Mo', Keb' (Contemporary Musicians)
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Keb' Mo' is considered one of the brightest modern stars of the blues genre. Since his 1994 debut on the OKeh label, he has won numerous awards and has expanded his work to include television and film soundtracks as well as frequent concert appearances. His unique melding of traditional blues with more recent elements, from pop to rock, have won critical praise and propelled Mo's recordings to the top of the charts.
Born Kevin Moore on October 3, 1951, in Compton, California, Mo' grew up steeped in the musical traditions that his extended family had brought from the Deep South. He listened to blues recordings and R&B on the local radio station, and heard gospel music every Sunday at the Baptist church his family attended. By age ten, he was recruited into his school band, where he began on trumpet. "I remember the first time playing with the band, playing whole notest just felt so good," he told Los Angeles Times writer Steve Appleford. "It just felt like the place to be." The young musician went on to try steel drums and other percussion instruments, french horn, and guitar. "Wherever they would let me participate," he commented to Lynn Heffley in the Los Angeles Times. "I mean, I would play the triangle if they let me."
But once he discovered guitar, which his uncle invited him to try, Mo' knew he had found his instrument. "When I put my hand on the guitar the first time, that was it," he told Appleford. "Two weeks later I was playing the guitar, finger-picking and the whole thing. I knew four chords, five chords was ready to rock." Despite his blues heritage, however, Mo' dreamed of success as a pop star. He joined various cover bands after high school, performing Top 40 hits and oldies until one of his bosses suggested that his music lacked a certain something. This musician introduced Mo' to material with more Caribbean and African sounds, such as the music of the Neville Brothers. Mo' commented in an article in Offbeat magazine, "I took it to heart and listened to them, and began to incorporate that kind of swing into my own kind of music."
During the early 1970s Mo' began to find modest success as a backup musician. In 1973 he joined a blues-rock group headed by Papa John Creach, the former vocalist for Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna. Mo' stayed with Creach's band for three years, touring steadily and making three albums. He then went on to work as a studio musician in Los Angeles. He released his own album, Rainmaker, in 1980, but it garnered little notice.
Throughout the 1980s Mo' continued to strive for a stardom that remained elusive. In 1983 he joined the house band at the Los Angeles club Marla's Memory Lane. There he met blues saxophonist Monk Higgins, the bandleader who Mo' later credited as "probably the most important element in developing my understanding of the blues," as he commented in the Detroit News. It wasn't until 1990, however, that Mo' got the break that would turn his career around. The casting director for Rabbit Foot, a theater production in Los Angeles, needed an actor who could play a Delta blues musician. "I said I could do it liedut then I really got drawn into the role," he confided to Guitar Player writer Andy Widders-Ellis. So successful was his performance that Mo' was cast in another bluesman role in the play Spunk. These roles led to solo engagements that boosted Mo's popularity. "The response was incredible," he told Widders-Ellis, "the best I'd ever had with my band."
By this time, as Mo' explained to Appleford, "I really didn't care anymore" about star status. "I just wanted to play music. I didn't care if I was successful or not successful. I didn't care if I was living out of a box downtown. I just wanted to do it." His exposure to Delta music prompted him to go back to study the blues classics, and he even took lessons at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. Among his most important blues influences were the legendary Robert Johnson and contemporary giant Taj Mahal, who had played a concert at Mo's high school years earlier.
In 1994 Mo' signed with Epic Records on their newly revived blues label, OKeh. That year he released his debut album, Keb' Mo', which was his new professional name, an African-American version of his given name that he felt would better reflect his blues orientation. A friend, drummer Quentin Dennard, had started pronouncing his name this way during sessions at Los Angeles clubs when Mo' would sit in with house musicians. The record earned glowing reviews from such publications as the New York Times, People, and the Houston Chronicle. Critics hailed Mo' as an important new voice with both authentic blues roots and a contemporary sound.
The success of Keb' Mo' led to more engagements at music festivals, clubs, and coffeehouses. In addition, Mo' began opening for such big stars as Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy, Joe Cocker, and George Clinton. In 1996 Mo' released his second album, Just Like You, which won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Albums did his next release, Slow Down, in 1998. Mo's music could soon be heard everywheren radio; on the television series Touched By an Angel and the CBS drama The Promised Land; on several film soundtracks, including One Fine Day, Tin Cup, and Down in the Delta; and on the concert stage, as Mo' shared star billing with such performers as Bonnie Raitt and Celine Dion. Many leading artists covered Mo's songs, from Joe Cocker with "Has Anybody Seen My Girl," to B. B. King with "Dangerous Mood." The Yale Repertory Company commissioned Mo' to write the score for Keith Glover's play Thunder Knocking on the Door.
