In a world dominated by guitarists who value pyrotechnics over whole notes and dynamics, Rick Vito stands out from the crowd. A friendly, soft-spoken man, he’s one of the most in-demand fret masters in the world with a track record that includes work top talent in multiple fields.
You’ve definitely heard him play even if, by some stretch of the imagination, you don’t recognize his name – a talent who’s served long stints as one of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and a member of both Fleetwood Mac and Bonnie Raitt’s band. And his rich tone and slide skills have been an essential part of Bob Seger’s recordings for more than 30 years.
Casual fans might overlook him despite his background as a top sessions player in both Los Angeles and Nashville, but his peers aren’t shy about heaping praise. Steve Miller says he’s “my favorite blues guitarist…the real deal.” Adds Mayall, he’s “a master of the instrument.”
Blues Blast caught up with Vito recently while he was at home in suburban Nashville and taking a brief break from the road, where he’s been promoting his most recent release, Soulshaker, on the VizzTone imprint, the tenth sapphire-to-cyan colored album in his catalog.
Born in Darby, Pa., in 1949, Rick grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. His desire to be a musician began early. “My parents weren’t stodgy or anything, so we watched everything that came on television,” he remembers. “Dick Clark was living in the next town over in Drexelbrook — a local fixture, not a national star.”
Clark’s American Bandstand got its start hosted by Bob Horn on Philly’s WFIL-TV in 1950, mixing short musical films with studio guests. When Clark took over the reins in 1956 and the theme changed to a teenage dance show, its popularity – and his career – exploded overnight. Like many folks of that generation, the Vitos tuned in weekdays to catch regular appearances by chart-toppers at the height of their fame, and they dialed in Clark’s popular Friday night musical variety show, too.
“We watched Bandstand every day,” Rick remembers. “It was just a heightened musical experience. There was a lot going on. Philly kids were all influenced by the local black culture. So we were all good dancers with more rhythm than kids from other places.
“And, like everyone else, when Elvis hit, we were all excited.
“My grandfather, Augustine, was an Italian immigrant, a tailor and a gambler,” Vito notes. “But he finally got into the taproom business in Wildwood, N.J. He being Italian with a nickname of Gus, all of his Italian friends would say: ‘Hey, Goose! Hey Goose!’ So he called the place The Big Goose.
“When he passed away, my grandmother took it over. And when my brother and I were a little bit older, my father gave us the job of comin’ in in the mornings and cleanin’ up the place.”
Working there had major benefits, Rick recalls. In the early ‘60s, the bar’s Seeburg jukebox was always loaded with the top hits – everything from Chuck Berry and James Brown to Del Shannon, Sam Cooke and more.
Vito’s mother was a huge music lover who’d taken lessons on Hawaiian guitar – which was extremely popular in the ‘30s — and played in an all-girl group as a child that made radio appearances. As an adult, she and her sons collected hundreds of 45s from the bar, cashing in on new platters when they lost their spots on the jukebox. Rick still owns many of those discs today, and spins them at home on his own ’50s-vintage Seeburg model juke.
The first live show Rick ever saw was the Everly Brothers at the pier in Atlantic City. Today, he doesn’t remember much, but he was fascinated because the lead guitarist was jumping around all over the stage – something he could relate to – and because the band was playing at high volume through amps.
He was a little more than a month short of his seventh birthday when Presley debuted on Ed Sullivan and set the music world – and the world in general — on its ear. “There was a lot of blues in his music,” Rick says, noting that that’s probably when his love for it began. I liked his bluesy songs the most without realizing it.
“When Elvis came out, I used to take out by mother’s Oahu acoustic and bang on it.”
His folks quickly discovered that he was playing along by ear with songs on the radio. Realizing that he had an innate talent, they rented an inexpensive Stella six-string – an instrument once favored by everyone from Robert Johnson and Charley Patton to Doc Watson and Willie Nelson – for him and put it under the tree at Christmas one year. Lessons soon followed.
