Geoff Giffin and Wendy Bollard’s Peninsula Productions has a special treat coming for blues and roots music fans – a Christmas concert in his new hometown by multi-talented musician John Lee Sanders.
The vocalist, keyboardist and tenor saxist – known for his trademark hats – will be performing an evening of feel-good gospel, rocking blues and classic Christmas songs, this Friday (Dec. 16) at First United Church, 15385 Semiahmoo Ave.
It promises to be a stellar occasion – in addition to Sanders, A Gospel Blues Christmas will feature the phenomenal voice of Sibel Thrasher (who’ll also do some solos) as well as a band of first-call talents, including Mike Kalanj on Hammond B3, Dennis Marcenko on bass, Tim Porter on guitar and Chris Nordquist on drums.
The Louisiana-born Sanders acknowledged he’s been steeped in the blues and roots tradition from the time he was a tot in Memphis, Tenn. (his uncle and aunt lived only a few doors down from Elvis Presley) through formative years spent in Birmingham, Ala.
“I spent 29 years in San Francisco, but my roots are in the Deep South,” he noted in his characteristic soft Southern drawl.
In his years in the Bay area, he built a reputation as a top West Coast session player, working with such greats as Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Huey Lewis, Bo Diddely and Chuck Berry.
He’s also played major festivals across North America and Europe.
He was first introduced to the Canadian blues scene when he became musical director for the late Long John Baldry in the 1980s.
“It was kind of an eye-opener how well the blues was appreciated up here,” he said.
It’s White Rock’s gain that, after a two-year stint in Vernon, Sanders recently put down permanent roots in the city with his wife, Judy. He’s even mentoring emerging talents here, teaching private lessons in voice, piano and saxophone through Tapestry Music.
“When John contacted me with the idea of doing a gospel blues show for Christmas, I jumped at the chance,” Bollard said. “Our mandate is to produce extraordinary performances and John is beyond extraordinary.”
Sanders said he feels fortunate to have been exposed to many musical influences growing up, as well as receiving a thorough grounding in jazz and classical music and theory at North Texas State University and the University of Louisiana.
“I got a degree in composition, orchestration and conducting at the same time I was learning how to play rock n’ roll,” he said.
He also values an early childhood spent around the Mississippi Delta.
“I couldn’t think of a better place to grow up, as a musician,” he said, adding that one of his other early memories is being around six years old and listening to the band started by his brother, a gifted boogie-woogie pianist in his own right.
“I was always hearing gospel in church and blues and rock. I didn’t know it was the blues – I just knew it was good.”
Sanders also remembers hearing the Rolling Stones for the first time when he was 12 or 13 and living in Alabama (at the time the precocious Sanders had already started his musical career and was being billed as Birmingham’s answer to Stevie Wonder).
“They were playing a Muddy Waters tune for 20,000 people in a stadium, but black blues bands were playing the same things at juke joints all across the South and it was overlooked.”
It was only when he went to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1973, he said, that he began to fully grasp the impact the blues had had around the world.
“I grew up thinking blues music was a limited thing – they taught me in school that it was just a ‘street’ thing. When I went to Europe, seeing how people appreciated it was a life-changing experience – it sort of legitimized what I knew all along.”
For a sample of music from the concert, visit www.johnleesanders.com
Tickets are on sale at Tapestry Music and online at www.surrey.ca/culture-recreation or call 604-501-5566.