Vocalist-harmonica ace John Németh is the real deal when it comes to revitalizing the sensibilities and magnetism of 1950s and 1960s deep-pocket soul, R&B and blues.
The latest album from the 2014 Blues Music Award’s male artist of the year, “Memphis Grease,” is testament to both Németh’s talent as songwriter-musician and his affinity for sonic time travel.
Németh, 40, is set to perform at Harlow’s on May 1 with a three-piece rhythm section and two horns. His journey to the spotlight started in a place not known for its musical heritage. Growing up in Boise, Idaho, he sang in a local Catholic church where his mother was organist. And his father, a bridge designer who made Hungarian fruit liquor in their basement still, exposed his son to daily doses of his native folk music.
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“Every morning my dad would get up and blast his 500-watt Marantz (amplifier) with this gypsy music on,” Németh said by phone between gigs at two Florida blues festivals. “(He’d) do these communist calisthenics that they taught him when he was in Hungary in the 1950s. And man I tell you what – that was really bluesy stuff. At least a gypsy scale is very bluesy. So (I was) growing up and listening to this kind of music.”
Németh picked up the mouth harp at 16, soaking up and personalizing the licks of Chicago’s finest while performing blues, classic rock and outlaw country. And he bought his first soul album, the greatest hits of the late Percy Sledge.
“I’m a big fan of Percy Sledge,” Németh said. “I was so impressed with the guy’s vocals. The way his voice is just so honest. The emotion is right there the whole time. He is so far into the song he is probably crying while singing it. I heard that, and I was sold on soul.
“But I was already greased up for this kind of stuff,” he continued, “because I was a big Roy Orbison fan. He’s a very emotional singer, too. I had been listening to all sorts of stuff. I was a big Johnny Paycheck fan. I love Joe Tex. And you know what’s weird is my introduction to Joe Tex was through this (Scottish) band Nazareth.”
Németh played with a local band before he toured with guitarist Junior Watson in 2001, and released his first solo album in 2002, “Jack of Harps.” His résumé includes collaborations with guitarists Anson Funderburgh and Elvin Bishop. In addition to his many accolades, he has six Blues Music Awards nominations for 2015 (winners will be announced in May).
In 2004, Németh followed his girlfriend to San Francisco where they married, and in 2009, they headed across the Bay Bridge to live in Oakland. It proved to be a good move.
“I was picking up on some of these cool old records by all these soul guys,” Németh said. “I was digging on Freddie Hughes, Rodger Collins, and Darando, a bunch of cool cats like that, the original East Bay grease musicians. It was a really low-down, like unsophisticated-soul-kind-of-thing. Very blues based.”
At the same time Németh got hooked on such Memphis soul artists as O.V. Wright, and noted similarities in the two musical camps. By the time he connected with Memphis producer-bassist Scott Bomar in the fall of 2012, Németh had written a bunch of new tunes, and was ready to move to Tennessee and nail down the classic soul sound of Stax, Hi and American Studios.
“Basically I was taking some sort of like ancient East Bay grease material out to Memphis to cut it” he said. “And so the obvious (title) choice of the album is ‘Memphis Grease.’ And that’s exactly what it is: East Bay grease moved to Memphis – fusing the two together.”
On his latest record, Németh is backed by Bomar’s band the Bo-Keys. Drummer Howard Grimes played on records by Al Green and Ann Peebles. Sound mixer John Hampton, who died in December, worked with Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“Memphis Grease” includes 10 originals that include resonating ballads to tightly wound dance grooves. It also features covers of Orbison’s “I’m Crying,” Otis Rush’s “Three Times a Fool” and Howard Tate’s “Stop.”
“When I write a song, I start with the title and immediately address a melody to the title, and that melody fits the emotion of the title,” Németh said. “You take that approach, you are going to open your mind up to create a space where you can be original.
“I trust my ideas and I got enough people that like the music that I can pay rent and drag a band around and do gigs for a living,” he added. “Shoot. I’m living the high life, baby.”
What: Revitalized old-school soul, R&B and blues
When: 9:30 p.m. on May 1
Where: Harlow’s, 2708 J St., Sacramento