Hear Me Out” John Scalici

By Lee Shook

Some people march to the beat of their own drum, but for local percussionist John Scalici it’s more of a world music infused polyrhythm that has set him apart from most of his peers here in town. A longtime fixture in the local music community here that’s seen him pursue everything from cover bands and blues rock to tribal beats and high tech sample-based fusion, Scalici has developed into a one man band and inspirational drum teacher whose life has been dedicated to helping others find their own cadence through live performances and educational workshops.

A Birmingham native and self-taught musician who spent his formative teenage years playing along to records while dreaming of one day being in his own bands and playing on bigger stages, after starting his career in the mid-80s with Black Jacket Symphony founder J. Willoughby and bassist Rob Thorworth in the popular group The Newboys, it wasn’t until the band’s dissolution in 1990 that those lofty ambitions would become a reality after Scalici formed the blues-based power trio Gravy with Thorworth (now on guitar) and bassist Jay Johnson from the Plaid Camels in 1992. Mining material inspired by modern firebrands like Stevie Ray Vaughn, although the band got their start in the Magic City, it wouldn’t be until they moved to Destin, Florida in 1993 that they would find their first taste of success after becoming a mainstay at The Red Bar in Grayton Beach playing as one of the house bands alongside James Brown alum John “Jabo” Starks’ weekly jazz group, slowly building an audience for their hot new take on one of the roots of American music. Eventually moving back to Birmingham, upon arriving home the group would get signed to local startup label Kudzu Records, recording their first and only album, From The Hip, at his parents’ home and starting a touring regimen that would see them open up for everyone from Buddy Guy and the Allman Brothers to Gov’t Mule and Widespread Panic.

Although a promising young outfit, the group would soon run its course, coming to an end in 1997 and leaving Scalici ready to leave home once again to continue his deep dive into the genre he had begun exploring with the band and start life anew, but this time in Memphis. Quickly finding himself at the epicenter of one of the great musical heritage hubs in the country hanging out at the Blues City Cafe and working at the Center for Southern Folklore, it was there that he would start his next great adventure with the junkyardmen after meeting local harmonica player Billy Gibson. Recruiting guitarist Jesse Hoggard and bassist Kevin Sheehan to round out the group, the quartet would find minor success playing their own original music, as well as backing up legendary bluesmen like Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins, furthering John’s appreciation for the form while also garnering them a steady-growing fanbase. Hooking up with pianist Mose Vincent along the way, they would record their first album, Scrapheap Full of Blues, with the elder statesman, which would go on to be nominated for a Grammy in 1999 for “Best Traditional Blues Album.” Although they didn’t win, the group would become a presence on the regional blues festival circuit and record one more album before also calling it a day, leading Scalici to ultimately return to Birmingham again in 2000 following a divorce from his first wife and death of his then father-in-law.

But the influence of both Memphis and Vincent wouldn’t end there. Having worked with Mose as part of a music education program through the Memphis Arts Council where he would shuttle the pianist to schools around the city teaching children about the history of the art form, it was through those interactions and experiences that he got the idea to start his own company here in Alabama, named Get Rhythm in honor of the iconic Sun Records song by Johnny Cash, where he would develop a robust array of instructional material that utilized drumming and its roots in world culture— particularly in Africa— that could be taken into both classrooms and corporate offices to help foster creativity, communal unity and interpersonal dialogue. Having been encouraged to pursue the career by legendary drum maker Remo Belli, and engaging in his own studies as a djembe player under the tutelage of master musicians like Fomadou Konate’, it would prove to be his life’s calling and serve as a template for award-winning work as a music teacher. Having also performed with local dance troupes and continuing his own musical ambitions through groups like the Scalici-Alley Project, the Magic City has been fortunate to call him its own for most of his adult life, making him an invaluable member of the local music scene and a respected elder of his own, finally bringing his journey full circle.

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