A holiday mix of gospel and blues

John Lee Sanders’ career as a singer and musician was sealed at the age of six, after a meeting with the King himself.

John Lee Sanders and his band — guitarist Tim Porter

John Lee Sanders and his band — guitarist Tim Porter

John Lee Sanders’ career as a singer and musician was sealed at the age of six, after a meeting with the King himself.

Sanders’ grandmother lived a few doors down from Elvis Presley in Memphis, and when John came to visit her in the summer of 1957, he paid the Presley home a visit, meeting Elvis and getting a tour of the house from his father Vernon.

Back at home on the Labour Day weekend that fall, Sanders sang “Hound Dog” to his Sunday School class during show and tell.

“All the little girls screamed,” he recalled. “I said, ‘This is the job I want.’”

Sanders’ wide range of influences in roots, jazz, blues and gospel music was evident during his shows at the Stettler Performing Arts Centre on Sunday, Dec. 8, presented by the Stettler Variety Showcase.

In addition to Sanders on the piano and lead vocals, “A Gospel Blues Christmas” featured Tim Porter on guitar, Chris Nordquist on drums and Brian Newcombe on bass.

Organizers estimated that between the afternoon show and the evening performance, roughly 350 to 400 people heard Sanders and his band in Stettler on Sunday.

Sanders, now based in Vancouver, had originally been scheduled to perform in Stettler in 2011 but was forced to cancel that tour after being diagnosed with throat cancer.

Initially told he would never sing again, Sanders miraculously recovered, and he was pleased to finally be able to perform here, telling the audience that they’ve been “trying to put this together for a while.”

“I hope you’re in the mood for Christmas,” he said, “and if you’re not there yet, you will be at the end of this show.”

Sanders and the band performed a lively and authentic melange of the sounds of the American south, reflecting his upbringing in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.

“Christmastime in New Orleans,” the Louis Armstrong classic, kicked the evening show off, followed by “Pretty Paper” — sung in the style of its author, Willie Nelson — and Mahalia Jackson’s “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”

Sanders also performed his bayou version of “Twas The Night Before Christmas,” in which Santa’s sleigh is guided by eight alligators.

In between songs, Sanders shared stories of his childhood and musical career, including how his mother had hoped he’d pursue classical music when he began learning the piano as a boy.

Surrounded by blues, gospel and jazz “on the radio and on the streets,” he quickly picked up on these influences, although he added, “Every once in a while, a little Mozart slips in.”

In a nod to Presley, he performed two tracks from his 1957 Christmas LP, “Blue Christmas” and “Santa Claus is Back in Town.”

Classic gospel songs like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” had the audience clapping, tapping or singing along, whether by invitation or of their own volition.

Sanders also played traditional carols like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World,” and more recent songs like Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” Jesse Winchester’s “Let’s Make a Baby King” and Kenny Loggins’ “Celebrate Me Home.”

The Variety Showcase’s next concert is scheduled for Jan. 11, 2015, when the Foothills Brass will perform at the Performing Arts Centre. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students, and are available at the door and in advance from Pfeiffer’s House of Music.