Q&A with soul/rock/funk singer Nikki Armstrong (Mama SpanX) - made up of highly experienced and virtuoso musicians from the various musical genres

"I think that the impact of BLUES and Gospel, which is where everything else, soul, rock, funk, jazz came from. It came from the Africans who were brought to America as slaves. This is THE thing that made this culture great."

Nikki Armstrong: State of Groove

Mama SpanX is a multi - member soul/rock/funk group made up of highly experienced and virtuoso musicians from the various musical genres. With strong influences by artists/bands such as Tower of Power, James Brown, Gladys Knight and Ike and Tina Turner the bands musical emphasis is on strong melodies/lyrics and grooves that at the same time highlight and feature the individual players as well as an exciting stage show. Vocalist, Songwriter and Bandleader, Nikki Armstrong born in Riverhead, Long Island, and studied music and voice in Boston, LA, and New York; most notably with Hal Schaefer (Peggy Lee, Marilyn Monroe). Nikki is also a trained professional dancer and actress.

Noted for soulful interpretations of material from standards to rock, she has been compared to, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, Bonnie Raitt and Janis Joplin. Nikki strives to perform every song “in the now” and never the same way twice. After writing and doing session work in Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles, Nikki decided to change her focus to live performance.  This took her back to New York City. Nikki has been performing in the New York Tri-State area for over 20 years, with her bands, Whole Lotta Blues (blues/rock/funk) and The Nikki Armstrong Project (jazz/blues), as well as “Just Janis” a tribute show. She has performed and recorded with Soul- Jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks, Bucky Pizzarelli, Les Paul and many others. Regularly performing in festivals and major venues, Nikki has opened for The Commitments, Joan Osborne, Dave Mason, Dickey Betts, Hubert Sumlin, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstafunk, Johnny A, Coco Montoya, Cornell Dupree, and Parliament Funkadelic. Also inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame. She has five independent CD releases and a brand new album “State of Groove” (2017)The first artist to join was Drummer/composer/arranger Ben Beckley. Nikki and Ben had collaborated previously, songwriting and producing in LA before Nikki relocated to New York.  Dixie Frog recording artist/Blues guitarist Steve Johnson and his girlfriend, Latin/Jazz Saxophonist Julie Sax then joined. The couple and Nikki had played together frequently on the New York scene before Steve and Julie relocated to the LA area. To contribute to the soul and gospel aspects of the band, two prominent fixtures on the LA Blues and R&B scene, Saxophonist Steve Sadd and Keyboard/Organist Harlan Spector became the next assets to the group bringing their chops and versatility. The search for the ideal bottom end to the group took almost 6 months. Six string fret-less Bassist, David Abercrombie added the perfect pocket for the band! This 7 pieces team of like-minded musicians forms the main core of Mama SpanX.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture?

I have learned so much about life, love, heartache, music and the culture from the tomes of the Blues Artists recordings and performances. They, we are telling a story when we sing and play the blues, it’s real and visceral, you can feel it and even taste it. Then you make the story your own, or tell a new one that others can relate to and this in itself builds a community, a brotherhood with the musicians in the band and the audiences. For me, I don’t have to be “Blue” to sing the blues, but I can create a character out of whole cloth and sometimes this is what I do because as much as I love blues, I’m rarely “blue” in life. Because I have and create music I’m happy and I can assume any viewpoint. For example, when I do Janis Joplin songs, I don’t try to be her, I couldn’t even begin to sound like her, she was one of a kind. But I can create my own stories, pictures, subtext and content. Sometimes I may use the idea of a love lost as in “Ball in Chain”, but I prefer to be that person in present time and create a whole universe with it as if it were happening to me right there on stage in front of the audience. I find they always come with me and it’s an incredible experience that we all have at once.

What does the blues mean to you?

Blues is a blending of story, attitude, groove, tempo, melody and harmony where an artist can express without any limitations emotionally and let it all hang out, while at the same time engage and inspire the listener.

"I have learned so much about life, love, heartache, music and the culture from the tomes of the Blues Artists recordings and performances. They, we are telling a story when we sing and play the blues, it’s real and visceral, you can feel it and even taste it."

