Text and Photos by Larry Benicewicz
I first met Texas born bluesman Hadden Sayers by accident last December at the venerable Syracuse blues shrine, the Dinosaur Barbecue. Despite the dire weather predictions, my friend and talent scout for Dixiefrog records of France, Guy “L’Americain” Fay, insisted that we make the six hour drive from Baltimore in order to not only hear some real blues but partake of the scrumptious, finger licking cuisine for which this establishment was famous. When we arrived, it was already snowing and I wasn’t in any mood to brave the elements, especially after having heard of some of the record accumulations in those parts of upstate New York. But that Thursday night, when Guy spied the name, Hadden Sayers, in a hotel flyer, he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. And since he was driving a rental, it was his call and I reluctantly went along for the ride.
About a dozen years ago, Guy had met this gifted guitarist when the latter performed at the then wildly popular tourist destination, Club Chesterfield at 124, rue la Boetie, just off the Champs Elysees in Paris. Guy at the time not only emceed the regular blues shows there for a live radio program but also interviewed the visiting (for the most part American) artists during intermission. During the drive over to the Dinosaur, Guy couldn’t say enough about him and why it was essential to catch his act before he left to play in Watkins Glen the next evening (he appeared at the Dinosaur franchise in Rochester the previous day). And, although the venue was sparsely attended that night, Hadden did not disappoint. And small, but vocal, hunkered down audience enthusiastically expressed its appreciation.
Fronting a power trio, Hadden, who over the years had cultivated quite a gritty baritone voice, played in crisp, clean, confident manner, often demonstrating dexterity with the instrument, especially when shouldering extended solo passages. But, I must add, as musician, he was stylistically difficult to pin down; in fact, he defied classification, which I should have expected when Guy told me that Hadden more or less fit the Elvin Bishop mold. At least during his first set, Hadden selected mostly his own compositions which were not of the standard fare, twelve bar variety; but each number had a definite rhythmic blues underpinning. And it was evident that Hadden had listened to a lot of diverse blues styles (and done his homework). Among his choices that night were a Cajun/zydeco crowd pleaser, “Why Oh Why,” and the Jimmy Reed boogie infused “Down and Out (Of My Mind),” which appeared on his first CD, Nationwide, and which he later reprised on his live album, Swingin’ from the Fabulous Satellite. Then came two blues based tunes from his Retrofutura CD, “No Way to Say Goodbye,” and “The Reason Why;” the first having a Howlin’ Wolf “Killing Floor” riff, while the latter evokes Little Junior Parker’s “I Want to Ramble.” In fact, “Retrofutura” is an apt way to describe Hadden’s modus operandihe certainly has one foot in the past, in the traditional sense of the blues, while the other constantly explores its evolution or boundaries.
Hadden generously gave us a fistful of his CDs to listen to on the way back to Baltimore and I think even Guy was surprised just how eclectic Hadden had become in the intervening years since his Paris sojourn. There were songs like “Falling for You” in the Van Morrison vein, “Johnny Law,” a Chuck Berry inspired rocker, C&W flavored “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Can’t Be Satisfied,” a James Taylor-esque folk ballad, “These Are the Good Old Days,” and “Trippin’ Down to Mexico,” dispatched in a breezy and laid back groove a la Jimmy Buffett. In fact, more than a few of his up tempo songs could have just as easily have been composed for say a Bob Seger---“Complicated,” “Mister Know It All,” “Good Man,” and “Little Bit of Love,” just to name a few. And even when his play list is the most blues oriented, Hadden is likely to break into his “Surf Medley,” in which he pays homage to guitar legends Dick Dale, Link Wray, and Johnny Rivers, a “digression” which invariably brings down the house.
No, Hadden Sayers will never please the blues purist, but one thing is for sure; you have to admire his tenacity and sense of survival, which includes tailoring his repertoire to the demands of his audience. Because in today’s world, live entertainment venues are shrinking at an alarming rate and my hat goes off to artists like zydeco exemplar Roy Carrier, acoustic guitar ace Ernie Hawkins of Pittsburgh, and Hadden Sayers, who have managed to eke out an existence without resorting to a day job. For how many of us can say we earn a livelihood from doing the thing we love most?
