An Interview with ingenious musician Ron Levy - recently wrote the memoirs book "Tales of A Road Dog"

"Blues music engages all of the human emotions and dynamics, as well as what's good and what's bad in life."

Ron Levy: The Lowdown Along the Blues Highway

Ron Levy was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as Reuvin Zev ben Yehoshua Ha Levi. He primarily plays piano and organ. Levy grew up in Brookline, MA, and began playing the piano after seeing Ray Charles in concert at age 13. He later switched to playing a Hammond organ. After gaining experience playing in Boston nightclubs, Levy was hired by Albert King in 1968. After an eighteen month association, Levy joined B.B. King's backing band.

Throughout the years, Levy has performed and recorded with a wide range of blues, funk and jazz musical groups, notably including Roomful of Blues (1983–87) and Ron Levy's Wild Kingdom (1988 - 2014). After learning and refining his studio chops with Hammond Scott's Blacktop Records of New Orleans, Levy became the in-house record producer & co-founder, A&R for Rounder's Bullseye Blues record label, where he was nominated nine times for a Grammy Award as Producer. He then recorded and produced 16 albums for his own label Cannonball Records from 1997 - 2000. He has since released numerous albums on his own imprint Records. Mr. Levy has recently written (2013) the highly acclaimed book, "Tales of A Road Dog - The Lowdown Along the Blues Highway" (self-published by Today, he teaches, records, produces and performs with his Soul-Jazz-Blues Hammond organ based group, Ron Levy's Wild Kingdom Trio.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I'd have to say Blues has taught me many of life's lessons that one doesn't necessarily learn from any school books. Blues are basically real, true life stories set to an emotionally charged music. Blues music engages all of the human emotions and dynamics, as well as what's good and what's bad in life. It has also given me a sense of a vast community shared with other fellow artists and passionate fans. Our common commitment and love for this art form creates a very strong intimate bond I sincerely treasure.

There are many styles of Blues because it's very personal, all of them being as unique as each person's feelings, lives and stories are. Some people's devotion to Blues borders on being religious, albeit poly-theistic much like the Greek mythologies of old. Many people worship the Blues gods; B.B. and Albert King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Aretha Franklin etc. much like the ancients did Zeus, Apollo, Ares and Aphrodite.

How do you describe the Ron Levy sound and songbook? What characterizes your music philosophy?

My music is based firmly in the Blues but also incorporates many other musical styles. Being an American, I grew up being exposed to all of the music represented in our 'melting pot' of many (musical) cultures.  My music is a reflection of that and is as simple and complicated as I am. Sometimes it's very strong and direct and other times invisibly subtle, but always played with a 100% total commitment. I've been blessed with many wonderful teachers. They always encouraged me to dig deep within myself, tell my story and communicate it honestly to my listeners. As a teacher myself, I try to pass that on as well. I often look at music as heart to heart conversations that are beyond just words. My personal motto is quoted from the 17th century philosopher, Rav Schneur Zalman; "Words are the pen of the heart, music is the pen of the soul."

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

To me, each and everyday is a gift from G-d and alternates unpredictably between new surprises and old routines. Seldom am I ever bored but whenever I am, it passes quickly. My life has been (and is) one amazing roller coaster ride comprised of both deep sea and sky diving adventures, often soaring to great unexpected heights and sometimes predictable (or not) crash landings. So far, I've been able to walk away from those hard falls! That's why I wrote my book "Tales of A Road Dog." I'll let my readers decide and answer this question according to their own opinions. Fair?

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

In some regards, every night I play is the best 'jam' ever! At least, we try to make it so? My band, Ron Levy's Wild Kingdom is considered a 'jam band' as well as a Soul-Jazz, R&B, Blues, organ based group. Improvisation and spontaneous creativity are very much what we're all about. I never use a hardened, concrete set-list and sometimes more often than not, throw completely new songs into the mix we've never done before that I compose on the spot. Once we play past the basic arranged melody and structure of the tune, we then try to go where we've never gone before and usually we do!

