Roomful of Blues
Roomful of Blues
Some people may look at Roomful of Blues, a nine-piece, stomping, swinging, low-down, bluesy big band, as just a nostalgia trip back to the 1940s. Then again, someone who knows better would say they’re “the hottest white blues band I’ve ever heard.” At least that’s what Count Basie told Down Beat after Roomful opened for his orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival. Since forming in 1967 the band has averaged well over 200 gigs per year, released eight albums (two of which were Grammy nominees), and backed up stellar artists like Big Joe Turner, Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, and Earl King.
During the psychedelic craze of the late 1960’s, a Westerly, Rhode Island, youth named Duke Robillard was tucked away in his attic practicing guitar licks and digging blues based music. In 1967, fresh out of high school, Robillard formed a basic Chicago-style blues ensemble (guitar, bass, drum, piano and harp) with 16-year-old Al Copley and Fran Christina. The lineup soon dissolved, however, and Robillard moved to Providence to form the band Black Cat. That’s when he heard a Buddy Johnson LP, Rock ‘N’ Roll, and decided
Band formed in 1967 in Westerly, RI, by Duke Robillard (guitar and vocals); original members included Fran Christina (drums) and Al Copley (keyboards); dissolved in 1967; reformed in 1970 with the addition of Doug James (baritone sax), Rich Lataille (alto sax), and Greg Piccolo (tenor sax and vocals); Preston Hubbard (bass) joined band during the 1970s; Ronnie Earl (guitar) replaced Robillard and Jimmy Wimpfheimer (bass) replaced Hubbard, both in 1980; Bob Enos (trumpet), joined band in 1980; later additions to the band include Porky Cohen (trombone; retired, 1988), Tony K (guitar), Ron Levy (keyboards), Rory McLeod (bass), Danny Motta (trumpet), Sugar Ray Norica (vocals and harmonica), and John Rossi (drums). Current lineup includes Enos, James, Lataille, Norica, Piccolo, Rossi, Junior Brantley (piano and vocals), Larry Peduzzi (bass), Carl Querfurth (trombone), and Chris Vachon (guitar).
Awards: Grammy nominations for Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and Roomful of Blues, 1983, and for Big Joe Turner with Roomful of Blues, 1984.
Addresses: Manager —Bob Bell, 209 Lennox, Providence, RI 02907.
to switch gears. “Discovering big city, horn-based R & B completely changed my life,” he told Frank Joseph in Guitar Player, “to me, it was something I could do realistically. I could make it work.” Robillard figured he could pull off a Louis Jordan tune a lot easier than one by Muddy Waters.
Robillard moved back to Westerly and reformed Roomful of Blues with Rich Lataille, Doug James, and Greg Piccolo as the horn section in 1970. Piccolo described the transition to the Detroit News: “When I first joined, they had a sound between Chicago blues and a more horn-based sound. We were always changing, doing a different period of rhythm and blues.… We’ve been influenced by jazz, R & B, Chicago blues, New Orleans-style blues, Kansas City-style blues, classic blues.… If I was going to put a label on us, though, I’d say we are good dance music.”
The addition of horns was an excellent complement to the T-Bone Walker-Oscar Moore guitar sound that Robillard was now playing. He also turned the band on to the fashions of the era and soon they were dressing like the old jazzers. “We developed this sort of novelty image and sparked a fad in New England where people would come to jitterbug to us,” Robillard told Guitar Player. “And the fact that it’s great music helped us along.”
Roomful was developing a strong following on the East Coast when record producer and songwriter Doc Pomus secured them a record contract with Island Records in 1977. Their first album, Roomful of Blues, was released in 1978 and sounded as authentic as any original big band. The group headed south for a tour, including a stop in New Orleans that proved influential on their follow-up LP the next year, Let’s Have a Party. Roomful recreated classic tunes authentically and added the spicy flavorings of the Crescent City.
Some of the members’ insistence on exclusively reproducing old songs led to the departure of Robillard and Hubbard shortly thereafter. Robillard moved on to Robert Gordon’s group and then to the Legendary Blues Band before forming his own Pleasure Kings, which is currently playing original swing, rock, blues, rockabilly and R & B tunes. Hubbard joined the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
For Roomful’s 1980 album, Hot Little Mama, guitarist Ronnie Earl, bassist Jimmy Wimpfheimer and trumpeter Bob Enos were recruited. Earl added a sharper guitar tone to the band with his Fender Stratocaster (as opposed to Robillard’s mellower arch top sound), but the group retained their big band flavor nonetheless. Without Robillard though, the band was without their main vocalist. The problem was solved, however, according to Larry Birnbaum in Down Beat: “Roomful alleviates its chronic vocal shortcomings by platooning … singers, but the band’s forte is still its precise and passionate ensemble playing.”
Piccolo handled vocal chores on 1984’s Dressed Up To Get Messed Up in an effort to keep the band going. “We’re almost an extinct animal,” he told Down Beat, “there aren’t too many real bands around.” In 1983 Eddie Cleanhead Vinson recognized the band’s potential and used them for his MUSE recording, which earned a Grammy nomination that year. “We just went in and did it with no planning at all,” continued Piccolo. A year later another veteran bluesman, Big Joe Turner, followed Vinson’s suit by recording yet another Grammy nominee with Roomful. Hubbard returned for the album, on which Turner “was really putting out,” as Piccolo described to Down Beat. “He passed out at the end of the session.”
1986 was a busy year for Roomful as they recorded Glazed with legendary New Orleans songwriter/guitarist Earl King, who produced some of his finest work to date with the band. Roomful also released a rousing live set, Live at Lupo’s, which featured them in their most natural setting. “In live performance, even more so than on wax, Roomful captures the spirit of golden-age [R & B] with a fidelity seldom matched by modern reunions of first-generation players,” wrote Larry Birnbaum in his (4.5 out of 5 stars) review in Down Beat.
Guitarist Ronnie Earl left to form his own band, the Broadcasters, and trombonist Porky Cohen, a veteran of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw units, retired in early 1988 at the age of 63. Unfortunately for their fans, Roomful has not been under contract since Glazed but has continued playing dates across the United States and in 1991 backed up Pat Benatar on her True Love album.
Roomful of Blues: The First Album, Island, 1978; reissued, Varrick, 1988.
Let’s Have a Party, Antilles, 1979.
Hot Little Mama, Blue Flame, 1980; reissued, Varrick, 1985.
Dressed Up to Get Messed Up, Varrick, 1984.
Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and Roomful of Blues, MUSE, 1983.
Big Joe Turner with Roomful of Blues, MUSE, 1984.
Earl King with Roomful of Blues —Glazed, Blacktop, 1986.
Live at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Varrick, 1987.
Also served as backup band for Pat Benatar on True Love, Chrysalis, 1991.
Detroit News, May 4, 1988; February 9, 1990.
Down Beat, March 1984; May 1987; November 1987; March, 1991.
Guitar Player, September 1984; April 1985; September 1988.
Guitar World, March 1989.
Rolling Stone, March 9, 1978; May 18, 1978.
Stereo Review, September 1991.
—Calen D. Stone
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