If you're a guitar buff, you're already well acquainted with Tom Principato, or have an album or two in your collection. If you don't, well -- you're in for a treat when you take that crash course. Aficionados know him for his associations with Danny Gatton (Blazing Telecasters), Geoff Muldaur (I Ain't Drunk), Powerhouse (Night Life), and Jimmy Thackeray (No Previous Record, Partners In Crime). That's before we get to his various session credits (including James Montgomery, Sunnyland Slim, and Big Mama Thornton), and long string of solo albums, starting with Blazing Telecasters, that almost nudged its way into a Grammy Award nomination.
All these events, and more, are detailed in Tom's latest project, They Tell Me I Had A Good Time!, an 86-page account of nearly 50 years in the music business, one in which he's done things his own way all along. It's a path that, as Tom acknowledges in his introduction, came with its pros and cons: "The fact that I did it all myself could explain why I've advanced as far as I have in the Music Business -- and it could also be the reason why I never advanced any further than I did. But at least now I own all the masters and copyrights for to my catalogue of recordings, songs and original music; and I never have to hear from another record company that my 'check is in the mail.'"
That same dedication applies to the archival CD and DVD releases from Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton on Powerhouse, Tom's imprint for those efforts, as well as his own work -- enabling another generation to dig deeper behind the instrumental mystique that defines both late guitarists, and get excited about it all over again, some 20-odd years after their tragic deaths.
Tom recently took time out to answer some questions, via the magic of the Internet, about his rationale for writing They Tell Me, as he did, and the licks and tricks he picked up along a journey that's taken him from Boston, to Washington, DC, Istanbul, the Montreux Jazz Festival...and beyond.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): The million dollar question, of course: why now, at this point in your life? Did you always have it in the back of your mind, to write a book, or did you get that inspiration recently? Will we get another book, or is this a one-off?
TOM PRINCIPATO (TP): Now that I'm in my 60's and newly married for the first time in my life, I've been easing into "semi-retirement". I used to travel a lot, particularly to Europe and now I just mostly do a few gigs a year local to the D.C. area. I've always had the idea to write this book, and lately I've had the time to spend on it. It's sort of a "looking back" kind of thing for me, and it was a lot of fun to do it – researching some facts, testing my memory and re-connecting with some old friends and band mates to ask them what they remembered about certain things. It's already been suggested that I do an expanded edition, but we'll see about that...I wanted to keep this one short and sweet with no filler.
CR: As you mention, you always knew music would be your calling, though your parents had different ideas – your father, particularly. I'm guessing that you grew up in a traditional household, and he had different plans for you.
TP: Because our family enjoyed Comedy a lot when I was growing up, my Mother always said she was afraid I would want to be a comedian. My father was a professional photographer, and had a dark room in our basement that I used to spend a lot of time in. My father discouraged me from being a photographer – I think he was afraid I wouldn't make any money at it. But I showed them – I became a musician!
CR: I'm struck by this, since Holly alludes to the same issue with Danny in my book. What would you tell other young people who might face the same position today?
TP: My best advice to anyone wanting to be a musician today would be follow your heart and plan on using a lot of patience and perseverance.
CR: I read your comments on “The Three Kings” – BB, Albert, and Freddie – with great interest, since I saw BB myself in the spring of 1984, and many of those same qualities that you describe came across loud and clear, though that show came much later in his life and career, of course.
What did you learn from each of them, and what kind of imprint did they leave on your music? How do you feel their influence fit, or didn't fit, into the blues-rock booms of the late '60s and mid- to late '80s, which were a decidedly different beast (musically speaking)?
TP: The #1 I thing I learned from BB King was to play from the heart, and to carry yourself with honesty and integrity. I've really tried to follow that in my musical and business dealings in life. from Albert and Freddie King, I just mostly learned by observing their examples how to play the hell out of a guitar.
CR: When did you feel “legit,” so to speak? When you made your first album, or became a bandleader, or did you have that feeling from the get-go, with the James Montgomery experience?
