Rosy Rosenblatt Really Blows (the Harp)

By A.J. Wachtel
March 2010

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Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt is a renaissance man in the purest sense of the word: his life is filled with vigorous activity in many aspects of the arts. Like many blues icons before him, his lifetime legacy will stand as a lesson to the next generation and will also serve as a potent tribute to his legendary and enduring noteworthiness. As a harp-player extraordinaire, producer, businessman, teacher and author, Rosy Rosenblatt is one of the most important individuals on the blues scene today. This is what he has to say.

AJ Wachtel: You're not just a performer and a producer. Tell me some of the other things you're currently involved with. Don't you teach and write, among other things?

Rosy Rosenblatt: Hi AJ. Though I started out in the '70s as a harmonica player, after setting up a studio and launching Tone-Cool Records in 1985 I got very wrapped up in that side of the music biz, and found myself playing less and less. Since leaving Tone-Cool a few years ago (long story there) I've started the VizzTone label group with partners Bob Margolin and Chip Eagle, and yes, I've been doing a bit of producing, songwriting, teaching harmonica, and thankfully, playing. I've been lucky to play with some wonderful artists in the past few years, and it's cheaper and better than psychotherapy.

AJ: You're a true bridge between first generation blues legends and young artists breaking in today. Who was the first blues legend you met? And tell us about your associations with some of the other icons.

RR: The 1970s were such a great time for blues in Boston; everyone was coming through town. The first blues I saw in town was James Montgomery at the Candlelight Lounge in Central Square, probably around 1970, and pretty soon I was playing there, too. Henry Spencer showed up at one of our early gigs. Then I was in a band called the Allston Allstars, and we played the Speakeasy in Cambridge, which called itself “Home of the Blues,” and a lot of the great ones came through there. A number of us wound up backing up Otis Rush for a few nights, and doing other regional gigs with Hubert Sumlin.

Also around that time, I got the call to do a recording session with the great Chicago blues pianist Sunnyland Slim. It turned out to be the first album I was on, and the other sidemen were Bob Margolin, Ronnie Earl (also his first LP), Sarah Brown, Mark Kazanoff and Terry Bingham. We played a gig at the Tam in Brookline later that night, and it was unbelievable.

Rosy, Ron Levy and Bob MargolinI played for a time with Billy Colwell (a bit of a legend himself) and toured the East Coast, splitting bills with James Cotton and Luther Allison, and we also did a number of shows as John Lee Hooker's backup band. I actually have a wonderful mono-boombox recording of John Lee Hooker at Sandy's in Beverly, backed up by the Billy Colwell Band. I'll never get the rights to release it, but it's one of my prized recordings. Years later I served six years on the Board of Directors of the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, and have been lucky enough to rub elbows with some heroes ever since.

Recently I played a wonderful gig with my pals Bob Margolin and Ron Levy—are they icons yet? On the “other side of the glass” I've had the privilege of working with Tom Dowd and Jim Dickinson, so I certainly count my blessings.

AJ: What young artists today are you working with and what do you see are some of the same driving forces that inspire blues artists of all eras?

RR: Through the VizzTone label group I've gotten the chance to work, onstage and off, with Dave Gross, Gina Sicilia, Shane Dwight and many others, and it's been really inspirational to me to see the kind of drive and dedication they put into their music. As always, these artists are driven by their own musical muse, and the heart, the soulfulness that's basic to all blues-inspired music is behind all their performances.

If there's a difference between now and then, it's really a function of time. Back in the '70s the blues was still being discovered by a generation, and those of us who were playing it were its missionaries (I'll spare you the jokes). We were really conscious of doing something important, exposing this music and its first-generation creators to the public consciousness. Nowadays most of those first-generation pioneers are gone, and there is a lot of blues on soft-drink commercials, etc. That doesn't make the music any less meaningful, but it somehow changes the nature of the inspiration. It also opens the door to widening the scope and definition of the blues, which I for one think is a good thing.

“I've known Rosy since the early '70s when he was in The Allston All-Stars and I was in The Boston Blues Band. He was a fine harp player back then and his playing is stronger than ever now. We are partners in VizzTone Label Group now, and getting to know him better has only increased my respect and admiration for him. His experience with music and the business it takes to make music possible teaches me all the time and I'm grateful for his guidance and advice. He also has a wicked sense of humor and an ability to find a way around obstacles that are amazing. And I really mean all that!”
-Bob Margolin www.bobmargolin.com

AJ: What about the strangest blues story you want to share? Peter Wolf told me years ago about bringing Howlin' Wolf into an all-night diner in Harvard Square packed with Harvard students and the ensuing drama. (Laughs)

RR: Well, this might not be the strangest, but it's a good one, and Peter Wolf may remember this too:

The setting is the late '80s, Monday night in the green room of the old House of Blues in Cambridge. Onstage, Darrell Nulisch and George Lewis are hosting their weekly Blue Monday pro jam session. I'm sitting in the green room, sipping cognac with Earring George Mayweather, with a box of his brand-new “Whup It, Whup It” CDs on Tone-Cool Records. Up the stairs and into the green room comes Peter Wolf, followed by...Junior Wells and Van Morrison!

