Interview with blues rocker Tony Sarno, an artist whose heart, soul, and passion is apparent in his music

"The emotion and energy is what connects these musical styles. The best Blues, Soul, and Southern Rock all have these elements in abundance."

Tony Sarno: It's A Blues Thing

Tony Sarno is an American singer, songwriter and guitarist who has recorded numerous critically-acclaimed Rock and Blues albums. Tony has toured the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, Argentina, and Mexico with his band or as guitarist with David Clayton Thomas' Blood Sweat and Tears, Dee Archer and Peter Tork. He has dozens of published songs and pieces written for TV and other broadcasts. Tony produced international releases Thunderhawks, Tony Sarno, Silent night and co-produced Dee Archer's Sooner or later and Tony Sarno & the screamin' blue demons "It's a blues thing". He formed The Atlanta Underground with Wet Willie bass-player Jack Hall and Georgia Satellite Randy Delay. 

"The usual theme of relationships, good and bad, is at the center of most of my songs, but they are not always human relationships."                                (Photo by Nancy Lee Andrews)

He produces background music for CBS Sports and music for Big Fish Audio. He has shared numerous concert bills with B.B. King, as well as bills with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hall & Oates, Johnny Winter, and Little Feat. Tony has recorded for CBS/Holland, Icehouse/Priority, Marconi, and Bandwidth Records. His music appeared in The Craig Brewer film Poor & Hungry, and on the Masters of Blues cd compilation with Albert King, Buddy Guy, and the Allman Brothers Band.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What have you learned about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

I have learned that music soothes my soul. The blues resonates with me as much today as it ever did, which I am very grateful for.

How do you describe Tony Sarno's sound and progress, what characterizes your music philosophy?

My sound is intense at times, but it can also peaceful. From a whisper to a roar, my music is the result of my experiences, joys, and sorrows in my life. My philosophy of music is very simple; I just want to fully express myself through my instrument, and bring joy and comfort to the audience, as my favorite music does for me. 

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

The usual theme of relationships, good and bad, is at the center of most of my songs, but they are not always human relationships. The "dog theme" tends to rear its head in most of my work.

"Meeting both B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan showed me, that no matter how big you are, that we are all just people, and that we're all in it together."

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

All of the periods are interesting; you'll have to wait for the book!

I can't narrow them down to one, so here are the three best moments:

1) Writing and performing with the Dee Archer Band, when we had a development deal with the newly formed Geffen Records. Being courted by major producers and playing big shows in New York City.

2) Recording and performing with the CBS Holland Recording band "Hollander". I got to record in an amazing studio with "Golden Earring" bassist Rinus Gerittsen producing, hear myself sing on the radio for the first time, and tour the beautiful Dutch countryside.

3) Getting signed to Icehouse Records and recording my first album in Memphis. The energy we captured in the studio was amazing, and I attribute that to the vibe of the great city, the musicians/engineers/producers, and the realization of a dream, after over 15 years of work in music.

And the three worst:

1) Having David Geffen pass on the Dee Archer Band.

2) Getting dropped by CBS Records Holland Records.

3) Opening up for the Stray Cats in Buffalo New York. Their crew trashed our dressing room, ate all of our food, and sabotaged our sound, so that the PA fed back throughout our whole set. We were also spat at and booed (which I later found out was a sign that the "Punk crowd" liked you!). A girl in the front row wrote on her Arm "What do you f***ing guys do for a living. We did get introduced to Buffalo Chicken wings, which I love. After the concert, some people in a bar recognized us, and said that they liked us, and not to think poorly of Buffalo audiences, that it was only a few bad actors in the front of the stage. After playing in Buffalo since then, and spending some time there, I must say that the people of Buffalo are the nicest people I have ever met, and great audiences.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

It moves people emotionally and physically. It makes us want to celebrate and dance. It is monumental in its simplicity, and I think that resonates with many people.

"My philosophy of music is very simple; I just want to fully express myself through my instrument, and bring joy and comfort to the audience, as my favorite music does for me."

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

There was a guitar World magazine Christmas party a few years back, where I remember jamming on Neil Young's "Down by the river". I was using a borrowed guitar and amp that both sounded amazing, and the rhythm section was really great. I can't remember the fancy and famous guitarists who were there and left, along with most of the crowd, but we flat-out smoked. It brings to mind the question "If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody witnesses it, does it make a sound". Well, we definitely made a sound that night, and the people that heard it seemed to thoroughly enjoy it.

All of the gigs with B.B. King were great. B.B. is one of the most gracious and generous people I have ever met. He always introduced me when he introduced his band, and I was only the opening act. 

