Shawn’s story features plenty of darkness. As a scared, confused latchkey kid, the only offspring of a broken marriage, his ‘70s childhood included time spent among hookers, drug dealers, and LA street folk, all of whom knew him by name. His father, cookie entrepreneur and erstwhile William Morris talent agent Wally “Famous” Amos, loomed large but was also largely absent, hustling nonstop. Shawn spent most of his time with his mentally ill mother, Shirlee Ellis, whose grasp on reality waxed and waned. More often than not, child parented elder, in a shadowy world of stories both true and imaginary.
In his mid-teens, Shawn’s showfolk genes took hold. He left the turmoil of home – physically, at least – and headed into the ‘80s landscape, first to NYU film school, then back to LA, bound for any stage that would have him. Had he known the satisfaction of blues music, perhaps he would’ve gone straight there, avoiding the twisting, rutted road now stretching behind him. But then he’d have nothing to sing about, nothing from which to squeeze joy at being alive, full of love in the face of it all.
At first, Shawn’s music was all earnestness and intensity. (It was the ‘80s.) He rose from aspiring sax player (“a girl said she thought I’d look good with a sax, so I took it up”) to singer in a succession of almost famous bands. Struggling to find his voice, he learned in public, as performers do.
“The LA riots were a pivotal moment,” Shawn says. He was enjoying a Chris Whitley gig at The Palace (now Avalon) on Hollywood and Vine, unaware of the enraged Angelenos setting his town ablaze. After the show, street cops wouldn’t let anyone go downtown.
Suddenly, Shawn’s skin color became an issue. “I’d had little exposure to my own culture,” he says of his Hollywood childhood, “but now people were looking at me differently.”
Something clicked. Race began to dominate Shawn’s work. “I dove into racial identity stuff,” he says. “I created the character Whitey McFearsun, a mixture of Cab Calloway, Sly Stone, and Lenny Kravitz.” He laughs at the memory of his visual approach: “I had straightened hair, tight pants, big white fly glasses, and I painted my face blue. It was a crazy experiment.”
He eventually dropped the Whitey McFearsun moniker and look, but kept on message, titling his 2000 debut Harlem (re-released in 2011), and his 2002 follow-up In Between. Both albums featured folk-rock texture, sonically white, but thematically black, focused on feelings of otherness.
“I was avoiding R & B and blues,” he says. “And I was mostly making music from a place of discomfort.”
The work garnered positive attention, but no income. Eventually, Shawn’s family man responsibilities took hold. He’d inherited from his agent father the skill for helping others hone and present their stories. He got a break landing an A&R gig at storied reissue label Rhino. Among the scores of compilations he produced was the the much-lauded Q: The Musical Biography of Quincy Jones, a career overview box set. Quincy and Shawn hit it off, big time. The icon would subsequently enlist Shawn to run his Listen Up Foundation for a year, offering mentorship in both business and art. “Quincy taught me the importance of failure as well as success,” Shawn says.
Shawn’s former Rhino bosses lured him away to their new indie label startup, Shout! Factory, by offering him the chance to run the A&R department. It was a big leap and an opportunity to work with many of his heroes.
Even more crucial than the Quincy connection, the Shout! Factory gig connected Shawn with R & B/ gospel legend Solomon Burke. The men developed a deep bond. (Shawn would go on to executive produce the acclaimed Solomon Burke trilogy Make Do with What You Got, Nashville – on which Burke recorded Shawn’s “Vicious Circle” – and Like A Fire.) In the getting-to-know-you process, Shawn made many mental notes, watching the mountainous man tap into and spread joy through performance.
“Solomon quickly became very much a father to me,” Shawn says. “He was a mentor in every sense. To have an artist of that stature give me responsibility over his work was an amazing act of trust. He legitimized me, showed me the value of being an entertainer. To make people smile and boogie is important work. And aside from the music, he was there at some important crossroads of my life.”
The schizoaffective disorder that had haunted Shawn’s childhood took its final toll, and after her death, he traveled to Raleigh, N.C. to join his father in collecting his mother’s things. To his astonishment, he discovered evidence of an entirely different person than the woman he knew, or thought he knew.
Shawn found a trove of 8 x 10s, acetates, programs, a Mercury Records recording contract, clippings, and correspondence. Evidently, in the early 60s, prior to parenthood and mental illness, Shirlee Ellis had performed as Shirl-ee May, drop dead gorgeous nightclub singer, hellbent on stardom. All of it had been kept from Shawn.
