This loosely-organized essay comes out of questions sent to me by Rob von Bernewitz, and phone conversations that I had with him.
I have written before about the times discussed here, but never in such detail. Still, as I think about these days gone by, so much more comes to mind that could be said, and that I would like to say. So, I thank Rob for motivating me to write at least this much at this time.
INFLUENCES & EARLY CAREER
I was born in Southeast Minneapolis in August of 1944. In 1948 my family moved from our apartment on Southeast Eighth Avenue, near the University of Minnesota, to a duplex in another Southeast Minneapolis neighborhood called Prospect Park. At that point the piano that had been in my mother's family home came into our home. I was attracted to it right away, and soon developed the shtick of sitting under the protruding keyboard and, snaking my right hand up and over the keys, playing simple melodies ("Mary Had A Little Lamb," etc.). I did this as a way of showing off to my parents' friends. I started piano lessons in third grade and had three good teachers in succession over a period of about six years.
When "Rock Around The Clock" came out in 1954, I went to Schmidt's Music in downtown Minneapolis and put my money on the counter. That was the first record I bought with "my own money." I was in fifth grade. By that time I had started listening to records with my lifelong friend Steve Thomes, whose family shared our duplex. He had got ahold of Leadbelly's "Sinful Songs" in the form of a folio of 78s (a wedding gift to his parents). We listened to the Sinful Songs again and again and I got to know them quite well. That was my first experience of blues music. Between that and the blues piano that I heard on rock & roll records (Fats Domino first, then Jerry Lee Lewis and, later, Ray Charles), I was motivated to play by ear and to go in a direction that was different from what I learned at my piano lessons. So, I was working on my style before I was out of grade school. The first blues riffs that I remember trying to learn from records were on Fats Domino's "Blue Monday."
My first piano teacher, Mary Festinger, was at the time the wife of Leon Festinger, who was the progenitor of the theory of "cognitive dissonance" in the field of social psychology. I didn't get to know him too well, but Mary's style of teaching piano was based on a foundation of music theory, where dissonance is understood in context with consonance. I liked music theory, and in ninth grade I studied harmony and counterpoint with Jose Serebrier, the Uruguayan composer and conductor, at the Gilombardo Music School in Southeast Minneapolis. I paid for these lessons with money I earned on my paper route and by working as a musician. Jose was a young man at the time, only six years older than I, with an illustrious career ahead of him (over three hundred record releases to date, and at least eight Grammys). Anthony Gilombardo was a fiddle player with the Minneapolis Symphony (under Antal Dorati), and his school was on Southeast Fourteenth Avenue, in Dinkytown, in a second-floor apartment in the same building as (or one or two doors away from) the Ten O'Clock Scholar Coffee House. The coffee house, where I sometimes treated myself to a pot of red clover tea (thirty cents), is known to students of American popular music as a Bob Dylan haunt during those days (but I didn't know anything about the folk music scene, and didn't hear of Dylan until we were both gone from Minneapolis). In college I studied chromatic harmony and the theory of intonation with Easley Blackwood, who had studied with Hindemith, Messiaen and Nadia Boulenger, and who was and is a noted pianist and composer. And in my one year of conservatory training in New York I studied music theory with Carl Schachter, who is a renowned musicologist and theorist, and composition with William Sydeman. I digress to point these things out in order to illustrate the extent of my interest in music theory, and my belief that all musical training is valuable.
However, notwithstanding all of that, by the time that I was thirteen or so it was clear that I did not identify myself as a classical musician. And so, after some struggle, I was able to prevail on my mom to let me quit piano lessons. I did continue a rather serious pursuit of music study, as described above. And I did not stop playing.
