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Hitting Hard

Blues singer is a bear of a man, but his music isn't the cuddly variety.

September 18, 1997|JAMES FOWLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Popa Chubby is a bear of a man.

But despite his warm and fuzzy name, this New York City native is more the grizzly variety than the teddy type.

The singer-songwriter-lead guitarist, who's performing at B.B. King's tonight, looks like the kind of guy you'd want on your side if you ever got involved in a bar fight. A track on his latest CD "Hit the High Hard One," only enhances that image.

The album was recorded live in a club in New York. Track four, titled "Size 13," is not a song, but rather Chubby's reply to a patron's request for the song, "Freebird." Chubby declines that request and then graphically tells the patron where he'll put his footwear if the patron requests another.

There's not much that's cuddly about this bear. His vocal style is more like a growl that rattles from his chest to his shoes. Likewise, his guitar playing is intense.

Chubby's big break came in 1992 when he won the KLON-FM National Talent Contest. As the winner, he opened the 1992 Long Beach Blues Festival, playing on the same bill with James Brown and Chuck Berry. Now he spends most of his time on the road.

"The thing about my music is every night will be a different show; I might do things in a similar way, but never the same," Chubby says. "The best sounds are the ones in front of you, not behind you."

"Hit the High Hard One" is his fourth album. It includes a cover of a lesser-known Bob Dylan song, "Isis," in which Chubby mixes in a few licks from Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression."

Dylan and Hendrix are both major influences for Popa Chubby, but especially Hendrix.

"You can't not be influenced by Hendrix, if you play electric guitar," Chubby says. "Every guitar player owes a huge debt to Jimi."

"I'm more in awe of what he tried to do with his music. He took the blues, the bastard of American music, and brought it to a new plane of musical consciousness without any limits or boundaries."

Who's going to argue?

* Popa Chubby plays tonight at B.B. King's Blues Club, Universal CityWalk. (818) 622-5464. $6.

*

Patience Carries Over: Singer Billy Sheets, who performs at Smokin' Johnnie's on Saturday night, spends his days working as a teacher for the L.A. Unified School District. "There's frustration in it, but there are rewards too," Sheets says. "It takes a lot of patience."

So do careers in music. Sheets has been a regular on L.A.'s club scene since the late 1970s. He's made a lot of music and worked with some famous people, but still his is not exactly a household name.

Awhile back, Hightone Records released the compilation album featuring many of Los Angeles' blues-tinged performers titled, "L.A. Ya Ya." It included tunes by King Cotton, Juke Logan and others. But Sheets' rendition of "Sit Right Here" was a standout track.

Sheets' vocals betray technique that comes only from formal training. And indeed, Sheets studied voice while a theater student at UC Santa Cruz and as a young actor in San Francisco long ago. His voice has "legit-sounding" sweetness to it that's rare for blues performers.

Sheets released his first solo CD, "Please Tell Me Why" in May. The self-produced album consists of jump blues and R&B covers that swing real hard. Sheets' vocals are out front over some tasty horn arrangements. "Sit Right Here," originally recorded by Rosco Gordon, is one of the eight songs.

"I do have some originals, I just went with what I had accumulated," Sheets says.

Sheets says his CD has become especially popular in North Carolina among enthusiasts of "Shag Dancing," a slow kind of swing dancing that is a current craze in the Southeast. On this coast, Sheets is selling the CD at his gigs and promoting it around town.

"I'm trying to get enough of a buzz going that someone will help me do the next CD," he says. "I'm trying to work it all the ways I can.

"I'm trying to make little forays to the Bay Area and Phoenix, and if I can think of a way to go, I'm making it to the Carolinas."

* Billy Sheets plays Saturday night at Smokin' Johnnie's, 11720 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 760-6631. No cover.

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