"Ben Levin is the purest evidence that great things happen when you mix hard work, magic, love and music." - Brian Baker, CityBeat
by Jim Hynes
This young college student sounds so good playing the rollicking piano and singing like a veteran that it would be impossible for the uninformed listener to guess that Ben Levin is still not of legal drinking age. Not only that, this is his second album—having received two Blues Blast Music Awards for his first one. You may be thinking we might have the second coming of Harry Connick, Jr. but pianist/vocalist Levin does not lean to pop or schmooze. He’s all about authentic blues, and on this release has surrounded himself with “old school” type players throughout: guitarist Bob Margolin on seven tracks, harp ace Bob Corritore on six tracks and Cincinnati King Records legendary drummer Philip Paul on two.
Half of the material is originals and half is vintage covers. Levin’s relaxed vocals and thoughtful, never-rushed piano style imbue his own title track “Before Me,” which carries with a Fats Domino vibe and, as such, is a tribute to the NOLA piano tradition. He’s got the Chicago sound down, too, as evidenced by his boogie-woogie take on the opener, Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good,” and James Cotton’s “Lightnin’,”—helped, of course, by veterans of that style, Margolin and Corritore. Kansas City blues style is represented in Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues.”
Levin is not the only vocalist; Kennedy McPherson takes a turn on the Levin tune “Pappy” and Chris Douglas and Mel Hatch Douglas sing on the standout track “Lonesome Whistle Blues,” one of two that features drummer Philip Paul. Paul himself hails from Levin’s hometown of Cincinnati, and recorded the tune with Freddie King several decades ago. Paul also plays on the Levin original, the shuffling “Load Off My Back,” (“everything’s right on track”), inspired by another of the early King Records tunes. Levin says, “At 93 years old, there is a 75-year difference in age between us, yet we are still able to lock in. It shows the music is alive, not just a stack of old records in the corner of your room.”
It’s remarkable to consider that Levin logged in time in back room clubs or juke joints while developing his sound. He’s obviously both an astute listener and a blues natural. Levin’s loose effusive style proves irresistible on the old chestnut “I Wanna Hug Ya, Kiss Ya, Squeeze Ya” with Corritore and Margolin soloing, as well as they both do on the slow-burning instrumental closer, “Open Late", which they helped write.
Make no mistake, Ben Levin, the innocent-looking youngster brings the real stuff.
by Marty Gunther
Gifted pianist/vocalist Ben Levin made quite a splash at last year’s Blues Blast Music Awards, garnering nominations for debut album of the year and the Sean Costello Award for rising artists, and he continues his ascent with this beautifully conceived disc, which includes contributions from some of the most important folks in the business.
With old-school sensibilities and a ton of talent, Levin is carrying forward the sound of traditional blues keyboard, and has been a welcome breath of new life in a community that lost both David Maxwell and Chicagoan Barrelhouse Chuck Goering to cancer in recent years, leaving a stylistic hole that many experts feared never would be filled.
Still only 19 years old and a rising sophomore at his hometown University Of Cincinnati in Ohio, Ben began playing professionally at age 11 alongside his father, Aron, in The Heaters. He now plays about 100 gigs a year in both solo and group formats. A 2018 semi-finalist in the International Blues Challenge solo-duo category, he’s an international talent whose travels have taken him to festival appearances in France and the Netherlands.
This is Levin’s second CD, a welcome follow-up to his debut 2017 release, Ben’s Blues. He’s joined here by two true blues veterans, both of whom have been working with him live in the past year or so. They include former Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin and Arizona-based award-winning harmonica player Bob Corritore.
The rhythm section is composed of Chris Douglas on upright bass and vocals and Oscar Bernal on drums. The legendary Philip Paul, the 93-year-old Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer — who served as studio percussionist at King Records from 1952 to 1965, laying down the beat for Little Willie John’s “Fever,” Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and Freddie King’s “Hideaway” and “Tore Down,” among other chart-toppers – sits in for two cuts and frequently appears with Levin when he’s booked in the Queen City.
Adding to the mix on this collection of six originals and six covers are Ben’s dad Aron, who provides six-string on five tunes, percussionist Stan Ginn, and vocalists Mel Hatch Douglas and Kennedy McPherson, all of whom make a single guest appearance.
Levin displays a strong left hand and light touch with the right as he kicks off Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good” to open the disc with the full band joining in after a few brief bars. Like all of the material here, it swings slightly behind the beat, and it comes across with a strong feel of the ‘40s thanks to individual solos from Ben, Margolin and Corritore. The original “Pappy” describes an older friend and features some sweet rapid-fire signature accents on the high keys and delightfully delicate barrelhouse.
Ben updates Jay McShann’s familiar “Confessin’ The Blues” as a rollicking instrumental, trading off licks with guitar and harp, before launching into a pair of self-penned numbers. The stop-time “Before Me” would fit comfortably in the ‘50s with a vocal sound and piano delivery that’s reminiscent of Fats Domino. The New Orleans feel continues with “Creole Kitchen,” a more modern instrumental that would be more suited to Allen Toussaint before a slow-and-steady take on Freddie King’s 1961 recording of “Lonesome Whistle Blues.”
Two more originals — the slow blues, “So Soon,” which delivers a cautionary message about drinking and one-night love affairs, and the pendulum perfect “Load Off My Back” – precede a driving cover of the James Cotton/Otis Spann 1965 pleaser “Lightning” and the easy, greasy “I Wanna Hug Ya, Kiss Ya, Squeeze Ya,” a minor hit for the Griffin Brothers a decade earlier. “Open Late,” a slow-and steady instrumental co-written with Margolin and Corritore, brings the action to a close.
Folks like Leroy Carr, Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, David Maxwell and Barrelhouse Chuck all live on through the talents of Ben Levin. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up and give it a good listen. It’s available through most major retailers. If you like traditional blues piano as much as I do, you’ll be beaming throughout.