Steve Thomes was a musical prodigy who, by his teen years, had learned to emulate Leadbelly (vocally and on twelve-string guitar) and Robert Johnson (vocally and on six-string guitar, fretting or with the slides that he fashioned out of glass or metal). This may sound like an outlandish claim, but his music speaks for itself. He did not choose a career as a performer, but he still plays and sings just as brilliantly as ever. The late Dave "Snaker" Ray, was our schoolmate and dear friend. Thomes showed him some stuff on twelve, and Snaker went on to success with Koerner, Ray And Glover. (Like the Butterfield Band, they recorded for Elektra Records.) This local sub-culture of blues enthusiasts also included Barry Hansen, who was also a schoolmate. His nationally-syndicated "Dr. Demento" radio show, which brought him great fame a few years later, devolved mostly on novelty songs. But Barry was already a serious record collector when I met him (we were on the swimming team together, the two slowest guys on the team). He went on to be a musicologist with a vast knowledge of American popular music. His Master of Arts thesis in music (UCLA, 1967) was "Negro Popular Music 1945-1953." And in our schooldays, it was Barry who spun all the records at our sock hops and dances (and wherever else they would let him set up a turntable), so we danced to a steady flow of Bo Diddley and the slow-blues flipsides of Chuck Berry hits, and all kinds of R&B and lots of doo wop.
Another schoolmate, and a neighbor on Barton Avenue Southeast, was Dave Barnum, who later became a hero to me for the dangerous mission he undertook registering Mississippi voters during the civil rights era (he is now a political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago). Dave ordered a Reverend C.L Franklin sermon on 78s, and he had the first Staple Singers album on Vee Jay, which I more or less memorized. And Steve Thomes developed a modest (compared to Barry's) but authoritative collection of blues records. He found a store in St. Psul that purveyed 45s from Chicago and the South -- Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Howling Wolf, Bobby Bland. He had John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins albums, and various Leadbelly LPs on Folkways, and he got the first Robert Johnson album on Columbia when it came out (about twenty-five years after the music was originally released on 78s). We listened to Big Joe Williams and other country blues. And his family's music library included Billy Holiday records and a ten-inch album of piano and vocal solos by Jimmy Yancey, whom I idolized.
So, the milieu that I was in of friends and schoolmates who shared my interest was itself an important influence. And during the years that were most formative for me, 1955 to 1960, blues piano sounds were part of the popular culture. On Lawrence Welk's weekly televised revue, which I watched faithfully with my grandma, pianist Big Tiny Little rocked the boogie woogie. And Fats Domino was on the radio all the time. (Imagine.) I didn't have much of a budget for records, but I bought Fats's early albums -- which were almost entirely blues -- in the form of EPs (they were on the rack at the corner drugstore). I had the "Here's Little Richad" LP, and I had four Ray Charles albums on Atlantic, which were my bible: the live albums from Atlanta and Newport, and the studio albums called "Yes Indeed!" and "Rock & Roll."
In 1959, in the middle of the winter, I answered a Minneapolis Tribune want ad and started working with a band called Johnny & The Galaxies from South Minneapolis. I was fourteen, the youngest in the group at the time (Johnny Caola, the guitarist and bandleader, was already out of school). We played mostly teen dances, and most often at the Crystal Coliseum, a dance hall in Crystal, Minnesota. We recorded four songs (never released) at a studio in the basement of a North Minneapolis home. That was before our sax player and singer, Tim McManus, joined the band, so the recording was entirely instrumental: The Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" (there is no piano on the record, so I invented a part which included some delicate arpeggios on the bridge) and the Tourquays' "Bulldog"; and two instrumental blues by rock & roll artists -- Bill Haley & The Comets' "Blue Comet Blues" and Duane Eddy's "3-30 Blues."
The band's repertoire was what you would expect from a rock & roll band of that era -- "The Twist," "Pony Time," "Linda Lou," "Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Peter Gunn Theme," "Bony Moronie," to name a few. Some of our tunes might in those days have been classified as R&B, like "Kansas City," "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Honky Tonk," "The Night Time Is The Right Time" and, of course, "What'd I Say." Johnny played a Fender guitar through a Fender Concert amp, and Roger Kirk, the bassman (who was also a pedal-steel guitarist), played a Fender Precision bass through a Fender Bassman amp. I did not own any equipment, so I played a Wurlitzer electric piano that belonged to Johnny (the same model that Ray Charles played on "What'd I Say"), and I went through the second channel of Johnny's amp. I stay in touch with Johnny, and I speak regularly with Roger. Tim is deceased, as is Bruce Northrup, our drummer.
