Featured Interview – Anthony Geraci

Cover photo © 2024 Laura Carbone

imagePianist, Hammond B-3 organist, and composer Anthony Geraci has been a humble and low-profile, but hugely significant contributor to the blues community for approximately forty years.  He has been a member of several bands (including one he leads), is a prolific songwriter, has served as a sideman to many of the legends, and has been a guest artist on almost too many albums to count. His musicianship is well-respected, although he was jokingly referred to as the Susan Lucci of the Blues Music Awards due to many consecutive years of being nominated for an award without winning.  His work was then fully recognized when he won the Instrumentalist-Piano/Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year Award in 2021, (and then won it again in 2023).  He has had 17 Blues Music Award nominations, including a nomination for best Traditional Male Blues Musician, his band was nominated three times as Band of the Year, and his album (Fifty Shades of Blue), was nominated for Traditional Blues Album of the Year (and the title track was nominated for Song of the Year).  Fifty Shades of Blue was also ranked as one of the top blues recordings of the year by Living Blues Magazine and Anthony contributed to an album (Super Harps) that earned a grammy nomination.  When you hear the level of his skill you will not be surprised to learn that he began playing piano at age four and still practices every day.

“I didn’t come from a musical family.  We didn’t even have a record player or a radio in our home.  But, at four years of age I told my parents that I needed a piano.  I really don’t remember what I heard that triggered that desire, but something in me told me I needed a piano to express what I wanted to express.  Luckily, my mother listened and initially got me an old junk upright.  At first, I would pick up little melodies I heard from church, and then a year later, my mother found me a piano teacher.  I took lessons from him for a couple of years, and then started taking lessons at the Neighborhood School of Music that was affiliated with Yale University in New Haven, CT.  They had a lot of teachers from Yale working there.  Eventually my mother went out and bought me a Kimball baby grand piano that she paid $4 a week on.”

While he was initially taught to play classical music, Anthony always found a way, beginning at a young age, to incorporate the blues into his playing, often to the annoyance of his teachers.

“I always had this improvisational streak.  If I was playing Bach, I would add extra notes—blues notes.  I had this strict Russian teacher, and she would get five-year-old kids to play Rachmaninoff by memory note-for-note to try to embarrass me.  But I was always drawn to the bluesy part of all songs.  I was listening to The Doors do ‘Back Door Man’, and even though I dug all the tunes on their first album, I would be drawn to the bluesy part of their tracks.  Blues just got into my soul, and luckily, I have been able to make a living at it.”

Anthony’s direction turned fully toward the blues after an experience he had while still playing in rock bands in high school.

“There was this guy named Ed Cherry in my school.  Ed went on to be Dizzy Gillespie’s guitarist until Dizzy’s passing.  His family was one of the only Black families at that time in our locale and he is a great guitar player.  I used to go over to his house and listen to records, and one day he put on Chicago Bound by Jimmy Rogers.   I literally hit the floor and asked if I could borrow it.  I must have listened to it a hundred times before I brought it back.  The ensemble playing is so beautiful on that record.  It was just as poignant as any Bach invention, and the way they interweaved the guitars and harmonica with Otis Spann on piano was amazing.  Bob Margolin once told me that Muddy and Jimmy would work out their parts ahead of time—it wasn’t improvised.  They were very serious about their music.  Years later I got to be on the road with Otis and learned directly from sitting at the piano with Sunnyland Slim, Lloyd Glenn, Roosevelt Sykes, and Pinetop Perkins.  Pinetop would sometimes stay at my house for a few days.  I had a Steinway upright in my kitchen, and while I’d be making him breakfast, he’d play.  After breakfast we’d go into the living room where I had a beautiful Mason and Hamlin upright grand.  Pinetop would just sit there and play all day.  I never asked him to show me anything, but I observed and absorbed everything that he was doing.  I feel very fortunate to have learned from those great blues pianists.”

imageAfter high school, Geraci attended the Berklee School of Music, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in music, and later completing a master’s degree in music from Skidmore College.

