Roomful of Blues

This band has had so many members over the years I don’t even know what year the above picture was taken or who was in it. Probably early-to-mid-8O’s. Over the years the band has had at least 48 members. 

The Wikipedia write-up on these dudes is so on point that I am going to quote the beginning in its entirety: “Roomful of Blues is an American blues and swing revival big band based in Rhode Island. With a recording career that spans over 50 years, they have toured worldwide and recorded many albums. Roomful of Blues, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, ‘Swagger, sway and swing with energy and precision.’

Since 1967, the group’s blend of swing, rock and roll, jump blues, boogie-woogie and soul has earned it five Grammy Award nominations and many other accolades, including seven Blues Music Awards (with a victory as Blues Band Of The Year in 2005). Billboard called the band “a tour de force of horn-fried blues…Roomful is so tight and so right.” The Down Beat International Critics Poll has twice selected Roomful of Blues as Best Blues Band.”

I never met any of these guys (well, one) but the harp player in my band from many moons ago hailed from the same town, a beachfront community named Westerly, R.I. (Closer to New London, CT than, say, Newport.) I don’t know what they were drinking down there but they were churning out blues guys on a regular basis.

Co-founded by ace guitarist Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley as a Chicago-style blues band, by 1970 they had morphed into a horn-driven jump swing blues ensemble. In 1974 they performed with Count Basie who called them “the hottest blues band I’ve ever heard.”

They kicked around for a while playing clubs, initially mostly in the New England area. They finally got a recording contract and in 1978 released what is now called Roomful of Blues: The First Album. Listen to these guys swing on “That’s My Life.”

Spotify link

I moved to New England in the mid-70’s and that was a pretty fervent time for blues in this area. I think my first conversation with someone here was “How you doin’?” and my second one was “where can I hear me some blues?” I’ve been a Roomful aficionado ever since, having seen them maybe a dozen times over the years.

One time a buddy of mine went down to Rhode Island where the band was playing some amusement park ballroom (!) that was closing down. It as more like a party in a high school auditorium than a concert proper. Pretty much everybody who was ever in the band came back and half the people who came were friends of the band. They played so long we never saw the end since we had to drive back to Boston. For all I know some version of them is still playing down there.

In 1980, Duke Robillard left the band. He replaced Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, played behind Robert Gordon and had a swing trio along with Jay Geils. Fortunately, he was replaced by another blues great, Ronnie Earl who I’ve also seen a billion times and actually met on my epic Allmans tour. (I happened to be wearing a Roomful T-shirt backstage in Memphis and he commented on that. We chatted briefly.)

Here’s the Ronnie Earl version of Roomful with singer Greg Piccolo doing “Sufferin’ Mind.” (YouTube only.) This is probably the version of the band I saw the most. This is from an album called Hot Little Mama. One of the musicians is the late trombonist Porky Cohen who had played with guys like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.

“Oh how I’m sufferin’, in my mind
Whoa, you keep me worryin’, Lord all the time
I try to smile but my friends all leave
But nothin’ I could do to ease, my sufferin’ mind

Roomful are famous for playing not only on their own stuff but behind other artists. Would it surprise you to know their horn section and drummer backed Pat Benatar on a 1991 album called True Love? This is a fine album and Benatar did a great job. She kinda got hammered by the press for stepping outside of what they determined to be her comfort zone. But you know, fuck them. That’s her husband Neil Giraldo wailing on the guitar.

Spotify link

I could go on all day about these guys and now I am totally pumped to see them again soon. If you dig this shit, do NOT hesitate to go see them, especially someplace where you can get up and shake a leg. (If you don’t like this music, I cannot help you. Take your pulse.) They receive the coveted Music Enthusiast Gold Seal of Blues Most High Approval. And you KNOW I don’t just hand that out like candy.

Tour schedule

I leave you with the tune “Blind Love” from maybe my favorite Roomful album Turn it On! Turn it Up! with singer Sugar Ray Norcia.

