“Real deal blues” is a euphemism for a no-nonsense style of the genre that is so steeped in heritage that there can be no denying its legacy. There is also a supposition that real deal blues artists have little patience for indulging young crossover artists raised on rock who appeal to their own demographic with presentations built as much on testosterone as they are on heart and truth.
Real deal blues artists’ music is fueled by a need to express emotions based on the experiences of a life hard fought. Their success is measured in resumes loaded with five-star affiliations, small club appearances splayed over five continents, and just enough income to buy potato chips and cheap whiskey. And maybe – just maybe – enough jaw-dropping gigs with their mentors to justify their obsession with the music.
If they survive past 60, their income approaches the high-water mark of their legacy and their performances reach a level that allows them to capture an audience with a presentation drawn from deep in their soul. In front of a paying audience their feet never touch the floor, and every song is delivered as if they’d just imagined it and sung it for the first time.
Sugar Ray Norcia is a real deal artist. His deeply emotional vocals and harp playing are heard on numerous albums released by his band the Bluetones from the 1970s to the present. Early in their career, the Bluetones were the backup and/or touring band for Big Joe Turner, J.B. Hutto, Roosevelt Sykes, Otis Rush, Big Mama Thornton, Big Walter Horton, and Sunnyland Slim. Hubert Sumlin, Ted Harvey and Doug “Kid” Bingham are all alumni of the band. Bingham left the Bluetones to replace Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. As if that weren’t enough, Norcia himself has recorded with Joe Louis Walker, Al Basile, Pinetop Perkins, Sax Gordon, Debbie Davies, Jimmy Rogers and Al Basile, among other.
Norcia also was lead vocalist in Roomful of Blues from 1991 to ’97. He credits Johnny Nicholas of Asleep at the Wheel fame with introducing him to the blues as a youngster in Rhode Island.
“I’ve got to credit him for being really instrumental in seeking out some of the legends we were able to back up. Johnny Nicholas was practically a neighbor of mine growing up, and went on to play with Asleep at The Wheel. He introduced me to Johnny Shines and Big Walter Horton and people of that sort when I was very young. Along that same time, I was also beginning to work with Ronnie Earl who was instrumental in making phone calls and digging up people like Robert Lockwood and Big Walter Horton. So, we recorded with these people and traveled with them. It was a great thing to do, especially when you’re young and learning.”
Of all the legends he’s worked with, Norcia misses Big Walter Horton the most. “I got to know him personally. He was my roommate on the road, so I kinda miss him, and it freaks me out when I think he passed. I think he was only 58 when he passed away, and here I am 64. It just changes your perspective. He seemed like a little old man, and he really wasn’t that old. He led a hard life. A couple of the last times I flew up to Providence to work with him in Rhode Island, he wasn’t in very good shape. In fact, one time he had been beaten up and was all scarred up. That was difficult to watch.
“He was the one I remember the most because, like I say, we roomed together. We partied together. My son at that time was three years old when I was working, and Walter put him on his knee and kinda babysat him backstage. It was great.”
Norcia learned from Big Walter that a musician’s personality is as important to the stage chemistry as their talents as a musician. “A guy like Walter, for example, was cantankerous and kind of standoffishness at first, but once you got to know him, he was a fun-loving, warm, humorous kind of person. That all comes out through the music as well, so they go hand in hand, I think. In other words, he was a friend as most musicians were. I look for warm personalities that are able to show that through their music as well.
Norcia lived about a mile and a half from the Knickerbocker Café in Westerly, Rhode Island where Roomful of Blues performed when he was still a teenager.
“I hung out and got to really know all the fellas in Roomful of Blues, the original guys like Duke Robillard, Al Copley and Greg Piccolo and, yeah, I just loved going to see them Sunday night, and it was a treat. I was still a teenager, and I was witnessing Eddie Cleanhead Vincent, Red Prysock, Helen Humes and Fats Domino. All of this in a club that holds 350 people packed to the gills. Every Sunday they’d bring somebody in, a guest artist.
