Boston Blues News on Al Arsenault

Boston Blues News
By:Bill Copeland

A keyboard player like Al Arsenault has had to pay a lot of dues over the years. Today this veteran musician has a wealth of interesting experiences to share. The 66 year old Leicester resident only plays three solo gigs a week these days. Playing out as a soloist for the last 20 years gave this blues veteran a much needed break after hitting the national road and playing with and opening for many legendary figures in the blues. His long, professional career began when he was only a teenager in high school.

“I started playing piano at three years old. I’ve never taken a lesson,” Arsenault said. “I play by ear. I couldn’t tell you one note from the other. As time went on, in school I used to play for every little thing they had. It kept me enthused. When I was about 12 years old, I went on television. I was in big talent shows, and I was winning everything. That kept me going too. By the time I was 14 years old, I started playing in clubs. And I’ve been doing it 52 years professionally now.”

At age 16 he quit school to work as a full time musician. “My first gig was in a little town right next to where I live called East Brookfield. The place was called Johnny’s Dugout. It was just a little hole in the wall club. It’s outside of Leicester,” he said.

The music scene which has been his home has all but evicted him and other blues musicians. There just isn’t as many rooms to play in these days.

“It’s totally different today. I have to say I’ve lived through the best time of music. I really feel that way because I’ve done everything. When I first started playing at 14, I was playing the old standard things. When I was 17 years old, I played The Combat Zone in Boston. I played for strippers there. The next year I hooked up with a rock and roll band from Worcester here call The Phaetons. I was with them until I was 21 years old. We almost had a chance to go on a Dick Clark show at the time because we had cut a 45. But for some reason, we just couldn’t get it going. So then I got married, and I left the band. From there, I just kept going. I always had my own band after that.”

Arsenault was around in the decades when Worm town was a cornucopia of clubs. “Worcester has never supported the musicians as far as I’m concerned. It’s always been a tough road to go. But at least in those days people went out more. They went out, and they stayed out, and they’d go to clubs a lot more. Plus, there were a lot of clubs in the city. There were clubs at every other corner. So you’re chances of playing were really good. Today, it’s just tough to get a gig anywhere because there’s just no blues clubs around. There’s hardly anything around any more. Music’s changed so much. It’s all geared to rock and roll and heavy metal now. It’s tough.”

Arsenault’s many musical adventures is highlighted by a week’s stay in New Orleans back in the 1980s. Playing in a club right on Bourbon Street allowed him to commune with that city’s incredible musical vibe. “That was awesome. That was like party city,” he exclaimed. “You go there to enjoy the music, and party. I played right on Bourbon street in a club. I played a keyboard at the time that strapped around me like a guitar, and I had a wireless system. So I would walk out right in the middle of Bourbon Street from the club and play, and I would draw the whole crowd right into the club. I just packed the place. People go there to hear the music, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Arsenault has always walked in the footsteps of legends, and his Bourbon Street experience was no exception. “The club I played in was called Ryan’s Pub, and it was the club that Fats Domino was discovered in when he first made it. It had a ‘back room,’ they called it. There were two rooms. I played in the main room. There was like a ‘back room.’ He was discovered in that room playing.”

The club still exists today, and it still swings. “It’s there, but I think it’s a different name today. Someone said it was called Bourbon Street Blues. But I’m not positive.”

Arsenault played many other cities too. “I played in Ohio. I played in Florida, California. I jammed with a band in Hawaii. I played everywhere.” But no places stands out as much as Bourbon Street.

Arsenault recently capped off his career with a nine year stint at The Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. He got to open for and meet B.B. King and Etta James at the casino’s Fox Theatre. He usually played solo for the Foxwoods patrons with backing tracks but he put a band together for the name acts. “I think I’m the longest entertainer that ever played Foxwoods. I was there every week. I left last year. It was time for a change.”

“B.B. was awesome. B.B. is the greatest guy you could ever meet. He sat down with my wife and I, took pictures. I have a book, his autobiography. He autographed it to me. I brought a tee-shirt of his that I have with his picture on it. He autographed the tee-shirt to me. He gave me a medallion, some guitar pins. He’s just the nicest, nicest guy you’ll ever meet. That was an honor, believe me, just to meet him, never mind open for him.”

