BluesWax Sittin' In With
An Instrumental Blues Career
With A Guitar As The Voice.
By Bob Putignano
In music the term "great" gets used all too frequently, but we are now talking about the "great" Ronnie Earl, who has appropriately earned this high stature. For my ears, Earl stands nearly alone as one of the "great" guitarists of our time, as his technique, tone, and explosive outbursts are what make him so special. Plus, Earl is the master of being able to fire at intense musical passages, bring it down to whisper, and then slowly boil and broil his solos to an even higher and more dramatic intensity, thus making him one of my most favorite guitar players to witness live onstage. Though almost always Blues-based, Earl's playing has few musical boundaries, his musical creativity is second to none, and his emotional feel for music is undeniable. Upon hearing just one or two notes from his stunning guitar, Earl's signature sound is immediately identifiable, which is not an easy musical feat for any musician to attain.
Ronald Horvath was born in Queens, New York, on March 10, 1953, and unbelievably did not pick up the guitar until after he started college at Boston University in the early 1970s. Earl learned his craft quickly and got hired for a job in the house band of the Speakeasy Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and changed his last name to Earl in tribute to his hero Earl Hooker. The rest was, and still is, history, as Earl was asked to join Roomful of Blues in 1979, simultaneously developed a solo career, and in 1987 formed his own touring band that delighted fans and critics worldwide.
I recently had the rare opportunity to sit down and talk to Ronnie Earl for about forty-five minutes just as his new CD, Hope Radio, was being released by Holger Petersen's Canada-based Stony Plain Records.
Bob Putignano for BluesWax: Ronnie Earl, how are you doing?
Ronnie Earl: I'm doing well, thank you for asking. It's a beautiful day in Boston and I'm talking to a nice man.
BW: I try to be nice.
RE: I'm trying too, Bob.
BW: And you've been making great music for a long time now. I actually got to see you with Roomful several times and I must have seen your solo bands twenty to thirty times. Starting with My Father's Place, Tramps, the Turning Point, the Lone Star, the Montreal Jazz Fest, and many other venues. And I must say that whenever I had the opportunity to see you perform live, I always made time to catch your captivating performances that I have thoroughly enjoyed over the years.
RE: That's a long time ago my brother, and thank you for saying this.
"...my guitar is my vocal."
BW: How did you come up with the name Hope Radio as the title of your new CD?
RE: That's a really good question. I am from a Jewish religious background, but I believe in the religion of love. Where I live in New England there are many beautiful colonial churches and this one church had a sign that said; "Let there be a radio of hope." So in my life everything is now based on spirituality, so I take these signs to heart, hence the name for the CD. You know after our conversation last week I was thinking about you last night, as I really don't do interviews very much because I'm not about the guitar and the equipment, or for furthering a so-called career, but if I could help someone stay sober for another day via my music or take some listeners to a place of healing, or a place of grace, that feels more like what I'm trying to do.
I had many years of the guitar thing, and frankly this might be the first time I'm saying this, but it got a bit old for me and I wanted more out of life, which isn't about the material things or the W.C. Handy Awards. I also found the music business to be stressful. Ted Kurland, who also managed Pat Metheny, was my manager and he used to say; "We're going to the top!" And at the time I had no doubts about that because Pat Metheny is one of the most successful guitarists out there, plus people like Pat Martino, and they were playing at larger venues and I was also just started to play at major Jazz fests around the world alongside of all these great people like Aretha, George Benson, and Carlos Santana, sometimes in front of fifty thousand people.
Around this time [1997-1998] my wife said, "I want to garden, get back to a semblance of real life, and get off the road." Plus I was exhausted, dealing with diabetes, depression, so both physically and mentally I was burnt out. And you know I play really hard and when you don't have a vocalist and play from the soul and not your fingers, it's a different thing.
BW: I'm glad you mentioned being an all-instrumental band, as you've been able to go to the top of the Blues world without a vocalist, which is a real rarity in Blues, and come to think of it, I cannot think of anyone else who has done this.