Roger made some documentary recordings of the band at the Crystal Coliseum, with the group on one channel and his bass on the other (so that he could study his basslines). He gave me copies of those, and also some pictures of us in our uniforms: green and black brocade Palm-Beach-cut jackets, tux shirts and pants with black or red cummerbund, and red continental ties with a red stud or black continental ties with a pearl stud (for fun, I sometimes switched studs). Pointed-toe shoes completed the look (I got mine at Thom McAn in downtown Minneapolis). I earned more money in one night with Johnny & The Galaxies than I did in a whole week on my paper route. (But I held onto the route.)
I stayed with the Galaxies until 1961, the year that I left for Chicago where, in September, I matriculated at the University of Chicago. In the spring of my first year there, someone referred me to Elvin Bishop, and we jammed in a dormitory basement. Elvin had been in school at the University, but by the time I met him he had dropped out in order to pursue blues on the South Side. Around this time an event was inaugurated on campus that became an important institution over the next couple of years. This event, which started as a Wednesday-night record-playing party in one of the dormitory lounges, soon enough came to be known as the "Twist Party." Before too long, musicians started showing up, individually and as bands. I jammed there on a Kay electric guitar that I picked up in Chicago (it came with a small -- probably about 2-watt -- amp mounted in an attaché case). I wasn't too adept on guitar at that point, but I was able to play bass lines on the bottom strings. On at least one occasion there were three bands playing at once at a "Twist Party," and it may have been that occasion when Mike Bloomfield was there with a band (and his pretty girlfriend). After I heard him play I approached him and, without introducing myself, asked him why he played so fast. He said, "Because I practice all the time," or something like that. After I got to know him (four years later) I recounted this exchange to him, and he said, "That was a lie." I chose not to believe that it had been a lie, because (newsflash) one does not just wake up one morning playing like that. One must practice. A lot.
During the next school-year (1962-1963), the Wednesday-night "Twist Party" moved from the dorm to the neighboring building, Ida Noyes Hall, where there was a ballroom. At that point the multi-band melee was a thing of the past, and the house band was Paul Butterfield's group, with Elvin on guitar and a rhythm section known as the Wilson brothers. At the door was a hand-lettered sign: "Admission ten cents for beer for the band." There was no sound system. Paul sang through his amp. And there was no stage. The band set up in a corner of the dancefloor where a small piano sat nearby, and I got in the habit of wheeling the piano out and, without benefit of amplification, jamming along with the musicians. I was not invited to do this, nor was I ever asked to refrain from doing it. So, though I never met Paul in a formal way, he became aware of me at the "Twist Party." I'm sure that what the band played was just what you would hear in the nearby blues bars, but for some reason the only song that I remember by name from those nights is "Walkin' The Dog."
I graduated from the University of Chicago in the spring of 1964, and that summer I moved to New York City and began a year of study at the conservatory then known as the Mannes College of Music on East 74th Street. In early 1965, Paul Butterfield came to New York with his four-piece group, now called the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Elvin was still on guitar, and the rhythm section (which had previously been Howling Wolf's rhythm section) was Jerome Arnold on bass and Sam Lay on drums. They appeared at a club in the Village, and I went up (from my apartment on the Lower East Side) to take in the show. This group had one of the most thrilling band sounds I had ever heard, or could imagine, and, as I look back, it was the purest form of Butterfield ever. Although his rhythm guitar sound was the heart of the band, Elvin didn't take a lot of solos at that point. So the songs were mostly built around alternations of Paul's vocal choruses and his harp solos, and every time he went back to the harp the music kicked up a gear. It was amazing.
When the Butterfield Band returned to New York that summer, it was a five-piece band with Mike Bloomfield. During that visit Paul invited me to play along with them for a night (two sets) at the Cafe Au Go Go on Bleecker Street. I say "play along" because the small house piano was not on stage (it was down on the floor with the tables), and it was not in the p.a. mix or amplified in any other way (shades of the "Twist Party" days). Toward the end of that summer, I dropped by the studio where the band was recording, and was drawn into the session. I don't know if there was a piano in the studio (there probably was), but Paul wanted organ, so, since Elvin was running late, the engineer put me on his track and I played Hammond organ on an instrumental -- and took one of the solos. After that song, Paul asked me to keep on playing, so I shared Elvin's track (this was four-track recording). During the course of the session, which turned out to be a triple-session (nine hours), Paul invited me to join the group. I accepted the invitation, played with the band at the Philadelphia Folk Festival that weekend, and toured with them for the next two-and-a-half years. Some of the songs on the band's first album came from that session, including "Thank You Mr. Poobah," the song with my solo, where I sound like a piano player playing organ (prior to that moment I had played home organs, but had never played a Hammond organ, or any kind of organ with a band). At the Philadelpia Folk Festival, and during the following stint (back in Chicago), I played a prototype Guild portable organ as shown in the inset photo on the back of the first album, where Paul, Mike and I, in our shades, invoke the "tadpole look."
