Yesterday And Today
Me and Ronnie Earl
I joined my first professional blues band, King Biscuit, in 1981. We had a regular gig every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at a club in San Diego called the Mandolin Wind. There was a guy who used to come see us and he was always telling me about this great jump blues band from New England called Roomful of Blues. I remember him telling me how much I’d love their guitar player, Duke Robillard, as he was one of the greatest exponents of T Bone Walker, an obvious influence on my own playing at the time. Then one day I saw that Roomful of Blues was coming to play the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, and man was I excited to finally get a chance to see this lauded band and the highly acclaimed Duke Robillard.
However, when I got to the Belly Up on the night of Roomful’s show I found out that Duke had recently left the band and that they had a new guitar player by the name of Ronnie Earl, who I never heard of at the time. I was pretty disappointed, but that disappointment was short lived to say the least.
The very first thing I remember hearing from Ronnie was when he came out by himself before the show started and played a little Jimmy Reed grinder, but more in the Jimmie Vaughan Texas blues vain, to check out how his Super Reverb was sounding on the Belly Up stage, and right then and there I was sold. I’d already heard some of the best cats around, like Jimmie Vaughan and Kid Ramos play this sacred rhythm, but right away I thought there was something special about Ronnie. Then when the whole nine-piece band came out, hearing Ronnie play Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Hot Little Mama” (the title track of Roomful’s latest record) and T-Bone Walker’s “Strollin’ with Bone,” I was immediately a full-fledged convert. And even that wasn’t anything compared to what was yet to come. When Roomful broke into its first slow blues of the night, Ronnie walked out into the audience, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and played the most intense, scorching, emotional ten-minute guitar solo I ever heard in my life! I was left breathless and felt like I had been transported to another planet, surely someplace I’ve never been before. And from that very moment, Ronnie Earl became the most inspirational guitar player in my life for many years to come. I was more inspired than ever to get better and better with my own playing, and to possibly someday be able to do to others what Ronnie did to me that night, for it was so incredibly powerful and infinitely beautiful.
Roomful returned to the Belly Up around six months later, and this time two cats who knew them from New England, but were out in San Diego doing a theater play, opened up the show. These guys used to come to the Mandolin Wind to see King Biscuit and would occasionally sit in with us, as one of them was a guitar player and the other a singer, who could play and sing some blues. So, when they got the opening slot for Roomful at the Belly Up, they hired King Biscuit’s bass player, Greg Willis, drummer, Marcus Bashore, and tenor sax player Jonny Viau to fill out their band.
I was in the Belly Up’s bathroom before the show started, when local guitar legend Steve Wilcox came in looking for me and telling me that Ronnie Earl wanted to meet me. If you wanna know how excited I was about this, let’s just say that it’s probably the only time in my life that I stopped peeing in midstream! Apparently, Jonny Viau was telling Ronnie how much I loved his playing and what a huge influence he was on me, and that’s why he wanted to meet me.
When I went backstage Jonny introduced me to Ronnie as “his guitar player,” to which Ronnie replied, “Nobody owns anybody!” Then, the first thing he said to me was, “Are you Jewish?” Ronnie’s parents were Holocaust survivors from Hungary, and I guess that was something he thought we could bond over. He then invited me into the green room, which at that time was a trailer in back of the Belly Up. Ronnie was on the cover of the current issue of Guitar Player magazine at the time, and I recall a couple of people coming into the trailer asking him to sign their copies, and Roomful’s trombone player and senior member Porky Cohen, teasing Ronnie about that, warning him not to get a big head just because he was on the cover of some guitar magazine. I also remember that I was wearing a silver silk suit with pointy black lizard skin shoes, and that Ronnie told me that the suit and the shoes are all fine, but what really matters is my heart.
After the show was over Ronnie told me that he was staying at the Winner’s Circle Lodge across from the Del Mar Fairgrounds and asked me if I wanted to come by there and play. I asked, “play guitars?” and he sarcastically said, “No, golf!” Aside from the fact that Ronnie seemed like the last person in the world to be playing golf, it was also around one in the morning, not exactly the ideal golfing hour! Needless to say, I was thrilled to have this golden opportunity, so my girlfriend, Alicia (now my wife), and I went to Ronnie’s room at the Winner’s Circle Lodge for what turned out to be the start of a beautiful friendship that lasted maybe the next ten years.
