Chuck Jackson’s Southside Shuffle blues festival is a much-anticipated and appreciated annual blues event. It rolls around like clockwork the first Thursday through Sunday every September. This is why it’s always easy to remember when it’s happening.
This consistency is also true with the high standards in blues and jazz excellence that this exciting annual blues fest offers the audiences who attend it in droves every September. One of the most popular entertainers who wails his heart out on stage at this fest, is Johnny Pennino, the ‘Sax King of New Orleans’ who’s also a Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee. Pennino is the quintessential sax man’s sax player, and is the epitome of what an artist strives for in playing excellence, and in the way he communicates with his audience and fellow artists onstage and off.
Joining Pennino this time around at the Port Credit Legion was a very special treat, in the form of iconic rock ‘n’ roll sax man Jimmy Cavallo. For those who might remember (and even for those who don’t), Cavallo’s the rock ‘n’ roller, (with his band Jimmy Cavallo & His House Rockers) singing and playing sax in the theme song intro to Alan Freed’s 1956 rock ‘n’ roll move classic Rock, Rock, Rock.
Cavallo’s up-beat, ballistically-energetic powerhouse R&B sax playing, (known in the 1950s to white audiences as rock ‘n’ roll), still has the same pure 1950s sound and vitality to his performances these days as he had then. Cavallo’s charismatic charm onstage playing rousing sax riffs and singing energetic vocals, is fueled from his soul with a hard-drivin’ rhythmic ease. This same spontaneous vitality gave R&B it’s rollin’ ‘n’ rockin’ ‘Big Beat Sound’ in the first place.
Cavallo’s still very much happening these days, too! He was an originator of rock ‘n’ roll since 1951 with his first big hit, "Rock This Joint", and he’s just kept on rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ ever since. God must be a rock ‘n’ roller too to let Cavallo’s (along with his long-time bassist Chuck Sgoi’s) high-energy entertainment level, sustain itself as fresh as ever this many decades later. Cavallo continues to exemplify entertainment at its very best in his live performances and on CD -- and like Pennino is an affable ‘people person’ personality onstage and off, as is bassist Sgoi.
Cavallo and Pennino were joined this night by fellow tenor sax playing virtuoso, Pat Carey (Downchild Blues Band/Jazz Navigators). Carey’s the hard-driving sax genius who keeps the Downchild Blues Band on their toes, wailing dem ol’ bluez from the heart. He’s the definitive interpretive blues saxophonist whose scorching solos always captivate audiences wherever and with whomever he performs. He’s also been an essential part of some Ronnie Hawkins concerts this writer attended in recent years.
When you put these three tenor sax virtuosos on the same stage at the same time, there’s bound to be some mighty fine musical magic gonna happen -- and happen it does.
The ‘Three Tenors’ were backed by a superb rhythm section, including keyboard great Mike Fonfara (Downchild/ex-Lou Reed/Electric Flag/Rhinocerous/John Lee & The Checkmates). Fonfara’s one of the most popular piano men in Canada, as well as a much-in-demand music producer. He’s recently been working with iconic piano man Roy Young, (who performed with the Beatles/Tony Sheridan in ’62 and with David Bowie in later decades). Fonfara’s involved in Roy’s newest/’old’ band The Star Combo http://www.thestarcombo.com/ -- composed of original members of Hamburg, Germany’s Star-Club house band (featuring Tony Sheridan) during the halcyon days of pre-British Invasion/Beatles rock ‘n’ roll c. 1960-1965. There’s more info about the Star Combo, including audio tracks and a 15-minute video of historic concert footage, at: http://www.sonicbids.com/epk/epk.asp?epk_id=48085
The Three Tenors (saxes) evening showcased yet another genius on the ivories, Gene Taylor, formerly with Downchild, but these days rebbin’ up the blues with guitarist Anson Funderburgh and the Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring the late Sam Myers on blues harp. Taylor’s keyboard virtuosity was outstanding this night. His surprise performance really got the place going full blast in true party style. (The Fabulous Thunderbirds were part the Southside Shuffle 2005, too.)
Guitar duties were performed by jazz guitar great Jake Langley, whose deeply inner soul wailed away intricate jazzy/bluesy leads and rhythms as only a truly interpretive genius on the 6-string can do. Langley’s a frequent performer at Toronto’s Orbit Room the top funk and R&B club in Toronto that’s featured the likes of Joey De Francesco, Brian Auger, Alex Lifeson, LMT Connection, Doug Riley, the late Domenic Troiano as well as members of James Brown’s band with Snooky Tynes, among others.
Cavallo’s long-time bassist Chuck Sgoi (since the early 1960s/’Duke of Earl’-era), was really goin’ at it full blast on his Fender electric all night long. He was all smiles and groovin’ with everyone concerned, just like in a real live re-enactment of a ‘50s rock ‘n’ movie come to life. Such was the magical atmosphere at this class ‘A’ concert.
On the wall at the back of the stage, there was a large b&w photo displayed of Cavallo from his ’56 Alan Freed days. This photo added to the atmosphere and helped reinforce the feeling of a real ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll concert. The audience certainly was being entertained by one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll sax players of all time actually three of the greatest sax players around which the Three Tenors honestly are, without exaggeration!
