Issue 17-12 March 23, 2023 – Blues Blast Magazine
A live performance by singer and multi-instrumentalist, Jimmy Hall, is a difficult experience to describe. He has an extremely powerful and extraordinarily soulful voice, and occasionally, (when the spirit moves him), might intersperse preaching in-between the verses he is singing. He has an energetic swaggering persona while onstage, which is often described as very similar to Mick Jagger’s style. And he somehow manages to appear calm and laid back in-between the times he works himself into a melodic frenzy that appears cathartic for both him and the audience. Additionally, Hall’s wonderful sense of humor reveals that he does not take himself too seriously and makes it clear that many would desire to have him for a friend. It is not surprising that Jimmy Hall was once described by Johnny Depp (in a conversation with Gina Hughes) as “the coolest person I know”.
Hall is best known for the ten years he spent as the lead singer/harmonica/sax player for the group Wet Willie, who had a huge hit with a song Hall co-wrote entitled “Keep on Smiling”. But Hall also toured extensively with Jeff Beck, with Hank Williams Jr., was briefly part of the Nighthawks, and was part of the supergroup BHLT (Dickey Betts, Jimmy Hall, Chuck Leavell and Butch Trucks). He adapts easily whether the genre is Rhythm & Blues, Rock, Country, or Southern Rock, always with a soulful influence. Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Jimmy Hall while on Joe Bonamassa’s Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea (KTBAS) cruise. Throughout the interview, nearly every artist who walked by stopped to joke with Hall, a testament to his likeable personality. And some offered their opinions about his work.
Joanne Shaw Taylor noted that Hall is “great—and a bit naughty” and Mike Farris noted:
“Jimmy is soul, blues, and southern rock international royalty! Have you seen that video of Jimmy and the band in Macon in the park in 1973? It was magic! When I first saw that, I thought to myself ‘Jimmy is everything!’ I think I was the first one to say he is like another Mick Jagger. But if you had shown that video to Mick Jagger, he would have said, ‘if I could only be like that dude’.”
Hall was born to a musical family, and was raised in Mobile, Alabama with Southern Baptist influences. His mother had the children singing in the church choir and performing in school plays. Hall recalled that they actually performed operettas in grammar school, and in the fifth grade he landed the lead role in HMS Pinafore. It was in during that performance that he realized he felt comfortable and belonged on the stage.
“I grew up with a musical mother who played piano and encouraged my musical ability. She noticed when I was only three or four-years-old that I could sing. For example, I could sing a tone she played on the piano. So, she encouraged me and if there was an opportunity to sing at school, she made sure I would step up for it. She also had me dancing. First it was dancing with this girl to “Singing in the Rain”, doing step-brush-brush-slide. Then I got chosen for the lead in HMS Pinafore. It was the night of that show, when people were applauding like crazy, that I thought, ‘I want to do this. I feel at home up here’. So, then I joined the school band. Violin was my first instrument, but in seventh grade my brother was in the band playing clarinet and my mother said she always loved saxophone and would buy me one if I would play it. So, I jumped ship and started playing alto sax. I started my education with music theory and learning how to read music. In the ninth grade I had the best band director who really mentored me and inspired me. In fact, my brother, sister, and I were invited back for an event at our old school to honor our achievements in music. Later I started listening to the radio and heard people like Slim Harpo, the Beatles, the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones. When I heard Mick Jagger play harmonica on “Little Red Rooster” I decided I wanted to learn harmonica. There weren’t many people who played it back then, and it was hard to find instruction on how to do it, so I fooled around with it and basically taught myself, although I got tips from some of the pros. I’m not shy about approaching them, so I learned from Taj Mahal how he plays those octaves, and John Hammond taught me how to focus my breath a bit more.”
Hall’s brother, Jack, played bass in Wet Willie, and his sister, Donna, provided backup vocals. Hall is very appreciative of the success Wet Willie enjoyed, but also acknowledged the many other collaborations that followed, such as the five years he toured with Jeff Beck, and his more recent collaboration with Joe Bonamassa.