“Ever since then, the guitar’s always been my friend,” he says.
The Vitos were avid The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet viewers, too, and Rick quickly became enthralled with the six-string stylings of James Burton, the Louisiana-born rockabilly artist and future Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer who played behind Ricky Nelson.
“Ricky had a wonderful baritone-ish voice,” Vito recalls. “His voice was big, and filled up the track really well. He sang on pitch, and he was cool lookin’ – and smart enough to have good musicians playing with him.”
Ranked No. 19 in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists, Burton rose to prominence a year earlier on the strength of his fret work on Dale Hawkins’ chart-topper “Suzie-Q.” Ricky actually charted more hits than Elvis in 1958-59, and Burton was on most of them during Nelson’s life, after which he served as Presley’s bandleader for the final nine years of Elvis’ life. He’s also been a member of Phil Spector’s famed Wall Of Sound and toured with John Denver, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello.
As time progressed, Duane Eddy and Chuck Berry joined Burton on equal footing as major influence, Vito says, adding: “I’m close to James now. I got to know Rick a little bit. And I’ve just recently started a friendship with Duane Eddy. It’s really an honor to get to know some of my early idols.”
As Vito’s skills advanced, he graduated to a Harmony f-hole model then a Gibson ES 125 electric with a single P-90 pickup. He discovered that ax along with an accompanying small Alamo amplifier by browsing want ads. “My parents bought ‘em for me for $100,” he says. “But they told me: ‘This is all we’re ever gonna buy you musically.
“’If you ever want somethin’ else, you’ve gotta figure out a way to sell this, get the money you need and go from there.’
“That was a good deal, and I’ll always be grateful. It was a big investment — and a great guitar. I still have a soft spot in my heart for both those guitars.”
But his affair with the Gibson didn’t last long. Sometime around his 14th birthday, Vito sold it and replaced it with a 1961 Gretsch 6109 Peppermint Twist Corvette electric. In the early ‘60s, which really stood out from the crowd. Today, it’s one of the rarest models the company ever produced.
“I was walkin’ down the street past this music store – Skip’s in Media, Pa.,” he recalls. “I got many guitars from Skip’s through the years. He had this red Gretsch with a red-and-white striped pick guard (it ran from behind the knobs at left to the base of the neck) in the window. This was the height of the Twist crazy – Chubby Checker and Joey Dee & The Starliters and everybody. And this was a solid-body guitar, whereas the Gibson was a fat-body, the thicker one.
“I wanted somethin’ that was more rock-‘n’-roll. I was gettin’ better at it, and I wanted to play it. So I swapped out the Gibson for it. I played that for a couple of years — until I got a real early ‘60s Telecaster, the first really great guitar that I could play pretty well.”
Rick’s love for the blues grew dramatically because of the Rolling Stones. By studying the song credits on their early LPs and trancing the tunes back to their creators, he discovered Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Jimmy Reed. And through another short-lived TV show — The !!! Beat, which ran in syndication out of Nashville in 1966, he was exposed to Freddie King, Otis Redding, Little Milton, Percy Sledge, Joe Tex and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, who fronted the house band.
His other major influences include bluesmen Robert Nighthawk and B.B. King, jazz master Alvino Rey, the legendary Les Paul, George Harrison and Keith Richards.
Vito’s career began when he backed a doo-wop group, Johnny & The Inspirations, during his freshman year in high school. “It was five guys in leather jackets and me on guitar,” he says.
About the same time, his father opened a nightclub of his own in Wildwood, where Rick, his brother and a couple of neighborhood friends soon started playing to patrons when the pros came off the stage for a break.
“The older guys used to play in the afternoons and evenings,” he recalls. “They’d play 40 minutes and take 20 off. We’d jump up there and play what we knew: instrumentals, the Stones, that kind of thing.”
