Our Guest: Tom Principato by Monica Yasher

Posted on 7/31/2010 by Monica Yasher

Tom Principato is a master guitarist hosting the city of Washington DC. His band shares the talents of  Steve Wolf & Jay Turner on bass, Joe Wells & Pete Ragusa on drums and Josh Howell on Congas & percussion.  During Tom's forty plus career he has played with the following bands:  Billy Price And The Keystone Rhythm Band, Big Mama Thornton, Sunnyland Slim, James Montgomery, and a group called The Assassins with Jimmy Thackery, former guiatrist with The Nighthawks.  Tom has released a new CD entitled, "A Part Of Me", where he has shared music with Sonny Landreth, Chuck Leavell, and many others.  Let's hear what he has to say about his music. 

1) Tell me about your recording project and your experiences with the following artists:  Sonny Landreth, Chuck Leavell (Stones, Allman Bros.), Brian Auger, Willie Weeks (bass, Clapton) Memphis Horns, and Jim Brock (drums Kathy Mattea, Don Dixon).   What did you learn from them?:

For my new CD "A Part Of Me" I wanted to involve people that I have either worked with in the past, or have admired and maybe performed with live, but hadn't had the opportunity to record with. Sonny Landreth and I have been musical friends ever since I covered his song "Congo Square" on my "I Know What You're Thinkin'" CD in 1987. A song for my new CD "Don't Wanna Do It", I had always envisioned slide guitar, and so I knew Sonny would be great for the song---he did a fantastic performance! Chuck Leavell and I have worked together on a few of my CD's in the past---he produced my "Tip Of The Iceberg" CD in 1994 and he also appears on my "Really Blue" CD from 1995. Chuck is an extremely talented musician and a really nice guy, too.

I had been playing in a once a year kind all-star kind of group with Catfish Hodge, and the incredible organist & keyboard player Brian Auger for a few years in the past, and I really wanted to involve Brian in this CD. Brian is also an incredible musician and to me the best Hammond organist on the planet. I was thrilled that he accepted my invitation to play in the album.

Although some of the guest tracks were done as overdubs, two great players I got to record live with were Willie Weeks, the great bassist who's played with just about everybody in the World and currently plays with Eric Clapton, and drummer/percussionist Jim Brock who's played in the past with Kathy Mattea and Don Dixon.

This session was a real treat for me to, and a lot of the guitar tracks that we cut live in those sessions were the guitar solos that were used for the CD. Both Willie and Jim are top drawer musicians, and it was an honor and a thrill to play and record with them. I always try to record the guitar solos live in the studio for the best overall band feel and performance. and I'm really pleased that we got some good live guitar solos at that session.

2) What has been your favorite CD to date that you have put out? Most proud of?

I'm really proud of "A Part Of Me", and can't wait for it to be released in Jan. 2011. I'm really happy with my current CD "Raising The Roof!" which has a lot of funky New Orleans style R&B on it. I'm also proud of the collaborations with the late Washington DC guitar legend Danny Gatton--"Blazing Telecasters"---2 CD's and a DVD of us performing in a night club and for a TV show.

3) You have great reviews on your guitar playing. What are you looking for when you purchase a guitar?

Well, I have a number of guitars that are really great, and I stick with those and try not to buy guitars anymore! I really like the Vintage Fender sound.  I have two old Fender Stratocasters and a really great 1960 Fender Telecaster. That's pretty much what I've been using for years now. I do have a weakness for Amps though---old Fender tweed 1950's and "Blackface" style Fender amps from the 1960's. I also have a newer Custom made Amp that is designed with those old Fender Amps in mind from the VVT Amp Co. based here in Va. near where I live

4) What does it take to be a master craftsman on the guitar?

Lots of practice, patience and perseverance!

5) Did you intend to sound and be compared to Clapton? Was he your icon?

I do get that comparison a lot, but it is just a coincidence. I think the similarities that people hear between myself and Eric Clapton is that we both love and have the same Blues guitar influences from the Masters.  B.B. King has been a strong lifelong influence on my playing ever since I saw him perform live for the first time in 1969. Other influences Eric and I share would be:  Otis Rush, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and a long list of all the Blues msters. I spent a lot of time in the 1970's studying the Chicago Blues Masters, too like Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Elmore James, & Jimmy Rogers.

