For many blues fans, hearing the name Rusty Zinn might draw a blank expression or conjure up some vague recollection of a guitarist who seemed headed for great things. The truth of the matter is that Zinn has indeed achieved a remarkable level of success, but not in the way he once imagined.
“Right now, my brand new reggae project is the #1 Hit record on the reggae charts in Brazil! I really embraced that music years ago. Growing up in Santa Cruz, Ca, reggae was huge, so I was no stranger to Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Then a friend of mine in the late 1990s turned me on to rocksteady, the early sound that reggae grew out of. We listened to Jimmy Cliff, the early Wailers, and Desmond Dekker. I thought it was insane, like Caribbean soul music. I started a closet fascination with the music, collecting records that nobody knew about. You didn’t want your blues buddies to know that you were into this. I became obsessed with it. In 2003, I went to Europe for three months and took a CD booklet that held one hundred discs. On that trip, ninety of them were Jamaican music”.
“One afternoon, there was a free show at Golden Gate Park featuring Solomon Burke. And up in Sausalito, there was a Jimmy Cliff show that required buying a ticket. I struggled with that decision but finally paid the extravagant price to see Jimmy Cliff at an outdoor event. That show messed me up forever! He had everything that I love, the soul, the R&B, had the blues, had the classic presentation with high energy and soul. His voice was in the same range as mine, plus he sang more melodically than a blues singer would. That connected with me, made me realize that was what I wanted to do. A year later, I saw Alton Ellis perform, taking my inspiration to a whole other level. Those events started off my journey into reggae music”.
“The universe has been very good to me, giving me opportunities to meet and record with a lot of my heroes in Jamaican music, people that are considered the pioneers and architects of the music. Once I first started trying to record my own reggae, blues people would come up and tell me how cool it was that I was fusing blues and reggae. I would look at them in wonder, thinking don’t you hear the blues that is already there. Before ska music was created, the Jamaicans were playing blues, what was called bluebeat, which was nothing more than a lot of Roscoe Gordon shuffles. Over the years I have come to realize that everything I love musically has its roots in Africa. All the music, the culture, it all goes back to Africa. So it is all blues to me”.
Like many musicians, Zinn first heard music through his mother’s record collection, especially his 45’s with Elvis Presley and Fats Domino, one of her favorite artists. When he wasn’t digging through her records, he would join his parents in listening to oldies radio programs, with the Wolfman Jack show being a family favorite. “As far back as I can remember, I have always had an affinity for classic, soulful music, stuff like the Spinners, the Stylistics, and Sam Cooke. Around the age of nine, I became a really big Beatles fan and started reading interviews with them, finding out who their inspirations were, and that made me dig deeper. But my entry to the blues came primarily through my older brother. When I was a teenager, he brought home albums by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker, records that were mind blowing, life-changing events. We both worked after school so that we could have money to buy records”.
Zinn was originally a drummer, starting at a young age and progressing to playing in the middle school marching band. At the age of sixteen, he decided to make the shift to guitar. “The blues really drew me in to playing guitar. I am glad that I have an understanding of the drums because it helped with my timing. To this day, I enjoy just being a rhythm guitar player. I’m happy to lay back in the cut and play disciplined rhythm behind other people, or my own vocals. A schoolmate, who was a year or so older, was quite an accomplished guitarist for his age. He gave me a Fender Stratocaster knock-off, and I got a teeny little practice amplifier. We had instruments around the house. My Mom played piano, and our parents always encouraged us to play music. We had a beat-up acoustic guitar with a couple of strings that we would use to pick out little melodies”.
“But once I got that electric, I was on it. The first tune I learned to play was Freddie King’s “Hideaway”. This cool cat, Ben Leblanc, an older guy I knew, was pretty accomplished on guitar. He had toured with Loggins & Messina, and also did a stint with Etta James on keyboards. He helped me learn some chords and figure out “Hideaway”. So I was spending a lot of time in the bedroom, as my grades started to slip – not that they were that great to begin with! Everything was blues, blues, blues. At one point, I took a lesson from the local blues hotshot. I wanted to learn how to play some Robert Lockwood Jr. stuff. I was drawn to the subtle accompaniment style of guitar more than being another Albert King. So I go to this lesson, and the instructor couldn’t show me shit. I brought a tape of Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) with Robert playing sweet guitar in the background. He couldn’t figure out what was going on. So I went home knowing that I was going to have to do this on my own”.
