Cover photo © 2023 Joseph A. Rosen
A year ago, a young man originally from St. Louis was preparing to visit Memphis, ready to hang out with many of the best blues artists on the planet. Some day he hoped to be considered their equal.
His first album would soon be released on the VizzTone Label group. Aptly titled Who Is He?, it showcased the vocal talents of Dylan Triplett on ten tunes that mixed blues, soul, and a fine cover of the Miles Davis classic, “All Blues”. Despite his youthfulness, he had already been singing professionally for more than a decade. And once listeners heard the record, they undoubtedly wanted to learn more about singer pictured in a moment of pure joy on the cover.
he most recent defining moment of his career came last month during his return to Memphis, when he received the 2023 Blues Music Award in the Best Emerging Artist Album category. Now the pertinent question is, how far can he go?
Growing up in East St. Louis as the oldest of four brothers, Triplett heard a lot of music. His mother sang in the church choir while his grandmother played plenty of blues, jazz and R&B on the radio.
“I grew up singing in the church choir, so I had some experience hearing people sing around me and I was just always enamored enough to try to figure it all out. Then my stepdad dad came into my life around the time that I was like nine or 10 years old, and he was like, I want you to start learning how to sing stuff other than gospel. So I was like, all right, cool. That lead me to starting to sing a lot of Jackson Five material, Stevie Wonder stuff, Motown hits, and a little bit of Donnie Hathaway, just a little bit., because my voice was still kind of too high for some of that music.
“When my voice ended up dropping, my stepdad had me sing a little bit more Donny Hathaway. He also got me started starting singing a little bit of jazz. That was when I started to grow as a singer. I did things like “A Song For You,” “For All We Know,” and lots of Stevie Wonder songs.
“My stepdad, Art Pollard, has been playing the saxophone for years. He played in his high school and college bands, heavy in the jazz. He loves jazz so much. He also loves R&B, and he used to take me to his gigs. I was like, I don’t really know what I’m doing here, but you know, I guess I belong. So he wanted to switch me over to the blues. He put in this CD that had a bunch of tracks by different blues performers, and B.B. King’s “Don’t Answer The Door” just so happened to be on it. And I was like, this sounds like something that I would be able to do because, you know, my voice is low enough now.
“So I started singing “Don’t Answer The Door” and quickly realized that this is my speed. The way that my stepdad would have me learn things is that he would actually play a part of the song, stop it, have me sing it, then play it again, have me write it down, and then play it again while I was singing with it. It got to the point to where I was singing that entire song without music at all, and it would just be me literally just singing acappella. So, it was crazy. I learned an entire repertoire of music that way.”
The young singer would go along when his stepdad was playing blues gigs, slowly getting to know blues music through songs by artists like Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, Little Walter, and Muddy Waters. Much of it sounded familiar. He quickly realized that it was the music that his grandmother was playing
“I just didn’t know that I knew the music until after I heard my stepdad play it. I made the connection shortly after that. I had already heard those melodies so many times growing up with my grandmother that it was like second nature for me. Knowing my grandmother’s from Mississippi, I know that I had some blues roots, but didn’t know how deep they went.”
Eventually, Triplett starting going to jams to hear more of the music, and to get some opportunities to sing a song or two in front of a live audience. After several years, Pollard starting playing in the band backing Carolyn Mason, a blues singer who was working at the National Blues Museum in St. Louis, MO. Pollard lobbied Mason to give his stepson a chance.
“She didn’t really know me for real, and wasn’t really super keen of a child being in her shows at all, whatsoever. So my stepdad was like, okay, let him do one song. She let me do a song, and to her surprise, she really liked it. But you know, St. Louis people, they really have a hard time believing you’re actually really good. They want see more for them to understand that you are in this, wanting to do this fully, and you’re actually serious what you are singing.”
He sat in with Mason several more times before joining her on backing vocals. When Mason’s voice would get tired, Triplett would take over for several songs. He did that for several years, building his repertoire with material from Tyrone Davis, Bobby Womack, and other singing legends.
