Piazza... and the Mighty Flyers
The Ride of Your
By T.E. Mattox
t's almost impossible to forget the first time you experience a Rod
Piazza and the Mighty Flyers show. For me it wasn't just the energy
level, which you instantly discover is usually non-stop and off the
charts. Nor, the blond barrelhouse piano player who occasionally employs
the heel of her boot to place emphasis on a particular song. It wasn't
even the 'in-your-face' blast of Blues that continues to bounce around
your cranium for days after the event.
No, my most lasting memory was reaching out to snatch
up my beer just a downbeat before a Rod Piazza, size 15 Florsheim thumped
down on the bar right in front of me. The man was hunched forward and
blowing the chrome off that harmonica. As house lights glinted through
ever-present Ray Bans, Piazza was on a 'search and destroy' mission
as he continued to high-step his way through a Flyers' anthem, 'Low
Down Dog.' And like every other patron gripping the mahogany rails that
evening, I just stood there clutching my draft, staring, awe-struck
A position it seems, everyone eventually assumes when
entering the musical world of Rod Piazza and Mighty Flyers.
A number of years, a variety of clubs, open air festivals
and a few dozen concerts later, Rod told me, "It's called the
West Coast Blues. That's what they've named it across the states and
in Europe. I think it's just kind of a hybrid of Chicago Blues that
Little Walter played combined with the swingin' saxophone sound of Red
Prysock or Louis Jordan or any of them. Most of tunes are based off
that double-shuffle, swing beat versus back beat. Not that we don't
play a lot of back beat stuff, but that's what I'd say they call it
now, West Coast Blues."
of the Mighty Flyers
Music came into focus very early for Rod Piazza who
says he started on guitar at "about 7 years old
it until I was 15 or 16. I started playing harp around 15 years old."
What inspired you to add the harp? "Seeing Jimmy
Reed play with the harmonica and kind of got into it because of him
initially you know, and all the people that tried to play like him.
That led down the road to George Smith; who I ended up in a group with
during the 1960's and of course my all time favorite; Little Walter."
I think I read somewhere you had the chance to meet
and talk with Jimmy Reed, and he gave you something more than just advice?
"Yea, I got a harmonica from Jimmy Reed. That was way back,
so long ago, probably '57 or something like that. I'm not even sure
it worked anymore or not."
Muddy was always real
nice to me and Honey. I remember him telling Honey after he heard
her play, 'Sounds like you cut off Otis Spann's hands and painted
- Rod Piazza
Your big brothers seem to have had a big impact on your
early musical tastes. "They were 10 or 12 years older than me
so by the time I was 7 to 10 years old they were bringing home records
of all the R&B; Earl Bostic, you know Jimmy Reed, Joe Turner, all
the vocal groups, everything that was really good music. They were cool
enough to pick up on the 'hip' stuff and kind of showed me the way.
So when I got to be 15 or 16 I had already, a pretty good backlog of
hearing R&B and Blues."
California and more specifically the Inland Empire has
always been home base for Piazza and his blues. "It's a funny
thing, there's a little blues circuit that really started around here
in the '60's. Rialto, San Bernardino and Riverside; there were six or
seven blues bands, other than mine, that were all playing blues at that
The Dirty Blues Band
"We had gotten a group together in '65, I think
it was. It was called the Mystics, and that was the group that really
became the Dirty Blues Band. We rehearsed a lot and tried to move up
to Hollywood and Los Angeles to try and hit some of the clubs that had
people playing and get some gigs here and there.
A hookup a couple of years after that and a guy sold
us to produce a record for ABC Bluesways and we became the Dirty Blues
Band. We did two LP's for them. We were the only white act they had;
they had T-Bone Walker and Joe Turner, George 'Harmonica' Smith and
Otis Spann. I don't really think we were hitting on a whole lot but
I guess they thought we could sell some blues records to hippies or
something, because we had long hair you know.
That's how we kind of broke in and through that I
got to meet George 'Harmonica' Smith and everybody that was living in
L.A. T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, Shakey Jake, Big Mama Thornton
went on the road with her, this was 1968. Through all those people it
was really the upbringing for us and playing down in the Watts area
of Los Angeles for fifteen dollars a night. Then you would get a gig
at the white clubs in Hollywood for maybe four or five nights opening
for Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf. So it was a good time to be breakin'
Rod and Honey take time to visit with the troops
'around the world' from the
American Forces Network studios.
