Saturday, August 25, 2012

Meeting Musicial Needs Everywhere: Mikey Junior and His Stone Cold Blues Part 1

As a teen-ager, while waiting tables in a Bucks County, Pennsylvania restaurant, Mikey Jr.’s primary aim was to take care of his customers.

“I worked every single Friday and Saturday night from the time I was 12 to the time I was basically 22. And worked at Italian restaurants,” recalled Mikey. “And by the time I was 15, I was a waiter …I had nothing but requests from Friday and Saturday night because I was really good at anticipating people’s needs and taking care of people.”

These days, he is still anticipating needs—but as a harmonica player of rising reputation in the blues world. As leader of Mikey Jr. and the Stone Cold Blues, Mikey tries to give blues fans the music they want. 

Mikey tries to please his fans through albums, through a heavy touring schedule that these days is taking him more and more frequently outside of the Pennsylvania-to Baltimore corridor he has--up until now--been best known in; and through his role as house musician and booking agent at the Twisted Tail, Philadelphia’s newest blues venue.

Mikey is always busy—he frequently had to put me on hold during our hour and a half phone conversation to handle business.  But that's what comes with having such a love of music that you decide to pursue making a living at it full time.

“You’ve got to be able to work, and you’ve got to be able to get the stuff done,” he said. “You know I do all of the booking, I do all of the promotion, right down to my web design, and designing flyers and posters.”

Born Andrew Michael Hudak in Trenton, N.J., Mikey was heavily exposed to music as a youth through his father, a full-time harmonica player and pianist.
 “My dad took me to see James Brown in 1984 when I was four years old at the Trenton War Memorial Building--that was my first concert—and it was great,” he recalled. “I just always loved rhythm and blues, but it wasn’t until I was older that I found blues. I found what I liked so much and a lot of the influences of music that I was listening to, whether it be rap music or even Pink Floyd for that matter. I just fell in love with the blues and Sonny Boy Williamson and B.B. King and Buddy Guy and then, later on, Little Walter and George Smith. And then all of the way down to people like Gary Primich, of course, William Clarke, you know, people like that. “

Mikey lived in Trenton until 1989, when his mother, in search of a better school system, moved him to Bucks County.  He moved back to Trenton at age 20, into a house left to him by an aunt. He has since moved back to Bucks County, into a condo he purchased.

Growing up, he frequently went on gigs with his father, liking best the fifties-themed parties the band hosted at campgrounds throughout the area.

Industrious from a young age, Mikey joined the staff of Salvatore’s restaurant in Morrisville, Pennsylvania as a busboy at age 12.  “And then......(near Morrisville) also was this place called Café Antonio’s,” he recalled. “And a waiter from Salvatore’s went to work there and he liked the way I took care of him so much because I used to really take care of my waiters when I was a busboy. ..(he) liked me so much that when he got a job at this new restaurant that was opening, he called me up and said ‘hey, I can get you a busboy job at this restaurant.’ Well, I only bussed there for a couple of weeks, until they said ‘Hey, if you want to wait tables, you can wait tables.’ And they let me start waiting tables.”

 At 19, he added another trade—real estate—to his repertoire by earning his real estate license. Then, his work days consisted of a nine-to-five job as a real estate assistant, followed by evenings waiting tables.
But the music continued to call to him, and eventually he dropped the waiter’s gig. The real estate job soon followed, and in 2002 Mikey Junior went to music full-time. He starting performing shows; the instinct for customer service that had served him so well as a waiter compelling him to play songs he sensed his audience really wanted to hear instead of dryly spitting out a set list.

Mikey also began to release a series of CD’s, all under a label he created, 8th Train Records. In 2003 he released The 420 Sessions, an album recorded at a studio in Tarpon Springs Florida and produced by Danny DeGennaro, a Philadelphia area guitarist known for his work in Kingfish, a group that also included Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. Other notable musicians DeGennaro had worked for over the years included the late Clarence Clemons and Parliament Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton.
DeGennaro, who died last December after he was found in his Levittown, Pennsylvania home with a bullet wound to his chest, also played on Mikey's album along with bassist Gary “Bubba” Balduzzi, drummer Kenny Suarez and keyboardist Pete Kane.

