Fabulous Memphian musician Danny Green talks about Albert King, Don Nix, Big Jack Johnson & Levon Helm

"Music is the universal language anyway and if it makes people feel good and come together, how can anything be wrong with that?"

Danny Green: Sweet Home Memphis

Danny Green born in Memphis, TN. is a singer, songwriter, guitar player, producer and jingle writer. Studio musician for over 40yrs. Recorded or performed with Dr. John, Albert King, Levon Helm, Joe Walsh, Johnny Rivers, Jimi Jamison, Johnny Winter, Don Nix, John Mayall, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, The "1979" Saturday Night Live Band and many others. 1st album "Night Dog" produced by Don Nix released on ABC records in 1978. Albert King "Red House" 1990, Self-produced album "Commitment" released in 1991. Green grew up in Forest City, Arkansas, and from an early age knew he was destined to make music.

Before he was even old enough to drive, he borrowed the family car one day and drove to Memphis to get a job as a songwriter with Chips Moman. He was turned away that day, but in the early ’70s, once he was old enough, Green moved to Memphis. Years of honing his chops eventually paid off in a recording contract. Green sought out Don Nix, whose work on Sid Selvidge’s 1969 album Portrait he had greatly admired, to produce Night Dog. Unfortunately, ABC Records folded soon after, and Green moved on. Beginning in the ’80s, he worked at Midtown’s Kiva Recording Studios on a string of high-profile projects, including records by Dr. John, Levon Helm and the last album by Albert King. He also began writing advertising jingles, a sideline he continues to this day. Green self-released a gospel record in 1990, but stayed away from making his own music until a conversation with Don Nix inspired them to go back into the studio. Danny released the blues-rock album Road Leading Home (2014), his first album of new solo material in 24 years, on Icehouse Records. Green’s longtime friend, Don Nix, also helmed the new effort. Currently living in Memphis, TN. still writing, still playing, still dreaming!

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Danny Green Archive / All Rights Reserved

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

As far as what I learned about myself from the blues, that’s a hard question. I guess the main thing would be my ability to be around all types of people from different backgrounds. I have played in front of Senators and Congressmen as well as I have played in the poorest roadhouse/juke joints in the Mississippi delta and always, the music brought us all together. The blues to me is in everything, from the way people live, to our daily lives. I suppose you can see and feel it more in the southern parts of the U.S. but I’ve seen it in other places too. Anyway, everybody has the blues in one way or another. It’s not just the music but the feeling of it all. Almost every form of popular music comes from the blues. It started with the old field chants the folks would sing to pass the time while working. Then it went to the front porch of the houses on afternoons with nothing to do but sing and play. It then moved on to the juke joints on Saturday nights and eventually came up the Mississippi River where it met the old folk songs from the Appalachia’s and it all melded together in places like Memphis, the birthplace of Rock & Roll, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit and even down the river to New Orleans, jazz, but it also can be found in the black churches. Many old hymns also come from those old field chants.  It’s just the difference of feeling bad or worshipping God. As Furry Lewis used to say, “When I die I can’t go to heaven with the blues on my mind cause that’s the devil. I got to have the Lord on my mind and that’s a church song.” I guess that’s been part of the mystery all along, playing the devil’s music so to speak, in some people’s minds anyway but you know I’ve seen the blues be a great healer as well and that has to come from God. Music is the universal language anyway and if it makes people feel good and come together, how can anything be wrong with that?

"If I could change anything in today’s musical world it would be to go back to that time when a young kid could take his record to a radio station and have the d.j. play it on the air for him."

How do you describe Danny Green sound and songbook?

Musically, I used to be all over the place. Just listen to my first album, Night Dog, on ABC/MCA records from 1978, if you can find it. Don Nix produced that one too. Back then I was young and wanting a hit record and my voice has the ability to change genres. I was singing pop, rock, blues, country and gospel but had no idea where I fit in. I do believe with age and the years gone by, I have learned how to be me and not try to be somebody else. However; as a songwriter, I still do all sorts of styles. I too have recorded “jingles” musical commercials for years here in Memphis to subsidize my income. You have to be able to play and sing all sorts of styles for that. For me now as an artist though, I tend to lean heavily on my blues and rock influence. Still, it all comes from the blues. Every rock song in the world is just a blues progression with a beat.

What characterizes my music philosophy?

Wow, hard questions. Ha! You know to me music is life. It’s everything and if it’s good you can’t say it’s bad. You may or may not like it, but you can’t call it bad. You just don’t like that particular song or piece of music. I learned to play all types of stuff. I took enough piano when I was a kid to know how music works. For me it’s not the note on the page, it’s the note from the heart. What moves you, what gives you some sort of emotion be it joy, sadness, anger, fond memories or whatever. If it touches you emotionally, it comes from the soul of someone, be it the performer or the writer. I can’t imagine a world without music. Honestly I don’t think any of us can. I truly love all types of music, just some much more than others, ha!

