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Interview with THEODIS EALEY
Sometimes no matter how much great work an artist produces there's one piece that just bursts thru the stratosphere and impacts an audience to the point that artist and the work become irreducible in the minds of folks. For Mr. Theodis Ealey that piece is "Stand Up In It". A good ole Southern Soul song with a cheeky message that's become one of the biggest hits to come out of the famed "chitlin' circuit" in the modern era. In fact it's revitalized the Southern Soul genre with countless response songs and ripoffs. But the truth is, it's not even close to the "Stand Up In It" Man's best work. Ealey is a terrific Blues guitarist and songwriter with an old school wit that defines the soul of the South.
Ealey was born 1947 in Natchez Mississippi into a musical family. He first picked up an instrument when his older brother Y Z Ealey first taught him how to play at the age of 4. Ten years later, Theodis on bass was playing at his first gig with brothers Y Z and Melwin Ealey in a group called Y Z Ealey and the Merrymakers. This brotherly trio made their debut in their hometown of Natchez at a local nightclub called Horseshoe Circle. One year later, Theodis traded his bass for a guitar and began performing with another Natchez group, Eugene Butler & the Rocking Royals.
Prior to his signing with Atlantas's Ichiban Records in 1991, Ealey's recording career consisted of scattered 45s. His first recording was a holiday tune called "A Christmas Wish" on Banshee Records. Ealey later found out the word Banshee refers to a figure related to occult mythology. "Isn't that ironic? I did a Christmas song for a label called Banshee Records!" Years later Ealey backed Little Richard's sax player Bill Hemmins and worked with producer Robert "Bumps" Blackwell for Chelan Records. The 45 was titled "Deepest Sympathy/Peace Of Mind is Hard To Find". Bill Parker recorded Ealey for his Optune label for the single "I Don't Wannna Talk About It/Was It Me?"
The first full length came in 1991, "Headed Back To Hurtsville", which was followed by three more LP's for Ichiban before Ealey started his own label IFGAM Records- an acronym meaning "I Feel Good About Myself". The acclaimed but commercially-ignored "It's A Real Good Thang" dropped in 2002. Things changed drastically for Ealey in 2004 when a single called "Stand Up In It" began picking up steam in the Deep South. Despite it's risqué subject matter, the single became a runaway smash, reaching #68 on Billboard's Hot R & B/Hip Hop Tracks (#1 on the sale chart) and the resulting album managed #54 on the R & B Albums chart- a rare feat for a Southern Bluesman. A rash of answer songs and copies followed throughout the South as the cut still remains a classic. Ealey's credits also include work in the NBC Movie of the Week "A Kiss To Die For,"which starred Mimi Rogers and Tim Matheson. Ealey appeared in a nightclub scene that featured two of his songs “Headed Back To Hurtsville” and “Lil’ Brown Eyes”. Further instrumental credits include the Emmy-winning HBO special "Miss Evers' Boys”, where Lawrence Fishburne mimicked Ealey's guitar playing. Ealey & his band also make a brief cameo in the movie. The Standup In It Man also had a role in the major motion picture "The Fighting Temptations," appeared in commercials for Rooms To Go and the Cartoon Network and did some bona fide acting in a stage play called "Spunk".
He followed up "Stand Up In It" with lesser hits like "Move With The Motion", "Let Me Put The Head In It" and "Francine" but is now preparing to release his followup LP, "I'm The Man You Need", in November 2006. BluesCritic.com took the opportunity to interview Ealey, who was still recovering from recent heart surgery.
Despite his success and the risqué subject matter of some of his popular songs Theodis is a humble man, dedicated to his family and has strong religious conviction.
INTERVIEW with Theodis
BC = Blues Critic
Theodis = Theodis Ealey
BC = How you feeling? I know you had surgery recently.
Theodis = I'm feeling real good, thanks for asking. (Editor's note: Theodis had triple bypass surgery). I just went in for my annual checkup and my doctor referred me to a cardiologist for a stress test. When I got home that night they called me and said the stress test showed I wasn't getting enough oxygen to a certain portion of my heart so I had to go back and have a catheterization. I knew from my past experience they would have to do an angioplasty atleast.
BC = I heard you stopped by the studio to finish your new album on your way to the hospital!
Theodis = (laughs) Well, that's 'cuz when I was going in I didn't know if I was coming out! But actually it was the night before I arranged with Bruce Billups, my producer, to record three songs and get everything done I needed to do. So my wife would have something just in case.
BC = Man, you must've been nervous the night before surgery. Even with all that anxiety you still pounded those last few tracks out?!
Theodis = Well, I wasn't really that nervous, you know. It's like the old folks say: "I just put it in the hands of the Lord, thy will be done."
"Stand Up In It"
BC = Now of course everyone wants to know about "Stand Up In It". It was such a monster hit. Even though you've had many great songs how does it feel to be known as the "Stand Up In It Man"?
Theodis = Well, you know it feels great! I worked my whole life trying to get some kind of identity in the business. I'd be playing in these small clubs in what's called the "Blues circuit" playing my guitar in Caucasian establishments. I found I wasn't getting work as a black Blues artist. I'm not racist I'm just saying. They weren't booking too many black acts. Folks like Bob Margolin were getting the gigs, folks who used to play with Muddy Waters and those people cuz you need something to write about. Plus they would always be talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan. I would tell them I've been playing this way before anyone heard of Stevie Ray Vaughan so I had to get my own identity instead of being another Stevie Ray clone. Now Stevie's one of the greatest players I've ever heard but Stevie was an Albert King clone to me. But you gotta give thanks to Stevie for bringing the Blues to the white or Caucasian audience. So "Stand Up In It" gave me my own identity. I don't consider myself a strictly Blues player. I don't limit myself to just 12-bar Blues. While on Ichiban I was trying to get noticed in the chitlin' circuit, trying to get the black audience to notice me and they finally did. That was one thing I felt good about and was a blessing to me about "Stand Up In It". For the last years of their lives I got to tour with two of my heroes, Little Milton Campbell and Tyrone Davis. There was a time when they wouldn't even let me on their bus but now I was having a drink with them on their bus, you know what I'm saying?