DeGennaro also produced and played on Mikey’s second album The New York City Sessions, released in 2005. The CD also featured Balduzzi on bass but included a different keyboardist, Glen McClelland, and alternated between two different drummers, Adam Stranburg and Dave Mohn.

Mikey’s present band began to take shape with 2007’s Look Inside My Pocket, including Stranburg, now his current drummer;  and Matt Daniels, a guitarist from New Jersey who had shared the stage at various times with Sonny Rhodes, Walter Trout and Rod Piazza and who had been lauded by a critic from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper as a guitarist whose instrument “crackles especially hard.”  Mikey also brought on bassist Jimmy Pritchard, known for his work with Rhodes and with Randy Lippincott, a Philadelphia-area guitarist who had once played bass for Johnny Copeland. (If you want to know more about Pritchard, check out the post: Jimmy Pritchard  ) 

For his next album, 2009’s  Mikey Likes it, Mikey  brought in Upright Bass Player Mike Lampe, Piano player Bill Heid and guitarist Dave Gross to round out his core band of Daniels, Pritchard and Stranburg.

Mikey and Daniels then decided to branch off into a solo project. The result was 2010’s Pocket Full of Money, an acoustic album that showcased Mikey’s take on more traditional styles.

The Stone Cold’s latest venture is It Ain’t Ours to Tell, released in 2011. A song from that album, “The Cheapskate,” was part of a three-way tie that won Big City Rhythm and Blues Magazine’s “Coolest Blues Song of the Year” award in 2011.

The band also was a finalist in the 2012 International Blues Challenge, held in Memphis in February. It was Mikey’s first time to the finals in four visits over seven years.  He had previously attended the IBC  in 2005, 2007 and 2011.

Mikey said he will soon release a collection of “original Mikey Junior” material. In addition, he and Daniels will travel to France next year to perform.
We began our interview by asking him about the very first time he picked up a harmonica:

BBP:  I know you grew up in Trenton. Tell me how you got into music. You know, the first time you ever picked up an instrument, and especially the first time you ever picked up a harmonica.

Mikey:  Well, I always loved music….I mean you know my dad was a musician, that’s why they call me Mikey Jr. He still is a full-time musician in the Trenton area. He lives in Browns Mills, New Jersey and he taught me how to play piano at first—he always played harmonica and piano. I’d always try to pick up the harmonica as a kid, but never really took it seriously until I was 17. I started being able to make sense on it and then I started to study it, and that’s how I got into the harmonica.

BBP:  So you play the piano in addition to the harmonica?

Mikey:  Yeah I play the piano but very much not professionally (laughs). But I do dabble. I know some songs on both the piano and the guitar and I love music and I play a little bit of piano and guitar as well.

BBP:  What style of music does your dad play?

Mikey: Well he does everything now because he specializes in doing nursing homes these days. He does two or three a day. And I also do them during the day as well too.  That’s what pays my bills for day work. I do between three or four a week; he does between two or three a day. I just got into it a couple of years ago. He’s been doing it for the past ten years. So he works a lot steadier than I do doing that, but I also try to go out on the road and do touring. So I try to work at them sporadically. But anyway, my dad—when I was younger—had a seven-piece, fifties rock n’ roll band where they did “Runaround Sue”  and “Secret Agent Man”  and “the Wanderer,” which is pretty cool because I had a chance to be on a Blues Cruise with Dion this year and talk to him and get my picture taken with him. My dad was real proud of me. My dad used to do all kinds of stuff. He was quite the showman. He used to do “Leader of the Pack” and drive around the bar on a tricycle—a little kid’s tricycle—and my dad’s like six-three. He had a routine where he used to do “Secret Agent Man” and come out in this trenchcoat with a suit on and basically do “Secret Agent Man.” He’d be hamming it up. In his later years he slowed down a bit. He just does a duo show with my stepmom—who I introduced him to—and they travel all throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania doing nursing homes. And they work a little bit of the clubs at night as well, but they mostly do nursing homes during the day.

BBP:  Okay. Now when you were young, did your father take you with him when he did his shows?

