Mick Hayes: Philly Soul Meets Buffalo Blues
By Susan Frances
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Mick Hayes entered 2020 with the intention of resetting his recording career, forging new friendships, and embarking on new adventures as a live performer. Even the nationwide closures and related-coronavirus restrictions did not stand in his way. While America’s economy was experiencing a boom in early 2020, Hayes was experiencing his own boom, excited about his latest release My Claim To Fame having been pressed in Cleveland, Ohio after being recorded at FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
“So many of my favorite records were cut at FAME Studio,” he claims, “and produced by Rick Hall,” the long-time owner of the recording studio. “When I first talked with John Gifford III, who was the studio engineer/manager at the time, we discussed at length putting the wheels in motion but I didn’t pull the trigger right away and that hesitation cost me a lot because unfortunately Rick Hall passed away just a few months later in January of 2018.”
Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Hayes journeyed to FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with a single life-changing goal in his mind. “I needed the change,” he admits. “This is actually like my 8th studio record. I had grown so frustrated with everything from players, engineers, studios and myself that I needed to start over. FAME was the only studio I had considered for the reset.”
“From Etta James to Otis Rush,” he gleans, “I had to test myself, my songs and my commitments. After missing the opportunity to meet and work with Rick, I picked ‘Parking Lot Romance’ and ‘Ramona’ from the batch of 30 songs I had written and decided to go there and cut a 45 like the ones I grew up on.”
The inspiration for the music on My Claim To Fame has its roots in the music he listened to as a child, recorded on 7-inch vinyl records with 45 revolutions per minute often referred to as 45’s, as opposed 12-inch vinyl records with 33 1⁄3 revolutions per minute. He recounts about his efforts to make it to FAME, “I drove the 800 miles to Muscle Shoals, pulled into town in my Lincoln with New York plates, big sunglasses on and a Coach satchel not knowing what to expect at all. Thankfully, I loaded into a side door that morning and did not see the hallway between studios and we were tracking within an hour.”
“Then, while the songs were getting a rough mix,” he remembers, “I finally strolled the hallway to see all the pictures on the walls and in that very moment the history of FAME Studio came alive for me. Clayton playing piano while Little Richard stands beside him, Bob Wray posing with Jerry Reed, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, Duane Allman, Gregg Allman and knowing all the time that Steven Tyler and Michael McDonald were there just a few weeks before me. My expectations had only just begun. I knew that it couldn’t end there for me.”
“That night in my hotel room,” he thought, “my 45 grew into a full-length album and today it’s My Claim To Fame,” as he now joins FAME’s hall of fame.
Hayes explains where the impetus for the music on the recording stems from, “Long story short,” he begins, “my wife and I had been living in a small cottage on Lake Erie for the first 3 years of our marriage. Small like…less than 1000 square feet small but, it really fortified our marriage let me tell you! When we finally moved into a larger home, I was able to get all my old records out of storage and have a room of my own dedicated to all things music.”
“At the risk of sounding cliché,” he remarks, “reconnecting with all those records was like being a child all over again. The smell, the feel, the liner notes and I quickly realized how far I had got off track with both my writing and my inspirations.”
“Truthfully,” he reveals, “the 45’s helped the most, which is why I wrote ‘Hand Me Down 45’s’ on the album.”
Another track on the recording, “Autumn Romance,” combines Hayes’ blend of Philly soul with Buffalo blues, adding sprigs of northwest americana and prairieland romance. He details how the song came together, “In my experience here in North West, folks always seem to fall in love in the autumn. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to be alone for the holidays or maybe it’s,” he quotes from the song, “‘the smell of apple pie, pumpkin and cinnamon,’ sorry I had to.”
“The arrangement,” he cites, “is not too far removed from my first demo but when Clayton Ivey and I got together at the Wurlitzer Electric Piano in Studio A that morning he said: ‘Oh, that song’s Philadelphia’ and immediately I realized what was missing from my demo, that Philly soul groove! We changed two or three chord voicings and got it on the second take, if my memory serves me correctly. Clayton really took over on that one and I think it stands out for all the right reasons.”
