Neal, Raful 1936–
Raful Neal 1936–
Blues harmonica player and vocalist
Unlike the many blues musicians who migrated northward in search of economic and musical opportunity, Raful Neal spent most of his career based within a few miles of where he grew up on a farm near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Neal is often mentioned in connection with other Louisiana musicians: with his ten children, most of whom followed him into careers in blues music, and also with guitarist Buddy Guy, who played in Neal’s band in the 1950s. To those who know Louisiana blues, however, Raful Neal’s music stands on its own merits. Influenced by the Louisiana-born Chicago harmonica player Little Walter, to whom he has often been compared, Neal also preserved a layer of pure Southern harmonica playing with a down home feel that galvanized audiences around the world.
Born on June 6, 1936, Neal was raised by an aunt in rural West Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. His mother had died when he was young, and his father took off for New Orleans to start a new life as a preacher. “He told me he knew I was in good hands and all that,” Neal told Baton Rouge Advocate writer John Wirt. “Any excuse. I stayed mad with him a long time.” Neal grew up picking cotton and cutting sugar cane, and he had various obstacles to overcome before his musical career could begin.
A major obstacle was lack of money. Neal hoped to play the piano, but “the only thing I could get was a $1.50 harmonica, an old Atty-Boy, one of the hardest harmonicas in the world to play,” he recalled to the Advocate. That instrument replaced one he had made from a comb and cigarette rolling paper. A local harmonica player named Ike Brown gave him some lessons, but he also had to contend with disapproval from his aunt and her relatives, who considered the blues sinful. Inspired by the harmonica playing of Little Walter, whom he heard on Nashville radio station WLAC and later at a Baton Rouge club called the Temple Roof, Neal persisted. He adopted Little Walter’s trademark upside-down style of holding and blowing the harmonica.
By the time he was 17, Neal was touring with New Orleans bluesman Eddie Lang. Soon after that he put together his own band, variously named the Clouds and the Boogie Ramblers. His original guitarist, Lester
At a Glance…
Born on June 6, 1936, in Baton Rouge, LA; married Shirley; children: 11 children, including blues star Kenny Neal.
Career: Blues musician, 1950s-; Baton Rouge government, school district worker and local housing authority worker, 1960s-1980s.
Awards: W.C. Handy Blues Single of the Year nomination, for “Man Watch Your Woman” 1987.
Addresses: Label —Alligator Records, 1441 Devon Ave., Chicago, IL 60660.
Johnson (later known as Lazy Lester), took off for Chicago and was replaced by Buddy Guy. Neal picked cotton long enough to scrape together $350 for a 1939 Pontiac, and soon the band was playing onenight stands in small Louisiana clubs. In Baton Rouge, Neal crossed paths with Little Walter once again; the Chicago star bested Neal in an impromptu harmonica battle but was impressed enough to offer Neal and his cohorts some chances to play in Chicago if they moved there.
Guy accepted the offer, but Neal stayed put. His career might have suffered as it unfolded away from the blues spotlight in Chicago, but Neal, according to the Club Louisianne Web site, had no regrets. “I’ve seen so many lonely blues players with no families,” he was quoted as saying. “I love my life. I wouldn’t have had it turn out any other way.” Neal and his wife, Shirley, raised 10 children in Baton Rouge.
For a time, Neal remained active in the blues scene, touring as far away as Texas. Like Ike and Tina Turner and other Southern black musicians of the day, Neal often found work at college and university fraternity parties. Football Saturday at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge was prime performance time for Neal, who was known to extend the Jimmy Reed classic “Honest I Do” to a half-hour in length. Neal recorded a single, “Sunny Side of Love,” for Houston’s Peacock label in 1958, and he returned to the studio sporadically in the 1960s, recording for La Louisiane and other labels.
In 1970, Neal had a minor hit with a cover of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together”; recorded for the Whit label, the song was played on WLAC and was picked up for distribution by the flourishing Louisiana independent label Jewel. But Neal, like so many other African-American artists, was cut out of the profit loop. “Those records did real well but I didn’t get a penny from them,” he told OffBeat. “I kind of got disgusted and quit cutting for awhile.”
As his family grew in size, Neal cut back on performing; for over 20 years he held government jobs in Baton Rouge with a school district and a local housing authority. His musical hopes during this period were invested mainly in his children, for whom he bought musical instruments. Often Neal would be away from home in the afternoons when the children would practice, and he was surprised one day when a neighbor told him they were sounding good.
Far from pushing his children to play the blues, Neal encouraged them to try out then-current rock ‘n’ roll styles. “But they’d be up in there trying to play Slim Harpo, Little Walter, all of them,” Neal told the Advocate, “so they went into the blues anyway, on their own.” Soon Neal’s son Kenny was playing the guitar seriously and touring with his father. Buddy Guy returned a favor when he hired Kenny Neal to play in his band. It wasn’t just Neal’s children who benefited from his example; future Louisiana blues star Tab Benoit also sat in with Neal as an unknown young electric guitarist.
As Kenny Neal’s career flourished in the 1980s, Raful Neal was mostly known as the father of a blues family tradition rather than for his own musical accomplishments. But after his children grew up and took to the road, Neal was able to revive his own performing career, and he found that the blues world was still receptive to what he had to say. A Neal single on the Fantastic label, “Man Watch Your Woman,” garnered national attention and was nominated for Blues Single of the Year at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards in 1987. Neal’s debut album, Louisiana Legend, was released on the King Snake label in the late 1980s and was acquired and distributed by Alligator, a powerhouse in the blues market, in 1990.
The blues world seemed to wake up to the treasure that they still had in Neal’s singing and distinctive off-the-beat harmonica phrasing. Neal, wrote Steve Morse of the Boston Globe, “is every bit the legend his album title suggests. He has a heavy, gut-grabbing style of blues… a raw, purist blues without any apologies.” Neal, in late middle age, was now an international blues attraction. He toured Canada, Europe, and Japan, and he headlined the World Harmonica Festival in Japan. Neal was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 1995 and released two more albums, I Been Mistreated and Old Friends.
A staple attraction at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Neal maintained a busy performing schedule until he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2003. Though he had no health insurance, musicians and admirers pulled strings and called in favors to get treatment for Neal at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Raful Neal, his friend Deacon John Moore told the Advocate, was “one of the few practitioners of the old-style harp playing that came out of the South, one of the handful that’s left.”
Louisiana Legend, Alligator, 1990.
I Been Mistreated, Ichiban, 1991.
Old Friends, Club, 1998.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Arlington House, 1979.
Herzhaft, Gérard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, Brigitte Debord, trans., University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Larkin, Colin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), January 8, 1996, p. 8; November 7, 2003, p. 10.
Austin American-Statesman, May 30, 1991, p. 14. Boston Globe, October 1, 1987, p. 14.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans), December 8, 1995, p. L9.
“Raful Neal,” Alligator Records, www.alligator.com/artists/bio.cfm?ArtistID=055 (February 11, 2004).
“Raful Neal,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (February 11, 2004).
“Raful Neal: Blues Composer, Singer & Harmonica Whiz,” Club Louisanne, www.louisianasmusic.com/Retail/Raful%20bio.htm (February 11, 2004).
“Raful Neal: The ‘Father’ of the Blues,” Offbeat: New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s Music Magazine, www.offbeat.com/text/raful.html (February 11, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
"Neal, Raful 1936–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/neal-raful-1936
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