Born Blue and Living to Sing About It
It is not every day that one encounters a musician quite like John D'Amato. Scores of recording artists emulate their idols and mentors, and John certainly has his share of influences, but he is distincly different from many of his colleagues in that he has found his place in the field of blues after experiencing genuine struggles, heartbreak and loss. John's willingness to communicate such personal feelings and emotions has resulted in a growing following of fans whose own fears, vulnerabilities and hardships leave them feeling a unique connection to his repertoire of music. Music, especially roots genres like blues and gospel, promotes healing and fosters fellowship, and John has learned to use his craft to advantage.
Those Wonderful Ads!
Older issues of Grier's Almanac are desired by collectors because of the advertising. Within the pages of the 1934 issue (pictured below right), one can find ads for Bayer aspirin, Cheney's Expectorant (for coughs) and Feen-a-mint ("The Laxative That's Just Like Chewing Gum"). While these products were quite common and widely used at the time, a few other items were offered by more obscure companies, and following are just a few of the standouts:
- 6 6 6 a remedy for colds, headache, fever, biliousness, malaria and constipation available in liquid, tablets, nose drops and a salve! (Editor's note: I'd have to be pretty miserable before I would take something called "666.")
- Smith's Worm Oil, a product of the Galenol Company, Inc. of Atlanta. Described as "one of the oldest and most reliable worm medicines sold."
- Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, a "tonic and regulator" for "girls in their teens." The ad states, "Teach her how to guard her health at this critical time . . . When she is a happy, healthy wife and mother she will thank you."
The 2006 Grier's Almanac includes its share of intriguing ads and, quite frankly, several of them are a source of amusement. Especially eyecatching is a full-page ad from Miller's Rexall Drugs & Curios of Atlanta. Miller's line of products includes the following:
- Securitee, a "renowned prescription in a jellied form" described as the "married woman's sure, safe method." "Are you financially able to take care of babies and give them the proper attention?," the ad asks. "If not it may be best to delay." Haven't times changed? Today, there is considerable debate over whether school kids should learn about contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases at younger and younger ages. In 1934, amid the Depression, an ad offering some form of pregnancy prevention made no mention of the word sex, of course, but its intent was pretty clear. "Every married couple should have babies, but it is a great injustice to bring the little darlings into the world if all conditions are not just right." Interesting to note, 1934 was probably not one of those years in which conditions were "just right" for raising children for most southern couples.
- Lucky Las Vegas Cologne (Editor's note: If you're willing to throw away your money at the casinos, spending $5.55 on this stuff probably can't hurt!)
- Dragon's Blood Uncrossing Bubble Bath, "used to destroy jinxes" (Editor's note: A normal shower with soap and water suits me just fine. Jinxes don't scare me.)
- "Make Opposing Lawyer Stupid" Oil and Candle (Editor's note: This must have been used by the O. J. Simpson defense team. Oops, I shouldn't have said that!!!)
- "Stop Evil" Spray Cleaner "Chase evil out of home, church, business," says the ad. (Editor's note: Obeying the Bible and saying, "Get thee behind me, Satan," has always worked for me!)
Lots of Useful Stuff, Too
Besides a few hilarious ads and plenty of legitimate promotions, Grier's Almanac contains a helpful gardening calendar, zodiac information, a religious section, a chronological listing of memorable events and informing general interest articles.
For a man who sings the blues, John D'Amato is full of life and optimism, not melancholy and discontent. In fact, there is much to learn from a man who has overcome so much and lived to sing about it. For that matter, there is much to be said of a passionate musician who has wandered in search of his artistic identity, only to find it and develop it! In anticipation of the release of his latest project, Born Blue: The Sun Sessions, John recently discussed his musical odyssey thus far, and shared his hopes for the future.
Greg Freeman: I understand you're a versatile artist, but tell me why you chose the blues?
John D'Amato: It's more like the blues chose me. I remember being about five years old and watching B.B. King on television, and I just sat there mesmerized by the way he sang with such feeling and emotion and the sound he made with his guitar. It was the energy that came through his music, even though he was singing a blues song (don't really remember which one it was). He exuded this positive/healing energy that ran through my body. I was hooked on that feeling.
