John Paul Keith grew up outside of Knoxville, the son of a truck driver. He learned to sing in church and he learned to play guitar when he was ten and his father gave him an acoustic and a copy of Chuck Berry’s Golden Hits and The Best of B.B. King. It was the first music he ever heard that wasn’t country or spirituals—he didn’t hear the Beatles until he was nearly in high school. By the time he was seventeen, he was drawing big crowds in Knoxville as a member of the Viceroys, and then quit the band when they signed an indie deal because he didn’t like the direction the music was headed. By twenty-one, he had moved to Nashville and formed his own band, and got signed to a major label within months. It was a meteoric rise by a kid everyone in the industry had their eyes on—and wanted their hooks in.
John Paul Keith can sum up the rest in just a few lines. He tells you nearly everything you need to know about him in the first thirty seconds of Spills and Thrills, his freewheeling 2009 debut, featuring songs so timeless and well crafted you’d swear they were obscure 50's or 60's B-sides. Over a swinging drumbeat and a stinging Telecaster, Keith sings, “Well, I’m right on the money, but I’m never on time / One step ahead, two steps behind / And I’ve never been lucky, and I’ve never been hip / Got a whole lotta headaches when I opened my lip.”
Though the loyal following who pack his Memphis shows might beg to differ about never being hip, truer words have never been sung. Blessed and cursed with rare talent and common Southern stubbornness, Keith would have gone a lot further in the music industry if he only had a little less brains and a lot less integrity. A blistering guitarist and singer, and the kind of songwriter who makes great melodies and incredible lyrics sound effortless, he certainly seems like a sure thing—the kind of artist you just need to hit play and record on and let rip.
Instead, Keith spent more than a decade at near constant odds with band mates, managers and executives eager to water down and compromise his music in order to chase the latest trend. Relocating from Knoxville to Nashville, New York to Birmingham, and back again, Keith struggled to stick to his guns and create the kind of music that would hold up to the records that made him want to play music in the first place. By 2005, he’d had about enough. Alone, with no band and no prospects, he moved to Memphis and declared himself washed-up at 29.
Somebody should have told John Paul Keith that Memphis is the wrong place to go if you’re looking to give up music. A veritable island of great musicians and music lovers, with a scene that is dismissively and blissfully oblivious to the obsessive flights of the music industry, the city is an outsider’s paradise. Before he knew it, he was writing songs again.
He also fell in love with the guitar again, and soon started hanging around Taylor’s Music store in midtown Memphis, where he met drummer John Argroves and bassist Mark E. Stuart. The nascent band decided to play some covers together in a local dive, and before long had added organist and piano player Al Gamble. Taking their name from the I-IV-V musical progression that forms the foundation of blues and rock and roll, the newly named One Four Fives gave Keith the one thing he was missing for all those years: A group of sympathetic musicians who could match his talent—and his integrity. They brought power and muscle to Keith’s songs, but stayed true to the spirit of his influences.
The band built a loyal following in Memphis—both from fans, and from the city’s close-knit scene. John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives built a reputation as one of Memphis’ most ferocious bar bands—capable of delivering two, three, even four hour sets of blistering, beerspilling rock and roll. With this spirit of open-minded acceptance, support and encouragement, so special to Memphis, Keith began to write the best songs of his life. In addition to releasing Spills And Thrills, Keith went on to tour the States opening for Memphis' own Lucero, and then to Europe with garage-punk legend Jack Oblivian. 2009 and 2010 kept the One Four Fives busy in Memphis as well, releasing the Live At The Hi-Tone CD and two seven inch-singles.
The story continues in 2011 with The Man That Time Forgot, Keith’s sophomore album for Big Legal Mess Records. Part of the legendary Fat Possum family that championed and gave a home to such artists as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, Big Legal Mess is proudly preparing The Man That Time Forgot for a June release. The album, which was produced by Fat Possum veteran Bruce Watson, captures the spirit and energy of the One Four Fives’ live shows, but explores a wider range of themes and influences – echoes of Tex-Mex, garage rock, countripolitan, mid-60's soul/pop, blistering rockabilly, and even Mose Allison's brand of jazz-blues. It’s around about the third listen the realization comes: These songs are incredible. From the Sir Douglas-like opener, “Never Could Say No”, to the wry, closing-time waltz, “The Last Last Call”, this is the work of an amazing songwriter, and a bold step forward with an even broader scope than before. So if you’re looking for one of the best records of the year,here it is. It took John Paul Keith half his life to get the chance to be himself, but it was worth the wait
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