Etta James was someone he saw but didn’t get a chance to chat with. His four piece band got the crowd going for the giants at all shows. Aside from mingling with the greats, Arsenault’s music provided sweet relief for casino patrons when lady luck stood them up.

“When I played the Casino, I had a saying, ‘I play the blues for people who lose.’ And people would come down to the lounge when I was playing there, and they’d say, ‘Al, would you play this song for me?’ And I’d say, ‘Sure.’ They’d say, ‘I just lost all my money, but I want you to cheer me up.’ And before they would leave, they’d always come over and say, ‘I lost my shirt, Al, but boy you made my night.'”

As a young man Arsenault was one of four musicians who played as the backing band for the four famous singers known as The Drifters. While playing out as the hired help was in many ways a thankless job, the young keyboardist had the time of his life.

“You did your night’s work. You got paid. And that was it.” Arsenault had the job for two years. It did not get him on television or on any of their recordings. He only played club dates with The Drifters. The keyboardist said they were just fun to play with, albeit demanding. “If you made a mistake, you got fined. If you made a mistake on stage playing you had to pay a fine. It was $25 or $50 depending on the mistake you made. They were hard that way, but then again it made a good band because you were on your toes all the time.”

When asked how much income he lost to penalties, Arsenault said. “I never got fined. I’m the only one, I think, out of the band that never got fined. So I was fortunate.” From there, Arsenault went on to play with New York’s jazz saxophone legend Lou Donaldson. The piano player got the job because he was aggressive enough to do all of his own booking.

“There was a club called The Jazz Workshop in Boston and Pall’s Malls. They were two different rooms. It was one club. I had gone down there to see about trying to get my band to play in there. I had a good band at the time, and they only hired national acts. So I met the owner, which was Freddie Taylor. Freddie said ‘Well, I can’t hire you because I only hire national acts.’ So, I said, ‘How bout if I give you my name and number, and if you ever need somebody, you can give me a call.’ Within two weeks after that Freddie Taylor called me and said, ‘Lou Donaldson is here this week. He needs a keyboard player,’ and he had Lou call me, and he asked me to come down and play with him, and that’s how I hooked up with him.”

Arsenault is the type of fellow who does everything his own way. He does not have any influences as a keyboard player. After he taught himself how to play, he followed his own instincts.

“I honestly have to say this. I’ve never had anyone influence me on the keyboards. If you listen to (his homemade) CD very close, I don’t think you’ll find another blues player that plays like I play. It’s very unique. That’s what I’ve tried to be all my life, just be me. I didn’t want to be like anyone else. I didn’t want to copy anyone else. So, growing up I never really listened to keyboard players. The same with the guitar. I play how I feel. That’s why maybe I’ve always worked so much, because people seem to like the style I have. You’ll never hear another blues piano player play that style. I don’t care which blues CD you listen to.”

Arsenault does not even have any favorite keyboard players. He doesn’t listen to them. “I never bought any keyboard player records at all, never, never,” he said. “That’s the way I played from when I was a young kid. In fact, even when I was 14, if I played a standard tune or rock and roll, it always had a blues flavor the way I played it. That’s what kept me going.”

It becomes a mystery as to how Arsenault became a blues player. He is not sure himself how he originally became interested in the blues. “I don’t know. I honestly feel like I was born with it. It’s just something I was born with. It just touches me all the time, you know. It’s in me. I can’t get it out. I just love blues. I have tons of CDs today, and I have nothing but blues, nothing else.”

“When I went with Lou Donaldson, at that time I was playing around the Worcester area. I had six different club owners buy a brand new B-3 for me just to play in their clubs because I didn’t own an organ at the time. That was in my early 30s, somewhere about in the 60s.”

“They had a lot of clubs at the time. I played at the Kitty Kat Lounge in Worcester here, which was a black club. The Hot N’ Tote Lounge. There was the Ale And Bun. In my early 30s, after I came back from Lou Donaldson, I played with a good blues band in Worcester for a couple of years called The Babe Pino Blues Band. I played with them for a couple of years. Babe is still playing around too. He was a harp player. Then there was the Cafe 20. There were a lot clubs you could play. There was Sir Morgan’s Cove, which is now The Lucky Dog.”

