Best known for his work with Roomful of Blues, Carl is also a producer, composer and arranger.
by Art Simas
Published in The Blues Audience newsletter April/May 2016 #218
If your son or daughter has long arms, don’t be surprised if they are chosen to play a trombone when it comes time to “pick an instrument day” in elementary school. That’s what happened to Carl Querfurth of Peterborough, NH, on that fateful day that determined his musical destiny. Young Carl really wanted to play trumpet, but, because of his excessive sleeve length, he was handed a trombone, some lip balm and instructed to practice, practice, practice. And he did.
Born into a musical family, everyone played one or multiple instruments, Querfurth followed his predestined future playing in the high school band and got together with his friends to fool around with their instruments. “That was when I met Matt McCabe (piano) and Skip Philbrick (guitar), Peter Shonk (harmonica and vocals), Addie Thomas (bass), Bill “Foot” Sandbergen (drums), and Sean Benjamin (guitar). They were nice enough to put up with me because I recently heard some tapes from those days, and man, I was pretty bad.”
All of them would go on to pursue professional careers in New England. “We called ourselves the Fat City Blues Band and practiced in a garage in Dublin, NH, and played at the local ski areas and clubs,” Querfurth said. They also ventured down to Providence and played at the original Met Café, which had about 6 bar stools and a total square footage of a typical hotel bathroom. It was a great little joint and it was (not surprisingly) packed every night.
Querfurth, McCabe, Phibrick and bass player Addie Thomas eventually moved into an apartment in Providence around 1976-1977. Rent, split between four people, was pretty cheap in those days, so they had the good fortune to go to clubs in the Boston area and see Hound Dog Taylor at Joe’s Place, Willie Dixon, James Cotton, Koko Taylor, and many others. This was also the time the youngsters met the late, great David Maxwell (piano) Johnny Nicolas, Kaz Kazanoff (sax), Sister Sarah Brown (bass guitarist and songwriter), and dozens of other musicians who were part of the Boston blues scene.
Around 1978 Duke Robillard of Roomful of Blues called Carl and asked him if he’d like to join the crew. Robillard was thinking of beefing up the horn section and Carl was on his short list as the trombone player. “And of course I accepted,” he said. “During the same time frame, Doug James, the baritone sax player, was leaving to join the National Lampoon Band, which was going on the road to support the magazine. So I started working with Roomful full time for about a year,” Carl said.
In 1979, Roomful wanted to go back to their original lineup, which meant no trombone in the band. “So I went back to playing with the guys in Providence, the band Blue Lights which had Peter Shonk on harp and vocals, Matt McCabe on keys, Rob Nelson and Skip Philbrick on guitars, Fred Schifino on sax and drummer Jackie Howarth, and either Ken “Doc” Grace or Addie Thomas on bass.”
After a few more years of local success in the Providence area, Peter Shonk left the band, so another incarnation was formed. This time it was Loaded Dice with Rob Nelson, Matt McCabe, Bob Soiot on harp and vocals (who also contributed as a songwriter), and a rhythm section with interchangeable parts. In fact, Querfurth played drums for 6 years (1982-1988), after receiving some drum lessons and putting in some long hours of practice on the kit. “At least I could keep a beat – and that’s the most important thing for a drummer,” he said.
During his time with Loaded Dice, Querfurth also was dabbling in sound engineering, a skill that, combined with producing recordings, would come in mighty handy over the next decade.
“Greg Piccolo, who had taken over as bandleader of Roomful, when Duke Robillard left, he called to ask me if I could do sound for the second of three gigs they had on one day in 1988,” Querfurth said. “So I said sure … and on the break a few of us, including trombonist Porky Cohen, were hanging out in my van. And Porky told me he was retiring from Roomful. So he asked me, ‘You want the gig?’ “Porky said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll tell the other guys that they should hire you.’ And that’s how I joined Roomful a second time, this time taking over for Porky Cohen.”
So on the road he went for a decade-long adventure with Roomful – 10 years of non-stop excursions to just about every state in the union, Europe dozens of times, witnessing different continents and cultures, and a ton of stories of life on the road with a real traveling band.
Some of this travel in the early years, at least in the U.S., was done in a windowless Bookmobile, also affectionately called “Das Book,” because it was basically a submarine on wheels. Then the mode of transportation was an airport shuttle bus, and finally a real tour bus in 1995. “It had primitive bunk beds and maybe four or five seats in the back. Man, that was one ugly vehicle to be riding cross-country,” Querfurth recalled, which at that time was about every two or three weeks.
Two years into the road odyssey with Roomful, Carl married Tory McCagg. Married or not, the road was his home for the next eight years.
During this tenure with Roomful he was executive producer, mixer, and arranger for Dance All Night in 1994; executive producer and arranger for Turn It On Turn It Up in 1995; executive producer, composer and mixer for Porky Cohen’s album, Rhythm & Bones in 1996; executive producer and composer for Under One Roof in 1997; and executive producer for Roomful of Christmas, also in 1997. For fans of Porky Cohen, Querfurth said you can hear him soloing on a couple tracks with R&B sax great Big John Greer.
Cohen’s record RHYTHM & BONES is extremely important because this was the first album where he was the bandleader after decades of playing with many of the jazz giants in the Big Band era. Porky began his career at 18 and played with such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Wynonie Harris, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Lucky Millinder, Doc Severinsen, the former bandleader for the “Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” and even W.C. Handy.
