John Németh’s Blues Explosion

The East Oakland resident may be the best white blues singer ever.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, John Németh was singing and blowing the blues in Idaho bars six nights a week. He’d been making a decent living at it since he was eighteen, but then conglomerates bought up all the radio stations and banished local music from their airwaves, as they had practically everywhere else. The singer figured it was time to move on, as work had slowed after stations no longer played his self-produced CDs. He came to the Bay Area when his girlfriend, Jaki, now his wife, enrolled at San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. It was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Today, Németh is not only the fastest rising star on the national blues scene, he may be the best white blues singer in the history of the genre. His momentum began in late 2007 with Magic Touch, his fifth CD and first for the venerable San Francisco-based Blind Pig label. With Blind Pig, which rivals Chicago’s Alligator Records as the leading purveyor of contemporary blues recordings, Németh was suddenly getting play on blues radio programs all over the United States. Cross-country tours soon followed. His career kicked into high gear with the January 27 release of the follow-up, Love Me Tonight. The disc debuted at No. 10 on Billboard‘s blues chart earlier this month and two weeks ago shot to the top of Roots Music Report‘s blues airplay chart, ahead of such established artists as Guy Davis, Ruthie Foster, Saffire the Uppity Blues Women, and the Derek Trucks Band.

“The guy’s got a voice that just knocks you out,” said Blind Pig boss Edward Chmelewski. “It’s rare to hear a white guy that can sing like that.”

While white jazz and country vocalists have long included blues in their repertoires, going back to Jack Teagarden and singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, white musicians had little impact on blues per se until the British invasion and psychedelic revolution of the ’60s. Instrumental, not vocal, prowess was paramount to the new non-African-American blues audiences. There were harmonica kings like Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite, and guitar gods such as Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and the Vaughan brothers, but prior to Németh there were few white vocal virtuosos. Only early Robert Cray Band member Curtis Salgado comes immediately to mind.

Chmelewski said that Németh reminds him of Joe Turner, and he’s right to a degree. Both have power and rhythmic assurance, but whereas Turner was a blues shouter, Németh is a blues crooner. He’s a smoothie, and the way he navigates melismas and wide melodic intervals in a ringing tenor voice with pitch-perfect aplomb brings to mind Little Junior Parker, a major blues star of the ’50s and ’60s. Parker died in 1971, at age 44, before white folks had a chance to discover him.

“There aren’t too many people in my age bracket or younger who are doing this,” Németh said in the dining room of the East Oakland home he shares with his wife. “Most people aren’t taking the singing too seriously. There are other facets of the music, like the guitar, that are more in the forefront. Seems like the vocalization has lost a lot of respect, but yet you need it. You can’t sell a good song if you don’t have it.”

Clearly, Németh is trying to do something different. The Love Me Tonight cover photo depicts the handsome 33-year-old blond vocalist and harmonica player in a black suit, his white shirt open at the collar, his knotted black-and-white-striped tie dangling fashionably. An attractive brunette in a cocktail dress showing ample cleavage embraces him, her forehead pressing against his temple and manicured fingers against his chest. It’s not your typical blues album cover. Chmelewski said the label was going for “a Tony Bennett look.”

The music inside isn’t your typical warmed-over South Side Chicago or Texas roadhouse blues, either. “There’s something about John’s music where he can take this retro stuff and make it sound modern,” said Chmelewski. “It’s old retro style, but it’s not slavishly imitative. Because it’s old and new at the same time, it can appeal to retro purists and also to young hipsters.”

On Love Me Tonight, Németh’s take on blues is polished and decidedly uptown. But he gets quite down-home on the Howlin’ Wolf-inspired “Daughter of the Devil,” one of ten original songs on the eleven-track disc. On that selection, Németh sings through his harmonica mike, rather than through a standard vocal mike, and the resulting distortion adds fierceness to his usually clear tenor tones. He gives the rocking “Just Like You” a growl, sounding a bit like his harmonica hero Junior Wells, and his lower register has a resonance akin to T-Bone Walker’s. However, Junior Parker seems the most pronounced influence.

