One never knows when inspiration is going to strike. Sometimes it sneaks up from out of nowhere and leaves us thoroughly discombobulated. For Anthony Geraci, one of those moments occurred in high school. “When I first started in bands around 1967, I was really proud of myself when I finally learned the opening organ riff to “Light My Fire”. That was my big accomplishment at the time. But I was gravitating to the bluesier side even when I listened to the Doors, even if I didn’t recognize that Willie Dixon had written tunes like “Back Door Man,” without knowing about Muddy Waters or B.B. King. When I got to high school, I befriended another student, a musical cohort named Ed Cherry. He was a guitar player and literally the only African-American in the school”.
“Since his house was on my way home from school, I would stop every day so that we could play music together and listen to records. His parents had a great collection, everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Muddy and Buddy Guy, on up to the Funkedelics. One day Ed put on the Chicago Bound album by Jimmy Rogers, which blew me away. To me, that was perfect music with Jimmy, Muddy, Otis Spann, Little Walter, and Big Walter Horton. Later on I when toured with Jimmy, he told me some cool stories about Spann. That one record really changed my life. and Ed had a really big influence on me. He became an outstanding jazz guitarist and was a long-time member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band”.
At the age of four, Geraci announced to his mother that he wanted to play piano. It was an odd request, coming from someone who was part of a non-musical family. “My parents didn’t play, and there weren’t any instruments around the house. We didn’t even have a record player. Almost everybody I knew had a piano in the house or a large record collection. My friends had some basis to start their musical career, even if it was listening to Bing Crosby records. My parents were supportive but there was nothing at our house for me to go on. The only music I heard was on the radio in the car. But there was something in me that just needed to play music”.
Hearing the organ playing at church services created the initial moment of captivation. Geraci tried to recreate some the hymns on an inexpensive kid’s organ that his grandmother bought for him. It didn’t take long to outgrow the simple instrument. “ I told my Mom I wanted a piano. Don’t think I really knew what a piano was! But my parents bought me a junk upright for about twenty-five bucks. I started taking lessons, and after a couple years, my teacher told suggested that it might be time to get me a better instrument. So my mother went out and bought a Kimball baby grand piano that she paid for at the rate of four dollars a week”.
As a teenager, Geraci played in a number of garage bands, honing his keyboard skills. But he also had a plan. “I had a paper route to earn money that I saved to buy a Hammond B3 organ. Imagine buying a Hammond B3 with a paper route – would take you sixty years! But my parents helped me out a bit. I started getting hired because I had a Hammond with two Leslie 122 speakers. So older musicians around the New Haven CT area started hiring me. It didn’t matter how good you played, just that you had good equipment. In those days, I wasn’t playing much in the way of blues, but I did learn what it meant to be a professional musician – going into clubs to play on time, dressed nicely, etc. Those lessons that I picked up at a very early age have stuck with me throughout my career”.
The piano lessons continued on and off over the years, often at the Neighborhood School Of Music, which was staffed by fabulous teachers affiliated with Yale University. Eventually getting the itch to try something new, Geraci decided to follow some friends, applying to the Berklee School Of Music, where he was accepted for further studies. For three years, he learned basic music skills like arranging and composition in addition to more piano training.
But blues music had already taken hold in his soul. “My first piano teacher there told me, you put blues in everything! I replied, yes, thank you very much. I was listening a lot to Mai Cramer’s radio program. She was a legendary blues DJ on WGPH, the biggest NPR station in New England. I would listen to her show on Friday and Saturday nights from start to finish. She turned me on to a lot of names and musicians that I wasn’t quite familiar with. She would also do ads for upcoming blues shows”.
