“I play the blues, and my mission is to keep that genre alive and relevant in front of people in a way that feels appreciable,” says The Reverend Shawn Amos, whose many shows this year have included one at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park.
His albums include three relatively recent ones with similar-sounding names. “We did two records, one of them called Reverend Shawn Amos Tells It (2014) and another one called Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You that were really just me sort of romping through late ’50’s early ’60’s Chicago style blues and celebrating that particular strain of American blues,” he said, in an interview conducted after that Wonder Bar show. “And with the current album, Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, things got maybe a little more serious in response to the times, and I guess I maybe break from the blues tradition a bit more in that there’s some ’70s soul influences, some Staple Singers influences over the gospel influences. But it’s sort of meant to be a freedom songs record like the great ones from the 1960s.”
Amos wasn’t always a blues musician and he even had strong convictions against getting into the performance side of music. But like most musicians, once it’s in your system, it’s very difficult to remove.
“I love the blues; I became a student of the blues in college. Growing up, I was a rock ‘n’ roll kid and really into singer-songwriters. But if you’re serious about any music, you ultimately get led back to the blue. I became a real deep student of it in college and was introduced to them, actually, through books and not recordings.
“There was a great writer named Peter Guralnick who wrote a trilogy of books about black American music and the first one starts off with Delta Blues origins. I really soaked up his books and when I was in college in New York, I would drive down to the South every Spring Break and Summer Break that I had, and go to Mississippi and head to Beale Street and all of the places that Peter wrote about in his books. Then from there, I was led to all the recordings, the Robert Johnsons, the Columbia recordings, the Chess recordings, so I became a deep student of it.
“Then that led into my professional career where I was an A&R executive for a label called Shout! Factory and I oversaw a bunch of blues reissues. I did John Lee Hooker’s career boxed set with his manager and his daughter; I did Johnny “Guitar: Watson’s career retrospective with his daughter Virginia. So it was in my life a lot, but not as a player. I made a pretty strong decision not to do it as a player; I was more interested in folk music and the singer-songwriter scene and other forms of roots music.
“But in 2012, I was invited by some old bandmates to play the blues for the very reason that I knew a lot of that catalog and that I could put together a good song list. They invited me over to sing and play the blues and I got bitten by the bug, man.”
So how does a semi-reluctant blues player make an album that is different from his others? According to Amos, it is a labor of love and passion.
“I love recording and I love making music, and any musician these days, I’m sure, is questioning to some degree what they’re getting out of recording other than the creative satisfaction, because it’s a tough business. I love recording, I love the whole process, I love writing and I love actively trying to market it, finding the place to get your message in front of people.
“With this album, I started recording before I knew I was making a record. I was writing songs, as I said, born out of what we’re going through right now, and my reaction to what was happening. I felt the need to write and I felt the need to subsequently record, but I thought I was recording just for me. I didn’t really intend … there was no light bulb that went off like, ‘Hey I’m beginning to make a record now.’ I was just enjoying having experiences in different recording studios.
“I went to Muscle Shoals’ Fame studios and got a chance to record there where all the greats like Aretha, Wilson Pickett, The Allman Brothers recorded. And then I got a chance to record at Royal Studios in Memphis with Al Green’s rhythm section Hi Rhythm. There were these opportunities being given to me. I didn’t want to pass them up and I was doing them for the experience. So I brought songs in that I felt good about and songs that would resonate with the people that were playing with me, but I really didn’t think much past the idea that this was a wonderful opportunity to record.
“So as I collected all of these recordings, I started to share them with my producer in Los Angeles for no other reason than just to share them. I was like, ‘Hey I did these things, and I’m not sure what to make of them, let me know what you think.’ He spent some time with them and then called me into his studio and threw a few things up on the speakers that he played with a little bit and at that point I was like, ‘Okay, this is probably an album that I’m making now.’ (laughs). At that point, I went at it with more intention to figure out what songs were missing and what others that I’d like to record, and sequencing, and all of the things that go into making an album. So it unfolded very deceptively.”
Over the years, the blues have been maligned, embraced, documented and celebrated. Amos admits that it is hard to pick a performer or player whom he favors, but has his opinions on who he feels stands out.
“Oh man, that’s a tough one. Junior Wells is the blues artist that I’m most intrigued by. As a harmonica player, I love his playing. I find it really humorous and really mischievous and sort of apart from a lot of the other players of his time. And I love him as a singer, with his expression, and as a showman. He was originally supposed to be the next James Brown, and so I find him to be sort of the most fascinating for me. But there’s so many. Buddy (Guy), (Little) Walter, (Howlin’) Wolf. I tend to gravitate mostly towards the Chicago bluesmen.”
Shawn is the son of Wally “Famous” Amos (of the chocolate chip cookie empire) and a mother who had a recording career of her own. Does having this kind of parental upbringing and bloodline affect how he manages or sees his career?
“Our parents always affect us; I mean, forever,” he said with a laugh. “My father was an agent at the William Morris Agency; he was the first black agent in the business. He worked at William Morris in New York and booked all of the Motown acts and Simon & Garfunkel. My mother was a nightclub singer and was signed to Mercury Records and would sing in nightclubs all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. And as I get further into this and look back more, I feel like the path I’m on is sort of doing equal parts to both of them
“In some respects I feel like I’m finishing the work of my mother — my mother committed suicide in 2003 and she lost her career long before that, because she suffered from mental illness. By the time I was born, her career was over and her mental illness was in full swing. So in some respects, I feel like I’m sort of continuing the stage work and creative work that she wasn’t able to continue. My father … having grown up around him in recording studios and sound stages and concert halls and all of the things that he did prior to the Famous Amos thing and including the Famous Amos thing, I got a real sense of the work: what it means to do the work. It’s not just about the time onstage or speaking to interviewers or the time that’s public-facing, it’s all the stuff that no one ever sees: the planning, the prep, the work. It lies in doing the work and how you find enjoyment in that and recognizing that stuff is really important. How well you do that plays a large part in how far you take it.
“There’s other things as well like luck (laughs), but the work is really critical. The work is really all that you have, and I got that from my father. I think my career and my choices are due in large part to what I’ve experienced from both of them.”
For more about The Reverend Shawn Amos, visit shawnamos.com.