These days, harmonica player Sugar Ray Norcia gets invitations from young musicians all over the world that want to play behind him.
“Two weeks from now, I’ll be in Frankfort, Germany, being backed up by a German band, a blues band,” he said. “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.”
This current trend in his life reminds Norcia—now about a-year-and-a-half away shy of his 60th birthday—of his own time as a Young Turk playing behind blues legends of the past. Over the years, Sugar Ray Norcia and the Bluetones, which will headline the D.C. Blues Society’s annual concert at Carter Barron in Washington, D.C. on September 1, have backed Roosevelt Sykes, toured the Midwest with J.B. Hutto and played in a New York City revue that included Hutto and Big Walter Horton.
A native of Stonington, Connecticut, Norcia first started to make his mark on the New England music scene in the late 1970’s through the band Sugar Ray and the Blue Stompers. He soon joined forces with guitarist Ronnie Earl to form the Bluetones, and the group began playing Sunday nights regularly as the house band at the Speakeasy in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The band took its talents on the road as well, playing clubs such as the No Fish Today in Baltimore, The West Virginian and The C&O in Charlottesville, Virginia and the Childe Herald, Desperados and Columbia Station in D.C.
In addition to its own shows, the group started to form the team-ups that would make it famous, including with Horton, whom it backed in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts; Providence and Westerly, R.I.; New York City and Pennsylvania. A performance at the Knickerbocker Café in Westerly with Big Walter was turned into a recording on JSP Records.
The group also took its talents to more faraway venues, including two separate month-long tours of Spain, and the Midwest tour with Hutto, who had first encountered the Bluetones while looking for a band to work New England with.
One time during the tour with Hutto, the performers actually thought they saw a U.F.O. while driving on an Illinois highway.
In 1991, Norcia started a seven-year stint in Roomful of Blues. His time followed that of Ronnie Earl, who had played for the group from 1979-88.
In 1999, Norcia teamed up with harmonica players James Cotton, Billy Branch and Charlie Musselwhite for the Grammy award nominated album, Superharps.
With the Bluestones, Sugar Ray has released eight studio albums over the year, the latest, Evening in 2011 on Severn Records. The album garnered four nominations in the 2012 Blues Music Awards, including Album of the Year.
We started our interview with Norcia talking about the early days of the Bluetones:
BBP: Sugar Ray! I understand you’re from New England, the Rhode Island area, and that way-back-when you used to play with Ronnie Earl. You guys were together in the Bluetones?
Sugar Ray: In the early days, a long time ago. That’s how I met the ‘Tones really, is when I started playing with Ronnie Earl and Mudcat Ward, the bass player. I graduated from high school in 1972 so it wasn’t long after that when I met Ronnie and the boys.
BBP: And I read you guys once did a concert in Spain. You were there for a month. Or actually it was two tours.
Sugar Ray: Yeah that was in the early days too when a lot of American bands and our contemporaries were not traveling to Europe. Mudcat’s brother was going to school there and he hooked up a month-long tour twice back in those days. And you know we were really green back then. We didn’t know how to go about travelling with equipment, and so we brought all of our drums with us on the airplanes, and amps. It was kind of crazy: you don’t really do that. But we did it…we used to carry all of our equipment gig to gig. It was crazy. Those were great memories.
BBP: That’s incredible. So tell me how you and Ronnie Earl first got together. How did that happen? I understand he was playing up in the Boston, Massachusetts area and he needed someone for his band? Well, I’ll let you tell the story…
Sugar Ray: Well, yeah, I’d been playing for years and years before I met Ronnie in various bands here in Rhode Island. I live in a bordertown; I grew up in Stonington, Connecticut, which is right next to Rhode Island on the coast. I was in school, yeah, I had been playing blues, always have been playing blues, (laughs slightly) always will be playing blues. But...my drummer was called in to play with Ronnie Earl at this club in Providence, Rhode Island, and yeah, Ronnie was looking for a singer. And my drummer said hey, I’ve been working with Sugar Ray for years and to give him a call. And the rest is history..I went up there and we joined forces and what a force it was. We had a great band, great tours, ‘til Ron was called to play in Roomful of Blues years later.
BBP: And you went on to play with that band yourself after a while, I think…
Sugar Ray: And I went on to play with that band a few years after Ronnie left it. I grew up with Roomful of Blues here in my hometown of Rhode Island. A little place called the Knickerbocker Café, where Roomful played every Sunday night, I would go down there, even though I was underage at first. When I used to sneak into the Knickerbocker and see Roomful, they would bring in guest artists. And by artists I mean like Eddie ”Cleanhead” Vinson, Joe Turner, Helen Humes, Joe Houston and all of these great players. So I really got an education.
