For me, playing the Blues has been a continuous method of communication, an embracement of humility and a search for a level of dignity in this rather undignified life. The Blues is a seemingly simple form of music that is actually quite difficult to play with the appropriate amount of dynamics, intensity and attention to structure.
The Blues musicians that still hold my interest are the survivors of the life within the Music. I articulated that perception in my April 2020 PolitiChicks article, Eric Clapton: Surviving the Crossroads and previously in the June 2019 article about Dr John: Beyond a Hoodoo Moon. Both Clapton and Dr John navigated the stormy waters of playing music while living the life of a traveling musician. The music of the Blues is an audio lesson on how to survive with dignity.
Therefore, I again find a great deal of pleasure to be writing again about a great musician who is both a great artist and a survivor of the road. I write here about brilliant musician, composer and producer, Ron Levy.
Ron Levy’s musical pedigree is impeccable, as we shall see. Levy was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 29, 1951. He grew up in the Brookline area. When Ron Levy was 13, in 1964, he had a musical Road to Damascus musical moment when he saw Ray Charles in nearby Framingham. At the time Ray had one of his classic bands featuring personnel like David “Fathead” Newman.
That concert sent Ron to the family’s parlor piano. He would place the kitchen radio on top of the piano and would tune into the the local black music station,WILD. There he heard the original masters of American Blues and R&B. He was also influenced by the musical tastes of some of the people employed by his parents.
One was Cora, who was an amazing cook, who also lived with the Levy’s and who loved the music of the great Bluesman, Elmore James, among many. Another musical influence was Willie Douglas, who worked along side of Ron in the family’s business, American Electroplating Company. Willie loved Jimmy Reed, Bobby Bland and, in particular, B.B. King. Willie would point out specific points in the music which stirred the imagination of a young Ron Levy, they are still friends today.
In 2013, Ron Levy articulated his beginnings and continuing journey as a Blues musician in an incredible book, “Tales of a Road Dog: The Lowdown Along the Blues Highway.” The book is available in heavy paper and as an e-book. Levy’s book is both entertaining, informative and a touching narrative of the Blues.
“Tales of a Road Dog,” details Levy’s growing up in Brookline and it’s close proximity to the incredible music scene in nearby towns like Boston and Cambridge. Those areas were a Mecca to listen to great music in the mid-1960’s.
There were music venues like The Jazz Workshop, where Levy heard greats, such as John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Art Blakey and that master of the Hammond B-3 organ, Jimmy Smith. It was organists like Smith that inspired Ron Levy to get his own Hammond B-3 organ.
The Club 47, in Cambridge, was a non-alcohol club where a teenage Ron Levy could hear a pantheon of mid-1960’s Blues greats such as Buddy Guy, Otis Spann, Howlin’ Wolf,
Paul Butterfield (With Michael Bloomfield), among many. Levy and his friends were both influenced and instructed by these great legends of the Blues, creating lifelong friendships.
By his mid-teens, Levy was playing in various local bands and finding his own way as an organist and piano player. A friendship with local famed concert promoter, Don Law Jr, lead to Law becoming Levy’s band’s manager. It was a band with interchanging names. The most interesting being the East Coast Chicago Blues Band.
Important Side Note: Law was one of the gents of the concert hall industry. He ended up running the famed concert venue, The Boston Tea Party. It was a generous home to many great acts. Don’s Father, Don Law Sr, was the man, among many great production credits, who recorded legendary Bluesman, Robert Johnson.
Law booked Levy’s band as a backup group for such legends as John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Freddie King, among others. But it was a gig with legendary Blues guitarist, Albert King, that truly opened the door for Ron Levy’s career as a musician of the road. Levy’s band was scheduled to open for Albert at a place North of Boson, Lennies On the Pike. They ending up playing with Albert and he offered Levy and drummer, Richie Ponte, spots in his road band. Ron Levy was barely 18 at the time. Albert King, with the blessing of Ron’s parents, became his guardian out there on the American road
This lead to an 18 month stint of backing up Albert King in concert halls such as the Fillmore, joints on the Chitlin’ circuit to shows in Europe. There was a great one off show backing up Albert King when he guested with the St. Louis Symphony.
Ron Levy lasted far longer than his drummer friend Ponte. Albert King had a reputation for being hard on his drummers. Albert King knew from experience as he had briefly been a drummer for Bluesman, Jimmy Reed. Albert King was the creator of one of the most unique styles of Blues guitar and was a no nonsense taskmaster.
Eighteen months with Albert and Levy returned home, a graduate of the Albert King road school. After a couple of months of kicking up his heels, Levy received a call from B.B. King’s drummer, Sonny Freeman, who offered him a spot as a keyboardist for the B.B King road band.
The B.B King road band was a polished, professional band. The band was full of veterans who played in a distinctly Jazzy and swinging style. This was a graduate class in the articulation of music and how to effectively back up B.B. Levy had a long stint with B.B King, from 1969 to 1976.
During that time they played a series of wide ranging venues. From University shows to hippie houses to television appearances to concert halls like Carnegie Hall to worldwide concerts. The variety was educational to the development of a young Ron Levy. B.B instructed Levy to always be humble and kind in his dealings with people.
B.B became like a Father to Ron. In fact, he treated him like a princely son. The B.B King band shared bills with other notable acts like Ray Charles. During his stint with the B.B King band, Levy appeared on 11 albums including “Live at Cook County Jail and B.B. King & Bobby Bland Together For the First Time.”
He also was part of the B.B King band when they were part of the “Rumble in the Jungle” entertainment for the Muhammad Ali-George Forman fight in the new, at that time, African country of Zaire.
Ron Levy, became a world traveler with a world class Blues band. Ron’s book has many stunning stories from encounters with figures as varied as Miles Davis to Elvis Presley during his stint with B.B.
After leaving B.B. in 1976, Levy has continued to be busy. He moved back to Boston and continued to back various regional bands and legends of the Blues. Ron did a stint with the classic Rhode Island based, Roomful of Blues, a horn driven Blues band.
Ron, and Roomful band member Ronnie Earl, both got recording contracts with the New Orleans based record company, Hammond Scott’s Black Top Records. This lead to a variety of adventures for Levy, as a composer, performer and producer for that label. The training he received at Blacktop proved to be invaluable to Levy’s subsequent position as a Staff Producer for Rounder Records.
Despite the length of this article, I am merely scratching the surface regarding the amount of great stories and classic pictures contained in Ron Levy’s book, “Tales of a Road Dog.” It is both a great book for the music fan and for the historian that should be awakened in all of us. In researching his book, I also discovered the broad range of Ron Levy’s musical catalogue. I urge you to buy and support his art.
You can order Ron’s book and much of his music from his website, www.levtron.com, and at Amazon.com His music is also available via platforms such as Spotify and CD Baby, among others.
In addition, Ron teaches online at http://www.levtron.com/music-lessons.php
Whether book, lessons or music, fine Christmas gifts all.
The music of the Blues is one of the better parts of our living American history. Ron Levy, is a profound member and contributor to that continuing tradition. The Blues, is an ever changing, profound and uniquely American Art form. Ron Levy is an inheritor to that form as he continues to articulate those previously learned lessons in his own voice.