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Ivory Monarch : Rob Rio occupies the throne in the realm of boogie-woogie piano. He's no pretender.

October 25, 1990|BILL LOCEY

There is no equality in rock 'n' roll. There can't be. Royalty abounds. Rockers are not created equal. Elvis Presley was The King, Dick Dale is King of the Surf Guitar, and who can forget Joe (King) Carrasco and the Crowns? There's Queen Ida doing the zydeco thing, and Koko Taylor, Queen of the Blues. We've got a Prince, and Steve Earle is backed by the Dukes. The formula for royal succession remains unclear.

Forget social mobility. The Horatio Alger thing is about as popular as a wolverine in your shorts. Maybe everyone just wants to start at the top. And to throw yet another musical monkey wrench in the royal succession is Rob Rio, King of the Boogie-Woogie Piano.

Rio is well known to local blues fans. He's played five of the eight Ojai Bowlful of Blues festivals. Backed by his hot band, the Revolvers, Rio has just released his fourth tape. He will be the star attraction at this week's Blue Monday presentation at Alexander's in Ventura.

How's the new tape doing?

It just came out last week. It's just a promotional thing. I want someone else to pay for it next time. My first one with just myself and a piano came out a few years ago. It's out of print now. The second one, "Hot and Nasty," came out in 1987 featuring just piano and drums. The third one had a band backing me up with Junior Watson and Larry (The Mole) Taylor from Canned Heat.

How long have you been playing piano?

I've been playing since I was a little kid in the Bronx. My parents were very strict. They wouldn't let me outside to play. I had to stay in the house all the time. They wouldn't even let me watch television. All I had was this old beat-up piano. Later, I moved to Colorado and played all over the state for seven years or so. I've been in California for five or six years, and I've played everywhere either solo or with a band. I played with James Harman for six months or so. I've made a couple of Levi's commercials. I've had my current band, the Revolvers, for a couple of years now. California is where the scene is happening.

What do you do if you have a gig where there's no piano? Do you rent a trailer or what?

Oh, no. I have a Yamaha KX88. It's a portable.

What is boogie-woogie piano?

Boogie-woogie is characterized by a percolating left hand doing 12 to the bar rhythm and a right hand that improvises syncopated harmonic riffs.

You're often referred to as The King of the Boogie-Woogie Piano. Are there other pretenders to the throne?

Well, there aren't too many people around that do boogie-woogie anymore. It's very technically demanding. No one seems to want to play it for 20 years or so, because that's what it takes.

How did you discover boogie-woogie?

Well, I started getting into blues when I was a kid. Just listening to the radio is how I discovered Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Then I went after the older guys to see where they got it from, guys like Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. That led me to the really old blues piano guys: Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. I think Pinetop Smith recorded the first ever boogie-woogie song in 1928. Boogie-woogie was a national craze in the '30s and continued to be popular throughout the '40s. Modern rock came from boogie-woogie. Elvis, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry--they just played boogie-woogie on a guitar. Today, the demand for boogie-woogie in Europe is far greater than it is here. They didn't have the performers, but they bought all the records.

Are there dancers when you play?

Serious dancers. People seem to love boogie-woogie.

What's the best thing about being a musician?

Although I recently started my first day job in 12 years, generally, musicians get to set their own hours and there's a certain satisfaction in that. Everyone isn't able to do that. Also, it's really a high when you're connecting with the audience, that feeling when you're really getting it across.

What's in the future for Rob Rio?

Basically I just want to earn appreciation for what I do and make a good living at it. I just want the recognition.

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