Rob Stone Blues Blast Magazine Cover

Featured Interview – Rob Stone

Rob Stone Blues Blast MagazineChicago’s loss was the City of Angels’ gain when harpist/vocalist Rob Stone moved to Los Angeles in 2014. But the staunchly traditional approach that Stone perfected during his lengthy stint in the Windy City continues to define his sound as his L.A. combo plays local gigs and he investigates all sorts of new musical opportunities internationally.

“L.A. is very different than Chicago – there are lots of fine musicians out here, but there’s not really much of a blues scene. There aren’t any blues clubs, but the/ opportunities in L.A. are unlike anywhere else. I’ve been fortunate to play with many great musicians in and out of blues, and that’s a very cool thing.” says Stone. “I find it pretty stimulating to get to work on a wide range of projects. But I do miss that blues community in Chicago. Going back always feels like home to me—musically as well.”

The Blues Blast Music Award-nominated CD Trio in Tokyo, Stone’s latest release on the Blue Heart label, is a considerable departure from his past outings, where he was backed by tough electric bands steeped in Chicago tradition. This time the harpist recorded with only pianist Elena Kato and bassist Hiroshi Eguchi in subtle support.

“It’s acoustic, and really stripped down,” explains Stone. “I was going to Japan every year to perform. And I thought it would be cool to have something to sell at shows that featured the musicians that the people were seeing. So one time when I was over there, we booked some studio time and recorded a bunch of material. Two of the songs we recorded were just piano, upright bass, and acoustic harmonica. The two songs were ‘Jack, You’re Dead’ by Louis Jordan and ‘Got To Get You Off My Mind’ by Solomon Burke, both known for big horn arrangements.”

“At the time, I had been playing a lot with Big Jay McNeely in L.A.,” he continues. “I visited him in the hospital just after I had returned from Japan. I was there for a few hours and he asked me what I was working on. I told him about the stuff I recorded over there. He wanted to hear it, so I played him the cuts. It was mostly electric, but these two songs were all acoustic. He got super-excited about them, and said, ‘You should do a whole record like that!’ I was excited about those two songs too, but it was nice to hear him validate that there was something different and cool about them.”

Big Jay’s enthusiastic response generated more acoustic sessions in Tokyo. “I went back with more songs in mind. This time, the whole objective was to record material that was typically done with big arrangements, but to do it in a stripped-down way. I wanted to create something that felt low-key like an after-hours club. It was really fun to do, and different, and pretty scary for me because I couldn’t hide behind the band and vocally I ain’t Sam Cooke! Doing something so sparse is terrifying!” says Stone. “Once we finished mixing and mastering, I was hesitant to put it out, so I sat on it for awhile.”

A chance L.A. encounter with legendary bassist Benny Turner led Stone to Sallie Bengtson, who operates the Blue Heart label with publicist Betsie Brown. “When I found out that Sallie was partners with Betsie and that they had a label together—Betsie’s the best publicist there is, and they are both such good people and blues supporters and total pros––I was like, ‘This is a homerun!’ So I shared the album with them, and they liked it and wanted to release it.”

Japan remains a stronghold for Stone; he was about to leave for a two-week tour when reached for this interview. “There’s a guitar player over there named Hitoshi Koide, who I always play with, who’s a seasoned player,” he says. Kato and Eguchi were once again part of his combo too. “Elena’s just such a great musician, a great person, and she’s a killer piano player,” he says. “Of course Hiroshi is a great bassist, and plays with a lot of feel. He lived in Chicago for 15 years and played with Mavis Staples, Sugar Blue, tons of others.” Japanese audiences are fiercely loyal to the idiom. “There’s not even a dedicated blues club in Los Angeles,” he marvels, “and in Tokyo there are about a dozen!”

Tokyo is a long way from Chicago, where Stone’s career as a bandleader took off as the century turned. Born in Boston, he was exposed to all kinds of music as a lad. “I grew up around Peter Guralnick, and because I knew Peter and his family basically from the time I was nine or ten, I knew of blues music and roots music. I played piano and instruments here and there, but nothing for real,” he says. “I sang in school choirs, and was always musical, but never thought of myself as a musician.

