Featured Interview – John Fusco


Cover photo © 2023 Laura Carbone

imageBlues benefactors come in different forms. Some are super fans. Others are patrons. And then there’s John Fusco, who’s turned hordes of folks onto the music in a different way entirely.

John’s been making waves as a blues organist and vocalist for the past few years, delivering some of the most interesting roots-drenched tunes you’ve ever heard while fronting his band, the X-Road Riders. But most moviegoers are probably more familiar with him as the screenwriter or producer of several Hollywood blockbusters — Young Guns, Thunderheart, The Forbidden Kingdom and Hidalgo included.

But the blues has always been in his blood. A high-school dropout at age 16, he spent his youth busking on street corners across the Delta and Gulf Coast while scouring the region in search of talent that never made it to the spotlight.

More important to anyone reading these words, however, is that Fusco eventually created a groundswell of new blues fans when he blended his own life experience with Mississippi folklore and created the script that would become his first major movie, Crossroads, a semi-autobiographical modern-day retelling of the Robert Johnson myth about trading his soul to the devil for stardom and more talent.

Now back in the groove again as a musician after a 30-year break, life’s come full circle for the man who still remains as down-to-earth as his humble beginnings in Prospect, Conn., a small town that, for John, was light years away from the idyllic view most folks imagine when they think of the state.

“We lived up a long dirt road, and my father owned a junkyard,” he says. “It was right next to a pig farm. And I worked beside him, crushing cars during the day and watching guard over the yard at night.”

Fusco spent his youth dreaming about a career in Hollywood, but his life changed at age 14 when his older sister, Kathleen, took him to Veterans Coliseum in New Haven – about 30 miles to the south in the central part of the state – to catch the Allman Brothers Band in action.

“I never took my eyes — or ears — off Gregg that whole night,” he remembers.

For him, it was a case of love at first sight for both the band and the organ – a romance that accelerated soon after when he was hypnotized by the performance of Keith Emerson when he and Kathleen traveled down to the Yale Bowl to see Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Totally obsessed, Fusco kept bugging his father for a keyboard. After much prodding, a Hammond T-200 with built-in Leslie speaker finally found a home in the family’s basement.

“That instrument saved my life so-o-o many times,” John insists today. “It became my horse, my companion, my chapel and church. I honed my writing at that organ and confessed all over those keys.”

But it quickly became a major point of contention.

John’s dad, an old-school Italian-American, envisioned his son wearing dress clothes and white shoes and playing in Italian dance bands at weddings and other celebrations. But all John wanted to do was play blues, gospel and Southern rock while dressed in jeans and – like Duane Allman — Frye boots adorned with a dog collar around the heel.

Theirs was a constant, growing conflict.

John was growing more and more in love with the blues, something enhanced by studying the liner notes of the Allmans’ albums and following the music down the rabbit hole of discovery thanks to the band covering several blues songs on their early albums. Fillmore East, for example, included “Statesboro Blues,” “Done Somebody Wrong” and “Stormy Monday,” which were created by Blind Willie McTell, Elmore James and T-Bone Walker. Other LPs led him to Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and the desire to trace blues back to its source.

The battle came to a head when Fusco was 16. A few friends had a band, booked a gig and wanted John to play with them. “My dad was out for the night,” he remembers. “So six of my friends — big guys — came over and lugged the T-200 – it weighed about 400 pounds – up the stairs and onto the back of a pickup.”

When his dad came home and discovered the organ gone, he hit the roof. The argument that followed was so intense that John dropped out of school and ran away from home shortly thereafter, heading straight to Daytona Beach, Fla., and the dive bar where the Allmans had launched their careers.

It was the mid-‘70s, and John quickly fell in with what he describes as “the last batch of true American hobos” — itinerants who took jobs – like he did — in carwashes to support their habits when not traveling the road. For Fusco, that journey took him to the backroads of the Mississippi delta and down to New Orleans.