“I first did two semesters at a community college in New Haven, but it was a very small music program, and I exhausted all their music credits in only two semesters.  A friend of mine was going to Berklee, so I applied and was accepted.  Once I got there I was immersed in all sorts of music:  jazz composition, classical, writing, and orchestration. But I also enjoyed the non-music courses.  Taking a class in the novels of Hermann Hesse was very cool, as was a Philosophy of Religion class where I handed in an old, crusted soy sauce bottle as my final paper…and got an A!  I would stay in the piano cubicles every day from 7 am until 10:00 or 11:00 at night. Once when I was pounding on the piano there was a knock on my door.  An Asian student asked me what I was playing and asked if there was a book he could buy to play ‘blues’.  We chatted a bit and I told him to come back the next night.  The next night he came to my practice room, and I gave him an Otis Spann cassette and a nip of Four Roses and told him to listen and play along with Spann.  I also took outside lessons.  There was this eclectic, kooky teacher named Harvey Diamond.  I would go to his apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and he would be in his robe.  He was really big on ear training.  What was interesting was you could adjust the turntables back then, so he would make it go sharp or flat so you would have to adjust your ear to sing the solos he wanted.”

Anthony had more opportunities to play with blues legends when he joined the band, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones.

“Ronnie Earl was with us at the time, and he had his little black book of musicians.  We were the house band at a club in Cambridge called The Speakeasy and played every Sunday.  Ronnie would call up people and they would come out and play with us.  JB Hutto came out and Hubert Sumlin spent almost two months with us, literally being part of the band. He had Sunnyland Slim come out and brought Otis Rush out too. Those were great times!”

Geraci credited Lightnin’ Hopkins and Ronnie Earl with being huge influences on his music.

“I listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins all the time.  I just think he’s brilliant and I love the storytelling he does.  And Ronnie Earl is so soulful that it’s hard to describe.  Many people have told me Ronnie’s first two records (Smokin and They Call Me Mr. Earl) were the reason they started to play blues music and I’m honored to have played on both of those recordings.  When I played with Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters there were no vocals—it was all instrumental.  The music had to speak without lyrics and the instruments had to have their own voice.  We would be doing three-hour shows without stopping and I learned a lot about being in the moment and feeding off other musicians in the band.”

When asked how he learned about the business side of the music industry, Geraci noted that it came only from playing in bands since around 1966.

“I learned about the business by trial and error because all I really cared about was playing piano. When I first started to pay with Ronnie Earl, he told me ‘Maybe you should buy a wallet,’ as I didn’t have one.  I guess even back then the music was more important than the pay.  I know Berklee has a business course now, but they didn’t have one back when I attended.  I did learn a lot from Sugar Ray Norcia.  He is such a calm, cool, collected guy.”

Geraci has been a member of Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, The Proven Ones, and he has led the Boston Blues All-Stars for the past 15 years.  He has also been called upon to play with many legends when they had East Coast tours, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush, and Big Joe Turner.  He has also contributed to numerous albums by other artists, (such as Big Jack Johnson, Odetta, Kenny Neal, Big Walter Horton, Otis Grand), as he is one of the first pianists to be called when some of the finest artists make plans to record.  He was asked how he so successfully transitions between being in a sideman role and then a bandleader role.

image“It is just about respect for the people you’re playing with, and you have to know your place.  I think that is what most musicians need to know, whether they are a sideman or a leader.  Even when I’m the leader, I tend to give the guitar player more solos than I take. I prefer songs over jams. I find that when I’m in a sideman role I listen to who I am playing with, and it takes years and years of experience to do that well.  When I first started playing with the Chicago guys, like Hubert Sumlin and Otis Rush, I would put on stacks of records to prepare because I never wanted to get stumped on stage or get the ‘stink eye’.  I think it comes down to respect for the music and respect for the musicians you are playing with.”

Geraci had a few great stories from working with legends such as John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton.

“I was playing with a blues band from New Hampshire (The John Wardwell Blues band) while I was still attending Berklee and there was a blues festival, and we were going to back up John Lee Hooker.  Then we were going to back up Big Mama Thornton.  I did my due diligence and got as familiar as I could with their music.  The Hooker set went pretty well, but after one song, Big Mama Thornton threw everybody off the stage except for me.  Then she went behind the drums and took out a harmonica and sang, played harmonica and drums.  It was very early in my blues career, and she only had one harmonica, in F# I believe.  I don’t usually care about keys, but back then playing everything in F# was somewhat difficult.  But it was one of those experiences that helped me out and shaped me, like being thrown into the fire.”

