Q&A with award-winning, triple-threat talent Dave Keller - fueled by his love of deep Southern soul and blues music

"Be nice. Show up on time. Dress up. Give it your all. Don't get involved with drinking and drugs. Take time to hang out with your fans. It's not about showing off; it's about connecting."

Dave Keller: Soul & Electric Feeling

Dave Keller is an award-winning, triple-threat: an outstanding singer, an intense guitarist and a talented songwriter. Fueled by his love of deep Southern soul and blues, his performances ring out with passion, integrity, and an ability to break down the barriers between performer and audience. Ever since renowned guitarist Ronnie Earl chose Dave Keller to sing on his album “Living In The Light,” Keller’s star has been on the rise. In just a few short years, Keller has been nominated for a Blues Music Award for Best Soul/Blues Album, won the International Blues Challenge Best Self-Released CD Award, and been selected for Downbeat‘s Best Recordings of the Year. A bit of a late bloomer, Keller grew up in Massachusetts, loving music, but not picking up guitar until age 16, and not singing in his first band until age 20. Blessed with mentors including deep soul singer Mighty Sam McClain, mystical soul guitarist Robert Ward, acoustic blues master Paul Rishell and soul/blues man Johnny Rawls, Keller made up for lost time.

Relocating to icy Vermont in 1993, Keller found fertile ground to grow his audience, and has become a household name there. Famous for his live-wire shows, Keller can often be found fifty feet out in the crowd, teasing fiery licks from his trusty Stratocaster and singing off-mike as the audience sings along. Not one to rest on his laurels, Keller has been expanding his base beyond New England these past few years, performing at some of the biggest festivals in the East, including the North Atlantic Blues Festival, the PA Blues Fest, and the Discover Jazz Festival. He has also performed at the Blues Music Awards ceremony twice, accompanying Ronnie Earl, and Johnny Rawls (with whom Keller frequently tours). In 2018, Catfood Records released “Every Soul’s A Star,” the label debut from acclaimed blues/soul singer and guitarist Dave Keller. Produced by Grammy award winner, Jim Gaines, and recorded primarily at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, TX, album showcases ten original songs, plus a scintillating cover of the Aretha Franklin classic, ‘Baby, I Love You.’ Keller’s soulful vocals are ably supported by The Rays, which include legendary Motown guitarist Johnny McGee.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Dave, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?

I discovered the blues (through the music of Jimi Hendrix) when I was 20. My first idols were Sonny Boy Williamson II, Albert King, and Ronnie Earl.

What characterizes the sound of Dave Keller?

Soul singing with electric blues guitar playing. Intense.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?

My first blues gig was with a Connecticut band called Nate Simmons and Gravy Hands, and we played at a little juke joint in Moodus, Connecticut. I remember one of the tunes I had to learn was “Sugar Coated Love” by Lazy Lester. I made $25, felt very rich, and spent it all on flowers for my girlfriend.

How has the Blues and Rock music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Blues music has helped me always look for honesty and sincerity in the world. It reminds me to be 'real', and always give it everything I’ve got. (Am not really very influenced by Rock music.)

How do you describe "Every Soul's A Star" songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

With each song I write, I hope to create something that expresses how I feel, and will resonate with other people. I try to be as honest as possible. I also aim for "sing-a-long-ability". I hope the listener will hear the song and start singing along almost immediately. Musically, I am most influenced by Deep Soul, Blues, and Gospel.

"I discovered the blues (through the music of Jimi Hendrix) when I was 20. My first idols were Sonny Boy Williamson II, Albert King, and Ronnie Earl."

What has made you laugh from studio sessions? What touched (emotionally) you from Jim Gaines?

I don't recall anything making me laugh. I was probably too focused on the work at hand. We only had a short time to record all the songs, and I wanted to get them 'right'. 

Listening to the playback of the title song, Every Soul's a Star, Jim was really moved and told me a painful story from his youth. It was a very private moment, and very sweet. It made me realize that if the song moved Jim, it might have the power to help lots of other people. It also made me realize how deeply Jim was listening to my songs, which I think is part of what makes him a true master.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The friendship of Deep Soul singer Mighty Sam McClain was immensely important to me. His encouragement …really helped sustain me through the years of struggling. Also, getting to know Ronnie Earl (and sing/co-write on his album Living In the Light) really helped my self-confidence, and just made me really happy, since he'd been my idol since my early 20s.

