News Column

Bony fingers: Seventh-grader a phenom blues guitarist

July 15, 2014

By Melody Parker, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

July 15--WAVERLY -- Not many 11-year-old boys own a Fender Stratocaster.

And fewer of them can pick out a high-voltage blues tune or bend notes in the manner of Buddy Guy or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Meet Sleepy Bones Allison, aka Paul Zelle.

Iowa's wunderkind blues guitarist is a seventh-grader from Waverly who cites as his influences the aforementioned Guy and Vaughan, along with Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Robert Cray and Craig Erickson.

"When I first heard a blues song, I liked the sound and feel of it, way better than a lot of other music around. I like the rhythms in the blues, and I love playing guitar," says Zelle. He also plays violin in his school orchestra, although he admits he'd rather be wailing on his Buddy Guy signature Strat.

Sleepy Bones has performed at area festivals, clubs, private gatherings and open mike nights, including Chicago House of Blues, Reggie's Rock House, Famous Dave's at Calhoun Square and Wilebski's Blues Saloon. Because of his age, he can't play in a club that doesn't sell food.

He's also played the College Hill Arts Festival in Cedar Falls, Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival, and Davenport'sRedstone Room, where he joined the Winter Blues All-Stars opening for Anthony Gomes. He was recently profiled on the Iowa Arts Showcase on Iowa Public Radio.

Often he fronts the Sleepy Bones Blues Band -- his mom, Elizabeth Bingham, is on bass guitar and his dad, John Zelle, plays drums. "I'm glad I'm able to do this with my family. We enjoy it together," Zelle explains.

"He's a great kid who doesn't let the attention go to his head at all. We don't know whether his guitar playing will become a career for him or not, but we're sure having fun with the music along the way," Elizabeth Bingham says.

Zelle picked up playing guitar six years ago. "Mostly because my dad played, so I wanted to play, too." His parents bought him a half-scale acoustic guitar, he learned a few chords and a few days later, played "Happy Birthday" for his sister.

"He was chording it," Bingham marvels. "He's largely self-taught. He started with books, then switched to watching videos. He did much better playing by ear, listening and seeing fingers move on chords."

As a second-grader, Zelle made his blues debut at an open mike night at Jameson's Pub in Waterloo. "I don't remember much about that night, except it was fun and the audience was great."

Then the challenge became learning to read music, aided by studying violin. Three years ago, Zelle won a writing contest sponsored by a TV station and as his prize, he job-shadowed Cedar Rapids blues guitarist Craig Erickson. That grew into guitar lessons with Erickson, who also has been teaching Zelle to write music.

He's written two songs, so far, and his "Blue Slip blues" is a set standard -- "I have to stay in from recess ... in so much trouble, got a lot to lose ... ." The lyrics are based on his personal experience of getting nailed with a pink slip at school.

The young blues guitarist also has worked with Bob Dunn, local guitar legend and instructor at the University of Northern Iowa, and Mike Michalicek of Checker and the Bluetones. He also has attended jazz and blues camps for kids.

And where did he get the stage name "Sleepy Bones Allison"? The blues name generator at Sticky Fingers restaurant:

"The thing is, Paul started getting international exposure through the Internet when he was only 6. He has been featured several times on the web site of a blues guitar instructor who has a broad international following, and we weren't comfortable sharing his real identity with the world," says his mom, aka Texas Dog Magee.


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Source: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (IA)

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