“Back then, the drinking age was 18 years old, but I was going there since I was 15 or 16, hanging around the doorway or sneaking in or listening through the windows kind of deal.”
It was an easy in for Norcia to become a member of Roomful after years of hanging out with them. “I used to want to sit in with them. I’d stand there and go, ‘Boy, I could sing with a band like that,’ but I was young and not established at that time. ‘Well, maybe next week, kid. Not tonight! Maybe later on.’ I wasn’t getting the opportunities. Then, once in a while they’d actually call me up and I’d sing, and they’d go, ‘Holy shit. That sounds pretty good.’
“I always thought I’d like to play with horns, but I got the phone call from Greg Piccolo who was leaving the band. I guess it was 1990 or ’91 asking if I’d be interested in joining the band. ‘Hell, yeah, when do we start?’ And he was like, ‘Thursday we leave for California.’ And here it was like Tuesday. Greg was singing at the time. He was singing, playing horn and he was having vocal problems with nodules of the throat, just having a tough time with it, and the band really wanted a strong vocalist.
“He dropped off 50 songs for me to learn really quickly. Some of ’em I knew and most of ’em I had read the lyrics at first for the first few gigs, but we immediately went into Pat Benatar’s studio in California and cut some tunes, and played and headlined festivals right off the bat which was a dream come true for me.”
How scared was he trying to go through 50 songs with two days’ notice?
“Well, it was a little nerve wracking. I had to use a cheat sheet to start reading words. I couldn’t remember everything. A lot of the songs I had been hearing them perform for years. So, I was pretty familiar with a lot of the material which was a big help. And I’d brought a lot of my own material. The first record I did with them, Dance All Night, a lot of that was stuff I brought to the band, but we incorporated my influences as well.
“We were playing 250 dates-plus a year, one nighters. I was young, vibrant, healthy, in my 30s, and I was up for the challenge. I could sing every night, and it was quite the experience.”
It was a desire to play more harmonica that prompted Norcia to leave Roomful and go back to his own band The Bluetones.
“I would say that was the biggest reason. I wanted to go back – I missed the Bluetones. The Bluetones were always my band, always has been, always will be. So, that was a 10-year period (1990 to ’99) almost of no Bluetones gigs, and I missed my big welcome segment and playing Little Walter tunes and wailing away on the harp and of course, with Roomful I realized I was mainly just the singer. I enjoyed the hell of it, but there came a time I just needed to play some harp.
“Anybody can pick one up and put it in their pocket, sort of blow in and out, easily learn the couple of familiar melodies, but to take it beyond that and really study it, of course it’s difficult, yeah. It takes years and years of practice and repetition. Myself, I hear melodies in my head all the time. I’m like a walking jukebox. Sometimes I think it’s a curse, but I play very melodic, my harmonica.”
Reminiscing with Norcia about the myriad of musicians he’s played with is like picking peaches off a tree loaded with low hanging fruit. There’s Junior Wells with whom the Bluetones toured in 1990.
“I do remember we ran out of money. We were in this old telephone van, this old beat-up van that broke down on the road. Ronnie Earl had to make a phone call. He was called Ronnie Horvath back then, not Ronnie Earl, but he made a phone call to a friend of his and borrowed $40 for potato chips and coffee to survive on, but the best memory was playing at Theresa’s with Junior and sittin’ in with the band. We got offered a gig there by Theresa herself. ‘Can you play every Tuesday night?’ ‘No, ma-am. We’re from Boston. It’s not gonna work.’”
Roomful played with Cab Calloway at a Boston blues festival. “He didn’t even have his own mike stand. When he didn’t need his mike, he just laid it down on the stage, and if somebody needed to take a solo, he’d walk over to him in total control and hold the microphone up as he soloed. So, obviously he decided when their solo was over. It was a beautiful thing, and we shared the bus after the show. So, you’ve got Cab Callaway’s orchestra and Roomful of Blues on the same bus exchanging stories and heading to the bar at the hotel and hanging out for more hours till the wee hours. You know, episodes like that will stay with me forever.”