“Through the hobo culture, I got to meet some really great, old bluesmen who were connected to the greats,” he remembers. One of whom was Roy Dunn, a Georgia-born, Piedmont-style guitarist who’d worked with early legends Curley Weaver, Buddy Moss and McTell and pretty much remained undiscovered until releasing his only one album, Know’d Them All, shortly before he and John met.

image“My idea back then was to find some really obscure bluesmen and their songs and do my thing with ‘em,” Fusco says. “I really wanted to get down to the roots. There were a few of ‘em who told me: ‘Look, if you really want to learn this, you’ve got to start with the spirituals and go to the church’ – so I did.

“There was this old Baptist church that I’d go to and listen to the sermons and what they were doin’ on the organ. Of course, I couldn’t travel with an organ at that time, so my instrument was a harmonica…and pen-and-paper…writing tunes and stuff. That was my high school!

“Roy was really my prototype for the Willie Brown character in Crossroads. He also blew harmonica and was something of a mentor to me. He’d been shot in his left arm by ‘a jealous husband’ – as he put it. In order to play guitar, he’d strip his belt off, belt his left arm to his left leg and move his leg to get his arm to move up and down on the frets.”

Others included Frank Frost — who traveled the road in his youth as Sonny Boy Williamson II’s guitar player — and Sam Carr — Robert Nighthawk’s son — his longtime drummer and partner in both the Jelly Roll Kings and the Juke Joint Jumpers.

“Another great blues artist I got to know during that time – he certainly wasn’t obscure – was Son

y Terry,” Fusco notes. “I loved Sonny…he was just so kind and compassionate, generous with his wisdom. When Ry Cooder (who composed the Crossroads score) asked: ‘Who are you hearing with the harmonica stuff?’ I said: ‘Sonny!’ A week later, I got a call, telling me Sonny had been hired on to the movie.”

The last song Terry ever recorded was the film’s closing theme, “Walking Away Blues.” He passed away on March 11, 1986 – three days before the movie’s premiere.

At 18, John returned home and co-founded the Travis McComb Band, a Southern rock outfit that was composed of several friends from his past.

“I had all these original songs — and a deeper understanding of the blues,” he says, “along with a different idea of rocking up the blues that other people weren’t doing. Everybody was playing Elmore James and ‘Stormy Monday.’ I said: ‘What about (Dunn’s) ‘She Cooks Cornbread (for Her Husband)’…stuff that nobody heard. ‘Let’s go uptempo and funk it up!’”

At that point, Fusco was playing a Farfisa keyboard, but he soon graduated to a clone organ, which he fed through an antique upright “grandfather” Leslie speaker, which resembled a clock. It was so old, he says, he had to inject it with sewing machine oil “every 30 seconds” to keep it up and running.

The McCombs quickly built a strong local following, caught the eye of the the manager of the Grateful Dead and recorded a demo for him. But everything changed the night when they opened up for the Dixie Road Ducks, a group that still works today out of Virginia.

“I was so enamored of them because they were bonafied, touring Southern rocker – much older than me — with a big bus,” John admits. “They invited me on it after the gig – but no one else in my band. They said: ‘We love your original music and how you do lead vocals from behind the organ. How would you like to join our band and go on tour?’

“My homies were like: ‘C’mon, man…we’re just getting things together.’ But I was a high-school dropout, and these guys wanted to pay me. I thought the stars were lining up for me and went with ‘em.”>/font>

For the first couple of months, Fusco remembers, it was pretty exciting. But he quickly burned out on road life. “I asked them: ‘What’s your vision to make it?’ and they said: ‘We have made it, man!’

“We were in the Carolinas on a long, barren stretch of highway. I was the only one awake other than the driver, and I did some real soul-searching…‘Am I on the beam? Am I where I’m supposed to be creatively?’

“‘If this is the pinnacle of being a road musician, deep inside, I really want to pursue my filmmaking dream. I’ve learned how to be a risk-taker. When this bus gets back up North, I’m leaving, going to night school to get a GED, and I’m going to try to get into film school.’”

Fusco attended a community college in Connecticut. That’s where he met wife Richela Renkin, who was the star actress in the school’s drama program. It didn’t take long before they realized they shared a common goal: to attend New York University, which – then and now — possessed one of the top theater arts programs in the country.

