When the phone call is first placed to Popa Chubby – the blues-rock musician set to take the stage at Durham’s Blue Note Grill on Jan. 6 – there are some topics expected to be discussed. They include his nearly three decades-long stint as a world-renowned bluesman and the early days of his youth spent immersed in the New York punk scene of the early ’80s.
Less expected? A crash-course summary of a prominent figure within that punk scene who has deep roots to the Triangle music community of the ’70s. That’s Jerry Williams, and he became a pivotal figure in Chubby’s early career.
Within seconds of answering the phone, Chubby begins sharing stories of his long friendship with Williams, who moved with his band Th’ Cigaretz to New York City and quickly put his stamp upon the local music scene.
Chubby moved from his childhood home of Queens to the East Village in 1981. It was a $180-a-month apartment in what was then a neighborhood with a bad reputation.
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“Me and my friends started a band, and we saw a poster advertising rehearsal space for $5 an hour,” he said.
They answered the ad, which took him to a place called Studio 171A. There he met Williams, who had recently moved to New York from Raleigh. Williams was the band’s leader, and while squatting in a movie theater, he used the projection booth as a control room.
“They would record the bands while they rehearsed onstage,” Chubby said. “That place turned into a mecca of music. The Beastie Boys recorded their first album there; Bad Brains recorded their first record there. Let me tell you something. When I met those guys from Raleigh, they were alien to me. They talked different than us, they looked different than us, it was like they were from a whole other world.”
But Williams was influential in New York’s punk and hardcore music industry and was a mentor to Chubby. He died in 2010 at the age of 61.
Williams’ influence on the bluesman has never lessened. With a playing style infused by equal parts Buddy Guy and The Ramones, the guitarist (born Ted Horowitz) continues to carry all of the lessons he’s learned from those days spent playing the CBGB club scene around New York at that time.
“I played with everyone back then,” Chubby said. “I was just a guy around town who could play, and I could play anything, so I got work. From doing that for years, I just got sick of it, so I just started playing blues gigs at local clubs.”
“The thing I loved the most about that was the fact that I could play all night long,” Chubby says with a laugh. “From there, Popa Chubby was born.”
For Chubby, he just wanted to play music, no matter the genre. That’s why he liked hanging around Williams and his studio.
“I would hang out there all day long, and when bands would come in to rehearse, sometimes they would need a (musician),” he said. “I wound up playing with Latin bands, pop bands,and all sorts of (music). To this day I think that was really a strong part of my (education) musically.”
Chubby will bring that education – along with more anecdotes about Williams – with him to Durham, in the form of cuts from the albums he’s created in his long career. Long resistant to the business model of making music that large record labels have historically offered, the bluesman surveys the modern-day music industry landscape and sees a new generation gravitating toward the DIY attitude of recording that he has held onto for decades.
“(Album sales numbers) haven’t really gone down for me in 25 years of doing this,” he said. “It’s just been a straight, slow road.”
In addition to Williams, Chubby said he’s been lucky to have other mentors guide his career. Producer Tom Dowd told him in 1995 that he should go to Europe. That’s where the blues market was at the time, he said.
“I pretty much stayed there for a while,” he said. “I came back here after a few years ... and bounced around a few labels before I thought, ‘I don’t really need a label anymore,’ and began releasing my records by myself. It’s been going great, with packed shows, and I just have no complaints.
“This is the age of the artist doing things himself, and if you are waiting around for someone to do it for you, you’re going to lose.”
Who: Popa Chubby
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 6
Where: Blue Note Grill, 709 Washington St., Durham
Cost: $13 in advance, $15 day of show
Info: 919-401-1979 or TheBlueNoteGrill.com