New Orleans is the place where Jon Cleary thinks he should have come from.
“I came hardwired for New Orleans funk because that was the music I really dug,” the British-born singer, songwriter, pianist and guitarist said recently at his home in the Bywater area.
Prior to Friday’s release of Cleary’s eighth album, “GoGo Juice,” he talked about the new record and a 35-year career that includes recent duo touring with jazz guitarist John Scofield and supporting player stints with Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Norah Jones and local stars Dr. John, Earl King and Johnny Adams.
Cleary’s album release show for “GoGo Juice” is Monday, Aug. 31, at the Maple Leaf Bar with his band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.
In the mid-1970s, when he was growing up in a musical family in Cranbrook, Kent, Cleary watched Labelle perform “Lady Marmalade” on BBC’s “Top of the Pops.” The English youngster thought the song, produced in New Orleans by Allen Toussaint, was the hippest thing he’d ever heard.
When Cleary heard Robert Palmer singing Toussaint’s composition, “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” broadcast by pirate radio station Radio Caroline, he thought it couldn’t be beat. Frankie Miller’s version of another Toussaint song, “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues),” thrilled him, too.
After completing secondary school, Cleary flew to New Orleans, the city of his musical dreams. During his early days, he painted walls at the Maple Leaf Bar. At the Uptown music venue, Cleary also heard the ingenious music of resident pianist and future New Orleans music legend James Booker.
“Booker’s regular gig was Tuesday night, but he’d be there all the time,” Cleary recalled. “He’d emerge from the apartment upstairs and go downstairs and sit at the piano. I’d listen to him all afternoon.”
“I knew it was great, but I don’t think I was old enough to really appreciate how important it was. No one had ever heard of him outside of New Orleans, hardly. No one gave him much respect, seemingly. Because Booker was a strange cat, just one of the characters at the bar.”
Despite Booker’s erratic nature, Cleary readily made the connection between Booker’s piano playing and the piano work of his major keyboard inspiration back in England, Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John.
“The sound of what Dr. John did on piano set all the alarm bells ringing,” Cleary said. “I said, ‘That’s a direction I’ve got to explore.’ One of the reasons I came to New Orleans was to try to find out where Mac learnt that stuff.
“Mac and Booker are the same age and have the same influences. And Mac learned a lot of stuff from Booker and, I’m sure, Booker learned a lot of stuff from Mac, and they both learned from Huey Smith.”
Booker, Smith, Dr. John, Toussaint and other New Orleans musicians Cleary admires are examples of piano-based artists who put their unmistakable signatures on New Orleans music tradition. Cleary strives to do the same through his original work, including “GoGo Juice.”
“All of my favorite New Orleans music has been those records that were made by people who didn’t conform to what had gone before,” Cleary said. “But it’s important to absorb as much stuff as you can. Then let it sit there and mature. And then, because it almost comes from your subconscious, whatever comes out is new.”
Cleary’s Grammy-winning fellow Englishman and former neighbor in New Orleans, John Porter (Buddy Guy, Elvis Costello, Carlos Santana, B.B. King), produced “GoGo Juice” in New Orleans and at Dockside Studio near Lafayette. The album features Toussaint’s distinctive horn arrangements, local players Shane Theriot, Nigel Hall and the Dirty Dozen horns and members of the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.
“I wanted to have the thing that happens when you get a bunch of musicians in a room playing together, that interaction and conversation,” Cleary said.
Having made New Orleans his home for most of the past 35 years, Cleary is happy to be an Englishman in the Crescent City.
“Perhaps if I hadn’t taken the New Orleans direction, I would have gone into a much more profitable area of music. I’d be a lot further along in my career than I am now,” he said with a laugh. “I’m still an obscure musician, playing an obscure genre that appeals to a small number of people around the world. That’s fine with me. Everything worked out great.”