A BluesWax Reprint
This interview originally ran in
BluesWax's Ezine on February 9, 2005

Sittin’ In With Tom Principato
Guitar Thrills, Blues, and A World of Music
from Tom Principato
Part One
By Bob Margolin

Last year, I wrote a column for our sister print magazine, Blues Revue, about playing at the Cerdanyola Blues festival near Barcelona. I’d done an indoor show on a Friday night, but on the Sunday afternoon, I went down to sit in with Tom Principato’s band, playing outside in a beautiful park. I am very aware that the world’s greatest guitar players come from Spain, where the modern form of the instrument was invented, and that American Blues guitarists may entertain a Spanish audience, but are not likely to impress them.

You’ll read below that it’s important to Tom to play with feeling, but while he always accomplishes that, he displays chops that leave even the world’s toughest guitar audience bug-eyed, open-mouthed, and flat-footed – amazed. I knew that was going to happen, so it was fun to watch. Tom was always one of the most accomplished guitar players I’ve ever heard. He can capture the spirit of Blues, Jazz, Rock ’n’ Roll, Swing, Latin, Cajun, Country, Rockabilly, R&B, or standards as a master rather than as a dilettante. He composes beautiful songs in all of these styles, and leads his band with authority. His guitar tones and picking are sensually gorgeous. He dresses well and projects a friendly vibe as he has fun creating his music onstage. His singing is strong and he has a warm tone of voice, but that guitar just burns and commands attention.

And then he calls me up to jam – anything less than my best will get steamrolled by Tom’s usual, but it’s not a challenge to be competitive, it’s a call to make our guitars push and inspire each other and work together. We’ve been doing that on bandstands together for a long time...

The Blues scene in Boston in the early 1970s was very exciting, with young Blues players emerging who are well known today. James Montgomery, originally from Detroit, led a band that packed the local clubs. One night I went to see him play at the Zircon club in Somerville, and was disappointed to find that James was only carrying one guitar player that night instead of two. Larry Carsman kicked ass, but I missed Tom, the other hot guitar player who’d been playing with James. Tom returned to Boston from his hometown of Falls Church, Virginia, a few months later with his new band, Powerhouse, and they were swingin’ and rockin’ and quickly picked up a strong following in the clubs. That’s when I met Tom, and we’ve stayed close friends since.
In the mid-1970s, when I was on the road with Muddy Waters, I’d stop by Tom’s house when I visited home in Boston, and he’d turn me onto obscure, inspiring Blues songs and artists. We recorded songs from his huge record collection onto cassettes, which at the time were newer and more radical than iPods are now. I’d take these on the road with me and learn licks that would make Muddy turn around and look at me with his mouth open – thanks, Tom, from both of us. I probably still have those cassettes at home somewhere, and you can still hear their ghosts when I play today. For Tom, all that great music that he pursued and studied, filtered through his discerning ears and talent for absorbing and interpreting, made him a musical monster back then. Thirty years later, he’s only grown.

By 1978, Powerhouse had broken up and Tom had moved back to the Washington, D.C. area. I moved there too, to pursue a doomed romance (very Bluesy) and start my own band (Bluesy too). I spent a lot more time hanging and jamming with Tom, and we even lived in a house together from 1983 -’85. I enjoyed working regionally, mostly in the South, but by the end of the 1980s I realized that I’d better make some albums and get out on the national scene as it became harder to make a living in a tightening scene. I recorded The Old School and Chicago Blues for Tom’s Powerhouse Records (www.powerhouserecords.com) label. The albums are out of print, but doing business together only deepened our friendship, which is rare. Tom really helped me move my career along.

In the years since, we get together to play whenever we can, but we usually only find ourselves in the same place at the same time a couple of times a year. The last time was last summer when we were both playing at a Blues festival in Bellinzona, Switzerland.

After jamming, we spent a long time visiting on the balcony of my hotel room, with a medieval castle for a view. I told Tom I’d been writing for BluesWax, often doing email interviews with musicians I admired and I thought his story would interest you. I thought of a few questions for Tom which were obvious to me and he’s answered with eloquence that displays the same passion for music found in his guitar playing.
Bob Margolin for BluesWax: I think of you first as a great guitar player, proficient in many styles, and I know that Blues is one of the most important foundations of the music you play. What first inspired you when you were starting to play?

Tom Principato: Ever since I can remember there was always great music playing at my house when I was a kid growing up. My father loved Swing Jazz and had a lot of Benny Goodman 78s, including some Benny Goodman Sextet records that feature Charlie Christian on guitar. That was my first introduction to that kind of Bluesy Jazz guitar that I later came to love so much in guys like Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessell, Tiny Grimes, and Billy Butler. My mom had some Les Paul and Mary Ford records and some Chet Atkins records, which really helped to first get me excited and interested in guitar music. I loved the sound of those Les Paul records with the echo on them, and as soon as I could find an echo unit, I bought one in the 1970s and have used echo as a part of my guitar sound ever since. I always loved Chet Atkins’ beautiful and memorable melodies that he played; a great example of the beauty of simplicity.

