With a career that has spanned five decades, Rod Piazza has seen it all, often staring out of the window of a van motoring on to the next gig. On the title track on his latest release, Emergency Situation, on Blind Pig Records, the singer and harmonica ace takes a hard look at the current prospects for himself along with his crack band, the Mighty Flyers.
“The inspiration for the song came from an Eddie Harris tune “That’s Why You’re Overweight”. He’s talking about all of these things he wants to eat and you have to eat to live. So I came up with “Emergency Situation” as a satire about the present scene as it relates to a blues musician trying to make it in life. It was pretty great in the 1990s with that big blues explosion. At that time there were thirteen clubs that we could play anytime for good money. Now there is one club.”
“Around 2003 as we were booking tours, we started to notice that the pick-up gigs that we used to get on Tuesday or Wednesday nights weren’t an option. That made it harder to connect the dots for a tour without spending money for hotel rooms for me and the band on off-nights. At that time, I had it where we worked every night on the road for three weeks straight. So we became the first group to do fly-outs. No more driving the van around for five tours plus a trip to Europe every year.”
It was tough for a bit but the band eventually found a way to maintain financial stability by doing a few local shows in addition to festival dates where that paid enough to allow the band to fly in. Piazza knew the change was necessary. “I still have friends out there driving around in the van trying to make it. You’re doing something you love and you want to keep doing it. I’m sixty-seven years old. At my age, I still love to play. But I’ve spent too many hours driving. I’m not going to drive across the states putting 50,000 miles on my body and my car. So I wrote the song as satire, talking about how the clubs ain’t paying, the festivals are hurting too; the only solid gig is on the Legendary Blues Cruise. Roger Naber got a kick out of that.”
“We lost a lot of business when I decided we were done on the road. A festival could get three bands that are out there still driving the states for what it cost to fly five musicians in from California, pay us what we wanted, put up the backline plus pay for hotel rooms and ground transportation. That set our price pretty high so we missed out on quite a few festivals from the old days.”
His musical education started with two older brothers, who shared their love of cool records, cool cars and pretty women with their younger brother. The music inspired him to start playing some guitar at a young age. His first band, the Mystics, already had several other guitar players more skilled than he was, so Piazza made the shift to singing and playing harp. “There were several other blues bands in the area, so we were all pushing each other, making everybody work a little harder. Eventually we moved to Los Angeles and signed with a producer. We cut a 45 rpm record for him. One song was called “Stepped Into The Twilight Zone,” written by Mac Rebennack. I had never heard of Dr. John then”.
The band kept pushing the producer for bigger and better things. He finally parted with them, giving them control of their future. One fateful evening, the band was playing at a club in Huntington Beach. A writer for the LA Free Press, Eileen Kaufman, came in to hear them play, loved the band, and got them in touch with another producer who signed the group in 1967 to the ABC-Bluesway label. “The Dirty Blues Band was the only white act on the label. They had T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, Otis Spann, and George “Harmonica” Smith. We didn’t like the name change but that was the producer’s idea. We weren’t any good but we had long hair so they probably figured we could sell some blues records to hippies”.
The next year saw Smith and Piazza teaming up in a new band that included Richard Innes on drums, Buddy Reed on guitar, JD Nicholson on piano, and Jerry Smith on bass. They called themselves Bacon Fat and hit the clubs in Watts with the novel two harp line-up. “I didn’t think the world was ready for two harps but George wanted to do it. I’d come out and do the first part of the show and George would do the second half. He’d call me back out for the encore. He made up two fifty foot cords for our microphones. I’d be on one side of the stage with George on the other. Then we would meet out in the middle of the audience. One of us would be standing on something for the big show closer”.
“A lot of guys who later became great harmonica players saw those shows. They were inspired by that and went on to build their own careers. They learned from coming to my gigs or from listening to my records, especially the Bacon Fat records. You never know how many people you touch. I met Rick Estrin at San Francisco show – a big revue with T-Bone Walker, Cleanhead Vinson, Big Joe, and Roy Brown. I told him how to do a few things. Kim Wilson and Curtis Salgado are a couple more that I remember meeting at shows.’
“I was on the scene earlier than the rest. They had someone who was out there playing in a band, so they could pick-up what they could from me and leave what they didn’t want. William Clarke used to sit out there with a tape recorder & tape the whole show. It’s all history now. I just wanted to play my harmonica as close to a saxophone as I could. Your own style is created by what you are able to do on a harp and what you can’t do. Somewhere in-between those two, you fall into a pocket. And that is Rod Piazza. I hear a lot of harp players on the radio and I can’t tell who it is. But if I hear one of my records, even one I forgot I recorded, I can sure as hell tell that it is me playing. I’m not saying that my playing is above everybody else. I have a unique thing to the way I play, the way I phrase”.
“I made a few good records and inspired a few people along the way. When I was at a recording session for Delta Groove Records, Jason Ricci was cutting a couple of songs before me. When I came into the room, he said “Hey man, I want to tell you something. When I heard that record you made, “Tribute To George Smith,” (Harpburn on Black Top records), a tear came to my eye.” That tells you that cats were listening to my stuff.” Other harp players that studied his work include Madison Slim and Dennis Gruenling, who once was dubbed the “hippie stalker” by Piazza as Gruenling was a constant presence at many Mighty Flyer shows on the East coast.
