What I like about Paulie Cerra is that, despite his initials, he doesn’t use a lot of political correctness when expressing himself verbally. He just lays it out there. He also happens to be a thoughtful, broad minded individual who views music from an expansive perspective. I like that as well. We began corresponding in the fall of 2011 when the multi-talented musician sent me a letter to the editor regarding an article I wrote entitled, “Catching the Next Blue Wave.” He loved it. I was humbled by his effusive praise of the piece. We finally had a chance to visit in person last December at the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa, CA. Paulie was playing in a three piece horn section with Kim Wilson’s All- Star Blues Band at that month’s installment of the World Class Blues in the O.C. concert series.
It should be noted that I wouldn’t call Paulie Cerra a blues musician any more than I would hang that moniker on Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown or Ray Charles for that matter. Paulie noted in our conversation that he can play blues all night long. He is simply a musician and a damn good one, I might add. He defies musical boundaries and plays what he loves and plays what he feels.
A reoccurring theme in the following conversation is education; Paulie’s musical education to be specific. He is constantly striving to be a better musician. He has consistently put himself in musical settings that have allowed for artistic growth. I admire that very much. Enjoy a conversation I had last week with Paulie Cerra. I know I did.
David Mac (DM): Let’s talk about your background in music and your musical upbringing.
Paulie Cerra (PC): How far back do you want to go? (chuckles)
DM: Let’s start at the beginning. Do you come from a musical family?
PC: I grew up what you might call a podunk town outside of Syracuse, NY. My family wasn’t particularly musical, we were more of what I guess I can describe as coming from a working class background.
DM: Do you remember when music started to take hold of you and you started moving in that direction?
PC: Oh yeah. I always loved the sound of the saxophone and you heard a lot of it on the radio on the rock stations in the seventies. I mean bands like Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, they were just basically a Jersey shore bar band that played soul music. Then from the same area you got Bruce. The saxophone was one of the lead instruments in his band. I always dug that. In the fourth grade, I went to the band room at my elementary school and asked if I could play the saxophone. They put a trumpet in my hand. I wouldn’t have any of it. Eventually I saved up enough money and I bought my first sax.
I kind of taught myself how to play. I had a teacher a few years later to go over the basics like tone, production and things like that but I’m pretty much self-taught. I was a poor reader and I didn’t know how to read music. I could play really well but I since I couldn’t read music, I couldn’t get into college so I went on the road.
DM: How old were you?
PC: I was twenty years old.
DM: You eventually ended up in Memphis.
PC: That was a great experience for me. I was in the house band at B.B. King’s nightclub. We backed up a lot of great people like Al Green, Little Milton and Bobby Bland. It was wonderful. That was when I really committed myself to making music for a living. I’ve always managed to play with older cats. Even now, I’m a little older but I still play with older guys because I like the way they play better than the younger dudes most of the time. I always try to be in a situation where I can learn something. Memphis was definitely a place for that but I was a little too fucked up drinking. I never got into drugs but I was drinking way too much. After awhile I kind of uprooted and moved back home and hung out for a few months. That was kind of my M.O. for the next 15 years of my life. I’d go to a place, go back to my old lifestyle then go back home and dry out.
DM: We have talked before about your experience in Lucky Peterson’s band. I know that has a profound impact on your musical development.
PC: I love him as a person more than as a musician.
DM: That is saying a lot because Lucky is a phenomenal musician.
PC: In my opinion, he is like the living blues dude right now. Lucky’s the kind of guy who can play any kind of music, whether its funk, jazz, Chicago blues, he can play the shit out of any kind of music. Even though we had our craziness near the end of my stint, I had a really good time playing with him. I learned a lot and saw the whole world with him. I was with him in the early 90s when he got his deal with PolyGram Records. We toured all the time. We did a 15 week tour over in Europe. I remember doing like thirty nine straight one nighters and we would take like three days off and do another thirty. It was crazy how every night he would kick ass. That was a real learning experience, just being part of that. Watching somebody just go up and kick ass night after night after night, week after week after week.
