Featured Interview – Roomful of Blues

ImageIn the world of blues, it isn’t unusual for artists to keep audiences entertained well into their golden years. B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, Henry Townsend, Chuck Berry and, most recently, Henry Gray all were vital parts of the community into their 90s, just to name a few.

When it comes to blues bands, however, things are quite different. Unlike Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials — who’ve had the same lineup for 30 years and counting or blues-rockers Savoy Brown, who’ve been fronted by Kim Simmonds since 1965, the great majority of groups have histories that burn out after a decade.

But not Roomful of Blues. Five-time Grammy nominees and a perennial favorite for Blues Music Awards, they powerfully stand out from the crowd.

Based in Rhode Island, where they formed in the late ‘60s by guitarist Duke Robillard and keyboard player Al Copley in a lineup that included Fran Christina on drums and Larry Peduzzi on bass, the current eight-piece horn ensemble is on the cusp of officially celebrating its 50th anniversary. And with a blistering hot new CD in their arsenal – their first collection of new material in a decade, they show absolutely no sign of slowing down as they deliver straight-ahead blues, jump and swing to enthusiastic audiences.

Now an internationally recognized blues and jazz guitarist and producer, Robillard was just 18 years old in 1967 when he conceived Roomful as a straight-ahead Chicago blues band and launched their career at the venerable Knickerbocker Café in Westerly, R.I.

Opened shortly after the end of Prohibition in 1933 and still active today, the club has been a major stop for everyone from Big Joe Turner and Eric Burdon to Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Roomful quickly established itself as an incendiary house band before spreading their wings on the regional bar scene and coffeehouse circuit, which was still in operation after the folk music revival earlier in the decade.

Rhode Island is a small state, but carries a big weight when it comes to the world of music. The festivals that have flourished in Newport since the ‘50s have attracted top artists and visitors across the globe, building new audiences for jazz, folk and blues.

Although English audiences are credited with ensuring the survival of the blues, Little Rhody is equally important because it was at the Newport festivals where first-generation artists – including Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James – received their first exposure to American audiences and critics when they were “rediscovered” after successful recording careers prior to World War II.

As solid as the nascent Roomful was a Chicago blues band, however, its members quickly started incorporating horns as they pursued their love for early jump, swing and soul – all targeted to get folks up and out on the dance floor.

Although the group existed three years earlier, it celebrates its golden anniversary today because it became a true horn band in 1970 with the addition of Rich Lataille and Greg Piccolo on saxes, augmented a year later by baritone sax player Doug “Mr. Low” James.

imageRobillard departed the group for other pursuits in 1980 and was replaced on guitar by Ronnie Earl, and the band has featured approximately 60 world-class instrumentalists and vocalists in lineups that have included up to nine members since then. But Lataille remains a key cog, a constant treasure who maintains his chair on alto and tenor sax while leading the horns and notating and safeguarding the section’s charts – a labor that’s keep continuity through multiple personnel changes.

A down-to-earth man who possesses big tone as he alternates between tender phrases or blistering hot runs, he’s managed to avoid the spotlight for the past five decades, seldom – if ever – giving interviews. But Blues Blast caught up with him and guitarist Chris Vachon — a 30-year Roomful veteran who’s led the band since 1997 – just prior to the coronavirus outbreak crippling the U.S. a few weeks ago.

Lataille grew up in Westerly and now lives in the rocky countryside of Hope Valley, a few miles to the north. He’s always had a fondness for the swing and jump bands that dominated dancehalls in the ‘30s, ‘40s and early ‘50s. He started out at age 10 as a grammar school clarinet player, but switched to saxophone in ninth grade.

“The school had what they called a ‘stage band’ that played jazz and big-band kinda stuff,” Rich recalls. “I started playin’ tenor at that point. When I was a junior, I started meetin’ people around town and playin’ in a blues band led by a guitar player, Kenny Richard. I met Duke through Kenny, and got to hang out with him, goin’ over to his house.”

A music educator today, even back then, Robillard had curious mind and deep knowledge about the blues and more, and quickly turned Lataille on to an entire new world of music he’d never imagined.

“A little later, I was in a band with Greg Piccolo,” Rich recalls. “At the time, it was mostly a rock band, and wanted to switch it to blues. I was with them for a very brief period – around the same time that Duke decided he wanted to have horns.

“Greg and I joined at the same time. After that, there was a little period where the band sorta broke up for a bit and Duke played with a band called Black Cat with Johnny Nicholas (the guitarist who recorded with Big Walter Horton in the ‘70s and was a longtime member of Asleep at the Wheel) and Steve Nardella.