“We both applied and took jobs because we were both broke. We needed to save up our money to have some cash behind us if we were accepted ,” he remembers. “My wife worked as the certified recreation director at an assisted living home, and I got a job as a department store detective — my nickname was ‘Serpico’ because I was so bored on the job that I wore different disguises.

“One day, she called me and said: ‘I think I’ve got something you’ll find really interesting…we have a new resident…he’s from down South – and he’s got a cabinet full of harmonicas. And he’s telling really interesting stories.

“The next day, I drove over to meet him. It was only a 20-minute drive, and I had this fantasy: What if this guy blows killer harp and I discover that he has some cryptic backstory about why he left the South, it ties back into the deep blues mystique and my desire to find lost bluesmen and lost songs…imagine if it ties back to Robert Johnson.

“I had all this stuff goin’ on…he’ll befriend me and we’ll head back down South and try to find this unfinished business of his.

“So, basically, I really wrote Crossroads in my head on that drive over!”

Unfortunately, whatever talent and stories the beautiful old man possessed were already lost to dementia, he notes, but Fusco had struck on the seed of a story that would forever change his life.

IMAGETheir dream fulfilled, Richela became an educator after graduating from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, while John excelled at its renowned Tisch School of the Arts. Surrounded by younger students who only drew ideas from the films they’d seen, Fusco already possessed “a satchel of unusual, real-life stories” that quickly caught the attention of his professors.

“I was very fortunate that there was not one, but three blacklisted-during-the-McCarthy-Era, Oscar-winning screenwriters – Waldo Salt, Ring Lardner Jr. (M*A*S*H) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Roman Holiday) – along with Lorenzo Sample Jr. (Three Days of the Condor) mentoring me,” he says.

“I remember Waldo kept me after class and said: ‘What’s your story?’ When I told him, he said: ‘Do you know that I used to hobo with Woody Guthrie? And your script reminds me of my script for Midnight Cowboy. If you stay true to your experience and don’t try to write the next Star Wars, you can really do something.’”

As an undergraduate, John explored his Florida background and experiences with Native Americans for Blues Water. Ironically, it was something that came about by accident because he’d misheard his professor’s instructions to submit a ten-page treatise and written a full script instead. It earned him a FOCUS — Films of College and University Students – Award, a national honor that included his first trip to Hollywood for the awards ceremony as a finalist, the eventual top prize: a Nissan Sentra — and a contract with the William Morris talent agency.

Fusco eventually sold the car to pay for his studies, penned the script for Crossroads as his bachelor thesis — and won a second FOCUS Award. This time, however, he kept the car. He was still in school when Columbia Pictures bought the script, and he told the chairman of his department that he was going to attend the filming in Mississippi.

“I told him: ‘I’m not going to finish,’ and he told me: ‘Yes, you are! We’re going to make sure you leave here with your degree.’ They designed creative classes for me to make it happen. It was literally rags-to-riches…one minute, I was wondering where I’d get my next meal, the next I was down in the Delta, seeing this thing come to life.

“And the influence the movie had on the new generation of blues and rock musicians…that, to me, is so-o-o rewarding. Nothing makes me happier.

“And 30 years later in 2018, when we were shooting The Highwaymen, I was back in the French Quarter in New Orleans. But instead of living in a doorway, I was staying at the Four Seasons and had my nights free to walk around, taking in the street music in places where I used to busk and going into the blues and jazz bars.

“It was a homecoming, and it brought a real sense of personal reward to me. I thought: ‘Here I am, but I’m not hungry. I’m getting a movie made. But I can listen to and appreciate all this music without the pressure and insecurity.’”

He was also bitten by the blues bug again and reached out to old family friends Cody and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. They invited him “to take a drive across the Delta and come see us. Let’s hang out – and tell us stories about our dad,” Jim, the legendary Memphis session player and producer who’d worked with everyone from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

“I met Jim when I was doing rewrites on the Crossroads script when we were getting ready to shoot,” Fusco says. “Ry asked me: ‘Do you want to talk to somebody who’s really deep into the blues?’ Not long after, I had Jim on speed-dial and called him a couple of times each day to talk through scenes. I really loved him.

