"Blues is human emotion conveyed through a simple form of music. Everybody can relate to that."
Sugar Ray Norcia: New England's Tones
Sugar Ray Norcia is a soul blues singer and harmonica player. He is best known for his work with his backing band, The Bluetones, with whom he has released seven albums since 1980. Norcia started to play his harmonica based blues at high school. Once Norcia had relocated to Providence, Rhode Island, he formed the Bluetones which secured a residence as the house band at a local nightclub. They backed touring acts, such as Big Walter Horton, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner and Roosevelt Sykes in nearby clubs. During the latter part of the 1970s, the band backed Ronnie Earl before he departed to join Roomful of Blues. Norcia's solo recordings included the EPs Sugar Ray and the Bluetones (1979); Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters featuring the Sensational Sugar Ray (1982), plus a couple of releases on Rounder Records, Knockout (1989) and Don't Stand In My Way (1991). Don't Stand In My Way was the first release by the Bullseye Blues label. The Bluetones also backed Miki Honeycutt on her initial album, Soul Deep. In 1991 Norcia himself joined Roomful of Blues as their lead vocalist. They issued three albums with Norcia and undertook extensive touring duties. Norcia also undertook work away from the group. He appeared on a Bullseye Blues album from trombonist Porky Cohen, Rhythm and Bones, (1996) and on the LP Little Anthony and Sugar Ray: Take It From Me, (1994). Also in 1994 Norcia appeared on Otis Grand's Nothing Else Matters album.
Sugar Ray & The Bluetones with Charlie Baty / Photo by Tom Hazeltine
In 1998 Norcia exited from Roomful of Blues, and issued Sweet & Swingin', which featured songs written by Hank Williams, Arthur Alexander and Big Walter Horton; plus a guest appearance from The Jordanaires. In 1999 Norcia participated with James Cotton, Billy Branch and Charlie Musselwhite, on the Grammy Award nominated album, Superharps. More recently, Norcia contributed his harmonica playing on records by Pinetop Perkins and Doug James, in addition to touring along with the 'Sugar Ray Norcia Big Band'. The Bluetones released on Severn Records their albums “Evening” (2011), "Living Tear To Tear" (2014), and “Seeing Is Believing” (2016). Sugar Ray Norcia was inducted into Rhode Island’s Music Hall of Fame. Sugar Ray and the Bluetones Featuring Little Charlie will be releasing a new CD on Severn Records called “Too Far From The Bar” (Release date September 18th, 2020). Produced by Duke Robillard, who also adds his tasty guitar licks to four tracks on the new disc, Too Far from the Bar was recorded at Severn Sound Studio in Annapolis, Maryland, and boasts a value-packed 15 tracks, including a number of original songs penned by the band’s members, showcasing their songwriting abilities as one of the group’s many strengths. The core band for the recording sessions was comprised of Sugar Ray Norcia - vocals and harmonica; Charlie Baty – guitar; Anthony Geraci – piano; Michael Mudcat Ward – acoustic bass; and Neil Gouvin – drums. The album marks one of the last recordings from beloved/acclaimed guitarist Charlie Baty, who passed away unexpectedly in March 2020.
How do you describe Sugar Ray Norcia sound and progress? What characterize your music philosophy?
I am more of a crooner than a blues shouter. I like melodies and songs that might tell a story. Above all, I have fun writing, and playing music!
What do you learn about yourself from the blues? What does the blues mean to you?
In life I sometimes keep feelings to myself, BUT when I write and perform I find it is easier to express myself.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?
You just have to deal with what life throws at you. Sometimes things are good and other times not so good.
How has the Blues and Swing/Jump music inﬂuenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
It’s nice to always be reminded that there are people in every corner of the world who love and appreciate the same kind of music that I have dedicated my life to. I travel to many diﬀerent parts of the globe and I always ﬁnd that people are simply just people and music is the universal language.
"It’s very rare for a traditional blues band (or any band for that matter) to have been together for so many decades. We are all like brothers who mainly stick together no matter what, through thick and thin and through good times and bad times. We have always stuck to our conviction of playing unadulterated music in its true form and we don’t compromise. A lot of fans and especially some of our musical peers appreciate that fact." (Sugar Ray Norcia, Charlie Baty, Anthony Geraci, Duke Robillard, Michael Mudcat Ward, and Neil Gouvin / Photo by Tom Hazeltine)
How do you describe Too Far from the Bar sound and songbook? What do you loved most from Little Charlie Baty?
