Singer-pianist Mitch Woods found his thrill in the pre-rock and roll music of blues shouter Wynonie Harris, the boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and the Latin tinged-blues-boogie of Professor Longhair. Of course, Fats Domino inspired him, too. Woods celebrates Domino with his new album, A Tip of the Hat to Fats. In 2018, Woods and his band, the Rocket 88s, recorded the album in front of a full house at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s Blues Tent. The Rocket 88s feature saxophonists Roger Lewis (the Dirty Dozen, Fats Domino), Amadee Castenell and Brian “Breeze” Cayolle (Allen Toussaint), guitarist John Fohl (Dr. John), bassist Cornell Williams (Jon Cleary), and drummer Terence Higgins (Dr. John, Toussaint, George Porter Jr.).
Although the San Francisco Bay Area-based Woods didn’t perform at the 2019 Jazz Fest, he played “breakfast boogie” sets at the Bywater Bakery concurrently with the event, plus A Tip of the Hat to Fats album release show at the Louisiana Music Factory.
Woods’ association with New Orleans began in 1981, the year he first visited the city. By then, he’d already been a professional musician for more than a decade. In his teens, Woods performed with rock and roll bands in his native New York City. He participated in the Buffalo music scene during his college years. From 1971 on, he based his eventually international career out of the San Francisco Bay Area.
During Woods’ inaugural trip to New Orleans, he opened for James Booker, the pianist many consider the city’s greatest keyboardist, at the Maple Leaf Bar. Woods later lived in New Orleans often enough to regard it as his second home. Performances with local musicians led to the 2008 CD/DVD release, Big Easy Boogie. Woods recruited Domino’s producer and co-writer, Dave Bartholomew, to produce the album, which features Domino band members Herb Hardesty, sax, and Earl Palmer, drums. His 2010 album, Gumbo Blues, is a tribute to Smiley Lewis, the New Orleans singer-guitarist and Domino peer who released a major R&B hit in 1955, “I Hear You Knocking,” as well as the original recording of Domino’s 1956 crossover hit, “Blue Monday.”
A Tip of the Hat to Fats features Domino songs, Woods’ renditions of Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” and the jump blues classic “The House of Blue Lights,” as well as his tribute to Professor Longhair, “Mojo Mambo.” Woods’ previous album, 2017’s Friends Along the Way, pairs him in duets with Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Ruthie Foster, and Maria Muldaur.
Ahead of his West Coast album-release shows, and summer festival dates in Poland and France, Woods spoke to OffBeat from his home in Marin County, California.
During your 2018 set at the Jazz Fest, you told the audience it was one of the greatest days of your life.
Yeah, I don’t lie on stage. The reception was great, the musicians were killing it. Everybody played great solos. And I could let them really go and do it, like the stuff Roger [Lewis] used to do on stage with Fats. He really stretched out on “Jambalaya.”
You didn’t originally plan for your 2018 Jazz Fest performance to be the concert album A Tip of the Hat to Fats?
It wasn’t in the works, but Munck Music does live recordings out there. And I had my all-star band and we had a packed house. It’s a great showcase for what I do with the band, and it’s a tribute to Fats Domino, who is, of course, one of my heroes.
And New Orleans is a piano town.
That’s something that attracted me to New Orleans. As opposed to any other city in the country, New Orleans respects piano players.
Do you remember when you first heard a Fats Domino record?
Back in the day, Mad Magazine put these little humorous records inside the magazine. They had a record about spacemen invading Earth, with all these snippets of songs on it. There was a snippet of a Fats song. It stuck in my mind. I finally saw him play in California and then I saw him on the Riverboat President during Jazz Fest. That got me hooked on Fats.
When did you hear boogie-woogie piano for the first time?
My mom was a single parent. She hired our building superintendent, Mr. Brown, to take me to and from school. I guess I was in the first or second grade when we stopped at his relatives’ house and a guy was playing boogie-woogie piano there. I said, “I want to do that.”
