducted by Mike Stephenson at the artist’s home in Jackson, Mississippi in October 2012. Many thanks go to Peggy Brown for all of her help in arranging the interview.

Lets talk about your early days first:

I was born in Columbus, Mississippi, right on the Alabama line, and I was born with a visual impairment, glaucoma is what it was, and musically I got started into it by the church. I come from a church background, a Pentecostal background and we used to stay up late, until sometimes eleven, in church, when I was coming up, as that’s all I had to do when I was younger. When I turned eleven I was in elemental school and, since I had a visual impairment, there was a school in Jackson, Mississippi called Mississippi School For The Blind which they thought would be better for me. So I moved out at an early age, about eleven, to go to that school.

Back then I wasn’t into music that much but when something is in you from your younger childhood it never has a tendency to leave you. So every now and then I got into the concert band at school and in my last year I moved back to Columbus and finished my last year of high school at a regular school. I graduated and went to a junior college where music was my major and attended a semester there, and then transferred back over to Jackson, Mississippi and that’s when I went to Jackson State University and music was my major there. So from there I started playing back in the church. I was a bass player and I played that quite a bit in the church and I had never left the keyboards alone. To add on, when I was younger in church I would beat around on drums and the piano and sing a little bit, but when I started playing in the church I was a bass guitar player. As time progressed I got introduced into the blues field where I met people like Malaco musicians, people who had been out there for years like Willie James Hatten, Harrison Calloway, better known as Cap, and I was like the young buck into the frying pan.

How did you meeting these blues artists happen?

Like I said, I am visually impaired and there was some older guys who were visually impaired and totally blind as well, and they had a local band called T C And The Midnighters and at that time I would leave church and go and sit in with those guys. I didn’t know about a lot of songs that there were out there so they took me in the woodshed and schooled me and really prepared me for where I am today; they taught me chords and that’s where it really began to click. We would go to these little night clubs, and after we had done the night clubs we would do casinos, and what was the turning point that really got me out there was Charles Evers, who runs radio station WMPR in Jackson. He took us in as a house band and that’s where we had to play behind some of the best singers. Everybody that came in, we had to learn their music. We worked with people like Dorothy Moore, Tyrone Davis, Carl Simms, Robert ‘The Duke’ Tillman and on and on. By this time I had switched to keyboards and left the bass alone, and when artists would come to town we would support them. I then went out on the road with some artists, playing with like Latimore he was something like a mentor to me and a good fatherly figure and a good friend as well and I loved playing with him because he was a keyboard player as well. I would go out and sit in with people like Sir Charles Jones, O.B. Buchana, Nathaniel Kimble and other younger generation artists and we toured with others like Betty Wright, The Manhattans, The O’Jays, Bobby Womack and I was in the band opening up for these acts.

So in 2004 I was working for Little Milton. I was his band leader for a while and during this time I had started to begin singing a little bit. So when we opened for the bigger acts, we were playing behind them, but they would want us to do a couple of songs before they came on to warm the stage, so I would start singing. So people started coming to me, telling me I had a talent and had I ever thought about doing my own project, which I hadn’t. So in about 2004, I guess, I got the nerve. I started writing some of my own material and that’s how I got re acquainted with Harrison Calloway, and I told him I was working on a project and he encouraged me and told me he would work with me. So we went into the studio and I spent my own money and he helped me out and schooled me and I did my first CD in 2004 titled ‘Make Sweet Love’ and I wasn’t completely finished with the project, I think I got down to the mastering process and I ran out of money. So I was then introduced to Senator Jones, known as Uncle Bobo, and what he did was to take new artists as well as established ones, and record them. He had his own record label titled Hep Me Records and he was also affiliated with Mardi Gras Records out of Louisiana.

So he took my project and finished it up for me and he was the one who put me on the map as a recording artist. He put me on his label and took a couple of songs and put it on the Mardi Gras label as well, one of which was ‘Make Sweet Love’ that was put on a compilation. He put me out there and had me all over the US and the world, I’ve seen my stuff in Japan and Britain and places. So I was able to play with other artists as well as play under my own name. In 2005 we went back and released another CD titled ‘Dead Giveaway’ that was also on Hep Me Records which was recorded in Bolton, Mississippi where Senator Jones’ studio was. My first project was cut here in Jackson at MTAO Music Technology Lab in Tunica Street. I went out on my own for a while and did some solo projects independently and Mardi Gras Records picked them up and put them on a compilation, this was after Senator Jones passed. One was on the ‘Deep Southern Soul’ CD I think. As of now, I’m still performing with people like Billy ‘Soul’ Bonds and whoever calls me, and also I am getting back to my roots and I have started playing back in the church. I perform here in Jackson at times in the local clubs, with some of the guys I had gigs with in the past.

Is there a regular band you play with these days?

I play with Norman Clarke and he has a band called Smokestack Lightning and I play with Jesse Robinson every now and then, Tina Diamond and I also play with a funk band called Total Extreme. They have a nice thing going and this is on the keyboards. I will go out and play with them and also sing with them to help the show go or whatever they want.

Have you played or recorded with anybody else?

I’ve worked with Sunny Riddell and he was one of the first artists who, when I got off into the blues when I first left the church, took me in. We went out and played and had a lot of fun. TC And The Midnighters who I mentioned earlier, we were his band. Matter of fact, me and Sunny still perform together now and we have been performing with each other for maybe twenty years. The only studio work I have done is with myself, although I have been in the studio with the Total Extreme band and laid down a couple of demos, and a couple of gospel groups I have gone into the studio with and done some work with. I also want to add onto this, Andre Lee is a good friend of mine and I went to his studio and he is known as the balladeer of southern soul and he was able to help me out with my vocal sound and he helped take me to another level.

cd sorrento usseryI have noticed on your CDs that they are very ballad heavy.

That is my scene and I try and get the product perfect before we put it out there. I have written most of the material I have recorded, although Harrison Calloway has been of help in this and he has helped with his creativity, and Andre Lee has been helpful in helping me writing songs and coming up with the grooves and helping laying the foundation of the tracks down in the studio and helping to enhance the music.

Are you considering any future recordings, taking into consideration Senator Jones has now passed?

Of course. As a matter of fact, I am right now in the process of putting something else together. Billy ‘Soul’ Bonds has connections to Hot Spot Records and I have some material that I am going to present to them, so I am considering signing with Hot Spot Records.

Where is that label based?

It’s out of Montgomery, Alabama and Robert Henderson owns a radio station there and has this label, which is something completely new he is doing and he is getting a lot of younger artists, and older artists as well. I think Pat Brown and Billy Bonds have something with the label.

Anybody else you have played with?

I’ve played with a variety of blues acts. I’ve played with King Edward who is a very good friend of mine. Playing with these older cats that just play the blues, and then dealing with southern soul artists and having a church background, this brings a versatility in my music, so I do some blues as well. I am also considering doing a blues project because the blues is a serious thing. Maybe I will release a single, and some DJ’s have told me to consider doing a full CD of blues. I need to make a decision on that sometime and I may get in there with King Edward or Jesse Robinson and see what direction those guys may take me.

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