Mikey: Oh absolutely!  Absolutely. I remember when my father—I remember distinctively, there’s a picture of me and my dad outside of one of the places he used to work at—that I work at now—in Tuckerton, New Jersey. My friend bought a bar in Tuckerton called Doyle’s Pour House.

(Mikey has to put me on hold to take a phone call, and we resume a short time later)

BBP:  So your father used to take you out and do shows with him…

Mikey: For instance, I got a picture of me at this place Doyle’s Pour House in Tuckerton, New Jersey—it used to be called Cock’s Tail and it was a strip club where my dad and I had our picture taken out in front of there with one of the strippers, of course fully-clothed when I was really young—but yeah, I used to go to his stuff.  He used to do campground gigs where the whole band would go to the campground for the weekend and they’d have a fifties revue party where everybody would dress up in old fifties clothes and stuff and of course it was great because everybody knew that I was the son of the lead singer, you know. So I was a little bit of a superstar in my own right. And I used to sing, and, like you know, my dad would bring me up. I was real into Guns N’ Roses at that time—I think it was like 1989, I was probably nine years old—and he got me to sing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with the band and stuff like that. So yeah, my favorite times was probably going to the campgrounds to see his band perform and being able to camp out all night. Because needless to say, my dad and his band would be partyin’, so I’d pretty much be unsupervised to do whatever I wanted, so it was pretty fun.

BBP: Wow. Did your father actually take you aside and show you how to play the harmonica?

Mikey: Oh absolutely. My dad taught me a lot about the music business, both musically and businesswise. And yeah, he taught me how to play the harmonica; he bought me my very first Sonny Boy Williamson CD. He bought me my B.B. King CD. And yeah, absolutely taught me how to play the harmonica and the guitar. Other teachers of mine are a guy named Dick Davy in Bristol, Pennsylvania; Big Daddy Lambertson; and I listen to a lot of Steve Guyger. Steve Guyger is one of my heavy influences, as well as some of the people I mentioned earlier, you know. Little Walter. Sonny Boy II probably goes down as one of my favorites as far as the whole package of singing, songwriting. But yes, my dad did have an influence on my music and my career. Another person who was like a musical father to me was a guy named Danny DeGennaro. He just passed away December 28. He was actually murdered in his house from a home invasion, unfortunately. I performed a couple of his songs—one of his songs—in Memphis, Tennessee. I co-wrote a couple of songs with him—he was on my first two albums playing guitar, producing my first two albums, and he taught me a lot about the music business. He was on a record with Jerry Garcia because he was in a band called Kingfish, which was a take-off of the Grateful Dead’s band, with Bob Weir. He also toured with Billy Squire, James Montgomery, I think backed up James Cotton at one point in time. And he also recorded with the late Clarence Clemons—who just passed away—from Bruce Springsteen’s band. He had Clarence on a saxophone on one of his recordings and he was another one who taught me about the music business and stuff like that too. And then I just try to pick up as much as I can, because people a lot of times forget how hard it is to make it playing music full-time and not have another job to support yourself. Which is what I’m doing and I just have to learn everywhere I can from everybody and take what I can learn from each and every person in this business so that I can try to do it to the best of my ability. Because at the end of the day, it’s make or break on the bills, and you’ve got to be able to work, and you’ve got to be able to get stuff done. You know I do all of the booking, I do all of the promotion, right down to my web design, and designing flyers and posters, I do it all. So it’s kind of weird, because people forget that it is a music business and there’s a business side to it that must be tended to or else it’s going to hurt your music career.


BBP: Getting back to that, did you ever talk to your father about wanting to be a full-time musician like he was?

Mikey: Actually, yeah.  He told me to quit waiting tables and play music full time.

BBP: Your father encouraged you to play music full time?

Mikey: Yeah.

BBP: That’s kind of unusual..

