Blues guitarist, composer, and singer-songwriter Danny Kalb has been around Brooklyn so long, he runs the risk of being nicknamed “the Mayor of Brooklyn.” Kalb’s mentor, the late Dave Van Ronk, was so associated with certain lower Manhattan basket houses, that he was often jokingly referred to as “the Mayor of Greenwich Village.”
Kalb performs on Friday, December 18, at the Arts Council of Princeton. He will play acoustic and electric guitar and be accompanied by the drummer and bassist who accompany him on his most recent record, “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About” (Sojourn Records). His drummer, Mark Ambrosino, has played with Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, and Stevie Wonder, among others. His bassist, Bob Jones, plays acoustic bass and is one of the top instrument repair persons on the East coast, Kalb says.
Kalb founded the Blues Project in 1965 and was part of the renaissance of folk music and blues in the 1960s, during which time the blues became very popular among suburban and urban white audiences for the first time. Along the way, black bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, and Muddy Waters, who lacked much formal education, found validation and a new identity, as white folks packed theaters and outdoor festivals to see them perform.
Kalb was born in Brooklyn but raised in Mount Vernon, New York, the son of a progressive, left-leaning lawyer father and a home maker mother. He recalls hearing John Lee Hooker perform “Tupelo,” about the great flood in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the 1920s, as being a revelatory moment for him. Kalb was just a teenager and attending his first Newport Folk Festival, where Hooker was performing.
“His guitar playing and his voice was so stirring, and then as the tune ended, he stepped backwards, out of the spotlight and off the stage,” Kalb says in a phone interview from his Brooklyn flat. “This was maybe 1964, and the whole performance was just so mesmerizing, I didn’t think about race matters, I didn’t think about anything, I knew that in my reaction to this great musician, suddenly, the blues had tapped me on the shoulder. I didn’t even know where it was going to lead me, but I knew I wanted to play this music.”
Kalb then began to accelerate the pace of his guitar lessons with “the mayor of Greenwich Village,” Van Ronk, and he went on to form the Blues Project in 1965 with other like-minded white kids from Mount Vernon and New York City.
“The blues was very natural to me, because I came from a somewhat troubled household but one with a lot of unorthodox ideas floating around,” he says. He heard a lot of classical, blues, jazz, and folk music at home, mostly from his father’s record collection. “It was kind of a dysfunctional family, so I’d go off into my room and play my guitar. I used the blues as a way to heal myself and enjoy the gift of black music.”
Kalb’s father had hundreds of classical recordings around the house and he grew up listening to a lot of that music. Like a lot of formerly rebellious kids, he did a flip-flop. “I always thought I disliked classical music until about 20 years after I moved out, and then I found out I loved classical music,” he says. His brother, Jonathan, is also a blues guitarist and they occasionally perform shows together.
Even though his father was a lawyer and, according to Kalb, practically a Communist, having just lived through the Great Depression, Kalb says his childhood was not without money issues. “Oh, no, money was very much a concern. We went through difficult financial times at points. It was a little schizophrenic, my father being on the crazy left.” Kalb says his father was . “But he was a good man, and he liked all kinds of art and music. He didn’t stop me when I wanted to be a white blues guitarist, of all things.”
After Kalb first heard his mentor Van Ronk on a progressive underground FM radio station, he says, “he was blues and folk singer with a rough voice that I really liked, and I couldn’t tell if he was black or white. So I went down to Washington Square Park the next Sunday to locate him, and it was then that I realized a great truth about America: it doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, as long as you do something you love.”
As an impressionable young teenager who was drawn to Van Ronk’s lifestyle, Kalb says he decided he wanted to adopt a similar lifestyle as soon as he got out from under the wings of his supportive parents. “I took the train down and walked over to his apartment for my first lesson,” he says, “and after three loud knocks, finally, this woman answers the door wearing only a bra and panties. She motions for me to come in, and then I see Dave sitting there on the bed, with his shirt off, smoking a cigarette. I was just 17 at that time, so I was very impressed. That was my introduction to bohemian life.”
The fact that Kalb founded the Blues Project in 1965 puts him alongside other white pioneers in the world of blues music, people like Jersey City resident John Hammond, and a host of others from England, including Long John Baldry, Eric Burdon, Rod Stewart, Mick Fleetwood, and Eric Clapton. The band released many albums over the course of its existence but their album “Blues Project Live at Cafe Au Go Go” sold in excess of 100,000 copies the year it was released, signaling a real shift in popular taste back to the blues. Someone looking for more about the Blues Project can find a two CD set released by Polygram Chronicles that is a good introductory point for many of their vinyl albums, now long out of print.
"Dave used to say to me he wished he had my fingers. Dave’s fingers were a little stubby and clumsy but he was a brilliant musical thinker and a great player. He proved that you don’t have to be black to be a great blues singer,” Kalb says. “All this talk about race in the blues has got to out the window by now. We had this debate before, back in the ‘60s. To me, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were just as valid as Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, Skip James, and the other black bluesmen.” He says he began playing electric guitar roughly the same time he began playing acoustic guitar, inspired on the one hand by Elvis and Carl Perkins, yet inspired to play acoustic blues by people like Van Ronk and Hooker.
Kalb says the Arts Council concert will include “some of the Blues Project songs that have always been part of my repertoire. I’ve always been an unorthodox kind of guitarist. With this trio, we’re just getting started again, and I think it’s going to be an interesting ride, because we don’t sound like anybody else,” Kalb says. “We play a lot of blues, but we also a lot of other related music.”
Danny Kalb, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Friday, December 18, 8 p.m. CD release of “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About.” Register. $15. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.