Mighty Joe Longa, the Ocean Beached-based rock, blues and soul keyboardist, has passed away at age 62, his family reported. He is survived by his wife, Jeannie, and daughters Summer and Lita.
Longa’s soul-drenched organ helped anchor the sounds of local artists ranging from bluesman Tomcat Courtney to local rocker Joey Harris. (Longa was a member of Harris’ current band, the Mentals, at the time of his passing.) Longa also played with the late Buddy “Blue” Siegal in his post-Beat Farmers blue-eyed soul project, The Jacks, as well as in Powerthud – the post-Beat Farmers band of Harris and fellow Beat Farmer alum Jerry Raney, as well as in Raney-Blue, a subsequent band led by Raney and Siegal. Following that, he reconnected with Harris in the Joey Show, and then in the Mentals, the band he stayed in for the rest of his life.
He also had a cameo in The Rugburns’ 1994 music video for “Hitchhiker Joe” as the titular character, and toured nationally with Cajun artist Doug Kershaw.
Courtney said Longa played with him for 15 years, every Thursday night at the Texas Teahouse in Ocean Beach. Having started his own career as second guitarist and fill-in vocalist for legendary New Orleans bluesman Guitar Slim in the late 1950s, Courtney said he marveled at how quickly Longa was able to fit his playing to the old-style blues that Courtney plays.
“We had done a lot of rehearsing before he started playing with me,” Courtney said in a phone interview. “He kind of caught on to the way I was doing it. He caught on to the older style; he could play ’em right along with me. So when I got out on a solo, he could hold it.
“It always looked like me and Joe had something going. We spoke the same way. He’d yell, ‘Hey Tom, do that thing you did last week!’
“He was the best that ever played with me.”
In addition to recording with all the bands listed above, and appearing on Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper’s “Bo-Day-Shus!!!” (1987), former Mentals and Powerthud drummer Joel “Bongo” Kmak said Longa played on numerous other recordings.
“He played on a lot of records you don’t even know about. He was one of those go-to guys in the ’80s, ’90s, even the early 2000s. I know that when he was in the studio, it was one take. He wasn’t one of these guys who would go back and mess around – just one take, and it would be beautiful.”
Harris said since Longa’s passing, he’s been struck by how many different musicians Longa had played with.
“There’ve been so many wonderful things posted on Facebook by musicians that I don’t even know played with Mighty Joe back in the ’70s,” Harris said.
“I never got to play with him until he was with Jerry Raney in Powerthud. He was such a great musician and so supportive and positive and really inspiring to be around. We just had a lot of fun.
“When that split up – Jerry went off to play with Buddy – we ended up doing the Joey Show and then the Mentals.”
Even more than his musical prowess, however, everyone interviewed for this article wanted to steer the conversation back to the person Longa was.
“Joe was an inspiration as a human being – a sweet, supportive, funny, wise gentleman,” Harris recalled. “And he wouldn’t take shit from anyone.”
“Everybody knows him as smiling and happy,” said Kmak, a longtime friend of Longa’s. “But I played with him long enough to see that you don’t [mess] with Joe. If you [messed] with anyone on the stage, he’d shut you down.
“He could be the enforcer, but more often than not he was the peacemaker. He was like a Polish brother to me.”
(In an early 1990s interview in the old Ocean Beach Observer monthly, Longa spoke fondly and proudly of his Polish heritage, of growing up in upstate New York and learning to play accordion to earn money at Polish weddings around town. He claimed he could still pick up a squeezebox and knock out a polka or schottische if called upon.)
“You know, Joe played with me all these years, and there wasn’t one cross word – and I caught hell with everybody else!” Courtney remembered, laughing.
“Jeannie Longa and Joe Longa – as a duo they were Mighty Joe Incorporated!,” Harris said. “Joe was so in love with and such partners with Jeannie, and together they got up to antics all the time. But he was also a loving daddy – he’d go to his girls’ little league games.
“Before Joe was Mighty Joe – this was something he told me – there was Party Joe,” Harris said. “Once he drove a van through a venue doorway in Mission Valley. Party Joe was a wildman who would do anything at the drop of a hat – always with the best of intentions and sweetness, but sometimes he could still be scary.
“At the San Diego Music Awards one year – probably about 1982, when the Speedsters record came out – it was up in Del Mar, and after the awards show, the little bar next door was the after party. Joe and Jeannie were on the dance floor. They grabbed me, threw me on the floor, and dogpiled on top of me and held me there in a leglock. Apparently this was their standard greeting for people they really dug! It’s a little scary at first, then you sort of get it.”
Longa was famed among local fans for his on-stage showmanship, known for flopping to the ground behind his organ, kicking his legs, and waving one arm – with the other hand still playing, never missing a note.
Courtney said the first time he saw Longa do the flop during a show, he was a bit surprised, but, “Me and him cut up so much, it wasn’t a big thing with me. I got a bang out of it! And he could really flop! I’d tell him, ‘Go wild on that thing!’”
“I think people loved the gimmicks,” Kmak said. “I don’t think the gimmicks took away from his reputation – I think people appreciated his prowess along with his showmanship.”
Kmak said some of his fondest memories of playing with Longa came in the mid-1990s in Raney-Blue, shortly after Powerthud called it quits.
“It used to bring tears to my eyes playing with those guys. I would get chills during his solo on ‘Missing You.’ That’s why I’m still doing it at this age.”
A memorial for Joe Longa will take place Saturday, October 3, 2-6pm, at the Moose Lodge in Spring Valley.