Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page

written by Mudcat Ward, bass

It was 1977. Sugar Ray Norcia and Neil Gouvin were working southern Rhode Island in their band, Sugar Ray & the Blues Stompers. Up in Boston, Ronnie Earl, still using his given surname Horvath, was beginning to try stage monikers such as Little Ronnie. Ronnie had been a replacement for Ron Levy in John Nicholas’ band, The Rhythm Rockers, which featured Kaz Kazanoff (tenor sax and harp), Sarah Brown (Fender bass) and Terry Bingham (drums). When John Nicholas left New England for Texas (along with drummer Fran Christina) to join the western swing band Asleep At the Wheel, Ronnie decided the time was also right for him to make a change and become a bandleader. He started the Hound Dogs, with Mark Cedrone (harp and vocals), Michael “Mudcat” Ward and Brother Charles Robinson on drums. The Hound Dogs based themselves at the Speakeasy in Cambridge, where they backed up Mama Thornton among other artists. After a while, the winds of change were swirling. Ronnie and Mudcat were searching for musical colleagues that wanted to (and had the ability to) play bluer, lower down, earthier and produce the highest quality blues.

Ronnie chose to book a series of dates out of town, under the name “The Dueces.” The Met Café in Providence, where he secured the gigs, was an informal enough venue ideal for auditioning musicians in a work, rather than rehearsal setting, while getting paid (viz. the paid rehearsal).

Neil Gouvin, well-known blues drummer in southern New England, was contacted to make the dates and demonstrated that he could provide the sought-after groove. After reviewing the situation from his own vantage point, Gouvin made the suggestion that altered blues history: get his vocalist/harp player Sugar Ray into this picture. That new edition of the Dueces was self-evidently the best edition to date.

Although the band enjoyed the four-piece sound, they wanted a larger band and the addition of a piano player. A number of months later, Ronnie and Mudcat attended a show at Paul’s Mall in Boston where Muddy Waters and his band were performing. The opening act, a band from New Hampshire, featured a damned good blues piano player. He turned out to be Little Anthony Geraci. Ronnie and Mudcat visited him in Newton, MA where he was in the middle of writing a sonata. The blues musicians offered Anthony the position and he signed on.

The band christened itself Sugar Ray & the Bluetones.

Events moved quickly. Ronnie served as agent, calling club owners personally and booking dates. The band developed a nearly regular touring schedule that included Baltimore (No Fish Today), Washington, D.C. (Childe Herald, Desperados, Columbia Station), Charlottesville, VA (The West Virginian, The C&O), Harrisonville, VA (Elbow Room), and the capital, Richmond, VA (Hard Times).

In Massachusetts, the band became the house band at the Speakeasy, Cambridge, playing regular Sunday nights. Baron records impresario Ron Bartolucci booked the band into a Cranston, RI studio, Viscount, to record a four-song 45-EP. The now-hard-to-find 45 featured the traditional song in blues style “Frankie and Johnnie,” and the first recorded composition by Sugar Ray Norcia, “Bite the Dust.” That record, released in different colored vinyl (black, red, blue and gold) was featured on juKeb' Mo'oxes in most of the New England blues clubs on the circuit at that time.

As the 1980’s unfolded, the band continued to develop its repertoire and style, and its audience continued to grow despite the fact that disco was the popular music at the time. Blues was nearly impossible to dial in on the radio. Historically speaking, blues was virtually invisible to the general public at the time. Still the band managed to hang on. In addition to its own shows, special performances with blues giants kept the excitement up, such as the many occasions the band backed harmonica legend Big Walter Horton Horton. Sugar & the Bluetones teamed up with the Chicago-by-way-of-Memphis harmonica player and singer in Boston, Cambridge, Providence, Westerly, New York City, and in Pennsylvania. On one tour, a performance was recorded at Westerly’s Knickerbocker Café, and
that live performance became an LP (presently available as a CD) from England, entitled Little Boy Blue.

Another Chicago Blues legend, guitarist Hubert Sumlin played with the band as a hired band member on a number of shows when his fortunes with Eddie Shaw were temporarily at a low. Slide guitarist J. B. Hutto, another Chicago Blues pioneer, also got the avid support of the Bluetones when he first needed a New England band as he initially sought to work the area. Hutto would eventually enlist young local musicians at his record label’s direction.

