Q&A with Michigan-based, McKee Brothers (Ralph & Dennis) - grooves, killer solos, and eclectic musicians

"I hope that the now predominately white audiences for the blues and “old-school” soul music will get more into the roots and culture related to it; that can only help in somehow ending the long cycle of racism that unfortunately still permeates our society."

The McKee Brothers: Music Gumbo

The roots of the McKee Bros. project go back to 70s Ann Arbor and Detroit, where Ralph McKee, inspired by his college roommate, guitarist Bob Doezema, bought a cheap bass and a Silvertone amp and started to teach himself to play. After a couple of years of jamming, Ralph began to play professionally with the eclectic All Directions band, playing funk, jazz, blues, fusion and rock in local clubs and occasionally backing touring artists, including the Drifters and jazz drummer/vocalist Grady Tate. In 1980, Ralph was playing in funk/jazz band Big Fun. Ralph picked out a Strat for 15-year- old Denis, who had been picking on an acoustic for a year. While in Big Fun, Ralph had the opportunity to play a few shows with Michigan legend vocalist/keyboardist/sax player Bob Schultz.

In the early 1980s, Big Fun morphed into reggae/funk band the Pulsations, fronted by Tony Hill. Denis, though not yet old enough to get into bars without a parent, came to a few Pulsation shows and fell under the spell of reggae too, though more in the Police vein. In 1983, law school, and early years of practicing law left little time for music, but Ralph did manage to play some weddings and casuals with the band Continuum. Denis occasionally played casuals with Continuum before his move to LA. Ralph also began a 15-year run of gigs with Keith Kiser as the duo Bridge Club. When the Pulsations disbanded in 2002, Ralph began working regularly with the Blue Rays. In August 2001, Denis and Ralph decided to do some recording in Michigan. In 2010, singer/songwriter David Rossiter decided to call Ralph to be part of his edgy alt/country band Hoodang. In 2016, The McKee Brothers released a new album titled "Enjoy It While You Can". This is a fun blend of funk, blues, soul, rock, jazz, gospel, and latin (not necessarily in that order). Great grooves, inspired vocals, wild horns, and killer solos from some of the best musicians around.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Soul culture and what does the blues mean to you?

Denis: Music has been a big part of my life since I was a little kid. My brother would share mix tapes with me of a variety of styles including classic jazz, blues, funk, and soul tracks. Also I listened to a lot of classic rock of the 70’s. I am not sure what I learned about myself from the culture but it was integral to my development as a musician. Obviously the blues is a harmonic structure that is the foundation of a lot of popular styles. It runs through most of the music that I really connect to. As a musician, you really need to be well grounded in the blues to play almost anything else authentically – jazz, rock, etc. But it is a lot more than that. It is a musical style that you can really connect emotionally with, especially if the lyrics are good, and the performance is heartfelt. You can use the blues as a vehicle to make people feel happy or sad and relate to stuff going on in their own lives.

Ralph: To me, the blues has two quite different meanings. One is a feeling, aptly described by Taj Mahal as a “lowdown shaky chill”. That feeling happens to all humans, rich or poor, and of every ethnicity. The other meaning refers to a style of music. I’m not a purist, so my definition of blues is pretty broad. It’s hard to describe, but I think all good blues music conveys strong emotions, tells a story, and has one or more of the many variants of the harmonic structures and melodic motifs that all modern players grew up listening to. It might seem strange to non-blues fans, but to blues musicians and fans, the cure for the blues is, yes, the blues. 

How do you describe McKee Brothers sound and songbook?

Denis: I have an interest in a wide variety of music, and had always wanted to record an album that really reflected a lot of my favorite styles: blues, soul, gospel, New Orleans funk, rock, and jazz. With our new release, I really feel that we have figured out a way to blend these styles in a fresh way. We have some tunes that are more in a traditional blues style, but we are not afraid to throw in some interesting harmonic twists and turns and different grooves to keep it interesting. There are a wide variety of styles on this record but definitely the blues is a fundamental common element. This new release also features a lot of horns, which I really enjoyed recording. Although I am primarily a guitarist, I grew up playing alto saxophone, and have always related to bands with a horn section in them – E,W,&F, Chicago, Tower of Power, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, not to mention all of the stuff the Memphis Horns played on.