Rob Stone Blues Blast Magazine“Now I mostly listen to blues and jazz, but I love all kinds of music. I grew up listening to a lot of other music before immersing in blues. I think other genres filter into my musical mind and psyche, and I don’t fight it. I listened to a lot of Atlantic/Stax stuff before I was listening to blues. I listened to a lot of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles before I was listening to blues, and that’s in there too.

“I got a late start on harmonica,” says Rob. “I got to college, and I guess I was 17-18. I saw Charlie Musselwhite play. I had listened to Sonny Boy. I hadn’t discovered Little Walter yet, but I had heard Muddy and Wolf and John Lee Hooker. But it just never—I guess I didn’t listen closely enough, because I never really took too much notice of harmonica until I saw Musselwhite live. And I think live blues is a game-changer. I think you can hear it on recordings, but when you see it and hear it and feel it live in the room, it can be incredibly powerful. I was just like, ‘Holy shit! I didn’t know you could do that with a harmonica!’ So literally the next day, I went and bought one and just started messing around with it and listening to different blues records I had.

“I had one harmonica in the key of C, and I would play along to anything that it would fit with. Pretty soon I started to copy licks, and then Peter Guralnick and his son Jake gave me music to listen to. For whatever reason, I was able to just pretty quickly start finding my way around the instrument. It felt natural to me, more than anything I had ever played. And I was able to pick out melodies, and I was able to emulate to some extent the things I was listening to, and it just gave me the confidence to keep going.

“I started playing in some bands in Boston and some bands like Casey Rush in Colorado where I went to school, and basically started playing gigs and learning a lot from different musicians who I worked with like Jim Aycock and John Wise, and figuring it out as I went—how to play amplified, how to play with other musicians, how to learn parts. Early on, I played with friends in Boston, and I was mostly playing horn lines, so that was cool. Pretty early, through Jake Guralnick, I got to play with Sleepy LaBeef. He was like the first major artist who let me play with him, and he was very encouraging. So in those years, I just picked up the instrument pretty quickly, and by the time I was finishing school, I was playing several nights a week in a few different bands in Colorado and developing some chops, and then playing in Boston over the summer.

“Once I discovered Little Walter, everything changed for me. Because when I first listened to it, I couldn’t understand it. Honestly, Walter’s playing was too sophisticated for my ears. I was drawn more towards Sonny Boy Williamson and James Cotton, Big Walter Horton and Junior Wells. I still love all of their music. But once I got better and started to think more seriously about tone and especially phrasing, I began to fully appreciate Little Walter in such a big way that there was no turning back. That’s just it for me,” he says. “I also took a few lessons from Jerry Portnoy, who was in Boston. It was just kind of coming together pretty fast. And that’s when I met Sam.”

Legendary drummer Sam Lay, formerly of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, rolled into Colorado Springs for a gig with his combo and changed young Rob’s life. “He was on KRCC, a local radio station that was close to my house, and I was listening to the blues show,” he remembers. “All of a sudden they were interviewing Sam Lay. I was like, ‘Oh, man!’ And I had the Magic Sam Live album, and I had a couple other things that he was on, maybe a James Cotton record. I ran down to the station and asked him to sign my records and told him that I was a harmonica player. And he said, ‘Why don’t you come out to the show? Bring a couple harmonicas!’

“I was sick as a dog, but I went to the pharmacy and bought every over-the-counter cold drug I could get and took all of ‘em. And then my buddy drove me—I didn’t have a car—to the show. That was the first time I really heard traditional Chicago blues live. “The band was Chris James, Patrick Rynn, and Sam Lay, and a piano player named Eric Leonard, who I think did maybe one tour with Sam around that time. I had never heard anybody like Sam, doing what he was doing. It felt really special and amazing.

