Veteran blues guitarist Ronnie Earl was born Ronald Horvath on March 10, 1953 in Queens, New York. He is the son of Jerry Akos Horvath and Rose Horvath, both Holocaust survivors. They both passed away in 2014. He released the album Father’s Day in his dad’s honor in 2015.
Ronnie took the last name Earl in honor of slide guitarist Earl Hooker in 1971 because Muddy Waters couldn’t remember his name when he’d call the young budding guitarist up on stage. After graduating from Boston University Earl would hang with Muddy and Kings Albert and B.B. at the Jazz Record Mart in Boston. Asked how that experience turned his head, he replies, “I don’t know if I can find the words. It was being baptized, having a rebirth (pause) – the heaviest feeling I ever had.”
Ronnie Earl is first and foremost an iconic blues guitarist, but he’s also a survivor, just as assuredly as his parents. He has bipolar disorder and diabetes, both of which can play havoc on emotions fundamental to the blues muse. Perhaps ironically, the combination of the two disorders can be toxic while at the same time spurring a creative edge.
“I was reluctant for a longtime to say anything about it. It’s still stigmatized, but I feel more comfortable talking about it. It gives me something to look forward to when I have a concert. It gives me hope and positive energy.”
To make matters even more challenging, he’s a recovering alcoholic 30 years sober and considers Stevie Ray Vaughan “a powerful example” in convincing him to come clean.
“Stevie would come and play with me all the time when we were in the same town, and we were very good friends. I knew him before he got famous, and I knew him when he was famous. He was the same person, even more beautiful when he had gotten clean and sober, and I was still using. He was clean at a time we played together. He was a big sign post for me saying, “Hey, I’m clean and sober. He didn’t say anything to me, but he was a powerful example. He was a beautiful human being. I miss him.”
One of the most unassuming and humble blues geniuses in the business, Earl calls himself semi-retired. Be that as it may, he all but stole the show at the Blues Music Awards this year and on August 30th releases a signature 26th album, Beyond The Blue Door.
“I’ve slowed down a lot, and I’m 66. I don’t really have a career anymore. I’m not pursuing a career, just a love, a passion. I live in the country, and I play once or twice a month, tops. And so, my wife comes with me probably 50% of the time. Most of the time I play around the east coast, and I come home after the show.”
In reality, Earl was neither retired nor retiring in his 2019 Blues Music Awards performance. He was one of scores of today’s top artists contributing to marathon six-hour extravaganza in front of an audience of thousands of industry heavyweights, each having little more than 10 minutes to capture the moment. Earl did it with a version of Jr. Wells’ “In The Wee Hours,” first recorded in 1965 on Wells’ game changing Delmark classic Hoodoo Man Blues album. Earl himself recorded the song on his 2014 Good News album.
He’s not sure whether he likes his live version or his recording of the song better. “Oh, I don’t know. One was live, very inspired, but I love the one I recorded, too. Let’s just say I was very inspired. Very inspired.” Earl has played with both Jr. Wells and Buddy Guy throughout his storied 40-some-year career.
In finally choosing “In The Wee Hours,” he created a perfect showcase for artists he felt should be given notice at this premier event. “I talked to a bunch of guitarists who weren’t going to play at the show, and I felt for them, you know? I said, ‘Well, you’re going to come and play for me since you weren’t asked to play at the show.’ I felt bad that they’d come all that way, and that they didn’t get a chance to play, so they played with me.”
His presentation sucked the air out of the Cook Convention Center. His smooth and lilting guitar silenced the constant buzz of the crowd that often competes with the performances. It was as if everyone realized they were experiencing a transcendent moment in blues history.
One by one, three other guitarists on stage with him took more than a thousand people into Earl’s smoky, transcendent journey. Two of the guitarists have a long history of playing with Earl, Peter Ward and Nicholas Tabarias whose been with Earl for four years. The third was Laura Chavez, a BMA nominee in the Guitar Instrumentalist category and former Candye Kane lead guitarist. Dave Limina, a regular in Earl’s Broadcasters band for 18 years played the Hammond B3. His credits include the Mighty Sam McCain and Michelle Willson. Paul Kochanski with the band for two and a half years played bass and Forrest Padgett handled drums. But it was Broadcasters vocalist Diane Blue who influenced Ronnie Earl to pick the Jr. Wells classic for this particular occasion.
