Anthony Geraci is the subject of this Monthly Artist Spotlight in the September 2015 edition of BLUES JUNCTION Productions. Get an in depth look at Anthony’s background and rich musical history in this insightful interview conducted by writer David Mac, as they discuss Anthony’s early formative years, musical education, the Bluetones, his brand new Delta Groove release, “Fifty Shades of Blue,” and more!
Interview by David Mac / BLUES JUNCTION Productions (Published September 2015).
David Mac (DM): You have been playing blues for a long time. If you don’t mind me asking how old are you Anthony?
Anthony Geraci (AG): I am 61 years old. I feel like that quote that’s kicked around Facebook for a while. ‘I may be old but I’ve seen all the cool bands.’ That’s me. I got to see everybody, even Muddy Waters.
DM: …and play with him… we will talk about that in a bit. In the meantime, it is my understanding that you have been playing music your whole life.
AG: That’s right. My parents are not musical at all. If you sat next to them on church you would move away. They can’t sing or play anything but for some reason when I was four years old I told my mother that I needed a piano.
DM: Where did that come from?
AG: I have no idea. My folks, like I said, were not into music. They had no instruments in the house or even a record player for that matter. They got me an old junky upright piano. A few years later my mother bought me a small baby grand piano that she made little payments on, three dollars a week, something like that. So very early on my parents were always really supportive, even though they weren’t into music. Everybody I have ever known that was into music either had parents that were musicians or their folks had really big record collections. I had none of that. It was something that I was born with and something that was just inside me. Once again, I feel so lucky that my parents were so supportive of my musical calling. My mother is still alive and she is still so encouraging when we talk.
DM: Do you remember some of your first exposures to music?
AG: I know this might sound corny, but I remember seeing the Beatles the first time they were on the Ed Sullivan Show. I remember we went out for pizza that night and I told my dad we had to get home in time to see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. So even at that young age there was something in me that had to see that on TV. The Beatles transcended music. It had an impact on everything and everybody no matter what kind of music you played.
DM: That is so true. I don’t think you can overstate what a big damn deal that was at the time. Among all the social and cultural implications of that broadcast, one of the things that might be easy to overlook was that it instantly solidified the concept of a group. This wasn’t Elvis. This was a BAND.
AG: That’s right, it gave me a sense of a band thing. I remember that broadcast like it was yesterday and, even though I play blues and jazz and I have done that my whole life, the band concept was something that had a real impact on me.
You know that after my professional career took off, not counting high school bands, I have only played in a handful of bands. I have been with Sugar Ray and the Bluetones for 35 years. I am not one of those guys who does pick up gigs. You really can’t grow as a musician playing the same songs that everybody knows. They are the same tunes everybody is already doing. So I am not really into the jam concept. I like playing in a band where you can really dig into the music with the guys you are playing with. That’s why I love playing with Sugar Ray and the Bluetones.
DM: It’s like the old saying; ‘a band is only as good as its worst player.’
AG: That’s right, four of us in the Bluetones have been together for 35 years and our guitarist Monster Mike Welch has been with us for fifteen years. These guys are all on my new album.
DM: Let’s back up a bit and talk about your journey to the blues. The Beatles and different types of pop music are easy to find, but blues… not so much. We have to find IT.
AG: When I was a kid we lived in New Haven, Connecticut.
DM: The home of Yale University.
AG: That’s right. I befriended this one kid. His name is Ed Cherry. We both had this
interest in music. We both played music and we hung out in his house every day after school.
DM: There is a jazz guitarist named Ed Cherry.
AG: That’s the one. He played with Dizzy Gillespie for 15 years or so. His family was the only African- American family in the whole neighborhood. He was the only kid who had the same interests in music as me. He had lots of blues records and we listened to that stuff every day. He had Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, very early Buddy Guy.
I remember the album Chicago Bound by Jimmy Rogers. That record turned my mind around. Here was music that was so simple, yet so complex at the same time. That record took me by storm. It had everything I was looking for in music. It had great piano playing, two guitars, great rhythm, great singing and great songs. It is just great ensemble playing like we were just talking about. I heard that record when I was sixteen years old. Five years later Jimmy Rogers was my roommate on the road. This guy is a God and now he is my roommate. If somebody told me that when I was sixteen I would have said, ‘Get outta here.’