I have always admired Eric Clapton's playing and singing, but I would not say that his music has been a direct influence on mine.

7)  Tell me a story about playing with Big Mama Thornton.

She was quite a character! As a matter of fact, I was interviewed by a German author who's writing a biography on Big Mama Thornton, and my recollections of that night will be in his book. It seems that she was in town (Washington, DC) to play a concert at George Washington U. Lisner Auditorium in 1977.  The organizer of the concert, who is a friend of mine, called and asked if I could put together a band right away that night to back her up. So I called a few friends, and we went rushing down to do the gig with Big Mama Thornton with no rehearsal at all. I remember sitting in the dressing room with her before the show, and she was drinking a tall glass of milk with Gin in it, and it looked like Ammonia! The concert went well and it was an amazing experience for me.

8) What is essential to do in order to be rated a great performer?

To connect with the audience.

9) Tell me about your band. What works for you guys?

I have been working with a great group of musicians. My old friend Steve Wolf on bass---we've been playing together for over 30 years, another old friend of mine Josh Howell, who I've known since my days in Boston in the 1970's playing with the group Powerhouse, is an amazing percussionist, and Tommy Lepson who's a great singer and Hammond organist, appears on most of my CD's. There's Joe Wells on drums. He's played with me for about the last 6 years, and also Pete Ragusa who just finished a 36 year stint with the Nighthawks. I've also had the pleasure of playing with Jay Turner, who's an excellent bassist and who often travels with the band on our European tours. Everyone that I've mentioned here appears on the new "A Part Of Me" CD.
I think what works for us is that all of these musicians know me and my music well through the years of performing and recording together that we've done, and everyone understands what I'm going for. Everyone is extremely flexible and accommodating, and there is a real team spirit. Everyone seems comfortable with the fact that I've written most of the music that we're playing and understands that I have a vision and might request things a certain way, but also that everyone is free to contribute at any time.

10) Does your success in music come easily or do you really have to work hard at it?

I have had to work hard at everything for my whole career---nearly 40 years.

I've owned the Indie Record label Powerhouse Records that I release my recordings on for over 20 years, I do most of my own gig bookings, promotion & publicity, songwriting, band leading, Band Managing, logistics organization, bookkeeping, and I've even released CD's by other great artists like Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, the Nighthawks, Bob Margolin and John Mooney on my label, too. It all takes a hell of a lot of time and work.

11) I see you do 90 percent original material. When you decide to do a cover, name three that are favorites and why.

JJ Cale, The Meters, the Neville Bros. I love JJ's music and always wanted to cover his song "Lies" it appears on our "Raising The Roof!" CD. The Meters & Neville Bros are the standard to me for any thing that is funky New Orleans R&B

12) From an artists viewpoint, what is the blues scene like in the DC/Virginia area?

Well, the suffering economy really has hurt club business. I'd say CD sales aren't what they used to be either. A lot of people don't come to see live music as often as they used too. There's a lot of competition for people's "Entertainment attention" too. cable TV, the internet, DVD players, movie rentals...It's tough!

13) What is the best advice you can give to a new artist?

Play from the heart, develop your own sound, and follow your heart. Be patient, be persistent.

14) Who are your blues heroes and why?

I'm always drawn to the musicians who show that expressive passion that I try to re-create in my music, too: BB KIng, Ray Charles, Albert King, Otis Rush. But I must say that I find that the "Blues Feeling" is present in a lot of other styles of music as well. To me the great Tango composer, Astor Piazzolla, is every bit as soulful as Ray Charles.  It's just in a different musical context, that's all. I've even combined the blues with a Tango song and rhythm structure on my 'Guitar Gumbo" CD. I like cross breeding different musical styles and feelings. I'm always hoping to do something fresh and imaginative...

15) What do you still wish to accomplish as an artist?

I'm hoping to achieve a wider fan base and hope to play my music around the world for as many people as possible.

16) Tell me about what you having coming up in your musical career.

We're going to be working really hard to promote the new "A Part Of Me CD" starting early next year. We want to bring our love and passion for playing our music to as many people as possible.

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