After graduation, he attended Kutztown State College – now Kutztown University Of Pennsylvania. An aspiring artist, he says, he wasn’t good enough to qualify for the school’s strong art program, and studied speech and theater instead, playing music semi-professionally on weekends.
His first big break came through a friendship he developed with Delaney & Bonnie, who rocketed up the charts in the late-‘60s with a band that occasionally included Duane Allman, Bobby Whitlock, Leon Russell, King Curtis and Eric Clapton.
“When Delaney & Bonnie came out, I was really enamored of those records,” Rick recalls. “I learned a lot from all the guitar playing, and I knew all the material. When they came nearby, I went and introduced myself. They were very nice to me, and encouraging. I played ‘em some things I’d tried to record.
“After the third or fourth time of going to see them, they invited me to bring my guitar and come on stage and play with them. It was the moment,” he says. “I brought the house down, and I knew I was good.
“They kinda turned around and looked at me and said: ‘Who’s this kid?’
“They encouraged me to move to Los Angeles if I was serious about wanting to get into the music business, which I did about six months later in 1971.”
On the West Coast, he did everything he could think of to survive. He formed his own band, performed session work and played in a wide range of musical styles on the road with prominent artists whenever he could to make a good buck.
“I got to work with tons of people,” Vito recalls. “It was an exploding music scene. Everybody was there – living, recording or passing through, so it was really easy to network.”
And there was a vibrant blues scene, too, giving Rick the chance to work with Albert Collins, Lowell Fulson, Big Joe Turner, George “Harmonica” Smith and others who came through the Topanga Canyon Corral, the go-to place for the blues in L.A. in the ‘60s until 1986, when it went up in flames. Canned Heat, Spirit and Spanky And Our Gang all cut their teeth there, and legend has it that The Doors used the bar as their inspiration for one of their most popular songs, “Roadhouse Blues.”
Collins remains a personal favorite.
“I had all the records I could get on Albert Collins, and just studied ‘em,” Vito says. “I just loved his style. I was in a group called the Juke Rhythm Band, and a friend knew Albert and had played with him a couple of times. He said: ‘Look, we’re gonna start backin’ up Albert at the Corral and branch out from there.’
“Albert showed up with his Cadillac, his Telecaster and his Quad Reverb amp. The first thing you got was what a nice guy he was, how much he truly enjoyed bein’ there and playin’ with the guys.
“We had songs worked out that were really funky, and Albert just loved that about our band. We knew all his stuff. So if he said: ‘Frosty’ or somethin’, we knew exactly what to play. He loved it when he could turn it over to me and I could take off and do a little thing back and forth with him.
“But the thing about Albert was that he was unlike anybody else. He wasn’t like B.B. He wasn’t like Freddie. He wasn’t like Albert (King). He really just had his thing down – and it was powerful and funny and entertaining.
“You were watching all of this when you were playing with him,” Rick says, “taking it all it and wondering: ‘How can I glean something from this?’ But whatever it was, you got it! He was a mighty force of nature. Just to be able to stand on the stage with the guy and have him smile at you, point at you to take a solo – you can’t buy that, man!”
Fulson made a major impression, too.
“We always played ‘Blue Shadows Falling’ and all those things,” Vito remembers. “On one gig, he called out ‘Tramp’ (his biggest commercial hit). So I started playing what I knew as the ‘Tramp’ lick and he turns around — very serious — and says: ‘Don’t Joe Tex me, boy! Don’t Joe Tex me! (laughs)
“He didn’t want it too funky. He wanted to keep it blues.”
Rick hooked up with Mayall during those Topanga years through his friendship with bassist Larry Taylor, who was on vacation from his work as a founding member of Canned Heat and holding down the bottom as a Bluesbreaker.
“I was on the road with somebody and Larry finally tracked me down,” Vito remembers. He says: ‘You gotta get back to L.A. — Mayall wants to hear you. I told him about you, and you’re kinda what he’s lookin’ for.’”
