Interview with Blues singer Bob Orsi and drummer River City Slim of The Mighty Soul Drivers. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?
Slim: I grew up here in CT. My initial interest in music was sparked by my father’s ten-inch LPs by Bunk Johnson and Hank Williams. In 1963 I got my first radio which opened up the door to a whole world of music I never knew existed – top 40 radio in those days played a really wide variety of stuff. In the wake of The Beatles and other British Invasion groups I began trying to play the music rather than just listen. I played mostly informally for many years until forming my first really professional band The Blues Blasters in 1990.
Bob: I was born and raised in New Britain, a mid-sized industrial city in central Connecticut with a very diverse population and a reputation for turning out great R&B bands. My father was an avid jazz fan and guitarist. I grew up listening to his jazz LP’s. When I was around 10 years old, he got me my own radio equipped with earphones so I could listen at high volume without disturbing anybody. That was when I first heard the great R&B singers that flourished before the British Invasion: Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, Dinah Washington, LaVerne Baker, Little Richard among others. At that time, all I knew was that I was drawn to a certain sound and feeling, something about these singers that moved me. For example, I loved Fats Domino and Little Richard, but I didn’t care for Pat Boone when he covered their songs. Dee Dee Sharpe was fantastic, Shelley Fabares was boring. It wasn’t until later that I understood the racial aspect of what I was listening to. I tried to sing like my idols, to make that sound myself and I discovered that I was a good mimic, for a 10 year old. By the time I was 12 I was playing in a neighborhood band. I started out playing bass, but I often switched to guitar and was recruited to handle harmonica. While I was in high school I fell in with a group of older musicians who were dedicated to the Blues. They smuggled me into bars where the age requirement was 21. I was going to school during the week and playing in nightclubs, getting paid. I had it made. In college I started a band with some fellow students who were crazy for the Blues. All we did was get high and play. I stopped going to class and promptly failed, but I saw my future. During the 70’s I became a member of The Scratch Band, a popular New England band and recorded 2 albums with them. During the 80’s I sang and played harmonica with a highly successful band in Hartford, Connecticut called Mr. Big. I joined the D. Smith Blues Band in the 90’s and continue to perform with them. We have recorded 3 CD’s and have represented Connecticut at the IBC in Memphis. At Slim’s invitation in 2012 I joined The Mighty Soul Drivers and here we are.
JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
Slim: I was always drawn to the Blues, although it took quite a while for me to put a name to the music I loved. And I was specifically drawn to the Southern Soul branch of the Blues tree — The Blues Blasters had the configuration of a classic Chicago Blues band (harp, guitar, bass, drums) but I bought a number of Soul-oriented tunes into the repertoire. In 2011 I was rehearsing with some horn players and was trying to get them to play Soul tunes, but they were more interested in doing Chicago covers. This led to me starting The Mighty Soul Drivers in 2012 to pursue the type of music that I wanted to do.
Once Bob was on board as vocalist, I was able to convince veteran guitarist and old friend Larry Willey to join. At that point we had the core band and just needed to come up with material. At first it was all covers, but before long we were coming up with some original material, two of which made it onto the first CD in 2014.
Bob: At first all I was doing was imitating the singers and the sound I was attracted to. I was a good mimic so it was easy for me to sound like whoever I wanted. It was a good start but I got a lot of criticism for being a “parrot” and for being derivative. It took me a long time to find my own voice while trying to master the style. I always try to serve the song and bring my style and emotion to everything I attempt to sing.
JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
Bob: I listen, listen, listen. It doesn’t matter if it’s the classic masters or up and coming artists. There’s always something to learn.
JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?
Slim: The Mighty Soul Drivers was originally a five-piece band. I always heard the horns in my head, but we didn’t have them in the band yet. We started working with a couple of different sax players, but we hit pay dirt when John Smayda joined in 2013. He quickly became our star soloist. About the same time our original keyboard player left and we found Steve Donovan, another key component in the band’s evolution. With John and Steve we now had some serious technical musical expertise to bring to the arrangements and two great soloists as well. When our original bassist dropped out in 2019 due to health reasons we were lucky once again and Tony Delisio joined, bringing a funkier edge to the band and great backing vocals as well. We very occasionally hired a trumpet for big shows, but didn’t have a full-time trumpet until Neil Tint came along in 2019 which finally gave us the sound I’d envisioned back in 2012.
JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
Bob: Recording and Performance require different kinds of concentration and preparation. I tend to require time to contemplate and plan my approach to recording. Live performance is more like the kind of preparation and focus that an athlete might engage in. Recording is more calculated and contemplative while striving to create the impression of spontaneous emotion while maintaining strict attention to pitch and precision. Live performance is completely different. It’s a state of altered consciousness where time seems to stop and I can make choices about how I’m singing, interacting with the other musicians and communicating with my audience.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: The Mighty Soul Drivers – I’ll Carry You Home, how it was formed and what you are working on today. How did you select the musicians who play on the album?
Slim: The core band is the regular seven-piece band that you would hear if you came to one of our shows. Background vocals on some of the tunes were done by a group that we met when working live shows with Betty Harris — they were her background singers, so when we needed a vocal group we knew who to call. Additional backup vocals were added by Denise Powell who is a nationally known singer based in CT who has worked with our engineer and co-producer Vic Steffens on other projects. Vic suggested we bring her in; he was right. New England Music Hall Of Fame member guitarist Paul Gabriel is an old friend that we asked to contribute a different flavor on a couple of tracks. Guitarist Michael St. George is my partner in the Slim & St. George duo. I played him a rough mix of my tune ‘Parking Lot Blues’ asking for his thoughts and he immediately started singing a guitar part. So I suggested he come by the studio the next day and add a track, which made all the difference for that tune.
JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
Bob: In my opinion, the best music, no matter the style or genre encompasses a particular mix of intellect and emotion, soul, if you will. Some music is more intellectual while other types of music are more emotional. It really depends on the intent of the artist. That said, when it comes to Blues and Soul, no matter how emotional the delivery, the best music always has a definite element of intelligence. The magic is how much of that the artist wants you to be aware of any of it. Often, after I’m deeply moved by any given performance, when I either listen again or recall a live performance, I start to notice the intelligence that goes into creating that performance. I try to keep that in mind for myself.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
Slim: Absolutely. When live music is at its best, the artist pumps out emotional energy which is absorbed and amplified by the audience and fed back to the stage, which just brings the artist energy level up. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s what most artists strive for.
Bob: That relationship is why I do what I do. I felt it from the very first time I performed in public. I feel it every time I perform to this day. It’s indescribably powerful and empowering, for me and the audience. That relationship also exists among the musicians as we communicate to each other and delight each other inside the music as we play. that’s why we call it “playing” music.
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
Slim: That the work of all musicians be valued. Too many people devalue it and think it should all be free. They would never ask that from, say, their plumber.
JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
Slim: It’s something different every day; usually it’s several different somethings every day. For example in the last couple of days days I’ve listened to Organissimo, Bob Corritore, Sonny Stitt, Duke Robillard & Herb Ellis, The Animals, O.V. Wright, Paul Reddick and John Nemeth. Ask me the same question next week and it will be a completely different answer.
Bob: I like CD’s. My routine is to throw one on, either at home or in the car and listen to a particular CD for days or weeks at a time. I enjoy immersing myself in a particular artist’s music. Or I will listen to several works by the same artist over and over. Lately it’s been Dexter Gordon, Bobby Bland and Fela.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
Bob: Love and good will. Everybody dance!
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
Bob: I would have loved to have seen James Brown around 1963. Ray Charles when David Newman was playing with him. Charlie Christian playing with Benny Goodman. A weekend in the South Side of Chicago in the mid-60’s. Fela playing in Lagos. Coltrane right after he left Miles. Bird and Diz in the late 40’s. The Wailers when Bunny and Tosh were still in the band. D’Angelo when he was touring behind “Voodoo.”
Interview by Simon Sargsyan