Good fortune struck again when the famed English producer Mike Vernon appeared on the scene, looking for a band to replace the original Fleetwood Mac on his Blue Horizon label. They recorded at a studio owned by Johnny Otis. Vernon also recorded the band live at their home base, Small’s Paradise in Watts, that also had guitarist Pee Wee Crayton sitting in. In 1970, the band toured England to great reviews, some of which proclaimed Bacon Fat to be the best white American blues band.
Once they were back in the states, they toured with Big Mama Thornton in addition to playing clubs in Watts and Los Angeles, often opening for legends like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. In 1975, Piazza was hospitalized with a severe illness. Muddy called George Smith wanting to get in touch with Piazza about becoming the next harp player in his band. Smith let Muddy know that Piazza was laid-up, robbing Piazza of the opportunity to back one of his heroes.
When Bacon Fat had run its course, Piazza formed the Chicago Flying Saucer Band, which released one album on Gangster Records, and eventually became the first version of the Mighty Flyers. Featuring his wife Honey on keyboards, the various versions of the band have always included some of the best musicians around. Piazza has a simple philosophy when it comes to being a successful band leader. “I believe that you can’t stifle creativity. You have to give musicians room to express themselves on the bandstand. Don’t hold them back. The other thing is making concessions. You give a little on some issues – on others you have to stand tall. If you are fair and not an egomaniac, letting someone do their best will create a great band, which is preferable to being a front man with four statues standing there never doing anything worthwhile. You want them to feel like they played some damn shit – and that I paid them fairly for their efforts”.
Spending all of those long days on the road has together was never been a problem for Rod and his wife, Honey, who plays keyboards as one of the Mighty Flyers. . “It is a special relationship – not only wife, husband and lovers but best friends too. We are together all the time whether we were playing or not. We both have a fairly even temperament, know when to back off or stand up. We both have had a common goal, to pursue our love of blues music and follow in the footsteps of the people we loved. For Honey, it was Otis Spann. For me, it was Little Walter and George Smith. That was our lifestyle. I don’t think we have changed at all”.
Piazza misses several musicians and close friends who left this life. ‘Richard Innes used to listen to me all the time, learning to play some harp. We became close friends. He was the best man at my first wedding. The drummer I had in the band at the time got drafted. Richard said he played a bit of drums at school. So we bought a beat-up drum set from another friend for $100 and we proceeded to rehearse every day on Little Walter & Muddy tunes. His first gig was with me & George in Watts at the Sassy Kitten with guitarist Pee Wee Crayton”.
“We had rehearsed to death. Richard really tried to master the Fred Below style of drumming. All these harmonica players loved to play with the cat because he knew what to put behind you from going over that shit over and over again in the garage until we got it right. He learned his craft. He knew what to put in & not to put in. He laid it down like you wanted to hear it and made it easy for everybody that was standing in front of him to do their thing”.
Along with Miss Honey and guitarist Hollywood Fats, Piazza spent many a night playing at the Pioneer Club with the late singer & guitarist Smokey Wilson. “I used to play the first set by myself with just the rhythm section, and then Smokey would be up there for the next two sets. I was driving 65 miles each way, making fifteen bucks a night. I kept on doing it because I loved the music and I didn’t have anything else. George Smith came down there one night to see me play and wound up getting robbed out in the parking lot. Smokey had a great voice, played stinging guitar, and put it out there real strong. The folks that ran the Eugene, Oregon blues fest were looking for some new acts. I recommended Smokey and that ended up being his first show in front of a white audience.”
Known for his work on the chromatic harp, Piazza relates how he got started on the bigger harp. “This guy used to steal B flat chromatics from the music store and sell them to me. Nobody would buy these weird keys. They all wanted the C scale chromatic. So I am playing a lot of gigs with people like Big Joe and he wants to do every damn song in C. I didn’t like blowing that high F harp. They weren’t making low F at the time. I could blow a little bit of third position on the B flat harp but on some of the songs you couldn’t get around on that. On the B flat chromatic, I could play in third position and I could get to C. That worked out real good.”
“I started singing my own songs in C because that was a good key for me. I learned that you could wail on that chromatic. I found a technique to control my breathing so that I could manhandle that harp. The chromatic is a foreign item for cats used to the smaller diatonic harps. It takes different mouthing techniques and ways of to control your air. They usually can’t get enough weight out of it to make it work over the microphone to get a good sound. I worked real hard to that that chromatic real strong through the amp and mike George and I used to play with guys like Albert King, with his Flying V guitar, huge amp, and a sound as big as the Empire State Building. And here I am with this little bitty harp! Some people say that Rod plays too loud, but it stems from being thrust into that environment of the guitar bands coming on so strong. I wanted to make sure people didn’t forget me”.
“I took what I could learn from Walter and George. From Walter it was technique and control of the instrument. From George I learned the strong attack, stage presence, and tonal quality. I tried to apply all of that to the music that I liked to listen to as well as the stuff they did. For example, George used to play “Little Bitty Pretty One,” a fifties R&B hit. So I went home and came up a version of “Rockin’ Robin”. One night when we were playing at Small’s, I broke it out and George just cracked up. Two night later he got up there and played “Rockin’ Robin,” stood there laughing at me like ok, now I’ve got some of yours!”
“I put the 12 hole B flat chromatic on the map. I adapted a lot of the swinging, saxophone style music and the double shuffle kind of thing that people now refer to as west coast blues – that free drum, no backbeat groove. Bottom line, I just wanted to play my harmonica”.
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2015
Reviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!.