Mikey:…He told me to quit waiting tables and play music full time. He said you might not have a bunch of money but you’ll be happy. I’m very similar to him and very much like to be my own boss and very much like to do things myself so that they’re done right as well. And to want to be your own boss means that you’re also good at taking orders and following orders and pleasing the boss. Because how can you be your own boss when you can’t please someone else that’s your boss? So I like to think that I’m pretty good at working, because in the music business you have many microbosses; from festival promoters to club owners, they’re all your bosses, so you have to be able to please all of them and get along with all them and put on a good show. Because that’s what we’re here for, we’re here for the music. The music is the most important thing….the music part involves a lot of work and a lot of business. I’m on my computer and I’m on my phone for hours, every day, to promote and for book and for work on tours or whatever I have to do.

BBP:  What your father said, that sounds kind of unusual—I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about this—you would think that most parents would try to talk their children away from a competitive career like music.

Mikey:  He also told me that I have to be smart and work really hard at it. It takes one to know one and my dad has a house that’s paid off from playing music, so it can be done. But what he also said was, I’d be working just as hard, if not harder, but I’ll be doing something that I love.  So even though I won’t have a lot of money, I’ll still be happy because I’ll be doing something that I love. However, it can be done and you can make a decent living out of it. However it’s a lot of hard work. But if you love what you do and you love communicating with people and you love doing that kind of stuff, then it’s not going to be a problem for you. And it’s been great: this is my ten year anniversary, I quit being a waiter in 2002 to be a full-time musician. So it’s now 2012. In 2002, I was living in Trenton, New Jersey. I bought a house across the river in Pennsylvania—I bought a condo in Pennsylvania—and I now have another house that I live in that I bought at a sheriff’s sale because I have a real estate license. Because when I was 19, before I got into music, I was supposed to be the first in my family to go to college. I wasn’t into going to college. So instead of going to college, I went and got my real estate license at the age of 19, started doing real estate nine-to-five being an assistant for a real estate firm, and then go to do a waiter job from five o’clock at night. And then what I did was quit the waiter job, started playing music full-time while I kept my assistant job at the real estate firm nine-to-five. And then I was making enough money to the point where I was working enough where I was coming into the office very tired. So I had a real good relationship with the firm that I was working with and they believed in me because they would come to see a lot of my shows, and they said “go ahead and make a go at it” because I told the man “I’m probably going to leave the office, starting to do this music thing full-time.” And I’ve been doing it full-time ever since 2002. I think I stayed at the real estate office until 2003. I dabble in real estate as a hobby of mine. My friends, they want to buy a house. I’m not a real estate agent to the point where I take people out that I don’t know to see houses. A few of my friends, if they want to go look at a house or one of them tries to buy a sheriff’s sale property or an investment property or something like that, I’m into that kind of thing. I put down real estate and waiting tables to do music full-time.

(Mikey then puts me on hold again, returning a short time later)

BBP:  Are the calls that you’re answering, are these potential bookings for your band?

Mikey: Yeah, absolutely. And I book a club in Philadelphia. My friend, who’s a theatre actor—one of my friends that used to come see me play all of the time—bought a club in Philadelphia and turned it into a blues club on Second and South Street called the Twisted Tail. The website is thetwisted…

BBP: Yeah, I noticed that when you sent me a schedule of your shows. I used to live in Allentown and I used to go to Philly all of the time. And I didn’t remember that place so I figured it must be new.

Mikey: Yeah, it’s a new place. It’s right in South Philly. It’s a great place; I’m the house band there. And I handle the bookings for all of the other bands. I’m really trying to make it a national spot for national acts. So that has my phone ringing as well. And it also helps me to talk with these agents to let them know who I am and say: “Hey, if you can ever get me something, if you have all of the people in your roster already working and you’d like to get me something,  you know I’m available.”

BBP: Okay, so there’s a double benefit to that…

Mikey: Yeah!

BBP:  Now I understand you had an extensive record collection when you were coming along and that that kind of influenced your tastes.

