For a blues and soul musician, it doesn’t get any better. That’s because rising star Keith Stone was born right in the heart of it all – in the soul of Louisiana that is New Orleans, where he began absorbing the vibrant city’s rich culture and strumming the guitar while in his teens. His music career started at age just 19, when he played his first gig, earning the princely sum of $50. From there he has gone on to play in clubs and at festivals at home and around the United States and beyond. This inspiring guitarist and singer, who writes his own songs, spoke to Kreol about his passion for jazz and soul and what keeps him motivated to perform.
Keith Stone is the kind of naturally talented musician that takes to music like a duck to water. It all began back in 1965, when he arrived into the world in the steaming cultural mecca of New Orleans. Back in his childhood, and still today, the city was a throbbing heartland of music. He says:
“You only had to look around you to see all kinds of musicians, and you knew they were musicians even when they weren’t playing – just by the way they’re dressed and the way they’re talking”. He continued by explaining his early influences and inspiration to start performing himself, “New Orleans is a music city, so it kind of gets in your bones, and you just start performing for the love of it, and I think just growing up in New Orleans is what got me started and seeing so many different musicians”
He tinkered around with various instruments to see what he liked, and he found brass was just right for him – except for the trombone and tuba, which he never took up. His obsession at this blossoming stage of his musical life was the jazz great Louis Armstrong, whom he described as his “idol”. Then at age eighteen Keith added another, different, instrument to his repertoire – the guitar.
Experience, trial and error, and seeing others perform – as well as lessons, formed the basis of much of his musical education. “I’m like a hybrid,” says Keith, “I can read some [music] because I played brass into my first and only year of college, and so I have the background of the basic college one on theory and so forth. I took some lessons on guitar, but it wasn’t so much to read music as it was to learn positions, and I learnt most of what I know from going and watching live bands in New Orleans – just watching, listening, learning and asking questions.”
Throughout his formal education, however, music was always in the background. Keith played during elementary school and right up to college, and it included everything from participation in marching bands to football games and concerts. His New Orleans-style of music then went on the road with him, as a teenager, when he travelled all over the United States for five summers, also performing in Canada.
So what sort of impression did his first professional gig leave on the young and aspiring musician? It was a performance for Rufus Thomas at BB King’s homecoming in Indianola, Mississippi. Keith remembers, that despite being over six feet tall, he was far from being the tallest member of the band. He recollects, “Well, the memory of that gig was being the shortest one. [But] There were lots of memories: I got to go to Club Heaven… which BB King was partnered with. I got to go to his hometown, and I got to open and meet the great Rufus Thomas of Memphis. It was a great memory. I got to play in my first live blues gig that paid, in front of several thousand people.”
That initial performance lasted just 45 minutes, during which they played several Muddy Waters songs, and, says Keith, “One I had written about a rooster. I was living with my mum at the time and there was a rooster that my neighbours had and it woke me up when I came home every night. And I remember that because I got a shock at that gig from the microphone – that was my first shock; so a lot of memories.”
Road trips and emotional content of blues expression
For Keith, being on the road is not always about the music. It also offers a chance to further explore his sense of spirituality, and to delve deeper into the history of jazz and the blues.
“Last year I took a journey with a group of musicians and it was a spiritual journey and we did a journey up The Blues Highway and it was probably the most memorable,” he recollects, “We went back to Indianola, Mississippi, and we studied the roots of the blues and its journey from New Orleans to Memphis. The trip also took in Chicago and Los Angeles, and altogether was, just excellent”.
The blues allows Keith to perfectly express the full range of human emotions, not only through his voice but particularly via instruments such as the guitar, “It’s the only music that I’ve been able to express my true emotion and to be able to put colour to that emotion – be it joy, be it sadness, be it anger at times, because there are some angry blues or just having a good time.”
This fundamental desire to express himself began during a difficult time in his early life: “I think … what attracted me to [the blues] was the fact that I could express myself, because as a kid I had a hard time talking, because I had a speech impediment. I had all these different things I had to overcome and I don’t have the greatest education, so I had a hard time talking.”