Preview: McKee Brothers Keyed In On Personal Brand Of Blues & Jazz
Sibling rivalries in pop music are few and far between, but in other forms they are quite frequent and stand the test of time for being viable, much more friendly, and cooperative.
The McKee Brothers -- Ralph and Denis McKee -- make time as best they can, even though Ralph lives in Ann Arbor and Denis resides in Lakewood, California. They’ve been working on a collective project for fifteen years, resulting in the newly released CD Enjoy It While You Can, a recording featuring cream-of-the-crop players from Southeastern-to-Mid Michigan, Metro Detroit, and the West Coast.
In the 1970s, the self-taught Ralph McKee started playing professionally after being inspired by his college roommate Bob Doezema, a musician who went on tour and collaborated with Blood, Sweat & Tears keyboardist and producer Al Kooper. Doezema moved on, teaching at the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Primarily an electric bass guitarist, although also an adept percussionist, lap/steel guitarist, and fond of the mbira/kalimba/thumb piano, Ralph McKee studied in the early 1980s at the University of Michigan and became a prominent attorney while also pursuing his interest in tennis as a player. (He is current President of the Ann Arbor Area Community Tennis Association, administers the annual Ann Arbor City Tennis Tournament.)
Denis McKee, eleven years Ralph’s junior, took up bongo drums at the behest of one of Ralph’s collaborators, Pat “Doc” Roberts. Denis also picked up acoustic and electric guitar, eventually keyboards, and the alto saxophone in school bands.
While living in Lansing, Denis met, and performed in Jackson with, the legendary Bob Schultz -- vocalist, saxophonist, and keyboardist whose credits include Bob Seger and his own group Big Foot Bob & The Toe Tappers. Ralph also played gigs with Schultz, as well as local fusion groups All Directions, Big Fun (not the recent group featuring Mark Kirschenmann), Continuum, the reggae band The Pulsations, The Bridge Club, a reunion version of SRC with the late guitarist Gary Quackenbush, the Blue Rays, Lady Sunshine & The X Band, vocalist/guitarist Peter Holland, vocalist Marsha Gayle, and recently the R & B group The Avery Goode Band, as well as the prominent alt country band Hoodang.
Denis moved to L.A. in the 1990s, but prior to heading west was taught by and collaborated with the late guitarist Jerry Glassel and sat in occasionally with Continuum prior to leaving Michigan. In California, Denis was music director for R & B icon King Floyd, former Michigan jazz and blues singer Barbara Morrison, and famed guitarist Kirk Fletcher, who appears on the CD. As patrons, the McKee Brothers have attended the Doheny Blues Festival for several years running, providing further inspiration to record the music on Enjoy It While You Can.
In a recent interview, Ralph McKee reflected on what basically brought him and his brother together musically. “He was a kid when I started playing professionally. We never really played together professionally except for the few Continuum shows. We do listen to and like a lot of the same stuff - The Police, Santana, David Sanborn, Frank Zappa, Robin Trower.”
Fact is, their musical palates are much broader, including many forms of jazz, gospel and ethnic vocal music, African and Hawaiian vocals or rhythms, contemporary Twentieth and Twenty First Century musics, and more.
The McKee’s also produced a Latin-jazz session in 2001 with members of Los Gatos. This recording got the ball rolling on a legitimate McKee Brothers project. Some of this new music will be included during the CD release performance and may be produced into a follow-up CD titled, Enjoy It Some More.
“For this show we’ll just do everything on the album,” Ralph McKee emphasized. The show is 90 minutes and the CD is almost 80 minutes long. We might have time for extras.” He hinted about features for Schultz, or Tasha Owens, a local singer for whom he has considerable regard.
While influenced primarily by the blues, the McKee Brothers present a style of music that is reminiscent of the Memphis-flavored horn driven style of funk quite similar to that of the legendary Stax Records catalogue. The key is that it goes beyond that sweet soul sound, punctuated by the distinctive vocals of Schultz, a driving rhythm section, tinges of Philadelphia, New Orleans, the Caribbean, and of course the Motown sound they grew up with.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
The McKee Brothers perform at 5:30 pm, Friday, August 19, at The Necto Nightclub, 516 E. Liberty. With Ralph and Denis Mc Kee will be keyboardist Jim Alfredson, guitarist Stan Budzynski, trumpeter Brandon Cooper, saxophonist Dave Huber, keyboardist Duncan McMillan, vocalist Tasha Owens, vocalist Bob Schultz, saxophonist Bobby Streng, drummer Skeeto Valdez and special guests to be announced. For more information, call The Necto at (734) 994-5436 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.