“On one show, I heard that a blues band was appearing at the Speakeasy Cafe, a famous blues dive in Cambridge, MA. On Friday afternoon, I called the club and in a deep, husky voice asked if the band was there, told the bartender I wanted to talk to someone in the band. He put one of them on the phone. I explained that I was a blues piano player who had just arrived in Boston, and I wanted to know if I could come sit in with them. He responded with, do you have a microphone? I affirmed that I did, and he told to come down. So the microphone was my calling card. The band was from New Hampshire, the John Wardwell Blues Band, and they were playing great music like Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. Soon I started going up to New Hampshire on weekends to play with them.”
“At one point, the band was booked to open for Muddy for a week at the famous Paul’s Mall in Boston. That I was the first time I got to sit in with Muddy and the band. Literally anyone interested in blues with a car, and was within 250 miles, would come out to pay homage to Muddy. I got to meet Pinetop Perkins, Fuzz Jones, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. That band also had Bob Margolin on guitar and Jerry Portnoy was the harp player. They both lived in the Boston area. So we exchanged phone numbers and when they weren’t out on the road with Muddy, they would call me to do play jam sessions in the Boston area. In that one week, I got to know virtually everyone who was important on the Boston blues scene”.
“Michael “Mudcat” Ward, who I still play with, was there. Not sure that he was called Mudcat at that point. Anyway, he called me a couple weeks later to let me know that Johnny Nicholas had just finished a tour and had decided to join Asleep At The Wheel. His guitar player, Ronnie Horvath, now Ronnie Earl, was looking to put a blues band together. So Ronnie and Mudcat came over to my house. I was on the porch of the house writing a sonata for one of my classes. Ronnie stated that he wanted me in his band, and I said yeah, sure. We had one rehearsal and I literally quit school the next day. My parents were not very happy, given that I was so close to graduating. We started out as Ronnie Earl & the Aces. Then Sugar Ray Norcia joined, and that became the original Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, with Mudcat on bass and Neil Gouvin on drums”.
“In those days, we didn’t have a press package or a record out on the market. The band would be practicing at Ronnie’s house, and he would get on the phone, call a club in Washington D.C., and hold up the phone while the band played a song. That was how we got the gigs. Now everything has to be so polished and perfect. If you are missing a period, you might not get the gig. We toured up and down the East Coast from Boston into Virginia. We were the house band’s at the Speakeasy on Sunday nights, and at the Old Met Cafe in Providence, RI on Monday nights. Those gigs helped us get really strong quickly. It was a special moment for me when I got the band together again for the first time since the 1970s on my latest release, Why Did You Have To Go”.
At one point, the roadwork slowed down, so Geraci decided to contact Berklee to see what he needed to do to get a degree. Calling the school, he talked with a staff member who quickly looked up the former student’s records. It was apparent that the school kept a watchful eye on its students, even noting that the piano player had received a Grammy Award for his work on the Super Harps album, a 1999 release with James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Branch, and Norcia. “All of my Music requirements were done. I needed three regular classes like Art History – and I could attend any accredited college to take the classes. I ended up taking an astronomy class because I really like science fiction. It was the hardest class I have ever taken – couldn’t believe what I had gotten myself into! We had to figure out the weight of stars by looking at the spectrum of the waves. I don’t even like looking at the scale to see how much I weigh. But I got those classes done and graduated, then a year later I went to Skidmore College to get my Master’s Degree in Music. I’m on the road a lot, but I love teaching, and I still teach at a conservatory just south of Boston”.
Geraci’s songwriting skills started to come together with his band, Little Anthony & the Locomotives, which featured three horn players, a funkier version of the Roomful of Blues sound. The majority of the songs on the group’s two releases on Deluge Records were Geraci compositions. While doing a tour with vocalist Michelle Wilson, he sat in on a show with his old friend, Ronnie Earl. After the tour ended, Geraci got a phone call. “Ted Kurland, Ronnie’s high-powered manager, wanted me to join his band. Ted works with Marcia Ball, Coco Montoya, and Elvin Bishop plus jazz legends like Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea, and Pat Metheny. So I teamed up with Ronnie & the Broadcasters. We cut one record, Healing Time, that featured Jimmy McGriff, the jazz organ player. I watched him like a hawk. On one track he played organ and I was on piano. That was a big thrill for me”.