“Sam called me up at the end of the first set, and he asked if I knew how to play Jimmy Reed. And I just said yes, but I didn’t know how yet. So Chris is looking at me like: ‘What’s wrong with this kid?’ Anyway, Sam called me back up on the next set. I was seriously not ready as a harp player to be playing with Sam Lay, but he liked something he heard, because at the end of the night he asked me to stay in touch with him. He asked me what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m in school.’ He said, ‘What are you doing after that?’ I said, ‘I have no clue!’ He said, ‘Why don’t you move to Chicago and come play with me?’

“Sam had this rubber stamp with his name and address and phone number, and he just kind of stamped this scrap of paper and gave it to me, and that was like his business card. And I kept it and stayed in touch with him, and moved to Chicago as soon as I finished school. I just wanted to get the hell out of there, because there were more exciting things on the horizon, and after talking to Sam and hearing those guys,” he says. “I moved and jumped right in and started getting my ass kicked every day!  That would have been ‘94.”

Guitarist James was Stone’s mentor during this period. “Sam was passive. Like if I messed up, he’d say over the microphone, ‘How about it for Rob Stone?’ That kind of thing. But Chris would just tell it like it is. He’d say, ‘You’re playing everything wrong!’ So basically, Chris just sort of built me up from the ground and taught me how to play ensemble blues, how to phrase–really, how to play and how to be a musician. So from being around Sam, Chris and Patrick, and touring with them and playing every night—it was just this crash course in every facet of being a musician–onstage, offstage, in the van. How to deal with the fans at shows, how to deal with the club owners, and when to keep your mouth shut.”

Rob Stone Blues Blast Magazine“Not to mention everything I learned about how to play with other musicians and how to listen on stage and how to play complementary parts and create a big sound. The best lesson for me still to this day was just how dynamically that band played. We could be at a whisper, and then one measure later be at an explosive crescendo. Sam was such a dynamic bandleader in that way. He was a dynamic personality too, but in terms of playing, the band just played with such dynamic range.” says Stone. “Because it was so formative for me, that’s the music I almost always hear in my head when I’m thinking about what I want to deliver on stage.”

After Chris and Patrick left Lay’s band, Rob stuck around for awhile. “Rockin’ Johnny Burgin and Lou Marini came into the band, and at that point I became kind of the seasoned guy in Sam’s band. Because I knew what he liked, and I knew what he wanted musically, and I knew what he wanted in terms of how we functioned on the road as a band and all that sort of stuff. So it was kind of terrifying when those guys left, but in some ways it forced me to step up. And that’s when I started singing more,” says Stone. “Chris did a lot of the singing, and when he left, Sam didn’t want to sing all night, so I had to learn more songs. I also started introducing Sam and the band, and acting as MC. And it took me a while to grow into that, but it was an important development that eventually led to me fronting my own band.”

The harpist remained in touch with James and Rynn in Chicago. “I had been singing enough that I kind of just wanted to record it,” says Stone. “I asked Sam and Chris and Patrick if they would do that, and everybody was willing. Chris and Patrick and I wrote some songs, and the four of us got in the studio, and we banged out a record and self-released it. That was No Worries in ’98.” A remarkably self-assured debut effort, the CD, self-released on Stone’s Marquis logo, was loaded with crisp originals and well-chosen covers, all soaked in Chicago blues tradition. The combo was billed as Rob Stone & the C-Notes. “It felt too weird to just put my name alone,” explains Stone. “We were like, ‘Let’s come up with a band name,’ and we came up with that.”

A precedent was established within the trio for creating original material. “On both my records and Chris and Patrick’s records, we just workshopped the songs. We’d come in with lyrics or an idea and just kind of mess around with it together, and then land on the final version that we were going to cut,” says Stone. “The songs would start off in some shape or another. Some were in more complete shape than others, but basically there was really nothing that came in fully done, ever. Chris would always take charge of figuring out some sort of interesting—since he’s an encyclopedia of knowledge of blues music—he would go, ‘If we did this, it would be different than most of what’s out there.’ So we would look for little ways to mix things up a little and we’d work on them together. We’d usually sit in my living room in Chicago and just work on these songs for days until we were ready to record. It was a lot of fun.”

