On the surface, it appears Harlem, New York’s Michael Powers is an overnight success. In 2005, he was nominated for two W.C. Handy Awards Best New Artist Debut and Contemporary Blues Album Of The Year and performed at esteemed blues festivals such as Chicago, Ottawa, and Pocono (my favorite). Surely, anyone who follows the music industry knows instant fame and triumph rarely happen. Lyrics present on his 2004 debut Onyx Root clarify that it “Took 20 years to be discovered overnight”. Powers’ broad music career actually spans more than 40 years. Case in point, the song he and his rocking three-piece band performed as an encore at Pocono goes back to the summer when the Statue of Liberty was restored. “We were doing Rock and Roll Sweater (the encore song) back then. I wrote that with Moonbeam maybe in 1976 and I never recorded it”.
While in high school, Michael formed his first band The RB ZigZags. Later, he joined The Ad Libs and was appointed the lead vocal and guitar duties. Two weeks before graduating high school, Powers left the group in favor of a brief stint with James Cotton. Now, Michael feels strongly about staying in school. Had music not beckoned him, Powers might have gone to College. “I probably would have been pushed to go into music because that’s what I knew. If I had guidance, I would have gone into computers”. When he returned to New York City, Michael formed a new band called Moonbeam. They stayed together for 13 years. After their breakup, Michael Powers decided to proceed on his own. Now, after performing for so many years, Powers is being noticed in a major way. He is very gracious for the attention that he is finally receiving.
The son of a merchant marine, Michael Powers was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1952. His parents separated when he was very young. Yet, he continued to return to North Carolina where his father spent summers working in the tobacco fields. This exposed the big city kid to hard labor, as well as, the simple pleasures of rural life. It was an experience he would never forget. “That was back in the ’60s. It was just to keep us in a positive environment so that we wouldn’t be with the street gangs. It allowed me to have money for school clothes and things like that. It was 75 cents an hour and we had to pick tobacco. When you’re a kid from the city, to get in the country and hear insects, nature, hogs and mules was something else. I saw a mule hang himself trying to get an apple out of a tree. He was tied to the tree and he put his two legs up and got tangled up. It (the country) was new to me and a beautiful thing. When I came back to the city, it made me appreciate what I had. Going south to the country was like going to camp.”
A former school friend of Deborah Harry and her drummer Clem Burke, Powers has resided in New York City for many years. He has a strong NYC accent to prove it and lives in a brownstone. Yet, his sound has a southern feel and flair. “I think that’s because of where I came from and understanding what it’s really about. The blues came from slavery. Slaves that’s what my relatives where. They were freed and they were given that land and still had to grow tobacco and cotton. That’s part of my heritage and I look at it that way”.
By listening to records and watching artists perform, Powers taught himself to play the guitar. He was inspired by his mother’s favorites such as Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker. Jimmy Reed proved to be the most influential figure. “The first chord I learned was from watching him”. As a teenager, Powers delivered sodas to bars and clubs in the community. “He was playing in one of those places. I never seen nobody play like that.” At the time, Powers was used to open tuning, country and western, and playing guitar with one finger. “When I saw all the fingers working I said, ‘wow’. Then I took a month to learn how to tune the guitar. I wouldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t eat. I was just determined to figure this out.”
Michael’s steady gig has been at Terra Blues for the past 15 years. “It is the last blues room in New York City. We play there every Monday and Friday. We do four shows a night starting at ten o’clock and ending at four in the morning. When you’re playing four shows a night and then you only have an hour to play on a festival, you can pick the best things.” Those in attendance at this year’s Pocono festival can attest to this as fact.
Upon its release, Onyx Root walloped the stagnated blues industry. The CD’s 13 appealing songs feature six Powers originals. Most songs combine Delta country blues, psychedelic blues/rock, and contemporary blues. The opening track compels, and is called Successful Son. “All those things in the song happened to me. Remember the Spiegel catalogs? That used to be our bible. We didn’t have TV. My grandmother had one and we’d only (get to) watch Ed Sullivan because she wanted to save the electricity bill. That’s how I got into playing in bands because I saw the Rolling Stones and the Beatles on Sullivan and it was like ‘wow’. The Spiegel catalog, we couldn’t wait until the Christmas issue would come out. We would look at the clothes, but my things were the toys and the instruments. I used to walk around with the broom. Mom used to get pissed off because I used to leave the straw all over the floor. We always had stamps. We used to paste them suckers. It took a lot of books to get one thing. So with three books of stamps she got me my first guitar”.
