It was a life-changing experience, hearing that one record. Sumito Ariyoshi, better known as Ariyo, had been studying classical piano since since he was three years old. At the age of sixteen, a friend brought him an album, asking if Ariyo could play this kind of music on the piano. “He had an Elmore James record. You know how different classical music and the blues gets. Blues piano players are more flexible, more free. There is more attacking, especially when playing with a band.”
“I figured out that I was lucky to hear Elmore James, because Johnny Jones was playing piano on the record. He was right there between the vocal and the guitar solo. It was easy for me, because of my classical training, to pick-up each of the blue notes on the pentatonic scale, the triplets that Johnny was playing on “Dust My Broom”. My classical training was square. I couldn’t play anything without a score. My classical teachers were telling me not to use a finger a certain way because it wasn’t elegant enough. Blues piano sounded so free. So when some friends invited me, I joined their band.”
Like many others, Ariyo started educating himself by taking a deep dive into recordings by legendary artists like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Little Brother Montgomery. He quickly realized that everyone played the same keyboard. The difference was in their approach. His extensive classical training gave the aspiring blues player a unique skill set.
“I was able to quickly figure out the voicing on chords. And I had a little more technique than some of the older blues piano players. At the same time, it was very hard for me to transfer from classical feeling to the blues feeling. I had to learn to play harder, be rougher. A friend of mine in those days always told me to get some more feeling, that I played too beautiful. Soon I figured out that I needed more rhythm, like the shuffle or the boogie beat. I was playing old-school, no funk. At that time in Japan, blues fans were not interested in artists like B.B. and Albert King because they were too popular. I never had the chance to play “The Thrill Is Gone” or “I’ll Play The Blues For You” in Japan because they didn’t like it. Just like the musicians in Chicago today don’t like to play “Sweet Home Chicago”! I didn’t touch Ray Charles or gospel music in my teenage years.”
Ariyo finished college with a degree in Japanese literature, which lead to a teaching position. But before the hard work started, he decided to indulge to of his passions – driving cars and playing music. A friend, keyboardist Yoko Noge, and her husband asked Ariyo if he wanted to make a trip to Chicago to see the real blues scene. Arriving in Chicago with a plan to stay for several months, Ariyo quickly learned that not being able to speak English made him dependent on the Noges’. They spoke the language and knew where to go, what clubs to visit. After a short time, Ariyo realized he needed to make his own way. Taking a part-time job at a Japanese restaurant, he spent part of every day learning English from the street people that hung out around the Tokyo Hotel, a cheap place to stay on Ohio Street in downtown Chicago.
“I talked to the people out on the street. I would bring them cigarettes and some beer to have some conversations. This was the summer of 1983. A week after I got the job, I was at Blues On Halsted for Sunnyland Slim’s regular Sunday night gig. He had Steve Freund on guitar, Robert Covington on drums, and Bob Stroger on bass. Before them, drummer Kansas City Red was playing with Eddie C. Campbell on guitar. A friend of mine gave me Eddie C.’s name. I talked to him – my name is Ariyo, I came from Japan, I play piano, I love blues! So they brought me up for a couple of songs. They never told me the key, just started playing. But I was ok, I knew the songs.”
“The band loved my playing. The audience was cheering and shouting for me. I stood up after two songs but the bass player put his hand on my shoulder, telling me not to go any where. On the break. I thanked Kansas City Red for letting me sit in. He said they were taking a fifteen minute break and to make sure I was back when they started. My first time playing in Chicago and I played the whole show. Kansas City Red gave me $5, telling me to be back the following Sunday. Then I got the gig with his band. So every week I was there working before Sunnyland Slim, one of my idols, and his all-star band took the stage. I went to Blues On Halsted one night. The guy working the door didn’t recognize me, so I was getting ready to pay the cover. But guitarist Jimmy Johnson came over to tell the doorman to let me in, that I was a piano player. I was so excited that Jimmy Johnson recognized me!”
But Ariyo feels the real start to his blues career in Chicago came later in the year when he was hired by the legendary Jimmy Rogers. That allowed him to quit his job at the Japanese restaurant to focus on music. He continued to play with Red, getting to play with other guitarists like Eddie Taylor and Hubert Sumlin. His pay increased as well, jumping to $20 every Sunday from the club instead of the $5 that Red had been paying Ariyo out of his own pocket. The Rogers band headed to New York in January, 1984 for a tour with Hip Linkchain on guitar, George “Wild Child” Butler on harmonica, Steve Arvey on bass, and Tony Mangiullo on drums.“Tony is Italian, so he understood what I was dealing with, not understanding English well at all. He helped me a lot, inviting me to move in his place in order to save money. When he opened his club, Rosa’s Lounge, his support made it possible for me to stay in Chicago and continue my career.”