“At the time, I knew he had two young boys, but Jim was a little concerned because they were both into punk rock. But when we had a rough-cut of the movie and were ready to screen it, he took them to see it, and they walked out and told him: ‘Dad, you’re right…the blues is cool.’”

Flash forward to 2018, and Fusco was already feeling the spirit once again. New tunes were coming to him each time he sat at the keyboard. Taking the Dickinsons up on their offer, even the drive to see them proved to be a spiritual journey, producing the song “Hello Highway” in which he envisioned seeing a solitary, 16-year-old version of himself hitchhiking in the wide-open spaces of the Delta and surrounded by ghosts and more.

“By the time I got to Cody in Southaven, I was ready to play,” John remembers, “and he took me into the studio and said: ‘Let’s jam, man, let’s jam!’ I sat at the organ and he hopped on the drums, riffin’ off some blues between stories I told him about his dad.

“Then I started playing a song, and he said: ‘What’s that?’

“‘Somethin’ I’ve been workin’ on.’

“‘You gotta be kiddin’ me!’ he replied, hitting the record button.”

IMAGEFor the next few days, the duo caught lightning in a bottle as they worked up several of Fusco’s ideas. When John said “I’ve always heard gospel singers doing call-and-response on this one,” Dickinson raced to the phone. An hour later, Risse Norman of the Norman Sisters arrived from Memphis, gave the tune a listen and then added her voice to the track. When he launched into an updated version of Johnson’s “Crossroads,” saying he wanted to do it in a way “the young guys down here will relate to it,” Cody called in Al Kapone of Three-6 Mafia to add a freestyle rap.

“Before long, John says, “we had an album.”

With Fusco on vocals, keys organ bass and acoustic guitar, Dickinson on six-string, dobro, bass and more as well as a full horn section, the end result was John Fusco and the X-Riders, which was released on Cody’s Checkerboard Lounge imprint. The raw, different sound that it delivered caught listeners by surprise and received high praise from reviewers.

Hooked by the positive feedback, Fusco kept writing, bought a B3 for his home and enlisted three of the best organ players in the blues — Bruce Katz, Anthony Geraci and Ira Friedman – for lessons.

“No one has better control of Hammond Leslie dynamics than Bruce Katz,” Fusco insists. “There are a lot of B3 players who randomly work the fast and slow, but there’s a method to the Leslie madness, and Bruce really has that down.”

A ten-time BMA nominee who’s a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston – a few hours southeast of John’s farm in Vermont, Katz invited him down to spend a few hours together in the school’s B3 lab.

“’A B3 lab?’ I asked. I said: ‘Okay, man!’ and put the pedal to the floor. I drive down there and it’s six B3s in a circle. It was like going to heaven. He sat across from me, and we worked on mechanics all day and taught me Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Moanin’,’ which became one of my B3 staples. I used that song like a lab itself to experiment with a lot of the voicings and other things he taught me.

“Then, when I got back up here, it was like the music gods were looking out for me because Anthony Geraci (the BMA’s 2021 Pinetop Perkins Award winner) needed to be in my town for a few weeks, and he came to my place to give me lessons once a week. He was a back-to-basics stickler. I was back to scales, working the pedals and playing some standards.

“I loved the way he taught because I was completely self-taught. But I’ll be honest…it wasn’t till the end of our student-teacher relationship that I truly got a grasp on his background and who he was. He’s played with just about everybody – Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, Ronnie Earl, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton and more. Watching him work the B3 was like watching someone fly a fighter jet or something.

“And I started working with Ira Friedman (a Vermont treasure best known for his work with soul-blues vocalist Dave Keller), doing band workshops. That really helped me get back out playing live again. He’d put a group of players together and made a band out of them. That group wanted to stay together, but I already had my X-Riders northern chapter coming together here, so I went with that.

“I couldn’t have had three better mentors on the organ!”

In the year that followed, Fusco divided his time between home in New England, Cody’s Hill Country studio and movie sets. “I finally told Cody: ‘I think I recorded too much stuff…I’m feelin’ it right now,’” he says. “And he told me: ‘Let’s do a double, man!’”

