JazzMonthly.com feature interview
Jazz Monthly: From the category of “What the Heck Took You So Long?” We here at Jazz Monthly.Com are so happy to announce that one of our favorite performers and friends Rob Paparozzi has released his very first feature album, Etruscan Soul. This dazzling energy machine has contributed his great harmonica sound to movies, commercials, and to countless of his colleagues’ recordings: Cindy Lauper, Whitney Houston, Culture Club, Roberta Flack, David Clayton Thomas, Judy Collins, and so many others. Rob has also recorded two albums with his versatile Blues-Rock R&B band, The Hudson River Rats. Under Rob’s name, this is a solo debut album, and it certainly was well worth waiting for. Etruscan Soul is an organic, eclectic collection of songs with a stellar cast of renowned sidemen that truly reflects Rob’s Italian roots back to Etruria, an Italian region of west central Italy. Rob is also kept busy these days as the singer, front man, and harmonica player for Blood Sweat and Tears. When he’s not on the road with BST, Rob makes a lot of people happy giging around and performing. Welcome to Jazz Monthly.Com Rob.
Rob Paparozzi (RP): Thank you Joe, and thanks for that great introduction. It’s great to be here.
Jazz Monthly: You’re welcome. As I said it in my intro, you’ve helped make other people’s albums successful over the years with your incredible session playing, and now finally here is your debut album. So Rob, what the heck took you so long?
RP: (Both laughing) We’ll I was busy making a living supporting my family Joe, that’s why it took a couple of extra years to really get it done.
Jazz Monthly: I think, too, a lot of it is that you really wanted to do it right, didn’t you?
RB: Yeah, yeah I had a lot of ideas kicking around in my head. As I was working on all of these other artist sessions and jingles, I was also hearing this record, but I didn’t know exactly how I wanted to do it. I met some great musicians in my travel and,… they all became part of the puzzle. Later in life I was able to piece this thing together and say, “Okay I’m ready; I’m ready to make this record.”
Jazz Monthly: You know one of the things that you said, I guess in the liner notes of this great CD, you said that while you’ve never written… well you have written some songs… you never really considered yourself a song writer. Your forte is a singer – a front man first – and a harmonica player second. When I read that I went, “Hey Rob you know I think you’re being a little too modest,” I mean you’re one of the greatest harmonica players in the country man!
RP: Thank you Joe, I appreciate that. I never really did think of myself as a songwriter. But what I felt I did have is a skill, not only for performing as a front man and entertainer… and you know a lot about that too because we worked in some bands together when we were younger… but I also felt that I had talent for arranging. Not so much like Big Band arranging and scoring, but arranging songs that were already written. You know, “cover songs” stylizing them in my own way and bringing them to another life. That’s where I felt I had strengths. That’s why Etruscan Soul has 15 cover songs… but not like you’ve ever really heard them.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, but part of this Rob, that I was referring to, is when you said that you consider yourself a singer and a front man first and a harmonica player second.
RP: Ah, I see.
Jazz Monthly: Now Rob, you’re really a first call harmonica player man. When you think of harmonica players, you’re one of the top two or three names that come up.
RP: Yeah, well thank you. I guess I do sell myself short a little bit, and I think a lot of that has been because in this business I’ve been hired for a lot of my important gigs – like performance gigs, not studio gigs. In the studio, I’m known as a harmonica player. It’s funny how everybody wants to pigeon hole you in any field you’re in: baseball, football, music… they want to say he’s a quarterback, he’s a Blues player, he’s a Jazz player, he’s a Punk musician. So I felt like I was getting stereotyped a little bit. I would get calls as an entertainer/male vocalist. Blood Sweat and Tears and The Blues Brothers hired me as a vocalist; they didn’t even know I played harmonica and didn’t really care that I played harmonica. When I was hired by the Blues Brothers, Steve Cropper said he needed somebody to come out and sing and front the band and maybe sing some duets with Eddie Floyd, our special guest. I went to play harmonica and they said, “no, no, no it’s not that important.” Then one night we were in Monaco, in some fancy yacht club getting ready to come out with the Blues Brothers, I was in the dressing room. I was a little nervous because it was only like my second gig with them. I pulled out a harmonica and I was just noodleing, and all of a sudden Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd walk in the dressing room and Steve Cropper says in this big southern drawl, “Hey Eddie, listen to Rob, Holy Smokes! He can really play that thing! We got to work that into the show.”
