Featured interview: Tony O

imageChicago blues is the lifeblood of a multitude of musicians today, but only a few have a pedigree handed down directly from the masters. And, although you might not know him, New York City-based guitarist/harmonica player Tony O stands out from the crowd. After all, who else still playing the music today got his stage name directly from Howlin’ Wolf himself?

Born Anthony Melio and best known for his membership in the final incarnation of the Legendary Blues Band, the ensemble that formed after splitting from Muddy Waters, Big Apple native Tony’s first exposure to the founding fathers of the Windy City sound came in his early teens. Now still vibrant at age 64, he became a fixture internationally as a young adult, touring with Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Jimmy Rogers.

Those artists are long gone, but Tony’s been carrying their legacy forward while hiding in plain sight all along – something he demonstrates clearly with his latest CD, Blues O Blues, the first album he’s issued under his own name since the mid-‘90s.

Blues Blast caught up with him via phone recently, and his back story is without a doubt one of the richest you’ll read in a blues publication this year.

A diminutive man with a large personality, Tony grew up in Corona, Queens – the same Italian neighborhood that’s home turf for the infamous five major crime families of New York. But instead swearing allegiance to them, he bathed himself in the blues instead.

His path to the music came at age 14 when he found an acoustic six-string in the trash, fixed it up and started fooling around with it, trying to teach himself to play.

“My sister, Linda, came over and saw me strugglin’ with it,” he remembers. “Her and her husband, Larry, they brought me over an electric guitar with a little Kent amplifier. I was just ecstatic! Every now and then, they’d come over to see how I was playin’, and I was gettin’ better and better.”

Years later, he graduated to the Gibson 335, the ax he still plays today, picking his first one up at Manny’s Music, the store on Music Row in Midtown Manhattan that outfitted everyone from rank beginners to Jimi Hendrix for 74 years before closing for good in 2009.

He fell head over heels in love with the blues after picking up a couple of B.B. King LPs: one of his earliest albums as Live in Cook County Jail, one of his best sellers, which still riding at the top of the charts at the time. Like the great majority of Tony’s peers, B.B. quickly became Melio’s biggest influence, something that continues to manifest in the style of his own that he’s developed and demonstrated throughout his career.

“I used to see B.B. all over New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he says. “I used to go to Ticketron and pay $5 for a ticket…$5, maybe $10 when prices started goin’ up. Oh, man! I’d be there in the front row, watchin’, studyin’ him – maybe 100 times…80 times, at least.”

As he tried to cop King’s chops, Melio was also fiddling around with harmonica, too. In a world today in which a professional-grade harp costs $45 or more, he was buying Hohner Marine Bands for pocket change – just 50 cents a pop. How times have changed!

His skills on the instrument jumped levels after meeting Danny Russo. A few years older and hailing from another part of the city a short distance away, Russo was already a fixture on the local blues scene, playing at Dan Lynch’s in Greenwich Village and other top clubs.

“He was an amazing harmonica player, and he knew Muddy Waters,” Tony says, noting that he tagged along with Russo multiple times when he hooked up with the master and his band at hotels multiple times whenever they were playing in town. “I started playin’ blues with Dan in the basement – just the two of us. I got fairly honed on it, and I never stopped playin’” – something that’s evident in the crisp, traditional harp runs he produces today.

“And then he said: ‘I want you to meet Victoria…the Queen” – referring to the legendary vocalist Victoria Spivey, who was a diva in every sense of the word.

“I said: ‘Wow…Queen Victoria…I heard of her,’” Tony recalls. “He said: ‘She’s in Brooklyn. Come with me, and we’re gonna play with her in her apartment music studio.’ I was just…very nervous. I went there and met her, and Paul Oscher (who’d recently ended a run as Muddy’s harp player) for the first time, too.”

imageThen in her 60s, Spivey was a Texas native who’d migrated to New York decades earlier. She began her career working with Blind Lemon Jefferson and a young Louis Armstrong, and – amazingly — she recorded with guitar great Lonnie Johnson in both the 1920s and ‘70s.

The owner of Spivey Records, a label she founded in 1961, she was the first person to record both Bob Dylan and Oscher as well as a teenage Sugar Blue, and her LPs – primarily multi-artist compilations — featured a who’s who of jazz and blues talent, including Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and the entire Waters band, Big Joe Williams, Roosevelt Sykes and more. At the time, Russo was also serving as her harp player whenever she performed.

