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Michael Powers Interview
For many years, Michael Powers has been considered to be one of the foremost blues guitarists in the music industry. His vocals and guitar fronted the band the Adlibs who opened for artists such as the Boxtops, Richie Havens and numerous Motown artists. During that span a time, he recorded “Boy From New York City.” He went on to play with Moonbeam opening for James Brown, Bo Diddley and the Ronnettes, as well as Chuck Berry, Johnny Winter and John Lee Hooker (Sr.).
Despite Michael Powers’ notoriety and the respect he garners from fellow musicians, he replied without hesitation when I asked him what he considered to be the greatest thing about having a career in music. “To me the greatest thing about being a musician is it is the highest communication to the Lord.”
While many blues artists may defer to life experiences such as heartache, failed marriages or tragedies as providing the substance for their music Powers brings a different perspective. “I wake up and praise the Lord, thanking Him; after all, He made the guitar. He made the songs and He designed it all. You should go to Him (if you want to) grow. You can’t lose, you can only get better,” he said.
His current album Prodigal Son and the accompanying title track are a deliberate comment on Powers’ relationship with God. “Since I started playing the guitar in 1957, I have found that everything I do (amounts) to nothing without putting Him first. He is everything,” he said.
A traditional call and response tune, the title track “Prodigal Son” features spectacular guitar chording by Jimi Zhivago on a twelve string as he responds to Power’s vocals. The longtime friends dazzle on many of the album’s tracks.
Talking about Zhivago Powers said, “He can play every instrument. He is the guy who comes in, and without having to warm up. He is like me, one take and we got it down.”
Powers was not born with a guitar in his hand but pretty close. His first life changing experience with music came in 1964 when his grandmother called him into the living room to watch the Rolling Stones perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. They were playing, a Muddy Waters (Willie Dixon authored) song, “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” Powers immediately jumped on the song because it was from one of the many records he spun when his mother placed him in charge of the music for their family’s parties.
“The records that she (his mother Doris) was listening to were Muddy Waters, Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Billie Holiday. It was really deep stuff,” Powers recalled.
After the Rolling Stones experience he said, ‘From that day on I was going nuts. I was in the Spiegel catalog looking at guitars. I watched the Ed Sullivan Show, because he had The Beatles, the Dave Clarke Five and Herman’s Hermits on his show. He also had shows with Cream, Martha and the Vandellas (“Dancing In The Streets”) and Stevie Wonder. I was swamped with all these vibes.”
In what appears to be fate or destiny Powers was raised in a neighborhood that was turned onto music in the sixties. “Instead of gangs in my town, there were bands on every corner. In somebody’s garage or somebody’s basement there was somebody rehearsing to play at a high school or holiday dance,” he said. One of those garage bands was Vanilla Fudge who Powers and the rest of the kids in the neighborhood would sit around listening to while they rehearsed. “
“Most of the black kids were listening to Motown and stuff like that. I was completely at the other end of the rainbow. What I was digging on was the Yardbirds. Out of the Yardbirds came some of the best guitar players ever in the history of music.” He recites the names of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Who is going to argue with him about that list? The Yardbirds better known as a forerunner to Cream backed up legendary blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson for his London gigs. In fact, the song, “It’s A Bloody Life,” from the CD The Prodigal Son is a tribute of sorts to Clapton and Page who first recorded the tune.
Powers’ mother Doris eventually bought her son a guitar so he would stop walking around the house strumming her broom to the tunes of John Lee Hooker and others. “It would tick her off because the straw would get all over the place. She bought me a guitar with a book of stamps. You filled up three of these books with stamps, and you could get a gift from the Spiegel catalog,” he said.
Unfortunately, Powers admitted that his guitar sat alone for a long time and the only attention it got was when he put his toy soldiers on top of the case. “A friend came over (to his house) one day, and he began playing the guitar. I thought, ‘Wow that’s what it is supposed to do!’ The sound of the guitar got to me before I even knew what the music was about,” he said.
One the first songs to inspire the young Powers was “Sleep Walk” by the New York City steel and electric guitar duo Santo and Johnny (Farina). In 1959 “Sleep Walk” went to number one on the Pop charts, and had almost a four-month stay in the top forty.
What was it about blues music that attracted you Michael? “The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll,” he laughed. Getting more serious he adds, “I also dug how the guitars looked. It was like a sports car with all the colors. Anything that had a whammy bar (tremolo bar) on it too would make me go wow look at that. We couldn’t afford that stuff but what was good about being in my neighborhood was everyone had good equipment, so when they weren’t practicing I could go down there and pick up something.”
Powers’ answer to my question, ‘What do you hope listeners get out of the song, “You Got To Go Down,” provides great insight into his approach to music. “First I hope he or she is feeling the vibe the way that I feel it. When I first hear something that I want to do (sing and play), I don’t know the words, who wrote it or recorded it, I just know that is the song (I want to do). It just turns a switch on and that is the way that I hope people approach my music. Then I would hope they go to the words and (finally) to the music,” he says.
Powers alternates between using a finger picking style to flat-picking but he says, “I like the sound of my fingers compared to the sound of using a pick or a penny. The flesh against steel (creates) such a warm sound.”
On stage, Powers still prefers a vintage presentation. He said, “I use a Fender Rosewood. It is a Hendrix signature guitar like the one he used at Woodstock. I use Marshall amps and an old echo flex sound on the sound machine. I use some compression and that is about it. There is nothing like a Marshall amp and a Fender guitar together.”
As gifted as he is as an artist Michael Powers never loses sight of the things that really matter. In speaking about his faith he says, “It is so awesome because you are never alone. I am so blessed that He loves me. I thank Him with my whole heart. There is nothing like it.
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By Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved
Joe Montague is an internationally
published journalist / photographer and the publisher of Riveting Riffs,
www.rivetingriffs.com. His ministry
is dedicated to the memory of his late son Kent David Montague who went
to heaven at the age of 18. All copyright and distribution rights remain
the property of Joe Montague.