Rod Piazza has set a standard for harmonica virtuosity that has established him as one of the preeminent blues harp players around. Although it’s true that, as the New York Times said, “Rod Piazza has perfected the rough drive and edgy tone that characterized the classic Chicago blues sound of Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and others in the 50’s,” he’s also a master of West Coast jump blues, incorporating elements of Los Angeles’ postwar jazz, swing, and R&B combos.
Piazza has recorded twenty-six studio albums between 1967 and 2014, including the live concert DVD Big Blues Party in 2005 (recorded at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California). In addition, Piazza has appeared as a guest performer on over twenty-one releases since 1968 and toured blues clubs, concert venues and festivals in the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Spain, among other countries.
Emergency Situation, the latest release from Rod Piazza on Blind Pig Records, reunites the popular, award-winning bluesman with the acclaimed roots label. Says Piazza, “This CD has got to be a high mark in my extensive career of making records. It not only has the brilliance in musicianship from a band that’s been together for almost a decade, but it also contains some of the coolest blues jewels, and innovative originals.”
THE FULL HISTORY:
Rod Piazza was born on December 18, 1947. His musical career started at the very young age of 7 thanks to the records his older brothers brought home. His brothers were 10 and 12 years older than Rod. They brought home 45’s of all the r&b hits by artists such as Jimmy Reed, Joe Turner, Earl Bostic, & Gene and Eunice. Then, in 1957, Rod was admiring the guitars for sale on the lawn of a neighbor. He would see them on his walk home from school. After he couldn’t stand it anymore he brought his mom back to see them and begged for her to buy him one. The old lady that sold the guitars informed her that they were $4 and $5. His mother bought him a $4 guitar. He messed around with that guitar constantly for the next 3 or 4 years, doing more dancing with it than actual playing.
Then, around 1962, when Rod was 14 (he was born on December 18, 1947), some musician friends started showing him some things on the guitar. In 1963 a friend gave him his first harmonica and he started trying to play along with songs on the radio, like Slim Harpo, Buster Brown, and Jimmy Reed.
About 1965, some guys at school were starting a band and called Rod wanting to know if he would sing and play guitar. When he went to the rehearsal they had guys playing guitar better than Rod so they told him to just blow harp and sing. They – “The Mystics” – started playing parties and moved up to LA for a short while in 1966 to play on the local club scene. There were clubs in LA that would have band audition nights, calling them Hootenanny Night. The band would play for free hoping that the manager would hear them and they would get an actual paying gig out of it. But most of the time the people working the club would say, “You guys were great! But the manager wasn’t here. We’ll tell him about you though.” Bullshit. They never did get a gig there but the club owner got free music. It was quite a scam during the 60’s as there were so many young bands just wanting to play, not caring if they got paid or not.
Eventually, they came back to Riverside and played locally venturing out whenever a gig came up. One did come up that would change the entire course of Rod’s young life. His band got a job at a dive next to the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. Rod remembers that James Cotton was playing the Golden Bear that same weekend. A writer named Eileen Kaufman, the wife of a famous poet, came to the show and wrote an article about them in the LA Free Press. Then she got in touch with Della Reese’s manager, who, after seeing one show, brought ABC Bluesway record execs to a club in Hollywood called Genesis 9 to see the band perform. This manager made a deal with ABC Bluesway to record them. They were calling themselves “The House of DBS”, which stood for Dirty Blues Sound, but this manager/producer changed it to “The Dirty Blues Band”. They did two LP’s for ABC Bluesway in 1967 & 1968. Unfortunately, due to a couple of the band members getting drafted into the Vietnam War, the band broke up after the 2nd LP.
