By Dee Dee McNeil/ Jazz Journalist
Keb Mo is the second born of four children and the only son of Lauvella Cole.
“My mom was a beautiful, hard-working woman. She was raised by a sharecropper and she didn’t mess around. She raised her children well. She was from Hooks, Texas just outside of Texarkana. She was an amazing mother. She was a hair dresser. She sang in the choir. We went to church regularly. You know how that goes,” Keb Mo chuckles, generously sharing his childhood with me.
He tells me he has three sisters, but Keb Mo is the only professional musician of his siblings. His love of music started early. Besides the influence of the church, at ten years old, he was playing trumpet in the General Rosecrans Elementary school band. When his family moved from one Compton residence to another, he continued his passion for music by joining the Victory Park Elementary School band. They put him out the band because, according to the faculty, his grades were not good enough.
“Isn’t that the reason for studying music, to develop your brain?” he quips.
Keb Mo is the first to tell you he was never crazy about school or academics. It was music that came naturally to the young man. Music was his passion. He was intoxicated with the sound of percussion instruments and hypnotized by the rhythm of the drums. So much so, that Keb Mo started playing the steel drums with a local calypso group called, the Young Calitino Steel Drum band. He played steel drums in that band from eleven-years-old to age nineteen. Their group was popular around the South Los Angeles area and at that young age he began working hotel gigs with them and private parties.
“I started playing the steel drums because a guy in our Compton, California neighborhood built and played the steel drums. Coincidentally, he was probably the only American making steel drums who came from Trinidad and happened to live on my block. He’s not around anymore. He passed away a few years ago. But his name was Chuck Countee. I’m still really good friends with his son Carlos. I got so good that at the age of fourteen I was hired to play my first studio session on steel drums at the Gold Star Recording studios and I even got paid union scale. I was really green, but I was having a lot of fun.”
Although he was a competent drummer, Keb Mo wasn’t satisfied with just playing trumpet and drums. While attending Compton high school, his band director encouraged him to play the French horn, because they needed a French Horn player. Consequently, Keb Mo expanded his talents and learned the French Horn.
“I played French horn in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades. I became first French horn in the Compton High School Band. That’s back in the sixties, when Compton had an orchestra and a youth orchestra. I was just starting out in music. Then, I took a year off and went to LATTC (L.A. Trade Tech) for architectural drafting, because after high school I didn’t really think I had what it took to seriously pursue music as a career. But my friends kept asking me to play gigs, so I jumped back in.
“I was good at a couple of little things; like I could play steel drums. But more than that, I knew how to play in a band. I worked well with others. For many years, I felt like I was just dragged along by the universe.
“I have played all the instruments in the steel drum band. I started off on the bass pan. Then I went to the double pan. I played that. Then I went to the lead pan. After that I went to trap drums and congas. I even did the Limbo. I explored every percussion instrument and I learned all the basic, traditional, Afro-Cuban beats on the congas. In high school my friend Larry had two sets of drums. He let me borrow one of his drum sets and I set it up in my garage. I taught myself how to play some basic grooves on the trap drums.”
Along his musical path, Keb Mo was soon drawn to the guitar. He dabbled on the bass guitar during his time playing with the steel band. But he was in awe of Taj Mahal and also impressed with the talents of Jose Feliciano.
“I had been down to the Troubadour with the steel band. We played down there one night. There was this guitar store, McCabe’s, next door to the Troubadour. I saw all these guitars with hubcaps on them. I was around fourteen or so. That same night, I saw Jose Feliciano, this blind guy playing in the lobby, sittin’ there with his guide dog and playing ‘Light My Fire’. We (the band) were like, Oh shit. We were blown away.
“My Uncle Herman Wyatt had started teaching me guitar at age twelve. Then my friend Stanley Freeman lived around the corner. He was taking lessons at the Compton Music Center and he’d come back and show me what he learned at his lessons. That was good, because I had no money for lessons. I got a book on guitar and bass. Much later, I went to GIT and studied guitar with Joe Diorio. He was one of the pioneer teachers at GIT (the Guitar Institute of Technology) before it became MI (Musicians Institute). I took several courses at GIT including jazz guitar and harmony. Then I was playing with Papa John Creach. I was always kind of looking for something better. I wasn’t really interested in school. I didn’t really like school. I was somewhat artistic, but I knew I wasn’t going to college. Not with my grades. (laughter) I just coasted through.”
