What old fans and new friends like most about the soul-sung music of Raful Neal is its authenticity.

Raful is, indeed, the real Thing - a blues composer, singer and harmonica whiz who can wail and croon, sass and sashay just as comfortably at a Sunday church supper as in a jumpin', smoke-filled Chicago nightclub or an open-air festival for tens of thousands of enthusiastic European fans. Raful's music comes straight from the heart, and that is best heard on his album, "Old Friends." The CD is a tribute to his musical family and friends, some of whom are featured on this powerhouse array of tunes. Described by reviewers as warm, animated, stylish, and precise, the blues music mirrors the artist himself, a native of South Louisiana and a second generation blues player who listened to the greats and carved out his own unique style.

Born in 1936, Raful grew up with an aunt and uncle on a tenant farm in Chamberlin, a little town between towns outside of Baton Rouge.

He and his sister Cora, were left behind by their mother's early death and their father's call to preach at a church in New Orleans. He picked cotton and cut cane to help out in the fields. By age 10, Raful was playing his first harmonica, a home-made contraption made out of a comb and a cigarette paper. A big, strapping boy by age 14, he cut cane for neighboring farmers to earn 75 cents for an Atta Boy harmonica.

Raful was born into the blues, and the rhythmic soul of the music came to him as naturally as a long, deep breath. He had always loved the blues, which he heard as a child at Sunday church suppers staged in the 1940s by country people to raise a little cash; back then, families took turns serving up tasty dishes like smothered chicken stew, fried fish caught in the Atchafalaya Basin or the Mississippi River, Just as enjoyable, for Raful, were the down-home musicians who always showed up to eat free and drink home brew. When his family bought a battery radio, the high point of every Sunday was a Memphis blues show with the music of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
"What comes from the heart reaches the heart," Raful says. "That's what I hope the new album will do."

Young Raful, with his new harmonica, loved the haunting, wailing harp work of Little Walter, who played for Muddy Waters. Raful picked up songs from the radio and wove into them the sounds of other instruments, gradually mastering the art of playing solo harmonica. Out of his early years as a soloist came his versatility and distinctive style. At age 17, Raful and Lazy Lester (then known as Lester Johnson) formed a band and played a circuit of jumpin' country saloons like the inimitable Hobo Junction; as the band got hotter, the crowds got bigger. When Lazy Lester left for Chicago, Buddy Guy took his place. Guitarist Buddy Guy "made the strings cry, kicked the neck with his foot," Raful laughs. "He played that guitar." The group traveled, at times, in Raful's car, a '39 Pontiac bought the hard way: Under the blistering Louisiana sun, the musician planted, harvested and sold bales of cotton for the $350 car. In the late 1970s and early '80s, Raful toured with his friend Buddy Guy and by 1987 had also become a Louisiana legend--the title, in fact, of his first CD, released by Fantastic-King Snake Records and reissued in 1989 by Alligator Records. In 1990, having paid his dues, Raful got a break: He retired from his 21-year day job and was able, at last, to hop onboard the blues train and tour the world.

In 1995, he was inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame, and today, plays with his band at festivals across the U.S. The Raful Neal Band frequently tours Europe, Canada and South America. In Japan, Raful was the headliner at the World Harmonica Festival.

It was hot, hard work, but Raful, as always, took it in stride and stayed cool. He had just met 14-year-old Shirley, who would become his wife three years later. The year Raful got married, the unimaginable happened: his favorite harmonica player, Little Walter, performed in Baton Rouge, heard Raful play harmonica and invited the band to move to Chicago and sit in for him at gigs he couldn't do. Buddy Guy did move to Chicago the next year - and met fame there - but Raful declined. Asked if he had any regrets, Raful replied, shaking his head, "Naw. I've seen so many lonely blues players with no families. I love my life. I wouldn't have had it turn out any other way."

Back home, Raful became the undisputed father of the Baton Rouge blues--a title earned by his discography, his influence on other musicians, and by his having fathered 11 children, nine of whomplay the blues professionally and are today scattered across Baton Rouge and the world. The year after Raful turned down Little Walter's invitation to Chicago, he waxed his first single, "Sunny Side of Love," on the Houston-based Peacock label. Other singles followed on small labels and on the Jewel subsidiary, Whit Records.
"In the later days," he observes, "I'm getting more and more respect. So many people say they have been waiting on me and that they're so glad to see me. They ask me to take a picture with them, to sign my CDs and they say that I just don't know how many fans I have out there."
These, too, are Raful's "old friends," and Kenny Neal their nationality, they speak to each other in the language of the blues.