Growing up in New Jersey, Jimmy Vivino was, in many ways, a typical Italian-American kid. His life centered arou nd family – his parents, siblings, and extended relatives – all of whom not only played key roles in his life, but were vital to his development as a musician.
One of three sons born to an amateur-but-ardent trumpet player, Vivino and his brothers, Floyd and Jerry, grew up in a home where the music of jazz legends like Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, and Dinah Washington permeated the living-room walls, usually accompanied by their father and his horn, along with Broadway music and hit pop records of the day.
“Dad and his family came over on a boat from Italy, and their trade was carpentry, which meant being a professional musician wasn’t a consideration for him,” Vivino recalled. “He was a great trumpet player, and I think he was frustrated, never having the chance to play professionally. So when it came to his kids, he thought, ‘I’m going to let them do what they want to do’.”
By the age of eight, the youngest Vivino was steadfast in his desire to follow in his father’s horn-playing footsteps, so he took up the trumpet. His first “show business” gig originated in unlikely fashion.
“As a kid, I had a nervous habit where I’d shake my leg – I just had too much energy,” he said. “So at dinner, I’d bounce my leg up and down, and the whole table would shake. My father one day said, ‘We have to do something with this kid!’ In those days, they didn’t stick drugs in a kid and call it ADHD or whatever, so my parents sent me to tap-dancing lessons. That was my punishment! But then of course my brothers said, ‘Why does he get to go?’ (laughs) So we all went! And, as unhip as it sounds now, as a kid I was impressed with the Osmond Brothers, Andy Williams and his brothers, and Wayne Newton. So we formed this song-and-dance team; my brother, Floyd, played the piano, my other brother, Jerry, played the clarinet, and I played trumpet. In 1964, we performed our first show, at the New Jersey Pavilion at the World’s Fair.”
Though he would stick with the trumpet through high school and beyond, in ’64, he was amongst the legion to witness the Beatles’ first appearance on American television.
“‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ was something our whole family did together,” he recalled. “We’d have Sunday dinner, the old folks would watch Lawrence Welk, and the kids would go to the basement. Then, when Sullivan started, everybody – my grandmother, grandfather, parents, cousins, uncles, and the kids would sit and watch (laughs)! It gave us everything from Shirley Bassey to Topo Gigio to Jack E. Leonard and Alan King.”
After the Beatles on Sullivan, “Everything changed,” he added. “These guys playing their instruments and singing… they looked cool, but you could see they weren’t comfortable in their suits, so we knew there was some degree of showbiz in the act.”
Soon after, Vivino joined a band, playing trumpet and a Hammond organ. His innate musical curiosity eventually led him to guitar – the instrument he relies on most today in his many and varied gigs, including as leader of the Basic Cable Band on the TBS late-night show “Conan.”
During a recent conversation, Vivino divulged the many and varied details that make up his musical background, spicing the talk with tidbits about music history and the instruments of his heroes.
Beyond the touchstone that was the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, what was a key element in your developing an appreciation for the guitar?
By the time I was 13, I was playing in bands, and we’d all go to the Fillmore – a car load of kids with a friend’s older brother as chaperone – and seeing those bands made me think, “I gotta be one of those guys onstage.” It was loud, and for $3 we got to see three bands. I’m glad I grew up when I did!
Was there any particular act that steered you toward guitar?
Well, I had been slowly drifting toward it. Until I was 23, though, I was a B-3 player with guitar in the back of my mind. I remember, I was nine years old and went to trumpet lesson one day and there in the studio was a Kay Old Kraftsman bass hanging on the wall. It was the simplest thing – looked like somebody whittled it on their porch (laughs)! But I’d stare at it and think, “How cool is that?” But I never got up the courage to say to my father, “I don’t want to play the trumpet,” because I thought it would break his heart. So I just kept borrowing a friend’s bass or guitar. Also, my uncle left an old Stella in our basement and I set it up with four strings so I could play bass lines using a broken piece of vinyl record as a pick. Still, though, from the time I finished high school until I was 23, my brother and I played in lounges six or seven nights a week. I played organ with him, but I got fed up. I said, “This is going nowhere and I’m not doing what I want to do.” So I stopped and started studying guitar with Joe Cinderella.
What was the first group where you focused on guitar as your instrument?
I went on the road with a four-piece band that backed a comedian and a singer playing lounges all over New Jersey, Florida, and Las Vegas – really mobbed up joints (laughs)! I did that for a year and a half or so, then started playing on an underground TV show created by my brother called the “Uncle Floyd Show.” It focused on punk culture – his biggest fans were people like David Bowie, David Johanssen, Joey and Johnny Ramone, and they’d appear on the show all the time. There was a “Lunch With Soupy Sales” vibe, but for teenagers and young adults. The show’s band did gigs opening for the Ramones and other punk bands; we’d come out with tuxedos, doing a Vaudeville-like thing, and the punk audiences loved that stuff. People like Bowie and John Lennon were hiding in the audience.
