I first saw Rob Stone at the Blues Saloon a number of years ago with the Sam Lay band.
I was quite impressed with this young harmonica player-at how well he played in that traditional 1950’s Chicago style and at how good a singer he was. The following interview was conducted in April of 2002.
Ray: Please tell me where and when you were born and raised?
Rob: I was born in Boston, Massachusetts on Dec. 25, 1971. I was raised in Stoughton, Mass.
Ray: Did you play instruments in high school? Which ones? How was that experience?
Rob: I played some piano-- by ear. I messed around with the harmonica-- but only for fun. It was tough because I was always very musical, but I really didn't have any instrument to express myself with.
Ray: What led you to play the harmonica?
Rob: I saw a Charlie Musselwhite show. His band and his harp playing energized me and caused me to buy a harmonica the next day (a Hohner special 20 in the key of C).
Ray: Was that experience also your first exposure to the blues?
Rob: That was my first live blues experience, but I had been listening to blues for some time. Music author Peter Guralnick was a family friend, and he exposed me to lots of blues, soul, and other roots music. Also, my cousin worked at MCA and sent me a collection of reissue Chess records-- Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim.
Ray: Why were you attracted to the blues as opposed to other types of music? Your
contemporaries must have been listening to the popular music of the day?
Rob: I like all kinds of music, but for some reason Blues stuck with me and it was what I wanted to play. So when I began trying to learn my instrument it was the only genre that I wanted to work with-- it seemed the most expressive and also the harmonica was featured in a more versatile and sophisticated way than other kind of music.
Ray: Who were some of your early blues harmonica and blues music influences?
Rob: Soon after listening to Charlie Musselwhite, I discovered Sonny Boy Williamson-- in particular an Alligator Records reissue of stuff recorded in Europe in the early 60s with Matt Murphy and Memphis Slim. That's a fantastic record. I also began listening to Junior Wells. Next, I got really into Big Walter Horton and then James Cotton. Ironically, Little Walter-- who is my all time favorite-- was the last player that I really discovered. When I first heard his stuff I didn't really have the ear to appreciate the complexities of his sound and his incredible phrasing. Later, after playing harp for some time I began to listen more regularly to Walter. His playing inspires me and pushes me to keep working. In my opinion nobody can touch his playing to this day.
Ray: How would you describe your style of harmonica playing?
Rob: I have a hard time describing my playing. It's really a composite of all the harp music I listen to: Big Walter, Little Walter, Cotton, Junior Wells, John Lee Williamson, Sonny Boy, Jerry Portnoy, and others. I think I also bring my own touch to my sound-- an element that can only be attributed to my own ideas and influences. So I guess my approach is to put my own stamp on the traditional sound.
Ray: When did you start performing in public? What bands did you play in?
Rob: I first performed in public with Rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef in Boston. He was great and let me sit in for a set. I still play with him whenever we cross paths. I played locally in Boston with a blues/r&b band called the Armadillos. When I moved to Colorado for college, I began playing around Colorado Springs with Casey Rush, and John Wise. All of these band taught me a lot about music and performing.
Ray: When did you decide you wanted to play professionally?
Rob: I had toyed with the idea of moving to Chicago and trying to make a living playing harp. But, this didn't really seem like a real possibility until I met Sam Lay.
Ray: How did you first meet Sam Lay? Weren’t you in Colorado at that time? How did you get there? How did Sam affect/influence you?
Rob: I met Sam in Colorado Springs. I was in school there. He was doing an interview on KRCC radio and I lived near the station. I decided to go down to the station to ask him to sign some cds for me. He was finishing up his interview when I got there and gladly signed the cds for me. We started talking about music and when he discovered that I played harmonica, he asked me to come to his show that night at a club called Tres Hombres in Woodland Park. Then he asked me to bring a harmonica with me-- I was surprised and said, "you want me to bring a harmonica?" He said, "Is that all you got-- one harp?" I replied, "No, I got a whole case of them!" And then he said, "Well, bring all of them." So, that night I went to his show and sat in with the band. Sam was very encouraging and gave me his number.
Ray: How did you end up playing in Sam Lay’s band?
Rob: After the show, I stayed in touch with Sam for several months. Eventually I decided to move to Chicago, and he told me that when I did, I could join his band. So I moved in the fall of 94.
Ray: How long did you tour with Sam and are you still?
Rob: I toured with Sam for a number of years full time, then off and on. I still play with him from time to time, but not as often as I used to-- mostly since I have my own band now.
