While at the King Biscuit Blues Festival, we talked to a number of great blues artists, caught amazing sets, and had an overall a wonderful time, as we normally do. One set we didn’t want to miss was the performance by Lee Pons, who is always impressive with his skills on the piano, whiskey-smoked voice, and songs that just radiate the rhythms and sounds of New Orleans. One thing that’s continued to strike us as amazing is how Lee manages to hold it all together on stage, (and on CD), with only the power of his piano and singing. We know solo acts are no easy feat. Live music fans everywhere are accustomed to seeing an artist on stage with a backup band helping to drive the music right into our souls and, if they’re good, make our tailfeathers wiggle. Not so with Lee. He’s a throw back to the old Barrelhouse days, when all you needed was a beat up old piano and a dirt floor to have a party. We sat down with Lee and talked to him about why he performs mostly as a soloist (though he has been known to sport a three piece band, complete with a standup bass, tear it up with friends at jams, and occasionally with Chicago/Florida blues artist Steve Arvey). Bear in mind, as Blues Revue and others can attest, interviewing Lee Pons is also no easy task. With his heavy Cajun drawl and quick wit, he can lean towards the “hard to understand” side. Once you get past that, however, you come to discover that the Voodoo Boogie Man is far beyond your typical boogie blues player. He has a lot to say and is (as we all know from his articles on famous Blues Pianists of the past) well versed in Blues history, and the art of Solo Blues Piano.
“I started playing around on the piano when I was just a youngin’ — a baby actually,” says Lee, his whiskey-tinged but jovial Cajun drawl mincing the English language like he was dicing a pepper. “I used to just waddle on up to it and just smack the keys around, ya know, like any kid would. I always liked the sound. I used to, (as I got a little bit older, but not by much, I’m telling you) try and figure out simple melodies to those little kiddie’s songs we all know. It was just simple one note/one finger stuff, nothing complex. I wasn’t doing Mozart or nothing… that wasn’t till the next week! I would just sit there for hours driving folks crazy, but if they tried to pull me away I would just cry till they put me back on the piano. I liked it better than TV.” He pauses to assess that sentence. “Still do, actually!”
Lee doesn’t readily admit his extensive classical training, or his life in music. Indeed, having spoken with Lee a several times, it took him many months to passively mention his time at Juliard in conversation, as though it was an everyman’s rite of passage, like going to high school. “Even though most of my formal training as a musician was on the upright bass (or the bull fiddle, as we called it) I never really stop playing piano. I’d be playing in all sorts of bands, sometimes playing keyboards, but mostly bass. I did rock bands, disco bands, hair bands, blues bands, jazz bands, funk bands, whatever. Heck, if they where paying, I was playing! I had a lot fun, but there was always something missin’. Maybe I got a big ego or something, but I always wanted to do this type of thing. I’d see folks all over New Orleans and everywhere actually playing solo piano, and doing it well! I wanted to do that, but I was worried about whether I was capable, or if I could hold a crowd, whatever. I was just scared to try.”
It took a tragedy to push Lee into his now budding solo career. “I was once in this one band called ‘Johnny Widebars and the Shovelheads’,” Lee laments, slowing his normally automatic-fire speech to a low boil. ” it was a really good rockin’ blues biker band. I loved it, and we were family. The band leader, Johnny Widebars, and his wife passed away in a motorcycle accident. Without him, I didn’t see the reason to carry on, so I disbanded the group. I tried to play in other bands but I couldn’t find anything that had that special vibe. “I started to roll over the idea of just playing solo like I’d always wanted to, but I had some… challenges.
Really, I’ve never thought of myself as a any kind of good singer… actually I still don’t!” The vocals of Lee Pons sound somewhat akin to Louis Armstrong choking Tom Waits. Yet somehow, out of the madness the piano master manages to create an alluring style that is unmistakable and impossible to imitate. In effect, his vocals define the charm of the performer nearly as much as his wild piano antics. “To make up for my voice, I would just play an instrumental, or turn a song into one if it wasn’t. It was a band aid until I found a singer, but I never could fine one. Sooner or later, folks wanted to hear you sing! It’s the vocals folks would latch on to, ya know? I heard some folks singing and I knew I was better than them, and they were doing it… so why not me?! A few folks told me that I wasn’t a singer and it wasn’t a good idea to sing. Well that was the wrong thing to say to me! I might be scared, but once I get told I can’t do something… come hell or high water, I’m gonna do it!”