I also was in bands with Phoebe Snow, playing some with Al Kooper, and had a band called Reckless Sleepers with Jules Shear and Steve Holly. But it wasn’t until I got to know Allan Pepper at the Bottom Line club that things really started to happen. After that, I was a working musician in New York. And I was lucky, because there are a million great guitar players, but getting gigs is a matter of where you are – it’s luck – and once the door opens you’ve got to show something. Like Tommy Tedesco said, “Take the gig and then figure out how to do the gig!” (laughs)
Are there guitar players who, at that time, were influencing you?
Mike Bloomfield was one. A friend’s older sister had the Butterfield album and Highway 61, and when I heard them, I thought, “Who’s playing guitar?” Bloomfield had this approach and sound rooted in B.B. King, but he also had a sense of adventure. You were with him on this wild ride – and he didn’t always make it! Sometimes he’d crash, then get back up and keep going. I learned later from Hubert Sumlin and other old blues guys that what Bloomfield did was “heart to hand” playing where you kind of leave your head out of it. It’s about connecting the heart to the hand, playing what you feel. Bloomfield was 90 percent feeling – on the attack, the way he hit the notes, and just sticking to the guitar and the amp. Johnny Winter was the same way.
What was it about Johnny’s playing?
He plugged straight in, man! I saw him at the Fillmore and he had three Fender Twins with JBLs – stacked like a pyramid! And with that setup, what could hurt you more than a Firebird (laughs)? I mean, they didn’t put mics on the amps in those days because they didn’t need to. I was in the fourth row and had to duck under the seat every time he took a solo! Later I learned, while working with him, that he just turned everything up all the way. The guitar, the amp, the treble up, bass off, midrange up. Bloomfield did the same thing – midrange was on 10, bass was off.
So, how did what you heard in those guys translate to your playing?
Well, I did what every kid does, and tried to copy every note they played. I worked with Al Kooper, and one night we were playing the Bottom Line – I had a Les Paul goldtop, a Deluxe, and my pedalboard, and he said, “You’re playing great, but that sound…” I said, “Look, I know what I’m doing, blah, blah, blah.” Well, turns out Joe Walsh was standing by the bar to the side of the stage. Al leaned over to me and said, “Joe’s gonna come up and do ‘Rocky Mountain Way.’” So Joe takes my Les Paul, pulls it out of the pedal board, plugs it straight in, turns everything up all the way – I had the amp on 3. I go, “Oh, Jesus!” But that’s all it took.
That night, I learned to use the amp – make it sweat – and turn the guitar down for rhythm parts and let your hands express… well, Joe Walsh’s whole arm goes into a chord. But that was one of the first times I experienced, up-close, what a great player is. Billy Gibbons is the same way. People ask, “How does he get that sound?” It’s just the guitar and the amp. Johnny Winter was like that, Bloomfield was like that, Jeff Beck was like that – and still is.
How many electric guitars do you have?
Less than I used to (laughs)! At one time I had 300, but I felt bad because some wouldn’t come out of the locker for five or six years. So I dumped them.
Before your collection peaked, were you buying for specific reasons or gigs?
Like anyone, the first thing I did was try to find the sounds I fell in love with. So I had to have a Gibson ES-150 Charlie Christian, just to have it. Then I realized, “I can’t do anything on this…” and I gave it to a guy who could. If something didn’t serve me as a tool, I’d save it for a while before I realized it’s not just about having it. Dying with all the toys? That’s no fun. And holding them hostage was the worst thing I could think of because at the time, guitars were leaving the country by the crate load. This is before Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch said, “We should make these things the way people want them again.” So there’s also the option to get a new one and not worry about it so much. And truthfully, some vintage guitars are great, some are not. To spend $250,000 on a ’burst is great if you got it, and I hope you play it. I don’t think it needs to go in a glass case.
Did you downsize when the market was up?
I downsized when I needed to for financial reasons. So no, I let them go at fair price. I didn’t lose money, but I wasn’t out to make money. If I had some situation to deal with, guitars were my equity. I said, “They’re here to help me with the next step in my career, whatever it is.”
What are the “essential” guitars in your collection?
First is the ’53 goldtop, which I got from my friend, Brian, who played with Muddy Waters for a long time. He outbid Neil Young – Larry Cragg wanted the guitar for him. Brian turned me on to the real blues. I promised him I’d keep that guitar or sell it back to him if I want to get rid of it. But it’s never going anywhere – it’s my best guitar. I’ve had a ’59 ’burst that, due to a life tragedy, I had to let go, but I sold it instead of the goldtop.
