Paul Plumeri
The Bishop Breaks Out Of Jersey

By Willie G. Moseley
Vintage Guitar Magazine - June 2001

Expect the unexpected when considering the blues-based music of Paul Plumeri. The veteran guitarist who is based in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey, has been plying his trade for decades, and it appears his approach to the music is finally garnering recognition...all the way on the other side of the country. * Plumeri's done his share of extensive touring over the years, particularly when he was a member of Duke Williams &the Extremes in the late 1970s. The Extremes released two albums on the Georgia-based Capricorn label (Paul joined the band following those recordings), and nowadays, Williams is a member of Plumeri's band. What's more, during the guitarist's days in the Extremes, Duke Williams coined Plumeri's nickname, "The Bishop of the Blues," which appears on the cover of Plumeri's mid-'9Os solo album. * Another unanticipated aspect concerns Plumeri's surname, which is pronounced Plum-er-eye  (not Ploo-MAR-ee). His heritage is Italian, and he asserts the latter pronunciation is technically correct, but for some reason, it assumed a different inflection in the Trenton area.

Vintage Guitar: When someone considers New Jersey's contributions to popular music, a typical reaction would probably be to cite Springsteen or Bon Jovi. How valid would a term like "Jersey Blues" be?

Paul Plumeri: I think it's a very valid term; even "Trenton blues." There's a niche of musicians here who've been practicing the art of the blues for at least 35 years, through all of the trends, like disco. The ones who've been playing it for a long time play it as good as anybody I've heard. Even though I play other styles of music, the blues style is always a part of my playing.

What was your first guitar? 

Like many people, it was a huge Harmony archtop. My older brother had started playing it, thinking he was going to become Elvis Presley. When he found out differently, the guitar went off into a corner, and that's where found it. My parents let me take lessons, and really supported me.

After that, I got a copper Danelectro - many people started out with I those - and they're actually good guitars. Then a '59 Les Paul Standard that had been abandoned in a music store, still wrapped in its shipping paper! Mind you, this was before the blues bug caught me, and I wanted a Jazzmaster, because I was a big fan of the Ventures and surf bands. My father, God rest his soul, told me I was going to get the guitar that my teacher wanted me to get. I was the first person to open it up; it was new old stock - this was in '66. I was the only person who played up until I sold it; I couldn't justify it sitting around anymore. It broke my heart, in a way, but that kind of money is useful. But I learned to play blues on that guitar, so I started out with the best, I suppose.

What made you gravitate to the blues?

I had a couple of great inspirations. First of all, my uncle, Don - his stage name was Don Palmer - was a theatrical agent, and he managed [drummer] Buddy Rich, [drummer] Gene Krupa, and [singer] Arthur Prysock. I got to know Arthur very well; I grew up going to see him perform, and when I became good enough I played with him a lot in the black clubs in New Jersey in those days. It was a mindblowing experience, and an education of the highest order. Uncle Don would also bring me James Brown and Wes Montgomery records.

Second, we had a phenomenal R&B station, GBS, run by a man named George Bannister. He had all of the Bill Doggett stuff, Sam & Dave, B.B. King recordings.

Others have cited a station in Memphis as an inspiration. Did this station have a similar format?

Exactly! George was on in the '50s and early '60s. I was a little kid when I first heard "Honky Tonkin'," and it blew me away. There was something about that song that shook me up.

But as a rule I liked any kind of good guitar music - Roy Clark, Chet Atkins, numerous blues people, and the good thing was that heard B.B. King before I heard the British blues players. After that, I got into Clapton and all the others. I think my progression was in the right order.

What about some of your band experiences before Duke Williams & the Extremes?

I was in a very popular regional band called Hoochie Cooch. I started it when I got out of high school. It had different incarnations, but the most popular was when I had teamed with another guitarist named Joe Zook. We were a good two-guitar team; I wouldn't say we were totally inspired by the Allman Brothers, although they deserve a lot of credit. I think the original version of that band was the best band ever. Joe and I seemed to mesh our guitar styles very well.

What would have been your rig back then?

I had the 'Burst, which I ran I through a 50-watt Marshall plexi head or a Traynor, which is a Canadian amp; they're great amps and you can pick 'em up for a song. I had a Fender Vibrolux, but we tended to be pretty loud, so I used the Traynor or Marshall more. We did some recording, and band was on the verge of getting contract when it fell apart.

