Joe Bonamassa

Mohawk Valley connection:
New York Mills, NY native
Aug. 3, 1971

Claim to fame:
Major label musician

Did you know?
Bonamassa has opened for B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jethro Tull, Doobie Brothers, Eddie Money, George Thorogood and others.

"There are no rules. We need another Jimi Hendrix."

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New York Mills community

A new day for guitarist
Area native Bonamassa continues musical mission with new label
Originally published Jan. 27, 2002


NEW YORK CITY — Twenty-four years old seems young to be at a career crossroads.

Yet that’s more or less where Joe Bonamassa finds himself.

Bonamassa, the guitar ace from New York Mills who picked up the instrument at age 4 and was gigging by the time he was 11, released his first solo CD, “A New Day Yesterday,” in November 2000. Then he re-released it nine months later on an independent label after his original label, Okeh/Epic, did not get behind the initial release.

“Major labels today have a hard time understanding the concept of a grass roots, blue collar following,” Bonamassa said in a recent phone interview from New York City during a brief break from a tour schedule that has been breakneck since the CD’s re-release.

The album’s redux treatment and Bonamassa’s torrid touring seem to have turned the trick. Plus, scores of FM radio stations — particularly in the Midwest, where Bonamassa’s audience is the hungriest — are playing a pair of new singles from the album.

“They’ve done miraculous things with it,” Bonamassa said of Medalist, his new label. “It gives an album that I worked so hard on a new lease on life. I don’t want to be in the miscellaneous ‘B’ file for the rest of my life.

“The music has to have a chance to grow.”

The new label

Medalist was founded recently by Charles Koppelman, the music industry veteran and former president of EMI/Capitol who as producer and publisher has worked with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel and the Lovin’ Spoonful.

So as indie labels go, Medalist has muscle.

Bonamassa’s decision to go with an independent label reflects his sense of purpose as an artist working in a genre whose origins — as well as the bulk of its audience — are working class.

Still, Bonamassa’s musical mission involves growing the blues and blues rock audience, just like his guitar heroes — Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck chief among them — did 30 to 35 years ago.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of the blues, but I’ve always been a huge fan of people who’ve done something different with it,” said Bonamassa, who now lives in Washington, D.C. “We need people who will take the shot. In order to keep it fresh, in order to get a wider audience, you have to do something different.

“There are no rules. We need another Jimi Hendrix.”

With “A New Day Yesterday,” Bonamassa takes aim at that theoretical wider audience. The 12 songs (the maiden single, “Miss You, Hate You,” appears in two versions) run the range of the blues-rock spectrum, with covers and originals in equal proportion.

“I wanted it to be an all-encompassing overview of who I am, who I’ve listened to, and what I feel from playing,” Bonamassa said upon the album’s initial release.

“Stylistically it all flows in one direction — but when you listen from track one through 12, there’s enough variety to keep people interested.”

The title song, one of Jethro Tull’s heavier blues-based exercises, is the third of three covers that together set the tone for the album, which includes guest appearances by Gregg Allman, Rick Derringer, Leslie West and Len Bonamassa, Joe’s father. The opener, “Cradle Rock,” is a Rory Gallagher slide number and the second cut, “Walk in My Shadow,” was by the British blues rock band Free.

“I wanted the first three songs to be covers of great songs that never got their due,” Bonamassa said.

Bonamassa also tips us off to his longstanding preference for the more refined, sophisticated yet “hyperdriven” British take on the blues.

“It kind of says it all about what I’m trying to do,” he said of the title cut. “Their (the British) interpretation of the blues to me was really right on.”

Ahead of the competition

Bonamassa opened for Jethro Tull during the summer of 2000 — Utica’s Stanley Performing Arts Center was one stop on that tour — and the song was a staple of his set then as it is now.

“(With) that song in particular, we sound like if Black Sabbath was a blues band,” he said. “Even Jethro Tull fans dug it.”

For the album, Bonamassa enlisted legendary engineer/producer Tom Dowd as producer. Dowd’s pedigree includes 25 years at Atlantic Records, where he recorded the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane and revolutionized multi-track recording processes. He went on to produce albums for the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rod Stewart among others.

“He’s the absolute nicest, best gentleman I’ve ever met,” Bonamassa said, “and one of the most brilliant musical minds I ever worked with. There’s nothing that comes up ... that he can’t address and fix.”

Dowd has said he admires the fact that Bonamassa, despite being a prodigy, has the spirit of a student and “has survived 24 years without acquiring an ‘attitude’ about any of his professional experiences.

“He is still studying other playing, writing and singing techniques — even though he’s miles ahead of the nearest competition,” Dowd said.

The early years

Bonamassa’s early and mid-1990s work with Bloodline, whose lineup included the sons of jazz legend Miles Davis, Robby Krieger of the Doors and the Allman Brothers’ Berry Oakley, received criticism for weak writing.

As a solo artist Bonamassa is taking songwriting more seriously.

“It’s a good outlet,” said Bonamassa, who is close to signing a publishing deal with powerful DreamWorks. “When you get things right, nothing can beat it.”

“A New Day Yesterday” also reveals Bonamassa as a capable singer who will continue to find his voice. He said the more he learns about singing, the more conscious his guitar playing becomes, and vice versa.

Performing at the rate of 150 shows a year since the album’s first release hasn’t hurt his vocal chops, either.

“You do that for a couple of years straight, you’re going to get better,” Bonamassa said.

The near future promises to be busy for the kid from the Mills who at age 8 opened for B.B. King.

A live album is close to completion, and Bonamassa soon will be back in the studio working on his sophomore solo effort.

“I want to make a blues and rock record that’s different than what’s been done before, and still retains the things that are important to me,” he said. “It’s not going to be a total musical departure for me, but it’s not going to be ‘A New Day Yesterday II.’”

Before going into the studio, Bonamassa will join Chicago blues giant Buddy Guy for three-and-a-half weeks’ worth of gigs on the West Coast.

He’s looking forward, meanwhile, to headlining in Utica, when the time comes.

“The routing has never been right (in recent years), but it’d be nice to come in and play a show in my hometown,” he said.

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