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Shawn Amos' Long Road To Old-School Blues

On his new album <em>The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You,</em> musician Shawn Amos combines old-school style with new tools.
Courtesy of the artist
On his new album The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, musician Shawn Amos combines old-school style with new tools.

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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.