JEFF BEASLEY VIVIDLY RECALLS THE MOMENT he first developed a love for playing music.
“When I first picked up a guitar that my uncle Joe gave me, I knew I’d be playing guitar the rest of my life,” says the Savannah-based singer, songwriter and band leader. According to Beasley, he experienced a somewhat similar epiphany upon graduating college.
“That was the very moment I decided that selling insurance was not my life’s ambition,’ he recalls.
Instead, Beasley moved to the music hub of Athens, Ga., where he took a cooking job in a restaurant for minimum wage and spent most of his free time in a fledgling, now forgotten band called Blue Groove, (which featured none other than Sanders Brightwell, who’d later spend a decade and a half as bassist for acclaimed Southern jam-pop band Jupiter Coyote).
“Those five years in Athens, I call my lost period,” the Savannah native reflects. “I polished my partying skills more than anything else in that jam scene. Groups like Hootie (& The Blowfish), the Dave Matthews Band, Phish and Widespread (Panic) were just taking off, and it was cool to see them at a place like The Georgia Theater before they really hit it big.”
“It wasn’t till I moved to Nashville that I full-on decided to make music my career.”
The notion of packing up and relocating to a songwriter mecca like Music City USA to get serious about your craft is an age-old story that’s been told countless times over — much like the aspiring actors and actresses that flood the bus stations of L.A. year-round. Occasionally, these tales have storybook endings, but infinitely more often than not, they wrap up with more of a wimper than a bang.
Not surprisingly, despite playing plenty of shows and writing no small amount of original material, the budding full-time artist fell through the cracks in that “broken promise land”, eventually returning to his childhood home of Savannah. However, in what may have been completely unexpected, it is here that Jeff Beasley would ultimately find his muse, hone his craft, and make the connections required to carve out a promising life for himself as a full-time professional entertainer.
“I was very fortunate upon my return,” explains Beasley. “The Bluesonics were looking for a lead guitarist and I already knew their drummer, Ken Harrison. He runs a tight ship and he showed me how to be professional. He also reintroduced me to the blues. We did 100 shows together in 2002, and that helped me shake off the twang I inherited from living in Nashville.”
Before long, Beasley and the Bluesonics’ standout harp player and vocalist Daniel Valentino had formed the “power duo” Two Blue, which found Beasley doing double duty, keeping time on a bass drum and high-hat cymbals with his feet while simultaneously playing rhythm and lead guitar. Their repertoire of old-time, feel-good blues and frenzied, over-the-top performances were quite unlike most other party and cover bands in this market, and the pair quickly became a sought-after attraction at local bars, restaurants and private functions.
When Valentino’s day job forced a move to N.C., singing guitarist Ray Lundy (now known the charismatic frontman for popular blues-rockers Bottles & Cans) took over the role of Beasley’s foil, and the group continued on as the shrewdly renamed “Too Blue”. Under that name, Jeff and Ray would go on to play close to 200 regional shows as well. However, by the time 2005 rolled around, the two men were leading their own bands, each of which serving as a forum for their own uniquely individual takes on blues, rock and R & B.
Beasley learned quickly that if he wanted to stay busy as a working musician in this town, he’d have to emphasize well-known cover tunes over his own originals.
“To get work in Savannah, I had a choice: learn tons of blues or Jimmy Buffet,” he says with a resigned sigh.
“That was an easy decision. In my heart, I’ve always been into ‘50s music and R & B, so I eventually expanded my set list by incorporating songs by people like Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and Delbert McClinton. Now, I play a mixture of music from the ‘50s through the ‘80s with my band and solo. It’s simple. The more diverse you are, the more gigs you can play.”
That’s certainly true, and the versatility Beasley has honed surely plays a great part in his emergence as one of the area’s most in-demand acts.
A quick perusal of Beasley’s current repertoire finds both well-known and borderline obscure tunes by a wide array of roots, rock and soul-related artists, such as Roy Orbison, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Sr. and Taj Mahal. However, these days, one is just as apt to find him throwing in one of his own increasingly impressive original compositions alongside these crowd-pleasing favorites.