DM: You had to be on an accelerated educational path to get your chops up to the point where you are playing with Jimmy Rogers.
AG: As I mentioned early on, my parents were so supportive to me. As a result of that I had been taking piano lessons from an early age. There was a school affiliated with Yale University called, The Neighborhood School of Music. They had some of the most fabulous teachers. Some of these teachers were Russian immigrants and they were really strict. They made me work hard. I always had very good teachers growing up. They always seemed to recognize that I had an improvisational streak in me. I mean I could never play a Bach piece straight. Even though I really didn’t know about the fundamentals of swing, I would throw some of that into Bach or whatever it was I was playing. I would deviate from the notes here and there and get into a little trouble now and again from the teachers.
One summer when I was fourteen years old, I had a teacher who taught me chords. Up to that point I was just doing the basic piano literature people grow up with. So the teacher started to bring me lead sheets. He started to teach me about dominant sevenths, major sevenths, minor sevenths and so forth. By doing that it really opened me up to improvisation, which opened me up to an entire new world of music.
DM: When did the organ enter the picture for you?
AG: When I was fifteen I was in a band. The B3 was really big back then. Somebody in the band said, ‘You should play organ.’ In those days I had a paper route. When I saved up enough money, I went out and bought a brand new Hammond B3. Can you imagine buying a B3 from the money on a paper route these days?
DM: I know that was a rhetorical question but the answer is “no.” What kind of stuff were you playing in those days on the B3?
AG: I learned how to play Chris Stainton’s organ lines that were all over Joe Cocker’s version of With A Little Help From My Friends. My friends were into British rock so I didn’t last too long with that, as I was still soaking up the good stuff with my buddy Ed.
DM: Did you continue your formal musical education after high school?
AG: Absolutely… I attended Berklee College of Music for three and a half years. I was also listening to all the great blues radio shows they had at several of the stations here in the Boston area. They had a great public radio station WGBH 89.7 FM. Every Friday and Saturday night they had this wonderful blues DJ, Mai Cramer, who was on from 9:00pm-midnight with her show “Blues After Hours.” She was on the air for 24 years. She died from breast cancer in 2002. Anyway, she was just great…played everything and would also let you know who was playing around town.
One night she mentioned some blues band was playing at The Speakeasy in Cambridge, so I got the phone book out, looked up the number and gave the club a call. I asked to speak to one of the band members who were playing that night. I had no idea who the band was. So I get on the phone with this guy and I am trying to come off like some big shot. I say, ‘My name is Anthony Geraci. I am in town tonight and I would like to sit in with your band.’ The guy on the phone says, ‘Do you have a microphone’? I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Come on down.’ (laughs) So that was my calling card. I had a microphone.
So I went to the club and sat in. We really clicked. They were this kind of long haired blues band who were based up in New Hampshire. I would take a bus up there and play with them and they would travel down to Boston. We were together for a few months when Muddy Waters came to town. He played at a place in Boston called Paul’s Mall and The Jazz Workshop. They were blues and jazz clubs that sat side by side. They were the most famous clubs in Boston. So we got the gig opening for Muddy. While we were doing that The Heath Brothers were next door at the Jazz Workshop.
DM: Do you remember which incarnation of Muddy’s band played that week?
AG: I sure do. It was Luther Guitar Junior and Bob Margolin on guitars, Jerry Portnoy on harmonica, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones on bass, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums and Pinetop Perkins on piano. I saw Muddy every time he was in the area. He often had different players. I saw him at various times with guitarists Hollywood Fats, Luther Tucker and Sam Lawhorn.
But on that week we opened for him six nights in a row. Every night everybody from the Boston blues scene was there to see Muddy. He was so nice and great to hang out with. By the end of the week he even let me sit in with him. That was the biggest thrill of my life. Muddy didn’t know me from anybody so he asked Jerry Portnoy, ‘Who is that playing piano?’ Jerry said, ‘Anthony.’ So when Muddy went to introduce the band, Muddy said, ‘Lets hear it for little Anthony!’ So the Little Anthony moniker kind of stuck for a while. In fact, I had a band called Little Anthony and the Locomotives. We played around the Connecticut and Boston area for a couple of years. We would open for Muddy every time he came through town. Even later on when we started Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, we opened for Muddy.
