ALABAMA BLUES MACHINE
What started out as an informal Tuesday night jam in the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, has grown into something none of the musicians ever expected – a full-fledged, award-winning blues band. While almost every player in the Alabama Blues Machine is a veteran of several bands, many of whom were/are quite prominent, no one, down to a man, was expecting this to evolve into what it has become. And that is an eight-piece band with horns that creates original music drawing on their blues and rhythm & blues upbringing by listening to everybody from B.B. King, Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles to Taj Mahal, Freddie King and the Temptations.
Just five gigs into the new band, the Alabama Blues Machine played the Magic City Blues Society’s annual “Battle Of The Blues Bands.” Being a relatively unknown quantity, ABM drew the short straw and was slotted to be the last band of the night. When it was all over, they walked away with the honor of being named the best blues band in the state of Alabama, and represented the state at the annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis this past February.
The lynch pin of this amalgam of musicians is Ross Roberts, lead guitarist and producer. Roberts headed up three of Alabama’s most prominent rockin’ bands, Black Mountain in the early‘70s, Cozy in the mid ‘70s and ‘80s, and Dick’s Hat Band from ’91 to 2003. These bands toured constantly throughout the south and mid west. Dick’s Hat Band recorded two albums, Shameless Rhythm & Blues in 1992 and Got The Whole Town Talkin’ was issued in 1996. Both releases were produced by Roberts and released on Vent Records.
“When that band broke up about five years ago, I took a hiatus from music,” says Ross Roberts. “I needed to step away from the group thing and concentrate on building my studio work. After a couple of years went by, I got a little hungry to play again.”
Enter singer/harpist Bruce Andrews. The two started jamming every Tuesday night and continued on with a constantly revolving group of musicians for a couple of years. “One thing led to another,” continues Roberts, “and we started writing songs then the band leader in me kicked in again.”
Bruce Andrews, who also performs in a duo called 2blu, is also an accomplished visual artist, having owned and operated a gallery in Birmingham from 1993 to 1998. 2blu has been a semi finalist in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis twice and a finalist in the same competition in 2007, finishing 6th out of 60 entries. “I was not really looking for a band situation,” says Andrews, “but I thought it would be cool to play with Ross. I had always known of Ross Roberts and Dick’s Hat Band as well as his first band, Black Mountain. Around these parts, both bands were pretty legendary.”
Roberts and Andrews ran into Lewis Ross, the original drummer for Wet Willie, who helped solidify the band’s revolving line up. Wet Willie was one of the first bands signed to legendary Capricorn Records in the 1970’s and quickly became a prominent component of the emerging Southern Rock sound that made that label famous. The band toured non-stop for years with the Allman Brothers Band, the Guess Who, Jeff Beck, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Grand Funk and scored hits with songs like “Keep On Smilin’,” “Leona,” “Dixie Rock” and “Country Side Of Life.” Wet Willie has been honored by both the Georgia and Alabama Music Halls of Fame.
Lewis Ross lobbied for horns to be added to the ABM mix, and while Ross Roberts had worked with horns in his previous band, he and Lewis looked for a horn section that would add just the right spice to the new band’s mix. Roberts contacted Mike Lingo who had played a gig or two with Dick’s Hat Band, and discussions ensued on how the horn section would integrate into the confines of the new band.
Lingo, who plays trombone, secured the talents of Rick White on trumpet and Jon Remley on saxophone and the section was complete. Between the three players, their credits include numerous jazz bands, jazz orchestras, symphony orchestras, touring Broadway shows, the Ringling Brothers circus and Holiday on Ice as well as working with Dennis Edwards and the Temptations, the O’Jay’s, The Four Tops and Mary Wilson.
The last two members to join the band are bassist Eric Onimus and keyboardist Stephen McCullough. Onimus joined the band right before the band’s winning performance for the Magic City Blues Society. His influences range from the likes of Louis Prima, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan to Betty Carter, NRBQ and the Beatles. The newest member of the band is Stephen McCullough who grew up in Gadsden, Alabama and has been playing since he was 11 years old. He’s worked with producer Johnny Sandlin and was a member of Tommy Talton & The Getaway Cars, and The Sky Dogs. Both Onimus and McCullough missed out on the recording of the band’s first release but will be on board as the recording of the second disc will begin shortly.
The band’s debut CD, Must Be Love was released in January 2009. Recorded at Rossongs Studio outside of Birmingham, the disc was produced by Ross Roberts and features seven original songs that showcase the unique blend of blues and soul that is the Alabama Blues Machine.