“I’m standin’ on the corner, ‘tween 35th and Main
I’m standin’ on the corner, ‘tween 35th and Main
Has anybody seen my woman
I’d love to see her again

Spotify link

Current members

  • Rich Lataille – tenor and alto saxophone
  • Chris Vachon – guitar
  • Phil Pemberton – vocals
  • John Turner – upright bass and bass guitar
  • Chris Rivelli – drums
  • Doug Woolverton – trumpet
  • Mark Earley – baritone and tenor saxophone
  • Rusty Scott – piano and Hammond B3 organ

12 thoughts on “Roomful of Blues

  1. Dang it, Jim, you didn’t exaggerate- they are smoking hot! 😜🎸

    I love how they blend blues, Memphis-style soul and swing – truly at the intersection of these music styles. I can see you’re pumped to see them.

    Without meaning to brag, their only current Jersey date, which would still be a bit of a hike from my house (though I’d do it, since the Lizzy Rose Room is supposed to be a high quality venue), coincidences with my Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers concert! But given how extensively they seem to tour, I’m hopeful there will be future opportunities.

    Pat Benatar is a great vocalist, and I agree she does a beautiful job on the tune you highlighted. It’s unfortunate when people try to stick artists in a box!

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    1. Yeah, if you’re a blues fan you can’t not love these guys. And they never break up! Guys just come and go. As it happens, they’re playing at a venue near me next month but it’s just about sold out. However, they tend to play New Year’s Eve at a club I frequent. That’s a possibility too. I forgot to mention in the piece that a big fan of this band is my (almost) 80-year old stepmother. She is a BIG blues fan and has seen the band with us several times. She grew up dancing and so, before it became tougher for her, loved to dance to this stuff.

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  2. A buddy of mines older brother turned me onto these guys when they were backing Joe Turner (Did you check out the song I sent you on your T-Bone take?). I came on board with the Earl/Piccolo. Great piece Doc obviously you know your stuff. I lived for shows like you seen at the “amusement park ballroom” I was just listening to a Ronnie Earl yesterday.
    Doc I couldn’t agree with you more on your Benatar comment. Did “fuck them” even listen to this. I know of Pat in passing but I’m going to put this record on my spin list. Thanks.

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    1. The Dave Alvin tune? Yeah, meant to tell you that. Totally dug it. Right up the old alley for a strike on that one. Yeah, that amusement park thing was crazy. It was more like a wedding reception with good music than anything. I think we left at 2:30 am or so and it was still going. My friend is a dog so he probably spent his time chasing women. I wasn’t a huge Benatar fan but I liked some of her stuff. My wife likes her so went a few years back. No blues but good rockin’. She kills on the album (more her husband’s idea than hers) but since she didn’t fit the critics idea of a blues singer, they ragged on her. Didn’t sell. Too much of a niche. I think it’s damn good. I’m gonna miss Roomful on this next gig but they play here a lot. I hope they get up to the Great White North and you go because then you will see and hear something.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Drinking beer, chasing girls and listening to Room Full Of Blues in an old dance hall. Sounds like a good place for CB (Young CB). Man that was fun stuff. Throw in a few black eyes and that was my life.
        Yeah the Alvin tune was a bit of that old music history I love. RFOB played with a lot of old timers. This Beatar appeals way more to CB’s music ear. Is the rest of the album that good? Giraldo can play and I like her vocals. Suits the music.

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        1. Yeah, we used to get in brawls, fight halfway across Ireland and then have a beer together. Oh, wait. That was the Duke in The Quiet Man. Is the album good? Listen to her cover BB here and you tell me.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Yeah the Duke and Ford were living in another world.
          Just listened to it. It’s a killer. I’m sold. A new music discovery for CB. Not like i haven’t heard the blues before. (Same vibe as usual B.B’s on deck on my station).

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        3. You and I chatted a while back about a piece I did on a band called Powerhouse. Similar territory. I thought of it because they also did the great tune ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ which is on this album.

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