Jeff and his top-flight band The Smokin’ Torpedoes are well-known to lovers of live music here in Central Florida. Jeff is very good at his craft. By that, I don’t mean only the musical side; he’s a very capable promoter and has shown over and over that he’s got the mojo to plan it, promote it, sing it and play it and I love to watch him do it. All of it.
I first met Jeff back in 2004 when ten or so blues-focused musicians and supporters met to talk about the blues music we love so well and explore ways to help the blues thrive in Central Florida. Those early days at Cafe Annie were so much fun. Here’s a minor miracle for you: the memories of some of those jams way back when are still very vivid in my fast-failing, whiskey-soaked brain today.
The upshot of all of that was the founding of the Orange Blossom Blues Society. The OBBS is still trying to carry on its mission to “Preserve, Promote and Present” the blues in our part of the Sunshine State. Being a part of that was an awesome thing. And still is.
One of the things that made that time so good and satisfying as I look back is that it’s how I met some of the local blues musicians and supporters who have become my good friends over the last twelve years. I will be posting soon with more about the effort to get the blues crowd in and around Orlando to link up and pull in the same direction. There were so many people who put their “time and treasure” into that effort. And the OBBS is still going strong twelve years later.
One other thing about our merry band of blusers here in Central Florida: The showcase event for the OBBS is the local or first round of the International Blues Competition and that is happening tomorrow, Sunday August 7th, beginning at 2 PM. Details here.
I had to mention the early days of the OBBS as that’s how my path crossed with Jeff’s originally. My main reason for putting together this more modest post is simply to spotlight Mr. Willey and those Smokin’ Torps who have played a large role in moving the Central Florida blues scene forward. The line up has changed, has changed more than once. Some of those Smokin’ Torps have come and gone. And come again. But their brand of authentic, classic, semi-laid back blues has been consistently good and has made them one of the best damn bands anywhere in Florida.
The Torps are an ambitious, hard-workin’ band. I follow their bookings and catch them playing out every chance I get. If you’d like to have a look at their calendar, just follow this link.
If you’re familiar with Jeff Willey and those Smokin’ Torps he fronts, you don’t need Ol’ Bulldog here to tell you how good they are. If you’re not familiar with them, you should be! Have a look at the calendar and catch one of their shows soon; you’ll be mighty glad you did.
“Bulldog Ben” Basile
Photo credit Benjamin Lawrence Basile
July 1, 2016
Blues harmonica legend James Cotton turns 81 today. James is the real deal, having grown up in Mississippi under the tutelage of Sonny Boy Williamson. James ran away from home at the age of seven and was deeply immersed in the blues from that time on. No one else has that kind of amazing blues pedigree; it’s a seriously over-worked phrase, but Mr. Cotton truly is one-of-a-kind.
I had the privilege to meet James after a show at the now-defunct Disney Institute back in 1996. (The D.I. has since been transformed into a massive Time Share Resort.) The back stage meet and greet had been arranged for me by my friend David McElroy who was the Director of the Theater project there. I’ll always be grateful for David’s consideration; the conversation I had with this living legend of the blues is one of the best moments of my musical career. A wonderful time in many ways.
James had been an able vocalist for his whole career and so we were taken aback when he struggled mightily to sing; it was shortly after that performance that he had to permanently stop singing because of serious problems with his vocal cords.
I just had to post tonight and wish Mr. Superharp a very happy 81st birthday. James was known for playing, recording and touring like a madman since 1953 but has now downshifted just a bit. I wish him good health and continued success on his day today.
Rising star Christina Grimmie made a name for herself after her run on NBC’s The Voice back in 2014, though she was not a new performer at that time by any means. Her murder at The Plaza Live was shocking and although she was not an artist that I follow, it was chilling to read the news the next morning, as I have been in that Orlando landmark many times; it was one of the venues where many of us in the blues community have played or shown up to support one another or have gone to see nationally-known acts. It was inconceivable that an artist would be shot dead there by an obsessed fan, but that’s exactly what happened.
Because there are thousands upon thousands of places on the net that tell every detail of that sad story, I’ll not rehash the killing. But this piece in Rolling Stone treats the story with a wide-angle lens, talking about that zone where social media, super-stardom, and obsession meet and what that means for artists and fans.
