In a way, John Ginty has come full circle in his musical journey. Shortly after he began playing the Hammond B-3 organ after high school in Morristown, he realized his late grandmother, Honore Ginty, who died before he was born, had also been an organist — at St. Margaret’s RC Church in Morristown. Ginty now leads a rock band that plays an artful blend of blues, jazz, and gospel-infused rock,. The John Ginty Band will perform at the Black Potatoe Festival in Clinton on Saturday, July 15, the third day in the festival’s four-day schedule.
Ginty says his parents, now a retired Morristown fire fighter and a retired dental assistant, were not musical. He is quick to add that both parents were “extremely supportive” of his desire to pursue a musical career. “I played drums for a number of years and then I started playing vibes with the high school jazz band,” Ginty says, crediting Morristown’s school district with giving him a thorough and efficient musical education. The Morristown High School even had its own radio station.
“One day I was playing vibes, and I realized, hey, this would work on organ, too,” he says of the revelation he had as a 17-year-old. “I’m not really sure what attracted me to the organ in the first place but once I started playing it, it just felt so natural.” So perhaps there was a genetic link in Ginty’s subsequent success as an organist.
In 1995 he was hired by Neal Casal, a singer-songwriter based in northwest New Jersey, who landed a major label deal with Zoo Entertainment in Los Angeles. Next thing Ginty knew, he was flying out to Los Angeles to record with Casal and doing shorter tours with the singer.
Ginty caught his first big break in the summer of 1997, when one night Alaskan singer-songwriter Jewel called to ask if he could play organ on a slew of her upcoming TV appearances, including “MTV Unplugged,” “Saturday Night Live,” and “Late Night with Conan O’ Brien.”
“I got a call on a Tuesday night to do ‘MTV Unplugged’ that Friday and ‘Saturday Night Live’ on Saturday. I ran to the record store and bought Jewel’s record and learned 12 songs in a couple of hours,” says Ginty. “After we did those two shows, she kept me on for a couple of years.” Those appearances made it easier for his parents to understand his career choice. “Your parents can really understand what you’re doing for a living when they can see you on TV,” he says. Later on, his parents also saw him perform at Madison Square Garden in New York, with Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
It was at Wetlands, an environmentally and socially conscious club on the lower West side of Manhattan, where he first played with Robert Randolph, an incredibly talented pedal steel guitarist who rose to prominence performing his own brand of religious and secular music in the 1990s with the Family Band.
At Wetlands Ginty also got to perform with Warren Haynes and Allen Woody, who were founding members of Government Mule, a band that still draws arena-sized crowds, despite Woody’s deathfrom a drug overdose several years ago.
After Randolph’s continued successes, drawing overflow crowds to Wetlands, he had a deal in the works with Warner Bros. Records, and the pace of touring got even more hectic. Ginty decided to leave Randolph’s band in the fall of 2003. “It was a mutual decision,” he says. “I couldn’t keep up with the touring pace they had at the time, because I had already been there and done that, so one day I got off the plane from Helsinki and was in a car going to `Conan O’ Brien,’ which I had done before with Jewel, and I realized that was it. So I passed the gig off to Jason Crosby, who I’d known from hanging out at the Wetlands.”
Although Ginty enjoyed success at the Wetlands leading his own band, it wasn’t until the fall of last year that he felt the band had jelled enough as a unit to record his own album. The result, a two compact disc set, “Fireside Live,” recorded at the Fireside Lounge in Denville, is a mighty first effort. Ginty and his manager released the album on Ginty’s own label, Shark Attack Records. At the Black Potatoe Festival Ginty will lead his own band in the afternoon, accompanied by most of the same musicians who are on his record, and he will also accompany guitarist Matt Angus with his band, the Matt Angus Thing.
Ginty’s band prominently showcases his crafty, tasteful, sometimes meaty Hammond B-3 solos, but it also includes vocalist Paul Gerdts, bassist Mike Buckman, drummer John Hummel, percussionist Dave Hedden, and guitarist Tom Feehan. All are from the Morristown area, except Feehan, who lives near Atlantic City.
“I could have gotten some real studio pros to be in my band, but I wanted to access local talent,” Ginty says. “These guys are great, and for whatever reason, they didn’t get into the full-time musician thing. So now we are as much a social hang as we are a band.”
There are just three cover songs on Ginty’s “Live at the Fireside.” They include Carlos Santana’s “Savor,” Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong,” and a traditional, which he calls “Gospel Jam.” All of the other songs are Ginty’s own compositions, which he writes on piano, by himself, and then takes to his band mates for rehearsal and fleshing out. “I have this songwriter side but I only like to write on a piano by myself, and what I end up doing is bringing this Barry Manilow sounding thing to the band,” he says.
As for inspirations on the Hammond B-3, one would expect Ginty to name the great soul jazz and blues players who helped bring the Hammond B-3 into fashion in the late 1950s and early ’60s, people like Jimmy McGriff and the late Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. Instead, he says, “I was listening to the session guys who were a little under the radar, people like Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s band, Chuck Leavell [from the Rolling Stones], and Gregg Allman. But Brent Mydland from the Grateful Dead was my absolute hero.”
Ginty’s sessionography — a list of albums he has played on by other performers — includes such notables as Citizen Cope, a bevy of albums from Casal, Carlos Santana, Bad Religion, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Matthew Sweet, country singer Amy Allison (Mose’s daughter), and Randolph’s Warner Bros. debut, “Unclassified,” as well as his earlier independent album, “Live at Wetlands.”
But playing as part of an ensemble and being in the background goes with the territory when one plays Hammond B-3 organ for rock artists like Santana, or even vocal gospel groups like the Blind Boys of Alabama. “I felt like the organists I listened to all had a common thread, and it came from Jimmy Smith’s organ settings. It’s hard not to hear [Tom Petty’s] ‘Refugee’ as a great song, but you’d be astonished how great a song it is, and how fat the organ tones are on that song.”
Although Ginty has paid for his art by suffering debilitating back problems — but no hernias, oddly — he says he was always blessed “to have some big friends” who were able to help him out. “There are guys around here who are willing to help and believe in the sound. I’ve carried Hammond B-3’s everywhere you can carry them, up fire escapes, up six flights of stairs, I’ve helped get them through windows and I’ve done all sorts of crazy stuff to get the Hammond B-3 into the gig,” he says. “I’m the guy who’s going to bring you the real thing, even if we’re just playing a 40-minute show at Ace of Clubs in New York, I’m bringing in 1,000 pounds of gear.”
At the Black Potatoe Festival, the audience can expect to hear a set from Ginty’s band that is both melodically rich and rhythm heavy, complemented by Paul Gerdts’ passionate vocals. “It’s blues, it’s rock, and it’s rhythm,” says Ginty, “and even though we’re all white Irish guys, we play Latin rhythms quite well, and our final element is gospel. You’re going to get the gospel, because this band is led by the organ.”
Just the way Ginty’s grandmother would have liked it.
Black Potatoe Festival, Thursday through Sunday, July 13 to 16, Red Mill Museum, 56 Main Street, Clinton. Performers include John Ginty Band (Saturday, July 15, 3:45 p.m.), South Austin Jug Band, Kathy Phillips Band, Swampadelica, The Holmes Brothers, Days Awake, Jeffrey Gaines, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Patrick Fitzsimmons, Caren Kennedy, Gregg Cagno, and others. For the full schedule visit www.blackpotato.com/schedule. For more information on John Ginty visit www.johngintyband.com. 908-735-4220.