“After we re-formed, that’s when we added Doug James and John Rossi on drums. That was really the beginning of what people now know as Roomful – as far as havin’ three or more horns.

“We like to stick to the feel of the ‘40s – Roy Milton, Red Prysock, Louis Jordan and the Buddy Johnson Band, which was a huge influence on the original horn section — but don’t like to copy what they were doin’ back then,” Lataille says. “Over the years, we’ve sorta expanded our styles.

“I used to be the youngest guy in the band,” he laughs. “Now (in his late 60s), I’m the oldest.”

Their complex arrangements and wall of sound soon filled clubs to the rafters, and they began drawing national attention a few years later, when they worked on the same bill as Count Basie.

The city of Newport called a halt to its festivals after a riot at the jazz festival in 1971. A crowd estimated at 12,000 people over capacity showed up for the Allman Brothers, crashed the gates, rushed the stage and destroyed equipment in the process.

For the remainder of the decade, Lataille notes, the shows moved to Manhattan and Saratoga Springs, where producer George Wein billed them as Newport in New York. It was in New York City — at the historic Roseland Ballroom, the inspiration for one of Basie’s most famous songs, “Roseland Shuffle” – where top music journalists in the world saw Roomful for the first time.

“We also opened for him at the Shaboo Inn in Willimantic, Conn.,” Lataille recalls. “And we actually produced a show with Basie in Misquamicut, R.I., at a place on the beach. It’s now called The Windjammer. But in the ‘70s, during the day, it was a skating rink, and at night, they’d turn it into a club called The George.

image“We hired Basie and opened for him on what was the hottest day of the year – it was over 100 degrees. And there was some sort of ordinance for the room that we played in that you couldn’t open the windows. We ended up losin’ money because people were hangin’ outside, listenin’, instead of payin’ admission.

“We took a bath. But we didn’t care. We got to play with Basie!”

In 1977, Roomful of Blues landed their first record deal thanks to a helping hand from Doc Pomus, the blues singer and songwriter whose creations include such classics as “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “Suspicion” and “Lonely Avenue.” Self-titled and released on the Island imprint – and later on Hyena as The First Album, it was produced by Pomus and Joel Dorn, whose credits include work with Roberta Flack, Mose Allison and the Neville Brothers.

Their relationship with Pomus began after the band gigged with his close friend, Big Joe Turner, the Kansas City-based blues shouter and bandleader who Doc always credited as being the true father of rock-‘n’-roll. “We played a lot with Big Joe and eventually recorded with him, too,” says Lataille.

That album – entitled Blues Train and released on the Muse imprint in 1983 – went on to receive a Grammy nomination – as did the label’s Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Roomful of Blues a year earlier and Glazed, a 1986 Demon Records release in collaboration with Earl King.

They also served as the backing unit for a trio of their other heroes, ‘40s and ‘50s legends Jimmy Witherspoon, Jimmy McCracklin and Roy Brown, consistently carrying their traditions forward to new audiences despite multiple alterations in their roster along the way.

“It’s pretty remarkable all the changes we’ve gone through over 50 years,” Lataille says. “The last time I counted, we’ve had well over 50 members – and that was a while ago.”

And the actual figure is somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 today.

“I still love the original band,” Rich says. “I grew up with it. I literally joined when I was a teenager and we were all learning our craft at the same time. And we still get together today and play in different settings. Everything comes back so naturally. We know what each other’s gonna come up with and follow it really easy. In that respect, that’s something that you can never replace.

“But I go with the flow. It feels like several different bands that I’ve been in under one name – especially when there’s a change in singer or guitar player. It makes a huge difference in what we do because different guys have different strengths and styles.”

The band’s first big change came in 1979, when Duke left and the horn section expanded to include legendary trombone player Porky Cohen — whose career began in the ‘40s and included stops with Tommy Dorsey, Lucky Millinder and Artie Shaw – as well as a trumpet player with native Texan Lou Ann Barton joining for a short while, sharing vocals with Piccolo, when he wasn’t playing sax.

“Unfortunately, Lou Ann moved up to Rhode Island in February,” Lataille remembers, “and she was like a fish out of water with the bad weather and all. But when she was on, she was soundin’ great, man!”

Rich shares 80 years of Roomful history with fellow elder statesman Chris Vachon, who joined the lineup in 1990. That was the same year that Sugar Ray Norcia, best known today as leader of another Rhode Island institution, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, signed on to handle vocals. He stayed for seven years before leaving to concentrate on his own band, which has been releasing award-winning albums of its own since 1980.

IMAGEIn total, nine different singers have fronted Roomful, including Robillard, Piccolo, Barton, Norcia, Curtis Salgado – like Sugar Ray a multiple Blues Music Award winner, Dave Howard, Mark DuFresne, Mac Odom and Phil Pemberton, who’s held the mike for the past decade.

