Rockin’ Jake: Harmonica Player of the Month

By Jaine Rodack

Written by Jaine Rodack on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, Harmonica Players

Rockin’ Jake will be the first one to tell you that life on the road isn’t always rockin’. It is, if not exactly a roller coaster ride, then something close to it: a series of glorious highs and “why am I doing this?” lows. But the man is also here to tell you that, having paid his dues, he is enjoying life his way, rockin’ along on his terms.

Which is to say that when the cold sets in, Jake sets out for his home in Southern Florida, where the sun is warm and the music is hot. Once spring arrives, he’s back on the road again, visiting with friends he’s met along the way, and playing the music that he loves. It’s a good life, and getting better all the time.

Born Lawrence Jacobs in New London, Connecticut, in 1959, Jake, unlike many harmonica players, didn’t pick up the harp until he was well into his teens, and a friend told him about a group named Sugar Ray and the Blue Tones that he’d seen at a local mall. But more on Sugar Ray in a minute.

Up until that time, Jake, like so many teens in the seventies, had been listening to a lot of the Stones’ music, and what he refers to as ‘southern rock’, rounding out his musical play list with the sounds of the Allman Brothers, Johnny Winter and the Marshall Tucker Band.

And the more he listened, the more he came to realize that the Allmans and Winter and Tucker had one thing in common: they all had a least one slow blues song in their repertoire. “And,” says Jake, “that sound – the blues – really resonated with me.”

Jake says that, like so many blues fans, he went through a major detective process to learn more about the genre. He asked friends who they were listening to, and in the process, found more artists and more music he felt a kinship with.

Things really started coming together when Jake signed up for a “Buy one, get one-free”-type music service. “Back in those days, there would be these ads where you could get twelve records for one cent if you agreed to buy one eight-track every month,” he explains. Among his first selections: two killer albums, one featuring Muddy Waters, the other, Howlin’ Wolf. Jake says he must have listened to them a million times.

Which, as promised, brings us back to Sugar Ray and the Blue Tones. Jake was no more than fifteen when he went to that neighborhood mall to see what his friend was so excited about. It was a life-changing moment.

“Sugar Ray knocked me out,” he recalls. “At that age, you’re so impressionable, and his music affected me in the strongest possible way. And so, the next day, I went out and bought my first harmonica: a five dollar Hohner Marine Band.”

But the process of finding his way around the instrument was not as easy as Jake had imagined.  “Because I’d been listening to blues and harmonica music, I thought ‘This is going to be easy’. But, as most of us know, not so easy. But I loved it and the music so much – which is,” Jake inserts, ”why musicians become musicians. Fortunately, I stuck with it, and didn’t get discouraged.”

With no harmonica teachers in New London, Jake bought himself a couple of books on the subject, later taking a couple of lessons from Jerry Portnoy that he says were extremely helpful. But for the most part, it was just a boy and his harp.

Part of the learning process included trips to the local record shop, where he pored over their collection of blues albums. And, whenever possible, he would make the short, 20-minute ride to Rhode Island to hear Sugar Ray and other artists who were part of the New England blues scene. Making those times even sweeter was the fact that the local artists would bring in Chicago blues men like Big Walter Horton and Johnny Shines.

In 1980, Jake moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to attend college, doing a bit of DJ-ing on the side. One of those gigs involved hosting a blues show on a local radio station, where he was free to immerse himself in their 50,000-album library.

He also took advantage of the ever-growing music scene along Route 95, listening to bands of every make and model, from Portsmouth to Boston and back.

It was, he says, a good time to be a musician, and he was getting better at it all the time. It was in Portsmouth that he put together his first band, playing a mixture of folk and rock music, Crosby, Stills & Nash tunes and other popular sounds of the day.

As time went on, Jake started adding a bit of blues to their repertoire, reconfiguring the make-up of the band to include two electric guitars, an electric bass, drums, and of course, harmonica.

Always, harmonica.

For the next five years, Jake honed his craft, performing with his band and other players throughout New England. At some point, he met a group of like-minded musicians interested in forming a blues band. Jake was ‘in’.

“And so we got together to rehearse, and came up with some material,” Jake recalls, “and I said, ‘I need a stage name.’ I like the ‘Jake’ part (people had been calling me “Jake” all my life.)” But Jake what? Or, as it turned out, “What Jake?”