“One day, Carolyn said, You’re ready! I don’t think you need to be singing background for me anymore. You need to have your own band. So I started playing at this place every Sunday night called the Red Door, and it’s over in East St. Louis. That’s actually where I grew up. I was playing there with a guy named Skeet Rodgers, Charles “Skeet’ Rodgers.
“He would let me come in and sit in for a couple of his shows. I was playing piano at the time, because I started playing piano at nine, so I got that behind my belt, learned all my skills. Anytime that I wasn’t singing, I was playing keys. It got to the point to where I was singing with him regularly. Eventually he started feeling like I was challenging him. I was just getting confident in what I was doing. But he was kind of putting his foot in my ass, like real bad.
“Skeet was literally treating me like a grown man. And I was like, wow, I guess I have to step my game up. Well, it got to the point to where like after he would do a song, I would go up and I would do my song but this time around, I was standing on tables, I was standing on chairs. I was getting everybody’s attention regardless of whatever happens. That anger that I had from him doing me like that fueled me to perform at the best of my abilities at that time.
“I didn’t know I had that much strength in me. I used to sing one song and my voice would go out, but I was singing two or three songs at the time and I just could keep going. So, um, yeah, he actually stopped playing at the Rear Door, and I started taking over his sets. So I took that band that he had at the Red Door and I started doing my regular shows over at the National Blues Museum. And I started doing the Baby Blues Showcase in St. Louis, which is a 30-years and under Blues Showcase that they do for the blues acts throughout St. Louis.
“I was about 16 years old at that time. Yeah, they had me in the clubs at a very young age. I mean, like, at nine years old, I used to have to hide in the back, but at 16 years, they were like, okay, we’re gonna let you perform, but we can’t have you around the alcohol. If the police come through the door, you’ve got to get out. You know what I mean?
“So you gotta go through some crazy stuff like that. It was wild. They were trying to facilitate and enable me to grow and to thrive in an environment that a lot of people don’t normally survive, and St. Louis, they’re a tough crowd. They’re really hard critics whenever it comes to music. I don’t know why. I had to work a crowd real hard. I mean, like really hard, like Skeet taught me.”
At one point, Triplett got caught up in the excitement about The Voice television show, dreaming of fame and stardom.
“It was extremely popular when I was around that age, around 16, and I wanted to be one of the younger voices on the show. They’re doing auditions in St. Louis. Why not try? So, I tried out, and I really was like banking on me making it. I didn’t make it past the first round. They actually declined everybody in the room at that time. I was pretty discouraged, you know, but I ended up trying out one more time, when I was about 19, 20 years old, made it past the second round, but didn’t make it past the third round. So I was like, okay, well I’m just gonna stop trying.
“I had met Marquise Knox for the very first time at the National Blues Museum. I had just done my audition for The Voice and felt very bad because I didn’t make it. And he was like, look, you got this. I’m gonna take you under my wing. It’s gonna be all right. So I was like, all right, cool. Well, he started making me a lot more aggressive whenever it came to my performance, because Marques is a very, very, down south, aggressively playing guy.
“I was doing my regular shows down over at the National Booth Museum with the guys that I had been working with over at the Red Door. And I started gaining a lot of traction. That band that I originally had playing with me, they were good for my beginning, but I knew that I reached the time where I needed to level up just a little bit on the crew.
“So I switched the band over. And I told you that I have three younger brothers after me. Well, the second, one after the other one, his name is Johnny and he played the drums. My stepdad started bringing him around to the gigs, started bringing him to the jams, and I started teaching him how to play the piano, you know, and he started learning all of my music. So I actually had him playing on my sets after about a few months, playing keys for me.