A lifelong resident of Wakefield, R.I., on the western shore of Narragansett Bay near Long Island Sound, Vachon lives in a home that’s so large and old that he has to chop wood all winter long to keep his fireplace burning in order to cut down on the heating bills during the long New England winters. He also operates a nearby studio, where he records and mixes everything from rock to rap, an interest he’s had since owning a pair of reel-to-reel tape recorders as a teenager.

He’s been producing Roomful’s albums since There Goes the Neighborhood in 1998, a list that includes the Grammy-nominated That’s Right! And he’s a gifted songwriter. Since joining the band, he’s kept them on the airwaves with a string of fan favorite tunes that include “Turn It On! Turn It Up!,” “Running Out of Time,” “She’ll Be So Fine” and “Blue, Blue World” among others.

Self-taught on the six-string, Chris fell in love with music through his sister when she brought home a copy of Meet the Beatles and then the blues after receiving B.B. King’s historic album, Live at the Regal, at age 14 from a friend, Arthur Harris.

“I was into other things before, but the blues was always it for me,” he says. “I played that record constantly. The sound of the horns kinda stuck in my head. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to join Roomful” – something he yearned to do for years before getting his chance.

Vachon paid his dues in high school in Top 40 cover bands – something, he says, wasn’t much fun because you had to learn songs note-for-note instead of improvising. For a heartbeat, he attempted to make a name for himself in New York City after graduation, but returned home, where he and bandmates rented houses, threw parties and, he says, got evicted several times.

He eventually hit the road for the first time as a member of Sybilla and the Slim Buckle Band, a local favorite that eventually relocated to Florida for a couple of years, playing a steady succession of weeklong bar gigs. “The whole thing kinda imploded down there,” he chuckles. “We shoulda probably stayed in Rhode Island because we were doin’ pretty well. Plus, we weren’t doin’ disco – it was around that era – and that hurt us, too.”

Stops with a country-rock ensemble called Just Us, another band fronted by singer B. Willie Smith – a karate black belt who delivered high kicks on stage as well as swing, blues and New Orleans funk, and then regional favorite Eight to the Bar followed before Roomful finally came calling – a full seven years after he’d fallen in love with them in his early 20s when his band was booked on the same show.

“First, Ronnie was gonna leave,” he says. “They tried me out – and then he didn’t leave. Then he did leave, and they got another guy named Tommy K.”

Three years later, Vachon finally got his chance. He was invited to fill in on a tour as a fill-in for Tommy, who had taken a tumble on stage while trying to catch his falling guitar and severely breaking an arm in the process. Initially described by then-bandleader Piccolo as a six-month audition, it began with a benefit honoring Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had just perished in a helicopter crash near Chicago.

“I had a day and a half to learn 30 songs,” Chris remembers. “It’s a good thing it was blues because some of the arrangements are sorta the same when it comes to structure. But I did that for a day and a half, and then we flew off to California.

IMAGE“It took a little while for me to fit my way in there ‘cause there’s a lot of soloists and a lot of stuff goin’ on. You can’t overplay. You hafta figure out how to compliment everybody. But after a while I figured it out – and I’m still figurin’ it out!” (laughs)

Vachon took over leadership of the band in 1997 after it experienced its biggest turnover ever, noting: “They called me the bandleader ‘cause nobody else wanted to do it.”

Five members – including Norcia, James, keyboard player Matt McCabe, bassist Ken “Doc” Grace and trombonist Carl Querfurth – departed and Odom, bassist Marty Ballou, keyboard player Al Weisman, trombonist John Wolf and baritone sax player Kevin May climbed aboard. Piccolo had split three years earlier to launch a solo career.

“We’ve had ‘em come and go,” Chris says. “I miss a lot of the guys. People either can’t travel as much or can’t do it any more or they have other things they want to do. There were lineups that were great, and some that were okay. But we have a really great lineup now.”

Lataille agrees, adding that recently: “We’ve had a few different drummers, a few different bass players. The trumpet player’s only been with us for a couple of years. And, for a while, the baritone sax chair was sorta in flux when Mark Earley started doin’ a lot of other stuff and we were using a lot of subs.

“But we finally got a young guy – 25-year-old Alek Rasdan — on baritone and tenor. He’s workin’ out good, and this’ll be the first CD he’ll be on.”

He joined a roster that also includes John Turner on upright and electric bass, Chris Anzalone on percussion, Rusty Scott on keyboards and Carl Gerhard – a former bandleader in the U.S. Navy — on trumpet. He’s also been chipping in on promotions since joining 18 months ago, making sure that clubs use photos of their current lineup instead of others that feature guys that left the group years ago.

