In today’s world, great blues artists come in all colors – and all nationalities, too. Even if you scoff at the notion, claiming the music is American through and through, it’s a fact that U.S. artists planted seeds around the world – that they’ve grown to fruition in such a way that the music emanating from foreign soil often compares favorably with what’s produced here.
If you have any doubt, consider the case of Fabrizio Poggi, a modest, soft-spoken Italian harmonica player who came thisclose to winning a traditional blues Grammy in 2018 for the stellar tribute album he recorded with Guy Davis to honor Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
And once you understand Fabrizio’s back story, you’ll realize that the honor was no fluke because – despite his ancestry, he’s as blue to the bone as anyone born in Chicago or Mississippi soil.
When Blues Blast caught up with him and wife Angelina recently, they were at home in Voghera, a sleepy town located in the rolling hills of the Burgundy region about 45 minutes southwest of Milan, where many of its residents commute to work every day and where they’ve sequestered themselves since the onset of the coronavirus onslaught.
Best known as a manufacturing hub and for the Chianti produced in its vineyards, the town’s 40,000 residents are revered traditionally as a prime example of Italy’s lower middle class – folks who lack big-city sophistication and education, but are hard workers willing to sacrifice everything to raise a family.
Born on July 1, 1958 Poggi – pronounced “Poh-gee” – has lived his entire life in the tight-knit community. An eighth-grade dropout, he spent 30 years toiling in various factory jobs before launching his musical career, working for a firm that produced small glass bottles for the drug industry.
Music has always played a major role in his life. While other kids were out riding bikes or playing soccer, Fabrizio spent his day spinning records and enjoying a multitude of musical styles – something that’s surprising because no one else in his family showed an interest in music whatsoever.
“In some ways, my parents thought music was not only a waste of time, but only useful when you are young and go to dance – to get a girlfriend or boyfriend,” he remembers. “My mother sometimes listened to the radio – Italian pop music. But not often.
“And my father…it was a miracle one time when he brought home a 45-rpm of Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night.’ It shocked everyone. My mother said: ‘But it’s in English, and we don’t understand a word… Why?’ He said: ‘He’s a great singer!’ (laughs) But it never happened again. It was just one shot!
“As a youngster, my favorite toys were a pot I could use as a drum, a toy piano and, of course, an out-of-tune harmonica,” Fabrizio says. “I didn’t care too much about toys in general. But when it came to musical toys, I went crazy. As I got older, I occasionally asked my grandmother for a little money so I could buy my own records.
“And when the music came from television or radio, Fabrizio was hypnotized! My mother still says: ‘When music came, he was in another world on his own cloud!’”
Poggi’s first exposure to the blues came through the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Eric Clapton and other British rock bands that dominated the European airwaves in the era. But the seminal moment of his life came when he attended a screening of the Martin Scorsese-produced documentary, The Last Waltz.
“It was the late ‘70s, and I went to see it because of Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell,” Fabrizio says. “I didn’t know much about The Band themselves. But when I saw Muddy Waters, it was an epiphany.
“I was in this little, small-town movie theater with my mouth wide open, saying: ‘Who is this black man that all of my heroes are treating like an emperor…like the king of the world?’ I really didn’t understand why.
“But when he opened his mouth and started to sing ‘I’m a Man’…okay…got it! His voice hooked me for the rest of my life.”
A second shocker came a few moments later, Poggi remembers: “Then I saw Paul Butterfield play ‘Mystery Train’ and I said to myself: ‘That’s a harmonica?’ I never knew that a harmonica could have that sound.”
Enthralled, Fabrizio wanted to learn more. “But it was tough,” he says. “The next day, I went to the music store and asked for a harmonica to play the blues, and the clerk looked at me like I was crazy. ‘I don’t even know what the blues is,’ he said.
“I bought a (Hohner) Blues Harp. Despite the name, I knew it was a harmonica, not a harp. And it said ‘blues,’ so maybe…
“But there were no instructions. And there were no other harmonica players in my town to go to for lessons. There were some in Rome or Milan who went to London to get information, but they were very secretive about what they’d learned.”
Instead, he turned to his records.
“I studied English in school,” Fabrizio says, “but Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were my English teachers. In the beginning, I didn’t understand a word…just the vibe. Then I realized it would be better to read about it. But I had to do it in English — which was no fun at all. There was no other way to learn the true path to the music.
“Like me, when Europeans go into the blues, they go really deep. They want to get inside it all the way. We learn by imitating the way it’s played. But then we go beyond the songs and search out the stories to learn about the people. We don’t take anything for granted because it’s not our culture. And the lessons are difficult – especially for people of my generation.”
For the next six months, Poggi tried playing along with his LPs, but found it virtually impossible. The notes he was producing bore little resemblance to the sounds emanating from the grooves of the records. In his innocence, he mistakenly believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that his inability to emulate the blues was because he didn’t have the proper instrument – even though he already owned one and played it every day.