When Earl took a break from the record business in 2002, Geraci rejoined Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, appearing on all but one of the band’s releases since then. Asked about his relationship with the band, the piano player was ready with his answer. “Sugar Ray Norcia is one of the most honest musicians you will ever meet. His voice is so pure. His harmonica playing comes out of the styles of Junior Wells and Big Walter Horton. His upbringing is the exact opposite of mine. His father was a music teacher, his mother was a big band singer, and his uncles had a band. He absorbed a lot from his family. And he is the nicest guy and one of the finest musicians I have ever associated with. Mudcat and Neil are humble guys, no airs about them. These days, I play with them as my schedule permits. Being a part of the group over the years allowed me to play with Junior Wells, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, and hang out with Sunnyland Slim and Pinetop Perkins, who became a good friend. We once did a show backing Memphis Slim, who told me to play piano while he sang a song. That was a heavy experience”.
As part of his role as a teacher, Geraci has been involved with the Pinetop Perkins Heritage Foundation. “I have taught the last two years at the Workshop and will be back in June next year. They hire instructors for three years in a row. Victor Wainwright did it before me. It is a treat to be down in Clarksdale, MS teaching young blues musicians. Some of them are eleven or twelve, others are college age. The students come from all parts of the country and Europe, even one this year from Australia. They are there for a week to learn to play blues. Other instructors included Fiona Boyes and Bob Margolin on guitar, and Phil Wiggins teaching harmonica. That is not a bad line-up to learn from. At the end of the week, we do a show at the Ground Zero club to celebrate everyone’s accomplishments. One of my students from two years ago, Sarah Grace, is now doing great on The Voice television show.
Besides his solo projects, Geraci is also a member of the Proven Ones. “ That is a specialty project for us. It features some of the great West Coast players – Kid Ramos on guitar, Willie J. Campbell on bass, and Jimi Bott on drums. Our lead singer is a Boston guy, Brian Templeton, who I recommended and the guys really liked him. We’d like to do about twenty festivals a year. Our record is doing really well and, as you can imagine, it is a really powerful band. But my main focus is touring to support Why Did You Have To Go, which is on Shining Stone Records, co-owned by Duke Robillard and Jesse Finkelstein, who was just named as one of the latest recipients of a Keeping The Blues Alive Award (KBA) from the Blues Foundation. It is fabulous to be involved with people who really believe in the music. Recently I have played on discs with Monster Mike Welch & Mike Ledbetter, Sugaray Rayford, Ronnie’s latest, and the Kilborn Alley Band, a very soulful blues band from Illinois”.
Geraci’s discography stretches across nearly fifty titles, including six with Earl and ten albums with Sugar Ray & the Bluetones. In recent years, his achievements have been recognized with three nominations for the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player award from the Blues Foundation, plus three nominations for his 2015 release, Fifty Shades of Blue, which was also nominated for a 2016 Blues Blast Music Award in the Traditional Blues Album category.
“I need to clone myself. You can’t do everything. I hate to say no to anybody who wants me. Younger musicians aren’t going to have the chance to play with Jimmy Rogers or Otis Rush like we did. Hubert Sumlin and the J.B. Hutto were each in the Bluetones for six month stretches. In my younger days, everybody I knew had huge record collections. And for the most part, we all had the same records! We would sit around, drink beer, and spin records for hours. I used to have thousands of albums but lost them all in a house fire. We absorbed all of these different shades of blues, learned their subtleties.
“Lightnin’ Hopkins is very different than the Muddy Waters sound. Then you can really dig in to the soul of the music. I am a bit more outside the box than most traditional blues piano players – and there aren’t that many of us left”.
Visit Anthony’s website at: www.anthonygeraciblue.com
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!