This is not to down-play in any way the shock and mind-numbing grief that must have ripped through the hearts of her family, friends and fans. But an even crazier and more shocking event was about to play out in Orlando. Our community, the Nation and even the world have been fixated on the this bizarre and heart-breaking story: the massacre of 49 people at Pulse, a nightclub on Orlando’s south side.
I love to talk about the blues and some of the other genres we often associate with it. I have a fascination with those “cross-over zones” where the blues “come together” with other great genres of American music.
Although I get that music transcends our labels, it’s also true that artists, critics and fans need to throw around some terms to help us make sense of it all.
For some reason this idea of “cross-over zones” has become a BIG deal for me. I think of the “blues-country zone” and artists like the great Jimmy Rogers, Lee Roy Parnell, his harp-playin’ bro Rob Roy Parnell and others.
In that very cool “blues-jazz” fusion zone, you’ve got people like Joe Williams (not “BIG Joe”, the other guy) Count Basie, and modern ones like Jimmy Witherspoon and Robben Ford. And I must not leave out Billie Holiday or the late Eva Cassidy.
Speaking of modern artists, John Mayer is amazingly adept at fusing, Rock, Pop, Jazz and Blues; I’m not sure if anyone is as good at that as he is.
Mississippi blues man “Little Milton” Campbell was often described as a “soul-blues” fusionist and I’d put Bobby Rush and Bobby “Blue” Bland in that category as well. Seeing Bobby Bland live here in Barnett Park in Orlando was quite a thrill for me. That was back in ’97 if my memory is working.
Then there’s that whole “blues-rock” thing; that zone really sets me off! There are so many greats who have “hung out” in this awesome zone! I’ll name only a few here: Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray, Walter Trout, Joe Bonamassa, Jimmy Thackery, and of course, Jimi Hendrix! What a line-up that is! Stevie Ray also loved jazz, of course and was a BIG fan of jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell.
Having said all that, I probably hang out more in the “blues-folk” zone than any other one! I play acoustic a lot, partly because it’s so easy to do, what with the minimum of gear that’s needed, etc., and partially because here in Central Florida, the “Friends of Florida Folk” are so active and sponsor so many great shows, fests and activities.
Josh White might just be the “best of the bunch” when it comes to artists who had one foot in the folk world and the other one in the blues. Josh Sr., I mean.
His “set list” and mine would have a rather large overlap; he did a lot of spirituals and gospel as well! As many of my friends know, I got my start singing in our family gospel quartet at the age of six and sang in church choirs and youth chorales all the way up until college. (And that’s where the I got bit by the “blues bug”; more about that in a minute.)
Josh White was well-known as a New York folk-blues singer and guitarist who helped “get the blues over” with a fan base that was already “tuned-in” to folk music. Because his work featured liberal helpings of gospel, he was sometimes billed as “Joshua White, the Singing Christian”.
Josh died in New York in 1969 and his son, Josh White Jr., has followed in his father’s footsteps, performing originals and much of his father’s material as well.
In 1973 as was a 17 year old music-lovin’ frosh at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa when Josh Jr. came to campus to play as one of our Student Activity Concerts. My room mate had just begun to introduce me to Muddy Waters, harmonica wizard Little Walter and some of those cats; thanks again, Dr. Carver! I was already into Johnny Winter and had been introduced to the music of Willie Dixon in the same way as so many other white suburban kids, via Led Zep records. So you might say that I was really ready for a life-changing experience, and that’s the best way to describe what happened to me that night in the Dining Commons there in my freshman year! I’ve been a confirmed blues freak ever since and began performing the blues in the mid ’90s.
I do feel as though I owe a real debt of gratitude to Josh White Jr. for the show that night. No doubt I’m only one of many white middle-class kids who may never have “discovered” this most incredible genre of American music if Josh had not been booked to play at our schools. Josh spent years in the ’70s and ’80s playing hundreds of college campuses, a fact of which he is quite justifiably proud. And I and many others today love and support and play the blues because Josh booked so many of those college dates. Thank you, sir!
Josh’s home page has a fine bio, of course, and one on his Dad as well. His site is here.
To have a look at the site for the “Friends of Florida Folk”, the outstanding non-profit org here in the Sunshine State working tirelessly to promote and preserve folk music, click here.
At the end of the day, all authentic genres of music are merely branches off the same tree. These days, we often lump all of it together under the term Americana. I like the term. But until terms and labels which have been in use for a couple of centuries lose all meaning, it’s good-and useful-to break it down, take a closer look and remember why we love the music so well.