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This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the October 13, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Carrying a Classic Blues Torch
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Frank Fotusky of Beachwood sees himself as a torchbearer for classic, acoustic blues. In the course of his career, he has met, befriended, and learned from some of the masters in the idiom, including Paul Geremia – who he joins at Mine Street Coffee House in New Brunswick on Saturday, October 16.
"Guys like Roy Book Binder and Paul Geremia have stepped into the shoes of people like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and the others who emerged during the folk and blues revival of the 1960s," Fotusky says, "and now they’re the torch bearers for this tradition. David Bromberg and some of these other white blues players learned from people like Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James," he says, "and the guys I’m influenced by met the original classic blues players like John Hurt and Son House at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s."
Fotusky, who began playing the banjo as a 12-year-old and switched to the guitar at 14, was raised by musical parents, even though they never pursued their passion professionally. His parents met when they both worked for the CIA in the 1950s, his father then worked in naval intelligence and his mother worked for the Toms River school system. Since 2000 Fotusky also has worked in that school system, as an audio engineering and production instructor at the Ocean County Vo-Tech High School.
"My musical background comes from my grandmother, Monica Kelly," he says. "She was part of Helen Hayes’ traveling theater troupe, and she played all kinds of music – Broadway show tunes, boogie-woogie, blues, and jazz – on the piano. My cousins and our family would gather at her house in North Arlington on holidays, where the piano was the centerpiece in the living room. She would entertain everyone playing piano and singing, but then she’d get us all involved in it. Some of us took to the piano, but it didn’t really click for me. I took to string instruments. My parents had a decent record collection, and my father would always have the AM radio on, so we were exposed to everything from the polka hour to music from Lincoln Center to jazz from Preservation Hall."
Fotusky released his debut recording, "Teasin’ The Frets" on his own label, Snappy Turtle Productions, last year. In keeping with the acoustic blues and folk song tradition, he recorded just three of his originals on his album. Old, familiar blues standards like "Red River Blues," "I’m So Glad," and more obscure covers like Blind Blake’s "Chump Man Blues" make up the bulk of tunes on the album.
"I’m in the studio now working on my follow-up album. It’s called `Red Bank Station,’ and it should be out shortly after the new year," he says, adding he’s done some recording at home and some at the studio at the Ocean County Vo-Tech.
Fotusky says that watching the TV program "Hee-Haw," and seeing banjo player Roy Clark perform gave him the idea to pursue music for a living. "Growing up, I shared a room with my older brother, and he began bringing home albums by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Hot Tuna and a whole bunch of that stuff," he recalls. By reading the liner notes, he found the original versions of many of these tunes covered by white blues bands were available on albums by Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Sippie Wallace, and other classic blues men and women.
"I explored more and got more enthusiastic about it," he says, "and to this day, I like all kinds of music, but the stuff that really excites me is country blues, particularly the East Coast, Piedmont style blues."
One of the great practitioners of that style was the late John Jackson, who performed at the New Jersey Folk Festival in New Brunswick in the late 1990s.
"As I explored more and decided to make this music more or less my career, I ended up meeting people like John Jackson, Roy Book Binder, and Paul Geremia," says Fotusky, "and one thing I learned was these guys were more than guitar players. Sure, they play guitar and sing, but that’s not what they’re all about, it’s a wealth of knowledge that they have and that they’re willing to share."
Fotusky has performed at Mine Street before, in May, 2002, a week after the New Jersey Folk Festival. That was a standing room only performance, mostly because people who had seen his short set at the folk festival were curious to hear more.
Of the upcoming show at Mine Street with Geremia, who has recorded several well-received albums for the Red House Records label, Fotusky says he relishes the chance to perform with one of his heroes. "I’ve played with Paul a number of times and I welcome the chance to perform with him, because it’s always a blast. In my opinion, he’s the leader of the pack. He’s got a lot of knowledge of classic blues and there’s a lot of depth to what he does," says Fotusky. "His playing is sincere and he’s the real deal. There’s no pretense about him at all, and he’s been a very big role model and mentor to me."
While Fotusky is relatively new to central New Jersey audiences, he has performed at several Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues festivals in Red Bank and at coffee houses like the Java Joint and Cool Beans in Toms River.
"I like performing at festivals and at coffee houses, because I like performing for people who listen," he says. "I play a niche type of music that is not for everybody. I’d much rather be playing at a place where six people show up who are there to listen than to be playing in some bar with a full house of people who are telling you to turn down or you’re blocking the TV."
– Richard Skelly
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