“I had been really cultivating my craft back at home. And I was practicing every single day. My stepdad always said that practice for results, not hours. And so I would be practicing for hours at a time. It would be like 10 o’clock at night and I would’ve school the next day. We would still be practicing, you know, he had me learning, he had me researching my history on who sang what originally. I would go and do my research on YouTube and see how those people performed and catch all their nuances, how they moved on stage, how they interacted with the audience.
“I emulated a lot of that into my shows whenever I was performing. Everybody loved it. They would call me Little Dylan, you know. My band after a while was named the Little Dylan Blues Band. We’d do a lot of private gigs and anniversary parties. I sang for the NAACP at a point in time.
After graduating high school, the aspiring singer went to college, where he earned a degree in Music Education. That lead him to teach voice and tap dancing at the high school level, helped out by his previous experiences in musical theater.
“I’ve learned how to be the jack of all trades instead of the master of one thing. I learned it from playing in those chitlin’ circuit gigs, because those guys that are playing in St. Louis, they are head hunters. They were trying to chop me down and I was like, okay, I gotta do something to stand out. I know something that they can’t do. I know I could stand on this chair. I know I could stand on this table and I started declaring the room.
“That’s one thing that I had to learn how to do, was to read and declare the room as mine in that moment. Because you only need one song to make a point. But that one song could have really change your life. And so I had to learn how to make the best out of one song. I learned how to take my voice and, and literally shape it to sound like somebody else is at a point in time. I learned how to do the Bobby Bland growl and I learned how to do the Johnny Taylor sounds and all of that stuff.”
In addition to getting help from fellow bluesman Knox, Triplett got additional assistance with booking shows from Alonzo Townsend, the son of St. Louis blues legend Henry Townsend. Both men helped shape the singer as he learned the business of being a band leader, and how to deal with being a local celebrity. Looking for another opportunity, he entered the International Blues Challenge in St. Louis, but didn’t make it past the first round. Still, the experience paid off.
“A guitar player from Texas, John McVey, had moved to the area, and saw one of my shows. He came up to me, offering to give me a chance. Shortly after that, he texted that a friend from Texas wants to talk to me about potentially making an album. His friend was Larry Fulcher, bass player for the Phantom Blues Band, who backed Taj Mahal for years. You know, this is something that I don’t normally have the chance to do. So I ended up getting in contact with Larry, and we started working on my first album.”
But then Covid hit, and the steady ride to greater fame came to a screeching halt, leaving Triplett struggling to maintain some semblance of positive energy. Relief came with a little help from some friends.
“I was trying to do things to kind of keep myself occupied, but I was actually really depressed at that time. My personal life was really struggling because music was all I know, you know what I mean? And for me to not be able to do that right now, it was kind of terrifying for me.
“Then I went down to Mississippi late in 2020 with Marquise, Jontavious Willis, Sean McDonald, the guy that I have playing on the guitar with me, Stephen Hull, the other guy that I want to have on guitar with me, guitarist D.K. Harrell, Jayy Hopp, and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, a bunch of young black men passionate about the blues. We were all down in Mississippi, working on music at the Foxfire Ranch for an entire week. And that’s when I arrived. Picked up the guitar for the first time. I had never in my life played a guitar for real. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but they taught me, really took the time and taught me.
“They introduced me to people that I had never met before, like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, and Bobby Rush. I had been looking at Bobby Rush my entire life. I met Bobby Rush for the first time. I had been checking him out on YouTube for years. I had been studying his performances. And that was a pivotal moment for my music career. I also picked up the bass during that time, playing it for most of a tour, you know, so that was a different experience for me. Those guys pushed me out of my comfort zone real bad. I really appreciate them for that because I probably wouldn’t have never picked up that damn guitar, and I wouldn’t have gone home and bought my own guitar if it wasn’t for their inspiration to learn.
“Jonatavious taught me to learn, pushing me to study blues artists like Joe Pullum. I mean, like, don’t nobody know no damn Joe Pullum. One of my favorites, the one song that he had me learn was “Black Gal, What Makes Your Head So Hard?” and I was like, Jesus Christ, this song is old as hell. But he introduced me to all of these different people, he was continuing to educate me on the things like my stepdad used to do for me.”
