Interview with pianist/composer Anthony Geraci, a musician with experience beside blues & jazz legends

"Blues is honest music and people the world over desire honesty in their lives and the music they listen to."

Anthony Geraci: The B/W Keys of Soul

If you were to think of any modern Blues Legend chances are that Anthony Geraci has backed them up. Muddy Waters, B.B.King, Otis Rush, Big Mama Thorton, Chuck Berry and countless others have had Anthony's fiery piano accompanying them. Anthony has been nominated over 49 times with the Bluetones for BMA’s-including the CD Living Tear To Tear that he wrote the title track to. Shining Stone Records announces the signing of multi-Blues Music Award nominee Anthony Geraci, and will release the keyboardist’s new CD, Why Did You Have to Go, on September 21. Geraci has assembled an impressive cast of musicians to perform with him on the new disc, including guitar legend Ronnie Earl, as well as many Blues Music Award nominees/winners, such as Sugar Ray Norcia, Monster Mike Welch, Michael Mudcat Ward and Neil Gouvin (all fellow members with Geraci in Sugar Ray and the Bluetones). Other guests include singers Sugaray Rayford, Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson, Willie J. Laws, Dennis Brennan and Brian Templeton; guitarists Kid Ramos and Troy Gonyea; bassist Willie J. Campbell; drummers Jimi Bott and Marty Richards; and a mighty horn section of “Sax” Gordon Beadle and Doug Woolverton. The all-original 13 songs on Why Did You Have to Go cover a wide range of Geraci’s styles and influences, touching on several types of blues, R&B and even an excursion into jazz on the album’s closer, “A Minor, Affair,” which sounds like a combination of the textures explored by the Butterfield Blues Band on the groundbreaking “East-West” and something from Blue Note Records.

Photo by Jay Skolnick

Anthony was also nominated for a Grammy in 2000 for his work on Super Harps I that also features James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Branch, and Sugar Ray Norcia. Anthony is an original member of Sugar Ray & The Bluetones, and Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters. He also was the leader of his own band "Little Anthony & The Loco-Motives". He has toured extensively in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South America, Lebanon, and USA, playing such premiere Festivals. Anthony was also an original member of the first House of Blues (Cambridge) Blue Monday All-Star Band and occasional "Blues Brother" member with Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman, and James Belushi. Anthony has had the honor to back up the following great musicians: Jimmy Rodgers, Big Walter Horton, Hubert Sumlin, Big Joe Turner, Wilson Pickett, Bo Diddley, Billy Boy Arnold, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy "T 99" Nelson, Snooky Pryor, Lazy Lester, J.B. Hutto, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Carey Bell, Brownie McGhee, Memphis Slim, Dickie Betts, Van Morrison, Jeff Healey, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, Bob Margolin, Mark Naftalin, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Eddie Shaw, and many more.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos: A. Geraci's archive, Jay Skolnick, Michael Sparks Keegan / All rights reserved

What were the reasons that make your generation (in Boston, MA) to start the Blues and Jazz researches?

Boston has a long tradition of the greats-such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf coming to play in our city. In the 1960’s Coffee Houses, where folk artists as well as blues artists often performed. Clubs such as Passim, Club 47 had artists such a Joan Baez, Maria Muldaur. Taj Mahal, Mose Allison would all hang out in Cambridge MA-just across the Charles River in Cambridge. If you remember some of the blues recordings of that time they were called the “Real Folk Blues”, artist such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker-all had recordings with this name. So when I arrived in Boston in the early 1970’s the scene was already very strong. When you come to a locale where the talent is so strong it make you a better musician too.

How has the Blues and Jazz music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I think musicians are very sensitive and in tune to what is going on in the world. It’s reflected in our songwriting, and how we handle ourselves as “public” figures. I try and subtly let my world views be known-I believe that we should all have compassion for our fellow human beings no matter our differences. I’ve traveled to many parts of our beautiful world. Playing in Beirut was very special-the people couldn’t have been nicer, they have a great blues scene there believe it or not…and the food is incredible. To me meeting people of different cultures is the best part of being a traveling musicians…it’s all about respect.

Where does your creative drive come from? What would you say characterizes your work in comparison to other musicians?

I’m always taking notes no matter where I am. I wrote two songs on the new recording “Baptized In The River Yazoo” and the title track “Why Did You Have To Go” in Clarksdale, MS-there’s something in the air down there that speaks to my creative spirit. I sometimes need to pull over while driving to jot something down! You never know when the Blues Muse will whisper to you.

