Thursday, August 12, 2010

An Interview with Bob Baldori

A long time ago I was lucky to post an interview with Bob Lohr, his current piano player.  (If you didn't see it, check it out here.)  I ran this post a month or so later, but I'm repeating it because (a) it's a good one!, and (b) because of the post and comments below about backing Chuck Berry.

Lohr mentioned  fellow attorney/pianist Robert "Boogie Bob" Baldori, whom I've written about several times on this blog.  Baldori played harmonica on the Chuck Berry album, "Back Home," and he and his band The Woolies backed Berry on most of "San Francisco Dues."  The band is even mentioned in the song "Festival."

Baldori calls Chuck Berry "Charles."  I think that might qualify him as family.

Baldori and The Woolies travelled with Berry for years starting in the early 1970s.  In Bruce Pegg's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" Baldori describes the sold out shows Berry was playing night after night "off the radar" of mass media.  He is a witness to history, and a part of it.  He was with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Gary U.S. Bonds the night they learned that Chess Records got sold to GRT Corporation.  You can read about it here.

The Woolies once had a minor hit with Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?"  They played with Bo, and Chuck, and Muddy, and a host of others.  Now Baldori's working with Bob Seeley in Seeley & Baldori, a boogie woogie piano duo.  I posted something one of their videos here.  Or you can go to the website

Anyway, Robert Baldori was nice enough to answer some questions via e-mail.

What was it like for you as a young musician to first play with someone like Chuck Berry?

It was meant to be. I grew up on the streets of Dearborn in the 50s, and Chuck Berry was our hero. By the time I got to college I was playing in a backbeat R & B band that knew everything Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin Wolf ever recorded. We were downtown Detroit on Hastings sneaking into bars to see Jimmy Reed, recording with Devora Brown and Nate Meyer at Fortune Records and in Chicago at Mother Blues and any other blues joint we could get into.

About 1966 we made a little noise as The Woolies, with Who Do You Love, a Bo Diddly tune that became a hit for us, and about that same time Charles came through town (Lansing) for a five night gig at the Dells, a local roadhouse. With Charles, you get him, the guitar and the duckwalk. The promoter is required to furnish everything else. The local promoter had hired a heavy metal band to back Charles, and it didn't quite work out. After the first set, he saw me in the audience and asked me if I could handle it. In the dressing room, Charles looked us over, reviewed some basics and before you knew it we were jamming.

It was a perfect fit, not just because we knew the material, but we also knew how to play it. The chemistry was there from the downbeat. After the week was up Charles asked me about traveling together. We never worked that out formally, but because of Charles, William Morris started booking us on all his gigs. We worked hundreds of them over the next couple of decades, and recorded an album with Charles at my studio in Lansing. Charles also flew me into Chicago after a gig in Detroit to play on the Back Home sessions. I spent a couple of days at the Chess studios with Lafayette Leake, Esmond Edwards, Phil Upchurch, Roy Black and Ralph Bass.

You were quoted once about the big crowds Chuck Berry was drawing in the early 1970s even when his records weren't selling that well. What were those shows like?

We were on the road night after night with Charles playing to sold out houses, and there was hardly a mention of it in the media. Charles didn't have a manager or a marketing department, so the fan base was really a testament to the power of his show and his material. But the power was definitely there, and the shows were electrifying. Charles could stretch out with us because he didn't have to worry about us following anything he did, or losing track of the fundamentals - the groove and the dynamics. It was a completely different show than when he got stuck with local musicians. The range of material was exceptional, and he could always come back to the hits. Occasionally I would work a gig with him where it was just me and a couple of local musicians instead of my band. Those were usually a nightmare, even when the musicians were competent. A lot of the things we take for granted turn out to be too subtle for someone who learned it from the records. Like... the exact timing of a blues shuffle. Or how the parts fit together. Or when not to play.

When you and The Woolies were backing him up did you play piano, or harmonica, or both?

Always played both. Mostly piano. Charles loved the harmonica for the blues numbers, and we made a show of it.

What other instruments do you play?

Bass, and I started out on trumpet.

You had a hit once with a Bo Diddley song-- did you ever get to work with Bo? And what was that like?

Worked with Bo a lot in the 60s and 70s. Some pics at He was special. Another groove master. We backed Bo, Charles, John Lee Hooker and Gary US Bonds at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago the night Chess was sold. Interesting conversation in the dressing room. (See: 

What other musical heroes have you had a chance to work with?

