The Friends of Richard Newell pay tribute to Hamilton’s internationally renowned blues legend the late Richard Newell a.k.a. the King Biscuit Boy with the Twelfth Annual Blues with a Feeling concerts running this weekend. Performers include a wealth of old friends and musicians inspired by the harmonica player and singer with proceeds funding an annual scholarship in Richard Newell’s name awarded to students in the music program at Mohawk College.
Moxy’s Earl Johnson got his start as a teen with KBB and returns to perform with Frank Cosentino, drummer Frank Russell and bassist Neil Nickafor. Groove Corporation returns for the first time in seven years, Bump City, and original member of Richard Newell’s Chessmen band of the ’60s, Ronnie Copple, are also on the bill. This year’s BWAF headliner is a friend and fan of Richard Newell who has taken her international career back to a Hamilton base recently.
“I found I was getting really cranky in Toronto,” confides Juno Award and Maple Blues Award winner Rita Chiarelli. “A lot of my friends have made an exodus from Toronto and it didn’t seem like I really needed to be there or enjoyed being there. I found it crowded and I didn’t have much privacy. It took a long time to make the decision — a couple of years until I put my house up for sale. I was nervous but I’m really thrilled to be back in my hometown. Right now, Hamilton is absolutely hopping. It’s thrilling to see all of the things happening and seeing all the musicians coming back or just coming here because of what’s going on. I’m really excited to be back in Hamilton. I found a home near Gage Park not far from where I grew up. There are a lot of memories for me in Hamilton.”
As a teen Chiarelli new music would be her life and it wouldn’t be long she’d leave her Hamilton home but find familiarity along the way.
“Right out of high school, I had a nine piece rhythm and blues band, Battleaxe, and we went right on tour,” recounts Chiarelli. “I went on the road and never looked back. I did a lot of Etta James and Coco Taylor and that was a learning experience. Around that time, I did a stint with Ronnie Hawkins. He was in London, Ontario and we were playing with Battleaxe. He saw me and he invited me to play with him. It was around that time that I met Biscuit. He was either coming or going depending upon the situation.
“Interestingly, when I first went on the road… I think it was Saginaw, Michigan, if you can imagine,” adds Chiarelli. “I went to a jam and there was this great band playing and the first thing that they asked, knowing that I was from Canada was, “Do you know Biscuit Boy?” This is long before the Internet and it was so amazing. All the way in Saginaw, Michigan, they were excited that I might know Biscuit. He was quite the legendary fellow as we know.”
With Hamilton as her reclaimed base, Chiarelli continues to tour — at the time of the interview discussions are about Cuba and Colorado concert events. Chiarelli’s 2011 documentary and album Music From the Big House explores the roots of the blues in a very special way and the film continues to resonate with new fans and keeping her busy.
“Music from the Big House ended up being a documentary of my journey to Louisiana and the Angola State Penitentiary,” explains Chiarelli. “It was a violent and brutal place — a plantation at the turn of the century. Historically it has an incredible musical history. Led Belly recorded there — stuff in the Smithsonian, an incredible collection of music. In that place, you had both that violence and that beauty. It was just the right timing and the right amount of talking to the right warden and I ended up going in. it took many visits and many years but eventually I got to film and perform with the inmates. It wasn’t Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. That was fantastic but this one I’m with the inmates performing. The film is still showing all over the place. I did 25 different states with the film two summers ago, but it still keeps going. It’s a very powerful and moving film, more than people thought.”
Fans hope for a new album soon, but for now, Chiarelli is content settling back into Hamilton and focusing on performing choice gigs. This weekend offers her first big concert in Hamilton since her return and in honour of an old friend. With Mike Hickey (bass), Rick Fines (guitar), and Sean O’Grady (drums), Rita Chiarelli plays BWAF for the first time but is ready to make a splash.
“The move has kept me a little busy the last while,” admits Chiarelli. “I’m focused on doing some writing and doing some great gigs. I’m pretty excited about BWAF. It’s a great event. I love the fact that these guys are keeping this memory of Richard Newell alive.
“There are a few things we all remember about Richard but mostly his incredible talent,” adds Chiarelli. “He will definitely go down in history as one of the best harp players — blues especially — ever. He was a phenomenal player and had phenomenal knowledge on the blues and R&B. He had fans all around the world but never left Hamilton. I’m honoured myself to pay tribute to Biscuit and help with the fundraiser in his memory for music students. It’s a great thing all around from what I can tell.
“We’re all coming together to put on this concert for an important cause and in the memory of a great Hamiltonian and we should all be proud of Richard Newell’s accomplishment in the world as an amazing musician. I’m just happy to join the celebration. I’m going to sing my ass off. I’m sure everyone will be singing their ass off. That’s what I plan to do.” V
Rita Chiarelli plays Blues With A Feeling 12 this Saturday June 7 at Bay City Music Hall with Earl Johnson, Groove Corporation, Bump City and Ronnie Copple. Doors open at 7:30pm and admission is $30 at the door.