RE: It goes way back. It was when I was in Roomful and probably before. I've always listened to Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Pat Martino, and said these guys are just playing and blowing all the time, and there was nothing getting in the way so to speak. So I didn't feel I needed the words, even though I had written a lot of songs with lyrics, thus I felt like I couldn't say lyrically what I could get the guitar to say. Thank you for bringing up these thoughts, as it does not come up often enough. And artistically speaking I did not want to be at the mercy of worrying about what people thought of my singer, as this works for me, and my guitar is my vocal.
BW: You garnered two Handy Awards [now Blues Music Awards], as an instrumental guitar bandleader. There are not a lot of guitar players, especially in Blues, that know how to mix a lot of different styles of music successfully. For example, how many Blues guitarists would attempt to cover Pharoah Sanders' "Thembi"? Ah, but you made it work, plus you've always had that Kenny Burrell thing going on, Pat Martino too, and in contrast you were also comfortable with the Allman Brothers vibe, too, so it was obvious that you took from a lot of different sources.
RE: Thank you, but I could never play like anybody else, I try to capture the soul and my main influences were the West Side guys from Chicago, like Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, and Buddy Guy. Those Buddy Guy and Magic Sam records on Delmark are still my favorite records. They were simple and beautiful, but very hard to play. In fact, Magic Sam is the one that made me want to play a Stratocaster, unfortunately he died before I got to see him. I didn't start playing the guitar until I was twenty, right after seeing B.B., Muddy, and Albert.
BW: That'll do it!
RE: Yeah, that did it for me.
BW: And those guys were still in their prime at that time. I love B.B. for many reasons, but I especially adore that sweet signature sound of his guitar.
RE: That signature sound is what I really shoot for and the nicest thing that people say to me is, "I hear a little bit of your music and I know it's you." I don't like hearing people say that I sound like so and so as I want to have my own voice.
BW: But those influences are there, yet without doubt it's Ronnie Earl.
RE: Oh sure, I know what you're saying, I really do. I listen to Little Walter and Big Walter, and played with Big Walter, Otis Rush, a lot in New York at Tramps, I've also seen Charles Brown often, with Billy Butler. But at this time, my college years, there was a better scene going on in Boston at a place called the Speakeasy, which was the home of the Blues and I joined the house band there, backing up J.B. Hutto, Big Walter, Big Mama Thornton, so I felt Boston was the place to be to get to see and play with these great musicians.
BW: How old were you at the time?
RE: 1977, so I was about twenty-four, and...Wow that's thirty years ago!
BW: How did you get the call to work in Roomful?
RE: I actually called them. Duke [Robillard] was always very kind to me letting me sit in with the band, so the band got to know me that way. When I heard Duke was leaving the band and Duke told me, "Maybe you should do it." Roomful was having auditions and they told me that I didn't have to audition and they gave me the gig.
About a month later I found out that the Muddy Waters' band left him and I got to know Muddy pretty good at that time, plus I really wanted to be with Muddy, in fact I would have paid money to play with Muddy! But Muddy said he did not want to hurt Roomful as they were his friends, so it never happened. By the way, Muddy was such a classy guy, way aside and above many of the people in the music business.
So I stayed with Roomful for eight years, which was a tough time as it was the Eighties, the cocaine era, but I did have some wonderful times. I am saying that to you as I have to remember those times, too, as all the memories were not bad and that hard. It was an exciting time, I was just a kid playing in a very adult band. The drummer was ten years older than me and one of the horn players was like thirty years older than me!
BW: Porky Cohen?
RE: Yeah, Porky Cohen is right, who was about fifty-five at the time. And through Roomful I got to play and record with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Big Joe Turner, and Earl King, too. One night I saw Arnett Cobb hanging out in the crowd at a festival and I said, "Mr. Cobb, you have to come up and play with us." But he didn't have his horn with him, so I told [Greg] Piccolo, "Arnett Cobb is here and he wants to play," so Greg got him a horn.
BW: Speaking of great Texas tenors, you also recorded with Fathead Newman, too.
RE: Correct, on Grateful Heart, which won the Downbeat album of the year. Fathead is a beautiful man.
BW: Look at Fathead's legacy.
RE: Oh, my God! Brother Ray and all of those Atlantic sessions, a very long list of session work for sure!
