When Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Band closed out their long run on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show last November, they did it with a rendition of the Howlin’ Wolf deep blues classic, “Killin’ Floor.” It was a proper send-off considering that the show’s format was being cut down from an hour to 30 minutes and costing the world-class musicians their jobs in the process.
But the signoff was much, much more.
For Vivino – one of the most dyed-in-the-wool blues lovers on the planet, it was far more than a swan song. It was a heartfelt tribute, a tip of the hat to Wolf and his guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, who always treated Jimmy like a member of the family. And it was a musical accolade to ‘60s legend Mike Bloomfield, whose playing colored Vivino’s early years in differing shades of cyan.
That night served as the final curtain call for both Jimmy, a skilled guitarist, trumpet and keyboard player, and woodwind-playing brother Jerry who’d been at his side throughout a 25-year TV career that began in New York as members of Conan’s Max Weinberg Seven.
When the show moved to Hollywood, the Vivinos relocated, too, with Jimmy assuming the music director role after Weinberg returned east in 2010, where he resumed his original position as percussionist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
Most of all, Vivino says, that final musical interlude served as a sincere thank you to the host and show for allowing him the free rein he received to bring blues artists onto its stage for the world to enjoy. Several legends, including B.B. King, were among that crowd. But the list included dozens more talents whose skills flew under the attention of mainstream America.
“They allowed me to bring in the likes of Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, Johnnie Johnson, Son Seals, Luther Allison, Joe Louis Walker, Shemekia Copeland — and whoever else I knew was in town,” Vivino recalled recently in an extensive early morning interview.
“I’d ask: ‘Can I bring so-and-so over to do somethin’,’ and they’d always say yes.”
It was his way to “grease the wheel,” he says, for artists who deserved far more attention than they were receiving. It’s a mindset he learned from Bonnie Raitt, who’s never been shy about boosting the careers of others — Ruth Brown, Etta James and Little Milton included — by sharing the stage with them during her own performances and by encouraging others in power positions to do the same.
“I always thought we’d go out with a blues, some Wolf or some Electric Flag,” Vivino says, reflecting on the final show. “When I was a kid, I didn’t even know what ‘killing floor’ meant. I do now. When you find out what it means, you go: ‘Wow! That’s as low as it goes.’”
It’s the description of the brutality of working on the floor in a slaughterhouse, a job that ‘50s superstar Jimmy Reed held on Chicago’s South Side, which he described in gruesome detail in recorded interviews.
“How can you not have a drink and sing some blues after that?” Vivino wonders. “In a way, I guess, it was a ‘killin’ floor’ situation – and, in the deep psyche part of me, was the end of something.”
But it definitely wasn’t a backhanded slap for being dumped, which some people might have inferred, he says. “It was totally a tribute to everything that got me from the seventh grade, when I started playing music, to that place, that gig.”
Conan’s words that night fully support him. A “guitar freak,” according to Jimmy, who frequently played with the band during rehearsals and loves blues and rockabilly, he opened the show by saying: “I have no idea if I’m a better comedian now than I was in 1993. But thanks to these guys, I’m definitely a better rhythm guitarist.
“I’ve been graced with the most versatile, loyal and joyously effervescent band in the history of television. To put it simply, I love these guys. Gentlemen, I want to thank you for a quarter-century of friendship, laughter and the best music I will know in this life.”
Today, several months after leaving the program, Vivino still spends plenty of time in the studio. But now he’s behind the camera, creating music for major movies during the day and performing whenever he can in a diverse group of musical settings.
The son of a gifted amateur trumpet player, Vivino grew up in Glen Rock, N.J., a few miles north of the George Washington Bridge and Manhattan. “Dad and his family came over on a boat from Italy, and their trade was carpentry,” he says. “He was a great player, but being a professional musician was out of the question.”
The first blues Jimmy heard as a child actually from Louis Armstrong, not Chicago or the Delta. “I’d look at his records and they’d be ‘Gut Bucket Blues,’ ‘Royal Garden Blues’ – for me, the connection was there first,” he says. “Like every other kid in 1964, I thought the Rolling Stones wrote ‘Little Red Rooster.’ We just did not know.”