About the same time, when Zinn was seventeen, he saw an Antone’s Blues Revue that came through town that included Pinetop Perkins, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, Kim Wilson, and James Cotton. But the aspiring guitarist was knocked out by one musician. “I was fixated on Luther Tucker that night – had never heard or seen anyone play guitar like he did. He had a particular attack with his right hand, and played a little faster than other guitar players, but not fast in a “shredding” way. Luther was really saying something! I was drawn to his right hand, using a butterfly technique like you would playing a mandolin. I had a small recorder in my jacket pocket that I used to record the show. I stayed home from school the next day, sat there all day trying to figure out what Tucker was playing”. A year later, a mutual friend introduced the two men, the beginning of a mentor-apprentice relationship.
Zinn continues,”These days, nobody knows anybody any more. When I was coming up in the mid-80s, there was so much going on, so many artists performing. I didn’t discriminate. I wanted to hear anybody that was good, somebody that I could pull from. I used to have three posters on my bedroom wall. One was an almost life-sized poster of Elvis that my Mom gave me. The second was the cover for Bobby Blue Bland’s Two Steps From The Blues album. The third was Jimmie Vaughan. I was so taken with him, going back to the Thunderbird albums my brother played me. But I was seeing Anson Funderburgh, Johnny Heartsman, Lowell Fulson, Little Joe Blue, and Sonny Rhodes, cats from the older generation that were still playing the West coast. I was hungry for knowledge and my ears were wide open. Jimmie and Anson are understated players, never playing more than they need to. How could I not be affected by their groovy style, the wonderful guitar tone. But once I heard Luther Tucker, I wanted to sound like him”.
The first band he was in featured Zinn and Ben Leblanc on guitar with a rhythm section. Called Stone Crazy after the Buddy Guy song, the group was fronted by a guy named Frankie, who blew harp and sang. They were a cover band as no one was writing songs. “I was the only guy in the band who was into deep blues like Magic Sam and Little Walter. They all wanted to do more contemporary funk stuff. The bass player liked to pop the strings and the drummer couldn’t play a straight shuffle. It was frustrating for me. There was another band at that time with guitarist Mike Schermer on guitar. He was about four years older than me. They had a weekly Monday night pro jam that I went to, getting better playing with them on slow blues, shuffles – the kind of blues I could dig into”.
“The Stone Crazy band had a regular Saturday night gig at Callahan’s Pub, a Santa Cruz club. It was probably my first paying gig for $25 a man. But I was miserable with the music. One night I lied to the band, told them I would be out-of-town with my parents, and I went across town to play with Schermer’s band. They were on the west side of town and Callahan’s was more on the east side. Somebody was bar hopping, ended up going to Callahan’s, and asked the guys in Stone Crazy what was up, that he had just seen me playing across town. On the break, Ben Leblanc speeds across town on his motorcycle to where I am playing. The club was packed. We were playing when I saw him come through the door. He walked up on stage, got next to me, and told me to come pick up my money, that I was out of the band, done. Made a big production out of it. For a nineteen year old, that was a bit traumatizing. Later I started a band with a dear friend, Little Danny, who also sang and played harp. He had a real pretty voice. We played a mixture of Chicago harmonica blues mixed with Texas guitar blues and Johnny “Guitar” Watson stuff”.