I've also had the privilege while as a touring member of some great bands like; B.B. & Albert King's and Roomful of Blues' (photo) etc, many legends were called up on stage to sit in. Sometimes there were All-Star gatherings with 3-4-5 guitarists, singers, instrumentalists, all legends from the worlds of Blues, Jazz and Rock joining us on stage, all at once. I'm sure they were all awe inspiring events for the audience, but I never enjoyed them that much personally, much to most people's chagrin. I don't enjoy All-Star basketball, football or baseball games either. Sometimes, they just seem like there's too much pretentiousness and posturing which can wind up being a mixed-up "mish-mosh' of sounds and egos, no matter what it looks like from the audience's perspective. I prefer seeing an artist in their own right, performing with their own bands doing a well crafted show. But sometimes All-star jams can be fun too, mostly because of the audience.

That said, there were always some great 'after hour' jams at Antone's in Austin, Texas, whenever Roomful played there. Many times, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, Kim Wilson, Hubert Sumlin, Mel Brown, James Cotton etc. and the whole Austin gang full of fantastic musicians and singers would take turns onstage. We'd all play and perform for each other until almost daybreak. Then we'd go to someone's house and continue until we left there squinting against the bright Texas sun! These sessions were much more relaxed and fun for us all than the jams we did in front of audiences during the club's public operating hours. Art Neville used to hold informal jams at his house in New Orleans. We were Uptown neighbors! We never knew who would stop by, but we always grooved, laughed and had big fun New Orleans style. Chicago and New York City were also often hosts to similar 'after hour' scenes.

As far as the most memorable gig I ever did goes; that would have to be; 'The Rumble in the Jungle' which was the musical concert part of the celebrated World Heavyweight Championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Frazier in Zaire, 1973. That event was made into a movie and won the Academy Award (I don't want to take all the credit, but thank you). It was one of the most amazing events of my lifetime on many levels. The full story is also in my book and will be something you'll never forget too!

"More than anything else, the many varied, true life experiences of (mostly) Black folks in America, expressed in an emotional and colorful musical art form."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

There were so many throughout my lifetime and career, it'd be impossible to select one or two. That's why my book is so long and full of these! Even though I've met many famous entertainment icons, (Elvis) and Presidents (Nixon), many of my most important meetings and experiences were with regular people you've probably never heard of. Two famous ones however, told me the same thing. They were Duke Ellington and the Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson (the Jewish Pope, some may say), both of Blessed memory. They both told me to be true to my real purest self and be the best Ron Levy I can possibly be. Sometimes, I've fared better then other times, like most of us.

Are there any memories from Ron Levy's Wild Kingdom & Roomful of Blues which you’d like to share with us?

Again, there are many, way too many, to have to choose just one or two for this interview. Everyday was a memorable adventure with those bands, made up of many ups and downs, upside downs, turning inside out and flipping sideways. I could write another two or three books of things I left out of this one. Recently, I told Mr. B.B. King I wrote a book about our old times together. His head suddenly snapped and his eyes grew into luminous full moons. He had a look on his face like an prison escapee frozen by a police searchlight while on the run. I then gently touched his shoulder and reassured him, "It's a 'tell-some, not a 'tell-all' book, B." He was much relieved and released a heavy welcome sight of freedom from worry. I'll confess I wasn't as charitable among my other victims.....errrrr, I mean personalities in my book, and admit I have a lawyer on full retainer who specializes in libel and slander lawsuits, just in case.

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

Well, besides my youth (which was a double edged sword), I'd have to say that I mostly miss the informal, personal camaraderie and relationships that were shared and enjoyed among the fans, musicians and even record companies and club owners. Today, these relationships have gone 'corporate' and are much too business-like. Naturally, there were some abuses but the methods to resolve those problems now, I liken to "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." I always felt 'the honor' system was much better, and for lack of a better word, 'honorable' all around. Much more human than the present lawyer and contract controlled (& guest list) practices we have today. Holding a more powerful entity accountable to any agreement isn't any easier today than it was back then, just more expensive. And, I miss having an old time friend being able to pass on a note or by word in order to allow them to come backstage, without all the bulked up security and over scrutinized VIP 'lists'.

I often compare Blues to Classical music. They each had truly incredible creative periods, where the concept, elements of sound and feeling of them both were from a certain period, grew and evolved but then basically ended, only to be re-interpreted and performed over and over again in tribute concerts and recordings. If you stop and think about it; B.B. King and Ray Charles for example, stopped writing and performing their own original compositions in the middle 1960's. Since then, although still great, they began to homogenize various other genres into their own unique sound while singing other people's songs. When they did, they often lost the creative 'cutting edge' that made them so incredibly great originally. Thankfully, their greatness carried on, no matter what they did. But, it wasn't the same.

