The Knickerbocker All Stars: Jack Gauthier, JP Sheerar & Al Basile talks about the project and the famous café in RI

"The blues provides the most direct feelings of human despair, pleasure and happiness than any other genres."

The Knickerbocker All Stars:

Let The Good Times Roll

The Knickerbocker All Stars are a group of extremely talented blues musicians who have been in the business for decades. Members of the band have played with such notable performers as Freddie King, Robert Cray, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Roomful of Blues as well as their own bands. The first album-project of The Knickerbocker, titled "Open Mic At The Knick" (2014) produced by: John Paul Gauthier, Robert Christina and John Paul "J.P." Sheerar and released by JP Cadillac Records. Sunday night at the Knickerbocker Café in Westerly, RI featured the Roomful of Blues in the 1970’s and early 80’s. It quickly became the hottest social event in the area. Duke Robillard, the legendary guitarist/leader of the Roomful, would invite many up and coming musicians on stage to get their licks in as well as featured artists, the list of which is too long to mention. If you play their songs loud enough and close your eyes you can envision the band blasting away while dancers on the floor twist, swing, jitterbug and slow dance real tight. All of this is what was and still is the hallmark of the Knickerbocker Café.

"J.P." Sheerar was a regular attendee back at those Knickerbocker Sundays and has stayed in touch with many of the expansive roster of musicians who frequented the bar's stage. Go Back Home to the Blues (2015) is the second Knickerbocker AllStars record, building on the enthusiastically received Open Mic at the Knick. Once again the deep pool of New England blues talent, including Al Copley, Monster Mike Welch, and Rich Lataille, has provided knockout versions of blues and R&B classics, this time adding some new songs which are perfect fits stylistically. The Knickerbocker All-Stars are celebrated veterans and masters of their craft. Original Roomful of Blues members and other Roomful alumni, members of the Duke Robillard Band, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, and vocalists Willie J. Laws and Brian Templeton all make a powerful blend, and among them they've garnered literally dozens of BMA and Grammy nominations. All proceeds from the sale of this album will go to the Knickerbocker Music Center, ensuring the vitality of the "The Knick", as well as funding financial aid for the music school and ensuring that tuition prices are kept low to promote access and affordability. Jack Gauthier, Al Basile and JP Sheerar talks about the project of The Knickerbocker All Stars, the legend of Knick, the old days and the future of blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

J.P: The blues provides the most direct feelings of human despair, pleasure and happiness than any other genres.

Jack: I’ve learned about the hardships, passions, culture and personal struggles of the African American experience in our country.

Al: Blues is the shortest distance from one person's soul to another person's ear. Deep feelings are expressed in an economical, direct, sincere, accessible way. Blues is the human condition in words and music - loneliness, fear, frustration, joy, humor, bragging, betrayal - all the points of the compass are in there.

How started the thought of first project “Open Mic At The Knick” and the selection of Knickerbocker All-Stars roster?

J.P: I have been an avid collector and listener to blues and jazz for over 40 years. Most of my records are worn out because I would only play one or two songs per album. The songs on Open Mic are my favorites in my collection. I burned a CD of them and shared it with the co-producers: Bob Christina and Jack Gauthier and they loved the music and said let’s go!

How do you describe Knick’s philosophy? Why did you think that continues to generate such a devoted following?

J.P: The Knick was always a dance hall and swing and jump blues which revitalized swing and jitter bugging dancing. Dancing was also the way to meet women, guys and significant others.

Jack: The philosophy was and is bring the best of the blues community together and let new and established talent share in the legacy of the blues for all to enjoy.

(Photo: JP Sheerar)

Which meetings from Knickerbocker Café have been the most important experiences for you?

J.P: Sunday night at the Knick in the mid-70s and early 80s, featuring the Roomful of Blues, were always exciting and lots of fun. Monday mornings were tough.

Jack: Having worked w/ so many of the blues artists that have graced the Knick stage I couldn’t begin to put one over the other. I’ve been blessed to have recorded many of them.

Al: My first gig with Roomful was as an add-on for the show with Red Prysock, one of our sax heroes; his hits used a trumpet in the arrangement so I was brought on to play a half dozen of his songs. He was a huge success, and at the end of the night he complimented the band and was told that I was only in the band for that night. “You have to hire this man,” he said. “The trumpet puts fire in the arrangement.” Right after that Duke hired me.

How started the thought of second album "Go Back Home to the Blues" and the selection of Knickerbocker All-Stars roster?

Jack: As I said John Sheerar started the idea and He and I discussed the players that we thought would fit the selected music the best. Some are from the original scene of the Knickerbocker and some are from the Boston / New England Blues scene.

Are there any memories from 'Go Back Home to the Blues' sessions as musical director, which you’d like to share with us?

Al: When some of my songs were accepted for the record I asked that most of them be sung by other singers. I already have my own versions of them out on my own CDs and wanted to show that they would sound good when done by others. Ray and Brian each did a terrific job on my songs – they phrase in personal ways very different from me but made the songs their own while staying true to their essence. I was next to the console when they were tracking so that was exciting for me to hear as it happened.

"That young blues artists will continue the tradition of true blues and not turn it into other styles such as rock blues that permeates music today." (Photo: Jack , Kim Wilson & Duke Robillard)

What are the best jam and the most memorable gigs you've saw in Knickerbocker Café?

J.P: The Cobras came up from Texas and nobody had ever heard of them. The band featured Stevie Ray Vaughn and the y played a lot of Texas guitar blues especially Freddie King.

Jack: I came on later in the scene here and the likes of Duke Robillard and Kim Wilson then and now are favorites to see.