Upon his return to Southern California, Rick went to Mayall’s house in Laurel Canyon and jammed with him and Taylor on a couple of songs John was working on.
“At the end,” Vito recalls, “he said: ‘All right! You’re it!’
“Three weeks later, we’re in the studio, cuttin’ an entire record. Two months later, after the record came out in January 1975, we’re over in Europe tourin’. That’s how fast John worked!”
A man who began life as a graphic artist, Mayall’s “very creative,” Rick insists. “His house was filled with his paintings, and he’d do things with his guitar – carve ‘em all up and put stones on ‘em. But I think his genius through the years has been his ability to recognize how other musicians could not only benefit from being in his band, but how he’d benefit from the association as well.
“How many other 85-year-old guys are out there travelin’ the schedule that he is?”
Vito recorded three albums as a Bluesbreaker in 18 months, including Notice To Appear, which featured Allen Toussaint, was captured in New Orleans and featured the piano master’s songs on seven of the 10 cuts.
His run with Mayall lasted four years, during which he was also working locally with his own band. After that, he joined Bonnie Raitt for a tour before recording and with Thunderbyrd, the band fronted by Byrds co-founder Roger McGuinn. Even though McGuinn’s music went in a much different direction, he gave Rick the space to play a couple blues numbers during his roots-based sets.
During the next few years, Vito spent time with Maria Muldaur, Leon Russell, Screaming Jay Hawkins, and donned a purple Spandex jumpsuit to back Little Richard during an episode of TV’s Midnight Special. Today, he occasionally entertains audiences with his equally colorful description of that event.
More work with Raitt and a two-year run with Jackson Browne followed in the early ‘80s, during which he started working with Bob Seger. He’s appeared on all of Seger’s albums since 1986. It’s probably difficult to find anyone who hasn’t heard his fret work on the song “Like A Rock,” which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks charts and served as the theme for a Chevy truck advertising campaign that ran for a decade.
“At the time,” Vito says, “I was so naïve, I didn’t know what a huge star this guy was! He was like Bruce Springsteen out there for his bands. We’d wind up playing huge arenas two, three, four nights in a row in some cities. It was a shock.
“I should have asked for more money,” he jokes, adding: “That song cemented me in folks’ minds. Even if they don’t know that it was me, I try to remind them!”
While some of the twists and turns his career has occasionally taken Vito away from the music he loves, Rick says, “one thing I’ve learned from being in L.A. is how to take basic blues style and stretch out a little bit to play other things that aren’t too far from blues.
“At least that’s the way I play. I never got into wild sounds or overdrive or all that stuff. I try to keep it real.”
It’s something, he remembers, that beloved guitarist Jesse Ed Davis — who worked in support of Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton and a pair of Beatles before an early, untimely death – talked about in a magazine interview – words that still have weight today.
The interviewer mentioned Davis’ economical playing style, “which I absolutely loved,” Vito says. “And he (Ed) said: ‘Man, I listen to some of these young guys. They’re just playin’ a mile a minute, a million notes. It just sounds so frantic to me.’
“That word always stuck in my mind. That’s what it sounds like to me – and don’t ever want to be that guy!”
It’s that mindset that probably helped Rick being recruited to join Fleetwood Mac.
Begun in London in 1967 by drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie and guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, the band exhibited deep blues roots in the first years of their existence thanks primarily to Green’s sensational fret work.
After he departed in 1970 with serious mental health problems, the group went through several personnel changes. By the time they relocated to L.A. in 1974 and incorporated Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who’d made their mark as a folk-rock duo, their sound veered away from the blues. They were at the height of their success in 1987 when Buckingham left the lineup.
“I came off that Seger thing and had this funny feeling that something was gonna happen,” Vito recalls. “I always thought that Bob would ask me to join his band, but I never heard anything from that camp. But then, one day, I get a call from Mick Fleetwood, who I’d worked with informally a couple of times on a Billy Burnette session and again when he sat in with my band and jammed.
