West Windsor-based guitarist, singer, and band leader Karl Dentino may have drawn his initial inspiration from John, Paul, George, and Ringo, yet like so many others whose guitar playing careers were launched with the Beatles, Dentino has since mastered the music of other musicians.
While he was passionate about rock ‘n’ roll in junior high and high school, one could argue his tastes “matured” once he was in college. Accordingly most of the songs that Dentino and his group, the Ragtime Relics, play are from musicians who are long gone: the Gershwins, Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and Dave Van Ronk.
The Relics will be bringing that music to the Halo Pub in Hamilton on Saturday, February 8.
Dentino was a communications major at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) when he got serious about his music and found his niche: old blues, ragtime, and novelty songs from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
“Like most kids who were products of the 1960s I listened to rock ‘n’ roll. I was nine when I got my first guitar, the Beatles had just struck, and everybody was playing guitar back then,” he says from his offices at Dentino Marketing in the Montgomery Commons office park off Route 206 in Princeton. (More about this that later.)
“Soon after the folk scene made its way onto the commercial scene and there were TV programs like ‘The Smothers Brothers.’ You could see people finger picking acoustic guitar. It sounded like two guitars at once, but there was only one guitar player. By the time I got to college I found out about Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna, and he was playing a lot of old blues songs in a rock ‘n’ roll setting,” Dentino says.
Dentino was raised in Camden, his father a health inspector and his mother a nurse’s aide. An early guitar teacher was Dennis Gormley, who is still on the scene. But beyond those lessons as a teenager, he is entirely self-taught. Later on, finger pickers like Woody Mann and Roy Book Binder showed him some things.
He recalls seeing guitarists Dave Van Ronk, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee at the Main Point, a once-famous Philadelphia coffeehouse, and coming away from both shows inspired to learn more and get better at his chosen avocation.
Dentino says that he was in his late teens when he immersed himself in acoustic blues. “The whole idea of playing bass with your thumb and the melody with your fingers intrigued me,” he says, adding that his older sister exposed him to lots of different music in his youth. But as he grew older, he realized he also loved the music of his parents’ generation, music of the 1920s and ’30s.
While he performs solo and duo shows, Dentino has focused his efforts lately on his recently formed trio, the Ragtime Relics. Fellow musicians are veterans John Sudia on bass and Ray Fyhr on violin.
“John has more of an electric blues background and early country and honkytonk Texas music, and this fellow Ray Fyhr from Cranford is a classically trained violinist who just sounds so good; it adds a whole other layer to the music. We started out as a duo, but then Ray joined us.”
The Ragtime Relics got started in earnest, playing gigs at smaller festivals and coffeehouses in the spring of 2011. Pressed to describe their sound, Dentino says, “I would call it an eclectic approach to music from the 1920s and ’30s. Mostly we center on syncopated, blues-based tunes that people can tap their toes and fingers to. We have a lot of fun with novelty songs as well, like ‘I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.’”
As do other musicians, Dentino and his band mates make time to play in nursing homes and for seniors’ groups. To be sure, the audiences are attentive, and there’s the “good karma” aspect of doing such work, he says. “Next month I’m playing for a group called the Telephone Pioneers, but I’ve also latched onto the Mercer County Nutrition Program; they have 12 sites around Mercer County and occasionally they have entertainment. It’s strictly volunteering. (The audiences) are appreciative and like the music, but I don’t make any money which is really not the objective there. It’s a great audience to try new things out on.”
The Ragtime Relics have loose plans to record, either later this year or perhaps next year, yet, as with many other working musicians, music is an avocation, not their vocation.
Dentino’s day job is running Dentino Marketing. He got his start in the direct marketing field in 1978 when he graduated and says that his formative years were with the New York City direct marketing agency Wunderman Worldwide. That was followed by account management positions with Benton-Bowles Direct and the Direct Marketing Group. When former colleague and direct marketing expert James R. Rosenfield asked him to run an East Coast operation in Jersey City, Dentino agreed. Then in 1987 he launched his own firm, now based in Princeton, and is known, among other things, in the field as the author of the book “Business Reply: How To Use Direct Marketing Techniques To Get The Job You Want.”
“Today they call it database marketing. It’s based on the notion that it’s easier to sell something to someone who’s already made a purchase from you then to go out and sell to new customers,” says Dentino, who moved to West Windsor in 1982 and lives with his wife of 35 years, Vera, whom he met in high school. They have two grown children, Luke, 26, and Hannah, 20.
So how is the business of finding new rooms for the trio to play similar to getting new clients for his marketing firm?
“It’s tough out there, as far as live music goes,” he says. “It seems to me that many people would rather stay home and look at TV and the Internet than go out to hear some live music at a coffeehouse or bar.”
Thus far Dentino and his Ragtime Relics have found receptive audiences at Grover’s Mill Coffee House, the Laurita Winery in New Egypt, the weekly Saturday night meetings of the bluegrass and old-time music at Albert Music Hall in Waretown, and a Texas-themed restaurant called D’Jeet? in Shrewsbury.
Giving a preview of the Relics’ Halo Pub show, Dentino says, “We’ll play a mix of songs, novelty tunes, songs from Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley pop tunes, some early country songs, and acoustic blues things like ‘Hesitation Blues’ and ‘Keep On Trucking Mama.’ We find these older songs work well on a couple of levels, as young kids love the music, but adults love the music too; they appreciate the novelty songs more.”
Maybe even something from John, Paul, George, and Ringo?
Ragtime Relics, Halo Pub, the Shoppes at Nottingham Point, 4617 Nottingham Way, Hamilton Square. Saturday, February 8, 7 to 10 p.m. Free. 609-586-1811.
Dragonfly Music & Coffee Cafe, 14 East Main Street, Somerville. Friday, February 21, 7 p.m. Free. 908-393-4993.
WDVR FM Heartlands Hayride Radio Broadcast. Live country music radio show performed before an audience and broadcast on WDVR FM Saturday, April 26, 6 to 8 p.m. wdvrfm.org/hayride.htm.
For more Ragtime Relic dates, visit www.ragtimerelics.com.