Roosevelt Sykes inspired the Bluetones to record their first record. “There’s a café in Cambridge-Somerville, Massachusetts, and that was with Ronnie Earl in the early days of the Bluetones, and Roosevelt was really impressed with us. ‘Where can I get your record?’ ‘We don’t have any records.’ ‘You mean, you’ve never been in the studio?’ ‘No, sir, we’ve never recorded.’ He said, ‘Well, man, you oughta get started ’cause it sounds good to me, and you should go into the studio.’ That was really the catalyst that got us to make our first record.”
Or the time a compliment from Otis Rush left Norcia high for weeks. “The first song I ever recorded that I wrote that I published was called “Bite The Dust.” I was touring the Bluetones with Ronnie Earl on guitar, and with Otis Rush at the time. He was at my home, and we said, ‘Otis, we just recorded an EP. We want to play you this tune.’ He said, ‘Sure,’ and we played it, and there was a big smile from ear to ear, and he said, ‘Can you play that again?’ So, we must have played it three of four times for him. I was just high for weeks.”
Norcia’s mother lived to 95. His dad died at 82. He has a house in the country on an acre and a half of land, but at 64, Norcia has every intent of performing until he drops. “For the most part it’s different every night. You can ask my band members who hear me play the same songs for the last 40 years, but I never really play it the same way twice. And they have to be on their toes because I’ll switch the solos around. Someone may solo on this song one night, and the next night I’ll decide, no, I’m gonna just be the soloist. It’s always just creating the moment.
“That’s what I like about this music. They know me so well it’s almost telepathic, and I have of course little hand signals, probably things I do I’m not ever aware of, but, boy, it’s hard to trip ’em up because they’re right there on top of me.
“They always go, ‘Whatcha got up your sleeve tonight, Sugar?’ I’ll say, ‘Keep your eyes open and your ears open. You’ll find out.’ I might pull out tunes we haven’t played in 25 years, and it’s amazing. It’s like riding a bicycle. They remember their parts.”
Charlie Baty of Little Charlie and the Nightcats fame is on guitar. “Mudcat” Ward plays bass. Anthony Geraci is pianist. Drummer Neil Gouvin has been with Norcia forever. I asked him if he’d kept the same drummer longer than any other member of the band because if you screw up on the drums, you’re really in trouble?
“Yeah, I’m really in trouble. I was just tellin’ a crowd the other night that I went to junior high school with him when we first started messin’ around playing together. So, that’s over 50 years. That was like the 1960s, so, yup, that same guy.”
Fifty years in does Norcia still get the same kicks out of it as he did in the beginning?
“That’s a great question. Yeah, I do and I think in different ways. I don’t know. You get older, you get wise to the world. Sometimes I see younger artists getting this recognition that in my mind they haven’t really paid their dues yet as far as getting out there and beating their heads against the wall and playing one-nighters for years and years and years and gathering our experience and knowledge. A lot of it’s not there. So, that sometimes gets on my nerves, but the music itself? It thrills me to death, always.”
Sugar Ray Norcia, real deal bluesman. His music comes from the heart. He couldn’t fake it if he tried. That kind of depth only comes from experiencing life with all its lumps and challenges.
“Yup, but the thing is (the young posers) are able to get over to a majority of people who are also young and impressionable. I mean, you think to yourself, man, I’m glad they’re getting over, but I think these people are being fed stuff and not realizing you really can’t trust ’em.
“I remember running into Victor Wainwright at the airport, and he said, ‘Thank you so much for all the groundwork that you laid out there, and all the effort you put into this music all these years. You paved the path for us younger guys.’”
Kim Wilson a few years ago told this reporter the members of the Fabulous Thunderbirds are all salaried employees who report to him as the boss. I asked Norcia if the Bluetones are a democracy.
He laughed. “There’s different ways of going about that kind of thing, the politics of music and all that. I’m pretty much a democracy. I like the limelight like anybody. A musician has a certain amount of ego. I always have been known to share the stage completely with other soloists, and I don’t have a problem with any of that. It’s pretty much a democracy. As long as they do what I say!”
Visit Sugar Ray’s website at: www.sugarrayandthebluetones.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.