The great blues piano player Leroy Carr played a huge role in influencing guys like me. On my album Back To the Woods: A Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano, I recorded five songs of his. He and Scrapper Blackwell, (his guitar playing partner with whom he often recorded duets), gave us a plethora of wonderful recordings in the late 1920s and early ’30s. Carr only lived to be 30, drinking himself into an early grave, but the music he left behind is nothing short of legendary, and it lives on in his many recordings. One of my favorite songs of his that I covered is “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues.” It’s a great song to play and sing, and I’ve had fun with it in a live setting as well.
Let’s look at the introduction to Carr’s version of the song, and how I changed it in my own interpretation of it. My thanks to guitarist Danny Barnes and also to Louis Romanos on drums and Chris Enghauser on acoustic bass for helping me celebrate the great Leroy Carr and his undeniable contribution to blues piano.
1. Carr’s Intro
The above shows the intro to Leroy Carr’s version of “Low Down Dirty Dog Blues.” In it, the dominant phrase that occurs in the intro and throughout the song is played with a somewhat bouncy, almost shuffle feel. Carr recorded his version in the key of Eb, and it has a certain lilt to it, giving an almost happy vibe as he sings the lyrics, “I ain’t gonna be your low down dog no more.” Behind the repetitive figure he plays on the piano, Blackwell dances around on guitar with single-note improvisations over Carr’s piano and vocals, once again emphasizing the upbeat attitude of the track.
2. Leavell’s Interpretation
Here we have the intro to my interpretation of Carr’s song. I wanted my version to be a bit darker and more sinister, with a more defiant attitude. I decided to drop the song down to the key of D and while I play the phrase on the piano similarly, I did take out some of the “bounce” of Carr’s version and give the vibe a touch of vengeance. I smoothed out his more syncopated figure that is the foundation of the tune so as to make it lope along with an air of ominousness. I also asked Danny Barnes, who played guitar on the track, to simplify what Blackwell was doing on the original version and play more with the piano figure rather than around it. Later during my solo, I wanted to push it out of the box into a more free form direction, taking it towards a slight jazz idiom. I start with some blues licks, then morph it in the end with a twist of “avant-garde anger.”
Chuck’s Tips for Better Song Interpretations
1. Find a key that suits you.
2. Experiment with the arrangement.
3. Try using or adding different keyboard instruments (vintage keys, organ, piano, synth).
4. Experiment with different tempos.
5. Experiment with different instrumentation such as horns, strings, African drums, harmonica, or mandolin.
“The most important thing to remember about interpreting a song is to find your comfort zone with it and play it over and over again until it becomes your own,” says legendary keyboardist Chuck Leavell. Best known for his three decade plus run with the Rolling Stones, Leavell has also worked with artists like Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule, Train and John Mayer. Leavell is also the founder of irocku.com, a program of online piano lessons for “anyone who wants to play like a rockstar.” Find out more at www.chuckleavell.com