TP: In the early 70's in Boston when I first was attempting to be a Professional musician, I could see once I had played for a while with James Montgomery's band that I could navigate the music business and do it full time. I had the passion, and the love for guitar and blues music. I also think that when Powerhouse did our first LP in 1975 for Billy Hancock's Aladdin Records, that I and we were legitimized as Pro Musicians.
CR: Washington, D.C., as we've discussed , always seems to have existed a breed apart from other cities. What factors made it that way, and how did you see yourself fitting into that framework? How did it change as the decades passed? (Other than the raising of the drinking age to 21, which many folks from that era have cited.)
TP: Because Washington was a very affluent white collar town, there were always a lot of clubs and a lot of places for bands to work. There was somewhat of community of bands that were all feeding off each other and also helping draw attention to each other too. there were a lot of Blues and roots music bands in those days, and great places to play like the Cellar Door, Childe Harold, and the Psyche Delly.
CR: How do you look back on your work with Danny, and how you feel his reputation has changed since his death, especially in comparison to Roy? What impact did he make on you, as a musician?
Sharing music with Danny Gatton has been a milestone in my life for sure. Looking back now, I wish that at the times that we were playing together, that i was farther along in my development as a guitarist, just so i could keep up with him. I used to warm up for an hour before going on stage with Danny – it was such a challenge. I learned a lot about collecting eclectic influences into one package from Danny. In short, just play what you love and you'll be having the most fun and doing your best, and doing what you love best. Danny's reputation has definitely grown since he passed. I'm glad to see that, and i hope that I've helped in a small way to further his legacy through the archival recordings I've released by him. He's no longer a big secret – a lot of people know about Danny and his great music now.
For some reason, it appears to me that Roy Buchanan still has a rather large cult following. I think he benefited a lot from his recording contract with Polydor in the 70's. Once Roy started touring the World, he became an International guitar star.
CR: Your book contains several examples of “what not to do,” on the bandstand, and off – notably, the Albert King and Frank Zappa stories. I'm thinking of a band director who told me in high school, “To be a good musician, you need a good attitude.” In other words, talent isn't enough – what advice would you give up and comers in this area, if they were willing to listen, and you were in a position to give it out?
TP: Well, one thing that is so very prevalent in "the music business" is Ego. Frank that night had a lot of it. Navigating with humility is best--let your actions speak for themselves.
CR: Did you ever reach a point where you felt frustrated enough to say, “That's it” – like after the Ichiban debacle, for instance? What qualities does a musician need to weather that kind of situation, and keep doing what they love most – especially since you don't get niceties like health insurance and/or pension plans?
TP: I've always been a very determined and driven person. When something like the Ichiban bankruptcy happens, it just makes me more determined to learn from the mistakes, and pull it all together and re-build. Once again – patience and perseverance are a must. I've always on the other hand felt very lucky to be doing all of my life what I have loved – playing music. It's been important and easy for me to keep that in perspective and realize the alternative is a stupid job I hate.
CR: What led you to go into semi-retirement? If you were talking to someone who'd never heard to your music before, what album would you recommend to get them interested in exploring it?
TP: The more I traveled, the harder physically it became. And since I'm newly married, I've really been enjoying staying off the road, being home with my family. I didn't have much time for a home and family life when I was always traveling before.I like to think that each of my albums has been better that the previous, and I feel that my latest studio album Robert Johnson Told Me So is my best.
CR: Looking back on your career now, what do you consider your biggest achievement? I'm reminded of what Roger McDuffie told me for the Gatton book, which I'll paraphrase as follows, roughly: “Sad as it is, a lot of legends are just forgotten.”
That comment makes me think of people like Paul Butterfield, whom you mention – someone who never got his due while he was still here, yet remains a reference point that no musician should overlook (along with his cohort, Mike Bloomfield, whom we've discussed, too). Is there still a passion project that you haven't yet done, and if so, what is it?
TP: I think my biggest achievement is just that fact that my whole life I've always been involved in music, and never had to have a "real job". And because I've always done what I love, I feel I'm in good health emotionally and physically from that. As difficult as it is to be a musician, I've always been really happy doing just that.
I've been wanting to do a tribute to BB King album of all his songs. We'll see if I can pull that one off!....