Mikey: Well  that’s another thing talking about me spending money—my dad has a very big record collection that just got legacied to me because my dad had basically no room for it and it was at his sister’s house and like I said, I bought this house at a sheriff’s sale so I used to have a little condo, now I live in a full-sized house. You know single family home or what-have-you. So I was able to get my dad’s record collection, so yeah growing up I always had tapes and CD’s . I bought all kinds of blues box sets and all of that stuff, and yeah, I still have it, I still have my record, CD and tape collection. Now I have my dad’s. So yeah it influenced me big time, you know, records that you know will—I call them the “island records:” If you can only take ten  records and they put you on an island. You know they’d definitely be B.B. King, Sonny Boy, Muddy, Little Walter, (Howlin’) Wolf, Steve Guyger and a couple of killer guitar players too. Buddy Guy, Junior Wells. So these are guys that I heavily find myself—if I call out a cover song—because I like to do my originals, but I love to do covers too. And if I call out a cover song by some people that I just happen to want to play and want to perform their music straight off the top of my head, those are the people who have heavily influenced me, you know what I mean?

BBP: The harmonica. What made you gravitate towards that as an instrument?

Mikey: Well one night I was jamming with my friends, my friends were all jamming together and there was no piano. And I saw that there was this harmonica on the table and I picked it up and started playing it. I was 17, and it just seemed all of a sudden to make sense to me. And the next day I went out and bought a whole set of harmonicas because, like I said, I always worked and I like to spend money.  I told my dad it was a real harmonica. That day, he showed up at my house with a B.B. King CD and a Stevie Ray Vaughn and a Sony Boy Williamson CD, and he’s like “these are the three blues CD’s that I really like. Listen to these and try to play along with them. “And that’s exactly what I did. I played along with the CDs and he would show me some pointers. Mostly I taught myself by listening to CD’s, playing along with CDs, but when I say people are my harmonica teachers, they’re the people that “here. Let me show you this trick. Let me show you how to do that better.” Because usually they build on something that they see, which is how I teach harmonica now. Because that’s another thing that I do, during the day on Tuesday and Thursday I give harmonica lessons.

BBP: Okay…

Mikey: So I have a student on Tuesday and a student on Thursday. And of course I do nursing homes, I between three and four of them a week.

BBP: You do those alone—by yourself—or with a band?

Mikey: I do them by myself with tracks. Like I’ll get karaoke tracks with the vocals taken out of it and then I’ll go sing and play harmonica. I mean I don’t want to cheapen it by saying karaoke tracks, but I mean basically they’re the tracks without the vocals on them, and I go and I go and I perform. And I do almost the same kind of material that I do—you know it’s a blues show. I book it as “Mikey Jr.’s Blues Show”  and I go in and I do some of the songs that are blues songs and some oldies stuff too. And then, you know, if they request it, what I’ll do is, I’ll go home and learn it. I had a guy request some Dean Martin and some Frank Sinatra, so that’s what I did: I went home, I went on the computer , I got the tracks to do the Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Because I mean I  know the songs because of growing up as a waiter in Italian restaurants, I know the words to the songs. So, you know I’ll do them too. And those are kind of the older, older ones, you know. Sometimes you do the nursing homes that are not as old. But then sometimes you do the nursing homes that specialize in like 80- or 90-year-old people. And they’re the ones like “Hey, we want to hear this. You know Louis Armstrong, you know this, you know that?”

BBP: So you kind of have a fan base? You play the same nursing homes and within those nursing homes you have people, they hear you regularly and…

Mikey: Yeah. They live there and absolutely, yep. And I’m part of their entertainment and they’ll hear me play and they’ll say “hey, next time can you do some Dean Martin?” And I go “Yes sir!” And I’ll show up and have that Dean Martin ready for that guy. There’s the one guy in this nursing home, he loves Dean Martin.

BBP: Do you ever use the nursing home as sort of a sounding board for new music that you might want to do with your band?

Mikey: Oh yeah!  There’ll be stuff that—yeah! That’s another thing: me and my band, we work so much….I used to have this every single Wednesday night gig in Lawrenceville at this place J.B.’s. For five years straight we played there every single Wednesday night. And we don’t rehearse. We work together so much that we very very seldom rehearse. Even for the IBC, there was no rehearsal. We just do the songs that we do, and because we’ve been doing them together for this many years, because we do them together every week or whatever, we very seldom—I mean I can count on one hand whenever we had a rehearsal, and it’s always before we go to record. It’s just because we don’t want to waste time in the studio, we just want to get a quick rehearsal down, and we only rehearse when we go to record really.



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