Al: The Red gig and the one with Sil Austin not long after stand out in my mind, but I was onstage for those. As an audience member I enjoyed the Scott Hamilton - Fred Bates Reunion gig a year or two back – I've been in bands with Fred on and off for decades now and Scott got me started playing again after college, so that was a kick.

Are there any memories from Westerly's Knickerbocker Café which you’d like to share with us?

J.P: Knocking down a few beers with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and hearing about his past and how he learned to play the sax and sing the blues.

Jack: I didn’t live in RI in that era but I have heard of all the legendary players and performances their for many years.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the Knickerbocker Café?

Al: I was always touched that people were genuinely enthusiastic and really liked what we played at the Knick, even though it wasn't in step with the musical tastes of the Seventies. People make me laugh; in this case mostly musicians, but I'm not naming any names!

What do you miss most from the Knickerbocker Cafe in the ‘70s/ '80s? What characterized the atmosphere of?     (Photo: Al Basile)

J.P: Dancing with beautiful women. When my friends and I would sneak in through the kitchen and the band was blasting and the dance floor was jammed.

Jack: I was not living in RI in the 70’s but I always heard about how exciting it was to see new talent get on stage w/ the veterans on the blues scene.

Al: First, the dance floor packed with young dancers who could really jitterbug even though they were a whole different generation from the originals! Good dancers give energy back to the band, and you don't get that in a concert setting. Second, the spicy sausage sandwiches from the front!

How do you describe Jack Gautier’s sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

Jack: As natural and real as I can make it…as true to a live performance as possible makes the recordings more exciting and represents the bands best I feel.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues/Soul/R&B researches and experiments?

Jack: Executive Producer John Sheerar had the idea of capturing the excitement and music of the “golden years” of the Knickerbocker Café in the 70’s.  Many musicians that took the lead in the Blues resurgence of the 70’s came out of the Blues scene of Westerly RI’s Knickerbocker Café.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? 

Jack: My 30 year relationship with Duke Robillard who is known as the “ring leader” of the Blues in RI and New England.

What is the best advice ever given you? 

Jack: Whatever you do make it authentic to the originals.

"That young blues artists will continue the tradition of true blues and not turn it into other styles such as rock blues that permeates music today." (Photo: Jack Gauthier in his studio)

Make an account of the case of the blues in R.I. - Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

J.P: You have to give all the credit to the Roomful of Blues and the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals.

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

J.P: Reading the books about Buddy Guy and James Brown. There was the story of Guitar Slim on the shoulders of his bass player walking into gig while playing guitar. He had a very long chord!

Jack: How real and raw those clubs can be. Both the music and the patrons have lived what they play, sing… and dance to!

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

Jack: That there was so many more venues to see great blues in the past and of course that the true originals are sadly all passing away.

Which memory from Duke Robillard, Jay Mcshann, Jimmy Witherspoon and Rosco Gordon makes you smile?

Jack: It’s  always the great personal stories of life with musicians and their tales of the road…like Jay McShann being their when Charlie Parker got his nickname “The Bird”.

"I’ve learned about the hardships, passions, culture and personal struggles of the African American experience in our country." (Photo: Jack Gauthier with Curtis Saglado in studio)

What is the impact of Blues and Soul/R&B music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Jack: What better way to mix all ethnic groups and cultures than friends, good food, a cocktail or two and of course blues...the music that crosses all cultures and social strata. If you’ve lived you’ll know the blues when you hear it.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of? 

Jack: That young blues artists will continue the tradition of true blues and not turn it into other styles such as rock blues that permeates music today.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Jack: People buying music today and listening to vinyl instead of MP3’s!

Al: That people would chew their music – appetizer, dinner, dessert, or snack – thoroughly, and really taste it, before swallowing.

How do you describe Al Basile sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Al: I love the best human achievements in many musical genres and I write and perform in a number of them, using the language of musical tradition to tell stories in my own voice. They often have a teaching component that reflects my personal values, and I try to affect close listeners with that; for more casual listeners I try to always have a catchy, accessible sound in familiar styles. And I try to have good grooves for the dancers!

"Blues is the shortest distance from one person's soul to another person's ear. Deep feelings are expressed in an economical, direct, sincere, accessible way. Blues is the human condition in words and music - loneliness, fear, frustration, joy, humor, bragging, betrayal - all the points of the compass are in there." (Photo: Al Basile)

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

Al: Plenty of poets have loved blues and jazz and sought ways to incorporate something of the improvisational style or other elements they loved about the music into their poetry. Some had musicians play behind them while they read their poetry. I've written poems about experiences I've had while playing, because that perspective has been denied other poets who aren't players, and I feel it should be represented even though I make no claims beyond trying to capture a personal reality – I've only been in my own head while on stage! As for the racial and socio-political implications, I'd say first that in my own case it's been enough of a challenge to try to be a good songwriter, singer, player, and poet, so I haven't concerned myself too much with them. More generally, I think that the importance of the individual expression in blues, jazz, and poetry, where we all strive to find a personal voice that's good in its own way, confirms the value of each individual making the effort. What's good or great is for us to shoot for and for others to judge.

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

J.P: New Orleans to hear Smiley Lewis, Guitar Slim, Professor Longhair and Fats Domino in 1955.

Jack: Mississippi Delta in the ‘20s or Chicago in the 50’s to see the origins of Blues and the legends in their prime.

Al: I'd go to New York around 1940, and see Louis Armstrong with his big band, because he's my most important musical influence and I've heard live radio of him from that era which knocked me out; then I'd try to catch the Duke Ellington band with Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster in the same night, and go out to an after hours joint for some jamming with Pres and Hawk, Charlie Christian, Art Tatum, or whoever else was in town (maybe Billie would sit in and sing!). Because live music is fresh, inspiring, and nourishing, and that was an era when my favorite giants walked the earth.

The Knickerbocker All Stars @ JP Cadillac Records

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