Rob Rio is one of today’s boogie woogie ‘big boys’, so it is great to have him on the site. Rob has played with Pinetop Perkins, Joe Cocker and Mick Jagger. In this exclusive interview he gives you a rare insight into the life of a professional boogie woogie pianist.
Can you tell us how you got started with playing boogie woogie?
I started playing the piano around age 8, by ear and with simple sheet music, mostly the popular tunes of the time. (The late 1960’s, songs by the Beatles, The Doors, Cream, the Rolling Stones, etc.) I’m self taught and learned mostly by imitating records (and still do). At around 12 I had an epiphany as to what blues was – a particular progression of chords – and realized that most of the music I was drawn to was in fact blues based. I learned my first boogie woogie from the intro to a tune called “Don’t Lay No Boogie Woogie On The King Of Rock And Roll,” on which the great piano player Nicky Hopkins is laying down a cool, medium tempo shuffle behind the spoken story line of Long John Baldry about “a strange kind of boo-gie woo-gie music, peculiar to the American Negro.” After that I was “bit by the boogie” and started discovering the other great blues and boogie players, like Otis Spann, Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree, Floyd Dixon.and then the boogie woogie greats Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Yancy, Cow Cow Davenport, Little Brother Mongomery, Roosevelt Sykes, etc. It was a hobby that became a passion, and I’m lucky to have discovered my passion so early in life.
Do you keep learning new piano pieces and if so, do you play by ear or look for sheet music?
You can never stop learning, there is always something new to try. I occasionally refer to sheet music for some particular riff or chord change or voicing, but mostly I learn from listening and copying what I hear. Sometimes when you make a mistake while practicing it will sound good, so I try to add that to my vocabulary of riffs. Like Miles Davis said, “Do it once, it’s a mistake. Do it twice, it’s genius!” Also, I have a Yamaha Disclavier player piano, which allows you to actually SEE the riff being played, so it’s kind of like painting by numbers. Art Tatum and many other great piano players have learned off player pianos
How important is improvisation in boogie woogie music?
Improvisation is the essence of boogie woogie. It gives the style its vitality and is essential to the music. Improvisation comes from the gut, not from the brain. Once you have developed the muscle memory for a vocabulary of riffs, it is best to not think about them as you are playing, but rather let them flow out freely according to how you feel at the moment. This will give you your own distinctive style and sound. Improvisation is a response to the energy in you and around you.
What can you say about the popularity of boogie woogie nowadays? Is it dwindling or growing?
The popularity of boogie woogie has certainly dwindled from it’s heyday in the ’20s,’30s; and ’40s, and then in its reincarnation as rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s, but it has such as classic sound that it will never die. It has a primal energy that appeals through the ages. There are so many more choices today, but there are still lots of great young players who carry on the tradition. Boogie woogie will always have it’s own niche.
What differences do you notice between American and European audiences?
I think European audiences are a lot more receptive to the nuances of boogie woogie, hanging on to every riff and fully appreciating the music. It’s a joy to perform in Europe, with the crowds clapping in time and urging you on. American audiences seem to take it for granted, instead preferring celebrity to actual skill or technical ability.
What tips do you have for beginning boogie woogie pianists?
Find a song that you would like to learn that you think is within the scope of your ability, then practice the riffs in the song diligently. Start playing them SLOWLY, until you have developed the muscle memory necessary to whip out the riff without thinking. Always continue to add to your vocabulary of riffs. Once the riffs are incorporated in your vocabulary, you can use them in virtually any tune. That’s what improvisation is; a string of riffs played consecutively as you see fit. Also, try to add to your list of different bass patterns and rhythms. Jimmy Yancy and Professor Longhair are good to copy. Try making up your own bass patterns. One of the main measures of a boogie player’s capability is the number of different bass patterns he/she can play.
Which big artist or great influence of yours would you like to play with?
Ha! Most of my idols who influenced me were dead before I was born! I’m fortunate, though, to have been in the business long enough to have already played with or met a lot of my idols and influences who are still alive (or who died in my lifetime), like Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, Floyd Dixon, Pinetop Perkins, Axel Zwingenberger, Vince Weber and many others.