DM: Let’s back up a minute and share with our readers the story of how you first met Lucky and joined his band.
PC: I got really hammered one night and was doing this gig at a restaurant, actually out on the sidewalk in front of this barbeque joint, that was a blues club. They don’t have much blues now but they used to book national acts. So there I was playing on the sidewalk for tips with a friend of mine when Lucky came through town and played the club. I ended up getting drunk as a pig and sitting in with Lucky. I couldn’t even remember playing with him. He called me the next day and said, “Alright man I bought you a ticket to New York City. I’ll see you in New York and we’ll go on the road.” I had no idea who the fuck was calling me. So I thought alright, ‘I’ll go to New York and play music, and tour Europe. That’ll be fun.’
DM: You at one time were actually roommates with Lucky.
PC: Yeah, it got pretty crazy. It was then I realized that he never practiced. Never!
DM: Let’s be honest the guy is a true musical prodigy. There aren’t too many out there like him.
PC: You got that right. He’s been playing professionally since he was five years old. The term prodigy kind of gets thrown around, very loosely but like you said, he is one of the true prodigies, playing at that level at that age. His dad was a club owner in Buffalo and that’s where he learned. Say Jimmy Smith would come through and he would give Lucky an organ lesson. He was on the Tonight Show when he was five playing the organ with a big band. That’s a serious talent.
We’ve got this thing now that every little 12 year old kid that has a dad that can afford a Strat and some lessons is a prodigy. Give me break. I am sick of that shit. Lucky sold a million records by the time he was nine years old. Now that is a prodigy. I hope someday he can clean himself up and let people know what a great musician and a great person he really is.
DM: Then you hooked up with Jimmy Johnson.
PC: After I left Lucky’s band that was based in Dallas, I went over to Jimmy Johnson’s band out of Chicago. He was an older dude and I got to soak up a lot of his knowledge. Jimmy’s a cool cat and a really diverse musician. He gets sort of pigeon holed by the Chicago blues crowd, but that dude loves all kinds of music and plays all kinds of music.
DM: Let’s talk about your move out to Los Angeles and this phase of your career.
PC: I moved out here in August of 2000. I just moved out here to be a saxophone player and to play with some of my heroes.
An important experience took place at a recording session with a really well known trumpet player out here and it was like the schooling of a lifetime. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t know how to read music. I was a self-taught dude. I got on this one session and there was some tricky shit written out and I had taught myself a little bit how to read by then but I was no sight reading genius either. I taught myself to the point where I knew how to get through most things but this one thing we were working on was really hard. I kept screwing it up. So there we were with all the mics live and I screwed up for like for the umpteenth time. The guy stomps his foot on the ground. When you do that in the studio all the mics pick it up it and it sounds like somebody just dropped a car in the studio. “Boom!” Then he said, “God damn it.” When he yelled at me I swear to God it was like my dad yelling at me for the first time. Like I said, it was a horn player that I really respect. It was my first time getting a chance to work with him. That one incident schooled me so fucking hard I had to go and literally say damn it, I’m going to learn how to read. So over the next few years I played in two big bands a week just trying to get my reading up to snuff.
DM: I admire that. Up to this point we have been talking about Paulie Cerra the tenor sax man. Your musical palette goes way beyond that.
PC: When I got to L.A. I wasn’t really taking myself seriously as a singer. There are like a gazillion horn players out here, so I thought that when I put a band together I had better learn to sing, so I took a few lessons and my teacher taught me how not to kill myself when I’m singing. I learned to sing the same way I learned to play saxophone. I would listen to records, and listen to guys that I love singing. Now I get a lot of work as a singer in sessions and live gigs.
DM: You also play the piano.
PC: I write music on the piano. I’m still a hack on piano, but I’ve been working really hard on it. People don’t want to come out and hear a saxophone player all night. I try and give the audience something more.