Jazz Monthly: Little did they know that you were a brilliant harmonica player for decades before that.
RP: Yeah, I said, “hey I was trying to tell you guys I play,” but you know they weren’t that interested. That’s why, I think I sell myself short sometimes because I’m so used to getting hired as a singer in this business and then the harmonica happens to just be there. But I feel naked without my harmonica. That’s what I do, I sing and I play harmonica.
Jazz Monthly: But you always were a great showman. but the thing I always loved about you… you know I can say this having known you for decades and decades… is that yeah there’s a lot-of-show to Rob Paparozzi and he’s a showman but, he knows how to connect with the crowd. He knows how to get people’s hands clapping and foot stamping. Rob, you also back it up with great music. You’re a great musician and singer.
RP: Thank you. I’ve always tried to. I wanted to be a singer that was really a musician, and you know, that’s where the harmonica really had helped me because that was my instrument. I would say, “I’m going to study music on this instrument and whatever I learn, bring it back to my singing and entertaining skills.” So I always felt like it was very important to know music and theory. The harmonica has really got me to where I wanted to be, musically, and then bring some of that into the singing.
Jazz Monthly: You know Rob, having known you for all these years, and knowing that you come from a very musical family, it really wasn’t the jazz harmonica players that first kind of pulled you in wanting to be a harmonica player. It was actually John Lennon right?
RP: It was actually John Lennon because growing up with in the sixties, we heard Motown, we heard the Beatles, we heard Bob Dylan. That’s what I heard out of my little AM radio, you know Love Me Do, and I Should Have Known Better, From Me To You. Then maybe around 1966 my mom had a candy store in Linden, you might remember this, it was called Connie’s Goody Shop.
Jazz Monthly: I certainly do, and you know what, I’ve got cavities to prove it!
RP: (Laughing) A lot of the kids used to come in and hang out at Connie’s. We had a juke box in the back room. So this one guy, Harry Venezia would come in and he had, under his arm the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band record on Electra. He gave it to my older brother Louis and said, “You’ve got to check this out.” My brother Lou put it on, he played it for my brother Mario, who was into playing great guitar. Mario gets me involved and now all three of us are sitting there wearing out the grooves on a Paul Butterfield record. It didn’t even sound like a harmonica because it was amplified. It didn’t sound like the harmonica that Lennon and Dylan were playing on the radio, but I was mesmerized by this sound, and I think that was the first day that I said, “wow, this could be a real valuable solo instrument in its own right.”
Jazz Monthly: That’s what did it. That’s what got Rob Paparozzi on the road to becoming a great harmonica player. You know Rob, before we get to Etruscan Souland talk more about it, I mentioned in my intro that you’ve been fronting and singing of course, and even playing the harmonica with Blood Sweat and Tears, and I know you actually played on one of David Clayton Thomas’, solo albums, didn’t you?
