Rickey Godfrey’s new CD, “Nasty Man.”
By Brian M. Howle
There needs to be an admission on my part right up front – I’m a very fortunate man in so many ways, and I honestly do try to keep them in perspective. With the love of music as my guiding light, it has offered more rewards than I ever dreamed possible – but not just in personal satisfaction or achievements. Because, you see, I’m not the smartest guy in the world – but I am smart enough to know how many incredibly talented folks there are in this field, all of whom are light years ahead of me in terms of ability. But it’s the ones who have taken what most of us consider the drawbacks, the bad hands and the tough breaks of life – and never flinched in going forward and living life to its fullest – who are my true heroes.
And so, my own humbling received a fresh coat this week when I had the great privilege of interviewing blues/jazz/rock musician and vocalist extraordinaire, Rickey Godfrey, via the telephone as he prepared for a gig in Greenville, S.C.
By the way, Rickey can play guitar, piano, synth keyboards, and about anything he puts his mind to, as well as writing, arranging, producing, editing, recording – all with a laugh and a smile … well, you get the picture. Oh yeah, and not that it matters – but he’s also blind.
Howle: Hey, Rickey – where are you right now, and how’s everything going?
Godfrey: Well, I’m in the Greenville area, visiting my mom and family before I go out and play tonight. This is where I was born, and I have a big fan base here, so it works out great that I’m able to come back and play a lot around here.
Howle: So where do you base from now, and how many days a year are you on the road?
Godfrey: Well, I live in Nashville now. But quite often what I’ll do is leave on Wednesday evening or Thursday and come to the Carolinas to work. I’ve been doing a lot of that here lately; for the last two years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of solo gigs around Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson in the upper Carolinas – sometimes Charlotte, and occasionally Columbia – and every now and then in the Myrtle Beach area, particularly North Myrtle Beach and Wilmington. That’s been my main playing area for the last couple of years, but hopefully that’s getting ready to change.
Howle: Hmmm … well, that pretty much begs the question: What are you hoping to change?
Godfrey: Well, I’d like to get into a situation where I can get another band together and start playing the midwest area, generally no more than 4 or 5 hours out of Nashville. And that’s great because Nashville is centrally located; there’s a lot of large cities around Nashville. For instance, Chicago’s only 7-1/2 hours from there; Louisville, Birmingham, Memphis and Knoxville are only 3 hours out; Atlanta’s 4-1/2 hours out; Cincinatti’s 5 hours out; and St. Louis is like, 6 hours out. So in terms of working a really big area without having to cover more than 5 to 6 hours, Nashville’s in a pretty good location.
Howle: (Laughing) Well, if it’s good enough for FedEx, I’m sure it’s good enough for you!
Godfrey: Well, I imagine (laughs) .. yeah!
Howle: So, tell me Rickey – what was the genesis for your involvement in music? What’s your first recollection of it?
Godfrey: Let’s see … from the earliest I can remember, my paternal grandmother had a piano, and I could go to it and pick out the melody lines from stuff I heard on the radio. My older brother (Ronnie) played, and quite often when we were young, we would play together; and he would say, “I want you to play the bass part while I play the regular part.” So he showed me several bass parts, and I was like, 5 or 6 years old at the time. But when I went to the School for the Blind in Spartanburg, this teacher gave us a music test, you know:
“Is this note high or low? (makes high-pitched sound) “Well, that’s high.”
“Okay, how about this one? (makes low-pitched sound) “Oh, that’s low.” And he said, “Alright, you’re taking music.” So basically, they put us in music whether we like it or not – if we had the talent to do it!And really, to be honest with you, just taking music lessons was OK, but I wasn’t all that crazy about it. At that point, after playing piano for about five or six years, I was about 14 and I decided to get out of playing. I didn’t want to play anymore, and I didn’t want to practice – it was classical music, which I liked, but I just didn’t want to spend the time learn it. So I got out of it for about two years.
Well, when I was about 15, I was in my room reading one day, and these guys came over to play ‘cause my brother was auditioning for this soul band. So he knocks on my door and says, “Man, come out here and sing for these guys.” And I said, “Man, I don’t want to do that, I’m reading.” But he kept at it, “Come on, man, just come on out and do it for the heck of it and sing a couple with them.” So I did, and then the band said, “Hey, we want him, too!” So, before I knew it, I was sorta, like, in a band – whether I liked it or not! (Laughs) But I ended up really enjoying it, because this was so different from classical music. Now, I loved classical, but the thing of playing it was: classical was demanding, you had to phrase it the exact same way evey time you played. And even though I loved listening to it, there was a lot more pressure to play any classical piece than there was to playing rock ‘n’ roll or soul music. But being with my brother and playing with these guys, I realized that, generally, this stuff was much easier to play than classical music.
