JOHN JANUARY and LINDA BERRY: It Takes Two
Many musicians go the solo route. Some take their place in a band. But for some, it’s when they find the right musical partner that their career really blossoms. Such is the case of the January Berry Band, based around the guitar work of John January and the vocals of Linda Berry. Though considered a blues band, their music can cover a lot of ground, taking in elements of funk, classic rock, and more, for a sound that’s built to keep a dance floor packed. Both January and Berry have had thriving music careers, but it’s when they teamed up, both as musicians and romantic partners in 2015 that they started to truly reach the public’s attention. Their album, Chemistry 101 was nominated for a 2018 San Diego Music Award, with a new collection in the works and a slew of club dates ahead with their band, which includes Mel Hintz on drums, Brian Bannock on bass, and Doug White on keyboards. “Yes, we are called a blues act,” Berry said. “But I think we are much more than that. It’s hard to categorize us. The blues is our first love, though. All of our music is filled with soul and most of it is “blues-based.” Like many blues artists, we do a lot of covers, but we like to pick lesser-known songs and put our own patina on them. The songs we pick or write reflect the diverse musical styles that influenced us growing up.’
January is a San Diego native, born in Claremont before heading south and spending his teenage years in Chula Vista, where he attended the Chula Vista High School for the Performing Arts and then Southwestern College, where he studied recording production. “I did move to Portland for a while, in 1989, then moved back here in 2003. I missed my family and my old group of friends,” he explained. “I had also heard a lot about how the San Diego music scene had blossomed. The many gray days each year in the Northwest had also taken their toll, and I wanted to come home, be in the sun again and, since I took two ASA courses on the Columbia River, put my new sailing skills to practice in San Diego.”
Meanwhile, Berry grew up in Virginia. “I lived in small town called Martinsville, in Virginia, until the age of 13 or 14, Then moved to Richmond. Graduated from VCU with a psychology degree and lived in Miami for six years and then Denver for two.” She arrived in San Diego circa 1991 because her then husband found a job in the area. A teacher of English as a second language at UCSD for almost 20 years, she recently also began teaching evening classes at Mira Costa College at night. “Sometimes my foreign students come to my gigs,” she said. “It’s kind of funny because they have been in class with me learning grammar during the day, and then see their teacher letting loose on stage that night. Most all of my students have heard of and love the blues!”
January’s love of music clearly comes from his family. “My Father, John Sr, loved to listen to loud jazz and classical music on his Hi-Fi. He sang a bit of barbershop quartet, with (singer-songwriter) Sweet Joyce Ann’s dad, Al Martin. My mom played accordion as a teen. My brother Joe, though not a practicing musician, has collected music en masse since we were kids. A voracious reader, Joe has always been way ahead of the pack in discovering new music, from rock ‘n’ roll to soul, jazz, and hip-hop, and he’s been feeding me music since I was a little guy. My mom, step-dad Lou, brother, and sisters have always been very supportive,” he said. He mentions his friend Sonny Derrin as inspiring him to take up blues harmonica; he also plays keyboards, drums, bass, and ukulele, but it was his mom that helped with guitar. “My mom furnished my first guitar lessons when I was seven. Later, I had two great San Diego teachers: David Hargrove and Les Preston.”
Meanwhile, Berry cites two key people in her musical development: Eve Selis and Mattie Mills. “Back when I decided to pursue becoming a singer, I took voice lessons from these two wonderful ladies,” she said. “It was a painful time in my life, and Eve and Mattie were there to help me ‘find my voice.’ I’m not sure if I would have continued my musical journey if it had not been for their encouragement, support, positive vibes, and guidance. They convinced me that I had some talent and gave me the tools to develop my voice.”
“Of course, she had thought of being a singer since she was a youngster. “I have been singing since I can remember. Okay, yes, much of the time it was in my bathroom mirror using a hair brush as a microphone,” she joked. “I used to make up song and dance routines as a kid, especially in YMCA day camp or with neighborhood kids. But I have dreamed of being a singer since I was a kid. I never thought I would ever be one, though.” It probably helped that she came from a musical family. “My mom has been singing in her church choir since I can remember. She was also the choir director for many years. I did not sing in her church choir because my mom went to a different church than my dad and us kids. My mom is now 85, and up until recently she was gigging with the Richmond Women’s Chorus. So she is my inspiration.