When Tony played, the Queen liked what she heard. The meeting proved such a success that she hired him as her guitar player. Melio’s time with Spivey was short because she passed a few months later in 1976. But before she died, she gave Tony his first opportunity to record, too – as a contributor to the LP Victoria Spivey and Her Danny Boy…Danny Russo.

That disc was notable because it also included an appearance of Little Joe Berson. Just a footnote in blues history, Berson was a terrific harp player with a very short catalog because he succumbed to a heart attack in his youth. Once considered a rising star in Chicago, he’s best known as the musician who overdubbed the harp lines of Big Walter Horton when he was filmed on Maxwell Street for The Blues Brothers because the notoriously camera-shy Horton was too drunk to play on the day of the filming.

Tony made it to the cover of the album. That’s him bottom right wearing his trademark sunglasses, wearing his trademark sunglasses and hugging the Queen, who’s grinning slyly.

“She used to call me ‘The Fly’ because of those glasses,” he says. “I did a string of shows with her in Queens and Brooklyn, and then a tour up in New England. We played in one place up in Brattleboro, Vt., out in the country. We were stayin’ at this lady’s house, and she made all these different brownies.

“Everybody was eatin’ them, and we were gettin’ all silly and laughin’. That’s when the lady said: ‘Oh, I baked ‘em with marijuana, and I put some hash in ‘em, too.’

“I used to take Victoria to the dentist and the doctor, too. I cared a lot about her, ya know. And I used to buy her bottles of Hennessy (cognac). She used to hide it in her shoe under the bed.

“But then I met my first wife – and she put the brakes on me (laughs).”

It was through Victoria that Tony first met Hubert Sumlin and the two became close friends. “Every time Wolf would come in to the city, he remembers, “I’d be there waiting. Hubert’d call me in advance. And wherever they’d be playing, he’d say: ‘C’mon down and we’ll get you in.’”

“One time, at Carnegie Hall, I was waiting a long time and tellin’ the security guy: ‘I’m Howlin’ Wolf’s friend.’ And he’s like: ‘Yeah. You’re Howlin’ Wolf’s friend – you know how many people tell me that?’ All of a sudden, instead of Hubert comin’ to get me, it was big, bad Wolf, sayin’: ‘He’s with me!’

“I’d be at their hotel on the down time and have my guitar up there. S.P. Leary would be on his drum pad, and we’d all be jammin’…me, S.P., Hubert. Wolf would walk it, and it would be so funny ‘cause he’d say the same thing every time. He’d look at me and look at Hubert and tell him: ‘Teach him ri-i-ight!’

“I learned a lot from Hubert – on the spot – literally!’”

Sumlin started it, but Wolf was responsible for giving him his nickname, Tony says. “Hubert said somethin’ like ‘Hey, Tony-o!’ and then Wolf established it. Every time I’d come to see him, he kept sayin’: ‘I’m namin’ you ‘Tony O, Tony O!’

“Wolf was a really good fisherman, and he wanted me to go fishin’ with him for muskie up in the (Great) Lakes. He wanted to take me on the road with him just so we could do it. He ended up callin’ my mother. She said: “No, no, hell no! He’s only 16!’ (laughs)”

A trendsetter in the world of blues, Wolf was something special, Tony recalls. As physically imposing as he was he was a warm, friendly man. He and his band traveled in a pair of Pontiac station wagons with Wolf behind the wheel of one and Hubert piloting the other. And despite suffering from kidney failure during his final years, he still performed at the highest level despite often undergoing dialysis on the day of the show – something Tony witnessed multiple times.

One of those station wagons figured prominently in a story Melio first heard from Hubert and corroborated years later by Jimmy Rogers, the guitarist who wrote such blues classics as “Walking By Myself,” “That’s All Right” and the humorous “My Last Meal” and was a member of Muddy’s first band.

“Both of them told me the same thing word-for-word,” he says. “Jimmy borrowed Wolf’s car to take a girl out. He brought it back the next mornin’ because Wolf’s wife (Lillie) needed it to go shopping.”

Immediately after she left, however, she stormed back inside, spewing a stream of profanities at Wolf, accusing him of cheating after discovering a used condom laying in plain sight on the backseat. Wolf tried to calm her to no avail.

image“She got this shotgun,” Tony says, “and chased him outside. ‘A condom in the car?’ she says. ‘A used condom in the back seat?’ She freaked out, and he ran into the woods – and she shot him! The buckshot got ‘em… right in the butt. Hubert was the one who had to take him to the hospital. He said: ‘They was pullin’ that buckshot right outta his ass, partner!’ (laughs)”

Fortunately, however, it didn’t do any more serious damage.