RP: Yeah, its funny how it came about. You know, here I am, I’m singing for Blood Sweat and Tears the past four years… out on the road… and its funny because all of the guys in Blood Sweat and Tears were out of the New York area pretty much. No one was playing blues New York City in the eighties. The guys from the BST band said to me, “ Rob, we are bored stiff, we come in off the road every week, we’re kind of burnt out on the Blood Sweat and Tears book. We want to play some blues, but we need a front guy. Can you come over and front us?” We went down to this club and I said what do you want to call the band. They said, “Well, we all live in Weehawken, and kind of like on the river edge and stuff, why don’t we call it the Hudson River Rats.” I said fine, call it whatever you want, and I fronted that band, and we started playing this club. Word got out that there was this place down in the village on Great Jones Street that if you went down and you were a good musician, you could probably sit in with this band. But, if you sat in with the band you had to play Blues, that was the deal. Well the jingle musicians and the session musicians in New York at the time I guess were bored silly doing their dates, and they would come down, they’d bring people like: Will Lee, Phoebe Snow, Carole King, Cindy Lauper, Buster Poindexter, Lou Marini… and the list goes on. Julian Lennon came up to me one night and said, “ I want to play Blues but I don’t know what I want to do,” He was all excited. I said, “You’re Julian Lennon, you can come up. Your father is the reason why I was playing the harmonica to begin with, you can come up and play whatever you want.” He goes “Yeah but I want to play Blues. How about Johnny B Goode?” I said, “Sure, come on.” That’s how I met all of these people over the years, just from playing my Blues in New York City. You know, sticking with it.
Jazz Monthly:Let’s talk about some of the cuts on Etruscan Soul. We encourage all of our readers to go out and buy this CD, because believe me you’re going to love it, definitely as much as we do. One thing I noticed right away is that you’re not stingy man, there are 15 tracks. The first cut of course is Ticket to Ride. This Beatles song came out in the summer of ’65 I guess. I like it especially because you even play the intro on your harmonica and then you’re up and away. It reminds me of the way you sound at a live show. It’s a real crowd pleaser, you know, great soloing, it really sounds live.
RP: Yeah I wanted to go for that and that’s why we all set up live for that particular track. We didn’t have any over dubbing... we just kind of played it. We wanted that live feel and I think we captured it.
Jazz Monthly: You sure did, just as you would perform on the stage, and of course the other cut, I’m Gone. I really enjoyed the way you kind of waited one cut before you introduced your singing voice. I know you have some great background vocals.
RP: Yeah, we have some good background vocalists on there, actually, Vanesse Thomas kind of led the three singers basically. Vanesse is the daughter of Rufus Thomas – from Memphis. You know, the old DJ and Walking the Dog Rufus Thomas and the Funky Chicken Rufus Thomas.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and a very hip horn section, I know that our friend George Naha, great guitarist on your CD, also arranged the horns, didn’t he Rob?
RP: Yes, he arranged all of the horns on the CD. George used to be MD (musical director) for Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave out on the road back in the late seventies and eighties. He had those skills and I never tapped into them. I always leaned on him as a great guitar player but had a couple of the horn players do some arrangements. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for and I knew George arranged that kind of music and he came up with the best charts.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, George is a very talented guy. There’s even a baritone sax on this, I think in the horn section.
RP: Yes, Tommy Timko from Blood Sweat and Tears. He’s playing bari, and he used to with play bari with Tower of Power as well. So I knew I was in good hands; these guys were all great players. Steve Jankowski who was the studio owner and engineer, plays trumpet on all that stuff as well. You know in I’m Gone , I was going for… its an Allen Toussaint song… I wanted sort of a New Orleans feel and I used Chris Parkerand Will Lee because I knew that they worked a lot together in the studios, and they could give me what I needed on that particular song for THAT kind of groove. I was happy with the way that came out. On slide guitar I used the son of the late Harry Leahey – the great Jazz guitar player. That’s Jimmy Leahey playing slide on that. He’s great isn’t he?
Jazz Monthly: Great playing there. It’s impossible to sit still man when you hear I’m Gone. Then of a course there’s a great Quincy Jones cut, In the Heat of the Nightwhich is from the 1967 movie with Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier.
