Jim Suhler and his band Monkey Beat have been on the music scene now for over twenty two years and have built a fanbase worldwide. The Dallas, Texas based group are known for their no holds barred approach to blues inspired rock ‘n roll and roots music. Their four Lucky Seven releases, two releases on Underworld Records and Jim’s solo acoustic CD ‘Dirt Road’ on Topcat records have shown an amazing depth of songwriting and playing, and their constant touring both in North America and Europe has garnered many admirers and accolades.
The band has worked in the past with noted producers Terry Manning (ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, Stax records, etc.), and Jim Gaines (Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan) and Grammy Award winning producer/songwriter Tom Hambridge. Jim is also well known as lead guitarist with George Thorogood & the Destroyers since 1999, and has had his songs used in feature films (Spun, Wallace & Grommit) and is a multiple nominee in the prestigious Dallas Observer Music Awards, plus he is a member of BUDDY, Texas’ oldest music magazine Texas Tornado Hall of Fame.
He may be one of the most lauded artists in the contemporary blues arena today, and rightfully so, but for Mike Zito, the thing that counts the most is maintaining his honesty, authenticity and integrity. Those are the qualities that have steered Zito’s career since the beginning and continue to define every effort he’s offered since.
“I have nothing to hide; it seems my honesty is what people relate to most,” he once told Vintage Guitar magazine. “Anders (Osborne) told me early on, ‘If you don’t believe what you’re singing, you’ll never be a good singer.’ I try not to write fluff; I try to make every word count.”
That point became convincingly clear with his last record 2018’s First Class Life, a collection of songs that detailed his journey from addiction to sobriety and the subsequent success he achieved through his award-winning body of work. A multiple award winner and nominee, Zito has built his career on an ability to tap into tradition while maintaining contemporary credence all at the same time.
Zito’s upcoming album — his 16th — due this November on Ruf Records and descriptively titled Rock N Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, finds him broadening his boundaries still further even as it marks a return to his roots. The album consists of 20 Chuck Berry classics performed by Zito and an impressive array of 21 guest guitarists, among them Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Eric Gales, Robben Ford, Sonny Landreth, Luther Dickinson, Albert Castiglia, Anders Osborne and, significantly, Chuck’s grandson, Charles Berry III.
“This was a very special project for me,” Zito says. “I lived in Chuck’s hometown of St. Louis for 32 years, and I worked at a small musical instrument store where his drummer also happened to be employed. Chuck’s son would drop by on occasion as well. He was an icon, and rightfully so. I’ve been playing his songs since I was a kid. Needless to say, he was a tremendous influence on my career, and, of course, on many other musicians’ as well.”
Produced by Zito himself, the album was recorded at his own Marz Studios and mixed and mastered by David Farrell. “We recorded the basic tracks and then sent them to each guest musician,” Zito recalls. “They added their contributions and then sent the files back to us. The process took a year to complete.”
Naturally, patience and perseverance have been Zito’s stock and trade since the beginning. He began playing guitar at the age of five, and by the time he reached his late teens, he was already a fixture on the local St. Louis music scene. He initially released his music independently and then signed with Eclecto Groove Records in 2008. “Pearl River,” the title track of his 2009 album for the label, won Song of the Year at the Blues Music Awards and marked his first collaboration with Cyril Nevill, with whom he’d later work in the Royal Southern Brotherhood. A steady succession of critically acclaimed albums followed, culminating in 2011’s Greyhound, which was nominated for Best Rock Blues Album at that year’s Blue Music Awards ceremony in Memphis. Two years later, he signed with Ruf Records and released Gone to Texas, the story of how he gained his sobriety, offered an emotional homage to the state that left an indelible imprint on his entire life. It also marked the debut of his band, the Wheel.
From 2010 to 2014, Zito also played an integral role in the super group of sorts, Royal Southern Brotherhood. The group released two albums and a DVD, Songs from the Road – Live in Germany, winner of the year’s Blues Music Award for Best DVD. He also made his mark behind the boards by producing albums for Samantha Fish, Albert Castiglia, Ally Venable, Jeremiah Johnson, Jimmy Carpenter, and many others.
Meanwhile, the accolades keep coming. His album Make Blues Not War debuted on the Billboard Blues Album Chart at number one and garnered him recognition as the 2018 Rock Blues Artist of the Year at the Blues Music Awards. Last year’s First Class Life followed suit, also entering the charts at number one. Alternate Root magazine insisted that “The First Class Life that Mike Zito titles his upcoming album can be heard in the sweet sound of Blue Soul rising like heat waves from his guitar and his vocal.” American Blues Scene said “Mike Zito’s return to the blues is, in a word, triumphant!” No Depression declared, “Once again, Zito has delivered the goods, a first class package with no postage due.”
