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Shawn Amos' Long Road To Old-School Blues

By Karen Grigsby Bates | NPR
Sunday, January 17, 2016

Shawn Amos had a Los Angeles childhood that was equal parts grit and glamor. He went to private schools and lived in a nice house, but it wasn't exactly in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.

"I grew up waiting for a carpool with hookers who knew me by name, drug dealers knew me by name," Amos says. "Across the street was an apartment complex that was home to a lot of pumping-iron, gay-porn kinda guys."

Since then, he has worn a lot of hats in the music industry: singer, songwriter, producer. He started out in a folk-rock mode, but lately he's been a vessel for the blues. His newest album, The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, was released last October.

His father, Wally Amos, was a former Hollywood talent agent who had become a celebrity by creating Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. His mother, Shirlee Ellis, was a former nightclub singer who performed as Shirl-ee May. She was a great beauty, but she also suffered from schizoaffective disorder.

"My mother committed suicide in 2003," Amos says. "She was severely mentally ill all of my life — she'd given up her career before I was born — and so I never knew her as the Shirl-ee May of the clubs."

Amos tried to work his way through the hole his mother left by writing a tribute album to her, Thank You Shirl-ee May, which was released in 2005. Some songs were upbeat; others had agony, and a little anger. Critics praised Amos' maiden effort, but it didn't sell — which crushed him. After a couple more albums suffered the same fate, he withdrew from performing.

"I sort of felt like, I can't approach music like this anymore," Amos says. "I can't go into making music just pulling my heart wide open. It was just too hard for me. And I didn't know how else to approach music."

Amos decided to put his own songs aside and worked in the industry as an artists' representative and a producer. He compiled the greatest hits of popular singers, alive and not, for Rhino Records and Shout! Factory. And he produced titles for the likes of Heart, Quincy Jones and the great R&B man Solomon Burke.

It was fulfilling work, and he was content doing it. Then, in 2013, he got an offer in 2013 to front a friend's blues band for a weeklong tour in Italy. Amos says it changed his life. The music was loud and energetic — and, it was happy. For once, he wasn't playing through pain or anxiety.

"I was just playing from a place of joy, and I just wanted to celebrate," he says.

He didn't so much want to imitate classic Delta or Chicago blues; he wanted something else. He wondered what a Muddy Waters record would sound like if it were made today, and asked himself, "How would they take advantage of the technology that's available, but not turn it into a super-slick rock record?"

Old school, new tools — that's the guiding principle Shawn Amos applies as he plays around the country. There's a good chance he might be coming to your town: He's done 200 shows in the last two years. Each one is part of his mission. As he puts it, "keepin' the blues alive, one gig at a time."

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