by Lois A. McNulty
JB Amero of Gloucester is known around the North Shore of Massachusetts as The Blue-Eyed Soul Brother. His initials stand for James Brian, but they might as well stand for James Brown.
You might see him these days in a neighborhood bar like the Rhumb Line in Gloucester, MA shouting out a Merle Haggard classic like “Today I Started Loving You Again,” accompanying himself (left-handed) on guitar, and you’d swear you’d somehow stumbled into the Sugar Shack in Boston’s old Combat Zone, where he was a hard-working regular headliner in the 1970s. Lately, Amero has been performing a lot more than he has in recent years, so your chances of catching his act in Gloucester are improving.
JB: I really got out of the loop. I put the guitar down for years and years. Fly (Amero, his brother, an accomplished performer with his own career) got me back into it recently. He calls me up once in a while to sit in. It’s been good. I’m in the studio right now, recording with (slide-guitarist and singer) Dave Brown producing. I think they (Brown and consultant Suzi Mosse) want to get me on tape before I drop dead. Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten more than I ever knew. Now it’s guys like Dan King and Dave Brown and Fly—they keep me going. I start the songs, and they pick up on them. There’s no rehearsal. That’s the difference between real musicians and others—these guys can hear and play. Not many bands I can sit in with and play any kind of music—these guys know it deep down.
Noise: You like to sing the classics, in the original style. How do you keep it fresh for today’s audiences?
JB: I guess because I’m focused on NOW. People want to drag you back into the past, but there’s so much in the future. Some of my motivation is to be an example for the young musicians coming up. The real experience (in this business) comes from being on the road, working with audiences, night after night. I always have fun with the crowd. Tell me if you see anyone asking the crowd for anything, these days. They’re just up there playing their music. But you gotta draw them in. I used to pick people out of the audience and bring them up on stage. We had the first Gong Show band!
Noise: Where did you perform when you were just starting out?
JB: Boston, Gloucester, Newburyport and anywhere in between. DK’s in Methuen, the Starlite Lounge on Route 1 in Saugus, college frat parties, all the joints in the Combat Zone in Boston. Little Earl’s Lounge. Rosie O’Grady’s in Lawrence.
I was working a union job, pouring concrete, building bridges, and then I played seven nights a week, twice on Sundays. There was one stretch in the mid-’70s when I played 56 nights straight (with his band Water). Pouring concrete all day is like taking a dip in a pool compared to working onstage. I’d lose two to three pounds a night from sweating. I loved it!
When I was starting out, I went to see Wilson Pickett, the OJs, Merle Haggard, James Brown. I can’t tell you how many times I hung around those guys. I wanted to learn, so they understood I wasn’t just some guy riding their coattails. They’d maybe let me sing harmonies with them—the greatest singers in the world. I used to hound those guys. Sometimes I was the only white guy in the audience. Eddie Levert (of the OJs) came up to me one night. He said, “I’m gonna do a song in the second set, ‘Shiftless Shady.’ Listen for it.” Later he asked me if I think he should put it on his next album. He’s asking me!
What I want to get across to the young musicians is this: You gotta listen to other people, you gotta get out in front of as many audiences as you can. You can’t just sit around listening to yourself. You can’t settle for mediocrity. You’ve got to have some standards (for yourself) and keep pushing. You can always be better. There’s some great hard-working talent right here in Gloucester—Dan King is the highest caliber. He and Dave Brown. There’s a grand stage that only so many guys can stand on and I’m proud to be up there with them. Charlee Bianchini, Marina Evans, and more. They’re on the ball.
Noise: You perform a lot of the classics of Merle Haggard, the OJs, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Willie Nelson. What is it about a song that makes you want to learn it and make it your own?
JB: When you hear it, you know it. A song’s got to tell a story; it’s got to have soul. Every song I learn has to have a soul… I’m not interested in doing fluff. I’ve never been a cover band. I play stuff from obscure albums. Sometimes you take a song and you learn it and then the original does become a hit. So they (the audience) think you’re doing the cover, but I learned it before that. If that happens, I’ll just stop doing the song. When people call out requests, they’re wasting their time unless it’s a song I can have some fun with, like “Footlights” by Merle Haggard.
Noise: Sometimes a song is about heartbreak… like Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones.” That’s not a happy story, but it’s one of the songs your audiences always request. How do you feel about doing that one?