Roomful had just played the San Francisco Blues Festival before playing the Belly Up, and there were two coke dealers from up there who came down to San Diego with Ronnie. Yes, Ronnie was into that kind of thing at that time, before he got sober around 1990. So, it was myself, Alicia, Ronnie and these two dealers, one of whom I believe played some guitar. They had a big plastic sandwich bag full of coke, and we had Ronnie’s Black Fender Stratocaster with the letters “E A R L” in mother of pearl, replacing the original dot fret inlays. We got high and passed around the one guitar we had between us, sometimes referred to as “Round Robin.” When it was my turn I started playing some Lightnin’ Hopkins style thing, and Ronnie asked, “Why are you using a pick?” At first I didn’t know why he was asking me this, but soon realized that was his way of telling me that if I wanted to play like Lightnin’ I should be playing with my fingers, not using a flat pick, a subtle lesson that serves me well to this day.
Alicia and I finally left the Winner’s Circle and got home to my house in Pacific Beach around five in the morning. The phone rang at eight, and it was Ronnie, saying that the two cats from San Francisco were getting really weird and wondering if I could come and get him. Alicia asked me if I was gonna do it, and as burnt out as I was, I said, after all he’s given me through his music, I felt compelled to do that for him.
I pulled into the Winner’s Circle parking lot around 8:30 a.m. on one of those bright, sunny, glaring mornings, my head and eyes killing me from the night before. Ronnie was waiting for me in the parking lot, wearing the same green satin suit he had on the previous night, with his guitar in a gig bag slung over his shoulder. I just wanted to go home and crawl back into bed, but Ronnie insisted that I come into the Winner Circle’s bar with him and have a drink. I couldn’t dissuade him from this wonderful idea, so I parked my car and into the bar we went. Ronnie gave the bartendress a ten-dollar bill and asked her to get him a pack of cigarettes out of the machine that was only ten feet away from where we were sitting, and I remember thinking it was like we were in a scene from a Tom Waits song. Ronnie ordered vodka and orange juice, or something like that, and when I ordered a plain grapefruit juice, he turns to face me and asks, “Are you a bluesman?” I said that’s got nothing to do with it, and Ronnie said, “You’re right!”
Fortunately, we didn’t stay in that bar too long, and I think we both finally got some sleep when we got back to my house. I took Ronnie to the train station later that evening, as he was going up to LA to visit his cousin, while the rest of Roomful drove the band bus cross country back to New England. The Belly Up was their last gig for another week, which is why Ronnie was able to do this.
The next time Roomful of Blues came out to play the Belly Up they asked me and Johnny Viau to sit in on a couple of songs, one of which I’m pretty sure was “T Bone Shuffle (aka Natural Ball).” Obviously, this was a huge thrill for me, and fortunately there was someone there with a camera to capture it all, since this was long before everyone in the audience had a camera on their phone.
Sometime after that I flew to Boston to visit Ronnie, and when he picked me up at the airport he had some straight ahead jazz playing on his car stereo. He asked me if I knew who it was, and, noticing a Ben Webster cassette case on the seat, I took an educated guess and said, “Is it Ben Webster?” This prompted Ronnie to reach out and shake my hand, being proud of me for knowing this, which I really didn’t! And I still feel a little guilty about this minor deception! That being said, it was Ronnie, along with local blues piano player Tom Mahon, who were mostly responsible for helping me get into real jazz, and I am forever grateful to both of them for this.
Aside from spending most of my visit with Ronnie sitting around his living room playing guitars, we went to Roomful’s house gig when they weren’t on the road at Lupo’s in Newport, Rhode Island. This was a pretty famous venue back in the eighties, and there is a live Roomful of Blues album recorded there. Going to this show with Ronnie, I felt like I was truly riding with the king!
I think it was sometime around 1990 that Ronnie left Roomful of Blues to concentrate full time on his own band, Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. I thought this was great because as much as I loved Roomful, it was first and foremost a big horn band, while the Broadcasters were a smaller guitar-driven band, with Ronnie always out front.
