Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers

Rod Piazza | September 28, 1985 | Riverside, California, USA | Photo by Mark Weber

ROD PIAZZA & THE MIGHTY FLYERS

My wife Janet had never seen the Mighty Flyers before and when I took her to see them at the El Rey here on Central Avenue (Rt.66) (December 7, 1993) in Albuquerque I don’t think she was ready for what she was about to witness. They kicked it off with a stomping Chicago-style romp and from the downbeat they blew the roof off this old theatre downtown. KaBLAM! I think it landed over on the Rio Grande and floated south to Mexico. From the word Go they were already so intense about 30 people fainted from fright and when Rod jumped up on a table and started howling the rest of the 300 people who hadn’t spilled their drinks wanted to run but were too scared. Janet’s eyes popped out of her head and her jaw dropped into her lap. And she thought she’d seen it all, but not until she survived this night. The only other time I think she was this transfixed was in 88 when I took her to see Sun Ra. This is a blues band gone feral. Blues the way it’s done California style. We don’t mess around. The place was smoking so hard somebody called the fire department. Ambulances were double-parked out front.

Rod Piazza, harmonica; Bill Stuve, bass; Ed Mann, drums | @ Carlos O’Briens, Riverside, California | September 28, 1985 | Photo by Mark Weber

Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers | December 3, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

The Mighty Flyers | December 3, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

Guitarist Steve Kilman sits in with The Mighty Flyers | December 3, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers | Junior Watson, guitar; Rod, harp & vocals; Bill Stuve, bass; Bill Swartz, drums, Honey Alexander, piano | December 3, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

So, I’ve been stranded out here in New Mexico and haven’t caught Rod’s band in a long time. Although I pick up all their CDs as they come out annually. Mostly I was on the scene in the late-70s and 80s around their hometown Riverside, California, where I also spent a few years of my youth. Riverside is nothing like L.A. One hour east of L.A. and it’s a whole other world. A lot more horses and chicken coops. More pick-up trucks with gun racks. More sitting on the porch and talking with neighbors.

I began catching Rod’s band when they were they were called The Chicago Flying Saucer Band but soon turned into The Mighty Flyers.

Rod Piazza on the job @ Don Carlos Hair Design, 6674 Brockton, Riverside, California | April 18, 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber

Bluesmen Zaven Jambazian & Rod Piazza | December 10, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

Guitarist Steve Samuels sits in with The Mighty Flyers | September 28, 1985 | Photo by Mark Weber

Shakey Jake sits in with The Mighty Flyers | December 3, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber


Shakey Jake sits in with The Mighty Flyers | December 3, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

I have never seen them when they weren’t just entirely kicking butt, what an immense powerful sound, authentic, rock-solid, great arrangements, solos, singing, stage craft, turbulence, thunder, lightening strikes, visitations from the beyond, howling winds speeding Cadillacs at night tornadoes geezus you wonder if they carry on like this all the time? Night after night? Job after job? Apparently so.

It would be interesting to know how they cool out after so much intensity? From my modest observations this is not a boozing band. They stay healthy. Probably one of the few blues bands that didn’t fall into drinking and other dead-end bluesman myths. Anyway, in those years I took care of the drinking for them. Rod has always looked like the kind of guy who worked out in a gym.

Rod Piazza |  September 28, 1985 | Photo by Mark Weber

At the El Rey gig here in Albuquerque the guitarist was Alex Shultz and even though he had some fairly big shoes to fill ( Junior Watson ! ) just call him Big Foot ! What a great guitarist. Alex’s website bio says he studied with George Barnes. My eyebrows went up. And so I had to ask.

“George Barnes was incredible. I was young — 20 and 21 years old — and not very grounded in theory at the time, although I did study with him again for just a few months after my first year at Berklee College of Music, so then I had more understanding of what was going on. He was incredibly melodic and also taught me to pick cleanly and clearly, something I tried to stick to all along.” — Email 5/27/2012 from Alex Shultz to MW.

Rod Piazza | September 28, 1985 | Photo by Mark Weber

Rod might laugh at this, and I could be completely wrong, but it’s been my observation that the standard everyday diatonic harmonica is the world’s easiest instrument to play — there’s no wrong notes on it, providing you got the right key. Winos play them on the streets for spare change completely drunk out of their minds. But the chromatic harmonica all of a sudden jumps up to being one of the hardest musical instruments in the world — I’ve tried and they’re too complicated.

