When Kent teenager Jon Cleary finished his schooling at the age of 18, he knew exactly what he had to do next to answer his calling. Hop on a ‘plane to America to visit one city, New Orleans, to try to make it as a guitarist.
His parents were cautiously encouraging, considering he was still a kid in their eyes and had no money to speak of. But they gave him their blessing, expecting him to be there for a fortnight or so and come home.
That was back in 1980. Today, in 2018, Jon Cleary has spent the best part of 35 years based in New Orleans! He swapped the guitar for a keyboard many moons ago to make his name in music. Winning a Grammy in 2016 for his own music.
His parents still live in the same house which Jon grew up in, in Kent. An area he loves to go back to when he can, while on tour over here or on his holidays. But he sees it very differently today, and no longer a “boring” place he could not wait to escape.
And the music legends like Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John and Taj Mahal, whose records he used to take to house parties in a plastic bag back in Kent as a kid, now count among his close friends and whose bands he has played in.
In fact, Jon is back on the road with Bonnie Raitt and her band, on an arenas tour of the UK and Europe for a month – on a double bill with James Taylor and his band.
He spent just over a decade playing organ, piano and singing with Bonnie Raitt from 1998 to 2009, before he left to focus on his own solo career and front his crack band The Monster Gentlemen.
Bonnie calls Jon Cleary “the ninth wonder of the world.” But this latest stint with her, is just for the four weeks, before he gets back to touring in his own right. He is promoting a fantastic new record, “Dyna-Mite”, released a few days ago on the Thirty Tigers label.
This will be album # nine for 55-year-old Jon; his first came out in 1989 and was re-issued in 1994. He won a Grammy for his 2015 record, “Go Go Juice”. That was the last release before his new one “Dyna-Mite”. This one, 10 tracks, penned by Jon apart from the one co-write, with his friend Taj Mahal. Produced by John Porter and Jon Cleary, recorded and mixed at various studios in New Orleans.
Jon plays many different instruments across the record: Piano, organ, clavinet, bass, drums, guitar, slide guitar, mandolin and all lead vocals. The material is so, so strong. Uber-soulful, uber-funky and a slew of songs that other artists are sure to cover in the coming years. Jon’s vocals are spine tinglingly good.
I am speaking to the man on his US mobile, but he’s over here in the UK sat in a radio studio ready to do a session later, while here with Bonnie and James for the big tour. I start off by telling Jon how much I dig the record, and, no BS; there isn’t one duff track on it. I could hear the likes of Tower of Power, Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald and many more, grabbing hold of some of these songs for covers.
They are that good. In fact, track three on the album sums it all up for me, “Unputdownable”. But his voice across this little gem is off the scale. Still a wee bit jet-lagged from the flight over here, Jon thanks me for my compliment.
“When you make a record, you have to listen to every note a million times through the whole process. By the time I’ve finished making a record, I usually have no desire to ever hear it again. I’ve got no idea whether it’s good or bad, so it is reassuring when someone says they like it”.
There’s plenty of Meters/Neville Brothers-style, typical New Orleans groove here, but it can then switch to territory trodden by the likes of Jon Hendricks and Mose Allison. But just as quickly, the soulful vibes of Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald et al. The overall feel is palpable. He doesn’t sound like some middle-age white bloke from Kent!
“I enjoy the privilege of being from England, but I have lived in New Orleans since I was 18, so I’ve been in New Orleans for 30+ years. I suppose I have got a slightly different perspective on things. I am not looking at American music from the outside, having lived in the States for a long time. I guess I am looking at it from the inside and a different point of view.
“To be a musician you have got to be a bit of a sponge; search out all the stuff that moved you and then soak it all up. Hopefully it comes out in some shape or form and has your stamp on it”.
He is from a musical family and a family who had itchy feet and loved to travel. His maternal grandparents performed under the respective stage names Sweet Dolly Daydream and Frank Neville, ‘The Little Fellow With The Educated Feet’ – she as a singer, and he as a tap dancer.
Blame Uncle Johnny!
His father was a 50’s skiffle man and taught him the rudiments as soon as he was big enough to reach around the neck of a guitar. Uncle, musician Johnny Johnson, returned from a couple of years in New Orleans in the early 1970’s, and brought back two suitcases of rare and obscure local 45s. This allowed the adolescent Jon Cleary to pursue his study of R&B in great depth, with special attention to the New Orleans sound that increasingly captivated him.