A harmonica battle that Zinn attended at the age of eighteen was promoted by Tom Mazzolini, who ran the famous San Francisco Blues festival. Featured were Snooky Pryor, Anson & the Rockets with Sam Myers, plus Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers. It was the first time Zinn heard another influential guitarist. “That night I found out who Junior Watson was – and I had never heard anybody play like that, right here in my own backyard! People always like to put you in boxes. They bunched me in as a West coast guy. Guitarists in the Bay area play completely different than cats in Los Angeles. They have that swing thing going on. I was kind of forced to play swing in order to get gigs backing the harmonica players. Junior opened up a whole other world for me, guitarists more on the jazz side of the blues, or just straight jazz. Tucker was into Tiny Grimes. He once said, “Brother Russ, if you ever get the chance to check out “Rockin’ The Blues Away,” I suggest you pick it up. So I was searching for that Grimes record forever. I’ve always loved guys that approached jazz with a blues sensibility”.
When blues artists came to town, if Tucker couldn’t do the gig, he would refer people to Zinn as a suitable replacement. Many of the artists came from Chicago, which Zinn considers his spiritual home. “I can’t get away from Chicago in my sound, which comes from gigs early on with Snooky Pryor, Jimmy Rogers with Dave Myers, Carey Bell, Billy Boy Arnold, and James Cotton. The first guys that ever took me on the road were Lynwood Slim & Junior Watson. That was when I was nineteen. It was two gigs in Utah, which meant we drove all night. And you can bet I was the one driving while those guys slept!”
“It was all happening so fast. And I look back, thinking that I couldn’t play my way out of a wet paper bag. I really wish I could go back and play with those cats again, knowing what I know now. They must have let me play with them because they liked my spirit. I was so hungry for this stuff. I am certainly surprised that I even made it out of high school. My grades were so badly affected by music. Once my Mom asked me what I wanted to do and, of course, I said play guitar, be a musician. That response almost caused a heart attack! But my parents supported me, especially after guys like Snooky, Luther, and Jimmy Rogers were coming to the house for rehearsals, having dinner with us, and spending the night, my parents were impressed. They were proud of me for embracing my passion and working hard at making it happen. You hear a lot of stories about parents not wanting their kids to play the “devil’s” music, so the support of my parents was a special thing for me”.
Eventually, Zinn got to record with Mark Hummel, a session that sat around for years before seeing the light of day. A year later, they cut more tracks after a tour with Jimmy Rogers and Billy Boy Arnold. Arnold lost his voice during the session, so the recording also sat there. Zinn was part of the band that backed Kim Wilson on Tigerman, Wilson’s first solo record released in 1993 on the Antone’s label. “I spent a lot of time in the studio, getting tips from guys like Junior and Luther. Kim took me out on tour, with Junior & me on guitar, Larry Taylor on bass, Gene Taylor on keyboards, and the late Richard Innes on drums. That was a killer band that allowed Kim to play the deep blues stuff he wasn’t getting to do with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. We toured pretty strong for a year”.
Slipping in and out of Hummel’s band for a couple year’s in addition to his work with Wilson, Zinn finally decided that he needed to get away from the harmonica. He had been honing his chops as a lead guitar player, especially after Watson left Wilson’s band, leaving Zinn as the lone guitar player. The next step was to start singing. “I knew that I could sing in tune, from singing around the house doing Arthur Alexander songs. But I was very shy about singing. During a Wilson tour in Norway, Kim looked at us, asking what should we do next. Junior told him to let Rusty sing a tune. Kim was shocked, looking at me like, you can sing? I did “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours A Day)”, a nice Earl Gaines shuffle. When the song was over, all the girls up front were screaming like we were the Beatles. That was the beginning. I was so scared , but I knew there something to be cultivated”.
Wilson and guitarist Danny Kortchmar were going to produce a solo record for Zinn on the House Of Blues label. But the label shut down before anything solid took place. Then Hammond and Nauman Scott of Black Top Records expressed interest. The deal was signed, leading to the Sittin’ & Waitin’ release. “There I was in the studio, knowing I had to sing. When I listen back to that stuff, I didn’t know how to use my voice and the guitar stuff seems terrible to me, but people love that record. Hammond and I reconnected about a year ago. He commented that he loved those records because I had an innocent quality that reminded him of records that he liked from the 1950s and 1960s.
