A bluesy slide guitar snarls as a Z-car negotiates a winding coast highway. A blues band plays while co-eds in ridiculously tight, body-sock dresses bounce around and make a bubbly show of drinking low-cal brew. A bunch of bluesmen on break sits around and talks about how baaaad a new kind of fried chicken is.
The blues done made it to Madison Avenue.
But television commercials are just the fin breaking the surface. The blues is flush with another revival. Blues festivals like the ones in Phoenix and Tucson are drawing record crowds. Breweries like Miller and Anheuser-Busch now have extensive rosters of blues and roots acts that they publicize and support. Agents and managers report that bookings for blues bands are up.
Even blues records, which are notoriously slow sellers, are moving. Small blues-only labels like Alligator, Blind Pig, and Blacktop had record years in 1990 and are expecting bigger and better things this year. Last year also saw the launching of two new all-blues labels, Rounder's Bullseye and Charisma's Point Blank. Most telling of all is that even the majors are now waking up to the blues. Dipping into the vaults of the world's largest record catalogue, Columbia Records has an unlikely hit with its reissue of the complete works of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. Released last August, this much-heralded boxed set spent 31 weeks on Billboard's Top Pop Albums chart and has sold over 400,000 copies, an astonishing figure for a man who's been dead since 1938.
What's causing this latest surge of interest in the blues? Certainly the records and live shows of blues crossover artists like Robert Cray, Jeff Healey, John Lee Hooker, and Stevie Ray Vaughan have had something to do with it. And there's always unrest about the pap that passes for radio.
Here in the Valley, the blues boom has shown up in several ways. The number of clubs that have switched from rock, Top 40 or some other format to the blues has increased dramatically in the past year. One distinguished blues player, Big Pete Pearson, was convinced enough to open his own bar. And because the clubs are now paying for it, there are a lot more blues players around than there used to be. Sometimes forgotten in the melee of the new blues infusion is the handful of local blues bands that have been laboring here long before the blues began selling beer.
THEY'VE BEEN TOGETHER more than a decade. They have every excuse to be burned out, and yet there they are, spending their break working out a new tune for the second set.
It's a typical weeknight at Warsaw Wally's, the kind of neighborhood bar that exists in most American cities. An unflappable bartender named Arlene keeps up a steady pace, gliding back and forth in her flowered muumuu and frosted hair. A lot of the patrons know her by name. Posted on the wall behind the cash register, the bar's menu includes an array of frozen-to-microwave bar-food wonders. Waiting silently on a shelf are beef jerky and those nasty lab-specimen sausages in a jar.
In the back, people play pool and drink pitchers. Out front people talk and listen to the band. Ensconced in a corner, behind a waist-high, wrought-iron fence, are the Rocket 88s. Once the group's leader, Bill Tarsha, touches his lips to the harmonica and the familiar three-chord blues riffs begin to replace the taped music heard during break, the place fills in. The regulars lay claim to all the tables near the front. A group of loud, out-of-town conventioneers inquires loudly who that great band is.
Afterward at Bill and Susie Tarsha's home and blues shrine, I ask them about the current scene. Although they welcome any attention paid to their music, these godparents of the scene aren't getting too excited. They've seen other blues fads come and go.
"A blues explosion? Mayall, Butterfield, Creedence--that was a blues explosion," says Bill Tarsha. An internationally recognized harmonica player who has an opinion about most things, the trim, blond-haired Tarsha is no fair-weather blues player. He dresses like a Fifties hepcat. He and Susie live near Warsaw Wally's, in the area of 24th Street and Indian School, in a duplex that's plastered with blues posters and photos. Having wailed on a harp for more than twenty years, Bill Tarsha understands the blues.
"It's true, there definitely is more interest in blues these days," he says. "But what I'm seeing is blues players who were wearing cowboy hats and chaps last year are now up there in a beret and sharkskin suit. Some of them can do it. But a lot of them don't have any feel for the music. And they're willing to work so cheap that it's making it tough for the rest of us."
Bill Tarsha and the Rocket 88s have been the most successful blues band in the Valley for a long time. The house band at Warsaw Wally's, the 88s have five full-length albums and a couple of Grammy nominations to their name. They also occasionally tour the West Coast and Europe.
Over the years, the 88s have been invited to most of the world's major blues festivals. Tarsha's prowess has been recognized with sponsorships from Astatic microphones and Hohner harmonicas. Despite offers from other clubs, the Rocket 88s have remained at Warsaw Wally's. Tarsha says it's not time for a change.
"In November, it will be twelve years that we've been together," he says. "We feel we've got to maintain some standards. No one has offered us the kind of deal we have at Wally's. And these new bars are going out as fast as they are coming in. Three bad nights and they're in trouble. Or by the time they open the doors, they're broke."
The 88s mix elements of the big Chicago electric sound with touches of R&B and Texas blues. That's not unusual. And they're white people. That's also not unusual these days.
But blues bands like the Rocket 88s in which women play an equal role are almost nonexistent. Having both male and female vocalists (drummer Jimmy Morello and bassist Susie Tarsha) who also are players gives the group a flexibility that's beyond most blues bands' reach. And Susie and the other blueswoman can play.
