Born Gregory Edward Hart, March 2, 1963, in Oakland, CA; Education: studied guitar with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Addresses: Home--Memphis, TN; Record company--Hannibal/Rykodisc, Shetland Park, 27 Congress St., Salem, MA 01970 Phone: (888) 2-EARFUL.
Alvin Youngblood Hart (born Gregory Edward Hart), a self-taught guitarist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, helped lead a younger generation of creative blues artists during the 1990s. Similar to artists such as Keb' Mo' and Corey Harris, the free-spirited, Memphis-based musician with a solid foundation in the blues wrote and performed songs personalized with his own insights and experiences. Moreover, Hart's musical influences extended beyond the confines of the blues, as did those of blues veteran Taj Mahal, who viewed the blues as a world music rather than an American genre. Borrowing techniques from an array of artists such as rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix to alternative bluesman Captain Beefheart, Hart developed an eclectic blues style that included elements of western swing, pop, reggae, and rock.
Hart's 1996 debut album Big Mama's Door earned the singer and guitarist the W.C. Handy Award (he was nominated for a total of five) for best new artist in 1997. In 1999, Downbeat magazine named Hart's 1998 follow-up album, the acclaimed Territory, as blues album of the year. With two successful records to his name at just 35 years of age, critics predicted that, like his predecessor Taj Mahal, Hart would prove an important inspiration to contemporary blues musicians for years to come. "Using mandolin, 12-string and lap steel guitars, Hart cuts straight through the soul of the music," commented Michael Point in Downbeat, "transcending simple labels like 'blues' in favor of something more universal and all-encompassing." Likewise, Downbeat's Frank-John Hadley added, "Hart is a fine, discriminating singer and multi-instrumentalist whose interpretations of country blues and other African-American folk song are among the most involved anywhere." And Hart himself further explained, "To me blues is all about personal expression and musical adventure, and that's what I strive for when recording."
Hart's musical adventure began far from the cultural heart and soul of blues music, which originated in the southern United States. Although Hart would later live in Chicago as a teenager and serve time in the U.S. Coast Guard stationed on the Mississippi River, two areas known for influencing blues artists, Hart's first introduction to the blues occurred during his early childhood in California. Born on March 2, 1963, in Oakland, Hart said blues music always filled the family home, as both his parents had roots in rural Mississippi. "I just came upon the blues, what, just hearing it every day in the house," Hart explained to Renee Montagne in an interview for the National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast Morning Edition. "My dad used to walk around the house singing, 'Momma killed a chicken, thought it was a duck, put him on the table with his legs sittin' up, got to bottle up and go,' you know. I've been hearing that since day one. Playing in the house, playing in my head, you know, from day one." In addition, family vacations to Carroll County, Mississippi, where Hart's grandparents lived, further strengthened his admiration for the blues.
From Oakland, the Hart family moved to Los Angeles, then to Ohio, before settling in Chicago, a city rich in the blues culture. Here, Hart met and played music on the streets with other blues artists like the late Maxwell Street Jimmy and Lucky Lopez, who remained relatively unknown outside Chicago, and earned his middle name "Youngblood" from the older musicians. In order to entice them to let him sit in and play, Hart used to put extra money in their tip boxes.
As a young adult, Hart spent seven years with the Coast Guard. For three and a half of those years, he was based on a buoy boat in the town of Natchez, located on the Mississippi River. During the day, the crew set up buoys in the river to mark the deep water for commercial boats and also built navigational lights along the river bank. But at night, with the crew's ship tied to a tree in the middle of the river, Hart usually concentrated on playing blues. "I'd get a chance to practice music a little bit on the bow of the boat, you know, where nobody was, if the mosquitoes weren't too bad." One of Hart's later instrumental songs, "Underway at 7," was inspired by his time spent on the Mississippi. "We used to have breakfast at 6:30 and get underway at 7," Hart told Montagne, explaining the song's title.
After serving with the Coast Guard, Hart turned to music. In 1996 at age 33, he released his 14-track debut album, Big Mama's Door, with producers Michael Nash and Carey Williams on the Columbia/OKeh label; "Big Mama" refers to Hart's grandmother from Mississippi. Beginning with the first song, the album's title track, and continuing throughout the record, Hart explored his country blues side and the acoustic blues tradition through his own expressive interpretations. Critics often complain that most younger blues artists seem overly studied when they take on the rich blues heritage. However, Hart displayed a comfortable ease and sense of authority in his singing, finger picking, and playing slide guitar. On his original song "Joe Friday," Hart sounded much like one of blues music's icons, the Mississippi Delta legend Robert Johnson. He also covered other artist's tunes, including Charley Patton's "Pony Blues," Leadbelly's "When I Was a Cowboy," and Willie McTell's "Hillbilly Willie's Blues." In 1997, Hart received five W.C. Handy Award nominations for his debut and won the title for best new artist.