Ralph: Like my brother, I have always been interested in many music styles, both traditional and modern, particularly if the music has a strong groove. Our CD reflects that:  many different types of grooves, from old-school shuffles to modern funk grooves. It also has sophisticated horn parts and harmony vocals, along with soulful lead vocals and some wild solos. We were going for high quality production values too, and I think we accomplished that. The songbook is mostly originals: six by keyboard man Bobby West (many written specifically for vocalist Bob Schultz), two by Denis, and two of mine. We also included two New Orleans classics (Qualified by Dr. John and It All Went Down the Drain by Earl King), and a spiritual (Up To The Mountain by Patty Griffin, also recorded by Solomon Burke).

What characterize your music philosophy?

Denis: I subscribe to the Duke Ellington philosophy that there are really only two types of music – good and bad. As a musician I really appreciate other musicians who have obviously worked very hard to become technically proficient on their instrument and who have developed their songwriting and arranging craft. Ultimately though, I relate to music in a physical way, if it makes me want to tap my foot or it makes me react in an emotional way or if the lyrics make me think. I can appreciate both very simple music like delta blues and also more complex styles like Steely Dan. Although I also enjoy instrumental music, I really enjoy songs that have lyrics that are interesting and tell a good story. Although our CD has a lot of instrumental sections and solos, it is really a vocal record with some great singers.

Ralph: As I said above, I like music with a strong pulse, and which also conveys emotion. In terms of creating music, it’s important to find players and singers who are not just very strong, but who also understand the vision of the project, fit into the mix, and are easy to work with. As a player, the most important thing is to find parts that support the song and then execute them with both precision and feel.

"I would like to break up the monopolies that are in place with respect to commercial radio today. I don’t think that it is good for the art form and creativity of music for a handful of people to control what we hear. When media was deregulated it really had a negative effect on music."

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

Denis: Musically speaking, I would have to give credit to some great musicians that I studied with early on. Jerry Glassel was a great guitarist in Michigan who really inspired me and opened up a lot for me on guitar. Also, studying with Dick Grove out in LA at the Grove School of Music really made a lot of what I do now musically possible. Also, working with King Floyd (of “Groove Me” fame) exposed me to a lot of New Orleans musical history and New Orleans funk styles.

Ralph: I was originally inspired to play by Bob Doezema, my college roommate, who then went to Berklee in Boston to study guitar, stayed on as a professor, and is still teaching in addition to gigging with people like Al Kooper. I’ve had many great bandmates over the years, including my blues guitar buddy Dave Kaftan, who just passed away. Dave taught me a ton about doing blues gigs, particularly “less is more” and how to put a set together. Both Dave and Bob are on the CD. And I remember a conversation with Luther Allison after one of his gigs in 1974 or so, where he said “If you want to see if a guy can really play, play a slow blues”. So true.

