While coming of age in Upstate New York, Chris O’Leary recalls his childhood home being replete with the sounds of everyone from opera to the Clancy Brothers, the Chieftains and Bruce Springsteen. But it was a disapproving look from his father, beholding some reprobate New Yorkers on the turntable, that effectively altered his son’s musical course.
“I was like 11 or 12, playing guitar and listening to KISS. My dad basically [said], ‘Turn that shit off!’” O’Leary recalls with a laugh. His father replaced the painted-up rockers’ record with Muddy Waters’s “Hard Again,” telling his preteen son to “give it a chance.”
“I heard [harmonica legend] James Cotton and that was it. I was hooked,” O’Leary said. “I got my dad to blame for my career choices.”
One career choice O’Leary’s father did not approve of, however, was Chris putting off college in favor of joining the Marine Corps in 1986. O’Leary said his father, a former Green Beret, had left the Army “with a bad taste in his mouth,” and gave his son a rather harsh preview of what life in the infantry might entail.
“Sometime in the future, someone that you don’t know that you really have nothing personal against is going to be trying to kill you, and you’re going to be told to kill him back,” O’Leary’s father told him. “Four years later to the day, I’m in Kuwait.
“You know, the older you get, the smarter your parents get. And I love the Marine Corps, I do…but it was a momentary lapse of judgment, as many teenage boys have.”
After getting out of the Marines, O’Leary decided it was time to pursue his passion: music. He returned to New York and enrolled at Marist College in the Hudson Valley, where he often ran around with other blues musicians such as Joe Louis Walker.
“Next thing you know, I’m playing music more than going to school,” he said.
But it was thanks to encountering a legendary musician from the other side of the Hudson that set O’Leary on a path he never could have imagined.
“We asked Levon Helm to play on a demo of ours. He lived right across the river,” O’Leary said, adding that the session proved to be a great meeting of the musical minds as they jammed well into the small hours. “Next thing you know, he’s sitting in every now and then. We’re playing a local bar, and suddenly a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer sits behind the drum kit.”
Helm was so impressed that the Band mainstay invited O’Leary and his group to be the house act at his club, the Classic American Café, in New Orleans.
“It also justified me playing music to my parents. Up until then, it was like, ‘You’re failing out of school, you’re playing music five nights a week,’” said O’Leary, adding that his father immediately changed his tune upon learning his son got a gig courtesy of Helm. “I knew you were going to make it!” the former Green Beret enthused.
O’Leary remained by Helm’s side even after the blues club in New Orleans closed. He played behind him for six years as part of Helm’s ensemble, the Barn Burners, which also included Helm’s daughter Amy and, at various times, Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys and Conan O’Brien’s frequent frontman Jimmy Vivino.
Helm died in April 2012. O’Leary recalls a lengthy chat with his musical mentor not long before his passing from cancer—and of how his setlists thereafter would change.
“Back when I played with him, we didn’t do Band material. We were a blues band,” he said. “Now that he’s gone, we pull out Band music all the time. He’s probably laughing.
“I loved that old man. I miss him.”
In addition to grieving for Helm, O’Leary also had to deal with a secondary tragedy thanks to a diagnosis of vocal nodes. An ENT specialist advised him to stop singing entirely.
“Music became a nonentity in my life that was taken away from me,” O’Leary said of quite literally losing his voice. “It took me seven years to get back into it.”
With his musical desires temporarily on hold, O’Leary became a federal police officer, parlaying his military experience into an entirely new career for the ensuing 13 years. However, he couldn’t forget about music—and, incredibly, the issues with his vocal nodes began to clear up. O’Leary also started working with a vocal coach, who advised him not only on proper singing technique but also on warming up, proper diet and, importantly, going easy on the whiskey.
“I was the poster boy for what not to do. I am much more careful about my voice now,” he said.
As his vocal prowess returned, O’Leary performed double duty, splitting his time between his cop job and gigging at night. He traded as many shifts with law enforcement coworkers as possible, managing to play 100 dates a year.
“I was spending more time finding ways to get out of work so that I could tour than I was actually writing music,” O’Leary said, adding that soon it came time to hang up his shield and get back to the blues full-time in 2018.
O’Leary, who lives in Virginia Beach, will be in town this weekend for back-to-back-to-back sets on two consecutive nights at D.C.’s Madams Organ. He’s played there many times before, and says the vibe reminds him of his many years playing at Helm’s club in New Orleans. O’Leary is fond of heading to the historic “8th & I” Barracks to entice fellow Marines to his gigs.
“Young, old, Black, White, rich, poor, it runs the gamut, and everybody is there to have a good time,” he said. “I’ve known members of the staff for 10, 15 years. They’re like family. I’ve played a few other places in D.C., but nothing’s like Madams.”
O’Leary’s latest album, “The Hard Line,” is out now on Alligator Records, marking his debut for the label. Much of it was recorded during covid times, with his ensemble setting their tracks to digital tape in seclusion. The bass track for “Things Ain’t Always What They Seem,” he said, was laid down in 2019. O’Leary credits producer Bruce Iglauer for helping to get the best results possible out of his songwriting for “The Hard Line.”
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. By far,” he said. “I’m really happy about my association with Alligator. It’s like a dream come true.”
O’Leary’s goal for the years to come is getting his music to a wider audience and touring to Europe and places he saw only briefly during his military service, such as Japan. In the meantime, he promises those who come to Madam Organs a rocking good evening.
“We get done playing at 2:30, we’re done loading out probably by 3:30, so the next day we’re usually pretty shot. And then we hit it again,” he said. “There’s a reason I’ve been doing it for 10 or 12 years. It’s my kind of place.”
Chris O’Leary performs at Madams Organ Jan. 19 and 20. For tickets and more information, visit https://madamsorgan.com/events/the-chris-oleary-band. To order “The Hard Line,” visit https://thechrisolearyband.net.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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