"Blues means honesty. Whether you are a professional musician, or a fan you know instantly if the music (blues) is being played with feeling and respect for the history of the blues."

How do you describe "Why Did You Have To Go" songbook and sound? What is the story behind album's title?

I recorded this CD with my musical family. I’ve been fortunate over the last few years to meet and play/record music with some of todays greatest Blues Musicians-Sugaray Rayford, Ronnie Earl, Welch/Ledbetter, The Proven Ones (Kid Ramos, Jimi Bott, Willie Campbell, Brian Templeton) and of course the musicians I’ve played with for the last 40 years-Sugar Ray and the Bluetones. I like to think of myself as a songwriter as much as a pianist/Hammond Organist. I always like to have that old school sound, but I also realize in 2018 that recordings are much more modern and we can use that technology to our benefit. I did the recording in two stages: One with the “west coast” guys-Sugaray Rayford, Kid Ramos, Willie J. Campbell in Missouri during a New Year’s Eve run with the Mannish Boys; and the rest was recorded in Boston. I did some interesting things that couldn’t have been done just a few years ago. Having Monster Mike Welch solo over songs that the west coast guys guys played on for instance. I’m very appreciative to Jesse Finkelstein, Duke Robillard at Shining Stone Records for seeing this project through.

Are there any memories from Why Did You Have To Go" album's studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Having the original Sugar Ray and the Bluetones-Ronnie Earl, Sugar Ray Norcia, Michael Mudcat Ward and Neil Gouvin record two songs on the CD “My Last Good-Bye” and “Times Running Out” was very special. It was the first time we’ve recorded all together since we did a 45 RPM record in the late 1970’s! Just having all these amazing musicians record with me has left me feeling very humbled.

How do you describe Anthony Geraci’s songbook? Which are the first three “shades” of Blue(s) philosophy?

That’s why my record company (Delta Groove Music) choosed the title Fifty Shades of Blue for my previous recording. Yes, it has a reference to a certain book and movie with a similar name, but it also reflects the different pallets of “Blues” that you hear in this recording. There’s some traditional style Chicago Blues, a beautiful ballad sung by Sugar Ray Norcia, a strong blues sung by Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson. A great slow blues sung by Darrell Nulish and a wonderful uptempo blues sung by Boston’s reigning Queen of the Blues Miss Toni Lynn Washington. There’s also a few instrumentals: one that sounds kind of a like a Freddie King song-“In The Quicksand, Again” and a tribute to the late great Boston Blues pianist David Maxwell who passed away the week we did this recording. I wrote all these songs with the individual singers in mind. Monster Mike Welch is just tearing it up guitar on these tunes-and everything else on the recording.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

I have been fortunate in my career to perform with and became friends with many of the originators of this idiom. I’ve played piano behind Muddy Waters, BB King, Big Walter Horton, Big Mama Thorton, Jimmy Rodgers, Chuck Berry, Otis Rush and many more great elder statesmen of the Blues. I also have played with the current generation of blues artists: Ronnie Earl, Kim Wilson, Duke Robbilard, Sugar Ray Norcia, Zora Young and others as well.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

Blues means honesty. Whether you are a professional musician, or a fan you know instantly if the music (blues) is being played with feeling and respect for the history of the blues.

"I think volume and the use of more electronic instruments takes away from the real feel of the blues. When I first started to see blues performers in the 1960’s such as Muddy Waters, my friend Pinetop Perkins would use a real (acoustic) piano." 

How do you describe Anthony Geraci sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy? 

I have been playing piano since I was four years old. I don’t know anything else! I have studied classical music; have a degree from the Berklee College of Music, and a Masters Degree in Music from Skidmore College. But when I first heard the blues when I was around sixteen it changed my life. Here was a style of music so simple and yet so complex at the same time that I knew I wanted to devout my musical energy to playing and learning as much as I could in my lifetime.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst? 

The first time Muddy Waters invited me up to play with him and the Muddy Waters Band was the best. The worst deals with how hard it is to be a professional musician on a daily basis. You have to practice. Get gigs; get to gigs, recordings, and none of that guarantees success.

What do you miss most nowadays from the Blues of past? 