Big Mama Thornton had a pretty wild reputation, what
was it like to play on the road with her? "We all had a great
time. (laughing) I was eighteen years old; I mean I can remember
driving all the way from Los Angeles, straight to Boston, man (laughing)
for the first gig. And George Smith, me, Richard Innes in my van,
Big Mama was in her station wagon with Buddy Reed. I forget who else
was on the gig, but I remember we pulled into a gas station in Texas
and a young white guy came out to ask, what did she want? And said,
'can I help you
Sir?' She had a cowboy hat on, and said, 'I ain't
NO Sir, I'm Big Mama Thornton!' We all kind of slid down in the seat,
embarrassed. There were a lot of stories."
You mentioned a man that was a major influence on your
harp playing, George 'Harmonica' Smith. How did you initially get to
"I went to see George Smith at the Ash Grove;
it was billed as 'Big Walter' Horton. I saw George dumping his stuff
out and had met him when he was playing with Big Mama Thornton. I told
Ed Pearl, who owned the Ash Grove, that ain't no Big Walter. He said,
yeah that's Big Walter
Smith. Later, I realized George Smith was
Big Walter, Little Walter, George Allen, Harmonica King and on and on
First Rule of Blues - If you
talk the talk,
you better be able to walk the walk
"Some guy in the back yelled out, 'Hey, I'd
like to play some guitar later, Mr. Smith.' He didn't even look up and
says, 'Okay.' I was sitting in the front there and felt kinda' cocky,
there's nobody in the club and said, 'Yeah, I'd like to blow some harp.'
He says, 'okay' but didn't look up at me.
The club filled up and I was kinda' sandwiched right
up to the bandstand, me and Richard Innes and a couple of girls. And
George started playing, Pee Wee Crayton on guitar, Bop Daddy on drums.
Man they were just dynamite fierce, you know? 'Oh man,' I told Innes,
'I don't want to sit in, man. (laughing) He said, 'Well, you
opened your big mouth, man.' (laughing) So George comes over
to the side of the stage and shoved the harp and mike down toward me.
Everybody's going, 'what is this?' I just said no, with my hand, he
pushed it again at me like, 'C'mon you think you can do something.'
So I took it and started blowin' and he stood back and looked at me.
He grabbed the chord and pulled me around the side of the stage, up
onto the stage and I finished out that tune.
The crowd went crazy you know like they do when anybody
sits in, not that I blew the roof off the place or anything, but I shook
his hand and went and sat down. He looked at me, like who is this guy,
I've seen him once before or something. So then he got out the chromatic
and I had only been playing the big chromatic harp a little while. And
he came again on the middle of the song like here ya' go; c'mon let's
see what you can do with 'Big Mama.' This time I really said no, but
he forced me to play again. He got back and watched me and realized
I was just learning to get around on that one, so he said, 'let's give
him a hand ladies and gentlemen.' And I sat back down. At the end of
the night I thanked him, and said I really appreciate you letting me
sit in. He didn't look up too much and say anything. He just kinda'
shook his head, 'Yea, that's alright.'
I think it was like a month later I got a gig at
the same club, the Ash Grove opening for Howlin' Wolf for a week and
Wolf had hired George to blow harp with him on this particular swing
through the West Coast. So I'm up there opening up the show the first
night and I'm doing like 'Off the Wall' by Little Walter, so I got my
eyes closed playing, all of a sudden I hear the crowd just going crazy.
I say, 'what's going on?' I open my eyes and here's George Smith, now
he's standing on MY bandstand looking at me like, 'okay now, I'm ready
to sit in with you.' So I hand him the harp and he proceeded to tear
it up, man. We played all that week man and we really tore it up. I
remember Wolf getting mad at his guys and yelling at them, and got mad
at George for playing with us.
We became good friends that week and at the end of
the week, he said, 'Well Rod, let's get a group together, I want to
get a group with two harps, man.' I said, 'Two harps?' He said, 'Yea,
I'm gonna' call you when I get back from this trip with Wolf.' I said,
'Okay yea, but I figured it was just bull. But about a month later I
was laying in the bed, and I got a call and I answer and say, 'Hello?'
He say, 'Rod?' I said, 'Yea?' George Smith! I said, 'Oh, oh Yea
Hey George.' He said, 'You ready to work?' I said, 'Yea!' He
said, 'Alright, we're playing tonight. Can you get a drummer?' I said,
'Yea, I can get a drummer. I got Richard Innes. Where we playing?' We're
playing at the Sassy Kitten, down on 83rd and Vermont or someplace,
I don't know.
We went down and started that night, that Friday
night down there in Watts, with Pee Wee Crayton on guitar, and this
bass player that became famous, Lee Sklar
(yes, that Leland
Sklar) me, Richard and another guitar player and George and that's
how we really started breaking in to the L.A. blues scene."
