If you've made it this far into the proceedings, you're certainly well aware that Tom Principato isn't merely an archiver for hire, but also an interesting artist in his own right. For further evidence, listen to his latest album, A PART OF ME (Powerhouse Records), which serves up Southern-fried soul ("Sweet Angel"), driving New Orleans rhythms ("Down In Louisiana") and bumptious roots-rock ("Don't Wanna Do It"), without missing the proverbial beat.
My favorites are the title track -- which is the kind of old school soul-rock ballad that you hardly hear anymore -- and "Stranger's Eyes Pt. 2," another worthy addition to Tom's lengthy instrumental musical roll call. And that's before we discuss the special guests, who made their contributions via the magic of technology, as Tom explains: "We would either email or send a CD reference of the basic track. They'd overdub it, email or send it back, and we'd fly it in, with digital synchronization.
"So you'd send a reference down to Sonny Landreth, in Louisiana, and when he had a chance, he went into his favorite local studio...laid it down, sent it back...instead of having him fly up here, or try to catch him when he's in this part of the country on tour." Yes, indeed, a lot has changed since Tom first cranked up his stacks 40-odd years ago, but not the commitment to making passionate music. (For more information, visit: www.tomprincipato.com/.)
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): It's interesting to see some of the guest names you've got here. You've got Chuck Leavell, you've got Brian Auger: that's not a name that has popped up in my brain for quite awhile.
TOM PRINCIPATO (TP): Well, I've known Brian through an all-star band that Catfish Hodge has been putting together every year, the January All-Stars. The personnel has changed, but the group started out to be Catfish Hodge, myself, Steve Wolf on bass, Pete Ragusa on drums, and Brian Auger on organ. I've always been aware of Brian, and actually, I saw him with the Trinity in 1970, at the Cellar Door.
After we did a couple of gigs with Brian, I'm going, “This guy is good as anybody in the world!” And it's true, man. He's incredible. He takes a really nice solo on his album, but I've heard him do stuff as good as Jimmy Smith. He just tears it up! So, when I got this idea to do an album that involved some of these kind of guys, I immediately thought of him – and he was very generous.
CR: And there he was! Of course, the association with Chuck was a little closer to home – since, like you, he is a Southerner.
TP: Well, not only that, I met him when I was in Geoff Muldaur's band, in 1980. We did a show with Sea Level in New England, and that was when I first met Chuck. But he's been involved in two of my other albums. He produced my Tip Of The Iceberg album, and he plays on my Really Blue album.
CR: What do you get from him, that you don't get from [playing with] somebody else?
TP: Well, he's just got a special way of accompanying me on the organ, and he just plays some great stuff. His style is individual. He's a great guy, a Southern gentleman, and I just like working with him. He never disappoints me with the stuff that he sends, when I ask him [to contribute something].
CR: Indeed. So what was the basic recording strategy with this particular album? It's got a very live sound to it, I noticed...
TP: Right. Yeah, I was really trying to go for an organic sound, and we used ProTools – but I think, in all of the non-objectionable ways, you know. We used it to sort of supplement the music, not screw with it.
CR: Not overwhelm it!
TP: Yeah, so that was pretty cool – but my approach always is to set up in the studio, and perform the way we do at the gigs. Usually, it's with the core group – guitar, bass and drums. I go for live solos as much as I can. I really don't like overdubbing them. I did do more overdubbing this time than I usually do on an album, but there were still a number of live things. I mean, “Down In Louisiana” is completely live. My solo on “Down The Road,” with Brian Auger, and Willie Weeks, and Jim Brock, that's all live. And “Back Again And Gone,” with Steve Wolf, and Joe Wells – that was live.
CR: Yeah, and I have to say that on listening to “A Part Of Me,” I thought, “Wow, this sounds like the old school kind of song that they really don't do anymore!” That was an interesting highlight for me.
TP (laughs): Yeah! It was a kick to have Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns on that. He did all the horns for all the Otis Redding records, and a lot of the Al Green stuff, too.
CR: So what do you think works here, from a songwriting point of view? What have you been playing from it live?
TP: Well, oddly enough, we haven't been doing the instrumentals. I'm trying to demonstrate my growth as a singer, and a songwriter, so we're doing “Down In Louisiana,” and we do “A Stranger's Eyes.” We do “Part Of Me” – the audiences just love “Part Of Me.” “Sweet Angel” has been popular with the audiences, too. They're diggin' that one.
CR: So you've been really pushing the song aspect of your personality this time around, then. Of course, that's another curse great guitar players deal with. It's easy to think of them purely as players, and forget about all the other stuff.
TP: Right. Well, you know, I'm willing to admit that – although I've been attempting singing for awhile – I've usually been regarded as my strongest attribute being my guitar playing. But I've really, really been working on the singing, and I think I've had some improvement, and I'm pleased about that. People seem to be enjoying it more – although, even before this improvement phase – a typical thing that people would say to me is, they wouldn't say they thought I was a great singer. They would just say, “I like your singing.” So, I mean, to me, that's as good as anything.
CR: Well, if it has character to it, that's half the battle, isn't it? A lot of people gave Mike Bloomfield shit for that, but to me, that's one of the more endearing qualities of his later stuff.