I believe the first time I saw the Broadcasters was when they played Boz Scaggs’ club, “Slim’s,” in San Francisco. Ronnie invited me up for that show, and when I got there he said he told the staff at Slim’s that he didn’t want to talk to anybody who called for him except for me and Carlos Santana! It was definitely the only time I had been put into that kind of exclusive category!
Duke Robillard, who Ronnie replaced in Roomful of Blues some five years earlier, was also on the bill that night, and I’d say there was a friendly competition between Duke and Ronnie. And if you were in the audience, you were probably rooting for one team or the other.
The next day, Ronnie, Steve Gomes, (his bass player at the time), and I went to a Giants baseball game at Candlestick Stadium, as Ronnie was a big baseball fan. I recall that several of the players recognized Ronnie when we first came into the stands and wanted him to sign their balls. Man, how things have changed over the past 30 years! I myself have never been much of a spectator sports fan, so I spent half of the game reading “The Arrival of BB King,” which Ronnie thought was ridiculous, in spite of the fact that he’s the one who turned me onto that book.
After the Giants game, Ronnie flew back to San Diego with me, while the rest of the band drove their van down, since they were booked to play at Winston’s in Ocean Beach a few nights later. Ronnie stayed with me at my house in La Mesa and came to my band, the Rhumboogies, gig at the Pacific Beach Cafe while he was here.
One summer in the early nineties I was visiting my parents in New Jersey, and the Broadcasters were playing a club in New York City called The Abeline. I drove my mother’s 1976 Pontiac Grand Prix into the City for this show, and Ronnie had me sit with his parents, who seemed very happy that their son had a friend who was also a “nice Jewish boy,” and a lawyer (which I also was at this time) to boot! I think this was shortly after Ronnie stopped having a singer in his band and was playing strictly instrumentals. In any event, the club was packed to capacity and you sensed a real buzz in the air that night. And Ronnie did not disappoint! Emotional, intense, exciting, exquisite guitar and Hammond organ tones are just a few adjectives that come to mind!
In line with what now seemed to be a familiar pattern, Ronnie came back to New Jersey with me after the Abeline show, while the rest of the band drove their van down to the Shore for a gig at a club called JJ’s in Belmar, about ten minutes from my parents’ house, the following night.
Ronnie had gotten clean and sober by this time, and when we were walking from The Abeline to where I parked my mother’ car, he wanted to stop at a little grocery store to get a juice. I got a juice for myself as well, and some kind of muffin to eat with it, and Ronnie said to me, “Eric, do you really need to eat something so heavy this late at night?” I asked him if he was the same Ronnie Earl who just a few years earlier questioned whether I was a bluesman because I didn’t want to drink hard alcohol with him at 8:30 in the morning! I also remember that he was very interested in discussing health and especially cholesterol with my father.
I did go back to visit Ronnie in Massachusetts one more time, but for reasons I still don’t fully understand, the warmth and closeness we had developed over the past several years seemed to be changing. I still went to see him play whenever he was in Southern California, but our days of hanging out together on a one-on-one basis were behind us.
When Alicia and I recorded our first CD, What a Day, in 2001, I sent a copy to Ronnie. About two years later we came home from dinner one night and there was a message from Ronnie on my answering machine, telling me that he really liked our CD, as if he had just received it, and the two years since I sent it to him never happened! He said that I could contact him by fax, which I thought was pretty weird, and that was the last time I heard from him.
I did speak to Ronnie’s manager on the phone a few months ago, because she’s supposedly writing a book about him and was told by a mutual friend that I might have some good stories to share from his early days. I don’t know if that book will ever be published, or if any of my personal stories will be included if it is. But I hope you enjoyed reading about them here, for they were truly special times spent with one of the greatest blues guitar players and most unique individuals this world has ever known.
In closing, I believe it was serendipity that I was inspired to write this piece about Ronnie. The night before Liz Abbott asked me if I could write something for the Troubadour’s May issue I happened to pull out Ronnie’s first solo album, Smokin’, which I hadn’t heard in many years, and it completely floored me! It was an immediate reminder of what an incredible and special guitar player Ronnie is, and it sure made it easy for me to decide what I’d write about. I am grateful for all the times I have shared with Ronnie, and I am grateful for having the opportunity to relive them through this writing.