Photo courtesy of the Mighty Flyers
The Better Half
You can't talk about the Mighty Flyers for any period
of time without mentioning the 'lightning' to Rod Piazza's 'thunder.'
I'm referring of course, to the Flyers dynamic piano-pounding, Honey
Piazza. As we spoke of the road and the journeyman lifestyle it became
more apparent that Rod and Honey were somehow destined to take this
flight together. It began obvious enough because they were "both
born and raised, Californians." But it's never as easy as it
Honey grew up in a military family and says, "It
was a very good life. We didn't move a lot. Before I was born my dad
was stationed in Topeka. But other than that we were at Travis Air Force
Base, that's where I was born, up between Sacramento and San Francisco.
We did one three-year tour in England and that's where I started taking
my piano lessons. I was four years old.
This is kind of interesting. When we came back, we
came back to March Air Force Base. (The Inland Empire of Southern
California) He (Honey's father) was stationed here and I went
to school. We moved actually, one block from Rod and where he lived.
I went to a different school, I went to Longfellow and he went to the
Catholic school, I believe, right? Rod shakes his head, 'Yes.'
Honey continues, "We were that close to passing
each other, to meeting each other, but we were only here for a year
and a half, then we went right back to Travis AFB and that's where I
spent the rest of my teens. My father went to the Viet Nam war, and
was stationed in Thailand for awhile, but they couldn't take us because
of the war."
Classically-trained, "from four years old to
sixteen years old," the piano was a constant. But it was the
discovery of the Mississippi-born, Chicago-bred blues pianist, Otis
Spann that would captivate Honey and forever shade her blues. ''It
was a huge influence; or I wouldn't even be playing today. That isn't
what I wanted to do, is to be a professional musician, or anything.
I had a couple of kids already, but I was hanging around a lot of musicians
and they said you can play piano, play with us. I don't know how to
play that, I needed sheet music in front of me really
I couldn't just improvise like they were doing. So, I would try to play
along with them and just mess around, but wasn't doing very good. And
then one day someone was playing 'Fleetwood Mac in Chicago' and
Otis Spann is on that record, and I heard him. I said, 'Who is that?
What is that?' That's Otis Spann. I said, 'I'd like to do that. Now
THAT, I would like to do!'
I remember I lived up near Berkeley at the time and
we went to a record store there. He (Spann) had 12 albums out
so I bought ALL of them. I started playing along with all of them. (laughing)
Trying to learn, note for note, you know, did my best and I did that
for about two years before meeting Rod. And Rod was the first band I
auditioned for and got the job
It's an age old story. That mutual love for blues and
Otis Spann; it just naturally brings people together... at least in
this case. "Rod was playing at the San Gabriel Civic Center
on a show with Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton and John Lee Hooker.
He (Rod) had his band up there and my friends and I were watching.
I'd already been getting into all the blues records and just really
we were watching and 'Oh Man, he is good! That's Gooood!'
So we sent one of our friends back afterwards to see where he's playing?
Our friend found out he was playing in a little club, actually in Riverside
the airport. It was called the Red Baron. A small club he played on
Sunday and Monday nights. Every Sunday and Monday night.
So we went out to see him play and that's how I met
him. Someone had told him I played, and he said, 'So you play piano?'
I said, 'Yea, I love Otis Spann, I like to play like Otis Spann.' He
said, 'That's what we need. We need an Otis Spann piano player in our
Photo courtesy of the Mighty Flyers
The Mighty Flyers 'live' shows have a long-standing
reputation as having an 'electified' unleashed energy. After all these
years, how do the 'Flyers' maintain the drive, that level of intensity?
"Well you know you fight so hard and long when
you begin. And you always have aspirations of trying to better yourself
by getting a better gig, that you build a work ethic. You don't know
any better than to put out 200%, so that becomes the norm. You just
get to a point where the music is what's fueling you. It's really not
as much the applause as it is the sound reward. By that I mean, the
reward of the sound of the music when you're creating it. For us I think,
when it sounds right it's a great night!"
Honey quips, "I like the applause!"
(laughing) "I call it, 'our killer instinct' that we
have. Rod probably has his own reasons why he's that way, but he's very
extreme. He steps on stage
he's just out to demolish!"
I defer to my opening paragraph. Not just the stage;
but over chairs and barstools, across tabletops, and down the entire
length of the bar. This while simultaneously trying to blow his harpoon
through the back of your head.
Honey says it's always been a little different for her.
"I had a lot of maybe prejudice, you could say, against me.