Next would be the ’59/’60 Tele and the ’52 black-guard Tele, then a ’57 Duo Jet in black, like George Harrison’s. I got it for my gig with a Beatles cover band I’m in, Fab Faux, whose deal is to make the right sound. I have a ’65 Firebird, non-reverse with two P-90s – I really love it – it’s the best of my five Firebirds. I love my Harmony Rocket, and my Meteor, which is a great-sounding guitar. There’s also my ’65 Roger McGuinn-style blond Rickenbacker 12-string, which is really nice. I’d always wanted a Harmony Sovereign because a lot of the old blues guys played those, and I got one from ’62 or ’63. I had it restored and it plays great.
I’m not a big Strat guy, but my ’65 has the perfect Strat sound. I’ve been through a lot of Strats.
Is it about tone, the way they feel and play, or what?
The ’53 goldtop is my favorite, followed by the ’52 black-guard, which is equally as good on the other end of the spectrum. Those are the sounds – Telecaster and the P-90 goldtop; P-90 guitars were the sound of rock and roll in the beginning – Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore, B.B. King on an ES-5 and 175 early on, just about everything. A lot of classic jazz was played on P-90s, too, the Charlie Christian pickup is basically a P-90, then Scotty Moore in his Super 400 and his L-5 with Alnico pickups.
The Telecaster has always been the workhorse – James Burton, Luther Perkins – that great sound with flatwound strings. And it’s a guitar that, first and foremost, keeps you honest. Playing a Tele is like having an argument – sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. But you stay in the fight, and when you win, you win big! Other times, it wins; Roy Buchanan struggled with it and beat the living daylights out of it! Robbie Robertson had a lifetime affair with it, so did Bloomfield. It can have a great sound when you hear a guy just wrenching notes out of one. Muddy Waters with a slide on a Tele is a force to be dealt with. Jimmy Bryant seemed to be the one guy who had no trouble mastering the Tele.
What’s behind your lack of enthusiasm for the Strat?
I think Hendrix playing a Strat, and then Stevie Ray Vaughan playing one made me not want to – they pretty much said it all (laughs)!
The bar was set kind of high…
It’s kind of high, yes, but a lot of guys want to play a Strat, especially English guys, because of Hank Marvin. But to me, some players’ tones changed drastically with a Strat. Like Clapton; I love him, and his playing today is better than ever, but the tone I remember and love most was on the Beano record and the Cream stuff, with a Gibson. Then again, there’s something beautiful about the purity when he switched with Delaney and Bonnie, then “Layla.” He shed everything about himself, from the way he looked to the way he sounded to the music he was playing and the way he sang. He threw all of it, almost like a penance thing where he had to play a Strat (laughs)! It was like, “I have to start over.” There’s something great about that. And I love him, I think he’s the best guitar player out there right now. Robin Trower… Where was that great Les Paul sound from when I first heard Trower play with Procol Harem? Even Bloomfield switched to a Strat toward the end of his life, and to me, his tone was gone… but that’s just me being selfish and holding on to the first sounds that slayed me.
Which amps have been key to your career?
That’s a whole other ball of worms… Another can of wax! I really love AC30s, but now that I’m in California I started finding all these Fenders. But I don’t use old amps on road gigs; you move them and a soldier joint comes loose or something else, things happens. Even on “Conan” I use new amps.
What do you have right now?
I’m using a Fender Twinolux and a Blackstar. Sometimes an AC15 or AC30.
The Blackstar has that Vox vibe covered?
Yeah, Billy Gibbons turned me on to those when he was playing through a 1×12. I basically like the sound of a Fender and a Vox together. So I’m running them both, they’re both around 20 watts.
What other amps reside in the collection?
Vintage-wise, here in L.A. I have a couple of brown Princetons from ’61, one with white knobs. I’ve got a secret amp – a blackface Pro Reverb. There’s also a ’64 Twin, and I just got a 4×10 Kustom combo – black naugahyde, like John Fogerty’s. Some of the sounds we loved in the ’60s were made with solidstate amps like that one – Albert King played through Acoustic amps, Lonnie Mack was using solidstate after he stopped using Magnatones. Carlos Santana was playing through Acoustic amps when I saw him, and Fogerty had those Kustom 2x12s with the tuck-and-roll cover. I found one for $200 and did the normal thing – put $800 into it (laughs)!
Do you eye certain amps for playing certain parts or gigs?
Yeah. Fab Faux is always a Vox. With Al Kooper, I used mostly Super Reverbs. I have a bunch of other really cool amps – one of my favorites is a 1×12 Premier Custom with reverb and vibrato. It’s 20 watts, 30 tops – great amp that I keep on the East Coast. On Johnny Winter’s last album, I used that amp with just a two-pickup Les Paul Black Beauty on “Further On Up the Road.”
What’s your day like on the Conan show?
