Archive for the Blues Category

Though I Didn’t Come From Vaudeville, I Did Come from This

Posted in AMERICANA, Blues, Comedy, ME, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2017 by travsd

Providence, 1950. The only thing different in 1970 or 1980 were the cars.

One of the questions I have been frequently asked in the context of having written No Applause is “Did you have relatives in vaudeville?” and my usual answer is along the lines of , “No, other than myself, I have no connection to show business.” But that’s not quite true. My brother Larr Anderson is a musician and I’m certain a good portion of my love of show business rubbed off on me from him. He’s best described as a raconteur — always full of hilarious stories of his experiences (old ones and new ones), and jokes he heard from other performers while working in clubs and bars. It was glamorous and exciting to me as a kid, and his stubborn pursuit of his own dreams was an undoubted model for my pursuit of mine.

I’m from Rhode Island; our local cultural center was Providence, and with the fullness of time I can see how its local show biz culture influenced me as a teenager. In the ’70s, Providence, like most small New England cities, was trapped in the past, if only for economic reasons. The industries that had made these towns hum early in the 20th century had fled. New things were not being built; sometimes at night the streets looked deserted. In some ways, it could be depressing, but it also gave a town like Providence a kind of funky retro chic. It looked trapped in the 1940s or ’50s. Its largest landmark (now called 111 Westminster) was an art deco skyscraper built in 1928, colloquially known as “the Superman Building” because it resembled the one George Reeves flew over in the ’50s television show. It was a gritty noir town, full of diners and lunch counters and dive bars and mafia hoodlums.

Talking Heads, prior to being joined by Jerry Harrison of the Modern Lovers

Some of its aesthetic crept into New Wave music, I think. Local artists throve on vintage culture; old threads from consignment shops, and self-consciously kitschy home decor. The best known exponent of this culture is The Talking Heads, three of whose members met at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and played locally as “The Artistics” in 1973 before moving to NYC.

Also from the RISD scene in the ’70s was Charles Rocket, best known today for being fired from Saturday Night Live in 1981 for uttering the word “fuck” on national television. (This despite his being the most popular cast member of the first season following the departure of the original cast; he was touted as the “new Chevy Chase“.) Rocket later had prominent roles in films like Dances with Wolves and Dumb and Dumber. He originally fronted and played accordion in a Providence band called The Fabulous Motels. Rocket’s frequent partner in crime was a painter and performer named Dan Gosch. (The two were known for staging protest publicity stunts at the State House dressed as super heroes.) Gosch painted a locally famous mural of weird faces at a bar/restaurant called Leo’s, where I later worked my way through theatre school as a dishwasher.

Another hugely influential local phenomenon was a band called The Young Adults. My best friend’s cousin Ed “Bumpsy” Vallee was its guitarist, and another of their line-up Thom Enright was a close friend and frequent band-mate of my brother’s, so I got to hear The Young Adults’ satirical set a lot, and their funny songs like “A Power Tool is Not a Toy”, “Fallen Arches” (about an explosion at McDonald’s) and their best known song “Complex World” (which later became the title of their 1992 movie),  definitely influenced me as a songwriter. Their best known member David Hansen (a.k.a. “Sport Fisher” — for whom a sandwich at Leo’s was named) left shortly after the band started to gain some momentum and formed Cool it Reba (named after a remark frequently uttered by Soupy Sales) in New York. The other key member was a character named Rudy Cheeks, probably the biggest local star, a hustler who not only fronted The Young Adults but wrote a funny column in the New Paper (later known as The Providence Phoenix) called “Phillipe and Jorge’s Cool, Cool World” and screened B movies while making wisecracks into a microphone, decades before Mystery Science Theatre. Rudy writes about his memories of how all these players (Talking Heads, Fabulous Motels, Young Adults and others) overlapped and interacted here. 

Martin Mull is also a comedy/musician who came out of the RISD scene (he studied to be a painter), and whose path crossed many of those on this page, although he quickly moved to Boston, and then the world, after graduating. There’s a great article about his early years here.

Another key artist to emerge from this scene (possibly even better known in some quarters than David Byrne and Talking Heads) is Brenda Bennett, of Vanity 6 a.k.a. Apollonia 6, one of Prince’s many side projects, whose day in the sun was the mid 80s. The attached article mentions two of my brother’s pals and bandmates Phil Green and the aforementioned Thom Enright as key people she met and played with early in her career. Enright had also played with Beaver Brown, which achieved mainstream success in the mid 80s with the song “On the Dark Side” and the Eddie and Cruisers soundtrack. To my amazement, the article also mentions that her brother, along with the above mentioned Ed Vallee of The Young Adults were in the band Universal Rhundle together. My brother had mentioned this band to me when I was a kid. It became the inspiration for this play of mine.