How to deal with this one-two punch of grief and seismic revelation?
Head into the studio.
Shawn’s 2005 tribute to his mother, Thank You, Shirl-ee May (A Love Story), a song cycle of celebration, pain, love, and anger, received great press. But it didn’t sell. The disappointment, shouldered in grief, almost took him out of writing and performing permanently.
Looking back, he sees the experience with clarity only distance can bring: “I was grieving in real time,” he says. “I thought making an album would help me heal, but I was actually distancing myself from dealing with the repercussions of years alone with a psychotic woman. Meanwhile, my own family was falling apart. Like my father, I’d become really good at compartmentalizing, not dealing with the collateral damage of my upbringing.”
“My marriage was in trouble,” Shawn says. “My wife and I were separated. She was in LA with the kids, and I was in Nashville with Solomon, producing his concert special [Live in Nashville] for HD Net. Without telling me, Solomon flew my wife in, put her in the front row, and brought me onstage to perform with him, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Buddy Miller. In that one night, he saved my marriage.”
As he rebuilt his life in exile from writing and performing, Shawn launched Amos Content Group in 2009. His goal: help businesses transitioning to the Internet use effective ways to tell stories online.
“I’d always been curious about tech,” he says. “And I saw how the world was changing so fast. My peers in promotion and retail were being left behind. They had no way to pivot. I didn’t want to be a relic. I had to put food on the table, and my pragmatic head took over.”
On the rapidly evolving digital vista, Shawn easily found his footing. In his distinctive childhood, he’d become a natural at creating compelling stories in the midst of chaos. That skill, in fact, had seen him through his earliest years, when reality was too harsh to process consciously.
“ACG grew fast,” Shawn says. “I was logging 200,000 miles a year, talking to execs at PepsiCo and AT&T about digital storytelling.” Exciting and remunerative, but, Shawn says, “A little like Groundhog Day.”
He sold ACG to media conglomerate Omnicom in 2012. He stayed on as CEO, and his new parent company renamed his creation Freshwire. Next thing he knew, he was on Forbes’ 2012 “up-and-comers” list. Business-wise, it was a heady time. But he didn’t write songs, much less perform, for almost four years.
Nevertheless, the desire to make music would not let him go. While guiding clients and traveling, Shawn inched closer to making music again. While he wasn’t exactly sure of his next musical venture’s form, he did know one thing: no more singer-songwriter albums.
“I didn’t want to bare my soul and be a confessional shoegazer again,” he says. The lessons of Solomon Burke, who’d passed in 2010, echoed in his heart ever louder: put on a great show, take people away from their troubles, make their asses move.
How to put these tenets into motion?
The stars aligned in 2013, when guitarist Jeremy Parzen, an old bandmate, invited Shawn to come to Italy and sing some blues for a week of gigs. Parzen, a food and wine historian and founding member of French indie rock outfit Nous Non Plus, shared a love of Chicago blues. For the performances, Shawn decided not to sport his usual jeans-and-T-shirt, but rather heeded the example of always-impeccably-attired Solomon Burke (not to mention most blues icons); he showed up in patent leather shoes and a trim, purple, three-button suit, blues harps secreted in the pockets. He donned a trilby hat and took the stage.
“I felt Solomon’s hand on me,” he said.
Onstage, Parzen christened him the Reverend Shawn Amos. The crowd went wild. After some sweaty, intense sets, strangers called out to the Reverend, wanted to embrace the Reverend. The moniker not only stuck, it created an entry point for Shawn to enact a timeworn paradox of performance: the persona as revelator of truth. Like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and even (big blues fan) David Bowie, he assumed a character in which he truly found, and was able to express, himself.
Rather than use an identity to focus rage, as with Whitey McFearsun all those years ago, Shawn found in the Reverend the perfect vehicle to communicate himself at midlife, a man with perspective, confidence, and much to celebrate and give. The Reverend allowed him to hone the showmanship he’d learned at the feet of his mentors, to communicate the exhilaration of rising up from strife. In the deceptively simple-sounding structure of this elemental, deeply African music, he found, and most importantly, was able to offer, joy.
“I realized I’d never sung deeply from my heart before,” Shawn says, still incredulous. “I’d always been self-conscious, about my blackness, or lack of blackness. Performing my Americana albums had been painful, and it showed. Playing blues was similar to meeting a long lost relative. The music placed me firmly in my own skin in a way I never was previously. And people responded to me being true.
