Aurora, nicknamed “Rory” Block, is one of the most successful blues guitarists recording today—a significant feat in a field that has usually relegated female talent to vocals. Block initially had an uphill battle against the general lack of popularity of blues—especially blues performed by women—and the path to her musical freedom first led through a maze of different genres: folk, country, pop, R&B, and even disco. Ultimately, the experience brought her a versatility that reviewers declaimed once whe had established a secure blues reputation via Rounder Records. The author of a a 1996 Relix review, for example, dubbed Block “not only one of the finest contemporary exponents of country-blues guitar playing, but…a well-rounded artist with depth, vision and feeling.”
Born around 1950 in rural New Jersey, Block spent her formative years in Greenwich Village in New York City. Her large family, headed by Allan Block and Rory’s stepmother, made music a mainstay of life. “My whole family was an orchestra,” Rory told Jas Obrecht in a 1983 Guitar Player interview. “Cellos, violins, pianos—everybody played a different instrument. We used to get together with other families on Sunday afternoons and have classical jam sessions.” Rory’s contributions to these jams included classical recorder, which she had mastered by the age of eight, and classical guitar, which she began learning at age 11.
The family’s musical leanings were reinforced in Block’s father’s Greenwich Village Sandal Shop—he worked primarily as a leathersmith—which served as a gathering place for many of the leading folk and blues musicians of the era. John Sebastian, one of the regulars on the Village folk scene, recalled the Sandal Shop in the liner notes for Block’s 1981 recording, High Heeled Blues : “As the singing faded in [Washington] Square, the hard core would gather at this comfy workplace to hear Mr. Block and his friends play some music. These friends were the cream of the touring traditional musicians—Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Clarence Ashley—a musical feast, with a menu that changed every week. Every time I managed to get in, I learned something. And every time I went in, I saw a pretty brown-haired girl sitting on the edge of the crowd. It took me several visits to figure out that this was Allan’s daughter. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she was a hell of a guitar player. These old guys with their guitars were taking a shine to Rory Block, showing her stuff the rest of us couldn’t possibly figure out from records or one afternoon of observation.” A fiddler himself, Mr. Block trained his daughter to accompany him on guitar
For the Record…
Born Aurora Block, c. 1950, in New Jersey; daughter of Allan Block, a leathersmith and folk musician. Grew up in Greenwich Village, New York City. Children: Thiele (born c. 1967) and Jordan (born c. 1974).
Began performing as a teenager at folk festivals with father. Cut first album with Stefan Grossman, c. 1966. Retired from performance for eight years, resurfacing with RCA contract in 1975 and released self-titled debut album. Experimented with several different labels—Chrysalis, 1977-1978, and Blue Goose, 1976—before signing with Rounder Records, 1981. Proceeded to release almost annual recordings with Rounder, from High Heeled Blues, 1981, to Tornado, 1996.
Awards: W.C. Handy Acoustic Blues Album of the Year Award for When a Woman Gets the Blues, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Rounder, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA, 02140.
in the style of country flatpicking. She earned her first performance credits backing her father at folk festivals and on two tracks of an Elektra/Asylum album called Elektra String Band Project.
Rory determined early that her own passion was for blues. She concentrated first—around the age of 14—on mastering the standards and styles of 1930s blues, which she learned to mimic perfectly from recordings. “I wanted nothing more than to religiously transcribe all the old recordings note-for-note,” she told Osbrecht. “I wanted to get the tunings right and to reproduce the songs historically, accurately….I was so intensely into that form of music that for two years I dedicated most of my time to listening. I played all the time, night and day. The guitar was like a second skin.” At 15 Rory left home, heading for California with Stefan Grossman, one of the guitarists who had introduced her to blues. Together they recorded an instructional album called How to Play Blues GuitarXhaX “introduced countless guitarists in the ‘60s to some of the refined subtleties of acoustic blues,” according to Osbrecht. When the album was originally released on the Elektra label, Block appeared under the pseudonym “Sunshine Kate.”
When her son Theile was born around 1967, Block put aside her musical career until the mid-1970s. “During all that time,” she told Osbrecht, “I didn’t think about being a professional. Then about eight years after I went underground, I had a terrible ache, an empty feeling: My music—where is it?” So Block began playing again, and touring with her young family, which now included her second son, Jordan. She also found that her approach to the music had changed—that she was less the student and more the musician. She told Guitar in 1996 that “In the beginning there was this tremendous reverence for the exact item. I didn’t feel like I could sing it—I wanted to worship it.” Things changed so that her music “now started sounding like a Rory Block song.” Her resurgent enthusiasm ran into trouble, however, in the search for a recording company. She was an anomaly at the time, a white woman with a guitar playing not folk but blues, a blues musician with the finesse and complexity of classical training. To make herself more marketable, she wrote R&B songs and advertised herself with a touring road band.