Pianist/organist Clayton Ivey is one of the session players at FAME studio who worked with Hayes. Other session players at FAME who worked with Hayes on the recording include: Justin Holder on drums and percussion, Bob Wray on bass guitar, Vinnie Ciesielski on trumpet and Flugelhorn, Brad Guin on baritone sax, tenor sax and flute, and Will McFarlane on rhythm guitar. Also contributing to the recording are the vocal harmonies and backup singing vocals of Marie Lewey and Cindy Walker, aka The Muscle Shoals Singers.
“It’s funny,” he reflects, “what Wilson Pickett said about FAME is exactly what I’ll say and that is ‘we made that record together.’ With all the records that are made over the internet today even before social distancing, I wanted to be in the room with these guys and gals. Learning from them, getting to know them, hearing their stories and today I can call them my friends because of that. Actually, that could be the most validating point in my recording. We had such a great time making it.”
“For instance,” he highlights about the recording experience, “the laughing at the beginning of ‘Parking Lot Romance’ – legitimate!” he vows, “Clayton and Bob Wray have a friendship that stems back to the late 60’s. They can get at each other like Felix and Oscar in the most entertaining way. They had me in stitches every single time.”
“Another fond memory,” he shares, “is how the two of them would both say: ‘Let’s get this thing down before we learn it.’ To me that was their way of saying, let’s capture the magic take before we start overthinking what we’re playing. Almost every song on the record is three takes or less and that’s the best lesson…getting out of the way, let the music do the talking and respect any charms in imperfections.”
“Once the record was done,” he recalls, “I called Rodney Hall, Rick’s son and now co-owner, on the phone and asked for his blessing to call the album My Claim To Fame. He told me that he thought it was a great title. Then this July, Rodney and I had some time to chat over drinks and he was kind enough to say that his Dad would have loved my songs and that meant the world to me.”
Hayes recollects about the months after the recording was completed, “I went down to Cleveland, Ohio to pick up the records after they had been pressed. That’s when my wife told me I better get home and because they were about to shut New York down. Then we delayed the release twice when the ‘flatten the curve’ statistics did not improve. Eventually a decision was made between distribution, my publicist and myself to set the release date for May 29, 2020, thinking it would be ok by then. Then came the protests through the month of June and the rising numbers of cases in America.”
Working around the closures and restrictions due to the pandemic that ensued after the global spread of COVID-19, Hayes embarked on an adventure with American Blues Scene magazine. His tour entailed visiting and playing at music stores across the country while the magazine recorded the visits. The videotapings can be found HERE.
Hayes describes how this journey came together, “My publicist and I came up with the idea of doing a ‘promotional tour journal’ in cooperation with American Blues Scene and I named it ‘The Road 2 FAME & Back.’ I flew John Gifford III up to Buffalo to be my copilot, gave him his first order of chicken wings, showed him Niagara Falls and we left on a Monday. We created a Spotify playlist so folks at home could enjoy the windshield therapy along with us.”
“We stopped in Cleveland, Ohio first,” he reports, “to pick up where I left off in early March. Unfortunately, the trip was full of cancellations and our social media efforts could not contend with the big media headlines. After three weeks of driving as far west as the Mississippi River and as far south as Muscle Shoals, the best thing that happened to the both of us was the absence of fear.”
“For me personally,” he points out, “the next best thing was buying music all over the country, and yes, I intend on doing a trip of that sort at least once a year, maybe even twice with documentation.”
The tour brought Hayes to audiences while bringing old and new music to Hayes, as he enthuses, “I’m back to collecting music, I’ve been replacing some of my old hand me down 45’s with cleaner copies. The best thing that came out of my recent promotional tour was buying records all over the country. I’m finding that it gives them even more memories when you play them and some of that treasure hunting has been really good for my inner child.”
