Knickerbocker stars turn out for local blues CD release show

Pawcatuck native Sugar Ray Norcia in 2011 plays for students at Mystic Middle School.
Pawcatuck native Sugar Ray Norcia in 2011 plays for students at Mystic Middle School. Day file photo

It's one thing to suggest that the blues are a lifetime passion shared by sibling drummers Bob and Fran Christina. After all, as Bob laughs, "Roomful of Blues was formed in our parents' basement."

Indeed, as exclamation points in Rhode Island's musical history, Roomful - with both Christinas - and their Sunday afternoon residency at Westerly's Knickerbocker Cafe in the 1970s and early '80s became famous across the country. Not only were the Rhody musicians churning out the finest blues, jump blues and swing happening at the time, but national touring musicians began making regular detours/pilgrimages to the Knick in hopes of taking part in the jam sessions.

Similarly, the blues passion inspired among fans in those days can, even today, bubble at a fever pitch. Consider John Paul "J.P." Sheerar. Now a Providence financial adviser, Sheerar was a regular attendee back at those Knickerbocker Sundays and has stayed in touch with many of the expansive roster of musicians who frequented the bar's stage.

When Sheerar wanted to get a few of the old players together, hit the studio and make an album of classic blues, swing and jump blues songs, he reached out to Bob Christina.

"John Paul is a blues nut and he'd wanted a recording of all these songs for a long time," Christina says. "He asked me if I could put it all together in the studio. It seemed easy enough. But I had no idea how big the project would get."

By the time the album was finished, they'd decided to credit the project to The Knickerbocker All-Stars - and almost 20 different musicians, all with one connection or another to the club's glory days, took part. Titled "Open Mic At The Knick," the newly-completed record will be feted Saturday with a performance and jam at - where else? - the Knickerbocker Cafe.

"I think almost everyone who played on the CD will be there," Christina says. "It's going to be a lot of fun, and all the proceeds are going to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. We've tried to be really active in that charity."

Originally, Christina planned on taking a smaller approach to the recording sessions, which took place at Lake West Studio in West Greenwich, R.I. The album was co-produced by Christina, Sheerar and Jack Gauthier.

Since Christina is currently playing in the Ricky "King" Russell Trio, that unit seemed perfect to provide core rhythm tracks. Along with Christina and guitarist/vocalist Russell, the band is rounded out by bassist Bob Worthington.

"The idea was, then, that we could get Sugar Ray Norcia to sing a few songs and get some guest vocalists to fill out the album. And John Paul was going to do one," Christina says. "But things started to explode."

Given the preponderance of jump and swing, Christina says it quickly became apparent that a horn session was required. The Cadillac Horns - trumpeter Doc Chanonhouse, trombonist Bobby "Breeze" Holfeiden and sax men Dennis Cook and Rich Lataille - signed on and became an integral part of the project. Similarly, Al Copley and Dave Maxwell provided piano and guitarist Nick Adams also helped out.

"All of these guys have been around the scene forever," Christina says. "We've played in a lot of each other's bands, and there was certainly a lot of jamming together over the years at the Knick."

The array of guest singers supplementing Norcia and Sheerar is similarly impressive. One-time Knick owner Johnny Nicholas, whose resume includes stints with Asleep at the Wheel, Commander Cody and Rhode Island legends the Black Cat Blues Band and the Rhythm Rockers, provided vocals on three tunes (the Allman Brothers' "Jelly Jelly," Lowell Fulson's "Reconsider Baby" and Solomon Burke's "Along About Midnight)."

Nicholas' friend Malford Milligan, the stunningly-throated Austin bluesman formerly of the group Storyville, stepped up for Bobby Bland's "Turn On Your Love Light" and Paul Butterfield's overlooked classic, "Love Disease."

Also taking the helm on one or two songs each were belters Willie J. Laws (Ernie K-Doe's "Mother in Law Blues" and Buddy Guy's "Five Long Years"); Mike O'Connell (Don Nix's "Going Down"), Curtis Salgado (Ivory Joe Hunter's "Ain't That Lovin' You"); and Brian Templeton (Freddie King's "I'm Tore Down").

Christina says, "Throughout the whole thing, I kept thinking, 'Wow, I really do have a lot of connections.' And in our minds, we really did have an idea of what each song should sound like and which artists would be ideal for this or that. For example, I knew Willie would be perfect for the Ernie K-Doe song and he nailed it.

"At the same time, I don't think I'd ever heard the Butterfield track that J.P. wanted to include. Once I heard it, Malford Milligan was the exact guy to sing it. He just has an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime voice and the song became one of my favorites." He laughs. "It helped that he happened to be passing through the region."

That was part of the fun, Christina says: how serendipitous the sessions went. As with Milligan, one musician or another might be traveling through town and would get hauled into the studio. It became, Christina says, like a meant-to-be project.

"To think that it started so small and then just got bigger and bigger - and everything pretty much worked out perfectly - is just very great," he says. "We're pretty excited about it. And to think that pretty much everyone involved will be onstage at the release party? That really makes it complete."

r.koster@theday.com

Twitter: @rickkoster

Al Copley in 2006 at Mystic River Park in Mystic.
Al Copley in 2006 at Mystic River Park in Mystic. Day file photo
Proceeds from the CD,
Proceeds from the CD, "Open Mic at the Knick" will go to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Courtesy The Knickerbocker

IF YOU GO

Who: The Knickerbocker All-Stars

What: Release party for "Open Mic at the Knick" CD

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Knickerbocker Cafe, 35 Railroad Ave., Westerly

How much: $15

For more information: (401) 315-5070, theknickerbockercafe.com

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