Also about that time, I had gotten a little plastic guitar for Christmas, and I just could not put it down. I loved how it felt in my hands and the sounds that I could make with it even though it was made out of plastic. So having the guitar and seeing B.B. King was kind of a double whammy.
Copies of Grier's Almanac are distributed via drug stores, feed & seed dealers and direct mail.
For nearly half a century, Thomas P. Ashmore made the astronomical calculations for Grier's Almanac. Upon his death in 1882, he was succeeded by his nephew, Otis Ashmore. A Savannah educator and scientist, Otis Ashmore saw the almanac fall on hard times. It was in 1912 that Frank Lamar Fleming of John B. Daniel, Inc., an Atlanta wholesale drug company, acquired the publication at a Savannah bankruptcy auction. In spite of the ownership change, Otis Ashmore remained with Grier's, making astronomical calculations until his death in 1934. Pictured is his last issue.
As I grew and gained more experience as a musician, I was exposed to other genres of music like rock, blues rock, jazz, southern rock and country. I tried on all these different "hats" so to speak to see if any of them felt as comfortable as the blues. Some came really close, but never produced that same vibe.
The last "hat" I wore before returning to the blues was country music. I moved to Nashville in 2001 to pursue songwriting, producing and performing country music as a guitarist. It was a great experience. I learned a lot about songwriting, production and the business end of music. I find that business experience will always help an artist in any genre they pursue. It was going great, but I still felt uneasy and wasn't quite sure what was nagging at me on the inside.
It all came to a head one night during a performance at the legendary Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Broadway in Nashville. The lead singer needed to rest his voice and asked if I wanted to do a number. I decided to do a blues favorite of mine: "Stormy Monday" by T-Bone Walker. It was then that I realized what I had been missing all along. The blues!!!
Greg: What is it about the blues that enables you to communicate or relate with an audience?
John: Blues is a very open genre. The song structure varies and allows for a lot of expression, both lyrically and instrumentally. Being born with a heart defect (I was literally born blue due to a lack of oxygen, hence the name of my new CD) and not expected to live past the age of nine gave me an entirely different perspective on life. I spent a lot of my time in hospitals. Seeing children my own age passing away, the pain the families felt, the hope they clung to that everything was going to turn out alright....it all had a profound effect on me. Every time I would feel that pain or fear, I would pray and listen to music. As I got older, I started to write about what I was feeling. Doing so, I came to realize that bad things happen in life. You get your heart broken. You lose a loved one. Your dreams are shattered. But the Lord has given us music to help us mourn our loss and also heal us at the same time. For me, blues is the best way to express it.
Greg: Who were/are some of your influences?
John: B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Roy Buchanan, Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin.
Greg: You've worked with some incredible artists, too, haven't you?
John: Yes. B.B King, Joe Louis Walker, Billy Cox (Jimi Hendrix's bassist), Eric Gales, Grammy Award-winning producer Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy's and B.B. King's duet), Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan's Keyboard Player).
Greg: Your latest project, Born Blue: The Sun Sessions, was recorded at Memphis' Sun Studios. I would assume that recording at Sun is a bit like performing at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. It's got to be more than nostalgic. Tell me about that experience and what prompted you to record there instead of any number of studios there in Nashville where you live.
This sampling from the 1953 issue of Grier's Almanac features a half-page ad offering an "amazing liquid that tends to promote aversion (dislike) toward ALL intoxicating drinks." Also, kudzu had apparently not sufficiently invaded the South by 1953. B. W. Middlebrooks of Barnesville, Georgia, was advertising seed and kudzu crowns for sale! Quite a contrast from the previously illustrated 1934 edition, the 1953 issue featured ads from two separate publishers promoting illustrated books on the topic of sex!
Frank Veale Jr., "Georgia's Amazing Robert Grier: They Forgot Him, But Not Almanack," Atlanta Journal, October 7, 1967.
