Although it’s true that, as the New York Times said, “Rod Piazza has perfected the rough drive and edgy tone that characterized the classic Chicago blues sound of Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and others in the 50’s,” he’s also a master of West Coast jump blues, incorporating elements of Los Angeles’ postwar jazz, swing, and R&B combos.
His band for the last quarter century, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, has won the prestigious “Blues Band Of The Year” W.C. Handy Award three times, regarded as the equivalent of the Grammy in the blues field. Piazza has also won the Handy Award for “Blues Instrumentalist-Harmonica,” and the band’s ability to keep the blues vibrant, fresh and alive has led to countless accolades, awards and nominations over the years.
California native Piazza began his musical career in Los Angeles in 1965, when he formed the Dirty Blues Band at the age of 18. They released their first record in 1967, which was quickly followed up by a second album in 1968 on ABC/Bluesway Records. At the same time, he was cutting his musical teeth on local club dates with blues pioneers such as Big Mama Thorton, Big Joe Turner, and T-Bone Walker.
Rod then joined his long-time mentor, George “Harmonica” Smith, Muddy Waters’ former harmonica player, to form the double harmonica outfit called Bacon Fat. It was through George that Rod learned the power of a dynamic stage performance and developed his prodigious harmonica talents. “He taught me to always have a plan, to always know what you were going to play before you hit the stage,” says Piazza of his mentor. “He would listen closely to whatever you played, then he’d say, if you’re not going to say anything different, you shouldn’t be up here. He didn’t want me trying to mimic him, or anyone else. Be yourself, he’d always say.”
Rod released two Bacon Fat albums in 1969 and 1970. In 1973, Rod hired a talented young piano player and Otis Spann disciple named Honey Alexander, who was later to become his wife. In 1976 Rod and Honey began to perform regularly together as the Rod Piazza Blues Band and the Chicago Flying Saucer Band.
In the 1980’s, Rod assumed the role of producer, often using the Mighty Flyers as the backing band, for a number of LPs for the local Murray Brothers label. These recordings of important but somewhat overlooked blues artists such as Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Dyer, Pee Wee Crayton, Smokey Wilson, and George “Harmonica” Smith have been reissued in recent years by Blind Pig.
In 1980 Rod and Honey formed Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers with long-time bassist Bill Stuve. The group has earned a reputation as one of the hardest working bands who consistently push the boundaries of the blues while still staying vital and true to the spirit and soul of the music. As Blues Revue put it, “Rod and Honey front one of the most popular blues bands in the world. Whether they play at an intimate club, a packed rock room or a huge festival, the Mighty Flyers share with the audience their passionate love of the blues in every show.’
For well over two decades, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers have solidified their position in the top ranks of blues acts by maintaining a busy touring schedule, playing to every manner of club, concert hall, and festival. They’ve also been prolific recording artists, releasing nearly a dozen albums. They mix earthy originals, rousing jump tunes, earnest boogie and slow blues ballads, even an occasional animated instrumental, and remain among the most consistently appealing, enjoyable contemporary units.
Downbeat explained their audience appeal as follows: “Harpist Piazza has been leading one of the jazziest of blues bands for years, consistently delivering authentic-sounding blues embellished with a little uptown instrumental class. Piazza’s vocal sensibilities and unusually enlightened harp work widen the music still more, creating a distinct and accessible blues approach that doesn’t sound like yet another sterile reinterpretation of the tradition.”
Their power-packed performances showcase Rod’s searing harmonica, his impassioned vocals and his bar-walking showmanship, punctuated by the two-fisted boogies of pianist Honey Piazza, a highly acclaimed musician in her own right. But any Mighty Flyers show is more than just a harp showcase; it’s a group effort by tightly-knit elite musicians whose considerable talents complement one another. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, “Piazza is a first-rank instrumentalist who would rather work within the ensemble than indulge himself in histrionic flights. Somebody should strap down John Popper, the so-called harmonica virtuoso of Blues Traveler, and make him listen to Rod Piazza records for a week so he might absorb some lessons about the true nature of musicianship.”
Keepin’ It Real, the band’s latest release on Blind Pig, is the first Mighty Flyers album to include newcomers Henry Carvajal on guitar and Paul Fasulo on drums. Speaking of the new album, Piazza told Blueswax, “It’s a happening record, one of the toughest and best I’ve ever done. This record captures some of the best nights on stage on a CD. Part of it is that so many of the songs were recorded live in the studio in one take, but another part is that because we’ve been doing these songs live, we’ve had a chance to really learn how to react to each others’ playing onstage.”
“It had a lot to do with the new players being so into making a new record as the Mighty Flyers. Henry brings a whole other dimension to the record that people haven’t heard in a Flyer band. His guitar playing is definitely a raw, ghetto sound that’s added an extra edge to the band. It’s got that real tough West Coast Fender Strat sound that you would associate with some of the L.A. George Smith tunes of the 1960s.”
“I’m excited about the great stuff happening in these 13 tunes. These are many of the songs we’ve been doing in our live show, so fans who come out to see us can buy a CD that has a lot of the songs from the show. They can expect some of the great classics they’ve heard us play over the years on the bandstand like “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Just Like A Woman,” and “Good Morning Little School Girl,” as well as six originals like “Devil’s Foot” and “West Coast Midnight Blues.” Old and new fans are gonna get a great record.