Blues musicians tend to stick with the genre, in all its forms, and never stray that much from the idiom they were most passionate about in the first place. Just ask Paul Plumeri, the area blues master who will be playing New Year’s Eve at the Alchemist & Barrister in Princeton.
Plumeri, who turned 61 this month, started playing guitar as an 8-year-old, and once he discovered real blues as a young teenager, he never changed stylistic direction.
The Trenton native — now Hamilton resident — says he got his first awareness of blues and rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1950s and early 1960s, seeing Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, James Burton, and Chuck Berry on television.
“Trenton also had an R&B radio show,” he says. “A guy named George Luther Bannister, and he played classic R&B and blues. The theme song was (Bill Doggett’s) ‘Honky Tonk.’ That was my first exposure to black music, on WBUD-AM. Back then, I remember it being very much a Trenton-centered show, and he was real animated. It was real old time radio and just overflowing with great stuff — Sam and Dave, James Brown. He played blues too, and I was attracted to every bit of it.”
Attracted so much to the music he wanted to be part of it. “In early grammar school I told my parents I would like to take lessons, and they said if you keep your grades up we’ll let you. I ended up taking (guitar) lessons. It was about a year before the Beatles came out, so there could not have been a better time to learn,” he says. “It went from everybody playing the accordion to everybody playing guitar. Guitar became ‘the’ instrument, and it just wiped everything else out.”
Plumeri formed his first band, the Coachmen, when he was 13. Their first paying gig was a wedding. “We played Ventures music and whatever else we could figure out at that point,” he says, adding that out of all the members he is the only one to keep playing.
Plumeri says his career was helped by having supportive parents who embraced both the new and often loud music and the changes occurring in the 1960s and early 1970s. “My dad and my mom were likely to be at all the various gigs I was at, with Duke Williams and the Extremes, with Hoochie Cooch, and with my trios. (My parents) weren’t prejudiced against long-haired people in any way. I think they were just amused by the whole scene,” he says, recalling the long hair he and fellow Trenton guitar titan Joe Zook sported in the early 1970s.
About his father, Samuel, Plumeri says, “My father was a realtor for years before he got involved in politics. Then he was a city commissioner in the late 1950s and remained active politically into the 1960s and ’70s. He was involved in Democratic politics and kind of a civic leader, even when he didn’t hold office anymore.”
The older Plumeri also had a wish: to bring minor league baseball to Trenton as a way to encourage a more favorable business climate. “He picked up my grandfather’s mantle because he was involved with a team, the Trenton Giants, and Willie Mays played on the team my grandfather was involved with. So my father always wanted to bring baseball back to Trenton,” he says.
Plumeri’s father saw that wish come to fruition with the construction of the Route 29 waterfront baseball park. His hopes are enshrined in the Samuel J. Plumeri, Sr., statue at the stadium’s entrance.
Plumeri is the youngest of three brothers. Joseph, the oldest, is a successful investment banker, former CEO of the London-based Willis Group, and now works with Henry Kravis and has just written a book, “The Power of Being Yourself.” The second, Samuel, is a former Mercer County sheriff and currently vice chairman of the New Jersey State Parole Board. And Paul, known in blues circles as far away as Arizona, Washington state, and parts of Canada, works as an investigator with the state Office of Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly — what he calls “a good karma job.”
Again thinking about his father and mother, who died respectively in 1998 and 2012, Plumeri says, “I know they would have preferred if I had continued my college education. They didn’t have anything against music, but they saw the kind of reliability it provided.”
Plumeri completed a year at Mercer County Community College but the lure of easy money, a thousand dollars a week and more, playing five and six nights a week in Trenton and Shore-area clubs, proved too much a lure for him in the early 1970s.
“Once they saw that music was my passion, and to some extent, calling, they just got behind it,” he says of a music career that involved touring the East Coast in the 1970s and playing with Capricorn Record-signed group Duke Williams and the Extremes into the early 1980s.
For much of the last 33 years, Plumeri has found the kind of blues and blues-rock he likes to play works best with a trio, so each musician has plenty of chances to stretch out and solo.
“I look for guys who are very in sync with each other and can lay down a foundation for me to solo off of. They have to be locked in with each other. If they are, then it’s going to work for me,” he said.
Indeed, proof that the trio format works for Plumeri can be found on “Live in Seattle,” an album he recorded at an old, wood-paneled, thousand seat theater in that city. Seattle was a second home for Plumeri for a number of years thanks to a friendly owner there who invited him out at least once a year for several nights of music.
Plumeri’s other recordings, available through his website and in the few local record stores left in the area, include his 1995 debut, “The Bishop of the Blues”; “Blues in Disguise” released a few years back with harmonica player T.J. Nix; and “Live in Seattle,” released in 2001.
Looking back at the Trenton-area music scene, Plumeri recalls meeting fellow area blues guitarist, bandleader, and singer-songwriter Joe Zook, who also left college at Trenton State to play in the clubs.
“Once I found Joe Zook and realized he was a kindred spirit, I spent a lot of time at his house and he spent a lot of time at my house,” he says. “My father knew his parents before I did. My father knew everybody in Trenton in those days.”
Looking at the coming year, Plumeri says, “The guys I have now have been with me five years, and I’m really happy with them. They’re great guys and great players,” referring to bassist-vocalist Jerry Monk and drummer Marty Paglione. Other musicians frequently joining him include veteran Trenton-area tenor sax player Angelo DeBraccio.
Area blues fans will meet some of them on New Year’s Eve at the Alchemist & Barrister, where the session will include a healthy dose of Plumeri’s originals — or co-writes with Trenton-native now Las Vegas-based singer-songwriter Tom Marolda — and “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight.
Through nearly 50 years now of playing blues and blues-rock, the appeal of the music remains the same. More importantly, Plumeri’s enthusiasm for playing the music has diminished little.
“I always liked the raw emotion of blues, you could tell there was something serious behind this music, these guys meant business,” he says. “As much as I loved the Beatles, and still do, you’d hear Buddy Guy and B.B. King and realize, these guys are the grown-ups.”
New Year’s Eve with Paul Plumeri, Alchemist & Barrister, 28 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Thursday, December 31, 10 p.m. to midnight. No one under 21 admitted unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. 609-924-5555 or www.theaandb.com.