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I started a quest to find terrific blues music and incredible musicianship when I was just a little kid. I also have a tremendous appreciation of fine musical instruments and equipment. One of my greatest joys all of my life was sharing my finds with my friends. I'm now publishing my journey. I hope that you come along!

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Let Me Put My Sugar Ray On You

Perhaps best remembered for his 24-year stint with Rhode Island's internationally renowned jump blues band Roomful of Blues, Greg Piccolo has followed his muse since his teenage years.

He joined his first band, The Rejects, at age 13, singing and playing a little alto sax. It was while with this band, playing a date at the Westerly, Rhode Island YMCA, that he met Duke Robillard. It was one of the defining moments in his life. He joined Duke in The Variations, and Duke introduced him to the work of such musicians as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Greg was already familiar with their songs from the covers recorded by the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Animals, but until Duke played Greg the originals, he was unaware of the wellspring of the blues. Greg started to drink from the source.

When Duke broke up The Variations, Greg hooked up with Al Copley and together they formed Groupe, an outfit that became popularly known as Greg and the Groupe. In keeping with the redefining sixties, neither an article nor an adjective preceded Groupe. During this period Duke Robillard very briefly led a band called The. Just for the record, this was before Monty Python.

Around the age of fifteen, Greg turned from alto to tenor, a move that was the result of his being transfixed by the tenor solo on Dion's "The Wanderer." Another defining moment.

After working with Duke in an early edition of Roomful of Blues, (a Roomful without horns – Greg played harp), he returned the following year with his tenor sax. He was nineteen, the year was 1970, and that was the time Greg notes, "I really started in on tenor sax. Duke made it happen; he was a strong musical leader."

Duke had heard Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson that summer at the Ann Arbor Blues festival, and had decided a horn band was the way to go. Rich Lataille (alto and tenor) joined Roomful the same time as Greg, and baritone player Doug James came on board the following year. The now legendary Roomful of Blues horn section was born.

From this point until his departure from Roomful in 1994, it is impossible to speak of Greg without mentioning Roomful and vice versa. During the seventies he took care of the band's booking and management, and when Duke left in 1979, he became bandleader, and for much of the time, the band's singer too.

It is from this period that one can say that Roomful's career really took off in an international sense, and Greg's singing – soulful, declamatory and passionate – coupled with a jaunty and energetic stage demeanor, won him fans all over the world. And of course, there was that battered old Selmer Mark VI, hanging from his neck, a tornado in the offing, an ever-present threat of mad abandon. His hard and driving take-no-prisoners sound on up tempo numbers caused pandemonium on the dance floor, while he could make the bouncers weep on a slow blues. Producer, critic and DJ ("Portraits in Blue") Bob Porter, who produced two of Roomful's Grammy nominated albums, noted "Pic has started a new tradition on tenor sax."

It was during the early 1980's that Greg started writing songs, and Roomful's 1984 release. "Dressed Up To Get Messed Up" broke new ground for the band in that most of the tunes came from his pen, and endowed the band with an artistic integrity that none could dispute. Greg had given Roomful of Blues, a band that could trace its musical influences back to the nineteen thirties, a contemporary edge that put it in the vanguard of roots based bands.

In 1990 Greg cut his first solo album "Heavy Juice" for Black Top Records. A collection of mainly instrumental cuts, it featured his tenor and garnered unanimous critical acclaim. Around this time he took up guitar, which he had dabbled with when a teenager, and fairly quickly developed a sound that could fairly be described as archetypical Piccolo. Just like his sound on sax, his sound on guitar emphasized tone and simplicity to tell a story.

Greg left Roomful in 1994 to follow his own particular musical vision. Greg Piccolo and Heavy Juice toured incessantly for the next five or six years, and cut two albums for Fantasy Records, "Acid Blue" (1995) and "Red Lights" (1997). The sound was more contemporary than his previous work and showed his willingness to experiment and to blaze new trails. Nevertheless, it was still music with a feeling. Both albums contained those Greg Piccolo staples that one had come to expect over the years. Finely crafted songs, tasty guitar, some raucous tenor, even a bit of alto, all heavily spiced throughout with soul and passion.

The continuing decline of venues across the nation ultimately took its toll, both on the size of the group, which started out as a quintet and ended up as a trio, and eventually on its economic viability too. By the time Greg released "Homage", his tribute to his tenor sax heroes, issued on his management company's Emit Doog label, he had hung up his touring shoes. He now cherry picks those dates he wants to play. He is in demand as a session player by the cognoscenti, although sadly in these days of downloads and general digital gloominess, the cognoscenti is undeniably diminishing. He recently finished a couple of sessions with Canadian superstar Colin James ("Little Big Band 3" and a Christmas album), and gets the occasional call from the likes of Jimmie Vaughan. For instance, he played on Jimmie's Grammy nominated "Ironic Twist."

Currently he is working on some big band arrangements of his tunes, and hopes to book some dates around that project in the summer of 2008. He plays New England dates with old band mates from Roomful occasionally, folks such as Carl Querfurth, Sugar Ray Norcia, Rich Lataille and Doug James.

His tone, sound, and outlook are unchanged, although these days he finds himself playing more ballads than before. It is still the sound and the feeling that drive him. And when he says, "Swing is closest to my heart" one has to stand back and look at what this man has done over the last forty years. In company with his Roomful compatriots, Greg Piccolo is one of the guys that reintroduced swing to America in a popular sense. The swing revival of the nineties would never have happened without Roomful of Blues pointing the way during the seventies and eighties.

Over his long career, Greg has played with scores of the legendary heroes of American music, and although he will emphatically deny it, he now has his own place in that pantheon.

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