Cavallo was the front man many times this night on lead vocals and sax. He began this formidable evening of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and upbeat jazz with the searing "Rock This Joint" .. a big hit for him in ’51 .. a few years before the term ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ was coined by the aforementioned Cleveland DJ/turned rock ‘n’ roll movie/TV show host -- the unforgettable Alan Freed. Freed was the most significant catalyst bringing about the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll generation. Cavallo among others greatly helped make Freed’s musical vision become a living, musical reality.
The highlight of the Three Tenors night for this writer was Pennino’s clear, mellow vocals singing the immortal Ray Charles’ "Georgia". Pennino sang an exquisitely beautiful rendition of this great standard that was a pure joy to listen to. He also played a deeply touching version of Santana’s "Europa", featuring his mouthwatering sax solo ‘that the angels would love’ -- as the audience did this night!
This Pennino performance was truly a living miracle in progress. Only a few 72 hours earlier, Pennino and his mother and girlfriend Amy were in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, from their Victorian home luckily on higher ground just north of the New Orleans ‘French Quarter’ district. Pennino’s roof blew off during Katrina’s mighty winds, but ironically not in the spot where Pennino’s mother’s bedroom was uncanny and "a miracle from the ‘Man Upstairs’" as a visibly shaken Pennino later told this writer, while sharing his memories of this terrible ordeal.
Pennino’s very much ‘miracle-rescue’ from the horrors of New Orleans/Katrina was accomplished so close to ‘showtime’, thanks to the valiant efforts of his close friend and business manager, Myles Tangedal. He was constantly on the phone and in posted emails at Nola.com in the New Orleans area trying to find Pennino and get him rescued, (as was this writer who’s been a friend of Pennino’s for a few years too). This wasn’t a Hollywood-staged ‘rescue/show’ stunt, but a real true miracle that resulted in Pennino entertaining this night and the previous evening as well, at a charity fundraiser for Sick Kids Hospital.
The day after the Three Tenors performance, Pennino was featured in a CITY TV CP24 newscast interview during his outdoor show that day, describing his Katrina ordeal for the TV audience. The Pennino family rescue by U.S. Coast Guard from their house, was one of many that happened in New Orleans during this devastatingly cataclysmic Hurricane Katrina time.
Many times throughout this very enjoyable evening with Pennino, Cavallo and Carey, this writer felt ‘this shouldn’t be’/hard to believe, in regards to Pennino’s New Orleans rescue -- but it was -- a real miracle rescue that all of Pennino’s friends and fans are deeply grateful for.
Another ‘miracle’, but on the musically lighter side of things this time, was hit after rockin’ hit in two amazing sets this night. The first set featured the Three Tenors Combo, while the second featured Southside Shuffle founder and Downchild vocalist/harp player Chuck Jackson, and his blues radio/DJ sidekick/fellow blues vocalist Johnny Max. Both Jackson and Max sang it up to the ‘max’ and really got the crowd dancin’ in their seats and on the huge dance floor -- as did Pennino, Cavallo, Carey et al, in the first set.
Gene Taylor sat in on piano with Jackson and Max during this second entertaining set, wailing up some lively boogie-woogie on the ivories, to the delight of the many fans on the dance floor, and musicians on stage.
In addition, between these two sets, vocalist/trombonist Kid Dutch from Florida was featured in an energetic New Orleans-style jazz combo. They played an incredibly entertaining set of standards and Kid Dutch originals, that kept the dance floor hoppin&&&. http://www.jazztime.net/kdnom.htm
Some of the fans in the audience included singer Ginny Lynn, a frequent attendee at Jackson/Carey shows. Ginny years earlier sang with the great Louis Prima. This night with the Three Tenors, Ginny sang a couple of jazzy, swing numbers with Jackson and Max that were incredible to listen to.
Also in attendance was Livin’ Blues Band guitarist Larry Goodhand, who only weeks later unfortunately passed away. The Three Tenors concert was Goodhand’s final public appearance, where many of his old friends, including Jackson, Max, Carey and Fonfara were very happy to see him there and came over to say hello to him. Goodhand in earlier decades, cut his blues guitar ‘teeth’, sitting in with the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin, to name only a few of many at Toronto’s then-blues mecca, The Colonial Tavern. http://www.larrygoodhand.com/ In recent years Goodhand backed bluesman Sonny Rhodes in concert. This writer had the rare pleasure of ‘hanging out’ with Goodhand this night, throughout the first great set at my front row table -- and afterwards at dinner during intermission, enjoying some delectable New Orleans cuisine/Jambalaya etc. with Goodhand and the voraciously hungry audience and musicians. The food at this event and also at the Southside Shuffle Gala, is always a major drawing point for blues fans attending this annual blues and jazz festival.
All in all, The Three Tenors performance was a huge success in every way. It was an integral part of this 2005 7th Annual edition of the Southside Shuffle blues and jazz festival. Everyone this writer’s spoken to about the Southside Shuffle share the same opinion, that it’s one of the finest music events happening anywhere including anywhere in the world that good blues and jazz can be experienced live.