1950s, The Mississippi Delta, Elvis & Memphis
John Lee Sanders sparked his interest in music, from the early lessons in Boogie Woogie Piano from his older brother Chip, Early on, there was no television in the house, so the upright piano was the center of family entertainment.
The sounds of blues, Gospel, and country exploded into one person when Elvis Presley bought his first home a few doors down from John's Aunt and Uncle in Memphis Tennessee, 1957. Memphis was like a 2nd home to John, his Mom's hometown, as well as grandparents, Cousins, Aunts and Uncles.
Elvis, his folks, Vernon and Gladys had moved from the projects to a middle class suburb of Memphis, Vernon Presley gave 6 year old John a tour of the house, including Elvis' bedroom and guitar collection, a memory that was forever cherished.
John's Cousin, Art Sutton also encouraged Sanders in his music career. Arthur ran one of the largest music stores in Memphis, had recorded with WC Handy, father of the blues,
Art worked often with Bill Black, (bass player with Elvis) and knew almost every musician on the Memphis music scene. John learned harmony from the Methodist Church Choir and started classical piano lessons in the 1st grade.
John's 1st grade teacher was the wife of one of Mississippi's early Rock and Roll DJs and music education was a part of every day. Something must have been in the water there, when John discovered his classmate, Chalmers Davis became one of the great session players at Muscle Shoals Alabama, and long time Hammond Organist with Little Richard.
"the sound of the blues was all around us in the Delta, oozing up from the streets, from the Black church on Sunday Morning radio, the street vendors, and the songs of the chain gangs, immortalized in early recordings of Alan Lomax"
John's father, Bill Sanders, a former high school basketball coach, had come to the south from Illinois in the 50s to build State Farm Insurance from the ground up with headquarters in Mississippi. The CEOs at State Farm figured with my mother Gladys' roots in Memphis, would give him the guidance to navigate through southern culture, which is a world of it's own.. He hired managers and agents all over the South, and traveled much of the time. In 1960, Bill was transferred to Birmingham to an executive position with the company.
That year, on a trip to Washington, John and the Family met Vice President Richard Nixon on a visit to the capitol.
He lost the election that year to John Kennedy, along with his brother, Bobby (who had worked with John’s Uncle Donald Prince in an Illinois Campaign for Superintendent of Public Schools in 1965) helped to bring equal rights to the segregated south, but also divided the Southern States along party lines.
The year 1964, was a pivotal year for John, as Birmingham became ground zero for the battle for civil rights. On a school train trip to Washington DC, at aged 12, his interest in Government and politics had begun, and saw the injustice of the world of black and white when his Alabama group was not allowed to march in the parade because of it's racial intolerance. "That year in our 6th grade class, we were required to memorize Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and as I read those words on the Mall in Washington, I realized in my city, and much of America, they were only words, for some of the people, yet to be realized."
That same year, John met Martin Luther King, and George Wallace, one who would block the dream, and one who would carry it forward. A year rocked by violence, intolerance and apathetic neutrality from the local churches, President Johnson sent troops to guard the streets, and our city was a war zone for quite some time. "Overlooking the torn city below,
We lived in a suburb called Vestavia, a beautiful home with a backyard bordering on rolling hills, with wooded trails and streams, pristine forests that went for miles. The Birmingham years were in turmoil, with the Uncle from John’s closest childhood friend, Sheriff Cecil Ray Price, was indicted for the klan murder of 4 civil rights workers in Philidelphia Mississippi. “That chain of events, triggered a shift in my political views, as a child, growing up with such evil, overt, and subliminal racism at every level of society, that I didn’t know who to trust expressing my beliefs, including some in my own family"
“My father had worked in a high level position at the Pentagon in Washington, and broke the story of the Cuban missile crisis to the family a month before the story broke on television" “Being a musician has brought me into circles I would normally never have experienced, with events and concerts with people like Gerald and Betty Ford, Colin Powell, Newt Gingrich, Henry Kissinger, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Rumsfeld, and many others"
My parents put a rehearsal/ game room in a walkout basement, and with my 2 brothers and I, there was always a rehearsal or jam session going on. I tried my hand at drums, but could never get both hands and feet going at the same time, so focused more on the piano. There was a piano, bass, and guitars, and I learned them all.
"that year I saved up my nickels and dimes from yard work and bought my first guitar, a cheap Japanese single pickup with lots of chrome, from a downtown pawn shop for $35.00. that night we saw the Rolling Stones on their 1st tour of the States. they opened for the beach boys, who brought the house down. Their harmonies I adored, but it was the Stones who brought something dark, deep and magical. Seeing these English white guys doing blues from Chicago and the Delta, was an Epiphany, hearing Brian Jones doing Elmore James on the slide, on "Little Red Rooster" was eerie, primal and gut wrenching. I had always loved the blues, being from the Delta, it was as natural as the ground we walked on, but seeing it played in a stadium with 20,000 screaming fans, i realized the funky down home country blues of Rural Mississippi had crossed the Atlantic, had transformed and become part of a world stage, that forever changed popular music. I later became part of the Long John Baldry Band, and learned that without Long John Baldry there would have probably never been the Rolling Stones.
Sometime around that year, I auditioned as a singer for the Ramblers, the top Rock/R&b band in town, who's piano player happened to be my brother Chip. I got the gig, and would come out and do 30 Minutes as an added attraction. The local top 40 station, WSGN, promoted the hell out of me, and on Saturday nights, we would pack the local National Guard Armory with 2 or 3 thousand people. I would sing Ray Charles, some Stones, blues and Beatles. and was so tiny, I had to stand on a chair to reach the mic. I was 12 or 13, and worked almost every weekend, I don't know how much the band made, but I got $5.00 per gig, all in one dollar bills, which happened to be 5 times my allowance at the time.