When Jon had landed in New Orleans with just one ‘phone number, for the legendary club his Uncle had regaled him about, and been accepted by the owner and staff, one night when legendary pianist and performer James Booker didn’t show up to perform at his residency at the club, the manager insisted that Jon get up and play before the paying customers demanded a refund.
Thrust suddenly into the spotlight, Jon was ready, willing and able to play his first paying gig in New Orleans – and although he had come to town as a guitarist, this debut was also the first step of his career as a pianist.
Word got out, and he soon landed sideman gigs with the venerable likes of such New Orleans R&B legends (and his childhood heroes) as guitarists Snooks Eaglin, and Earl “Trick Bag” King, and singers Johnny Adams, and Jessie Hill.
So exactly how did a young kid from a small village in rural Kent, turn up in New Orleans without his family and very few quid in his pocket over three and a half decades ago? “I got a taste of travelling early in my life, because my family have travelled round the world.
“Dad used to pack us all in a Volkswagen van and take us out of school on an adventure. We’d drive overland to Greece, in the late 60s and through the 70s. We’d wake up in the Swiss Alps one day or Yugoslavia,” laughs Jon loudly. “I had an Uncle who loved travelling and he lived in New Orleans. An exotic character who would disappear for years on end, and at one point he was living in a cave in the Sahara desert.
“Another time, he was working on a sardine boat in the Mediterranean. One day, we got a postcard from New Orleans and he stayed there for a couple of years. He came back to the UK with two suitcase of 45s. He used to hang out with Professor Longhair. His stories of New Orleans really inspired me.
“So, I thought when I am old enough to leave school, I want to go straight to New Orleans. Which I did. It was a pretty reckless move, because I was young and didn’t have any money. But I was very, very lucky and people showed me a lot of kindness. I got a place to live and I got a job. On a musical point of view; I was in heaven.
“I got a job digging up banana trees at the back of the Maple Leaf bar. A big yard out back full of banana trees. If you ever tried digging up a banana tree, it is hell; you can’t get the bloody things out. The roots go down so deep. It was blisteringly hot.
“This bar was one of the hippest little music joints and when I finished digging up all the banana trees, they gave me the job of painting the bar. So, I was up a ladder with a gallon of paint, listening to James Booker, through the wall. He used to hang out there every day. Roosevelt Sykes was another cat who used to hang out.
“The owner was called The Fat Man. Here was an 18- year-old from England without any parents and supervision, on his own in New Orleans. So, he took me under his wing. Me and my mate got paid five bucks an hour, to work what hours we wanted. We could see all the bands every night for free.
“Got free drink while we worked, which is why it took us six months to pay the bar bill! I got a great musical education. I had died and gone to heaven. I just fell in love. I knew I would love New Orleans from all the stories I had heard about it. I really took to it like a fish to water”.
We talk about the writing process for the songs on his new record. Jon explains he is writing all the time, not just for specific projects. Scribbling things down on scraps of paper as the muse hits him. Singing and playing bits of songs into his iPhone.
In fact, that got him into hot water when desperate to record the idea for the title track onto his note pad on his ‘phone, while sat on a plane. He recounts that story. “The Dyna-mite idea came to me on a plane on my way to a gig. I got the idea for the lyric; the pun in the lyric, and wanted to get it in to the notes page of my iPhone.
“The stewardess was standing above me with her arms folded, wanting me turn off the machine”. Jon laughs loudly at the memory. “I had to write it down before I forgot it”. He gets the ideas for his songs at any time. “…in the middle of the night, sat on the toilet, walking down the road, in the pub….”
Jon reveals the most personal song on the record is the penultimate cut of the 10, “Frenchman Street Blues”. He wrote that in about five minutes. “It was written for the funeral of a friend of mine. He lived on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. An artist, and he was a builder as well and had helped me fix some of the damage in my house from Hurricane Katrina.
“He died very suddenly. He had cancer and didn’t know it. He found out and was dead a week later. He said he wanted his ashes scattered on Frenchman Street. I couldn’t go to the funeral because I was flying out to go on tour the same day.