Hadden Sayers was born on August 12, 1967 in Nacogdoches, TX, about 80 miles NNE of Houston but spent his formative years in Plano, north of Dallas, and then Sugar Land, just SW of Houston, As a child in elementary school, his parents encouraged him to take up the guitar. “Yeah, they bought me this 3⁄4 size Yamaha acoustic and I actually took some lessons, learning to pick out the G, C, and D chords. But I wasn’t really interested in sight reading so much; so I put it aside,” he said. In high school, he was actually more engrossed in 4-H type endeavors (he entered his calf in the county fair) and living the life of a cowboy (with boots and a pickup truck) rather than pursuing a musical path. In fact, at eighteen, he enrolled in Texas A&M University, eventually earning a degree in agricultural journalism in 1989.
And it was in college as a freshman that he again picked up the guitar. “There was this guy I met there who had a real expensive Ovation guitar but couldn’t play a lick to save his life. It inspired me to go out and buy a [Gibson] Hondo Les Paul electric. Although I had some Roy Buchanan and Albert Collins material with me, I’d pretty much just hole up in my dorm room and try to emulate what I heard over the radio,” he said, acknowledging in particular the influence of other “hybrid pickers,” like Chris Duarte and David Grissom in his development. To augment his round the clock “wood shedding,” another noted guitarist on campus was able to give him a few pointers. And it wasn’t long before he became quite a proficient player.
According to Hadden, College Station (about 40 miles NW of Houston), the town surrounding the campus of Texas A&M, offered quite a few outlets to satisfy the entertainment needs of its students. Hadden began modestly, playing at a popular watering hole, the Cow Hop, “a funky little burger joint” on Northgate, but soon graduated to a grander venue, the now legendary Eastgate Live. Unlike the former dive, the Eastgate regularly presented top notch local and national acts like guitarists Chris Duarte, David Grissom, Joe Ely, and Eric Johnson, all from whom Hadden, as a spectator, absorbed quite a few ideas. Most certainly, one highlight from this period was opening for the legendary Omar (Dykes) & the Howlers. And it would be difficult to downplay the significance of the Eastgate in the career of Hadden Sayers; for not only did it provide him a public arena with which to season himself as a musician but also would allow him to initiate many relationships which would serve him in good stead further down the line. One of these early associations was with blues/soul singer Ruthie Foster with whom Hadden currently tours and has already accompanied her to the stages of this year’s edition of the Pocono Blues Fest (PA), the Telluride Blues & Brews Fest (CO), and the Monterey Jazz Fest (CA).
After graduation in late 1989, Hadden moved to Austin, TX, where he encountered percussionist Tony Coleman. Coleman, who had formerly distinguished himself on drums in the outfits of Otis Clay, Johnny Taylor, and Bobby Bland, was looking for a guitarist for his group, the “Silent Partners,” which included bassist Russell Jackson. The “Silent Partners,” when not contracting their own gigs, would also comprise the rhythm section of B.B. King’s touring band, and were then about to commence a decade long association with the blues demigod. To make a long story short, Hadden passed the audition but soon after, he, along with Coleman and Jackson, were recruited by guitarist/pianist Lucky Peterson (also an ex-Bland sideman) to serve not only as an opener but also as his supporting cast. And it was not an experience upon which Hadden looks back fondly. “The pay was awful and the itinerary was unrelenting and brutal. In early 1991, I finally said ‘uncle’ and headed back to Houston,” he said.
At that point, Hadden was about ready to abandon his dreams of a musical career, hoping to parlay his relatively fresh college degree into an entry level position. In Houston proper he found an apartment with a high school chum and began waiting tables in the expectation of landing a day job. In the meantime, he hooked up with local blues chanteuse, Wendy Slayton, who had just signed with fledgling label, Justice records. Ironically, on the day he received word that he had been hired by an oil trading company (in the pipeline scheduling department), Miss Molly (Elswick) of Miss Molly and the Whips called him about an opening, handling the guitar chores in her band. And without a doubt, Hadden was intrigued about joining up with the self proclaimed “Gulf Coast Blues Queen” whose stage act (a sample of which can be viewed on YouTube) has been portrayed in the newspapers as a “campy dominatrix vamp.” But “still operating under a mountain of debt,” he didn’t want to forgo his hard earned employment opportunity. Instead, he worked out an agreement whereby he could do both. “They [Molly & Whips] offered to fly me to gigs if my work schedule was in conflict with theirs,” he said. Nonetheless by 1992, after a year of juggling these twin occupations, he had to make a decision. “The company was going to promote me. And if I accepted, my choice would preclude me from touring with Molly; so I elected to go with her,” he added. And since that time, Hadden has been self supporting as a musician.