DM: The first time I became aware of your playing was on one of the very early Black Top Records released which was by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters.
AG: That’s right. Not a lot of people know this, but the original incarnation of Sugar Ray and the Bluetones had Ronnie Earl on guitar.
DM: I guess I didn’t realize the Bluetones actually pre-dated Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters.
AG: We didn’t put out an LP or anything although we did cut a four song EP. We were called Sugar Ray and the Bluetones featuring Little Ronnie. He quit our band to join Roomful of Blues in the early 80’s after Duke (Robillard) left.
DM: That’s when they had the full five piece horn section.
AG: That’s right. They were hitting on all cylinders in those days, but Ronnie wanted to make more of a low down blues record. So when Roomful was in New Orleans Hammond Scott at Black Top Records signed him up. So those first two Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters records was basically the old Bluetones band right down to Sugar Ray on vocals, myself on piano and organ, Michael “Mudcat” Ward on bass and Neil Gouvin on drums.
DM: Let’s talk about those early days with the Bluetones.
AG: We rehearsed constantly. If we wanted a gig we would call up the club and play a song for the owner right over the phone and we would get the gig. No agent, no press package, no nothing. This is what we do; take or leave it. We would get gigs all over the east coast. We would play down in Washington D.C. We worked out of Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia, quite a bit. We would make little four, five day road trips. We were also the house band at that place we talked about earlier called The Speakeasy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We played there every Sunday. Then every Monday we also had a gig at a place called The Met Café in Providence, Rhode Island. So we had two regular gigs on off nights when you normally wouldn’t be working, so the rest of the week we would take little trips out to Pittsburgh, New York City or where ever.
DM: You were also bringing others into the band as well.
AG: Thanks very much for bringing that up Dave. That’s a very good point. We brought out Big Walter Horton to play. We made two records with him. J.B. Hutto was with us for about six months. Hubert Sumlin was in the band for about four months. I don’t think a lot of people really know about this part of the band’s history. We did gigs with Big Joe Turner. He had pianist Lloyd Glenn in the band at that time. He is one of my idols. He plays in that kind of bluesy jazzy style that I love. I got to sit down with him and pick his brain for about three days. He taught me how to play Honky Tonk Train and things like that. Then a year later Big Joe came through town without Glenn, so he used me on piano.
DM: You mentioned traveling with Jimmy Rogers earlier.
AG: I backed up Jimmy Rogers on tours of the north east. I did the same for Big Mama Thornton, Lazy Lester, Otis Rush and Chuck Berry as well. I feel so fortunate to have played with so many of the “older” blues musicians. It is something that can never be recreated unless you’re on stage with them. If you’re playing with Otis Rush you better know his stuff. You better know the nuances in his music, which is incredible. The samewith Chuck Berry… remember not every song is Johnny B. Good. If I have any advice for young players it is be prepared and practice. Learn the history of this great music. It’s very different playing with Lazy Lester then playing with Big Walter Horton for instance.
DM: You obviously have to be incredibly versatile to be able play in so many different styles. Who were some of the piano greats you look to for inspiration and the ones whose playing you incorporate into your playing?
AG: Dave as you might suspect there are just so many. I suppose if you are a blues piano player and Otis Spann isn’t on the top two of your list you are in trouble. I am a big fan of Eddie Boyd as well as Memphis Slim. There are the early practitioners of boogie woogie piano like Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson, as well as the New Orleans cats like Professor Longhair and Huey “Piano” Smith that all go into the “Anthony stew.”
DM: … or “Geraci Gumbo” Your brand new or soon to be released album on Delta Groove Music is one of two CDs slated for an October 16, 2015, “street date.” It also represents a milestone of sorts, as it is the first album being put out by the label with Jeff Fleenor at the helm, as he continues the tradition and legacy that was started by Randy Chortkoff.
AG: I was so thrilled when I got the call from Jeff and he told me he was going to put the album out. I have had a good relationship with Randy and Jeff through the years. I always enjoyed it when I was on a European festival with the Bluetones and the Mannish Boys were on the gig. I love all those guys; Jimi Bott, Willie J. Campbell, Kirk Fletcher, just great guys. We all played together in Switzerland last year. Randy had us out to the Simi Valley Festival’s blues stage in Southern California which he produced. It was great playing in front of a California audience. We went into the studio the next two days and cut that Delta Groove record on Sugaray Rayford. Then from California we went straight to Europe. Man that’s a long flight.