Around the same time Hart released Big Mama's Door, he was one of six slide guitarists chosen to participate in sessions with Junior Wells, known as one of the creators, along with Little Walter, the two Sonny Boy Williamsons, and James Cotton, of Mississippi Delta/Chicago-style harmonica playing. The sessions resulted in the 1996 release of Come on in This House, produced by John Snyder on the Telarc label. For the album, Hart performed on both 12-string dobro and National steel guitar.
Two years later in 1998, Hart released his sophomore effort, Territory, this time with Hannibal (a division of Rykodisc), a label that appeared to give the artist a broader range of creativity. Continuing to illuminate the blues tradition, Hart performed a haunting version of a lesser-known song by Skip James (1902-1969) entitled "Illinois Blues," as well Bukka White's (1909-1977) backwoods-inspired "Mama Don't Allow." For both songs, he heightened the drama with his skillful slide guitar playing. Hart also performed the age-old folk song "John Hardy," adding his own personal touch by playing acoustic guitar and concertina, while Taj Mahal stepped in to play mandolin and provide vocal support for "France Blues." But unlike Hart's first album, Territory traveled beyond traditional blues. An admitted fan of singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry during his childhood, Hart paid tribute to western swing music through his original song "Tallacatcha," featuring the lap steel guitar and fiddle. He also performed a remake of Captain Beefheart's blues-rocker "Ice Rose," a Jamaican, ska groove entitled "Just About to Go," and the lamentful Tin Pan Alley number "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes."
"One of the ways for me to keep music enjoyable is to cover a lot of ground or play whatever I feel I can get away with at the time," Hart explained to Hadley, recollecting the lessons he learned while studying for a short time with the musically versatile multi-instrumentalist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, considered one of the foremost architects of modern blues guitar. "He was always telling me to forget about what labels people want to put on you and just try to have a good time playing music." Taking Brown's advice in recording Territory obviously paid off for Hart, as the acclaimed collection won the blues album of the year award in 1999 from Downbeat magazine.
Making a more diverse record also brought Hart fans from outside the blues scene, and by the spring of 1999, the artist opened for alternative rock acts such as the Afghan Whigs and Son Volt. "It's kind of loud, so I'm playing electric guitar as opposed to doing my regular acoustic gig," he told Hadley. In addition to playing guitars, Hart also enjoyed repairing and restoring, buying, selling, and trading the instruments. For his next project, he hoped to record a harder-edged album because, as he recalled, "I grew up on all that early-to mid-'70s Frank Zappa music." In the future, Hart also wanted to work with his older brother, a funk base player who lives in Japan, on a tribute album to Sonny Sharrock (1940-1994), a well-known experimental, free-jazz guitarist.
by Laura Hightower
Alvin Youngblood Hart's Career
Released debut album, Big Mama's Door, Columbia/Okeh, 1996; released Territory, Hannibal, 1998; toured with alternative rock bands, including the Afghan Whigs and Son Volt, 1999.
Alvin Youngblood Hart's Awards
W.C. Handy Award for best new artist, 1997; Downbeat magazine award for best blues album of the year for Territory, 1999.
- Selected discography
- Big Mama's Door , Columbia/OKeh, 1996.
- (With others) Come on in This House , Telarc, 1996.
- Territory , Hannibal, 1998.
- (With others) Every Road I Take: The Best of Contemporary
- Acoustic Blues , Shanachie, 1999.
June 7, 2005: Hart's album, Motivational Speaker, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/index.jsp, June 7, 2005.
- Rucker, Leland, editor, musicHound blues: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
- Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
- Downbeat, September 1998, p. 55; March 1999, pp. 22-25; April 1999, p. 64; August 1999, p. 42.
- Independent, July 3, 1998, p. 17.
- Morning Edition (NPR), July 21, 1998.
- Newsday, August 27, 1998, p. C07.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 25, 1996, p. 08; August 21, 1998, p. E4.
- Village Voice, September 15, 1998, p. 62.