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NIGHT LIFE

Natty Boogie-Woogie Pianist Rob Rio Starts the Week Well : About as good as they get these days, he dudes it in a suit Liberace would have committed crimes to wear. It's tradition, he says.

November 17, 1994|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nobody likes Mondays. It's the first day of work, and there are still four more days to go. Television offers the usual: "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" or Monday Night Football.

There's a viable option this week as boogie-woogie piano whiz Rob Rio tenaciously tickles some ivories, which in turn will shake some booties all over the large dance floor at Nicholby's in Ventura. OK, "Deep Space Nine" really is a cool show, but that's why they make VCRs.

Boogie-woogie is "conducive to dancing," understates Webster's. It's rock 'n' roll blues played on a piano. And if more blues were like this, there'd be more blues fans. Boogie-woogie became popular in the '30s with players like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.

Rio, who is about as good as they get these days, dresses in a suit Liberace would have committed crimes to wear. He has a number of albums, most on his own Boss Productions label. The new one is "Fine Young Girl." His songs cover the usual blues bases--cars he's never going to drive, girls he's never going to have or girls he's never going to get rid of. Rio has a pleasing bluesy voice, a Lestat smile, a flamboyant style and a tight band. He talked things over by phone from his day job in the Valley and even broke into a theme song momentarily.

How long has "Fine Young Girl" been out?

It's been out about three weeks now. (Sings) "Fine young girl, why do you look at me that way? Now you're giving me ideas that would turn your poor mother gray." This is my sixth album. The first one is out of print, the other five are available, the last two on CD. Billy Boy Arnold recorded "Fine Young Girl" on his last album on Alligator. I played on that one, plus a couple of other songs, too.

At the last Ojai Bowlful, you were a solo; do you still play with a band?

Sure, I still play with the Revolvers--it's a revolving band, whoever's available for the gig. I try to keep the same rhythm section, then sometimes I'll hire a guitar player or a horn player. At the Nicholby's gig, we'll be a trio. I just finished playing the Avila Beach Blues Festival with James Cotton and John Mayall. Just like at Ojai, I was one of the warm-up artists, which is a good gig for me. I'm reasonably priced, and I put on a high-energy show.

Are Alligator, Black Top and Rounder about the only options for you as far as getting signed?

Probably, because the type of music I play there's only a few small blues labels, and those labels want artists that'll go out on the road and flog their new record. I'll go to Phoenix, or maybe Colorado, but I don't like extended road trips. You become a prisoner in a van. I did go to Europe three times this year, mostly to France. There, they treat you like royalty. Here, they treat you like a busboy.

So that endless blues tour isn't right for you?

No, I play two or three times a week. My body can't handle the rigors of playing because I expend so much energy. The next day, I feel like someone beat me up. I can't do that five nights a week.

You sell your stuff at your gigs then?

Yes, plus I sell a lot of stuff on the East Coast through mail order. No one tells me what to record or how to present my music. The type of music I play is especially conducive to swing dancers, and I sell stuff through the swing dancers' network. Santa Barbara has a good swing dancing scene.

What's boogie-woogie music?

Boogie-woogie is a uniquely American form of early blues piano characterized by a steady percolating left hand while the right hand plays syncopated riffs. Boogie-woogie is something that will never die, even though it may never reach a mainstream audience. When I play, boogie-woogie piano players seem to come out of the woodwork. There's a few excellent players out there, but not that many, maybe four or five in the States and four or five in Europe. Right now, I'm working on a boogie-woogie instructional manual.

What's your particular style?

It's upbeat jump blues influenced by West Coast blues from the '50s. It's more of a jump blues as opposed to Chicago blues or Delta blues or East Coast blues. I do about 40% originals and the rest covers. My music is pretty eclectic--gospel, blues with some poppy riffs. I try to appeal to everybody. I get young kids at my shows and older people that remember the old boogie-woogie guys.

You still dress to impress while rockers are slobs with baseball caps on backward. Is there a dress code?

It goes with the tradition of the blues from the '30s and '40s. There's no excuse to have a hair out of place. It's just tradition.

When did you start playing piano?

I started when I was 8 years old. If you do anything for 20 or 25 years, you better know a little something about it, or else give it up.

Details

* WHAT: Rob Rio.

* WHERE: Nicholby's, 404 E. Main St., Ventura.

* WHEN: Monday night, 8:30.

* COST: Five bucks.

* CALL: 653-2320.

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