Following in the steps of his father, he exhibited prodigious skills on the horn as a child. But he was drawn to guitar like a moth to a flame the first time he spotted a Kay Old Kraftsman bass hanging on his trumpet teacher’s wall.
“I’d stare at it and think: ‘How cool is that?’” he says, simultaneously admitting that he never got up the courage to tell his dad he didn’t want to play trumpet because he knew it’d break his heart. Instead, he borrowed instruments from friends then picked up an axe that an uncle had left in the family basement, using a shard from an old LP as a pick as he taught himself to play.
Back then, he and older siblings Floyd and Jerry were enamored with the Osmond Brothers. They took tap dance lessons and used their newfound knowledge to form a song-and-dance team. With Jimmy on trumpet, Jerry on clarinet and Floyd on piano, their first gig took place in the New Jersey Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.
By the time Vivino reached high school, he was already playing lead trumpet and arranging scores for big bands. And, after hearing Al Kooper’s work on the organ with Blood Sweat & Tears, he started teaching himself how to play keyboards, too.
His introduction to blues came through a friendship with high school classmate Brian Bisesi. “We started playing together in seventh grade,” Jimmy recalls. “We were doin’ what everybody else was doin’ at that time…tryin’ to play Doors tunes and Hendrix tunes. I was still a trumpet player back then, and ‘Killin’ Floor’ was one of the first songs we learned.”
It was 1967, and Vivino was deeply influenced by Electric Flag, whose members included the late Bloomfield and drummer Buddy Miles, as well as guitarist Nick Gravenites and bassist Harvey Brooks, both of whom have become dear friends through the years. “They were a very big revelation to me – bigger than the Beatles could ever be,” he insists.
Vivino’s path to the blues was paved by bandmate Brian’s older brother, he says. “We’d go over to his house, and Brian would start tellin’ me what Ralph told him: ‘Oh, you think the Stones wrote ‘Rooster?’ We’d put on Wolf, we’d put on Muddy, then Butterfield and Dylan.
“We got into what they now call ‘blues/Americana,’ diggin’ this other music that wasn’t psychedelic acid rock or pop music. It was almost like a secret meeting once a week.”
The first bluesmen Vivino saw live probably were Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. As time passed, however, he got to hang out with Muddy Waters because bandmate Brian had become his East Coast road manager and, as Jimmy describes him, his “spare-tire guitar player” who’d sit in when someone else failed to show up.
“Bob Margolin – (now a lifelong friend and current playing partner) — was always nice to me,” Vivino says. “And Pinetop Perkins would let me up on stage to play on top of the piano. They were all so nice. And after the show, Muddy would take the time to sit with everybody backstage, holding court – but in a really nice way, like a king or the Pope. It was wonderful.”
The most important LPs Jimmy heard during those years were Muddy’s Real Folk Blues and the trio of Vanguard’s Chicago/The Blues/Today releases, he says. “Those were really door openers. Then I started goin’ into the Wolf thing.
“Then it got deeper and deeper and deeper. I don’t think there was a record that you’d buy that didn’t have at least one great song on it. It’s like a hole…a deep canyon of stuff you can get lost in, spending hours and hours in record stores. I think all of us were doin’ that back then. I was on a rope, letting myself into this canyon of records.
“Then it was anything on Chess was somethin’ I had to have.”
At the time, Vivino didn’t realize that Chuck Berry had been a Chess artist. He discovered it after looking at one of his LPs and noticing that legendary drummer Fred Below, the creator of the classic Chicago blues rhythm pattern, was listed among the credits.
“Later on, Hubert Sumlin told me that either him or Jimmy Rogers were playin’ rhythm guitar for $35 a day on Chuck Berry records,” Jimmy notes, pointing out that “Hubert was on ‘Sweet Little Sixteen.’”
As someone who’s produced discs for Dion, Shemekia Copeland, John Sebastian, Paul Oscher, Big Bill Morganfield, Louisiana Red, Bill Perry, Son Seals, Ola Dixon, Phoebe Snow and Sumlin as well as three anniversary collections for Alligator Records and appeared on dozens of CDs himself, Vivino now understands how Willie Dixon, who produced much of the Chess catalog, worked: hiring only musicians who’d turn out records quickly without wasting precious time in the studio.