Ray: Any good stories you can tell about Sam Lay?
Rob: I have many many great Sam Lay stories-- some of which I can't tell!!! (laugh). Here's a serious story-- and a good example of how Sam helped me as a musician. It was one of my first shows on the road with Sam. We were in Louisville, Kentucky. There was another harp player in the house who had known Sam over the years and had played with many stars. I was very young, and very green. Most of the music I had played prior to joining Sam's band was Blues-Rock. So, it was difficult to learn true traditional styles of playing. Anyway, I was feeling inadequate and I was nervous that this guy was in the crowd. Eventually, he sat in with the band. While his playing wasn’t unbelievable, he did have a more polished, professional sound than I had. At the end of the night, while we were loading up the van, I mentioned to Sam that I was intimidated by the other harp player. Sam, trying to comfort me, said, "Well I don't know why. He screwed up more in two songs than you did all night." I said that I was still bothered that he could do things on the instrument that I couldn't do yet. To this Sam replied, "He has a harmonica, you have a harmonica. He plays notes and you play notes. Now you have to decide if you want to sound like him or if you want to sound like you." I hear this advice in my head all the time to this day.
Ray: Have you always been a singer as well as a harp player?
Rob: I have always enjoyed singing, but never really sang in public. Until... I had been playing with Sam for about a year. We were playing back in Colorado Springs at the college I had attended. Sam announced to me during sound check that I would be singing in the show that evening! Chris James and I went back to the hotel and worked out "Eyesight to the Blind" and I performed it that night. I gradually sang more and more tunes.
Ray: When and why did you decide to form our own band, The C-Notes?
Rob: I decided to form the C-Notes in 1998. I needed to take a break from playing on the road and wanted to get gigs in Chicago. I also had some material that I wanted to record. So basically, I asked Sam , guitarist Chris James and bassist Patrick Rynn if they would help me put together a CD. Chris and Patrick had left Sam's band several years earlier, so it was a nice reunion for all of us to play together and work out these new songs.
Ray: You have played with a number of blues legends, who are they and what have you learned from some of them, and are there any interesting stories?
Rob: I've been very lucky to have played with tons of blues greats whom I admire very much. Some of them are: Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers, Jody Williams, Pinetop Perkins, Willie Smith, Henry Gray, Dave Myers, Robert Jr. Lockwood. Each one of these experiences is a story. I learned the most from Dave Myers-- who was as wonderful a person as he was a musician. I miss him.
Ray: What music do you listen to today and who are some of your favorite living harmonica players and blues musicians?
Rob: I listen to lots of Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Big Walter. I also listen to a lot of traditional Jazz sax players and piano players: Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, etc... I also love Louis Jordan. My favorite living harp players are: James Cotton, Rod Piazza, Jerry Portnoy, Rick Estrin, and others.
Ray: In addition to your band you also play in smaller groups around Chicago, who do you play with in those groups and how is that performance different than with your band?
Rob: I often freelance and play with a variety of musicians and bands in the city. Mostly, I'm doing my own thing-- which sometimes takes the form of a cut-down band or different make-up of musicians and/or instruments. I like to periodically play with just harp, piano, and drums-- or maybe guitar, harp, piano, or sometimes just harp and guitar. It's all fun. We also do a revue type show sometimes-- with piano and sax in additional to the regular four pieces, and guest vocalists like Katherine Davis, or Aaron Moore on piano. Sam sometimes plays with us as a guest star, too.
Ray: Where can people see you perform now?
Rob: We play mostly in Chicago. BLUES on Halsted is a favorite place to play. People can always check the website or get on our email list for updates. www.robstone.com
Ray: What direction do you see your music heading?
Rob: I'm not really sure of the direction of the music. I know we will continue to stay true to traditional styles. More songwriting. Our originals are getting better and better and more sophisticated musically.
Ray: What are you trying to accomplish with your harmonica playing?
Rob: I am trying to play from the heart and give a good show for people. I want to work hard every time I play for an audience. I also want to keep alive the sounds of traditional post-war Chicago blues. I hope to always introduce this music to new listeners.
Ray: Where can people find out more about you, get in touch, and book the band?
Rob: People can find out more about us on our website www.robstone.com
-- also on the Hohner harmonicas website www.hohnerusa.com under "featured artists."
The website gives info for booking-- or you can always call 312-371-5179, or
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