Friday, March 8, 2013

Ten Questions with Ron Levy

If you've listened to any blues recording released since the mid 1980's, there's a good chance that Ron Levy either played on it or produced it (or both).  Levy has been a very active part of the blues scene since the late 1960's, playing keyboards with Albert King for several years, enjoying a lengthy tenure with B.B. King in the 70's that included appearances on a dozen of King's albums, and working with Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson and Roomful of Blues in the 80's.

It was during the 80's that Levy became arranger, associate producer, and keyboardist for Black Top Records, even recording his own albums as Ron Levy's Wild Kingdom.  He was a fast study, moving into the 90's Levy co-founded Rounder Records' Bullseye Blues label and served as producer/A&R man.  Bulleye Blues garnered several Grammy nominations, Handy Awards, and Living Blues Awards, and Levy was chosen as Producer of the Year by Living Blues magazine in 1994.  Among the artists Levy produced for Bullseye Blues were Charles Brown, Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, Champion Jack Dupree, Little Jimmy King, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, Larry Davis, Smokin' Joe Kubek, and Jimmy McCracklin.

Levy also co-founded the Cannonball Blues and Jazz label in the late 90's, producing recordings by artists like Melvin Sparks, Johnnie Bassett, Alberta Adams, and the acclaimed Blues Across America series.  Since 2000, Levy has focused on touring and performing, having released several CDs on his Levtron label, including the recent Funky Fiesta! 

Levy's most ambitious project to date is his ground-breaking new web-book, Tales of a Road Dog.  In it, Levy regales his readers with great behind-the-scenes stories about his days of breaking into the blues business, performing with his idols, his development and adventures as a musician, producer, and A&R man.  The anecdotes are endless and entertaining, and include numerous pictures and videos.

Mr. Levy was gracious enough to subject himself to FBF's Ten Questions with.....and got a bit more than he bargained for.  Friday Blues Fix appreciates his time, patience, and participation.

1. What inspired you to write Tales of a Road Dog?

Mostly because of all the wonderful and fascinating people I've met in my life.  Two friends, Fred Wesley and Frank Chimi especially, inspired me to write these tales down while I was telling them some, before I forgot them.  I've told many of these stories through the years and always got laughs and great responses.  I've been blessed with many interesting and sometimes crazy experiences, too.  I wanted to share them with the public on a broader scale.

2. The book is really unique and interesting because you link to dozens of videos and pictures…..What made you decide to publish it in electronic format?

I greatly respect various old traditions from around the world.  However, those traditions were new when they first began, using only what they had available.  The technology of today afforded me a vehicle to educate and explain various traditions and "ways of life" in a three-dimensional format in a way that's never been done before, using what we have available today.

Also, once a old fashioned book is printed, that's pretty much it.... it's done.  This pioneering format allows me to add on to it anytime I want!  I'll be adding more songs (200), a few more of my albums, and more photos in the future.  There are about 2,000 photos in the gallery already.  I don't know of any other book that includes that many photos, you?  There's also a direct email line for the reader's questions and comments at the end of each chapter.  It's much more than just a sit-down to be read quietly from cover to cover, then you're done book.  It's like a living encyclopedia of cool stuff, where the reader can always go back to it.  Hell, I read and re-read it at least 400 times while writing and putting it together.  Tales... is and will be accessible on any device that connects to the internet, known now or in the future.

For the "less adventurous" there's an e-Book with all the text, 50+ photos and a download of my newest album, Funky Fiesta!, included.  The real heart and soul of the book are the compelling, inspiring, and humorous stories.  If folks want to later "upgrade" to the Deluxe Edition, they'll be able to.  Both versions, along with my extensive music store are on my website:

3. In the book, you retrace the steps of your career and the musicians, management, family, and friends that you encountered along the way. One thing I like about your writing is that pretty much call things as you saw them and your honesty about some things and some people (including yourself) is refreshing, though sometimes there’s a chance that it might hurt their feelings. Have you encountered any of the people you’ve written about since the book was published and how did some of them react to what was written about them?

