Finally able to do what he enjoys-the creative process of growing music, Levy no longer has to spend his time on the road, promoting his work. His music promotes itself.
JazzReview: I believe I have four of your albums now. The last one was "Voodoo Boogaloo," correct?
Ron Levy: Yes, most recent chronologically.
JazzReview: It’s a pretty swinging album and I like it. Tell me about the songs. Do you write your own songs?
Ron Levy: Yes. All of them.
JazzReview: I think you’re incredible. The first album I heard was "Ron Levy’s Wild Kingdom." Then, I got the "Best of Ron Levy, B-3 Organic Grooves." Next, I received "After Midnight Grooves." And finally, this one; "Voodoo Boogaloo." Each one increased in intensity. Each one is soulful. But each has it’s own particular sound and direction.
How do you keep your songs alive so they don’t overlap, or so they don’t get repetitive?
Ron Levy: Yeah, I wish I knew. I have so many songs. It’s hard to know how I get inspired by them.
From the people I see, or the emotions I have, or people in my family, or even my dog, or-you know. Just looking outside--I just get different ideas. Then sometimes I don’t have any idea at all, but I sit down to play. I put my hands on the piano or organ, or whatever, and come up with a chord, and just build on that.
For a lot of songs, I study some music or think of some theory, or something like that. Then I think, "Well, more of a coincidence than a creative, I think."
JazzReview: Each album has its own personality.
Ron Levy: I don’t really go in with any preconceived notions. Like I say, it’s more of a coincidence than a creative. It just sort of happens. I just kind of do something for a while, then it just goes to the next step. With each song it does that. Then from one song to another, I guess it does that too.
JazzReview: Are you sitting by yourself when you do this? Or does everybody come in the door and start talking, then inspiration takes over?
Ron Levy: Well, I’m very disciplined. I get up every morning with a routine I go through. Then I sit down at the piano and start writing.
JazzReview: Really? That’s amazing-a lot of discipline.
Ron Levy: I do this every day, whether I feel like it or not. Well, I figure that’s the only way I can do it, you know. If I wait 'til I’m inspired, it’s like sitting-I could be waiting for a bus that doesn’t come.
Years ago, I read professionals, like novel writers, literary writers, painters and dancers--all people in creative fields had a routine, forced themselves to sit down and do their craft.
To me, it’s like I go to my office. I just go to work.
JazzReview: You have something like 200 songs to your credit.
Ron Levy: Ah, yes. Some are to my "dis-credit." (chuckle) I even have more than that. A lot haven’t been published-probably another hundred. I just haven’t had time to. I mean, I already have 22 songs recorded ahead of schedule for the next two albums, so I’m just sort of chilling it for a while. I just got back from vacationing in Israel.
JazzReview: I wanted to ask you about that because I thought you were gigging over there. When you said you were overseas, I figured you had the band and were playing.
Ron Levy: You know, I’m pretty much of a perfectionist. Every time I’ve gone over there it’s been for two weeks at a time. Between seeing family, doing radios and doing some studying, I haven’t had time to put a band together. But once I get enough contacts over there I hope to put together a band. There’s definitely a demand for it. Every time I go over there, everyone asks me about it.
JazzReview: That makes sense. They’ve heard your music and they’d like more.
Ron Levy: I have to say, it’s a lot of work. And it really doesn’t pay. You know, I beat my brains out to tour and have everything together, and basically, I’m lucky if I break even. I’ve done it (touring) for 35 years. I started in 1967-68 and I love it once I’m on stage. But it’s really difficult to get assembled, turned on and ready to go. Yeah, it’s 15/16 hour days.
JazzReview: Yes, that’s grueling, isn’t it?
Ron Levy: That part is not fun. I don’t really get into it. It’s the days of riding up and down the highway for 14/15 hours and sleeping with the guy who has a thicker beard than I do. That just isn’t fun.
For so many years, I traveled and met new people all over the place. I loved that. But I’m one of the few people, I guess, who enjoys the creative process. I enjoy that more than the performance of it.
