Get Your Ass in the Van
Get Your Ass in the Van
A Q&A with Albert Castiglia
By Geoff Gehman
Albert Castiglia was on a blues cruise when he received a priceless tip from a blues captain. Junior Wells, the vaunted vocalist and harmonica player, told the young guitarist to treat his band as a school. Watch what we do, he essentially said to Castiglia, a newcomer in Wells’ group. Do what we do. What you do will help you graduate from sideman to frontman.
Wells delivered this invaluable piece of advice in 1997, less than a year before he died and less than a year after Castiglia left his day job as a Miami welfare investigator to tour with Wells. Junior’s nine-month crash course in following, leading and connecting, with listeners as well as players, became the foundation of Castiglia’s well-respected career as an electric guitarist with a hammering, howling attack; a big, bold singer with a sliding, satisfying growl, and a writer of such meaty, juicy blues rockers as “Three Legged Dog” and “Knocked Down Loaded.” The latter tunes appear on his pleasingly swampy, gutsy 2017 album “Up All Night” (Ruf Records), which he recorded in the Louisiana studio where Wells cut his last studio CD, which Castiglia promoted live.
On Dec. 13 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will present the first Jim Thorpe concert by Castiglia and his trio mates, drummer Brian Menendez and bassist Jimmy Pritchard. Expect a 3-D, sense-surrounding night with numbers ranging from Wells’ “Where Did I Go Wrong?” to Castiglia’s “Get Your Ass in the Van,” a galloping, roaring wake-up call to cocky, lazy musicians (“This ain’t no ‘American Idol’/Ain’t no deals bein’ made at the crossroads”). Below, in a conversation from his Florida home, Castiglia discusses his blues baptism by Muddy Waters; the goosebumps factor of guitar vibrato, and the life- and music-changing experience of meeting his 29-year-old daughter for the first time.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that absolutely, positively laid you flat? Mine was the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which I heard coming from a ’65 Mustang convertible, which made it even sweeter.
A: Yeah, that’s a great one. I remember my dad had this eight-track of ‘The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl”; that really floored me. When I was 15 I was introduced to the blues by Eric Clapton’s double live album, “Just One Night,” which he recorded at the Budokan in Tokyo; that opened my ears and eyes. Clapton and [John] Mayall led me to B.B. [King], who was my introduction to the real blues guys.
The song that really changed my life was Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” I was 15, on the edge of 16, when I went to a record store, Sounds of Music, in my hometown of Coral Gables, Fla. I had been hearing about Muddy Waters and I wanted to buy one of his records. The only one on the rack was this cassette of “Hard Again”  and I thought, well, I better grab it. I went home and turned it on and the first thing I heard was “Mannish Boy” with Muddy’s booming voice singing “Oh, yeah” a cappella. And then the band kicked in and it was the most incredible thing I had ever heard. It was a breath of fresh air in the ’80s, the decade of heavy metal and sugary pop (Springsteen was an exception).
[“Hard Again”] opened up my world. When I heard it I knew what I wanted to do for a living. I had wanted to play first base for the Yankees but I wasn’t very good at baseball. My parents had plans for me; they wanted me to go into banking. I didn’t have a plan. That record was my guiding star. It made me decide: This is what I want to do; I want to be a bluesman. Yeah, Muddy Waters was the final nail for me.
Q: I read along the way that a guitarist named Pat DeLeon told you that a blues guitarist must have a reliable, flexible vibrato. Who is Pat DeLeon and why is vibrato so important?
A: Pat was a local guitar hero and a great singer. He was in the house band at Woody’s on the Beach, a club in Miami owned by [Rolling Stones guitarist] Ron Wood. The band was run by Bobby Keys, the Stones sax player. Pat is a cool dude who was very to the point; he didn’t mince words. When he first heard me he told me: “You need to stop playing that white-boy blues crap.” [laughs] Then he said the key to being a good player is having a great vibrato and he demonstrated a great vibrato. I listened to him and worked hard on improving my vibrato. Sure enough, I got the job with Junior in ’97 and I found out from his road manager years later that the biggest reason Junior hired me is that he loved mv vibrato. We were outside Rose’s Lounge in Chicago and [Wells’ road manager] was complaining to me that “You play too many notes.” I told him “mind your own business.” He threw some expletives at me and then he said: “The only reason Junior hired you was that you had that great vibrato.” It was a back-handed compliment but it proved that Pat didn’t steer me wrong.
