Boise, Idaho is hardly the place anyone would conjure up as a hotbed of soul-blues.
But for John Németh, it's where his love for the genre began-and the starting point for a journey that's taken him from his first gigs fronting a teenage blues band to five Blues Music Award nominations in 2013 alone.
It's where this preternaturally talented son of a Hungarian immigrant gained his early chops on the harmonica, building on the style of blues heroes like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. Németh's first paid performance came in 1991, when he was hired to perform drinking songs for a pinochle luncheon held by the Catholic Daughters of America. The following summer, his first band, Fat John and the Three Slims, landed a steady gig performing outlaw country and Chicago blues covers at the Grubstake Saloon in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho-but the group was 86'ed from the town after their soon-to-be ex-drummer was caught mouthing off to drunken, angry loggers during the annual Loggers Day Festival. Unchastened, Németh and his band set their sights on the Boise club scene, where, for nearly a decade, they played seven nights a week at local pubs, taverns, joints, and parties.
After opening a show for Junior Watson, Németh was tapped as tour opener for the jump blues guitarist, a gig that took him across the United States, to Scandinavia, and into the recording studio for his 2004 solo debut, Come And Get It, featuring Watson. When Németh's girlfriend decided to relocate to California, he knew he couldn't lose her, so he packed up the house and traveled west. It was an astute move: shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Németh was performing at Biscuit and Blues when Blind Pig Records signed him to a three-album deal.
Opportunities abounded, from the phone call Németh got from Anson Funderburgh, who was looking for a frontman to fill in for ailing blues legend Sam Myers, to a gig opening for Elvin Bishop, which led to Németh's role as featured vocalist on Bishop's Grammy nominated album The Blues Rolls.
"I learned a lot living in Oakland and San Francisco," Németh says, "from recording and performing with Elvin Bishop to hearing Freddy Hughes perform. Record shops like Amoeba Records and Down Home Music provided a wealth of material that did not exist back home in Idaho, like the records of Lowell Folsom, Jimmy McCracklin, Roger Collins and the songbook of Bob Geddins. Oakland is like a truly southern city, only it's on the west coast. It wasn't until after I arrived that I discovered that so many great songs I love actually originated there."
After logging over 1000 concerts between 2007 and 2011, Németh released a pair of live solo albums showcasing his 25 most popular songs. Those discs, titled Blues Live and Soul Live, received five Blues Music Award nominations-the most ever for any live release. They also earned critical acclaim that places Németh in, as Nick Cristiano of the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, "a cadre of young and relatively young artists such as James Hunter, Eli 'Paperboy' Reed, and Sharon Jones."
In early 2013, Németh traded his life on the west coast to settle down in Memphis, Tennessee. He and Jaki, that girlfriend he followed to California, had married and started a family, and Memphis made sense for multiple reasons: It's centrally located for touring, the cost of living is inexpensive, and the river town is the historical ground zero for blues, soul, and rock-and-roll.
"I moved to Memphis because it is the epicenter for soul and blues," Németh confirms. "The wealth of knowledge runs deep in the instincts of its musicians and its studios. Memphis is also the home of the Blues Foundation, the Blues Hall Of Fame, and many fine venues and radio stations dedicated to local music."
The 2000-mile trek south was wild. Németh's 26-foot Budget rental truck broke down in the middle of the night in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he had to unload the entire truck and reload a new one on the side of the road. A scant two days after that, he was in Memphis and, as improbably as it sounds, in the recording studio.
Németh landed in the perfect place: Electraphonic Studio, home of producer and musician Scott Bomar, who composed the film scores for Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan and produced Cyndi Lauper's Memphis Blues. Backed by the Bo-Keys, Bomar's group of veteran Memphis performers who made their names playing with the likes of Al Green, O.V. Wright, Rufus Thomas, and the Bar-Kays. Németh quickly laid down thirteen tracks that, as he describes it, "live in the style like I live in the style." The tapes from that session caught the ear of music industry veteran Charles Driebe, who took the album to Denby Auble of Blue Corn Music. The Americana/roots music label quickly signed Németh, adding him to a roster that boasts the likes of Ruthie Foster, Gurf Morlix, and Steve Forbert.
Memphis Grease embodies everything that sets this artist apart from the soul-blues revivalist pack: it's innovative and unique while epitomizing the absolute best of the genre. It's a deeply forged amalgamation of scorching harmonica-driven blues and sweet blue-eyed soul ala the Box Tops or Roy Head, delivered via two fistfuls of originals and a trio of carefully chosen covers: Otis Rush's hard-driving "Three Times a Fool," which opens the album; an electrifying take on Howard Tate's Northern Soul favorite "Stop;" and Roy Orbison's "Crying," reinvented here as a slow-burning soul number that matches anything that came out of late-1960s Muscle Shoals.
The album title itself is evocative of Németh's journey to Memphis. The soul-blues scene he fell into in the Bay Area is historically referred to as "Oakland Grease," and two of Oakland's "greasiest" artists, blues guitarist Lowell Fulson and jump blues pianist Jimmy McCracklin, journeyed south to record two of their best, if often overlooked albums: Fulson's funky psych-blues In A Heavy Bag was cut at Muscle Shoals' FAME Studio in 1969, while McCracklin's soulful 1971 album, High on the Blues, was recorded at Memphis' Hi Records with none other than Howard Grimes (now with the BO-Keys) on drums. For Németh, Memphis Grease is a natural concept that marries the techniques he honed in the Bay Area with the intuitiveness that flows between him and the Bo-Keys.
"When it comes to more traditional styles of music, people expect to hear a tribute record. But you can get into a real rut if you're just doing rewrites," Németh says. "We're creating fresh music here. Our arrangements sound just like they would back then, but what we're doing is so much more innovative."
Németh is right. While the arrangements of these songs might be based in the tradition of, say, B.B. King or Junior Wells, the delivery is wholly his own. You can really hear the confidence he has in the Bo-Keys, such a phenomenal set of musicians that he knew they could handle everything he threw at them during the sessions. With the inter-generational combination of drummer Howard Grimes, guitarist Joe Restivo, Al Gamble on keyboards, producer Scott Bomar on bass, venerable soul vocalist Percy Wiggins singing background, and a killer horn section featuring Marc Franklin, Kirk Smothers, and Art Edmaisten, it's a collaboration that sounds completely effortless. Together, Németh and the Bo-Keys take soul-blues from a simmer to a full boil.