When veteran Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin asked Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt in 2006 if he wanted to get involved in a fledgling record label, Rosy told him, “If you want to start a traditional record company, sign some great artists and still lose a whole lot of money, I know exactly how to do that.”
His tongue was only partly in his cheek. He’d just spent two decades as founder of Tone-Cool Records. The label had released more than 50 records in 20 years by scores of blues artists that would become legacy acts. They launched Susan Tedeschi and the North Mississippi Allstars, and released albums by new and established artists. The roster earned multiple Grammy nominations and countless W.C. Handy Awards, and scored a certified Gold Record. In 2004, with the recorded music industry in widening tailspin, Rosenblatt sold Tone-Cool to V2-Artemis Records, and he stayed on as President until Spring of 2006.
“I built a basement recording studio and started Tone-Cool in 1985, and we had a 20-year run. The most successful Tone-Cool releases were Susan Tedeschi, North Mississippi Allstars, Hubert Sumlin, and Double Trouble – but we did about 50 albums with some truly great artists, and I’m really proud of all of them: Sean Costello, Rod Piazza, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Rick Holmstrom, Monster Mike Welch, David Maxwell, Toni Lynn Washington, Paul & Annie, and so many more.”
In 2007 Bob and Rosy decided to start the VizzTone label group with a different philosophy and a co-operative business plan – to work with artists who recorded and produced their own albums and managed their own careers, working in partnership with them to distribute, promote, and market their music. With Rosy as president and Bob as director of A&R, they started with a few great artists and built the business in a cooperative way. Along the way Amy Brat became a partner in the company as director of communication and publicity, and added a new dimension to their publicity and promotions.
Now VizzTone has released more than 120 albums, including 18 this year by the likes of Bob Margolin, Josh Smith, Amanda Fish, Bob Corritore, Billy Price, Too Slim & the Taildraggers, Muddy Gurdy, Tyler Morris, and Long Tall Deb & Colin John, to name just a few. So far so good. In the last 12 months I’ve done Blues Blast cover stories on VizzTone’s Casey Hensley and Erin Harpe.
VizzTone releases music through their relationship with Redeye Worldwide, an award-winning indie distributor out of North Carolina that handles physical and digital distribution around the world. Rosenblatt met the future leaders of Redeye distribution when they all worked under the Rounder Records umbrella in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the ’90s, so it was a natural choice that has developed into a great working relationship.
Rosy learned a lesson from his time at Tone-Cool. “At VizzTone we have a different model because we don’t invest money in making records, and we don’t own our artists’ music or their publishing. We work with compatible musicians who have finished records to market, promote and publicize them. In the beginning we worked with indie publicists, but after a while we took all the publicity in-house and established our own relationships with radio and press, and before long we hooked up with Amy Brat, who is phenomenal in working with all kinds of media, so now we have all the promotion in house.
There are some other things Rosy does differently at VizzTone than he did at Tone-Cool. “We have to be careful about what we release. That’s why we release maybe 13 records a year and not 50. We can’t do six female singers in a row. It just doesn’t work. Amy works closely with our artists, and she has to be confident that she’s going to be able to really work the stuff we put out. If for one reason or another it’s too much of one thing, or an artist sounds good but will never ever tour, that leaves us hamstrung.
Another edge Rosenblatt has is that he’s a musician himself.
“I got started in the great Boston Blues scene of the 1970s, when a lot of the first-generation blues artists were coming through town. I played in a couple local bands, including the Billy Colwell Band. Billy was a favorite of John Lee Hooker, so we backed him up on some notable gigs. I also had the opportunity to play and record with Sunnyland Slim, and back up artists including Otis Rush, Luther “Georgia Boy” Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, and Hubert Sumlin. Bob and I played some gigs with classic bluesman John Brim in the ’90s. I was lucky enough to play quite a bit with Hubert, and later wound up releasing his About Them Shoes album on Tone-Cool and playing gigs with him in Austin and New York City.”
“The first Tone-Cool release was my own band, the 11th Hour Band, and though I’ve had some dry spells, I’ve never stopped performing and recording. Playing music has always been my best mental health activity, and it keeps me grounded with why we’re still doing this. Around Boston I’ve been playing with J. Geils Band bassist Danny Klein’s band for more than 10 years, and though I’m not generally a verbatim player, I have always had tremendous respect for [J. Geils Band harp player] Magic Dick and it’s always a challenge to rework some of his parts.
A quick story: I have known many of the Geils band guys since the ’70s, and after I’d been playing with Danny for a few years Dick’s wife Susan came out to one of our gigs. And she comes up to me and asks, ‘So Rosy, you gonna play “Whammer?”’ I looked at her and said, ‘You know, that’s Dick’s personal masterpiece, his piece de resistance. I don’t think I should even touch that one, I shouldn’t even play it.’ She goes, ‘Sure, you should……IF YOU CAN!’ I looked at her and said, ‘Thank you. That’s exactly what I needed. I will play that song – and I will do my own two-minute ending.’ From then on, I play the song with my own outro.”
Rosy knows when he hears good music. “Sometimes you just get a hint from the first recordings. You imagine what’s going to happen when this artist gets in front of 1000 people… Are they going to be gobsmacked? People say, ‘You guys were so lucky with Susan. You did such a great job with Susan Tedschi. How did you do it? How did you get her the Grammy nomination? How did you get her to be on all those radio shows? How did you guys do it?’