I go in at 9 a.m., have a meeting at 10, then I usually write or do any recording that needs to be done for bits. We have a studio setup here and my guitar tech, Barre Duryea, runs my Pro Tools. The band comes in at noon, we rehearse for an hour, then we rehearse with Conan on-set – he always has a guitar in his hands.
On the show, I know people watch to see what we’re playing, so I make it a point to play guitars by a lot of new makers – Collings, James Trussart, PRS, Ronin, Eastwood stuff. There are a lot of great guitars being made, so I tell the guys to send something and we’ll play it. I ask, “Are you making something that thinks it’s a Les Paul?” and if they are, I say, “I don’t want to play it!” (laughs) So PRS will send me something like a small archtop, or Collings will send an electric. I love Collings acoustics, but I told them, “If you’re gonna make me a guitar, make me something that’s more Gretsch-like and put some TV Jones pickups in it, a Bigsby, and flatwound strings.” They did, and it’s great. Trussart made me a couple cool things. I also love new Epiphones, old Epiphones, Gibsons, Fenders, Gretsches…
You’re sort of like G.E. Smith when he was on “Saturday Night Live.” It was always fun to watch as they went to commercial because he jammed on some cool old guitars and amps…
I loved him for that. G.E. is a great guy and one of the biggest Tele fans I know. He’s another one – plug straight into the amp, gets a great sound! So yes, it was fun to watch him. It was like, “What’s he going to play next?”
A lot of my friends had great TV gigs, but G.E. was the first to say, “I’m gonna pull out my Flying V and do an Albert King thing.” And he hit me as much as anyone with the “right guitar for the song” thing.
Your most recent album is 13 Live, with the Black Italians. What’s the story behind that band?
Well, in 1992, my friend Andy Justin opened a club in New York called Downtime, and upstairs there were rehearsal studios; musicians would come down to the bar after they rehearsed. It was a place to unwind – a music bar built by musicians for musicians. Andy told me, “I want you to play here once a week, in residence,” so I called people I was working with at the time – Danny Louis was one of my favorite people and one of the greatest musicians I know, so I called him first. Catherine Russell is the best singer I know – so great. Mike Merritt and James Wormworth have been with me since Mike called me to play with Johnnie Johnson almost 30 years ago, and Worm was the drummer. These guys are each part of a jazz legacy – Mike’s father is Jymie Merritt, who played in Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers, and James Wormworth’s father, Jimmy, played with Coltrane and jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendrix, and Ross… I’ve known Felix Cabrera since 1972, when he came over from Cuba as a refugee in the ’60s. He brings this Cuban thing to harp playing, this whole energy that’s just so essential. We’ve been partners for almost 40 years. I met the percussionist, Fred Walcott, through David Johanssen when he was playing as Buster Poindexter. And Mike Jacobson, who lives in New Orleans, is our other percussionist, I met him through Fred.
Anyway, after we started playing, the band got bigger and bigger, which was very cool because if someone couldn’t make it, there was always someone covering every instrument… sometimes, there’d be four guitar players at the same time, but that was the concept. And we never practiced – just played whatever came off the top of my head or what I had worked out that day. It was pretty simple music, nothing really involved. And it was never intended to do anything beyond playing there in the bar – it was a place for people to cut loose. It was right around the corner from Madison Square Garden, so someone like Mick Fleetwood would come over if he was playing – whoever was around would sit in.
Is 13 Live its only recorded effort?
Yes, and the idea for the album started when I was working with John Sebastian in a duo we call Johnny and Jimmy. We were in Chicago, playing the City Winery, when Jerry Del Giudice, from Blind Pig Records, came to see me; I had produced Bill Perry and Muddy Waters’ son, Big Bill Morganfield, for him, along with other stuff through the years. He said, “Somebody told me about this legendary band from New York City from 20 years ago – the Black Italians. Why don’t you make a record?” And I said, “Well… I guess.” He sort of forced me into it (laughs) – I had no such plans! And that’s what we did, just got together and played. It represents a lot of influences, kind of scattered and eclectic, but I think it has a sound, and that’s the important thing. And we recorded it at Levon Helm’s Barn, because it’s partly a tribute to him and because the place has a great vibe. His passing was a great loss, and I was lucky to have spent time with him.
So, the band, scattered far and wide after 20 years, converged from all over?
Yes, and before we started recording, we had one night of rehearsal, since we hadn’t played in while! So, on a Friday night we rehearsed and invited some folks to listen, then we recorded 35 songs over two nights, and picked the songs that worked best. Being in the Barn really had a bittersweet quality, and I knew I had to sing something special for Levon. So, when I got on the plane to go to New York, I wrote some lyrics, then in the hotel figured out chords. “Song for Levon” is personal thing, people might not even understand what I’m saying, but I had to do it for Levon’s wife, Sandy, and everyone because the project was connected to keeping things going there at the Barn. Levon is an American institution.
This article originally appeared in VG July 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.