He was on the verge of quitting altogether.
“Then, one night, I went to a bar,” he says. “A local rock band was running a jam session. At the end of the night, I went to compliment the guitar player, who was very good. I remember it like it was yesterday. He asked me: ‘Are you a musician, too?’
“I said: ‘Oh, well, I just try to play blues harmonica. But here in Italy, we don’t have the right instrument…’”
Amused, but helpful and knowledgeable, too, the guitarist patiently explained that Fabrizio’s problem wasn’t his harp, but the way he was using it. It was through him that Fabrizio first learned about existence of the “cross harp” technique, which allows harp players to produce the flatted third and seventh notes of the blues scale.
Simply stated, the musician uses an instrument tuned four steps below the key used by the rest of the band – i.e., a C harp to play in G or D to play in A. By playing in second position – starting the scale on two-hole draw rather than four-hole blow, he’s able to perform in a complimentary key that produces the “blue” notes far more easily.
“He wrote it all out for me on a napkin at the end of the bar,” Poggi says. “I went home and tried it. Of course, I didn’t get it right away, but I was shocked. I was making some sounds that sound like blues!”
Primarily a lip player rather than a tongue-blocker in the style of Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson, Fabrizio admits that it took him years to learn how to bend a reed through trial and error. He’s been incorporating tongue blocking into his repertoire since the ‘90s after making American musician friends who suggested he do so.
Now a two-time Blues Music Awards nominee and a Hohner Lifetime Award winner, Poggi began jamming when time permitted at age 30 – something that wasn’t always easy because his factory operated on shifts 24 hours a day. He and some friends started jamming together early in the decade, eventually forming the band, Chicken Mambo, with whom Fabrizio’s recorded 11 albums and still plays with today.
“At the time, there were a lot of blues bands around,” he says. “I liked the name ‘Mambo,’ and I got the idea for the rest of it from Howlin’ Wolf, his song, ‘My Baby Caught the Train’ and Hubert Sumlin making scratching sounds on the guitar as the song drew to an end. I said to myself: ‘Maybe Wolf’s playing ‘Chicken Mambo.’ That’s been our name ever since.”
Their first venture in the studio came in 1993 with Mississippi Moon. They issued two more albums in the decade – Under the Southern Sky and Heroes & Friends. Although they were making progress, however, the bandmates agreed that their sound simply wasn’t “right.” Even though the engineers in the studio were well-meaning, as Italians, they simply didn’t have a good enough grasp on the blues medium. Eventually, they struck on a simple solution: record their next one in the U.S. under proper supervision — an extremely expensive proposition for foreign musicians who were still working day jobs.
“We saved all our money to go to America,” Poggi says. “We’d do a show and nobody got paid. It was a big sacrifice, but it was worth it.”
It took several American friends for their plans to come to fruition, he notes. In an era before computers and faxes, arrangements were made by snail-slow international mail service or very expensive international calls in which communicating in different languages also made things difficult.
“You had to be patient,” he says.
Fabrizio and his bandmates recorded a much more satisfying album, Nuther World, in 1997, recording it in Austin — in 1997. “It really was another world,” he says, “because the music in America is the best!”
After that trip, Chicken Mambo returned to the U.S. frequently, touring in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, where they gigged successfully at Ground Zero and Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, Miss., and the House of Blues in New Orleans.
“The people I got to talk to and play with during those trips were heroes to me,” Poggi says. “Never in my dreams did I think that, one day, I’d be sharing the stage with them. In the beginning, I think they were curious about me because – 25 years ago – an Italian who wanted to play the blues… They thought: ‘Let’s have fun with this one!’
“I always tried to be very polite, very humble…just to live my passion. They taught me to express myself, to be honest and open my heart…always. They said to me: ‘Fabrizio, if you’re always yourself and open your heart, you’ll be able to touch other people’s hearts, too. And don’t pretend to be a black man or an American. It doesn’t matter. Be yourself. It’s the best way.’
“Being with them made me a better person.”
Despite playing top venues across the U.S. in the years that followed, the best moment in Poggi’s career came far from the bright lights of the big city when he played at a juke in Greenville, Miss., one afternoon.
“The only white people there were my wife, Angelina, my guitar player and me,” he remembers. “After the first set, a very elderly black woman came to me, grabbed me gently, gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear: ‘Hey man, you touched my heart!’
“I cried like a baby. She didn’t know it, but she gave me a degree at Blues University…the right to play the blues. It doesn’t matter if my English is not perfect or that, when I sing, I sing with an Italian accent. If it didn’t matter to her, it shouldn’t matter to anyone.”
