The Road to the Reverend
“Being a blues singer means having a journey of pain and loss,” says Shawn Amos. “But the music itself is all about joy, about finding your way out of the darkness.”
Shawn’s story features plenty of darkness. 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; Shawn spent most of his time with his mentally ill mother, Shirlee Ellis, whose grasp on reality waxed and waned.
In his mid-teens, Shawn left the turmoil of home and headed into the ‘80s landscape. 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.
Then came the 1992 Rodney King verdict. Suddenly, Shawn’s skin color became an issue.
“The LA riots were a pivotal moment,” he says. “I’d had little exposure to my own culture, but now people were looking at me differently. For my work, I created the character Whitey McFearsun, a mixture of Cab Calloway, Sly Stone, and Lenny Kravitz. I had straightened hair, tight pants, big white fly glasses, and I painted my face blue.”
He eventually dropped the Whitey McFearsun persona, but kept on message, titling his 2000 debut Harlem (re-released in 2011), and his 2002 follow-up In Between. Both albums, redolent of Americana, focused on feelings of otherness.
Of the sonics, he says, “I was avoiding R & B and blues. And I was mostly making music from a place of discomfort.”
The work garnered positive attention, but no income. Looking for a cool day gig, he got a break at storied reissue label Rhino, in A&R. Among the scores of compilations he produced was the much-lauded box set Q: The Musical Biography of Quincy Jones. Quincy and Shawn hit it off. The icon would subsequently enlist Shawn to run his Listen Up Foundation for a year, offering mentorship in both business and art.
Shawn’s former Rhino bosses lured him away from Listen Up with an offer to run the A&R department to their new indie label startup, Shout! Factory. It was a big leap, and an opportunity to work with many of his heroes. Most crucial, the Shout! Factory gig connected Shawn with R & B/ gospel legend Solomon Burke. Shawn would ultimately 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.
“Solomon quickly became very much a father to me,” Shawn says. “He was a mentor in every sense. He showed me the value of being an entertainer. And aside from the music, he was there at some important crossroads of my life.”
One of those crossroads: the unexpected 2003 suicide of Shawn’s schizoaffective disorder-afflicted mother. When he traveled to Raleigh, N.C. to collect her things, Shawn discovered an entirely different person than the woman he knew, or thought he knew.
He found a trove of 8 x 10s, 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, ambitious nightclub singer. All of it had been kept from Shawn.
How to deal with this one-two punch of grief and revelation? Head into the studio.
Shawn’s 2005 tribute to his mother, Thank You, Shirl-ee May (A Love Story) received great press, but it didn’t sell. The disappointment was crushing.
Looking back, he sees the experience with clarity only distance can bring: “I thought making an album would help me heal,” he says. “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.”
Enter Solomon Burke.
“My wife and I were separated,” Shawn says. “She was in LA with the kids, and I was in Nashville with Solomon, producing his concert special [Live in Nashville]. Without telling me, Solomon flew my wife in, put her in the front row, and brought me onstage to perform with him. In that one night, he saved my marriage.”
As he rebuilt his life, 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. I had to put food on the table, and my pragmatic head took over.”
ACG grew fast. “I was logging 200,000 miles a year,” Shawn says, “talking to execs at PepsiCo and AT&T about digital storytelling.”
He sold ACG to media conglomerate Omnicom in 2012. He stayed on as CEO, and his creation became Freshwire. Next thing he knew, he was on Forbes’ 2012 “up-and-comers” list.
While guiding clients and traveling, Shawn inched closer to making music again. But next time would be different. The lessons of Solomon Burke, who’d passed in 2010, echoed in his heart: put on a great show, take people away from their troubles, make their asses move.
The stars aligned in 2013, when guitarist Jeremy Parzen, an old bandmate, invited Shawn to Italy and sing some blues for a week. Shawn 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. The moniker not only stuck, it allowed Shawn to enact a timeworn paradox of performance: the persona as revelator of truth. Like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and even Bowie, he assumed a character in which he truly found, and was able to express, himself.
The Reverend offered the perfect vehicle for Shawn to communicate himself at midlife, a man with perspective, confidence, and much to celebrate and give.
“I realized I’d never sung deeply from my heart before,” he says, still incredulous. “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.”
While still CEO of Freshwire, Shawn put together a sharp-dressed band and booked a residency at a LA hotel. For six months, they played three nights a week, three hours a night.
“I wanted to be bulletproof,” Shawn says. “For the inevitable skepticism.”
In early 2014, Shawn and Co. holed up in L.A.'s famed Village Studios to record old school style: live, with no edits. To executive produce, he hired Steve Jordan (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Cray).
They cut covers of Elmore James, Slim Harpo-by-way-of-Pete Townshend, Junior Wells, and two originals, keeping it raw, but retaining sonic clarity for the modern ear: blues for the jukebox and the laptop.
The potent, boiled down results became 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, for a few days at Blade Studios, home of renowned drummer Brady Blade (Spyboy, Steve Earle, Bob Dylan).
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. 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 out, Shawn created the weekly YouTube series Kitchen Table Blues; every Sunday a new video of the Rev and Co. gathered ‘round the Amos kitchen table, layin’ it down. 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 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.