My new album “Too Far From The Bar” represents a culmination of many of the various forms of blues and jazz that I’ve always loved. Charlie Baty loved the very same kinds of roots music that I love. This includes Jump Blues, Chicago Blues, Kansas City Blues, West Coast and East Coast Blues, low down blues and also swing, jazz, Western Swing, traditional country music and more! You can hear a lot of that on this new CD.
What touched you from: “Bluebird Blues”, "Can’t Hold Out”, "My Next Door Neighbor", and ”What Will Become of Me”?
I lean towards slow, meaningful blues. That’s why it’s so natural for me to cover tunes like “Bluebird Blues” and “Can’t Hold Out”. My band and I have always gotten a kick out of Jerry McCain’s song “My Next-Door Neighbor” so it was time that we recorded our version of it. I really, really got a chance to sing directly from my heart on Otis Spann’s “What Will Become Of Me”. It just may be my favorite moments from this recording session.
Why do you think that Sugar Ray and the Bluetones continues to generate such a devoted following, since 1980?
It’s very rare for a traditional blues band (or any band for that matter) to have been together for so many decades. We are all like brothers who mainly stick together no matter what, through thick and thin and through good times and bad times. We have always stuck to our conviction of playing unadulterated music in its true form and we don’t compromise. A lot of fans and especially some of our musical peers appreciate that fact.
Are there any memories from Joe Turner, Roomful of Blues and Rooselvelt Sykes which you’d like to share with us?
There are so many great memories of performing and hanging out with Joe Turner, Big Walter Horton, Roomful of Blues and countless others. One that sticks out in my mind is playing with Roosevelt Sykes back in the late 1970’s when Ronnie Earl was in The Bluetones. Mr. Sykes asked us where he could ﬁnd our recordings and we told him that we had never made a record. He suggested that we get busy and get into a recording studio because he thought we sounded so good! That was the catalyst and inspiration for us to begin our recording career. Not long amer those words of advise we went in the studio and recorded our ﬁrst record. It was an EP (extended play 45 RPM) on The Baron Record Label that included the Johnny Guitar Watson song “Oh Baby” and my very ﬁrst published original song called “Bite The Dust”.
"It’s nice to always be reminded that there are people in every corner of the world who love and appreciate the same kind of music that I have dedicated my life to. I travel to many diﬀerent parts of the globe and I always ﬁnd that people are simply just people and music is the universal language." (Sugar Ray Norcia / Photo by Michael Sparks Keagan)
Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?
Blues is human emotion conveyed through a simple form of music. Everybody can relate to that.
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I have to admit that I’m a bit closed minded when it comes to my preferences concerning todays blues music. I like simple music with emotion. The blues music of today sometimes incorporates too much funk and rock for my personal tastes. I basically tend to get the greatest pleasure listening to my old records of blues, jazz and country.
Which memory from the late great bluesman Big Walter Horton makes you smile?
We once played a gig during the day for a junior high school with Big Walter Horton. My son was with me. He was only about 4 years old at the time. Walter sat my son on his lap and said to me...”I’ll take care of the boy, now you go get me a half pint.”
What are the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths and circuits? What is the impact of Blues on the racial and socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to aﬀect people?
Blues is the music of the African American culture but I have always felt accepted by my blues heroes like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Big Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin and many more these people were always kind and supportive to me...As long as you represent blues music with a sincere depth of feeling and honesty then there are no racial barriers as far as I’m concerned.
Do you know why the harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?
"For some unknown reason New England has been a breeding ground for great blues and jazz players." (Sugar Ray Norcia / Photo by Yves Bougardier)
Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?
In the 1990’s I spent 7 years as front man for Roomful of Blues…. A horn driven jump blues Band. We played about 250 dates a year, all one nighters! At the time is sometimes a very grueling schedule but looking back on those days I realize it was a fantastic experience.
What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
Sitting in with Muddy Waters was really great. After the show we were all in the dressing room and Muddy said to me” now son that’s how the harmonica is supposed to be played! “I was thrilled.
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?
Early in my career we backed up a lot of great bluesmen like Big Walter, Joe Turner, Otis Rush and many others. Rooselvelt Sykes was the first to really encourage us to make recordings.
From the musical point of view what are the differences between: New England from the other local scenes?
For some unknown reason New England has been a breeding ground for great blues and jazz players. I could list dozens of musicians from this area who have made a mark in the jazz and blues world.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
I might like to be sitting in with a swinging band in some juke joint in say Kansas City in the 1940’s or 50’s . Then again, it would be cool to be sitting at a front table somewhere in Chicago watching Little Walter play his hits and he’s on fire!
(Sugar Ray & The Blutones / Photo by Michael Sparks Keagan)
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