“Leonard and Phil (Chess) knew Willie could get these guys goin’,” he says, “’cause makin’ a record was different than performing.”
Later on, Vivino fell in love with the music of Jimmy Johnson, Lonnie Brooks and Johnny Copeland, listening to them 50 or 60 times in a row and discovering what was going on besides the lead vocal.
“I always try to trace things,” he says. “I know that Dylan just loves this stuff and that (Berry’s) ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ is the blueprint for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and that without Chicago blues, Bob doesn’t find Butterfield and Bloomfield. And he doesn’t make the album Highway 61 Revisited without Michael’s presence on it and honest Chicago blues playing throughout.
“The (Muddy) song ‘Blues Had A Baby’ is the most right-on thing,” Jimmy adds, noting the Chicago connection runs deep in Dion’s music, too.
“He’s so enamored with Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed — and always was,” Vivino says. “‘The Wanderer’ is nothin’ but a Jimmy Reed song in Dion’s mind. When we get together and just sit down with two guitars, all of the other history doesn’t matter. It’s all about Chicago blues.”
By the time Jimmy was in his late teens, he was already making a name for himself as a B-3 player in New York City, playing at The Bottom Line nightclub in Greenwich Village, backing everyone from Jackie Wilson, The Five Satins to The Platters. A half-dozen years later, however, after working six or seven nights a week there or in other clubs with Floyd’s revue, he was ready to quit.
“When I was luggin’ the B-3 around, I always had a guitar and taught myself a few things,” he recalls. “I got so bummed out, I said: ‘I’m gonna stop playin’. I’m gonna get a guitar, and I’m gonna take some lessons.’ I was just out of it!”
Vivino moved back into his folks’ home in New Jersey. “I did some roofing for a while, some spackling and sheet rock with my father – just so he knew I wouldn’t want to do that,” he says.
He found a teacher through a family connection. His uncle Frank owned the Plaza Ballroom, a popular showroom in nearby Paterson, N.J., which featured a band that included jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli, a longtime member of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show Band.
Pizzarelli was too busy to teach him, but quickly referred Jimmy to another highly talented fret master, Joe Cinderella, a studio musician and author who worked with Billy Joel, the Beach Boys and John Cage and penned several jazz guitar instructional books.
Later on, he interned under Jack Wilkins, a jazzman who worked with Barry Manilow, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton and Jimmy McGriff, and Harry Leahey, who taught both Joe Pass and Dennis Saldone, whose students included John Coltrane.
Vivino spent his first 18 months gigging as guitarist in a four-piece band backing a comedian who performed at “mobbed up” joints in New Jersey, Florida and Las Vegas. Then he moved on to The Uncle Floyd Show, hosted by his brother, an actor whose diverse credits include the movie Good Morning Vietnam and TV’s Cosby Show and Law & Order.
Extremely popular among counterculture teens and young adults, it was a low-budget sketch comedy and live music show with puppets that aired on cable in Manhattan and over the air in New Jersey and drew a fan base that included David Bowie, Joey and Johnny Ramone and David Johansen, all of whom appeared periodically in episodes.
Away from the small screen, the show’s band – dressed in tuxedos — served as opening acts for the Ramones and other punk bands, often performing in front of celebrity studded audiences.
Vivino’s big break came in 1984, when he was dividing his time between backing up Phoebe Snow, working in brother Floyd’s review and doing gigs with them and other artists, often at his former home, The Bottom Line.
Allen Pepper, the showroom’s manager, approached him after noticing that Jimmy was responsible for putting several acts together. He was working on a musical that dealt with the life of songwriter Ellie Greenwich, and wanted Vivino to get involved.
The end result was the play Leader Of The Pack, which had a brief run in the club in 1984 before 120 dates at the Ambassador Theatre, during which Jimmy worked alongside Paul Shaffer, David Letterman’s band leader, who taught him “how to listen to a rock-‘n’-roll band from the bass and drums up” and how to be a band leader.
Around the same time, former BS&T keyboard player Kooper asked Vivino to assemble a band for his Bottom Line performances. Kooper subsequently asked Jimmy to join him, beginning what would be a 15 years as his band leader, a relationship that produced the albums Soul Of A Man and Rekooperation.