Now, with Rock N Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, Mike Zito again does what he does best, making an album that’s humble, heartfelt, skilled and sublime….and, to paraphrase Chuck himself, letting it rock all at the same time.
There may not be a more honest bluesman than Mike Zito, whose 15th album ‘First Class Life’ comes out May 11 on Ruf Records. The rocking yet poignant title track explores his journey from addiction to sobriety and then musical recognition; he is a three-time Blues Music Award Winner, taking home the 2018 Rock Blues Artist of the Year. “Second chance at a first class life,” he sings, recalling the hard times. The Texas-based musician smiles and continues, “I grew up poor in St. Louis, and now I’m travelling the world to sing my songs.”
Zito’s star has been on the rise of late both solo and as a member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood, with bandmates Cyril Neville, Devon Allman, Charlie Wooton and Yonrico Scott.
As is fitting for a man with the word “Blues” tattooed across his picking hand, ‘First Class Life’ focuses squarely on blues with heart and chops to spare, not to mention wit and openness. The punchy “Time For A Change” conjures the tension in the world today while the exquisite Memphis-style song, “The World We Live In,” which recalls BB King in its world-weariness. The electrified blues bounce of “Dying Day” finds Zito swearing lifelong allegiance to his wife. “Old Black Graveyard” sets the scene of a bluesman’s final resting place and its disrepair, along with some possible supernatural influences, with Zito’s masterful slide guitar flourishes driving it home.
In addition to the press and Blues Music Award love, Zito has earned from fellow artists. Anders Osborne says, “I love Mike Zito! He’s got that rare kinda voice that resonates in your soul. All his hardship, life experiences and kind heart oozes out of every note his sings. His guitar playing dances delicately between a contemporary blues virtuoso and an old fashion soul man. Mike continues to impress me with his straightforward and honest songwriting. His joy and grace shine through every record he makes.”
Annika Chambers, like so many powerful vocal artists, can trace her love of music back to early childhood. “I grew up singing in the church,” she says. Not that she had to tell us. Citing the gospel influences of Yolanda Adams, Shirley Caesar, Dottie Peoples and Whitney Houston, you can’t help but feel the Spirit moving through the entire room when Annika throws herself into the heart of a song.
But it was during her two tours of duty in the US Army that Chambers realized the gift she had. “One of my colonels heard me singing, and he said, ‘Why don’t you sing the Anthem for one of our ceremonies?’” She was an immediate hit and became their first choice for all their music events, joining the gospel choir and even winning the talent show on her base. From there, Chambers became part of a touring band making the rounds through Kosovo and Iraq, providing a welcome lift for the troops’ morale. She also planned special events, concerts, dances and karaoke nights, always doing her part to infuse the good time music into their lives.
Returning to Houston in 2011 brought the creation of Annika Chambers and The House Rules Band. Audiences loved their combination of blues and soul and started paying attention to that powerhouse voice behind the microphone. Among her admirers was bassist Larry Fulcher (2012 inductee to the Blues Hall of Fame) and producer/musician Richard Cagle of Montrose Records. By the end of 2014, Chambers’ debut album, “Making My Mark”, was climbing blues charts across the US and Europe. Her meteoric success and rising attention brought Annika Chambers the coveted nomination for 2015 BMA (Blues Music Award) “Best New Artist 2015”.
Her sophomore release, “Wild & Free”, did not disappoint, with a debut at #7 on the Billboard Blues chart! Building on her success, Chambers used this opportunity to showcase her ever-improving abilities to sing across multiple musical genres. The word continues to spread on this rising star as festivals from South America, Europe and right in her own backyard (Minnesota Bayfront Blues Festival, Las Vegas Blues Bender, Gloucester Blues Festival, Mississippi Delta Blues Festival) race to feature Annika Chambers in their lineup.
A full-time music career can keep a person busy and yet Annika Chambers always finds time to give back to her community. Chambers has a deep passion for supporting and inspiring the next generation of musicians. When performing, she’ll often shift the spotlight to local youth musicians and she also donates time speaking in classrooms about the legacy that is the blues.
Born in South St. Louis, Mo. Mike Zito grew up in a working class home with a dire love of music. It was his escape and way out. After a decade working in a local guitar shop, Mike learned his craft from the ground up playing in clubs 7 nights a week. He fell in love with the Blues of St. Louis and the stories of the country singers. His first self released album “Blue Room” hit the streets in 1998 and he has made 12 albums total over the years. He signed and recorded with Eclecto Groove Records and Ruf Records. He is a founding member of the supergroup “Royal Southern Brotherhood” with Cyril Neville and Devon Allman. In 2012 he formed his own group, The Wheel. Mike has produced albums for Samantha Fish, Laurence Jones, Albert Castiglia and others. He tours extensively in the USA, Canada and Europe. He has been honored with multiple Blues Music Awards over the past 10 years. His love of life and pursuit of happiness is felt in every note he sings and plays.