“Jeff was always wanting to change things up. Jeff could have something going along and he might really like what he’s doing, but he was always looking ahead already, wanting to change things up. My steadiest touring with him was 2014 through 2019. In 2019 Johnny Depp became involved. Johnny was such a big fan of Jeff’s guitar playing, and also of his personality. And, in a way, Jeff never had any kids, so it was almost like a father-son mentorship for them. That’s what I saw, anyway. In 2019, Johnny would sing some and I would sing some on the tour. He was always nervous about singing and I would remind him that people wanted him to succeed. He brought a whole new flavor to the show. And, he brought people in to fill the seats. People wanted to see Johnny Depp play.”
“My history with Joe Bonamassa goes back pretty far as I would hear about him in blues circles. He started when he was so young, but I never saw him back then. I saw Joe for the first time at the Blues from the Top Festival in Colorado. I had played earlier in the day and then Joe came on and just killed it. He played his ass off. It was the first time that I really saw the depth and breadth of his talent. Then I got invited to join and sing on some of the songs on Reese Wynans’ album, which Joe produced. I also had the opportunity to provide some vocals for Joanna Connor’s album, which Joe produced, and on his album with Eric Gales. He said if I ever wanted to do an album, he would love to produce it, so we started planning it. I could tell he had a real natural ability and a knack for producing. He knows what he wants to hear and knows how innately to encourage and direct a singer.”
The result of their collaboration was the album entitled Ready Now, which was co-produced by Josh Smith, and has received excellent reviews. Most of the songs are co-written by Hall and Jeff Silbar. One of the upbeat songs on the album, “Jump for Joy,” has a particularly enjoyable video which includes bystanders on the sidewalk. Hall explained how the idea for that video occurred.
“We had top notch players on this record—all seasoned studio players, so by the end of it, we had spent the budget for the record and there wasn’t much left for promotion and videos. They had a videographer living in Nashville, so we were just going to film this video outside of the club Third & Lindsley. But then he said he had a crazy idea that I should go downtown Nashville, on Broadway, and he would be in front of me moving backwards and we would have to plow our way through the tourists. I had no idea how fun it was going to be to do it and to see the looks on people’s faces. It turned out to be a really good idea and many say they love that video.”
Hall is currently touring with his son, Ryan, playing keyboards. He noted that both Ryan and one of his other sons, Alex, are musicians and songwriters.
“Ryan wrote one of the songs on the album called ‘Dream Release’, which is about Gregg and Duane Allman’s brotherhood. Ryan is very creative and is a gifted poet. He worked on this song and said he wanted it to be on the album, but he wanted it to stand up on its own merit, not because he was my son. When I first played it for Joe, I didn’t tell him my son wrote it and he fell in love with it right away. He said it was so unique and he wanted to put French horns on it, and he decided he wanted to play guitar on it himself. It has an ascending, triumphant chorus and is very uplifting. I’m very proud of Ryan. My son Alex, also sent me some songs, but unfortunately none were quite the right fit for this album. However, he contributed many production ideas. For example, it was his idea how to end one of the songs. I’m happy Alex was involved creatively with the album.”
On the KTBAS cruise, Hall played also accompanied by JD Simo. They seemed to bring out the best in each other musically, and their playful chemistry was captivating to watch.
“JD and I worked together on a couple of the Allman Family Revival shows and hit it off right away. So, when I said I needed someone for this cruise he just jumped on it. He is such a positive, energetic guy. I’m still finding out about all of his accolades, like how he played guitar for the soundtrack in that Elvis movie and does a lot of session work. He’s just a good all-around player.”
Hall is a prolific songwriter and has stated that his most famous song, “Keep on Smiling,” was a song in which he was partially giving himself a pep talk after dealing with the difficult break-up of a relationship.
“I had seen where the Allman Brothers had the practice of ‘what happens on the road stays on the road’ when it came to groupies and infidelity, and I tried that too. I tried to rationalize the infidelity, but then my girlfriend stated that if I was going to do that, then she was too. I said we should try it, but it didn’t work out, like anybody could have predicted. That led to some of those lyrics: ‘you’re about to go insane, ’cause your woman’s playing games. And she says that you’re to blame’. ”
“We were both blaming each other. I wasn’t able to look at myself and reflect on what I was doing. We weren’t even able to break up face-to-face after eight years together. She went home to Little Rock and ran into an old high school flame and decided she wanted to be with him. She wouldn’t even talk to me about it, so I wrote songs about it. For example, ‘Midnight to Daylight’ was one of the songs. The words were, ‘that’s when I miss you the most—midnight to daylight’. We were co-dependent and didn’t even know the word at the time.”