JB: That was around 1969, when disco was coming along. No one had ever heard it before… I did it in a big room in Methuen, DK’s Lounge. I did that one six times that night. Certain songs, requests, they haunt me. I’ve got so many other great songs, but I don’t have time to do them. Nobody plays beautiful ballads anymore, torch songs; I got a million of those; it’s hard to fit them in.
They want to hear the same ones over and over. Merle Haggard—they wouldn’t let him walk off the stage without singing “Oakie From Muskogee.” He’s so far beyond that song. He is the greatest singer/ songwriter of our time. I get a request like “Careless With My Love.” That song can haunt me. But I hear it different. I take it to a different level. Fred Eaglesmith wrote it. We have all the rights to use the song. I’d like to hear his comments on my version; it’s coming out on the mini album. They’re wasting their time asking me to do a cover song unless it’s something fun and I’m in the mood. Willie Nelson’s “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” is a fun one. It goes with another song, “Ain’t No Riding Bareback Anymore.” I turned a lot of people on to that album Willie did. I like that.
Noise: You were born into a musical family, (brother Fly Amero, sister Linda Amero) but your inspiration to hit the stage yourself, I heard, came from a local guy named Dana Muise?
JB: Yeah, he was a tap-dancer when I was a kid. I saw him one night… 6’2”, 300 pounds, but he was acrobatic. He’d get up a full steam, and then run across the stage, in tap shoes, and straight up a wall and then do a backwards somersault off the wall and land with a split. His signature move was to pull this electric keyboard down on top of him and keep on playing, upsidedown. One night he did this with a full-size piano, just let it crash down onto him. There was blood everywhere. He kept going. Nothing would stop him. I said, I want to be like that guy!
But my family, yeah, they’re good. We’re not in each other’s shadow. First time we played together, Fly and me, I had fired my guitar player and I needed Fly to sit in one night. He was the only one who knew the music. We were kids—still living at home. I had to sneak him out of the house over the roof so our mother wouldn’t see.
Growing up, my mother drove me crazy with her music all the time. Later on, I turned her into a huge Merle Haggard fan. I once got Merle to call her from his dressing room. I have a picture of that phone call. I’ll always know who was on the other end of that line. My brother Fly and my sister Linda, they were into music early on. I learned to play the guitar by myself. Fly has a great ear. He’s a great talent, plus he’s an artist. He can draw. Anyway, he must have been listening to me when I was playing guitar. He took it to another level, but then he never taught me back [he laughs]. I kind of gave up guitar and started singing.
Noise: Did you ever get singing lessons?
JB: Yeah—from James Brown.
Noise: The three musical Ameros have performed together in Gloucester often over the years, at St. Peter’s Club during Fiesta, or doing Christmas shows. [Amero pulls out a newspaper clipping about one of these shows, from 1998.]
JB: I can’t read it. [The dark glasses he wears are not just a fashion accessory. Amero has become legally blind.] I’ve always had poor vision. I went blind in one eye 20 years ago, then I had a stroke few years ago. I was blind for about two or three weeks, but then I got some vision back, but not enough. I gave up my driver’s license—that was the end of my life as I knew it.
Noise: You live independently; how do you manage?
JB: My sisters (Linda and Joyce) try to help me out. I know they love me but I just can’t take their worrying. Fly will pick me up. I don’t like to be penned in. I have an old friend who will drive me around, nice and peaceful. He doesn’t bother me; he’s like Karl Malden. There are only a few people I can be with like that.
Noise: After performing for thousands in Boston venues, what is it about the local music scene that makes you want to get out and perform?
JB: There’s something going on between the audience and the performers. You can tell when you’ve got a responsive crowd. One night at Jalapeno’s, we (Dan King, Dave Brown, Dave Mattacks, Wolf Ginandes—KBMG, with JB Amero sitting in) did three encores. I was done, but they wouldn’t let me go. I feel I can do that—bring the crowd into it, have some fun with it. That’s the main thing I do. There’s just a mentality out there that really knows about music in Gloucester, and that’s a big reason I’m singing. They appreciate what they’re hearing. And I have to give credit to the women, and not just the young ones. They’re beautiful, dancing, with their long legs. They know the music, and they are loyal, and when the women come out to all the shows, they draw the guys in. There’s a following, and the women are leading it. They create an atmosphere. One woman, Tracy Mannix, appreciated my influence so much she wrote a song about me, and that meant a lot. It’s called “One of a Kind.” So here I am in my hometown, performing a lot, having the time of my life, and Dana Muise, my inspiration, has become the last of the great white hunters, going on safaris in Africa. He’s given up music. Go figure!
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