GUY POWELL Mitch Woods, the Brooklyn native who carries his keys from his home in the Bay area to his home in New Orleans and all points North, East, South and West, is a true road warrior. I was able to ring him up while I was in Florida and he in New Orleans – just before he was due to head down to Florida for an small tour before heading out on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise where he is a staple at the piano bar which has affectionately come to be known as Mitch Woods’ Club 88. Yes, it seems the only time you can catch Mitch in one place is when he’s on the bandstand where his piano dictates he stay on the bench (or pretty damn close to it at least) for the length of his set! So you’re a Brooklyn boy! “Yup. Born April 3, 1951 – grew up in Flatbush mostly, although we did move a bit. Went to James Madison High School and then to Brooklyn College for a couple of years and then up to the University of Buffalo.” Brooklyn apartments aren’t always conducive to a piano. How’d you get started? “My dad had left when I was young, so my mom used to hire the superintendent of our apartment building to take me to and from school. One day when I was about 9 or 10 years old the super, who was an African American man, stopped at one of his relative’s houses on the way home, and I heard someone playing boogie piano. I told my mother I wanted to play piano after hearing him. Fortunately for me, my mom got remarried, and my stepdad, Abe, went out and got us a piano. So that was the start of it.” Mitch Woods

A spinet? “A Wurlitzer Spinet, yeah.” Classical lessons? “I took classical lessons for 3 years but got bored with it. But my stepdad said, ‘we’ve got a piano, you’re gonna play it.’ So I found a teacher, sort of a Bebop teacher, who taught me chords, scales and how to improvise – and that fueled my fire.” At what point did you feel you’d be a musician? “Well, in high school maybe the idea came about, but in college in Buffalo, which was a great musical town – I still have friends out in the Bay area who were in Buffalo with me during those times – is where I really decided to become a musician. I didn’t finish college, my girlfriend at the time and I headed out to the Bay area – these were hippie times – I’d play piano and she’d sing and play a little rub board. That was kinda the beginning of playing professionally – you know, pass-the-hat stuff. She was singing Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith and I was playing Fats Waller, in that kinda vein – so college is where I decided to be a musician.”

Is that when you stayed out west? “Well, back and forth a few times.” Ok, so back and forth between the Bay area and Brooklyn… “No, when I had left Brooklyn for Buffalo, Buffalo had become my home. I lived in a barn on a farm – I was living in a commune. My part of the barn was right above a hayloft!” What was it that made you choose California to begin with? Although after the tough winters up there I guess California actually seems logical! “Well my older brother had moved out there, first to Berkeley and then to Marin County – and he worked for Bill Graham (the famous music promoter) so he told me about how much music was in the Bay area – and he was right, there was a lot of music going on.” Did the Graham connection work to your advantage? “Well I kinda came in at the tail end – 1971 – so I missed the summer of love and all that so it wasn’t that great although I have done shows for ‘Bill Graham Presents’ over the years – some big New Orleans things and I actually played his pilot’s wedding at Bill’s house – they both died together in that helicopter crash.” “But the blues element got really strong out there – Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield was big and he was a big influence and I got to know him and jam with him quite a bit.”

In those late 60’s/early 70’s days, was it hard for a traveling piano player? “Well, I always had a portable electric piano. I mean I’ve been doing this for 45 years so I’ve lived through the history – smaller, lighter, better. Back then I had a Fender Rhodes, then moved to a Yamaha CP-70, those giant ones that actually had strings in them and folded into two pieces – they weighed a ridiculous amount. They were popular. For years I used the Roland RD 6-700s and they are great. Lately I use a Casio Privia. They have gotten really good at electric pianos, not like the cheap stuff they used to make, and it only weighs 20 lbs. I always prefer a real acoustic grand piano. Yamaha or Steinway. Unfortunately, most clubs don’t have a real piano, so I have my own electric. I have a Yamaha C3 at home. One day I will get a Steinway.” You never learned accordion maybe as a compromise when no real piano was available? “No, I did buy one but it wasn’t my instrument so I never pursued it… I always wanted to be identified as a piano player. I can play organ quite well and sometimes I do wind up playing organ with Tab Benoit, and Voice of The Wetlands All Stars, and even a few times with Royal Southern Brotherhood.” How about the bass pedals on a B3-style organ? “Oh man, that’s too difficult! I sing and play piano, I’m a piano player!” And quite a fine one at that – I’m always fascinated with those bass pedals though! Whatever happened to your washboard-playing singer girlfriend? You still with her? “No, actually we became ‘Mitch Woods and His Red Hot Mama’ – she’d come out with a feather boa and I’d play boogie piano. Then we went to Maui for a two-week gig – and I fell in love with the island. Coming from Brooklyn I didn’t know a place like this even existed!” Pineapples don’t come from cans? “Heck, I didn’t know vegetables didn’t come from cans! So the place wanted me to stay but they couldn’t afford both of us, so it became a solo gig. We had broken up as a couple by then anyway.” Geez, go ahead and tell me her name was Carly Simon! “Ha, no, but we’re still friends, she went on to become a stylist for movies…” “And that is when I had to learn how to sing.” You’re always a snappy dresser – when did that all come about? “That was actually part of Mitch Woods and His Red Hot Mama – we were a period piece – we’d dress in vintage clothes and play music of that era – and through the years I continued to buy vintage clothes from the 40’s.”

