Featured Interview – Mitch Woods

imageMitch Woods is the gardener of the traffic island in the crossroads intersection of Boogie Woogie piano, Jump Blues, old school Rock n’ Roll and New Orleans’ funky stride. Mitch has a classic, almost mythical, first contact origin story:

“I grew up in Brooklyn, born in ‘51 – 1951. We lived in, I wouldn’t call it a tenement, (haha) but you know it was apartment houses in Brooklyn. But, it was a great place to grow up, I mean Brooklyn, everybody played on the streets. We played hockey, stick ball, ringolevio, all those games out in the street and everything like that. So it was a good time to grow up in New York, in Brooklyn at that time. My mom was a single mom, my Dad had left when I was about 6 years old. So she was bringing up two boys, my brother and I, a little older brother. She used to hire the superintendent of the building, who was an African American man, to take me to, I think it was, Kindergarten and first and second grade, to take me to school, he would drive me to school. So one day we stopped off at maybe his cousin’s house or something. And there was somebody playing Boogie Woogie piano in there, I heard this piano. What a great amazing thing, you know. Good cornbread cooking or whatever was goin’ on in there and this guy is playin’ that. So that really inspired me, when I got home I said boy I’d like to play the piano.”

Mitch Woods is an incomparable entertainer in the old school model. Breaking through to the Blues mainstream during the 1980’s surge, Mitch and his raucous crew called “The Rocket 88’s” were time travelers visiting from a bygone era of greased back hair, stomping shuffles and incendiary piano playing. Based in the San Francisco Bay area for most of his adult life, Woods parlayed his old school love of early Rock n’ Roll, Boogie Woogie and Jump Blues into a passion for the cultural melting pot that is New Orleans and specifically into the endlessly funky R&B of Professor Longhair and Fats Domino (2 sides of the same coin). A natural born entertainer, Mitch is bombastic, gregarious and ready to laugh. Speaking from his home in the Bay area after his daily bike ride, Mitch got his memory flowing and recounted, through much laughter, his legendary life in music.

Mitch’s mom and step dad, Abe Rich, were important caregivers and supporters of their son’s talent. Deciding early on not to change his name to the sing song-y “Mitch Rich,” Mitch calls his music publishing “Mitch Rich Music” in honor of his stepdad. After Mitch was enthralled by what can be assumed to be a first interaction with African American music at his superintendent’s cousin’s house, Abe went out and bought the family a piano.

“I started out playing Classical, they got me Classical lessons for about three years. Which was, you know, important because I learned all the basics, I learned how to read music, not that I do it so well anymore (laughs). After about three year of that I was starting to get bored with it but then my Dad said ‘well we’ve got the piano you’re gonna play it now.’ I said ‘lets make a deal. I’ll get a teacher who can teach me popular music and jazz and blues.’ I found somebody who was kind of a bebop piano player and it was great because he taught me how to improvise, he taught me chords and scales and all that. And that really got me goin’ once I got into all of that, it kept me wanting to play. He even got me a gig, probably my first gig, definitely my first gig, at a piano store on Flatbush Avenue (chuckles). Not that I could play very well but I could sit in the window and make believe I was playing, you know. Girls would come by, I remember that, first groupies (laughs). I knew there was something good there.”

Like any child of the 50’s and 60’s Rock and Roll and the British Invasion was highly influential on Mitch.

“Later on when I was 13, actually I saved up my bar mitzvah money to buy my first organ. You know Farfisa was big in those days, but I couldn’t afford a Farfisa, so I remember my mom taking me up to this guy in Manhattan, up some freight elevator, and he had these brand new organs in the box, came right from Italy. I couldn’t even, it was called Doric or something, some kind of cheap brand you know. But I got my very first one. At that time we were starting to form little bands in Brooklyn. We’d play, I remember, in the basement of the drummer’s candy store, his father had a candy store. I’m given’ you a lot of colorful stuff I’m just starting to remember (haha). And we’d play in the basement of the candy store. And he didn’t even have drum stands, he would ratchet them onto soda boxes, soda crates and stuff (chuckles), I thought that was the coolest thing. So you know we started forming little band there. And the Beatles came in and the Stones, Dave Clark 5 and all that stuff, we started doing that. Eventually we got a guitarist who was into Blues, I remember that, and he started turning us on to Albert King and B.B. We started playing some of that.”

imageNew York City in the 60’s was such a dynamic place with art and music exploding and cross pollinating all over the place. As Mitch began to develop his ear for the Blues he got to experiment in public in some classic New York situations.