Jimmy Carter, the senior member of the Blind Boys, expressed something similar one night when Poggi sat in with them during a European tour and played the harp lines usually delivered by Musselwhite in America. “At the end of the show, I went to Jimmy and said: ‘Tell me, Jimmy, honestly…what do you think of an Italian guy that wants to play African-American music…blues, spirituals, soul?’
“He gave me a lesson that I’ll never forget. He says: ‘You know, Fabrizio, I was born blind. They had to explain to me what it means to be white, black, green or red. I have an idea, but it really doesn’t mean too much to me. When you come and sit in with the Blind Boys and I listen to the sound of your harmonica, the only thing that I think is: Oh, this is my little brother! And that’s enough!’
“With those words, he taught me how many cages we make for ourselves in our lives. But we’re a universal family…one that is meant to be together and free.”
Fabrizio still mists up a little when recounting meeting Charlie Musselwhite – a man who’d been one of his idols for decades – for the first time in the Delta. “He called me a friend,” Poggi recalls, “and said: ’you’re one of us!’
“Mark Wenner basically told me the same thing on the blues cruise a few years ago,” Fabrizio recalls. “I said: ‘no-no-no! You were the great harmonica player Mark Wenner of the Nighthawks 30 years ago, and it took me 30 years to arrive here. It’s not the same!’”
Poggi remains modest despite releasing 23 albums, which demonstrate his acceptance in the American music scene. Chicken Mambo was on board for Spirit & Freedom — which included contributions from the Blind Boys, Musselwhite, Willie Nelson harp player Mickey Raphael, Eric Bibb, Tejano superstar Flaco Jimenez and Billy Joe Shaver – and Live in Texas featured Marcia Ball, Jimenez, Ponty Bone, Floyd Domino and others. Texas Blues Voices included Foster, W.C. Clark, Lavelle White, Mike Zito and more. And another, Spaghetti Juke Joint, which featured Ronnie Earl, Bob Margolin and Sonny Landreth.
Away from the stage, Fabrizio is a storyteller who’s penned four books: Il Soffio Dell’Anima (The Breath of Soul): Blues Harmonica and Blues Harmonica Players and Angeli Perduti del Mississippi (Lost Angels of Mississippi): Stories and Legends of the Blues as well as one that deals with the use of harmonica in Italian folk music and another targeted for children.
But despite his acceptance and having played Carnegie Hall in 2016 in the company of Buddy Guy and Guy Davis, Poggi basically flew under the radar in the blues world until teaming with Davis for Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train and earning a 2018 Grammy nomination in the process.
Like Musselwhite and Wenner, Davis was another of the shining lights who led Fabrizio along his path to the blues. “I was a huge fan,” Fabrizio says, “I learned a lot of Piedmont-style, Sonny Terry-style first-position harmonica from his records. We finally met about 15 years ago at a blues festival in Italy.
“Chicken Mambo was supposed to play Saturday night, he was booked for Sunday. I invited him to come see our show – and he did!”
Poggi was dumbstruck with excitement that night when Angelina gestured to him from the side of the stage and told him: “Guy wants to sit in.”
“After the show, we went to a bar and had a long discussion about blues, about life…and we discovered that he – a black man from America – and I – a white man from Italy – were much more similar than different,” Fabrizio says.
“He told me something beautiful that night: ‘You have something inside you when you play that I don’t see often in the U.S., something that we Americans really appreciate…something that we save for special occasions. You always seem to enjoy playing the blues, always smiling – and people can feel that you’re living your dream. And you don’t know how much we African-Americans enjoy it when we meet people like you.’”
Truly brothers from other mothers, Davis and Poggi’s relationship built from there. They booked shows together across Europe and the U.S., and Fabrizio produced and appeared on Guy’s BMA nominated 2013 release, Juba Dance and his subsequent CD, Kokomo Kidd, two years later.
The idea for Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train was solely Angelina’s, he insists. She pressed them to do it, noting the importance of refreshing the memory of Terry and McGhee – two of the biggest stars in the industry in the ‘50s through the ‘70s — for a 21st century blues audience. Both Guy and Fabrizio initially resisted.
“But if Angelina gives you an order, you can’t say ‘no,’” Fabrizio says. “In the beginning, we had no idea of what to expect because a tribute to great musicians is always a challenge – especially when the great majority of the album reproduces material they’d previously recorded.”
For Poggi particularly, playing in Terry’s unique style was particularly difficult because of the trademark whooping sounds Sonny issued in the midst of his harp runs, let alone that he played in Piedmont style, which was popular in Virginia and the Carolinas and is far more country in its approach than what came out of Chicago and the Deep South. Ignored by most harp players in the current era, its best known practitioners include Davis and Phil Wiggins in the U.S. and Paul Lamb in Britain.
“It’s a bitch to play,” Fabrizio says succinctly. “If you think about the whooping, it brings you directly to the African roots of the blues…to the very beginning…because whooping was used by slaves in the cotton fields to communicate with each other.”