I first started playing guitar when I was eleven in 1963, but it wasn’t until I discovered the Blues a few years later when I was in high school that I really began to take the guitar seriously and develop. I loved the guitar greats of the day -- first guys like Jimi Hendrix and Mike Bloomfield, then I discovered a lot of the masters like B.B., Albert, and Freddy King, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, and Robert Lockwood Jr. My first love in the Blues style was Chicago Blues, and I avidly collected all the Chess Records, and others, I could find, and went to see as many of those musicians in concerts and clubs as I could. There were still many of the great masters out and playing in the 1960s and ‘70s. I saw T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, Albert Collins, Freddy King (who I played with one night!), Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, and of course B.B. King, who was just starting to enjoy worldwide success. B.B. King was then and is still now my favorite of all these people. In December 1969 I went to see B.B. at a little club in Washington, D.C., called the Cellar Door. He was there for three nights in a row, three shows a night, and I caught all nine shows from the front table! I would have to say that those shows changed my life. B.B. was incredible those nine shows! There was such an enthusiastic response from the crowd and I know it spurred him on, too. It was the first time that I ever experienced a musical performance that was so emotionally uplifting. In addition to a lot of the finger patterns that I learned from watching B.B., in those shows I observed some even bigger lessons: the importance of dynamics in music, nuance, and the most important thing of all, playing music from the heart. I've tried to make these things the foundation for my music and guitar playing over the years.

BW: Your collection of music sound and video recordings is extensive, and you've heard more Blues and know more about its history than many who have dedicated themselves only to Blues. I think that makes you a Bluesman...and more. But people like to categorize musicians, no matter how that distorts the reality or how unfair that may be. Your musical life is too diverse to be described in a phrase. Do you feel misunderstood or mislabeled sometimes?

TP: Diversity and versatility have always been my thing. My tastes cover a wide range--Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Gospel, Jazz, Rockabilly, Country, Latin styles, World Music, Classical music--I try to allow myself to bring to my music what it is I like about the variety that I love in music. There is so much great music out there! However, I still use Blues and “American Music” as the basis for what I do. It’s just that sometimes it may come out as a “hybrid.” Still, what is most important to me is that my music contain some key elements: playing from the heart with feeling and soul, and presenting what I have to say about the music. I’m not so pre-occupied with re-creating old Blues records, just the feeling that I get from them. I think it’s important that the music changes and develops with the times. Along with that some boundaries are bound to get expanded, too--What if Muddy Waters had listened when people criticized him for playing Delta Blues on that new-fangled electric guitar? We never would have gotten the beautiful music we have today from him as his legacy. I think it’s important to take something you love and give your own take on it, and be true to yourself.

For many years I’ve been placed in the Blues category--that doesn't bother me at all!
I just hope that people realize that I have the Blues to offer and more, that there is so much more! I love music and love playing the guitar and singing--I've dedicated a good deal of my life to those endeavors. As a performer and as a music fan I would never want to limit my enjoyment of music to just one or a few categories. Good music is good music, right? Astor Piazzolla was just as soulful as Ray Charles, as far as I’m concerned.

BW: I think that Powerhouse was one of the 1970’s finest young bands. Tell us about the players and the history of Powerhouse.

TP: In Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s there was a Blues Band called Crawlin’ King Snake. That included Jim Thackery on guitar, Jim Cole on vocals and slide guitar, Pierre Beauregard on harmonica, John Curlin on bass, and Richard Murray on drums. I was not really aware of these guys and had left for Boston after I graduated from high school in 1971 and eventually played with James Montgomery. After leaving The Montgomery Band and returning back to D.C., it was then that I met the guys in Crawlin’ King Snake. I was invited to a basement jam with the guys and was told that evening that Thackery would be leaving the group and would I be interested in joining them? I had already made plans to return to Boston to play with some other musicians I knew there, including Sarah Brown, so I declined. Eventually, after things did not work out with my new plans, the remaining members of Crawlin’ King Snake and I decided to re-locate the band to Boston and call it Powerhouse--there was such a great Blues and music scene in Boston then. Jim Thackery remained in Washington and soon formed the Nighthawks with Mark Wenner.

So Powerhouse started out as a Chicago Blues quintet. Eventually Jim Cole and John Curlin left the group and were replaced by Steve Jacobs on bass and the incredible sightless singer George Leh. Once we added Dave Birkin on saxophone, the band started to change quite a bit. I was an avid Blues record collector and one day at my friend Victor Pearlin’s house I heard my first “Jump Blues” record--Louis Jordan! I couldn’t believe how great that record was! I was floored! As soon as I played some of this music for the guys in Powerhouse we immediately wanted to play that stuff in our band. Pierre and Dave Birkin started playing horn lines together in a “little horn section” approach and eventually we got Steve Brown, a drummer who was more adept at playing Swing music, and we added Ben Kay on piano too, for that Boogie Woogie sound so vital in Jump Blues. Then one night at a little dive in Cambridge I went to see Roomful of Blues. I couldn't believe it; they were playing all this Jump Blues stuff, too. And boy, were they great! Duke Robillard was just the most impressive Blues guitarist in that band. He and they were so incredible! Duke and I quickly became friends and started introducing each other to all this great new music we were discovering, which mostly was available only on 78s in those days. I mean you had to do some digging to find those records!

So as far as I know, Roomful of Blues and Powerhouse were the very first two bands to start playing Jump Blues in the revival that would soon follow. Eventually we added John Wolf on trombone and pianist David Maxwell played with the group for a short while before we dis-banded in 1978. There are two LPs of Powerhouse recordings on one CD re-issue that I am very proud of. George Leh is a most incredible vocalist.

To be continued...

Bob Margolin is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax. You may contact Bob at blueswax@visnat.com.Copyright Visionation, Ltd 2005. All Rights Reserved with limited rights offered to artist and their agents for publicity purposes only with proper citation to BluesWax, BluesWax.com, or www.blueswax.com.

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