“I wanted to make sure I could get Diane up there, because she came such a long way from Boston, and I felt most of the people were familiar with me already, but that they didn’t hear Diane, so I wanted her to be featured on that song, too.”
“I changed my mind about 20 times. We were gonna do a Magic Sam tune, but we decided to do a song that would include Diane’s beautiful singing, and I had the other guitarists up to give all a little taste.”
Dianne Blue first appeared on The Broadcasters’ Just for Today album singing the Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” and became the first fulltime female member of the band in 2014 on Good News.
“It’s a spiritual thing,” says Earl, looking back on the BMA show. “I bring the band way down and not play a lot of notes. And not loud. Just bringing the audience into the mix at a spiritual level like a church kind of thing. Blues is very spiritual. It comes from the church. I really believe that, and it moves people. I never thought about it as the devil’s music, never in those kinds of terms. To me, it doesn’t apply to music.”
Earl plays frequently at the First Baptist Church in Littleton Massachusetts. “The material world is the Grammys,” he told me in 2015, “and the spiritual world is playing heart to heart for the sake of healing souls and bringing people together. It doesn’t have anything to do with sales and getting further in career and career moves and all that stuff. I’m just very optimistic and try to be positive in all my affairs. Everybody was very nice to me from everyone I worked with and saw and from Big Mama Thornton to Eddie Cleanhead Vincent and everybody in between, all the people I got to play with, and I believe that blues can be very happy music, and very, very deep and spiritual, and it’s very connected with gospel and very connected with jazz. I believe in all of that.”
Earl’s acceptance speech at the 2014 Blues Music Awards for Best Guitarist says a lot about his humble spirituality: “Yeah, oh my goodness. I might cry. I’m a very sentimental man. You know I’m only here by the grace of God. My greatest achievement in life is that I’m clean and sober for 25 years. (Loud applause).
And I wouldn’t be here and I’d like to thank my record company ’cause he (Holger Petersen at Stony Plain) is more than a record company. You know I was sick for a long time with bi-polar disorder, and I say that to you because it’s not something that needs to be stigmatized anymore. (Applause)
“The love of the blues community and my wife, my (folks?) healed me, and I’m here tonight because I’m better. I’m actually happy. I’m a happy man. (Applause)And I want to thank my brother Anson Funderburgh because we came up together, and I love him so much. Anson, I love you, and I love all the other nominees. Music is not sports, and all the guitar players, blues musicians, I love you all, and I want to thank Bob Margolin who took me in when I was a very young man, taught me and introduced me to Muddy Waters, and he’s a beautiful person and one of my teachers. You know I come from Otis Rush. I come from the land of Otis Rush. He’s like – him and Hubert (Sumlin) and Robert Jr. (Lockwood), they’re my teachers, and I’m very moved. I’m just very moved, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart and soul. Thank you! (thunderous applause)”
The agony and ecstasy of the creative process is brought into acute focus in artists whose medical issues become emotional triggers that activate the creative muse. Bipolar disorder and diabetes are both diseases that cause broad mood swings. Together, they have the potential of turning the host into an emotional rollercoaster. But isn’t that what much of blues is about, tension and release, emotional upheaval and catharsis? Raw emotion is fundamental to the genre’s definition. Becoming a blues artist is an obvious career choice for anyone with those issues seeking a creative release.
The process of exorcising such fluid emotions through music becomes therapy. And in its highest form, the music that results offers a catharsis to both the artist and the fan. Ronnie Earl’s genius is refined and focused by an awe-inspiring 45-year career with the crème de la crème of blues giants, but it’s also an example of someone whose diabetes and bipolar conditions activate and accentuate his muse with exceptional results.
