Mississippi bluesman feels ‘at home’ on stage
In his teens and early 20s, Grady Champion performed for the attention it gave him. As the baby of 28 children, that seems only natural.
But now, the 42-year-old award-winning blues musician performs simply for the love of the music.
“I’m just lookin’ to have a good time,” Champion said in his raspy Southern accent during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.
Champion first was introduced to the music scene at just 8 years old, singing for his Baptist church choir while growing up in Canton, Miss. Later, when he was 15, he moved with his mother to Miami, Fla., where he began to dabble in the “business side” of the music industry as a promoter. For a few years, Champion even made a name for himself in the hip-hop genre as a rap artist.
Then, about 20 years ago, rap began to evolve into something more gangster. As a result, Champion began to look for new avenues in which to express his own magnetic brand of music. At the suggestion of a friend, he began listening to a blues show on public radio in Miami, got hooked and began playing for a more mature, appreciative audience. He eventually began teaching himself to play the harmonica, too.
And once he started singing the blues, he never looked back.
“Once you’ve got your mind made up, don’t worry about Plan B — just stick with Plan A and it’ll work if it’s in your heart,” Champion said of following his dream. “I’ve heard too many people say that Plan B distracts you from Plan A. If you feel it, never give up; just always work hard and success will be there. Success comes in many different ways and everybody’s success is not the same.
“My music crosses the board from rock to blues to gospel to country, and of course my main influence is Sonny Boy Williamson and a lot of the blues greats ... B.B. King, Eric Clapton, all those guys that really, really focus on the roots of blues. And then, of course, the hip hop era. But my first thing and foremost is I’m an entertainer — guitar player, harmonica player, singer.”
Champion is part of a four-piece band, which includes his son, Marquis Champion, on bass; his cousin, Calvin Jackson, on drums; and Nathan Keck on guitar. The ensemble — set as a headlining act during Newton’s 20th annual Bowlful of Blues festival on Saturday, Sept. 1, at the Fred Maytag Bowl — won the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in 2010, which helped launch Champion and his band mates to stardom.
“We were the last band standing. It was tremendous,” Champion said of the experience. “It gave me a second birth ... having a career in the blues. People are a lot more willing to book you, and a lot of people got to know me and my music. And this year we were nominated for three Blues Music Awards and two Blues Critic Awards.”
Recently released albums include “Dreamin’” in May 2011, which reached No. 1 on Sirius XM’s Bluesville chart, and “Shanachie Days,” on May 8, 2012, featuring 17 original songs. Champion and his band also traveled overseas during the spring of this year to play gigs in France and Sweden.
Gaining international acclaim could be nerve-wracking, but Champion claims nerves aren’t an issue.
“Nah, I feel like I’m at home,” Champion said about being on stage. “I just love being around people, and when you love people the way I love people you have no reason to get nervous. It’s a blessing.”
And with more than 20 years of performing under his belt, Champion hopes to continue indefinitely.
“Probably until they bury me. Maybe until I’m 100, 110,” he said of his stopping point. “I think Joseph lived to be 110 in Genesis, and I don’t see why we can’t be the same. (Maybe I’ll be) 110 trying to blow a harmonica.”
Local folks interested in hearing Champion’s charismatic crooning from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 1 are promised good time in a lively atmosphere.
“We try to be a very good, respectful band. One thing we want people to know is we always be professional,” Champion said. “Some people get upset because I’m not a big party person, but it’s difficult to do that on the road and stay alive. I promise to bring a great show to Newton, Iowa, and I don’t like breaking promises.”
Amy Gronauer can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 426 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.