While often the greatest blues songs seem to emerge from painful experiences, more recently, Hall’s songwriting is focused more on the joy in his life. He explained that this shift is due, in large part, to the wonderful relationship he has with his wife, Karen. Hall frequently mentions his wife during his shows, and described the series of synchronistic events that led to them meeting.
“My band, Wet Willie, had a night off, and we heard that this band, Nantucket, who were on our same label, were playing in a club in Greenwich Village, so we decided to go. Karen’s older sister had a college professor who managed bands on the side and was the manager of Nantucket. He invited Karen’s sister to attend, along with anyone else who wanted to attend, so that is how she ended up going there. I was in the lobby, people-watching, and I saw these three striking young ladies come in and I could tell right away that they were sisters. Then she came over to me and said she thought she had seen me on TV and liked my music. I could tell she had brains and loved music, so we exchanged phone numbers. Then I played a gig in North Carolina when she was visiting her home, so she came to the show and we really started falling for each other then. I was still living in Macon, Georgia at the time, but we dated long distance, and I would fly to New York to see her. ”
“Then one time I was working on my solo album in Nashville and the lights went out. I asked if we lost power, but then saw this glow coming towards me and there she was, walking toward me with a cake for my birthday and wearing a pink satin top hat and a Miss America-type sash that said, ‘Happy Birthday Jimmy’. I couldn’t believe she flew on the plane with this cake on her lap so it wouldn’t get smushed and that she put this outfit together. This is the kind of thing she would do to show she cared a lot for me. It was a big moment and I started crying when I realized what she had done. At one point her mother was talking to me on the phone and said ‘by the way, if you don’t already know it, my daughter is madly in love with you’ and I said ‘I’m good with that’.”
“It was a beautiful courtship and ever since then I’ve been writing songs for her. For example, ‘Holding On for Dear Love’ is about how we’ve weathered through every storm and we’re holding on tight to each other and plan to go to the finish line together. I’m very happily married, and I like to write about it. That’s what I’m passionate about, and I want to write about that joy.”
The title track of the new album, “Ready Now” (written by Hall and Silbar) has a powerful message about moving forward in life and not remaining stuck in unhealthy habits. Hall noted that numerous people have found inspiration and encouragement in this song, including one of his brothers.
“I had a younger brother who passed away last year. He fought alcoholism through the years and sometimes he didn’t fight it, he just wallowed in it. He was doing his last rehab program when I played this song for him. He loved it and said it helped him make a decision about his life. He wanted to finish the program and make it to the finish line.”
“However, during the last few weeks of his rehab he started feeling ill and his arm swelled up and he was extremely fatigued. He went to get checked out and found out he had a rare form of salivary gland cancer which spread quickly. He did chemo, but the cancer traveled to his brain and he started having seizures. In the end, they released him because he wanted to be at my mom’s house for the end of his life. Another friend became sober and called me after he got the album. He said he played that same song for a friend, and it helped him get sober. I think it has an important message that can help many people.”
Now in his early seventies, Hall has lost none of the range or power in his vocal ability. And his onstage presence appears just as energetic as when he was in his thirties, with no sign of slowing down. He was asked what was next on the horizon for him professionally.
“They are going to do a tribute to Jeff Beck at the Royal Albert Hall and I’m hoping and praying that they might include me, but I don’t want to be the guy who stands around with his hand in the air, because I know a lot of people want to be involved with that. Also, my wife and I have discussed possibly doing a Rendezvous with the Blues Volume II. Mostly, I just want to keep moving and tour more on my own and work more internationally. My wife and I love to travel and see new places and experience new adventures. ”
“Other than that, I just want to keep on writing songs. I can’t wait to get into the studio again. People tell me to ‘keep writing your soul, your passion’. You know I have been through some intense therapy for depression and I find that music is a way that I can safely let loose and let some emotions out. It is very powerful. I’ve learned that I have a gift and I want to share that gift with others for as long as I possibly can.”
Jimmy Hall’s live performances are an experience that should not be missed. You can find out more about his tour schedule (including his annual return to Macon for his birthday bash in April) and how to purchase his albums at www.jimmyhall.com.
Writer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.