“I love his style,” Németh said of Parker. “He just sort of swoops in everywhere and never had a bad phrase in his whole life. That’s what’s so cool about those singers back in the day. Sure, a lot of people could sing the notes, but very few singers could sing and tell a story to hook you into it and make it groove. Nowadays, it seems like so much vocalization is so rigid and simplified. People are afraid to take chances anymore.”

Taking chances seems built into the fabric of John Németh’s DNA. He was born in Boise on March 10, 1975, the son of a Hungarian Freedom Fighter. His father, Vilmus Németh, attended the University of Budapest, but he “wasn’t a good comrade,” according to John, and was kicked off campus by Communist authorities. He spent two years in the basement of a Catholic church before joining the ill-fated uprising. He fled to Italy, then to New York, where a refugee relief organization helped him land a job at a lead mine in Kellogg, Idaho. Soon, he was working as a highway bridge designer for the state and living in Boise, where he met his wife at a Catholic singles club.

Németh was raised on a steady diet of Hungarian food and Hungarian folk music, which he describes as harmonically progressive and similar to jazz. “The common instrumentation is violin, hammer dulcimer, upright bass, clarinet — no guitar,” he said, while sipping a glass of pear palinka, a brandy-like drink with the bite of strong tequila. (He calls it “Hungarian moonshine,” and he distills it himself, having learned the recipe from his father.) “I’ve never played it, but I always loved listening to it. Almost every day of my life, my dad would put that music on, especially the weekends. He’d put the record on and just turn it up. I always thought that music was loud. I don’t even think I played my music as loud as he played his music.”

Besides Hungarian folk music, young John heard a lot of classical and opera records around the house. He got a kick out of mimicking arias. “It got my voice going,” he said. “Those operas singers know how to sing right, with a lot of power.” Németh’s first real exposure to American music came when his older brother moved to Los Angeles and left John his collection of eight-track country music tapes. He was drawn to artists like George Jones and ’70s “outlaw” musicians Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Paycheck. To this day, Németh said, their music influences his songwriting. “I think you can hear that country influence in a lot of the songs I write, and I think some of those songs could easily be converted to country songs,” he said. “When I first started listening to soul music, like Percy Sledge and Otis Redding, a lot of those songs could be country songs as well. In fact, some of those songs were country tunes. Country music and soul music really aren’t that far apart in basic songwriting terms.”

When he was fourteen, a friend turned him on to blues. He recalls his friend bringing a cassette to school and listening to it during algebra class. “I just flipped out,” Nemeth recalled, “like, ‘Wow, what is this?'”

His favorite songs were “I’m Goin’ Down” by Freddie King and “Snatch It Back and Hold It” by Junior Wells. It was Wells’ voice that particularly resonated with him. “It was funky and haunting at the same time, with a lot of energy,” Németh said. “A lot that music reminded me of a lot of the gypsy, Hungarian folk-kinda stuff that I grew up listening to. It had that same power. Nothing was relaxed.”

At sixteen, Németh became the vocalist in a blues band formed by a guitarist friend. A videotape of a talent show they’d done in Boise wound up in the hands of the proprietors of the Grubstake Saloon in nearby Horseshoe Bend. The band spent Fridays and Saturday playing the joint during the summer between his junior and senior years.

Singing came naturally to Németh. “I’ve always had a really easy time with a melody,” he explained. “Like when I first started out and I was learning songs, the only thing I had to learn was the lyrics and all the verses. I’d write ’em down and memorize ’em. I never really paid attention to practicing the melody. It just came in my head and stayed there. … I guess I’ve always been really lucky at that.”

By the time he was eighteen, Németh was a performing six nights a week in Boise clubs, even while attending Boise State University. His band, then billed as Fat John and the Three Slims, made its first of three CDs in 1997. Németh himself wasn’t fat, but having played football and lifted weights in school, he was bigger than the other band members, who he describes as “little, geeky guys.”