Eventually Triplett returned to the studio, and with Fulcher’s help, finished his album. But the universe had more plans for him.
“Early in 2022, I moved to Tennessee, and everything had kind of slowed down for me. I also started working with my manager, Gina McClain. We had been looking for a manager that could be a a strong advocate for me. And I personally would have never in my life thought of anything other than having a woman as a manager. Because personally, a strong woman is scarier than a strong ass man. You know what I mean? They gonna get a lot more shit done than a strong ass man.
“I just felt that way in my entire soul. Larry brought her to me. He told me Gina is a really good manager. She managed Mike Ledbetter and, and Mike Welch. the Welch Ledbetter Connection. She was actually not looking to manage anybody else. But this young dude came around and, you know, that was it. We met for the first time in Memphis last year, hit it off, and we have been covering a lot of ground ever since.
“I spent the first few months of last year getting ready to go to Memphis and experience the Blues Music Awards for the first time. In April, I went to Little Rock, Arkansas and spent a few days with my friend, Deb Finney, doing a house party for her. Had a great time, went home, and then headed to Memphis. Gina had me meeting so many people that it was overwhelming. But I finally was dipping my toe in the water of the blues community. People didn’t know me, most had never seen me or heard me sing. We ended up making a lot happen during that time.”
His album came out the following month to wide critical acclaim, followed by a two week tour in Brazil, then sailing on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise in October of last year. Early this year, he received word that Who Is He? Had been nominated for a Blues Music Award, capping a pretty incredible year of highlights.
The move to Nashville came at the urging of Triplett’s drummer, Montez Coleman, who passed away just before the album was released.
“It was just heartbreaking, you know? He didn’t get the chance to see the album be released. And when he passed, I knew that he was smiling down on me because he saw that I had done what he asked me to do. You know, I was bullheaded. Montez told me to get out of St. Louis, that it was going to chew me up and spit me out. You need to get outta St. Louis cause you’re going to die here. After the St. Louis police pulled a gun on me, and I was at a club where a shooting occurred, I left. And I will say that I feel like that I made the right decision by leaving.
“I’m still very bullheaded and very stubborn. Can’t really get through to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m good at learning and understanding, but it takes a lot of encouraging to get me to understand anything, because I need to understand why. But you know, no 21 year old is smart. At all. Let’s just be honest here. At 20, 21 years old, you wanna do whatever the fuck you wanna do. Like I was out of my mom’s house, so I was like, hell, I’m grown. I’m doing my own thing. I’m done with school, I’m teaching. I’m good. I’m having my best life.
‘And bam, it all hit me. Maybe this one time, I think that I’m getting a lot smarter than I was at first. I’m starting to wind up a little bit more. So, yeah, it’s probably the best idea that I just get the hell away from here as soon as possible. Older musicians, they normally tend to settle down, right? But the young musicians, we tend to just free roam and do whatever we want to do, don’t ask anybody else.”
Plans are in the works for another album, and the BMA award means McClain will be busy taking calls from club owners and festival promoters around the world for future bookings. Triplett is ready and willing to see more of the world, ready to shake the ground on the other side of the pond.
“We are planning on going all the way to the top, looking at Grammy Award consideration. The BMA award has lit a fire under my ass! One step at a time, I want to prepare myself for greater things. To anybody that’s ever thought about doing what they love, and have any reservations about it, I would say do it!
“Do it, and do it to the best of your ability. And don’t stop. Don’t let anybody tell you no. I was always told that if somebody tells you no, you ask why. You know? But defy all the odds. Beat all the statistics, and do it, and do it with your entire heart, and everything will follow afterwards. Anybody that’s asking who I am, and I mean anybody, this is me and welcome to my world.”
Check out Dylan Triplett’s website at: https://dylantriplettmusic.com
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