The success of the CD is due, in part, to the wise musicians who surround him. “My current band has been together two years. On the CD, it’s the X-pensive Winos (who are known most as having been Keith Richards’s backing band). The producer was the Stones producer (Steve Rosenthal who has also worked with Albert Collins and restored over 20 Alan Lomax Blues albums). I knew drummer Steve Jordan (Keith Richards, Blues Brothers, Sheryl Crow) from years ago. When I was in Moonbeam, he was in the 24th Street Band with many members of the current David Letterman band. We used to do shows together at Max’s Kansas City. We’d play six nights a week there. Springsteen was playing there too, but acoustic by himself. Other regulars were Bob Marley, Aerosmith and Cheap Trick. We were the house band there. When they were putting the record together, they got me the best studio musicians they could find. When we went into the studio, all I had to do was play the song once and if it wasn’t done in two takes, we moved on. They told me to come in with 25 songs and I had 40. We got stuff for another record.”
When Powers was putting the record together, he had many ideas of what he wanted to do. In the end, he decided he would just go to the studio, start playing, and let it take. The CD’s seven rearranged classic covers came about on the way to and from the studio. “I always gotta have music wherever I’m going. I carry a boom box with me all the time. I tape things off the radio and I put them down in no order or nothing. There is country and western to Mozart on here (pointing to a cassette that he pulled from his suit coat pocket). That’s the way radio should be. The Count Five sing Psychotic Reaction. One day, on the way to the studio, my cousin was playin it. At that time, I was in love with this beautiful lady.” He openly admitted to loving French women, but wouldn’t reveal any more about the lady in question. “I was having a psychotic reaction trying to express it to her so that she wouldn’t think I was just another cat trying to conquest because I’m not like that. That song is exactly what I was going through. Everything on the record was what I was going through that summer. It was the summer of my life.”
In his spare time, Powers likes to read the bible. “It heals me”, states Michael calmly while also confessing that he is always searching for answers. Curing is something he has needed regularly. His German mother has polio and is stricken to a wheelchair. Powers himself carries the daily burden of living with diabetes. “I lost my leg to it thinking I was invincible. With diabetes there’s no pain. ‘What do you mean I got diabetes? What’s that’? So I used to think.” The life of a musician does not fit a battle with diabetes well. There are so many commitments to meet; rest is usually the first thing that gets sacrificed. “I take Glucophage once a day and I have to watch my diet. I have to exercise, get proper rest. Some days I’m on top of it, some days I’m not. That’s what happened to me in Chicago.” This past summer while at the world’s largest blues festival Powers’ inadequate performance didn’t meet the expectations of the media and fans. “When I got off that plane I had no energy. All of a sudden, I couldn’t focus. I was scared. I had no sleep. The heat was also a factor and I couldn’t get enough water. I didn’t let the music flow, it was choppy. I would have loved to just have played acoustic. I would have been more in control”.
Michael Powers excels at making the old, new. He takes traditional blues and makes it contemporary. Wisely, he does it without fabrication. In that sense, he has succeeded where blues and hip-hop marriages have failed. “You remember the British Blues invasion? I feel like that kind of thing is happening again. In order to get the blues to the younger audience they have to have a connection. I feel like it’s easier for me to touch that audience by giving them something that they are more familiar with. To me, all blues is blues no matter whether it’s electric or acoustic or with horns or harpsichord. My mother played me the blues and made me listen to it first so I had no choice. When I ask a kid ‘hey man do you like blues music’ and the reply is ‘not really’. It’s the first thing they say and I always say ‘why?’ You haven’t listened to it you haven’t given it a chance. They don’t know what they don’t like until they try it. I got heavier into the blues and started exploring once I heard the Yardbirds. They were just like us. They had to hear it the raw way first and of course they gave it back to us watered down, but they gave it to us and that’s my approach. To me that’s what the future is all about. It’s trying it. Powers’ fashionable music is relevant for today, yet was influenced by Jimmy Reed, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix. Michael Powers has got what is takes to re-vitalize today’s youth with an interest in blues. He may be the Messiah that takes the blues and makes it mainstream. Tim Holek