And then I started progressing – it took me about six months before I started being able to pick up on songs on the radio. And about that time, that Christmas, someone had a guitar laying around. So I picked it up and started playing it – I’d just turned 15. And I was hooked! I played that thing every day for the next six or eight months, and I started getting better just because of my love for it. So that’s pretty much how I got started.
Howle: So then, how old were you when you got involved in the band, Garfeel Ruff? And how did that come about?
Godfrey: Well, I’d been playing guitar for about two or three years. I’d joined this band called The Fresh Licks, which had won the S.C. State Battle of the Bands; I joined them a couple of months after they had just lost the Nationals, and I played with them about a year. So in January of 1974, I played around in different bands at clubs in the area. And then my brother, Ronnie, and Frank Wilkie and Alan Pearson were playing with this guy named Moses Dillard around the Greenville-Spartanburg area in a band called Moses Dillard and Lovejoy.
Well, they weren’t making any money, and they weren’t happy with the direction the band was headed, so they decided to form their own band, and they asked me to join them – which I thought was great! We started practicing every day, I think we practiced like 21 days in a row. Now, the first name we had for the band was Carolina, but after we had that name for about four or five months, we started thinking up different names, and one of us came up with Garfeel Ruff, which was the name of this guy we went to school with at the School for the Blind.
So when we were having our pictures made for promotional stuff, the photographer said, “I like Garfeel Ruff better than anything else y’all have been talking about.” Now, the band was a democracy, usually arguing about everything, but when he said that, we all went, “Oh, well, OK, that’s what we’ll be, then!” So that band got together in December, 1974 and went on until September, 1979, almost 5 years. We got a deal with Capitol Records in late 1977, and we started recording in 1978. Actually, we ended up recording our album twice, which the second version was what ended up being released on Capitol in March of 1979, called Garfeel Ruff.
Howle: Now, I’m trying to piece together some fragmented memories from back then (Both laugh) because I’m trying to remember where I saw you … did y’all open for some of the big names at the time, or did you stay on the smaller circuit?
Godfrey: Well, we generally stayed on the smaller circuit because it seems like, about that time, some of the really bigger agencies started cutting back on bands. The agency we were trying to get on with was Paragon, which dealt mainly with southern rock bands. We didn’t know it at the time, but radio and the big live circuit weren’t playing a lot of Southern Rock stuff, even though Marshall Tucker really hit it big in about July of 1976. We opened for MT two or three times. Our first big concert was in June of 1976 at Serene Stadium in Greenville for 20,000 people; there was Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels, Grinder Switch, Wet Willie …
Howle: That’s it! That’s the show where I saw you guys! I was hoping against all hope you would somehow, accidentally dig up something to help me recall that. Wow … I couldn’t remember if it was a small club or a big show, but ...
Godfrey: Oh, it was raining!
Howle: Oh yeah, yeah! And I couldn’t really recall the bigger names at the time, but I remember y’all because you blew away the crowd! Oh, thank you so much for filling in the gaps! (Both laugh)
Godfrey: Well, we played, and then Grinder Switch started their set and about halfway thru it started raining. And then Wet Willie got up and started their set, but the rain really started coming down, and they would stop and wait it out and then try again, and after about four or five songs they said, “Y’all, we’re really sorry, but we just can’t do this in this rain,” and they had to stop the show.
Howle: Oh, it was a freakin’ monsoon, for sure! But in fairness to the bands, there wasn’t really any protection for the stage, just a small overhang and all the instrments, amps and power boxes were soaked. I remember on the way home we were laughing about how wet Wet Willie was!
Godfrey: Oh, they basically had to cancel the show, and I think they had a makeup date, but we didn’t make it to that. I guess they figured, “Well, they’ve already played, they don’t need to do it again!’
Howle: Well, it really made an impression on me, seeing you guys play … I’ve been telling people for years about that show, although I coudn’t place it until now.
So, getting back to you – When you attended school and took music, did you learn to play by ear or by reading sheet music?