About this time, agent/manager/friend Danny Cahill took over a portion of the business end of the operation. One result was the collaboration with pianist Roosevelt Sykes in concert. Another was a series of shows with blues shouter Big Joe Turner and his pianist at the time, Lloyd Glenn.

The strain and grind of continually traveling long distances, working long stretches with little monetary reward, and the allure of various intoxicants of the day combined to create pressures, some of which could not be easily resisted. In time, Neil Gouvin jumped off the merry-go-round and was replaced by the greatest female drummer in blues, Ola Dixon of New York City. After grueling road trips to Pittsburgh with long gas lines and even and odd license plate disbursement formulas, difficulties making spread out gigs, caused havoc throughout the live music community, as well as among other travel-reliant workers.

Eventually more strains, and more personnel changes. Ted Harvey, drummer with Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, replaced Ms. Dixon, despite the need for periodic dialysis treatments. Ted played with the band about a year, until founder Ronnie Earl himself left to fill the guitar chair vacated by Duke Robillard in the Providence, Rhode Island institution, the band Roomful of Blues.

Robillard left Roomful of Blues to join new wave/rockabilly rocker Robert Gordon, only to leave Gordon’s high-paying gig in a matter of just a few weeks later after disliking certain aspects of the gig. When he sought to return to Roomful of Blues, Robillard discovered he had been replaced and was not welcomed back. Where Ronnie Earl had been selected to fulfill Robillard’s guitar playing position, tenor sax player Greg Picolo decided to take the role of lead vocalist and assumed leadership of the band.

Meanwhile the Bluetones, undaunted, became the first of the blues bands from that generation to perform in Europe, getting booked for a month in Spain by Mudcat’s youngest brother Jeffrey, living in Barcelona, Spain on a high school exchange program. Jeffrey managed to book a variety of venues, from city hall auditoriums, to University Concert halls, to chic jazz gigs, with some rock clubs thrown in. The Spanish tour included a nation-wide television appearance on a music show called Musical Express, historically important in that it was the first post-Franco television program broadcast from Barcelona (Catalonia) in the native Catalan language, a language (and culture) suppressed by the fascist Franco dictatorship. The band performed two blues numbers for the broadcast that were taped in a rock club a few weeks before its broadcast on the program.

Along with Sugar Ray & the Bluetones on that week’s show were Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Animals, and Gloria Jones. Successful shows throughout the country, including multiple sold-out shows (matinees, evening and late night performances) at the prestigious Cova Del Drac which enabled the band to be invited back for another month’s tour two years later. More accolades and a performance on a nationwide morning radio variety show made for plenty of excitement, but the return to the States was a let-down of dramatic proportions. In a European country, we had made a fairly big splash. Playing the same material in the States, we could barely get arrested, let alone noticed.

* * * * * Part 2 * * * * *

In two vehicles, Little Anthony’s Econoline telephone van and Neil Gouvin’s SUV, Sugar Ray & the Bluetones headed west to Chicago to play. Anthony and Mudcat rode with all the musical gear including Anthony’s full-weighted spinet piano that was real work to move into and out of each venue, especially at the very end of an evening, in the cold and ice, sometimes down flights of stairs—even fire escapes on a couple of occasions.

Despite intending to stay together, the two vehicles would sometimes lose sight of each other, but always managed to “find” each other at gas stations or rest stops. When the band trucks reached Lake Shore Drive, it was during rush hour, and it was fortunate that the vehicles were together, for one of the trucks decided to die. We managed to get it over to the side and eventually restarted.

The gig we had was on the Northside in a quiet white neighborhood and it turned out to be mostly a bust. However, the band took the opportunity to see the city’s blues legends in person in the clubs. After our gig finished, the band drove down to the Southside, to the famous club Theresa’s. The club was actually down four or five steps from street level on a corner, and it was considered a tough neighborhood, especially for whites at that time. They had a procedure for entering the club that we hadn’t seen before. As you approached the entrance, you faced a thick iron chain held about waist high by the doormen, obstructing your way in. You were “checked out” by the doormen and bouncers as you paid your admission fee. When okayed for entry, you had to almost do the limbo under the chain, as you made your way down the steps. They never really removed the chain to make it easier to enter, at least not while we were there. Once safely inside we were treated warmly as guests of Junior Wells, who was the official figurehead of the place. Jr., always a generous man, actually laid a $50 bill on the bar and told Theresa we were his friends and to provide us with whatever we wanted to drink. In time we naturally took to the stage to play. Based on our set, to our delight Theresa tried to hire the band for regular Tuesday nights. Honored but tempered by reality, we had to decline, explaining that we had traveled 1000 miles and had gigs to return to.