What were the reasons that you started the Soul/Rock researches?

I started out listening to James Brown and I was blown away from the first moment I heard him. I loved Motown too but when I saw Ike and Tina on TV and I could not contain my excitement. From there I listened to everything, growing up in the Oakland Bay area , I flipped over Tower of Power, Cold Blood, Sly & the Family Stone then Chicago, Earth Wind and Fire. When I first started singing I was produced as a pop /rock artist, all original music and started writing my own songs. I wanted to move in that soul and funk direction more but I didn’t know how to produce the instrumentation or the tracks.  I came into the blues kind of back door when I formed a band that was a take-off of the Blues Brothers, called “Ruby & Toots, the Bluez Sisters”. It was a Blues review with costumes, choreography, songs and dialogue, everything from straight up Shuffles to Gospel numbers. When I started working with Melvin Sparks in 2002 I couldn’t believe the groove he was laying down on my repertoire, everything changed and I was able to start to move into a funkier direction.

How do you describe your songbook and sound?

It is a cross genre thing of Rock/Soul/Funk/Blues and even a little Jazz, very “Old School” organic with the arrangements, writing and recording. Forming Mama SpanX, all the players have years of experience in all the genres and we all bring something to the table in each arrangement. Sometimes I hear the guitar part and sing it for Steve Johnson. Other times I hear all the horns, but I can’t write it out, so I sing it to Julie Sax or Steve Sadd and then they embellish it. Or they each write parts. Harlan Spector on keys and organ always brings his own, almost classical influence mixed with blues. I can always count of Dave Abercrombie and Ben Beckley to laid down a perfect fit pattern for the grooves. All of what we do is pretty organic. We spent 2 months working on the arrangements all together and then when we went into record the tracks on Analog the magic just happened. There is very little editing on the tracks on State of Groove, most of which was done in two days.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

Well, of course Melvin Sparks, actually so many guitar players that I worked with like Larry Baeder (Carly Simon, Chuck Jackson) and Elliott Randall (Steely Dan). Also, several keyboard players such as Nicky Hopkins and especially Hal Schaefer (Sinatra & Marilyn Monroe) who was Duke Ellington’s protégé.  Hal taught me so much about music in general.  Pianist and arranger Sammy (Forever) Fields, Dave Fields’ dad really changed how I approach a song in terms of phrasing. Playing with him in any style of music can make a singer fly! His voicings and alternate chords always make me dig deep musically.  Jamie Faunt (Chick Corea), he was one the best bassists and also a great music educator, he had a big influence on me.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Keep it in the groove (and how to)!  That was Jamie Faunt from his teachings but also from Melvin, he was the GROOVE MASTER!

"It is a cross genre thing of Rock/Soul/Funk/Blues and even a little Jazz, very “Old School” organic with the arrangements, writing and recording. Forming Mama SpanX, all the players have years of experience in all the genres and we all bring something to the table in each arrangement."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Wow, that’s tough, there’s so many, when you are playing 7 years regularly at BB Kings NYC for 6 hours a night. But let make take one of the first very magical gigs I played with Melvin Sparks. He was a last minute sub guitar player that the bassist I had at the time got us. I didn’t know who he was. I was singing blues and R&B and although I was already a good performer and singer with several years of experience, I never LOVED the music behind me. Something was always a missing. Melvin plugged in and every tune was better than the next, I was a new singer, with even more energy and I had the perfect sound to back me up. The night was so on fire that at the end of it we both knew we’d be playing together regularly and it just kept on getting hotter, better, funkier and more magical every time. I still to this day make sure the music is at least that good every time but in a new unit of time, where the whole band as ONE!

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

Although, I was not there for Woodstock for all those big and wild concerts, with so many great artists in the late 60’s and 70’s, their organic creations were not scripted or rote, I don’t think there’s enough of that today, Aerial productions with 10 and 20 dancers, light shows, everything totally rehearsed and exact….it’s cool but it’s like pyro technics, it’s not REAL! So much use of auto-tune, loops and gimmicks!

