After long and successful careers, two veteran musicians — Sidney Barnes and Mac Arnold — settled into retirement in the Asheville area. But the encouragement of friends and family brought both men back to the stage to entertain audiences around Western North Carolina. Vocalist and songwriter Barnes’ next local engagement is with Richard Shulman at Isis Music Hall on Sunday, July 16. Arnold leads his band, Plate Full O’ Blues, during a Saturday, July 15, show at The Grey Eagle.
Serving up the blues
Born in 1942 in upstate South Carolina, Arnold was a sharecropper’s son and one of 13 children. One of Mac’s older brothers decided to build a guitar for himself, using materials at hand. The body was constructed from an empty gasoline can. “He took it to school and won first prize in show-and-tell,” Arnold recalls. “That gave me the inspiration to play music; that’s when I started slamming around with a gasoline can.”
Arnold says he led the first racially integrated band in Greenville, S.C., in 1959. “The drummer was black, and the two guitar players were white, so we couldn’t play around in Greenville until the Guna Motel and Restaurant opened up in the early ’60s,” he recalls. “Once we started playing, then people saw us. And we spread it out from there.”
In 1965, Arnold headed north to pursue his career. “I had a style of my own when I went to Chicago,” he says. Once there, he played bass guitar, eventually working as a sideman for James Brown, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and many others.
Arnold got a job with Laff Records, playing background music on comedy albums by artists such as Redd Foxx. He also landed a position as a member of the Soul Train house band, and his session work included playing bass on the “Sanford and Son” TV theme.
In the 1990s, Arnold retired and moved back to South Carolina. “I thought I was going to quit working,” he says. “But I decided, ‘Well, this is not enough; I need to have something else to do.’” So he took a job driving a truck for Belk department stores.
One day, when fueling the truck, he heard a Muddy Waters tune playing on a nearby boombox. He started singing along. A mechanic rolled out from under a truck and asked him, “Hey man, you know who that is?” Arnold smiled and replied, “Yes. I used to play bass for Muddy Waters.” Arnold and mechanic Max Hightower became fast friends.
It was Hightower — a drummer — who eventually coaxed Arnold back to music and put together Plate Full o’ Blues. He added guitarist Austin Brashear to the lineup. “We’ve been together now almost 16 years,” Arnold says.
The band has released four albums. Arnold has won Blues Foundation awards, and, in addition to leading the band, he owns a Greenville restaurant and heads a nonprofit, the I Can Do Anything Foundation. Now 75, he has no intention of slowing down. “It’s getting more exciting all the time,” he says.
And Arnold still plays a gasoline-can guitar.
Asheville love connection
Born in a West Virginia mining town, Barnes eventually moved with his family to New York City “so that I could be closer to what was going on in the music business,” he says. His group, The Serenaders, cut some singles but didn’t find much success. He did get an audition with Motown Records’ head Berry Gordy, who signed Barnes to a staff songwriting and producer position.
By the middle of the 1960s, Barnes had moved to Detroit, where he worked with George Clinton (Parliament-Funkadelic) on several recordings. He eventually signed with Chess Records, and Marshall Chess recruited Barnes into the multiracial Rotary Connection, billed as a “psychedelic soul” band. In addition to Barnes on lead vocals and songwriting, the group included a Chess secretary, Minnie Riperton, a singer possessed of a five-octave vocal range.
Initially a studio project (“It wasn’t a group,” Barnes says. “It was just a bunch of people”), Rotary Connection was ambitious and experimental. “We cut the first album, and it was a success,” Barnes says. “So the music group had to go out and promote it.”
But the band didn’t do well live. “We did what was supposed to be the last appearance, and then we were going to disband,” Barnes says. “So Minnie and I made it happen; next thing I knew, we were opening for Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.”
In the early ’70s, Barnes decided to work behind the scenes, co-writing the Funkadelic smash “I Bet You” and other songs. “I liked singing, but I didn’t like appearing in front of people and traveling that much,” he says.
Then, in 2001, Barnes got an invitation to visit England, where — to his great surprise — his early singles were hailed as “northern soul” classics. “They knew everything about me and everything I’d done,” he says. “It was an incredible feeling; I’d never had that happen before. It was like I was James Brown!”
Back home — where he found himself less well-known — Barnes decided it was time to get a day job and settle down. “I realized that I wanted to get married,” he says. “I’m a nice guy; no reason to be wandering around in the jungle naked.” So he went online and “met a nice, beautiful lady.” She lived in Asheville, and, when Barnes asked her to marry him, she replied, “If you want to be with me, you’ve got to move to Asheville.” Barnes happily agreed.
Sidney Barnes has remained busy musically. He’s currently working with longtime friend Clinton on a historical film with the working title Rhythm and Blues. Barnes’ current show, with famed accompanist Richard Shulman, features an evening of jazz standards. “At this point, I don’t have to prove anything,” he says. “I’m kind of glad I never had any million sellers because that puts a lot of pressure on an artist.”
WHO: Mac Arnold and Plate Full O’ Blues
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Saturday, July 15, 8 p.m. $15 advance/$18 day of show
WHO: Sidney Barnes and Richard Shulman perform An All Jazz Affair — Great Songs Written by the Masters
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Sunday, July 16, 5:30 p.m. $12