Blues and blues-rock guitarist, singer-songwriter Joe Zuccarello — better known as Joe Zook — began playing blues in Trenton so long ago that he cannot remember who was “on the scene.” No matter, he — along with fellow area blues legend Paul Plumeri — is one of the artists who influenced hundreds of other musicians and turned thousands of people into blues fans in the ensuing years.
The blues master continues the tradition on Saturday, April 5, at the Record Collector in Bordentown with the presentation “Cousins in Concert” with Frank Pinto. It is also a birthday celebration.
Zook was born on April 3, 1953, and grew up in North Trenton and Ewing Township. Both his optometrist father and housewife mother played piano, so they encouraged their son when he wanted to take guitar lessons after the Beatles arrived on U.S. shores in February, 1964. By June of that year, Zook was taking formal guitar lessons.
“It was because of Cream and Jimi Hendrix,” Zook says from his Trenton home about his interest in blues. “They would always be talking about Muddy Waters and B.B. King, and that was it. I bought their records, and I would pile the records up and play along with them. I taught myself how to play blues guitar, pretty much,” he says.
Zook says that eventually led to a small band and recalls his first professional gig at a junior high dance. “There were three of us, I guess, and I was about 12-and-a-half. I don’t remember what we made, but I’ve got a picture of it and me playing guitar on my website and on Facebook,” he says.
“I started guitar lessons when I was 11, but by the time I was 15 or so, I was playing blues,” he says. The passion and the emotion in the music appealed to him, and, as every blues fan knows, blues is not only about the agony and heartbreak of life in America, but also about the joys and ecstasies in modern life. Zook and thousands of other white kids across America were playing blues in the late 1960s, and many of them never stopped.
Zook walks with a limp, a constant reminder of his bout with polio when he was two. Undaunted, in his youth he was an accomplished Little League baseball player. “I was a pretty good ball player, but eventually I had to make a choice between guitar and playing baseball, and, thank God, my parents got me to realize you can only play baseball up to a certain point. They wanted me to have something that doesn’t rely on your physicality. I couldn’t compete in a high school setting because I had to rely on my leg. My mom wanted me to read music and go to college so that I could teach,” he says.
While his mother would eventually get her wish, she did not see it come to fruition: she died when he was 18. And the musician’s college career was a stop-and-go process. In 1972, during his second year at Trenton State College, he dropped out, just as the club scene in New Jersey and other Northeast states was heating up.
Since it was not unusual for club musicians to be able to make in excess of a thousand dollars a week, playing six nights a week, the lure of the road proved tempting. “In those days, we traveled from Maine to Florida, and we were with an agency. We had a party group and we had outfits,” he says.
He later returned to Trenton State and got his teaching degree in 1981, but since the club scene was still healthy into the mid-1980s, he didn’t settle into a teaching job in Trenton public schools until 1987. Longtime Trenton-area keyboardist and Hammond B-3 player Tom Passarella hired him.
Between starting and finishing college he also met his wife, Donna, in 1975. At the time, she was a waitress at a Sheraton Hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia. They married in 1978. Today she is a mortgage broker at Fox and Roach Realtors in Princeton. They have two children. Daughter Maria, 33, is married and works as a health and physical education teacher in the Westampton School District. Joe, 20, is a psychology major at Rider University.
Asked about local teachers on the Trenton scene, Zook says he studied guitar with Frank Hipp and Lou Mercuri. In college he studied upright bass with professor Stan Austen. “They had just started the jazz program at Trenton State when I was there in 1970, and they had [drummer] Tony DiNicola. Tony also taught me a lot, and I played bass in the jazz band there,” he says.
In 1979 Zook formed Blues Deluxe, the blues band he had always wanted to form, at Billy D’s Rumrunner on Mulberry Street in East Trenton. “It was a storied venue, a small corner bar, but we had a good stage in there, and (Bon Jovi guitarist) Richie Sambora used to come down there and sit in with me, years ago, and so did Ernie White; they all played there,” he says, beaming with pride when he recalls that Sambora mentioned Zook in a recent radio interview. [Sambora performed recently with Zook, Paul Plumeri, and others at Ernie White’s Christmas Extravaganza at the Princeton Manor in Hamilton.]
Through most of the 1980s Blues Deluxe had a Tuesday night residency at City Gardens in Trenton. Zook has fond memories. “You knew you weren’t going to make a lot of money there on a Tuesday night, but we were the house band when it came to blues, so when [Howlin’ Wolf guitarist] Hubert Sumlin came in, we opened for him.”
“The band was on a roll in the early and mid-’80s,” he says. “We twice opened for Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, we opened for Sam and Dave, Johnny Winter, twice for Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Albert Collins, Savoy Brown, B.B. King, Little Charlie, and the Night Cats, everybody,” he says, crediting Tom Cullen and the Bucks County Blues Society for playing a role in helping the band make a name for itself outside Trenton.
Zook also recorded three albums: “Blues with a Capital B,” “Still Payin’ Dues,” and, more recently, the acoustic-oriented “Blues Routes” with harmonica player Steve Guyger and keyboardist James Cheadle.
After years of playing loud, raucous blues and blues-rock, Zook was diagnosed with tinnitus — a ringing in the ears — in 1997. Since then, he often wears ear cones at gigs where he’s playing through an amplifier. The affliction has subsided somewhat, but he still keeps all manner of ear plugs for different situations in the family’s cars.
At his Record Collector performance Zook will be joined by Frank Pinto, his guitarist-keyboardist songwriter cousin who also does a lot of singing. “Frank was always a great songwriter. Nowadays the songs he writes are a cross between Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and a little bit of Tom Waits thrown in there.”
After many years of playing all kinds of clubs and outdoor festivals, Zook is passionate about playing shows at the Record Collector. There are no TVs or beer sales or bartenders to distract patrons who are there to listen and expect performers to put on a good show.
“I like the Record Collector because the people are there to hear you play, and the owners are so nice. I like that bit of pressure that comes from hearing a pin drop. You know you’ve got to give them their money’s worth.”
More performances are also on the calendar. On Saturday, June 7, area blues fans will be treated to a reunion of Joe Zook and Blues Deluxe, featuring original members of the band joining with guest artists at the Record Collector.
And on Saturday, July 19, Zook will celebrate his induction to the New Jersey Blues Hall of Fame at the Bucks County Blues Society’s 32nd Rhythm and Blues Picnic at Snipes Farm in Morrisville, Pennsylvania. That’s something to remember.
Joe Zook and Frank Pinto, Cousins in Concert, The Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, April 5, 8 p.m. $12 advance and $15 at door. 609- 324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com. www.joezookblues.com.