“Some of my first gigs we had this band called the Sound Factory, this is another funny story. The guitarist’s father had a meat truck, he had a meat butcher company or something. So he used to pack us all in the back of this refrigerated truck and take us to the gigs, you know whatever gigs we could scare up. I remember playing in the Village, it was called Café Bizarre, we used to play there a lot. It was decorated like an old spook house with all kinds of spooky stuff in there. I think we would make $25 for the band for the whole night and all the salami sandwiches we could eat (chuckles). But the funniest thing about it was they didn’t have a dancing license, you needed a dance permit or something in New York. So every once in a while we’d be playing, all of a sudden the electricity would go off and everything would stop. It was basically cause the cops would come in to check on everything and shut it down. Then when they left, they’d turn the electric on and we’d play again.”

After a brief college stint in New York City, Mitch left the City for upstate:

“I transferred up to UB, University of Buffalo, and ah basically that was my hippie days. We had a farm, an old farm, outside of Buffalo it was called The Farm. It was like a commune, it was great. (laughs) I’m common’ up with these stories man, I don’t know. We had a pick up truck, so our gig, we had an ad in the paper “will haul anything, anywhere, anytime.” I got more pianos that way. People wanted to get rid of these big old upright pianos, and they would just say take it away, it’s your’s. So I must have had 3, or 4, or 5 of them out in the barn in a farm. I started playin’ out there, but, really what started to happen at that time, I started to jam. There was a little club circuit in Buffalo. There’s some great musicians who come out of Buffalo.”

“So it was a great spot. I started, they would have these open mics or whatever, sit in with different bands. So I was just starting to get around a little bit at that time. I remember musicians saying ‘wow you sound like the old boogie woogie guys.’ I was like ‘well who’s that, who are they?’ And I’d hear names like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Champion Jack Dupree. So I went out and I bought all the records I could find. I just keep getting those records and learning, playing along with them as much as I could and learning those licks. It was just a natural thing I had for that music and so it led me there.”

Upstate New York, especially at that time, was a hotbed of music and culture. The Band and Dylan at Big Pink, Woodstock, Lou Reed went to Syracuse University. Buffalo was the city in upstate and drew incredible musicians and artists seeking a simpler life then the Big City offered. One such urban expatriate was the great Archie Shepp who taught at UB and left a mark on young Mitch.

“I was going to University of Buffalo and they had a class in African American music and I was like okay that sounds good to me. It was one of those big lecture rooms and the instructor, the professor, was Archie Shepp, the Jazz saxophone player. I was particularly interested in that, I wanted to hear what he had to say. He kept saying whites can’t play the Blues. And it really started to bug me. I don’t know what got into me but I raised my hand and said you know I don’t agree with that. He goes ‘okay name me one white guy who can play the Blues’ or something, I said Eric Clapton or Mike Bloomfield. He goes ‘ah they can’t play, come on name me somebody.’ And this was before I was really playing in public, I don’t know what’d gotten into me, and I said ‘well I can play.’ And of course everybody in the class was laughing at me, He goes ‘oh yeah you can play, well come down on Saturday we have a jam session in the student union and we will see what you can do.’ I went home with my tail between my legs, oh God what did I do now. But came Saturday I got my nerve up and I went down there. The great thing for me was there was no piano there (laughs). You know what happened though, Archie at that point he respected me to have the nerve to come down and do that. He started to turn me on to who to listen to, course he was more a Jazz guy, but he would say to listen to Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner all these incredible piano players.”

Like so many hippies around the country the siren song of the West Coast’s progressive lifestyle and established music scene called to Mitch.