I wish there were more artists closer to Bruno Mars. Although it is a show, it’s so funky, and always a great performance.

Still, to this day, if you go to see Larry Graham, you see an awesome show, never the same way twice! That’s REAL!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I’d like to see more of our contemporary blues artists be recognized on a major level. Like BB King and Etta James were back in the 60’s.There are SO many GREAT blues and “Old School” R&B artist out kickin’ around, barely making a living playing. They are the REAL DEAL but don’t get the recognition. Sharon Jones, R.I.P. was one who did finally cross over with the Dap Kings. I’d love to see more of us do the same.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the late great Melvin Sparks?                                            (Photo: Nikki & Melvin Sparks)

Melvin was one of the kindest souls I ever met but he was also addimit about the music. He always featured his players. That was truly an inspiration for me. It made me a better band leader.  Not unlike George Benson, in fact quite similar, he had such a definite and recognizable sound. Around 2003, I had a gig down in South Jersey on a Saturday night and Melvin was the guitarist on the date. The night before he had done the late night set with his band at the Blue Note. He got home around 6 a.m. and left his Gibson L-5 and amp in his van that night, parked out in front of his house in Mount Vernon, New York.  I found out at 3 p.m the next day from our bassist that his beautiful Gibson L-5 and his amp was stolen out of the van! I called him to say I could find a sub for the night or rent him another Gibson. He says, no worries. He came to the gig with his practice Epiphone with old strings, a really old pieced together amp. But when we hit the stage, you would NEVER know that he did not have his best rig! He didn’t sound one bit different than his best and never displayed his pain or loss! That’s a PRO! Not long after that a fan of Melvin’s bought him a Gibson Super 400.

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

It is everything. The sounds and songs of Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, The Staple Singers, the list just goes on. There is never a time that I can turn off any of that music when it comes on, I have to sing or dance or both. It makes you feel alive, it makes everything lighter. That’s what I want to feel, and it’s what I want to give back. And if I hear James Brown playing just before we start playing, watch out! That’s when I am ready!

What is the Impact of Blues/Soul/Rock music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I’m glad you asked this. I think that the impact of BLUES and Gospel, which is where everything else, soul, rock, funk, jazz came from. It came from the Africans who were brought to America as slaves. This is THE thing that made this culture great.  These artists, as mentioned above, this music, to me, although I am white, this is my true heritage. Without them I am not so sure that we would have any great music and without the music this would be a very dismal and racist world. That is exactly why I chose State of Groove as the title track and the depiction of the United States map on fire with me wearing the US flag on the cover. There was a time when this country really had a groove that was pretty happy and music was one of the main reasons. Politics was and likely will always be an issue but not the most important thing about life, as it seems so much to be now. “We got to get back to a higher place, get in tune with the state of grace, in the State of groove”; Mama SpanX’s mission is to take you there!

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Obviously, it’s so much better than back in James’ time, where even he didn’t treat women all that well if you read Marva Whitney’s autobiography; God, the Devil and James Brown. But like in the song, “but he ain’t nothin’ without a woman or a girl”.  I have certainly had my share of sexual discrimination and also a lot of foul play and there have been times I let it hold me back. Well now I’m older and I have to say “shame on me” for letting it or anyone get to me.  Being female, oh yeah, I can use that but I don’t have to abuse it or let anyone abuse it or me. I’m a person with a clear purpose and message and that is my lead, my focus. Not everyone is going to see that first. But if they want to stick around past the physical, they likely will be happy with the message. At least that has been my experience.

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

The James Brown Concert Boston Garden: April 5, 1968, the day after Martin King Jr. was slain. While President Johnson declared a state of emergency due to rioting and the mayor of Boston was going to cancel the concert, James kept the peace with his brilliant music and band, magnetic personality and respect for his own people and for mankind.

I only saw the footage a few years ago and it was one of the greatest shows I have ever seen. Soul Sister #1, Ms. Marva Whitney, also gives amazing performances and it’s where I first discovered her. I would have loved to have been there. The soul that pours out of those artists is not to be denied!

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