Web Book/E-Book/Print Book
What can one say about Ron Levy? The man has been amongst the foremost musicians, songwriters, arrangers and producers of the blues world over the last 40+ years. He played piano and organ with B.B. King for seven years, Albert King for 18 months, Roomful of Blues for four years and many others besides. He was the in-house producer and/or backing musician on many of the great Black Top, Rounder and Bullseye Blues records in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as releasing a number of his own solo efforts under the Ron Levy’s Wild Kingdom banner (his first now out of print album remains one of the unheralded modern classics).
Levy has now published his first book, Tales of a Road Dog, which is part-autobiography and part-anecdotal record of the surprising number of blues legends whose paths have crossed with his.
Levy grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and started playing piano after seeing Ray Charles in concert in 1964. There must be something in the water in that part of the world: one of Levy’s classmates was Bob Margolin, later to be Muddy Waters’ guitar player. From a young age, Levy was obsessed with music and this obsession clearly continues to this day. So while he writes movingly about his family and his faith, the vast majority of the book relates to the musicians he has worked with and the albums he has played on.
While his stories sometimes confirm what is already common knowledge (Albert King, for example, was a demanding boss with a penchant for firing band members), many have not been published previously and provide an informative and entertaining insight into the personality of various legends. Otis Spann mischievously tells Levy about his secret marriage to an English princess and the castle in which they live and the Rolls Royce he drives whenever Spann makes it over to the UK. Spann then makes the young Levy swear to never tell Spann’s loving wife Lucille back home in Chicago. B.B.’s warmth and humanity is demonstrated when he warns Levy off the illicit substances with which the young pianist briefly dabbles. Nina Simone’s prejudice and racism is witnessed first hand at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
Levy has a sardonic wit and writes well. When writing about rumours that Albert King was B.B.’s brother, he drily notes: “There were rumors they were [brothers], but B.B.’s father, also named Albert, assured me many years later, in no uncertain terms, that was not the case.”
And from a musician’s perspective, Levy provides some fascinating details about some great players. For example, while it may not be surprising that Albert King’s sense of pitch and time was “absolutely 100% perfect”, Albert’s ability on the organ may not be common knowledge, and his absolute certainty of how his music should be played is captivating. “Brother Jack McDuff taught me some cool modern jazz chords, 13ths, flat 5s, some passing tones and the like. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to use them and show off my new knowledge. We had a little mini-rehearsal breaking in another new drummer (which was pretty routine by now) and I played some of these chords on a slow Blues. Albert suddenly stopped and went berserk. “Whut in the hell is wrong wichu? I don’t want no mutherfu*kin kinda funky jazzy ass sh*t chords on my tunes! THIS IS THE BLUES, DAMMIT! What in the fu*k is that sh*t? Damn, boy. Ain’t you loined nuttin’ from me yet? This is how you play a damn Blues chord.” He then proceeded to come over to my B-3 and play an Ab 7th chord with the b7th right below the tonic on top, with the 3rd on the bottom. He even changed the Hammond drawbar tone settings!”
While Albert was a master of improvisation, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Luther “Guitar Jr” Johnson was quite happy to play the “exact same solo, note for note, each night, once he had it perfectly honed. Each night he’d play it with intensity and conviction.”
In addition, a number of the stories are flat out hilarious, from the references to a certain drummer’s wig, to the tale of how Levy nearly joined The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
The book is available in three different formats: a web book, an e-book and a print book. All three feature 26 chapters of absorbing stories, tracing Levy’s path from his childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the current day. Five chapters are dedicated to his time with B.B. King but generally each chapter focuses on specific musicians or individuals (such as Roomful, or Hammond and Nauman Scott), on specific tours (the “Brasilian” tour) or specific periods (The Rounder Chronicles). The web book features over 2,500 photographs, over 350 embedded music video links and downloads of three of Ron’s albums: Funky Fiesta!, Best Grooves & Jams, and Mo’ Blues & Grooves (which feature guest artists such as Albert Collins, Jimmie Vaughan, Ronnie Earl, Johnnie Bassett, Sax Gordon and Smokey Wilson). Over time, Ron is adding new photos, music links and chapters. In addition, readers can email Levy directly with comments and questions. The e-book contains 50 images and the print book contains over 100 photos and both enable a download of Funky Fiesta! but no music links or additional album downloads.
Since the web book was first published in 2013, it has undergone various edits to correct some typographical errors and failed music links, as well as to add additional photographs and music. It would probably still benefit from some additional editing to link together the various stories slightly more smoothly. There is a slightly disjointed feel to some of the chapters, as if Levy has poured out his memories in relation to a specific incident but without considering how best to relate that episode in the context of the overall book. Levy does not present his life and his stories chronologically, which is a good thing in order to avoid boring the reader, but as a result it would help to have some over-arching themes to connect all the anecdotes.
Overall however this is a highly enjoyable read and recommended to all fans of modern blues. Tales of a Road Dog is passionate, humorous and intelligent, if boisterously rough around the edges. As such, it is probably a pretty fair reflection of its author.