Bernie Clarke Interview
(Bernie Clarke And The Rhythm Sharks)
Bernie Clarke has been making a name for himself and his group The Rhythm Sharks in the last 10 years.
And-----we’re not just talking in Central New York either!!
Bernie and his group were one of only 24 local and regional bands selected to play Woodstock ’99 in Rome, N.Y.
They’ve performed at the New York State Rhythm And Blues Festival, the Cape Fear Blues Fest and the Chenango Blues Fest.
In addition, the group has performed in Bangalore, India not once, not twice-----but three times!!!
Bernie Clarke spoke with us about his music.
Q – Bernie, it seems like there’s quite a few Blues bands here in Syracuse and Central New York. Why do you suppose that is?
A – There’s a core of a couple of bands going back to the late 70’s, early 80’s that got a lot of popularity and a lot of notoriety. For one reason or another that style of music became very popular around here and then it tends to feed off of it. Back in the 70’s, early 80’s, you had guys like Nick Langon living around here playing harmonica. Pete McMahon learned from him. And then Tom Townsley and say Matt Tarbell listened to guys like Nick and Pete and said, ‘I want to play like them’, and really learned and worked on their craft. You can follow that right up from guys my age, and Mike Petroff listening to Pete. Tom and Matt do their thing. I’ll tell you the one thing that makes a big difference around here especially with harmonica players is that they are somebody that really sets the right example. I travel a lot on business. If I’ve got a night where I’m bored looking for something to do and I go out to a jam in some pretty big towns like San Diego, St. Louis or places like that, maybe down in Ft. Lauderdale I hear these guys playing harmonica and folks rave about ‘em like they’re the greatest thing in town. I can tell you they couldn’t get a gig if they were in Syracuse. They’d be told, ‘Get back to the woodshed’. They wouldn’t cut it. And, I think the same is true of guitar players. We’ve got some guys like Phil Petroff, Terry Mulhauser, guys that maybe a little older than us now but they set a good example. And-----that quality really makes a difference. If that’s what expected than that’s what people have to look up to.
Q – You’re not the first guy to tell that to me. I interviewed Billy Davidson of Case And Davidson…..
A – Oh sure, I know those guys.
Q – Those guys had a gig they would go to every year in the Florida Keys. They too noticed the quality of musicians in Syracuse was far and away – much better.
A – We got 4 or 5 months out of the year where it’s cold, and we’re inside and people got nothing to do, so they practice their instrument. I don’t know if that’s part of it. I was surprised when I got to this area. I was a young officer in the Air Force. I was a Second Lieutenant. So, I went out and checked out Tom Townsley. They’re just regular local musicians that play just about as good as anybody.
Q – Are you still in the military now?
A – No. I’ve been out for 10 years.
Q – Where did you come to Syracuse from?
A – Boston area. Littleton, Massachusetts. It’s one of the suburbs of Boston. It’s where I went to high school. I’ve lived here now longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life so I consider myself a Sylvan Beacher now. I live here in Sylvan Beach ( New York).
Q – When did you put this group together and was it hard to find guys for the band?
A - Ironically-----no. It was real easy to put the band together. I had been in another band previous to this that was a typical first band kind of thing. I cut my teeth on that pretty quick. It got to a point where a guitar player said, ‘The band is breaking up’ and that was the end of it. I kind of shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘o.k.’ Two weeks later I was playing under Bernie Clarke and The Rhythm Sharks. I think it was 3 weeks, but, it was a matter of weeks. I had been going out to jams and running into people that I thought were more interested in the same kind of Blues music that I was interested in as opposed to the group I was working with before were more of a blues-----rock kind of thing. And, then fortunately my uncle had a camp up on Sixth Lake and next door to my Uncle’s camp-----Dave Olson. He was the drummer for the Robert Cray Band and has 2 Grammy Awards. It was through this connection too that I had this 2 time Grammy Award winner playing drums in my band. It was pretty cool. It came together pretty quick. Now, over the last 14 years I’ve worked with a ton of different guys. Like any other band, guys come and go, but, we’ve got a pretty steady core together for the last 5 years.
Q – You and your band were nominated for a SAMMY for the “Best Blues Band”. Did you win?
A – No. I think Roosevelt Dean might’ve won that year. It was nice to get nominated, but, maybe we’ll win next time. Who knows?
Q – You perform mainly in New York State?
A – Well, we’ve actually been to Cape Fear Blues Festival, down in Wilmington, North Carolina. We’ve played down in New York City several times, 2 years in a row for the ‘I Love New York Brewing And Music Festival’. We’ve played Chenango. We’ve played Lake George. We’ve played the New York State Blues Festival in Syracuse many, many times. We’ve also been to India 3 times.