Melio always planned to be a musician, but he’s also a railroad man, too. At age 19, he started working for Amtrak as a brake inspector and inside carpenter at Sunnyside Yard and Penn Station, a job he held for 18 years while fronting bands regionally, too, frequently backed by the Uptown Horns, when they weren’t on the road with the Rolling Stones or Albert Collins or recording Tom Waits, Joe Cocker, Lou Reed and James Brown.

As a recording artist, a large portion of his work has come as a member of the band Little Mike and the Tornadoes, an on-again, off-again relationship that’s endured since crossing paths in 1982 and includes co-billing on albums with Hubert, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton and Chicago vocalist Zora Young.

They met for the first time at what Tony describes as a “dark, shady bar on Queens Boulevard.” Multi-instrumentalist/band leader Mike Markowitz was at the piano, leading a band that included bass, drums and sax, but no guitar and delivering a set of genuine, deep-in-the-pocket Chicago blues.

After striking up a conversation between sets, Melio asked if he could sit in, noting that his six-string was in his car outside. Once he set foot on the stage, he says, “I was pretty amazed. We locked in really good! But the sax player did not like me at all. I stole his limelight ‘cause he was the lead guy, I guess. He hated me.

“Later on, Mike said: ‘Come down to another gig. We’re gonna have you sit in.’ It was in Forest Hills, and the sax player, he was fumin’” – so much so, in fact, that he quit on the spot. “That’s when Mike said: ‘You’re in the band now!’”

Not long after, they started touring with Pinetop Perkins after meeting him through Tony and, not long after, Sumlin and Rogers, too. They went into the studio with Perkins in ’88, releasing the album After Hours on Blind Pig in 1988, followed by Heart & Soul with Hubert and Cotton a year later. Another disc, Heart Attack, was released in 1992 and included Sumlin, Ronnie Earl and Paul Butterfield in guest appearances. And their work with Top and Jimmy from that era got new life again a few years ago when the Elrob label released it under Genuine Blues Legends.

Melio and the Tornadoes parted company after gigging in Miami, and the group announced they wanted to move toward rock and veer away from straight blues in hopes of attracting a broader audience. Tony returned to New York and returned to fronting the band he worked with regularly between tours.

But his Windy City connection paid off in dividends a short while later when he received a phone call out of the blue from Chicagoan Dave Clark. The man who’s credited with helping resuscitate the career of ‘50s R&B superstar Floyd McDaniel, Clark had never spoken to Tony before, but was calling at the behest of Muddy’s former drummer, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who was now leading the Legendary Blues Band as vocalist and harmonica player.

Smith needed to hire a new guitar player and offered the job to Clark, who was unable to accept it because of scheduling conflicts. Jimmy Rogers apparently had been spreading the word in the Chicago blues community that Melio was available and that he and the Tornadoes were no longer an item. At Big Eyes’ insistence, Clark made the call to set up first contact because Tony was the next man on his list.

“No question…I was interested, Willie called that same night,” Tony remembers. “I was blown away. After a little while, he says: ‘We need you in the band. We like your sound. But everyone in the band’s a front man, and you sing and play – so you qualify.’

“But he asked me to do a live audition. I said: ‘Really? Oh boy…do I hafta go to Chicago?’ He says: ‘No. See us next week in Syracuse.’

image“I took the train, go to the club, and it’s packed! There ain’t too many times when I got nervous, but that was definitely one of ‘em. There’s (harp player) Madison Slim. There’s (bass player) Calvin (“Fuzz”) Jones. There’s Willie, and Piano Willie Oshawny, too. In my mind, I’m goin’: ‘Not one error! Not one slip, not one bad note, not nothin’!’

“And that’s what I did. The crowd was very responsive, but I wasn’t sure. After the set, there was a big curtain behind the stage, and (the band) were all jumpin’ around, sayin’: ‘You’re in! You’re in! You make the band sound great!’

“Now, Willie tells me: ‘Here’s what you hafta do: Go home, pack your shit, and you have to come to Chicago – as soon as possible.’

“I had a big wad of cash in the freezer. I used to wrap in up in aluminum foil and put it next to the pork chops (laughs). I had about five wads in there, and I took it all. I told my brother: ‘Here’s the keys to my apartment. I have to go to Chicago.’

“’Are you crazy?’ he said. ‘I said: Nah, I’m goin’ there to join the post-Muddy Waters band.’”

When Tony’s train arrived at Union Station Big Eyes was waiting to bring him home – two doors away from Muddy’s former house – and put him up until he could get settled.

