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HOW IT ALL BEGAN. THE TAMPA BAY BLUES FESTIVAL

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By Brenda Lorenz

There are only 40 days left before the start of the much-anticipated 2022 Tampa Bay Blues Festival!  This highly acclaimed blues festival is literally world-renowned and something to be experienced!  Located on the beautiful waterfront in Vinoy Park, this festival has been a growing attraction since 1995.  The 26-year running festival offers endless focal points ranging from the national and regional artists that have been there in the past, to the state-of-the-art sound and PA system, to the amazing food and beverages that are available all weekend.  However, there was another aspect I was curious about.  How did all of this come to be? What mastermind has so successfully pulled this off for 26 years?

Musician, previous blues club owner, attorney (yes, attorney) and founder of the Tampa Bay Blues Festival is none other than Charles W. Ross. As his life progressed beyond his college years, every step he took was a stepping-stone to creating this top-notch, world-renowned blues festival right here in our back yard.

It all started in 1979 when Charles Ross moved back to the Tampa Bay area from North Carolina after law school. His rhythm guitar player and great friend “little Johnny” (Johnny Walter) moved here with him.  They had been playing music together in Chapel Hill, NC and started the Backtrack Blues Band (http://www.backtrackbluesband.com/index.php) in 1980.  There has been some turnover in band members over the years but the core of the Backtrack Blues Band has been a consistently running band for over 40 years making them the longest running blues band in Florida. Their focus was, and still is, writing and performing original blues music.

In the mid 1980s, Charles purchased a property on 4th Street and turned it into a restaurant/night club called the Ringside Café where he produced music and held shows.  When he opened this blues club, he knew he was taking a risk because, at the time, the rock-n-roll clubs were “the way to go”. This would be the only blues club in Pinellas County at that time.  He was told this would never survive as a blues club.  Critics said there wasn’t enough interest and support in the area for a blues club to sustain itself.  I guess the moral of that story is – don’t tell Charles Ross what he can’t do – because we see how that worked out! The Ringside Cafe still going strong today under different ownership and has moved downtown.  Some of the performers he booked to perform there were:

Little Milton (James Milton Campbell)

Johnny Clyde Copeland

(https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/copeland-johnny-clyde)  (father of blues singer Shemekia Copeland)

Rod Piazza (https://www.discogs.com/artist/511810-Rod-Piazza)

William Clarke (https://www.alligator.com/artists/William-Clarke/)

Jimmy Thackery  (http://www.jimmythackery.com/)

Dave Mason  (https://www.davemasonmusic.com/)

Billy Preston  (http://www.billypreston.net/)

Delbert McClinton (https://www.delbert.com/)

Many many more…

The Ringside Café played an integral role to him starting the Tampa Bay Blues Fest. Charles says that this was his beginning and his introduction to producing shows. He sold The Ringside Café after about five years of operating it.  Approximately six months after selling it, he began making plans to start a music festival.  He already had the experience and expertise in booking national bands and artists, so he knew exactly how to make this happen for a music festival.

When the first festival happened in 1995, it was a two-day festival with three or four national acts and maybe two Florida bands. He said there was not a very big turnout with “only” maybe a couple thousand attendees but they were able to pay the bills and pay the performers so it was deemed a success. Some of those first years’ performers were Lucky Peterson, Elvin Bishop, KoKo Taylor, Jimmy Thackery, Buddy Guy, and a few others. Over time, it has grown into a three-day festival consisting mostly of national and regional bands. This is always a great boost for Tampa Bay’s economy and great for the festival. After having been cancelled for the last two years (2020 and 2021) due to covid, this years’ festival is expected to be even more impressive!  The Kickoff Party before the festival will be at the Palladium on Thursday night featuring Ronnie Earl.  Then Friday starts the big party.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Kilborn Alley Blues Band (http://www.kilbornalley.com/)

Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers (https://www.mindiabair.com/)

Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters (http://www.ronnieearl.com/)

Samantha Fish (https://www.samanthafish.com/)

JJ Grey & Mofro (https://www.jjgrey.com/home)

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Sugar Ray & The Bluetones (http://www.sugarrayandthebluetones.com/)

Danielle Nicole (https://daniellenicolemusic.com/)

Eric Gales (https://www.ericgales.com/)

Robert Randolph & The Family Band (http://www.robertrandolph.net/)

Jimmie Vaughan (https://www.jimmievaughan.com/)

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Backtrack Blues Band (http://backtrackbluesband.com/)

The Bruce Katz Band (https://www.brucekatzband.com/)

The Nick Moss Band (https://www.nickmossband.com/about-nmb)

Ronnie Baker Brooks (https://ronniebakerbrooks.com/)

Larkin Poe (https://www.larkinpoe.com/)

As an example of how popular and recognized this festival has become, in 2011, Tampa Bay Blues Festival won the Keeping the Blues Alive award from the Memphis Blues Foundation for being America’s best blues music festival.  Over the past 26 years, people have traveled from all over the country and the world to experience this festival first hand. There have been people from England, Europe, Australia, Mexico, among other countries and continents to come to Florida for this experience.

When I was talking with Charles about doing this article, he wanted me to include his gratitude to everyone that has supported his efforts and supported the festival over the past 26 years.  If not for that, there would be no Tampa Bay Blues Festival. The Tampa Bay Blues Festival is a non-profit organization that benefits PARC, (https://www.parc-fl.org/) which provides opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to experience life to the fullest.

After this festival is over and you’re wishing you could have gone but didn’t, you can check back with Tampa Bay Music New for our review article which will come close to putting you there – but I do recommend actually being there!  If you have not yet gotten your tickets to the MUST-SEE and MUST-EXPERIENCE 2022 Tampa Bay Blues Festival, you can do that here!

https://www.etix.com/ticket/p/3082892/tampa-bay-blues-festival-april-910112021-stpetersburg-vinoy-park

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brenda Lorenz

Brenda formerly covered the Atlanta music scene and wrote for Beat Atlanta Online Magazine. She is now a Pinellas County resident. Brenda has always loved to write and really found her niche in writing about music and musicians because she says it brings me something I can't live without - live music! We look forward to her continuing to contribute to Tampa Bay Music News.