John Németh has built a life and musical career with his mouth.
A singularly gifted vocalist and harmonica player, the 45-year-old Németh has risen to the top of the blues world over the last decade. Nominated for 10 Blues Music Awards, he’s won three including the title of best vocalist during the May 5 BMA ceremonies.
But on May 24, Németh underwent surgery in a Houston, Texas, hospital to remove an ameloblastoma, a benign but aggressive tumor, in his lower jaw that has threatened his ability to sing and play.
According to his family, the 7-hour procedure revealed the tumor had spread substantially throughout his bone and tissue. Doctors were forced to remove all his teeth, minus the molars from his lower jaw. The surgeons did say they were able to achieve the results they were hoping for — which hopefully will provide Németh the ability to continue making music.
Unfortunately, the highly specialized procedure — which will help regrow Németh’s jaw with the use of his own stem cells — was not covered by his insurance. Nemeth’s family — his wife, Jaki Taylor, and their two children — have set up a GoFundMe account to help defray the costs. So far, the effort has raised more than $100,000 of its $135,000 goal.
Just prior to his surgery, Németh spoke with The Commercial Appeal, about his condition and all the music he’s been recording in recent weeks.
Visit to the dentist reveals tumor
Born and raised in Idaho, Németh spent a decade in Northern California before finding a home in Memphis nearly a decade ago. In 2014, the Bluff City transplant garnered national raves for his breakthrough album, “Memphis Grease” — recorded with local R&B band the Bo-Keys — which earned five Blues Music Award nominations and a slew of new fans.
Much of Németh’s musical vision comes from his years working as a sideman on the road and in the studio with a variety of veteran blues and roots-music acts such as Junior Watson, Anson Funderburgh and Elvin Bishop. In addition to his own solo efforts, Németh also helped found and fronts the Memphis R&B big band Love Light Orchestra, which released its second album in January.
Things were looking particularly promising at the start of 2022 for Németh. After a couple pandemic-slowed years, he was set for a full return to the road in the U.S. and Europe. In February, however, he went in for his regular tooth cleaning and exam, when his dentist spotted the tumor.
“He saw it on the X-ray,” Németh said. “The tumor was down in my jaw, down in the meat of the jaw, and at some point over the previous six months it decided it wanted to start moving up, and start pushing my teeth around. That’s when we caught it. We actually caught it at a good time.”
Doctors would later tell him the tumor likely started in childhood, “and it just grew really slow for a long time. But I’m older now and I don’t have the ability to fight it off. It’s caused by the enamel, an abnormality in the enamel cell, is apparently what starts this kind of tumor,” Németh said.
“It’s pretty rare and it’s 50/50 as to whether they’re cancerous. But the biopsy showed it was cancer-free. Which is good — because if it was cancerous that can jump places on you. But it’s unfortunate in that it’s the same outcome, you’ve got to do the same procedure to cut it out.”
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Németh’s dentist Daniel Bird referred him to local oral surgeon Barrett Sexton. At the time, Sexton just happened to be in Texas for a conference and saw Dr. James Melville — an expert in oral and maxillofacial surgery, and a pioneer in tissue engineering procedures — speak about his results in helping patients like Németh.
“[Sexton] told me, ‘There’s a guy down in Houston that can fix you. ‘You should really go to this guy,’” Németh said.
Like a lot of musicians who took financial hits during the pandemic, Németh had been forced to tighten his belt. “I cut back and got some pretty cheap health insurance — which would’ve been fine for a regular emergency,” he said. “But if I went through insurance for this, they would just send me into the hospital with an ear, nose and throat guy, who would just slice and dice me, and I probably wouldn’t be worth a damn afterwards.”
Instead, Németh elected to try Melville’s more advanced approach in the hope of salvaging his ability to sing and play harmonica. Melville’s procedure extracts stem cells from the patient, places them in a centrifuge to concentrate and then combines them with bone morphogenic protein and bone donated from another source to create a graft — essentially regenerating the patient’s own bone.
“He was really cool and wanted to take me on, even though he was super busy,” Németh said. “There’s so many people that he has to help. It’s state-of-the-art stuff he’s doing.”
Getting in the studio before surgery
With surgery originally scheduled for late April, Németh went ahead with his touring plans in the spring, playing dates in March and April. “But I had to cancel all of May, June and half of July so far, and I was supposed to be going to Europe,” he said.
But then, Németh’s surgery got bumped to late May. With a month cleared on his schedule, he decided to put his unexpected free time to good use.
“When the surgery date got moved, I had four weeks free, so I just got in the studio,” he said. Németh flew to California to record with Elvin Bishop, Willie Jordan, Bob Welch and a group of all-star musicians cutting an album’s worth of material. He also spent time in Memphis making an acoustic record with his band, The Blue Dreamers. And then just prior to his surgery, Németh ventured into South Memphis’ historic soul haven Royal Studios to cut more songs with the members of the Hi Rhythm section.
“I mean, God knows how long before my voice or my ability to sing really comes back,” Németh said. “So I figured I’d get as much in the can as possible.”
Despite the flurry of recording, Németh is cautiously optimistic he’ll be back performing before too long. “After I heal up, there’s a chance I could be singing again within a couple months,” he said. “But I probably won’t get my [new] teeth for at least a year, cause it takes time to screw all those bad boys in.”
Despite the risk the tumor has posed to his career, Németh has taken a philosophical approach to the situation.
“Man, life just throws stuff like this at you sometimes,” he said “You can either wallow in your own pity, or you can just go about your business. I’m lucky they caught it early, I’m lucky it’s not cancerous. So I’m gonna get through this and hope for the best.”