I'm a girl. Playing blues, playing black music, I'm in black clubs
had a lot to prove
a lot. The other white musicians, the guys didn't
like me either. On the stage, this girl taking some of the thunder and
of course you come into a club, 'Oh, what are you the singer?' No, I'm
the piano player. I always had to prove myself
You had to KILL!"
Did growing up in a military family help prepare you
for a life on the road. "As a youngster I never travelled as
much as we've done now, all over the world. There are very few places
we can say we've never been, right honey?
Rod nods his head, "Yea, your instrument takes
you to those places; we wouldn't have been able to travel. Being able
to do something on your harmonica or your piano that someone wanted
to hear far away, and brought you over there
to Poland or Japan
Moscow, and Kansas City! (laughing)
When I ask about rowdy clubs or bars, a grin splits
across Honey's face. "I remember one, right in the beginning
when I was playing with Rod, over in Redlands. They were playing pool
and they're pool tables in one spot and it was Junior Watson, Bill Stuve,
Rod, myself and who'd have been on the drums
? John Hoke, maybe.
Anyway, we're playing, all of sudden the fighting starts. It was Redlands
Boulevard; that would be a peaceful area
the fight came closer
and closer and they're swinging the sticks and we're on a little raised
and we just kept playing. The sticks were flying
and the bodies were flying. No one died or anything, but the police
came. (laughing) It was scary.
Rod, ever the seasoned veteran adds, "There's
a lot of that. They had it in Watts when we played down there, you know.
A guy would get mad at his wife, and come back, drive by the club and
shoot through the window and nobody'd know who they were shooting at.
You just get down behind your amplifier, whatever.
Speaking of job incentives, who's playing with the Mighty
Flyers now? "We got Honey on piano and Henry Carvajal on guitar
and vocals. Dave Kida on drums and myself on the harmonicas and vocals.
And then sometimes we have two tenor (saxophone) players that work with
us, Johnny Viau and Alan Ortiz."
Accolades and critical acclaim have come in all forms,
shapes and sizes. But when it comes to the Holy Grail for Blues, it's
the W.C.Handy Awards (BMA's). "Well the funny thing about it
is, between Honey and me we have more W.C. Handy and Blues Foundation
nominations than anybody in blues music. I didn't know that until they
did an article on it last year. But we have won Band of the Year, four
times. I won it for Harmonica Player one year and Honey won it for Blues
Piano Player of the Year. So between us, I think we have, uh
Rod and longtime friend and blues harp master, Johnny
Dyer at Rod's
annual birthday celebration in 2010.
How many recordings now? "I really don't know.
I think we have about 25 records, LP's and CD's. A lot, a big body of
And Rod, you've guested on so many different recording
sessions; Charlie Musselwhite, Shakey Jake, Smokey Wilson, Pee Wee Crayton,
Big Joe Turner and your buddy, Johnny Dyer. And I heard you even had
the opportunity to work with Muddy Waters at one time. "That
was 1975. I sat in with him a few times when he had Paul Oscher playing
harp in different shows. Then I had played with Otis Spann's group on
a couple of shows in New York when Muddy was on the show after Spann
had left. So he had heard me and George Smith had played with Muddy
two or three times, so when Paul left, Muddy called George Smith and
says, 'I know you ain't gonna' stay, so where's Rod? I need to get a
harp player.' George told him, 'Well, Rod ain't going either 'cause
he's in the hospital!' I was having ulcers removed and I missed that
shot. He (Muddy) was always real nice to me and Honey. I remember
him telling Honey after he heard her play, 'Sounds like you cut off
Otis Spann's hands and painted them white.' That was a big compliment
for her to get at that time. That was way back in the, I think, early
80's maybe or before that."
Rod, I know that when it comes to gifted and innovative
harp players, one of your all-time favorites was Little Walter Jacobs.
"Oh Yea, Little Walter, he was something else, man. I don't
think that anybody could play the harmonica back then or now, like Little
Walter could. I used to pester George Smith about him all the time you
know, because they had come up together back there and I think George
was the second best harp player in Chicago, before he left there to
come out here
behind Walter. That boy just made so many great
.that I can't, I can't play enough of his songs, man."
Snooky Pryor once said he thought that most harmonica
players were 'pretty crazy.' I think his exact terminology was 'they're
nuts.' (laughing) Rod adamantly disagrees. "I don't think you
can generalize that." (still laughing) Then, Honey chimes
in, "It's drummers that are crazy!" (laughing)
Check out the Mighty
Flyers website for concert dates in your area. Enjoy the ride and
maybe create a few of your own scrap book moments
to mind your drink.
on the Road (with Charlie Musselwhite); Frank