Helped Hubert Sumlin produce and release his recent album a few years ago with Keith Richard and Eric Clapton playing on it. Hubert is a breathtaking player. Actually one of the primal innovators. His body of work with Wolf sums up the electric guitar and rock. NOBODY played it better. He actually played on some early Chuck Berry tracks. Worked a lot of dates with Hubert. Muddy Waters, Tom Rush, John Hammond, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Corky Siegal, Jim Schwall, Rollo Radford, Sam Lay... off the top of my head. And now Bob Seeley and Martin Schmitt, two of the most unbelievable players you will ever hear.

(Note from Peter:  Check out Mr. Sumlin talking about his own musical education here:

People often describe Chuck Berry as difficult with promoters and such-- In your experience is that reputation deserved?

I have never found Charles difficult to work with. He's always been 100% professional and easy going with me. I think some of the rep is exaggerated. The whiners make a lot more noise than the satisfied customers.

Here's a story. One night we play a terrific two hour set. Charles gives it everything. We cover blues, ballads, backbeat rock and roll. Extended solos, hysterical crowd. I can barely stand up when its over. I mean, we've been thumping it for two hours without a break. Charles is drenched in the dressing room, having given out 200%. The crowd is out front, screaming for more. The promoter comes back and demands an encore. We look up in disbelief. The promoter won't quit, getting upset, demanding an encore, referring to the cheering fans. (Did I mention we played an hour over the contracted time?) Charles finally says to him: "Look. I love those people. But I'm not going to let them kill me."

Now, you can take a lot of things away from that incident. The man is a genius, a professional, and has a terrific perspective on what is happening. Does it make him easy to work with? Or difficult to work with? Depends on who is telling the story. The promoter can go bad mouth Charles for not doing an encore. Or he can say the guy is amazing for playing an hour over the contract. There wasn't anybody in that audience who would say they didn't get their money's worth. "I love those people. But I'm not going to let them kill me." If show biz had 10 commandments, that would be about 4 or 5.

You recorded two records with Chuck Berry. One is a favorite of mine-- the record that was called "Back Home." Can you tell us a bit about those sessions. My understanding is that Phillip Upchurch and Lafayette Leake were with you on those.

See above. I could write a book, or at least a long article about the sessions. Too deep for this forum. Esmond Edwards made his reputation as a jazz producer, but he didn't understand that we were playing jazz, or at least a form of it. Jazz is rhythm and improvisation over a blues form (see Wynton Marsalis). I once asked Charles what the difference was between what we were doing and jazz. His response was "I wrote about that. In ‘Rock and Roll Music.’"

Who played drums?

Maybe Fred Below? My memory fails. Check with Fred Rothwell. Or Phil Upchurch. Or that Swedish guy.

Was he ready with songs, or was he writing them during the sessions?


As I understand it "San Francisco Dues" was recorded with your band at your studios. Can you tell us about that?

Another book. Charles was completely prepared and focused. And spontaneous. And comfortable. I've never seen anything like his ability to concentrate. I've invited him back to do it again. We're ready. And I've heard the new material. It's classic.

What should we know about Chuck Berry that we might not know by now?

Deep down he's one of the nicest, most humble, gracious guys you will ever meet. And that's the truth.

Bob Lohr says you still show up at Blueberry Hill once in a while. What's it like?

I love doing it. I try to get down to St Louis on his birthday. Its great that Charles can still play regularly with a group he's comfortable with. And he can still do the duckwalk like a teenager. Jimmy Marsala and I are old friends, and the kids are terrific. Bob is a consummate pro with sensational chops. I remember the first time I met him. I was staying at Berry Park with Charles and we pulled up to Blueberry Hill in his Lincoln. I went in the stage door with Charles and stepped into the elevator. There was this guy standing there, holding a keyboard. I looked at him and said, "You must be the other attorney." We got along great after that. I find myself agreeing with just about everything Bob says, which is kind of unusual for two lawyers. Maybe we just haven't spent enough time together.

You're now performing as a duo with Bob Seeley. Can you tell us about that?

I'm the luckiest guy in the world. Just got back from another tour of Russia doing two piano blues, boogie and rock with Bob Seeley, recognized as the world's greatest stride and boogie woogie player. See: Also Left Hand Like God. We played the Chicago Jazz Festival this year, the Gem Theater in Detroit, The Glenn Gould in Toronto, many dates in Europe. I'm also playing with Martin Schmitt, a German who knows more about American blues, rock and jazz piano than anyone I know except for Seeley. And he can play the book from top to bottom. Rock and roll is really just boogie woogie played by guitars. I'm finishing up a documentary film - BOOGIE STOMP! - that ties this story together with some classic performances.


Anonymous said...

Peter, This interview with Bob Baldori is just like the one with Bob Lohr - Fantastic!!
CB Forum ID-Busseybootlegger

Peter said...

What astounds me is the enormous generosity of the musicians who have shared their stories with this little blog! Peter