BRANDON SANTINI: MBS MEMBER FEATURE STORY
(Originally published in the August 2013 MBS Newsletter)
As told to Mark E. Caldwell
was born in Burlington, in the north central Piedmont of North Carolina. He grew up listening to the pop and rock music his parents listened to on the radio. At 15 years old, he heard Blues Traveler on the radio. The unique harmonica playing of John Popper caught his attention. It stuck out in his mind as a harmonica sound like no other he’d heard before. He went out and purchased a Blues Traveler CD. Inside, the liner notes said “John Popper plays Hohner Special 20 harmonicas”. Brandon got a bright idea and asked his mom to take him to a local music store. There he asked for a ‘Hohner Special 20’ harmonica. The funny thing about this is the sales person asked what key harmonica he wanted. Brandon laughed, not knowing anything about music, he thought it was a trick question. The sales person asked him to pick a key. He went home with a D harmonica. Although Blues Traveler isn’t a Blues band, the first Blues harmonica player that caught Brandon’s attention was Paul Butterfield. He then learned more about James Cotton, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Big Walter, and later Sonny Boy Williamson I & II. It’s these Blues masters that inspired Brandon to play Blues harmonica. Although Brandon never had harmonica lessons, he learned by trial and error listening to the records of these greats. Brandon says “I’m still learning”.
The Move to the Mecca of the Blues
In 2003, at age 21 Brandon moved from Burlington to Memphis. He moved with the guitarist from Delta Highway, the band they belonged to. It was his friend’s idea to move to Memphis. He said “Let’s move to Memphis and win a BMA (Blues Music Award)”. Memphis seemed to be the place to be, the ‘Mecca’ of the Blues (note: Brandon has been nominated for a BMA, but has yet to win). Brandon bought a van for the move for $200. On the way to Memphis, it broke down in Jackson, TN. Brandon says “I had about $200 to my name; I don’t know what I was thinking. We just called someone to come scrap the van. We caught a ride with a courier guy to Memphis.” Brandon has an uncle in Memphis with whom they stayed for several weeks. They met Blue Blake playing acoustic Blues on Beale Street. He needed a couple of roommates, so they moved in and had a place to stay.
When Brandon met Billy Gibson he says, “my mind was blown when I heard him blow harmonica; it was a whole new world”. He learned a lot from Billy. Brandon’s first job in Memphis was working the door at the Rum Boogie Cafe. When Billy’s Band played there, they would ask Brandon to come on stage and blow a song and then go back to the door. Brandon says: “It was a pipedream to move to Memphis, yet it all seems to have worked out.”
While playing with Delta Highway, Brandon recorded two records. In 2006, ‘Westbound Blues’ (recorded at Sun Studios) was released. In 2008, ‘Devil Had A Woman’ was released. This record took off better than ‘Westbound Blues’. It received good airplay on Sirius XM satellite radio, and was nominated for the BMA Best New Artist. After Delta Highway disbanded, Brandon took some time to sit back and get away from the business side of the music which he’d been busy with. It’s during this time he realized he needed to focus more on his writing and the harmonica. Brandon has recorded (2) records since then. The first, ‘Songs of Love, Money, and Misery’ was released in 2011. The songs on this record were the result of his writing during the prior year. Greg Gumpel helped write a couple of the songs. His guitarist, bassist and drummer at the time lived in St. Louis. The guys came down to Memphis a couple of days before the recording session. They rehearsed and then cut the record. Brandon says, “That’s the Blues.”
Brandon’s core band is Jeff Jensen (guitar), Bill Rufino (bass) and Jumpin’ James Cunningham (drums). In 2011, James Cunningham started playing drums for Brandon. Later, Memphis Blues Society musician Chris Sabie introduced Brandon to Jeff Jensen, Brandon promptly hired him to play guitar before someone else could. Bill Rufino has been playing with Jeff Jensen for around ten years out in Los Angeles. Bill got on a Greyhound bus and came to Memphis to be in Brandon’s band.
Earlier this year, Brandon’s 2nd record ‘This Time Another Year’ was released. This band recorded the record with Brandon. The recording took place at Ardent Studios. Brandon says “It was such a nice experience to record in studio C. All the history and musicians that recorded there was inspiring.” This is the first modern day, professional studio experience for Brandon. The band had a few rehearsals beforehand, but everything was right on track when the band got in the studio. Most of the record was done live with minimal overdubs and in one to three takes per song. Brandon says “it was really cool to have Chris Stephenson and Victor Wainwright on the record. My favorite thing was having my good friend Victor sing with me on ‘What You Doing To Me’.” It’s the first time anyone has sung the same song with Brandon.