Keb Mo’s relationship with Papa John Creach and the Jefferson Starship group garnered him his first Platinum record. When he was just twenty-one years old, he co-wrote “Git Fiddler” for the “Red Octopus” album with Papa John and John Parker. Surprisingly, in 1975 that instrumental became a big hit for the blues and soft-rock band, zooming up the Billboard charts to #1. When Papa John Creach left Jefferson Starship as their lead singer and violinist, he formed his own band. It included the fledgling songwriter and guitarist, Keb Mo. Keb spent the next five years on the road with Papa John Creach.
“I had three pretty good road gigs; Papa John Creach, Taste of Honey and Deniece Williams. After I stopped playing with Papa John, I had an apartment over by Hollywood Blvd on Grammercy Place. I landed a job delivering flowers and I decided to start writing songs. From 76 to 77, I had some little local gigs and I was mostly songwriting. That time was a whole other chapter in my life. Around 1977 or 78, I had a friend, Chuck Trammell, who had a gig doing demos over at Irving Almo (A&M Record Company’s publishing arm). I was his right-hand guy. From 1977 to 1980, I was probably in the studio every morning, at least three days a week cutting demos. It didn’t pay like union sessions, but it was alright; $25 to $50 per tune. We were in studio B and that was like my college. We had to record two demos per session. I’d get up and prepare the charts. I would plan out what the band was going to do and lead the sessions. Chuck was the producer. He didn’t play anything. He was very charismatic and he had worked a lot with Quincy Jones. He actually was a really fine producer. I got to call the players. I would call the late Robert Russell (bassist), Gerald Albright (saxophonist), Michael King on keys and sometimes James Gadson would come in on drums.
“After our demo sessions were over, all the top session guys would be working union sessions in the studio. I’d poke my head in the door and I would witness greatness! I started working with the top background singers of the day. I was doing a lot of different tasks in the studio and learned how to hold my own and how to be a professional studio musician. Now that I have a nice studio at my home, all that experience gets used all the time.”
In 1979, Keb Mo discovered he had nodes on his throat and he had to go in and have them surgically removed. This stopped his ability to sing for at least a year, so the demo session work was a blessing and probably helped him polish his already shiny guitar skills.
“I had a lucky break in the early 80s. I got a gig to sub for this guitar player named Spencer Bean. He’d call, from time to time, and ask if I would cover for him. So, he had this one-night gig with Monk Higgins and Charlie Tuna of the Who Dunnit Band. Spencer asked me to cover the gig for him for the first two weeks because he had to go to Atlanta. I said cool. I gotcha. He went to Georgia and never came back. Those guys took me under their wing and they trained me in the blues. We were at Marla Gibbs’ Memory Lane and all these people came through, like great vocalist, Merry Clayton. She’d show up; Albert Collins would show up and Big Joe Turner. Pee Wee Crayton, Billy Preston; all these legendary people would show up and sit-in with the band. I was like, wow! That got me back on the club scene. I kept that gig for about two years straight. Barbara Morrison started hiring me for a little bit. I also started gigging with the Rose Brothers.” (An R&B group of four brothers on the Muscle Shoals Record label).
Keb Mo also worked with another blues and R&B legend, Vernon Garrett.
“I was with Vernon Garrett for two years. I played with Vernon and I was always a big fan of Taj Mahal. When he played the blues, he really intrigued me. Taj Mahal was jumping outside the box. I first heard Taj Mahal play in 1969 when he played at my high school. I said, wow. Wait a minute. I had never seen nothing like that. He pulled out that steel guitar and really surprised me.
“It was the late 80s when I started singing again or around that time. After I healed, I had a whole lot of vocal coaching. I studied with Gloria Bennett for a long time. Then I had another vocal coach, Robert Edwards who was a student of Seth Riggs.”
Around 1980, Keb Mo released an album called, “Rainmaker,” under his birth name of Kevin Moore. He was working with a mutual friend of ours, a drummer by the name of Quentin Dennard. Quentin nick-named him Keb Mo and that name stuck. It was the perfect stage name. Lots of other blues artists had adopted names. For example, Taj Mahal’s name is actually Henry St. Clair Fredericks and Muddy Waters birth name is McKinley Morganfield.
So, in 1994, when SONY Record label discovered Kevin Moore’s unique talents, he was then using the stage name of Keb Mo. He had polished his guitar chops and was a competent songwriter. His voice was plump with emotion and he had a pleasing huskiness to it. That first SONY album won him the W. C. handy Award for Best Country and Acoustic Blues Album in 1995. After years of playing gigs and honing his craft, the spotlight was finally shining brightly on Keb Mo.