Now Earring George and Junior Wells go way back, so I said, “Hey George, there's Junior! Why don't you give him your new record?” George turns to me and says, “Hell no! I'll sell him one!” Which, to Junior's great credit, is exactly what he did, for $20. Say what you want, that night Junior was a mensch!

Anyhow...shortly thereafter Darrell gets on the mic and says something like, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are honored tonight to have one of the real heroes of the blues in the house, a man who is an idol of mine...please welcome Junior Wells!” So Junior goes downstairs, gets on the stage and starts playing “Little Red Rooster,” which might have been okay with George, except that Van Morrison followed Junior onto the stage and started playing along on harmonica through an extra vocal mic.

George had no idea who this fat little bald white man was, but he knew damn well that if anyone belonged onstage next to Junior it was Earring George Mayweather! So, George proceeded to get up onto the stage and take the mic away from Van Morrison. House of Blues staffers were going nuts trying to get George offstage and get the mic back to Van, but to no avail. Van Morrison shrugged his shoulders, walked offstage, and the band ended the tune and the night. Later on Van sat at a table and sang a couple Irish tunes.

“Rosy I have to thank for getting a couple of my CDs out there. He's a real decent guy and has a wry sense of humor I can relate to. And we've had a lot of fun on gigs playing together.”
-David Maxwell www.davidmaxwell.com

AJ: What's the best line up you've ever been onstage with?

RR: This is a tough one, because I've been fortunate enough to be a part of some pretty amazing sets. I've played with Bob Margolin on his late-night star-studded jams in Memphis, which have been a total gas, playing with brilliant youngsters like Sean Costello and Dave Gross has been inspirational, and various sit-ins over the years have had a lot of high points.

But I'd have to say the most impressive lineup was probably a couple of gigs I did at BB King's in New York City with Hubert Sumlin: Hubert and Jimmy Vivino on guitars, Mike Merritt on bass, either Brian Mitchell or David Maxwell on keys, and Levon Helm on drums. And yes, David Johansen was a mixed blessing up front, but did I mention Levon Helm?!

AJ: And what album that you're associated with are you the proudest of?

RR: Well, of course the biggest one was Susan Tedeschi's Just Won't Burn on Tone-Cool, which sold more than a half-million copies, but in all honestly I like her next one, Wait for Me even better. At the same time, I'm equally proud of some of the early stuff that we recorded in my basement, including Paul Rishell, Earring George, Toni Lynn Washington, and the Luther “Guitar Jr.” CDs and others I did with Ron Levy for the Bullseye Blues label.

And for pure record-biz magic, I'd have to say the North Mississippi Allstars debut, Shake Hands With Shorty. That was a groundbreaking record in a lot of ways, and I was proud to be part of it. I know that's not much of an answer, but AJ, how many kids do you have? Which one do you like best?

“Of all the people I've ever worked with, I have to say Rosy Rosenblatt is one of the kindest, smartest and talented people I've had the pleasure of meeting and becoming friends with. He deals with everything with total aplomb, honor, humility and class. He also has a great sense of humor. He loves music deeply which is reflected in his soulful playing and music business dealings 100%. I consider him a saint in this musical world of many sinners. I'm proud to be a friend of his and vice versa. He's definitely one of the good guys”
-Ron Levy www.levtron.com

AJ: David Maxwell, Ron Levy and Bob Margolin gave me nice quotes for this story. What's your feeling toward them? Now's your chance Rosy…why has Boston historically attracted such great artists to settle here?

RR: Well, if they gave you “nice” quotes about me, then they're brilliant and enlightened. If they had anything bad to say about me they're obviously deeply disturbed and in need of some sort of intervention.

But seriously folks...David, Ron, and Bob were all part of the Boston blues scene at the very beginning, and their accolades and past employers (Freddie King, Albert King, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, et al.) pretty much speak for themselves. The beautiful thing is that these guys continue to give something back to the larger blues community; Bob is constantly traveling the world and supporting both blues pioneers and up-and-coming players at gigs and workshops; David is steadily touring and recording; and Ron, I'm happy to say, has recently begun performing in the area again, and I'm looking forward to doing some new projects with him.

Boston has had a great Blues scene ever since the folk revival of the '60s, when Dick Waterman and others brought artists like Skip James and Son House into town. As a college town, Boston naturally developed a thriving club scene, and it became a magnet for musicians.

AJ: If we all outlive you, how do you want to be remembered?

RR: If you're all going to outlive me please let me know, so I won't bother doing laundry this week or putting gas in the car! But let's see...personally I'd like to be remembered as a pretty good husband, father and friend; professionally as a guy who helped some music be heard and was fair to the artists; and musically as someone who played some good notes and left open space where it was supposed to be.

For more of AJ's interview with Rosy, visit The Killing Floor blog.

Photo by Allan A Dines - www.northstarphotography.com

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