No one has complained yet.  I've shared 99% of the chapters with all the available people that were involved and there at the time, for fact checking purposes while writing it.  They all loved it and were amazed at how much detail I could recall.  These are all stories we've all laughed about together in the past, so I'm not worried.  This is also a "tell some, not a tell all" book for the very (legal) reason you stated.  Another reason is the fact that there were so many good stories to tell, I didn't want waste my time reliving and telling about things that may have brought me or others any bitterness.  I want people to laugh, learn and enjoy my stories and, hopefully, be inspired by them.


4. As a youngster, you worked with Albert King and B.B. King for an extended period…..what lessons did you learn from them or any other musicians you worked with during that period that you were able to use effectively in your own career as a front man?

Wish I'd learned a lot more better but, I still learned so many things from so many people, it'd be difficult to boil it down as asked here.  This web-book is an intricately detailed mosaic of all those numerous learning experiences I want to pass on to people to enrich their lives as well, and answers your question much better.

5. When did you start listening to the blues?

This may sound crazy, but the very first "blues" I heard and felt was in my grandfather's synagogue, while listening to him and the other older men praying.  Those ancient minor infused melodies deeply hit my soul as a young child.  I still pray using those very same melodies today.  In Chapter One, I talk about two fine people who worked for my family and partly raised me and my younger brother.  They always tuned to Boston's "Soul Station - WILD" on the radio.  I always enjoyed R&B, Jazz, and Gospel music too.  Both Cora and Willie would seem so happy listening to "their" music.  They'd exclaim unbridled joy whenever the singer would hit one of those "notes" that made your spine tingle and your neck hairs stand.  I wanted to make people feel that way too!

6. Who were your influences on the keyboards?

Too many to list here or anywhere, although I did try to, in writing Tales....  After I first saw Ray Charles in concert at fourteen, I took our radio from the kitchen and perched it on our parlor piano, tuned in to WILD and began pecking away one finger at a time the very next day.  Otis Spann was the first real professional that took me aside and showed me how and what to play.  He'd have me place my hands on his while he made his moves, then have me do it without him.  He was a sweet and wonderful soul. I often think of him and miss him.  Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith and Ramsey Lewis were also very inspiring.  I had all their records.  There were and still are so many that inspire me.  I learn from everyone, even my beginner students.  Mostly, I study music theory, harmony and rhythm from my library of music books.  I seldom tried to copy anybody note for note, but rather tried to learn what they were doing in an effort to forge it into my own personal trademark style.  They played their life and told their stories, I seek to play and tell mine.

7. Did any other musicians inspire you?

Again, many.  They're all in the book!

8. How would you describe your own playing style?

Brilliant, dark, elegant, funky, rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, teardrops and laughter, pretty, funky, stinky, sweet & sour, smooth, rough, humorous, serious, fast, slow, colorful, black, white, gray, full, spacial, upbeat, downbeat, syncopated beats, happy, sad, hot, cool, warm, melancholy, emotional, carefree, angelic, devilish, complicated and simple........and that's just the anticipation for my first note!

I guess, it all winds up, coming out as Funky Blues and Soul Jazz with a dash of Latin and Yiddish.

9. You’ve worked as a producer for many years….do you remember a particular session where you really sensed that you had caught lightning in a bottle….where everyone was firing on all cylinders and you knew that you had captured something special?

So many, many times, I had the honor and privilege to work with Hall of Fame legends, in Blues, Soul and Jazz. It'd be impossible to single any one out over another.  They were all special at the time.  That's another reason why I wrote Tales....  Unlike any other music book, when I discuss every one of those magical times, there are photos and videos right there, in context, for the reader to fully appreciate them.  There are over 300 of these videos included!

10. Can you tell us a bit about how you work as a producer?

For money, I don't work on the cheap!  That's why I make the mid-line bucks. LOL

How involved are you in the process? Are you really “hands-on,” do you just sit back and let things happen, or are you somewhere in between?

100% from soup to nuts, as they say in the restaurant trade.  I always saw my role likened to a movie producer and director, as well as script writer, grip, and camera man.  I also found myself acting as rabbi, psychiatrist, pimp, loan shark, and janitor on many occasions.  That said; one needs to know when to be "hands on" as well as "hands off".  That's a learned and acquired skill in itself.

I was once told that I'm not a "cookie cutter" Producer. I took that as the highest compliment. I always respected each artist as an individual and worked with them accordingly, showcasing their strengths and camouflaging any possible weaknesses or mistakes.