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My brother is a drummer who has been playing professionally since he was 11 years old. We wrote a little about here about how he knew folksinger Patrick Sky in his younger years (Sky started a coffeehouse in our hometown). He played in all kinds of bands over the years, but the strongest thread was his participation in the blues revival of the 1980s. Roomful of Blues is one of the best known local bands in that movement; they were formed in Westerly, Rhode Island, where I was born. My brother has sat in with them and played in many bands with their guitarist Chris Vachon, including his current one Li’l Shaky and the Tremors (see bottom of this post for an important update!) Roomful’s bassist Preston Hubbard also played with the better known Texas band Fabulous Thunderbirds, which was part of the same national movement. My brother also played in a trio with Duke Robillard, best known as a member of the original Blues Brothers line-up before quitting in disgust (or being fired for mouthing off, depending upon who tells it).

As a kid, I was often taken to bars and clubs to see my brother play (things were more relaxed then) and once I even got to hang out in a recording studio and watch him and his friends record a single. But for the most part, in my little seaside hometown, I was far from the action. The above-mentioned New Paper was one of my lifelines. It was the equivalent of our local Village VoiceIn addition to Rudy’s column, it carried Doug Allen’s deadpan comic strip Steven and, unless I misremember, also Feiffer, Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World and Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer — although some of this may be bleeding into my memories of my first days in New York and the Voice itself. The New Paper featured left wing writing on local politics and reviews and ads for local bands like (in addition to those named and others I will name) Throwing Muses and Steve Smith and the Nakeds.

Another of my lifelines was Brown University’s fm radio station WBRU. They played mostly dinosaur rock, but I especially lived for the weekly show of one “Dr. Oldie, the Dean of the University of Musical Perversity”, who spun mostly singles from the 1950s, often very obscure and strange ones, not the usual hits. I learned to my shock just now that he is the same guy as John Peck…aka, The Mad Peck, the co-author/illustrator (with the fascinating Les Daniels) of the seminal, groundbreaking book Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, as well as the famous Providence poster:

A terrific article in the Providence Journal here about Peck and his interactions with many of the above-named players.

The local band (outside of my brother’s influence) I followed most closely was the neo-psychedelic outfit Plan 9, whom I got to know from my friend Colin Cheer, who took guitar lessons from their leader, a scary-looking dude, with a wild, frizzy mane of hair named Eric Stumpo (yeah I know that’s bad grammar — fuck you). Through Plan 9’s influence, I discovered ’60s garage rock of the proto-punk variety…not to mention the film for which the band was named, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Colin introduced me to all the punk music going up until that time 1982-3-4. But I liked 60s’ garage rock more, which is why I remain well versed in punk only up until the early 80s…I know very little of what came after. Colin, me, and our friend Alex Nagle briefly had a band called the Happy Machines. I played drums on a make-shift kit made up of my brother’s castoffs. We only played a couple of gigs — we chased most of the audience away. But Alex later joined Plan 9, which was quite a step up. We weren’t close but Colin was a big influence on me when I was about 17. One cold winter night we spent the entire evening running around the streets of Providence. He took photos; I wrote a play based on some characters I witnessed. Dysfunctional Theatre presented it a few years ago, I call it The Big Donut. Later I slept on Colin’s sofa in Boston on one of my first attempts to leave the nest when I was about 19. (I have one very cool anecdote of that experience, but that one I may have to fictionalize that one).

The Arcade in Providence, the oldest mall in America and the improbable, but actual, location of Periwinkle’s Comedy Club

One other Providence name I want to drop. Janeane Garofolo did her first stand up dates at Periwinkles Comedy Club in the Providence Arcade when she was a student at Providence College in the mid ’80s. I’m almost exactly the same age and performed there at around the same time. When I saw this mentioned in the book We Killed a light dawned: “Ah!” I think we may have performed on at least one bill together.

At any rate, working on this piece has been a revelation for me…comedy and music are the most important parts of show business to me (even better when they’re mixed), and I am also pretty obsessed with vintage pop culture. It’s pretty clear that I am a product of Providence, that the roots of No Applause are in the culture of Providence, and my gateway to that was my brother Larr.

And, now after all that lead up, an old fashioned plug. My brother’s band Li’l Shaky and the Tremors, led by Chris Vachon of Roomful, has a new album called Aftershock, released by Alligator Records. Guest artists on the record include Brenda Bennett of Vanity 6 and Ed Vallee of the Young Adults! It features ten vintage rhythm and blues covers and is a great illustration of what these guys have been doing all their lives. You can get it here and I hope you do!

Memphis Minnie: Straddling the Blues

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Music, Women on June 3, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Memphis Minnie (Lizzie “Kid” Douglas a.k.a. Minnie Lawlers, 1897-1973).