BC = What do you think of all these answer songs to "Stand Up In It"? You got "Make It Talk" by Dr. Feelgood Potts, that Chuck Strong song. There's Marvin Sease's "Sit Down On It", Denise Lasalle's "Snap Crackle & Pop" and the list goes on...
Theodis = Well, I thought nothing of it. As a matter of fact when "Make It Talk" came out I was like, "Well that's Ecko and they're always tappin' into other people's ideas. Just like the label name 'Ecko' they're just echoing other people's songs. But when legends of black Blues, so-called Southern Soul.. I just call it good ole Soul music... But for legends like Marvin Sease and Denise LaSalle to do it I was flattered. Denise even called me by my name you know. These are some of my idols so like the old folks say, I took it as a feather in my cap. But everybody kept on doing it and folks would say, "Theodis, you gonna let them get away with it?!" (laughs). So on the new album I have a song called "Sumpin Sumpin" that's answering all of them. My comeback! You know everybody's going around saying that I said "what women really want" but I didn't say it. I said the little old lady told me that women want you to 'stand up in it'. I'm just the messenger you know what I'm saying. I never said I know what a woman wants...because who knows what a woman wants? What man do? (laughs) Now I've known maybe two or three men where it seemed the women go crazy over them. But they never told me what they did...but the little old lady did (laughs).
BC = Now "Stand Up In It" was based on an earlier song of yours, "I'm The Man You Need", which is also the title of your new record. How did you get this stroke of genius to redo the song?
Theodis = What happened was, the way "I'm The Man You Need" came to be. Raymond Moore came to me with the words and I put the bassline, the music on the track. It was on the album "Headed Back To Hurstville" and I was with Ichiban and they really didn't do much promotion in the South, you know Southern Soul. But I'm from Natchez and everybody who heard "I'm The Man You Need" went nuts for it but it just went by the wayside. So when I got to writing "Stand Up In It" I collaborated with a good friend El' Willie. He wrote a lot of the lyrics but he likes to take credit for the whole thing (laughs) but that's alright. I wrote the music and some of the lyrics. He's an excellent writer so I got him to help me to finish it up and told him we were gonna use the music from "I'm The Man You Need". So I felt people would like it but that part about "licking" and all that the radio didn't wanna play so I did the other version where I said "squeeze it" and so on.
BC = I noticed you're also giving back and showing props to your family. You're putting out albums on your older brothers YZ and Bubba?
Theodis = Yes I am. You know YZ taught me how to play guitar. Him and Chuck Berry are what you could call childhood idols, if there's such thing as an idol other than Christ. But if people ask me who my idol is it's Christ. But YZ taught me how to play my first chords and I played bass in his band. Now Bubba, he's the oldest brother. He sounds like Lightnin' Hopkins. That's his style, Delta Blues.
BC = So your current hit song, "Francine", was originally "Let Me Put The Head In It".
Theodis = Yeah that was Bruce's idea. I guess "Let Me Put The Head In It" was considered more nasty than "Stand Up In It" you know, and I didn't understand that really. So Bruce came up with the idea to change it from "Let Me Put The Head In It". In fact I was talking to Mel Waiters and he said I should say, "Let me put my love in it". (laughs) My wife said I was basically saying the same thing. So Bruce put Lebrado on it singing "let me love you baby"
(editor's note. The song "Francine" only appears on the Bruce Billups Productions "Southern Soul/Urban Mix CD")
BC = So I'm sure people want to know. Ummm, is "Francine" a true story? Was there really a "Francine"?
Theodis = (laughs) I ain't tellin'! You can tell 'em I don't kiss and tell. That's my official answer.
BC = Other than "Sumpin' Sumpin'" what else can you tell us about songs on the new CD, "I'm The Man You Need"? I heard there's a remix of "Stand Up In It" and a duet with Lebrado.
Theodis = There's a Bruce Billups remix on Stand Up In It" with a Hip Hop flavor. I did a duet with Lebrado on a Christmas song. Like I said the album starts off with "Sumpin' Sumpin'" that is about setting the record straight. That I'm not saying I know what women want but that I'm just the messenger. The second song has sexual overtones called "Pop That Middle". It's not X-rated so they can play it on the radio. It's a club song. "Please Let Me In" is the first single. Bruce and I wanted to do something that didn't have anything to do with "goonie goonie goonie" (laughs). It's about a man being kicked out 'cuz he messed up and trying to get back in. It's a real good song.
BC = There's a version of "I'm The Man You Need" on the album. Is that the same as the old version?
Theodis = No it's a brand new version. There's a brand new version of the Blues "Looking Up At The Bottom" too.
BC = One of the most interesting things here is the "Let's Get It On" medley.
Theodis = Yeah, what happened was I'd do "Let's Get It On" in the clubs and then go into Freddie Jackson's "Rock Me Tonight" 'cuz the music was kinda similar. Then I'd do a little of "Sexual Healing" before going back to "Let's Get It On" and as I was doing it people would come and ask me if it was on the album so I decided to put it on the new one. It's gonna be the second single. I did it just like I've been doing it in my shows for years.
BC = How do you feel about it as a whole?
Theodis = I'm really proud of the album. I know some folks will give me flak about some of it but I think it's my very best album. I would even play it for president Nixon, I mean Bush (laughs).
Ealey Family Photos (click pics to enlarge)
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