After tossing a few first and last names around, someone came up with Rockin’ Jake.  “It had a nice ring to it,” he says, so Rockin’ Jake it was. He christened the new band Rockin’ Jake and the Roller Coasters, and set out to make some music!

And then, one night in 1989, Jake arrived at a club in Keene, New Hampshire, only to find his drummer waiting for him at the door. Something was up.

As Jake recalls, the conversation began like this: “Hey, Jake, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is we’re double booked with Maria Muldaur, but the good news is, the club owner is cool. He wants us both to perform.”

“So, she did her show, and then we came on and did our show, and she came up and did a few songs with us. And it was a very thrilling thing for me since I was a big fan of hers since Midnight at the Oasis came out in 1974.”

At the end of the night, Jake gave her his card, and went on his way.

Six months later Jake came home from a gig, and checked his answer machine messages. (He laughs at the reference to the now-outdated technology.) “And there was a message from her. And I called her back. And she said ‘I’m going to be doing a tour in the North East and can’t afford to bring my band out, so, would you like to be my backup band?’

“And it was very exciting, because one of my big dreams was to go on the road with a great act. And we arranged it, and wound up doing a two-week tour of the area’s major showcase clubs and festivals.”

The band, which was made up of New Englanders, would fold in the late eighties, when Jake and his then-girlfriend decided to move to New Orleans.  As luck would have it, shortly thereafter, Muldaur came to town, and hired Jake to play with her band.

And as he worked with those great musicians and others along Bourbon Street, he learned a lot about showmanship, and how to work the crowd. “You had to kill or be killed, or they would move on to the next club,” he explains, adding that, as a Bourbon Street musician, you lived or died by the tip jug.

And then, one day in 1992, Maria Muldaur called yet again. This time she asked Jake if he wanted to be her tour manager, a gig that included playing the harp for a good part of the show. Jake said, “Yes”, spending the next four years touring with Muldaur, and going on the road with G. Love and Special Sauce in between her tours.

When Jake wasn’t touring, he was busy booking gigs and putting bands together to accommodate a particular venue, always leaving the singing to his guitar player. But sometime around 1995, he decided to shake things up with the Rockin’ Jake Blues Band.  “I changed it to the Rockin’ Jake Band because, up to that point, I had a blues band, and now I was going to open myself up to playing and singing different kinds of music with more original tunes.”

The following year, the band recorded its first CD (Let’s Go Get ‘em) on Rabadash records. It was a busy time, with Jake performing, meeting with New Orleans blues legends like Tommy Ridgely, Eddie Bo and Oliver Morgan, and jetting to Scandinavia, where he performed with T.J. Wheeler.

Over the next two decades, Jake would go on to tour every state in the union except Alaska and Hawaii. But, in the middle of it all, Hurricane Katrina hit, tearing through New Orleans and destroying everything in its wake, including his apartment.

At the time, Jake and the band were on the east coast, and getting to New Orleans was no easy task. It would be a long month-and-a-half before he could make it home.

“I had no idea what to expect,” he says, “but I wasn’t too optimistic, as I could go on my computer and see that my neighborhood was flooded.”

It was a devastating time, to say the least.

Jake’s wife, who had been undergoing treatment for breast cancer, had evacuated to Texas, where she was temporarily living with her aunt. Jake joined her there, and together they waited for news as to what to do next.

A month later, his landlord called to say that he had to get back as soon as possible, as they were about to gut the apartment. Jake got in his van, and set out for New Orleans, pulling a trailer behind him. When he arrived, he found that nearly everything worth saving was submerged in three to four feet of water. All told, the couple lost about 80 percent of their belongings.

“It was tough,” says Jake, but the bills had to be paid, and he had to keep working if he was to pay them, and so he returned to Texas, eventually moving to St. Louis, in 2006.

Though Jake tried to keep the band together, logistics were against them.  After Katrina, everyone had scattered, and bringing them together to tour proved to be both difficult and costly.  And so, after a stressful six months, Jake disbanded the band, and set about putting together a new one.

The group would go on to tour the country for six years, after which the couple made the decision to move to Florida in order to care for Jake’s aging mom. It was a difficult period, ending with the couple divorcing some two years later.