Godfrey: I would say more by ear; however, I got to where I could read braille music pretty well, so I was comfortable in both environments, really. I was studying classical guitar with a teacher for about the first four years, while my brother Ronnie was playing so many challenging classical pieces on piano. I had a chance to go to Peabody Conservatory to study classical guitar, and thought about not going to college. It’s funny, a guy named Richard Phillips came to Furman, I think, to play a classical guitar concert. And when I went backstage to talk to him, he said, “You know, I went to Peabody, but I really didn’t like it, because the instructor there was real hard to get along with, and if I were you, I’d go somewhere else, ‘cause you’re not gonna like this guy!” (Laughs) You know, it’s funny, because this was Spring of 1975 and I’d pretty much made up my mind I was gonna stick with Garfeel Ruff and not go to college to study classical, because we were pretty much on the edge of making our record deal.
But we also opened up for bands like The Dixie Dregs a few times. And we played Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom in Atlanta, opening up for Manfred Mann and Nils Lofgren. We played Brother’s Music Hall in Birmingham, opening for Roger Valdoress. So we opened up for some big names, but we played the small clubs around the Carolinas and Georgia, and some of the bands that were playing the same clubs were Dixie Dregs, Eric Quincy Tate and The Tall Dogs.
Howle: Now, without getting too deep into it – do you feel there has been any advantage or disadvantage to having lost your sight, in terms of how your learned music and how it’s affected you or your career?
Godfrey: I think it’s all been an advantage, really, because when you’re playing live, you can really get locked into what you’re playing, musically. You know, if there was some pretty girl dancing in front of me, you’re not gonna see all that! (Both laugh)
Rickey Godfrey burnin’ up licks on his trademark Telecaster at a local gig.
(Photo by Demian Riley)
Howle: Fair enough! So, what are the technological tools in music that have been the greatest help for someone who is blind?
Godfrey: Well, technologically, from a pure music sense, not that much. I never have relied upon that all that much. But now, of course, that we have digital editing, I just love that. I have a machine that is blind-friendly that I can use, and that’s just something I never dreamed that I’d ever have. So digital recording and digital editing is kinda cool, but in terms of actually learning, there really is no technology that takes the place of what you can do with your own mind.
And being blind, like I said, you’re not as easily distracted by things going on around you, so you can really zero in what you’re doing. If there’s a big crowd around me, I can tune them out and sort of retreat inward, you might say, and concentrate on playing. So the natural advantages of blindness allow you stay focused on the music. We’re forced to remember everything and recall it, and it builds and strengthens your mind like a muscle – and there’s not really any technological device that can do that for you.
Howle: Well, I was just wondering how that was for you, because I learned to play by ear, and by the time I got into music lessons, it was just frustrating. I couldn’t see the point in wasting time with all that stuff, when the teacher could show me how a song goes, and in a couple of minutes, I could play it, by ear, without any sheet music. Then they would always say, well, that’s nice, but you’ll need to know this down the road. And of course, down the road, I realized what they meant!
Godfrey: Well, there’s a combination thing, a halfway thing that’s half-ear training and half-music. From the time I was six to about thirteen, when I learned, say, an F-Major chord, I’d say, well, that’s F, A and C played together, and I didn’t really look at that as an F-Major chord; I thought it’s an F, A and C together – it’s an F-chord. I kinda knew that, and that an F-Minor was an F, A-Flat and C. So what I learned growing up was all the notes that made up a chord, and also all the keys, and how many flats and sharps they had. I knew that if something was marked 4 Flats, 4/4 – it was 4/4 time and it was gonna be in either A-Flat Major or F-Minor. If it was 3 Sharps, 3/4 – I knew it was gonna be A-Major or F-Sharp Minor; and generally, when you’re younger, they don’t have you play as much in a minor key.
But when I got in a band, and started playing in that first band with Ronnie, he would say, “Play an E-Flat Major 7th.” And I would say, “Well, what is that?” And he’d say, “Oh, just play an E-Flat chord, and you just add a ‘D’ to it.” And I went, “Oh. So they call that an E-Flat Major 7th?” So started learning what chord are and what they are called.
And then, a year or so after that, I started looking at music in terms of numbers. One good thing for learning chords for me was the Chicago song, “Colour My World.” So by 1974 I started learning what chord inversions were, and looking at chords in terms of, this is a One Chord; 6 Minor-4-5. And I knew that before, like an A-Minor was a 6-Minor of C, but I really hadn’t applied that until I had been in Garfeel Ruff for about a year. And I though, “Oh!” Then I realized you don’t even have to know what the chords are as long as you know what the numeric relationship is.