"When I first heard Delta blues," Mo' told Rusty Russell of Guitar Player, "it really grabbed mend became my foundation as a playerut it never occurred to me to shut off other things that make me who I am as a musician." Pointing out that television, Top 40 radio, and the 1960s folk music and rock scene were an important part of his adolescence, he cited James Taylor as a major influence on his fingerpicking style, and has never been shy about bringing innovative instrumentation and phrasing to his work. On his album The Door, Mo' felt he achieved his most satisfying blend to date of traditional and new elements. His version of the Elmore James song "It Hurts Me Too Much," for example, is a blues classic that includes subtle synthesizer accompaniment. "That's how I always heard blues coming out, and blues going somewhere elseather than the same old kind of thing. But it's respectful of the original version," he commented to Appleford.
A project that surprised even Mo' himself was Big Wide Grin, a compilation of children's songs commissioned by Sony Wonder. At first, he envisioned the recording as a detour from his "real" work. But he soon became excited by the material. Though he contributed several original songs to the effort, including "Infinite Eyes," which he wrote with John Lewis Parker and Essra Mohawk, and "I Am Your Mother, Too," a song about adoption cowritten with Zuriani, Mo' also put his own distinctive stamp on a wide range of other material. His choices were risky, from the high funk of Sly & the Family Stone's "Family Affair" to the soul of the O'Jay's "Love Train;" from Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" to Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," and the raunchier "Fat Foot Floogie." His focus on the recording, Mo' told Heffley, was to celebrate the many different forms that families take, from the intact nuclear unit to extended and blended families, and to expand awareness about adults' responsibility to younger generations. "We're wielding this great power of thought and mind and deed," he continued, "and sometimes we use it carelessly."
Mo' has also covered the Hank Williams hit "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," for a tribute album to the great country-western star. Perhaps the project farthest from his blues roots so far is his rendition in song of Shakespeare's Sonnet 35 for a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art benefit recording, When Love Speaks: Sonnets of Shakespeare. Released in 2002, the recording includes performances by such disparate artists as Joseph Fiennes, Sir John Gielgud, Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Fiona Shaw, Des'Ree, Annie Lennox, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. According to Heffley, Mo' described his work on this project as his "bravest undertaking of the whole year."
Comfortable with his melding of the old and the new, Mo' said simply, "I trust my instincts and go with them," according to Down Beat magazine. "It's important to respect the elders and study them," he added, "but it's just as important to do your own thing."
Mo' toured widely in the early 2000s and cemented his reputation as a major concert draw, but after Big Wide Grin came a three-year hiatus in his solo recording activity. When he did return to the studio in 2004, it was with a fresh burst of enthusiasm: Mo' released two recordings that year, one of which stuck closer to his blues roots while the other was a canny guess as to where the singer's sophisticated pop audience might be headed next.
The bluesy release was Keep It Simple, whose 12 original songs were all written or co-written by Mo' himself. Ebony hailed the album for its "simple rhythms and lyrics that are profound and compelling." Mo' played a National steel guitar, one of the classic blues instruments, on the album, but he also joined with an eclectic set of guests that included bluegrass mandolinist Sam Bush and the country/Contemporary Christian husband-and-wife duo Vince Gill and Amy Grant. After Keep It Simple, Mo' released Peace Back by Popular Demand, an album of covers of classic protest songs of the 1960s. In an era of rising political protest, the album seemed to be a smart move commercially.
As the album came out in September of 2004, Mo' was in the midst of a foray into political activism himself: he was a participant in the Vote for Change tour featuring artists who gave concerts in order to raise money for the effort to defeat President George W. Bush in the November election that year. "I'd like to think [the concert series] had a higher mind to it than just defeating a president but maybe defeating an idea that we need to be the big, bad wolf of the world," Mo' told the CNBC cable television network. Although the Vote for Change campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, it put Keb' Mo' on stages with some of the top names in the music business, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen among them. Prematurely pronounced dead, the blues were now commercially vital once again thanks in large part to Keb' Mo's music.
Keb' Mo', OKeh/Epic, 1994.
Just Like You, OKeh/Epic, 1996.
Slow Down, OKeh/Epic, 1998.
The Door, OKeh/Epic, 2000.
Big Wide Grin, Sony Wonder, 2001.
(Contributor) When Love Speaks: Sonnets of Shakespeare, EMI Classics, 2002.
Keep It Simple, OKeh, 2004.
Peace Back by Popular Demand, Sony, 2004.
Billboard, April 11, 1998, p. 10.
Detroit News, October 12, 1995.
Down Beat, March 1999, p. 22.
Ebony, May 2004, p. 26.
Guitar Player, September 1994, p. 14; February 1999, p. 35; January 2001, p. 53.
Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2000; July 21, 2001.
Offbeat, July 1996.
School Library Journal, August 2001, p. 92.
Sing Out!, Summer 2004, p. 155.
Variety, June 24, 2002, p. 32.
"Keb' Mo'," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 5, 2004).
Keb' Mo' Official Website, http://www.kebmo.com (January 13, 2005).
Additional information was obtained from "Capital Report," CNBC News Transcripts, September 27, 2004.
lizabeth Shostak and James M. Manheim