Vibrato is like an amplifier to your feeling. Just listen to B.B. [King]’s vibrato or Otis Rush’s vibrato. Otis Rush had the most fantastic vibrato I have ever heard; it just gives you chills. Goosebumps: that’s what a great vibrato should give you.
Q: I also read along the way that you were on a blues cruise when Junior gave you a pivotal piece of advice.
A: Junior’s road manager told me I had to look after Junior between sets. He wasn’t doing well; it was shortly before he got sick and passed away. He told me: Look, I don’t expect you to be in this band the rest of your life. You will be doing your own thing one day. So just watch and absorb and learn everything you can from us. I did and, man, it served me well. I learned to connect with the audience from him; he had a knack for that. Prior to him I thought it was all about paying attention to your guitar and voice. I had a very sideman mentality. I had been in local bands in Florida but I didn’t fully embrace the frontman thing; I kept my head down and didn’t really know the entertainment aspect. Junior showed me that a big part of fronting a band is being open and even vulnerable. His stage presence was amazing. He always made the audience feel that they were a part of the show, that they shared the stage. Connecting with the audience wasn’t something he told me; he just made me understand by example. A lot of those old-school guys weren’t into showing or telling you.
Junior was also great at cueing bands. He did subtle cues with his hands. You had to keep your eye on him when he was going to lay something on you.
He’s the biggest reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. He opened the door to let me see the world. Thanks to him, I never went back to the day job.
Q: On your previous record, “Big Dog” [Ruf, 2016], producer Mike Zito guided you on a few new paths, expanding your arsenal of instruments and stretching the range and power of your voice. What new lands did he lead you to on “Up All Night”?
A: On “Big Dog” we delved into territory that I liked but never really engaged, like ballads and pushing my voice. On “Up All Night” we really wanted to demonstrate what I’m like live. I think we succeeded: it’s probably the closest thing to my live performances. It’s very high energy; it’s very rocking. It will keep you up all night.
Q: Your go-to guy as a co-composer is Graham Wood Drout, leader of Iko Iko, the veteran blues rock band. When and how did you two meet and why do you dig him as a lyrical partner?
A: Iko Iko is legendary; they’re to Florida what the Nighthawks are to the mid-Atlantic states. Graham is legendary, too; I really admired and idolized him. He led a Monday night jam at Tobacco Road, which was the oldest bar in Miami and the first one with a liquor license. I met him playing these jam sessions and, man, he was ruthless. If he thought you sucked, he would stop you midway through your playing and ask you to exit the stage. Fortunately, he never did that to me; he thought I had potential.
Graham writes great lyrics and real good hooks. I was short on songs while I was recording “Up All Night” and I asked him to help me out and he sent me “Knocked Down Loaded” and “Three Legged Dog.” For “Big Dog” he sent me “Where the Devil Makes His Deals.” In all three cases I was able to come up with a riff right away; I was able to paint a picture musically.
Graham is something else. I think he’s as great a songwriter as anyone. I’d put him up there with John Hiatt; I’d put him up there with Dylan as well. Just because he doesn’t get the notoriety doesn’t mean he isn’t as good as those guys.
I’ve had a Graham song on all my records but one. I tell him that my records might have bad luck without a Graham song
Q: What song of yours has had the widest reach, the longest legs?
A: “Put Some Stank on It” is popular. “Big Toe” is a crowd pleaser. “Bad Year Blues” strikes a chord. I wrote that in 2008, around the economic crisis, after my wife had lost her job. “Loan Me a Dime” is something people want to hear all the time. I enjoyed playing it live but I didn’t really want to record it, partly because I thought I couldn’t improve on the Fenton Robinson original or Boz Scaggs’ version. The label I was with at the time wanted me to record it and they held the purse strings so I recorded it as a compromise, so I could record my own songs. It turned out to be a good choice. If you look at the YouTube video of me playing it at Don Odell’s [Legends studio], it has most hits of any of my videos.
Q: “Get Your Ass in the Van” should be on your hit list, too, because it’s such an ass kicker, musically and lyrically. Were you thinking about taking lazy, cocky musicians to task for a long time or was there an episode that made you want to set them straight?
A: I started thinking about that after I saw a post on Facebook from someone whining about how hard it was to make it as a musician. It was pissy and it pissed me off a little bit. Shortly after I read it I went to this bar to see Alvin Youngblood Hart play. I ran into Chris Peet, the drummer for JP Soars and the Red Hots and the Southern Hospitality Band. Chris had seen the same post and I guess the issue came up and he said: “Well, someone needs to get in the van” and I went: “Ooohhh.” Bing–the lightbulb popped. I went home and it took me about five minutes to write “Get Your Ass in the Van”; I added the “ass.”
