Q&A with harmonica wailer Rob Stone, blues with love and respect for the tradition at the heart of the music

"Because it (Blues) connects with people on an emotional level and gives expression to pain and joys that we all feel in our lives. I wish for blues music to stay alive without ever losing its own roots."

Rob Stone: Nothing But The Blues

Long renowned as a blues harmonica wailer and forceful vocalist, Rob Stone combines tough Chicago blues tradition with a swinging West Coast rhythmic drive. Stone cut his musical teeth in the gritty clubs of Chicago’s north, south and west sides, learning from certified blues masters. He landed an endorsement from Seydel harmonicas (also been endorsed by Hohner). Stone began his harmonica-blowing odyssey at age 18. He slipped into a blues joint in his native Boston to check out harp legend Charlie Musselwhite and was instantly transfixed. Rob bought his first harp the next day and immediately began emulating classic recordings. In 1993, Sam Lay rolled into town with his own combo and hired Stone. Touring with Lay’s band introduced Stone to blues fans worldwide and allowed him to refine his approach to the harmonica and music in general. Soon, Rob stepped up to form his own band, the C-Notes, with veteran players Chris James, Patrick Rynn and Willie “The Touch” Hayes. In 2003, Rob and the C-Notes signed with Earwig Music to release Just My Luck, which was nominated for a Chicago Music Award. In 2010, Stone returned with Back Around Here, again for Earwig with Sam Lay, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Aaron Moore, David Maxwell.                         (Rob Stone / Photo © by Paul Natkin)

Since then, Rob has also been featured in the documentary Sam Lay in Bluesland, as well as Six Generations of the Blues from Mississippi to Chicago alongside Honeyboy Edwards, John Primer, Aron Burton and Big Jack Johnson. Gotta Keep Rollin’, 2014 release on VizzTone, featured appearances by Eddie Shaw, Henry Gray, and John Primer. Since relocating to Los Angeles a few years ago, Rob’s been a busy man. He recorded and performed regularly with the late Big Jay McNeely and continues to work with piano legend Barry Goldberg. He’s gigged with Arthur Adams, Benny Turner, Jimmy Vivino, and Robert Randolph. Rob was featured as a vocalist and harmonica player in the Electric Flag Reunion Band with Goldberg, Harvey Mandel, and Nick Gravenites. And he’s branched out, performing alongside rock royalty including Nancy Wilson, Billy Gibbons, and Slash. Rob Stone recorded his first all acoustic album with pianist Elena Kato and bassist Hiroshi Eguchi, tagging the record with the title, Trio In Tokyo (Release Date: May 21, 2021), as a reflection of the project’s intimacy with an international flair and universal appeal. The unplugged sound is a departure from his five previous albums with The C-Notes and other big electric collaborations including those with Joe Bonamassa, Benny Turner, and Bob Margolin. The ten tracks are a throwback to the 1930’s and 40’s sound of vocal stylists like Big Joe Turner, Nat King Cole, and Fats Waller, who blended comedy and innovation in their music and laid the groundwork for modern jazz and blues. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Above all else, Blues music is about people––and the people I have come to know through music have influenced deeply. Music has given me an opportunity to travel around the world, to meet wonderful people everywhere I go, and experience cultures very different than mine. This has been an incredible gift. In all of my journeys, I have formed great friendships and learned that no matter where we come from, people are more similar than different. I always appreciate the opportunity to connect with people and learn from them––and I am grateful that I get to do it because of music.

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started and what has remained the same?

Since I began playing professionally about 30 years ago, I have changed a lot – mostly in terms of my approach to playing and performing. I still love blues music and most of my influences have remained. But, rather than emulate the style of my heroes, I continually try to find my own voice, while still being true to the lessons I have learned from my musical mentors. I never stop learning.

"I suppose, like anything, the music has changed over the years based on all sorts of things. Certainly it has been influenced by rock and roll music—which is funny because rock was originally influenced by blues. I guess I miss the opportunity to go out and see the older guys perform and learn from them. The first generation Delta and Chicago musicians played in unique ways. Their musicianship was top notch and as they have died, so has their way of playing." (Rob Stone / Photo © by Toby Jacobs)

Do you have any stories about the making of album in Japan? What touched you from the local scene?

Every time I go to Japan there are stories! With this particular album, Hiroshi and Elena and I had a lot of fun, but it was a very tight schedule. We recorded everything in two days, in two different cities. Before the recording sessions we had never played any of the songs we recorded except for one rehearsal. We rehearsed in a small studio below a bowling alley, and took a break to go eat a grilled fish called nodoguro—it was amazing! I love meeting and getting to know all the blues musicians, fans, and club owners all over Japan. 

Are there any specific memorable moments with people that you’ve performed with either live or in the studio?

Every time I perform or record, there are countless special memories and moments. I will always remember playing with Dave Myers, Willie Smith, Big Jay McNeely, Pinetop Perkins, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Aaron Moore, Henry Gray, and so many others who are no longer living. I think about those special opportunities a lot and I am very thankful that they took the time to teach me things––and that I was able to learn so much about music and life from these great people.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of the Blues? What would you like to change in the musical world?

I hope blues will never evolve so much that it completely loses the direct connection to traditional styles. I worry sometimes that music is changing from something that must be experienced live into something that can be manipulated online. I worry that it has become so challenging to earn a living playing live music. If I could change anything, it would be that people once again feel that paying for music (both live and recorded) is worth their hard-earned money. 

"The harmonica really allows for a lot of expression because it has a very vocal-like quality to it. This, I think, creates an emotional response for listeners. There really aren’t any secrets––many people think there is a secret amplifier or harmonica or microphone. But the only secret is to practice a lot and listen to lots of players!" (Rob Stone / Photo © by Toby Jacobs)

How do you describe Rob Stone sound and progress, what characterize C-Notes music philosophy?