“His family was the most beautiful, downhome family I’ve ever met,” Tony says. “His daughters and sons, his wife…they were just terrific! I had an agreement with her: I did the dishes.

“They had this big freezer…it looked like it was eight feet long. She’d say: ‘What do you want to eat tonight? Pork chops? Chicken? Steak?’ I looked in there, and had never seen so much meat at one time in my life. I slept in a room in the basement with the kids. Some of ‘em were little – like Kenny (now keeping his father’s tradition going strong and known as “Beady Eyes”). All five of ‘em would get on my little bed and I’d tell them stories before they went to sleep.

“I probably learned the most about the blues from Willie Smith than from anybody else,” Tony says. “I learned how to play a Muddy Waters song right. My biggest influence, B.B., was also Willie’s. He taught me how to play a B.B. song the right way, too.

“And I can actually play the drums very well now because I spent so many nights on stage just watchin’ him! He was the king of the double shuffle. I miss him so much, man! I have Willie’s pictures on the walls all over my house.”

Melio stayed with the Smiths about a month before landing a pad on the North Side and about a five-minute walk the thriving blues scene of the Lincoln Park neighborhood. He and Legendary toured relentlessly. One trip took them to Japan along with Cotton and Jimmy Rogers.

That was special enough, Tony says, but making it more so was that he got the opportunity to play alongside Robert Jr. Lockwood, too, during a night off in Tokyo. They’d performed together previously when the Tornadoes toured Cleveland, where he was living. But this meeting was prompted by a call from Rogers.

It was an offer Tony couldn’t refuse because — then and now – despite his adoration of B.B., he’s has always considered Robert Jr. to be the best bluesman ever to walk the earth.

“Jimmy said: ‘Bring your guitar,’” Melio recalls. “I said: ‘Really?’ He said: ‘Yup. He wants you and Madison Slim to sit in.’ I got there, he called us up, and he sat there with his 12-string. He even let us both sing a couple of songs. The crowd roared. It’s one of the highlights of my career.”

When they working in greater Chicagoland, the band usually had Sundays off, which was perfect for Tony because he knew that Sunnyland Slim – the man who introduced Muddy to the Chess brothers – would be holding court a few blocks from his home at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted.

Then in his mid-80s, Sunnyland was still a powerhouse, pounding the keys of the aged upright piano on the postage-side stage backed by a lineup that included Brooklyn native Steve Freund, one of Melio’s favorite guitarists, with future Blues Hall of Famer Bob Stroger on bass.

Now close friends a rocky start, Freund invited Tony to sit in, something that immediately struck a positive chord with Sunnyland. From then on, every time Melio walked into the bar, he insisted on bringing him up to play. Making it even more special, Tony says, was that the piano master loved the way he sang, too.

When the owners of B.L.U.E.S. subsequently opened a short-lived sister club, Chicago B.L.U.E.S., on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, Sunnyland and Freund played there often, and Tony frequently joined them. “I’m a very lucky man,” he says humbly. “Oh, my God! He was an unbelievable legend!”

imageTony remained a vital member of Legendary Blues Band despite moving back East after seven months. His licks are featured on their final two albums — U B Da Judge in 1991 in a lineup that also included Billy Flynn and Money Talks in 1993, on which Nick Moss was holding down the bottom on bass with Kenny Smith on drums.

Since the demise of Legendary, Melio’s primarily been leading his own band. He recorded his only other album as a headliner – Top of the Blues — in 1995 after joining forces with Grammy-winning producer Bob Stander.

The star-studded lineup included both Pinetop and Big Eyes, but also longtime band Stan Bronstein, founder of the ‘70s group Elephant’s Memory, which evolved into John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s backing band. Released on the Deluge label, it was mixed by the late Cub Koda, a founding member of Brownsville Station and the author of their biggest hit, “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.”

“That album did well globally for about a year and a half,” Tony remembers. “Then Deluge went under, and that was that. But being associated with all those heavy hitters kinda put me on the map.”

He spent the remainder of the decade touring along with Smith and Perkins, spending as many as three consecutive months on the road, but taking time off to record Pinetop’s Grammy-nominated Born in the Delta CD, a Telarc release that included Willie and Tornadoes bassist Brad Vickers as well as a guest appearance from Jerry Portnoy.

Melio crossed paths with B.B. on multiple occasions through the years, but none more special than the grand opening in 2000 of B.B. King’s Blues Club on Times Square. “I was tourin’ at the time, but in town with the night off,” Tony recalls. “I said to Pinetop: ‘This grand opening is gonna be historic…landmark stuff.’ He says: ‘Well, let’s call him.’