Nancy Dalessandro remains one of the few female lead guitarists in all of the blues. And Susie Tarsha pulls off a difficult-to-master Jimmy Reed-style bass technique.
Bill Tarsha, who's also the band's booking agent and business manager, says there have been instances where having women in the band became an issue.
"I talked to a booking agent once who told me he wouldn't deal with `bitches,'" he says. "But that happens. We've also had times when someone couldn't book us because they said they had too many white blues bands on the bill."
Susie Tarsha gets testy when gender becomes an issue. "I dare anyone who listens to us to close their eyes and tell me that they can tell that it's women playing," she says. "If that ever happens, I'll retire."
NOT EVERYTHING HUMS along smoothly for the 88s. Longtime drummer Roger Rotoli left the band in 1989 just as they were set to go into the studio to cut a new record. The band hired a new drummer, Jimmy Morello from Pittsburgh, and the record, Lights Out, was completed. Released in Europe in late 1990 on a small Italian label, Lights Out has received good reviews but is still unavailable in the U.S.
In some ways, that may be for the better. Lights Out is the group's weakest disc. The spare, ghostly Sun Records-type echo that they were shooting for ends up sounding thin and unfinished. By the band's own admission, Morello really hadn't been in the band long enough to get comfortable with the material. Now the 88s are back in the studio, but this time several large American independents have shown interest.
It's been a hectic year. The Tarshas not only have been in bars, they've been behind bars, thanks to a locally famous skirmish with deejay and harmonica player Bob Corritore.
The Tarshas ended up spending a night in the Tempe hoosegow over the March 24 incident, but the facts are still fuzzy.
The Tarshas tell it this way: As Buddy Reed and the Rip It Ups (the band in which Corritore plays) were coming offstage after a set at the Old Town Tempe Spring Festival of the Arts, Corritore said something offensive to Susie Tarsha. Corritore then pushed Susie before Bill waded in and struck Corritore. When the dust settled, the Rockets went on and started to play.
Corritore's version is that he was the victim of an unprovoked attack.
Whoever started it, Corritore called the cops, who stopped the 88s' set and hauled in the Tarshas. The dispute later was settled out of court after a series of meetings between Corritore and the Tarshas. Both sides now say they'd rather forget about the whole thing.
"It's been settled. All the charges have been dropped and we hope it's all in the past," says Bill Tarsha. "The only thing that really pissed me off about that whole affair was that Danny Bonaduce stole all my headlines!"
But in truth, this "battle of the bands" was just another day in the life of the 88s. The band's roots go back to Toledo, Ohio, where Bill and Susie grew up in the same neighborhood. A serious blues record collector in high school, Bill began playing harp when he was drafted in 1968. Besides being a good place to get the blues, particularly in 1968, the army wouldn't allow him to have any instrument bigger than a harmonica.
His first post-army gig was a terrifying solo on a Bob Seger-Mitch Ryder tour, where Tarsha would saunter out and blow the harp between acts. Performing alone in front of thousands of people who wanted to hear "Katmandu," he learned about stage presence all of a sudden. After fronting his own blues bands for a few years, Tarsha came to a crossroads in 1973. Down one fork in the road was Ike Turner, who assured Tarsha that he could get his band a recording contract with Warner Bros. Turner even offered to produce and play on the record. But down the other road was Muddy Waters, who wanted Tarsha as his harpman.
After some severe wrangling, Tarsha hitched his star to Ike Turner. Bad move. Almost as soon as the die was cut, Ike and Tina divorced, Ike went broke, and Tarsha's deal fell through. There have been more than a few regrets ever since.
In 1980 the Tarshas came to Phoenix and formed the Rocket 88s. Two years later, guitarist Nancy Dalessandro joined. Roger Rotoli was the longest-lived drummer, until Jimmy Morello replaced him in 1989.
The group's recording career really took off in 1988 when its third album Full Auto earned great reviews and got national and international airplay. The followup AZ Bootin', recorded with R&B saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Recording.
The band had its most bizarre brush with fame in 1988. Ken Topolsky, a film and television producer, heard a tune from Full Auto on the radio in L.A. and fell in love. He signed them, sight unseen, to perform in a two-hour TV pilot he was working on called Desert Rats. Based on the kind of plot you can read a newspaper through, the movie died quickly.
"It was the worst movie in history," Nancy Dalessandro says, shaking her head. "We filmed our scenes in a disco bar in Tempe. They called it a contemporary action film, but they had Indians with braids running around in it."
However, the punch line wasn't so bad. When the Iron Curtain lifted last year, Desert Rats, along with about every other TV pilot and miniseries known to man, made the trip to Eastern European television. Desert Rats became a hit in Bulgaria, and the band is getting checks in the mail.
You wouldn't think a blues band would be so lucky.
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The Rocket 88s perform at Warsaw Wally's every Tuesday through Sunday. Showtime is 9 p.m. "I'm seeing blues players who were wearing cowboy hats and chaps last year now up there in a beret and sharkskin suit."
After some severe wrangling, Bill Tarsha hitched his star to Ike Turner. Bad move.
"I dare anyone who listens to us to close their eyes and tell me that they can tell that it's women playing.