Rod Piazza blows white-hot blues
October 6, 2011
Rod Piazza is part of the last great generation of African-American blues artists. And he’s white.
In her fantastic new book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson describes the black migration from the oppressive Jim Crow South. That movement from 1910 to 1970 fueled musical genres: blues in Chicago, R&B in Detroit and jazz in New York. Los Angeles became a hotbed for all of those styles, an ideal place to grow up for Piazza who, born in 1947, witnessed the genesis of rock ‘n’ roll, knowing all along it was a blues hybrid.
“I always thought that pretty soon the whole world was going to wake and know that blues was way cooler and it’s going to happen any day,” Piazza said. “Unfortunately it never did.”
Piazza’s older brothers brought home records by the rock pioneers who preceded Elvis Presley: Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Jimmy Reed, Earl Bostic, Fats Domino and Little Richard.
Piazza convinced his mother to buy him a $4 guitar when he was 7 or 8 years old.
He was a teenager during the British Invasion when he joined a rock band.
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“They had better guys on guitar so I played harp and sang,” he said. “I would always bring in more bluesy records for them to do. But they wanted to do want was on the radio in the ’60s.”
Piazza later caught the attention of “Harmonica” George Smith, a former Chicago resident who had two stints in Muddy Waters’ band. Smith was nicknamed Little Walter because he played harp in a similar style.
Smith had moved to Los Angeles, which also was the destination for players like Pee Wee Crayton, Big Mama Thorton, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker and Eddie Vincent. Piazza became part of the peer group in 1968. He said black audiences accepted him right away, but it was different with the musicians.
“The only other white guys were in the band,” Piazza said. “You are pretty much a novelty. It was kind of crappy at the start. A lot of guys didn’t accept me and would give George a hard time for having me on the stage.”
Piazza recalled the harbinger for his acceptance about a year later: In front of Small’s Paradise on 53rd Street a marked piece of butcher paper touted an upcoming show: “Little Walter and the Bacon Fat with Harmonica Rod, he’s white but he’s outta sight!”
“Sometimes I would play a Sonny Boy WIlliamson song and George would walk by the bandstand and kind of look at me funny and say, ‘Play your ax, man. Play your ax.’
He thought that was using the harp as an effect rather than playing it like an instrument like a horn. And George was the second best harp player in Chicago at the time behind Little Walter. A lot of the stuff that Walter played was straight off horn players and for me it’s always been the same way.”
Piazza released five albums by the 1970s and was a vanguard of the West Coast blues scene. He joined forces with Otis Spann disciple Honey Alexander (now his wife and band mate) on piano, and they formed the Mighty Flyers.
Piazza, 63, says blues music will endure.
“You’ve got young guys from Europe and from the states and they’re into it the same way I was into it when I was their age,” he said. “They are into traditional music and they want it right. They want the tones right. They want the instruments right. They’ll keep this stuff alive.”
One of the young players is Dennis Jones, who will open for Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers Friday, Oct. 7, in the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room. It will be a seated show and just 250 tickets will be sold.
“It’s gonna be created on the spot- nothing’s ever rehearsed,” Piazza said. “It’s four stars in the band. They’re not statues behind me. They play their ass off and everybody gets a time to shine.”