The point is, if you’re in this business to get rich, you should just change your career because that’s not how it works. And if anyone thinks they’re going to be an overnight success in the blues, well, they’re just kidding themselves. When my wife met me, about 15 years ago, I was just starting my solo career and I was barely making $20,000 a year. It probably took seven or eight years for me to get us on solid ground; now we’re going well. When you’re starting out you have to prepare yourself for making the league minimum, to use a baseball term.
I won’t reveal who wrote the whiny post [that inspired “Get Your Ass in the Van”]. What’s amazing to me is the number of musicians who think it’s about them [laughs].
Q: What was your toughest time in the music, when you seriously wondered, man, is music worth all this mess?
A: It was probably right after Junior had passed away and I was living in Chicago and I didn’t have a lot of work. I was pretty new in town and there were so many established players who were getting a lot of work, and justifiably so. It was a hard go; I was living on ramen noodles. I remember that I had a stack of plates in my sink that built up to the height of the Tower of Pisa. Instead of cleaning them I just dumped them in the garbage dump, either out of depression or just laziness. I never thought about quitting [the music business] but I was at the breaking point. I was splitting time between Chicago and Miami and eventually I decided to move back to Florida. Coming home made me feel even worse. I felt like a failure because I was giving up on my dream to become a Chicago bluesman; that’s all I had wanted to be. I was a mess. But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me because I established the base that propelled me to the next level. I also met my wife and built a great life with her.
I still love Chicago. Illinois is one of my strongest markets.
Q: And what was your happiest time in the music trade, when you felt on top of the heap?
A: There have been so many great moments lately. I have a great band. I’m with a great agency that keeps me really busy. I’m able to pay the bills and support my family. Contributing: that in and of itself makes me happy.
What makes me happiest has everything to do with family and something to do with music. I found out in May that I have a daughter who was born when her mother and I were just kids. She’s 29 years old and she has two children, which means I have two grandchildren. She found me and it put how I view my career into perspective. For years all I cared about was what critics and audiences thought of my music. When they didn’t like me, it was painful. Discovering this beautiful addition to my family has really opened me to what’s really important, and what’s really important to me is what my family thinks of me. It hasn’t made me less hungry for what I want to achieve; I still love what I do.
There’s an underlying sadness at what I missed but what I gained is a hundred times more satisfying. I think I’m a better songwriter, too. I’m going into the studio in January with [producer Mike] Zito to record another album and I have two or three songs about my new life. It made me conscious of, and more sensitive to, improving the world for my grandkids.
Q: So, Albert, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I live for jamming with musicians I admire. The list of people I’m still holding onto includes Clapton and Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks and John Hiatt and Buddy Guy, who is probably my favorite blues guy ever. I’d love to record at Muscle Shoals [the fabled Alabama studio for recordings by Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and a legion of fabled folks]. I was going to cut “Big Dog” there but I couldn’t because it was closed for renovations. We ended up at Dockside [Studio Recordings in Louisiana], where Junior made his last album. I was hired to support it; it’s one of my favorite Junior records. Junior had told me how wonderful Dockside was, and it was. I recorded “Up All Night” there, too, and both times I felt him in the room.
Q: And what that tops your Fuckit List?
A: Racism. I could cast all racists into the fucking ocean. Racism and anti-Semitism are probably the biggest problems in this country. It was so much better when most of the bigots were underground. I wish they would just go back underground and not come out: that would be nice.
Albert Castiglia: The Scoop
He spent his first five years in Queens, the child of a Cuban mother who liked country music and an Italian father who favored doo-wop.
He accompanied singer Sandra Hall, Atlanta’s “empress of the blues,” a former nurse and an ex-stripper who once sang “Ball and Chain” with Jimi Hendrix when Janis Joplin lost her voice.
His latest two albums, “Big Dog” and “Up All Night,” were produced by Mike Zito, a singing guitarist for the Royal Southern Brotherhood.
Cyril Neville, the Royal Southern Brotherhood’s singing percussionist, wrote the lyrics for his songs “Unhappy House of Blues” and “Somehow,” a request for empathy for the downcast.
“The Bittersweet Sessions,” his live album with Iko Iko leader Graham Wood Drout, his friend and frequent co-composer, includes “Sitting on Top of the World” and “I Shall Be Released.”
He has very fond memories of playing a birthday party for the late Hubert Sumlin, the very influential Chicago blues guitarist and vocalist.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Muddy Waters singing “Mannish Boy” riles him up, too. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.