Jimmy Reed, the bluesman who wrote "Honest I Do," and "Boy, What You Want Me To Do?" later covered by Elvis, taught Michael Powers the barre chording technique on a guitar. He grew up listening to Vanilla Fudge rehearse in his neighborhood and when he was a boy, his grandmother hauled his butt into the living room to watch the Rolling Stones perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. One might say Michael Powers was destined to become the powerhouse blues guitarist, singer and songwriter that he has been for several decades.
Michael Powers recalls that infamous day in 1964 when he first saw the Rolling Stones, "My grandmother said, ‘Come on, you have to see these boys with the long hair.’ The Rolling Stones were playing one of Muddy Waters’ songs, "I Just Want To Make Love To You," (originally penned by Willie Dixon). Powers immediately recognized the song as being on one of the records his mother owned. When she held parties at their home, Michael was placed in charge of the record player.
The records that she (his mother, Doris) was listening to were Muddy Waters, Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Billie Holiday. "It was really deep stuff," Powers recalls.
Powers points to the Rolling Stones' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show as a life-changing experience for him. "From that day on, I was going nuts. I was in the Spiegel catalogue looking at guitars. I watched the Ed Sullivan Show because he had The Beatles, The Dave Clarke Five and Herman’s Hermits on his show. He also had shows with Cream, Martha and The Vandellas ("Dancing In The Streets") and Stevie Wonder. I was being swamped with all these vibes. Then kids started wearing their hair long, wearing Beatle boots and getting skinny ties," Powers says excitedly as he relives the memories.
"Instead of gangs in my town, there were bands on every corner. In a garage or somebody’s basement, there were always people rehearsing for a high school concert or holiday dance," he says.
Powers says that while in his neighborhood, "Most of the black kids were listening to Motown and stuff like that. I was completely at the other end of the rainbow. What I was digging on was the Yardbirds. Out of the Yardbirds came some of the best guitar players you ever heard in the history of music." He rhymes off the names of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Who is going to argue with him about that list? Although I consider myself to be very knowledgeable concerning the life of Eric Clapton, Powers reveals something that I did not know. At one time the Yardbirds backed up legendary blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson for his London gigs.
The song, "It’s A Bloody Life," from his current CD The Prodigal Son is a tribute of sorts to Clapton and Page who first recorded the tune.
These days, the kids that grew up in Powers’ neighborhood at the same time as him, are probably talking about Powers as being their friend back in the day. This tremendously gifted man has performed and/or recorded with Robert Cray, Johnny Winters, Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker (Sr.). He can rock out with great chord progressions on the opening track "Goin’ Down," cast haunting vocals over Jimi Hendrix’s "Voodoo Child," and can shift gears to sing the contemplative ballad "Prodigal Son."
However, before the stage appearances and the records, there was the broom! "My mother told me that when a song like a John Lee Hooker tune would come on the radio that I would pick the broom up, and walk around the house strumming it. It would tick her off because the straw would get all over the place, so she bought me a guitar with a book of stamps. You filled up three of these books with stamps and you could get a gift from the Spiegel catalogue," he says. In fact, in the liner notes of The Prodigal Son, Powers thanks his mother for buying his first guitar with those books of stamps.
Unfortunately, Powers admits to his guitar sitting alone for a long time, and the only attention it got was when he put his toy soldiers on top of the case. "A friend came over (to his house) one day and he began playing the guitar. I thought, ‘Wow that’s what it is supposed to do!’ The sound of the guitar got to me before I even knew what the music was about," he says.
"The first guitar song to get my attention was "I’m Your Witch Doctor," by (John Mayall) & the Bluesbreakers. I liked the feedback. That is what brought me back to the Yardbirds because they could do things with the guitar that nobody in America was doing. Nobody could play songs like that," he says.
Another guitar song to grab the young Powers attention was "Sleep Walk" by the New York City steel and electric guitar duo Santo and Johnny (Farina). In 1959, "Sleep Walk" went to number one on the pop charts, and experienced close to a four-month stay in the top forty.
What was it about blues music that attracted you Michael? "The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll," he laughs. Getting more serious he adds, "I also dug how the guitars looked. It was like a sports car with all the colors. Anything that had a whammy bar (tremolo bar) on it would make me go, 'Wow, look at that!' We couldn’t afford that stuff. What was good about being in my neighborhood was everyone had good equipment, so when they weren’t practicing, I could go down there and pick something up."
On stage, Powers still prefers a vintage presentation. He says, "I use a Fender Rosewood. It is a Hendrix signature guitar like the one he used at Woodstock. I use Marshall amps and old echo flex sound on the sound machine. I use some compression and that is about it. There is nothing like a Marshall amp and a Fender guitar together."
Powers both finger picks and flat picks, but he says, "I like the sound of my fingers compared to the sound of using a pick or a penny. The flesh against steel (creates) such a warm sound."
He got his start with the R&B Zigzags in 1965, and he remembers those humble beginnings, "There was a lead singer with a harmonica. Instead of using a bass guitar, we used a regular guitar and (played on) only four strings. We played a lot of Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry." Then laughing he says, "We all played out of the same amplifier, ran a mic through it and sang through it too."
Powers later joined the Adlibs as their lead singer and guitarist opening for acts such as, Kool and The Gang when they were still known as the Soul Town Review. They also set the table for the Boxtops, Richie Havens, and numerous Motown artists. It was during his time with the Adlibs that the band recorded the hit song "Boy From New York City," a tune that Powers is thinking about recording on his next record. The Adlibs were also featured on the Dick Clark show.
A thirteen-year stay with the band Moonbeam saw Powers open for James Brown, Bo Diddley and the Ronnettes.
Powers leaves no doubt that the sixties were the time that most affected him musically, "The sixties was a historical revolution. It wasn’t like an American Idol show putting things together that they thought might sell Coca-Cola. These cats were talking from their hearts and from the street."