Blues singer-songwriter-keyboardist Eliza Neals will perform second-to-last at the free Long Branch Jazz and Blues Festival, which takes place at the Great Lawn and Promenade in Long Branch, Aug. 26 from 1 to 9 p.m. She will be followed by an old friend, Popa Chubby, whom she first performed with at a show in Key West, Florida, about five years ago.
“He let me sit in, and we’ve been friends ever since,” she says. “He switched keys three times (during the song) and had all kinds of tests for me. And I passed. And then he produced one of my EPs (2019’s Sweet or Mean) and we’re lifelong friends now. He’s a really funny character, and he keeps it real.”
Regarding the switching-keys-three-times thing, she adds a qualification: “I don’t know if he even realized it. But he did it. And we laugh about it now, because that’s really what happened.”
This festival is produced annually by the Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Foundation, and this year’s edition also will feature the Andy Rothstein Band, the Anthony Krizan Band, Audra Mariel & a Real Human Jazz Band, and Regina Bonelli. Neals — who, like many hard-touring blues musicians, uses different backing musicians in different areas of the country — will perform with guitarist Frankie Maneiro, bassist Mickey Maguire and drummer Rubin Nizri.
Though not based on the Shore, Neals, a Detroit native, has been living in New Jersey — Jersey City, specifically — for about 15 years. “I’ve been going back and forth from Jersey to Detroit, and doing tours out of Jersey on the East Coast, and out of Detroit, going to Chicago and Ohio and the Midwest and all that, and I’ve been overseas twice, to the U.K. and Spain, and all through Europe. I’ve been to the Mustique Festival (in the Caribbean), invited by Joe Louis Walker, four times.”
She calls herself “one of the last trained Motown singers” and identifies her main mentor as Barrett Strong, who had Motown’s first hit single, “Money (That’s What I Want),” in 1959, and co-wrote, with Norman Whitfield, monumental hits for other artists such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “War,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
“He taught me everything I know,” Neals says, adding that she met him while she was working in a Detroit health food store at which he was a regular customer.
One day he heard her singing in the back. He introduced himself and told her she sounded good. They started talking, and he told her about his background.
“When someone tells you they worked with Marvin Gaye … different people tell you they’ve done this and that, and sometimes it’s not true,” Neals says. “So you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, sure.’ But then I went and looked it up and it was real. So he signed me to his record label and he’s the one who started me off in the music business, recording. I have a ton of music recorded on his label, Blarritt Records, and I co-produced his last record (2001’s Stronghold 2, a sequel to his 1975 album Stronghold). I co-produced it and co-wrote it with him and it’s just an honor to have known him.”
Strong died in January of this year, at the age of 81.
“I talk to him every day in my mind,” Neals says. “He’s told me so many things. The day doesn’t go by without me just talking to him and laughing about something — he was very funny.”
The most important thing she has learned from him, she says, is “write a great song. If you can’t remember the hook, then you don’t need a pencil to write it down. Pretty much, write great hooks, write great stories, and don’t worry about what you look like while you’re singing — that’s another good one.”
For more on Neals, visit elizaneals.com.
For more on the festival, visit jsjbf.org/jersey-shore-jazz-and-blues-festival. The schedule is: Regina Bonelli, 1:15 p.m.: Audra Mariel & a Real Human Jazz Band, 2:30 p.m.: Anthony Krizan Band, 3:45 p.m.: Andy Rothstein Band, 5 p.m.: Eliza Neals, 6:15 p.m.; Popa Chubby, 7:3 p.m.
Here is a video of Neals’ recent single, “Candy Store”:
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