Fantastic New Orleans piano great!
Longtime Lancaster music fans may Remember Jon Cleary’s first appearance here at the original Chameleon Club. He was the young keyboardist touring with New Orleans funkmasters, Walter Wolfman Washington and the Road Masters. This was in 1986 and he and the band left quite the impression.
Jon Cleary’s love and affinity for New Orleans music goes back to the rural British village of Cranbrook, Kent, where he was raised in a musical family. Cleary’s maternal grandparents performed under the respective stage names Sweet Dolly Daydream and Frank Neville, ‘The Little Fellow With The Educated Feet’ – she as a singer, and he as a tap dancer. His father was a 50’s skiffle man and taught him the rudiments as soon as he was big enough to reach around the neck of his guitar. Upon attaining double-digit age Cleary became avidly interested in funk-filled music, buying records and intently studying their labels and album covers in order to glean as much information as possible. Such perusal revealed that three songs he especially loved — LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Robert Palmer’s version of“Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” and Frankie Miller’s rendition of “Brickyard Blues” – were attributed to Allen Toussaint as either the songwriter, the producer, or both. Cleary’s knowledge expanded significantly when his Uncle, musician Johnny Johnson returned from a sojourn in New Orleans in the early 70’s and brought back two suitcases of rare and obscure local 45s, which allowed the adolescent Cleary to pursue his study of R&B in great depth, with special attention to the New Orleans sound that increasingly captivated him.
As soon as he was old enough to leave school in 1980 Cleary took off for the Crescent City. When his flight touched down a taxi took him straight to the Maple Leaf, a funky Uptown bar which then featured such New Orleans piano legends as Roosevelt Sykes and James Booker. Cleary got a job painting the club, and lived a few doors down for a time, allowing him unlimited free access to all the great New Orleans music performed within. One night when James Booker didn’t show up, the club’s manager insisted that Jon get up and play before the paying customers demanded a refund. Thrust suddenly into the spotlight Jon was ready, willing and able to play his first paying gig in New Orleans – and although he had come to town as a guitarist, this debut was also the first step of his career as a pianist.
Soon Cleary reached the existential crossroads of either devoting his life to the city’s music, or returning to England. Cleary chose New Orleans, and before long he began to land sideman gigs with the venerable likes of such New Orleans R&B legends (and his childhood heroes) as guitarists Snooks Eaglin, and Earl “Trick Bag” King, and singers Johnny Adams, and Jessie Hill.
By 1989, Cleary had recorded his first album of eight including the new GoGo Juice. His increasingly high-profile performances revealed a level of proficient versatility that led to recording sessions and international touring work – in an appropriately wide stylistic range – in the bands of Taj Mahal, John Scofield, Dr. John and, most notably, Bonnie Raitt. As a songwriter, he has written and co-written songs with and for Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal and the decade that he spent working with Raitt inspired her to unabashedly dub Cleary “the ninth wonder of the world.”
Jon Cleary left Bonnie Raitt’s band in 2009 to concentrate on his own music. And now, 35 years since he arrived in New Orleans, Cleary has made an eloquent, definitive and future-classic artistic statement. “Funk is the ethnic folk music of New Orleans,” Cleary says, “and I wanted to infuse GoGo Juice with a sound that was true to the city I love. It’s the kind of record that could only be made in New Orleans.”
similar artists at Roots & Blues