Mississippi Charles Bevel Keeps Delta Blues Alive

Singer, songwriter, guitarist has lived in Africa, written 'I'm a Lover' for Staple Singers, starred in Broadway hit 'It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues.'

"Mississippi" might be part of Mississippi Charles Bevel's name, but the singer, songwriter and guitarist, who has just released Not of Seasons, his first album in more than 25 years, has in his 62 years ranged far from the Delta of his birth.

Bevel has lived in Africa, written "I'm a Lover" for the Staple Singers and starred in a hit Broadway show, "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues."

"There are exceptionally powerful portraits [Bevel] paints with his lyrics,'' soul music legend Jerry Butler said. "Aside from that, he brings into the music the culture of the old blues and gospel singers of the South. It's not heard much anymore, because a lot of people aren't familiar with it enough to do it.''

Bevel discovered that he didn't want to become too familiar, when he began his career as a recording artist in the early 1970s.

He had just recorded his debut album, Meet Mississippi Charles Bevel, for A&M Records in Chicago and was flown out to Los Angeles to begin promotion for the record.

"We were ready to release it and do the tour around the country, and when I got to Hollywood that very first day, they picked me up in a white limousine and took me to the Continental Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard," Bevel recalled.

"I'm walking across the lobby to register, and these kids came running up to me. I remember the words: 'Are you somebody?'

"It was almost instant — I knew I couldn't do it," Bevel continued. "The whole thing of having someone worship me or put me in a light that just wasn't real ... I just really did not want to do it."

The decision exemplified Bevel's uncompromising spirit, according to Butler. "Charles and I are both Sagittarius," said Butler, who met Bevel at a songwriting workshop in the late 1960s. "That leads us to be very independent. We have a tendency to do it our way."

After walking away from the A&M deal after the release of his second album, Bevel would often perform with Chic Streetman, and he opened for artists such as B.B. King and Taj Mahal. Over time, he enrolled in Cleveland State University and eventually took a theater course there.

"I just kind of fell in love with it," Bevel said of the theater. "Six years later, I had an Equity card."

In 1994, actor/writer Ron Taylor was putting together a blues revue for Denver-area high-school students. Taylor contacted Streetman to perform in the piece, but he was unavailable, so he recommended Bevel.

"It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" was so successful, it was expanded from a 45-minute piece into a full-fledged, two-hour show that eventually found its way to Broadway in 1999, when it played Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. Bevel was a Tony Award nominee as the play's co-author.

Bevel used money he earned from "Blues" and also solicited donations to produce Not of Seasons, raising $30,000. "I'm not going to go out and knock the world down and make 10 billion dollars," he said. "The music is meaningful to me."

The new CD, produced by former John Denver sideman Danny Wheetman, is an invigorating, melodious work of many styles — including the blues, R&B, gospel, country and world beat — in lush, exquisite tones.

"I cherish [Bevel's] songs," Butler said, which include the philosophical "Dreams", the emotional "I Heard a Voice" and the ssexy "Tuesday Night (Tahira's Song)."

While accomplished now, Bevel wasn't even a musician until a few years before he started recording for A&M in the early 1970s. He was the 14th of 17 children born to cotton-plantation parents in Mississippi. He moved north to Cleveland as a teenager, joined the Navy and then took an electronics job in the African country of Liberia.

The politically charged atmosphere of the late 1960s influenced Bevel when he returned to the States.

"I had just come back from Africa, and that was a mind expanding period," Bevel said. "I was becoming interested in geopolitics and economics."

He worked for Jesse Jackson's Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, and it was there that Bevel, then 32, first picked up a guitar.

"It was not like a traditional musician's life," Bevel said.

Bevel, now living in North Brunswick, New Jersey, is playing clubs and schools around the country in support of Not of Seasons, which can be ordered from Bare Ridges Records, P.O. Box 190, North Brunswick, New Jersey, 08901.

"In some sense, it is for me the most exciting time of my life," Bevel said. "I see direction, and I see focus. It's like I've reached a point of knowing what I do and having the energy to go ahead and do it."