Earl bought his first guitar, a Martin, in 1973 and traded it in the next day for a Fender Stratocaster. Two years later he graduated Boston University with a degree in education and special education. His first professional gigs were with Otis Rush and Big Walter Horton in ’75, when he made two trips on a Greyhound to Chicago to check out that scene with Koko Taylor. “She took me to all the blues clubs, and it was dangerous. I mean she took me to see Jr. Wells and The Aces, Louis Myers and Sammy Lawhorn. She was like my mother.”
He recorded first in 1979 with Sunnyland Slim and joined the 10-piece Roomful of Blues for a nine-year tenure. While still with Roomful of Blues, Ronnie recorded with vocalist Kim Wilson, Darrell Nulisch and Sugar Ray Norcia, releasing Smokin in 1983 and They Call Me Mr. Earl for Black Top Records. Kim Wilson remains a close friend today and appears on the new Beyond The Blue Door CD.
“I love Kim. He’s my brother, and so is Bob Margolin, and they came before me, and I love honoring people who came before me. I met Kim in ’75 in Boston. Then I went to Texas in ’78 and lived with him for a while. So that was pretty amazing. He’s just the most incredible harmonica player, him and Little Walter and Big Walter, that I’ve ever heard in my life, and he’s such a great singer and songwriter. He’s my brother. I’d loved him even if he didn’t pay. He’s been so nice and kind to me, and that goes a lot further than anything else.”
Earl has recorded several albums with various iterations of The Broadcasters beginning in 1988 including Father’s Day dedicated to his dad, the year after he died and Maxwell Street, a nod to Chicago’s Maxwell Street, once the gathering place for Sunday morning jams and to the late David Maxwell, Earl’s soul brother.
“He was my brother, my big brother, 10 years ago to the day older than me, and I just loved him so much. He was my favorite piano player, but of course Dave (LaMeana) and I love Anthony Gerasi and I love Bruce Katz, but David was huge, and we had a very strong sense of it. We played on each other’s records, and when he passed away, I felt I wanted to do some kind of tribute to him. I miss him. Every day I think about him.”
Beyond The Blue Door is a 15-cut tour de force album, seven of them originals. In spite of a 5-piece core Broadcasters band and 10 special guests including such high-profile roots artists as David Bromberg and Kim Wilson, the leather and lace arrangements are delicate without ever being light.
“I feel like a lot of the musicians today, it’s too many notes, and that’s not a criticism. It’s an observation for me because I learned how to play less notes and to bring it down and that was a big thing for me to learn.” The album demonstrates the cache of a master. Without ever stepping on the other musicians, he weaves through these songs with a brain surgeon’s precision.
The standout cut is “A Soul That’s Been Abused,” an original you-done-me-wrong song featuring three saxophones (Mario Perret, Scott Shetler and Greg Piccolo). David Bromberg in the liner notes says, ‘“A Soul That’s Been Abused’ is one of Ronnie’s songs. Diane sings it soulfully; Ronnie plays beautiful solos and fills as does Greg Piccolo. There’s a great bit of conversation between Ronnie and Greg before the last vocal.”
Kim Wilson plays harp and sings on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Baby How Long” and on “Blues with a Feeling” that will take you back to the Butterfield version on his first album.
There’s a Dylan cover of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” with David Bromberg on acoustic guitar and vocals. “Wolf Song,” Ronnie Earl’s homage to Howlin’ Wolf with guitar, recalls Hubert Sumlin on “Smokestack Lighting.”
On his website, Earl says, “To all my friends throughout the world, I thank you deeply from my heart for all your love and all the prayers that you have shown me. Due to God’s miracle and grace, I am free from my depression. I love all of you and may God bless and keep you!”
To me in 2015 he said, “To me there’s no white or African American. And Duke Ellington said, ‘There’s only two kinds of music, good and bad,’ and that’s what I believe. I’m not really in the blues world. You know, I live in the country, and I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and like I said, I love Joni Mitchell, and I love Jimmy Cliff and anything that has soul I can feel, and so I’m not in the blues world. I’m not in any kind of career mode or – I just play, and that’s kinda how I look at things.”
At the end of our 2019 interview he said, “I’m sensing your love and I can’t wait to read the story.”
Visit Ronnie’s website at www.ronnieearl.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.