"Grier's Almanac," New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 15, 2006: http://www.newgeorgiaencyclopedia.org
"This Day in Georgia History: January 9: 1780," Carl Vinson Institute of Government (University of Georgia). Retrieved October 2004: http://www.cviog.uga.edu
Telephone conversations with Bryan Bachler, Grier's Almanac Publishing Company, Atlanta, in October 2004 and on January 19, 2005
1934 Grier's Almanac
1953 Grier's Almanac
2006 Grier's Almanac
John: I like to say that I live in Nashville, but my musical home is Memphis. I started my country music career in Nashville, but as I began to go back to the blues I just seemed to gravitate to Memphis. It's almost like Memphis chose me. I began endorsing Saint Blues Guitars which are manufactured in Memphis. After a visit to the factory, I ventured down Beale Street, and there it was again. That feeling like I had arrived. It felt like home. Don't get me wrong. Nashville is an awesome city. The amount of musical talent in that city is amazing, and it truly is a "Music City"..........a home to all genres of music, including the blues, but Nashville will always be the home and birthplace of country music and Memphis is the home of the blues.
As far as Sun Studios goes, you are right on the money about it being more than just nostalgic. So many great records were made there. I believe that instruments retain the music that is made on them, almost as if the musician playing that instrument leaves a little bit of his musical self imbedded in it. I think the same is true of buildings where music is performed, and I think you can tap into that if you open yourself up to it. There were so many great blues records made there. I was hoping to get a little of that spirit on my record. I think we did. I was so energized recording there that I didn't sleep at all the night after the recording session.
Memphis' Sun Studio, located at 706 Union Avenue, was established by Sam Phillips. Artists ranging from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and B.B. King to John Mellencamp, Def Leppard and U2 have recorded here.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of John D'Amato's manager, Charles "Doc" Sabourin (firstname.lastname@example.org), Nashville; and publicist, Evie Hawkins, Evie Hawkins Agency, Nashville and Montgomery.
Greg: Besides recording and performing, what other doors has music opened for you? You give back to the community. Tell me about some of the ways your music allows you to do that.
John: It's allowed me to help individuals and families that were just like me and my family. I am always open to performing for a good cause. I've done fundraisers to [support] organ transplants, The Lukemia Society and the International Children's Heart Foundation, which is a Memphis-based organization that transports surgical teams around the world to assist in the correction of congenital heart defects in children. $1.00 from the sale of every "Born Blue" CD is donated to this organization. We even issued a special "John D'Amato Born Blue" ICHF T-shirt. $5 from the sale every T-shirt is donated to the ICHF. I recently did a fundraiser for a 17 year old boy named Johnny D'Amato (no relation to me), who had a heart transplant and needs $5,000 a month for his medication. I feel really blessed to be living my life totally healthy, but I know what it's like for people who can't. So for me giving back is an obligation not a choice.
Greg: What can we expect from John D'Amato in the near future? Any exciting projects you're working on?
John: Well the new CD Born Blue: The Sun Sessisons will be released soon. I'm really excited about how it's coming together and can't wait for its release. We will be doing some videos to follow up with the release, and are planning a nationwide tour and, if it all falls into place, an overseas tour to support the new CD.
My walk with the Lord started at an early age, and he has been responsible for all the blessings I have received in my life. He has certainly shown me that in Jesus "all things are possible." So it's hard for that not to come up in some of my music. Gospel and blues kinda go hand in hand. So I am re-recording and re-releasing a song from my first CD, titled "Walk With Me," to gospel radio in the next few weeks. I'm really happy with the new recording.
I'm feeling more creative that I ever have, and will be channeling my creativity into a lot of different areas: songwriting for all different types of genres; re-working my live show; a blues guitar instruction website and videos; performing at various venues and festivals that are not specifically "blues" venues to help reach out to a broader demographic that doesn't traditionally listen to the blues; and always making time for disadvantaged youth projects during the tour.
I have a new manager and publicist that are great at what they do. So I plan on being very, very busy.
Electronic communication with John D'Amato on February 3, 2015
Author: Greg Freeman. Published February 18, 2015.
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