"Almost every form of popular music comes from the blues. It started with the old field chants the folks would sing to pass the time while working. Then it went to the front porch of the houses on afternoons with nothing to do but sing and play."

Which is the moment that you change your life most? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Well being a parent of course. I have two wonderful sons, Daniel and William. Both are grown now and being a Dad has been the greatest joy of my life. Bet ya didn’t see that one coming huh?

I suppose the worst moment was being in a car accident back in 1978, six weeks before my first album was to be released. I broke my leg in half right above the ankle and couldn’t tour or even play gigs for awhile. I had worked so hard to get that record deal and that album released, it was devastating to see it all go down the tubes. Remember this was 1978, two years before MTV. If you didn’t tour back then, you had little chance of selling anything. I was recording another record for ABC after Night Dog, with a different producer, out in Los Angeles. Before we could finish, we got word that ABC had been sold to MCA. They only kept 15 artists on the label and dropped everybody else, about 40 acts, needless to say, I was one of them. I lost my record deal before I had a chance to prove anything to them or to really be successful. At the time, that was an awful thing to me. I went to Nashville to live for awhile but didn’t fit in at the time. I was told I sounded too “black.” I pretty much told them to go to hell and went to live with my bass player at his grandmother’s house in Alligator, Ms. (12 miles south of Clarksdale on Hwy 61) I didn’t know it at the time, but that proved to be the best thing that could’ve happened to me because that’s when I met Big Jack Johnson and started playing with him. As far as my best moment, I think that is still to come or at least I’m hoping so anyway. Guess we’ll have to wait and see about that one.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you and what was the best advice you were ever given?

Oh I’ve had some great moments and meetings, carrying Muddy Waters guitar to his car for him back in the early 70’s down a gravel road and getting to spend about ten minutes alone with him.  It was just small talk but to me it was very special. We had opened a show for him. Working with Big Jack Johnson in the late 70’s early 80’s was a great learning experience too. Big Jack took a liking to me and asked me to go with his band at the time, which included James "Super Chikan" Johnson as well. We went all over the MS. Delta and played a lot of all black clubs. Each night, the drummer would announce into the microphone, “Don’t mess with the white boy! The white boy is with the band!” God that was fun! Big Jack taught me how to play the “real” blues. Without that experience, I would’ve never known how to work with Albert King (photo). I loved Albert. He was a big man and most people were afraid of him because he would try to intimidate them as a defense mechanism because of his lack of education, but I got to know him pretty well and to he was always nice to me. Lots of fun and what an amazing talent. I remember one night we were working in the studio and I was reading the lyrics to him as we recorded the song. Albert didn’t read very well and Don Nix had started, way back at Stax, reading the lyrics to him in short bursts while he sung them. I’ll give you an idea of how it worked: “Bluesman” for instance, which I wrote for Albert, I would read a line and he would sing it, “On the night I was born” and he would sing the line and I would come back, off time of course, “My poor Momma cried” and he would sing it, while we were cutting the song. I mean picture this; Albert is in a separate room from the other guys, with his guitar Lucy, on his lap, me talking to him through the headphones and him playing Lucy at the same time. Even though those lines were being fed to him right before he sang them, he could still deliver them with such soul it was like he had been singing them all his life. Another great experience for me was going down to Muscle Shoals in the early 80’s with Don Nix and spending a few days and nights with Levon Helm. Just being around Levon made you happy! I’ll never forget the night we were sitting around the band house there in Muscle Shoals and playing original songs for each other. Levon looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t ever give up Danny. You are just as good as anybody out there. Music is in your soul, don’t ever give up.” The next morning when we went back to the studio, he introduced me as one of the best songwriters he had ever heard. Man what a compliment!

"Music that touches the soul. That creates emotion. Music that is real, be it the blues or some variation thereof. The blues encapsulates all of it. Like I said in the beginning, it really all comes from the blues." (Photo: Danny Green with Levon Helm and Don Nix)

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

What I miss mostly about the music of the past I think was the freedom of it. There was no genre or category, if it was good, it got played. Now a days radio stations get their playlists from some other place. You can’t go to a radio station now and get somebody to play your record. In the old days, if you knew a D.J. and they liked your song, there was a good chance of them “breaking it for you regionally or locally anyway. Today there is no chance of that, with preprogrammed playlists and such, it’s very difficult to even get your song heard at all.  As far as the future of music, I don’t know. I think there will always be someone who has that special “something” and will be determined to be heard but they may kill themselves and their desires just trying to get heard.  It can be a very degrading and deflating effort to “battle the big boys” so to speak, but that’s kind of what makes “rock & roll” what it is.  That “kid” who has that special something and he or she has got to be heard, ya know?

