Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the May 21, 2003
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Triumph of a Blues Guitar
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Bobby Radcliff has
battled ADD, dyslexia, and repetitive strain injury over his 51 years.
Yet Radcliff and his electric blues trio remain one of the most
acts on the blues club touring circuit. This, in spite of the fact
that he hasn’t released a new album since 1997. Perhaps it’s because
of Radcliff’s hardships that he has worked doubly hard on honing his
guitar playing and his rough-edged, soul-filled vocals.
Radcliff was born in 1951 in Bethesda, Maryland, the son of a
father and housewife mother. His father, a general practitioner, also
played piano and sang, and gave the young Radcliff his first taste
of jazz via the "great American songbook" standards. As a
12-year-old, he discovered the simple yet complex beauty of blues
While still in high school, he made trips to Chicago to visit his
idol, "Magic Sam" Maghett. He learned the realities of the
blues business first hand from Maghett and his friends Mighty Joe
Young, Otis Rush, and other luminaries of Chicago’s Southside clubs.
Radcliff has four wonderfully expressive, exciting
on the BlackTop Records, a label that was based in New Orleans but
folded in 2000. His latest BlackTop release is the 1997 "Live
at the Rynbourn," recorded at the club in Antrim, New Hampshire.
Other albums include "There’s a Cold Grave in Your Way" (
1994), "Universal Blues" (1991), and "Dresses Too
(1989). All the BlackTop albums were praised by critics at the time
of their release and Radcliff has toured successfully in Europe,
Japan, and Australia through the 1990s.
"My father was raised in Millville and my mom was from Virginia,
so my parents were sort of half southern and half northern,"
told me last week in a phone call from his apartment on New York’s
Lower East Side where he has lived and worked since the late 1970s.
Radcliff grew up in Washington D.C., and when he first moved to New
York, he took a day job at the Strand Bookstore ("12 Miles of
Books") to help pay the rent, while pursuing music at night and
Radcliff, whose real last name is Ewan, has a younger brother, a
musician in Washington, D.C., and an older sister, also in D.C. He
adopted his middle name, "Radcliff," as his stage name when
he started hitting the clubs around his native D.C.
"The radio stations there were pretty hip. WDON was one of the
first stations in the country to play Elvis Presley," he says.
"Thanks to my dad, I was listening to Elvis records when I was
four or five."
Radcliff recalls good local television as well, with many musical
acts and local variety shows based on the success of the network Ed
It was not until he was entering high school that Radcliff was
with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. "I had a hard time
learning guitar and found I couldn’t figure out songs with too many
chords in them," he says, "but back in the 1950s, they didn’t
know how to diagnose dyslexia or attention-deficit disorders."
He was put into a special-needs class after first grade, and then
attended a procession of public and private schools before attending
a public high school.
"Dyslexia affects different people in different ways, and I have
friends with dyslexia who are younger than me who became really good
at math," he says, "but I was born too early in the ’50s and
the school system I was in didn’t know too much about it. They thought
it was behavioral stuff. I was failing every course because my
was so bad. I had trouble with words but I also had trouble with math,
so school was a pretty miserable experience. I got into art and music,
and that’s ultimately what saved my butt."
Like other guitar players in the early 1960s, Radcliff listened to
the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. "We read the backs of the
albums by the Rolling Stones and found out who they got their music
from," he says. The Stones borrowed heavily from the
obscure bluesman Muddy Waters, as well as Little Walter Jacobs and
Howlin’ Wolf. "I remember walking through Georgetown one day and
hearing Slim Harpo on a jukebox. When I heard that, I said, ‘This
is something I can learn to play.’"
He was in a procession of rock ‘n’ roll bands through high school
where he would usually end up on lead guitar. "I’m basically a
self-taught guitarist. For the most part, I would learn this stuff
on my own, pecking around on the neck."
Radcliff graduated high school in 1970 and then, to please his
father, attended Montgomery College But like Joe Zook, Paul Plumeri,
and others who were working the New Jersey club circuit at the time,
Radcliff found the money to be made from clubs in the D.C., Baltimore,
and Virginia area too good to pass up.
"I only lasted about two months in college. I had a bunch of gigs
lined up at the time, and I knew, I just wanted to play. I was already
playing five and six nights a week and making good money, I had a
little network of bars," he says.
By the time he was in college, Radcliff had already done a significant
amount of post-graduate work out in the clubs in Chicago, hanging
out with Magic Sam, Magic Slim, Mighty Joe Young, and others. Echoes
of Magic Sam can be heard every time Radcliff plays guitar, as he
incorporates a lot of shaking of the guitar neck into his energetic
"I was not yet 18 when I first started going out to Chicago,"
he says, adding he made his first trip on a whim to see if he could
meet his idol Magic Sam. Tragically, Magic Sam died young, in 1969,
while still in his 30s.
"I kind of went out there the first time on a wing and a prayer,
I met Magic Sam, and then he very kindly took me under his wing. He
took me around to all the blues clubs and I would hang out with him
and his family in his apartment. He introduced me to everyone at the
L & A Lounge, where he also worked as a bartender." In those days
he says that, with a student pass, he could fly round-trip from D.C.
to Chicago for $35.
At Triumph Brewing in Princeton on Friday night, Radcliff will play
accompanied by a bassist and drummer. He says an audience unfamiliar
with his four albums for BlackTop Records can expect a few originals
and a lot of inspired covers of the classic electric blues of Magic
Sam and others.
"It’s a little bit of soul-blues, classic R&B, and soul,"
he says, describing his band’s sound, which is punctuated by
high-energy guitar wizardry and powerful vocals.
"I used to like Mighty Joe Young’s old calling card: it said,
`Blues, with a touch of Soul’ and that’s more or less where I’m coming
from in a nutshell."
— Richard J. Skelly
Street, Princeton, 609-924-7855. Blues featuring guitar. Friday,
May 23, 10:30 p.m.
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