The Warm Shelter Benefit
For the last 50 Years Roomful of Blues has become legendary in the Blues World.
Roomful has toured the world and recorded over 25 albums. With five Grammy nominations and a slew of music awards and accolades Roomful has become a recognized leader in their genre.
“In a class by itself . . ..” —Down Beat “. . . irresistible on the dance floor. —Mademoiselle
“If you are afflicted with podomotophobia—the fear of tapping your feet—stay clear of this band.” —People
“[They are] the baddest big blues band in the land.” —Boston Herald
“Roomful of Blues blows ’em out of the door . . . the hottest, most solid and wonderfully entertaining band of its type around.”
—San Francisco Examiner
“Roomful of Blues gave an object lesson in how to tackle modern blues with traditional swing and verve.” —The Times, London
“They were f**king great!” —Drew Carey (after Roomful of Blues played a season-ending wrap party for his TV series)
Remembering Our Friend and Beloved Bandmate John Rossi.
John Rossi, the longtime drummer for Roomful of Blues, passed away on the morning of April 9th after a short illness.
Born in 1942, in Providence, Rhode Island, John grew up during the rock ’n’ roll era listening to Little Richard, Fats Domino and countless other treasures of America’s musical heritage.
An epiphany occurred when he went to see tenor sax star Red Prysock at the Celebrity Club in Providence. Prysock’s drummer had the biggest cymbals John had seen, and he became fixated by the wash of sound they made as they rode atop the heavy backbeat propelling Prysock’s frenzied horn.
Thus inspired, he took up drums at seventeen, and played in many early Rhode Island rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues bands, recording with the Del-Rays in 1961 and then spent three years with the area’s premier band, the Rockin’ Savoys, led by tenor sax player Louie Camp.
His mother Jennie, a classically trained pianist, encouraged John’s interest in music, all the while admonishing him to learn to read music, telling him he would never get ahead if he failed to do so.
The advent of the Beatles changed musical tastes and for a few years, John worked sporadically until he teamed up with the Hamilton-Bates Blue Flames in the late sixties. The group, co-led by tenor player Scott Hamilton and guitarist Fred Bates, was causing a sensation in New England music circles with its emphasis on swing, and was the beginning of a long rhythm section relationship between John and the group’s bassist, Preston Hubbard.
He joined Roomful of Blues in 1970 after Fran Christina left, and thus began a musical journey that eventually led John all over the world, playing the music he loved. The band, led by guitarist and singer Duke Robillard, with its lineup of three saxes, Greg Piccolo, Doug James and Rich Lataille, pianist Al Copley and bassist Eddie Parnigoni, was John’s dream band, playing classic rhythm and blues from the books of Buddy Johnson, Roy Milton, Tiny Bradshaw and the myriad other titans of jump blues and swing from the thirties through the fifties.
Roomful developed a growing reputation through New England for a style of musicianship that was almost prehistoric in the progressive rock days of the 1970s, and it was John’s driving style that was at the root of the band’s sound. He always said that he strove for a ‘powerhouse sound’, and that was what he delivered, sitting behind a vintage set of Slingerland Radio Kings and 24” ride and 22" crash cymbals.
Roomful’s drive and class together with the sheer danceability of the band’s music led to an ever-growing touring base, and by 1977 Island Records signed the band a couple of years after John’s erstwhile partner, Preston Hubbard from Hamilton - Bates Blue Flames had signed on with Roomful.
By 1980 a major blues revival was underway throughout the USA, sparked in no small part by Roomful’s example, although few bands matched Roomful’s size, lineup or musicianship. Indeed, although Roomful was considered by musicians to be a ‘musician's band’, the band members modestly considered themselves to be a dance band, and the success of John’s motto to ‘aim the beat at their feet’ was proven by the increasing turnout of dancers at the band’s shows, lindy-hopping and swing dancing to John’s relentless groove, learned after years of listening to masters such as Charles Otis, Earl Palmer, Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams, Roy Milton, Panama Francis and Gene Krupa.
His mastery of the drums, his technique, and unerring sense of rhythm and dynamics, caused him to be known as ’The King of the Shuffle’ among blues bands of the 80s and 90s, and he was idolized by drummers from coast to coast, continent to continent.
John remained with the band until 1998, when, tired of the endless hustle and bustle of touring, he quit to stay home with his wife Linda and family in Providence. At that time he could look back on close to thirty years with Roomful, thirteen albums, three that were nominated for Grammies (records with Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Big Joe Turner and Earl King), an album with pop idol Pat Benatar, another with Canadian superstar Colin James (both with the Roomful horn section), and countless record sessions with other name musicians.
Duke Robillard said in an email today, ‘John Rossi was a one of a kind drummer and the foundation of Roomful of Blues … RIP’ and Greg Piccolo echoed these thoughts; ‘He was the backbone of the band - he was the one’.
I first met him in 1980, in Atlanta, Georgia. I had gone into a club, the Downtown Cafe, where Roomful was beginning a three-night stand. I had never heard Roomful before, and I was blown away by the band’s sound and authenticity. On a Tiny Bradshaw tune, they had the rhythm just right. And then on a New Orleans tune they effortlessly nailed that second line thing. As John walked off the stand after the first set, I walked up to him and asked ‘Do you listen to Little Richard’? His eyes opened wide and he grinned a big smile. ‘He’s my man!’ Over the years John and I would often refer back to that moment, as it was a transmission of understanding between the two of us. He loved blues and r & b, but it was rock ’n’ roll that really spun his wheels. He understood the relationship of 1940’s big band blues to the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll, and in an interview with Downbeat magazine I remember him saying, with a faraway look in his eyes, ‘Lionel Hampton - now there was rock ’n’ roll!’
In a conversation with John last year, he reminisced about playing alongside the Roomful horn section behind Pat Benatar on the Johnny Carson show with the NBC orchestra led by Doc Severinsen, plus being on the Arsenio Hall show with her. And with Roomful he was able to play with so many of his heroes and contemporaries, such as Red Prysock, Sil Austin, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Arnett Cobb, B. B. King, Jay McShann, Etta James, Big Joe Turner, Earl King, Jimmy Witherspoon, Jimmy Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Los Lobos, Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, Jimmy McCracklin, Carlos Santana, Bob Scaggs, Grady Gaines … the list goes on and on. One time in California the band opened for a couple of shows headlined by Rolling Stone Charlie Watts, who was leading a large band while on vacation from the Stones. Kind of a drummer’s battle of the bands. The reviews gave the night to Roomful of Blues, who 'unlike Watts' Orchestra, had little trouble establishing a groove’. (Oakland Tribune, June 17, 1987).
So John Rossi had a heck of a career. Traveled the world, played major TV shows, appeared with the band in a major movie, ’The Good Mother’ (Liam Neeson and Diane Keaton), recorded extensively and perhaps most importantly, made an awful lot of people very very happy.
And no, he never learned to read music, but he most surely did get ahead.
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Bob Bell - Manager of Roomful of Blues 1981-2002