I think volume and the use of more electronic instruments takes away from the real feel of the blues. When I first started to see blues performers in the 1960’s such as Muddy Waters, my friend Pinetop Perkins would use a real (acoustic) piano. I know when I play with Sugar Ray and the Bluetones that we are a different sounding band when I play an acoustic piano as compared to an electric piano.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music? 

Once again I will bring electronics into the conversation. These days you can make a pretty good recording in your house as opposed to going into a real recording studio. But that takes away from the real great sound you get from a good studio-it dilutes the sound and takes away from the art of recordings of the past. I still listen to 78-rpm records and you can hear every instrument clear as a bell. I also think Blues music for better or worse have a lot of different sub genres. You have everyone from Joe Bonnamassa playing blues/rock, to the acoustic (and sometimes electric) sound of John Hammond Jr.

Are there any memories from recording times, which you’d like to share with us?

When I was recording Super Harps II (Telarc Records) with Snooky Pryor (who turned 80 the day of our session) he came into the studio in a suit and sat down very majestically. And I could sense he was thinking “what these young white guys doing here” but after the first take of “Keyhole In My Door” he had the biggest genuine smile I have ever seen and the rest of the recording went great.

Tell me a few things about your meet with Sugar Ray and Ronnie Earl, which memory from makes you smile? 

After opening up for the Muddy Waters band for a whole week in Boston around 1974, I got to meet everyone in the Blues scene there. I stared playing with Jerry Portnoy, and Bob Margolin when they weren’t on the road with Muddy. Mudcat Ward heard me and he and Ronnie Earl were thinking of starting a band. They got a hold of me and we started to do gigs around Boston and Providence, Rhode Island with drummer Neil Gouvin and a different singer/harmonica player. Neil brought Sugar Ray to one of our first gigs-he sat in-the other guy was out-and the rest is history!

"No secrets or magic wands. You just have to practice, do a great deal of listening and hopefully find people you really enjoy making music with as I have with Sugar Ray & The Bluetones." (Photo)

You have played with many bluesmen, which are mentioned to be a legend. It must be hard, but which meets have been the biggest experiences for you?

Every one of these artists is unique. Playing with Otis Rush is very different then playing with Chuck Berry. You have to be prepared and confident you can do the job.

If you could change one thing in the music circuits, what would that be? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

One think I would change is the amount a jams that seem to be popping up everywhere. While I think they serve a purpose there are just too many and they’re starting to take work away from legitimate bands that want to play. A club owner can have a jam and only have to pay a few musicians.

Are there any memories from Otis Rush, Chuck Berry, and B.B. King which you’d like to share with us?

They’re all great musicians and I’m honored to have been able to play with them. Otis Rush is a very serious guy! But once we took him to Sugar Ray Norcia’s house and he went fishing there. We had our first recording that just came out-a 45rpm with 4 songs on it and he really dug it, he made Sugar play it over and over again! Chuck Berry was great to play with-though a little hard to follow. Of course everyone know’s him from “Johnny B. Goode” but his music goes much deeper. T-Bone Walker Style and slow blues.  He found out from the promoter that we liked to play blues (Bassist Mudcat Ward and drummer Neil Gouvin from the Bluetones) and he went into a very deep blues for about 5 minutes then I think he realized what he was doing stopped it and said “blues make me sad” and went into one of his signature fast guitar intro’s.

What has made you laugh from Jimmy Rodgers and Hubert Sumlin? What touched (emotionally) you from Memphis Slim?

I’ve been very fortunate to have played and recorded with some of the great older statesmen of Blues Music, most are long gone. The Jimmy Rodgers record Chicago Blound was one of the recordings that literally blew my mind when I heard it when I was around 16 years old…and if you would have told me a few after that, that I would be touring with him and being his “roomate” I would never have believed it. Hubert was a very kind man, and he was with us on the road for about 6 months with the original Sugar Ray and the Bluetones. J. B. Hutto was another great Chicago musician that stayed with us for many months back ion the late 1970’s. Memphis Slim was literally larger then life. The Bluetones backed him up for a few shows in the Boston area. We did a few tunes before we called him up, and as I was getting up from the piano he put his huge hands on my shoulders and said “you play, I’ll sing” that was an evening I’ll never forget…but I gave him the piano chair after one song!

"I think Blues has a very bright future. Many of our heroes have recently passed to that big Blues Band in the Sky, but there are many of us holding onto and sharing a very rich tradition of music that I hope all people will enjoy." (Photo: Little Anthony & The Locomotives, late 1990's)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from the southern juke joints to Bostonian bar/clubs?

