“The blues is a broad church and Jay Owens preaches in the soul chapel,” wrote music critic Neil Slaven in 1995. Blind guitarist and singer Isaac Jerome Owens was born in Lake City, Florida in 1947. His parents were both ministers in the Pentecostal Church and encouraged their son’s musical endeavors. Owens learned to sing at the church where his mother served as minister. In his early years he was also influenced by his uncle, Clarence Jenkins, a popular local blues musician. Owens learned to accompany his uncle on the bass strings of his first guitar. Also living in the area was guitarist Jimmy McLin, who played with the famed vocal group The Ink Spots. From McLin, Owens learned about chords and tunings.
The young musician began playing professionally during high school, joining bands including Albert Wright and the Houserockers, a revue band that featured shake dancers. Owens later joined The Barons, led by Chuck Mills, and toured the United States, along the way working with soul and blues artists Al Green, O.V. Wright, Donny Hathaway, Little Milton, and Bobby Womack. He also played with Tampa-based R&B vocal trio Faith, Hope, and Charity and followed Zulema Cusseaux, the group’s lead singer, to New York City when she began pursuing a solo career. Owens later started forming his own bands, including blues trio Soundtrack and the Pocket, which played at NYC clubs such as Manny’s Car Wash and the Lone Star Cafe. He came to the attention of UK producer Mike Vernon on the strength of a demo tape and the recommendation of Louisiana harmonica player and vocalist Lazy Lester. Vernon invited Owens to England, where he proved a surprise hit at the 1992 Burnley Blues Festival.
Vernon–who produced music by American and British blues artists such as Fleetwood Mac and Christine McVie with his label Blue Horizon in the 1960s–produced Jay Owens’ debut solo album, The Blues Soul of Jay Owens (1992). The album, featuring 13 original compositions blending blues, soul, and gospel, won Living Blues magazine’s Best Blues Album and Best Debut Album awards. In a 1993 review for Vox magazine, Andy Robson noted Owens’ emotive vocal style and wrote, “…if you like your blues soul-tinged and nearer to dance than doom and gloom, Owens delivers…”
Owens followed up with twelve more original songs in 1995 with Movin’ On, also produced by Mike Vernon. Reviewer Neil Slaven remarked in Vox that most of the tracks “display his command of the soul conventions” and feature his “confident guitar solos.” Artists such as Jim Leverton, James Booker, and K.T. Oslin have also recorded songs that Owens wrote. At the turn of the century, Owens was drawing crowds at music festivals in the UK and the US. He passed away in Orlando, FL, in 2005 due to complications from diabetes.
Why not learn to play–or learn about–some of the styles that Jay Owens blended so masterfully? The NLS Music Section offers the following books in audio, braille, and large-print formats so that you, too, can discover your blues soul.
Slaughter, Henry. Henry Slaughter Gospel Piano Course. One volume in bar over bar format. (BRM29856)
Gospel’s Best: Words and Music. Melody with lyrics and guitar chord diagrams. (LPM00759)
Block, Rory. Classics of Country Blues Guitar (DBM02193). “Learn to play some of the greatest Delta blues guitar solos of all time, taught in accurate detail by a contemporary master of the genre.” –Publisher’s website.
Brown, Bill. Chicago Blues Guitar 1 (DBM02223). Bill Brown teaches Chicago blues on guitar without the use of music notation. Level 2 difficulty.
Brown, Bill. Essential Electric Minor and Pentatonic Licks (DBM02950). Teaches how to play many standard blues and minor licks by Clapton, Ray Vaughan, Iommi, Hendrix, and others without the use of music notation. Each lick is played normally and slowly and then described in detail, including any special techniques. Includes backing tracks.
Brown, Bill. EZ Blues Solos 1 (DBM02469). Bill Brown teaches how to play Learn the rhythm and lead parts to the blues solos “Highway Blues,” “Memphis Minnie Blues,” “Honey Babe,” and “Tuxedo Blues” without the use of music or tab.
Funaro, Arti. Rock Guitar Soloing (DBM01303). Funaro teaches styles including blues shuffle, funky blues, and soul.
Grossman, Stefan. Country Blues Guitar (DBM00485). Grossman takes the student beyond the simple steady or alternating bass and into moving bass lines, counterpoint, classical arranging, and open tunings. Songs in the styles of Elizabeth Cotten, the Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Sam McGee, Blind Boy Fuller, Frank Stokes, Tommy Johnson, and Willie Brown, including alternating bass styles, the Mississippi Delta sound, and the ragtime blues of North Carolina.
Grossman, Stefan. Fingerpicking Guitar Workshop (DBM01475). Topics covered include Bottleneck Styles and Techniques in Open G and D Tunings, Crossnote Tuning, Blues in E, Raggin’ The Blues, Blues From The Carolinas, The Guitar Of Rev. Gary Davis, Sophisticated Blues, Texas Blues and Atlanta Blues.
National Public Radio. Johnny Copeland (DBM01232). The singer and guitarist explains the difference between “Texas Country Blues” and “Texas City Blues” and why his music is often considered the quintessence of just plain Texas blues.
National Public Radio. Son Seals: A Listener’s Guide to the Blues (DBM01230). The Chicago blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist traces the blues’ move up the Mississippi into Memphis and Chicago, and explains how his own Arkansas roots influence his music.
Sires, Dean. Country Blues Gospel Guitar (DBM01480). Fingerstyle and bottleneck techniques have been traditionally used in both blues and gospel styles. Dean Sires presents a detailed study into playing country blues gospel guitar. For the beginner to intermediate guitarist.
Smithsonian Folkways. Classic African American Gospel (DBM03632). This panorama includes spirituals, guitar evangelists, “shout” bands, quartets and choirs. Reverend Gary Davis, Sister Ernestine Washington, Sonny Terry, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and Elizabeth Cotten are among those featured.
Smithsonian Folkways. Wade in the Water, Vol. 2: African American Congregational Singing (DBM01483). “This recording of ring shouts, lined hymns, and call-and-response devotional songs honors the 19th-century roots of African American congregational singing. It demonstrates how vividly these styles endure as a vital part of community worship services throughout the United States.” –Publisher’s note. (DBM03769)Sokolow, Fred. Electric Blues and Rock Guitar: Styles and Techniques. From Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop. Includes the following lessons: The Roots of Electric Blues; Electric Slide Guitar; Early Blues/Rock; Kings of Modern Blues; Modern Rock: English Blues and Heavy Metal; and Jazzy Electric Blues.