“I had learned how to be a professional. So, when I got signed to SONY, that record took off. I used all the skills I had learned on that record. I knew what I was doing. I had a hell of a producer; John Porter. By that time, I had two publishing deals and I had stacked up songs. I had a lot going on.”
After the super success of the “Keb’ Mo” release in 1994, he followed up with another SONY album titled, “Just Like You,” with special guests Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. That record won him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1997. In August of 1998, the talented songwriter, singer and guitarist released his “Slow Down” album. It also won a Grammy Award. He was on a roll.
In 2000, he released “The Door” and another album called “Sessions at West 54th that was recorded ‘live’ in New York. In 2001, he recorded a children’s album called, “Big Wide Grin.” You may have seen him on the popular television show, “Sesame Street” promoting that wonderful recording. Then there was the 2003 “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Keb’ Mo” album that was part of Scorsese’s blues Series. It seemed that everything Keb’ Mo’ recorded was nominated for a Grammy. In fact, he can boast fourteen Grammy nominations to date. Then, in 2004 he won his third Grammy Award for his album, “Keep It Simple.”
Keb Mo is a quiet man with a warm smile that can light up a stage brighter than any spotlight. He’s also a deep thinker. You hear it in his lyrics and the poignant, heartfelt way he describes things. Like when he wrote about his mother’s house in Compton, California in a song called, “There’s More than One Way Home.”
Daddy came around every once in a while, but momma, she was there all the time. And summertime in Compton was not like TV, but we were right there where we needed to be, And the Thurmond Boys on Peach Street with only their dad, so proud of themselves and that old Pontiac they had. And Miss Brooks, her Bible and her three little boys, At the Double Rock Baptist Church makin’ a joyful noise.
There’s more than one way home Ain’t no right way, ain’t no wrong. And whatever road you might be on, you find your own way, cause there’s more than one way home
This prolific songwriter is also an activist. His album release in 2004 attests to that by its very title, “Peace … Back by Popular Demand.” You can also hear it in the hit record by the Dixie Chicks who co-wrote and recorded a song he co-wrote titled, “I Hope,” on their “Taking the Long Way” album.
Sunday morning, I heard the preacher say Thou shall not kill
I don’t wanna hear nothing else about killing
And that it’s God’s will
‘Cause our children are watching us
They put their trust in us
They’re gonna be like us
So let’s learn from our history
And do it differently
I hope for more love, more joy and laughter
I hope we’ll have more than we’ll ever need
I hope we’ll have more ‘happy ever after’
I hope we can all live more fearlessly
And we can lose all the pain and misery
I hope, I hope.
The recordings and the awards kept coming. He recorded his “Suitcase” album in 2006, “Live and Mo’” in 2009 and “The Reflection” was released in 2011. In 2015 Keb’ Mo’s album, “BLUESAmericana” won the Contemporary Blues Album category at the annual Blues Music Awards celebration. As a concerned citizen of the world, he’s generous and caring. Kevin continues to donate 5% of his royalty money from the BLUESAmericana album to charity.
In 2016, he released “Keb’ Mo’ Live: That Hot Pink Blues Album”. Then, something amazing happened to Keb Mo. Years after witnessing his guitar idol perform at his public school, you can imagine Keb’s joy to finally record with the legendary Taj Mahal. It was 2017 when they recorded an album titled, “TajMo.” This collaboration garnered Kevin his fourth Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and was a highlight in his career. More recently, he has released the popular “Oklahoma” album in 2019 and a Christmas album titled, “Moonlight, Mistletoe & You.”
There have been several of Keb Mo’s songs covered by other artists. You may not know this, but he co-wrote (with Josh Kelley) the theme song for the television series, “Mike and Molly.” He also performed that song.
Kevin continues to turn out albums of original and expressive music. Blues music is one of the deep origins of jazz and it reflects our rich, African American history and heritage. Keb Mo is proudly carrying that tradition forward. Even performing at the White House for President Barack Obama.
During this month of February, while we are celebrating Black History month, I salute an artist with deep roots in his Los Angeles/Compton neighborhood. Keb Mo is worthy of our continuous applause. Using his lyrical magic, his husky voice and guitar mastery, this ‘Angelian’ is authentically making positive, cultural input across the entire world.