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

Denis: The first time I played at the original House of Blues in Hollywood (which is now gone) in 1994 with King Floyd was memorable. I had been rehearsing with trumpeter Michael Harris (E,W,&F) for some festival gigs and for a potential HOB gig. When the gig actually materialized a few months later, Michael was on the road with Johnny “Guitar” Watson. When Floyd learned that I had written some charts, he hired me to finish the charts and to put together and rehearse a band. At that time Malaco Records had just released a compilation of King Floyd tunes called “Choice Cuts.” I transcribed all of the great horn arrangements originally written by Wardell Quezerque (the “Creole Beethoven”), who had produced Floyd’s recordings. This was a serious education. According to Floyd, he had lost a briefcase of the charts at either a bus or train station. The Blues Brother’s live record, “Briefcase Full of Blues”, takes its title from this story. They covered Floyd’s hit “Groove Me” on that record. That gig was very high energy, and I was thrilled to find out after the gig that Dan Ackroyd, Solomon Burke, and Herbie Hancock were in the audience. I refer to this in the lyrics of “A Little Bit of Soul” on our CD. I also played several gigs with blues legend Linda Hopkins the year or so before she retired from performing after suffering a stroke. She was a lot of fun and a seriously great singer. I also did quite a few gospel gigs for HB Barnum (Aretha’s longtime MD), including a recent Idyllwild Jazz Festival with his “Life Choir”.  These gigs were great ear training for me. I would usually set up behind the keyboardist and really listen. Although there are fairly standard changes for gospel songs, every keyboard player plays them differently with a variety of turnarounds and substitutions. That was very educational. It was also where I met bassist Bobby Watson (Rufus, Billy Preston, and Michael Jackson). The first time I did the gig I was subbing on guitar and Bobby was subbing on bass. We played several of those gigs together and got to be friends, culminating in him playing on our CD. My brother was always a big fan of his bass playing so it was really cool to have him play on our album. We have done a lot of sessions together and also one session with Bobby and Kirk Fletcher that was a lot of fun. Also, I recorded all of the horns for this CD in my studio, and that was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. I am spoiled to have Lee Thornburg (brass) and Doug Webb (saxes) to work with. Lee is a great arranger and is very generous with sharing his knowledge and experience.  Doug Webb is a virtuoso sax player, and the two work together very well. Although it is great to have a finished product, and I am very proud of this CD, I really enjoy the process of writing, arranging, and recording. I am already deep into the production of the next CD.

Ralph: It’s hard to pick out just a few from 40+ years of gigs and attending shows, but my introduction to live “national act” level blues and jazz was the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, which had many phenomenal acts. I remember watching Bobby Bland and band (including guitarist Wayne Bennett) closing a full day of music by getting the whole crowd dancing to a long version of “Turn On Your Love Light”. I was hooked! In my own shows, my favorite moments usually involve dancing too, like playing a Halloween party at the old Firefly Club in Ann Arbor with the Blue Rays where several friends showed up in Hazmat suits and choreographed dance moves; the place went wild. As to jamming, we had a tradition for 30+ years of playing the day after Xmas, usually with guitarist Bob Doezema, the late drummer Bill Gracie, and a rotating cast of many others (including my brother a couple of times).  I remember one, just a trio, where the intensity and creativity spiraled upward again and again.  Of course, we didn’t have a recorder on … oh well. And in the sessions for our CD, two things stand out: 1) Jerome Edmonson did several drum tracks in just a couple of hours, almost all first takes and funky as hell, and 2) watching Larry McCray play a great solo, then saying, “let me have another pass”, and hearing the next one be even better, was a real treat.

"Music really has been a gateway for me to learn more about other cultures and races. A lot of the music that I relate to has been pioneered by black musicians. Blues, jazz, funk, soul, gospel, Motown, etc. – all of them were pioneered by black musicians. Many of my best musician friends are black, and I have played in several bands where I was the only white guy."

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

Denis: I really miss record stores. I loved going to Tower Records and used record stores and exploring music that way. While the internet is convenient to find and download music quickly, it just isn’t the same process. Also, I liked the days when DJs could pick what they wanted to play and weren’t limited stylistically. In the 70s you could hear a variety of music on commercial radio. Now it is really formulaic and the DJs don’t have the freedom, with only a few corporations owning almost all of the stations. There really is a lot of mediocre or just awful nonmusical stuff that is played over and over on commercial radio. You really have to turn to independent or public radio stations, or podcasts, to hear a variety of good music. I don’t think that there is a lack of good music currently being created, it is just that you have to do more work to find it. The advances in technology have made it a lot easier for independent musicians to record and produce their own music with a limited budget. Basically, anyone with a computer can make a CD. That is mostly a good thing but it also tends to flood the market with a lot of mediocre, poorly recorded music. Also, the music business has radically changed in the last few years, and it has become increasingly more difficult to make a living as a musician or songwriter. There are a lot of major, creative artists from the past who would probably not make it today with the current business model. The idea of not owning or paying for music seems to have devalued it. Hopefully it will evolve in a way that can still make being a musician or songwriter a viable option.