Prior to joining Conan, he formed the band The Reckless Sleepers with Jules Shear and Steve Holly, was a member of John Sebastian’s J-Band and worked in support of both Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson.
“I got lucky,” he says. “I never had to do a gig that wasn’t great music. I would always prefer to be remembered as a bluesman who had a really good job.”
While it’s extremely important for anyone involved in the blues to honor and cherish the folks who created it, he insists, too many folks focus their energy focused on playing things note-for-note like they hear on records.
“We can’t be Son House yellin’ at Howlin’ Wolf,” he says, referring to an incident filmed for the show Eye On, which ran on CBS in the ‘60s. Wolf was playing in a trio with Buddy Guy, Jimmy recalls, “in a wild band dressed in dashikis and wearin’ Afros, and Son’s just puttin’ ‘em down: ‘The blues is none of this monkey junk these kids today are playin’.’
“He’s goin’ right after them. Then Buddy comes on, and you can just see the music movin’ forward.
“The thing we all get hung up as students is ‘this is how it goes,’ when we really should be saying: ‘This is how it went – that one time.’ The contrast between those two performances is one of the greatest lessons in not being such a traditionalist that you want music to stand still.
“I envy the people who started learning the blues by studying the early bluesmen. It’s a lot harder to start in the middle of the tree (schooling yourself through the work of later artists) and then building right down to the root. A lot of us find that we have to do that – and we get stuck at Stevie Ray Vaughan or Buddy Guy.
“You’ve got to go even deeper – all the way down to Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins. You can spend your whole life taking the R. Crumb deck of blues musicians (the popular 36-card set entitled Heroes Of The Blues that’s still being marketed after being created in the ‘70s), goin’ into those people and buyin’ their records.
“In his own way, Crumb was tryin’ to spread the word, sayin’: ‘This is a deck of cards you should all have.’ That’s some dedication to the blues.”
Vivino is no stranger when it comes to tracing blues to the roots. Sebastian has occasionally called him when he’s discovered a legend who still walks among us. That was the case in the ‘90s when Sebastian found that Yank Rachell, the country blues mandolin player, was living in Indianapolis.
“We went over there and got to know Yank,” Jimmy recalls. “The best thing I could take away from the experience was when he said: ‘You know, we weren’t musicians. We were entertainers.
“Now, everybody looks at this stuff so seriously and analyses it. We were just entertaining people.’
“They were playing for rent money, but it was all about dancing and putting on a show, Vivino says. “This music was made not to be sat down and listened to. We can see that in the pictures we see from Chicago back in the day. Everyone’s dancin’.”
That attitude continued into the ‘70s, when Vivino started working bars and showrooms. “If a club was happening,” he insists, “you were happening — because people were comin’ anyway, and there’d be three or four bands playin’. It the onus wasn’t left on the musicians.
“Now, things are different. The owner will ask: ‘How many people will you get here?’
“What’s ‘wrong’ with your club, man,” he wonders, “that people won’t come to it? Getting used to that in older age is hard for me to understand – or even explain. If people could find the joy in the music again, it would be so great – that it’s to get up and move to.”
Vivino’s lucky, he says, to be living in an area where Cadillac Zack, a young promoter, keeps the old-school vibe alive by booking blues into venues across L.A.
“But it’s few and far between now in Chicago, New York, Detroit, San Francisco even,” he notes. “I used to go there for Grant Green to the Lost And Found to the Saloon to see Johnny Nitro. There were like five joints in one block. It was a hot pocket of great players in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And in New England, there was the Cambridge scene…Paul’s Mall…man, Muddy used to play there.
“I worked with (washboard player) Fritz Richmond there and other members of the Kweskin Jug Band – Jim and (Geoff) Muldaur and those guys. That’s where Taj (Mahal) was breakin’ out.
“And you could still go up to Chicago in the ‘70s and ‘80s and find Willie Johnson, and Jody Williams until just last year. Back then, guys were really taken for granted. Willie (“Big Eyes”) Smith was drivin’ a truck, doin’ regular jobs. When I was playin’ with (Butterfield drummer) Billy Davenport, he was always doin’ some kind of other job, too.