The keyboard player started playing guitar only a few years ago. Arsenault does have two influences on guitar, Stevie Rai Vaughn and B.B. King. “I’ve only been playing guitar for about five years. A couple of years before he died—-Stevie Rai Vaughn—-I got to meet him. I had my picture taken with Stevie. I got to know his manager. His manager had been over my house here. (Vaughn) blew me away, and I said ‘You know, I want to play guitar now.’ So, I picked up a guitar and started to learn how to play. That’s where I’m at now. And B.B. King, I always loved B.B. King on the guitar. So those kind of influenced me a lot.”

Arsenault still gets to work with the living legends. “Last year I jammed and did almost a whole show with Lucky Peterson. He’s one of your big blues players right now, in the country. He’s awesome. I got to play with him at Black Eyed Sally’s in Hartford, Connecticut. I went down to see him play one night, and after the first show I went up and introduced myself. I wanted to meet him, and I asked him if I could jam a tune with him, and he said, ‘I’ll call you up.’ So, when the second show was ready to go on—they did like an hour show, two shows like that—he called me up right away, and he had me play the whole show. He wouldn’t let me off the stage. That was awesome. He’s incredible. He’s a keyboard player and guitar player. I had the honor of jamming with them for a whole show.”

Arsenault prefers the piano to the guitar, but he only goes for acoustic pianos. “As long as it’s a real piano. I don’t like keyboards. I don’t like the feel of the keyboard or the sound of the keyboards. But a real piano I do enjoy. And now I love the guitar because it’s a new challenge for me. I’ve been playing piano 63 years, since I was three years old. So, I felt I needed a change. You know how you kind of get in a rut after a while. I needed something different. And that’s when I heard Stevie. That’s what made me go for that. Now I’m enjoying both.”

It was only the last ten years of his career that Arsenault has been singing. He became a crooner out of necessity. So he doesn’t really have an influence as a vocalist. “A lot of people keep saying I sound a lot like J.J. Cale. I don’t know. I’ve never really listened to him either. I’ve never taken singing lessons. I don’t consider myself a singer. But it seems to work well with what I do. Some people seem to really like it. I do it because it keeps me working. It came to the time where you couldn’t just play instrumentals any more. People wanted to hear you sing. So, if I called a club owner and tried to get a gig, they’d say, ‘Do you sing?’ And if I said, ‘No’ they wouldn’t hire you. So finally I had to learn how to start singing.”

Behind many successful working musicians is a dedicated spouse, and Arsenault gives much of the credit to his wife, Debbie. “I have a beautiful wife that supports me a 1,000 percent. She’s just super, and she’s the one that keeps me going.” Arsenault and his wife have six children, two from his first marriage, two from hers, and they had two more together. “I tell you something right now. I wouldn’t trade my wife now for the world. She’s a real sweetheart. She’s a super mother. She’s a great wife. She supports me a thousand percent. I couldn’t ask for better.”

“A lot of people have said to me through the years, ‘Al, I’m surprised you never made it big. And I’ve always said, ‘Yeah, maybe I could have made it big, because I did turn down some good chances at times, because I put my family first, and I put the music second.’ You can’t be married, and have a family, and try to make it big because you have to be on the road all the time, and you can’t bring up a family that way. I put my family first. I didn’t travel much. I traveled here and there a little at a time and came back. My family came first, and I’ve never been sorry that I did that.”

Today, two of his children, Charlene and Duncan are very active in the Worcester music scene. Charlene plays the keyboards in a popular cover band called Pet Rock and Duncan is the drummer for a well respected band, The Curtain Society.

“I jam with them with their bands, but I’ve never really worked with them on a gig. They did their own thing because they’re into rock and roll and disco which I’m not. But I support them. I go see them play a lot.”

Arsenault prefers the live setting to the recording studio and has done almost no session work. His business card reads “Al Plays The Blues Live” and that is the motto for his career. “I never gave my name to recording studios or anything in case they needed someone. I just never had the time to do that. You’ve got to remember, for at least 45 years out of the 52, I played six or seven nights a week, and I used to do double gigs a day a lot. I never had time to do much else. I’ve probably played over 300 clubs in my day.”

While most musicians would love to play three gigs every week, Arsenault feels that his adjustment down to only three puts him on easy street. “Today it’s nice because I’m playing restaurants too. They’re lounges and restaurants, but they love the blues. I’ve been playing solo for the last 20 years because I can make a living that way. I do three days a week, and that’s it. I’m winding down now.”