“Another occurrence that was pivotal in my career was opening up for the Muddy Waters Blues Band at Paul’s Mall in Boston.  It was a week-long gig, and everyone that was into the blues came to see Muddy.  That’s where I met Bob Margolin and Jerry Portnoy, who lived in the Boston locale.  They invited me to weekly jam sessions when they weren’t on the road with Muddy.  Two great pianists from the Boston area, Ron Levy and David Maxwell, would be at those jams and I learned a lot by just watching and listening to them.  One night during the week-long gig with Muddy, an elderly woman came into the Green Room and said, ‘I’d like to speak to Mr. Waters.’  I happened to be sitting right next to Muddy Waters when she introduced herself.  ‘My name is Annye Anderson and Robert Johnson was my stepbrother.’  The room went silent as she pulled a previously unknown picture of Robert Johnson out of her oversized pocketbook.  ‘That’s him, that’s him!’ Muddy exclaimed, as he literally jumped out of his chair.  We were all in shock.  She has since written the book Brother Robert that is a very good read.”

Geraci also had a few fun nights playing with the Blues Brothers.

“I did one gig with Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman and Jim Belushi as a Blues Brother, and one with Dan Aykroyd when we played at a launch party for Aykroyd’s TV show, Soulman, Dan came dancing over to me while playing harmonica and quietly said, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing, but let’s have some fun!’.  It was nice to meet them.  They were just regular guys having fun.”

Geraci was asked how, unlike many artists, he managed to avoid the lure of alcohol and drug abuse.

“I’ll be very honest.  I did my share of drinking and drugs, but for some reason it didn’t take a hold of my soul.  I started playing gigs in the mid-60s, so there were psychedelics around.  And, in the 80s and 90s cocaine was everywhere.  I feel very fortunate that I was able to keep an even keel and never let alcohol or any drugs take over my soul.”

Geraci is also a teacher, and he has taught both academically and private lessons.  He taught college classes in Vermont between 2003 and 2004, and at a Conservatory near Boston for a number of years.

image“I taught History of the Blues, History of Rock & Roll, and World Music.  That was interesting.  Teaching is harder than people think.  You have to keep your students engaged and it took me awhile to get it together.  I learned as much as my students, especially when I crossed over and had to teach world music.  That was interesting—it opened my mind to some great music.  Interesting fact—there’s not a society in the world from as far back as we know where music wasn’t an integral part of life.  Some of the earliest artifacts found are flute-type instruments made from deer antlers or animal bone.  I would have loved to be in a Neanderthal jam session!”

Additionally, Geraci spent three years teaching for the Pinetop Perkins Foundation and is now a member of their Board of Directors.

“I was really honored to be asked to be on the board.  It is such a great thing.  Every year we have the workshop and Bob Margolin is the Musical Director.  I taught there for three years.  It’s mostly young kids and these kids are really serious.  They come and want to learn the blues.  Kingfish (Christone Ingram) was part of it from an early age, and now, if he is around, he might come by and say hello, and play guitar for the kids because it’s held right in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Everybody on the board is so vested in keeping Pinetop’s legacy alive and it was his wish to have something like this, where young students can come and learn about the blues.  It’s a wonderful thing.  The Foundation also helps musician in need, similar to the aid offered by the HART Fund that is part of the Blues Foundation.”

While discussing the Blues Music Awards, Anthony laughed when asked about the comparison that used to be made between him and Susan Lucci (the actress from All My Children who was nominated for an Emmy 19 times before finally winning the award).

“It was the same with Sugary Rayford.  I used to send a (photoshopped) picture to Sugaray every year after the BMAs of him, Susan Lucci and myself sitting at the table.  But it is an honor to be recognized by The Blues Foundation and other organizations–I don’t take it lightly.  I play my piano every day and I’m very serious about what I do.  I’m proud that my band has been nominated three out of the last four years for Band of the Year.”

Although Geraci is known for playing traditional blues, he also appreciates variations of the genre.