“John Littlejohn was an auto mechanic. J.B. Hutto was working in a plumbing supply store.
“It’s funny how I used to say to Hubert – we would talk about it – how the sidemen were all of a sudden expected to be frontmen because they survived. Not all of them were really good frontmen. But we were takin’ what we could get at this point.”
Vivino uses Sumlin as an example.
“The love I have for Hubert is just like family, Jimmy says. “The thing about his playing is that it’s heart-to-hand, not bringing the head into it at all. You’ve gotta skip the thought process. Hubert would admittedly say that ‘if the band’s not good, I’m not in it’ ‘cause he was a reactive player. You couldn’t lean on him to carry the show.
“That’s the thing: A guy like Wolf could pull the worst band through a show because Wolf and his guitar alone are a show. Everything else is just gravy. There’s very few of that caliber left.
“We saw these cats, and we’re disciples in a way. We’re the kinda ‘touched-the-hem-of-his-garment’ cats. They’re people who’ve stepped out of our record collections.
“The cats were right here. Wow!”
That era’s gone, and will probably never happen again, Vivino says. But he’s sure the stars of bygone eras truly appreciated the reception they received, especially when you consider that they were performing for audiences in a world that, to them, was completely foreign to one they’d come from.
“It’s not a popular thing to talk about in a ‘politically correct’ environment, but the truth is that music should not have the boundaries of who can play it and who can’t.”
And that definitely applies to color.
Like the guys who created it, he insists, “we all suffer. But the music’s also about the joy. We forget that. Everybody thinks that the blues is just about misery. But there’s happy blues, man!”
It’s this generation’s responsibility to carry the music forward as best we can, Vivino insists. But it’s also important to remember that “the black players — and African-Americans on the whole — never had the attitude that white people shouldn’t play this music.
“Charlie (Musselwhite), Elvin (Bishop) and Mark Naftalin — the guys that are still here, Bloomfield and Butterfield, they were like a curiosity in their day,” Jimmy notes. “But when they proved they could play, they were more than a curiosity.
“First, it was ‘these guys are cute.’ But then it was: ‘These cats are cats!’ They could feel that we were so interested — that we did care — that we did want to know.
“We’re so lucky to have met these people and sang and played with them. Through it all, we’ll never know how much those guys suffered, and we always have to be grateful for everything they shared.”
Vivino is especially thankful that a younger generation of blues artists are starting to make names for themselves. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, for one, truly knocks him out.
“I was so impressed when I first saw that kid play,” he says. “I went out of my way to find out how to contact him – just to tell him that I thought it was great, what he was doin’, and to keep goin’. And this was early on, when there were only some YouTube videos of him.
“I would expect that somebody like Kingfish – he’s got roots in everything from electronica to rap to pop music and to stuff we don’t even consider – to move the music forward, too.”
Vivino also has great respect for Cedric Burnside. “Nobody knows how talented that kid is,” he says. “That family goes deep, man! And I’ve met Jarekus (Singleton). He’s kinda fusion, but there’s no doubt that everything’s in there.
“There’s all kinds of singers comin’ out, and I think that kids should gravitate back to pickin’ up instruments instead of turntables or whatever it is to make their music.”
No matter which direction Kingfish and others take, he says, it’s important to remember that the music is a living, breathing entity, not something stagnant in time.
“And I say this with all due respect to everyone,” Vivino says, “my people included: Anybody from any ethnic background can cook Italian food. But when an Italian cooks it, it’s just better. All due respect to all the great chefs of the world: When it’s in the DNA, we get a little bit extra. It’s an X factor. There’s a spiritual connection.
“If you own it, though, it doesn’t mean that we can’t do it. Me and Bob (Margolin), we’re preservationists. There’s no denying when somebody is championing something rather than co-opting it. The music’s supposed to bring us together, and we need to do it.
“It’s the easiest route. Nobody’s trying to take it away. The most inspiring thing for us is when young African-Americans get into this music – and claim it back. We’re just trying to keep it afloat. If they tell me: ‘We don’t need you,’ that’s okay because they don’t know the people that I do.”