What inspired the latest record? The band plays about 200 shows a year. There’s very little time to rehearse. Many of the songs were works in progress built while playing on the road. The band got together and narrowed down the tracks to about 13 to work with. Jeff is great at arranging and Bill helped a lot. Brandon laughs and says, “James helped keep us together.” The record was a combined effort by everyone in the band. As of the distribution of this newsletter, the band is on the road finishing up a 3½ week tour in support of, ‘This Time Another Year.’ The tour went through the northeast U.S., Canada, and is finishing up going through the Midwest. In August this band will be separating with members going their own ways. Jeff is releasing a new record; he’ll be touring to support his solo career. Bill is heading back home to Los Angeles. Brandon soon will be lining up his next band.
Tune into B.B. King's Bluesville, channel 70 of Sirius XM Satellite Radio to hear songs from ‘This Time Another Year.’ The album is #7 on ‘Picks To Click’ with six songs in heavy rotation. The record also charted at #12 on the March 2013 Living Blues Chart. For three consecutive months ‘This Time Another Year’ has charted on The Living Blues Radio Chart.
Memphis and Traveling Abroad
When asked about Memphis venues, Brandon calls the Rum Boogie Cafe & Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall on Beale Street home. It’s on these stages where he cut his teeth playing Blues music in Memphis. I asked Brandon who his favorite Blues artists are today. He notes: J.P. Soars, John Nemeth, Victor Wainwright, Johnny Sansone, and Ray Bonneville (‘Bad Man’s Blood’). I also asked if he’s played overseas. Brandon mentions a European tour he was on. But his most memorable show was a 2009 Bluzapalooza (Armed Forces) tour show in Cairo, Egypt. Delta Highway was backing up Billy Gibson and Eden Brent. The show was at the Cairo Opera House in downtown Cairo. Half of the audience was American personnel and their families, the other half was local invited Egyptians. Local Egyptians had not been exposed to Blues music beyond B.B. King. Ask them about Muddy Waters, and they’ve never heard of him. By the end of the show everyone was dancing. The encore song was ‘Got My Mojo Workin’. Afterwards, the audience rushed and jumped on the stage to shake hands and get autographs from the band. It was an incredible and very uplifting show. Brandon recalls after the show, the band was joking that the scene reminded them of the Beatles first concert in the United States.
The Beale Street Mess Around
For the past two years, Bandon has hosted ‘The Beale Street Mess Around’ to benefit the Blues Foundation ‘Raise the Roof! Campaign for the Blues Hall of Fame. This year’s event at Rum Boogie Cafe included Blues greats Mud Morganfield, John Nemeth, Terry Hanck, Dennis Gruenling, Sugar Ray Rayford, Little G. Weevil, Redd Velvet, Brandon Santini, Jeff Jensen, Bryan Lee, Greg Nagy, and others. The event has been one of the top single events to-date to raise money for the Blues Hall of Fame. Next year’s event is already being planned.
Asked about quotes to live by, Brandon mentions an old proverb: “Having fifty friends is not enough; having one enemy is too much.” Also, “Treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Nomination for ‘The Sean Costello Rising Star Award’, 2013 Blues Blast Magazine Awards
Brandon has also been nominated for The Sean Costello Rising Star Award in the 2013 Blues Blast Magazine Awards. Voting is open to the public through August 31, 2013. Visit: http://thebluesblast.com/2013bbmanominees.htm to see all of the 2013 Blues Blast Award nominees and to learn more about how to vote!
Brandon is endorsed by Seydel Harmonicas.
For more information about Brandon Santini:
Schedule (online): http://www.brandonsantini.com/schedule/
To buy Brandon’s music: http://www.brandonsantini.com/buy_music/
YouTube (select videos):
Brandon Santini (Nine Below Zero)
Brandon Santini & His Band - Better Cut That Out live @ Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale, MS
The Interview with Brandon Santini for this story took place June 26, 2013 at the Rum Boogie Cafe, Beale Street, Memphis, TN.
©2013 Mark E. Caldwell, All Rights Reserved.