Veteran bluesman John Lee Sanders warms up the piano at First United Church

Veteran bluesman John Lee Sanders warms up the piano at First United Church

A dose of blues and gospel comes to the Peninsula

John Lee Sanders will return to White Rock's First United Church for a holiday show

A return of of John Lee Sanders Gospel and Blues Christmas Show was a done deal – virtually while the rafters of White Rock’s First United Church were still ringing from last year’s show.

So says Wendy Bollard, artistic director of Peninsula Productions, who will bring back the veteran pianist and saxophone player – and a powerhouse band featuring phenomenal lead vocalist Sibel Thrasher – Sunday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. at the church.

“Last year’s show was such a success we asked John that night to come back this year,” Bollard said. “We’re hoping to make it an annual thing in White Rock.”

If Sanders doesn’t know how to put together a feel-good evening of high energy gospel, rocking blues and classic Christmas songs, no one does.

Born in Monroe, La.  he grew up surrounded by blues and roots music, from a childhood in Memphis, Tenn. (his uncle and aunt lived only a few doors down from Elvis Presley) through formative years spent in Birmingham, Ala.

In some 30 years in the San Francisco Bay area, he built a matchless reputation as a west coast session player, working live and in the studio with such greats as Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Huey Lewis, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.

He’s travelled to major blues festivals across North America and Europe and became a fixture on the Canadian blues scene when he became musical director for the late Long John Baldry in the 1980s.

It would be understandable for such a musician to become jaded, but the spare, soft spoken Sanders’ eyes lit up when discussing the show ahead – and particularly the thrill of working with musicians of the calibre of Thrasher.

“She was recently named Vancouver entertainer of the year,” he noted.

He’s also looking forward to working with fiddler and accordionist Gary Comeau again, he said.

“He showed up last year on short notice,” he said. “I come from Louisiana and that Acadian, cajun fiddle is a real part of the music down there – and he’s the real deal.”

The same killer rhythm section (Mike Kalanj on Hammond B3, Dennis Marcenko on bass, Tim Porter on guitar and Chris Nordquist on drums) has been with him since 2005, he added, with a resultant telepathy that makes the sound that much tighter.

“And the Hammond organ really adds to the black gospel feel,” he said. “That’s such a huge part of of my memories of Christmas.”

Sanders knows whereof he speaks, having learned first-hand of the Great Migration that took some 10 million African Americans from the South to northern and western industrial areas during the early decades of the last century.

“I played for four years as the Hammond organist in a black church in Oakland, California,” he recalled.

“That was one of the coolest gigs in my life. Most of the families had come from Northern Louisiana, where I come from. In the Great Migration, most of the people from Northern Louisiana and Tennessee went to Oakland.”

The social upheavals had an interesting effect on the way music – particularly the blues and gospel – developed in different areas of the U.S., he noted.

“A lot of the people from Mississippi went to Chicago. I also lived in Birmingham, and the people there had a great vocal tradition. A lot of the people went from there to Detroit and you can find a lot of that sound in the vocal groups that created Motown.”

But a concert like the upcoming Christmas show demonstrates how geographic separation and stylistic demarcations don’t really apply – so long as one can feel the power of the music, Sanders agreed.

“In this kind of music, everything’s interchangeable,” he said. “Everybody has the same DNA – the chords are all the same, and the scales.”

Tickets ($25 advance, $30 at the door) are available at Tapestry Music (1335 Johnston Rd.) or can be reserved for pickup at the church through


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