In that light, Vivino attempts to breathe new life into Muddy, Wolf and Jimmy Reed though his work. But it’s equally important to mention Bloomfield, he says, because B.B., Albert and Freddie King would never have achieved the heights they reached if Bloomfield hadn’t insisted that Bill Graham put them onto the bill when he and Butterfield were appearing at Fillmore East in New York and Fillmore West in San Francisco.
Despite producing and appearing on dozens of other folks’ blues releases through the years, Jimmy’s own catalog as a front man is limited, but potent. His first effort came in 1997 with the modern blues CD Do What, Now? Recorded in two days without much rehearsal, the lineup featured Kooper, who produced, along with Brooks, Sebastian and Reece Wynans.
Live At The Turning Point, an old-school release that featured him in partnership with Cuban-born harp player Felix Cabrera, followed in 2009. His only other album to date is 13 Live, which was released on the Blind Pig imprint under the name Jimmy Vivino & The Black Italians, which breathed new life into a project he was involved in decades before.
“(Label founder) Jerry Del Guidice came to me to do that,” he recalls. They’d worked together previously on releases for Perry and Morganfield. “He said: ‘There is this legend that you had this band that played every Tuesday night in some little club over by the (Madison Square) Garden, and everybody’d come to play.’
“I said: ‘Yeah, man.’ Paul Oscher used to bring Bob Gaddy (a New York R&B legend) and (Wolf drummer) S.P. Leary in there. Jimmy Rogers came in there and played.
“He said: ‘You wanna make a record?’ I said: ‘That band hasn’t played in 20 years.’ He said: ‘Put it together, and I’ll record an album.’ So we did it as a one-off, and it was really fun.”
With Jimmy on guitar, piano and vocals and Cabrera on harp, the lineup consisted of Danny Louis on keys and trombone, Mike Merritt on bass, Mike Jacobson, James Wormworth and Fred Wolcott on percussion and Catherine Russell on vocals, several of whom had played with him in the band’s first incarnation.
While Jimmy hasn’t released anything under his own name since, he’s been in conversations recently with Margolin about the possibility of recording either a CD or DVD that will capture their current venture, which they call the Two Guitars And 200 Stories Tour. It bears a strong resemblance to shows Vivino has performed with Sebastian, who frequently regales audiences with stories about his idol, Mississippi John Hurt, and his youth growing up in Greenwich Village exposed to him to, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Reverend Gary Davis and others.
“We came late to the party with this, but it was time for it to happen,” Jimmy says. “We sit down and tell about encounters with legends and then play their music. The older people are interested. But I’d love if younger people can get into it too because maybe they’ll have a story of their own by the end of it. Maybe they’ll say: ‘Who’s this cat, Sleepy John Estes? Lemme go check that out!’
“As a disciple, that’s what you want to do…to spread the gospel.”
He and Margolin are working the festival circuit this summer. But Vivino continues spreading the gospel in other ways, too. For the past 21 years, he and former Letterman bassist Will Lee have been members of the Fab Faux, which, he states, “is a constant reminder to people that the Beatles were the classical music of our time” and individuals not to be trivialized with wigs and suits and phony British accents bands.
He’s also been working in Los Angeles in a trio with Barry Goldberg and Chicago harp player Rob Stone, and he recently launched Bluesoul, an organ trio. And he’s deeply involved in several charity projects, including Notes For Notes, an effort sponsored by Seymour Duncan guitar pickups that enables kids to create and record music free of charge, The Boot Campaign, which promotes patriotism and provides assistance to military personnel and their families, and fundraisers for The Blues Foundation.
“Everything I’ve worked for came into fruition in a lot of ways,” he insists. “My idea of ‘retirement’ is going out to play every night. The music is the only thing that can keep you young, vibrant and valid – finding new things in the music every day, keeping it vital and spreading the word,” adding…
“The most important thing anyone should take away from any interview with us about this art form is –at the very least — go find that one record that these guys were talking about if you don’t have it.
“It’s never ‘go buy my music,’ he insists. “It’s ‘go get the music that got me to where I am.’ I didn’t build the road. It’s already there.”
Find out more about Jimmy Vivino and where he’s playing next by visiting his website:www.jimmyvivino.com