During the last two years of his three year tenure with this buxom blues belter, Molly, Hadden matured as a musician. Not only was he now contributing compositions to her first two CDs during that time frame, Miss Molly (EFM 1992) and In the Garden (EFM 1993), but also he was stockpiling material more suitable to his own tastes. Moreover, he was gaining expertise in the studio, appearing on both the aforementioned projects and one of his own undertakings, a five song EP in late 1993, which would eventually evolve into his first CD, Nationwide (1995), named after his vintage (1959), trusty, fiberglass equipment trailer of that era. “I also was auditioning potential members of her band which exposed me to a lot of talent from which I could draw when I finally formed one of my own,” said Hadden.
When the first incarnation of the Hadden Sayers Band came into fruition in 1994, it set about furiously to make a name for itself. “I’d say we just about accepted anything big or small to get some recognition. After a while we were generating quite a buzz around the Houston area,” said Hadden. On one of their first memorable road excursions, they followed Interstate 35 north with stops in Waco, Dallas, Norman and Oklahoma City, OK, Kansas City, MO, and finally Omaha, NE, where they made quite a splash, actually stealing the thunder as opener for up-and-coming blues guitarist and singer, Corey Stevens, who was then basking in the glow of two consecutive chart making singles.
But as successful as that tour was, Hadden eventually came to the realization that he could get only so far working the phones and relying on prior contacts he had made as part of Miss Molly’s outfit. Fortunately for him, one club owner suggested that he get in touch with Rick Booth, president of Intrepid Artists, a fledgling booking agency (founded in 1995) in Charlotte, NC. “It was about 1996 right after Retrofutura [that included a cameo performance by David Grissom] that I invited Rick, all expenses paid, down to Houston to see our live act at our home base, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, where we put on one hell of a show. But little did I know that he had already decided to sign us up. I soon discovered that he had a lot of clout in the business and he really opened up a lot of doors for us to tour nationally,” said Hadden.
But it wasn’t Rick Booth who was instrumental in arranging the first junket abroad in 1996 for the Hadden Sayers Band. While in Houston, Hadden had encountered the roots rock power trio, Sunset Heights (think Black Crowes), which had just been signed to the blues oriented New York based Viceroy records run by Arnie Goodman. When Hadden, hoping for a similar deal, proffered both his Nationwide and Retrofutura to Goodman, he rejected them; but a seed was planted. To make a long story short, when Sunset Heights was unable to fulfill a commitment to travel overseas, Hadden, through the intercession of Dennis Chenault, their manager, was offered the tour, a ten date romp through Germany with concerts in Bonn, Munich, and Berlin. On the strength of their enthusiastic reception the first time around, they were invited the next year to accompany Sunset Heights on their own scheduled 20 date swing through Germany, Holland, Denmark, and Belgium. In 1998, through this same connection, the Hadden Sayers Band secured three separate stays (each of two week duration) on the highly regarded European Chesterfield Cafe circuit (sponsored by the cigarette corporation), which included layovers in Madrid, Moscow, and the aforementioned Paris.
And stateside with his headquarters in Houston during this period (1998-2004), Hadden was busy as ever, either on his own or warming up the audiences for such diverse blues related acts as Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Little Ed & the Blues Imperials, Joe Louis Walker, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. And it’s not a stretch to say that he was virtually all over the contiguous U.S. To list all the significant gigs he honored in this time frame would be beyond the scope of this article, but a few reviews taken from the internet might suffice to enlighten you about the extent of his travels---a 1999 stop at City Jazz in Orlando, FL, a 2000 visit to Bubba Mac Shack in Ocean City, NJ, a 2001 engagement (his second) at Boulder Station in Las Vegas, NV, a 2002 trip to the Grand Emporium in Kansas City, MO, and a 2003 concert at Famous Dave’s in Minneapolis, MN. And when not on the road, Hadden also managed to find the time to record three more albums, Swingin’ from the Fabulous Satellite in 1998, a live affair, Supersonic in 2001, and Twelve Bars and the Naked Truth in 2004.