Rob and the C-Notes became a solid draw on the Chicago blues circuit. Being in the Windy City also gave Stone a chance to perform with some of his heroes. “I basically arrived around the time Sunnyland Slim died, and I missed a lot,” he says. “But when I look back at it now, I was so lucky, because so many guys were still around. I got to hang out and play with Dave Myers a lot, and was hired to play shows with musicians like Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Eddie Kirkland, and Honeyboy Edwards. Because I worked with Sam, I’d also get pulled in to play Paul Butterfield tribute shows with Little Smokey Smothers and others, and Howlin’ Wolf Band reunion shows with Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Shaw, Henry Gray or Detroit Junior, and Sam––and later Jody Williams. I also performed around Chicago a lot with Aaron Moore, Eddie Taylor Jr., and the great singer Katherine Davis.

“When I was on the road with Sam, Robert Lockwood, Jr. always played with us in Cleveland. He was tough, but incredibly encouraging and gave me sage advice and direction about my playing. These are really special memories and I feel so fortunate that I got to learn so much directly from all of these people. And on top of all of that, there was still so much traditional blues being played every night in Chicago. How cool is it that you could go see Willie Kent and Bonnie Lee on Mondays at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, Junior Wells play on Wednesdays at Rosa’s, Otis Rush at the Mines over the weekend, and Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues at B.L.U.E.S. Etc. on Sundays?  It was a very cool time, and everyone hung out together, so there was just as much to learn offstage.”

Along with Chris and Patrick, Rob appeared in Godfathers and Sons, Marc Levin’s acclaimed 2003 film documentary. “Godfathers and Sons was part of that Martin Scorsese series that PBS aired called The Blues,” says Stone. “There was one episode that features Chuck D, Marshall Chess, and Sam. In the Sam Lay one, we were playing at the Chicago Blues Festival and I was introducing him, so some of our performance ended up in the film.”

Just My Luck, Rob and the C-Notes’ 2003 encore release, emerged on Michael Frank’s well-established Earwig label. Loaded with memorable originals (“Too Late Honey,” “Playing Games,” “Never Come Back”), the traditional electric Chicago blues set incorporated Myers and Lay in its impressive supporting cast. “Just My Luck in some ways might be my favorite record that we’ve done. I find that I still play those originals constantly,” says Stone. “Earwig did a great job with that record and I was proud to be on the label. It looked good. It sounded good. And Michael got good distribution and radio play on it.”

Rob Stone Blues Blast MagazineThere was a long hiatus between Just My Luck and Back Around Here, Rob’s next Earwig offering in 2010, which dispensed with the C-Notes handle but featured James and Rynn along with a stellar backing crew: Lay, drummers Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Willie “The Touch” Hayes, and pianists David Maxwell and Aaron Moore. “I went to the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, which I had never gone to,” says Stone. “A handful of times throughout the weekend, I’d be introduced to somebody, and they’d comment on the Just My Luck album and say, ‘What happened to you? Where did you go?’ And I’m like, ‘I didn’t go anywhere! I’ve been playing constantly in Chicago!’”

“But it fired me up, so I instantly booked studio time, and just said, ‘Alright, let’s write some new shit and record it.’ I don’t love recording, so before that I hadn’t felt a particular need to go back into the studio. I prefer playing live. Once I’m in the studio it’s fun, but I’m not constantly writing songs and feeling the urge to record,” he says. “But after Chris and Patrick and I wrote new material and put the lineup of musicians together, I was excited and was like, ‘Let’s go!’ It was a real blast to have all those players together. I especially remember that Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith was just so incredible on these sessions. He he had so many great ideas! What a good man, and what a great musician.”

