Born in New York and raised in Hollywood, the Rev. Shawn Amos grew up on the outer edge of musical fame. His father, Wally Amos, was a bigtime booking agent for Motown stars and others before founding the Famous Amos chocolate chip cookie company.
His mother, Shirley Ellis, sang and recorded under the stage name Shirl-ee May in the ’60s, although her son never knew it until after her death in 2003. Two years later, he recorded an album tribute to her titled “Thank You, Shirl-ee May.”
After spending the early part his of career on screenwriting and film production, Shawn Amos. now 50, turned to producing records, eventually making his own albums starting with ‘In Between” in 2002.
After the first few albums, Amos settled comfortably into a blues groove, and that’s the sound he’ll bring Feb. 16 to the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, the same day that his sixth album, “The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down,” will be released. He took time recently to talk by phone from his Los Angeles home about his life and his music.
Q: You had two show business parents. How did they meet?
A: My dad was an agent with the William Morris Agency. He was actually the first black agent in the business, and he booked all the Motown acts, and the Animals and Solomon Burke. Then he became a personal talent manager and after that he started the Famous Amos cookie company. My mom was a nightclub singer. They met because he was scouting her. She was trying for a contract with Mercury Records and she hadn’t recorded commercially yet. He got a tip on her and went out to see her perform at a nightclub in Atlantic City.
Q: How old were you when they divorced?
A: I was young, like 7. I have very few memories of them together.
Q: How did they influence your music?
A: My father used to take me to work with him a lot, going to nightclubs and sound stages. My early to exposure to music was seeing people work at it. It wasn’t like being at a concert in the first few rows. It was seeing people try to figure out how to get a horn part right, or do the 20th vocal take for a record. I saw it was a job. People had to work hard to get it right. It made realize early on that you’ve got to love the work. I got that from my dad.
Q: And what did you learn from your mother?
A: I didn’t know about my mom’s singing life until after she died. She committed suicide in 2003. I feel like I’m continuing the work she didn’t finish. Vocally, we’re worlds apart, and stylistically we’re worlds apart. Genetically, I guess I’ve got what she had. I love to sing and perform.
Q: How would you describe her singing style?
A: You can find a couple of her recordings, and I’ve got a bunch of her recordings. She had this little-girl, mousy kind of voice. Her songs had almost a country-style flavor to them. In some respects, she more influenced my earlier stuff, before I got into the blues. In my earlier work, I was really committed to the Americana genre, when there weren’t a lot of black voices in that genre. There still aren’t a ton. I saw myself aligned with her in that regard. But blues, for her, was a little too rough and rowdy.
Q: Your music is unmistakably blues, but it has a fresh contemporary feel. Is that what you’re after?
A: Yes, that’s really important to me. The blues are tricky. I think a lot of people underestimate it. It’s become the province of every wanna-be guitar hero. For me, the things that I love about the blues are largely forgotten, which is that it’s great ensemble music, for example. The blues begat jazz. It’s alive and improvisational, with a lot of give and take. It’s also music that has a lot of economy; the early blues songs were maybe two minutes long, or three at the most. And there’s a lot of fun, intriguing word play. I feel like what I’m doing is trying to bring that back to life again, and carry that tradition a little bit further.
Q: You’ve recorded some blues classics, but how much of your music do you write?
A: I write more and more. I made some albums in the singer-songwriter, Americana, folky genre. The first album was largely covers. There were two originals on it. We put out a blues album in 2015, and that was 10 originals and two covers. And this new album has a majority of originals as well. So I’ve been writing more and more in the blues genre. I felt like I had something to say.
Q: Do you think that the blues still resonate with audiences today?
A: I know there’s a stereotype of the lone sharecropper in front of the shack talking about his baby done gone. But there’s also B.B. King and Muddy Waters. It’s difficult when a style of music stops being part of the pop culture conversation. It’s hard when it’s not being actively pushed into the broader mainstream. It’s easy to mistake it for a museum piece. I feel that’s wrong. Blues is a reflection of ourselves. It’s very direct. It’s the quickest way for me connect my head and my heart. It’s a spiritual thing. It’s a mainline to your soul.
Q: Speaking of spiritual things, how did you get the title “Reverend”? Are you ordained?
A: Yes, through the magic of the internet, in the Universal Life Church. I did some gigs in Italy in 2012 with some old bandmates of mine to play some blues. I didn’t expect to be transformed by it, but I really was. In between shows, some of the Italians in the crowd would come up to me and say, “You are like a reverend — the way you move and your spirit.” So I kept the moniker, and then I thought if I’m going to call myself a reverend, I should probably be a reverend.
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.