A BluesWax Reprint
Sittin’ In With Tom Principato
Guitar Thrills, Blues, and A World of Music
from Tom Principato
By Bob Margolin
Last year, I wrote a column for our sister print
magazine, Blues Revue, about playing at the Cerdanyola Blues festival
near Barcelona. I’d done an indoor show on a Friday night,
but on the Sunday afternoon, I went down to sit in with Tom Principato’s
band, playing outside in a beautiful park. I am very aware that
the world’s greatest guitar players come from Spain, where
the modern form of the instrument was invented, and that American
Blues guitarists may entertain a Spanish audience, but are not likely
to impress them.
You’ll read below that it’s important to Tom to play
with feeling, but while he always accomplishes that, he displays
chops that leave even the world’s toughest guitar audience
bug-eyed, open-mouthed, and flat-footed – amazed. I knew that
was going to happen, so it was fun to watch. Tom was always one
of the most accomplished guitar players I’ve ever heard. He
can capture the spirit of Blues, Jazz, Rock ’n’ Roll,
Swing, Latin, Cajun, Country, Rockabilly, R&B, or standards
as a master rather than as a dilettante. He composes beautiful songs
in all of these styles, and leads his band with authority. His guitar
tones and picking are sensually gorgeous. He dresses well and projects
a friendly vibe as he has fun creating his music onstage. His singing
is strong and he has a warm tone of voice, but that guitar just
burns and commands attention.
And then he calls me up to jam – anything less than my best
will get steamrolled by Tom’s usual, but it’s not a
challenge to be competitive, it’s a call to make our guitars
push and inspire each other and work together. We’ve been
doing that on bandstands together for a long time...
The Blues scene in Boston in the early 1970s was very exciting,
with young Blues players emerging who are well known today. James
Montgomery, originally from Detroit, led a band that packed the
local clubs. One night I went to see him play at the Zircon club
in Somerville, and was disappointed to find that James was only
carrying one guitar player that night instead of two. Larry Carsman
kicked ass, but I missed Tom, the other hot guitar player who’d
been playing with James. Tom returned to Boston from his hometown
of Falls Church, Virginia, a few months later with his new band,
Powerhouse, and they were swingin’ and rockin’ and quickly
picked up a strong following in the clubs. That’s when I met
Tom, and we’ve stayed close friends since.
In the mid-1970s, when I was on the road with Muddy Waters, I’d
stop by Tom’s house when I visited home in Boston, and he’d
turn me onto obscure, inspiring Blues songs and artists. We recorded
songs from his huge record collection onto cassettes, which at the
time were newer and more radical than iPods are now. I’d take
these on the road with me and learn licks that would make Muddy
turn around and look at me with his mouth open – thanks, Tom,
from both of us. I probably still have those cassettes at home somewhere,
and you can still hear their ghosts when I play today. For Tom,
all that great music that he pursued and studied, filtered through
his discerning ears and talent for absorbing and interpreting, made
him a musical monster back then. Thirty years later, he’s
By 1978, Powerhouse had broken up and Tom had moved back to the
Washington, D.C. area. I moved there too, to pursue a doomed romance
(very Bluesy) and start my own band (Bluesy too). I spent a lot
more time hanging and jamming with Tom, and we even lived in a house
together from 1983 -’85. I enjoyed working regionally, mostly
in the South, but by the end of the 1980s I realized that I’d
better make some albums and get out on the national scene as it
became harder to make a living in a tightening scene. I recorded
The Old School and Chicago Blues for Tom’s Powerhouse Records
(www.powerhouserecords.com) label. The albums are out of print,
but doing business together only deepened our friendship, which
is rare. Tom really helped me move my career along.
In the years since, we get together to play whenever we can, but
we usually only find ourselves in the same place at the same time
a couple of times a year. The last time was last summer when we
were both playing at a Blues festival in Bellinzona, Switzerland.
After jamming, we spent a long time visiting on
the balcony of my hotel room, with a medieval castle for a view.
I told Tom I’d been writing for BluesWax, often doing email
interviews with musicians I admired and I thought his story would
interest you. I thought of a few questions for Tom which were obvious
to me and he’s answered with eloquence that displays the same
passion for music found in his guitar playing.
Bob Margolin for BluesWax: I think of you first as a great guitar
player, proficient in many styles, and I know that Blues is one
of the most important foundations of the music you play. What first
inspired you when you were starting to play?
Tom Principato: Ever since I can remember there was always great
music playing at my house when I was a kid growing up. My father
loved Swing Jazz and had a lot of Benny Goodman 78s, including some
Benny Goodman Sextet records that feature Charlie Christian on guitar.
That was my first introduction to that kind of Bluesy Jazz guitar
that I later came to love so much in guys like Kenny Burrell, Barney
Kessell, Tiny Grimes, and Billy Butler. My mom had some Les Paul
and Mary Ford records and some Chet Atkins records, which really
helped to first get me excited and interested in guitar music. I
loved the sound of those Les Paul records with the echo on them,
and as soon as I could find an echo unit, I bought one in the 1970s
and have used echo as a part of my guitar sound ever since. I always
loved Chet Atkins’ beautiful and memorable melodies that he
played; a great example of the beauty of simplicity.