BBP: Well tell me how you got your start way-back- when in music. Were your parents musicians?
Sugar Ray: Yeah. I came from a musical family. I grew up with a band rehearsing down in the basement of my house. That would mean my two uncles, who played guitar and bass, and my brother played piano and sang. And they would rehearse down in the basement when I was just a youngster. My father was a music teacher. My mother was a jazz singer. So yeah, I was surrounded by music and once I started listening to blues when I was in high school and friends would bring me some of their blues records, that was it—I never turned back. I fell in love with it.
BBP: Wow. Tell me your father’s name? Your mother’s name?
Sugar Ray: Yeah, my father was Albert Norcia and he even wrote a book; it’s out of print now, but it was called “The Voice.” Obviously, he was a voice teacher in the public school systems and also privately at home, where I would sit in on his lessons—that’s how I got my tips on how to sing correctly. My mother, Louise Norcia, she’s still alive, God bless her. She’s 93 years old.
Sugar Ray: Yeah…
BBP: And she lives in Rhode Island?
Sugar Ray: Lives at home in Rhode Island, and she tells me that she has a tough time singing now (laughs). But she can still sing. She’s got a sweet voice.
BBP: What made you choose the harmonica over other instruments?
Sugar Ray: Well again, my father was a great singer, but he also was a great harmonica player. From as far back as I can remember, you know, he had a Hohner harmonica in his pocket and we had a lot of picnics, family gatherings back then. Because we lived in that area where it was all aunts and uncles—Italian community—everybody built their houses close together in the same neighborhood. And so at parties and get-togethers, he would play the harmonica and everybody would just have a great time whenever he brought the harp out and I always noticed that he was like the head of the party playing around the campfire. I just wanted to do that someday. So when I took it up, I started learning from these records I was getting, I started learning how to bend notes and play blues on the harmonica, which he was not doing. He was playing straight harp, country kind of tunes, campfire tunes. So I brought it to another level.
BBP: Right. So what was his reaction when you followed in his footsteps, but in a different way?
Sugar Ray: He was all for it. He was very supportive of what I did. He was sort of living the dream through me because he never played out except for maybe his school performances with the glee clubs and the choruses. But he never got to go out and play with a band and travel musically. He warned me that it was a tough life, but he was very supportive of me. He came to my shows. He used to give me hints. It was very cool. It’s nice to have the support of your parents.
BBP: Yeah. Definitely. Wow. I understand that you were very friendly—or you had a good relationship with—Big Walter Horton. That you guys were actually playing together in Indiana, Chicago.
Sugar Ray: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah that’s one thing Ronnie did back in the early days when I was working with Ronnie. We would also, as Roomful of Blues did, feature artists that we would fly in, say from Chicago, Big Walter being one of them. And we did that quite often; we actually recorded two live CD’s with Big Walter. So it was a wonderful experience for me. I would normally start the set off playing a couple of songs, playing harp and then call Walter up and he would finish up the set. Some nights we’d play duos; that was a real treat. But we would share hotel rooms, and yeah, I got to know him quite well. Great guy.
BBP: And also, J.B. Hutto. Is that the same J.B. Hutto that’s Little Ed’s…
Sugar Ray: Yes, that would be his uncle.
BBP: Yeah, I thought that was the same person.
Sugar Ray: Yeah. Uncle J.B. We considered him a Bluetone, a member of the Bluetones at one point, because he worked with us just about every gig we did for quite a while. Hubert Sumlin was another example of someone who played guitar for us—with us—for quite some time. So we had some great—Otis Rush, we backed up quite often, Jimmy Rogers—so that was our school.
BBP: When you say “back up” you were actually playing with them on stage?
Sugar Ray: Oh absolutely, yeah. That’s another one that I did. Jimmy Rogers, we did a live recording with him, in Bremen, Germany, which you can find on DVD and also on CD. It’s a great recording.
BBP: I think you’re on your seventh or eighth recording right now? Last one was released I think about three years ago?
Sugar Ray: Yeah, something like that. No, our last release was called Evening, last year.. That’s the one that won five nominations for the Blues Music Awards this past year.
BBP: Yeah. Wow. One thing I was also curious about was: you used to tour a lot, you were on the road a lot, back in the day. That was one thing that struck me when I was doing my research about you. And there was one incident, well I wouldn’t call it an incident, but it was an encounter with the police. I think it was, you, with J.B. Hutto in the back, and there was another guy in the car, driving.
