PBR piano-man John Lee Sanders releases “Tweakin’ Some Twang”

By Fran Thompson
It would be natural to assume Orange Beach resident John Lee Sanders reached into his pocket deep, grabbed a handful of mulligans 50 years in the making and tossed them on the table to recruit the A-list session musicians playing on his first album of new songs in 10 years.
That is partly true. The go-to-guys on Sanders’ new album, “Tweakin’ Some Twang,” have worked with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, BB King, Tower of Power, Willie Nelson and their ilk.
But to record strings for an album cut he wrote for his wife, he went online and found the sound he wanted from a quartet based in China that he contacted through Airgigs.com.
“I never counted them up, but we had maybe 20 musicians altogether,’’ he said. “I have some amazing musicians. Some I knew from way back when I was playing club gigs back in the 80’s in California.’’
Sanders said, like him, most of the session players on his album have in-home studios, which makes the recording process easier and more affordable.
The four guitarists Sanders used on the album included South Baldwin’s own main man, Lee Yankie, Sting axeman Lyle Workman and former CMA Musician of the Year Brent Mason. He also used four bass players and four drummers.
“Starting out, I wanted to get a little bit of country on the album. That was the original concept. But it stretched from there and became broader,’’ he said.
John himself describes the album by listing 12 genres of music that it touches.
“My 67 years were a slow migration westward from the foothills of Alabama Appalachia, The Mississippi Delta, Louisiana Bayous, Memphis Soul, and Juke Joints of East Texas. It all had their distinctive influences on my music,’’ he said.
“My late mother, a generous supporter of the performing arts, would always shout, ‘Turn off that twangy music’ when the Grand Ole Opry was on. I hope I tweaked Mama’s Gumbo enough for her discerning ears without losing the authenticity of our great musical legacy.’’
Sanders has been paid to score classical films and has been in the studio recording with everyone from Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Page to Chuck Berry and Randy Newman. He has cashed checks for composing, writing and arranging music, sometimes in the same week.
“When I was growing up in the south, we would go to concerts in Birmingham and there would be The Rolling Stones playing with a country act like Skeeter Davis opening up. George Harrison was singing country songs and had that Chet Atkins guitar style on the Beatles albums. It was accepted back. It was accepted back then to do something like that,’’ he said.
Sanders wrote one of the songs on the CD, “Hard Times Coming Down Hard,” during the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill.
“The oil spill was in some ways a metaphor to the cancer I was soon diagnosed with, and in retrospect, I see the correlations in the lyrics,’’ he said.
Now cancer free, Sanders has earned his keep at Perdido Beach Resort for the past three years (four nights at Voyagers and Fridays in the lobby bar). He does session work most days from his home studio.
In deciding to include so many styles of music on the CD, Sanders was just doing what comes naturally.
He played keyboards on the Chitlin Circuit in East Texas. He was the Hammond organist for five years at one of the largest black churches in the Bay Area. He’s had residencies in bars from Beale Street to Bourbon Street, from honkey-tonks to Haight Ashbury, from juke joints to Manhattan.
One of his albums, “Mozart: Rhythm & Romance,” is an appreciation of classical music. Another, “Beacon Of Light,” reflects his gospel roots.
“I’ve always had an issue with classifying genres, which are geographically, socially and culturally driven,’’ he said. “I juggle the tightrope of the past and current political and cultural divide.
“And then there are the ghosts of my past growing up in the south, with my roots being more swayed in blues, jazz, and classical piano training.’’
A multi-instrumentalist (saxophone, guitar, piano, vocals), Sanders has played with Paul Williams since 1988.
Before work that led to Grammy and Emmy nominations, Sanders, as “Little John,” was Birmingham’s answer to Little Stevie Wonder.
He took his band from the Texas Plains, where he went to college, to San Francisco in 1977 at the urging of Doobie Brother Michael Hossack. The band was immensely popular live, but unable to secure a recording deal.
He has toured the major European jazz and blues festivals many times over and even arranged an entire concert for the 22 piece National Jazz Orchestra of Croatia.
He’s written arrangements for the Tower of Power, and the list of artists Sanders performed or toured with also includes Carly Simon, Smokey Robinson, Elton John, The Meters, Jimmy Webb, Kris Kristofferson, Starship, Ashford & Simpson, Freddie King and John Lee Hooker.
In 2014, he performed at the Grammys with Williams. Two years earlier, he was an opening act on Bonnie Raitt’s tour. He has put together bands for ASCAP shows at the request of Clive Davis.
Sanders comes from a musical family. His brothers both led bands in Birmingham. His grandmother gave music lessons and played piano at silent movies. His mom’s cousin played with W.C. Handy. Although his dad didn’t play, he was Jerry Lee Lewis’s insurance agent.
“I was a bit reluctant of doing this, considering my previous music catalog, and the stereotype of certain Country music genres, of pickup trucks and Good Ole Boys,’’ he said.
“But these original songs tell the much larger story. I realized I needed a bigger table to fit everybody in.
“I’ve worked with some of my heroes of this music – Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker. Writers like Jimmy Webb, who transcended genres. Their inspiration, and so many others inspired me.’’
“Tweakin’ The Twang’’ was recorded over a four year period in studios in Germany, Sacramento, Berkeley, Nashville Austria, Spain Orange Beach, New York, Daphne, New York and St. Petersburg, Russia..

Stevie Ray & John Lee

With 50 years of touring behind him, John Lee Sanders is going to have stories from the road, including this early one: “My first visit to Austin was opening For Rod Argent, in the mid-70’s at Armadillo World Headquarters. Our roadies’ equipment truck broke down on the way down from Dallas. The band was in another car. So we never got to play the gig, and no money for a hotel. Our drummer knew the Thunderbirds, who had just moved down from Dallas. They had a band house where we crashed. We ended up partying with Stevie Ray, and Jimmie Vaughan the whole night.’’

Elvis & John Lee meet

We’re not sure what this story has to do with John Lee’s decision to devote himself to playing music, but Sanders did say his earliest music memory is listening to the first single from Elvis, “That’s Alright Mama” on the A side, and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the flip-side. Sanders and Elvis met briefly when Elvis owned a house near Sanders’ aunt in Memphis. Sanders was standing among a yardful of screeming teenage girls when Elvis and his female entourage left the house and climbed into a convertible. When things simmered down, Sanders asked Elvis’ father, Vernon, if he could use the bathroom in the house and was able to see the throne of the king for himself.
A Gong Show Winner

While recording in Hollywood, Sanders auditioned for the Gong Show and won. Dressed as the Louisiana Chicken Man, he hand played the first part of Sweet Georgia Brown before finishing the song on his saxaphone. He earned $516.32 for his troubles. “I ended up making a few grand in residuals because I was in the musicians’ union,’’ he said.