The album was recorded in Milan in a day and a half in the midst of a tour that took Fabrizio and Guy to Germany and France – thanks to plenty of prodding from Angelina.
“They said they didn’t want to do it, but I said they had to,” she insists, joining the conversation. “To make them more comfortable, I told them that I’d organize everything…’you don’t have to think about anything but playing and singing,’ I told them.”
They rehearsed during the day on the road and played at night. They were close to Rome – a six-hour drive from Milan — with two days off. “We left early in the morning after the last show, and I drove fast as I could to get to the studio,” Angelina says with a sense of pride. “We got there at four p.m., finished planning and recorded one song before dinner, called it a night and headed home an hour away to sleep.”
Back in the studio the next morning, Guy and Fabrizio stood face-to-face separated by glass as they recorded the rest of the entire album – 11 more tracks – in single takes.
“Later on, when I was editing and producing,” says Poggi, “I sent the files to Guy for approval and he kept asking me: ‘Don’t we have another take? My voice sounds very tired.’ I said: ‘It sounds very tired, but it’s the only one.’
“We did the best we could, but it was a struggle. About half the songs, Guy had never sung before, and just finding the right key was a problem. And I had ideas for the title song, ‘Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train,’ but we’d never worked anything out before we got into the studio. Guy did a wonderful job, taking my ideas and writing the song in just ten minutes.”
Poggi and Davis are still speaking and working with each other, and remain on the best of terms – quite a contrast from Terry and McGhee who only spoke on stage from the final 25 years of their partnership – fussing, fighting and giving each other dirty looks — after a disagreement that neither could remember.
Released on M.C. Records in the U.S., the album proved to be an instant success, landing Fabrizio and Guy at Madison Square Garden in New York for the 2018 Grammys. For Fabrizio, that alone would have been amazing enough, but it was even more shocking because their competition for traditional blues album of the year included the Rolling Stones.
“When I was 16, I had the Stones’ poster on my wall in my little room in Voghera,” Poggi remembers. “If one of my friends came to me back then and said: ‘You know, Fabrizio, with the help of Guy Davis, one day you’ll be challenging the Rolling Stones for a Grammy,’ I would have told him: ‘Don’t tease me. It will never happen!’”
Mick Jagger and cohorts took the prize that night for their album, Blue & Lonesome, but no matter how you feel about the way the Grammys have treated the blues through the years or the fact that a rock band with a 60-year history took home the trophy, Fabrizio’s nomination was proof of how far all foreign-born musicians have come in the blues.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences launched the honor in 1959, but didn’t create a blues category until 1983, and the only non-American finalists among 300-plus nominees before Poggi and the Stones were Brits James Hunter in 2007 and Mick Fleetwood in partnership with American Rick Vito in 2010.
For blues artists from foreign lands, that night marked the dawning of a brand new day.
Never content to rest on his laurels, Fabrizio offered up something completely different with his latest CD, For You, which was released on Italy’s Appaloosa Records last summer. It’s a complete departure from the Piedmont sound — a gentle, deeply spiritual treasure that blends classical blues, gospel, folk, jazz and world music that delivers a message of love and hope for a troubled planet.
A multi-instrumentalist, Poggi adds guitar and ukulele to his sound here, delivering vocals in sweet tenor with backing from about 20 performers culled from the broad spectrum of the Italian music scene. A mix of original and traditional ballads taken from the American songbook, it opens on a somber note, mirroring the current world situation, and gradually instills hope for a brighter future with each passing tune.
“I wanted to challenge myself with this one,” Fabrizio says. “ For me, singing blues and spirituals connect me directly to the same way it was for African slaves in America when they sung about life in their old world – it’s a key to my survival.
“I’m definitely a blues musician, but I’m a contemporary man, too. I have some Italian friends who say: ‘I don’t like modern blues. I like old blues…Muddy, Robert Johnson.’ But I tell them: ‘When Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were playing, they were pretty modern. And the music didn’t stop growing when they died. It doesn’t matter if a song isn’t a predictable (old-school) blues. If I’m playing harmonica on it, it’s blues – even though it might have a jazzy or folk feel.’
“I carry my blues experience inside me. And I truly feel blessed because most of the people understand the message. If you want to hear me play in a Piedmont style, you have Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train. But if you want to hear me playing with more jazz, classical and European elements, pick up this one. The blues runs through it all.”
There’s still plenty of room left in the blues to take it in new directions through practice and experimentation despite its relatively simple structure, he says, and it’s something he’s planning to do with his next album.
“At my age, with 23 records behind me, I still want to wander. Most of my dreams have already come true, but I’m still open to suggestions to try new things, too – something that’s true with For You.”
Check out Fabrizio’s music and – hopefully – where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.chickenmambo.com.