Rod Piazza | September 28, 1985 | Photo by Mark Weber

one thing
about
the chromatic
is that
it
saves you from having to
carry around
two dozen diatonics

Rod Piazza | September 28, 1985 | Photo by Mark Weber

Though, in the right hands a diatonic can be one of the wonders of the world. Rod, I believe exclusively plays chromatic. One time when I was visiting him — 1980 on Linwood Place in Riverside — I asked about how they got a particular Little Walter-blown-speakers sound on one of his records. Rod dragged out from behind the couch a plastic PlayTel children’s cassette player and said they ran his harmonica sound through that in the studio ( ! ) Rod also collects vintage bullet microphones — I know because I gave him one that I had laying around.

Guitar Gable & Honey Alexander | September 28, 1985 | Photo by Mark Weber

there’s a lot of Otis Spann
in Honey’s middle fingers
and a little bit of Joe Sullivan
in the thumb and the Santa Ana River
in the tendon and
some nights there are butterflies all over her hands
and her left ring finger has Rod’s diamond
and the right index has feline black cat vortex singularity
quantum mechanics
and the Rubidoux Mountains covered in purple sage

Junior Watson, Rod Piazza, Bill Stuve | December 3, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

Junior Watson, Rod Piazza, Bill Stuve | December 3, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

Rod Piazza & Bill Stuve | December 10, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

Junior Watson | September 28, 1985 | Photo by Mark Weber

Junior Watson | September 28, 1985 | Photo by Mark Weber

Junior Watson & Bill Stuve | December 3, 1983 | Photo by Mark Weber

Back in the late 70s and 80s when I was living in Southern California the working blues bands that I was aware of were James Harman’s, William Clarke’s, Hollywood Fats, and in Watts (now more properly known as “South Central”) Pee Wee Crayton had his Ultimates of Soul, and Lowell Fulson kept a band, and pianist Lloyd Glenn, and Smokey Wilson had an ad-hoc band, and Shakey Jake used other people’s bands, and guitarist/singer Curtis Griffin did the same, and pianist J.D. Nicholson (who used to be in Rod’s late-60s band Bacon Fat) had a hit on the juke box those years (remember juke boxes?) “Get Drunk And Be Somebody” I sure wish I had a copy of that — it was released on 45 RPM — hard to find — but was all over back then. And George Smith had a pool of musicians he’d put together for whatever the gig called for. I have always regretted missing seeing T-Bone Walker who lived and played all over Los Angeles — Rod worked with him some ( ! ) Big Joe Turner lived in Los Angeles and used Pee Wee’s band when he had a local gig. And Bernie Pearl and Doug McLeod had active bands. And of course, Canned Heat.

Big Joe Turner & George Harmonica Smith lighting up | July 20, 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber

George Harmonica Smith @ KLON Blues Festival, Veteran’s Memorial Stadium, Long Beach, California |  July 20, 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber ——– Rod Piazza was a member of George Smith’s Southside Blues Band in the 60s who was teacher-mentor to Rod mostly about the intricacies of chromatic harmonica

Back in those days my close friend Nels Cline jumped me to go see the Blasters over at the Whisky. Nels really laid into me about them. So I made it over to Sunset, after which I told Nels he to needs check out The Mighty Flyers — as good as the Blasters were, the Flyers could mop the floor with them Blasters. Look out.


Junior Watson and Rod Piazza — San Francisco Blues Festival, Golden Gate Park — August 12, 1978 — photo by Mark Weber

Mark Weber & Rod Piazza | December 3, 1983

Mark Weber | May 22 & 23, 2o12

This photo essay made possible with the help of Cal Haines — who is the perfect jazz drummer — who had to do quite some doctoriing (PhotoShop) to my old tatter’d negatives. AND to Monsieur Klaus who makes everything look so hip with his layout and web design — and his gracious urgings for me to keep on writing these little additions to jazz & blues history.

9 Comments

  1. Keep ’em coming, Mark. It’s an exhilarating musical education you’re offering up. Thanks mucho.

  2. These photos show Junior Watson on three different guitars, but there’s the epochal Harmony fatbody $50 box with the aluminum bindings! This is the guitar that started a trend, the epiphany in an Oregon pawnshop (or was it a music store?)(poetic license wants me to say: pawnshop, baby) and legend has it Watson was broke, the way all bluesman should be, and Rod sprung the 50 to buy it for him. By my reckoning this story is circa 1980 while on tour with the Flyers.

