Bob Wolfman has loved the guitar ever since his New York childhood. The Jewish veteran singer-musician would perform at the Pelham Jewish Center in his early teens and do concerts from the age of 15 to his early 20s all over the Borscht Belt – at famous locations like Grossinger’s, the Nevele and the Concord.
At 15, he met legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who would greatly influence his musical future. Wolfman, who now lives in Middleton, has just released an album homage titled “Tribute to a Friend,” which he will present with his band March 27 at the Breakaway in Danvers. Recently the Berklee graduate spoke to the Journal about his early years, his lifelong love of the guitar, the meeting with Hendrix, and his own Wolfman School of Music.
As a teenager, “I was into the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan,” Wolfman revealed. At the same time, he played and sang “Hava Nagila” and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” and actually went to Israel with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld. For five years, in fact, he “had a ball” at New York’s Jewish Federation Camp (at Port Jervis). Not surprisingly, his parents, cantor and rabbi “all wanted me to be a cantor,” but Wolfman found that he was obsessed with the guitar. That obsession reached its fullest inspired expression during his chance meeting with Hendrix at Manny’s Music in New York. “I heard Hendrix talking about customizing the pickups on his guitar,” he explained. The connection was immediate. “We hung out at his flat. We jammed. He treated me as a peer. I was in heaven,” Wolfman said. “He was from another dimension. He’s the reason I turned professional.”
Wolfman graduated from the Berklee School of Music in 1980. Over the years, the acclaimed singer-guitarist has worked with such late greats as the legendary pianist-band leader Chick Corea and guitarist Larry Coryell. If Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck have been important influences and Peter Frampton a favorite, no one has surpassed Hendrix for Wolfman.
That lifelong influence led Wolfman to put together a tribute album, produced by guitarist/bassist and background vocalist Jon Butcher. “I spent six months trying to duplicate [Hendrix’s] songs on the album,” Wolfman said. The result – “Tribute to a Friend” – includes eight covers of iconic Hendrix numbers, with one of his arrangements performed by Earl King and two original pieces by Wolfman himself. Taken together, this homage truly evokes the range and technique with which Hendrix revolutionized the world of the guitar – with rich, expressive playing by Wolfman as well as strong solo stretches from Bruce Mattson on keyboards and Barry Lit on drums/percussion.
His new album opens with “Gypsy Eyes” – with a strong drum entry from Lit. Wolfman captures the spell and power of the title song. “Freedom” follows with a sense of resolve and escape conveyed in his fluid play and robust vocal. Wolfman brings a sad undertone to “Castles Made of Sand” – the vivid third number, a rock ballad. After a syncopated opening, the following “Dolly Dagger” throws caution to the wind as Wolfman captures the unrestrained menace of the title “red hot mama.”
Contrast enters with “Spanish Castle Magic.” There is a short stretch in the fifth cut that may call to mind Cream, while some chords seem to suggest a solid grounding. The following “You Got Me Floating” has a fitting lightness, while the standout seventh number, “Angel,” has an appealing dreaminess and an opening that Prince could admire. Earl King makes a welcome vocal visit on the following Hendrix arrangement of “Come On” (“Let the Good Times Roll”).
Wolfman’s original cuts – ”Parachute: Song for Jeffrey” and “Moon Candy” – demonstrate the guitarist’s own range. “Parachute ” – an instrumental piece dedicated to the memory of his late nephew Jeffrey Wolfman – possesses a lyrical flow and a fine, plaintive quality. Look for a sweet keyboard passage from Mattson. “Moon Candy” features a darker tone and a cautionary advisory about hearing the words of a wise man. There is even a stretch with a Bob Dylan-like vocal delivery. The album closes with a strikingly poetic Hendrix number called “One Rainy Wish.” Here Wolfman brings a lush sound to the music’s vivid tableau.
If Hendrix proved to be the seminal influence on Wolfman’s career and music, the latter continues to serve as an ongoing mentor to budding guitarists and performers at his own Wolfman’s School of Music. “I have launched dozens of careers,” he noted. “I cater to really serious musicians.” Among the musicians he has mentored are pop folk singer-songwriter Dar Williams and hard rock guitarist Gary Hoey. For information about the school, go to wolfmansmusic.com.
Bob Wolfman Band will hold an album release party and concert at Breakaway in Danvers on March 27, at 5 p.m.