But as Jake looks back at where he was then, and where he is now, he has no complaints. And so we asked the question that lingers in our collective mind:  Has the reality lived up to the dream? Has life on the road delivered as promised? “Well,” he says, “reality can rarely match the dream, although there were many amazing experiences in the first 10 years. It was very exciting to play all these new clubs and festivals and meet all these new people.”

But he also acknowledges that there was “a lot of crazy stuff on the road”, and miles logged – over a million of them, not counting flying, a lot of miles by anyone’s measure.

Jake says that, over those years and miles, he made a lot of friends and, thanks to ‘the road’, he’s able to see them once or twice a year. “I also know what the US looks like, but it’s also been difficult. There were a lot of times when I could have died,” he says, thinking back to car accidents that were far too close for comfort. And as he talks, he reflects on what it takes to be a road warrior: to keep on keeping on, to get in the van after a long hard gig, and drive on to the next one, when you’re dead tired, and worse for wear.

Summing it all up he says, “You have to have an amazing drive to go on the road. You’ve got to want it so bad that nothing will keep you from it, and I do, and I did. I did what I had to do and kept going.

“There were many times when you say, ‘This makes no sense at all,’ but you keep doing it. It’s amazing what people who tour go through in the face of incredible adversity, but the payoff is those great gigs. And my band and I have been recipients of amazing hospitality on the road. The things that people do for us, expecting nothing in return. It blows my mind – really.”

He calls such folk “Road angels”, pointing to times when “some guy will pull over and take you anywhere you need to go to get your vehicle fixed or whatever.”

He also speaks of the pure joy he experiences in playing major blues festivals, where “people treat you like gold, and there is the opportunity to meet a lot of great musicians.”

Yet and still, the road takes energy and endurance.  It is, he says, “not for the meek.”  And so, after 40-some years of having to make his way across the country in the dead of winter, dealing with snow and ice and all that comes with it, Jake has hung up his duck boots, “wintering” as they say, in Florida.

“I can work here constantly without being cold,” he says, “and then, in the summertime, go on the road in the cooler climates.” It is, he contends, the best of both worlds. As for his music, it’s still evolving, with the times and musicians in his band.

These days, he’s leaning toward more of a simplistic approach, focusing on tone, pace and melody. “Every harmonica player is different,” he says. “I know what I want to sound like. I respect all harmonica players, but I don’t want to try and copy them.”

He chooses instead to develop his own style, getting his inspiration from various piano, accordion, trombone, sax and guitar players and their music.

It’s been thirteen years since his last CD, Five P.M. Breakfast, and Jake is anxious to get back into the recording studio. A new album is in the works, which, save for one or two cuts, will contain all original material.

Meanwhile, he’s playing around the area, making music with the Rockin’ Jake Band, a side band called Rockin’ Jake’s Blues Devils, and other bands in the area, and doing a bit of teaching.  The two-tiered program, which takes place in one of the local gated communities, is aimed at both people who love and want to learn how to play the harmonica, and people with breathing problems, who are doing it for health reasons.

His advice to anyone who wants to get the most out of the harmonica can be summed up in four simple, but all-important words. It’s the same advice Jerry Portnoy gave him when he was starting out:

Make every note count.

“Focus on tone, pace and melody,” he says. “Maximize those things, and remember that you’re a musician and that the unwritten rules apply: Be tasteful and respectful on stage.”

And when it comes to the way you play the harmonica, he offers the following suggestions: “Leave space in your playing between notes. Take a breath, and make every note count. Dial back on your playing. Listen to the other musicians, and work with them.

“The important thing to me is to put forth an honest performance: to play music and write songs from the heart that are real, and not try to be a great blues man.  We have a responsibility to the people who come to the show to ideally transport them to another place outside their lives, forget their troubles and feel refreshed. That’s my goal.”

With a string of nominations and awards to his credit, Rockin’ Jake is most certainly a blues man. But he is so much more than that. He is a man who lives and breathes music, who never stops listening and learning and taking us to places we have never been, with sounds we have never heard. Catch him on tour when the weather breaks, check out one of his albums or videos on youtube.com, or visit his website at rockinjake.com.

Comments (1)

  • Dino allbaugh

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    Great story on Jake-I have been playing and singing 50+ years -many Blues and rock bands – my main influences were from the Radio in the ’50s in the San Francisco area Jimmy Reed – Little Walter etc- I am very active in the Jams around Eugene Oregon I agree about when playing with other Musicians space and respect is very important

    Reply

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