BW: Speaking of Atlantic Records, you got to work with Tom Dowd.
RE: Yes, Tom Dowd produced The Color of Love. I've never met anyone like him.
BW: I have heard from people like Ruth Brown and Joel Dorn, who always had kind and special words about Dowd, told me he was so humble.
RE: So humble and just beautiful, he really knew how to work with musicians, too. He was an artist and that's why he was so good to work with.
BW: Did you see the DVD on Dowd, The Language of the Music?
RE: I did see it and I felt like I lived that experience with Dowd, and I saved all of his notes from the recording session we did together, too. When we got together Dowd wasn't doing many albums anymore and was kind of semi-retired, so I asked my manager, Ted Kurland, if we could get Tom Dowd to do the next CD for me. The next thing I knew I went into the studio and there was Tom Dowd as my producer. Tommy suggested using Gregg Allman and Jaimoe [Jai Johanny Johanson], which gave us that Allman Brothers vibe, as I loved Duane so much.
Bob, you know, I am having a lot of fun going back in time with you, thank you. Which has reminded me to think about saying one more thing about Roomful of Blues: those were some of the greatest musicians that ever were. Gregg Piccolo's tenor playing, Duke's guitar, to me they stand up against all the giants, so I feel that I was very fortunate to have been lead to them by my higher power.
BW: And it's very interesting that you had just started to play the guitar when you got the nod to become Roomful's new guitarist.
RE: I was definitely the student and the sponge who wanted soak up all the great music they were involved in.
BW: That's what it takes, doesn't it?
RE: Yeah, and I grew up pretty fast, at least I tried to anyway. This is the first time I've said that, besides I don't like the word "career," but as far as my life goes I've had to look back at my life as a whole now, and being in these musical situations is certainly a part of who I am.
BW: And then you struck out on your own and that's when it started for you as a solo artist; Black Top, Rounder, Telarc, and now at Stony Plain. That CD The Duke Meets the Earl was fabulous.
RE: Yeah, thank you. I have been blessed to have worked with a lot of these very talented musicians.
BW: Ronnie, it's such a treasure to catch up with you and to talk about what you have done in the past and continue to do. Best wishes with Hope Radio. A DVD of Hope Radio will follow the CD too, right?
RE: Best wishes to you Bob, as I've enjoyed talking to you, too. One more thing about Hope Radio, which is a live album, it doesn't say "live," which I'll never figure out why, but we won't tell the record company about that. [Laughs] My purpose for Hope Radio was that these are the songs that my band and I have been playing for three/four years and they are a very nice group of musicians who have stuck with me over that time. You know, if I want to just work five times a year, they are there for me, and if I want to work once a year, they are there, too. But it is live. We went into a recording studio and invited friends, just like those old Muddy Waters and Otis Spann LPs, as those LPs inspired me to do this kind of live recording, Hope Radio. So I thought, lets call up some friends and record, so that is what it is.
BW: It's been a while since I last seen you perform, I have to say that I can't wait to see the DVD of Hope Radio, I am overdue for a dose of live Ronnie Earl!
RE: Oh thank you, Bob.
BW: Any last words?
RE: I just want to thank you for giving me the pleasure and honor to talk to you.
BW: Please Ronnie, I've been wanting to interview you for many years, so many thanks to you!
RE: One more thought about Hope Radio. If it gets airplay around the dial I just hope the record can help people who are having hard times in their lives, with whatever, an illness or drugs or alcohol, to make them feel that there is hope. I also wish everybody a lot of love.
Note: This interview with Ronnie Earl was taken from our second conversation, but we did speak about a week before this. The interesting point I want to make is that on both of these conversations, Ronnie expressed interest in touring again. Lord knows that this is very encouraging news, as I am sure the world would be a better place if we all got to see and experience Ronnie Earl performing live on a more regular basis. So best wishes to Mr. Earl, both with his new CD and for hopefu
Bob Putignano www.SoundsofBlue.com
Bob Putignano www.SoundsofBlue.com
Radio Host WFDU's "Sounds of Blue"
President of the NY Blues and Jazz Society