"I think Blues is the root of all American music. It is the foundation of much of popular music. The beauty of it is that it is the product of the mixing of races (African –American, and European) and their music that could only happen in the USA."
Mitch Woods: 88 Flames On His Hand
Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88s have been the torchbearers of a great American blues musical heritage, not for two years but two decades. Taking their inspiration from the great jump n' boogie outfits of the late 40s and early 50s, they breathe fresh life into the music that gave birth to rock n' roll. Woods styled his group after the jumpin' n' jivin', shoutin' n' honkin', pumpin' n' poundin' bands of Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Joe and Jimmy Liggins, Amos Milburn, and Roy Milton. Adding a healthy dose of New Orleans rhythm and blues, piledrivin' piano, and some of his own contemporary playful lyrics, Woods and His Rocket 88s forge their own brand of music they call "rock-a-boogie." Woods got his start playing clubs near the Buffalo campus, NY. He moved to San Francisco in 1971.
Originally a student of jazz and classical music, on relocation to the West cost, Woods started playing jump and rhythm & blues. Upon hearing Louis Jordan's jive, Woods played throughout the 1970s as a soloist at local clubs. In 1984, Blind Pig released the debut album of the Rocket 88s, the band he had formed with HiTide Harris four years earlier. Steady Date with Mitch Woods & His Rocket 88s led to a national concert tour, including the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1985, as well as several European engagements. In 1988, they issued their second LP, Mr. Boogie's Back in Town. In 1991, Solid Gold Cadillac, was released, followed by Shakin' the Shack (1993). Woods, capable in four styles of piano playing, Chicago blues, Kansas city boogie-woogie, West Coast jump blues and the poly-rhythmic accents of New Orleans, got the opportunity to play with some of his musical heroes, when he recorded his 1996 Viceroy album, Keeper of the Flame. Their next album, Jump for Joy, appeared in 2001. The 2006 release, Big Easy Boogie featured veteran New Orleans musicians. Followed the releases: Jukebox Drive (2008), Gumbo Blues (2010) and Blues Beyond Borders, Live in Istanbul (2012). Mitch Woods brand new album 'Jammin’ On The High C’s' (2015) perfectly captures the late nights and early mornings on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise hanging out in Club 88. Featuring guests such as Billy Branch, Tommy Castro, Coco Montoya, Popa Chubby, Victor Wainwright, Dwayne Dopsie, Lucky Peterson and more. Let’s go Bluesin’!
What were the reasons that you start the Blues researches? What characterize your songbook and philosophy?
I love boogie woogie piano. When I was in college, people said I reminded them of the old boogie piano players. I went out and got all the records on them I could find (Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, etc.) and played along till I could sound like them.
I love humorous songs as well. So I really learned from Louis Jordan, who was the king of jump and jive in the 40s.
What do you learn about yourself from the blues culture? What are the lines that connect the Blues and life?
I love the blues musicians I have become friend with over the years. They are all dedicated to the music and have given their lives to their careers. I have done the same. Blues expresses the ups and downs of life. That is why it is popular the whole world over (including Greece!!).
When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?
"In a time machine, I would love to go back and jam with Louis Jordan back in the 40s…that would be fun!"
Who were your first idols?
Champion Jack Dupree, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons
Which artists have you worked with?
John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Johnnie Johnson, Earl King, Lee Allen, The Fats Domino band, Dave Bartholomew.
Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best?
They are all great in their own way. That is the great thing about the blues. Each artist brings his own style to the genre.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Best moment- playing New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this past year. Also recording with the Fats Domino band on my CD/DVD Big Easy Boogie.
Worst moment-opening for Chuck Berry, then we were supposed to back him up as his band. He never showed up. We had to play, and it was tough!
Is there any similarity between the blues today and the blues of the fifties and sixties?
I think the best blues was from the 50s and 60s. There are very few of the original creators of it still alive.
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?
Meeting some of the Blues greats has been most important. John Lee Hooker became a friend and I got to record with him. Especially working with the Fats Domino band, that was a highlight so far of my career. Herb Hardesty, saxman for Fats Domino for 60 years (he is now 90) always told me to sound like myself. I have taken influences from many of the great bluesmen and added my own expression.
Are there any memories from Johnnie Otis and Lee Allen, which you’d like to share with us?
Johnny Otis lived nearby in California, so I got to meet him and play on the San Francisco Blues Festival with him. He also had his own Blues Radio show, which I always listened to. He had so much information and history of the Blues to teach.
Lee Allen I only got to know briefly, we met when he was playing with the Blasters, and we opened up the show. I was honored when he played sax on my CD- Keeper of The Flame. But Herb Hardesty (photo) was Fats’ other sax player, and we played together for many years, and he is a dear friend of mine.
What does the term BLUES mean to you? Is “The Blues” a way of life?