The connection is that musicians want to play! Some of the places we played in the Boston area are what you would really call a “juke joint.” We were the house band at the Speakeasy in Cambridge, MA and the original Met Café in Providence, RI when Ronnie Earl was still our guitar player. Both places were really funky but had some of the best music you ever heard come from those stages-if you want to them stages!

Do you know why the sound of piano is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of blues piano? 

No secrets or magic wands. You just have to practice, do a great deal of listening and hopefully find people you really enjoy making music with as I have with Sugar Ray and the Bluetones. We’ve been playing together for almost 40 years.

What the difference and similarity between the BLUES, JAZZ, and ROCK feeling? 

There are to many similarities and differences to really list-I could write a book about them!

What experiences in life make a GOOD BLUESMAN/ JAZZMAN?

Obviously the new generation of Blues Musicians didn’t grow up on a plantation, or pick cotton. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t had our own experiences that add to our own personal Blues stories.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? 

One of the best jams I was involved in was after playing the Montreux Jazz Festival with BB King, Jeff Healey and Ronnie Earl, Jeff Healey and I went to about a half dozen different jam sessions and had a blast. Jeff was a great guy and unbelievable musician. Every gig is memorable.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry and circuits?

Always be kind. As I said, respect is essential to me…Practice a lot and find musicians that share your musical values, learn the history of the music you love…and most importantly-Have fun!

"I think musicians are very sensitive and in tune to what is going on in the world. It’s reflected in our songwriting, and how we handle ourselves as “public” figures. I try and subtly let my world views be known-I believe that we should all have compassion for our fellow human beings no matter our differences. I’ve traveled to many parts of our beautiful world."

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Practice a lot, and not only learn your instrument great-learn the history of the music as well.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Play with soul.

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? Happiness is…

I love to garden and cook-I grow some pretty mean hot peppers! Happiness is being able to make great music with the Bluetones, and then coming home to my family and be “normal.”

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES. 

As I said in the beginning-blues is honest music and people the world over desire honesty in their lives and the music they listen to. My wish is that people not only enjoy the new talented blues musicians, but also go back and check out the roots of this great music.

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and what compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?

I always love talking and hanging out with people after a gig. I’ve been invited back to people’s houses for food and drink, which I feel is the best compliment I can receive.

What has made you laugh from Big Mama Thorton? What touched (emotionally) you from Big Walter Horton?

I once did a gig with Big Mama Thorton and she threw the entire band off stage except for me. This was early in my career so I was a bit scared! She sat behind the drums, played them, had only one harmonica-I think in the key of B so I had to play the entire set in F#...not the best piano key. But as they say the show went on! She was happy, the audience was a happy and I was still scared! Big Walter was a great guy. The Bluetones played with him many times over the years and did two records with him. He was big but very gentle and Man what a tone! That’s what gets you about Walter-his tone.  So strong and sweet at the same time, it could make you cry.

"Music is a universal language for peace and hope-everywhere I travel there are great Blues musicians, and people who really dig the music. But its up to people worldwide to support live music, no matter what kind of music." (Photo: Anthony Geraci with Hubert Sumlin)

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

I have never felt any prejudice from any of the great musicians I have worked with. Either you can play or you can’t. If you can you already have a common connection with these musicians. I always worked hard when I knew I had work coming up with someone like Otis Rush. I had most of his recordings and played along with them for hours. Samething with Chuck Berry, Jimmy Rodgers, Bo Diddley and many more.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I’d like to hang out with Leonardo Da Vinci! He was a great musician as well as his other incredible talents. He would often have “jam” sessions near his studio and he helped perfect a few different instruments in his time as well as having blueprints for violin family instruments. I don’t think the dinner conversation would be dull…and I’m sure he knew a few great places for food and drink!

You have been traveling all around the world in Europe, Oceania, South America, Lebanon, and US. What are your conclusions about the local blues scenes and Blues world? 

I think Blues has a very bright future. Many of our heroes have recently passed to that big Blues Band in the Sky, but there are many of us holding onto and sharing a very rich tradition of music that I hope all people will enjoy. Music is a universal language for peace and hope-everywhere I travel there are great Blues musicians, and people who really dig the music. But its up to people worldwide to support live music, no matter what kind of music. If people don’t show up we have no gig. Go see your local artists, appreciate their hard work and if I come to your town please say hello!

Anthony Geraci - Official website

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