(Note: This album is an absolute treasure, not only because of the great music featuring Porky and many Greater Boston musicians, but for its 32 pages of liner notes written by Bob Bell, the longtime manager of Roomful of Blues who spent more than 20 years on the road with Roomful. The historical pictures of a young Porky posing and playing with the greats is a historical record of a bygone era featuring one of New England’s greatest musicians.) Bell writes, “Porky disdained sleeping in a bunk (in the ‘Das Book’ bookmobile). He’d sit in one of the four bus seats, or in the passenger seat next to the driver. Wherever he sat, if he wasn’t asleep, he’d talk. Stories of gigs with Charlie Barnet (a famous bandleader), stories of the Savoy Ballroom in New York, stories about Lucky Millinder’s band … monologues on Jack Teagarden, the great trombonist whom Porky called ‘The Master Painter,’ Louis Armstrong, the problem with elephants when working the circus … the subject matters were literally limitless. Needless to say, I got to know Porky very well.”
Although Rhythm & Bones was made into a record, Querfurth also has music from Porky Cohen and Harold Betters, a well-respected trombone player from the Cleveland area, which have not yet been mastered into an album. So Porky and Betters played in a studio for Carl. “I have the tapes and it’s all ready to go … and I even put a name to it, Smokin’ Bones. “I didn’t do anything with it because I didn’t have the money at the time. I tried to pitch it to Rounder, Fantasy and 3 other labels – Delmark, Blind Pig, but nobody was interested. “If I did it myself, I felt that I wouldn’t do it justice. So it’s one of those things that I have to dig it out of my closet. It’s got Marty Ballou on bass, Marty Richards on drums, Matt McCabe on piano, and Rob Nelson on guitar. It’s really a great little record, a little on the jazzy side but a great little record … and it might be right up Duke’s alley,” (referring to the constantly in-demand producer and phenomenal guitarist).
“So after Roomful I worked with Jimmy T-99 Nelson, whom I met in Houston when I was with Roomful on one of our trips. When we were there, I mentioned to someone that one of my favorite Texas guys was Jimmy T99 Nelson… and someone said, ‘Hey, he’s playing tonight across town.’ “So I hopped in a cab and got to the club and sure enough, there’s Nelson with a nice little blues band. I talked to him afterward … told him I always liked his old stuff when he did “T99,” “Unlock the Lock,” “Meet Me with Your Black Dress On,” and I asked him if he would be interested in doing a record. “He said, ‘Oh, Suuure,’ probably thinking that nothing was going to come out of it. “So I got working on it and got Rounder Records (of Cambridge, MA) to agree to put it out.”
The band included drummer Neil Gouvin, bassist Marty Ballou, Rob Nelson on guitar, myself, Rich Lataille from Roomful, “Sax”Gordon Beadle, Doug James on sax , the late Bob Enos of Roomful on trumpet, Matt McCabe on piano and Carl on trombone. Jimmy had written a few tunes for the record, and he also brought Clarence Hollimon to the sessions because they had been working together for a few years. “Clarence was such a wonderful guy. He took care of Jimmy (he had diabetes and wasn’t really taking care of himself), and they were quite a pair to be seen together. Clarence was a little skinny guy and Jimmy was about 6’ and about 250 pounds. Clarence might have been in his early 70s and Jimmy was 5 or 6 years older. Clarence had been a session guitarist for Peacock Records in Houston in the late ‘50s early ‘60s and played with all the greats including Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Junior Parker.
“We ended up doing a 3 records with Jimmy ROCKIN’ and SHOUTIN’ the Blues, TAKE YOUR PICK, and THE LEGEND and he was excited to be recording again. Unfortunately, Clarence died between the first and the second albums,” Querfurth said. The third record was recorded at Duke’s Mood Room Studio with Duke on guitar and Sugar Ray on harp.
Querfurth said, “After the T-99 records, I sort of kept floating doing local gigs with with Sugar Ray or Rob Nelson and Loaded Dice or Roger Ceresi’s All Stars and some recording. Then Doug (James) gave me a call and asked me if I wanted to come out and do some gigs with Jimmie Vaughan in about 2012. “At the same time, a friend of mine who is a sax player in R.I., (Klem Klimeck who was playing with NRBQ), said NRBQ also wanted me. So I went to rehearsal with Terry Adams and started working with them and J.V. Well after nearly a year of working on both coasts with Vaughan and NRBQ I realized I was back on the road, which was not where I wanted to be, Querfurth said. “I’d do 2 nights in Canada, then fly home and do 2 to 3 nights with NRBQ, plus doing some other local stuff … then fly back again to do more gigs with Jimmie … I was totally exhausted and it was driving me insane. “So I told Jimmie I had to let it go… and I told Terry that I could only do New England dates. And that was OK with him.
“And that brings us up to date. I’ve been recording a lot and subbing with Roomful off an on with the Mystic Horns and that’s been great. I’m hoping that I can keep that balance going for a while. It’s a juggling act but it’s working for me,”
“I moved up here to Jaffrey, New Hampshire and my wife and I have some land. So I want to do some farming… planting apple trees, growing vegetables, and planting some hops for beer… and trying to live off the grid. “Ultimately, I’ll just drop out altogether, grow my own food, and live like a hermit.”
Hardly. Sooner or later Carl, that lyrical road will beckon you to do what you do best. Plus, you’ve got some unfinished business to attend to with those dusty tapes in your root cellar.