  3. I saw Rod Piazza set in with Musselwhite at the Ash Grove
    once — I remember Rod thought it odd that the harmonica
    that night was run through the house P.A.

    And Shakey Jake was there that night, also. And Honey Alexander! And Junior Watson was in the band. (It’s all
    coming back to me.) And Musselwhite gave the name of
    his drummer as “Albert Shufflesworth,” sure. We believe
    you Charlie. (Take a look at the album SUPER SESSION
    by Michael Bloomfield to understand the levity of this appellation.)

    Bobby Bradford once caught Lightnin Hopkins at the Ash Grove and
    said the Union had sent over a bassist that just couldn’t
    follow Lightnin, because Lightnin always messed with the
    structure, because he was Lightnin, and at one point Lightnin
    turned and looked at the aggravated bass player and said,
    with a snide grin, “I’m the boss, follow me.”

  4. I vastly over-simplified the Southern California-Los Angeles blues scene of the 70s only because I didn’t want to run out of breath — one shouldn’t pass over lightly that artists like Johnny Otis and his Review were around then, as was Floyd Dixon, Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers, Charles Brown, Etta James, Lowell Fulson, Roy Milton, Johnny Turner & Zaven Jambazian’s band Blues With A Feeling, Jimmy Witherspoon, Cleanhead, Joe Houston, Bernie Pearl, Little Esther, Long Gone Miles, and I always regretted having never caught Lloyd Glenn, one of the giants. I have so many pictures of all of these artists I hope to post before long. I always felt it was better to catch urban blues in its actual context: in blue-collar working-class bars of the inner city, rather than at blues festivals that always seemed geared toward bringing the hard edge of the blues to the middle-class white community. But then, a true ethnomusicologist sees the whole picture as context, and besides, blues festivals like the annual one in San Francisco every summer (1975-1979 driving up there in my little Volkswagen) were too much fun, and the annual Long Beach Blues Festival was another good one.

    In those days I frequented Watts clubs like Slone’s (on Slauson), Roy’s Rib Inn (Compton), The Rubaiyat Room (on Western above the freeway), the Pioneer Club (88th & Vermont), among many other fly-by-night after-hours joints and even went to Johnny Otis’s church on Sundays! And the Ash Grove ( ! ) not exactly Watts, (Melrose Avenue in “Lower Hollywood” let’s say), but wow what a great club.

  5. Mark, someday I’d like to sit with you for about 8 hours, and just look through your B&W’s of bygone bluesmen and women, and listen to you reminisce. It would be a great inheritance!!!

    • Hi Mark,

      My name is Susan and I’m on the West Coast Blues Festival Planning Committee and this 2nd year will be honoring Carlos O’ Briens and all of the blues bands that use to play there. I was hoping you could help us out by sharing some high/low resolution jpegs of the best (and oldest) shots you’ve got of these bands, as well as, any snapshots of the crowds/long lines to get in, as well as, them swing dancing, etc. for us to use in the promo …

      Save the date, it’s: October 14th & 15th.

      Thanks for capturing this stuff on film…and in your writing. Love it. If you have any questions I’m at: (951)977-9606

      Sincerely Grateful,

      Susan

  6. 3 THINGS

    1) Mary Oishi is one of our blues radio hosts here in Albuquerque — a much-loved show on Wednesday nights — KUNM 89.9 FM and streaming on the web > kunm.org

    2) I don’t think Rod ever takes off his sunglasses.

    3) A great book that I recommend that covers some of this Southern California blues history is CHILDREN OF THE BLUES (2002, Backbeat Books) by Art Tipaldi.

  7. Mark, you might be interested in seeing this music video of Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers I worked on in December of 1984, it was shot in Albuquerque.

    http://youtu.be/M_2Uyu2g4Lw

    John Cline

  8. Vernell Jennings

    July 10, 2014 at 7:50 am

    Such fond memories as I sit here listening to ” Shakey’s ” Album and enjoying these photos . Thank you so much for posting these precious photos . I worked with ” Shakey on a lot of projects in the 60’s and 70’s when I was vice president of GoodTime . Shakey actually named me Vernell .

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