We had gigs scheduled with Big Walter Horton Horton headlining with us in a club in the northern suburbs called Harry Hopes. Unfortunately, Big Walter was unable to be found, and we had to appear without him. Some customers accepted the situation and attended the show knowing Walter had “canceled.” We played the show on our own, and played hard, but the management took the obvious opportunity to drastically cut the pay. There was nothing we could do. For a few days, in order to pay for the motel room (singular) and gas, we had to make adjustments, limiting our survival to a diet of potato chips and coffee.

A gig scheduled at a club in Fort Bend, IN, called Vegetable Buddies also was booked with Big Walter Horton, who we now discovered had not made his return from a trip to Europe on time. By telephone we worked out a plan whereby we would “substitute” another headliner, J.B.Hutto, for Big Walter, and the club agreed. J.B. was glad to do it. We picked him up at his house in Harvey, IL and all drove to South Bend. We played the gig. Since it was the last show on the tour, it was decided that it made some sense to leave some of the musicians and the telephone van with the gear at the club in Indiana, while the other vehicle, Gouvin’s SUV, now without a working heater, should be used to return J.B. to Illinois and then turn back around and hook up with the band at Vegetable Buddies before heading out on that long drive east across I-80. The ride west to Harvey, IL was a strange one as Gouvin, driving and “Mudcat” and J.B. Hutto huddled in the cold night air. Somewhere about the Illinois border we saw a very bright, unflickering light in the sky. We figured we might be looking at what we called a UFO, and we all were convinced we were seeing something extraordinary. Not long after, a very bright light of another kind was flashing through the entire vehicle. A state police officer had pulled us over. A broken taillight was the given reason for being pulled over, but the odd trio of characters in a ragged vehicle with Rhode Island plates probably contributed. The officer wanted to know why the car had been observed to swerve. Well, Neil explained, it must have been because we were caught up looking at a UFO. Did you see it, the officer questioned me? "Yes, sir." "How about you?"he directed at J.B. J.B. nodded, "uh-huh." After asking where we were going and why, the policeman probably decided that he didn’t really want anything more to do with this bunch. "Let’s concentrate on the driving," he ordered as he returned the license and registration. No ticket, not even a warning was issued.

In due time we found the Hutto residence, dropped him off at his front door, and said our goodbyes. Then we turned right around and retraced our tracks back to Indiana and the club. By then, it was dawn and there were no signs of any lingering UFO’s in the skies overhead. We reached Fort Bend, where the rest of the band had partied enough for all of us, and got the caravan back on the highway, headed back to New England.

It must have still been 1979 when the Bluetones were hired by their label, Baron, to play with Big Walter Horton Horton on a three-band, weeklong tour along with slide-guitarist J.B. Hutto and His New Hawks and guitarist Left Hand Frank (Craig) and his band featuring Dimestore Fred on harp and future Bluetones Ted Harvey and Peter "Hi-Fi" Ward. The Bluetones lineup at that time featured Sugar Ray Norcia, Ronnie Earl (Horvath), Little Anthony Geraci, Michael “Mudcat” Ward, and Ola Dixon. The highpoint of the tour, planned and executed by Baron Records’ president Ron Bartolucci, was the weekend extravaganza in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood at a smallish but hip venue called the Squat Theatre, located next door to the famed Chelsea Hotel (where Big Walter Horton and Sugar Ray shared a room during the New York City stay.) The three bands played a set twice each evening and every show was an exhibition of the some of the finest spontaneous blues that blues-starved city had an opportunity to experience. Blues venues and blues music were actually in critically short supply in the nation’s most renowned and populous city at that time.
Big Walter Horton Horton and Sugar Ray & the Bluetones were at the top of their game. There were moments where the audience was completely silent, taking in every breath, every ounce, every note. At other moments, the crowd cheered with raucous joy. Those shows should have been taped…

On Saturday afternoon Left Hand Frank had purchased a rod and reel and was proudly demonstrating his casting ability to anyone interested on the middle painted line of 23rd street, a busy two-way cross-town artery in Manhattan. He luckily did not get struck by a cab or truck or hook somebody.