“One interesting point is that Ronnie James Weber played bass on it. One night my girlfriend and I were walking down the street and I hear this band. We ducked in the basement to hear them. I honed right in on the bass player, so I got his card. Shortly thereafter, Hummel wanted to get a new bass player, so I called Ronnie. He got the gig, and right out of the gate, he was what we were searching for. But he was playing electric bass. We were into the 1950s sound, the acoustic bass sound of Willie Dixon. So I told Ronnie to get an upright bass with gut strings. Within a month, we were on the road with Jimmy Rogers and he was slapping the hell out that upright. Later he was snatched by Little Charlie & The Nightcats.”
“I later did another record for Black Top, Confessin’, but nothing really came of it. The record label was barely hanging on, running on fumes. Anson Funderburgh had a great comment in an interview once, saying that being on Black Top was like being a family picnic without enough ketchup to go around. I had Bob Welsh on that one. We were sharing the same house in those days. I used to give him guitar lessons. After the third lesson, I refused to take his money because he was teaching me stuff. He would practice piano on an old upright that was down in the basement”.
Despite a helping hand from Alligator Records, Black Top eventually folded. But Alligator owner Bruce Iglauer took an interest in Zinn. “At that time I was really into Jimmy Dawkins and Magic Sam. So I wanted to do something that focused on Chicago’s west side blues sounds. That record was The Chill. Bruce is a great business man. It is unbelievable that he has kept an independent blues label going all these years. Bruce was down with the string bending but he had a different idea for how I should be portrayed visually. But I always just follow my heart. While my Black Top stuff is more soulfully and spiritually satisfying, with Bruce immediately out of the gate, I started getting reports and checks for songwriting mechanicals. In a business sense, he is fantastic”.
“After we did the record, Alligator got me a new booking agent. Gradually there just weren’t enough dates to keep the band working. I was smart enough to realize I was at the bottom of the totem pole. So the band broke up. I did a tour as a trio with an organ player and a drummer. I was getting deep into soul music those days. My voice was getting better and stronger. I never wanted this voice, wanted to sound like Muddy or Wolf. Singing soul music was more comfortable for my voice. So I joined forces with the Dynatones, as I needed a band to help me reinvent myself.”.
“The strategy was the Dynatones would open with a couple instrumentals, then I would come out with a big Showtime at the Apollo intro. I would just stand there and sing for four more songs, then I would pick up the guitar. It went over with the audience better than anything I had done. I was feeling real liberated. Bruce came to see us in Chicago – and he just wasn’t digging it at all. I wanted to explore some different stuff and he wasn’t having it. He literally said the world is not ready for Rusty Zinn, the stand-up soul singer. I had a three record deal with Alligator. After some months of discussion, we amicably agreed to part ways. I walked away from the deal. So I moved on from that into embracing the other music that I became involved in”.
Whether he is playing blues, soul, or reggae, Zinn will use the same guitar and amplifier. He feels that the magic happens in the fingers, the way a player utilizes the strings to create a clean, killer tone. He used to have plenty of vintage guitars, but these days plays what might be considered lower end models. He’d hit the road with an Epiphone Riviera, but that instrument has been in the repair shop for a spell. The neck is comfortable, and it has a Bigsby on it with Gibson Burstbucker pick-ups. For amplifiers, he has been using an old Fender Deluxe Reverb that has been “blackfaced “ or a brown ’95 Fender Vibroverb reissue that has had lots of modifications trying to get the Vibrolux tone.
“I haven’t stopped playing blues. I have been real active guesting on a lot of blues projects. But things have changed a lot. Over time, so many of the musicians that were my lifeline to the music have slowly passed away, guys like Jody Williams, who just passed. I felt like I lost a piece of myself.
“I also am not into the politics, contests, and awards. Music is not a sport to me. It is expression. I am not interested in those aspects of the business. If you think you have mastered music, you should just throw in the towel. Music is a never-ending journey of discovery. I wanted to play the music that I love, keep trying to get better, and feed my family. I have achieved that through all of the ups and downs. I’m just for the music”.
Visit Rusty’s website at: http://rustyreggae.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!