Németh picked up the harmonica after the guitarist in his band suggested that the group could use a second solo instrument. “I went to go price a piano, and it was too expensive,” the singer said. “To get one that would sound decent on stage, you had to buy the amp and the chair and this and that. You’re lookin’ at $3,000. I loved Junior Wells and Little Walter, so I bought a harmonica for six bucks.” Although quite accomplished on harmonica, Németh uses the tiny instrument sparingly in his performances.

Boise’s strong music scene helped keep the band in steady work at first. Bars would advertise on the radio, he said, and play his band’s music to promote the show. The radio stations would also keep his music in rotation. But around 1999 or 2000, things started to change. “The artists that were playing the clubs weren’t getting any airplay became all the conglomerates came in and bought up all the radio stations, like everywhere else,” said Németh, adding that it was no longer cost-effective for the clubs to advertise on the air.

Németh followed his future wife to San Francisco in 2004, and the couple moved to Oakland last year. It wasn’t easy at first. “I thought I was going to starve down here,” he recalled. “I knew musicians, but I didn’t know any of the clubs. I’m a terrible hustler.” But he soon found that guitar players needed singers for their pickup gigs. He became known in the local clubs and started working with Kid Anderson, Kenny “Blue” Ray, and Mike Schermer.

Besides working locally as a sideman at such clubs as San Francisco’s Biscuits & Blues, Lou’s Pier 47, and the Mojo Lounge; the Half Moon Bay Brewery; the Poor House Bistro in San Jose; and the Torch Club in Sacramento; he went on tour with Junior Watson, a Southern California guitarist who is little-known to a lot of blues fans but is revered by many fellow guitarists for his innovative jazz-imbued blues approach. And in 2006, Németh toured the US and Europe with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets as a sub for Sam Myers, the band’s ailing singer and harmonica man, who died later that year. He even got a chance to visit his father’s hometown of Szmod, Hungary.

One of Németh’s most memorable gigs with Funderburgh was at the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival in Greenwood, Mississippi. “It was a huge blues festival, and I would say it was almost a 99-percent black audience,” he said. “Anson said, ‘Don’t be nervous, but I just want you to know they could care less what I’m gonna play on this guitar. It’s your show. They love the singing. …’ It was great. It was one of the best audiences I’ve ever had the opportunity to perform for.”

Blues and rock singer, pianist, and comedian Rev. Billy C. Wirtz brought Németh to the attention of Blind Pig, for whom he was then recording. Edward Chmelewski first heard Németh at Biscuits & Blues. “We saw this guy is a hell of a performer,” he said. “He really knows how to put on a show. It’s one thing to be a recording artist, but it’s something else to be able to put that across on stage and connect with an audience.”

After the release of his first Blind Pig CD, which was produced by Funderburgh and featured his band, Németh put together his own backing trio, featuring former Mark Hummel guitarist and keyboardist Bobby Welsh, and began crisscrossing the county in the singer’s white 2006 Ford van. They were in San Jose two weeks ago, appeared in several Florida cities last week, and will return to Oakland on Friday to play Yoshi’s.

Love Me Tonight, the new Blind Pig CD, was produced by the singer himself. Most of the songs are first takes that were recorded with few overdubs, other than Welsh’s guitar, piano, and organ parts. Németh did second takes on some of his vocals but ended up leaving them in the can.

“I think one of the reasons why I do do a second take of vocals afterwards is because when I initially cut the song, I go for it,” he explained. “Nothing’s safe. I take all the chances in the world, like I do live, and it always seems to turn out fine.” Elvin Bishop, who plays on two tracks of Love Me Tonight, has been one of Németh’s biggest boosters. The guitarist featured Németh’s singing on three tracks of his latest CD, The Blues Rolls On, and took him to Tulsa last October to perform on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“There’s nothing not to like about the guy,” Bishop said about Németh. “He’s strong. He connects with the people. He’s the real deal.”

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