In Memoriam of Blues Project Founder Danny Kalb


Note: Danny Kalb, founder and guitarist for the Blues Project, died Saturday, Nov. 19 at the age of 80.

How tragically consistent that Blues Project guitarist Danny Kalb should pass the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a time when music journalists disappear for the holidays. But then Danny’s timing was always tragically out of step. Hip as hell, but tragically out of step.

I once wrote that had the Blues Project not disintegrated from personnel and label issues, they would have become as iconic as The Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. Like those two legacy bands, The Blues Project electrified New York the way the Stones gave the British Invasion a blues accent and the Dead created the counter culture in Haight-Ashbury.

The Blues Bag shows (held Thanksgiving weekend at Café Au Go Go in the Big Apple) was THE place to be in 1965 when Muddy Waters opened for The Blues Project, not the other way around. Steve Katz, the guitarist and leader of a reconfigured Blues Project about to release a new album, says it was their record label that sabotaged the group. The truth was that Danny Kalb created the most significant white, middle-class answer to African American Chicago blues, just as blues-rock was exploding on campuses and folk festivals around the country in the mid-’60s. 

I’ll never forget Kalb’s playing at one of our Northeast Blues Society Sunday jams in the mid-’90s. A teenage guitarist sitting in the front row had his show-me face on when Kalb took the stage. Danny started playing, and that kid’s jaw dropped to the floor.

Danny tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a window while on acid. He bounced off an awning and lived. But let’s just say he had issues. He was my friend and visited our family often. I wrote the liner notes to one of his albums. My stepdaughter Tanneal called him Uncle Danny, and he took the train to Schenectady to console me when my mother died. 

In 2006 alone, he made high-profile appearances at the All-State Blues Festival in Albany, Caffe Lena, The Turning Point in Piermont, and the Towne Crier in Pawling, performed with former Blues Project keyboardist Al Kooper, and completed two CDs, one with fellow guitarist Stefan Grossman and fellow Blues Project alumnus Steve Katz. 

I watched him struggle with the demons of self-doubt and depression as he worked diligently to break out of his 40-year-old cocoon and emerge a butterfly. “I used to go to what Bob Dylan calls the persecutor within as a reflex,” he said when we got beyond the self-deprecating humor that salts every conversation. “Now I question its reality. Now, I think of it as the devil, and the other side of what I believe to be the basic nature of the universe.”

Danny Kalb at Caffe Lena, 2012 (photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk)

Perhaps this unique soul is best described in an article I wrote about him performing at the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in 2016:

We entered a one-story building that felt like a refuge within the compound. The room was filled with books from floor to ceiling, and there were posters on the walls reminding prisoners to vote and listing imperatives. Number five: don’t wear pants low enough to show your butt crack. Another posted sheet listed hundreds of famous people who had ADD, from Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bruce Jenner, to Tommy Smothers and Robin Williams.

Bobbi Shutts, a short middle-aged woman with closely clipped hair approached us, and I noted that she looked the part. If I were casting someone in a film to be my host at a Rutland, Vermont jail, she’d be the one. 

Then suddenly, she smiled, stuck out her hand, greeted us like celebrities, and my nervous motor-mouth-on-automatic interviewer’s brain kicked in, and we started to talk about her role as special educator. Every inmate under the age of twenty-three who does not have a high school diploma is mandated by the state of Vermont to take daily classes even if they have a GED.

I remembered blues artist Willie Pierce, who worked as a drug counselor in a New York State penitentiary, telling me that if he had a one percent success rate, he considered himself lucky. To the contrary, said Bobbi, her students did very well, and she had no desire whatsoever to go back to the public school system where she once taught. 

John Cassarino is the “promoter” of the show. He told me that the jail has about one guest a month and that they’ve included such blues personalities as Guy Davis and Paul Geremia. Danny Kalb and drummer/Sojourn Records CEO Mark Ambrosino showed up, and the group began setting up in this library. I went into a bathroom that was marked “staff only” and had no lock on the door. A finely executed cartoon of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine decorated the wall.