So that’s how my solo career got started. But as time went on, I began to think of this in a different way. I noticed the New Orleans guys would make a piano sound like a whole band by itself, with the left hand covering the bass while the right covered the melody and the rhythmic aspects of the drums, covered by the interplace of both hands together. A lot of this style came from the great Professor Longhair. Even though some were doing this before him, he was one of the first guys who could really make it stand out.
I played in a lot of styles, including Classical, which I still enjoy playing today. I really enjoy listening to and playing Fran Lizt’s takes on the Beethoven symphonies, where he would play every part on just the piano. Long before Professor Longhair, he took that left hand, right hand, both hands, thing I talked about before and broke it down even more… right to each finger covering a part, not just each hand. This is really advanced stuff we’re talking about here. It takes years of practice and goes beyond the Hanon exercises most of us piano players are forced to learn when we started piano lessons as kids!
But the funny thing was, as a kid I’d spent hours just playing and figuring out stuff on the piano. What I didn’t know was that, very slowly over years, little by little and without knowing it, I was teaching my fingers to be able to do that. Now, I not sayin’ I was doing Lizt at age 6, like some of those kids from Korea or wherever that I see on YouTube! What I am saying is, I got into that kinda stuff around age 11 or 12, and I could play it by the time I was about 17 or 18. Now this is where the FUN comes in for me! What if I could take Lizt’s ideas and combine them with the way the folks like Professor Longhair and some of those other New Orleans Piano players played? Now that would be cool!!
I wish I could say that I was the first guy to come up with this idea! Like the old joke goes, “There ain’t nothing new in music that you’re gonna think of, that some dead German guy hasn’t already thought up 300 years ago!” Well it wasn’t some German guy, and it wasn’t 300 years ago, But the great New Orleans piano genius James Booker figured out how to do my idea long before I ever thought about it. But that was good! He opened the door for that type of playing, and there’s a bunch of folks who actally do play like that and are really good at it!
I believe that this style, solo piano, that is, is a tradition that needs to be upheld. It’s a tradition that came from the birth of blues, in the lumber and turpentine camps of the delta to the parlors and juke joints. It’s where I can combine tradition and change. It’s a place where I can establish a personal, individual sound, or voice if you will, in an art form that, compared to all the young guitarists out there, doesn’t have many folks to pick up the banner from those greats who came before us! Those classic boogie piano tunes of the past are really complex improvisations and they’ve proven that they stand the test of time.
Remember, there was a time when the piano was the only instrument, besides the voice, in blues. It was king! Now it’s more of a second class citizen behind the guitar. A lot of times today, the piano is used more as an ornament to a band’s sound, not as an integral rhythmic part. That, I guess, happened during the post war years when recording engineers could not, would not, or just plain did not find a balance between the piano and electric instruments. So over the years through imitation and though listening to those recordings, players where basically forced to play their piano as more of a background instrument. Really, the volume of the electric instruments overpowered the acoustic piano, so we all started thinking that all a piano player was supposed to do was just provide broken chords, a cluster of treble notes, or some phrases and inflections. Of course, now we’ve got electric keyboards and pianos that sound pretty dang good, I think, and can crank up just as loud as any other electric instrument, but if a piano player starts playing more fuller sounding chords or more complex stuff, then you run the risk of overplaying and making the band sound too full, too busy, or just plain annoying, and really, who wants that?
So in the overload of guitars and harp players wailing around, I like the fact that I’m (along with others like Mitch Woods, Eden Brent, and a few more) upholding an old tradition in a new world. If you actually give it a chance, solo piano can hold the crowd and make folks wanna dance! It’s not boring. In fact, I’d go as far as to say solo piano is even more exciting then most other instruments in a solo setting. So I’m gonna use a style that I love that was started years ago in my beloved New Orleans, and… “Use some stuff that’s old, some stuff that’s new, some stuff that’s borrowed, and a whole lotta stuff that’s Blue, and then get funky with the whole mess of it!”