Ralph: Like Denis, I miss record stores. I have an extensive collection of LPs, cassettes, and CDs, and I liked looking through the stores for records with players I recognized from other ones, and checking out the new discovery at home later. I also miss the neighborhood blues and jazz joints; there are so few of them left.  And while there are still some good radio stations now (I’m fortunate to live in a market with several of them), when you travel now it can be really hard to find something other than (to me, anyway) formulaic pop music. My biggest fear is that these trends will continue. My hope is that the festival and concert scene, and non-profit venues, will do an even better job than today to fill the void left by the loss of the clubs.

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

Denis: I would like to break up the monopolies that are in place with respect to commercial radio today. I don’t think that it is good for the art form and creativity of music for a handful of people to control what we hear. When media was deregulated it really had a negative effect on music.

Ralph: If more people would just take a chance by listening to (and buying) unfamiliar music by new artists, whether on the radio, on line, or, most importantly, live, the music world would be dramatically better.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Funk and Soul and continue to Rock, Jazz and Latin music?

Denis: This is another very deep question. On the timeline of music, blues and jazz came first and inspired the funk and soul musicians that came later. For me the late sixties and early seventies was when this evolution hit full stride. A lot happened in a very short period then musically. Earlier with Ray Charles, who blended blues, gospel, and jazz. Listen to “A Long Way Back Home” on our CD for our take on that. Hendrix, the Stones, Santana, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, to name a few, were all pioneers who expanded blues into other genres. Harmonically, these styles all have elements of blues.

Ralph: There have been lots of articles and books on this complicated question by authors who are way more knowledgeable than I am. But it seems to me that blues and jazz started around the same time and have always been intertwined to some degree. And both were influenced early on by the Latin rhythms from the Caribbean, and by gospel music; the Latin music influence became even stronger beginning in the late 40s with the Cubans and Puerto Ricans going to New York. To me, blues, and also jazz and gospel, permeate the later funk and soul genres.  Just listen to Ray Charles, it’s all there. As to rock, I think the Muddy Waters song “The Blues Had a Baby and Named It Rock and Roll” says it all about the connection between those genres.

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

Denis: Wow, that is a deep question. I could write a lot on that. Music really has been a gateway for me to learn more about other cultures and races. A lot of the music that I relate to has been pioneered by black musicians. Blues, jazz, funk, soul, gospel, Motown, etc. – all of them were pioneered by black musicians. Many of my best musician friends are black, and I have played in several bands where I was the only white guy. Not only have I learned a lot about music from this but also a lot about culture and history. This just exposed me to a whole different culture and perspective. Also, my interest in Latin Jazz has exposed me to a whole different cultural history too. With all of the racial stuff going on these days, my experience and friendships have helped me to better understand different points of view. As far as politics, I think that music is a good place to draw attention to issues, without preaching too much. From Bob Dylan to Marvin Gaye, good music is a way to get people to listen or to protest things that need to be changed. Again, lyrics are important. I always relate to songs that have well thought out lyrical content. I have a funky rock tune that will be on the next CD called “Worried About Tomorrow” that Larry McCray plays on that kind of fits in this category. “Up to the Mountain”, which is the last track on the CD, I think is about the racial struggles that have been going on for years, but it is an inspirational song that has multiple meanings. We didn’t originally record it for that reason, my daughter just liked the song, but we came to understand the deeper meaning of the lyrics.

Ralph: Like your previous question, there has been a lot written about the impact of various music forms on the racial/political/socio-cultural issues, past and present. For me, looking back, songs like “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye epitomized the attempt to create change via music. And while I think that attempt and many others did create some change, we’ve still got a long way to go. I hope that the now predominately white audiences for the blues and “old-school” soul music will get more into the roots and culture related to it; that can only help in somehow ending the long cycle of racism that unfortunately still permeates our society.

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

Denis: I would have to think about this a while, as there are so many good choices, but it would probably be to hang out at a recording session for a classic record. Perhaps one of Mile’s Blue Note recordings or maybe a Jimi Hendrix session would be cool.

 Ralph: I’d like to be a fly on the wall at a T-Bone Walker gig on LA’s Central Avenue. 

McKee Brothers - Official website

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