Arsenault plays his solo gigs at Café Amore on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester every 2nd and 4th Friday of the month. Every 1st and 3rd Friday of the month he plays Sturbridge Isle in Sturbridge. He also plays Sturbridge Isle every Saturday night and every Sunday morning for brunch.

“I’m getting tired. It’s been a lot of years, and the music scene’s not what it used to be any more. It’s tough to get people to come out. Since the videos came out, people stay home more. The drunk driving laws—people don’t go out drinking that much any more. That’s hurt a lot of the entertainment scene.”

Arsenault has recorded himself on keyboards and on guitar on two separate homemade CDs. “Welcome To The Blues” and “Frettin The Blues” showcase his eloquent tinkling and his confident strumming. The old blues standard “Kansas City Woman” shows off his unique smooth tenor. He really cannot be compared to any other singer.

“I do every song my own way. I never believed in copying anyone. That’s why I never did any top 40 songs because you have to play it like it was written, like you hear it on the radio, and I could never do that. I want to take a song and play it the way I feel the song is. It’s my own arrangement, and it makes me unique that way. I wouldn’t enjoy it then if I had to go out and play like someone else. It would be very boring.”

It’s the rapport with the audience he most enjoys “I mingle with people on my breaks. I meet everyone,” Arsenault said. “I just loving playing for people. That’s what it’s all about. It’s the people out there. That’s what I want to be remembered for. I hope I made people happy through the years with my music. I gave them what I had. God gave me a talent, and I tried to give it to the people. That’s what’s important. You’ve got to pay back. I always felt that if you don’t, you’re cheating people. And it’s the fact I never took a lesson, and I can’t read a note of music, but yet I have the talent to be able to play for 52 years, play with some of the best.”

Arsenault recently penned a sidebar for a Worcester Magazine article called Gigs From Hell written by his daughter Charlene who is a music journalist. His sidebar highlighted his many encounters with zany characters in the clubs over the years

“Being a musician you don’t just play the nice places, you play the tough clubs. You go wherever you have to go and you do what you have to do. And that’s what I did. There’s nothing that would ever keep me away.” One night at The Golden Nugget on Summer Street in Worcester, Arsenault was playing in a band when a patron pulled out a shotgun and a box of shells and told the musicians that they’re playing for him now.

It was a matter for consternation for his parents. “That was one of the things my folks when I was young worried about so much. They’d say, ‘You know, Al, some of these clubs you play in, you’re not going to come home some night. They used to be so worried. And I’d say, ‘You know, I have to go. It’s me. I’m a musician. I have to go.’ I’m what you call a real true musician. I did it, and I’m still here. But I’ve had a lot of close calls in my life. That’s what you call paying your dues.”

During one encounter with random violence, it was only by chance that Arsenault did not get killed. “I go in the john, and it’s just me and another guy there, and someone walked in, was standing behind us waiting to go. I walk out, and I’m standing outside the door talking to someone. The guy that was standing next to me came out with a knife in his back. I’ve always felt like it could have been me. If I was in the john by myself, he would have gotten me. He freaked out and stabbed him.”

Arsenault’s career in the blues was forged by his own determination and drive. It was his destiny to play out and nothing could ever keep him away. He even managed to get married and raise a family along the way. It is the sign of a true musician who takes work wherever he can find it and never looks back. Arsenault is a musician’s musician.

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One Response to “Boston Blues News on Al Arsenault”

  1. Mark Marinen says:

    Al was someone I got to know through his sister-in-law and wife…I’d known them since I was a teenager…I played blues most of my life and when I ended up living in Worcester was when we got close…we both loved blues and played some gigs together. One of the clubs was called the Right Stuff in On the way to the club he warned me what a tough place it was..I could see that it could be but after the gig, the woman who owned the club told me that her husband (who recently passed) would have loved the show, and she thanked me so much that I could tell how much she liked it too…Al was a born player and made everyone he played with better too…that’s the best part about playing, you never know what can develop…we did a party together and he jammed with my band a time or two…I miss those days and will always think of them as some of the best of my life….wherever you are Al, I hope there’s a decent music scen….it was a great pleasure…thanks Al, Mark Marinen..aka Coco Daddy Fairchild

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