Have Horn, Will Travel

Both Brian Setzer and the Royal Crown Revue crow about sparking the swing craze that threatens to survive into the new millennium. Props, though, are more than overdue for Roomful of Blues, the little big band with the big horn section that got its start more than three decades ago in Providence, Rhode Island.

Roomful of Blues has long carried a torch for the sounds of vintage swing, the jump/R&B mix that proved a midwife for '50s rock and roll. That's made abundantly clear on Swingin' & Jumpin', a just-released compilation culled from the band's 1979 debut album and two early '80s collaborations with legendary singer Big Joe Turner and fabled sax man Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. Shouted choruses, hot horn solos, call-and-response vocals, chunky rhythm-section grooves: This is the real thing, from the bouncing opener "Give It Up" to the closing ballad "Dukes Blues," which showcases the touch-sensitive guitarwork of then-band leader Duke Robillard.

Joel Dorn, co-producer of their first album, Let's Have a Party, with songwriter Doc Pomus, the man who discovered the band and subsequently hooked them up with Island Records, suggests in the record's liner notes that listeners might figure the reissue is "a crass, transparent attempt to cash in on the swing craze." It is. Dorn continues, "You're right on the money. Who better than Roomful should get a couple of bucks from a trend they helped start when everyone else was into the Hustle?"

Rich Lataille, the alto and tenor saxophonist who joined the group in 1970 (after Robillard heard Vinson wail at a festival and instantly decided he needed a horn section), seems amused by the eleventh-hour recognition. "It's kind of ironic that the swing thing became such a big hit, because we've been doing that stuff for 30 years," Lataille says from a tour stop in Illinois. "In the past it set us apart from other bands, because no one else was doing swing. We like to play music that, first of all, people can dance to and have fun with. We like high-energy, rockin', swingin' kind of stuff -- jumpin' blues, I guess. The other thing that we've always tried to maintain is having a variety of styles in the music. We can go anywhere from swing to straight-ahead Chicago blues to New Orleans styles to Kansas City jump blues."

How did this group of middle-class white boys from New England find their way to the blues? The old-fashioned way: absorbing the vinyl, seeing the artists, imitating the sound, respecting the form and, eventually, making it their own. Roomful, thanks in part to the interests of Robillard and Lataille, found itself taking on the music of Louis Jordan and Buddy Johnson. "I was discovering all this music through records," Lataille says.

Critical acclaim and a growing regional reputation led to a fan base that included the likes of legendary swing band leader Count Basie, who once caught the group at a concert in Beverly, Massachusetts. As a result Roomful landed high-profile opening-act duties for the Basie band.

"People used to talk about that white-black thing, but I just thought this was stuff that I liked, and it never bothered me," Lataille says of his group's take on vintage tunes. "I've played with a lot of the great black American blues and jazz people, including Cleanhead and Joe Turner. Our band has had a lot of people in that community compliment us and tell us, 'I can't believe you guys are white. Where'd you get that soul?' So I don't feel like we're lacking, in that respect."

Roomful's long road from there to here, marked by years of hard touring that have included more than 250 live dates, hit its first curve in 1979, when Robillard left. By the early '80s, sax men Lataille, Doug James, and Greg Piccolo had been augmented by trumpeter Bob Enos and trombonist Porky Cohen. "You have more of a heart attack on the notes, because the trumpet is more percussive sounding," Lataille says of the expanded sound. "It also allowed us to do section things, to have a brass section and a reed section, kind of like a big band."

Roomful's latest album, last year's There Goes the Neighborhood is more swing-friendly than recent efforts (coincidentally or not), with new singer Mac Odom coming off as a cross between Joe Williams and Charles Brown on pieces such as Percy Mayfield's "Lost Mind," Duke Ellington's "Rocks in My Bed," and Memphis Slim's "The Comeback."

The disc was recorded during one of the band's biggest shakeups, as former singer Sugar Ray Norcia and five other members of the nine-man group split for other opportunities. Lataille, Enos, and guitarist Chris Vachon are Roomful of Blues's veterans. But, explains Lataille, turnover is a fact of life.

"You've gotta make sacrifices, to a certain extent, when you're in this band," he says. "You can't just have one guy decide what we're gonna do. So eventually some people just decide that they want to have total control, and they go on to solo work, which is fine. We've managed to replace them with quality musicians, guys who had a similar idea about how we wanted to approach music. Every time someone new joins the band, it puts a different flavoring to the music. It's kept the thing on a steady course."

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Philip Booth