I wasn't growing, and the doctors tried an experimental growth hormone shots. I'm not sure if it worked, because I'm still 5'4' but my voice dropped about an octave in a few months. All that changed rapidly as I began to grow into my adult voice, Going from Michael Jackson to Barry White in a few months was difficult, and there wasn't much novelty in a singer who's voice would crack with those puberty hormones. But I was serious about it, and took voice lessons from our choir director who had a PHD in voice and music education. His name was Vernon Skoog, and he introduced me to Broadway Music, and the classics. At Christmas and Easter he would bring in a 40 piece orchestra to do Handel's Messiah at our Methodist Church. Our Church music had it's roots in European Classical music and American Hymns, not the 5 Blind boys of Alabama or Mahalia Jackson I so much wanted to sing. So I learned a few different voices for every occasion. Maybe that's where I learned to do impersonations, out of necessity, to fit in like a chameleon.
Speaking of my mother, She was the one who encouraged me the most, drove me to piano lessons, wrote the checks, and set the timer, for my piano practice every day. Between she and my brother Chip, any wrong note got a holler from down the hall. I did Chopin's prelude in C minor, for my 5 grade recital, a piece that I could still play in my sleep, a piece that Barry Manilow had a hit on in the 70s.
My mother loved Broadway Music, the standards, and had an amazing ear. She always had season tickets to the local Musical theater company and supported the arts. She encouraged me to audition for the local theater productions. I got in the Cast of "Oliver" one of my favorite musicals. (Later in my life I had a wonderful conversation with Lionel Bart, the composer of Oliver, in the last months of his life)
I had many piano teachers, but the one who helped me the most, was the one who taught me how to read chord changes. I realized the simplicity of the chord structure of pop songs, soon a light went on in my head, and I could sit at the piano, and go down the top 40 charts, and could play most of them from the many hours spent listening to radio. The simple pop tunes on the charts were not as interesting musically, and I began to gravitate to
great songwriters, such as Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Jimmy Webb, who i recently performed with in Washington DC for members of congress. As the Beatles Music became more complex with each album, I learned it all, and grew with them as they progressed as artists.
I listened to 2 or 3 radio stations, the top 40 station, WSGN, who's #1 DJ, Dave Roddy who helped me get started in the biz. The other station was WJLD, the black soul/ blues station, with Sam "Double "0" Moore, who introduced thousands of us black and white kids to James Brown, Albert King, BB King, Jackie Wilson, and the stars of the blues and the chitlin circuit. It was WJLD, whose underground codes and messages would organize the kids to get out in the streets to march for equal rights. Those kids were the backbone of the movement, who withstood beatings, fire hoses, and police dogs of the Birmingham Gestapo. Today they are heroes, I applaud them for their bravery.
I was not old enough to get into the clubs, nor had the nerve at that age to go into the black neighborhoods for any of the R&B shows, with so much racial tension in Birmingham, but WSGN, and Dave Roddy started bringing some of the regional black soul acts to the Armories where we often played, On the day I got my license, a carload of girls and I drove across town and heard Irma Thomas, The Queen of New Orleans R&B, it was the first time I had heard a real New Orleans R&B band live, and it was the most soulful sound I had ever heard. My first date was age 15, a double date with a beautiful red haired girl from Mountain Brook, the most affluent part of Birmingham, whose father was head of the Alabama Bar Association, close family friends with Chief Justice Hugo Black, on the Supreme Court, a former Klan member, who traded his White robe for a black one, and ended up being one of the more liberal Justices on the court. I had met his grandson at YMCA Day camp as a child.
My brother Chip was in Pi Kappa Alpha, in the University of Alabama, with a large entertainment budget, and they were booking acts like Otis Redding and Percy Sledge for their formal dances, and the Southern beach music scene as it was called was breaking down racial barriers more than any court order could do. That year, George Wallace Stood in the school house Door at the University of Alabama, to block black students from registering, but a few blocks down Otis, and Percy were breaking down barriers, doing it a different way as music has a way to open hearts and minds.
At my high school, I had a wonderful Choir director who brought us to the state Championship for singing. At our spring concert we sang a Bach Cantata, and I can still remember the counterpoint and harmony to that amazing piece. The director realized my gift for arranging, and asked me to transcribe and arrange Brian Wilson's "Good Vibrations" the number one song of that time. it was a challenge but helped me to put it all on paper for the choir.
Despite all of the troubles of our time there, Birmingham was a wonderful place to live, and I am grateful of my parents and their love for us, and their encouragement of our music. They made it possible to live my dream.
Some would wonder why I describe the racial struggles of life in the south, when I was so fortunate, and had so much, even though I spent most of it on the sidelines as a child. When I became old enough to realize the lie, I began to get involved. I believe this was the great moral and ethical turning point of our time, and my Christian interpretation of the Holy Bible caused me to lose faith in the church in it's failure to act as Christ would have taught us during this crucial time.
To tell our story I think it's important, because the music I play today, the blues and Gospel would not be here without this story, and it has taken me around the world. It's a universal story of love, acceptance and a spiritual journey to be all that Christ wants us to be, to love more fully, regardless of how much we have, or what side of the tracks we came from. I'm proud to have met Martin Luther King, and though I didn't realize the magnitude of his work on human rights at age 12, it inspires me to have witnessed a glimpse of his life. As I am writing this in Europe, a black soul singer named Michael Jackson had a funeral with all of the dignity and importance of a King, with most major European networks broadcasting the entire event. All of this came to be because of the work that went on in Birmingham and other cities around the world. As I see the towering spires of the churches dominating the skyline of Every City in Germany and Austria, I think of the holocaust and how such a horror could happen in a country so densely populated by Christians, and then I think of my own church in Birmingham who preserved their own neutrality during their time of crisis.