Q – Is it financially worth it for a band like Bernie Clarke And The Rhythm Sharks to be on the road?
A – Well, when you’re an up and coming musician you sometimes ‘Take one for the team’. And, that trip to Wilmington, we managed to get back and have each guy in the band have a little bit of money. It was not what we would have done as a money-maker. It was get out and get a bigger audience in a different state, in a different part of the country.
Q – That’s hard to do without a record co. behind you. Other Syracuse groups have tried that as well.
A – The thing about the music business is, when you need an agent to help you get gigs, it’s really hard to get one. When you’re already known and then it’s easier to get gigs, that’s when the agents want you. They don’t want to go and have to actually try and market an unknown band. They’d rather take a known entity and just make a bunch of phone calls. It’s very difficult to get an agent to work with you when you’re a band at our level. But, we’d love to be able to get someone. I got a guy who heard us and is down in Florida who would love to have us come down in February or March to play someplace near Ft. Lauderdale, north of there. I think its Deerfield Beach. We’d love to go down but for the amount of money a club date is going to pay in Ft. Lauderdale, to drive all the way down there in a van-----we’d have to get a bunch of gigs on the way down and the way back. That can be pretty tough, if you don’t have an agent that knows the clubs and can work a little tour for you. But, we’ll see what we can do.
Q – How did the people respond to you music in India and where did you perform there?
A – We performed the first few times we went over in 1998 and 2000 at a thing called the ‘East-West Music And Dance Encounter’. It’s like a 2 week long music festival. They have a different performance each night of the week at different venues around the city of Bangalore, India. I got hooked up with this music school over there and they had a sponsor, an Englishman that wanted to get a blues band-----he insisted that they bring us over. And-----we went over there and played. They had us in a concert hall they normally do classical music in. But, it was quite a show and they were dancin’ in the aisles. Management had to tell ‘em to stop dancin’ in the theatre seats. It was a lot of fun. (Laughs). We get a really good response over there for any kind of ‘live’ music because if you go over to India and listen to their popular music on the radio, it’s a cross between electronic music and hip-hop kind of backgrounds and beats; but, frequently somebody singing in India in reggae style over the top of it. It’s very unusual, but to me not terribly accessible. So, when they heard some real guys playin’ real drums, real guitar, bass, blowin’ some harp-----they really responded positively to it. It was an excellent, excellent place for us to go play.
Q – You also performed at Woodstock ’99.
A – They set up stages in front of the venue and people were coming in we were one of I guess they call ‘em, welcoming bands. We were playing out there as people were coming in. It’s kind of one of those resume fillers. It really was not a terribly great gig at all. (Laughs). I still work at that Air Force Research Lab and Woodstock ’99 was a couple hundred yards from my window. While they were getting ready for it, and on Wednesday and Thursday as people were starting to show up-----seeing this place fill up like that it was really something. It was incredible. I work at Griffis, so I got to see the whole thing and then getting to play it was a pretty nice honor as well.
Q – You say you’ll play any party, wedding, divorce or get out of jail. Did you ever play a get out if jail party?
A – No. (Laughs). Anybody who wants to have a party and they come up with the right amount of money-----we’ll be there!
Q – Where would you like to take Bernie Clarke And The Rhythm Sharks?
A – Well, it would be really perfect to have it at a point where maybe we get a CD out there that catches on a little bit in the blues community so that we could go on and do some more travel in the summer for festivals. Of course, I and all the guys in the band if we could make a living off of playing music that would be terrific. We all got good day jobs and despite our musical endeavors it’s hard especially playing blues to replace that kind of income you get working a good day job like we do. So, we really gotta stick with the opportunities that we get to do festivals here and there. Like, we’ll travel like we did down in North Carolina when we can make it work. But, taking it to the point of having it actually replace our jobs that would be pretty tough.
Q – It’s so strange that people scream for “live entertainment”, but then they don’t support it.
A – The pendulum has definitely swung the wrong way for the last couple years. I don’t know if its; people like to blame it on the smoking ban. They like to blame it on one thing or another in the clubs, but I just think a big part of it is that there’s just so much entertainment that is available to people. For some people going out to bars is not what they want to do anymore. Things that we’re noticing is that gigs used to be 10pm to 2am. Well, now we’re finding a lot of the gigs we’ll play are earlier, Happy Hour or maybe they’re 8pm to 12am. I think there are people out there that want to hear music it just needs to be presented to them in a way that works with their lifestyles now. By the same token the number of venues has definitely decreased.
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