DM: I get a real kick out of hearing you play the alto sax. I wish there was more of that in blues. Don’t get me wrong I love the tenor but a little variety that wouldn’t kill anybody...would it?
PC: I don’t know Dave. When somebody pulls out an alto everybody’s butt closes up for some reason. So many people get their panties in a bunch over the weirdest things, man. I’ve been on sessions lately where I go out and say “You know what, this song is really crying out for some soprano saxophone.” You know what, soprano sax has gotten such an ass kicking by Kenny G and all the smooth jazz shit that’s out there. They never even want to hear the instrument and it’s a beautiful instrument. It’s a very expressive instrument. I very rarely play soprano, but when I get called for a session I have to go and kind of make a determination as to what the song really needs. Sometimes I say “Let’s try a soprano on this.” and their butts close up. Before Kenny G shit all over the instrument, the soprano was very cool. They forget that King Curtis played it, Coltrane played it, Branford Marsalis played it on some of his straight ahead jazz stuff and even on some pop records. Grover Washington was remarkable at playing it way before smooth jazz was invented. It’s a great instrument.
The alto is another great instrument and as you suggest, I think there’s a real place for it in the blues sound. Hell, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown traveled for years with a great alto player.
DM: Eric Demmer is the cat’s name. He is still based out of Houston.
PC: He is a mother fucker on alto, a real monster player. How about Ray Charles’ Night Time is the Right Time?
DM: Hank Crawford?
PC: Exactly! His playing at the top of that song is beautiful, and you have David “Fathead” Newman and Hog Cooper, great stuff. I play alto on a couple of tunes on my album. One of which is a real nice kind of country, gospel blues kind of thing reminiscent of Sam Cooke.
DM: Let’s talk about the direction you are headed as an artist.
PC: I’ve been a dedicated father so I have been staying in town and not touring a lot. I did some light touring with Larry Carlton and Lionel Richie. Lately I have been going out on the road with Arnold McCuller. I really want to make it doing my own thing as an artist. I think everyone has a valid contribution to make as long as they’re making true music. For me, I’d like to take whatever I have to say and put it in front of a wider audience. I’d love to go to Europe and love to be able to bring the band that I have right now and get a foothold over there. I’m looking forward to keep working on my own stuff and when I get my first crack at it, I want to be ready for it. I think if I keep progressing as an artist, things will come around. People will notice me and before you know it when my opportunity comes, I’ll be ready for it.
DM: Tell me about your band.
PC: The bass player I work with, Billy Haynes, is an older cat too. He’s been around and played a lot of stuff. With Billy, it always comes down to the simplicity of a song and the groove. I always try to carry really good, high level cats in my band. It’s always fun and the crowd responds to that.
Sam Meek is a great young blues guitar player. He’s from the Carolinas. When Kirk Fletcher was playing with me, Sam would come down and he would sit in with us. I always liked the way he played. He’s one of the guys who is going to be a great musician for a very long time because he works very hard on his playing. He does his homework. He’s just a great musician and a great guy.
DM: That brings us to your drummer.
PC: The drummer in the band is the legendary James Gadson.
DM: Who is this Gadson dude? Has he played with anybody I may have heard of?
PC: (laughs) He has a few credits to his name. He started out with the Charles Wright and the 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Their hit song Express Yourself has an amazing groove. There were a few tracks early on with Charles Wright that literally defined him as a guy that plays like no one else. He went on to play on some Motown stuff with the Temptations, he did a lot of sessions with the Wrecking Crew out here in L.A. At different times in his career he played with all three Kings, Freddie, Albert and B.B. He played with Booker T. and the M.G.s. on their last album. To this day he still does session work with everybody from Paul McCartney to Joe Cocker and Norah Jones. What really put him on the map though was his work back in the day with Bill Withers.