DM: Let’s talk about the new album billed as Anthony Geraci and the Boston Blues All-Stars.
AG: I think we touched upon this earlier, but I wanted to bring in the Bluetones for the record. I also wanted to expand upon that as well. I toured Europe in the late 90’s with Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson who is on the new record and I brought in Boston’s queen of the blues, Toni Lynn Washington, to sing on one track. When they opened the very first House of Blues in Cambridge we were the house band. Sugar Ray was singing with Roomful at the time. We were called The Blue Monday Band. We had Darrell Nulisch as our singer. So I brought him in on this new project. He sings on a few tracks. The bulk of the vocals are Sugar Ray as you might suspect. I figured since I don’t sing why not bring in the best. Everybody really dug in and did a really really great job on the material. The final product exceeded my expectations.
DM: One of the aspects of the new record, which helps to set it apart in the marketplace, is that you wrote all thirteen songs.
AG: I love writing. I am not so much a cover guy. The goal, as I see it anyway, is to evoke as much word imagery in as little time as possible. When it comes to blues writing, it is like telling a mini story. When I listen to guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins, for example, and think of the imagery he can put into a two or three minute song, it is just unbelievable how much emotion that can be put into a single song. I try and put that in my music.
These days you hear a lot of blues songs that are pretty guitar heavy and have seven or eight choruses. The songs on the new album are three and four minutes long and pretty concise. We also have a couple of instrumental numbers on the record as well. We close the album with an instrumental entitled, Blues for David Maxwell who we lost last February. David was, as you know, a great blues piano player who lived in the Boston area. Most of us have known David for 35-40 years. He was one of the first guys I met when I moved to Boston. He gave me so much encouragement. The song is a minor blues that closes with Sugar Ray playing a native-American flute. It is very haunting.
DM: I think the album title is pretty revealing as well.
AG: Exactly! The name of the album is Fifty Shades of Blue. Sure it is kind of a take-off on the erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey, but it has more meaning than that. The album encompasses many different shades within the blues idiom. The record can’t be pigeon holed.
DM: What would like people to know about Anthony Geraci that they may not know?
AG: Well this fits in with what we are talking about. I mean there are a bunch of YouTube videos of me playing piano. People know me from Sugar Ray and the Bluetones and playing in Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, but as a musician I think of myself as a songwriter as much as I do a pianist. I think that Fifty Shades of Blues will go a long way to illuminate that in people’s minds.
DM: I know that music is, and can be, pretty all encompassing, but what interests or hobbies do you have outside of music?
AG: Believe it or not, I love to garden and I love to cook. I am passionate about those things. I have a big garden here in Marshville, about thirty miles outside of Boston. I used to live in Vermont for about ten years and I had a HUGE garden up there.
I used to teach at a college in Vermont. I taught classes in jazz piano, the history of blues and a class in world music. One day I said to the Dean, ‘I want to teach a cooking class for jazz musicians.’ He said, ‘WHAT?’ I said, ‘Listen, when you go to the refrigerator you don’t know what you are going to cook. You pull out a bunch of ingredients and make something tasty out of it. It is the same thing you do when you look at a lead sheet. You have the notes on the page. You have the chords and now it becomes the job of the musician to come up with something tasty.’ He looked at me like I was crazy (laughs), but I think it would have been a great class.
DM: So you are also an improvisational cook.
AG: Oh yeah. I’ll look at a recipe and then do my own thing with it.
DM: Do you have a favorite dish or any particular style of cooking that you prefer?
AG: I come from an Italian background so I don’t know if I could cook anything without olive oil and garlic. You can ask any of the guys in the band. I often cook on the road. I had a couple of the guys over last Sunday with their families and cooked for everybody.
A few years ago the Bluetones were in France. We recorded an album with Otis Grand in a castle over there. After we finished laying down all the tracks, we had a couple of days of down time, while they were doing the mixes. I went to a local market picked up some ingredients and cooked for everybody. I just love it.
DM: Anthony you could have named the album, “Cookin’ with Anthony Geraci and the Boston Blues All-Stars.” Either way it is great album of which you should be very proud. I really enjoyed our visit today.
AG: It was my pleasure Dave. Let’s stay in touch.