Stevie Ray Vaughan came into our dressing room after our set before his, and was one of the nicest guys ever. An amazing and genuine player, who is sorely missed.

What is the best advice ever given you?

The best advice I ever got was from a bartender, and it wasn't all that long ago. She said "You need to play bigger stages". I wish that somebody had said that 20 years earlier. As musicians, we tend to focus on the music so much that we often don't realize that the presentation (stage, sound, Lights, Venue) is just as important, if not more. Also, you MUST have an entertaining show if you want people to come and see you. Just playing guitar is only entertaining to a select few.

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

From my very first time in a recording studio, at age 16 in New Haven Connecticut, I have the fondest memories, as I've always felt at home in the studio. Recording my first Album in Memphis brings back some great memories; the hot wind from a bus, blowing in through the crack in the door while we were recording basic tracks. Keith and his German friend Mirjana, returning from Graceland with their Elvis glasses on. All seven days of recording and mixing in Memphis were epic.  

"I have learned that music soothes my soul. The blues resonates with me as much today as it ever did, which I am very grateful for." (Photo: Chris Nable, Tony, and Keith Christopher in Australia)

What do you miss most nowadays from the past music? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

I miss real class acts like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and Ray Charles. These were true musicians who worked hard at their craft, and who generously shared their talent and passion for music with their audiences.  B.B. King continues the tradition to this day, and he is a national treasure.

I hope that the whole "televised talent contest mentality" fades away.  These shows are more about being a "Star" than about being a musician. Young people need to strive for excellence on their instrument, play and write good music, and understand that it's the journey that will bring them personal satisfaction, not being rich and famous at 16.    

 

Which memories from B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, and Little Feat makes you smile?

The memories of sharing the stage with all of those great artists makes me smile. The one that makes me laugh was at The Ritz in New York City, when we asked Little Feat's Stage manager if we could use their bass rig for our opening set. Without blinking he said "No". We played a great set before Little Feat, and during the first song in their show, their bass amp blew up. One of their crew came running up to our dressing room to ask if they could borrow our bass amp, and without blinking we said..."Yes".

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Southern Rock and beyond?

The emotion and energy is what connects these musical styles. The best Blues, Soul, and Southern Rock all have these elements in abundance.  Whether it's a scratchy old recording of Robert Johnson's voice and guitar, or the epic Willie Mitchell productions of Al Green, with horns and strings, or the double drumming, twin guitar, and organ attack of the Allman Brothers; the passion is just undeniable.

(Photo: Tony with with his own roots/rock band All American)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? 

Meeting both B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan showed me, that no matter how big you are, that we are all just people, and that we're all in it together.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits? 

It has been a long time, but our old Keyboardist Conrad Andriani (R.I.P.) made me laugh on many occasions, but there are two which stand out; In a print ad for a club called Great Gildersleeves in New York City, our band All American was listed in small print under the headliner "TBA" (meaning "To be announced"). Conrad said "I guess that means we're second to none!" Then we were playing at a club called "Cartune Alley", also in New York City, where they had a very different monitor setup; the monitors were hung from the ceiling, and had a rope that would tilt them back, so that the band could hear them. For those not familiar with live music sound systems, the speakers on the floor, facing the performers, are called "monitors" and sometimes "foldback". Well, since the monitor speakers on the ceiling seemed to "fold back" Conrad said, "I guess that's what they mean by "Foldback".

We have a great blues and soul radio station here in Nashville called 1470 AM- The Mighty 147, and I had a big laugh the other day. I don't even know the song title or who was singing it, but it ends with him looking around for his dog and realizing that the dog had left too, just like his girl. I wrote a similar song called "Lady and my dog", and I don't know which came first.

As for touching me emotionally, the choir with organ accompaniment at the Cathedral here in Nashville touched me very much a few days ago. 

Do you think that your music is as it started out with "It's a blues thing"? Or are you pointing in a new direction?

"It's a blues thing" was raw energy with a stripped-down production. My second album had a lot more instrumentation and background vocals. The Thunderhawks was kind of a combination of the two. The music I'm currently working on here in Nashville with Producer Jason Hall, will get back to the stripped-down energy of "It's a blues thing", but with a little more element of funk. I want to make people dance.

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

Instead of a whole day, I'd like to go back to Hanover New Hampshire, on three different Saturday nights. Three concerts that had a profound effect on me; Ray Charles, Sly and the family and the family Stone, and B.B. King with special guest Muddy Waters. My wish for all of my musical performances is that I bring to my audiences, something close to those wonderful experiences.

Tony Sarno - official website

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