Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Joe Zuccarello has paid a price for his passion. The Trenton-area blues-rock icon, who began playing blues in the late 1960s, suffers with tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. You can often see him in clubs or outdoor festivals playing with his ear protection equipment on. “If I get hurt again, I will be miserable,” he says, adding he doesn’t blame his tinnitus completely on the loud, raucous blues-rock shows in the 1970s and ’80s.
“I used to hunt and shoot, and occasionally would target shoot in the garage,” he says, which surely aggravated his condition. He is so knowledgeable about tinnitus that he often finds himself advising other musicians who are suffering with it. “I know the ropes with this condition, and in a way it’s an occupational hazard. I’m just dealing with it.”
“Zook,” as he is affectionately known around the Garden State blues scene, has paid his dues and then some. Like Paul Plumeri, he helped shape the blues revival in the Garden State, and has been a source of inspiration for dozens of younger musicians. Zucarello has released two albums in recent years, “Blues with a Capital B,” in 2000 and “Still Payin’ Dues” in 2003. He performs on Friday, July 27, at Trenton City Museum at the Ellarslie Mansion in Cadwalader Park in Trenton.
The Trenton Museum Society concert series continues on Friday, September 28, with the Eric Mintel Quartet (jazz), and on Sunday, October 21, with classical pianist Marion Zarzeczna.
Zook’s “Still Payin’ Dues” includes an often-requested song, “Jersey Blues,” which includes some biting topical commentary about the state of affairs in New Jersey. “I could add extra verses to the song,” he says, “in light of Governor Corzine’s recent accident, so there’s plenty of fodder for new verses. It could just go on and on.”
Zook, 54, works as a music teacher in the Trenton public schools, teaching kindergarteners through eight-graders the fundamentals on guitar, trumpet, saxophone, and a variety of other instruments. After a temporary break from Trenton State College in the early 1970s became an extended break, he went back and got his degree in 1981. He began teaching music in the Trenton public schools in 1987.
He says he loves teaching. “With very young kids, we do music appreciation. I cover everything: classical, jazz, blues, soul, country and western. I try to expand their awareness and horizons,” he says.
Recently, he says, he was touched, “when I played them Hank Williams and Patsy Cline in my classes, and I was asked to play [Williams’] ‘Hey Good Lookin’ again on the stereo. They were singing along to it, so it seems the younger kids really respond well to all of that.”
At Ellarslie Mansion on Friday, Zook will be joined by a veteran team of musicians. Some, like bass player Billy Holt, have been playing with him for more than two decades. Zook will be joined by drummer Rick Lawton, saxophonist Angelo DiBraccio, pianist James Cheadle, and harmonica player Tony Buford. All are Trenton-area musicians.
Zook, the son of an optometrist and a housewife, was raised in Trenton, in a loving, piano-playing, Italian family. He says both parents were musically inclined, “and so they were very supportive of me when I started taking guitar lessons from Frank Hipp. Later I took string bass lessons from Stanley Austin, who was at Trenton State College. He was a very influential guy and he has a couple of sons who are very good musicians and in demand all over the place. Hipp and Austin were my two main mentors.”
Zook discovered the improvisational beauty of the blues as a teenager, via the Blues Project with Al Kooper and Danny Kalb, and shortly after, Jimi Hendrix and the British super group Cream. “Jimi and Eric Clapton were always talking about Muddy Waters, and that’s where it led me to Muddy and B.B. [King] and all of those guys,” he says. “I would stack them on the old hi-fi at the house and I would play along with them. That’s how I learned to play different styles.”
He says his first big break came from the Bucks County Blues Society, an association he has kept to this day, he points out, as he recently played the group’s summer picnic and at A.J.’s Sports Bar in Levittown, PA, for the blues society’s ‘Blue Thursdays’ series.
After seeing Zook play at Billy D’s [a nightclub] the Bucks County Blues Society put him and his band on a bill with Muddy Waters and the Nighthawks in Bristol, PA. That was in the early 1980s. “After that we began to get shows in New York and Philadelphia. That was our first big shot in the arm.”
At the July 27 concert at Trenton City Museum Ellarslie Mansion — by the way a beautiful facility and a great setting for spring and summer music festivals, with its expansive lawn — Zook and his band plan to mix it up a lot. “We’re going to present a varied program, on the jazzy side and the rootsy side, and we’ll throw in a few originals too. We’re going to stay away from things we’ve done there in the past. Each of the guys I’m playing with is capable of carrying the show. Their solo work is top shelf, so it’s going to be a great show.”
Summer Blues with Joe Zook and Blues Deluxe, Friday, July 27, 7 p.m., Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. $10 members of Trenton City Museum; $15 non-members. Wine and refreshments with admission. 609-989-1191.