I went from the Guild portable organ to a Hammond M, and then to a B-3. The "M" can be turned off in mid-stream -- producing a keening, siren-like downward wail -- and can then go immediately back to full power. That effect, which was fun at the time, cannot be achieved with the "B" -- but the "B" is the ultimate, and always will be. I traveled with a single Leslie, and added a tweed four-ten Fender Bassman, which I bought from Elvin for 75 dollars. The amp sat on top of the Leslie, on its side so that it would not roll. You can see it, with its torn grill-cloth, on the foldout "Golden Butter" double-album, in the inside photo of the band onstage at Town Hall. The amp gave the organ a very penetrating sound. (After my days with the Butterfield Band, I just used one or two Leslies with the organ -- no added amps.) With the Butterfield band, I put another keyboard on top of the organ: first a Hohner Pianet, as heard (with the organ) on "Work Song" from the "East West" album; and later a Fender Rhodes, as heard (with the organ) on "Driftin' And Driftin'" from "The Resurrection Of Pigboy Crabshaw." I played acoustic pianos on the band's records, but almost never on stage.
During my years with the band we did not play the hugest venues, like Madison Square Garden or the Hollywood Bowl, or various stadiums, coliseums and hippodromes -- but we played at both the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Monterey Pop Festival, and many times at the original Fillmore Auditorium with the San Francisco bands (most often the Jefferson Airplane), and we toured England with a package headlined by Georgie Fame, tracing the same route that had just been followed by the Rolling Stones (and with the same tour manager). Our first engagement in California, at the very beginning of 1966, was two weeks at the Trip Club, a big showroom in the Playboy Building on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where we co-billed the first week with the Byrds, then with Wilson Pickett. What a gas it was to watch Pickett work. At this point I don't have many memories of musicians' sitting in with the band, but I remember well when Sam The Sham sat in at the Cafe Au Go Go (he sang "The Sky Is Crying"). And at the Fillmore in San Francisco, Muddy Waters sat in with his great drummer, Francis Clay, who later became a good friend and musical associate of mine.
I did not get to know Mike Bloomfield until I joined the Butterfield Band, but once I was there we soon became close. Mike left the Butterfield Band in 1967, and I left in 1968. We both moved to the Bay Area. When he left the Electric Flag, we started working together, and that was my primary musical relationship through the 'seventies. Our musical compatibility and the closeness of our friendship are well reflected in the many legitimate releases, bootlegs and documentary recordings of concerts and broadcasts that emerged in the last decade of his life (and continue to emerge). By the time Mike and I met, we may have in some sense entered adulthood, but our friendship was like what one has with a childhood friend, and that is the way I think of him. I also bonded with the late Roy Ruby, who was Mike's partner growing up in Chicago, and Mike got to know some of my people quite well, especially my brother, David M. Naftalin; my college roommate and best man (two out of three times), David Kushner; and David Ames, my partner from conservatory days on forward. We miss Mike.
During the 'seventies, in addition to working with Mike and playing on various records, I also developed my solo piano concert presentation. My first solo concert was on New Year's Eve, 1970, produced by Ralph Wittcoff at the communally-operated New Riverside Cafe in Minneapolis, on the West Bank. I have by now played many solo concerts, and many engagements in restaurants and nightclubs, and those things continue. But I play with other musicians every chance I get.
ABOUT MY PRODUCTIONS
In 1978 I put together a weekly series of six blues shows (four acts per show) at the Boarding House, a San Francisco nightclub. This was my first foray into the world of production. In 1979, I founded the "Blue Monday Party," a weekly series of blues shows that ran for four-and-a-half years in two clubs -- the Sleeping Lady Cafe in San Anselmo, and then Uncle Charlie's in Corte Madera, both in Marin County, north of San Francisco. These shows featured a house band in which I was the pianist and bandleader, with two guest stars each week.