By early afternoon on Sunday, the three bands in multiple vehicles hightailed it up I-95 to Westerly, Rhode Island for a Sunday night show at the Knickerbocker Club, across from the Westerly railroad station. The show in Westerly was the last of a full week of shows and we were informed after the final notes were played that the tour’s financial health regrettably hadn’t been what was expected. We were shortchanged for the final evening of the tour.

What made that doubly painful was the fact that Ron Bartolucci had made arrangements for the evening’s music to be taped. Perhaps the astounding shows in New York had given him the notion. He in turn sold the recordings to John Steadman and the JSP label, and the result was the LP Little Boy Blue, which was released in 1980. That live LP and subsequent CD which included the three tracks with Sugar Ray performed just before Big Walter Horton was introduced to the stage, stood for many years as Big Walter Horton’s only live recording available. As good as the recording was, it paled in comparison to the music made earlier in the week. Nevertheless, like most blues or jazz, it is a snapshot, a document of how the musicians played on that particular session. The sour part of the experience was that the band and Big Walter Horton had not been privy to the arrangements for the recording nor consulted, nor had any mechanical licenses been sought or issued. After finding out about the sale of the recording to London’s JSP, Ronnie Earl and “Mudcat” offered photos of the musicians and other information.

The cover photo of Big Walter Horton that adorned the LP was among the materials the two Bluetones sent. No communications were forthcoming. When the LP was ultimately released, Earl and Ward wrote a letter to Steadman seeking payment for Walter’s estate (he has passed away in 1980) and the musicians on the session. Steadman wrote back with empty promises. In reality, he continued to make empty promises on at least two occasions over the many years. With regard to this project John Steadman has not been reputable or above-board about the royalty payments he owed (and still owes). That was especially reprehensible considering the dire financial situation of the Horton family, who were seriously impoverished, living in a walk-up apartment in the ghetto on Chicago’s tough Southside. Steadman provided another case of that same old lesson. Everyone had heard about how blues and jazz musicians had been cheated and financially mistreated. That would have seemed to have been a practice from the past in the modern year of 1980. Unfortunately such deceit and crooked practices had survived intact a decade after man had achieved a landing on the surface of the moon.

* * * * * Part 3 * * * * * *

Personnel changes are unavoidable in most lasting musical aggregations and the Bluetones are/were no exception. Ronnie Earl’s departure to Roomful of Blues created a hole to be filled in the guitar slot. Peter "Hi-Fi" Ward, another sibling from the family of bassist “Mudcat” Ward, worked with the band covering the guitar chores until tapped by harmonica player Jerry Portnoy to join his former Muddy Waters sidemen (minus Bob Margolin) out on their own under the name, The Legendary Blues Band.

The band, with pianist Pinetop Perkins, bassist Calvin Jones, and drummer Willie “Big-Eyes” Smith, had been allegedly severed by Muddy Waters’ management under the purported direction of Scott Cameron after Portnoy had spoken up for higher per diems for the sidemen on an upcoming tour of Japan, well known at the time to be a very expensive place. Portnoy was summarily fired, but since his “cause” was shared by the other musicians, they too voiced the same demand and also wanted Portnoy reinstated.

Shrewd Scott Cameron, thinking along the same lines as did then President Reagan about the air traffic controllers’ union workers, chose to fire the entire lot rather than negotiate, electing to use replacements no matter how much less adept they might seem. A new slate of players was assembled on Muddy Waters’ behalf, including guitarist John Primer and pianist Lovie Lee.(By the way, Ronnie Earl has affirmed that Muddy Waters offered him a job at this time but that his recent investiture into Roomful of Blues made it impossible for him to accept.

Peter "Hi-Fi" would replace the on-the-road guitar chair, filled first by Chicagoan Louis Myers, of the famous Aces band of Little Walter Jacobs and Junior Wells and then by Melvin Taylor. Duke Robillard handled much of the guitar work in the studio for the initial recordings released by Rounder. Understandably, Peter "Hi-Fi" was pressed by bandleader Portnoy to make the move to the Legendary Blues Band gig sooner rather than later, despite the fact that the Bluetones faced a full schedule of bookings, including most notably their first month-long tour of Spain in just a matter of days. The band was rescued by Connecticut native Chris Daniels, a guitarist who admirably managed to learn the band’s current material and was a pleasant addition on the weary and hectic Spanish road schedule.