Best advice: I asked Big Boy Henry for any advice he might offer. He asked me if I loved the Blues. I answered "yes". He responded, "Then just keep doing it.  Keep singing." Simple but real and true.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss great singers. Nowadays it seems like the focus is almost always instrumental prowess. When I listen to a song, I want to hear a great singer telling a story. A bunch of riffs without a great voice don't really do much for me. People like Otis Rush, Albert King, Magic Sam, B.B. King - they were amazingly soulful singers first, and great guitarists second.

I worry that electronic music will replace people playing instruments. I love the interaction of musicians playing on a stage, creating something unique together in the heat of the moment.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music circuits?

Be nice. Show up on time. Dress up. Give it your all. Don't get involved with drinking and drugs. Take time to hang out with your fans. It's not about showing off; it's about connecting.

Best advice: I asked Big Boy Henry for any advice he might offer. He asked me if I loved the Blues. I answered "yes". He responded, "Then just keep doing it.  Keep singing." Simple but real and true.

Do you consider the Beat Generation a specific literary and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Hmmm. Not really sure. I can tell you, though, that when I was 20 I read Jack Kerouac's On The Road, and it changed my life. I spent a summer hitchhiking up and down the West Coast, sleeping under redwood trees, on beaches, in the mountains, and meeting incredibly kind and generous people. That book really opened my eyes to being free, unbound by society's 'shoulds' and 'ought to's'

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

I think Blues artists especially need to speak out about social injustice. To be a white Blues artist and be silent in the face of discrimination is practically criminal. Those of us who have learned from and benefited from the Blues culture, owe a debt to help make the world a more just place.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I'd probably want to go back and spend the time with my Dad, who passed away 7 years ago. Or my dog Hickory, who died 14 years ago.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best moment was getting to record with my idol, guitarist Ronnie Earl, on his CD “Living In The Light” in 2010. Also getting to open for him at the Lowell Summer Music Series (quite an esteemed series) in Lowell, MA, in August 2011.

The worst moment of my career was getting fired from a band when I was about 22, and being told I needed to go get some guitar lessons. Sadly, it was true.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

BLUES, to me, means expressing your innermost feelings through a form of music that came from the great suffering of the African-American people. BLUES has offered me a way to release my repressed emotions, and to express myself creatively and positively. It has also helped me connect with countless wonderful people through the years.

What do you learn about yourself from music? What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

From music I have learned that I can do just about anything if I put my energies into it. I learned to be a GOOD musician by taking guitar lessons from various teachers (including Paul Rishell, Quentin Hodges, and Jonny Geiger), and from hanging out with amazing musicians like Mighty Sam McClain, Ronnie Earl, Johnny Rawls, Fontella Bass, Robert Ward, Reggie Taylor, Jonny Geiger, and Paul Rishell.  Also, I learned a lot of what I needed to know by being on stage, singing and playing, during close to 2,000 gigs.

"BLUES, to me, means expressing your innermost feelings through a form of music that came from the great suffering of the African-American people. BLUES has offered me a way to release my repressed emotions, and to express myself creatively and positively. It has also helped me connect with countless wonderful people through the years." (Photo: Dave Kelly & Ronnie Earl in studio)

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording time with Ronnie Earl?

While I was recording with Ronnie Earl, when he went to take a guitar solo on the song “What Can I Do For You”, it felt so incredibly intense to be just a few feet away from him, watching him go DEEP. And every time I thought he'd end the solo, he went even deeper. It was like he was in the center of some kind of powerful energetic field, and I was frozen just watching him and feeling his energy. Absolutely amazing. I'll never forget it.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?

Sitting in with Robert Ward at my wedding. (Robert used my band as his backing band and played three shows in Vermont, including my wedding, in August 2000.)

Sitting down with acoustic blues master Turner Foddrell in his store in Stuart, Virginia, to play some beautiful country blues.

Jamming with Piedmont blues harmonica treasure, George Higgs, at his home in Tarboro, North Carolina.

