Here is part 2 of our interview with Sugar Ray Norcia:
BBP: What harmonica players do you like or what blues players overall do you like? I know you did an album in 1999 with several musicians-- Billy Branch and… I believe it was called Superharps? Charlie Musselwhite…
Sugar Ray: …And James Cotton.
Sugar Ray: Those are the kind of players that I like. And of course I like other traditional kind of players like Rod Piazza and Kim Wilson and Mark Hummel. These are guys that are thinking the same way I do. But there’s really not a whole lot of them these days. I sued to be able to go out and see Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and work with these people. Now, of course, they’ve passed on, so now it’s tough to hear the real deal.
BBP: So you don’t like the new guys who are coming along?
Sugar Ray: I wouldn’t want to name anyone specific. It’s just that sometimes feel that, when I’m at a blues festival for example, I feel almost like I don’t fit in. Because we’re so traditional. Then when the audience hears us, they’re like “Wow! I haven’t heard anything like this in a long time!” So hopefully that will continue. But, uh, if I want to listen to reggae, I’ll listen to reggae. But if I go to hear a blues band, I want to hear blues.
BBP: Speaking of reggae, it mentioned that you actually shared a bill with Bob Marley.
Sugar Ray: I hardly remember that, but yeah, that was in Europe on some TV show that was actually a variety show, like an Ed Sullivan kind of thing. And he was one of the artists on it. We didn’t hang out or talk or anything, but I do remember that.
BBP: How do you feel about other kinds of music? You said you like country. Are there other types of music that you like as well, besides country and blues?
Sugar Ray: Yeah, absolutely. I like good music. You know that old saying, there’s two types of music, good music and bad music. What makes me relax, say when I’m around the home—I live in a rural area, I really do live in a cabin in the woods.
BBP: In Rhode Island?
Sugar Ray: in Rhode Island, yeah.
BBP: Outside of Providence?
Sugar Ray: It’s south of Providence but it’s surrounded by 14 thousand acres of state land. Sort of like state forest, so it’s a very nice place to live for me.
BBP: Yeah. Sounds like it.
Sugar Ray: Yeah. When people think of blues artists, they think of Chicago or the big cities. But not necessarily so, so..
BBP:… It gives you inspiration?
Sugar Ray: Yeah, my inspiration is being out here in my cabin and having solitude. And listening to the birds playing and writing the blues. But I was going to say that I listen to classical music. I have friends who have a home in Hawaii. I really love Hawaiian music, that’s why I like a lot of the old country recordings with the steel guitar or the lap guitar, which is incorporated into Hawaiian music, so it really soothes my soul. Same thing with classical. I like a little reggae and ska music. It depends on what mood I’m in, you know.
BBP: Right. Right. I understand. You know also I read somewhere, you apparently had some interaction with Roosevelt Sykes. I’ll tell you why I asked about that. Actually when I went to college—I went to college in Connecticut; I went to Wesleyan in Middletown. And back when I was there, they used to bring all kinds of jazz and blues people in. And they brought Roosevelt Sykes in and I had no idea who he was. I guess he’s been dead for many years now, right? He played harmonica, right?
Sugar Ray: Well, he sang and played piano. ..
Sugar Ray: And he always wore an impeccable suit with his big, kind of 1950’s top hat.
Sugar Ray: …And he had an eight-inch cigar; you know one of those big cigars.
BBP: Uh huh! He was a very large man. I do remember that.
Sugar Ray: A very large man. He was actually the first guy—at the end of the night, one night—he played great guitar as well—we were sitting around and he said—this is before we ever made a record or made any kind of studio recording to speak of, and he said “You guys are really good, and you need to start recording.” So that was like a catalyst, you know, to get the nod from a guy like Roosevelt Sykes, that’s a great thing.
BBP: How did you connect with him, though?
Sugar Ray: The same way we did with Big Walter and J.B. Hutto and all that. Make a phone call. We used to play at a place called the Speakeasy Café and it was a famous place for blues artists to perform. And a lot of the time—most of the time—these blues artists, like Roosevelt and like Jimmy Rogers, Big Walter, they needed a band to back them up. We were the band in those days, we were actually the house band at the Speakeasy, me and Ronnie Earl and the rest of the Bluetones. So that’s how we got hooked up.
BBP: Tell me what’s the next move for you. Where do you see yourself going now?
Sugar Ray: Well, I’m under contract with Severn Records down in Maryland to do another record. This is a three-record deal so I’ve got one more to do for them. Hopefully I’ll sign up for more after that, but—we’ll probably go in before the end of the year and make another Bluetone record. I haven’t definitively decided the direction, but I think it will be sort of the same as my last record, Evening. Just do some songwriting, keep it simple and keep it true to ourselves and our hearts and make another damn good record. That’s the next thing. And then in the meantime, I do a lot of gigs on my own as a solo artist, performing with other back-up bands, just as we backed up Big Walter, just as we backed up Roosevelt, or Otis Rush. These younger bands all over the world now that we connect with through the Internet, they ask me if they could back me up, so I’ve kind of come full circle in that way. So two weeks from now I’ll be in Frankfort, Germany being backed up by a German band, a blues band. I have bands in Italy, I have a band in Latvia, the Baltics, I have a band in Norway, it goes on and on. I’ve got a band in Finland, so I’m able to get on a plane and do three or four dates with these bands in other countries, so that always keeps things interesting, keeps me on my toes.
BBP: Wow. I guess it’s a good way to learn too because you learn what other people are doing, maybe run into styles that you haven’t encountered before…..
