A lot of people count the harmonica player Slim Harpo as an influence - among them the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and Pink Floyd - but nobody can claim a connection as direct (or harrowing) as swamp-blues master Kenny Neal.
Slim Harpo was a regular in the Louisiana home of the Neals, and Kenny - one of the sons of harp player Raful Neal - recalled in a recent phone interview the story of how he got his first harmonica when he was three years old.
"He was just playin' around," Neal said of Slim Harpo. "He tricked me into a trailer one day. ... He told me, 'Look inside and see if there's any more equipment in there.' I went inside, and he closed the doors. It got pitch black and I got phobia. ... Freaked me out. I started screamin' and yellin', and that freaked him out. He was trying to quiet me down, so he decided to give me a harmonica - that was the closest thing he had that would probably soothe me a little bit."
Neal said that "every time he came to the house, I didn't want to see that guy. ... I remember it like it was yesterday." But despite the trauma of the story, Neal said he connected with the instrument. "I knew I loved music then," he said. "So when he gave me that harmonica, that was like an extra instrument that I had." While his dad played the harmonica, too, the kids weren't allowed to play with his. So Slim Harpo's pacifying gift was "like handing a kid a candy bar," Neal said.
It's likely he would have become an entertainer without that present; the 54-year-old Neal said he absorbed the blues from his father: "Everything I know, he gave it to me. ... Every night I play now, man, I can hear my Dad."
At age six or seven, he said, he knew he wanted to be a performer, although he had no sense of what form it would take. "Down here, man, you just pick up an instrument and play," he said. When his father needed a guitarist or a bassist or a drummer for a gig, Kenny would fill in. "I didn't know what I was," he said. "I was whatever my Dad needed."
In the late 1970s, he played bass in the band of Buddy Guy - another friend of his father - but wanted to lead a band. He chose the guitar mostly out of necessity, "'cause a bass wasn't going to get it" - the "it" being accepted as a frontman.
He saw that most blues bands in Chicago were led by guitarist singers. "They wasn't that good, but they were going over to Europe and playing all over the place," Neal said. "And I go, 'Man, I'd like to get a piece of this action, as well.'"
So he focused on teaching himself to play guitar better. He honed his chops in Canada - including with the Neal Brothers Blues Band - and turned a house-band gig into a series of apprenticeships. "Every week I would have a different guest" secured because of his Chicago connections, he said - Guy, Junior Wells, Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker. "That really helped - learn right on the spot how to be a frontman."
Neal made his solo debut in 1987 and has released more than a dozen albums on the Alligator, Blind Pig, and Telarc labels - his most recent being 2010's Hooked on Your Love, which the All Music Guide said is loaded with "confident singing, tasteful and appropriate horn charts, elegant guitar leads (and now and then a chugging harp solo), and a gently swinging Louisiana groove."
He said his next album will be called Strictly Blues, although recording hasn't even begun. "I want to go back and touch bases with the deep roots of ... the electrified blues," he said. "It's kind of getting a bit diluted. So I want to go back and do a real, low-down blues CD." He cited Big Joe Turner and Guitar Slim as templates - "not much of the Muddy Waters style of the blues, but kind of back [to the] '40s, '50s. I want to capture that era. ...
"I don't want to forget about what my whole mission is, and that's to carry the torch - to keep the blues alive. And I don't want to get too far away from it."
With that in mind, the artist earlier this year hosted a Kenny Neal's Family & Friends Heritage Blues Festival in both the states he calls home - one in Baton Rouge and one in Sacramento, California.
The goal, he said, was to focus on local talent rather than outside artists: "We have a lot of international folks right here in Baton Rouge, like Mr. Henry Gray, Chris Thomas King ... - guys who live right here under my nose just waiting to play."
And Neal, of course, is making sure his descendants get the exposure he had growing up - but without being shut in a dark trailer. "I open-tuned a guitar yesterday for my two-year-old grandson," he said. "He already knows about Muddy Waters. I was playing something else, and he wanted to play Muddy Waters."
The grandson is too young to play the instrument well, Neal said: "He just sittin' there strummin', but I open-tune it so it's already an open chord. I want him to hear nice notes. ... I think it's important for him to hear that early."