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Albert King and Don Nix?

Funny moments I remember with Don Nix or Albert King? One of my greatest memories of Albert was one night in the studio when he got happy.  We had spent a couple of nights before that really hadn’t accomplishing much.  He didn’t feel like playing and the recording was going nowhere at that moment. We started recording one of my songs and remember now, I was feeding him the lines off tempo while he sang. I was afraid it was gonna be another one of those wasted nights when somebody slipped Albert something that made him really happy. That’s all I’m gonna say cause I really have no idea what changed his mood but all of a sudden he was on fire playing that Flying V of his, upside down and backwards. I could never really figure out what he was playing from a guitar player’s point of view but since I had my own personal view and it was Albert King, I always tried. Well next thing I know is he kinda double clutched that guitar. Bent the note way up, slammed it back down and popped it right into to place where he wanted it to be. I got so carried away watching him that I forgot to read him the next line of the song and he stopped the track. I remember him going, “Awwww what’s wrong with you Mr. Songroller, his name for me cause I was rolling out those songs for him, and I had to think really fast cause I did not want the wrath of Albert to come down on me. I was honest with him.  I remember saying, “Albert, I’ve never seen anyone play a guitar like you just did.” I was lucky, cause that made him laugh.  He just said, “You ain’t supposed to be watching me, you’re supposed to be reading me them words.” God I did love that man.

With Don Nix (photo) there are just so many. I remember one night back in the late 70’s I was living in Nashville for a short time and Don had come up to stay a few days. He decided he wanted to show me some place out in the country near there, so off we went. The place was called Prim Springs. It was an old abandoned resort from the early 1900’s. It was a ghost town but still intact. The dance hall, the hotel, the saloon was all still there. Out on the middle of nowhere. Man you could just feel the vibe of the place and know a lot of trouble went down there. Anyway we picked up this old friend of his who lived nearby, now remember we are way out in the country. So we are driving these old dirt & gravel back roads and we stopped at some café joint and bought some beer and whiskey.  All I remember mainly about that night is that we stood on this old wooden bridge and literally “howled at the moon.” LOL I can’t tell you exactly what that means but I know I don’t ever want to do that again and neither does Don.

Why did you think that the Southern music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I believe southern rock or music for lack of a better term has a devoted fanbase because it’s so real. The music of the people. The hard times, the good times and the love of the south. We are a proud people. Proud of our roots and the legacy we hope to follow and to leave to the ones coming after us. There is no other place in the world I know of that has the sense of community the southern United States has. It’s something about the food, the camaraderie, the land and the history that still holds many of us together. It’s dying out quickly but I believe the music may be the last vestige of it we will ever see. It’s truly special. There are still places that they will treat you like a long lost family member if they know you are real, have a great respect for God and your Momma, in that order, LOL and can play them a little music. If they like your music, you will get a great meal out of it as well most of the time. Music that touches the soul. That creates emotion. Music that is real, be it the blues or some variation thereof. The blues encapsulates all of it. Like I said in the beginning, it really all comes from the blues.

"If I could go back in time for one day and place, I guess I’d like to go back down Hwy 61 and hear those old black men, who now are our heroes, and maybe get a chance to play with them." 

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

If I could change anything in today’s musical world it would be to go back to that time when a young kid could take his record to a radio station and have the disc jockey play it on the air for him. The first time you hear one of your songs on the radio may be the biggest moment of an artist’s life. It certainly will be a landmark for that person I can assure you. These young kids don’t get to have that option anymore.

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

If I could go back in time for one day and place, I guess I’d like to go back down Hwy 61 and hear those old black men, who now are our heroes, and maybe get a chance to play with them. You know the 40’s and 50’s were very special times for American music. I mean, to go back and hear those amazing sessions that Chess Records recorded. To be a fly on the wall at Stax in the early days. Maybe even Sun Studios with Sam Phillips and Elvis and the gang. I don’t know, there are so many. I guess maybe one day someone will wish they could go back to the studio with me and Don and Levon and Albert and all the others. Man I don’t know but thank you for asking and thank you all so much for even caring enough to listen to me and Memphis Music. The Blues will never die because it’s real. It’s the struggle of people trying to make a better life for themselves and their family. It’s the workers who worked the fields and wanted to mentally go somewhere else on the weekend to forget about their troubles. It’s a man in love with a woman that doesn’t love him. It’s life, yep that’s it, The Blues is Life! Thanks guys!

Danny Green - Website

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