Sugar Ray: I have to adjust. I have to do some adjusting. But the thing is, like I say, with the beauty of the Internet and Youtube and all that, these bands are prepared when I arrive in their countries. They know my songs, they know my material, they know my approach, otherwise they wouldn’t ask me in the first place. So we’re kind of on the same page, whereas years ago you couldn’t communicate quite so easily. So now, as we speak, this band in Germany is preparing a 90-minute set to back me up. I’ve given them the songs that I want to do and they have them, and they’re rehearsing them. So it’s kind of cool.
BBP: What’s the name of the band in Germany?
Sugar Ray: Blues Blend. I’ve never heard of them. When a band I’ve never heard of asks me to play with them, there I go. I can go on Youtube, I can check them out, see them, hear them. Sometimes—it doesn’t happen too often—but a few times it’s like “Uh, no, I’d better not do this. It is not a good fit.” But most of the time, they don’t contact me unless they’ve been fans of mine and my recordings. So it works.
BBP: They’ve done their homework on you already when they approach you.
Sugar Ray: Yeah. Exactly. And a lot of times it’s—I hate to say kids—but I’ll be approaching 60 years old in a year-and-a-half and a lot of these guys that contact me are 22, 23 years old. It’s a real thrill for them to be playing with the old man (laughs), so to speak. It’s what we used to do. I used to think that Big Walter or Jimmy Rogers was an old man, but if I sit down and think about it, do some math, they were like the age I am now.
BBP: Is playing with kids different than playing with people your own age?
Sugar Ray: My observation is, years ago, there weren’t many players who could grasp the blues, the American roots music of the blues. Well that’s changed in a good way, you know. There are guys all over Europe and Scandinavia who can really play, I mean they got it. I’m floored with some of these guys that I work with: they’re really good.
BBP: Do the foreign bands play better than—I won’t say “better” than the American bands—do the foreign bands play different than the American bands? I mean is their approach different?
Sugar Ray: It used to be different in a bad way. They didn’t grasp the “feel” of the music. But all that’s changed: they really play well. I’ve played with a lot of them. I’m Italian myself, even Muddy Waters told me “Italians got soul.” (laughs)
BBP: How did that feel when he said that to you? You felt vindicated I guess.
Sugar Ray: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And he goes “and that pasta you guys eat? Soul food!” It really comes around, there are great players out there now, around the world. We got a recording from a guy named Hoppin’ Joe, I think? Anyway, he’s Japanese, harmonica player, who’s a big fan of mine and of Big Walter, too. So he sent me a couple of tunes that he recorded, that I’ve written, you know. So he covered a couple of my tunes. He sang in Japanese. What a trip that is to hear, you know!
BBP: Did you like it though, did you like what he did?
Sugar Ray: I did, yeah. He sort of like played my solos and copied them not-for-note and I always have not been a fan of doing that. But it’s a wicked compliment, you know. I grew up listening to records of Sonny Boy and Little Walter and stuff, and I know a lot of harp players will just work for hours and hours to play the exact Little Walter solo from the record. You’ve got to be good to do that but it doesn’t mean much to me. It’s already been done. I think if Little Walter were alive, and he were playing that song, he would play a different solo than he did on the record. I’m sure of that for the most part. So to copy something verbatim is not always the best approach.
BBP: Yeah, I guess it isn’t. Well another thing I was curious about was, I’ve read you apparently had some distribution problems with JSP.
Sugar Ray: Oh yeah. It was a bootleg record. It was recorded at the Knickerbocker in Rhode Island that I was speaking of earlier. So that was totally put out without authorization and obviously without payment to Walter and his family, or to anybody…it just wasn’t a cool thing.
BBP: Right. So they never made good, they never paid royalties to you guys for what you did?
Sugar Ray: No. No. We did meet up with the guy at one point, it probably says that in the story, I don’t remember—and he said “yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll be taking care of you guys.” But we never saw nothing. It’s one of those classic blues stories where the musician gets taken advantage of. You read about it in books, but here it is. It happened to us.
BBP: Yeah, that’s why I asked you about it because it does seem to be kind of a longstanding problem with blues musicians. There are some record companies that are more honest than others. Are there a lot of unscrupulous people in the business?
Sugar Ray: Yeah, you know, yeah. As in any business, I can imagine. Just watch the news. But it’s so hard out there to make a living. I hate to see fellow musicians being taken advantage of.
BBP: Yeah. I mean what do musicians do these days for health insurance? I mean that’s a big issue.
Sugar Ray: I know I don’t have it. And I’ll go to places like Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Norway..these people really have their shit together when it comes to—they pay higher taxes, but they have free universities, education. Their health benefits…are provided for them. When I tell them I don’t have health insurance, they almost fall off the chair, like “What?” It doesn’t even compute. They say “That must be a heavy load on your shoulders.” And (I say) “Of course it is, yeah.”
BBP: Wow. You’re almost 60 years old, so…..
Sugar Ray: Yeah, it’s a terrible thing. That’s why you see so many benefit concerts and whatnot for musicians, because they probably don’t have insurance. We had to put together a special show to pay for Big Walter Horton’s gravestone. There was no money for that. That goes to show you.
BBP: Well, I know you have a lot to do. I just want to ask you one more question.
Sugar Ray: Sure…
BBP: Of all the musicians you ever played with—and I understand you played with Pinetop (Perkins) too—what was he like?
Sugar Ray: Pinetop, he was a sweetheart. He was an example of like the Eveready Battery type of thing. You know that commercial? I’ve seen him in so many different places . Probably Europe…I’ve seen Pinetop everywhere at one time or another, and he’s usually the life of the party. Staying up late, playing the piano, having cocktails and just enjoying life. Obviously, it worked for him, didn’t it?
BBP: Yeah! He lived for a long time, didn’t he?
Sugar Ray: Yeah.
BBP: And it wasn’t time spent in a nursing home, either. He was actually out there performing. …
Sugar Ray: …Right up until the end….that’s right. That’s amazing.