Living in a Dream
I imagine that at some point in my youth I was advised: Find your passion and immerse yourself within it and you’ll be rewarded with a full, rich life. That’s what I’ve done, and that is the life that I’ve lived. Here is my story:
Live music became my drug of choice right around the same time I was old enough to get into bars [I turned 18 in June of 1977] where bands were playing. What started out as rock bands at Oxford Ale House in Harvard Square quickly morphed into live R&B; soul; blues and a little jazz, too at all the great local venues. Places like Jack’s, Jonathan Swifts, Speakeasy, Ryles and later Nightstage (all in Cambridge, MA) were regular stops. Great Scott, Harper’s Ferry and Johnny D’s, too, were all on my radar for whoever might be coming through town.
At the same time as all of that, I started a career working as a machinist which, luckily for me I was picking up pretty quickly. That good fortune afforded me the capacity to go out at night and stay out pretty late while still maintaining a good work ethic. My romantic life suffered a bit, that is to say that long term relationships often failed under the stress of trying to stay active in the music going on around me while also…. dating. A true story about that… I saw while reading the Phoenix that Bo Diddley was going to be playing at Harper’s Ferry on a Friday night. The woman I was seeing at the time had just told me that she found blues music to be a bummer for her, a bit too sad. So I excitedly bought a single ticket for the show. During the week leading up to the show Charlotte told me that there was a birthday party for her grandmother on Friday night and she wanted me to go. I told her that, unfortunately Bo Diddley was playing and that I was going. She reminded me that she was tired of going to see the music I loved. She also offered that… people in relationships have obligations and sometimes that meant doing things that I really didn’t want to do, like “going to the birthday party of your girlfriend’s grandmother”. We remained friends but never had another date after that.
By this time I had had a fair amount of success bringing my camera into venues and taking pictures, and that became a great focal sideline to going to the shows, getting some decent shots of the performers. At some point I got interested in having the artist autograph my image of them, and that took on a life of its own. But more on that on another page...
Mai Cramer - Blues After Hours 1992 - 2002
In 1992, after spending six months driving across the United States by myself I was broke, and working odd hours as a security guard. I was home on a Saturday night, listening to Mai Cramer’s Blues After Hours when I heard her put the call out looking for new volunteers. I called in and left my number. She returned the call, conducted a small interview over the phone and said that I should come the following Friday night and try it out. I became one of her Friday night volunteers, going there every other Friday night for ten years, until her untimely passing in 2002. It should be noted here that I listened to Mai’s show most weekend nights headed to whatever show I was going to see, or sometimes going from one show to the next. In those early days I couldn’t decipher one King from another…. be it BB; or Albert; or Freddy. So the mystique of being in the studio with Mai felt… like a graduation of sorts. Big time… The experience was priceless. While interviews across the airwaves we’re necessarily my favorite part of the show, the stories that are told when the mic is off are mind-blowing and extremely funny. So many great artists came to talk with Mai. It was a real treat.
My main function while in the studio, after the records were brought out and the show got under way was to answer the phone, taking requests and giving out tickets. Without pause I can tell you that everyone that wanted to talk directlky with Mai told me that either A) she was expecting their call or B) that were a close personal friend. And the same was true when I got a call one night from Teo Leyasmeyer. Except that when I told Mai that it was someone named Teo she said to get his number and she would call him back when she had a minute. Teo was easy to talk to and we spent a couple of minutes on the phone making small talk. He seemed to me to be a fun loving guy. And that was it, or so I thought.
Teo Leyasmeyer and the Original House of Blues
A week or two later and I was at a Charlie Musselwhite show at Harper’s Ferry, camera in hand. For the first time ever in all my experiences at Charlie Musselwhite shows, he took out a guitar and started playing it. I couldn’t believe it and stepped toward the side to line up for some shots. A minute or so later a guy approaches me and expressed the same surprise I had a Charlie’s proficiency on the guitar. I don’t remember the song, but I know that it was right out of the John Lee Hooker songbook. The guy asked me that, if I got any good shots would I send him one? I told him yeah, just give me your number. He handed me his business card. I read it: Teo Leyasmeyer! I told “man, it’s me, Tom, from Blues After Hours!” He gave me a bear hugged and we laughed at the serendipity.
Shortly there after it became second nature to for Teo to call and tell me to bring my camera to ‘the House’ that night, something really great was going to happen. I became one of the few regulars who could show up with my camera and not be rejected at the door. (A good House of Blues story is found on the John Brim page). Its important to note that this was during the period where thbe House of Blues was so popular that you couldn't see the band from the back of the club because it was so crowded. Couple that with my height (5'4") and there's no way, without being in the front row, where I'm getting a good shot of the musicians. But my association with Teo did get my through the kitchen access to the side stairs and right to the front of the stage!