So, it was still 1968 and Rod started a new band which would be the beginning of Bacon Fat. One night, Richard Innes and Rod went to see who they thought was Big Walter Horton at the Ash Grove in Hollywood. After a 60 mile drive, it was actually Big Walter Smith, as the club owner informed them, who actually was George Harmonica Smith. He was dumping his harmonicas out on the stage from a paper sack. Some guy in the back yelled out, “Can I play some guitar Mr. Smith?” George said “yeah” without even looking up. So, Rod was feeling a little cocky and said, “I’d like to blow some harp.” By the time the show started the club had filled up. Rod and Richard were crowded in right to the front of the stage. When George started wailing, Rod looked at Richard and said, “Man, I don’t want to sit in!” They both laughed in agreement but when they looked up, here came George with the harp and mic, shoving it towards Rod face like he was saying, “You wanted to blow. Now let’s see what you can do!” He gave one of those fierce looks that he was famous for and shoved the harp and mic at him one more time. Rod had no choice but to take them both and start playing.
The crowd started screaming like they do when anybody sits in. George Smith backed up on the stage and looked at Rod like…Where did this guy come from? Pee Wee Crayton was on guitar and he started ribbing him like George was getting cut. Those two were always giving each other a hard time, just like brothers. George then grabbed the cord while Rod played, gently forcing Rod up out of his seat, around the side of the stage, and up the stairs. He finished the song onstage with Pee Wee and the audience yelling for him. Rod handed the mic and harp back to George, shook his hand, and said thank you. George just shook his head, “Ok”. Pee Wee kept at George saying, “That young boy cut you, George.” So he says, “Ok, let’s see what he can do with Big Mama”, which was his chromatic harp. He started another shuffle and came to the edge of the stage and tried, once again, to hand Rod the mic and the harp. Rod’s really saying no this time but George insists. Rod starts playing but George sees he can barely get around on the big harp, so he takes it back, to Rod’s great relief, and tells the audience to give him a hand. George finishes his show. Afterwards, Rod said to George, “Thank you for letting me play.” George simply said, “You’re welcome.”
A few months later, still in 1968, The Dirty Blues Band opened for Howling Wolf at the Ash Grove for a full week. On the first night, Rod was playing his first set. He had his eyes closed while he played and all of a sudden hears the audience start screaming. When he opens his eyes he sees George onstage, looking down at him (George was way taller than Rod’s six feet) as if saying, “Now it’s my turn to sit in with you.” So Rod doesn’t hesitate and hands George his harp and mic and George proceeds to upset the club. He ends up sitting in with Rod every night and together they tear up the place. Wolf is pissed off at George for playing with Rod and making their set go over so good. This didn’t make Wolf feel too comfortable for one reason or another. But George didn’t pay him any attention and on the last night he tells Rod that he’d like to get a band together with him. Rod was surprised and says, “Two harps?” George says, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.” Rod said, “Great” and gave George his phone number, not expecting to hear from him again.
About one month later, Rod was laying in the bed and his phone started ringing. It was George. Rod said, “Hey George, what’s happening?” George asks, “Are you ready to work this Friday at the Sassy Kitten? Can you get a drummer?” He already had Pee Wee Crayton on guitar and Lee Skalar, a long-haired hippy dude, on bass, who also had a friend sitting in on second guitar. Richard Innes had only been playing a few months but he was in. Together with Rod they head out from Riverside to Los Angeles to find the club. Since they don’t know where it is, and this was way before MapQuest, they are hoping that a miracle would happen and they would be lead to the club. Well, the miracle happened. They were on the 110 Freeway and right ahead of them was an old van with a poster in the back window. The poster had a picture of George Smith on it. So Rod and Richard decide to follow this van, which, of course they didn’t realize, was being driven by Lee Skalar. And he leads them right to the club. Now what are the odds of that?
Their first gig together didn’t go very well. The black audience wouldn’t warm up to Rod even though George kept telling them to give him a chance. But, finally, after a few weeks, they slowly started to accept Rod. One night Steve Small, from Small’s Paradise, came into the club. George introduces him to Rod and says, “Rod, this is Steve. We’re going to be working for him now.”