Grady Champion is nothing if not an opportunist, in the best sense of the word. When the limelight is nearby, he's not too shy to step right in and reap the rewards. For evidence check out the April issue of National Geographic magazine. The venerable publication's feature on the blues includes a photograph of the late guitarist Luther Allison, onstage two years ago at B.B. King's nightclub on Beale Street in Memphis.
"I ended up being in that picture," says Champion, a Mississippi native who makes his home in Miramar. "They had me standing right behind them. I just kept getting myself in the right place at the right time."
There's plenty more proof of the 29-year-old bluesman's nose for determining the right moment to demonstrate his talents as a singer, lyricist, and harp master in training. He hooked up with Smokey Wilson in Memphis, sat in with the Holmes Brothers, impressed audience members at a Junior Wells show in Delray Beach, and played with Lucky Peterson at Tobacco Road.
That last spot is where the brash, charismatic entertainer (a former rapper) began to seriously polish his blues chops. Champion showed up several years ago at a Monday-night jam hosted by Iko-Iko, and talked his way into a performance of "Wang Dang Doodle," the Koko Taylor standard. But he didn't exactly set the world on fire.
"Grahams [Iko-Iko singer Graham Drout] said, 'You go and you work on your timing,'" he recounts. "I came back about two weeks later and I was hitting it right on. From then on it was just downhill, easy going. I kept working with it."
The short-term result: Payin' for My Sins. The just-released CD is the first of four discs Champion is slated to record with Shanachie, a well-regarded New York independent label best known for its world-music releases. The CD is a hotly anticipated followup to Goin' Back Home, put out on Champion's own Grady Shady label.
Blues enthusiasts warmed to that debut, with glowing reviews published in Living Blues, Real Blues, and Blues Access, while "The Blues on Christmas" (released earlier as a single) generated airplay around the nation. "This is a fine example of traditional blues as seen through modern eyes," noted a writer for Rock and Blues News. "Champion's going to be a force to be reckoned with. Bet on it."
Payin' for My Sins may generate an even bigger buzz, thanks to more accomplished emotional singing, ace instrumental work, a well-rounded mix of blues-based tunes, and loads of old-fashioned charisma.
Champion pays tribute to two heroes, with a convincing cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me to Talking" and a version of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City" that's sung with the original lyrics but imagined with a different meaning. Champion explains, "When I was singing 'Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City,' I was basically thinking more along the lines of society. It just seems like there's no love. People don't put enough emphasis on loving other people. I tell people: 'It's easy to love yourself, but could you love someone you don't know?'"
There's little chance of mistaking the subject of "Got Some Explaining to Do," a catchy R&B piece co-written with Champion's producer, Dennis Walker, who previously helmed Robert Cray's Strong Persuader and B.B. King's Blues Summit. Champion, a single father, may or may not be drawing from his own experience in this humorous tale of a partner full of loopy excuses for unexpected absences. "A lot of people will sit there calling guys dogs and saying a guy is looking to take advantage," he says. "But today, modern women is probably doing worse than the man. They making up for lost time, I think."
Then again testosterone reigns supreme on the hard-driving "My Rooster Is King," a song built on raunchy double-entendres. The disc is rounded out by a joyful, gospel-tinged romp through "Some Kind of Wonderful," (the 1967 Soul Brothers Six tune popularized by Grand Funk Railroad), and a reinterpretation of the traditional blues piece "Goin' Down Slow" as an AIDS parable.
"I move around," Champion says. "I like to try to keep it exciting. A lot of people hear the twelve-bar blues or something they've heard for the last 30 or 40 years and they get tired of it. I never want to leave the roots of the blues, but I want to try to branch out just a little bit, but not go too far from the tree."
Although a resident of South Florida for more than a decade, Champion is rooted in the Mississippi mud of his hometown, rural Canton. The youngest of his father's 28 children, he grew up helping his family work in fields that produced cotton, corn, peas, squash, and watermelon.
Early on he tapped into the urban-blues sound associated with the Malaco label and artists such as Bobby "Blue" Bland, Z.Z. Hill, and Little Milton. Later he worked his way into the music of Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, and other traditionalists.
"I loved the playing," he says. "If you listen to the guitar licks, the harmonica, the piano of someone like Otis Spann -- you're feeling it. Just like when you go to church on Sunday, you got the preacher up there preaching and you got the deacons behind him, and you feel it."
Champion got his first taste of the big city when he left Mississippi to attend Miami-Edison high school for his senior year. (He eventually decided to stay in Miami.) He worked at a now-defunct rap label, Sun Town Records, named himself MC Gold, and released "Blind Date," a 1990 bass single, on his own label.
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Champion chose to abandon new-school rhymes for the old-school stuff after taking part in a 1994 McDonald's battle-of-the-bands competition. He rapped a piece called "Mississippi Blues Man," and a judge suggested that his raspy vocals seemed destined for the blues. In the same contest, the next year, with Queen Latifah as a performer and Betty Wright as a judge, Champion, backed by Iko-Iko, placed first with his rendition of Buddy Guy's "Damn Right I've Got the Blues."
Since his official conversion to the blues, the irrepressible entertainer hasn't looked back.
"I'm still growing, and I'll continue to grow," Champion enthuses. "I think it's gonna be something beautiful. I want to give the people what I have inside of me. I'm looking to definitely get to the top of this thing. I think if you respect the people that listen to you, that's gonna happen."
Grady Champion performs Thursday, August 19, at 9:00 p.m. at Satchmo, 60 Merrick Way, Coral Gables. For ticket information call 305-774-1883.