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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the April 28, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Hooked on Harmonica – & Blues
Although he’s only 31, harmonica player and songwriter Dennis Gruenling has carved a niche for himself in the world of blues and roots music in relatively short order. Through a steadfast professionalism, a clear vision for himself and the musicians he plays with, and a dedication to – or obsession with – the harmonica, Gruenling has made rapid progress in a tough field. His recordings for his own BackBender Records label, based in Point Pleasant, have received national acclaim. This, in spite of the fact that he dropped out of Piscataway High School in his senior year there.
"I don’t really know how I got hooked on the blues, growing up," Gruenling says in an interview about his Thursday, April 29 performance at the Triumph Brew Pub on Nassau Street. His childhood years were in Piscataway, where his mother works as a librarian, and his father recently retired from PSE&G.
"My parents were musical and my dad was always buying records, especially country music. As a kid I remember hearing the old country music, the stuff that was acoustic and sometimes a little bluesy," he recalls.
"I remember hearing Benny Goodman and some big band and swing things, but as I got into my early teens and I became a rock n’ roller, I liked Van Halen and some other bands. As I got older I realized the tunes I liked were Van Halen’s bluesier tunes, things like ‘Ice Cream Man.’"
Gruenling discovered the world of the harmonica as a 17-year-old, when an uncle brought him a harmonica for Christmas. His uncle had said he wanted a recording by harmonica players called "Harp Attack." Gruenling found "Harp Attack" and the two exchanged gifts, but he was so moved by the album that he took a taped copy home with him later that night. Thus began his obsession with blues harmonica.
"That record really blew me away," he says. "By the next week I was trying to find as many blues records as I could, especially by harmonica players. I remember finding Little Walter [Jacobs] and Charlie Musselwhite records. I became a record addict in very short order."
Gruenling had his long hair even then, and felt he didn’t fit in very well in high school. There was nothing there that interested him, and when he was looking at replaying his junior year in what should have been his senior year, he and his parents both agreed the best solution was for him to leave.
"It wasn’t that I was dumb or couldn’t do the work. It was just that I wasn’t showing up to a lot of classes because I wanted to take other classes," he explains.
He formed his own record label, BackBender Records, in 1998 while still living at home with his parents, as a device to get his recordings out to club owners, festival booking agents, and radio stations.
"When the first CD came out and I started getting reviews in blues magazines and they heard it on the radio, then my parents realized ‘Hey, he’s not wasting his time blowing his harmonica,’" Gruenling says.
"I was living at home, teaching and doing gigs, and repairing harmonica microphones," he recalls of the origins of BackBender Records.
"That’s how I funded the first release. Since then, the records have paid for themselves. At least I haven’t lost money on any releases, but BackBender has been a one-man operation until just this year," he adds. This year, his wife, Gina Fox, got involved in helping to run the record label. Gruenling and his band, Jump Time, have several well-recorded releases on the label, including their self-titled debut from 1998, "Up All Night" with fellow harp player Sandy Mack, and his latest, "That’s Right" released last year. BackBender has done well enough, sales-wise, that Gruenling has brought other artists into the label, including blues and roots singer-songwriter Peter Karp and his Roadshow band, as well as piano player Jumpin’ Jack Stroebel, whose album, "Rhumba Lee," was released last fall.
With BackBender Records, Gruenling has found a winning formula to issue good quality recordings. He’s found an engineer and studio owner who knows how to make good blues records in Eric Rachel of Trax East in South River. (Rachel started his studio in the basement of his parents’ home in Spotswood in the 1970s and moved it to South River in the late 1980s.)
"Now, I’m being approached by some people who are interested in perhaps investing in BackBender Records, so that may lead to even more growth and more projects," he says.
Gruenling’s fourth recording with his band Jump Time is currently in the works. He spent most of his time in the last year performing shows and working on crafting better original songs. Gruenling and Jump Time frequent places like CrossRoads in Asbury Park, the Pine Tavern in Old Bridge, and the Triumph Brew Pub in Princeton, all places that have put themselves on the map as friendly to blues and roots musicians.
"I find that strong original material is usually the weakest link on many blues records that are out there currently," he says, "and that’s what makes Peter Karp and his ‘Turning Point’ CD so unique."
After dropping out of high school in 1990, Gruenling moved to New Orleans and spent a year there, pursuing live gigs as best he could in a city where there are far more musicians than there are viable, profitable clubs.
"I was in New Orleans for the better part of a year," he explains, "and I really hit a crossroads there. I thought I was going to hit the jackpot there as a player, but it was hard to tap into their scene, being a Yankee and an outsider. So I basically locked myself in my apartment and practiced eight and ten hours a day. I realized by that point I wouldn’t be staying there, and I didn’t want to come back from New Orleans sounding the same," he says.
"I just bought as many blues records as I could and continued to learn as much as I could," he says, "I still don’t have much of a life outside of the music."
While Gruenling has only been playing for 13 years – a fact he hates to admit – the reality is, Gruenling has been steadfast and very focused about what he does, pursuing every possible gig and every possible lead. He’s been to several national harmonica conventions as a teacher and player. Back in the mid-1990s, he attended a convention in Minnesota where he befriended his idols, people like Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Estrin of Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Gruenling’s wife, Gina, grew up in a household filled with classical and big band musicians. She made her professional vocal debut as an 8-year-old. "I started singing in musical theater productions in and around Montclair and New York," she says. "By the time I was a teenager, I was doing what most teenagers do, listening to rock n’ roll, but I always gravitated toward blues influenced rock n’ roll, bands like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. At the same time, I still also loved classic musical theater, Broadway shows, Judy Garland and Liza Minelli."
Fox recalls being taken by her parents, whom she described as hippies, to see Bonnie Raitt when she was 12 or 13 years old. "That concert changed my life forever," Fox recalls.
Asked how she met Gruenling, Fox says she was singing with a couple of different blues bands in the mid and late 1990s.
"I wasn’t initially interested in what he was doing musically," Fox recalls, "and I wasn’t interested in him romantically, but as the planets would have it, when I got in his company, I realized I needed to not let this opportunity go by." Keyboardist and singer-songwriter Stroebel, now part of the BackBender Records family, introduced the two five years ago.
"I spent the next year and a half in the Gruenling Nazi band camp, which involved him locking me up in his library of recordings and home schooling me on Ruth Brown, Etta James, Ella Johnson and Kiely Smith," she recalls. Gruenling and Fox were married a year ago in her hometown of Montclair.
Fox, who works as a hairdresser by day, recognizes that all women who sing blues or roots music want to sing like Aretha Franklin. "But you can’t learn to do what Aretha does, you’re better off just soaking in her influences and working on your own sound, to let her channel its way through you."
"With Jump Time, we’re trying to stay within the tradition, yet give it something fresh and more current by way of the original songs we’re writing," she adds.
At the Triumph Brew Pub on Thursday night, Gruenling and Fox will be accompanied by Don Giunta on drums, Steve Geller on bass and Chris Vitarello on guitar. "It’s basically Jump Time without the saxophone," Gruenling explains.
"We’ll be doing a mix of Chicago stuff and Gina’s music, which is more soul and R&B oriented, as well as some originals from the three releases on BackBender Records."
– Richard J. Skelly
Dennis Gruenling Band and Gina Fox, Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, 609-924-7855. $5. Wednesday, April 28, 9 p.m.
Pine Tavern, Route 34 at Cottrell Road, Old Bridge, 732-727-5060. Saturday, May 1, 9 p.m.
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