On July 26, 2006, a mere eight weeks after the events described below, Floyd Dixon passed away in Orange, California from cancer. Floyd’s life was one of celebration and love. He expressed that love through his music and that music will continue to inspire and delight audiences around the world for eternity.
If the blues has been experiencing a renaissance recently it’s because the “old masters”, the founding fathers of the genre, have been getting their due not only from the contemporary crop of blues practitioners, but by the public at large. Whether Martin Scorcese is documenting its tradition or the White House is designating its own “Year Of The Blues”, everyone seems to be talking about, and listening to, this vital form of purely American music.
When it comes to blues piano, there are no better exponents than Floyd Dixon, Pinetop Perkins and Henry Gray. Floyd set the tone for the jump blues style that dominated the early 50s in Los Angeles with his signature hits, Telephone Blues”, “Call Operator 210” and, later “Hey Bartender”. Pinetop Perkins spent a decade as piano player in Muddy Waters’ touring band and Henry Gray devoted a dozen years to Howlin Wolf’s band, adding his distinctive piano to one of the blues grittiest sounds.
On June 1 and 2, 2006, Floyd Dixon, Pinetop Perkins and Henry Gray got together at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix for a Blues Piano Summit. The two-day event, which also featured musical director/guitarist/writer Kid Ramos fronting an all-star band, Fabulous Thunderbirds’ vocalist/harmonica player Kim Wilson, and blues/soul singer Johnny Tucker, was filmed and recorded for a deluxe two-part release later this year by HighJohn Records, LLC. The album, Time Brings About A Change—A Floyd Dixon Celebration, is set for release on September 5. Its DVD counterpart release date will be announced shortly.
As HighJohn CEO/founder, Robert Auerbach and co-producer, Kid Ramos poured over the tapes with engineer Clarke Rigsby and Rhythm Room owner/musician/DJ, Bob Corritore, one thing became overwhelmingly apparent—this blues summit turned out to be a musical collaboration for the ages and the forthcoming album figures to become a music collector’s must have item as well as an invaluable historical document. Auerbach made it clear from the outset of the project that he was concerned with presenting history in the making—and he spared no expense to provide Floyd and his musical guests with an opportunity to perform at the top of their game.
A sophisticated four-camera shoot captured the live action of the desert concerts and it has yielded some uniquely captivating portraits of these three undisputed masters. When the impressive package is released this fall, blues fans are certain to be struck by the seemingly effortless interplay between the musicians who shared the Rhythm Room stage. For the forty people who worked tirelessly both on-stage and off to make the event happen, the rewards far overshadow the degree of difficulty each faced—ranging from a series of technical snafus and logistical nightmares to the intimidating 112 degree Phoenix heat (OK, it was only 100 at midnight).
By the time Kid Ramos opened the show June 1 with Albert Collins’ “Don’t Lose Your Cool,” the focus was right where it needed to be—on the music. As Kid pointed out during his introduction to the festivities, Floyd Dixon, Pinetop Perkins and Henry Gray represent a combined 250 years of blues experience. Realizing the importance of supporting these giants with savvy veterans, Auerbach and Ramos assembled a who’s-who supporting cast to augment and complete their performances. These desert All-Stars who distinguished themselves throughout the two night affair and whose work is an integral part of the forthcoming HighJohn project are Ramos on guitar; Larry Taylor (founding member of Canned Heat) on bass; Richard Innes (Fabulous Thunderbirds, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker) on drums; Fred Kaplan (Hollywood Fats) on piano and organ; Steve Marsh (Brian Setzer Orchestra, Lyle Lovett) on tenor sax; Troy Jennings (Candye Kane, Kid Ramos) on baritone sax and Joe Banks (Dyke & The Blazers) on trumpet.
Appreciating the concert CD and its soon-to-follow DVD may not be exactly like sitting at a front table at the Rhythm Room, but it comes pretty close. Living Blues Editor, Brett Bonner said, “You could literally reach out and touch them.” Having state-of-the-art technology at one’s disposal is a tempting proposition, but the sound and video team behind the scenes at this historic event refrained from letting it take over the proceedings, preferring to let the men, and their music, deservingly occupy center stage throughout.
Floyd Dixon remains one of the most captivating performers to ever grace a stage and several Rhythm Room audience members remarked that he looked every bit the star in his incandescent gold suit as he strutted to the stage for his performance. Once seated at the piano stool, Floyd wasted little time reminding the enraptured crowd why they were there. “Hole In The Wall”, “Cold Cold Feeling”, “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town”, “Glory Of Love”, “Caledonia”, “Time Brings About A Change,” “Call Operator 210”, “Rita” and the haunting “So Long” flowed from his fingertips and full throated voice as they have for the better part of six decades and he displayed as much vitality at the end of the show as when he first sat down.
His energy was infectious and he used it to drive the early songs home just as he did the tunes he recorded last year during the sessions for Fine! Fine! Thing!, his HighJohn Records debut. Music always gave Floyd inspiration and this year it again fueled his desire to perform live. From small clubs to festivals, Floyd has enjoyed turning on a new audience, as well as his longtime fans. Though he performed sparingly in 2006, each of his appearances was greeted with the respect and adulation one would naturally expect for such an accomplished musical hero.
Pinetop Perkins, who just turned 93, defies his age as well as the notion that there is such a thing as retirement. The distinguished Perkins, like Floyd Dixon, displays an uncanny amount of fire when he performs and his shows at the Rhythm Room literally transcended time and space. Songs like “Down In Mississippi”, “Since I Lost My Baby” and “Come Back Baby” revealed a fire and passion that must have been evident to Muddy Waters when he selected the pianist to join his band in 1969. Kim Wilson, co-founder of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, got such a kick out of sitting in on harp the first night that he hurried over the second night immediately following a T-Birds show in Scottsdale to be part of the action. Wilson had responded to his friend and former band-mate Kid Ramos’ invitation to participate and his presence underscored the love and respect he feels for the blues’ legendary architects.
Henry Gray immediately commands respect and not just for the dozen years he spent in Howlin Wolf’s legendary band. His stage presence and fiery demeanor still convey the love he feels for the music and it was abundantly evident throughout the two shows he performed at the Rhythm Room. As he did with Pinetop, Kim Wilson, added his signature harmonica touches to several of Henry’s offerings, bringing urgency and electricity to “Dust My Broom”, “Henry’s Houserocker” and “Sweet Home Chicago”. Henry’s set, in fact, was a tribute to the earthy roots of the blues and he captured its essence flawlessly.
As Kid Ramos and Robert Auerbach contemplated this desert summit, they felt it was important to add one more element to the mix. Johnny Tucker, the HighJohn recording artist who first introduced Auerbach to Floyd, proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle. Building a natural bridge between Ramos’ fiery opening set and the star-studded night ahead, Tucker packed a wallop with his original songs and was at his finest with “Do You Wanna Dance”. His gravelly soulful voice and crowd pleasing theatrics evoked memories of the late Otis Redding as well as the recently departed Wilson Pickett and he made instant fans out of the sold out throng at the Rhythm Room.
If description serves any purpose it’s to whet the appetite for what’s being described. The Desert Summit was truly a one-of-a-kind magic moment, and the forthcoming HighJohn Records, LLC package more than does it justice. Immaculate sound and visionary video define the two-part release that will emerge on CD September 5 and on DVD at a later date. The result promises several surprises for blues fans everywhere. Please visit the HighJohn web site for updates about this forthcoming “event”.