As a young boy, Johnny Neel made a life-changing decision that set the course of his life. When he enrolled at a school for the blind in Baltimore, Johnny was told he had two choices: He could either learn how to tune a piano, or how to play one.
“That didn’t seem like a tough choice to me,” says the raspy-voiced Neel with a laugh. “Playing the piano sounded like way more fun. Besides, my dad had a band back in Delaware and so did two of my brothers, so it seemed like that natural thing to do.” So natural, in fact, that by age 12, the musical prodigy was cutting his own rhythm & blues records and performing in clubs at night, while continuing his studies during the day.
Originally from Wilmington, Delaware, Neel is blind from birth, yet he’s never let that slow him down the slightest bit. At age 62, the white-haired, white-bearded troubadour is busier than ever as a bandleader, keyboard player, singer-songwriter, producer, and studio owner.
Although a gifted instrumentalist and singer, Johnny is best known for his songwriting. Formerly with The Allman Brothers Band (1989 – 1991), he’s a Grammy-nominated keyboardist, singer-songwriter, and a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Among other chart-topping hits, Neel co-wrote the Allman Brothers’ “Good Clean Fun” with Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts, which provided the Allman Brothers their first #1 hit in over 15 years. Many of his songs have been recorded by top artists, including Montgomery Gentry, Delbert McClinton, John Mayall, Michael McDonald, John Louis Walker, and Gov’t Mule.
Johnny also plays a mean piano, all varieties of electric keyboards, and even coaxes soulful sounds from a 1956-vintage Hammond B3 organ – a gift from Gregg Allman, from the days when he played with the seminal Southern rock band The Allman Brothers Band. To top it off, Neel can blow a mean harmonica and even plays a little guitar.
With deep musical roots like these, it’s not surprising that his original music is a soulful stew of blues, rock, country, gospel, funk and jazz. The white-haired, white-bearded Neel – who resembles a hip Santa Claus in his signature dark shades – is also a prolific songwriter. Johnny says his ideas come to him all the time, “from the sky, from our maker, from whatever you choose to call God,” sometimes while he’s swimming in the pool next to his studio.
The bear-like Neel doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back on the past. In fact, he enjoys working with the next generation of musicians, to hear what’s new and fresh. “There’s a lot of really good stuff going on now,” Johnny observes. “I’ve played with everybody, from Government Mule and Widespread Panic, to Delbert McClinton and B.B. King. That’s what keeps me going and growing.”
Equally at home with covering other musicians’ compositions and his own, Neel is fond of “changing things up” at the drop of a hat. “When you see me and my band live, we’re likely today make up two or three new songs on the spot during one night’s set.”
He’s also recorded and toured with Blue Floyd, an all-star lineup that plays blues-inflected versions of Pink Floyd tune. When it comes to putting his own distinctive stamp on music written and made famous by others, Johnny has a simple rule for his band: “If it’s straight, make it swing. And if it’s already swinging, bring it back a little and make it just a little straighter.”
A long-time resident of the Nashville area, Johnny first moved to “Music City” in the 1970s, in search of work as a songwriter and session musician. “It really was a small town back then,” he recalls. “You ran into people in bars, in studios, at clubs, and you made connections like that. I remember leaving one recording session, walking down the street, and going into another studio for the next session.”
“Nashville’s not like that anymore,” he says with a chuckle. “There are lots of what I call ‘citified cowboys’ and it’s a big city. Don’t get me wrong – there’s still a lot of very talented people and a lot of great music coming out of Nashville. But for me, when country music gets too overproduced it loses some of that quality of the traveling minstrel, which is where it all started out.”
That’s why Neel decided to head for the countryside. When real-estate prices in Nashville soared, he sold his home and recording studio at a big profit and used the money to buy three acres “way out in the country,” where he now lives and works when not touring.
His new headquarters, “Straight-Up Studios,” offers musicians not only a bucolic setting and state-of-the-art recording facilities, but informal songwriting space and Neel’s own considerable producing and arranging skills. His gleaming black grand piano and vintage Hammond B-3 are also in residence, waiting for him to sit down and cut some tracks. “I can work with almost anybody, so long as they know what they’re trying to do,” he says of his producing and recording style. “The secret to working with other people is to get into what they’re trying to do, then bring your own style to what you’re doing.”
Still, the road continues to call his name. “I’m really not good at just sitting around,” Johnny explains. “If I don’t get out and tour at least three times a month, I get itchy.” His current band is comprised of all native-born Nashville cats, with Neel the only import. “They’re all just really good local guys, who I enjoyed playing with and got what I’m trying to do. We have a good time.” (For more information, go to www.johnnyneel.com.)
The Nashville-based Johnny Neel Band will bring its distinctive blend of blues, R&B, and country-rock to the Blue Note Bistro in Miamisburg, Ohio on November 19. For this special appearance, the musical segment will shift to the nearby Plaza Theater, which seats 300, followed by a “meet the artist” reception at the Blue Note itself.
This is Neel’s first appearance at the club. “I’ve played some clubs in the Dayton before, but I’m really excited to check out the Blue Note,” he says. “They also tell me the food there is amazing, so I’m looking forward to a great meal while I’m there.”
Here’s all you really need to know about Johnny Neal: If you love American roots music, he’s the real deal.