RP: Yes, yes and a little story behind that is that I had seen the movie and remembered it was a cool song. I found that record at a flea market… and I know you’re a record collector too Joe… and I found that record at one of these record sales. I was with Bernard Purdie and trying to figure out a couple of tracks on there that had harmonica that was pretty unique. He goes “That’s Toots (Thielemans)” and I said yeah but that’s Blues Harp, he goes, “ I’m telling you it was Toots.” Then sure enough, I got Toots on the phone one day and he confirmed that he was the one playing guitar and harmonica on that movie soundtrack. Probably done somewhere in New York, they brought in Ray Charles to sing and a bunch of New York session players.
Jazz Monthly: Nice Hammond B3 solo by Eddie Alstrom, our friend, and a smoking solo by you Rob on this one man.
RP: Thanks yeah, and George’s horn charts are there on this one as well, just making a nice bed for my Harmonica.
Jazz Monthly: Just as with BST, you’re not trying to imitate in any way Ray Charles or his version. But it is, in a lot of ways Rob, a hymn or a salute direct or even indirect to Ray Charles isn’t it?
RP: Oh yeah, yeah, I mean you can’t hear that version and not be influenced by it, its sort of my take on how I wanted to do it but sure, a big nod to Ray Charles. I mean, there’s nobody who can present a song like he does, so that’s why I kind of approached it like the record version but I said, “I can’t try to do Ray Charles. I have to try and be myself here, so I took the best of what I heard and kind of made it my own.
Jazz Monthly:: Now, one of the cuts on here is Monkey Around featuring you and your very dear friend Phoebe Snow, right?
RP: Yes, Monkey Around was an old Delbert McClinton song that I always kind of liked. It’s on one of his records and I thought that would be a very cool duet kind of thing that I could do, playing back and forth with Phoebe on it. She doesn’t sing a lot on it. She ad-libs a little bit and sings the choruses with me and we had a lot of fun doing that. I thought it was just a good time… funny kind… the lyrics are funny as heck on that song. It’s just a good little rocking’ kind of a song you know.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, you took a real hot solo on that too man. One of the other tunes, Border Song, the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song is very wistful, contemplative and reflective… very reflective man. I know this was dedicated to your brother Steve.
RP: Yeah, my younger brother Steve who passed a few years back. He really turned me on to a lot of great Jazz music when I was listening to more Blues and Rock n’ Roll. He would come home and study bass guitar. He would go out on a Monday night and hear the Thad Jones Big Band and he’d come home and he’d tell me about how great Richard Davis was, and Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. He’s telling me about all of these great players I never heard of and he opened a lot of doors for me. That’s why I ended up dedicating a song to him, because there was another side of me that eventually evolved. It was actually right after he died that I started getting into more Jazz… it was because of him.
Jazz Monthly: On Body and Soul, this is really, I would say, Rob Paparozzi, at your purest Jazz. This is really a pure Jazz harmonica contribution to this CD. You know, I mean, because its you and it’s just so beautifully done – the Coleman Hawkins Body and Soul.
RP: Body and Soul, it’s been covered probably so many times. I knew that and I said, “I don’t know if I should and I’m not really like a heavy jazz kind of artist, should I do a song like this that’s been covered so many times in so many great ways?” And I said yeah, because I’m not playing it from a musical theoretical standpoint like… I’m thinking about like how am I going to harmonically play something over these changes… I’m just going to play it from my gut, and that’s what I did. When we went to set up in the studio, Steve Jankowski, the engineer said why don’t you just stand out there by Glenn McCelland in the studio and look at him. That’s what we did. I’d look at him and he’d take an A section, and he’d look at me and throw me back a B section, and it built like back and forth and I felt the song just kind of had a really great breath together.
Jazz Monthly: You know, that tune, the Coleman Hawkins version of it Body and Soul,was I think one of the first Jazz records. We’re not talking about swing now, but Jazz to actually become a commercial success back in the late thirties. I think you made a point and you said it so perfectly, you said that you’re playing, but you’re only playing with Glenn McClelland on the piano and you’re using your harmonica sort of as the voice.