Sugar Ray: Yeah. Our drummer, Neil.
BBP: ..And the cop apparent was…you had just seen a UFO or something like that?
Sugar Ray: Yeah. Obviously you read some of Mudcat’s story there on the website.
BBP: Yeah, I did.
Sugar Ray: Yeah, that was just one of those funny things, stories. Late at night, they did think they had seen a UFO, and the funny thing was this cop stopping this car in the middle of the night and swerving all over the road….drinking wasn’t the issue, so he says “You’re all over the road.” And he (the driver) says “I swear I saw a UFO” and the cop shined the flashlight in the back seat and there was J.B. Hutto, and he was a very dark-complexioned man and he’s just sitting there with this big smile on his face. And the cop said, “Did you see the UFO, sir?” And he was like “Uh-huh! Yes sir! I saw it!” (laughs). I’ll just never forget stories like that. There are many more that we probably forgot. J.B. was quite an entertainer. He would play on his back, kick his feet up in the air. He was the one who started that tall, stovepipe type of hat that he wore. He made them himself. Homemade hats. I notice L’il Ed does the same thing, so he’s taking after his uncle.
BBP: Yeah, I have an interview with him on my blog. It’s kind of funny when you hear him talk about that.
Sugar Ray: My father used to wear a paper bag on his head, you know. He was quite a character too. When he worked in the garden or something, he’d take a paper bag that you would go grocery shopping with, and after grocery shopping and he’d throw it up and wear it as a hat. And it’d look like J.B. Hutto’s hat, to tell you the truth (laughs). It was just one of his little quirks, being funny.
BBP: You used to do that too. You wore a cowboy hat or something?
Sugar Ray: I’ve worn a lot of hats through the years. One short story: we played in New York City, Central Park—big show—I remember. And we got a picture in the New York Times, but it wasn’t a picture of the band. It was a picture of our sound man wearing a paper hat. So he got the publicity: “Sugar Ray and the Bluetones soundman wears paper hat,” and he had a picture in the New York Times.
BBP: But over the years, you’ve done a lot of touring. It must get exhausting after a while, right? Do you like to do that?
Sugar Ray: Yeah, we’ve done it quite extensively when I was young and 1991 and Roomful of Blues—I was with them seven years for the better part of the nineties—that was like 251 nighters per year. That’s a lot. That’s traveling back and forth across the country. And then the Bluetones are traveling a lot less now as we speak, but in the past years we kind of slowed down a bit. I couldn’t take that 250 days a year thing anymore. So I don’t know how many days we travel now, but these past few months, if you looked it up—our tour schedule—we would have been all over the place. Oklahoma City, California, Canada, Florida and everywhere in-between. So with this new recording that we did for Severn Records, it got quite a bit of attention. So we wanted to follow up on that—hit the road—and it’s harder now than it ever was for me. I think for a lot of people, because of the economy and that, but we are still out there doing it. It’s what I do.
BBP: Tell me a little about the new recording. Tell me about the concept you had before you put it together, changes that concept may have gone through..
Sugar Ray: The previous record we did was called My Life, My Friends, My Music and that also got nominated for Blues Music Awards. That one there, it was sort of like a Roomful of Blues alumni reunion kind of thing. I called in all of my old playing buddies from Roomful of Blues and got them all back together in the studio and did a killer record. I wanted to bring it back to the basics of what the Bluetones really represent, Chicago Blues and gutbucket blues, original ideas, original lyrics. It really was kind of an unrehearsed session, I just had lots of lyrics and ideas and just let them flow in the studio. And it seemed to really work, because we were just ourselves, we weren’t trying to be a horn band, a swing band, or a jump blues band. We were just what we’ve been doing mainly through the years and that is a four or five piece Chicago blues band. And I find that these days, it’s harder and harder to find a band that plays in such a traditional way, and so it’s almost like we have our own niche. Again, because we’re so traditional; you know I play a lot of blues festivals but I don’t see much blues…
BBP: What are you seeing?
Sugar Ray: Well I’m seeing some blues-influenced kind of singing. I’m seeing a lot of rock-blues. It reminds me on the level of something—I don’t know—but it reminds me of country. I’m a big fan of country—the country music of Hank Williams and George Jones, Merle Haggard. But country has gone, you know, to another place. And so I can’t stand turning on a country radio station. The music sucks. (laughs) I think the blues is sort of going that way too. It’s watered down—people lose focus of where the blues really came from. And that’s just one thing that we don’t do. We don’t forget about Big Walter and Little Walter and Sonny Boy and Howlin’ Wolf and these guys that created this music that I so love. So I’m just carrying that on.