Rhode Island’s got the blues

Rhode Island’s got the blues

Rhythm and blues to be exact – and RIRBPS is hoping to make it official

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island has an official state bird, state flower, state drink, and who could forget the quirky naming of calamari as our official “state appetizer.” Isn’t it time there was an official state music genre?

The Rhode Island Rhythm & Blues Preservation Society has proposed a bill, introduced by Rep. David Bennett, to name rhythm and blues as the state’s official music.

Cleveland Kurtz, RIRBPS president, sums up the motive behind the campaign saying, “I think it is the music that we have in common.”

Kurtz said that for about a year, RIRBPS conducted a survey of music in Rhode Island, “going to all the clubs,” finding that the most played form of live music reported back was rhythm and blues, he said.

“You can go to a club every night of the week and listen to live (blues) music,” said Kurtz, of pre-COVID-19 times.

If the bill passes, Kurtz said, “Like a state flower, this would be our state music. It would announce to the world that we groove on it.”

“We have a very diverse state,” Kurtz said, pointing out that Rhode Islanders also have many different styles of music preference. But we all “meet at the watering hole of rhythm and blues,” he said, highlighting that everything from country to jazz to rock ‘n’ roll can trace roots back to rhythm and blues.

“It’s a proud tradition and it’s worldwide,” he said.

The language of the proposed bill describes rhythm and blues as “music which contains elements of pop, soul, funk, hip-hop and electronic music.” Merriam Webster’s official definition states: “popular music typically including elements of blues and African American folk music and marked by a strong beat and simple chord structure.” But ask anyone involved in music, and it becomes quickly clear that it is so much more.

For Rhode Island specifically, its rhythm and blues history runs deep.

“In Rhode Island we’ve got some powerhouses,” Kurtz said, mentioning the Osborne dynasty of Jeffrey, Billy and Clay Osborne; Tavares; and Roomful of Blues, to name just a few.

Influential in the state’s history of the music style was Providence’s famous Celebrity Club, founded in 1949 by Paul Filippi (father of House Minority Leader Blake Filippi). The venue saw the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Domino, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

“Celebrity Club was probably one of first places Black people and other ethnic groups got together in one place,” said Kurtz. Things “grew from there, because of the love of music.”

A plaque erected by the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society in 2013 close to where the club was located states: “Near this site at 54 Randall Street stood The Celebrity Club, New England’s first integrated jazz and rhythm & blues venue. Founded by Paul Filippi in 1949, the world-class club broke the race barrier by bringing Blacks and whites together to enjoy, in a social milieu, the most gifted artists of the time.”

As for currently open music venues that have contributed to the state’s rich rhythm and blues history, Kurtz cites Chan’s in Woonsocket and the Knickerbocker Music Center in Westerly as heavy hitters, as well as various smaller local clubs that keep the scene going with live blues jams during non-pandemic times.

Kurtz said he expects these venues to be “jumping as soon as things come back.”

John Chan, owner of Chan’s Fine Oriental Dining, said, “I think it’s a wonderful idea,” of the proposed bill.

Chan said he’s been booking rhythm and blues artists for four decades, and that “rhythm and blues is probably the foundation of all music.”

“I think we’re very fortunate to have a lot of talented (blues) artists living in Rhode Island and New England,” he said.

Names like Dizzy Gillespie, Leon Redbone, Ana Popovic and many more have all come through Chan’s doors, said Chan, who was inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame for his role in the local scene. “It just makes me very happy to see the smile it brings to the people,” he said.

Chan, who calls his venue “one of the last supper clubs in New England,” said he’s starting to see more turnout for shows. He said with his now-allowed 75 percent capacity, he’s “very encouraged.”

Rhode Island’s own blues great Duke Robillard, nominated for two Grammys and a founding member of Roomful of Blues, said that “having Rhode Island’s state music be rhythm and blues would be fitting because Rhode Island has a unique and wide ranging culture, like R&B. For me personally, rhythm and blues covers most of what has influenced me for most of my life and my music.”

Robillard, of Pawtucket, also a Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame inductee, said he’s currently “keeping busy recording and will have a new swing style jazz album coming out this summer with Scott Hamilton that I am very excited about. And I am just finishing up a blues album for late this year or early next year. So I have been very busy in spite of no gigs.”

Russell Gusetti, a founding and current member of the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, said, “Rhode Island has a strong R&B and blues community dating back to the late 1940s, which continues to the present, and the music is well-represented among our 75 inductees to date. RIMHOF’s mission has always been to celebrate and preserve the stories of all genres of musicians that make up our state’s musical legacy to ensure that music continues to play an important role in the lives of all Rhode Islanders.”

Gusetti added, “Rhode Island’s pioneering 1950s vocal group The Castaleers, the successful R&B horn band Roomful of Blues, and Tavares, comprised of five Cape Verdean-American brothers, are just some of the R&B inductees we have been honored to showcase.”

Rep. Bennett, serving District 20 in Warwick, who introduced the bill, said, “I think today with what’s happening in our world, in our country … it’s important that we acknowledge our roots.”

Bennett, a former rock ‘n’ roll drummer, called it a “great bill,” also citing the Celebrity Club and the state’s historic connection to rhythm and blues.

While the bill is currently still being held for further study, Kurtz says he’s optimistic that it will come to fruition. He is encouraging residents to call their representatives to show their support for “a real nice thing for the state.”

If the bill passes, Kurtz said he envisions some type of “festival between clubs,” to celebrate, with events spread across different local venues when it is safe to do so.

“Rhode Island is suffering rhythm and blues withdrawals,” he said. “We can hardly wait to get started. There will be a gigantic music explosion.”

The RIRBPS Preservation Hall Rhythm & Blues Band performs live at a past event.

Comments

Enjoyed the article. Moved from RI a year ago and I have to say one of the things I miss the most is the live music - mostly blues. Went to Chan's countless times often to listen to artists I had never heard before - never disappointed. Went to a couple R&B festivals too - wonderful times! RI has a rich variety of live music venues.