The end result was the two-CD set, John the Revelator, which featured two distinctly different bands – one in the South and another in the North. One disc was recorded in Mississippi, the other in Burlington, Vt., under the direction of Boz Scaggs’ and Michael McDonald’s producer, George Walker Petit.

Like the bands, the music in each set was different. One delivered emotion-packed ballads in a singer-songwriter mode, and the other traditional blues and blues-rock. Despite their disparate sound, thanks to Fusco’s songwriting talent, they held together as a package.

His latest disc, Borderlands, meanwhile, is a complete departure from his previous work. It’s a highly cinematic, blues-based exploration of Southwestern themes that are all delivered from the point of view of someone being caught between past mistakes and an uncertain future. Produced by Petit, it’s something one critic described as peyote-infused passion play.

Top numbers include “Horseback Jesus,” about a brown-skinned stranger who’s on a mission to save souls – only to be murdered while carrying out his task, and “Coyote Man,” about a smuggler who sneaks migrants across the border only to strand them in the desert. Another deals with a female saloon owner who woos piano players with drugs, booze and sex before casting them aside when another comes along.

IMAGE“That came together during the pandemic,” John says. “I was holed up and spending a lot of time at the piano. The first song I hit on was ‘Horseback Jesus.’ I came up with the riff and just saw the visuals. It sorta came out of my Western writing background, and it led to something thematic and neo-Western.”

At first glance, the tunes might appear to deliver a linear package. On closer examination, however, you’ll find that they each tell a different story. As Fusco describes it, the work was a creative experiment and the themes are tied together as interconnected chapters. It’s something that he and Petit achieved through the use of a soundscape that includes the howling of coyotes, a mariachi band and other elements – “almost like it was a TV series with different episodes,” he says, “with a narrative folk-ballad feel.”

Some of the songs are set in biblical times, others in the old West and the modern era of drug runners, human traffickers and more. Some of the material was based on true events, and all of it was imbued with a Western feel.

In recent months, John’s been playing a few gigs when not touring to promote his latest movie, The Wind & the Reckoning, a fictionalized account of the real-life story of 19th-century native Hawaiians who rebelled when colonizers attempted to exile them to Molokai after becoming infected with leprosy.

But Fusco definitely isn’t resting on his laurels. His next two projects will serve up treats for fans in both the music and film world. “I’ve come back full-circle,” he insists, “and I’ve felt it’s really time to bring the two together. I wrote a full-out movie musical – called Phantom – as an experiment. It’s based on Phantom of the Opera, but it’s based in the world of R&B, blues and jazz in New Orleans.

“I wrote it on spec, and I didn’t tell anyone about it. I just sat at the piano, organ and laptop, wrote the songs then sent it to my agents. They said: ‘We should send this to our client, Harvey Mason Jr., the CEO of the Recording Academy’ (the producer of both LaLa Land and Aretha).

“They did, and I had a call with him. He asked: ‘Would you mind if I send this to John Legend?’ I said: ‘Twist my arm!’ I got a call back a week later that John loved it and wants to sign on as the producer and write some music for it.”

Fusco recently sold the script to Universal Studios, and filming will probably begin in the Big Easy by the end of the year.

But, John says, there’s more!

“Then Harvey called me and said: ‘I have another music-themed project I think you’re right for. I’m just going to say a name…Muscle Shoals.’ I said: ‘When do we start?’”

In recent months, Fusco traveled back and forth to the FAME Studios in Alabama and going into the vaults with the son of its founder, Rick Hall, sitting down at the Wurlitzer Spooner Oldham has been using since the ‘60s and gathering material for a film that will bring Hall’s autobiography, The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame, to life.

“I actually wrote ‘The end’ ten minutes before this call,” he said as our talk closed. “If this is the third act for me…the union of movies and music…I’m all for it. It’s a happy ending if I ever heard one. I have an attitude of gratitude, for sure!”

Check out John Fusco’s music and his movies. You’ll be glad you did!

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