My grandfather was also a beautiful singer, in the church and men’s choral groups, while my aunt and cousin play instruments in an orchestra.”
Her father’s love of music such as Big Band, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, and classical was a big influence, but so was her brothers’ record collection. “They had so many albums that they filled the perimeter of their bedroom. My sister and I would sneak in their room and either borrow records or listen to their stereo whole my brothers were out. Wide variety of stuff. Got turned on to a lot of music. Lots of Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and other classic rock. Lots of funk and R&B, like Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones and jazz like Eddie Harris and Stanley Turrentine.” However, it was her sister’s love of Bonnie Raitt that truly changed things for Berry. “I fell in love with her older blues stuff and then later to her newer music. We have both seen Bonnie Raitt so many times in concert that I can’t count. We were such fans that we played a game sometimes. One of us would say–or sing–a line to a Bonnie Raitt song. The other would have to say the line that came next. So, between the Allman Brothers’ blues stuff, Eric Clapton, and Bonnie Raitt, my love for the blues grew. Then I started listening to more female blues artists, such as Memphis Minnie, Etta James, and my idol, Susan Tedeschi. As an older adult, I was known in the neighborhood for singing because I would wail out songs at the top of my lungs while I was vacuuming or cleaning house.”
But why pick the blues over any of the other genres she’s come across over the years? “When I started singing out in public, I felt like I had finally found my voice, figuratively and literally. For me, I have been through many hard times in my life and singing the blues or just singing, period, is the consummate release for me. I can relate to the angst and sadness of many blues songs.”
Berry’s first live performances, in 2006, came about by accident when she was enrolling her son first in piano and then later drum lessons at the Encinitas School of Music. “I befriended the owners there, Todd Pyke, and then later Trisha Kaye. They both heard me sing and encouraged me to pursue it. I had zero confidence in myself at that point.” She sang for a school event at an Art Walk in Encinitas. “I performed “Harvest Moon and it was very well received. I was very nervous and thought I was going to throw up! I guess you can call me a late bloomer.” She then began to hit parties and open mic nights. “I decided this is what I wanted to do. I’m the type of person that when I decide I am going to do something, I make it happen for myself. I did it with my education and with my job.“
It was her meeting with a singer named Pearl West in 2010 that was the catalyst for Berry’s career in music. “She had a band called Smokin’ Jr. and they had a regular gig on Sundays at Larry’s Beach Club, a dive bar in Oceanside. Blues, classic rock. She kept letting me sit in with the band and finally she hired me. My best and most well-received songs were my blues numbers. The audience was always surprised and often commented: ‘that big voice came out of that small girl?’ I gigged with them for almost two years. Pearl taught me all about gigging, stage presence, cueing the band, etc.”
Meanwhile, January’s earliest musical hero was Terry Kath of Chicago. “He was the first guitarist I ever saw in a photo and CTA was my first record album. The bar for me was set high early on. I also absorbed the playing of Mike Allsup of Three Dog Night as a youngster–he was very innovative. Then, Santana, Stephen Stills, and Clapton really brought me into the fold.”
While most musicians’ debut gigs are usually less than auspicious, January’s music career was off and running. “My first two gigs were both at Chula Vista High during the 10th grade at age 15; I can’t recall which came first,” said January. “The less memorable one was providing half-time music during a basketball game, ‘Black Magic Woman,’ which always got me through the door, and ‘Rock With You,’ …eh,’ he said. “The other gig was a Sgt. Pepper presentation in conjunction with Chula Vista High’s award-winning orchestra under the guidance of the excellent music teacher, Phil Regan. We borrowed different colored band uniforms from other schools. I was George Harrison. We performed Sgt. Pepper’s ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ and the reprise, along with the orchestra. They set up oil lights on a big screen behind us and the gym was packed. Mr. Regan got me a borrowed Les Paul and a powerful Yamaha amp. The other students were all fine players. It was wonderful.”
Since then, you might say January has become a serial musician. If you are a long time San Diego music fan, odds are you’ve come across January performing with one of his groups. Among those he’s played with are:
The Items (1979-1980), Aerosol Chair (1980-1981), Men of Clay (1981-1983), Her Secret Admirer (1982-1983), Dogs With Masks (1984-1985), the Cabot Wigs (1985-1986), the Gloomcookies (1986-92), Julie Jones & the Things You Are (1992-1994), the John January Band (1998-2003), West of 5 (2003-2004), John January and the Mags (2007-2008), Michele Lundeen & Blues Streak (2010-2015), Little Monsters (2010-2015), John January’s Rare Creed (2012-2014), Planet Jack (2012-2018), and the January Berry Band (2015-present).