To me, she is one of the most incredible figures in blues history, on account of she straddles so many different KINDS of blues (yes, I pretty much meant that verb). Her recording career started in 1929. What is interesting to me is that she entered the field when it was dominated by female singers (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith) and some of her records have that classic blues orchestration (largely piano driven). BUT (here’s where she’s almost entirely unique) she’s even better known for playing the rural style of Delta country blues; she didn’t just sing but she played guitar, and that was a field entirely dominated by men (guys like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House etc etc). Furthermore, her career went long enough that she also entered the era of amplification and, the more urban big city Chicago blues of the sort we associate with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf etc etc that eventually led to rock ‘n’ roll). She is a bridge to everywhere.

Memphis Minnie grew up in Mississippi and Louisiana, started playing the banjo at age 10, and ran off to play guitar of Beale Street sidewalks in Memphis by age 13. (She also turned tricks to support herself — and her rough lifestyle shows up in her songs, whoo boy, did she record some dirty and rough and funny songs). She is also said to have toured for four years with Ringling Brothers Circus (1916-1920) as a musician.

To give you an idea of the many sounds and eras she spanned…

“Bumble Bee”, 1930 (country blues)

“Down in the Alley”, 1937 (classic blues)

“Night Watchman Blues”, 1949 (Chicago blues)

To find out more about show biz past and present consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Mississippi Fred McDowell: You Gotta Move

Posted in African American Interest, Blues with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Mississippi Fred McDowell (1904-1972). Despite his unambiguous association with a particular state (where he lived a good part of his life), McDowell was born in, and died in Tennessee. He worked as a farmer and cotton picker most of his adult life, playing slide guitar at dances and parties and such in his spare time. It wasn’t until he he was 55 years old that we recorded by folklorists Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. Thereafter he was able play professionally for his remaining 13 years.

Here’s one of his most famous tunes, recorded in 1964, and covered by the Rolling Stones on their album  Sticky Fingers in 1971:

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Slim Harpo, “I’m a King Bee”

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Music with tags , , on January 11, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great blues musician Slim Harpo (James Moore, 1924-1970). Although just as adept at guitar, he is of course named after his other instrument, the blues harmonica. Originally known as Harmonica Slim, he was the brother-in-law of Lightnin’ Slim.

Both sides of his 1957 debut single (“I’m a King Bee” b/w “I Got Love If You Want It” became major blues and rock standards covered by countless American blues artists and British invasion bands over the years: the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Doors, etc etc. Other successes for Harpo included “Rainin’ in My Heart” (1961), “Shake Your Hips” and “Baby Scratch My Back” (1966). He died of a heart attack at the very young age of 46

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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R.I.P. Amiri Baraka

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, BOOKS & AUTHORS, OBITS with tags , , on January 9, 2014 by travsd

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Just got word that Amiri Baraka has passed on. I don’t know how comfortable I am with “Rest in Peace” — he certainly said and espoused a peck of heinous ideas over the years. He was always the farthest thing from “at peace”. Now that he’s dead, he probably still doesn’t want any anyway.

The part of his work I know best (really, at all) is from when he was still LeRoi Jones, when he wrote the seminal off-off-Broadway plays Dutchman (1964) and The Baptism and the Toilet (1967), and above all, his terrific book Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963). I’ve written about 80 blues artists on this blog, and written a play about the blues. A lot of the inspiration to do those things came from Blues People. 

Rather than wade into the muddy waters of his controversial political beliefs (and his immoderate way of expressing them), I think I will recommend that you buy and read this one excellent book. I go back to it periodically for both information and inspiration: http://www.amazon.com/Blues-People-Negro-Music-America/dp/068818474X

More on his passing can be found here: http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2014/01/hold_hold_hold_amiri_baraka_former_nj_poet_laureate_and_prolific_author_dead_at_79.html

Sonny Boy’s Christmas Blues

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Christmas, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Music with tags , , on December 5, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Sonny Boy Williamson II (1912-1965), not to be confused with the original Sonny Boy Williamson. Nor is this one the son of the original Sonny Boy Williamson. This is just another guy named Sonny Boy Williamson. His real name was Alex “Rice” Miller; he began using Sonny Boy’s name in the 1940s, even going so far as to claim that it was he who had used the name first, although the original was actually NAMED Williamson and had been called “Sonny Boy” at least since 1937. But the original died in 1948, leaving Sonny Boy II free to use that name for another 17 years.

To complicate matters further, the only thing phony about Sonny Boy II is the name. His music is mighty terrific. In honor of the season we give you “Sonny Boy’s Christmas Blues”:

For more on show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Sonny Terry

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Music with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Sonny Terry (Saunders Terrell, 1911-1986). The North Carolina farm boy learned to play blues harp from his father and lost his eyesight due to injury by the time he was 16. Terry became a professional musician out of necessity, first playing with Blind Boy Fuller, and then establishing a long-standing musical partnership with Brownie McGhee which lasted from 1941 until his death.

Here are Sonny and terry playing the “Hootin’ Blues”:

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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