Just before they let the 30 good-behavior inmates in the room, I started to tell the employee who had led me in that my favorite concert scene was of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Before I could finish my anecdote, he supplied the famous line that set the prisoners off. “I killed a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

The inmates filed in wearing flip-flops, sweat pants, and assorted t-shirts including one commemorating 9/11. Each had a laminated “backstage press pass” that identified them as “inmates.” Mine said “Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility VISITOR” and is now proudly hanging in my music room along with ones from festivals across the country.

I stood behind Danny in the doorway to an inner office staring beyond his back into the faces of the inmates. Whatever tension I’d imagined upon my entrance was not mirrored by these guys. I’ve seen more animosity between security guards and the audience at a Rolling Stones concert than I saw between the employees and the inmates. The atmosphere was more like a school assembly.

I had been asked not to take photos of any of the inmates. Instead, I stared into their eyes as Danny launched into “Can’t Tell A Book By Its Cover.” Danny was within three feet of the first row, but he might as well have phoned it in. Each of these men was in his own private padded cell. Eyes unfocused, they were numb to the surroundings.

I heard the lyrics to songs as if I were listening to them for the first time. Danny sang, “I feel so bad like a ball game on a rainy day.”  He asked, “You know how that feels?” Slow nods. He went into Little Walter’s “Mean Old World:” Some day baby I’ll be six feet in my grave/And then you won’t be treating me like a low down dirty slave/This is a mean old world that you live in by yourself/You can’t have your loving/You gotta find somebody else.

The love song “Alberta” from his days with The Blues Project in 1965 lightened the tone a bit. Danny was a little nervous. He told me later that “there but for the grace of God” go many of us. He introduced the title track of his most recent album “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About” by recalling his parents playing Mahalia Jackson’s version of the song when he was a child, saying that he didn’t understand the significance of the words until decades later: People haunt me/People taunt me/Say I’m foolish/I don’t care/I can sing one thing and live another/Be a saint by day and the devil undercover/I’m gonna live the life I sing about in my song/……./Go to church  shout on Sunday/Go out and get drunk/raise sand on Monday/I’m gonna live the life I sing about in my song.

Then, he opened the floor for questions. They were paying attention, and the Q&A unlocked their personal mind prison. Who’s your favorite person you ever jammed with?  Hendrix, Dylan, my own Blues Project. Did you ever play with Stevie? No.  How about John Lee Hooker? Yes. What made you decide to be a musician? There was a lot of fighting in my home, and it was my escape. Danny had found their X spot. They nodded. Their body language shifted from slouches with their heads cocked at an angle to leaning into the wind.

“I Wish You Would” followed the Q&A, and it was like he’d jumped from first to fifth gear without ever jerking his head. We were all on the same bus, and it had just left the facility. Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call” had heads bopping, flip flops flopping, and guts in gear. “You say you love me, baby. Why don’t you call me on the phone sometime?”

Rev. Gary Davis’ “Samson and Delilah” hit home hard. John Profeta was thumping that bass, and Mark Ambrosino was lost in the brushes. Danny was preaching to the choir. Well Delilah was a woman fine and fair/And she had good looks. God knows and coal black hair/Samson he sure was fine/Un till this woman came into his mind/Delilah she sat on Samson’s knee/She said tell me where your strength lies if you please/She talked so fine/She talked so fair/Samson said Delilah you can shave my head/You can shave my head as clean as your hand/ My strength be better a natural man/If I had my way I’d tear that building down/One day took Samson by surprise/And they took out a stick and poked out his eyes/They took Samson down to a great hall/And there he met a voice/put his hands on the wall/And then he tore that building down/And he tore that building down.

After a standing ovation and two encores, the inmates surrounded the band and shook their hands.

Danny Kalb at Caffe Lena, 2009

Danny’s mentor Dave Van Ronk was one of the great souls he met in his life. “Dave was on my side. He always liked my music, and he always gave me his thumbs up. He’s basically the reason I’m a professional musician today. He was God to me. Put that in (the article). I’d like you to put that in because already there’s this deep mythologizing of Dave and not seeing how great he is. You have to tell the truth about people.”

The same could be said for Danny. A huge personal loss to me, but one who’s primarily gone unrecognized.

1 Comment
  1. Carol says

    Thank you for this wonderful memorial to an amazing artist. I’ve loved the original blues project since I was a girl in NYC prowling around the village Some people are born to sing the blues.. and some are born to appreciate that talent –and you Mr. Wilcox appreciate and celebrate that talent with us

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