“But in the morning, I had the idea for that line, ‘scatter my ashes on Frenchman Street’. I sat down, wrote the song on the piano and burned a CD, and gave it to my wife who was going to the funeral. It was played at the funeral on a little boombox, as they were scattering his ashes.
“It was written for that, and no intention of anything else, but it ended up getting used a few years later on an episode of the TV programme ‘Treme’. I went back and tweaked it a little bit for that and started playing it on the tours. Every line in it means something, because it is about a friend of mine”.
Jon started writing the closing song on the album, “All Good Things”, about 20 years ago. So what did he want this set of songs to say about Jon Cleary? “Every album I make is an attempt to define a sound that sounds like me. Most musicians spend their lives learning their instruments and getting a degree of proficiency.
“But the best and most important stage to arrive at is a sound identifiably your own. My tastes are very varied, so when making a record it is just a chance for me to get in there and play; a pleasure thing. I don’t really have an overall concept or desire for a particular statement or a particular sound.
“But I just hope by doing it repeatedly, I get close to something that is identifiably me. But without being necessarily restricted to one dimension. I hope I can present a varied musical dish that has my stamp on it. I don’t know if I have got there yet”.
Did he have any particular albums, tracks or artists in his head as a kind of guiding star / quality control reference? “Yeah, loads really. All the people I listened to in my formative years like Taj Mahal, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt.
“I am very lucky. They were my idols when I was a kid, and I used to carry their records round to parties in a plastic bag, and now they are all friends of mine, and I have played in all their bands. I could make an endless list of all the people that I dig, and you kind of close your eyes and imagine what it was that moved me, and hope to try and get some inspiration from that.
“I think as a musician, if the fever is good and your antenna is functioning, you soak up and absorb as much music as you can through the course of your life. So that ends up being a repository of riffs and licks and styles and attitudes, and you hold that inside, and it all gets jumbled up.
“When it comes out through your unique set of filters, hopefully it is not just copying other people; but it has something of your own in there. It’s derivative and you have done your homework and studied a lot of stuff. Little point in replicating stuff that has already been done.
“So, the challenge is to try and put your stamp on it, so that it’s a bit different from anything else. So, my stuff is very derivative, and you can hear who my influences are if you listen. But hopefully a different twist to it, because it is me”.
The best thing about being Jon Cleary? “I am one of those lucky people whose hobby is their job. I also get to travel with my work. Being a musician, is unique in the Arts. You get instant gratification for it. If you play a good solo, say, there is acknowledgement for it. A round of applause.
“It is instant. If you write a good book, someone might love it 20 years later. If you do a beautiful painting, 100 years later, someone might be buying it in a gallery. But you are dead and gone by then. On stage, an actor delivers a good line and people wait to the end of the performance. If a musician plays some hip little lick and people dig it, that’s instant, a fantastic feeling”.
The most boring place in the world…
Does he miss England? “I love being back in Kent, and that gorgeous countryside. When I was 17, I thought it was the most boring place in the world and I couldn’t wait to get out. Now I am older, I now appreciate how lucky I was to grow up in such a beautiful part of the country”.
What was the reaction from Mum and Dad when a day after finishing full time education, at the age of 18, young Jon packed his bag and told them of his desire to clear off to New Orleans? “Looking back it is amazing to me that they were so supportive. I think they thought I was going for two weeks! If they had known I was going for 30 odd years, they might not have let me go”.
Jon’s adventurous spirit which was clearly in his genes, and the pull of the great music coming out of Crescent City all those years ago, seems to have served him well. He has written and performed with Dr. John, B.B. King, John Scofield, Taj Mahal and many more.
He has appeared on Bonnie Raitt’s records alongside Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Alison Krauss and more. Prior to the tour with Bonnie and James Taylor, Jon just played six sold out nights at Ronnie Scott’s in London.
He will tell you, that to stay credible and be taken seriously in New Orleans among all that natural talent, “You have to keep it real.” Just one spin of “Dyna-Mite” more than proves he is doing just that. As real as it gets!
This cool cat has come a long, long way from the hop farms and Oast houses of his boyhood Kent. Making a real name for himself since he legged it across the pond to stake his clam as a bonafide New Orleanian monster gentleman.
By Simon Redley
Guitar photo & piano photo: Danielle Moir