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Thursday, February 2, 2023


Nov. 29, 2001 – When Anthony Melio was a skinny teen-age guitar player growing up in New York in the 1970s, he took to hanging out at blues clubs, where he managed to catch the eye — and the ear — of no less than Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Hubert Sumlin, the legendary guitarist who played with them both.
Howlin' Wolf and Sumlin gave him a nickname — Tony O — and eventually let him sit in. The rest, as they say, is history. With a twist or two.
In 1976, Tony O got himself a good gig, touring and recording with blues singer Victoria Spivey, that would last for six years. Meanwhile, in 1980, four of Muddy Waters' sidemen — drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, bassist Calvin "Fuzz" Jones, pianist/lead singer Pinetop Perkins and harpist Jerry Portnoy — broke away and started a Chicago band of their own, with percussionists Smith and Jones fronting. They called it the Legendary Blues Band, and critics pretty much agreed that it lived up to its name.
After spending most of the '80s working in New York, Tony O moved to Chicago in 1990 and joined the band. Three years later, he headed back to New York to start his own Chicago blues group, the Tony O Band, with which he has been "building his reputation as a serious guitar player of traditional electric post-war blues" ever since, the Tony O web page states.
Tony O, of course, is the leader of the band. On drums is none other than Willie Smith. Plus there's Bob Stroger on bass and Edward "Tony" Atorino, also known as "Little T," on piano and second guitar. Smith adds harmonic, too, and everybody kicks in on vocals.
"To think that I would later be working with Willie Smith, that I would be on the road with this legendary percussionist — well, it was unthinkable," Tony O says. He describes Smith as "the character of the sound of the Muddy Waters drive, the way he honed his band."
The Tony O Blues Band opens the 2001-02 St. John School of the Arts concert season Saturday night at The Marketplace. It's also playing Friday at Tillett Gardens on St. Thomas and Sunday at the Jolly Roger on Tortola.
For all three shows, "I'll lead off on vocals for the first few numbers," Tony O says, "then Bob and Willie will each do a few." He plans to get out into the audience at least once during the evening and says he hopes to see folks up on their feet and dancing.
About a quarter of the numbers the band performs are Tony O originals. While the group has built its reputation as a bearer of the Chicago blues standard, there's room for variations, he says. For the Virgin Islands concerts, "We might touch on a few numbers where there's the sense of a Caribbean feeling, It's definitely not reggae, but, yes, a Caribbean sound."
The basic blues percussion rhythm is the shuffle — or double shuffle, with cymbal and snare drum playing identical parts while the bass drum plays a light four-beat pattern. "There's nobody as good as Willie on the Chicago double shuffle," Tony O says. "His has a lot of bass kick-drum in it, and the way he rolls around the tom-toms keeps everything fat; he drives the shuffle to a point where you couldn't drive it any more. It's so soulful, in your face, or so light, finessed — and all of a sudden, he'll go into where the song is going, and he'll take charge."
And, as one critic said, Smith has a voice that "rolls the old blues lyrics out as if Muddy himself were belting out his message to the masses."
Bassist Stroger comes in for kudos from Tony O, too: "We've been playing together for about six years, and he's the best bass player I've ever played with." Stoger's studio credits also include work with Smith and Perkins. In the '90s, he worked regularly with Sunnyland Slim and Jimmy Walker.
Atorino, the newest and at 22 by far the youngest member of the band, is shaping up as the impresario of the group. "We just did a lot of sessions in New Jersey and Little T was the producer," Tony O says. The two met through blues band leader Paul Oscher — a St. John School of the Arts concert headliner three seasons ago, when Atorino was a member of his band.
He's "very soulful," Tony O says. "The true blues — that's what he really likes."
Tony O made his own recording debut on Victoria Spivey's 1973 album "Danny Boy." His other album credits including playing with Perkins on "After Hours" (1983), with Sumlin and James Cotton on "Heart & Soul" (1985) and in the Legendary Blues Band on "U B Da Judge" (1990) and "Money Talks" (1992). He backed Perkins on every cut on the 1997 release "Born in the Delta" that got a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues; the album features a song Tony O wrote for Perkins, "Blues oh Blues."
In 1995, Tony O's first solo album, "Top of the Blues," came out, featuring Smith on drums and vocals and Perkins on piano. They've got another in the works, he says.
The Southeast Entertainer praised Tony O for "playing stylishly, avoiding out-of-context embellishments. This guy is blues to the bone." Night-Life magazine called him "the hottest blues guitarist coming out of New York now." And The Music Paper said he "plays with an almost desperate intent, choking out riffs that sizzle."
Except for Little T, this is the band's first visit to St. Thomas, St. John and Tortola, but its second to the Virgin islands. Two years ago, the three-piece group performed at Island Center — a gig arranged, Tony O says, after "my good friend, the contessa who owns the castle, bragged to me to come out and see this beautiful island, and I figured yeah, let's do that." Now, he adds, "We're back, and it's great to be back."
Ticket information
The Tony O Blues Band performs at 8 p.m. Saturday in a St. John School of the Arts presentation at The Marketplace in Cruz Bay. Tickets are $25 general admission and $20 for students with I.D. They're available in advance at Connections and, space allowing, will be sold at the door. Reservations may not be made by telephone.
Season packages for all eight St. John School of the Arts concerts are discounted to $180 general admission and $144 for students. The rest of the season: Dec. 27 – classical guitarist Francisco Burgos. Jan. 18 – folksinger Tom Rush. Jan. 31 – classical pianist Awadagin Pratt. Feb. 14 – The Ahn Trio. Feb. 28 – blues singer Deborah Coleman. March 21 – pianist Joy Cline and flautist Vanessa Holroyd. April 5 – jazz singer Nnenna Freelon.
For further information, call 779-4322 or 776-6777.

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