The influential music scribe's wife, Helen Oakley Dance, a jazz-blues scholar herself, provides the detailed liner notes to Roomful's latest record, Dance All Night, walking listeners song-by-song through this collection's mostly classic R&B compositions -- and no, we're not sure if she was flattered or insulted by the album's title.
Tight and swingin', this outing was a stroll in the park for the veteran Rhode Island hipsters, covering material from Little Milton to Wynonie Harris to Buddy Johnson. "It was just stuff that we always wanted to do," James says from his home in wintry Providence, where he's packing his swim trunks for the upcoming Blues Cruise A a pricey, weeklong shipboard blowout with some renowned blues bands A that will bring Roomful to Orlando, the islands, and back before they head south to Fort Lauderdale for two shows at the Musicians Exchange.
James says he can't wait to get away from the cold and slip into the warm reception the band usually receives in South Florida. "Literally, the first time we played Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Miami Beach, and St. Petersburg, if there was fifteen percent of the club that wasn't from New England, it was amazing." The cruise, says James, will provide a little tropical R&R, a chance to get away with his wife (it's his tenth anniversary), an opportunity to mingle with other bands, and a way to get the word out that Roomful is still alive and very much kicking.
Certainly a project near and dear to the horn-driven tentet, Dance was also a matter of expediency. Twenty-five years in the business and a resume that reads like some sort of blues-lover's fantasy league -- they've backed Big Joe Turner, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Red Prysock, and Earl King, to drop just a few names -- means little to A&R men nibbling their nails to nubs over marketability. So two fifteen-hour days in the studio, and Bam! -- a set of blues and swing tunes ready-made for label-shopping. Bullseye, a division of Rounder, went for it. It didn't hurt that label chief Ron Levy once played piano for Roomful.
The buzz on Roomful has always been something of a background noise as far as the mainstream was concerned. "We're internationally obscure," James points out. But it's been a fairly constant buzz, ever since guitar-slinger Duke Robillard put the group together in 1967. James was just a kid at the time, growing up in California and squabbling with his high school band teacher, when he dropped out and left home at age fifteen. "I think I might have, ahem, borrowed -- extended borrowed -- a baritone from my high school band," he confesses. At age seventeen, he and a friend split for New York City. "But my friend was from this little town in Rhode Island -- Westerly -- and he kept telling me about the best band you ever heard, blah, blah, blah. They [Roomful] were looking to expand the horn section, and I was going to stay just another week and go back to California, but I ended up in Roomful of Blues."
Since that time, the band has changed more often than a chameleon walking on the Sunday funnies, passing through vaunted axmen Robillard and Ronnie Earl, pianist Levy, and even Texas torch singer Lou Ann Barton for a brief period. Their most recent shakeup was the departure of long-time tenor man/vocalist Greg Piccolo. "He was interested in writing a lot of stuff that just wasn't suitable," says James. "We do a wide range of things, I think, but there's other stuff that isn't really appropriate for us. We do what we do." Another perk, James jokes: "There's more room on-stage now, too."
Some recent additions on the bandstand -- Dance represents the current lineup's first recording -- are scalding blues guitarist Chris Vachon and smoky tenor-voiced frontman Sugar Ray Norcia (late of Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters). Their next studio effort, James states almost apologetically, will contain more originals.
There are no immediate plans to replace Piccolo, as both James and alto player Rich Lataille can handle tenor duties. "The tenor sound is such an important sound for an R&B band," he asserts, "but my baritone thing is a lot more based on tenor players."
However, there were a few bari-belters that caught his attention, too. "Leo Parker was one of my first influences," he says of the bluesy, bebop cat. "In fact I named my dog after Leo Parker. He's [the dog] lookin' at me right now. Everyone says, [affects a hippie tone], 'Oh, is he a Leo, maaaan?' No, no, no." Another influence, James claims, is Ronnie Huber, a current sideman with Dr. John, who will be sharing billing on the Blues Cruise, along with Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, Taj Mahal, and John Mooney. "He played with King Curtis and George Benson, when [Benson] was more of an R&B player. So it's gonna be incredible, bein' on a boat with him for a week."
Such encounters come with a career like Roomful's. "Cleanhead [Vinson] was a ball," he says of the blues-sax specialist. James recalls backing Vinson at a small club, when the dome-pated hornman was "a little bit inebriated. The club owner brought him some ribs during the break. So he took his teeth out and put them on the table. When we called him up [on-stage], he says right over the microphone, [imitating Cleanhead], 'Anybody seen my teeth?' So this girl brings the teeth up in this napkin, and he decides to just forget about playing sax, and just puts his teeth on our drummer's floor tom tom, and they were bouncing up and down, like chattering teeth. It was kinda hard to play with a straight face while he was doing that."
Then there was the time Count Basie came in to see the fellas. Says James: "I said to Duke Robillard, 'A guy that looks like Basie just walked in!' And we're lookin' and it's Count Basie! Oh, no! We're just shakin' in our boots. He called us over during the break and was like the nicest guy in the world. I didn't know what to say. I was, like, seventeen. 'So, Count, where you playing lately?'" James is still a bit embarrassed by his callow youthfulness. "He said, 'I wish I had a tape of you guys to play for my band, because half of 'em don't know how to play blues.'" Although too late for the Count, Bullseye has in the works a double CD compilation of live Roomful performances -- backing Big Joe and Cleanhead, among others -- as well as a new studio album due this spring.
It's often been an uphill struggle for Roomful, from the limelight-hogging Newport Folk Fest acoustic blues craze to rowdy crowds pelting the players with firecrackers and shot glasses. James is somewhat philosophic about it all. "Stevie Vaughan never went out to sell a million records. He just did what he did. Nobody really knows what makes a hit record, except a lot of serious money being put behind an established big-time star. If something makes it big, we'll go with it. Other than that, let's just make some records and have some fun."
Roomful of Blues performs Saturday at 8:30 and 11:00 p.m. at the Musicians Exchange, 729 W Sunrise Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 764-1912. Tickets cost $12.