JazzReview: That’s interesting because when you do your CDs, however you do them, it sounds as if you are really into each note.
Ron Levy: Oh, no. I’m really into that. It’s just the other stuff. The writing and the recording, I’m totally into that. I love it. That’s the part of the music business I actually love. It’s the management, the coordination and the driving---staying in hotels. That’s what I hate.
The other thing is: when you spend ten hours a day trying to get from one place to another, when you finally get to the hotel, you don’t really feel like performing. You just want to take a shower and lay down for half an hour. You don’t have time to sit down and write any songs.
JazzReview: You don’t really get to enjoy where you’re at because you’re busy working. A lot of people don’t realize what it takes to set up a gig.
Ron Levy: I’ve been reminded. The whole time I use to travel, I never got to see any of the sites, but you know, I did what I wanted to do. I went there to play. I have no regrets. I’m not a big sightseer. I’d just as soon see that on TV.
On the other hand, when we went to Israel, we had a six-hour layover in Amsterdam. We took one of those little boat rides through town. That was great. I really enjoyed that.
JazzReview: Well, you were away from your work. You could relax and enjoy a little bit.
Ron Levy: In other words, to create--for me to sit down and write everyday, I can’t do that on the road. There are too many details to take care of while running a show. When I can be home and relax, that’s when I get creative.
JazzReview: I noticed you are on the Levtron label, which means you do your own promotions. You’ve managed to avoid the big label companies. I’ve always contacted you directly for information instead of going through a PR guy. You produce. You do your own PR.
Ron Levy: I subcontract that out. I ran two different record labels in the past, so I have experience in that area. I worked with Nerada records for ten years. I co-founded Bullseye Blues and Cannonball Blues & Jazz record companies in the late 1990s--a lot of blues and jazz sensibilities--Bluegrass. And, I did a lot of music in New Orleans. I started my own company called Cannonball Records.
JazzReview: You’ve been all over, haven’t you?
Ron Levy: Yeah, I know what doesn’t work. I’m still trying to figure out what does work.
JazzReview: Right. Well, I see you are free of companies, contracts and labels--those things which chip away at your creativity.
Ron Levy: I’ve pretty much freed myself from that. While I did it, it was great, but it’s time to do something else. I’ve been on both sides of the table, in terms of being an artist and being a record company, so I know what it takes. I understand the trials and tribulations of both ends of it.
JazzReview: Let’s talk a little bit about the music you’re doing now. At first I listened, it was good music. But then all of a sudden something hit me and made me want to take notice of the particulars. I realized there was something much more complex going on within the sound.
For me, it kicked off with the Best of Ron Levy’s Wild Kingdom. After that, I really listened tightly to your music. Karl Denson doesn’t mess around, either. He really blows.
Ron Levy: He’s great. Years ago we did some shows together. We just became friends. As well as pals, we became musical soulmates for a while. He loves playing my stuff. He’s recorded some of my songs for his albums. And, he was my number one choice to have on my records.
JazzReview: He works very well with what you do.
Ron Levy: I don’t have to show or tell him much. He just knows. He starts nodding his head, looking at me then goes ahead and plays his ass off.
JazzReview: And, Melvin Sparks, guitarist. Tell me about him. He’s pretty hot, too.
Ron Levy: Same way. He and I have been working together for some 20 odd years, and he just knows what to do. He’s like my big brother. He does nothing but insult me, too. (chuckle)
JazzReview: So, are the three of you the core of the group?
Ron Levy: I would say so. Yeah.
I have another guitarist who toured with me. We went cross-country two or three times; Jeff Lockhart. He’s a local guy from Boston. He’s absolutely fantastic, too. I love working with him.
And, there’s a younger sax player, Sax Gordon. I was producing an album years ago. He was playing with a blues band, Luther ‘Guitar Jr.’ Johnson. He was with Muddy Waters and I was with BB King, back in the 70s. Gordon was a young kid learning how to play the saxophone. He was part of Luther, and Luther and I toured together...