We play blues––it is that simple. I most enjoy the music and musicianship of the great Chicago bluesmen and women of the 1940s and 50s. So, our music tends to reflect this style. However, I also love blues from earlier and later periods and from other regions of the country––as well as soul and R&B. So, all of these styles are influential to some degree.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I don’t know that I can pick out best or worst moments. Some of the best moments happen when we are writing songs and come up with something that we really love. I also find the best moments on stage when the band is completely locked in together and our ensemble playing is at its strongest. Other great moments have been playing with so many of my blues heroes. I suppose the worst moments have been watching so many of these heroes get sick and die.

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

My favorite thing about blues music is that it is really all about finding the good in life even when life isn’t so good. “Looking up from down,” someone once said. So I suppose blues music has taught me to look beyond the bad days and difficult times in life in a hopeful, optimistic way.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

I don’t know that I am a good bluesman or songwriter. But all of my experiences have an impact on my playing, singing and songwriting. Everyone has challenges, regrets and hard moments in their lives––I think that is what makes blues music so relatable to so many people.                                   (Rob Stone / Photo by Swikar Patel)

"Music is a shared language and should always be used to bring people together.  I simply want people to feel good when they hear my music. I hope it helps them in some way at the end of a hard day." 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever given you?

I don’t know that there are many secrets to blues. The biggest secret is really no secret at all: be yourself and play music that feels true and honest o you.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? 

It has all been interesting. Having a chance to know and record with Dave Myers was incredibly interesting and valuable to me. Playing in other countries like Spain and Japan has been incredibly interesting—both in terms of learning about other cultures and meeting new people.

What do you miss nowadays from the “OLD CHICAGO BLUES”? How has the Blues changed over the years?

I suppose, like anything, the music has changed over the years based on all sorts of things. Certainly it has been influenced by rock and roll music—which is funny because rock was originally influenced by blues. I guess I miss the opportunity to go out and see the older guys perform and learn from them. The first generation Delta and Chicago musicians played in unique ways. Their musicianship was top notch and as they have died, so has their way of playing.

What would you say characterizes Chicago blues scene in comparison to other local US circuits?

First of all, there are tons of blues clubs that feature blues music exclusively.  Most other scenes only have one or two clubs that are completely dedicated to blues. Usually they showcase multiple genres of music––and may have a night or two dedicated to blues. In Chicago, the musicians all know one another, and everyone goes out to the clubs to see each other perform and sit in. When I was starting out with my own band, I always found it amazing that musicians like Eddie Shaw, Dave Myers, Koko Taylor, Sam Lay, and others came out to show their support. It is a scene filled with national acts and. Even today, you can go out to clubs and see great world-renowned players like Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, Willie Hayes, Kenny Smith, Lurrie Bell, Lil’ Ed, and too many others to list just hanging out, playing, and sitting in with each other. When someone passes away or needs help with hospital bills, the community comes together to help. The Chicago Blues scene is a very special community unlike any other.

"I will always remember playing with Dave Myers, Willie Smith, Big Jay McNeely, Pinetop Perkins, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Aaron Moore, Henry Gray, and so many others who are no longer living. I think about those special opportunities a lot and I am very thankful that they took the time to teach me things––and that I was able to learn so much about music and life from these great people." (Photo: Rob Stone & the C-Notes with Aaron Moore and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith)

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

Too many to list. But the most important one is: Honor and respect those who came before you, but be true to yourself.

What is the impact of Blues on the sociocultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

Music is a shared language and should always be used to bring people together.  I simply want people to feel good when they hear my music. I hope it helps them in some way at the end of a hard day.

What are some of the most memorable jams you've had? Which meetings have been the most important experiences?

I feel lucky to have been around all of these great musicians and so many others and they have all taught me a lot of important things about life and music. I think what I find most memorable about all of them is their perseverance. They never stopped playing music no matter how hard it was to make a living. I also think that music kept them all young at heart. 

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the Blues? What are the secrets of blues harp?

The harmonica really allows for a lot of expression because it has a very vocal-like quality to it. This, I think, creates an emotional response for listeners. There really aren’t any secrets––many people think there is a secret amplifier or harmonica or microphone. But the only secret is to practice a lot and listen to lots of players!

"Above all else, Blues music is about people––and the people I have come to know through music have influenced deeply. Music has given me an opportunity to travel around the world, to meet wonderful people everywhere I go, and experience cultures very different than mine. This has been an incredible gift." (Rob Stone, Japan / Photo by Fujiyama)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Little Walter, Sonny Boys with Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite?

All of these guys brought (or bring in the case of Charlie) their own voice to blues music. Charlie has been growing strong for about 50 years!  John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson popularized harmonica playing, wrote great songs and influenced countless players like Little Walter who did things with the instrument that nobody has ever been able to surpass. Rice Miller (Sonny Boy II) had a unique and powerful style that still influences players today, and Paul Butterfield took his take on their music and expanded to audience into white clubs––many of whom had never heard blues before.

Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time with your partners C-Notes?

Too many memories to recall in the studio, on the road, and just hanging out. We are like brothers––we respect each other and look out for each other and love working together. Over the years we have experienced countless funny moments. I remember getting lost backstage once right before we were supposed to go on stage in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin!

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

Because it connects with people on an emotional level and gives expression to pain and joys that we all feel in our lives. I wish for blues music to stay alive without ever losing its own roots.

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 go to Chicago in the early 1950s and see Little Walter perform with the Aces––Louis Myers, Dave Myers and Fred Below!

Rob Stone - Official website

Rob Stone / Photo © by Toby Jacobs

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