Soon after Ronnie Earl’s switch, drummer Ted Harvey decided that it would be best if he returned to Chicago’s Southside, his home, primarily due to health related concerns. Jacques “Jocko” Wimpfeimer, from Stonington, CT, was waiting in the wings. “Jocko” gladly accepted the opportunity to play with the Bluetones, and accompanied the band to Spain. Sax player Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff, on the other hand, scheduled to go (and whose name was listed on many of the preprinted Spanish posters plastered around Madrid and Barcelona, as Peter Hi-Fi’s name was) made a bold life and band change just before the scheduled departure date. “Kaz” and his saxophone joined pianist Marsha Ball’s outfit as he moved from his Boston Chinatown loft to Austin, TX.

The edition of the Bluetones that made the first Spanish tour, April-May, 1980, included Sugar Ray, Little Anthony Geraci, “Mudcat” Ward, Chris Daniels, and Jocko Wimpfeimer. The overall success of the Spanish excursion was eye-opening but not surprising to the band. Evident especially the response from audiences that, for the most part, could not speak English and thus understand the lyrics per se. Despite the language barrier, the communication between the band and the audiences was palpable. The blues feeling was getting through, and it was getting through unfiltered.

A digression: One show took place at a concert hall at the University of Madrid, with a sold-out house of perhaps 4,000 in number. Our soundman was positioned in the center of the floor, lower level. The soundman, a partially deaf older gentleman known to the band as “The Captain” due to his uncanny resemblance to the late children’s television host Capt. Kangaroo, was contracted by Jeffrey on behalf of the band to supply a grand piano and the p.a. system. We brought our own amplifiers and an electrical power converter with us from the States! He was to provide a truck, and road management for the month-long tours where needed, including setting-up, driving, breaking-down, and engineering the front-of-house sound. On this particular occasion Sugar Ray and the band were perhaps into their third song of the evening, and Sugar called on Anthony to take the solo break on the piano, a beautiful full-size acoustic grand. Just into his first measures, the monitors spewed forth some unwanted feedback, a likely result of the Captain attempting to increase the piano’s presence in the overall mix. Sugar Ray politely addressed the hard-of-hearing soundman via his vocal microphone, saying succinctly, “Feedback on piano.” On hearing Ray’s message meant for the soundman but, of course, heard by the entire audience, the concert-goers without delay erupted in strong applause for the piano playing. They were cheering the fine piano playing of Señor Feedback, whom they thought Sugar Ray had identified for them.

Back in Barcelona, the band stayed at the affordable Hotel Continental partway down the Ramblas, a famous old area of the city on the way to the waterfront. After one night of energetic shows at the jazz club in a spiffy part of the city, the restless band hadn’t had enough music-making (and partying) for one night. After returning to the hotel, the Bluetones returned outdoors, then with mild Spring night temperatures. Setting up across the narrow street from the hotel entrance around a single park bench, the band commenced making acoustic American street music as uniformed city street sweepers, set to begin their nightly wash ritual of the Ramblas walkway surfaces with water hoses and large, homemade-looking brooms of thatch, looked on. Anthony had a small portable cassette tape player with him, and recorded all the festivities. In two separate incidents, strangers speaking no English approached us, offering to sing a capella. In one case, a middle-aged man before uttering his first note made indications to Anthony that he wanted reassurance that the tape was rolling. Anthony responded by shining a flashlight into the clear plastic window to reveal that indeed the cassette tape mechanism was turning. Now, the gentleman, fully assured, turned his attention to his dramatic musical moment. He opened his mouth and sang, a highly emotive Catalan love song; a flawless performance. He strolled down the Ramblas after he finished. A short time thereafter, a dark young man with an intense countenance appeared and with visible deliberation intoned a haunting, minor-keyed Flamenco-tinged aria. When he was through, he too drifted down the Ramblas and into the night.