“Blues rock is dominating the festival scene, but that’s ok.  I love Walter Trout.  He’s written the liner notes on my upcoming recording, Tears in My Eyes, and has played on two of my previous records.  Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia have a long history in the blues circuit, and I love those guys.  But I am also glad that some festivals have side stages for acoustic blues so people can hear some of the music that maybe doesn’t make it to the main stages.  It’s great to hear artists such as Eric Bibb or Jontavious Willis play at major festivals.  It gives people a bigger picture of blues music.”

Geraci’s band, The Boston Blues All-Stars, plays all original music.  He was asked which original song lyrics were the most meaningful to him, and he noted that a song does not require lyrics to be meaningful.

“Sometimes words aren’t necessary. Early in 2019 we lost Mike Ledbetter (I was honored to play on the Welch/Ledbetter recording), my son Todd was hit by a truck with the result being his right leg being amputated above the knee, and our beloved dog Ella passed away. I know that sounds like a bad country song! The song, ‘Ode to Todd, Ella and Mike Ledbetter’ speaks without a word. Ronnie Earl and I co-wrote ‘A Prayer for Tomorrow’ on his most recent recording, and that speaks without words as well. However, if I had to pick one song for the lyrics, I would pick ‘Love Changes Everything’ from the Daydreams in Blue” album:

Love changes everything
You gotta believe in what you see
Two hands for every heart
We have each other-we’ll never part
Take my hand-together we stand

I think almost all songs are love songs…Love does change everything-it’s why we breathe.”

imageGeraci continues to be a guest on many other artists’ albums.  And, his most recent project is an album called Tears in my Eyes, which is due to be released April 19 on Blue Heart Records.  It was recorded half in Prague, Czech Republic and half in the Boston locale.

“I am playing on a new recording that Johnny Rawls is producing for Patti Parks.  Bob Corritore has been flying me down to Phoenix to play, and I’m playing on a soon-to-be-released John Primer album that Bob Corritore produced.  Also, an album with Willie Buck and Oscar Wilson should be out this year.  For my band’s album, Tears in my Eyes, we did a pretty long tour in Europe, and we had four days off in Prague, Czech Republic.  I found this great studio in Prague.  Paul McCartney’s band members had recorded there, and the sound engineer had recorded for the symphony orchestra.  The studio owners owned the whole high-rise building, so we stayed above the studio in a little apartment.  It was kind of fun and a bit funky—just the way I like it!  We recorded for two days, and I used a beautiful Steinway piano.  We recorded half of the album in Prague, and it came out great.  The rest of it was recorded at a local studio in Boston.  Paul Loranger is my bass player, Barrett Anderson is on guitar, and my drummer is Kurt Kalker.  Paul and Kurt played with the late, great Candye Kane for many years. Anne Harris played violin on one song, and I have Sugar Ray Norcia doing a couple of vocals and Barrett sings on the title track.  One song is called ‘Memphis Mist’.  I got the inspiration for it walking down near the Mississippi River in Memphis at 6 or 7 am and there was this beautiful hypnotic mist over the river—almost embracing and engulfing you, but not giving up any secrets.  Anne plays on that song and her playing is beautiful.”

Geraci was asked if there were any young blues artists, other than Kingfish, that he found exciting.

“Ben Levin is amazing.  He’s a really great piano player.  He was a student at the Pinetop Perkins Foundation, and then he became an intern.  Dylan Triplett is also good, although he is more on the soul and R&B side.  I dig Eddie 9V—he just came out of nowhere and he is really good.”

When asked whether there was anything he wished people would better understand about the blues, Geraci pointed out the ways in which people currently miss out as opposed to the manner in which fans used to await the release of albums in past decades.

“I think there is a big difference in how people listen to music now. I remember taking the bus to New Haven to buy Wheels of Fire by Cream the day it came out.  It was important!  Now all you need is two thumbs and you can get anything you want.  People my age would sit down and listen to a whole record.  People don’t listen to a whole record anymore.  They just listen to one or two songs.  We used to love sitting down and listening to a new record with friends.  I think everybody is too much in a hurry these days and that’s too bad.”

When asked if there was anything else he would like the public to know about him, Geraci simply said,

“Well, I haven’t been in a barber’s chair since 1967.”

If avoiding the barber’s chair had any connection to Anthony Geraci’s tremendous talent, we would all try canceling our future haircuts.

You can learn more about this amazing artist, including the release of his new album, Tears in My Eyes, at www.anthonygeraciblue.com

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