An expression that we all feel. Sometimes sad, but playing blues makes you feel better. I like jump blues which is fun and happy. The music is a way of life. It is a great expression that crosses all borders.
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I miss the swing in the music…that was a big part of the sound in the 40s and even 50s. So I always try to emulate that sound and make it current.
I hope that more young people and especially black young people appreciate the Blues. Otherwise it will get lost, and that would be a real shame for the world of music.
What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you jammin’ on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise?
What touched me most on the Blues Cruise was that all the musicians I asked to sit in with me on my new CD- Jammin’ On The High Cs, were happy to play with me. Many did not even want to get paid. They all know that we are a blues family and in this together. That really touched my heart.
What is the impact of Rhythm & Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?
I think Blues is the root of all American music. It is the foundation of much of popular music. The beauty of it is that it is the product of the mixing of races (African –American, and European) and their music that could only happen in the USA. It is a beacon to the world about getting along with each other, and how it can make things even better.
Which of your work would you consider to be the best? What does Blues offered you?
Big Easy Boogie is my opus! A great way to express myself and entertain audiences.
Tell me a few things about the story of Rocking 88.
Rocket 88-some say the first rock n roll song. Recorded by Jackie Breston. Also 88 keys on the piano.
How do you want to be remembered?
As a boogie woogie pianist and vocalist who has kept the culture and music alive.
What was the first gig you ever went to? What was the last record you bought?
The Vagrants - a rock group back in NY, where I grew up. Ruthie Foster, Live at Antones. A great CD and DVD.
How was your recording hour with all your guests at “Keeper of the Flame” album: John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Johnnie Johnson, Lee Allen & Earl King?
One of the best experiences of my life. They all became my friends and are my mentors.
Wish I could have met him!
(PHOTO: Mitch Woods playing piano at Professor Longhair's house, New Orleans)
What would you ask Otis Spann?
Show me some stuff...
What do you think about Johnny Otis?
Love him, we met many times when he lived near here in San Francisco CA.
You have traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions?
Blues is universal. That is why the name of my CD/DVD is Blues Beyond Borders™. We had a great experience in Turkey. Big crowds. Young people were very open to the Blues! So, We are editing our CD/DVD Blues Beyond Borders-Live in Istanbul which we recorded on our tour of Turkey. It's a great one.
Do you remember any funny from the recording time and tour with the Gumbo Blues?
We recorded that CD very fast- 2 days in New Orleans. Was a great experience and it came out great I think.
What is the think you mist most from the Brooklyn’s years?
Brooklyn was a good place to grow up back in the 50s. But I prefer the west coast of California.
Have you recorded your new CD using a more old fashioned sound because you believe that there are no new paths of sound?
I just like the live sound, I think that is the best music.
From the musical point of view is there any difference between the east side blues scene and the west side blues scene?
East Coast focuses more on Chicago blues – harp and guitar. West Coast is more Jump Blues- it swings more.
Three words to describe your sound your progress ...New Orleans or New York?
Boogie, fun, music!! I love New Orleans. Just got back actually.
From the musical point of view is there any similarity between Rocket 88s, Red Hot Mama, Gumbo Blues and Big Easy Boogie?
They all grew out of each other.
What music would you have played at your home alone? Do you have a favorite blues song?
Whatever I feel at the moment. Favorite blues song - My song "Crying For my Baby"
Do you believe MUSIC takes subject from LIFE? Happiness is …
Good music does! Happiness is...playing music live to a great audience…like at the Half Note in Athens!
Is there anyone on the contemporary blues scene that you like?
Lots - Duke Robillard, Dr. John, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, Ruthie Foster...
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
In a time machine, I would love to go back and jam with Louis Jordan back in the 40s…..that would be fun!
"I love boogie woogie piano. When I was in college, people said I reminded them of the old boogie piano players. I went out and got all the records on them I could find (Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, etc.) and played along till I could sound like them. I love humorous songs as well. So I really learned from Louis Jordan, who was the king of jump and jive in the 40s."
What's been your experience of vacation and touring in Greece and islands?
Great people. Great food. Beautiful and interesting country. I come to the Greek Islands almost every summer if I am touring Europe. I love it. Patmos is my favorite island.
Do you have a message for the Greek fans?
I know you are going through rough times now. I pray you all have a good life and times get better. We all support you and I hope my music can help ease the bad times a bit.
Do you know anything about “Rembetico” music (aka the Greek blues)?
I do. I heard about it my first time in Greece. I went to hear it in Athens. I have some CDs I bought and I know it is the Greek Blues!
How much of their old music do they still play?
There are some groups that combine modern electronics with traditional instruments and music-Baba Zulu was a great group. Also on our live CD you will see, we combine a New Orleans song-In the Night with a famous Turkish song. It is definitely Blues Beyond Borders.™
What’s that moment like just before you go on stage? What’s your energy like?
I love performing. So I get excited and ready to roll!
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