After 2004 when his wife, whom he also met in College Station, found a promising employment situation in Columbus, OH, he decided to ease up on his touring, although his recent schedule seems not to reflect his resolution. “With Columbus now as my home base, I was determined to not only have better routing but also to eliminate all of those ‘low ball’ [unprofitable] gigs I used to fill in between the anchor dates,” said Hayden, who now appears regularly in an acoustic trio at the High Beck Tavern at 564 South High St and often lends a hand to local retro rocker Phil Dirt & the Dozers. And since his move to the Buckeye State, he has also added two more CDs to his resume, a 2007 holiday venture in collaboration with noted mandolin virtuoso, Michael Orlando, Orlando Sayers: Christmastime, and a 2009 release (actually an EP length effort), Blue Country.
It’s been a long slog over the years in order for Hadden to remain fully independent and self sufficient as a musician. And there’s more to it than just cutting costs, for example, producing his own albums, doing some of his own booking, or playing in a trio (rather than a larger ensemble). He has learned a few tricks of the trade to win (and keep) friends and influence people. And such stratagems may range from special gimmicks to simply thanking his benefactors (the bar and club owners). When he was plugging one of his early albums, Swinging from the Fabulous Satellite, he sent out a unique gift package to his reviewers and some selected fans. “We set up everything for a swinger to make a real bad ass martini therethe lava lamp, vodka, vermouth, and gourmet olives,” he said, proud of his very innovative notion to boost sales. He also related the story of back in the early days when he was playing a club, Stubbs Barbecue in Lubbock, TX, wherein the owner at closing time showed him a card of appreciation from a recent visitor, W.C. Crock. And Hadden, taking this lesson to heart, attributes many a return invitation to such an inexpensive, but thoughtful, gesture of gratitude.
But Hadden knows all to well that these old fashioned methods of self promotion will only go so far to keep him both in the spotlight and fully occupied. To this end he has invested a lot of time and energy in order to take advantage of all outlets for advertising and marketing (Amazon, CDBaby, iTunes, etc.) that the internet age has to offer. His official website, Haddenville, includes an up-to-date touring schedule, free MP3 downloads, recent news, merchandise (CDs and t-shirts), and a “gearhead” gallerya captioned photo display of relics of Hadden’s past adventures (battered Fender Strats, amps, cords, etc.), all indicative of a musician who has paid his dues. Let’s just say that upon closer examination of these well-worn instruments, a picture’s worth a thousand words as to his life long experience in the music business.
And he has not neglected any of the social networking nexuses either. His MySpace site includes song samples, “Insomniac Blues” and “Mr. Know-It-All,” plus eight other tunes of his which can acquired for a mere 99 cents apiece. Aside from Facebook blogs, his YouTube site presents no less than ten video selections from a live performance last March at Chesterfields club in Sioux City, IA, and another from a 2008 Rocky Mount, NC, performance.
But all the touring and CD sales through any sort of publicity are still not completely adequate for sustenance. “Lately my bread and butter have become session work, company sponsored gigs, and jingles” he said. Among his more notable achievements in this realm is providing the background music to both Nationwide and Safe Auto ads and a 2007 International Auto Show commercial, the latter which can be viewed on YouTube. And a recent example of a corporate type gig would be his appearance at the prestigious NPR Convention in Cleveland.
While Hadden seemed satisfied that he was “getting out there” and keeping busy, he still had some self-doubts about whether he could ever find his own niche (and thus success) in a market that more and more demands that musicians be neatly compartmentalized, for example, satellite radio. And it’s true that it has been a struggle to find his own voice, being stylistically all over the map as he has been. Having caught him in a confessional mood, I could tell that this serious, talented artist had devoted a lot of time to self-analysis in this regard, considering himself as still evolving, a continual work in progress. “I’m not going to play in any clubs any more where the people don’t know who I am,” he said. But judging from his sheer determination to “make it,” but only on his own terms, he probably won’t have that to concern himself much longer.
------ Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society
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