“People think blues is about singing from a place of pain, but it’s not; it’s about singing from a place of vulnerability. To play the blues well, you must bring transparency and vulnerability to the table.”
Of course, post-Italy, the Reverend had to continue. While still CEO of Freshwire, Shawn put together a sharp-dressed band, and booked a residency at a LA hotel, gigs to which Shawn often arrived straight from the airport. For six months, the band played three nights a week, three hours a night, allowing Shawn to hone his act before a growing fan base, to sing, shout, and blow a lot of blues harp.
For material, Shawn drew on his extensive curatorial background, knowledge gleaned from, among other things, overseeing John Lee Hooker and Johnny “Guitar” Watson retrospectives released by Shout! Factory.
“I decided to keep the material pre-1967,” he says, “and mostly Chicago blues like Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf. And we stay away from the guitar hero-type stuff. It’s direct, simple storytelling.”
In early 2014, Shawn assembled a small crew and holed up in LA’s famed Village Studios, where Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Elton John, and Solomon Burke had laid down classic grooves. Shawn and Co. recorded old school style: live, with no edits, VU meters in the red, the scent of warm, analog vacuum tubes in the air. To executive produce, he hired drummer/producer/music director Steve Jordan (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Cray); to mix, he enlisted Niko Bolas (Neil Young, Warren Zevon).
They cut covers of Elmore James, Slim Harpo-by-way-of-Pete Townshend, Junior Wells, and two originals. Bolas and Jordan kept the proceedings raw, but retained sonic clarity for the modern ear, making Reverend fare both jukebox and laptop friendly.
The potent, boiled down results were pressed into six-song EP The Reverend Shawn Amos Tells It. Shawn launched a new label, Put Together, and let his creation into the world. The reception and reviews were overwhelmingly positive. And it sold.
Within a year of the EP’s release, Shawn was back in the studio, with ten originals and two covers. The plan: go deeper this time, literally and figuratively, all the way to Shreveport, Louisiana; book a few days at Blade Studios, home of renowned drummer Brady Blade (Spyboy, Steve Earle, Bob Dylan) who Shawn had met during those Nashville sessions. Record live, on the floor, old school-style.
As ever, a posse had to be assembled to flesh it all out. (That’s a big part of the fun: the posse.) Shawn brought in friend and two-time Grammy nominee, saxophonist/vocalist Mindi Abair, to produce. Abair assembled the multi-Grammy winning Blind Boys of Alabama for background vocals, and tapped drummer Brady Blade himself for the bedrock. In the center of a thick, assured groove, the Reverend’s vocals and harmonica rose with power, humor, and yes, joy. Shawn wrapped it all up in debut album The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, and released it, via Put Together, on October 15th, 2015.
Keeping with the “old school, new tools” approach to getting the music to the people, Shawn created the weekly YouTube series Kitchen Table Blues. Every Sunday morning, a new video goes up in which the Rev and Co. gather ‘round the Amos kitchen table and offer up live, love-filled blues. In addition to the Reverend’s recorded repertoire, they slay blues canon classics, Amos originals, and bluesified versions of nuggets like Bowie’s “The Jean Genie,” and Tom Waits’ “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” Fifty-plus videos in, Kitchen Table Blues has clocked tens of thousands of views, and netted hundreds of subscribers.
The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, meanwhile, has spent two weeks at Number One on the Roots Music Report’s Top 50 Contemporary Blues Album Chart, received international praise, and landed the Rev on Sirius/XM radio, NPR, WNYC, several Best Of 2015 lists, in the New York Post, on ABC, and Fox 5 NY.
All of the above delivered Shawn Amos back to himself. In early 2016, he left Freshwire, and launched Put Together Media, a collective focusing on what he has coined nimble content creation. While keeping his hand in the business world, this boutique venture allows time to dedicate due energy to the Reverend, spreading joy, he says, “one gig at a time.”
“The Reverend puts me on a continuum of generations that came before me, part of a history of black Americans making blues,” Shawn says. “In the Reverend, I am proud as never before. I’m intoxicated and humbled. And I am my best self.”
– Robert Burke Warren
Robert Burke Warren is a writer, performer, and musician. His songs have been played by the Roots, Rosanne Cash, Wanda Jackson, and RuPaul. His writing has appeared in Salon, Paste, vulture, The Rumpus, The Weeklings, and elsewhere. His 2016 debut novel, Perfectly Broken, is available now.