Skip Heller

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Some people are impossible to pidgeonhole. Skip Heller might even be his own musical category. He's basically a country soul singer, but his tapestry weaves country and soul together with bluegrass, klezmer, hot jazz, rockabilly, lounge music, and more.

Skip was born 10/4/65 in Philadelphia, where he was an active musician from the age of 15, coming through the ranks of bar... more

Some people are impossible to pidgeonhole. Skip Heller might even be his own musical category. He's basically a country soul singer, but his tapestry weaves country and soul together with bluegrass, klezmer, hot jazz, rockabilly, lounge music, and more.

Skip was born 10/4/65 in Philadelphia, where he was an active musician from the age of 15, coming through the ranks of bar bands, wedding bands, jazz groups, and more. By the late eighties, he was the preferred Phila opening act for such acts as Rick Danko, Dave Alvin, Joe King Carrasco, John Hartford, and Walter Hyatt, as well as playing with such local luminaries as Uri Caine and Heath Allen. His musical reach ranged from country and roots rock to jazz, exotica, punk rock, and beyond.

In 1995, he accepted an invitation to study with exotica pioneer Les Baxter at his home in Palm Springs. So Skip began commuting every few months from Philadelphia to Calfornia, before settling in Los Angeles in 1996. Within the year, he was touring with Yma Sumac, producing rockabilly legend Ray Campi, putting together exotica reissues for Dionysus Records, and making the rounds in everything from mariachi's to licensing music cues for Tony Hawk's Gigantic Skatepark Tour. By 1999, he'd scored his first feature film, arranged and produced twenty indie discs for various artists including honking sax legend Big Jay McNeely, rockabilly cult figures Sammy Masters and Dee Lannon, as well as a ton of stuff that he can't remember. The Minnesota Contemporary Ensemble featured a night of his and exotica great Robert Drasnin's music in early April of that year. Late April, he was backing rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson at the House of Blues in Las Vegas.

As the millenium came, so did more work, including music for the TV movie Flintstones On The Rocks, Dexter's Laboratory, and the documentary Tilt: The Battle To Save Pinball. In addition, Heller tracked down Chicano music architect Lalo Guerrero and put together a show that featured Guerrero singing his 1940s-50s music with arrangements painstakingly transcribed by Heller from scratchy old records. It was during this time Heller also started working with NRBQ pianist Terry Adams, first in a small jazz context, then briefly as a member of NRBQ ("Johnny didn't want to fly after 9/11"), and then in a trio of Adams, Skip, and harmonica player/vocalist Karen Mantler. Also, he joined the backing back for Cannibal And The Headhunters, whose "Land Of A Thousand Dances" embodied 1960s East Los Angeles Chicano rock.

"My favorite gig ever," he recalls.

By 2002, the Skip Heller Trio -- with organist Mike Bolger and drummer Howard Greene, generally augmented by Robert Drasnin on clarinet and alto saxophone -- hit the road and started recording prolifically. The press was effusive ("Heller offers hope for the healthy future of jazz", "genius", "real soul") , and the combo enjoyed a small but fanatical following, especially in the South. The Bernie Mac Show featured the trio's recording of Raymond Scott's classic "Powerhouse" on an episode as well. And Skip appeared on records by Wall of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway, Japanese rockabillies the Hot Shots, and moog synth revivalist Dana Countryman. And when the Reno, NV Foundation Orchestra wanted Lalo Guerrero to help celebrate Cinco De Mayo, it was Skip who took the arrangements to the orchestral world (in addition to being the featured guitar soloist himself).

In addition, he appeared on camera in two music documentaries, Deconstructing Dad (about Raymond Scott), and Rebel Beat (about California rockabilly culture).

For five years, the trio toured and recorded widely. Skip also did duo recording projects with a range of artists -- old Philly jazz friends Uri Caine and Heath Allen, Country Music Hall of Fame guitarist David Anderson, and jazz vocal giant Bob Dorough. He produced Robert Drasnin's Voodoo II, the most important new exotica recording, and Dionysus issued Skip's long-awaited exotic masterpiece, Lua-O-Milo.
... and he wrote a lot of articles for Fretboard Journal and other music publications. One thing was for sure. After five years, he didn't want to play the same music he'd by now been playing for years. He moved back to Philadelphia for a year.
When he returned to California in 2008, he didn't even bring an electric guitar. While in Philadelphia, he shook off the jazz trappings. He played klezmer music in an ensemble Klezmatic Frank London put together for a play that ran about a month. And he played in oldies but goodies bands, klezmer groups, country music, and everything else he could find that wasn't tired of.

The Skip who was repatriated to Calfornia was singing (!) and writing country songs. He began playing again, not so much in LA, but in Bakersfield, where a weekly gig with his new group (bassist Paul Ekman and drummer Dale Daniel) gave him the chance to develop his new material, which ended up being his return disc, The Long Way Home, about which critic Bill Bentley wrote in 2009:
"There just aren’t many people this soulful. The Long Way Home is the album he’s always been destined to make. Heller’s vocals are the equal of his playing, but in so many it’s the songwriting that shines the brightest of all. In a period when roots music seems to have run a bit ragged, too often repeating itself or failing to shoot for the sky, Skip Heller doesn’t let himself off the hook. Songs like “I Used to Love California,” “Falling for You” and “When I Come to Pledge My Heart” are new classics, no matter if the world ever finds out or not. "

The trio -- which went through several rosters -- lasted until 2012, when Skip met tuba player Cody Blake. He wanted tuba for a recording of the Andrews Sisters' "Azusa", and Cody said he'd love to. It wound up on Fakebook 2, which was supposed to be a trio disc, but ostensibly showed that Skip wanted a bigger band. While in the process of recording it, old friend and valued trumpet cohort Lee Toft (who had played extensively with Skip from 1999-2003) popped up after years, again ready to play. This became the core of the Hollywood Blues Destroyers, who took their name from the late 1920s jazz duo, The Texas Blues Destroyers.

As the Destroyers took form, first via a series of Sunday afternoon shows the Redwood Bar in downtown Los Angeles, so did the usual "everything at once" rhythm of Skip's musical life. In early 2013, he mounted a program of songs by honky tonk godfather Floyd Tillman, as part of the Tucson Fringe Festival. Using a crew of Tucson's finest players, Skip dove headlong and irresistably into Tillman's work, and Skip Heller And Friends Play Floyd Tillman was the hit of the fest, resulting in Skip's 2013 release Songs With Memories: Skip Heller And Friends Play Floyd Tillman, which featured guests Kelly Haigh, Dave Stucky, and Big Sandy (among others).

While that was going on, Skip composed and -- using most of the Hollywood Blues Destroyers -- recorded music for an animated segment on Sesame Street, to air in late 2013. He also produced and arranged a version of the British standard "We'll Meet Again" for singer (and former Blues Destroyer) Claire Costa, for the upcoming film Augustus.


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