“So I called the club. I told the guy who answered: ‘This is Tony O and Pinetop Perkins, and we wanna speak with B.B. because we wanna come to the show tonight.’ He was like: ‘We’re all sold out.’ But the guy says: ‘Hold on! I just seen him walk past me.’

“He puts down the phone, and the next thing I know I’m speakin’ to B.B. himself!”

Not only did B.B. remember who he was, but – after speaking briefly with Top – assured them that he’d put their names on the guest list and have a table for them and their entire entourage – about eight people — waiting upon their arrival.

“It was the best night of my life,” Tony says. “We had a big table down front, and B.B. even got on the mic and said: ‘I want to thank Tony O for bringing that great, legendary young man, Pinetop Perkins, down to this show. How ‘bout it?’ A big spotlight came on the table, and the whole place stood up clappin’.

“We had to stand up. Pinetop was wearin’ this big buckle on his belt, and it got caught on the tablecloth. We had so-o-o many drinks on the table, and they spilled everywhere – we were all drenched, but weren’t payin’ it any attention.”

That nightclub has provided special memories for Tony – some beautiful and others truly bittersweet.

“It’s ironic,” he says, “that’s the last time I ever saw B.B. — and when Pinetop died in 2011, they had a big memorial service for him, too. Willie called me to come down, and I went with my brother and another guy.

“Willie’s on stage with Hubert, and Rico McFarland’s playin’ guitar, David Maxwell’s on piano with Jimmy Mayes on drums and Bob Stroger on bass. It was another legendary band, and I did something that’s so out of character for me – but it worked.

“Willie’s singin’ a song and blowin’ harp. I had some harps with me, and got up on stage without askin’ and went next to Willie. Dave Maxwell – I toured the Virgin Islands with him — is slappin’ me five. Stroger’s smilin’, too. Willie finally looks to the side, sees me and lights up like a Christmas tree. We shared licks, and it was just beautiful.

“At the end of the night, Willie was gettin’ his things into the van on 42nd Street. He wanted me to get my bag and come with him to Connecticut to be his special guest at his next show, but the other guys didn’t want me to go. I never made it, and that just kills me, man.

image“That night was the last night I saw all my friends…the last night I saw Willie, the last night I saw Dave Maxwell, and the last night I seen Hubert, too.”

Both Smith and Sumlin passed later that year with Maxwell following four years later with Tony spending the better part of the decade splitting his time between Florida and New York after purchasing a home in St. Augustine, Fla., using it as a base for tours that covered the East Coast from Key West to Canada.

He’s been living in Flushing, Queens — home to one of the largest Chinese communities in the world outside of Asia — since 2011, and primarily gigging in the Tri-State region and Southern New England ever since, often playing to crowds of up to 1,500 people at weekend concerts only a few blocks from his home.

With social distancing and weather permitting, those shows continued on a monthly basis through the coronavirus crisis this past summer. Tony’s also using his carpentry skills to install windows and doors with his brothers to help make ends meet without steady income from performing, something that’s somewhat easier because of a small railroad pension.

Meanwhile, he’s biting at the bit to get back on the road to promote his new CD – something that’s been a surprise to him because he never thought he’d be recording another one. Entitled Blues O’ Blues and produced and recorded by Stander, it’s a stellar set of Windy City music with a contemporary, updated feel. Once again, it was produced and recorded by Stander.

A set of seven covers and three originals, the lineup includes Tony’s brother, Chumslick Nick, on second guitar, the Uptown Horns — founding members Crispin Cleo and Arno Hecht along with Larry Elkton, his regular rhythm section – drummer Mike Severino and bassist Angelo Olivieri, guest appearances by keyboard players Boogie Bob Erikson and John Wynwood and the Urban Horns — Keven Batchelor, Tony Orbach and Paul Vercesi – too.

Since its recent release, it’s been getting regular airplay across the U.S. and in more than a dozen other countries – all without the help of a publicist or agent.

“I’m heavily influenced by traditional blues legends,” Tony says. “But people tell me that my voice is very different and unique and that my playing is definitive…that if they hear me on the radio, they know it’s me before the announcer says my name.

“I definitely appreciate that and want it to be that way. Promoters and other people tried to change me, but I won’t do it. It’s not about money or popularity. It’s about keeping the blues alive.

“I’m gonna hold the blues fort down until the day I die!”

Check out Tony’s music and – hopefully – where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.tonyoblues.com

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