He’s 73 now. Nobody, no matter how hard they try and play like this guy, they just can’t. For instance I’ll sit and listen to him and I don’t know how he’s hitting the high hat any different than anyone else but it sounds so different. He still practices all the time. He also sings his ass off. A lot of people don’t know James as a singer but he’s an incredible singer. He always brings his “A” game. There’s no half stepping with James. He doesn’t phone in a gig. He’s just been a real mentor to me in a lot of ways. I could play with any number of drummers but for now, while he’s still around, in great health and still kicking ass, I don’t need to call anybody else. I mean the guy still gets excited to play a shuffle. He still gets excited to just play the simplest groove. That’s something for everyone to learn, something for everyone to witness. When he gets on a gig he brings it the whole time. I am just so lucky to get to play with such an important figure in music. I always learn something from him and most of its personal. He taught me how to carry myself. He taught me how to approach music and get inside of a song.
DM: Gadson, like yourself and so many L.A. based musicians, has played a lot of different styles of music. It has been my observation through the years that the musicians are more opened minded about listening to different styles of music than the fans are.
PC: I tend to agree. In Los Angeles, as you know, there a lot of very soulful performers playing a lot of different kinds of music. Some parts of the blues community in the greater Los Angeles area that we have talked about are so closed off to never hear anything but the same thing, the same names. It is such a disservice to the music. As far as this blues community, I haven’t received any support from them, but it’s not up to them what I play. I like the music I play. They can either get down with it or not get down with it. I haven’t even been given the chance to play in front them so that is why the August 26th show at the Tiki Bar is really special for me. I am looking forward to go in front of a solid blues crowd. Being in Orange County is going to be a good thing for me and hopefully people will like the music I play and we’ll be able to do it more often.
DM: To be fair, Zack has put you in front of a solid blues crowd before.
PC: Oh yeah, Zack is great. I’ve played the Topanga Festival a couple years in a row and it was great. Zack sometimes gets ragged on by these same people, but he’s a very knowledgeable dude and he really loves music. Whenever I go to one of his shows it’s always really great music. He always gets some real gems to play out at the Topanga Blues Festival. He will put cats on the stage that some folks don’t consider blues because they have elements of funk, soul, r&b or jazz in their playing. There is always some serious blues underneath it all. That’s the thing that I will stress to anybody within earshot. I mean you and I Dave have talked about this at length, about how fans in the blues community can really do themselves a favor by opening their minds a little bit because there’s a lot of great music out there.
DM: You are preaching to the choir over here Paulie. I get it from these people all the time. If I write about roots rock, country, soul or jazz they scream, “Hey a-hole that ain’t blues.” The same jag offs turn right around and call me a blues Nazi if I write about more traditional blues. Don’t let those bastards get you down. If you were a really loud, annoying blues-rock guitar player they would be crawling all over you. What’s on the horizon for you Paulie?
PC: I’m still developing as an artist. I’ve only been singing 10-12 years now but I’m still discovering a lot of things in my voice that I like. I’m looking forward to, at some point, continue to grow as a keyboard/piano player and I’ve been writing a lot of different music and again it all comes from blues and soul music because that’s what I gravitate to. I try to expand myself as a musician and that always helps my writing. I would love to someday be able to do a big band record, like an old school blues big band record, like Sam Cooke used to do. I’ve always loved that sound of B.B King, Bobby Bland and Little Milton when they were playing with little big bands. I want to write the music though. I want it to be original. I don’t want to do a big band cover record.
For the last eight years I’ve been a dad so I’ve been kind of chilling here in L.A., but my daughter’s getting older and I think it’s time I need to get out and get to work. I write a lot of different stuff so in the blues community I might not be accepted. You know how it goes, “He’s not a real blues guy because he plays all this other shit.” I’ll play blues all night long. It’s near and dear to me, but I also like a lot of different music. There’s a lot of great music to pull from. All the music I like comes straight out of blues. I don’t spend energy on people that keep closing the door. I go to the people who open doors.
DM: The doors at BLUES JUNCTION and the Tiki Bar have always been open to you Paulie. This month they swing wide and you are in the spotlight.
PC: Thanks Dave. I really appreciate what you are doing!