At what point are you doing non-solo gigs? Were people calling you to be a sideman? “Well I never really did sideman gigs there – I had started a band in Hawaii but after 3 years I needed to get back to California – I had outgrown Hawaii, there weren’t any musicians better than me there so I realized I had to come back. And when I got back to the Bay area I met John Firmin, the sax player from David Bromberg, and we hooked up and that became the first version of ‘Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88’s.’ Firmin brought in the Bromberg band to be my band because Bromberg had essentially retired his entire band. So since the early 80’s, it’s The Rocket 88’s. We’re usually a 5 piece band, piano, bass, guitar, drums and sax – and I will add more pieces when possible – and for economic reasons I have Rocket 88’s bands in cities all over the world, so it’s just myself that needs to travel to the various gigs.” With an 11 CD discography, Mitch has been busy off the road as well. But some of his catalog are also quite important historical works. His 1997 CD ‘Keeper of the Flame’ consists of duets with the likes of John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Earl King and Lee Allen. And Mitch has recently begun doing duets with other artists such as Charlie Musselwhite, Joe Louis Walker and John Hammond – and when complete with those and any other duets he may do, will likely re-release Keeper of the Flame with these new additions. Another of his recordings, ‘Big Easy Boogie,’ featured the original Fats Domino band that Mitch wisely, sensing this would be an historic event, videoed and recorded interviews with the players to create a DVD/CD double disc offering. Mitch’s latest release was recorded live on the Blues Cruise – in the Mitch Woods Club 88 that has become his home away from home(s) on the high seas. The CD, with its title’s wonderful play on words befitting a piano man, ‘Jammin’ on the High Cs,’ delivers Woods’ tunes accompanied by a variety of guests from that cruise’s headliners as they would come and hang with Mitch. Artists such as Coco Montoya, Roomful of Blues, Tommy Castro, Billy Branch, Victor Wainwright, Popa Chubby – and even Tab Benoit bringing out his inner Bam Bam as he bangs on some pots and pans – give a special energy to the record! Mitch also tells some entertaining stories and of course, plays his stellar brand of boogie piano that, by itself, makes this well worth owning. I assume an album recorded on the ocean was done in .WAV format, but that’s not important to the listener as it is truly a swell CD and will more than tide us over til Mitch’s next release! (I hope those puns do not make anyone seasick!)

Drummers and piano players have much in common. Aside from the fact both are considered percussion instruments – players are often faced with house equipment that may not be quite up to standards. Any horror stories you’d like to tell about? “Many – but the worst was once I was on tour in Germany – and the place had an old upright that was so bad I decided to destroy it so no one else would ever get stuck with it. I beat the shit out of it and gave it a proper send off. But yes, you never know what you’re gonna get – hard to play, dead keys – I always bring a Barcus Berry acoustic pick up with me – so I can always amplify the piano, just in case.” Another similarity between our chosen instruments – is a drummer very rarely can play with another drummer – and unless you share a keyboard, piano players often can’t play with each other – even though we see you, Marcia and Mr. Toussaint sitting at that single piano on the cover… “When I did my duet with Johnnie Johnson, we brought in a second piano – so four hands on two pianos, that can work well. When I do my Boogie Woogie Blowouts we’ll have multiple pianos out there. There’s a video that has gone viral out on Youtube where Pinetop Perkins was supposed to be the headliner at the end of the show but he wanders out as I was introducing Caroline Dahl – you should search Youtube for ‘Mitch Woods Pinetop Perkins Boogie Woogie Blowout’ it is really great. At 96 if Pinetop wants to play – you let him play!”