About an hour’s train ride north from Barcelona took us to the small city of Terrassa, and the Jazz Cava, an underground brick and cement cellar, with the feel of a cavern and the semicircular arching roof of a Quonset. The Jazz Cava had a faux-jazz club atmosphere and a strange crowd. The impresario was a friend of Señor Todero, the owner of the famous Cova Del Drac in Barcelona where the Bluetones were extremely successful and very happily so, for the proprietor. This was certainly not the case for his colleague in Terrassa. Booked for a weeknight, the club owner was distressed to learn that we charged different prices for weekday nights and weekend nights, and we asked for different prices when negotiating to play different venues depending upon their size. Larger venues with greater seating capacities could take in more money and consequently pay the artists more. The Jazz Cava was a basement club that had a main room that was very small along with multiple smaller rooms connected to it. The main music room might have held an estimated seventy-five to eighty-five patrons. In the mind of the Jazz Cava proprietor, it was unethical to have varying fees for differing circumstances. According to this club owner, artists in Spain charged one price and one price only regardless of time or venue. Well, obviously he had learned to his chagrin that the costs to his Barcelona buddy were different than the costs negotiated with him. In Barcelona Señor Todero got a good deal but he had taken a chance on the band, hiring for multiple dates, including special early matinees. At the end of the gig in Terrassa, we could not find the club owner to get our pay. No one working at the club knew anything about anything, all very conveniently not understanding our English, Jeffrey’s high school Spanish, or the international hand signs for “we want our money and we want it now!” Against all the tenets every musician learns about not leaving the premises before getting possession of the cash, eventually we were forced to go without our money.

The next day, Jeffrey made a lot of attempts at reaching the man by telephone and all were fruitless. That same day, while Jeffrey worked the phone, Chris and I got up early and headed back to the club to see if we could have a face-to-face meeting with its proprietor. He was out, we were told. He was at this place, at that place. We played along at the run around for a while, and eventually took the train back to Barcelona empty-handed. We needed help.

Jeffrey and members of the band headed to the offices of the United States consulate in a huge building in busy Barcelona. We gave a brief explanation of our problem and were ushered into the inner office of the consulate who expressed a high level of concern over our plight. Jeffrey showed our copy of the signed contract to the consulate. Taking the telephone in hand, the consulate in our presence called the club and asked for the proprietor. To our surprise he took the call. His first contention was that when he discovered the band’s sliding scale, that is, different prices for different venues, he felt cheated. The consulate countered that what others had agreed to pay the band was irrelevant to the problem at hand. In doing business as the Jazz Cava, the club owner had entered into a contract with the band and signed his name to an agreement to pay so many pesetas for a particular night’s engagement. The band had met its obligation to play that engagement. They were entitled to their remuneration. He wasn’t buying. The other prices offered other venues were indeed relevant, he insisted.

He seemed all of the sudden to relent. In what seemed to be a conciliatory tone, he now had a suggestion for us. He invited us to meet him at 3 a.m. in what the consulate later described as the most dangerous part of town—near the docks—and that he would set things right then. Somewhat surprised and appalled at the veiled threat in that suggested scenario, the consulate instructed the man in no uncertain terms to bring the money owed in an envelope in person directly to his office by the next morning. There was a somewhat lengthy pause on this end, followed by the consulate reciting a telephone number into the phone and abruptly hanging up the receiver, ending the call. He’s going to call us back, the consulate informed us. Apparently, the proprietor did not or could not believe he was actually speaking to the official United States consulate. And, although some of us were expressing some doubts about what would happen next, a few minutes later, sure enough, he called back, hearing a female voice offering a formal telephone greeting along the lines of “United States Consulate’s Office, Barcelona branch” in Spanish perhaps and once again connecting with our faithful and committed government employee. The club owner had a new offer. He told the consulate that if the Bluetones would play an additional night at his club, the band would get paid for both. We told the consulate to decline that offer. This was not the time for new negotiations. The consulate tried to suppress a smile. He had reviewed the copy of the contract we showed him and agreed that that wasn’t the deal. The way we figured it, if you got screwed one night, why would you go out of your way to put yourself in a position to get screwed a second time? After all, this was the music business, not a sexual encounter.

The money arrived early the next morning, right on time. We thanked our able government representative for making things right, and invited him to one of our shows. Needless to say, we never visited that area near the docks.

* * * * * Part 4 * * * * *

Back in the States, personnel changes once again befell the Bluetones. “Jocko” was out and Steve Brown, having played with bassist Sarah Brown in that era (currently with the Lovedogs) took over behind the drums. A few years later the goodhearted “Jocko” would be reported dead during a trip to Africa, the victim of a defective heart of which no one outside his immediate family had been aware. The band needed a full-time, accomplished guitar player and put out the word for candidates. An actual audition, for the first time in the band’s short history, was planned.

