For all of their understanding of the blues, the appeal for Paul and Annie remains basic: it’s the way it makes them feel.
By Ken Bader
There’s not much about the blues that Paul Rishell, 68, and Annie Raines, 48, don’t know or can’t play. They’ve been performing as a duo for 25 years and immersed in the music their entire adult lives.
Listen to Paul and Annie and you could be excused for thinking that before they married and settled in Newton, Massachusetts, they’d grown up in the Mississippi Delta, surrounded by the blues. Well, not exactly.
Paul was born in 1950, in Brooklyn. Annie was born in 1969, in Beverly. And neither was raised on Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, or Robert Johnson.
As a child, Paul liked novelty songs. “I was drawn to things like ‘The Purple People Eater’ and, y’know, stupid songs.” So was Annie, when she was growing up 20 years later.
When I was 12 or 13, I started listening to “The Dr. Demento Show,” which was novelty records, including blues and jazz, early stuff, old cylinders, weird 1980s sci-fi synthesizer music, Frank Zappa, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, and I loved that. It was a relief to have the freedom to be weird and know that there were other weird people out there. That show was a great companion to me, and I ended up hearing blues novelty records, dirty songs, old blues and jazz, vintage records — cool stuff. I was hearing blues, not knowing it.
Annie may not have known much about the blues, but she was drawn to it. As a teen, she delved deeper.
When I was 17, I started playing the harmonica. A fellow student at Newton North High gave me some cassettes of Muddy Waters:
and Howlin’ Wolf:
and that was an epiphany for me. From there, I started going out to the blues jam at the 1369 (Jazz Club in Cambridge), and people made tapes for me of their favorite harmonica players. So I was getting all these different influences: Chicago blues, swamp blues, and ’50s R&B.
Annie’s future husband, Paul Rishell, also had his blues epiphany in his teens, back in the early ’60s, when he first heard Son House:
Son House was beyond belief for me, because I could hear everything that I’d heard before: I could hear Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. I thought, “Well, everybody listened to this guy. They had to, ’cause everybody sounds like him.” So that’s when I made up my mind that this was where everything came from that I liked. And everything that derived from it, I also liked.
Paul sold his drum set — he’d been playing surf-rock with Ventures wannabes — and got his first guitar. He moved to Cambridge in the early ’70s and quickly established himself on the local blues scene. He also wrote what would become his best-known song.
I was playing guitar behind Peter Johnson, who was a singer-songwriter in Cambridge. He was managed by Dick Waterman, who was also managing Bonnie Raitt. I’d met Bonnie at Dick’s office, and she was great. I mean, she could sing and play just killer. So I thought, “I wonder if I wrote a song for her if she might do it.” So that night, I wrote “Blues on a Holiday.” I wrote it for a woman to sing, most notably for Bonnie to sing to me. The problem was that by the time I had met Bonnie, all the wheels were in motion. She’d already started recording her first record, so she wasn’t hanging around. And I never got the chance to play it for her. Quite a few years later, I said, “I’ll just record it and that’ll be the name of my first CD. And then maybe somebody else will hear it and record it,” which actually happened. Susan Tedeschi heard it and recorded it:
It wasn’t until the late ’80s that Annie, then a couple of years out of high school, first played with Paul. She used some homemade cookies to get into O’Brien’s Pub in Allston one night when Paul and his band were playing.
I sat in with Paul at the end of the night, and it was unremarkable. Later on, I saw him play by himself at Johnny D’s (in Somerville), and there was always something about the sound of his voice that appealed to me. But it wasn’t until the guy that I was in a working partnership with got sick and I needed somebody to fill in that I called Paul to join me on a duo gig.
About a year after that, I got a call to fill in for a band that had to cancel that night at a club on the South Shore. All I had was the gig and my car, but Paul had a band and a p.a. system. Between us, we had all the necessary ingredients to play the show. So I called him, and he said, “Sure.” The first time we played together as a band was the first time we really clicked musically.
Paul felt the chemistry, too.
When I met Annie, I met a person who was open-minded, who gave me some space and didn’t fill it like those who think, “Oh, I want to fill in the space here! I’m going to show you what I can do!” Here’s a person who had the concept of space being as important as a note. So that’s the difference — when you’re playing with someone who knows what to listen for and knows how the music works.
At the urging of Paul’s then-wife, Leslie Rishell, Paul and Annie performed together more frequently. In 1993, Paul invited Annie to join him on the road.
When Paul called me to play those road gigs with him, it was like being asked to the prom by the most popular guy in school.
After that tour, Paul and Annie landed more gigs, and Annie played on Paul’s next CD. Things got better and better…until they didn’t. Leslie succumbed to breast cancer in 1996. Not only did Paul lose his wife, but Paul and Annie lost their manager, booking agent, and guiding vision. They felt “shipwrecked” for years.
But the two pulled together. They’ve released six albums, toured the world, and been members of John Sebastian’s J-Band:
Paul is widely respected for his guitar wizardry, soulful singing, and evocation of the spirit of the masters. (The first time Sebastian heard Paul, he said, “This guy’s so good he must be dead.”) As for Annie, the late pianist Pinetop Perkins said, “She plays so good it hurts!” Annie describes her harmonica sound as “a big grown-up tone with a little-girlish warble at the end.”
Annie thinks she knows where her musical chemistry with Paul comes from.
There were similarities in background and attitude, both being outsiders growing up. We had similar experiences in terms of feeling like we had to make up our own rules and be subversive. We had punishing experiences of trying to fit in, and then deciding it wasn’t worth it and going our own way. Those experiences led us to find something in the blues. It wasn’t, “I love the blues because I get to ride around in my Harley and blast it really loud” or “I love the blues because I like to cry into my beer while I listen to it.” I love the blues because it takes all this b.s. that happened to me and transcends it.
In their shows, Paul and Annie provide context for nearly every song. Paul says it’s important for listeners to understand the roots of the blues.
This music is not just little blips like music is today. This music comes from a time and a place with history attached to it from beforehand and history that’s attached to it after.
For the past seven years, Paul and Annie have been Visiting Artists at the Berklee College of Music. Annie says it’s an opportunity to pass on their knowledge to the blues musicians of the future.
The techniques, the language, and the stories are all encoded in the music, and by teaching people the right parts, then that code isn’t going to be lost to time. It’s soulful code, personal and cultural history, and emotional narrative. The particular experience that African-American artists had of their own history is part of the story of this country.
For all of their understanding of the blues, the appeal for Paul and Annie remains basic: it’s the way it makes them feel. “It’s the happiness, the friendliness of that music,” says Paul.
Blues is a lot more than standing up and playing licks on electric guitar. It’s really rhythmic dance music. It’s happy, upbeat, social music. You don’t have to be black. You don’t have to be poor. You just have to be alive and open to having a good time.
David Greene assisted in the editing of this story.
Ken Bader has been a Senior Editor for NPR, WBUR, and WGBH.