In 1981 I entered the universe of concert and festival production by founding the Marin County Blues Festival, which was a feature of the Marin County Fair for twenty years (except for two seasons where it was presented elsewhere in the county). I also produced a blues festival at the county fair in Sonoma County (the next county to the north of Marin) and a miscellany of festivals at other fairs over the years. In 1982 I started working as a producer at the Monterey Jazz Festival where, after several seasons, I was awarded the title of Associate Producer of the Blues Afternoon. On the East Coast, I produced two Westport Blues Festivals (1993 and 1994). We brought Lowell Fulson out from California for the 1994 festival, and also presented him at the Bottom Line in Manhattan. That was his last tour in this region. Sonny Rhodes played on both Westport festivals.
From the late 'seventies until I moved back East in 2002, I worked in clubs and colleges around the Bay Area, and sometimes beyond, with a show similar in format to the "Blue Monday Party," and usually presented as the Mark Naftalin Rhythm & Blues Revue.
My life in radio production began in 1979, with the advent of the "Blue Monday Party" weekly nightclub show. I started by dropping by the late Paul Boucher's show on Marin County's now-defunct KTIM-FM, on my way to the club, to promote the evening's "Blue Monday Party." This guest spot, which I called the "Blue Monday Party Of The Airwaves," soon spun off into an independent pre-recorded weekly broadcast, which I called the "Blues Power Hour."
The "Blues Power Hour," which is still in production, was and is a record show -- mostly blues, R&B, soul and gospel, and sometimes a little country. (One of my shows this year was a tribute to George Jones -- all George Jones music except for one piano solo that I recorded as a tribute to him.)
In 1982, I inaugurated another weekly radio show, also on KTIM, which was a live broadcast from the stage of the "Blue Monday Party" nightclub show, and was also called the "Blue Monday Party." Both radio shows went off the air in late 1983 (along with a lot of other independent programming) when KTIM changed ownership.
In 1984 I took my "Blues Power Hour" to KALW-FM, an NPR outlet in San Francisco, where it ran weekly until the end of 2011. And for three years, starting in 1987, I had a completely different "Blues Power Hour," also a weekly broadcast, on KFOG-FM, San Francisco's commercial powerhouse. The KFOG show was broadcast live from the KFOG studios, and was aimed at what I imagined to be the KFOG audience -- which meant that I mixed in more contemporary releases, didn't play anything recorded before World War II, and never played gospel music. On KALW, I did the show live from the station's studio until I moved back East in 2002, at which time I started producing remotely, first mixing the show in real time onto a CD, then after awhile producing it on a hard-drive using music editing software. Over 1,350 distinct "Blues Power Hour" broadcasts (not including re-plays) have aired in the Bay Area so far. When the "Blue Monday Party" live broadcasts were on the air, there were over 80 shows altogether.
Though it is no longer a weekly broadcast, the "Blues Power Hour" continues to air on KALW from time to time: five times in 2012 and three so far this year. The next show, Wednesday, September 4 at 10 p.m. PST (Thursday, September 5 at 1 a.m. EST), will stream on <http://kalw.org> and will also be accessible through our website <http://bluespower.com>.
Those who may be interested in more details about my activities and productions are invited to visit our website <http://bluespower.com>.
The website has a ways to go in terms of development, but you will find a some YouTube links there, including one of my piano solos, recorded in concert in 2012.
There are two bios:
* "Mark Naftalin Bio"
* "The Mark Naftalin Story" <http://bluespower.com/a‑mn.htm#mnbiolv.htm>
There is a list of many of the artists I have played with:
* "Mark Naftalin Performance And Recording Credits" <http://bluespower.com/a-mncred>.
Other resources include:
* "Mark Naftalin Discography"
* more on the "Blues Power Hour"
* more on the "Blue Monday Party"
And several features:
* all issues of Bloomfield Notes
* Nick Gravenites's "Bad Talking Bluesman" articles
Our website also has information about Winner Records, the label that I operate with my wife Ellen. Our small catalog of four CDs and one DVD includes performances by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Percy Mayfield, Lowell Fulson, John Lee Hooker, Pee Wee Crayton, Charlie Musselwhite, Luther Tucker, Francis Clay, Ron Thompson, and others.
Thanks for reading, neighbors.
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