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Rock Bottom blues

The familiar's not his forte, so don't demand Top 40. This blues man likes to mix it up.

By PHILIP BOOTH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 8, 2001


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[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Blues musician Rock Bottom performs at the Seabreeze on Sunset Beach last month. His home is the Woodlawn neighborhood of St. Petersburg, and he has played across the United States and Europe.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Rock Bottom, a big man with a big sound, and probably the best unsung blues harp player in the Southeast, isn't one to mince words.

Whether he's pondering the commercial leanings of the Tampa Bay Blues Festival or dissing a good-riddance former employer or talking about the joy of knowing and working with late gospel-blues great "Diamond Teeth" Mary McClain, the man born as David York seldom glad-hands.

For proof, check out his business card. It's right there, under his name and above his contact information: The imposing performer with the close-cropped white hair, short white beard and lovably twisted sense of humor bills himself as "expensive and bad-tempered."

That's a way of separating those who aren't so sure about Rock from those who know what they want, he says, laughing and shooing his dachshund, Bessie Smith, and cat, Chester Burnett, away from the couch of his modest home in the Woodlawn neighborhood of St. Petersburg.

And it's the kind of straight-shooting approach that got Bottom canned from the House of Blues in Orlando, where he made good money with semi-regular appearances several years back.

He tells the tale with gusto and offbeat humor on the track ihob from the recent King of the Blues CD, released on his own Tricknology Records. Rock refers to the chain nightclub as "a Denny's with music."

"They want the blues Top 40," he says. "They want Sweet Home Chicago and Mustang Sally, and they wanted us to just pound it out for the people. I'm a triple-bypass heart patient. I don't need the strain of kowtowing. I'm kind of a goofball. And they're right. They saw right through me. I'm not right for the situation. I sent them a thank-you note."

Bottom, 52, says the House of Blues' taste reflects the contemporary American music scene.
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"What I'm doing is taking the Chicago blues style of amplified harmonica playing and putting it on top of the rhythm and beats of New Orleans," says blues harp player Rock Bottom. "I'm really not a melody guy. I'm a beat guy."

"People would rather hear overdone things that they're familiar with instead of anything else. I'm appalled at what passes for blues these days. Blues, right now, has become a catchall phrase for the guys in rock and Southern rock bands who got tired of that and want to try something new."

In nightclubs, concert halls and festivals in Belgium, France, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Poland, the Florida Gulf Coast's own harp monster is hailed as a conquering hero, a world-class exponent of American blues and roots music. Since 1981, he regularly has toured Europe with the Silver King Band (featuring longtime musical collaborators St. Petey Twigg on piano and washboard player Flo Mingo), with his own group, the Cutaways, and as a solo act.

He has "a talent for harmonica that equals the Musselwhites, Piazzas and Clarkes," enthused a reviewer for England's Blues and Rhythm magazine. A countryman, writing for Blueprint magazine, called Bottom "a very compelling and entertaining musician who can lead, arrange, sing and play harp like no one else."

At home, the Indiana-born Bottom has a loyal regional following, but not quite the respect he gets in Europe, which is surprising, considering his credentials.

He has played high-profile gigs such as the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, the W.C. Handy Blues Awards in Memphis and the Merle Watson Festival in North Carolina. At his peak, he was logging 250 dates a year and has played on recordings by Roy Book Binder, Lucky Peterson, Ronnie Earl and Tampa roots-rocker Ronny Elliott.

His own recordings include last year's Shake Your Boogie Leg on New Jersey upstart New Moon Records and self-released projects such as 1997's Tone. He has produced discs by Sandy Atkinson and Tomcat Blake, and he wrote and performed an all-harp score for the Sam Shepard play A Lie of the Mind. He appeared with his band on ABC television's Second Noah series and in the independent film The Worm Killers.

"It's heartbreaking," Bottom says of his failure to connect with a major blues-oriented label.

"I've been told that I don't sing well enough for them to consider me," he says, resignedly. "It's like, "Tell it to Bob Dylan.' You learn to deal with rejection if you do this."

The word on the street about Rock Bottom, not too long ago, was that he was preparing to retire, after so many years of road burn and the hassles of selling himself to listeners who won't venture beyond the familiar.

Bottom might easily pass his days quietly, catching up with his wife, Maureen, spending time with that Elmore James boxed set and recordings by favorites Homesick James, Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Magic Slim and the Teardrops. He could hang out in the backyard and reread books by his favorite sci-fi writers Jack Vance and Robert Heinlein and mystery specialists John D. MacDonald and James Lee Burke.

The truth is that, although he's ditching the business part of the music business, he's staying with the music. He's done with leading, organizing, booking and publicizing a band of his own.

"I never wanted to not play music," he says. "I just got tired of promoting myself as Rock Bottom, because it took over all my time and all my effort."

His decision came last year, not long after two bandmates bailed on a three-week tour of England and Ireland, sticking the leader with making the explanations.

Bottom since has hooked up with the Accelerators, a blues band whose most recent CD, Long Time Comin', includes his work on five tracks. Bottom also makes occasional appearances under the name of Woodlawn Fats and his Worthless Bums of Rhythm.

He was back in Norway last month after a busy spring schedule that included gigs all over Florida. "I'm busier now than I was before I said I was retiring," he says.

Ever since he was turned on to the music of Paul Butterfield, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters so many years ago, his mission has been to share his vision of the blues.

"What I'm doing is taking the Chicago blues style of amplified harmonica playing and putting it on top of the rhythm and beats of New Orleans," Rock says. "I'm really not a melody guy. I'm a beat guy.

"Blues is an American music, and I am very much into all the roots music that comes out of the American melting pot, whether it's blues or country, bluegrass or jazz," he adds. "I like the music that builds on tradition. The minute I hear somebody tell me they're taking the blues to another place or they want to reach a larger audience, my hackles start to rise, because I don't go for that. I think blues music can stand on its own."

If you go

There are some upcoming appearances by Rock Bottom and his alter ego, Woodlawn Fats. For more information about Rock Bottom and where to hear his music, check his Web site: www.rock-bottom-blues.com/

6 to 10 tonight: Rock Bottom with Blue Plate Special at Adams Mark, 430 W Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach. (727) 443-5714. 8:30 p.m. Thursday: Rock Bottom with Sandy Atkinson at Dave's Bar and Grille, 10820 Gandy Blvd., St. Petersburg. 576-1091

9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday: Woodlawn Fats and His Worthless Bums of Rhythm, D Coy Duck's, Anna Maria Island. (941) 778-5888 8:30 p.m. July 18: Woodlawn Fats and His Worthless Bums of Rhythm, Classic Wax, 2119 Siesta Drive, Sarasota. (941) 364-8653.

9:30 p.m. July 19: Woodlawn Fats and His Worthless Bums of Rhythm, Seabreeze, 9546 Gulf Blvd. W, Sunset Beach (Treasure Island). (727) 360-1398. 9:30 p.m. July 20-21: Rock Bottom with the Accelerators, D Coy Duck's, Anna Maria Island.

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