In the days before email and cell phones, business could be difficult for a band with members living two (and sometimes three) states apart. Long distance conversations were expensive. The only option back then was a pay-per-minute arrangement—there were no other calling plans available or competing companies to switch to. Though calls had to be kept to a minimum, yet everybody had to keep in careful communication with everybody. Word of last minute changes in schedule, for example, would get dialed frantically, usually the message reaching another band member just in time. There were lots of chances for foul-ups, and yet the Bluetones in all those years had never missed a single engagement.

Anthony Geraci had received a phone call from California one night from a guitarist he did not know. Apparently a misunderstanding transpired. The next thing anyone knew, guitarist John Knox from California was on the East coast at the airport with his instruments and his belongings, fully under the impression that he was the new Bluetones guitar player. At about the same time, “Mudcat” had received a few calls from guitarists interested in getting a shot at the scheduled audition. “Mudcat” would ask each caller a few questions about their musical preferences, their situation, etc., for purposes of weeding out obviously incompatible persons, musical or otherwise. One particular caller was asked if he knew of Magic Sam. The reply? No. Had he ever heard, then, of B.B. King? Yes. Was he familiar with playing a “march,” that is, “marching in E?” He’d have to get back to him on that one, but look, could he just have an audition? "All right," "Mudcat” told him. "Be at Clafton Place, in Newton, at Steve Brown’s place at 3:30 P.M. See you then." "All right."

The afternoon of the audition was not very promising. There were few musicians on the slate looking to become a part of the Bluetones. John Knox arrived from Rhode Island/Connecticut with Anthony, who had put him up at his place, and Sugar Ray. From the Boston area, “Mudcat” and “Kaz” (invited to give his opinion of those auditioning despite having no personal interest in the outcome since he had given his notice much earlier) arrived at Brown’s second-floor apartment around the same time.

First up was John Knox. He clearly demonstrated that he was a most knowledgeable player. You couldn’t name a blues musician or recording he hadn’t heard of. In fact, in fanatical fashion like many avid record collectors, he could also name the full title, label, artist name, the entire personnel on the recording session, and where it was recorded. He could probably tell you the identifying release number and date as well. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it has little bearing on blues playing. Mr. Knox had a demonstrably extensive mental catalogue of all our recorded material and knew the “right” parts to play on the guitar based on the parts played on the respective original recordings, or so it seemed. He was also quite able getting around on a fingerboard. But something was missing.

Another couple of players came and went that day, with little to show for their efforts. They were less able than Knox. It was after half- past three when the band was ready to call it a day. About 3:45 the phone rang. It was a woman asking for “Mudcat.” She said her name was Jean, and that Doug Bangham was late but on his way to the rehearsal. She hoped he would have arrived already. Perhaps he was lost. I told her thanks for calling, as we figured he wasn’t coming but we’d wait awhile for him. Later on, a ring of the doorbell indicated that Doug had found his way. When he arrived at the top of the stair, in walked this skinny “kid” with a guitar case, an amp, and some strange, rectangular electronic device that we were later told he called a power soak, something none of us had ever seen before. Doug Bangham set up and barely indicated he was ready to play. It’s probably fair to say that after a long afternoon, no one expected too much. Sugar Ray called for a “march” and Bangham turned out a shuffle that had power and depth, maybe the greatest “march” he ever played. On a slow blues, he seemed to reach deep and connected instantly with some of those present, despite a clear and obvious lack of familiarity with much of the band’s regular material and sources. Standing before us was a player who was in kind fundamentally the opposite of the type of player Knox was. Bangham lacked the knowledge Knox had, but Bangham had what Knox was missing.

About the audition, Bangham would later say that after he had been asked those preliminary questions by “Mudcat” on the phone, he sought answers. He first made a call to guitarist Duke Robillard, then fronting his own trio, “Duke Robillard & the Pleasure Kings,” to find out what was meant by the term “march.” Duke had answered over the phone by sounding out one: “Eh, eh-eh, eh-eh, eh-eh….” Bangham had understood; he had figured out how to play that earlier. It was only the term with which he was unfamiliar, and indeed he should have been. “Marching in E” was a descriptive term made up by the Bluetones. Sugar Ray had an old, kaki green army combat helmet lying around. He brought it to a gig. He put it on. “Let’s march,” he ordered. The band shuffled to hell and back. After all, it was said war was hell, and that was “the march from hell.”