JazzReview: Let’s talk about Jerry Portnoy. He’s on harmonica for Wes Memphis.
Ron Levy: Well, actually, the same scenario. Portnoy was playing with Muddy Waters at the same time Luther was. So we’ve known each other for a long, long time.
What brought that about was, Jerry was having a birthday party-he turned 60. And, all these guys came in from California. We’ve all known each other for years ‘cause we’re a small community. We were all playing and I decided: there’s this tune and I’d like to have somebody...the name of the song was Memphis Memories. I felt this Memphis vibe, R&B, kind of going on and I thought, "Maybe if we crank it up a bit--get that lonesome kind of train whistle sort of effect." So Jerry came by and we did it in a couple of hours.
JazzReview: It sounds great. He really pulled it off.
Ron Levy: Yeah. He tours with Eric Clapton and he’s worked with Muddy Waters. He’s actually written books about how to play harmonica, and he’s a consummate professional. He knows how to teach and how to play.
JazzReview: That’s interesting. Now, you keep bringing up Muddy Waters. He was a big part of your growth, wasn’t he?
Ron Levy: Well, you know, I grew up in Boston in the 60s. There was a great musical theme in Boston then. There were two jazz clubs. One was called The Jazz Workshop. And, there was another one (can’t quite remember the name).
The Jazz Workshop was actually two clubs in one building. Every Sunday, they had matinees from 4 to 7. As a teenager, I went there every Sunday. We’d take the train to downtown Boston, stop and get a slice of pizza. Then all we had to do was buy a Coke or something, and we could sit and watch the musicians. I was 15 or 16. We’d sit right in front of Coltrane or Wes Montgomery or Jimmy Smith, Art Blakey or the Buddy Rich Good Band.
JazzReview: Did you realize what greatness you were seeing at that time?
Ron Levy: Ah, yeah. I was pretty blown away at the time. In Cambridge, on the side of the river, was Club 47, which was a coffee house. They had Chicago blues guys come in and play, guys like Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and Otis Rush. I could go there every day because it wasn’t at night. It wasn’t a bar.
That’s where I’d go after school and I became friendly with all the guys. They showed me stuff and we became friends. That’s how I got into it.
They’d come for a week or so at a time. And they’d come four or five times a year. So I got to know the guys. Whereas the jazz guys, I only got to see them for the one day, and I only got to talk to them for a limited amount of time. It was still great, but I’ve always had that blues and jazz gravitation to those sounds.
JazzReview: Well, that explains it. I wondered how does a guy from Massachusetts get a sound like you have? I think of senators and swank music when I picture Massachusetts. You have a down home blues/jazz sound.
Ron Levy: Oh, yeah. I lived in New York, too, and New Orleans, so I got a taste of it all.
JazzReview: You’ve been nominated for 9 Grammies. You got Producer of the Year Award in 1994. You have a long list of achievements, and a long line of accomplishments. Are you in the process of producing another album right now or are you taking a break?
Ron Levy: Actually, I have two on the burner right now. It’s kind of a continuation of "Voodoo Boogaloo." I’ll have the same people on it, pretty much. I have one record called "Funky Fiesta." That’s going to be very uptemp,very R&B-ish, soul jazz.
The next one is called "Nasty Boogie." It’s a little more outside the mainstream. It definitely takes boogie a notch further.
JazzReview: Do you record live, or do you do this electronically, via Internet or something?
Ron Levy: Oh no. We all get together for that.
JazzReview: That’s amazing-You’ve come up with 12 different songs, each with it’s own personality. Do you ever find the songs you did early on that didn’t fit the times--but later, they find a home?
Ron Levy: Yeah. That’s the key to success-trying to find where the music is headed.
JazzReview: Multi-talented Ron Levy has found the key to creativity. His audience is faithful-for a very good reason: Who knew a quiet, green-eyed master from Massachusetts could sound like that?