“My girlfriend and I decided we were going to California. My brother was working for Bill Graham, the concert promoter at the Fillmore West. He said ‘oh you gotta come down to San Francisco, the music is happening.’ This was after the Summer of Love, so it was about ‘69, just after that, ‘69-’70. So we drove our van across Canada actually to get there. And at that point we’d go to these coffee houses and I’d play piano and my girlfriend, Gracie, she started singing and playing the washboard, and the harmonica. And that eventually became Mitch Woods and His Red Hot Mama (laughs) and that was my first band with my name on it. Eventually moved to San Francisco and we started playing around here at all the clubs as Mitch Woods and His Red Hot Mama. I was doing a lot of Fats Waller and she was singing more Bessie Sm and Billie Holiday stuff, yeah, it was fun, it was a great act. And we worked with some of the best musicians here in San Francisco.”

imageWhile researching the roots of Rock n’ Roll in Boogie Woogie, Mitch was also hipped to one of the most important inspirations on his music:

“When I was with the red hot mama we opened for Charlie Musselwhite and his guitarist Hi Tide Harris, was his name, he said ‘man, you remind me of Louis Jordan.’ And I didn’t know who Louis Jordan was yet at that time, same thing I went out got all the Louis Jordan records I could find and fell in love with him. To this day he’s one of my big big inspirations”

Louis Jordan was the cornerstone of the 40’s and 50’s music known as Jump Blues. Always the archeologist, after the initial spark of love that Jordan inspired, Mitch delved deeply into the style.

“The Jump Blues thing had just taken me over. On the West Coast there’s what they called ‘Jump Blues.’ It was a big thing back in the 50’s, 40’s-50’s. That’s the era of music that I really love, the late 40’s, early 50’s. When a lot of the big bands were dismantling into smaller units, like 5, 6, or 7 piece bands with 1 horn or 2 horns. A lot of it developed on the West Coast, which was basically a lot of the African American population was coming out from Texas and Louisiana to work at the shipyards here in the Bay area and defense plants on the West Coast. A lot of music came out here and really developed some great bands: Roy Milton and the Solid Senders, Joe and Jimmy Liggins, Roy Brown.”

After 4 or 5 years in San Francisco wood shedding and developing his style with his “red hot mama,” a 2 week trip to Hawaii turned into a 3 year sojourn.

“In the mid to late 70’s I went over to Maui, to Hawaii, and was just gonna be there for about 2 weeks. You know I fell in love with it when I got there, I said wow coming from Brooklyn to a place like Hawaii. I didn’t think there was a place like this in the universe, you know it was like holy cow I don’t want to leave. I stayed 3 years there, I never came back. The red hot mama came back. I had an offer to play a gig in Kauai and they could only afford one of us, so that was the end of that, she went back. So that’s when I had to start singing, it was a piano gig sort of a piano bar I guess and I had to start singing.”

Sun soaked and blissed out by the Islands, Mitch found his way back to the Bay area. Hitting the ground running, Mitch started doing sessions with amongst others Elvin Bishop and Luther Tucker. At this point Mitch launched the trajectory from which the rest of his career would be born out of.

“So when I got back I eventually started forming the Rocket 88’s. I ran into John Firmin who is the sax player with David Bromberg Band. So John, we hit it off really well, he’s an incredible sax player. What happened then, Bromberg decided to retire, so the band was available and John basically brought them in with me. And so I kind of inherited the David Bromberg Band which was great. That became my first version of Mitch Woods and Rocket 88 and we took off from there. Started playing all the clubs in San Francisco and the Bay area.”

Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88’s were the go to Blues band in the Bay area specifically with a national and international reach.

“We opened for Stevie Ray Vaughn 3 times, first time Keystone Berkley it was about 600 people, next time Santa Cruz Civic was about 2,000 and the last time before he died was Concord Pavilion for about 8,000 people. So that was a real treat.”

In the late 90’s Mitch began to produce albums simply under his own name and, at least on record, began to expand his pallet, he had a wide palette to begin with live. New Orleans was and is at the epicenter of Mitch’s music and life:

“Another big part of history is my time in New Orleans. New Orleans has probably been the biggest inspiration to my career, the music of New Orleans for like the last 30 years or so. I started going to Jazz Fest in ‘81 and that’s when I really, I said ‘wow this town is really, it’s a piano town,’ in New Orleans they really respect piano players. As you know the great tradition: Professor Longhair, it goes on and on, Allan Toussaint, Dr. John, Fats Domino.”

As he did when he moved to Buffalo for school, San Francisco to purse his hippie dreams and Maui when he was bewitched by sand and beaches, when Mitch Woods landed in New Orleans he immediately began to play and make musical friends.

“So I had the Jump Blues, and then New Orleans has this great gumbo of great music and it really inspired me. I started to listen to Professor Longhair quite a bit, I didn’t get to see him unfortunately. I think it was my very first trip to New Orleans I sat in at the Maple Leaf Bar, which is a great bar. The club owner said why don’t you come back on Monday and you can open for Booker, James Booker. I didn’t even know who he was at that point. I came back and played my solo piano and it went over great. And then he came on, James Booker, and it was like ‘holy cow.’ He was a genius madman and just unbelievable. So I got to hear him a bunch, quite a bit.”

