Good, solid Blues players hail from all parts of the globe these days. They aren’t confined to Mississippi or Chicago, although many go there to study the masters and improve their chops.
Canadian-born guitar slinger Shawn Kellerman, who was raised in Kitchner, Ontario and still makes his home there, has been to Mississippi as part of his Blues education. And, his fiery, intense playing has paid for tickets to all parts of the world as well, allowing him to showcase his talents as a sideman or a bandleader.
Shawn is one of the group of up-and-coming young players who are carrying on the legacy the legends left for them to inherit. His musical interest started the way many young players did…with Dad’s record collection.
“My dad had all kinds of music in his collection, Blues jazz, classical, rock and roll, you name it,” Shawn said. “He was also a classical piano player. So, I took piano lessons from the time I was 5 until I was about 14. I never really had an influential piano player to latch onto. I was always fighting against it. My dad finally realized we weren’t making much progress so he offered to buy me a guitar. That worked for me. From then on I watched and learned from other players. I had the music in my head.”
“There was a guy booking bands in our town,” Shawn said. “Guys like Robert Cray when he was first getting started and Albert Collins. I would sneak in to see these shows because I was still too young to be in the clubs. I’d buy copies of bootleg tapes to take home and listen to. There was plenty of Blues in the city. My dad would also take me on vacations and we’d go to places like Antone’s (in Austin) and Beale Street in Memphis. I credit my dad with helping me with my musical education.”
Shawn spent his days in the classroom and his nights playing in different bands, mostly with older players, trying to learn as much as he could, all with his dad’s approval. He even played for a while in a blues band with his father and stepmother.
“I was playing four or five nights a week in adult bands, and it was tough keeping up with the schoolwork,” Shawn said. “I pretty much had always played with guys older than me. He (dad) just really wanted me to finish high school. I felt like I couldn’t let him down since he had given me the opportunity to play. There were just so many good people out there who loved and played the music. I wanted to be a part of it…all of it. I listened to it all. I really dug Little Charlie & The Nightcats, Rick Estrin, all of that stuff.”
The great guitarist Mel Brown, formerly of Bobbly “Blue” Bland’s band and a renowned session player, happened to travel to Kitchner for a series of gigs where young Shawn saw him and was further drawn into the Blues.
“He was a phenomenal player,” Shawn said. “I ended up playing rhythm guitar for Mel for four years and it was like going to Blues college. Mel played guitar like no one I’d heard. He taught me that it is all about the feel. He really looked out for me. He did what was called for and maybe that’s where my concept of what modern Blues came from. He was the type of guy that tried a little bit of everything and that is what I’m trying to do. I like all the blues. I like the swing Blues. I like soul Blues.”
“Stevie Ray always said Mel Brown was in his top three favorite players, besides Albert King, of course. I feel real fortunate that I got to play with Mel and Otis Clay. It was Otis who took me aside and told me I needed more discipline. My main influences have been Albert Collins, Albert King, my mentor, Mel Brown, and Lucky Peterson, who became my mentor and who I still play with.”
“Finally it was Otis Clay who told me ‘It’s your time now. Get out there and do it.’ He said ‘You’re getting to be a great guitar player, but you need more discipline. You need to join that band that is going to take you and make you shine.’ He gave me my jump start,“ Shawn says. “I went from a kid in Ontario, Canada to the world.”
After taking advice from Clay, Shawn signed on with the great Deborah Coleman’s band and toured with her. From there it was a sit-in date with soul Bluesman Bobby Rush, who invited Shawn to get in touch with him later about a steady gig.
“He (Rush) didn’t think I’d move to Mississippi,” Shawn said. “I was 24 and wasn’t tied down to anything so I thought ‘What the hell?’ I called him and he said ‘Come on down, but remember, it’s a little different down here.’ Boy, was he right. I ended up staying at his house for a while before I got a place of my own. We played the “Chitlin’ Circuit” with guys like Little Milton (Campbell) and people like that. It was a whole different scene than any I was ever exposed to. I only felt any heat because of my color one time when we were playing in Texas. Other than that all people were interested in is if I could play. Color was never a problem.”
Shawn has now been on the road in 20 different countries over the last 15 years. After spending a couple of years touring with his own trio “The Shawn Kellerman Band” he is now a permanent member of Lucky Peterson’s band, a gig he coveted since his early playing days.
“I used to bring bands and artists up to Canada to play,” Shawn said. “At first it was guys like Sherman Robertson, and Bobby (Rush). Lucky has always been my favorite artist, but I couldn’t get in touch with him to see if he wanted to come up and play.”
“I finally contacted his agent to see if he (Lucky) would come to Canada,” Shawn recalls. “The guy was cool enough and wanted to get Lucky up here. So ever since then we have been playing music together. Finally, after a few shows, he asked if I wanted to be in the band full time. I had been watching him since I was 19 and I just loved everything about his music. I guess I finally got good enough that I was able graduate to his band full time.”
“It all happened so fast,” Shawn said. “My dad had just passed away and I had just turned 40. He was the one who got me started on this road. Then I landed my dream job in Lucky’s band. My dad had taken me on the very first Blues Cruise when I was 19 where I saw Anson Funderburg as one of the headliners. Now, 21 years later, I got to go on this year’s cruise as one of the players in Lucky’s band. It doesn’t get much beter.”
Since his Blues journey began Shawn estimates he has played in 34 states and more than 20 countries and counting.
“It’s hard to say where you get the best treatment,” Shawn says. “Blues started here and has evolved differently than it has in Europe. There is a whole different culture in Europe. They are more into tradition. You do enjoy bigger audiences over there though. But, there are great audiences everywhere. I don’t want to bash anybody because everybody has their own spot in the overall scheme of things. Blues has always been up and down and it’ll always be that way. ”
When Shawn is not lighting up the stage with his axe, he spends some of his spare time putting guitars together out of pieces and parts to see if he can create something different.
“I took an old Danelectro bass and adapted it and made it a regular guitar,” he said. “I still play it on stage. It turned out pretty cool. I don’t claim to be a luthier or anything. I just like to try different things. I fooled around with my Telecaster until I got it to sound like Albert Collins. I like my stuff to sound a little different. Have a different look.”
“If I had about $10,000 I’d buy a vintage guitar and stick with it but I don’t have that kind of money to spend,” Shawn says. “I like to figure out what’s going on inside (the guitar). I’ve kind of always done that. I built my own head for my amp. Nothing is stock. I try to develop my own stuff. Besides, it’s a good conversation piece. It’s not rocket science. If you can glue wood together and string it you can build a guitar. All guitars sound basically the same. It’s not like I’m moving the world or anything. It makes me feel good about myself after I dig into it and then it actually plays.”
Currently Shawn is coming off of one of his best seasons and can’t wait to get back on the road with The Lucky Peterson Band.
“We went on the Blues Cruise in the summer and that was one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “Then we’re about finished mixing a new CD and it should be released in June. After that we’re hitting the road for shows in February, March and April. I haven’t fronted a band in a while. I try to keep myself open for Lucky. I still do an occasional guest show.”
It appears that the music is in good hands as long as the young guns like Shawn Kellerman keep spreading the word and keeping things fresh.
That’s a good thing.”
Visit Shawn’s website at: http://shawnkellerman.com/
Photo by Bob Kieser © 2014 Blues Blast Magazine