“Everybody asks, ‘Aren’t you going to CCM?’,” Levin says. “I want to keep it separate and major in something else, sort of take a career path like my dad. Have a day job and keep playing on the weekends.”
Now 18, Levin has gigged regularly for the past five years with his guitarist father Aron, who fronts The Heaters in his free time away from his role as a marketing professor at Northern Kentucky University. The Levins started their youngest son on piano lessons at age 4 as a way of determining his musical proclivities, which quickly became apparent.
“We had an old piano and Ben would play around on it,” Aron says. “I got him lessons with a student of mine who was not a musician, but showed him some basics. About a year in, Ben was interested, he was practicing and I asked this kid if we should get Ben a metronome, and he was like, ‘What’s a metronome?’ And I was like, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Aron contacted former Raisins keyboardist Ricky Nye, renowned for his work in Blues and its various subsets, particularly Boogie Woogie. Although Nye didn’t teach children generally, he accepted Levin on a trial basis; the young man already had an abiding love for the foundational Blues based on his father’s record collection, especially a Freddie King mix on constant rotation in the car. The relationship between Nye and Levin rapidly grew from teacher/student to friends.
“I would get frustrated with a lick and want to quit, and my dad pushed me to keep going, you know, ‘Try it again,’ ” Levin says. “And Ricky was so cool. He’d say, ‘Call me if you have any trouble.’ I was trying to work out this lick he’d given me, which is actually the last song on the album, ‘Ben’s Blues.’ He played it for me over the phone and everything was cool. Ricky’s always been a great mentor to me.”
After years of lessons and guidance from Nye, who Aron describes as “a member of our family,” Levin began sitting in with The Heaters in bars when he was just 13. He graduated from half-hour sets — after which his mother Margi would drive him home — to two sets to the inevitable question to his father: “Dad, can I just stay all night?”
Levin’s personal and professional evolution has been amazing, going from Blues purist (as his father notes, “He was like me. If it wasn’t Chess Records 1955 or Sun Records 1952, it wasn’t shit”) to embracing the gamut of the Blues spectrum. His interests now include Gospel, R&B, Soul, Jazz and a broader range of Blues; his performances reflect that stylistic diversity.
“Contemporary-wise, I love Jimmie Vaughan,” Levin says. “His new album is him, an organ player who covers the bass with his left hand and a drummer. This year, I’ve branched into Soul — Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and Stax Soul like Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, his daughter Carla Thomas, Luther Ingram. And Jazz. I love Erroll Garner, and I’ve always listened to Gypsy Jazz like Django Reinhardt at home with my dad. And Kansas City Blues and Jazz, where the two meet in the middle and it’s this perfect sound — guys like Jay McShann, Jimmy Witherspoon, Buster Smith, Big Joe Turner.”
Levin is also writing more. There are four original compositions on Ben’s Blues, and Levin finds himself inspired not just by his inclusive listening habits of late, but by just about everything he’s experiencing.
“I was watching a movie and a line someone said stood out and I was like, ‘That would be a good title for a song,’ ” he says. “Or I’m reading a book and it’s like, ‘That would be a good hook for a tune.’ So I’m getting ideas.”
The musical paths of Levin and his father diverge greatly, although they’ve merged into playing together in what Aron calls his “dream band.” Aron started playing guitar with the stereotypical Rock motivation of attracting girls. He discovered British Blues bands, was ultimately led to him being hooked by their inspirations and like-minded groups. He earned his PhD, joined the faculty at NKU in 2000 and founded The Heaters shortly thereafter. As a baby, Levin attended the band’s outdoor shows and was always fascinated by music, even in movies, where Aron says he was more affected by the music than the storyline. When he perked up during Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions” in The Sandlot, Aron said to his wife, “I think the boy’s got some Soul in him.”
Levin obtained his love of Blues through his father — he claims his viewing of Ray, the biopic of R&B legend Ray Charles, sent him to the piano — and through Nye heard new versions of the form. Ben was routinely invited to the annual Cincinnati Blues Fest’s Arches Piano Stage, where he met many of Nye’s piano peers. Those connections are paying dividends now — Levin heads to Amsterdam and London this summer through friends he’s made in Nye’s global inner circle.
Levin has heard the word “prodigy,” but he quickly disavows that tag.
“There are people out there that can sing and play a heck of a lot better than me,” he says frankly.
The prodigy label assumes a certain effortlessness in achieving early goals, and Levin has worked too hard to label his talent as automatic. His restless creative nature will ensure that he grows as an artist as he matures as a person. Besides, Aron identifies his son as an old soul: “He was always looking up at the stars when everyone else was looking down at their Game Boys.”
The word is getting out about Levin. His upcoming full band show at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will feature his father on guitar, Nye on drums, upright bassist Chris Douglas and guest spots by local luminary Phillip Paul and Blues guitar legend Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, who cited Ben as the closest thing to iconic Blues piano player Pinetop Perkins since the man himself. That’s high praise for the young pianist, who composed a tribute to Perkins on his album.
Ben Levin is the purest evidence that great things happen when you mix hard work, magic, love and music.
Ben Levin performs with Bob Margolin at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (50 E. Freedom Way, Downtown, freedomcenter.org) at 8 p.m. on June 1. Click here for tickets. More info: benlevinpiano.com.