Both Lataille and Vachon agree that there’s a great camaraderie in the organization, which is run in a democratic manner when it comes to song selection and recruitment of new members. When someone leaves, the spot’s usually filled by a friend with a shared background rather than through formal auditions.

In fact, Vachon says, the only one they’ve held since 1990 Vachon was for a percussionist, and they it was a total train wreck.

“We rented this theater in East Greenwich,” Chris remembers, “and we had rock guys comin’ in with 24 drums, wearin’ gloves and all this shit. And they couldn’t play a shuffle, so I don’t know why they even showed up!”

Their new CD — entitled A Roomful of Blues and issued by Alligator, their recording home since 2003 — bares the proof. Their first release in seven years, it has same old-school feel the band’s always delivered although the lineup’s changed. The subject matter, however, is a lot more contemporary and a little darker than usual.

“The last couple of records we did, we didn’t do any originals,” says Rich. “We did the live one, and the one before that was just covers. It was great stuff, but it was still covers.”

“I started this one last year,” Chris adds. “We waited such a long time because there were a lot of years when we were just tryin’ new people. So it just didn’t make a lot of sense to make a record.

“I’ve always just written on my own. But I have a friend, Bob Moulton, who was in the Slim Buckle Band years ago. He’s a songwriter, too, and I don’t get to see him too much. But I called him up and said: ‘I wanna do a record for Roomful, but I’ve just got a bunch of pieces of stuff.’ He said: ‘I got a bunch of stuff, too.’

“So I flew down to Florida and hung out for a week. I brought down a little makeshift studio, just demoed the songs and went from there. Another one that I wrote with Phil came together at the last minute, and Alek wrote one, too.

“We’ve been lookin’ for somebody like him for almost three years. Our keyboard player, Rusty, suggested we try him out. But it turns out he’d sat in with us when he was 14 in Boston, and I’d forgotten all about it. And the kid was good then. His roots go back. He likes all the old stuff, and fits right in.”

The CD features clever tongue-in-cheek tunes, including “Phone Zombies,” which started out as a joke about people being addicted to their electronic devices, which, Lataille says. “It’s definitely appropriate for the times. There’s a lot of fun there, and a little darker edge to some of the others, too.”

imageThat includes “Carcinoma Blues,” which Moulton – a lung cancer survivor – penned with Vachon. “It was originally first person, talking about what he was goin’ through dealing with chemotherapy,” Chris says, “but we changed it to third person for Phil to sing.

“(Alligator founder) Bruce Iglauer says: ‘That’s the most depressing song title I’ve ever seen!’” – something that may or may not be true when you consider the history of the blues and all the strong, but difficult themes that run through it. But the mood brightens instantaneously with Doc Pomus’ spirited “Too Much Boogie,” which follows and is one of just three covers in the set.

Even before the onset of corona-virus, both Lataille and Vachon remarked about how difficult it is these days to keep a band the size of Roomful working.

“It’s crazy,” Rich says. “I have a real appreciation for all the fans who’ve followed us through the years. We go all over the world and, invariably, someone will come up to us and say: ‘I saw you at the Knickerbocker in 1970-somethin’. Unfortunately, some of our audience from back then is dyin’ off. But fortunately, we get some new recruits every time we play!”

On average, Roomful plays about 150 gigs a year – primarily through the Midwest with occasional jaunts overseas, Chris notes, instead of the 300 bookings they used to have. Traveling farther across the U.S. has become difficult.

“A lot of the venues don’t book weekday work anymore, which makes it really hard for us to piece together a tour because – with eight pieces — we can’t be sittin’ in hotels,” Vachon adds.

It’s a situation he blames partially on the tragic nightclub fire that occurred at The Station in West Warwick, R.I., in 2003, killing 100 people and injuring 230 more during a performance by the rock band Great White. Within months, clubs across the country were forced to close because of local ordinances demanding installation of sprinkler systems and other safety measures – sensible requests, but often far too pricey for owners operating on a shoestring to do.

“And if we have to go to California, we have to fly now, and it gets really expensive. If we were a trio, it wouldn’t a problem. We just can’t do it. If we took away anything, it would not be the band people want to see. And we definitely don’t want to go that route.”

The national lock-down wiped out dates booked for Washington, D.C., Virginia and New Jersey. But Roomful’s still planning an official record release party at the Odeum Theater in East Greenwich, R.I., on May 1 with other dates on the horizon.

Check out their new music and where they’ll be playing next by visiting their website: www.roomfulofblues.com

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