Staying with the band until 1985, their paths diverge when Rogers headed to Texas to work with the Antone’s label while Ariyo worked with an agent to put together a tour of Japan with another outstanding guitarist, Robert Jr. Lockwood. Returning to Chicago, Ariyo was contacted by a rising star on the Chicago scene, singer Valerie Wellington. She hired him for her band along with Grady Williams on drums and Nick Charles on bass. When he had breaks in Wellington’s schedule, the piano player played dates with the Otis Rush band. “Valerie encouraged me to take advantage of those opportunities. She felt they would be valuable to my career. We were like brother and sister.”
As his career was in full swing, Ariyo was faced with legal issues that meant a return to Japan, where he stayed for the duration of the 1990s decade. Mangiullo’s family helped him out with the legal issues and the agent of for harmonica ace Billy Branch also served as an advocate for Ariyo’s return in 2001 with a new passport and visa. Six years after that he received a green card, giving him official citizen status. “I had known Billy a long time. Once I returned to Chicago, he was running around telling everyone Ariyo’s, back, Ariyo’s back – but I already got him, so don’t touch him! I started playing with his group, the Sons of Blues. I brought my wife here and our son was born in 2004.”
Over the last fifteen years, Ariyo has been committed to playing with Branch. When there are breaks in Branch’s schedule, and with the leader’s blessing, the piano player has been able to explore other interests as a solo artist in addition to fronting his own band. He has done several solo tours in Brazil, Spain, and, of course. Japan. Ariyo has been featured as a soloist at the 2003 and 2007 Chicago Blues Festivals with an appearance at the Chicago Jazz fest in between. “Billy is my priority. I have to be there because I give the band directions. I am not the music director, but I have been with Billy the longest of any band member”.
Other influences on Ariyo’s style include Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, and Big Maceo Merriweather. During his tenure with Wellington, he learned to play gospel and funk. Her singing had a strong gospel element, powered by her operatically trained voice. Exposure to Chicago’s jazz scene added modern ideas to his musical palette. But blues fans don’t have to worry about Ariyo venturing too far outside the blues traditions. He is a regular participant in the Thursday night blues jam at Rosa’s Lounge, originally run by the late guitarist, James Wheeler. Now Lil’ Ed William’s frequently sits in. Ariyo also plays swinging jump blues as a member of Morry Sochat and the Special 20s, along with Billy Flynn on guitar and Shoji Naito, a 2016 Blues Blast Award nominee, on harmonica.
One measure of the piano player’s talent is the list of recordings he has appeared on in the last several years – Jimmy Burns Band Stuck In The Middle, Big Otis Blues by Rob Blaine, So Close To It by Breezy Rodio, and The Big Sound Of Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperials on Alligator Records. He also made major contributions to the award-nominated recording from Branch, Blues Shock, one of the last releases on the Blind Pig Records label. “Before we went into the studio with the band, Billy and I discussed his ideas for each song, then I put together the voicings. We worked together for a long time. It was a range of old style to more modern sounds”.
Ariyo was excited about the opportunity to work with Lil’ Ed because it took him back to his beginning, with Lil’ Ed’s slide guitar filling in for Elmore James. “I hung out with Lil’ Ed when he toured Japan in 1989. Ed and I play together at the the Thursday night jam at Rosa’s and he is always telling me that he wants me to record with him. I had recorded for Alligator Records back in 1987 with Valerie as part of the label’s the New Bluebloods project with Lil’ Ed, Melvin Taylor and the Kinsey Report. Donald Kinsey was the first musician to ask me to join a band in 1983 but I didn’t have a keyboard”. In November, Branch will be on the road as part of the Big Head Todd tour paying tribute to Willie Dixon. Ariyo is not wasting the time, embarking on his first solo tour of China with stops in Japan. The Sons of Blues have already traveled to Ecuador, Columbia, Romania, and the European Blues Cruise this year.
There are several artists that the piano player would like to play with in the future. “I’d like to do a piano duo with Barrelhouse Chuck. We respect each other so much. It is hard to do because we usually have gigs on opposite sides of town. Before we get too old, I’d like to do something with Chuck. There aren’t many of the old style piano players left besides us and Erwin Helfer. The other is guitarist Larry McCray, who sounds like Freddie King to me. Whenever he comes to Chicago, he calls me but I haven’t had a chance to work with him.”
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!.