Blues guitarist Ronnie Earl once told Guitar Player: “My whole approach is based around playing with feeling. I just let it tip out.” Listening to Earl play guitar, one would assume that he had virtually grown up with the instrument in his hands. His sound displays a taste and authority that usually takes years and years to develop. But, amazingly enough, Earl did not start his musical career until he was twenty-three, just after witnessing a Muddy Waters concert in 1975. “I decided that this was it,” he told Dan Forte in Guitar Player, “he changed my life.”
Earl had already been teaching retarded children for four years after graduation from Boston University with a degree in special education. He immediately purchased a $35 Harmony guitar and began to absorb the “feel” of the instrument, rather than copying the licks of the master bluesmen like Magic Sam and Guitar Slim. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Earl avoided the rock and roll phase and went straight to the source.
He began sitting in at Boston jam sessions and soon landed a gig at the Speakeasy club backing up artists like Big Mama Thornton, Otis Rush and Albert Collins. He hooked up with an east coast unit, Johnny Nicholas and the Rhythm Rockers, before moving to Texas where he lived with Fabulous Thunderbirds Jimmie Vaughan and Kim Wilson. Vaughan’s impact on Earl is evident in his choice of guitars (Fender Stratocaster) and amps (a Fender Super Reverb) and the ability to play clean, economical leads. Earl also prides himself, like Vaughan, on his knowledge of chords and considers himself to be more of a sideman pumping the rhythm than a flashy lead guitarist. “That’s what being a blues player is,” he told Guitar Player, “to know it, but not necessarily show all your cards.”
Earl went from Texas to Louisiana before heading back to Boston to join Sugar Ray and the Blue Tones. In 1979 he hooked up with the premiere east coast blues unit, Roomful of Blues, whose guitarist, Duke Robillard, had just quit. “I literally was having nightmares of crowds chanting in unison, ‘Where’s Duke?’,” he confessed in Guitar Player. Three days after quitting Roomful and joining Robert Gordon, Robillard wanted back in Roomful, but they stuck with their decision to hire Earl. His stint with Roomful lasted eight years and produced six excellent albums, including two Grammy nominations with Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and Big Joe Turner.
Earl didn’t just fill Robillard’s shoes, he wore a whole new outfit: “Every single night I try to take people’s heads off and try to get my soul into their soul,” he stated in Guitar Player. The cut “Three Hours Past Midnight” from the Live at Lupo’s LP is a prime example of just that. Earl controls the tempo and the crowd like a master; building up tension and then releasing it at just
Worked as special education teacher for four years following graduation from college before learning to play guitar, 1975; first professional job was backing up blues acts at the Speakeasy club, Boston, Mass.; played for a while with Johnny Nicholas and the Rhythm Rockers, and with Sugar Ray and the Blue Tones; guitarist with Roomful of Blues, 1979-87; cut first solo album, 1983; featured solo performer, 1987—.
Addresses: Record company —Black Top Records, c/o One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140.
the right moment, a technique that can only come from within. “I lost a lot of my family in a concentration camp. So there’s a feeling of oppression or whatever in my background,” he told Guitar World. “Blues just hit me real hard.”
Earl ventured outside Roomful’s horn-based format (“I feel like I got all this other stuff stirring up in my soul, which is to play, like, real filthy blues,” he told Guitar Player ) in 1983 to release his first solo album on the Black Top label. Smoking, observed Dan Forte in Guitar Player, is “a bare-knuckled, sweat-drenched R & B blowout … that may amount to the best recorded example of the so-called ‘blue wave’ movement…. [Earl] takes charge with a vengeance.” Taking a cue from the late Earl Hooker, Earl displayed some fine slide work (in regular tuning, no less) on “Baby Doll Blues” and literally tore up a version of Freddie King’s “San-Ho-Zay.” All in all, it was quite an impressive debut.
In 1986, while still working with Roomful, he recorded I Like It When It Rains, a basically acoustic outing with Earl plugging in his electric guitar for only a few cuts. The results were as authentic and pure as any contemporary blues LP in recent memory, with Earl proving that the genre knows no color boundaries. “I think that blues is American music, it’s not white or black,” he explained to Guitar Player. “I always try to have enough pride in myself to feel like I’m out there just like they’re out there. They were my fathers, but I’m doing it now. And I think I’m doing it the right way.” For those who were just looking for licks, Earl had plenty to spare also. In Guitar Player, Dan Forte called the LP “a guitar player’s dream…. Throughout, he plays with the finesse of a Sugar Ray Leonard and the intensity of a Jake LaMotta.” The album was dedicated to Earl Hooker, Walter Horton and Clifford Antone (owner of the Austin, Texas, nightclub, Antone’s, as well as the label that recorded the album).
For his second solo effort, Earl called on his old cronies, Sugar Ray and the Blue Tones, for 1985’s They Call Me Mr. Earl. He ripped into six originals, a Buddy Guy classic (“Let Me Love You”) and proved that he could whammy bar with the best of them on “Waitin’ For My Chance.” In 1987 Earl felt it was time to move ahead and left Roomful to form his own band, the Broadcasters. “It got a little more commercial and I wanted to stay in a more traditional blues bag,” he told Guitar World. In 1988 Soul Searching was released and featured former Muddy Waters sideman Jerry Portnoy on harp. On “Backstroke” Earl swapped licks with Robillard and then played an impassioned dedication to the father of electric blues guitar, T-Bone Walker, on “Blues For Bone.”
In the latter part of the 1980s Earl finally overcame a nagging drug and alcohol habit, got married, and lectured at Berklee College of Music in Boston with hopes of one day opening a school devoted to the blues. One can only imagine how far he will go now that he seems to be in total control of his life and even more dedicated to music.
“I do what I do with my band and hope that one day people will catch on to it,” he told the Detroit News. “I am looking forward to making a good living with the people in my band and getting a wider audience. I’m trying to become a better musician and a better person.”
Smoking, Blacktop, 1983.
They Call Me Mr. Earl, Black Top, 1985.
I Like It When It Rains, Antones, 1986.
Soul Searching, Black top, 1988.
With Roomful of Blues
Hot Little Mama, Blue Flame, 1980.
Dressed Up To Get Messed Up, Varrick, 1984.
Live At Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Varrick, 1986.
Big Joe Turner With Roomful of Blues, Blues Train, MUSE, 1984.
Eddie Cleanhead Vinson And Roomful of Blues, MUSE, 1983.
Earl King And Roomful of Blues—Glazed, Black Top, 1986.
(With Lou Rawls) Shades of Blue, Phil. International.
(With Walter Horton) Little Boy Blue, JST.
(With Ron Levy) Wild Kingdom, Black Top, 1986.
(With Levy) Safari To New Orleans, Black Top, 1988.
(With Hubert Sumlin) Blues Party, Black Top, 1987.
(With Snooks Eaglin) Baby, You Can Get Your Gun!, Black Top, 1987.
(With Eaglin) Out of Nowhere, Black Top, 1989.
(With William Clarke) Tip Of The Top, Satch, 1987.
(With Nappy Brown) Something Gonna Jump Out The Bushes, Black Top, 1987.
(With Various Black Top Artists) Blues-A-Rama, Vols. I and II, Black Top, 1988.
(With Bobby Radcliff) Dresses Too Short, Black Top, 1989.
Detroit News, February 2, 1990.
down beat, September 1986, May 1987.
Guitar Player, September 1984; April 1985; January 1986; February 1987; September 1988.
Guitar World, September 1988; September 1989.
—Calen D. Stone
"Earl, Ronnie." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/earl-ronnie
"Earl, Ronnie." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved November 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/earl-ronnie
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