So if you have a song that’s 1-6 Minor-4-5, those numbers stay the same no matter what key you’re in. So learning how to deal with music numerically, and using the numbers to play songs was great. Because if you knew your scales, and somebody said, “Hey, my voice is really horse tonight, and I don’t want to do this song in A, I want you to drop it to F. Well, because you know the numbers, you’d say, well, this song is a 1-4-5, but there’s a 2 Minor-5-1 change at the end of the verse; but since I’m in A and I’m dropping it to F, there’s still gonna be a 2 Minor-5-1 change, rather than being B, E and A, which would be in the key of A. So I’m gonna play a G, C and then back to F because it’s a 2 Minor-5-1 change. So now, for the most part, whenever we communicate in musical terms, it ends up being the number system. After you get that number chart in your mind, then you say, “OK, now that I got the number part down, what key do you want to do it in?” And then it doesn’t matter – you can pick any key, and the numbers are gonna be the same.
Howle: Amazing. On some level, I must have accidentally learned some of that, because I have a shorthand I developed after learning how to play bass guitar that is very similar.
So, what were your main influences on styles, for guitar and keyboards? I was already familiar with your guitar style – but after listening to your new CD, “Nasty Man,” I called my editor and friend, Dariel, and asked her, “Who is that playing keyboards on Rickey’s CD? I love that style!” And she said, “That’s Rickey.” And I was stunned, because I was driving and hadn’t looked at the liner notes yet. How did you get that particular sound?
Godfrey: Well, back in the old days, I liked soul music. And I approach music more from a vocalist’s standpoint, just using keyboards as something to accompany myself. But it turns out, when I started getting into guitar and then actually getting into guitar players – in the old days, it was like some of the folk guitarist-songwriters like Paul Simon and James Taylor and stuff like that because I was finger pickin’.
But even then, I started listening to Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter and Rick Derringer, Santana – you know, those were my first early influences. And of course all the blues players like B.B. King and those guys. But then, when I heard a Django Reinhardt record I said, “Wow, this is just incredible!” So I went back and started listening to some of the earlier jazz players. So I’d say my style is a cross between Johnny Winter and Django Reinhardt in terms of how I approach the guitar, especially Jango, because there’s just some sort of affinity I have for him.
Actually, my biggest keyboard influence has probably been my brother, Ronnie. As he was developing, he was listening to a lot of the same stuff that I was, guitar-wise; and he was transposing that sound to the keyboard. So Ronnie was really a big influence on me, but so was Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. But there were people like Mose Allison and Billy Taylor, and Ramsey Lewis, people we listened to growing up. And a lot of times, while listening to some of these horn players like Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman, I thought, “Hey, I want to learn how to play that on the piano!” So even sometimes on guitar or piano, I like to imagine I’m a horn player that’s kinda swingin’ in a band, you might say!
Howle: And I appreciate that, because I can actually understand what you mean! So, how long did it take for you to record the new CD, “Nasty Man?”
Godfrey: Really, I started on it in February of this year. I recorded all the tracks, and then just sorta let it lay around for three months because several of the songs that I had put just the music down – I hadn’t even written the lyrics. But I really started working on it in earnest in the middle of June, and then most of the songwriting part of it happened in June and July.
We wanted to get this thing out by October 15 so we would be eligible for any Blues awards and nominations, so August and the first couple of weeks of September ended up being really frantic, sometimes working 14 to 16-hour days in order to get this thing done. And I did a lot of the overdubs at my house – like, most of the piano stuff that you hear, I would play a Fender Rhodes and then go back and play the same thing again on another track, using a regular piano sound, then I would mold them together. But I had to learn them as I did, and sometimes that would take hours just for one song – so I saved myself a lot of money by doing that at my house. And it was hot – I didn’t have air conditioning at my house, so I really did have the blues when I was recording those tracks! Most of the rhythm guitar tracks I did at my house, as well as some of the lead guitar tracks. But the vocals, the bass, drums, all the mixing and editing was done at Serenity Hills, which is my friend Mike O’Neil’s house in Nashville.
Howle: And finally, I can’t tell you how impressed I was – as well as understanding of your words – when I started reading the liner notes, and your thanks were to my editor and friend, Dariel Bendin. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musician thank a writer/PR person like that, and it underscores what a class act you both are.
