Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88s have been the torchbearers of a great American blues musical heritage, not for three years but three decades. Taking their inspiration from the great jump n’ boogie outfits of the late 40s and early 50s, they breathe fresh life into the music that gave birth to rock n’roll. Woods styled his group after the jumpin’ n’ jivin’, shoutin’ n’ honkin’, pumpin’ n’ poundin’ bands of Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Joe and Jimmy Liggins, Amos Milburn, and Roy Milton. Adding a healthy dose of New Orleans rhythm and blues, piledrivin’ piano, and some of his own contemporary playful lyrics, Woods and His Rocket 88s forge their own brand of music they call “rock-a-boogie.”
Woods was putting together bands in Greenwich Village by his mid-teens. By the time he entered the University of Buffalo, Woods was sitting in at local clubs and discovering records by boogie-woogie pioneers Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. Woods came to San Francisco in 1970, and for the next five years performed as Mitch Woods and His Red Hot Mama (with singer Gracie Glassman). One night Oakland guitarist Hi Tide Harris heard Woods opening for Charlie Musselwhite and was reminded of the sound and theatrics of early R&B pioneer Louis Jordan. Indeed, Jordan has always been a primary influence on Woods. “I actually did see Louie Jordan in Oakland. He was the bridge between swing and rock and roll. He would do a five or six piece band, get a lot of power out of that.”
That kind of power was to become rallying cry for Mitch’s next project, Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88s, which started in 1980 and quickly rose to the top of the Northern California club circuit. Their first album, Steady Date (Blind Pig Records) got hot reviews in 1984 and led to appearances at two San Francisco Blues Festivals, openings for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Blasters, The Neville Brothers, and James Brown. By 1987, Woods was doing a six-country Europe tour highlighted by a rousing performance at the Belgium Rhythm and Blues Festival.
On 1991 album Solid Gold Cadillac, Woods and his band were joined by Ronnie Earl, Charlie Musselwhite and the Roomful of Blues Horns. Woods himself was starting to become a guest star, appearing on that year’s new releases by John Lee Hooker and John Hammond, and the boogie pianist headlined both the Amsterdam Blues Festival and the Montreal Jazz Festival.
“I’m a boogie woogie and blues piano player for the most part, but I also incorporate other styles within that, like the New Orleans influence. New Orleans R&B piano playing, like Dr. John, of course Professor Longhair. “New Orleans has been a really great source of inspiration, it’s a piano town. New Orleans reveres the piano player. People respect me and I appreciate that. I’ve always been able to feel a real sense of music there; if you’re a good player, you get in. For the past 25 years it has become my second home, ” Woods says. “I’ve gotten to play with all the great players who live there, and I just hire them, guys from Fats Domino’s band, like Red Tyler, sax player, Johnny Vidakovich, drummer with the Professor, and George Porter on bass.
Living Blues Magazine
While most current artists who do New Orleans music focus on either Meters-style funk or modern brass-band sounds, Woods is one of the very few who take it back to the 1950s. Through the power of his vocal and keyboard delivery and his employment of world-class musicians from the city itself, he succeeds brilliantly in keeping the tradition burning brightly. ~ Lee Hildebrand