Shawn Amos' Long Road To Old-School Blues

Jan 17, 2016
Originally published on January 17, 2016 1:02 pm

Shawn Amos had a Los Angeles childhood that was equal parts grit and glamor. He went to private schools and lived in a nice house, but it wasn't exactly in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.

"I grew up waiting for a carpool with hookers who knew me by name, drug dealers knew me by name," Amos says. "Across the street was an apartment complex that was home to a lot of pumping-iron, gay-porn kinda guys."

Since then, he has worn a lot of hats in the music industry: singer, songwriter, producer. He started out in a folk-rock mode, but lately he's been a vessel for the blues. His newest album, The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, was released last October.

His father, Wally Amos, was a former Hollywood talent agent who had become a celebrity by creating Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. His mother, Shirlee Ellis, was a former nightclub singer who performed as Shirl-ee May. She was a great beauty, but she also suffered from schizoaffective disorder.

"My mother committed suicide in 2003," Amos says. "She was severely mentally ill all of my life — she'd given up her career before I was born — and so I never knew her as the Shirl-ee May of the clubs."

Amos tried to work his way through the hole his mother left by writing a tribute album to her, Thank You Shirl-ee May, which was released in 2005. Some songs were upbeat; others had agony, and a little anger. Critics praised Amos' maiden effort, but it didn't sell — which crushed him. After a couple more albums suffered the same fate, he withdrew from performing.

"I sort of felt like, I can't approach music like this anymore," Amos says. "I can't go into making music just pulling my heart wide open. It was just too hard for me. And I didn't know how else to approach music."

Amos decided to put his own songs aside and worked in the industry as an artists' representative and a producer. He compiled the greatest hits of popular singers, alive and not, for Rhino Records and Shout! Factory. And he produced titles for the likes of Heart, Quincy Jones and the great R&B man Solomon Burke.

It was fulfilling work, and he was content doing it. Then, in 2013, he got an offer in 2013 to front a friend's blues band for a weeklong tour in Italy. Amos says it changed his life. The music was loud and energetic — and, it was happy. For once, he wasn't playing through pain or anxiety.

"I was just playing from a place of joy, and I just wanted to celebrate," he says.

He didn't so much want to imitate classic Delta or Chicago blues; he wanted something else. He wondered what a Muddy Waters record would sound like if it were made today, and asked himself, "How would they take advantage of the technology that's available, but not turn it into a super-slick rock record?"

Old school, new tools — that's the guiding principle Shawn Amos applies as he plays around the country. There's a good chance he might be coming to your town: He's done 200 shows in the last two years. Each one is part of his mission. As he puts it, "keepin' the blues alive, one gig at a time."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Shawn Amos has worn a lot of hats in the music industry - singer, songwriter, producer. He started out in folk rook (ph) - folk rock mode, rather. But lately, he's a vessel for the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYS OF DEPRESSION")

SHAWN AMOS: (Singing) In my days of depression, I could take my hand off the wheel. Let me go where the wind blows. Let me go with the Lord.

MARTIN: His newest album is "The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You." He spoke with Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team about the source of his inspiration.

KAREN GRIGBY BATES, BYLINE: Shawn Amos had a Los Angeles childhood that was equal parts grit and glamour.

AMOS: I grew in Hollywood in the '70s, when it was...

BATES: Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, yeah.

AMOS: ...Far different than it is now (laughter).

BATES: He went to private schools and lived in a nice house, but it wasn't exactly in Mr. Rogers's neighborhood.

AMOS: I grew up waiting for a carpool with hookers (laughter) who knew me by name, and I knew drug dealers by name. And I lived across from an apartment complex that was sort of a home to all the pumping iron, sort of bodybuilding, gay porn kind of guys.

MARTIN: Shawn's dad, Wally Amos, was a former Hollywood talent agent who'd became a celebrity by creating Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. His mother, Shirlee Ellis, was a former nightclub singer who performed as Shirl-ee May. She was a great beauty, but she also suffered from schizoaffective disorder.

AMOS: My mother committed suicide in 2003. She was severely mentally ill my whole life. And she'd given up her career long before I was born and so I never knew her as that Shirl-ee May figure of the clubs.

BATES: He tried to work his way through the hole she left by writing a tribute album to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU SHIRL-EE MAY")

AMOS: (Singing) She came on strong and she went too fast. I try to keep it in the past. Thank you, Shirl-ee May.

BATES: Some songs were upbeat. Others had agony and a little anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD INSIDE")

AMOS: (Singing) I know when enough's enough. I know that my best ain't much. Why must you always kill what's good inside?

BATES: The critics praised his maiden effort, but it didn't sell, which crushed him. After a couple other albums suffered the same fate, Amos withdrew from performing.

AMOS: I sort of felt like I can't approach music that way anymore. I can't, like, go into making music just pulling my heart wide open. It's just too hard for me, and I didn't know how else to approach music.

BATES: He decided to put his own songs aside and worked in the industry as an artist representative and a producer. He compiled the greatest hits of popular, alive and not, for Rhino Records and the Shout Factory.

And he produced albums for the likes of Heart, Quincy Jones and the great R&B man Solomon Burke.

AMOS: I was with him in the studio for three records, and I sat as close to him singing as we are now.

BATES: It was fulfilling work, and Amos was content doing it until he got an offer, in 2013, to front a friend's blues band for a weeklong tour in Italy.

And was it fun?

AMOS: It was life-changing.

BATES: The music was loud and energetic and happy. For once, he wasn't playing through pain or anxiety.

AMOS: I was just playing from a place of joy, and I just wanted to celebrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT TOGETHER")

AMOS: (Singing) With your do-rag, honey, you're all right. Baby, you're put together. The way you shake-shake, making crazy - honey, you're put together. I just want to come home.

BATES: He didn't so much want to imitate classic delta or Chicago blues. He wanted something else.

AMOS: I thought - like, what if Muddy Waters made a record today? Not like, trying to, like, pay homage to Muddy back then. (Unintelligible) a lot of people - oh, well, we'll do a record just like they did it back in 1950 whatever. But what if these guys were alive today and made a record today? What would they be talking about? And what would it sound like? And how would they take advantage of technology, but not turn it into, you know, a super slick rock record?

BATES: Old school, new tools. That's the guiding principle Shawn Amos applies as he plays around the country. There's a good chance he might be coming to your town. He's done 200 shows in the last two years, and each one is part of his mission.

AMOS: Keeping the blues alive, one gig at a time.

BATES: With joy.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYS OF DEPRESSION")

AMOS: (Singing) Let me go where the wind blows. Let me go with the Lord. I said let me go where the wind blows. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.