While previous musical outings were relatively successful, it was January and Berry’s meeting in 2015 that truly got things rolling. “Linda and I met at Larry’s Beach Club in Oceanside,” January recalled. “I was invited by Pearl West to sit in with her band, Smokin’ Jr. I didn’t know anybody there, but across the room this gal came in, and she had a smile that I couldn’t stop looking at. The next thing I knew I was on stage playing my guitar to her while she sang the blues.”
Berry provides more detail. “One day, about five years ago, Pearl asked her friend John January to sit in with Smokin’ Jr., which is the only band I have been in prior to performing with John. Pearl told me we were going to have a guest guitarist, which we often did. John jumped on stage during one of my blues numbers and it was instant chemistry! I loved his style, not to mention every other thing about him, and we did the blues like we had been playing together for years. I approached him after the set and introduced myself. We continued to be music friends for a while and gigged together a few times.” Excuse the clichÃ©, but it didn’t take long for the pair to make beautiful music together. “On our second date, I asked John to learn a duet song with me: ‘If I Didn’t Know Better’ from the hit show Nashville. I’m a teacher, so yes, I gave him homework! Of course, he did his homework and that song is on our album, Chemistry 101.” The Smokin’ Jr. Band soon dissolved “and John was playing with a couple of other bands, but we soon realized that we were in love and need to have a band of our own.”
They’ve branded their sound as rockin’ blues. “I’ve always played the blues; it’s the base, the roots of American music, rock or otherwise,” January said. “I had jammed blues music with friends growing up, at parties and occasionally in my early bands, but I’ve always turned to it in personal, meditative moments, even during my punk days. When you play the blues alone that’s when it makes its handshake with you, those moments are important for a musician. Later, it was natural to bring the blues on stage with me.”
January and Berry write the bands original tunes. “Original Music is relative to the original ideas that go into your performance, regardless of who wrote the song,” January commented. “In that respect, we play about 75% original music, a mix of covers and originals. We’re working on introducing more new originals right now.” Is it harder for crowds to get into originals? “Not harder, in fact, it’s been the opposite. We’ve received a lot of enthusiasm for our originals.”
It Takes Two
Being in a relationship and being in a band can have its pluses and minuses, but both January and Berry see it as a good thing. “We love writing and working up new tunes together,” January said. “That’s how this all began–mornings in our jammies, five years ago during a delicate and somewhat confusing time for each of us.” He notes that he and Berry have a great chemistry. “When Linda and I come together on stage we can feel that something special is happening, and we sense the excitement from the crowd before we start playing. Someone once referred to it as ‘the love bubble.’ Once in a while someone comes up to us and asks if we’re together, but I think 95% of the audience are already assuming it by the way we perform to each other on stage. It feels potent when the two of us are together fronting our band. We cheer each other on and our bandmates too. Linda wants me to take no prisoners in my performance, and I want her to do the same, to wow the audience. When we shift gears into the sweet songs, it’s obvious what’s going on.” The audience really responds to two people in love on stage. “Back when we started I told Linda that I think people crave that. I want to be more than a band peddling our wares, I wanted us to create tangible moments, and to tell people “Yes! Love is sweet, and you can feel it right now. There are possibilities, no matter how old you are, or what has happened before.“
Berry concurs. “I love working together with my man on and off stage,” she said. “Our audience, whether they know us or not, have told us that they love watching us because they can climb inside of our ‘love bubble.’ One of our fans said that it’s contagious. We know each other, really, so we feed off each other and support each other. It all enhances our relationship, especially in songwriting.” She notes other advantages to the pairing. “If one of us is not feeling well, the other takes up the slack at a show. We can communicate with one another onstage with just an eyebrow raise or head nod because we are so in tune with each other. I feel like the luckiest gal on the planet. I get to fulfill my two passions: creating and performing music with the man I love, and teaching English.”
Having two lead singers in the band also gives them an edge. “It makes our show dynamic,” Berry pointed out. “John sings one, I sing one, then we do a duet.” Do they ever disagree about music stuff? “Of course. I’m a Taurus and he’s a Leo! We are both very passionate. If we have our occasional disagreement, especially before a show, the minute we get on stage, it is all forgotten.”