11. If you had to put together a “Dream Team” session band, who would you use?

Hey, you said Ten!

I've pretty much tried to do that every session I've ever done.  I can't honestly recall anytime I've ever said after a session, "Damn, I wish I got somebody else to do that session with us instead of so and so."  I still feel that way, even after many years later.  That's why I wanted to include so many of my projects in the web-book.

The concept of a "dream team" is way overrated in my opinion.  I appreciate that fans want to see their favorites playing all together at once, like an All-Star game.  However, the so-called "stars" don't always work well in supportive roles together.  Why?  Because they're "stars" and are inclined to stand out by themselves by their very nature.  Just like a painting, you have the center focus, the background, a complimentary frame, and even a nice wall with the proper lighting to showcase it on.  Making a record is a team effort.  Each musician has a specific role to play.  "Papa" Willie Mitchell taught me that.  A star's role is to shine bright.  With too many all at once, it can be like looking into the sun for too long.

Whenever I see these "dream team" concerts on TV, especially Blues or Rock (interestingly enough, Jazz and country seem to work much better), I change the channel.  You know, the ones with five or six outstanding guitarists (soloists), six singers or more, etc, etc.  It always sounds like a mish mosh of cluttered sound to me.  It's like ordering five or six different, delicious gourmet dinners of Italian, Chinese, Greek, Southern, and BBQ (and my mother-in-law's home cooking) together, then dumping them all onto just one huge platter, mixing them all up and saying, "Bon appetite!"  One, two or three samples are fine over the course of a night.  But, without a backup band knowing their roles and supporting them, we get back into mish mosh territory.  Just like too many cooks.  Could you please pass the Pepto?

12. Can you tell us about your new CD, Funky Fiesta!?

Recording Funky Fiesta! was really fun.  It reunited me with many of my favorite hometown musicians I've recorded and toured with over the years.  Lil' Joe from Chicago, my ol' pal from our B.B. King days, came to play on it too.  Fiesta is the next logical step of my progression as a composer, player and producer from my previous efforts.  Like before, I just wrote and played from my heart and soul and what came out was having fun, making music with very talented good friends.  It's a finely tuned gumbo of many delicious ingredients, a full palette of sounds and emotions.  The title says it all!

13. What kind(s) of music do you listen to in your spare time?

Spare time?  Surely you jest!  Although I have a collection of easily over 30,000 LPs, CDs, 45s, tapes, 78s even wax cylinders; the only time I get to really "listen" without any distraction is when I'm driving by myself, negotiating our fabled, hectic, and crazy Boston traffic.  If you'd like a partial list however, you'll have to read and hear them in my web-book!

14. If you had a chance to do anything differently over the span of your career, what would you do?

I tried to tackle this question throughout the book (at times) and capsulized it in my Epilogue.  My dear wife, has more than once, described this endeavor as "cathartic" for me.  Number one in the regret department, would have to be all the money and time I wasted fooling around with alcohol and drugs, trying to be cool.  Thank God I was spared from any permanent damage, but I came very close having that abuse ill-affect me quite permanently.  I'm a very blessed and lucky guy. Many of my dear friends were not as fortunate.

Here's a short list of "I wishes" for  you.
I wish:
- I appreciated all the wonderful people, times and blessings I was granted to experience as much as I do now and communicated that better at the time. (Another reason why I wrote the book.)
- Spent even more quality time with my family, loved ones, friends and teachers, especially the ones that are gone now.
- Asked more questions, took more pictures, loved more and took less.
- I had been more honest with myself and demanded better of myself.
- I never said or did any of the hurtful things to others and myself, either intentionally or not.
- Played the trumpet instead of my cumbersome choices of: Hammond organs, pianos and etc. with heavy amplifiers and Leslie speakers.  Why?  You get all the best high notes; it's easy to tune; you can place your horn easily under your arm while having a gorgeous gal hanging on the other; when you finish a gig, it takes only five minutes to pack up, get paid and split; you can drive a sports car instead of a van hauling a trailer; play half the time and get paid in full; don't have to kiss as much unless I really want to (just kidding Mrs. Levy); plus it's really nice and shiny!

Thanks again for this opportunity to share some of my thoughts and feelings with your readers.  I hope they all come visit me on my website:, take a test drive and come check out the scenery.  Best to all.


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