And the odds are, few even notice.
That’s because over time and countless gigs, Beasley and his current backing band (featuring drummer Billy Hoffman, upright bassist Mike Perry and saxman James “Jiggy” Moody) have gelled into a formidable, sympathetic unit. To a man, they’re all versatile, professional players with decades of experience under each of their belts. The combination of their nuanced skills and Beasley’s ability to craft melodies and lyrics which respectfully reference and pay tribute to songwriting conventions of the past without lapsing into outright mimicry, has resulted in an almost can’t-miss formula.
The singer is quick to praise his fellow bandmates for bringing these songs to life.
“I have to say that it wouldn’t be the same at all if I didn’t have this exact group of musicians in my band,” he enthuses.
“We’re all from here, and we all enjoy blues, R & B and ‘50s rock. James is 64. Mike is 54, I’m 41 and Billy Hoffman is 36. So we were all exposed to different music growing up. That adds texture and flavor.”
“James is the driving force behind the group. When he cuts in on a solo, you can tell he was playing this style of music when it originally came out in the ‘50s! Mike played in bands through the ‘70s, and he has a built-in groove just from being alive during that decade. Billy is the most accomplished of us all. What a luxury to have a drummer that can deliver whatever I want live and in the studio, whether it be blues, jazz or classic rock.”
“It took me five years to have enough good gigs to garner the loyalty of these major cats. Arranging is always the toughest part for me, and they also helped throw it all together in the studio.”
The studio he speaks of is his own living room. There he maintains a digital home recording setup in a quiet Thunderbolt neighborhood. It’s where he and his bandmates cut their brand-new, full-length CD, Down To The River.
Released completely independently on his own label, it features ten original songs performed by The Jeff Beasley Band with guest appearances by local musicians Gordon Perry, Ricardo Ochoa and Gary Swindell. Beasley says he spent all of 2006 writing and arranging the album’s songs, and spent an additional eight months tracking, overdubbing, mixing and mastering the album.
“The whole process took almost two years, and it shows,” he says with understandable pride.
Understandable, because this collection of songs is an impressive feat no matter what lens it is viewed through. Owing to their genesis as Beasley’s own takes on an art form with long-established rules and guidelines, the songs themselves are at once both new and somehow familiar.
The performances themselves are as spry as can be. They bristle with a sense of immediacy that instantly brings to mind a funky Louisiana dance hall party or a late-night jook-joint a few miles off the highway, down a dusty Southern back road.
They rock, they roll, and they chug along as only keenly observed (and well-played) American R & B can. Beasley credits the thriving restaurant and bar scene here with affording him the ability to hone these tunes to as close to perfection as he felt capable of.
“Savannah has been very good to me because of the constant influx of tourists,” he explains. “With constant turnover, a musician can play the same clubs over and over and not have to worry about burning anyone out — except the staff! It’s an incredible advantage to get that much playing time on your instrument in front of different and diverse groups of people. What a way to test market original songs! That’s exactly how I fine-tuned all the arrangements on Down to the River.
For now, the record is available directly from the band at their numerous live gigs, and online through jeffbeasleyband.com as well as the enormously popular indie music retailer CDBaby.com. It can be purchased as both a physical CD, and as high-quality digital downloads for those who prefer bits to plastic.
Beasley says that of all the records he’s been involved with over the course of his life, this is the one he would not hesitate to play for someone interested in his music.
“I did an album with Two Blue in 2003, Too Blue in 2004 and The Jeff Beasley Band in 2005, and all of them were basically slammed together just to have some product to sell. But I was so unhappy with the end results, that I didn’t really try to push them because I knew I could do better. This time I took my time and did it right.”
“I feel like every song on this album is good and written from the heart. There are zero filler songs. By doing this, I feel that I didn’t compromise my integrity as an artist. That behavior is what has destroyed the music industry.”
To sample this CD, or view the group’s live schedule, visit jeffbeasleyband.com.