Hayes discovered his inner child in his teens as he chronicles, “I wrote songs before I played guitar. My Mom has old cassette recordings of me as a child saying things like: ‘This is my song that I wrote…’ and singing some really comical lyrics from my overactive childhood imagination.”
“After that,” he purports, “learning to play songs by ear was the next thing I did. I remember writing my first song, music and lyrics, when I was about ten years old. I got a job working on cars at a local Ford dealership during my internship in high school and stayed with that for about four years. The turning point for me was when I decided to devote forty hours a week toward my music career instead, and that’s the advice I give when players ask me how to go full-time.”
“I’ve been in a band since I was 13,” he maintains. “Trust me, you don’t want to hear any of those recordings. Although, I will say that I was actually getting paid to play before I turned 18. I always wrote my own music but I quickly found out that the hardest part was getting folks to listen to it. So, eventually I joined a hard-working cover band that played regionally and it quickly became a slippery slope that cost me a few years of my ‘creative life,’ which he happily switched his course and reset his professional life.
“Motivation goes hand in hand with inspiration for me,” he asserts, “and thankfully both of them have never really been a problem for me. I grew up with three different hand me down record collections and they still have never let me down. Back home in Buffalo, New York where I’m from, there was a great blues club called the Lafayette Tap Room. I was just over 16 years old the first time I played that stage. I received a lot of encouragement from so many players that came through there over the years and later on, we became the house band in my 20’s. That’s where I really cut my teeth as an entertainer.”
“Then in 2002,” he declares, “I started the Mick Hayes Band and we jumped into recording my original songs right away!”
From being in bands for most of his professional life, Hayes’ transition into being a solo artist was natural. He observes about the elements he puts in his own music, “I’m most attracted to the phrasing, space, vibe and rhythm. What’s really going to be important to me on the next record that it be full of charm and have even more infectious groves than the last.”
Being a solo artist is a path he envisions on continuing. “I’m in a writing phase for the next record at the moment,” he advances, “and that requires some isolated study-listening. In front of me at the moment is: Little Beaver, Robert Moore, Timmy Thomas, Little Royal, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and Lee Moses… There’s far too many people to thank for introducing me to these artists but I suggest hanging out with like-minded people, cool secondhand record stores, and YouTube is an amazing tool for getting hip to new things you have never heard.”
Posting on his YouTube channel HERE has become a part of Hayes’ life. He confronts,”I just went through a massive YouTube debacle this year and had to start my already established channel over. I lost all of my subscribers and views, really miserable! However, I love it and use it all the time!”
He pursues, “I have been busy adding content to it ever since starting over and I’m really looking forward to what it brings… I’ve been busy editing and posting some of the crate digging adventures,” he refers to the records he picked up during his promotional tour, “to my YouTube channel for folks who enjoy that sort of thing.”
“I also have a VEVO channel now,” he focuses, “for the more ‘official’ stuff. I’m not a fan of Facebook though personally,” he contends, “it completely works against me as an artist. I mean, I earned 1000’s of followers/likes through years of performing and now I have to pay for sponsored adds and boosted posts if I want to reach them all? Not a fan, sorry…rant over.”
The following months for Hayes are slated to be occupied with promoting his music and putting content on his YouTube channel as he unveils, “I’ve pretty much set my sights on doing more videos and turning the heat up on the YouTube channel. I feel that’s the better ‘way around it’ for me right now and keeps the content quality in check too. We’re so proud of the way this record came out, that I’m going to concentrate my efforts on getting folks to listen to it for now and hopefully be on the road to recording and touring in the spring of 2021.”
“Eventually,” he mentions, “I’d like to get back into classic cars again on my own terms. It’s been far too long since I had one and it seems to fit my lifestyle again.”
Resetting his professional career as a solo artist has brought Mick Hayes back, in some ways, to his roots. Remembering the music that excited him in his youth, Hayes has fashioned his own homespun blend of Philly soul with Buffalo blues, adding in flavors of northwest americana and prairieland romance. The recipe is entirely Hayes’ own creation and a welcoming addition to the world’s music market.
About Susan Frances:
Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.