Godfrey: Oh, man, someone who really understands what she does … she’s the kinda people we really need. Because as musicians, we don’t really care whether people like what we’re doing or not, quite often. And Dariel’s one of those kind of people that, from a visual standpoint, would say, “This doesn’t look good,” or, “This does.” And really, she just sorta took it upon herself to be responsible for overseeing the whole cover production, which was a concept by artist Kimberly Dawn Clayton (in addition to being the model, she painted the folk art shower signage; CD design and art was by Demian Riley), handling all the layout and design and how it all came together. It’s been a mutually beneficial process for both of us, as we’ve gotten insights from each other’s profession. She’s been a huge help to me, and quite often, I tend to not really be careful about what I say, so she’s been instrumental in helping me on what to say or what not to say! I guess she helps to censor me! (Both laugh)
Howle: Oh, I know what you mean, Rickey. Dariel tells me what I need to hear, not what I might want to hear, and there aren’t many friends who understand that’s what a true friend does for you. I’m glad you had her to help you, because she loves music as much as any musician I’ve ever known, and she knows how to translate that across the board to regular folks in ways that are just amazingly talented and honest.
And thanks for producing such a delightful CD, Rickey. I’m looking forward to catching you live when you’re back down this way. What would you like to tell folks in closing?
Godfrey: One of the reasons I wanted to go into this blues/southern rock (but mostly blues) style is because when I did Beach Music from 2002 to 2008, I found it to be very limiting to me as an artist because all it emphasized more than anything was me as a vocalist. And with “Nasty Man,” I’m able to explore the entire scope of who I am as a musician; as a songwriter, as a guitarist I’m really able to play some hot guitar stuff, to expand my piano style – you know, the music for the music’s sake and not for any other reason. It’s more me than anything I’ve ever done.
So I thought I’d try to combine several niche markets that I was in. There’s already a lot of folks in Beach Music who like what I do, and you can get them into Blues if it’s something they can shag to – but I also wanted to capture these niche markets in Blues Music and also Southern Rock, from back in my Garfeel Ruff days; and maybe even some of the Roots Music crowd where people like Randall Bramblett and Delbert McClinton are in. My goal is to combine several of those niche markets into something that’s maybe not mainstream, but bigger than just one niche market
I have a Pay Pal account, and folks who would like to buy the CD can pay into the account of email@example.com, but I’m also making it available on cdbaby.com, and there’s my Nashville address at P.O. Box 100394, Nashville, TN 37224.
Right now, I’m having my web page, rickeygodfrey.com redirected to my blog page, rickeygodfrey.wordpress.com, because WordPress is much more blind-friendly in their format, and I’m hoping that by about Nov. 14 it will be up and running.
Howle: And I hope everyone out there will take the time to check out “Nasty Man” and buy themselves a copy thru one of those addresses! Thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with me, Rickey, and I wish you all the best in this and any and all of your future endeavors, my friend!
Godfrey: Thanks to you, Brian, and let me say I’m grateful to all the folks who told me, “Hey, you’ve got something special to offer as far as playing music; you don’t have to be of a musical stature of someone like, say, a Prince or a George Strait or a Bob Seegar to be appreciated by hundreds or even thousands of people. I guess what I’m saying is: If you haven’t heard of me, check my music out anyway – because it might be something you just might like!
Well, folks, there you have it. And allow me to share this with you: Having talent and ability are one thing, but no one can teach you how to be gracious, genuine and funny. Rickey Godfrey is the proverbial “real deal,” so do yourself a favor and check him out when he’s in our area in November at:
• Boom Boom’s Raw Bar, North Myrtle Beach, S.C. – Solo performance, starting at 5 PM and CD release party on Nov. 11;
• Rusty Nail Blues Club in Wilmington, N.C. – Playing with Lan Nichols, on bass, and Rich Laverdure, on drums on Nov. 12; and,
• Papa’s Pizza Wings & Things, Little River, S.C. – Solo performance starting at 7 PM on Nov. 13.
Oh, and as a little added bonus, you can go to myspace.com , look up Rickey Godfrey and check out all the tunes on the CD!
I should warn you, though … Once you do, you’ll be addicted to this effervescent, amazingly talented musician for life. Which is not a bad thing, but perhaps somewhat perplexing when you tell others you’re a fan of a “Nasty Man!”
This article also appears in Alternatives NewsMagazine, Nightlife & Entertainment, Nov. 4-18, 2010.