RP: Right, exactly, and I was striving to come up with something a little different and I said, “You know what it’s a Standard, let’s go in there and play it from the heart,” But, the night before I had a little idea, I thought would be pretty, if I put a little book end at the beginning and at the end of this tune. If you listen to it I’m kind of quoting a little bit of the Beatle’s If I Fell. To me that’s one of the greatest modern ballads. You know, love ballads, and I said, “let me put this with Body and Soul and see if it works.”
Jazz Monthly: Sure did, I like the way you said book ends Rob.
RP: Yeah, here’s a song from my generation and what I’m hearing and man it just fits so nice, a beautiful melody is a beautiful melody and they all fit together you know.
Jazz Monthly: How about Love the One You’re With, Steven Stills, featuring you’re long time friend John Korba on acoustic piano, right?
RP: Yeah, on acoustic piano, I felt John did such a great job with me on producing the record that I wanted a song that would feature him. What better then Steven Stills’ Love the One You’re With. I remembered when I first heard John play that song one night. We were over at a place called Le Bar Bat in New York City. We’re in the club and we’re playing and Bernard calls me over in the middle of the song and he’s going, “Go tell Joe Sample I’d like him to sit in. He’s sitting right over there”. I said, “ I’m not going up to Joe Sample, he’s having dinner over there.” So he goes. “No, just go do it.” So I went over. We were playing Love The One You’re With and I saw Joe Sample was mesmerized, he was watching John Korba play and he was grooving on it. That’s why I needed to include that song on the record.
Jazz Monthly: Great song!
RP: I’m just sprinkling my stuff through out, and that’s basically, the Hudson River Rats. We’re a kind of band that about a groove, it wasn’t about me, me, look at me, look at me. From every guy you know it was about a group effort, and I think that song kind of exemplifies what we always try to do when we go out and entertain. It’s what everybody is playing that makes the groove. Nobody is showing off but some of it is like wow, that’s a great groove and tune. That’s what it’s about, you’ve got all of these great musicians, make them work together and see what you can come up with and people will take note of that. It doesn’t always have to be about me. That’s not what I wanted to do. To me, I think it made a better record.
Jazz Monthly: And then of course the final cut on here, and I think it was very appropriate how you ended it with Love and Peace. You even have vibes on this, right Rob?
RP: Yeah, it’s my friend Desi Norman. I said, “I’ve got to include his vibraphones on this song because it’s just such a laid back kind of a groove.” Love and Peace by Arthur Adams. You know, great message song, and the vibes just kind of made it so soothing. I had to include him on this and I’m glad I did. George Naha is playing his best tip-of-the- hat to Eric Gale on this, and of course we got the great Chuck Raineyon bass and Bernard Purdie on drums.
Jazz Monthly: What I love about it in particular, your voice is just great Rob… laid back… just a very lazy feel, just a great tune really to end this great CD.
RP: Thank you Joe, thank you.
Jazz Monthly: There’s so much more we could talk about man, but again we want to just encourage all of our readers to go out and buy this CD, pick this thing up, Etruscan Soul, with Rob Paparozzi tracing his Italian roots., and more than just a snazzy title.
RP: Yeah, I think it was really that there was this whole other side of me that I never got to see because my father, as I said in the liner notes, my father was from outside of Rome and was a prisoner of war. He was captured; he was brought over here and I used to hear stories about Italy and I was fascinated, but I never really knew what Italy was. When my dad passed away, I finally went to his village. It’s such a small little town but they remembered my dad and they showed me where he and my mother got married. When I was in these little towns of Sutri and Canepina, I felt a connection to not only my dad and his roots but something much deeper. I really started getting a feel for the land and the history that was behind where these people were tilling the soil. I felt something that really connected to the musical part of my soul, and that’s when I started researching this Etruscan thing.
As I started looking at some of these Etruscan artifacts, I felt very connected to them because they do have a unique love for life. They had a lot of musicians that they held on a very high pedestal over there because Art was a very important part of that civilization. They definitely were into the good life, they knew life was here for a minute and they embraced and enjoyed it.