Splitting time between Marin County in Cali and Treme in New Orleans, I imagine the two places are pretty different. “There’s no place like New Orleans. Being in Treme, ground zero for musical culture in New Orleans in amazing. At least once a week a parade passes right by my house that I’ll jump into and second line – thousands of people! Amazing!” Speaking of New Orleans, the man you are on the cover with – Mr. Allen Toussaint. Care to tell us about how he influenced you and what your relationship with him was like? “Allen meant quite a lot to me, as well as every other piano player and musician, whether from New Orleans or not. He had it all, and that’s why he was so important to music of this century. He composed songs, he was an awesome producer of other people’s music, he played wonderful piano, and he had the business sense together to bring it all to market.” “I have met Allen many times over the years, and each time we got a bit closer. I had first met him on the streets in New Orleans – he had a couple of Rolls Royces in town and his license plate says piano on it – so I got a great picture with he and I standing by his car – I’ll try and get that to you for the article. I worked with his horn section, in particular Amadee Castenell on tenor sax and Brian ‘Breeze’ Cayolle on baritone, tenor, and clarinet, plus others in his band including Herman Labeaux on drums, and Roland Guerin on bass – all the best musicians in their class. It has been a great pleasure and honor to play with them. It also brought me closer to Allen, as they introduced me to him backstage and he began to know me as a piano player when I gave him my Big Easy Boogie CD which has Dave Bartholomew on it – that got me some respect in his eyes. I remember him saying once, ‘there ain’t enough room in this town for 2 of us piano players.’ I told him he needn’t worry, but that was sweet of him, which is classic Allen. We got even closer on this past Legendary Blues Cruise, which we were both playing. We talked quite a bit about some of our mutual musical friends. He also came to the piano bar to hear me play, which was a great honor. He really hadn’t seen me play til this past blues cruise – but he came to the lounge to watch me play and he said some really nice things – so it was a real gradual friendship and I’m so sad to see him gone – he always wanted to know who is this guy that was using his band all the time!” “He really was the elder New Orleans piano man, holding that tradition in his hands and keeping it alive. I would see him any chance I got, and I will miss him personally, as well as musically, as will the rest of the world.”

How about other musical influences? “In addition to Allen – Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Champion Jack Dupree, the boogie woogie masters – Meade “ Lux” Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, plus many, many more – Ray Charles, Johnnie Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Otis Spann.” Do you have any children? “I have a daughter who lives in Philadelphia.” Did she take up any instrument? “No, she got her Masters in Dance Therapy, but I have a granddaughter with another on the way – maybe someday I’ll get them into the piano.”

Can you recall any musical events that have changed your life? “Well, the super’s relative playing boogie was a major one! Also hearing Fats Domino play on the Riverboat President while cruising up the Mississippi River on a full moon night out of New Orleans!” You are all over the world, so it may be hard to narrow down, but any favorite venues and festivals you’d care to tell us about? “My favorite festival is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The best in the world. I have been going since ’81, and have performed there several times with my band, solo, and sitting in with other bands. My favorite venue by far is the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. There is a reason it sells out a year in advance! You can hear and feel the vibe on my latest CD – Jammin’ On The High Cs- Live from Mitch Woods’ Club 88 on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. It features my gig at the piano bar, which I started 12 years ago and now is an important venue on the cruise. Plus all my friends are featured jamming with me.”

Do you have a favorite blues highway? “Highway 61 of course, driving up from New Orleans to Memphis!” How about a favorite blues city? “Clarksdale is fun, so is Chicago.” Can you name a musician or two who you’ve never played with but would like to? “I have been really fortunate to have played with so many of my mentors – including John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, The Fats Domino band, Charlie Musselwhite, Johnnie Johnson, Earl King, Lee Allen… I think the one band I would love to play with and I think I could kick ass with would be the Rolling Stones! They have always featured the piano, and have had some great ones along the way. Maybe I’ll run into Keith or Mick on one of my tours in the Caribbean, you never know!”

If you could bring back a musician from the past to do a show with, who would it be? “I would have loved to play with Louis Jordan. He is one of my main inspirations. I did get to see him play in the early 70s in Oakland and it was a treat.” When you arrive at the Pearly Gates what song would you play to get in? “Some kind of boogie woogie, then maybe my tune – ‘I Thought I Heard Satchmo Say,’ off my Big Easy Boogie CD with the Fats Domino band, since it honors all the New Orleans greats over the years (who are hopefully all in heaven!)” In music sitting on the bench is a good thing – the baseball equivalent of being up at bat. In baseball sitting on the bench means you’re not in the game, but as his schedule will attest, Mitch Woods isn’t just in the game, he’s damn near the game itself!