Unlike thousands of other musicians, vocalist, harmonica player, and band leader Mikey Junior Hudak was actually encouraged by his father to quit his day job.
“By the time I was 20, my dad told me to quit my job and just play music professionally,” the Yardley-based Hudak explains in a recent interview at the Salt Creek Grille in Forrestal Village.
Mikey Junior and his Stone Cold Blues Band — which will perform at Salt Creek on Saturday, March 23 — can also be heard in clubs from Asbury Park to Cape May, from Philadelphia to Easton, PA, and literally dozens of places in central and North Jersey. That is because Hudak knows how to hustle up gigs.
As much of a salesman and marketer as he is, though, he remains a likable person and does not have to beat club managers over the head to secure gigs for his band, Stone Cold Blues. The band sells itself, and Hudak continues to play each club or festival show as if it were his last.
“My dad was a great mentor to me; I used to go see his shows from the time I was a little kid. He also took me to my first concert, James Brown, at the Trenton War Memorial in 1984,” Hudak recalls. He adds that his father was a vocalist, keyboardist, and guitarist in a procession of rock ‘n’ roll bands. That includes 8th Train, Trenton’s first integrated rock band; Slippery Rock; and, more recently, Deja Vu.
Hudak, raised in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, has competed in four separate International Blues Challenge battle of the bands competitions in Memphis. That annual event, run by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, draws more than 200 blues bands from 50 states, Canada, Germany, France, England, Australia, and dozens of other countries.
“Like a lot of people my age, I listened to rap when I was younger,” Hudak explains, “but blues was the music I was always searching for in other types of music. After I got into Pink Floyd, I found out they took their name from two blues guys. After my dad bought me a Sonny Boy Williamson CD, I began playing harmonic; I just kept learning from there.”
Hudak, now 32, has released eight self-produced albums on his own 8th Train Records label and has had encouragement every step of the way from his mom, his dad, his stepmother, and late producer-guitarist Danny DeGennaro. His first professional gig was with DeGennaro and some other Trenton-area veterans accompanying him in 2002.
“I play the blues and do this professionally because blues is the music that captured my soul,” he says while we sit in his van on a bitterly cold winter night. “Or, you could say, I play the blues for the money and all the young women.”
That sense of humor, coupled with a strong work ethic and good marketing skills, is what sets Mikey Junior and Stone Cold Blues apart from the rest of the pack of blues and blues-rock bands that run up and down the Route 1 and 130 corridors or around greater Philadelphia.
The late DeGennaro was as much a mentor to the young Hudak as was his father, who lives and works playing nursing homes and rehab centers from his home in Browns Mills. DeGennaro produced Hudak’s debut, “The 420 Sessions,” recorded at the 420 Studios in Florida. His other releases include “The New York City Sessions” “Pocket Full of Money,” “Look Inside My Pocket,” “Keepin’ It Alive,” “Mikey Likes It,” and his most recent release, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” On that last work, Hudak’s sense of humor is displayed on the cover: he sits smiling with roses and a box of chocolates in the palm of what is clearly a feminine hand.
When DeGennaro was murdered during a home invasion on December 28, 2011, in Levittown, PA, it took some time for Hudak to recover from the shock. But maybe the death inspired him, as Stone Cold Blues made it into the finals, the top 10 bands, performing at Memphis’ Orpheum Theater in the February, 2012, International Blues Challenge.
“Danny mentored me and my dad did as well; they both taught me how to manage the band, be conscious of marketing, and how to manage the band finances,” he says.
Hudak credits his mother, who worked for the state Department of Human Services, for moving the two of them out of Chambersburg and out to Yardley, PA, when he was in fifth grade. There he was able to attend Pennsbury High School. That made a huge difference in his life, he says.
“Both my parents went to Trenton High School. I love Chambersburg, used to play in Little League there,” he explains. “But in 1990 the neighborhood started going into decline. I owe a lot to my mother for her persistence and for getting us out of the city and into a good school system. I would have been the first in my family to go to college. But I decided not to go. I got my real estate license at 19 and worked as a salesman and an assistant to a high-ranking broker in Yardley, Drew Ferrara. So I had a salary, too.”
Explaining his move into music, he says, “At night I would wait tables. I met DeGennaro and told him I played harmonica. He said, ‘I’ll be in your band and play guitar for you, and I’ll get the musicians to be in your band.’ At that time I was 20, and it was a big bar scene cause all my friends were coming out to see me.” Mikey Junior and 8th Train played their first professional gig at JB’s in Morrisville, PA.
“That place has since closed, but we played there from 2002 to 2008, every single Wednesday night for six years. Now, I’m happy to say we’re doing another residency at the Twisted Tail in Philly.” The band is heard there every Wednesday night and hosts the Sunday jam sessions.
At his live performances, he and his band mates know how to be subtle and quiet during their first set and get progressively higher octane and louder during later sets, as people finish dining in places such as the Salt Creek Grille or Red Hot and Blue in Cherry Hill.
“I took a lot from a lot of different styles,” Hudak says of his own approach to the blues and blues-rock. “My first influence was Sonny Boy Williamson, and then, as I got out and we played out, I got into Steve Guyger, Rod Piazza, and all the contemporary players out there today. As for vocals, I love Dean Martin, but I also love blues people like B.B. King, Little Milton [Campbell], and Little Willie John.”
With his dynamic stage presence, his sense of humor on and off stage, and his solid musicianship and marketing skills, Hudak, without the aid of a booking agency or management company, has already taken his band to some prestigious festivals around the U.S. — Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Festival in California, the Western Pennsylvania Blues Festival, the Asbury Park Blues Festival, the Fox Chase Blues Bash in Philadelphia, the Paoli Blues Festival, and gatherings in nearby Bucks County and Delaware and further away in Ohio and Virginia.
Hudak has seen interest from a number of blues labels, notably Delta Groove in California and several companies in Chicago, but, like any musician who keeps pushing himself in new directions, he has plans. That includes recording and releasing a record that he will properly “shop” to independent record labels that offer him the best terms.
And if a record label deal is not in the cards for Hudak, he is perfectly willing to do what he has been doing, releasing records on his own and selling them from the bandstand at clubs and festivals. Hudak is such a salesman, that he has gone on his own dime to several International Blues Challenge gatherings in Memphis as a spectator, to hand out CDs like business cards to blues society presidents from around the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
“We’re going to Europe for the first time. We’ll be in France playing a big festival over there, and we’re looking forward to breaking off into that market,” Hudak says, “and given that ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ went to No. 14 on the national blues radio charts last year, we’re hoping to start more national and international touring in 2014, after my two new albums are released later this year.”
And it is all part of the day job.
Mikey Junior and Stone Cold Blues Band, Salt Creek Grille, One Rockingham Row, Forrestal Village, Plainsboro. Saturday, March 23, 7 to 11 p.m. Three sets. Free. www.mikeyjunior.com.