I first started playing guitar when I was eleven in 1963, but it
wasn’t until I discovered the Blues a few years later when
I was in high school that I really began to take the guitar seriously
and develop. I loved the guitar greats of the day -- first guys
like Jimi Hendrix and Mike Bloomfield, then I discovered a lot of
the masters like B.B., Albert, and Freddy King, Otis Rush, Muddy
Waters, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, and Robert Lockwood Jr. My
first love in the Blues style was Chicago Blues, and I avidly collected
all the Chess Records, and others, I could find, and went to see
as many of those musicians in concerts and clubs as I could. There
were still many of the great masters out and playing in the 1960s
and ‘70s. I saw T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, Albert Collins,
Freddy King (who I played with one night!), Muddy Waters, Otis Rush,
Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, and of course B.B. King, who was just
starting to enjoy worldwide success. B.B. King was then and is still
now my favorite of all these people. In December 1969 I went to
see B.B. at a little club in Washington, D.C., called the Cellar
Door. He was there for three nights in a row, three shows a night,
and I caught all nine shows from the front table! I would have to
say that those shows changed my life. B.B. was incredible those
nine shows! There was such an enthusiastic response from the crowd
and I know it spurred him on, too. It was the first time that I
ever experienced a musical performance that was so emotionally uplifting.
In addition to a lot of the finger patterns that I learned from
watching B.B., in those shows I observed some even bigger lessons:
the importance of dynamics in music, nuance, and the most important
thing of all, playing music from the heart. I've tried to make these
things the foundation for my music and guitar playing over the years.
BW: Your collection of music sound and video recordings is extensive,
and you've heard more Blues and know more about its history than
many who have dedicated themselves only to Blues. I think that makes
you a Bluesman...and more. But people like to categorize musicians,
no matter how that distorts the reality or how unfair that may be.
Your musical life is too diverse to be described in a phrase. Do
you feel misunderstood or mislabeled sometimes?
TP: Diversity and versatility have always been my thing. My tastes
cover a wide range--Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Gospel, Jazz,
Rockabilly, Country, Latin styles, World Music, Classical music--I
try to allow myself to bring to my music what it is I like about
the variety that I love in music. There is so much great music out
there! However, I still use Blues and “American Music”
as the basis for what I do. It’s just that sometimes it may
come out as a “hybrid.” Still, what is most important
to me is that my music contain some key elements: playing from the
heart with feeling and soul, and presenting what I have to say about
the music. I’m not so pre-occupied with re-creating old Blues
records, just the feeling that I get from them. I think it’s
important that the music changes and develops with the times. Along
with that some boundaries are bound to get expanded, too--What if
Muddy Waters had listened when people criticized him for playing
Delta Blues on that new-fangled electric guitar? We never would
have gotten the beautiful music we have today from him as his legacy.
I think it’s important to take something you love and give
your own take on it, and be true to yourself.
For many years I’ve been placed in the Blues category--that
doesn't bother me at all!
I just hope that people realize that I have the Blues to offer and
more, that there is so much more! I love music and love playing
the guitar and singing--I've dedicated a good deal of my life to
those endeavors. As a performer and as a music fan I would never
want to limit my enjoyment of music to just one or a few categories.
Good music is good music, right? Astor Piazzolla was just as soulful
as Ray Charles, as far as I’m concerned.
BW: I think that Powerhouse was one of the 1970’s
finest young bands. Tell us about the players and the history of
TP: In Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s there was a Blues Band
called Crawlin’ King Snake. That included Jim Thackery on
guitar, Jim Cole on vocals and slide guitar, Pierre Beauregard on
harmonica, John Curlin on bass, and Richard Murray on drums. I was
not really aware of these guys and had left for Boston after I graduated
from high school in 1971 and eventually played with James Montgomery.
After leaving The Montgomery Band and returning back to D.C., it
was then that I met the guys in Crawlin’ King Snake. I was
invited to a basement jam with the guys and was told that evening
that Thackery would be leaving the group and would I be interested
in joining them? I had already made plans to return to Boston to
play with some other musicians I knew there, including Sarah Brown,
so I declined. Eventually, after things did not work out with my
new plans, the remaining members of Crawlin’ King Snake and
I decided to re-locate the band to Boston and call it Powerhouse--there
was such a great Blues and music scene in Boston then. Jim Thackery
remained in Washington and soon formed the Nighthawks with Mark
So Powerhouse started out as a Chicago Blues quintet. Eventually
Jim Cole and John Curlin left the group and were replaced by Steve
Jacobs on bass and the incredible sightless singer George Leh. Once
we added Dave Birkin on saxophone, the band started to change quite
a bit. I was an avid Blues record collector and one day at my friend
Victor Pearlin’s house I heard my first “Jump Blues”
record--Louis Jordan! I couldn’t believe how great that record
was! I was floored! As soon as I played some of this music for the
guys in Powerhouse we immediately wanted to play that stuff in our
band. Pierre and Dave Birkin started playing horn lines together
in a “little horn section” approach and eventually we
got Steve Brown, a drummer who was more adept at playing Swing music,
and we added Ben Kay on piano too, for that Boogie Woogie sound
so vital in Jump Blues. Then one night at a little dive in Cambridge
I went to see Roomful of Blues. I couldn't believe it; they were
playing all this Jump Blues stuff, too. And boy, were they great!
Duke Robillard was just the most impressive Blues guitarist in that
band. He and they were so incredible! Duke and I quickly became
friends and started introducing each other to all this great new
music we were discovering, which mostly was available only on 78s
in those days. I mean you had to do some digging to find those records!
So as far as I know, Roomful of Blues and Powerhouse were the very
first two bands to start playing Jump Blues in the revival that
would soon follow. Eventually we added John Wolf on trombone and
pianist David Maxwell played with the group for a short while before
we dis-banded in 1978. There are two LPs of Powerhouse recordings
on one CD re-issue that I am very proud of. George Leh is a most
To be continued...
Bob Margolin is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax. You may
contact Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright Visionation, Ltd 2005.
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Tom Principato uses and
• Fender guitars and amps
• Seymour Duncan pickups
• Curt Mangan Strings
• Roger Mayer effects
• Fulltone effects
Check out Tom's
Chord Book with 4,000 chord voicings. Guitarists will find it
a valuable reference whenever something special or different is needed...