Opening for Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Playing with my band in Boston this past December, at a club called Johnny D's, and having Ronnie Earl sit in, as well as his former singer Darrell Nulish, the super soulful Dwight Ritcher, and young soul singer Jesse Dee. An all-star night!  (Some video of it is on youtube.)

Singing a song with soul legend Otis Clay at Southpaw in Brooklyn, New York.

Are there any memories from Johnny Rawls, which you’d like to share with us?

The first time I met Johnny was at the Vermont Blues Fest in 2010. I sat in with his band, somewhat nervously, and halfway through my first solo, he stopped me, and said, on the microphone, “Stop. Too many notes Dave. Try three, or four maybe.” I felt totally embarrassed. I calmed down, played a slower, more soulful solo, and Johnny ended up keeping me on stage for the whole night. Since then, we've become good friends, and I love backing him up with my band when he tours the northeast U.S.

"I think blues is so honest, compared with other musics which can be fairly vacuous or lightweight. Blues expresses real, and deep, feelings. Humans will always need a way to express that, and blues works! My wish for the blues is that more people hear it, and that people take it in their own personal direction, so that it doesn't become constricted and stale." (Photo: Dave Kelly & Johnny Rawls jammin' on stage)

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your work with Bob Perry & The Revelations?

Not really amusing ones. Just so impressed with them. The Revelations, and their singer Tre Williams, really are incredibly soulful gentlemen.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

I'd love to meet Sonny Boy Williamson II, O.V. Wright, Arthur Alexander, and Solomon Burke.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I have learned the most about music and life from my good friend Mighty Sam McClain. In my mind, he is the finest living soul and blues singer in the world, and he has been a steady supportive force in my life, encouraging me on my path, and offering me guidance along the way. I also had a guitar teacher named Jonny Geiger who currently lives in California, who early in my career revealed to me many of the 'secrets' of playing blues with SOUL!

What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a musician?

I think I've always been a very sensitive person, and as a kid I got hurt a lot by my peers. Since then, I've always felt the need to be creative, using this hurt as the basis for my creation. I'm also lucky to have, as my grandfather used to call it: Stick-to-it-iveness. That is, the ability to persist, and not give up, in trying to reach your goals.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

I think blues is so honest, compared with other musics which can be fairly vacuous or lightweight. Blues expresses real, and deep, feelings. Humans will always need a way to express that, and blues works! My wish for the blues is that more people hear it, and that people take it in their own personal direction, so that it doesn't become constricted and stale. 

Are there any memories from Swamp Dogg, which you’d like to share with us?

At the end of his show, he walks out into the crowd, singing, and shaking hands with each member of the audience. That way of giving gratitude to his fans really moved me.

"I spent a summer hitchhiking up and down the West Coast, sleeping under redwood trees, on beaches, in the mountains, and meeting incredibly kind and generous people."

How did you get hooked up with Paul Rishell?

I met him when he was playing an opening set at a Ronnie Earl show, and I asked him if he gave lessons. It never hurts to ask!

And would you like to tell your best memory from the International Blues Challenge, Memphis, TN 

Obviously, getting up on stage at the historic Orpheum Theater on Beale Street, in the spotlight in front of 2,000 people, and giving my acceptance speech, was just mind-blowing. I felt such a huge well of gratitude.

Also, getting to meet Leroy Hodges, the Hi Rhythm Section bassist, who played on recordings by Al Green, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles, and many, many more.  In my mind, the best bassist ever. 

I got to chat with him after his gig at the Southern Folklore Center, and helped him bring his amp out to his car. I felt so lucky.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your solo shows with his National steel guitar?

All I can say, is that my National is quite heavy, and I'm glad I don't have to walk miles with it like the old blues guys used to do. 

I've heard two sayings about the blues, which are a little bit confusing. One is "Blues is a healer". Another one "You have to feel blue to play Blues". If it's suppose to be a healer, why should it make one feel sad?

It doesn't make one feel sad. It allows one to feel the sadness, and get through the sadness, and reach relief. It lets you know that you're not alone. That other people have felt similar things, and that is very comforting. We're all human, and being sad is just part of the human experience.

Do you have any hobbies, which do not have anything to do with music?

I like to write in my journal, go for walk out in the woods, and hang out with my two young daughters.

Dave Keller's Official Website





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