Duke Williams & the Extremes were Capricorn, but they weren't a Southern band. Do you think (Capricorn founder) Phil Walden was trying to branch out by signing bands with different styles?

I would say that's true, but I joined the Extremes after they'd done their recordings for that label. I'd known Duke for many years; I'd seen him one of his earlier bands, Alexander Rabbit, which was a Mercury (record label) act. He played guitar back then, as well as keyboards. Duke plays with me now; he's a Jersey legend.

Duke's idea was to have kind of blue-eyed soul band meshed with some different R&B sounds, and also the sound coming out of Philadelphia in those days - Gamble & Huff stuff. T.J. Tindall was in the original version of Duke's band, and he'd played records by the O'Jays and Trammps. It sounded totally different from any other band that was Capricorn at the time.

Hoochie Cooch died out around the Fall of' 76. Duke and Tindall been watching me throughout my whole Hoochie Cooch days, and recruited me. The liked the way I could play "effective" rhythm guitar and still play blues. I think that's indigenous to this neck of the woods; it was a melting pot of styles, including the Philadelphia thing.

Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers has said that his churning, chugging type of guitar playing is attributable to his experiences playing R&B and James Brown funk tunes.

That's certainly where I got it from. I wish I still had those James Brown records my uncle brought me, like Live at the Apollo; they'd be worth a fortune. Jimmy Nolan was a big influence on a lot of people, and none of us knew who he was (chuckles)!

"Papa's Got A Brand New Bag?"

It doesn't get any better than that! And I think Steve Cropper was great; he was more laid back, but still a great rhythm guitarist. The same goes for Curtis Mayfield.

Did you ever meet or jam with any of the original Capricorn artists?

We played a lot of shows with those bands; we traveled extensively, primarily on the East Coast.

One gig I did with Duke was at a place in Delaware called the Other Side. The guy who owned the place was bringing in some great acts Cheap Trick, Nicolette Larson. We were gonna headline the concert, and a band called the Dixie Dregs was gonna open.

We were doing the soundcheck there in the afternoon, and a big truck pulls in, and [original Allman Brothers roadie] Twiggs is driving it; he was one of Duane's best friends. He came in as we were doing the soundcheck, and sees I'm playing a 'burst; I was doing a blues number at the time, and he told me I sounded real good. Then he said, "I want to show you something in a little while; after I get some work done."

I found him later, and he brought over a road case and told me to open it up. I did, and recognized the guitar - it was Duane's sunburst! It was like a religious experience! He told me to pick it up, and told me he'd been carrying it around to various gigs, and if he liked the guitar player from another band, he thought Duane would have liked the guitar to be appreciated, and he said, "I'd be very happy if you'd play this for a few numbers."

Well, what can you say (chuckles)? I was honored, of course. I played it for a few songs, and I still have a tape of the performance somewhere. It was an eerie thing; I really don't know how to describe it - almost like an out-of-the-body experience. It was a high point of my career. Twiggs has passed on, but he was a real gentleman and a no bull**** kind of guy.

Did you go to directly from the Extremes to a solo career?

I left the Extremes at the end of 1980 for the express purpose of doing what I'm still doing now. I did get into sort of a Top 40 band for awhile; it had some great musicians but I was just biding time until I could find who I wanted to play with. My successor in the Extremes was Richie Sambora. Once I got the solo thing together, I covered a circuit, mostly in the tri-state area, but also as far down South as Virginia and North Carolina.

Over the years, the lineup of your band has changed from a basic guitar/bass/drums setup to guitar/keyboards/drums to a four-piece.

The three-piece with the keyboard player lasted about a year and a half. It was a great combination, but it collapsed rather quickly. Unfortunately, the drummer had some health problems. So here I was with a full plate of gigs, and no band. I started making calls, and ironically,

right at that time Duke called me just to see how I'm doing; he'd been back in this area for the last few years. I told him about how I was trying to get a band together, and he said, "I'll play." And that was it! It was that easy, and I guess it's full circle, after 20 years of not playing with each other.

Let's talk about your style, which is a bit unique. While you're aggressive, a lot of your rifts are based on complicated chords. When you're playing, are you aware that you're doing something like a ninth, a diminished, or an augmented chord?

I'm well aware of the chord forms that have some of the leads developed on them. That goes back to the lessons, and the jazz players I'd listen to. I think it's more melodic than cliche-oriented things. But I'm not devoid of those, either; we all do 'em.

It also sounds like you're using a vibrato arm in a way it was originally intended to be used - there are some passages where the chord or note drops about a halfstep.