In the late 1980’s while at a Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters show, at Sculler’s, I asked the band members to autograph some images I had made. Ronnie then asked if I’d send him some copies if he gave me his mailing address? I agreed and sent them off as soon as I got them. To my surprise he called some time after that, wanting to know more about my photography hobby, just chatting really. It’s important to note here that along with all of the traveling bands I was seeing, I was also filling in that time chasing around four of the super exciting bands that just happen to reside in this region: Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters; Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, Duke Robillard and the Pleasure Kings and Luther Guitar Jr Johnson and the Houserockers. I was seriously living a blues lovers life. I wish that I could remember all the nights that I saw more than one band but they’re too numerous to even try to calculate.
Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters 2008 - 2016
And so began my long friendship with Ronnie. His regular Wednesday night show at the Sit N Bull pub in Maynard MA became my go-to midweek date destination. Over the years our friendship grew and in 2006 he called and asked me to join the band. Is this some sort of joke? And, what am I going to do, and when? I had a full time job and zero (or maybe negative some number) ability to play any musical instrument. In fact, I still tell people that I can’t even turn on the radio without getting booed. At any rate, my job on that first night was to go to Ronnie’s house, grab the two Super Reverbs [Fender amplifiers] out of his trunk and set them up on stage. I showed up and the three other band members looked at me quizzically. (I later learned they didn’t think I’d last very long, for any number of reasons). As it turned out I was there doing the work of a road manager until the end of 2014, when I left because of all of the travel it required. The band had gone from doing a Friday or Saturday night show within an hour or two of home to playing all over the place, Chicago, Detroit or Portland Maine. The overnights away, coupled with my wife’s new business requiring her to stay behind became a burden and with regret I ended my time with the band. (Although it’s really akin to one of those unions where, you never really get out… once a member, always a member)
In my eight or so years with the band there had been very few substitute musicians. That was just our policy, when subbing out could be avoided. However on one prestigious Newport RI show Anthony Geraci played in place of Dave Limina. Anthony and Ronnie were original bandmates in what eventually became Sugar Ray and the Bluetones. After leaving the Broadcasters, Anthony suggested that I talk to Sugar about working with the Bluetones, as they didn’t have a road manager. We came to the conclusion that if it worked out for each of us I’d go on the road with them. Luckily folr me, in late November of 2016 the band had an 11 days, seven gig tour in Florida and into Alabama. I loaded the van and hit the road…
Sugar Ray and the Bluetones
Fast forward to Sugar Ray and the Bluetones after Mike Welch joins forces with Mike Ledbetter. Sugar hired Charlie Baty on guitar (former frontman for the super popular Little Charlie and the Nightcats). Whenever Charlie is with the band, he roded with Sugar and Neil, which means that there really isn’t room for some of the gear. That means I’ve got a job to do. Unfortunately the gigs with Charlie weren’t as numerous as I would have liked. There was the one week recording session in Annapolis MD. [At this session Charlie mentioned to me that he told Rick Estrin who was now the frontman of the Nightcats, that Sugar Ray had me doing this type of road work. And he said that Rick wanted to know if I might be available for his band, too.] Imagine being a part of the process where you get to observe this group pull together ideas, Duke Robillard as engineer… an excellent experience! I was also on board when Nick David (Mr. Nick) hired Sugar Ray and the Bluetones to be the band behind his five nights, five state tour of New England Winter Blues Festival in February of 2019. It was a special guest extravaganza. Also on the bill; Charlie Baty with the Bluetones, Nick Moss, Joe Moss, Jason Ricci and Rick Estrin. It started on Thursday at Tupelo in Derry, NH; Friday night at the Knickerbocker in Westerly, RI; then to Blue Ocean Music Hall, Salisbury, MA; Sunday at Black Eyed Sally’s Hartford, CT; finishing at Time Out Pub, Rockland ME. It was fun and it was hectic. And if gave me a chance to do my thing with all these great musicians. I asked Sugar Ray if he minded me giving my contact info to Rick, on the off chance we might be able to find a way for me to help him out on the east coast. The ever generous said that thought it was a good idea and he encouraged me.
Rick Estrin and the Nightcats
Driving home from work one afternoon and my phone rang with yet another number that is unfamiliar to me. I answered it and it was Rick, asking if there might be an opportunity for me to help out the band when they come to the east coast? Absolutely. He put me in touch with Lorenzo Ferrell, the band’s keyboardist and we’re off. I put together backline for a show at the Bullrun in Shirley for July of 2019… Things went to well there that the band then sends me a complete set of their backline, amps, drum kit, keys… and now whenever the band plays on the east coast I arrive with the gear and get the stage set. What a life!!
The take away here is that I’ve maintained a full time job for the 40+ years since graduating from high school, and at the same time have had this really great after (work) life. Just look at this list! Mai, Teo, Ronnie/Broadcasters, Sugar/Bluetones, Rick/Nightcats.