Ronnie Greer on A Lifetime With the Blues
Aged 62, the guitarist and singer finally releases his debut album. 'I'm glad I did it'
Most people, when they reach the age of 60, start thinking about slowing down and taking things a little easier. Not so for Northern Irish blues legend Ronnie Greer, who, at the tender age of 62, has released his first studio album, A Lifetime with the Blues.
Rather than 'go on a four-week Caribbean cruise', Greer made the effort to capture his unique live sound on disc. So why now? Why did it take so long to record his debut album? And what made him finally bite the bullet and enter the recording studio?
'I had the time and inclination to do it,' says Greer. 'At the end of last year I bid adieu to my day job. I’d been urged to do it for quite some time. I thought about it, put it on ice, then took the bull by the horns in January 2013 and made the album. I’m glad I did.'
Until recently, Greer worked in the steel industry by day and played blues and jazz clubs across Northern Ireland at night. He was a mainstay in the legendary Jim Daly Blues Band for many years before striking out on his own with the Ronnie Greer Band.
'The reason I never went with music full time was that I always had a good job,' Greer admits. 'I had too much to lose. By being part-time I was always able to pick and choose what I wanted to do. If I’d been a full-time musician, chances are I’d have had to move away from Northern Ireland.'
But that was not something that Greer wanted to do. 'By being a big fish in a small pond,' he adds, 'with the Jim Daly Band, every time American blues guys came to Belfast we always got the job of backing them. Because I stayed put, I’ve probably played with more blues legends that if I’d moved to Chicago or somewhere else, where I would’ve been just one of many guitar players trying to get a gig.'
Over the years Greer has shared a stage with greats like Dr John, Memphis Slim and Lowell Fulson, amongst others. That experience has fed into his acclaimed live performances and, ultimately, A Lifetime with the Blues.
'The great thing about playing the blues is that if your health holds out you can keep playing indefinitely,' Greer continues. 'People like John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy came to the fore when they were in their 50s and 60s. Some of the great blues artists sound better as they age. The voice matures, the standard of musicianship matures as well, and I’m hoping that will be the case with me as well,' he laughs.
It’s been a long, long road for Greer since he first began playing with the Secret Showband in the central ballroom in Newcastle, County Down, many moons ago.
'All the guys in the band were quite a bit older than me,' he recalls. 'They were into jazz and blues. And one particular guy, Billy Grey, the leader of the band, he introduced me to artists like Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong.
'Then I met Jim Daly. I went down to the Golden Jubilee on Cromac Street, a bar that had jazz or blues every Thursday or Friday night. I heard Jim play the Chicago blues and asked to sit in with him. He said yes and the rest, as they say, is history.'
As well as his regular band, Greer is joined on the album by a host of musical talent from across Northern Ireland, including singers Grainne Duffy and Ken Haddock, trumpeter Linley Hamilton and master songwriter Anthony Toner.
'All the people on the album are all people I’m involved with on a gigging basis. Grainne Duffy guests with my band on a fairly regular basis. We’d maybe do six to eight gigs a year with her. Ken Haddock is in the fold as well, he’s a great singer. I’ve been trying to get Ken to guest with my band for years now, but the dates never suited.
'Linley Hamilton and Dave Howell both play with me when I put Ronnie Greer’s Almost Big Band out. So everyone involved in the album has guested with my band at some stage.'
Recorded at Hillhouse Studios outside Belfast, the album’s 12 songs cover a breadth of blues styles, from the Delta blues of Robert Johnson to the laid back Tulsa sound of the recently departed JJ Cale. Anthony Toner takes lead vocals on a beautiful version of Bob Dylan’s 'Blind Willie McTell', and the album includes two originals in Kyron Burke’s heartbreaking 'Jennifer' and Greer’s own 'Goin’ Down to Clarksville', which is a musical and lyrical tribute to the music he loves so much.
'I’m not a good songwriter,' Greer humbly states. 'I’ve tried many times and ended up writing something that’s already been done by somebody else. But 'Clarksdale' came together and I got away with that one.'
Greer felt it was important to produce a ‘live’ sounding album, and along producer (and the band’s keyboard player) John McCullough, strived hard to achieve this.
'Most of the albums these days, the people who are on them never see each other. Sometimes that can come across on their records. We overdubbed some vocal tracks, but the actual instrumentation is mostly live.
'We wanted to recreate what people would hear when they come to hear the Ronnie Greer Band in all its various forms, from a quartet up to the eight-piece band. A lot of people have said that that’s exactly what they hear when they listen to the album. They get a sense that they’re at a gig, which is exactly what we were trying to do.'
As well as blues, Greer’s other great musical love is jazz, particularly Bebop and modern jazz. That influence can be heard the guitar solo on 'Walkin’ Blues'.
'I’m playing quite a bit of jazz at the moment with Linley and Scott Flanagan, who would be Ireland’s top young piano player. We play quite a bit down at Bert’s Piano bar in the Merchant Hotel every Monday night. I really enjoy getting the opportunity to play that kind of stuff, which is what I listen to mostly at home. I do listen to a lot of blues, but the vast majority of my vinyl collection would be modern jazz.'
Greer and his band head out around the country in October and November 2013 in support of the album, playing to his many fans. After that, will thoughts turn to a follow-up record?
'Linley is keen for me to do a more jazz orientated album, but I’m not sure it’ll make a lot of sense commercially,' Greer admits. 'Jazz is a bit of an acquired taste. The jazz that I play is jazz with a small j. I love to play it, buts it’s more challenging harmonically. Everyone is urging me to go again, so I dare say there’ll be more in the not too distant future.'
The Ronnie Greer Band & Friends begin their tour of Northern Ireland in Flowefield Arts Centre, Portstewart on October 11, before travelling to Newtownabbey, Omagh, Ballymoney, Larne and Lisburn. A Lifetime With the Blues is available to order from Greer's website.