I like the way you can use it to sweeten up a chord passage, or even a single note. The only time I do any "extreme" stuff with it is when I do some Hendrix tribute-type of music. Proper use of it can be an artform; it's certainly been bastardized enough. There's definitely a right way to use it.

So we won't ever hear you using a high-tech vibrato, doing divebombs?

(chuckles) No; it has its purpose, and it'a a nice piece of machinery, but it's a little too much for me.

You listed the gear you used on your album in the liner notes. What's changed, if anything, equipment-wise since the mid'9Os?

There was a guy who was a roadie for me named George Alessandro; he was with me for five years, and he got to look at all of my Fenders and Marshalls. I was using the Bassman heads that he modified; they're on the record. Then when his amps came out, I began using those; I'm an endorser.

There's a tweed Fender amp in your publicity photo from around the time the album was released.

That's my 410 Bassman, which I thought would look Linda cool as a prop.

A recent photo of you showed a PRS in your hands.

Yeah; I have six McCarty models. My stable these days consists of a couple of '64 Strats - one of which I used on just about the entire record a '64 Gibson ES-335, a '61 355, and a couple of killer rosewood-neck PRSs I put Tom Holmes pickups in. George had turned me on to those, and he installed them with silver wire.

There's a live version of "Kansas City" with a swing/shuffle feel instead of straight blues.

Definitely; it's certainly not a Muddy Waters/Chicago-type thing. What I tried to do with the rhythm playing on that song was to make horn-like lines. The vibrato helps, but I also have a hand vibrato technique where I try to sway the whole chord from right to left, kind of sideways. It's very effect five, especially on 12-bar blues songs. That track was recorded at one of the concerts I opened for B.B. King at the War Memorial Building, a beautiful old concert hall in Trenton.

The album has four instrumentals. "Philene" is somewhat moody and sounds like it has a Uni-Vibe on it...

That's an old Boss Chorus; one of those little blue boxes that came out in the late '70s. I got turned on to those when I was in Florida with Duke. I picked up one when they were new, and I've had it ever since. On that song, I was thinking about some Hendrix-type moodiness.

The last track, "The Boogie," is basically a one-chord workout and the bass rift is reminiscent of Golden Earring's "Radar Love."

(chuckles) I've been told that before. It's a rousing thing that, again, started as kind of a Hendrix tribute. I wanted the track on there, even though a lot of people think it's a different guitar player because of the tone and use of the (vibrato) bar. It's a little wilder, a little more "noted," and it has a John Lee Hooker beat, which every boogie in the world has. I just wanted to show another side of my playing in contrast to the other tunes.

Do you have any other instruments in your collection that you want to cite?

I've got a '52 Les Paul, a '62 ES-345, a '59 ES-330, a '64 SO Standard, a '58 Junior, a'55 Special, a'63 Jazzmaster...I had to get one of those, eventually (laughs)! That one makes up for the one I didn't get all those years ago! I've got a total of about 50 guitars, and probably more than 50 amps.

Besides Mr. King, which notable performers have you shared a bill with?

I did gigs with the original Sam & Dave, which was more R&B, but a lot of fun. I played at concerts with John Mayall, and even Arthur (Prysock) when he was alive. I played with Rick Derringer, Jimmy Vivino, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, and Hall & Oates; lots of classic rock acts and blues artists.

Which performance was the most memorable?

(pauses) I'd have to say it was performing with Arthur. It was a nostalgic thing, and he was not only a mentor, he was a nice and patient man.

I understand your music is getting a buzz in Seattle.

I've made three trips there. In fact, the next album is going to be a live recording from Seattle; it should be out around Labor Day. They have a massive music scene out there; they appreciate everything. It's not unusual to hear a lot of classic rock like Hendrix, Cream, or the Allman Brothers all the time, and even a lot of the blues never hear that stuff here unless you're listening to a blues show.

My album garnered a lot of interest out there. There are about eight to 10 clubs in that area where my music has gone over well. I played in the place where they filmed "Northern Exposure." The CD got a lot of airplay, so this is shaping up like a whole new ball game for me. I had the support of my parents when I was coming along, and now my son, Paul Jr., and my fiance, Sharon, are really supporting me, both emotionally and musically. And Paul Jr. plays pretty well himself!

After all these years, what do you think about your music getting a possible breakout all the way on the other side of the country?

Hey, I'll take it anywhere I can get it (laughs)!