By Mike Greenblatt
As a respected sideman, Mark Newman has graced the bands of the late Willy DeVille (1950-2009), Rock’Roll Hall Of Famer Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) and Sam The Sham (“Wooly Booly,” “Little Red Riding Hood”). An exemplary string man, Newman plays electric and acoustic guitar, lap steel, dobro and mandolin, and has been compared most often to Lowell George and Mark Knopfler.
As a singer/songwriter, his two albums—"Must Be A Pony" (2006) and "Walls of Jericho" (2010) — are pure and deep Americana, featuring his oftentimes profound compositions delivered in a world-weary slur of experience (think John Prine crossed with John Hiatt). And when he chooses a song to cover, he succeeds in the difficult job of making it his own. That’s no easy feat when you pick such eclectic fare as “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl” (Mink DeVille) “New York Mining Disaster 1941” (Bee Gees) or “White Bird” (It’s A Beautiful Day).
What’s the difference between being a sideman and a singer/songwriter who leads his own band in how you approach the music?
Mark Newman: There’s more pressure on me when I’m the artist. As a sideman, I still sound like me—that’s why I’m hired—but my job is to enhance another artist’s vision. With Willy Deville, for instance, he encouraged me to take liberties with his compositions and, as a direct result, I’d get yelled at by the other members of the band saying, “hey, that’s not how it goes!” And I’d invariably say, “I guess you missed the conversation at Willy’s kitchen table.”
You once told me Willy DeVille never compromised. What did you mean?
MN: Willy just had to do things his own way. Even with his diehard fans in Europe. One time there was this guy who kept screaming for a particular song. Willy stopped the show and said, “if that guy doesn’t shut up, I’m going to break a chair over his head!” If he got the inclination to blow harp in the middle of somebody else’s solo, he would. He was very in-the-moment. Or he’d start playing slide guitar while I was playing a slide guitar solo. And it always worked. And he was very set-in-his ways. For instance, he’d never do “Storybook Love.” I don’t know why. It was even nominated for an Academy Award [Willy wrote “Storybook Love” with Mark Knopfler and Rob Reiner used it in “The Princess Bride.”] When I first got in the band, I mentioned it, and he said, “nah, I don’t do that song.” And that was it.
Do you think his eccentricity fueled his creativity?
MN: Absolutely. He was very eccentric. Who else would walk through an airport in his all-leather stage clothes with his very long hair and each side of his head totally shaved? I mean, man, he stood out. People would stare at him wherever he went. That’s what he liked to wear and it just didn’t occur to him not to.
MN: One of the best vocalists I’ve ever heard in my entire life. The band is tight! We’re all reading charts. Everybody knows where they are. People don’t yell stuff out ‘cause he does all his hits every time, that, and material off the duets album. He always sounds great. He’s 75, sounds like 25. And, boy, do I love playing those guitar parts. That’s what guitar playing is all about. We have The Uptown Horns in that band. What a horn section! When I first got the gig, I assumed there would never be room to take a solo. “Hold On I’m Coming” has that tremolo solo but other than that, there’s hardly any guitar solos. With Sam’s music, there’s those figures that Steve Cropper played. That’s the hard part. But I have a guitar solo in “You Are So Beautiful” and we open up with “Chicken Shack” and I have a slide solo. We did a few shows with Travis Tritt who sang that on that duets record with Sam and Robert Randolph played a mean slide on their track. So when the Music Director was putting the band together, the fact that I played slide was in my favor.
Sam The Sham.
MN: He’s quite a character. I’ve been really privileged to work with these three guys. The experience has been invaluable. I’ve worked with Sam The Sham since I was a kid. He needed a guy who could play slide because he started out as a blues singer in Texas. Frank Zappa once said Sam The Sham wrote the lyrics to “Wooly Booly” in the studio on a napkin with a crayon. I asked Sam about this and he looked at me funny and just said, “you think I remember?” When I first started playing with him, I’d try to get in every riff that I could and he’d yell at me and say, “take it easy, will you? Go listen to some Jimmy Reed records. You’ve got to settle down.” That was a turning point for me. He taught me a lot.
And when you play your own songs with your own band?
MN: You have to be able to stretch out. It’s a fine line. It’s tough to find that middle ground of sounding just like the CD yet improvising for a live crowd. I’m lucky to have Naomi Margolin in my band who sang all the back-up parts on Walls Of Jericho.
She sounds beautiful on “White Bird.”
MN: Yeah, the original had that long violin solo.
Yeah, It’s A Beautiful Day was a ‘60s San Francisco band. Famous for 20-minute solos!
MN: I replaced that solo with a dobro solo on an instrument that Willy’s wife, Nina, gave to me upon his death. I also used it on “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl” which has longtime DeVille percussionist Boris Kinberg on it. But Naomi, I love her vocals. She doesn’t sound like a white girl trying to sound black. She has her own style.
Compositionally speaking, “Fire On The Water” is your Dylanesque protest song.
MN: The fact that the government allows people to drill for oil in the Gulf is horrible. This could’ve been avoided. We can’t police the whole world but this was right in our own backyard.
And in “Taking Pictures,” you beautifully evoke the memory of your father, who, apparently, along with Willy DeVille and the two Sams, was the other major influence on you.
MN: He was right out of a Damon Runyan story, a tough truck driver with pancreatic cancer who would never admit he was dying. He was so tough and gruff, when I was growing up, all my friends were afraid of him. When Willy also died of pancreatic cancer, it really brought me back to my father. I remember going to Sloan-Kettering visiting my father every day, mourning over him the whole time while he was still alive. When he died, I had nothing left. Going to see Willy 10 years later was tough. I really valued his friendship, and he was a hard guy to get close to. But he was really really nice to me, taught me a lot, as did my father.