“The publicist on that was Betsie Brown, and she really made it happen. It had an international reach and broke out in a big way. That changed things for me, because after that CD I started playing internationally way more.” The narrative of one of the disc’s highlights stemmed from personal experience. “‘I Need To Plant A Money Tree’ is about my irresponsible spending habits,” laughs Rob, who played on several tracks for Chris and Patrick’s 2010 Earwig release Gonna Boogie Anyway. Stone, James, and Rynn also appeared in another film documentary, Six Generations of the Blues. “That was a production surrounding Earwig, a kind of Earwig history, that centered around Honeyboy Edwards and Big Jack Johnson,” he says. “and lots of other great Earwig artists.”

In 2014, Stone moved over to Richard Rosenblatt and Bob Margolin’s Vizztone label for Gotta Keep Rollin’. The CD’s backing lineup was again heavy on star power, with pianist Henry Gray, saxman Eddie Shaw, and guitarist John Primer joining James, Rynn, Hayes, and Maxwell. “I’d blink, and then a few years would go by. I’m like, ‘I’ve got to record something!’ I’m just not built to constantly think about the next recording project. I’m just not,” says Stone. “But I talked to Bob and Rosey and they listened to the cuts and the next thing I knew we had a Vizztone release. We did that one with the usual crew, and then added Primer and Eddie Shaw and Henry Gray. And that was great fun. I feel so lucky that I got to play a bunch with Henry on a little West Coast tour. Whenever I got to play with him, that was special. Even in his late 80s he was a badass player who could drive a band.”

Later in 2014, Stone moved his base of operations to Los Angeles. “I just moved west because there were different opportunities,” he says. “You just never know what might happen out here. I was playing at a little record shop with a stage, and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top comes in. Then I ended up sitting in with him and corresponding with him. I’ve wound up on stages with Robert Randolph, Nancy Wilson, and Slash! It’s so strange. Early on, I connected with Big Jay McNeely, and also Barry Goldberg. Those were both really important relationships for me both musically and personally. I played with Big Jay basically from when I got here until he passed away, and I still play with Barry whenever possible.

“Barry and I, pre-pandemic, we were doing shows all the time. And we went down and played in Florida, Chicago, Calgary, Lucerne, Switzerland. The pandemic really just put the kibosh on a lot of this,” says Rob. “Through Barry, I also did some shows with the Chicago Blues Reunion (an all-star aggregation that also included Nick Gravenites and Harvey Mandel). I did an Electric Flag anniversary tour. Barry and I and Jimmy Vivino and Rick Reed and Vince Fossett, Jr. have a band that we’ve never been able to come up with a name for. We had a name but someone threatened to sue us!  We have recorded an unreleased album together and play around L.A., and that’s always a blast.” Stone’s own combo, featuring guitarist Bill Bates, bassist Brad Hayman, and drummer David Kida, performs regularly at the Escondite in downtown L.A. and other venues.

Touring in the midst of a pandemic is no easy task, but Stone manages while upholding the classic Chicago blues ensemble tradition. “I love to play with Chris and Patrick whenever we can,” says Rob. “I still go back to Chicago and play with Willie Hayes and the guys. Wherever I go, I get to work with great musicians. I’ll go to Boston and play with Chris “Stovall” Brown and other Boston players, or Texas with Chris Ruest, or Spain and Portugal and France with David Giorcelli, or Italy with Fast Frank. Traveling alone to these places is just how it is right now for me. It’s too difficult financially to travel around with a band.

“Since the pandemic started to become less life-threatening, I’ve been gradually trying to set up some international tours again and slowly figuring out stuff here at home,” says Stone. “In L.A., a lot of the venues I played have closed, or just haven’t gone back to live music yet. So that’s been a little tricky. Same thing in Chicago, really. I guess to sum it up, I’m still easing back in and trying to adjust to the new landscape.

“I’m sort of screwed because I haven’t figured out how to play harmonica through a mask yet. But I’ve got all my vaccines and boosters, and I’m doing what I can do.”

Visit Rob’s website to find out where he is playing near you soon: https://robstone.com.

Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.