For 45 years, Roomful of Blues has kept one consistent mission alive: to carry on the swing, big band, and jazz blues traditions of the ’40s and ’50s. Among their many admirers, it should be no surprise band leader Count Basie called them “the hottest blues band I’ve ever heard.” That’s largely because Roomful of Blues picked up the torch Basie and his fellow horn-heavy ensembles passed on when their own careers slowly faded into the sunset.
It all began in the late ’60s when guitarist Duke Robillard and keyboardist Al Copley looked to incorporate swing, jump, and boogie woogie music in their Rhode Island-based band. They naturally began to include horns in 1970. One of those early players was saxophonist Rich Lataille, who’s the only member from the early days still in the band. Over the years, in fact, there have been approximately 50 players including the likes of guitarist Ronnie Earl, vocalist Lou Ann Barton, vocalist/harpist Curtis Salgado, saxist/vocalist Greg Piccolo, and harpist/vocalist Sugar Ray Norcia.
Since 1990, guitarist/producer Chris Vachon has led the band which, along with Lataille, now features vocalist Phil Pemberton, longtime tenor and baritone saxophonist Mark Earley, trumpeter Doug Woolverton, bassist John Turner, drummer Chris Rivelli, and keyboardist Rusty Scott. As you might expect, this is one smooth, slick, and precise showband capable of tight arrangements and open solos spotlighting the full line-up. This isn’t a back-up band for any given front man—Roomful of Blues is a stage full of all-stars.
Specifically designed to celebrate their 45th anniversary, Vachon arranged for a three-day party in March 2013 at The Ocean Mist in Matunuck, Rhode Island where they recorded the songs for 45 Live. Vachon chose 14 numbers representing the band’s entire career, including songs previously recorded or performed in the ’80s with Joe Turner (“Crawdad Hole”), Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson (“Somebody’s Got To Go”), and Earl King (“It All Went Down The Drain”). Original tunes include 2003’s “That’s Right,” 1995’s “Turn It On, Turn It Up,” and, for the first time in 20 years, a live version of “Dressed Up To Get Messed Up.”
But you really don’t need to know the history of Roomful of Blues to join in the fun. If knowing they have earned five Grammy Award nominations, seven Blues Music Awards, and were twice selected by the DownBeat International Critics Poll as Best Blues band gives them credibility for you, so be it. But really, all you need do is listen to the opening bars of “Just Keep On Rockin’,” and you will know what to expect. Don’t anticipate the shuffles and guitar pyrotechnics of a Stevie Ray Vaughan or Johnny Winter. Don’t look for the down and dirty grooves of players in the Chess/Detroit/Memphis traditions. Think Dixieland, New Orleans, Cab Calloway, Otis Rush, and certainly Count Basie. The roots of Roomful of Blues go back 70, 80 years, not a mere 45. With luck, they’ll keep us jumpin’ for decades to come. Happy anniversary, gents!