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Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram hopes to inspire kids

By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:03am

Given his electrifying guitar playing and deeply felt singing, it’s not surprising that everyone from Buddy Guy and Elton John to Bootsy Collins and G. Love are avowed fans of Gen Z music dynamo Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. And it’s not surprising a growing number of admirers are hailing this Mississippi native as the rising heir apparent to such blues icons as Guy and the late B.B. King.

But at just 25, Ingram has already achieved more than Guy — his single biggest mentor — and King had when they were his age. The two legends were each 31 when their debut albums came out in 1956 and 1967, respectively.

Ingram was 19 when his justly acclaimed debut album, “Kingfish,” was released in 2019.

“I had done studio work recording before I was in 11th grade,” he said, speaking recently from Los Angeles. “And I had been singing in church since I was young.”

Guy and King were both officially senior citizens when they performed at the White House in 2012 for President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. That was one year after Ingram made his White House debut. He was 14 at the time.

“That was a standout point in time for me!” Ingram said in a 2021 San Diego Union-Tribune interview. He’s been racking up more standout moments ever since.

Ingram was 23 when Fender Guitars debuted its Kingfish Telecaster Deluxe model in 2022.

By comparison, King was 55 when Gibson Guitars unveiled its commemorative B.B. King ES-355 signature line in 1980. Guy was 59 when Fender released its Buddy Guy signature Stratocaster line in 1995.

King was 51 when he won his first Grammy Award; Guy was 55. Ingram was only 23 when he won his first Grammy — for best contemporary blues album — for his second full-length release, “662.” His victory saw him top such much better-known nominees as Steve Cropper, Joe Bonamassa, Shemekia Copeland and the Black Keys.

He was also 23 when the Rolling Stones handpicked him to open their 2022 show at London’s Hyde Park. King and Guy were 43 and 34, respectively, when they first opened concerts for the Stones in 1969 and 1970.

Big shoes to fill

Ingram is understandably proud of his accomplishments. But he is the first to acknowledge he is standing on the shoulders of King, Guy and other blues giants who paved the way for him.

He credits them with helping propel blues onto the global stage decades before he was born, and for essentially building — not just opening — the doors Ingram has walked through at such a young age. That respect and admiration works both ways.

Guy was suitably impressed with Ingram after the two first played together at a blues festival in Oregon in 2016. So impressed, in fact, that he hailed the young guitarist and singer as “the next blues explosion.” Guy subsequently put up all the money for Ingram to record his debut album.

Last year, Guy — now 87 — invited Ingram to be the opening act for his worldwide farewell tour. To some observers, the Guy/Ingram tour pairing represented a symbolic and literal passing of the torch: a veteran blues master handing the baton to a budding young blues master following closely in his footsteps.

Did it also feel that way to Ingram, who — in just the past five years — has won 10 national Blues Music Awards and 11 Living Blues Awards?

“Man!” he replied. “Quite honestly, I never thought of it like that. For me, Buddy Guy has always been the one and only. I look at it as: ‘He’ll be doing this forever, and I’m just along for the ride.’ So, I didn’t think of him passing anything to me.

“Let’s just say he has probably passed the torch to all of us, just like Jimi Hendrix. In some way and some form, all us guitarists are influenced by Buddy.”

Hendrix, who also cited Guy as a key inspiration, died in 1970. That was 29 years before Ingram — who started playing music at the age of 8 — was born. His concerts often feature Ingram’s version of the Leaves’ “Hey Joe,” a song popularized by Hendrix in the 1960s.

“I’ve always been aware of who Jimi was, even before I was doing music, just seeing his face on TV,” said Ingram, who has built a loyal following on Instagram and YouTube.

“But once I started to learn to play, I really got into his music from about age 12. I had Jimi’s ‘Greatest Hits’ CD. And I was affected just hearing him hitting the first note of ‘Purple Haze.’ He was the first Black guy who came out with that type of style. Everybody else back then was pretty much playing straight-ahead blues. Jimi created this whole new thing.”

Prince, another prime Ingram influence, was similarly impacted by Hendrix.

“Most definitely,” Ingram agreed. “When it comes to (guitar) tones and riffs, I think all of us were influenced by Jimi.”

Yet, while Hendrix’s music was revolutionary for its time, Ingram’s is more evolutionary.

‘In the pocket’

Unlike Hendrix, he isn’t redefining the electric guitar, per se, and isn’t a psychedelic trailblazer.

But Ingram is steeped in the same endlessly rich blues firmament, while adeptly drawing from rock, funk, R&B and other styles. And he is a more confident and accomplished singer than Hendrix, who — by his own acknowledgment — always felt more comfortable playing guitar than he did singing.

“My vocal range is getting broader,” Ingram said. “And when I play, I try to really say something. As far as my age goes, I think I’ve grown a little deeper with my music.”

An increasingly assured songwriter, Ingram is a fleet guitarist who makes each note count. His playing can be fierce and biting, sweet and tender, or almost anywhere in between, depending on the song and mood at hand.

Yet, while Ingram is an authoritative soloist who can expertly build dynamic tension with his music, he is also an anomaly for his age. Where many other 20-something guitarists love to showboat and cram as much as they can into every bar they play, Ingram never overdoes it. Instead, he performs with consistent taste, gaining maximum impact by knowing when to pull back and when to say more by saying less.

Ingram was 11 when he began playing bass, not guitar, in nightclubs with local bands in Clarksdale, his Mississippi hometown. He credits that time as pivotal for his six-string approach and how he leads a band now.

“I think that because I started out as a side guy before I went in front, I know what’s needed for a band to sound good,” Ingram said.

“So, even with me being a front guy now, I can’t go overboard. My days being on stage under the tutelage of older musicians, while being a student member of the Delta Blues Museum Band, taught me what not to do.

“Playing bass hasn’t affected me, as far as (guitar) soloing. But it gave me a foundation of being able to play in the pocket, because — even when you are playing guitar — you have to be in the pocket to lock in with the other players.

“With guitar I don’t want to be playing easily identifiable stuff — the same riffs other guitar players play. I like playing over chord changes and adding more interesting lines. That makes me happy. But I always feel I can get better.”

Many songwriters believe experiencing heartbreak is essential for being able to write a truly great love song. Does the 25-year-old Ingram agree?

“Well,” he replied with a chuckle, “when I was younger, I would have said: ‘Oh, no, you don’t need your heart broken to write a love song!’ But these days, since I’ve had more experience, I feel the experience helps.”

He chuckled again, then added an admonition: “All love songs don’t have to be about heartbreaking!”

‘Live in London’

Ingram’s most recent album, last year’s two-CD “Live in London,” captures him in peak form. He is now exploring ideas for his next release, which he hopes will draw a broader audience without making any qualitative compromises.

“It’s definitely going in a different direction,” Ingram said. “I want to do more music that showcases my vocals, more of an R&B style, but still with that blues essence and those same sounds on guitar.”

His bigger goal is to inspire a new generation.

“I’ve always thought that kids who look like me and sound like me when they talk, they’re just not into the blues,” Ingram said.

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“So, I just want one to say to them: ‘You can be a young Black kid, from the hip-hop era in the 2000s, and love blues music.’ One of the reasons you don’t see too many kids like me doing this is because they don’t see people like them doing it. They don’t have many young (musicians) to look up to and be inspired by.

“I want to be one of the people who shows them that we love this style of music. I want to be a vessel for the blues, but not conform to just that sound.”

Ingram was featured on a recent episode of TV’s “60 Minutes.” It focused on the famously deep blues legacy rooted in his Mississippi hometown, Clarksdale, which has a population of less than 15,000.

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