I see that today's Blues musicians are mostly looking back and adopting the 'old' as their own (song styles, sounds, equipment, clothing and hairstyles etc.) where as, artists like B.B. and Ray, always searched for the latest, newest and most modern of that list. So I have to wonder where that's taking us.

Look, I can completely understand and honestly relate to a young musician hearing something that moves them and feeling, "I want to play just like that!" That's how we all learn in the beginning, but at some point, you have to use that only as a platform or foundation for what you build over it. That's what true artists do. They creatively build on what was done before, not copy it exactly. Someone once told me, a long time ago, "Amateurs borrow, professionals steal!" What this means, is that, when you "borrow' something, it's not yours at all. You're just using it. When you 'steal' something, it no longer belongs to the original owner, it's all yours now! For example: when B.B. King sang Tampa Red's "Sweet Little Angel", he stole it and made it his. Both versions are great! 

That said, years ago, European classical musicians were the only ones considered 'legitimate' because it was an integral tradition of their own culture's history. Its place of genesis. Today, the best in each field everywhere, pretty much learn their craft the same exact way by studying, absorbing records, videos, books and witnessing performances etc. In the Blues scene today, very few, if any at all, began singing in Black churches, on porches of plantation shacks or inside Southern juke joints. No modern Classical artist has lived in the grand old European monarchy times either. As a result, we now have a level playing field across the globe, where anyone, anywhere with enough determination, hard work and talent can become a Master of re-interpreting Classical or Blues music equally. Finally, I'm glad Blues has been awarded the same respect as Classical from the mainstream audiences, even though it was just as good if not better, long before it did!

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

My fee, music & book sales. I would like for them all to greatly multiply.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul, Jazz and continue to Latin, Gospel, and Hip-Hop?

More than anything else, the many varied, true life experiences of (mostly) Black folks in America, expressed in an emotional and colorful musical art form.

Which memories from Albert King, B.B. King, and Luther 'Guitar Jr' Johnson makes you smile?

There are so many, and not of just of them, indeed many more as well. That's why I wrote my book! "Tales of A Road Dog" is about the many humorous people, events and circumstances I've shared with so many wonderful and talented people over the past 45 years. 500 pages worth! Please allow me to invite your readers to visit my website, and click on "Take a Test Drive." There, you will find FREE excerpts from the book that will answer this question. Read the whole book and you'll have thousands of stories to tell and retell, that I promise will reward you many free drinks and fulfilling dates with beautiful women, anywhere in the world.

"Many people worship the Blues gods; B.B. and Albert King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Aretha Franklin etc. much like the ancients did Zeus, Apollo, Ares and Aphrodite." (Photo: Ron & Albert King)

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

My band was recently hired to play a very exclusive, invitation only, private surprise birthday party for a very well known, famous celebrity and only six or seven people showed up. It was indeed a surprise and proved to be much more exclusive than anyone ever anticipated! Awkward, if maybe not so funny.....

Not too long ago, I was driving to a gig at a local BBQ type joint and due to various personal, common pressures, stress etc., and not particularly looking forward to performing with the musicians I was going to be 'jamming' with, I was in a dour, cynical mood. Once we began however, a few tables into the crowd, in the aisle, I saw a beautiful little girl (7-8) dancing and smiling. She waved to me then shyly ran back to her mother and father who were also smiling and sharing in their little girl's enjoyment with loving hugs and approval. But wait a minute! Her lovely mother had no arms or legs and was propped up in a special wheelchair. That family radiated so much love and energy, I was truly inspired and all my petty troubles flew far away. Their display of such pure love still gives me goose tingle bumps now, six months later.

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

Oh man, that's the toughest one Michael. I'm glad you saved this question for last!

OK. I'd see little point in traveling into the past. I'm an avid reader and have read many books about our world and its history. So although I wouldn't really know or personally feel what it was exactly like at any historical point in time, I'd have a fairly good idea of what to expect. So, that leaves the future. That would be a completely new unexplored adventure I'd have no way of knowing anything about. So pick any date. Hopefully a good one, where there is total peace in the world, love and brotherhood among us all! And, I hope and pray that happens today.

Ron Levy - Levtron Production Home

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