“Mick knew I liked the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac, that it was a big influence. Not only was it a great British blues band, but it was also one of the best bands I’d ever seen. Peter Green was a knockout – the epitome of taste, tone and technique. He had it all!
“Fleetwood asked me if I’d like to learn a dozen songs ‘cause Buckingham had been let go and they were about to embark on a tour. I learned the tunes, went down there and hit it off with everybody. And at the end of the day, they said: ‘Obviously, this has been great. We want you.’
“We all went out to dinner, and I was there for four years.”
Vito handled lead guitar duties with Burnette coming aboard on rhythm, and he recorded four albums and a concert video with the band before separating to devote his career to his own band and the blues. The last time he appeared with the group was two years later, when he rejoined them to perform at Super Bowl XXVII.
“That was Billy’s deal,” he says. “He knew someone connected to the Super Bowl, and they asked him if he could get the band to do the opening show.
“It wasn’t the big lollapalooza center (halftime) show we have now. It was a pregame show held out in front of the stadium (the Rose Bowl in Pasadena). Albert Lee was a part of it. Gary Busey showed up. But Stevie (Nicks) wasn’t.”
Vito launched his own solo career in 1992 with the release of King Of Hearts on Atlantic, and hasn’t looked back despite studio work with Seger, Browne, Sawyer Brown, McGuinn, Rita Coolidge, Mayall, John “Juke” Logan, Hank Williams Jr., Teresa James, Glenn Frey, Delbert McClinton, Muldaur, Boz Scaggs, John Prine and others.
As a songwriter, he earned a 2001 W.C. Handy Award for “It’s 2 A.M.” Recorded by Shemekia Copeland, it was one of the highlights of her Wicked CD, which garnered contemporary female artist of the year and album of the year honors, too. His original material has appeared in several Hollywood productions, including Without A Trace, Everwood, Memphis Beat and Blue Bloods.
Prior to the release of his latest CD, he’s issued eight others for the Streamliner and Hypertension imprints. And two more – Blue Again! and Live At The Belly Up – were the result of a reunion with Fleetwood and are billed as The Mick Fleetwood Band Featuring Rick Vito.
“After being apart for about 15 years, we somehow reconnected in 2006,” Rick says. “He liked this record that I’d done called Bandbox Boogie, which had some jump blues. We’re both big fans of that kinda music. He said: ‘Man, maybe we oughta put a little thing together that does your songs and the old Peter Green-era songs.’
“I said: ‘I’m all about that!’”
The pair teamed as a blues band on and off for the next decade, during which Blue Again! earned a Grammy nomination for traditional blues album of the year. They parted company amicably in 2017 when Mick’s renewed work with Fleetwood Mac took him in different direction.
A guitar designer in his own right with several prototypes, Vito has been working and touring out of the Nashville area for the past 24 years. He’s been playing Reverend guitars exclusively for two decades, during which they’ve released three different signature models bearing his name.
“I was attracted to them at first because they were really well-made, sounded great and were light weight,” Rick says. “And all three of the signature models were a combination of my ideas from my prototypes and a couple of ideas that they had.
“The second one was very art deco-inspired, real pretty looking. And now there’s a new one called the Soulshaker, which has a kinda antique white pearloid finish like some drum sets, some rope binds and art deco appointments, too.
“Art’s still very important in my life,” he notes. “But the prime focus of my life since 1998 has been to make solo records.”
He’s delighted with his latest VizzTone release and that he was brought into the fold by co-owner Bob Margolin, who’s been a friend since first meeting when Bob was playing in Muddy Waters’ band in 1977.
“I got to do some songs that I’m pretty happy with, and it’s all slide guitar, which has been one of my trademarks,” Rick says.
Check it out by visiting his website at www.rickvito.com . And if you’re a guitar player seeking tips from a master, check out his latest instructional DVD. Entitled Soulshaker, like the CD and guitar, it’s available at www.truefire.com