You began piano lessons at 11, but those were actually classical piano lessons?
That was good for the basics, but I got bored with it. So, we found a bebop musician who taught me popular music and jazz, improvisation, chords. It got me inspired again and I stayed with it.
When did you start playing the jump blues, boogie-woogie and R&B styles that you’ve based your career on?
I was going to the University of Buffalo and there were a lot of small clubs and musicians around there. When I started sitting in with people, they said, “Oh, you sound like the old boogie-woogie guys.” And I heard about Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson. I got all the records by them I could find. And Champion Jack Dupree was one of my first explorations. I didn’t know he was from New Orleans then, but I loved what he did. It’s very rustic, you might say. I got to meet him later, and I love his stuff to this day.
Although you studied those boogie-woogie records, you didn’t want to copy them exactly?
I played along with the records, but I never tried to do exactly what those guys did. I did it how I could do it.
One of the singers and musicians from New Orleans you love, Smiley Lewis, played guitar, not piano. Your Gumbo Blues album is a tribute to him.
Dave Bartholomew and Herb Hardesty, they said Smiley Lewis should have been much more successful, but he never got the breaks. Fats’ version of “Blue Monday” was very similar to Smiley’s, but in a warmer style that could cross over to white audiences.
Domino’s singing style can be like an intimate conversation, inviting the listener in. Whereas Lewis had such a powerful, projecting voice.
Dave and Herb talked about Smiley Lewis like he was an opera singer. They said he could blow the roof off without a microphone. He had this big voice. So, when I did the album, Gumbo Blues, it was about my voice.
What do you like about Lewis and his music?
I love the songs. There’s a lot of jump blues in there, really the beginnings of rock and roll. And I thought he was an underrated artist who people would love if they heard his stuff.
What was your experience in the studio with Dave Bartholomew like?
So, initially I got the band together—Earl [Palmer], Herb [Hardesty], Ervin Charles and the others. And Earl and Herb kept saying, ‘You gotta get Dave in on it.’ I tried, but Dave wasn’t easy. He said he wasn’t interested. But then—and I think Earl and Herb spoke with him—he finally agreed. Dave came to the session and stayed on the side for a while. After we started recording, he came in a little closer. Before I knew it, he was in charge. That’s what I wanted him to do. He created all these great hits that will last forever. I wanted him to do that for me.
What did Bartholomew contribute to your performance?
There’s a segment on the DVD, where Dave is right at the piano, in my face, telling me how to sing. He says, ‘Open your mouth boy! Open your mouth!’ ‘Yes, sir.’ It was like having the best teacher in the world. He was “The Chief,” and everyone respected him as such. I also learned how vital Dave was in creating the Fats Domino catalog. He was working with all these great musicians, but they weren’t organized. Dave knew how to whip them into shape. To see that happen in person, it was priceless. For instance, when Dave told Herb, an incredible saxophone player, to do a solo, he’d say, ‘Okay, now. You open the door. Now close the door.’ And then we’d get that perfect solo that fits on the record. That was one of the biggest musical educations of my career. I’ve taken it with me. And Dave helped me with my singing and projecting, and how to formulate a song and get it concise in the studio.
The Big Easy Boogie CD/DVD features you with three key players from New Orleans’ classic rhythm and blues and early rock and roll era: Dave Bartholomew, Earl Palmer and Herb Hardesty.
The great thing about that project was becoming friends with all of those musicians and making music with the creators of rock and roll.
But during your set at the 2011 Jazz Fest, you experienced a scary incident involving Herb Hardesty?
In the middle of the set, Herb keels over on the stage. I lost it. The best moment of my life, playing Jazz Fest, turned into the worst moment of my life. And they pretty much dragged Herb off the stage. It turned out he had heatstroke and passed out. But then I knew he was better because, at the end of the set, his son came over and said, “Herb wants his money now.”