The strategy apparently paid off in 1975 when Block landed her first contract with a record company, RCA, for a self-titled debut. Right away, however, the identity crisis began; as Block told Osbrecht, “The producers didn’t feel that R&B was appropriate for me or that people would accept it. They felt I sounded a little too black, so they wanted to whitewash it a little bit. As a result, the album sounded a little bit country-ish, a little bit folky.” Nonetheless, the album was accepted by reviewers and radio stations, and Block found a new label—Blue Goose—for her 1976 release I’m in Love. Although she was allowed to devote one side of the album to acoustic blues, the album displayed even more of a split personality, touting discofied R&B on its first side. Again, Block’s work met with warm reviews and an even wider radio audience than had its predecessor.
Chrysalis Records picked Block up for her next few releases, including Intoxication in 1977 and You’re the One in 1978. While the first album presented an R&B sound that Block was comfortable with, the producers worried that R&B was too outmodedand demanded disco for You’re the One. Following that effort, Block decided she needed a return to basics and made one of the most important moves of her career: she turned away from major labels in favor of the small, folk-oriented, Massachusetts-based Rounder Records. “When you first enter the music business,” she told Marc D. Allan of the Indianapolis Star in 1996, “everybody knows you try to do your absolute best and shoot for the best. So, after getting discouraged with the ‘best,’ I thought I’d go to a sweet label, a nice, friendly label and see if they want to do something more natural.”
Block’s debut release with Rounder, High Heeled Blues in 1981, finally allowed her to express her first musical love and acoustic skill in recorded form. The album’s success was followed the next year with Blue Horizon, in which Block expanded her role to producer. “High Heeled Blues and Blue Horizon,” Osbrecht noted, “became unexpected successes, the first LP outselling all of Rory’s previous releases combined. The albums revitalized the guitarist’s stage career, allowing her to comfortably face an audience alone for the first time.” Block confirmed Osbrecht’s assessment, telling him that “After High Heeled Blues, the gigs just started rolling in. The phone started ringing, and it hasn’t stopped. Playing blues simplifies everything, and at the same time it has increased my audience tremendously…. The acoustic approach has given me my roots identity all over again.”
According to Sing Out’s reviewer in 1994, Block’s work for Rounder “highlights her contemporary country blues vocals and guitar work” and showcases “her true strengths more fully.” The accolades have continued unabated since those initial Rounder recordings, even as Block has experimented with different formats, sometimes committing blues standards faithfully to tape, sometimes presenting her listener with more of her original compositions. Angel of Mercy and Tornado have recently demonstrated Block’s skill as a composer, eliciting consistent respect from critics and fans.
One reviewer of Angel of Mercy in a 1994 Sing Out article applauded the album’s format of all original compositions and broader musical experiments: “On this recording, with an all-star group of supporting players, Block maintains those blues roots, but adds healthy doses of folk, pop, and gospel to produce a sound that will appeal to fans of Bonnie Raitt.” 1996’s Tornado again emphasizes the original, featuring nine of Block’s own compositions. Guitar magazine approved the effort, claiming that Block “emerges as a performer with a river-deep respect for blues traditions but also the ability to transcend the idiom, crossing over into a more pop-oriented milieu.”
Exemplifying Block’s commitment to blues history were Mama’s Blues and When a Woman Gets the Blues, released in 1991 and 1995 respectively. The reviewer for Sing Out hailed the first as a “[return] to the Mississippi blues that have been, since her teenage days, her musical cornerstone.” According to Los Angeles Times reviewer James E. Fowler, When a Woman Gets the Blues “represented a return to her acoustic blues roots.” The 1995 project happened at the request of Rounder, which wanted an all acoustic album to follow the more anomalous sound of Angel of Mercy Block voiced her appreciation for that request, noting how different it was from her early career. As she told Kerry Dexter in Acoustic Musician: “To get to the point where your record company is actually asking you to make a blues record…this is a beautiful day. I feel very uplifted.”
How to Play Blues Guitar, Elektra, c. 1966.
Rory Block, RCA, 1975.
I’m In Love, Blue Goose, 1976.
Intoxication, Chrysalis, 1977.
You’re the One, Chrysalis, 1978.
High Heeled Blues, Rounder, 1981.
Blue Horizon] Rounder, 1982.
Mama’s Blues, Rounder, 1991.
Angel of Mercy, Rounder, 1994.
When a Woman Gets the Blues, Rounder, 1995.
Tornado, Rounder, 1996.
Also released instuctional video The Power of Delta Blues Guitar, Homespun Video, 1990.
Acoustic Musician, May 1996.
Billboard, June 1, 1996.
Folk Roots, December 1989.
Guitar, September 1996.
Guitar Player, November 1983; April 1990; December 1991.
Indianapolis Star, July 6, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1996.
Relix, June 1996.
Sing Out, August-October 1991; August-October 1994.
Stereo Review, May 1996.
USA Today, March 26, 1996.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Rounder Records.
—Ondine Le Blanc
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