David Bromberg has made the blues part of his musical foundation since his 1971 debut solo album, which had three songs with blues in the title.
The Wilmington resident reaffirms his dedication to the genre with the David Bromberg Band's The Blues, The Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues (Red House Records), due out Oct. 14. Bromberg, who turned 71 last month, will preview songs from the album Friday at the Keswick Theatre as part of his "Big Band Bucket List Birthday Bash," with special guests Tom Rush, Larry Campbell, and Teresa Williams, and a three-man horn section.
"Most of my records feature everything under the sun, but it's commercial suicide," Bromberg says. "I wanted [this] album to move in one direction."
In the CD liner notes, Bromberg elaborates on his decision: "A while back, I heard Willie Nelson repeat a quote by Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble: 'There's only two kinds of music - 'The Star Spangled Banner' and the blues.' That was our template as we approached making this album."
Bromberg avoids a rote re-creation of the songs and puts his own stamp on the material, including two originals, in a variety of formats - electric, acoustic, full band, duo, and solo.
Bromberg's own "You Don't Have to Go" pays tribute to the Chicago blues. On "A Fool for You," Bromberg reworks Ray Charles' ballad into a solo showcase for acoustic guitar. "I tried to play it on guitar the way Ray would play it on piano."
Bill Payne's organ brings a jazzy feel to the playful boasting of Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Eyesight to the Blind," while Bromberg reaches back to the 1890s for "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon," a breakup song recorded in 1925 by Bessie Smith.
Bromberg reworks "Delia," a traditional murder ballad he featured on his first album, as a duo with Campbell. His acoustic slide guitar and Bromberg's mournful vocal heighten the song's sadness.
"The biggest adaptation was on '900 Miles,' " he says. "It's an old country tune. I wanted to do a Howlin' Wolf tune, but all the ones I like have been done to death. We decided to play ['900 Miles'] as if it was a Howlin' Wolf song."
The horn-powered title track, cowritten by Gary Nicholson, was a late addition, Bromberg says. "We came up with the title and recorded the album. Then we discovered the song and went back in the studio to record it."
Bromberg injects some humor into the record with "How Come My Dog Don't Bark (When You Come 'Round)" and with the album cover, designed as the front page of a fictional newspaper, the Delta Times-Dispatch. The weather forecast reads: "The sky is crying, tears all down the street," a reference to the Elmore James blues standard.
The cover photo (below) features Bromberg on the witness stand while a prosecutor holds an electric guitar and the jury looks on. The headline underneath reads: "D.A. regales jury with claims on 'bent notes and bent morals.' "
Bromberg's blues education deepened in the 1960s when he shared the stage with Skip James and other blues artists at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. Bromberg also took guitar lessons from the late gospel/blues great the Rev. Gary Davis in New York City.
"I originally paid him for the lessons. Later, he preferred that I take him around to church," Bromberg says. He credits Davis, who was blind, with teaching him his fingerpicking style.
By the early 1970s, Bromberg was gaining a reputation behind the scenes. He produced Aereo-Plain, John Hartford's groundbreaking bluegrass album, and was featured on recordings by Bob Dylan, John Prine, and Phoebe Snow. Bromberg played electric guitar on Willie Nelson's "Whiskey River," which became a fixture in Nelson's concerts.
Bromberg credits the late producer Arif Mardin with allowing him to work on some sessions.
"Mac Rebennack [Dr. John] and I were on many of those recordings. Mac and I were Arif's seasoning," Bromberg says. What makes a successful sideman? "You try not to get in the way on sessions. The center of attention should be on the singer."
One of Bromberg's memorable collaborations occurred outside the recording studio, when he and George Harrison wrote a song together.
"Al Aronowitz had been my manager, and he knew the Beatles," Bromberg says. "He invited George and me to Thanksgiving dinner."
Talk turned to songwriting, and they cowrote "The Holdup," a rollicking, modern-day Robin Hood story. "There was only one guitar in the house, so we passed it back and forth while working on the song," says Bromberg, who included the number on his debut album.
Harrison never recorded the song, but overdubbed slide guitar on a version recorded by Bromberg in 1971 in Philadelphia.
"We had fun writing it," Bromberg says. "I always enjoyed his company. To me, it's a good song."