Mitch befriended some of the old guard, the New Orleans hit maker royalty. Inspired by the pioneer Fats Domino, Mitch developed and recorded his 2006 classic Big Easy Boogie.

“Anyways I kept getting drawn to New Orleans. Over the years I’ve lived there over periods of time, I’ve had 3 different girlfriends there so that kept me coming and going. While I was there, you know I play all the clubs and got to know and play with all the musicians, and I still do to this day. A lot of the musicians were sidemen for Fats imageDomino because you know when Fats is not working these guys got to work. I started playing with his bass player Ervin Charles and Reggie Houston on sax, and eventually I got to meet Herb Hardesty, who was Fats Domino’s sax player from the beginning, it was Herb and Lee Allen. I started writing songs in the old Fats style and you know I had this thing I said ‘well who would be the best band to record this with, well Fats Domino band (chuckles) it would be the kicker right.’ So as I got friendly with Herb he started introducing me to some of the other guys and I eventually I got to know Earl Palmer on drums, who was Fats original drummer, Little Richard’s original drummer and then moved out to LA to become the most recorded drummer in America, in the world really. Was able to gather all these guys together for a recording project called Big Easy Boogie. It was amazing, I knew it was going to be historic once it started to happen so I hired a videographer.”

“It was my tunes in the old Fats style. Herb and Earl kept saying ‘you know you got to bring in Dave Bartholomew,’ who was Fats’ original producer and co-writer of all those big kits. At first Dave was kind of reluctant but finally they kept talking to him and he came down, came down to the session. At first he was kind of standing in the back, but before you knew it he was in the middle of the session directing. They call him ‘the chief’ and now I know why, cause he was the chief and I was glad that happened, that was good by me.”

Mitch is fun loving and a tireless entertainer. His shows are parties full of stories, laughs and friendship. A natural fit was the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.

“The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise I’ve been playing since, it’s been 18 years. What happened was a friend of mine said man ‘you should check out this Legendary Blues Cruise, looks like it’s right up your alley.’ So I contacted Roger Nabor, I used to play the Grand Emporium in Kansas City, he was the owner of that. He said ‘yeah why don’t you come on board as a special guest and do whatever you want to do, you know.’ I said ‘okay sounds good to me.’ So I came on board and I noticed there was a piano bar and there’s nobody in there, so I just started playing. Pretty soon a crowd gathered and these people started comin’ in and other musicians started comin’ in to jam, you know it was happening. And it would go late, it would go late into the night, about 4 in the morning, I’m kind of known for that now, the late late late show. So about 4 in the morning I had it, I said ‘listen I’m going to bed you guys have fun.’ I get to bed, I get a phone call ‘Mitch get your ass down here we have a full house.’ So I come down in my pajamas, somebody pasted a little handwritten sign on the door said Mitch Woods’ Club 88 and that was really the beginning of it, so I kept playing til dawn. So I really founded the piano bar on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.”

Mitch’s piano bar has developed over the years as a main interactive attraction for cruisers. Welcoming both professional friends and civilian amateurs alike, Mitch presides over an alcohol fueled late night banquet of fun and frivolity.

“It used to be just me for many years. We’d go all night, a lot of times I didn’t start until 1 in the morning really. I’ve had everybody from James Cotten to Tab Benoit sit in. They didn’t even have drums there, he (Tab) would play on those bus trays and stuff (laughs) spoons and bus trays. A guy came in once with a Swiss Alp Horn one night, how he got it in, it’s 10 feet long, I don’t know how, but I got a video of that it was hysterical. And of course every harmonica player in the world, whether they could play or not, would come in there. I have any open door policy, it could go from the sublime to the ridiculous really. You know it was a party, of course it’s late at night, they’d been drinking for 24 hours, people were in whacked condition, some really really great moments.”

“One night we were playing in there, I’m pretty sure I had Taj Mahal with me sitting in as well. It was pretty much dawn so we closed the curtains to make it dark, you know, keep it dark. About 8 in the morning the doors open and this straight laced crowd starts walking in. Their looking at us and we’re looking at them, what the fuck? It was the AA meeting that had been scheduled for 8am in the piano bar (laughs). They looked at us and ‘well now we know why we don’t drink anymore.’ I hope we can do it again one day, because it’s probably one of my best gigs in the world.”

