“Never play a note you don’t believe.” That’s the advice that a one-eyed blues singer named Ernest Banks gave to singer-songwriter-guitarist Doug MacLeod a few decades back. Following that advice, the New York-born, Southern California-based MacLeod has emerged as one of the most highly respected blues artists on the scene today.
Unlike most other bands working in the blues/jazz idiom today, the Doug MacLeod Band plays only original material, not reworked versions of blues standards from the past. The high caliber of their compositions is evident on Ain’t the Blues Evil, the first Volt release by the 44-year-old guitarist and his group.
MacLeod’s 1984 debut recording on Hightone Records, No Road Back Home, brought him three W.C. Handy nominations, including Best Song of the Year (“Your Bread Ain’t Done,” which was also recorded by Albert King on his Grammy-nominated Fantasy album, I’m in a Phone Booth, Baby), Best Album of the Year, and Best New Artist of the Year. Another award nomination for Best Song of the Year, from the prestigious Handy Foundation (the blues world’s equivalent of a Grammy), came MacLeod’s way in 1987, when blues star Albert Collins recorded his now-legendary salute to the working men of the world, “Cash Talkin’ (The Working Man’s Blues).” Today, Doug’s ever-increasing catalog of original material is approaching 200 songs, which continue to be recorded by artists such as King, Collins, and Son Seals.
MacLeod’s second album, Woman in the Street, released throughout Europe on Germany’s Stomp Records label (a division of Line Records), soared to the #2 position on the label’s chart of best-sellers shortly before his first European tour in the summer of 1988. The Doug MacLeod Band electrified audiences at the Belgium Rhythm & Blues Festival (considered by many blues aficionados to be the best festival in the world) and were hailed by the critics as show stealers of the weekend event, which also featured the likes of John Lee Hooker, Marcia Ball, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The reactions to the band’s performances in Belgium, Holland, and Germany were ecstatic, resulting in an equally spectacular 1989 tour that included the same territories plus Finland.
Last year the band returned to Europe for another triumphant tour, promoting their second Line release, 54th & Vermont. At home, they made an unprecedented sixth consecutive appearance at the renowned Sedona, Arizona Jazz on the Rocks Festival, where year after year the band has walked off as the crowd-pleasers of the highly acclaimed event. (They’ll be returning to the Sedona Festival this September.)
Doug MacLeod’s seemingly recent arrival on the blues/jazz front has actually been a long time in coming. For over two decades he has worked in a diverse number of musical arenas. The late Sixties and early Seventies found him playing the East Coast coffeehouse circuit with folk musicians like Emmylou Harris and Juice Newton, while still serving in the U.S. Navy. He graduated from Boston’s Berklee School of Music and spent time in pop music as conductor for songstress Mary MacGregor, and guitarist in the road company of Grease. A move to the West Coast put him back in touch with the music he knew best and loved most-the blues-and he decided to devote all his energies to that field. His reputation as a superb guitar player spread, and he soon found himself performing and recording with blues giants such as Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Folsom, Margie Evans, Big Mama Thornton, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and Big Joe Turner. In Los Angeles he met the legendary George “Harmonica” Smith, who became not only one of his best friends, but a major influence on his life and on his music. One of MacLeod’s most memorable songs, “Send the Soul on Home” (from his Woman in the Street album), was written as a tribute to Smith and three other blues heavyweights-Pee Wee Crayton, Lloyd Glenn, and Big Joe Turner.
Drummer Lee Spath and bassist Eric Ajaye, much sought after as studio musicians on the West Coast, have been with the band since its inception and help to make the group one of the tightest and most respected in the business. Spath has worked with artists such as Thelma Houston, Jimmy Witherspoon, Pee Wee Crayton, Joe Houston, and George Cables. He is also featured on three tracks of the smash-hit Robert Cray album, Strong Persuader. Ajaye, brother of comedian Franklin Ajaye, is best known for his work with the Pointer Sisters, Taj Mahal, Freddie Hubbard, Della Reese, Nancy Wilson, Jeremy Steig, Chris Thomas, Joe Louis Walker, George Howard, and others. Keyboardist Ed Czach, sporting a Masters in Music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, joined the band last October. His musical background is as eclectic as that of the rest of the members, with a resume that includes a stint as music director and conductor for pop star Mitzi Gaynor’s touring company of the Broadway musical Anything Goes, and recording and touring credits with artists such as Ben Vereen, Clark Terry, Chuck Mangione, Melba Moore, Woody Shaw, and Tom T. Hall.
Ain’t the Blues Evil, recorded just a month after Czach came on board, is set for release as the group returns from yet another successful European tour. The new album, combined with summer U.S. dates and a major tour of Europe this fall, will help get the word out that the Doug MacLeod Band is one of the most original voices in blues today.