“I say, ‘Well, that’s easy. First of all, you start out with an artist who is absolutely jaw-droppingly amazing, and the rest gets a little easier.’ There’s no formula. You have to have an artist that’s going to play and really hit people hard but really touch them in a unique way that draws them in so they want to keep hearing more from this artist. That makes our job easier. Does this move me in a certain way? Is this someone singing along with a melody, or is this someone touching me in a deeper way? This may seem corny, but it’s really about the artist, and the music, just how genuine it is.”
VizzTone partnering with their artists is streamlining and re-inventing the functions of a contemporary record label. And Rosy, Margolin and Amy’s cumulative experience in the music business is creating a more eclectic release library of acts that are more in line with the Blues Foundation’s efforts to expand its coverage of Americana and Blues blends.
“I like to say that I don’t care if it sounds like Blues as long as it feels like Blues. It’s hard to put a name on it when you’re blurring the lines between blues and other genres. So long as it feels like blues, it’s blues to me. That being said, yes, you have to think about keeping the blues alive – but really, I think it will always be there, it has its own primal force. There will always be blues that is nothing but the blues, but I think the more you can publicize and popularize that, the better it is for the genre, the artist, and the world. But you don’t have to be too tight within the lines. You can color outside the lines and that’s fine. Some blues is also Americana. That’s great. I mean, listen to Keb’ Mo’, listen to Bonnie Raitt. The Tedeschi Trucks Band is all over multiple genres, and that’s a positive thing. I think the more people understand the blues is more than just one particular thing, the better it is for the genre, but at the same time you have to keep that life blood flowing.
“The 1950s and earlier aren’t gonna come back, and I don’t think you need to recreate that time to do justice to the blues. Once again, when people ask me whether or not a particular song is the blues, I like to say, I don’t care if it sounds like blues so long as it feels like blues. So that can include music some people might call rock or Americana, and might disqualify what some people would call Blues.”
Some industry people say the CD is dead. Rosy disagrees. “There is still a small and loyal market for CDs, and of course they are valuable for stage sales. It’s harder to sign an MP3 than it is a CD, and people often like to leave a gig with something, a souvenir. An artist will always want to have CDs among their other merch at gigs as long as people still have some sort of CD player. DJs like to have a CD to hold onto rather than download something and so do a lot of press people. CD sales have fallen, and downloads continue to lose ground, but now streaming is coming on strong. So are LPs – go figure!
“The media will always be changing. We just need to be able to work with our distributor to maximize commerce from different configurations. Every time someone streams something or downloads it, they collect on it, and we pay the artist, and we get a little piece of that. So, we’re not living on CDs, and the other thing is part of our business is not even sales. Part of our business is pure artist promotion and publicity. People want to sell CDs, but they also want to make a name for themselves. They want people to know who they are. They want to be able to tour. They want to be able to be listed and reviewed and have their name out there. So, part of what we do is sell CDs, but we’re also providing the artist the service of promoting them and publicizing them in every possible way, and that helps the gigs, and that helps the overall bottom line for the artists and the sales help, too, but the sales are just a piece of what we do.”
This journalist first fell in love with the blues as a student at Tufts University in Boston, a great city for all kinds of music. And it’s always troubled me that Beantown never has been known for having a Boston sound even though Rounder Records started there and VizzTone is at least partly headquartered in Boston – [Bob lives in North Carolina and Amy is outside Chicago.] Rosy has the best explanation for why that’s so that I’ve heard in 50 years. It’s because the scene there is too universal.
“Chicago has Chicago blues, and Nashville has country whereas New Orleans has New Orleans music, but you talk about Boston music. There is no one Boston music. Boston is the home of a lot of great bands and a lot of musicians came through Boston especially in the ’60s and ’70s. The whole folk revival thing was as big in Boston as it was in New York. Boston has always been a great place for new music because there are so many young people here because of all the schools and colleges, but for all the great bands that came out of Boston there’s never been a specific Boston sound worthy of the name. The J. Geils Band is a great Boston band, but they aren’t the Boston Sound. Neither is Aerosmith.”
I asked Rosy about his own musical contributions to VizzTone. “I’ve had the opportunity to play and/or record with quite a few of our artists. In the early VizzTone days I did a short tour with Dave Gross and played some with Gina Sicilia. Not that long ago I played with Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers for quite a few years, and co-produced and played on their debut album. Recently I put a harmonica track on Amanda Fish’s great new record. I did some fun gigs with Chris ‘Bad News’ Barnes. It’s always a gas to play with Bob Margolin and lots of the VizzTone family at our Memphis and Chicago showcases, and lately I’ve been doing some tour dates with Bob Margolin and Tyler Morris. Next year I’m planning on releasing a new album of minimalist instrumentals called Small Blues with my original 11th Hour Band, renamed the 11 Guys Quartet.”
Rosy is in it for the duration and is functioning in the new world order very well. “We interpret Blues broadly and inclusively. We are the opposite of the Blues Police. We want this music we love alive and growing.”
Check out Vizztone Label Group at www.vizztone.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.