Robert M. Sutton
There aren’t many blues artists who would have the courage to cover a pop-punk classic from the Ramones, “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Moreover, there might not be too many blues musicians who are either familiar with the Ramones or have any respect for those leather-jacketed hooligans. But Tom Casino takes pride in separating himself from his peers. Blessed or cursed, depending on your taste, with a huge gravelly voice that has had him compared to another Tom — Tom Waits — Casino has been operating out of the Bay Area for decades, mostly as a session musician. But with his debut album, Lucky In Love, Casino is staking his own claim to the radio airwaves, finding the warm embrace of NPR and blues programs for his idiosyncratic take on an aging genre.
You have an upbeat, larger-than-life persona that is significantly different from the dour image that blues singers usually evoke. Do people initially think that you’re a novelty act? Do you have problems being taken seriously?
Yes, I novel over myself too, but mostly I am a class act. Sometimes, I don’t take myself seriously.
What is the story behind “Chopstick Blues”?
A lot of my musician friends and I sit around drinking fine beverages, and the game is write a song on the spot. The sillier is better. Originally it was about my brother and me. I am glad I went with a blind date. The only problem with a blind date was every time I tried to make the move, the Seeing Eye dog started growling.
I never thought I’d hear a Ramones cover from a blues artist. How did that come about?
I was playing at a jam session at a local blues club. One musician called out “I Wanna Be Sedated.” We played it like the Ramones. To make a long story short, there was this guy crying in his beer. I walked over to and asked if was alright. He said, “Thank you for playing that song, I love it.” I still can’t get over the fact that Joey Ramone is dead, and the Ramones broke up. The rest is history.
When did you become…Tom Casino?
When I was born the doctor slapped me on the ass, and I made sound like a Cadillac horn. It sacred the whole maternity ward; they thought it was an air raid siren. Everyone ran for cover.
What was the first instrument you learned how to play?
Is this a trick question, or do mean before or after I discovered the skin flute? Just kidding! I started with the ukulele at 9 — I am a big Tiny Tim Fan — and guitar at 10. I picked harmonica and bass shortly after.
What — or who — was the inspiration behind you becoming a musician?
My Uncle Pete Demmie and his best friend Uncle Bud Dimock, and all the blues and jazz artists and rockers as well. I think I was chosen to be a musician before I was born. I didn’t choose music; it chose me.
Was your voice always this gravelly?
My voice has always been gravelly. In the second grade I auditioned for the choir, guess what, the choir director said, “Sorry, son, we don’t another need Louis Armstrong impersonation.” I was traumatized. I had to go home and sing “Hello Dolly” and listen to Tiny Tim records.
Who are some of the big acts you’ve performed with before?
I have played with a few of big acts, not a lot. I am fortunate to be living in the San Francisco Bay area where there are a lot heavy cats. I am very fortunate to have Dale Ockerman on the Hammond B3 playing on the CD; he was formerly with the Doobie Brothers and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Also I have Bobby Black. Bobby is a world-renowned master of the steel guitar who has played and performed for over 50 years with groups like Commander Cody, Asleep at the Wheel, and New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Your album is called Lucky in Love. Are you?
I am lucky in love 100 times a day, but then some days I have the luck of a pregnant nun in confession.
What are your wildest groupie experiences?
Most of my groupie experiences were rated X. I couldn’t get enough of it, but then suddenly I woke up and realized I was a-dreaming.
Who are your musical influences, even beyond the blues?
The three Louis’s — Louis Prima, Louis Jordan and Louis Armstrong. What I liked about Louis Armstrong was that he sang his horn licks while he was singing the song. As far as guitar players go, Pete Demmie, Bud Dimock, Les Paul, Johnny Smith, Chet Akins, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Albert King, Lightning Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker. And, of course please, God Bless Tiny Tim.
Are you sure that Tom Waits isn’t your dad?
No, I am not Tom’s daddy. But we do one thing common: My piano is always drinking.
Legend has it that Robert Johnson made a deal with the Devil. What kind of deal would you make with the Devil or have you already done that?
It’s funny that you said that, my friends call me the Shoulder Devil. We have a special society of the Shoulder Devils. Our Motto is “Tonight tequila, tomorrow we ride.” Another motto is, “Your boyfriend will get over us, so eventually there is no need to feel guilty. I will still feel the same in the morning.”
Why do you think that the blues has this stereotyped image of being a melancholic musical genre?
Blues is not just about being sad. It’s a celebration of emotion — good, happy or sad. I think there are a lot of comical mishaps in life that a lot of blues artists miss.
Tom Casino: www.myspace.com/tomcasinoblues