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Mighty Lester's new, improved classic jump blues

Kicking it Up a Notch 

Mighty Lester's new, improved classic jump blues

For most bands, a 70 percent turnover is a traumatic sound and image makeover that few survive. But for Raleigh's Mighty Lester and the Blues Kings, that situation improved the band drastically, according to guitarist/band spokesman Lenny Terenzi. "I'm not saying that by any means to slag the talent or the contributions the other guys made," Terenzi explains, "it's just that some of the people we've brought in have a little more of the ear and feel for what we do and what we want to do."

Founded by Terenzi, Oceola Studios owner/bassist Dennis McGill, and singer/drummer Rick Cassidy, Mighty Lester started life in 2000 as a seven-piece big band dedicated to "horn-drenched jump blues and rocking R&B." Their dedication to that sound, concentrating their musical energies around what Terenzi calls the "jump blues and classic Stax R&B eras" from the '50s to the '70s earned them first place in the 2001 Triangle Blues Society's Talent Competition. That won them a chance to travel to Memphis for the International Blues Talent Competition.

Although the band got high marks, they didn't win, and soon afterward the departures started. "There was never any bad blood, I just think some of the guys felt they had run their course," Terenzi says. The first one to leave was original drummer/vocalist Rick Cassidy. "He just kind of wanted to move on and do something different. We replaced him with Todd Dewberry and Eric Weaver on drums." When the smoke cleared from other departures, all that was left of the original group was Terenzi, McGill and tenor player Jeff Thomas.

"Now there's just this newfound excitement and this authenticity that we wanted to get and we thought we had before," says Terenzi of the band's new lineup. Baritone saxman Joe Sunseri was Gatemouth Brown's musical director for eight years and has played with Sinatra, the Temps, Doc Severinson, Tony Bennett and Bonnie Raitt. Pianist and B-3 player Phil Mazarick's influences are straight out of the Stax era. "Ray Charles, Charles Brown, he's from that era, soul and early blues," Terenzi explains. "Eric Weaver is a graduate of the Berklee School of music, and he's gigged and played professionally with Bette Midler, Tony Basil--he used to be session drummer." Vocalist Todd Dewberry is from a gospel and soul background, and toured with some national gospel acts.

And though the personnel may be different, the musical direction remains the same. Terenzi says that the new Lester album, which the band starts work on next year will have a good amount of original material, "which is what we set out to do. The last CD, we call it a demo CD gone wild. This next one is gonna be actually going into the studio to really make a CD; I'd almost consider it our debut album." But there'll still be plenty of old-school R&B covers as well. Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, Ray Charles, and the '50s R&B group The Treniers will be included. "We're looking to do some Otis Redding, a Big Maybelle tune called 'One Monkey Don't Stop No Show,' Wynonie Harris' 'Quiet Whiskey,' which we do in the live set, and an old B.B. King song called 'Beautician's Blues.' We're even looking at doing some Louis Jordan."

Once the CD is done, Terenzi says they'll be back in contact with Alligator Records head Bruce Iglauer, who was a judge at the Memphis competition and told them to keep in touch. Terenzi says that Iglauer was "extremely honest, but very constructive. He actually had all positive things to say about us. Most of the bands in the competition had been together from two to 10 years," Terenzi relates, "and for us to come out there at eight months and make it to the next night, was quite a big thing for us."

Terenzi also scored personal praise from the Alligator chief for his instrument--and his wardrobe. "To toot my own horn, he said that I had a very wide vocabulary and good tone, and he liked my shoes. I wear those two-toned flame shoes, black and orange and yellow flames. And when he was walking out, I went up and shook his hand, and he pulled me aside and said he really enjoyed us, he gave us very high marks, and 'I love those shoes.' I thought that the shoes helped a little, maybe."

Terenzi also has anther reason for talking to Iglauer. He, along with Mighty Lester members Dennis McGill and sax player Jeff Thomas are now the management and promotion team for Roomful Of Blues, the legendary Rhode Island-based big blues band founded in '68. The band has launched the careers of Duke Robillard, former Fabulous T-birds drummer Fran Christina and ex-Broadcaster Ronnie Earl, along with many others.

Terenzi, who's a big Roomful fan and says that one of the main inspirations for starting Mighty Lester was Roomful of Blues, read in an e-mail that the band's manager was stepping down. He wrote back and asked if he could talk with them about doing Web design for them. "During the talk, we asked if they were looking for management, and they said maybe, and I called Dennis over and gave then a card and it snowballed from there." Terenzi says that McGill handles management, negotiating money, and contracts while he designs and maintains their Web site as well as doing design for the band. "I've designed their latest album cover, and Jeff writes press releases, and album copy."

The bands also have something in common-sudden and extensive turnover. Roomful lost half the band a few years back and recently the nine-piece outfit had another 50 percent turnover. But like Mighty Lester, Roomful has kept moving forward. "Every time you replace somebody, you try to make it better," Terenzi says of the bands' lineup changes. "That doesn't mean that that the other guys weren't good, but you might as well go ahead and kick it up a notch." EndBlock

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