January agrees. “Performing as a couple fixes the hassles we had earlier that day or from setting up the show. By the time we’re up there performing and shifting into gear with each other and the band, we find ourselves in the place we wanted to be, in love and making music.”
It all comes together in their songs. “Sometimes John comes up with a musical idea and then sends it to me. I write some lyrics and melody. Together we work on polishing, changing things. John is a great songwriter on his own, but writing songs together is such an intimate experience and only enhances our relationship.” The bonus to this arrangement is in the crowd response to their work, “Crowds are loving our originals!,” she said. “We couldn’t be more pleased about their reception.”
The pair are deservedly proud of their album, Chemistry 101. “I think the real attraction people have to our band is the great chemistry John and I have, thus, our album name.” Berry said. “We are in love and I think we spread that warm, fuzzy feeling to our audience to give them a ‘feel good’ show. Meanwhile, January is happy with the reception their first album has received. “I am really pleased that our first album has been a great success,” he said. “We were nominated for a San Diego Music Award and earned enthusiastic airplay all over Europe and a bunch in the states, too. We made the blues broadcasters association chart in Europe–alongside some heavy hitters–and that is a great feeling. Best of all is when people tell us that they like to listen to the album over and over again.” The latter is a big deal in these days of instantly disposable pop culture. “Linda and I loved our records when we were kids,” January noted. “We loved looking at the jackets with their frozen images as we listened to the music, and for our favorites we memorized the track order from beginning to end. We both still really value the concept of ‘music time,’ a bit of a lost concept as the years have passed; but, we remember when the music was the main event as people got together, and anything else was secondary.”
Recently January was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. “That was a total surprise,” he said. “I knew that local guitarist Dan ‘Lucky’ Marolt was involved with the Blues Hall of Fame, and it turns out he’s San Diego’s envoy for the organization. Lucky was invited to my 50th birthday party and he stopped the proceedings to present me with the honor; I was speechless! I couldn’t wrap my mind around it at the moment. I have thanked him profusely many times since.” As a typical guitarist January has several models to play, but he favors one with a loose connection to his parents. “Right now my favorite guitar is a Telecaster with a whitewash finish that I built about six years ago with my friend Brandon Shock,” he said. “The guitar was intended as a second for my blonde Fender, which was quickly getting dinged up after I had purchased it. Turns out my new guitar, ‘The Lancaster’ has become my number one. It was named after the town in Mojave where my parents first lived when they migrated from Boston. The guitar definitely looks like it was bleached out in the desert.”
Down the Road Apiece
In 2019, January and Berry don’t intend to rest on their laurels and have a lot of activity on the way.
“The next album will definitely have more of our original songs,” January said. “We’ve written some good things already, and the response we are getting to the songs reflects that. It’s safe to say that, like the first album, what Linda and I are crafting now will take you up and set you down and make you wanna dance, and get you in the mood, and all of it will be tied to the blues.”
There are also plans for touring. “We need bigger venues and larger stages,” January said. “Everyone involved in our operation knows that we have to travel and bring it to a wider audience. There are even some local clubs that have told us, ‘We just can’t contain you. What you do is too big for this place.’ We are excited about touring.” “A European tour in late 2019 is our goal,” Berry confirmed. “As for new music, we are working on a new EP or album, not sure which one yet. We are kind of easing up on our gig schedule, to give us more time to work on originals.”
For his part January is succinct about his favorite thing of his life in music. “It’s when the moment is transformed from something mundane to something special, and everyone is feeling it,” he said. For Berry it’s much the same. “I love being able to fully express myself through my music,” she said. “And most of all, I love the people I meet and the new friends I make! The awesome musicians and music fans I have met around San Diego are a colorful bunch from all walks of life–with one passion in common,” she said.
January Berry Band, Carver’s, Friday, Feb. 8, 7—11pm, 11940 Bernardo Plaza Dr.
John January and Linda Berry, Horton Grand Hotel, Thursday, Feb. 14, 6:30—9:30pm, 311 Island Ave.
January Berry Band, Humphrey’s Backstage Live, Monday, Feb. 18, 7—11pm, 2241 Shelter Island Dr.
More info: www.johnjanuaryandlindaberry.com