TP: Yeah, actually, I enjoy his vocals, too. And, to tell you the truth, I enjoy Roy Buchanan's vocals, as well.
CR: Yeah. I put that CD on, along with yours, late last night – 'cause I thought, “That's the best time to listen to something like this.” And with Roy, I could almost feel like I was right there in the room with him.
TP: Yeah. Well, some numb nuts gave me a review recently – I don't even remember where it was now, but I felt compelled to respond to him. He basically said, “Well, Principato had all this star power on the album, I don't understand why he didn't hire a singer, too.”
CR: To which you said...
TP: To which I said, “Well, I felt like I wanted to demonstrate my growth as a a singer, and I'm very pleased with my vocals on this album, and all I can do is do my best.”
CR: Yeah. And some people will like it, and some won't – and that's the way it goes. So, was singing something that you had to struggle with, in the beginning? Did you feel self-conscious [in] taking that on? I mean, how did we approach that?
TP: Well, I'll tell you. It's really not that easy to sing and play rhythm guitar at the same time, or to sing and play guitar at the same time. And it's really something you've got to develop. That doesn't have anything to do with how well you're singing – just doing the two in one is a whole accomplishment in itself. You know, it's been a long development mental process, and I never felt like I could improvise with my voice, like I can with my guitar, but nowadays, I feel like I can do it better than ever.
CR: Well, that's good to hear, so hopefully, then – [on] the next album or two, we'll see that explored a little bit further.
TP: I've been pleased with my vocals at our last live performances. We did some live audio/video recording this past Friday night, and I was pleased with the vocals, so...we'll see. I might be getting somewhere.
CR: But, of course, you may have a bit of pulling power – in the sense that, you're one of the last of the old guys from the D.C. area that's out there pretty regularly...so, that may be a draw for people, in and of itself. They may know your name, but not necessarily what you've been doing lately, know what I mean?
TP: Oh, yeah, definitely! Actually, I think that's a pretty big issue.
CR: In what sense?
TP: Well, I think that I have grown, and changed – and I don't think that a lot of people have realized that. I think it's harder than ever to get people to pay attention these days.
CR: Because there's just so much more stuff out there these days?
TP: Yeah. And, you know, it's funny – on this subject, one of the guys in the band was remarking to me the other day, because we always chuckle about my being put in the “blues guitarist” category. I mean, how much blues is there on “A Part Of Me?” It's bluesy, at times...
CR: But it's not blues-driven, as such.
TP: No. I'm this eclectic roots guy – but one of the guys in the band made a remark: “But you know, every one of these reviews that you get, Tom, always starts out with: 'Blues guitarist Tom Principato.' It doesn't say, 'Guitarist Tom Principato,' or, 'guitar legend,' or whatever. It always says, 'Blues guitarist Tom Principato.'” That's an interesting thing – a lot of people have this antiquated view, or memory, of something that I've done, and don't realize that it may not be like what I am now at all anymore.
CR: Right, and it may not be accurate. And it's interesting, too, because – looking back – you were probably one of the few names of that early era of D.C. [music] to break out, and get to the wider world. Whereas, as you know, a lot of guys like Danny just sort of stayed in that circuit. So, in that respect, you've been probably luckier – but it sounds like there's still some catching up to do, isn't there?
TP: There's been an interesting paradox with me, because I definitely have a lot of name recognition in a lot of different places. I've got over 5,000 friends on Myspace – these are people that have come to me – and I'm reaching my 5,000 limit on Facebook. Those are people that have made requests to me. And I have 500 unanswered friend requests on Facebook. So, obviously, there are thousands of people out there who are aware of me, and my music. Frequently, if I go out, do a show and perform, I don't get a crowd...what's going on? Why is that?
CR: I don't know – I think, perhaps, with the Internet era being what it was, people have so many more choices, and so many more distractions.
TP: Yeah, that's part of it.
CR: Actually, I'll ask you one more question, and then we can hang up. What would you tell people starting out now in that uncertain era – where concert attendances are so horrible, and you've got the issue of downloading, and file-sharing – you've got that whole debate. It seems like the ceiling for sales has never been smaller, in terms of CDs. What do you tell people who might feel nervous about trying to establish themselves in that climate right now?
TP: Well, you just have to be patient and persistent, you know? I don't think anybody wants to give up (laughs), so it just takes more perseverance than ever. That's the main thing.
CR: That's true. Well, of course, you were doing the independent label thing, long before a lot of other folks were.
TP: I was indie before indie was cool (laughs)! And I'm kind of happy about that now, because my little record label has really grown into something nice. I've got a couple of Roy Buchanan albums, a couple of Danny Gatton, a couple of Nighthawks, a dozen of my own albums.
CR: It definitely has its own identity and presence in the marketplace...
TP: Yeah, and I've got a good distribution deal with a great company, Redeye – and I get monthly checks, so yeah, I'm pretty happy. But you know what? I worked my ass off on it.
CR: All right, so life is good – that being said, now it is time to hang up, and let you go.
TP: Well, thanks, Ralph. I appreciate the support. It's always nice talking with you.
Danny Gatton Corner
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