Mitch is preparing a reissue of his 2017 duet and trio record Friends Along the Way. A unique album for Mitch, this is a companion piece to 1996’s Keeper of the Flame.

“I had done a previous CD called Keeper of the Flame way back in the 90’s where I was able to put together all the great Blues masters who I was lucky enough to know and be friends with. It was duets with John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Johnny Johnson, Earl King and Lee Allen. And I thought well I’d like to try and do that again now that I’m older with my contemporaries, you know, my friends along the way. And each artist on there I can say is a friend. It’s basically duets and trios, there’s no band on there. Over a period of really just about a year I was able to get everybody in different studios around the country and do duets with Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Elvin Bishop, Ruthie Foster, Charlie Musslewhite, Marcia Ball, John Hammond, Joe Louis Walker, Maria Muldaur, Kenny Neal and Cyril Neville.”

“You know Van, Van Morrison we’ve been friends for like 40 years. He used to live here in Marin County and we just met at a party one day and became friends. He would come to my shows and I would go to his shows. I saw that he was coming to play New Orleans Jazz Fest the year I was recording and I was living in New Orleans at that time. imageI just asked him I said ‘would you be interested in playing a duet with me’ and he said yes. Which floored me, and then I was like ‘oh, another thing, what did I get myself into now?’ (laughs) Cause we’ve been friends but we’ve never recorded together or really played together. So that was pretty amazing. At the same time Taj was coming in to play the next day to play the Jazz Fest, and Taj and I have been friends from the Blues Cruise for many years. So I said ‘how about if I get Taj in’ and of course they were all like ‘yeah let’s do it.’ We were gonna do just one cut in New Orleans at this incredible studio, it was an old church. But everybody got inspired, Van got really inspired and started singing and I said well we’ve got the tape rolling. One of the cuts they hadn’t pressed record, ‘can we do it again?’ They said yes, oh thank you God.”

Like almost every artist during the COVID crisis, Mitch is dealing with the loss of live performance, the loss of regular income and the tremendous pain that is thick in the air for everyone.

“It was pretty difficult and a lot of people are going through the same thing. For the first couple of months for musicians it was like our careers just ended, and it was so sudden. So many of us have spent our lives building a career and a lifestyle that we love and enjoying sharing that with everybody and all of a sudden in 2 days it stops. So to wrap your head around that is not an easy process. I feel like I’m at a better spot now but I know a lot of people are out there are going through the same thing, I hope you find things that you can do that will get you through this period.”

“During this COVID shit, whatever you want to call it, of course I’ve been doing my virtual Club 88 from my living room, everything I do on the cruise I’m doing from my living room, bringing it to your living room. That’s been fun, the nice thing is people can text me so I feel like I have an audience even though I can’t see them so it’s been satisfying on that level.”

A lifetime of travel and an interest in videography are coming together for Mitch as he tried to find new ways to be creative.

“The Boogie Woogie traveler: what I realized is now that I’ve got all this time, I have 30 years worth of videos that I’ve been taking of my travels around the world playing. So I’m starting to learn how to edit them, it’s creative, so it kind of works with my creativity process. I really got to play Blues clubs at the far corners of the world. I’ve always taken these videos and just put them in a box now I’m gonna get them out so people can see.”

Mitch Woods is a modern traditionalist. Culling America’s musical history, Mitch creates new art within specific forms that if not for him and his brethren would be lost. Mitch is an entertainer in every sense of the word, drawing audiences into his world, into his humor, into his heart. Mitch calls his music “rock-a-boogie

“All these influences kind of formed the music that I do. I like to go back to the roots, I like to look to the past to bring all the great stuff that maybe has been ignored but is the roots of all the great music that you hear. Eventually people say well what do you call you music? (snickering) I just came up with, well it’s a little Rock it’s a little Boogie, it’s Rock-a-Boogie. I actually had a business card for a while that said ‘Mitch Woods Inventor of Rock-a-Boogie.’”

Check out Mitch on his YouTube channel to see many videos of his music and his travels: https://www.youtube.com/user/roket8. Mitch is also very active on social media posting lots of content to Instagram and Facebook. And keep an eye on Mitch’s webpage for music to come once live in-person music returns: https://mitchwoods.com/

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