That’s really where I felt a much deeper connection to my inner muse, you know. I knew my music had to have some kind of connection to that civilization more than what I was getting over here. I mean I obviously learned a lot over here, I got all of my music from western music, from R&B and from Jazz, but yet there was something over there that really set the light bulb off and said, “I feel it, I feel where a lot of my original ideas and creativity comes from.” It’s coming from the Etruscan civilization. When I went and just walked around and just looked at the ruins… I felt the vibe. It’s hard for me to say it any more exact than that, but that’s really what happened… it was more of a spiritual enlightenment than anything. When I came back I felt like a different person.
Jazz Monthly: Your Etruscan roots.
RP: It’s kind of a weird title because you see Etruscan Soul, and you conjure up this idea of like some beautiful European type sounding music, and it’s not that at all. I just kind of thought, “Well OK, Etruscan is where I’m feeling my roots are from, the soul part was kind of a play on words because I came up playing Blues and Soul music.” So the Etruscan Soul is a little misleading. When you see the title you’re saying wow, and then you put it on and it’s basically, you know it’s a Blues record, but with a little more going on there.
Jazz Monthly: What I think it is Rob, too and it’s not sapping at all, you know you used the word “spiritual,” that’s not a cliché. In other words there would be no Rob Paparozzi if it weren’t for these Italian roots, and you know, it is a calling. Not to sound corny or sappy, but, right?
RP: It is, it definitely is, it’s what made me what I am as a musician and as an entertainer and I definitely feel a connection to that. So I think between my father’s side and what my mother turned me onto musically, it was just an amalgamation of all of that. I felt it was time to pay homage to it. That’s why I included a picture of my dad in the Italian Marine uniform, because like I said, I had always attributed my musical talent to my mom’s side because she seemed to have more of the music on her side of the family. My dad was a mason, he used to mix cement, build driveways and patios and waterproof basements and he used his hands, that’s what he did. I always thought my mom gave me the gift of music and then I really realized that the other half of it came from him.
Jazz Monthly: That’s great Rob, so it’s a combination of your heritage, your mom’s piano and Connie’s candy shop over there in Linden with the jukebox.
RP: Yeah, and my mom was very hip to music. She turned us on to a lot of great music. One day she said Rob, if you’re really serious about your harmonica, you’re going to go to the Rainbow Grill and see Larry Adler, and I said, “Larry Adler? I don’t even know who that is.” She said, “Well you need to know, you’re telling me you’re a harmonica player and you don’t even know who Larry Adler is? He’s playing tonight at the Rainbow Grill, his first time back in the United States since he was blacklisted in the fifties and you should go see him because they’re having a meet and greet.” I went. After that I looked at the harmonica… I mean I had the Paul Butterfield and the Chicago Blues thing down and I knew I was going with Little Walter and all that stuff… and then when I came home from that show I said I don’t just want to play Blues harmonica, I want to play harmonica. So, again, thanks to my mom making me go see Larry Adler.
Jazz Monthly: Music was not just important to the Paparozzi’s growing up, it was practically a religion right?
RP: It was part of our religion, you’re right; it was a very important part of our life. We were tuning into on the radio at night. It was always in the house… always in the house. Then when we found out we could go out and buy drums and guitars and harmonicas, we were right there trying it out.
Jazz Monthly: Well, as I mentioned in my intro, and I guess the best way to conclude this great interview is I said, “What took you so long, and it’s about time,” and I also mentioned it certainly was well worth the wait. Your legions of fans are going to just absolutely love this great CD, Etruscan Soul.
RP: Joe thanks for including me in Jazz Monthly.Com. I think it’s an unbelievable magazine online, and I’m so glad that you and Joe Kurasz are out there doing this because it’s just a great, great resource for people on the Internet.
Jazz Monthly: We’re delighted to be able to tell everybody about Etruscan Soul, so thank you Rob, for joining us.
RP: Alright Joe, thank you so much, we’ll talk soon.